the view from row q - abbott and costello meet frankenstein

a few days back, my home away from home held quite the monster mash with a screening of frankenstein (1931) and abbott and costello meet frankenstein (1948) and the blasphemous assemblage of not-even-cold-yet bits and abnormal brains wasn't the only thing to be resurrected that evening.

this evening also put a few thousand volts through the memory banks and gave new life to what might be my favorite moviegoing experience, certainly one of the most important. i grew up in a small town in southwest oklahoma. apache, oklahoma, to be exact. the population was probably around 1500 at the time. my high school graduating class had about 52 people in it. when you live in a town that small, with a school that small, you may not have the resources of the average teeming metropolis but you can also get away with things that larger schools can't. my favorite of those things revolved around a simple, old movie projector. up until i was in the fourth grade or so, my elementary school would regularly have a couple of days a year when they would turn the cafeteria into a theater and show the entire school a movie.

hit the bricks, sister! it's movie time!

over the years we saw everything from the heart-rending where the red fern grows (1974) to countless exploits of herbie and everything shaggy that disney could throw at us. one was special, though. one stands out above the rest and has lodged itself so firmly in my brain that i will always be able to see it just like i was six, just like i was sitting in that tiny chair. that was the first one - bud abbott and lou costello in hold that ghost (1941).

this cafeteria and i already had a history, as it was the spot of my greatest triumph to date. my kindergarten graduation took place on the stage in that room and that had been the most momentous day in my life up until that point, and not just because of the sweet suit (powder blue with a rayon shirt covered with tigers, you should see the pictures). something different was happening here, though. we were at ground zero of li'l cole on this day. so much of what i appreciate about, and how i watch, movies can be traced back to this exact day - sitting near the back so i can take in the venue as well as the film, how much i love to just barely be able to hear the sound of the projector, the old dark house conceit, how perfectly funny and innocent everything ever made in the thirties and forties was - it was all there on that perfect spring day in early 1977. and, on 1.22.11, it was all there again, just like i remembered. i hadn't seen abbott and costello on a big screen for over thirty years but it was like nothing had changed from that day. it was just as funny, just as exciting as if i had gotten the day off from school. i might as well have been wearing garanimals. i didn't run all the way to coblake street this time, waving at my grandpa jim on the way as he mowed the lawn, so i could tell my mom all about the great day i just had, but i could have.

this is not actually my grandpa jim. do you know how you can tell? because my grandpa jim wouldn't use a candyass riding mower!

i can't emphasize enough how lucky we are here and how much you austin folks should really take advantage of one of the last true movie palaces left. at the paramount theater you always get a great film out of the deal but sometimes you get a whole lot more. now, what does a guy have to do to get some half pints of milk and graham crackers at the concession stand?


trailer tuesday

this week's entry is for john woo's red cliff (2008). i just picked up the international versions of parts one and two today. bring on the epic!

i will never know why tony leung isn't a bigger star in the states.


my favorite frames

it would be remiss of me to let two such notable birthdays go by without acknowledgment. today, then, a set of bookends from federico fellini and david lynch.

this may be the one moment on film when all the qualities that make giulietta masina beautiful are exactly equally present in her face.

dean stockwell takes the wry smile to the other end of the spectrum. oddly enough, it is no less tender.


you complete me

in conjunction with severin films' much anticipated release of alejandro jodorowsky's santa sangre (1989) on dvd, the alamo drafthouse held a special screening of the film tonight and it was every bit the hallucinatory abattoir that was expected.

the film opens with our protagonist, fenix, having been institutionalized for a number of years. as a young boy he traveled with the circus del gringo as the boy magician in the troupe. his mother, concha, was an aerialist and devoted the rest of her time to the zealous worship of an armless girl whom she had proclaimed a saint. his father was a philandering knife-thrower whose erotic performances, in the center ring and out, with the tattooed lady enraged the wife. she caught him in flagrante delicto, somewhere between the battle of waterloo and the wreck of the hesperus.

it didn't go well. the wife doused the husband's offending extremity with acid and, in return, he pinned her to the bullseye and cut both her arms off. he then stumbled - naked, bleeding, and with the smoldering crater where his penis used to be - back toward the circus where he slit his own throat and fell amidst the scavenging feral dogs that wandered the city at night. guess who had a front row seat for this carnage. that's right. li'l fenix. to top it off, the tattooed lady scooped up alma, her deaf-mute mime stepdaughter and fenix's crush, and hustled off into the night. in one violent burst, fenix was left with nothing - his family completely, quite literally destroyed and his only love spirited away into the night. you can't blame a kid for taking an extended mental vacation in the wake of this. at least, i can't.

