summer tour - portland

my favorite film shot in portland is gus van sant's elephant (2003). i was going to write a more extensive piece about it. in fact, i did and deleted it. in retrospect, it seemed contrary to the film, certainly contrary to how i am feeling. today, what i am taking from it is to take long looks. don't be fooled by what seems mundane. the last time you might see a face.


trailer tuesday: summer tour - sausalito

the road has been pretty kind to us so far. today finds us in sausalito, california. a lovely harbor community, it was here where otis redding wrote "dock of the bay" while staying at a houseboat in 1967. sterling hayden made his home here for the latter part of his life. and it was here that orson welles stylishly shot himself in the foot with the lady from shanghai (1948).

for everything in this film's favor, welles sets up an equal and opposite force. he had rita hayworth cut and dye her trademark tresses. at times, it is unnecessarily complicated and rambling. on the other hand, there is that dazzling hall of mirrors finale and there is an uncomfortable tension that is well maintained throughout. harry cohn ultimately offered one thousand dollars to anyone who could explain the plot of the film. even welles couldn't cash in on the offer. you should see it. it is a fine muddle.

we now turn to make our way up the pacific coast. talk to you again soon.


summer tour - sedona

today we hit sedona, arizona. in the golden age of the hollywood western, sedona was a favorite location for film crews and i can see why. the vistas are incredible, the topography has just about every feature you could want, and the weather is beautiful. dozens of anonymous cowboys (and hundreds of horses) have passed through here over the years but there are two women that cast a couple of awfully long shadows over the landscape. the precarious mental states of both the characters and the women who portrayed them are among my favorite cases of madness that the big screen couldn't quite contain.

the first, gene tierney, starred in leave her to heaven (1945). while not a western (and just this side of an exploitation film), the scene they shot here where she gallops furiously across the landscape casting her father's ashes to the four winds is precisely the kind of scene filled with tumultuous emotion that you can only shoot with the wide, western sky as a backdrop.

the movie, as a whole, is average melodrama but this scene is a real high point for me. tierney is at her best here when she is wordless, reckless, driven by her electra complex. and i believe it works so well because this is tierney relinquishing a little control to her own demons. her battles with mental illness are well documented, sometimes so severe she was unable to work. but when she was able to harness some of that darkness and put it behind those green eyes it could be astounding.

the other woman i had in mind was joan crawford. we all have heard the stories by now but when they set up camp here to make johnny guitar (1954) i don't think the locals (and some of her fellow cast members) were aware of her reputation. the film itself is another of nicholas ray's brilliant, twisted efforts full of psycho-sexual landmines we are still unearthing today. it is notable in the western genre for having not one, but two, towering female figures who, in a welcome reversal, reduce all the men in the film (including sterling hayden, no slouch) to second-class citizens. obsession, guilt, guns and costume changes galore. the production itself suffered from no shortage of drama either. crawford scattered mercedes mccambridge's costume all along the arizona highway in a fit of jealousy and both mccambridge and hayden called her out, mccambridge going as far as to describe crawford as a "mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady". this is the old west. you better look a woman in the eye when you say that.

i'll talk to you next from los angeles. in the meantime, check these out and see these ladies in all their unhinged glory and take in some lovely arizona scenery.


summer tour - albuquerque

while the band is on tour i thought i would send out a dispatch here and there pertaining to some of the places we are stopping. i was excited about albuquerque because a theater i have some awfully fond memories of, the lobo, was going to be near the venue where we are performing. i thought it would be a great opportunity to stop in and take a look around the place again.

unfortunately, it was not to be. the lobo closed its doors as a movie theater in 2001. it is now a church. a fitting end, i suppose. for me, it was always a church.

