happy new year

well, i feel as if i have been remiss in my duties around here lately. the demands of retail during the holiday season certainly do keep things busy and, as some of you know, our house was burglarized last week so i haven't had a lot of time or been much in the mood to write an awful lot. that will change. it's been kind of a strange year. losing vic chesnutt on christmas day last year sort of set the tone for a lot of things, unfortunately, in 2010. this past year was rough on a lot of people i love and, for that reason, i am glad to see it go. we're not going to spend undue energy on that, though, because i do have a feeling that 2011 is going to be much better all the way around. we are going to continue to convene here and talk about things we saw that changed us, things we're excited to see, things we're kicking ourselves for missing, favorite theaters visited and hastily constructed in the backyard, good times with great friends, big ideas, small pleasures and all of the other wondrous things the world of cinema affords us. thank you to everyone for reading and contributing to the discussion in the blog's inaugural year. i appreciate it more than you know. be careful out there and let's see 2011 in in style.

a kiss for luck and we're on our way. happy new year everyone.


trailer tuesday

this week's entry is for billy wilder's sunset boulevard (1950). it is my favorite movie about the magical cesspool that is hollywood.

i hope my new year turns out better than william holden's. just to be on the safe side i am not going near any parties with pools.


trailer tuesday

as our attention is turned skyward for the lunar eclipse, this week's entry is for the george pal production destination moon (1950).


by the cold starlite

our last installment of the starlite cinema series for 2010 is now history and boy, was it chilly.

our hardy band braved a cold texas evening and were rewarded with the inimitable inventions of buster keaton in sherlock jr. (1924) and fritz lang's proto-science fiction epic, metropolis (1927) in all its restored glory. blankets most definitely came in handy and lauren kept us warm on the inside with her delicious chicken tortilla soup.

thanks to everyone who came out. come august, we'll be thinking fondly of these low temperatures.

the winter program rolls on with two films in january appropriate to the new year. we're going to take a look at two men afforded a chance at a new life and the highs and lows that come with that territory. first up, since it's been on my mind lately, we'll have the w.c. fields classic, it's a gift (1934).

click on that text back there if you'd like to see just what i think is so funny about it. better yet, come spend the evening with us and find out for yourself.

the evening's second shot at redemption will come in the form of ulu grosbard's straight time (1978).

dustin hoffman plays max dembo, a recently paroled thief who is finding it to be tough going on the outside. he is a small-timer through and through, a self-destructive recidivist. his attempts to navigate the straight world aren't exactly what you'd call successful. where the w.c. fields entry would be in the "do" column, this is a concrete example of "don't" when it comes to what to do with your new opportunity. the story is based on the life of career criminal, and notorious hard case, eddie bunker. you may know him as mr. blue from reservoir dogs (1992). hoffman is great in it. this is years before he became a parody of himself. m. emmet walsh and harry dean stanton also contribute their considerable skills. it's one of the most underrated american crime films i can think of and it would be great to watch it with you.

our prospective date is friday 1.21.11 at 7 p.m. i will get back to you soon to confirm that date. hope to see you there.


another man done gone

one of my favorites, blake edwards, gave up the ghost today.

my introduction to the man's work was, like it probably was for a lot of people in my generation, the series of pink panther films he made with peter sellers. i love them dearly. little did i know at the time that he was going to be my bridge, consciously or unconsciously, to so much that i now have a deep affection for. when i watch his films these days, i see nods to ernst lubitsch, laurel and hardy, leo mccarey and all the great silent clowns. i see his reverence for his predecessors and his love of humans and their frailties. i find his work admirable because it demonstrates a gentleness lacking in so much contemporary comedy. he reminded us you can be funny without cruelty. yes, i was often laughing at someone taking a pratfall in one of his films, but never out of malice. it was always much more out of solidarity, especially with inspector clouseau, one of my favorite screen underdogs. edwards always said the secret to the success of that character was his perseverance. i think it was the same for edwards, moving steadily forward, honest and true, never thinking he was going to fail, occasionally sucking a parrot into the vacuum cleaner. i'm glad he always landed on his feet. let's shed no tears. it hardly befits a comic talent of his stature. instead, i would like to send him off with this tribute. ladies and gentlemen, from his film, the great race (1965), the greatest pie fight ever committed to film!

rest in peace, sir. thanks for the laughs.