the asylum has its diversions, to say the least. a field trip to the movies with a group of young men with down syndrome takes an unexpected turn when a pimp that is the jodorowsky equivalent of honest john foulfellow in pinocchio (1940) waylays them in the lobby and takes them to a pleasure island rife with cocaine and tranny prostitutes. waking rejuvenated after this pivotal evening's events, fenix hears his mother calling to him from the window, escapes and is reunited with her. reunited may not be a strong enough word. fused may be more like it. he becomes her arms and their cabaret act is a sensation but the toll it takes on the population of women that fenix might be interested in certainly doesn't boost attendance. the silent and saintly alma returns, acting as intercessor between fenix and his demons until mother tries to show her the door.

a brief synopsis like this really can't do it justice. i am leaving a number of important and bizarre details out - the elephant funeral, the boa constrictor in the pants, whitewashing corpses, the hilarious product placement atop the apothecary van. tip of the iceberg. this thing is a cacophonous riot of ripe symbolism, grotesque sexuality and explosive violence, all unique to the fevered brain of one man. jodorowsky is one of the handful of filmmakers whose work you have to approach on its own terms. all those things you know about how a film should work? throw them away. this is such an idiosyncratic collision of sex, death and the church that you only have the lexicon it generates in its two hours to go on. it is so intensely personal (jodorowsky's sons play the lead at different ages, adding just one more psychological strand to unravel) that it seems written in a language only one man truly understands. that shouldn't dissuade you from digging into it, though. it is a most rewarding puzzle.

the church doesn't fare so well in jodorowsky's universe. an initial clash between concha and a monsignor over the destruction of her temple serves as just the first of many instances that underscore the fine line between faith and fanaticism. both figures have flocks they are administering to and both are rigid and inflexible, each possessed of a righteousness that cannot make room for the other's needs, resulting in the eradication of concha's holy place. her zeal almost results in her destruction as well, were it not for her love of her son. the ugly patriarchy wins the battle for this small piece of land and maternity and devotion to a holy ideal loses. the gender identity/sexuality issues at play in this are almost beyond belief, again requiring your viewing, as my descriptions would fall woefully short. even if we completely ignored the "son becomes part of the mother" angle, there is a never-ending parade of sexually nebulous hookers, luchadores and circus folk that confound all of your senses. the mother-son relationship? working your way through that entitles you to a spot on the medal stand at the oedipal olympics. fenix even none too subtly claws at his own eyes at one point toward the end of the film. alma's return as the mute harlequin angel makes me think of nothing so much as how it is only in retrospect that we can sometimes distinguish between what is salvation and what is merely temptation. she offers freedom and release but, by the time she finds fenix again, it is only from one purgatory into another. the angel arrived too late and there must be atonement and, as concha so pointedly puts it, "you can't atone for your sins with nightmares".

i could write about it here until my arms fall off but that wouldn't help you all that much. what i really want to do is just encourage you to see the film. it is not academic, not an exercise. it is visceral. it is something you must experience to get the full impact. it demands to be seen. it came along for me once twenty years ago at a crucial time in the development of my appreciation of film and performed a crucial function. it is a landmark film for me because it was one of the first things i ever saw that was so off the rails. it was one of the first cinematic experiences i had that so thoroughly demonstrated that, this time, there is no map for where we're going and one of my first encounters with a genuine auteur. there is truly nothing else like it and, while it is flawed, i can't tell you how encouraging it was for me, as a young man, to find it. it was like uncharted territory. i felt like the cinematic equivalent of lewis and clark and you guys know what a great feeling that is. now, here it comes again twenty years later to do that for someone else and to remind me to keep finding those boundaries and pushing past them.

the severin dvd release of this will be available on tuesday 1.25.11. it's also packed with over five hours of extras. it's so great to see this beautiful, perplexing film finally getting the treatment it deserves. watch it with your mom!

my favorite frames

ingrid bergman holds the key.


trailer tuesday

this week's entry is for mario bava's blood and black lace (1964).

you would be hard pressed to find a more lurid use of technicolor than this cornerstone of giallo. if you settle for a subpar, washed out print of this then you are missing something vital.


the view from row q - out of the past

my favorite movie palace, the paramount theater, is running a fantastic noir double feature this week. it includes otto preminger's laura (1944) and the film i am here to talk about today, jacques tourneur's out of the past (1947).