the lobo sat out here in the desert and waited for me for a long time. built in 1939, it is the oldest standing movie theater along the mother road, route 66. many a wandering okie before me must have passed by the old girl as they made their way west. i started making the regular trek back and forth between albuquerque and stillwater, oklahoma a little over a decade ago for work. there wasn't much here for me to do in my down time until i discovered the lobo. it programmed mostly arthouse/classic fare and was just a few blocks away from where i was working at the time. i spent a fair amount of afternoons there, including the first time i was able to see dr. strangelove or: how i learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (1964) on the big screen. it was certainly a sanctuary, if not a true temple. albuquerque was just a big, empty city for me. it really held nothing for me once the job was finished. i was lucky to find one place where i could could ensconce myself in the lovely cold and dark. it was a humble little building, not the best screen nor the best sound system i had ever experienced. it didn't have a marquee as extravagant as you might expect for the oldest theater on route 66. it was friendly, though. it was inviting. it was providing a great service to a city and a student body (it sat right on the edge of the university of new mexico) and did it the way that appeals to me the most - straightforward, no fanfare, with a focus on quality and variety that belied what had to be a modest operating budget. it's certainly a shame that it is gone. fortunately for new mexico cinephiles, the guild is still in operation, but the lobo occupies a place in my heart like only a first love can. maybe one of these days someone will restore to it to its former function/glory. that would be nice. they have plenty of time until my next once-a-decade visit.

talk to you again soon from somewhere west of here.


trailer tuesday

this week's entry is for blake edwards' experiment in terror (1962) and it is a great one. henry mancini's snazzy score, the lovely lee remick cruising with the top down and ultra-sharp photography that makes for a two and a half minute festival of lights - headlights, dashboard lights, the lights of san francisco at night - all of which cannot keep the darkness from descending on her once she pulls into that garage. if you only know blake edwards from the pink panther series of films do yourself a favor and check out this stylish, taut little gem.


apparently, the briefcase contained a six dollar wig

no, marsellus wallace, you lost all your l.a. privileges. little richard wouldn't even wear that thing.


this is why i always have a pen

my pal bryce over at things that don't suck is devoting this week to all things christopher nolan in anticipation of inception (2010) opening friday.

so, for the occasion, i thought i would go back and take a look at memento (2000), one of the finer neo-noir films i have seen.

those of you that haven't seen it still might be familiar with the title due to how much attention was paid to its somewhat novel structure. the scenes that comprise the main portion of the narrative run in reverse order. this backwards chronology, shot in color, runs alternately with an expository thread, shot in black and white, in which you see leonard, our protagonist, engaged in a phone conversation with an unidentified party. on paper, it sounds a little confusing. on film, it is deftly handled by nolan and is a compelling example of form following function.

the story follows leonard shelby, an insurance investigator who suffers from anterograde amnesia due to an injury suffered at the hands of the person he believes raped and murdered his wife. simply put, he cannot create new memories. he retains everything right up until the point this trauma occurred, but since then it is impossible. his memories fade as thoroughly and quickly out as the polaroids he takes to help him remember names, numbers and faces fade in.

the pictures, combined with notes, numerous tattoos and police files make up the trail of clues that he hopes will lead him to his wife's killer so justice may be served. leonard is meticulous and orderly about his routines. it's how he gets by in his condition. the one thing that other detectives have, even when all else has deserted them - their wits - are in full revolt in leonard's case. memories and motivations stick in his head just long enough to be tantalizing and frustrating. and in some cases, hilarious/potentially fatal.

as the alternating timelines converge, we pick up our femme fatale and a cop who works in the more gray areas of the law, to put it diplomatically. very satisfyingly noir. intercut with everyone who has a stake in manipulating leonard to their own end is the story of sammy jankis. sammy's case was one that leonard investigated in his earlier life and the first place he encountered the phenomenon that is anterograde amnesia. ah, the fickle finger of fate. sammy's story has now become leonard's story. one wrong turn, one bad decision and the cosmos deals the good man the bad hand. also very satisfyingly noir.

everything about the production is strong. solid writing, great performances and excellent direction from nolan. its structure would be a liability in less skilled hands but here it is never less than compelling. the story might not be quite as much so if it were told in a straight, linear fashion but i see this as more than just beneficial gimmickry. the structure suits and serves the story. it corresponds to our narrator's mental state and puts us very solidly in his shoes. it is no parlor trick.