trailer tuesday

this week's entry is for the uninvited (1944). if i thought it would do any good, i would haunt the halls of paramount pictures, rattling chains and spooking receptionists until they agreed to finally give this a dvd release.



my friend summer, who writes the wondrous and heartfelt crazier than shirttails, gave me a gift today that i thought i would share with you guys. she recently came across a small collection of seventy year old photographs of lobby displays and was kind enough to pass them along to me. from what i can deduce, these come from a theater in kingsville, texas in the spring/summer of 1939. most likely it was either the rex or the rialto.

we'll kick things off with this one for the four feathers (1939). it certainly beats your standard poster or cardboard standup. while this isn't the most extravagant one in the bunch, it appears they went to the trouble to do tile work on the little riser holding the display. the item on the steps, as far as i can tell, is a map with a gilded border. the spears, sword and shield are all a nice touch. breathless entertainment! in technicolor!

next up we have the display for the bette davis/paul muni vehicle juarez (1939). this one is a little less inspired than the rest but everyone has an off day once in a while. sombreros and serapes were probably easier to come by in kingsville than a sudanese arsenal. maybe the regular display person was sick that week and they threw this together at the last minute. even so, it's a more personal touch than what we routinely get these days. and you damn well bet i would wear that jacket embroidered with the mexican eagle hanging on the top left corner of the poster.

now that's more like it. this one is for the jack benny/dorothy lamour romp, man about town (1939). the tile work in the first photo has been replaced by a much more glamorous and glittery foundation. this one promises swinging sophistication and some swell tunes. if you look to the left you will notice that sunday and monday shows just got a whole lot sexier. snazzy.

they pulled out all the stops for this one for only angels have wings (1939). promotional life preserver, lanterns, palm fronds, a guitar, a propeller, not to mention the return of the african spear and shield! does it matter that it takes place in the colombian andes? nope! if i lived in kingsville in 1939 i would have been at this joint three times a week. alright, so attention to detail and accuracy may be occasionally lacking, but look how much they cared about being the best theater in the gulfland of texas. these aren't a lot of promotional materials sent out from the studios. these items were rounded up from employee/owner attics, basements, sheds and garages and kingsville's best secondhand shops and craft stores. no expense was spared when it came to yard sale antiques and calligraphy pens. i salute you, kingsville, for trying to make it special. and thank you, summer. these are fantastic photos.


vital-graph: it's a gift

this is part of an ongoing series in which i discuss the films that matter most to me. the only criterion they share is that i find them indispensable, my desert island selections. some are established classics, some are definitely not, some occupy the grey space in between...

there is no single film comedian i find funnier than my favorite raconteur, roustabout and reprobate, w.c. fields and no film of his makes me laugh harder than it's a gift (1934).

this thing is fields' essence distilled (quite appropriate). as with most of his work, the plot is threadbare, only existing to provide a skeletal framework that houses a series of brilliant gags and fields' grandiloquence. in the film, fields plays harold bissonette (pronounced bis-on-ay), the henpecked, downtrodden owner of a grocery store in new jersey. his dream of owning an orange ranch in california looks like it will become a reality with the untimely passing of his uncle bean. against his family's wishes, he takes his inheritance and buys an orange grove, packs the family up and heads west to prosperity. the orange grove is a disaster, a veritable wasteland. it seems this will be the final crushing indignity in a life that has hardly been idyllic up until now. fortune smiles upon the great man in the eleventh hour, however, and what looked like the single worst real estate decision ever made results in an incredible, and unlikely, windfall. his dedication to his dream has seen him through and it's nothing but california sunshine from now on.

the story in this particular film is not so important in and of itself. it's more important as the best example of the story fields told us his entire career. no comedian i can think of, with the exception of richard pryor, put more of his personal pain into his art in a noble attempt to tell us something about ourselves than fields. his films provide a running commentary on the dour life of the everyman, beset on all sides by shrewish wives, annoying children, accursed salesmen, nosy neighbors, demonic customers and bungling assistants. his struggle for those little victories and rare moments of peace are something most people can identify with and we'll gladly take each small claim he can stake on our behalf, even if sometimes it is only the curse muttered under his breath. these themes would arise again and again in fields' work as he constantly worked and refined material, each time making the joke cut a little closer to the bone. significant portions of it's a gift, for instance, are recycled from the early silent effort, it's the old army game (1926). even more significantly, though, these episodes are recycled from fields' life. his estrangement from first wife hattie and the anxiety over the separation from his son and his wife's unsettling influence over the child loom like a spectre over practically his entire filmic output. fortunately for us, he could turn this misery into comedy gold. it's a gift wastes no time in establishing these themes for us. the opening scene introduces us to our hapless hero as he tries to navigate the minefield of morning rituals in his household. his daughter's vanity and lack of consideration for her father results in him laying on a chair attempting to shave in a spinning mirror he has suspended from the bathroom light. his son's stray roller skate almost results in a broken neck for him and his wife's incessant badgering makes for a breakfast that never gets eaten. he rushes to work but it provides no relief as he must juggle his incompetent employee, a belligerent customer who wants ten pounds of cumquats and the hurricane force that is mr. muckle, the deaf and blind man who destroys the store in pursuit of a five cent pack of chewing gum.