if ever there was a case where there was no use in running, boy, have we found it. robert mitchum plays jeff bailey, a former private eye who was always smart enough to know when to keep his mouth shut and honest enough to get the wrong people to trust him. he has since left that racket behind for a more bucolic existence running a modest gas station. he has also fallen in love with ann miller, a small town girl and a paragon of virtue if ever there was one. when an old acquaintance blows into town, summoning jeff to a meeting to square some accounts, jeff decides to come clean with ann and on the drive up tells her his story.

it seems a man hired jeff to do a job one time. the job was a dame. the dame took some shots at the man, including one that found the mark, and made off with forty grand. now he wants her brought back. jeff makes some inquiries, catches her scent and follows her south of the border. he catches up with her, that's his bad luck. from that point on his fate is sealed. if only that damned telegraph office had been open...

this film is about as hardboiled and dark as noir got during its golden age. jane greer should be on the mount rushmore of femmes fatale for her combination of ruthless cunning and allure. before we even meet her we are made aware of just how far she is willing to go to have things work out in her favor. the bullet in kirk douglas is a testament to that. whispering whatever it takes in robert mitchum's ear is child's play compared to the trio of homicides she racks up by the end of the film. his falling for it, in spite of her status as a grand larcenist and attempted murderer, is a testament to her other attributes. a woman like that is a force of nature. a woman like that is undeniable.

it's no accident that this first, fateful kiss takes place after leaving the fickle roulette wheel only to end up on the beach surrounded by nets everywhere you look. you spins the wheel, you takes your chances. just take care that you don't end up on the hook, completely ensnared. when jane greer is the house, don't even sit down at the table. i know. that's easy for me to say. even after having seen what happens to every man who crosses her path i don't know that i could guarantee i would make the smart play. if you can confound the two mightiest chins in post-war hollywood what chance does a regular joe have?

the dialogue is noir to the core as well.

"she can't be all bad. no one is."
"well, she comes the closest."

"oh jeff, you ought to have killed me for what i did a moment ago."
"there's time."

ice cold and whip-smart. the characters may be hurtling around, playing infinite angles, hoping to be the one left standing but their words give them away. there is an inevitably here, leering, monolithic. that sound you hear? that's the steady step of the inescapable past. and, for all their machinations, the fatalistic language the characters use gives them away. in their hearts, they are resigned to it. none of them can move fast enough or talk loud enough to drown out that thing stumbling persistently behind and they damn well know it. the past is patient. and, while you might sleep, albeit fitfully, the past never rests.

the noir pedigree is already solid with all of this in place but tourneur and cinematographer nicholas musuraca pile on the style as well. the mood and tension that tourneur was so adept at layering throughout the psychological thrillers he made with val lewton translates well to the dark alleys and morally ambiguous characters that populate the noir cityscape. look at these beautiful shots.

these folks knew their way around light and shadow. they knew their way around our dark collective heart. you have one more chance on sunday, 1.16.11, to come down to the paramount and see for yourself. it's a matinée, show starts at 2 p.m. laura begins at 4 p.m. and, in keeping with the duplicity to be found on the screen, you get admission to both shows for the price of one ticket. i highly recommend that you do.

starlite is for lovers

our starlite cinema series returns in february with a special valentine's program for you.

the first film of the evening will be bill forsyth's gregory's girl (1981). it's an old favorite of mine and one of the most genuine and smart films about adolescence i have ever seen. i wrote a bit about it here a few months ago if you'd like to take a look. it has a charm its american contemporaries could just never get right.

the second film in our double feature is going to be jean cocteau's beauty and the beast (1946).

it is cinematic magic of the highest order and one of only a handful of films that i truly think everyone ought to see. i am especially pleased to offer this one to you guys. it is a film i never tire of and i cannot think of a better way to see it than out under the stars with my friends.

the program will begin at 7 p.m. on friday, 2.18.11. the facebook event page is here if you would like to rsvp or get further details. if that's not an option for you and would like to attend just send me a note and i will make sure you get the particulars. we're looking forward to this one a great deal. hope you can make it out.


queue de grâce returns

the second installment of queue de grâce is on the horizon. ladies and gentlemen, prepare yourself for the...

the bar was set so incredibly high by miss chelsea george during apocalypse chelsea that i was afraid there would be the inevitable letdown. not to worry, though. our second guest programmer is a badass in her own right.

in case you missed it the first time around, here is how queue de grâce works: for one solid week i turn over complete control of my streaming netflix queue to someone. during that week (excluding visits to actual theaters) i will only watch content curated by one of you guys and report back daily as to how i am faring and give the good citizens of vitagraph, american the lowdown on your cinematic proclivities.

in the on-deck circle this time, we have cabby lawry. say, hello to cabby, everyone.