and you want noir? it is deep black. it may take place mostly in the light but it is a worthy successor to those dark and shadowy films that first began to explore these themes in the forties. when noir really began to bloom at the end of world war two some pretty existential seeds had apparently been sown. two world wars, a great depression and a spanish flu pandemic is a lot to deal with in a thirty year stretch. the crisis of masculinity felt by men transitioning from a theater of war to the daily routine of home and work was profoundly reflected by these noir protagonists. "what do i do now?" rang in the heads of millions of people, men and women, as the adjustments to normal life were struggled with. well, memento is these existential noir questions to the nth degree. leonard, very much like the veterans of the forties, may know who he used to be but he certainly has no idea anymore. he is more than just the literal embodiment of this crisis. he is its terminal point.

and when you contrast his story with sammy's you are opening a veritable pandora's box of questions about the role of knowledge versus instinct in developing that identity that is so much in question here. is there any position except the amorality so essential to good noir when you have no hope of a future? what do you do when your only choices are a tragic past and this moment you are in right now? when there is no tomorrow, nothing to keep going on for, your very soul is at risk. you cannot hold on to the things you know, the things you learn, therefore you are operating on instinct. and when your instinct is unreliable? it's something we all face to one degree or another. at one point leonard explains that memory is only an interpretation, not a record. so, if you give that any credence, not only is he an unreliable narrator in his story, we are unreliable narrators of our own. combine that with the fact that we are all at the mercy of fate's fickle finger. memento gives us quite the puzzle to work on, both during and after the film. exceedingly satisfyingly noir.

in addition to the noirish psychological underpinnings, i like to read leonard's job as an insurance investigator as a nod to double indemnity (1944). unfortunately for leonard, the little man who lives in his stomach can't remember anything any longer than he can. and while i am thinking about it, i know we're supposed to prize versatility and no one wants to be typecast, but i think genre films, noir and horror in particular, sometimes suffer these days for the fact that there aren't those faces you see over and over in these types of roles. you had a certain understanding with humphrey bogart, alan ladd and elisha cook jr. guy pearce has made two of the best neo-noir films our generation has seen, the other being l.a. confidential (1997), and it would be a shame to see someone so well suited to it not make another.

if you want to catch up on other nolan-related items, old and new, before you go see inception go take a look at things that don't suck for bryce's daily posts. you will also find those of several other worthy contributors. except teddy. don't believe his lies.


trailer tuesday

damn it, 2010 has been a rough one. this week's entry is honor of harvey pekar, one more on this year's list of people i am going to miss terribly.

i can't say enough about what harvey meant to me and i know a lot of other folks feel the same way. in my case, harvey was the comic book equivalent of punk rock. in much the same way that punk demolished the notion that rock stardom/notoriety was the domain of an exclusive club with very few members, harvey democratized comics. his success, marginal as it was most of his life, gave me the same joy i got from the minutemen or minor threat. if you were willing to keep plugging away, harvey told me, telling the stories only you could tell in the manner that only you could tell them, then you had already won. all else was incidental. your audience will find you. harvey's audience did. and we were rewarded. i can't think of very many other literary figures that i am reasonably sure told me nothing but the unvarnished truth about themselves throughout a body of work that spans thirty-odd years. can you? pretty damn admirable, in my book.

i know this is trailer tuesday but i am tacking on this extra clip because it is, to me, harvey in a nutshell. all the things i feel like we had in common in forty-two seconds.

so long, man. get some rest.


starlite cinema series - ¡viva españa!

in honor of spain winning the world cup we are dedicating our next installment of the starlite cinema series to them.

we will kick off the evening with rogue pixar animator rodrigo blaas' alma (2009). it recently won the 2010 goya award (non-spanish speakers can paste that web address into a translator here) for best animated short film.

we will follow that with luis buñuel's simon of the desert (1965).