cabby hails from columbus, ohio these days and is the guiding light behind outloud columbus, a great resource for columbus' LGBT (and friends) community, providing an informal gathering place for folks to explore all aspects of LGBT culture and history via art, discussion and activism. she and i go back a lot of years together as veterans in the kitchen wars. having been in the trenches with her, i am well aware of her ingenuity and craftiness. hence, i am very excited about what she has in store for us. the attack of the cab monster begins on 2.1.11 and runs through 2.7.11. i guarantee a good time.


cover me

during the course of an average workday i see a lot of dvd cover art. when you see that many, patterns begin to emerge, threads start to develop. i am continually puzzled by one thing in particular - how can so much marketing budget be spent on such shoddy, lazy work? you know they have invested a great deal of time and money in figuring out just exactly what images are going to move the most units. by extension, these must be the images people truly respond to. in this recurring feature we're going to take a gander at just what it is the dvd buying public find most compelling.

today's installment - "it's an a-brah-mination!"

apparently, there is no quicker method of transport to wretched humiliation than surfing. we all know most surfing movies are horrible. that's a given. but are they satisfied with surfing being shorthand for "here's ninety minutes you'll never get back"? no. let's see. i don't think just the inclusion of surfing communicates how wacky things are about to get up in here. what's missing? i know! swords! quarterly reports! steel claws! rob schneider! all of that is ridiculous enough but leave it to giant jim belushi to take us past the point of no return. his shooting the curl on top of charles grodin's car in whatever shriner's parade they are in is just over the line. he might as well have slapped us in the face with his carefree abandon. and by that i mean his penis. his dreadful, not-half-as funny-as-his-brother's penis. cowabunga!

trailer tuesday

this week's entry is in honor of peter yates, whom we lost this week at the age of 81. i admired yates' work because it was never flashy. he built a solid and dependable machine. there are a number of notable films on his CV but my favorite is the friends of eddie coyle (1973). it is a minor key masterpiece of desperate, two-bit hoods filmed all over the grubbiest parts of massachusetts. i think it's beautiful.


starlite winter break

hey, gang. the latter half of january is full of work schedule changes, a skydiving trip and band business. as a result, starlite cinema is taking the month off. not to worry, though. we will be back in february with a valentine's program that will more than make up for our absence. until then, consider these alternatives to fill that starlite-shaped hole in your heart:

my beloved paramount theater is showing a doozy of a double feature on the 13th, 14th and 16th. for less than a sawbuck you get both out of the past (1947) and laura (1944), two of the finest from hollywood's golden age of film noir. twists, turns, crosses and double crosses. a man would do a lot of wrong things for a dame like jane greer. and by a man, i mean me.

also at the paramount this month is a pairing of james whale's frankenstein (1931) and abbott and costello meet frankenstein (1948). dracula and the wolf man also get in on the action to make it a monster bonanza! look for those shows on the 21st and 22nd.

if neither of those options is funky enough for you the alamo drafthouse has the cure. for music monday on the 17th they are showing james brown live at the boston garden (1968). this concert took place the day after martin luther king, jr. was killed. brown insisted the show must go on and others conceded that it might do more harm than good to cancel this concert in one of the few major metropolitan areas that wasn't rioting at the time. WGBH pitched in to broadcast it live, urging people to stay home, off the streets, and enjoy the show. the godfather puts on one of the best shows you'll ever see. just two bucks!

arthouse at the jones center also hosts special screenings. this month's offerings begin with tampopo (1985) on the 9th and include a couple of more experimental programs later in the month. these screenings are held in the arthouse community room and are free unless otherwise noted. here is their screening schedule.

and if you'd like to come see what it is that we do, musically, you can come to one of our shows at the end of the month. we are very excited to be helping our dear friend alexa woodward celebrate the release of her new record, "it's a good life honey if you don't grow weary". here is but one reason why you should come.

damn, i love that song. we will be with her in austin at the central presbyterian church (one of the best listening rooms in town, as it turns out) on the 27th, in huntsville on the 28th and nacogdoches on the 29th. if you can make it out we would love to see you.

sorry again about no starlite this month. believe me, it hurts me more than it hurts you. back soon with details about the february program.


i see a darkness

i was finally able to see debra granik's winter's bone (2010) this week and it surpassed my every expectation - damn high expectations, at that.

the story centers on ree dolly, a seventeen year-old girl living in southern missouri who is heroically raising her younger brother and sister amidst the wreckage of a culture decimated by poverty and the attendant epidemic of methamphetamine manufacture/addiction that follows swiftly on its heels. her near-catatonic mother is of no help in the daily struggle to keep the wolf from the door and her father, chief among the meth cookers, has jumped bail, leaving the family homestead at risk of seizure. ree has about a week to get her father into court or they will be turned out of their home. clock ticking, she sets out to find some answers.