satan has seldom looked better. surrealism versus the catholic church with a bird's eye view.

next, we move on to our feature presentation, victor erice's the spirit of the beehive (1973). this is truly one of my favorite films. a brilliant mood piece and rumination on the inner lives of children, there is a certain magic in it. ana torrent was a special kid. there is a grace about her that we would all do well to aspire to.

also notable is the fact that the cinematographer, luis cuadrado, was going blind at the time the film was made. it is spectacular to look at even without knowing that. when you watch it knowing that the man photographing it could barely see it becomes nearly miraculous.

as always, i am bringing this to you guys with my dear friends at the annie street arts collective. i couldn't do it without them. things will be getting underway at 9 p.m. on saturday, 8.21.10, so mark your calendars. here is the event page on facebook where you can find more details, RSVP, et cetera. if that's not an option and you would like to attend please feel free to send me a message and i will get you all the pertinent information. it's very casual. the more the merrier. hope to see you there.


it's saturday, let's watch cartoons!

in the infancy of filmmaking james stuart blackton produced what is widely regarded as the earliest surviving animated film, humorous phases of funny faces (1906).

in this three minute short from the vitagraph company of america (our namesake!) you see blackton, or at least his arm, sketch a handful of characters on a blackboard that spring to life. hats are doffed, umbrellas are tossed, clowns cavort with dogs and hoops. to modern eyes it is nothing particularly spectacular but it was the acorn from which grew the mighty oak of filmed animation. it inspired and influenced everyone from émile cohl:

to winsor mccay (in color!):

to the fleischer brothers (i love this one):

on through, of course, to walt disney:

we have since seen the lineage of humorous phases expand to include things as sophisticated and/or varied as looney tunes, the super friends and scooby-doo, the wondrous universe of hayao miyazaki and the superlative work coming out of the pixar studios. when you see the state of the art today it is staggering to think that it started just a few generations ago with some lines on a blackboard.

if you want to dig into the history of animation, or even just film in general, the library of congress website is a perfect place to start. their archives are full of great material. the international animated film society also has a fantastic site with tons of articles, ongoing discussions and an archive of films and illustrations. i highly recommend going back and looking at some of these things you may have missed. there's some visionary work and tracing the evolution of the form is fascinating. and the next time you're slipping on those 3-D glasses at whatever animated summer blockbuster/holiday extravaganza you're attending, raise your four dollar soda to these pioneers. without them woody and buzz would be inaction figures.


trailer tuesday

this week's entry is for the exorcist (1973). even the trailer is terrifying. my mother was pregnant when this was in theaters and wouldn't go see it then for fear of what might happen. i don't blame her.

a palate cleanser

i need something to get the taste of that doors mess out of my mouth. here's a great clip of xtc doing a particularly muscular version of "respectable street" from urgh! a music war (1981), a music film that's actually worth a damn. give me some rhythm!


the dullard king

as a general editorial policy, i don't spend a lot of time here on vitagraph, american talking about films that i don't think are very good. since it's not a review site, exactly, i have that luxury. i would much rather spend the finite amount of time i have telling you about things i think are exciting, worthwhile and that you may not have come across. that being said, sometimes a film is so bad i just can't let it slide. i'd feel negligent if i didn't say something - oh, say, something like "when you're strange (2009), tom dicillo's new film about the doors, is the worst documentary i have seen in a long time" and i have seen some bad ones.

it fails on almost every level, mishandled across the board. as a documentary it is a love letter to the band. there is no investigative work, nothing revelatory, nothing even exclamatory. the promise of unearthed footage will be enough to lure in the serious fans but whatever impact it might have had is severely lessened when it essentially becomes nothing but a backdrop to the breathless, sycophantic narration. instead of matching these previously unavailable glimpses of the band with new insights from the surviving members or outlining the more interesting aspects of their rise and fall what you get is johnny depp reading a doors press release for an hour and a half. die-hards will be especially disappointed. i am certainly not what you would call a devotee and there was practically nothing in it i didn't already know. did you know jim morrison was reading rimbaud at age sixteen? amazing! or so the film would like you to think.

when it attempts to provide you with cultural context it's even worse. let's see. what says "sixties"? i know! let's trot out the same tired footage of the kennedy brothers, martin luther king, woodstock and vietnam. ham-fisted, stock image after stock image. a golden opportunity was missed here to focus on los angeles and where the doors fit in the context of the city and its music scene. they were unique among their brethren at the whisky a go go. why not capitalize on/explore that? nope. we'll make do with the time/life version of "that tumultuous decade" one. more. time.

ok, so it's not hard hitting journalism. it doesn't have much of a point to make beyond the fact that tom dicillo really loves the doors. ironically, though, the longer it goes on the more it backfires as a love letter as well. the longer you look at morrison the more he loses his luster. every time he opens his mouth in this thing he comes off as moronic. he doesn't fare much better when he keeps it shut. he's either tear-assing around the desert in a muscle car attempting to look enigmatic/dangerous/mystical, staring blankly into the camera alternately pouting or smiling in a way that he thinks looks enigmatic/dangerous/mystical or rolling around onstage attempting to look enigmatic/dangerous/mystical. it's utter bullshit and, in giving us an extended opportunity to look at it, dicillo himself is the one who unintentionally exposes it as such. if i read/hear one more reference to morrison as "dionysian" i think i am going to vomit. as it turns out he was a drunken, mediocre attention whore, not so much godlike as just middle-class reality show fodder. a shaman doesn't believe his own press, but then you wouldn't have to tell a shaman that. after ninety minutes of this i am amazed anyone over the age of sixteen ever fell for this act at all. maybe it was all just an elaborate joke, a kaufmanesque put-on. oh, you crazy lizard king. you can do anything.

ultimately, it all made me feel terribly sorry for the rest of the band. it might have helped to include current interviews, maybe offer some new perspective with the benefit of hindsight and all, but no go. there may have been legal issues preventing it since the survivors have a bit of a contentious relationship. i have no idea. whatever the reason, the approach scuttles the film before it even gets underway. everyone involved said they wanted this to be the antidote to oliver stone's earlier biopic of the band. well, strike two. total waste of time. i think someone needs to take the whole thing in a wacky new direction, a doors reboot! get will ferrell on the phone!

as always, don't just take my word for it. see it for yourself and decide. myself, i'll just wait for the ferrell/adam mckay take on it. it certainly couldn't be any worse.


the à team

non-stop shenanigans, that's what the title of jean-pierre jeunet's latest cinematic carnival ride translates to. micmacs à tire-larigot (2009) falls a little short of the promise of its name but is worthwhile, nonetheless. ostensibly a satire of the world arms trade, it actually functions much better when treading the more sentimental ground familiar to followers of jeunet's particular brand of whimsy.

it tells the story of bazil, orphaned as a boy when a landmine took his father and then injured by a stray bullet himself during a freak accident. the latest chain of unfortunate circumstances causes him to lose his home and his job and leaves him to fend for himself on the streets of paris. it's not long before savvy ex-con/salvage man "slammer" takes him under his wing, and underground, and introduces him to his new family.

the labyrinthine junkyard is home to a motley band of misfits and geniuses. working amidst society's detritus, themselves cast off, they take fragments of daily life that others consider no longer fit and make magic out of them. populated by the aforementioned ex-con and guillotine defier, a mother who lost her daughters to a house of mirrors, a lady contortionist, the deceptively strong automaton builder "little pete", a lovely human calculator, a writer who speaks in (practically) nothing but hackneyed cliches and a retired human cannonball with more plates and screws than evel knievel (played by jeunet stalwart dominique pinon), this subterranean cathedral of junk (what's up, austin?) becomes headquarters for an escalating war of rube goldbergian proportions against the munitions manufacturers responsible for the wicked turns in bazil's life.