now, when my dad was a much younger man, he knew one or two unsavory types. he was no criminal, but he probably had a weekend or two that ended with him picking parking lot gravel out of his face and he damn sure knew a couple of guys that you didn't ask a whole lot of questions of. because of this, very early on, he impressed upon me the importance of certain things - listen first and listen hard, mind your business and if you are not the man in the room who is willing to go further than everyone else you had best be able to quickly ascertain who is and keep a close eye on him. unfortunately for ree dolly, she doesn't have my old man around. she is forced to figure these things out on her own, working on instinct. complicating the matter is the fact that the nest of vipers she is forced to navigate is almost all family - suspicious, nefarious and potentially deadly family.

ree's circumstances are firmly, but economically, established immediately. the landscape is littered with remnants of someone else's consumption. it looks almost post-apocalyptic, as if those who remain are surviving with only with the cast-off provisions hastily left behind by those who were able to escape. most of the time the soundtrack consists only of scattered, distant rifle reports and the barking of scavenging dogs. with a simple trip through this backdrop to deliver her siblings to school, granik underlines ree's isolation with a trio of shots of her observing the activity in the school, all three of which she observes through the narrow windows of classroom doors. in every instance there is a barrier between her and what should be her normal, seventeen year-old life. in every instance we see her rigidly and narrowly framed, on the outside looking in. when she is the object of scrutiny her isolation is even more pronounced - the shifting gaze of every other character in her sphere cataloging her movements and conversations with sheriffs and bail bondsmen. more than once in the film she is handled almost like livestock, rough hands pulling her face close, examining her as if she were an animal they don't know what to do with. to a degree, it's true. her nobility makes her a rare breed among her kin, ancient and preternatural at once. she is operating on a plane they cannot hope to understand and it is precisely because of that that she makes it through her odyssey alive, one beating wiser, one beating tougher.

i can't say enough good things about jennifer lawrence's performance in this. what she communicates is powerful, especially so because she does it with such understatement. it is never too much, even though anyone facing these dire circumstances would have a right to be a little melodramatic. even when charged with the horrifying task of retrieving the evidence that will verify her father's death she is not hysterical, only very real. she imbues this character with a steadfastness and love that leaves you with no doubt that this child would walk straight into the mouth of hell to protect her brother and sister. she faces trials that would be terrifying to most adults and she does it without protest. if she asks for anything from these bastards it's only for a square deal. she never misses an opportunity to give the kids another lesson that will allow them to make their way in this world, another skill they are going to need to survive. she manages all this while demonstrating an innate understanding of when to observe and when to ignore the protocols that dictate the smallest interactions in this pocket of the ozarks. her heart is exhibit A for the important difference between resolve and resignation. and on top of all this, she goes toe to toe with john hawkes.

and he is not a man to be trifled with here. he plays her uncle, teardrop, brother to the missing father and he is the aforementioned man who is willing to go further than you. this makes him a sort of teacher also, though he administers lessons you hope you are never in a position to need to learn. he, too, understands and abides by certain codes and family is, without a doubt, at the center of those. it is that fact that eventually brings him to ree's aid in her hour of darkness. you watch the way this man and this girl dig into this deadly business and you know you are watching an old, old story. they are the two sides of humanity's oldest coin - blood money - and they invest this story with a such a grim understanding and deep acknowledgment of humanity's profound and ineluctable struggles and limitations that you feel as if it is almost detached in time.

as strong as the two central performances are, the success of this film rests on it being a truly ensemble piece, and i am not referring to just the cast. i mean that in the most inclusive sense because without granik and company's respectful and thoughtful interaction with the community, and the dedication, effort and friendship received in return, you would have no film. the work and care everyone put in is evident and granik never adopts a mocking or derisive tone. none of the principals give any indication of feeling they are above the material and that is crucial. without that, it wouldn't hold up. it would fail. as it stands, it resulted in one of the best things from 2010 and is evocative of the best part of ree's most complicated lesson to her brother and sister.

"never ask for what ought to be offered."

all atwitter

i have finally joined the fray and started a twitter feed for the blog. if you are so inclined, you can follow me here. i probably won't use it for a great deal but it's there just in case.



trailer tuesday

this week's entry is for one of we here at vitagraph's most anticipated films of 2011, terrence malick's luminous the tree of life (2011). can't wait for this one.