of course, the warmongers get theirs. you would expect no less. i think, though, that as targets of this group's ragtag machinations, the arms manufacturers are almost incidental. you could have put any deserving party under the cage at the end.

it would have been just as satisfying had it been morning radio personalities. the fun is in watching the machine work. you were never invested in the mouse, were you? the mouse never did anything to you. it certainly was fun, though, to see the little man on the diving board do that flip. warmongers, mouse - what's the difference?

two things may make a difference, in this case.

one - family
this is where the film squanders its opportunities the most, i think. so much more could have been done in developing these characters and emphasizing how important it is to be needed by, and to count on, someone. micmacs, jeunet's entire body of work, in fact, intimates that our prosperity and our very survival depends on these connections, forged of blood, necessity or blind luck. it then speeds through the development of these relationships in a manner that leaves us with an outline, rather than a document, of these tenuous bonds. we're supposed to just take it on faith? a little lazy, i think. yes, there is a certain shorthand accepted in cinema but here it's not quite enough to completely sell the idea. i want it to work so i give it leeway. a less sympathetic audience might not. warmongers and their just desserts occupy the tertiary spot here. the value of the family as support system is actually a more important theme to this film and this filmmaker. unfortunately, it gets the short shrift a little bit. how important a notion it is to you will most likely dictate how much you are pulling for bazil and his new family or how much you are just watching the machine.

two - the machine
there is nothing more important going on here than the idea of the ramshackle contraption, both without and within. you take any number of disparate elements, give them a new context, a new purpose, introduce any number of variables, work out the best way to achieve your desired result and throw the switch. good luck with that. good luck with your game, your movie, your heart, your life, your universe. in the best of all possible worlds (or at least jeunet's), the bad guys lose and you get the girl contortionist.

the most thoughtful and provocative part of jeunet's contraption is the implication that we build our own machines as miniature approximations of the one we occupy in some effort to exert a modicum of control (laughable in the face of random chance) and make ourselves feel better about the fact that we are just variables ourselves, careening around crazily, crashing into others as hapless as we are. we are the mouse, the man on the diving board. we are someone else's cannon fodder.

ultimately, i can only hope that whoever designed this crazy contraption we are making our way through is as benevolent as the denizens of this parisian junkyard. i hope somewhere underground a human cannonball, a strongman puppeteer and a girl contortionist are working on the details, and the devil in them, on my behalf.


that one is easy

when benjamin christensen made seven footprints to satan (1929) he provided me with my eternal answer to the "if you had a dinner party and could invite anyone, living or dead..." question. that answer is "these guys":


cover me

during the course of an average workday i see a lot of dvd cover art. usually, at this point in this recurring feature we heap derision upon the lame, tired and utterly safe art/design that graces the covers of about 95 percent of the dvds that are manufactured. the wretched sameness that permeates the industry is of epidemic proportions. all the more reason we should celebrate the handful of people that slip those surly bonds. today we take a blessed detour from the usual.

eric skillman is a graphic designer, illustrator, comic artist and art director who does a great deal of work for the criterion collection and i think what he does is first rate. here are a few samples of some of his finished covers, alternate takes and accompanying art.

clearly, this stuff is head and shoulders above what you see lining the shelves of your average rental chain. his design work alone is reason for us to celebrate him but he goes that one better. he writes a great blog called cozy lummox in which he offers a great deal of background and insight into the entire design process. you'll get to see alternate versions, the evolution of the design, some scrapped bad ideas. it's a treasure trove for folks who geek out equally over film and graphic design. i recommend you read it regularly, but if you just want to start by checking out what goes into making some of these covers here are some direct links to some particular favorites of mine.

stagecoach (1939)

che (2008)

revanche (2008)

the spy who came in from the cold (1965)

blast of silence (1961)

berlin alexanderplatz (1980)

clean, shaven (1993)

an angel at my table (1990)

it's nice to know he's out there, fighting the good fight. better still, he lets us in on how it works. let this provide you consolation in your hour of darkness, starring ashley judd and morgan freeman.