put it down, honey!

fields' ear for the language is one of my favorite things about the man and this segment is a sterling demonstration of his skill. mr. muckle and mrs. dunk, the terms of endearment he showers the blind man with in an effort to stave off the store's destruction, ten pounds of cumquats - all of it genius. cumquats, that's an easy one. that's obviously far and away the funniest fruit you can keep in stock. his genius is demonstrated, though, by his choice of the amount. ten is the funniest number he could have reasonably chosen. don't believe me? replace it and see. six pounds of cumquats! nine pounds of cumquats! doesn't have the same punch. ten simply sounds the funniest. as if the verbal dexterity wasn't enough, this scene also introduces us to elwood dunk, portrayed by baby leroy, who was a tiny thorn in fields' side on more than one occasion. referring to the child as "blood poison", fields tries and fails to conduct business as usual as the tyke, fields' assistant and a barrel of molasses conspire to finish the job mr. muckle started. the refuge of work no longer an option, our intrepid hero returns home.

and here we are treated to one of my favorite comic sequences ever put on film. a misunderstanding over a wrong number ends with fields being exiled to the porch to get what little sleep he can salvage from this long night (of which, it is clear, there are many). words don't do it justice. here is a section of it.

sweet repose. and this is only a portion of this brilliant set piece. he is also assailed by baby elwood dunk again, who manages to nearly choke him to death with grapes and drop an ice pick into his skull, by abby and mrs. dunk who shout their conversation all around him, by his wife who wants to know who the women were he was just talking to, by mrs. frobisher and her squeaky clothesline, by a vegetable and fruit vendor noisily hawking his wares and, finally, by a fly. it is a masterpiece of slow burn and building frustration. it brings tears to my eyes. and, again, it's the little things that make all the difference. as funny as the jokes are, i laugh the hardest at the almost inaudible groan fields emits as the insurance salesman mounts the stairs. his weariness and exasperation with his fellow man, and his willingness to give voice to it, to say things we are all thinking but that other comedians wouldn't dare say, are the basis for some brilliant comedy. and he takes a shot whenever he can. when the neighbors gather to see them off one of them asks his wife what their first stop is going to be but fields heads the question off with his answer, "won't stop until we get five hundred miles from here", making quite clear the esteem in which he holds these jabbering mooncalves.

i'm with you all the way, bill.

the family makes their way westward to eventually arrive at the ruined orange grove that he purchased, sight unseen, and his family, disgusted with this turn of events, abandons him. it seems that all is lost. forlorn and dejected, he sits amidst the rubble of his purchase to ponder his fate. at this pivotal moment, a neighboring rancher races up the drive to inform him that, in actuality, his plot is prime after all. it is an ideal location for the grandstand of a proposed race track that is going in on the adjoining lot. his new neighbor advises him that the racetrack owners are on their way to make him an offer and to hold out for any price because they will pay it. after some negotiation, the staggering sum on $44,000 is settled upon which allows our beleaguered family man to live out his dream after all, and all in his own inimitable fashion. the dreamer, after a lifetime of suffering the slings and arrows of family and fortune, has finally arrived at his own personal shangri-la and he did it with a dogged self-reliance and a curmudgeonly grace.

it's one of my absolute favorites, and so is he. ever the underdog, he always managed to snatch victory from the jaws of ignoble defeat in the last reel, exposing fools and needling termagants all along the way. convention and propriety be damned! groucho marx always told a story about fields sitting in the bushes in front of his house and shooting at curiosity seekers with a BB gun. "today, he'd probably be arrested". probably so. i'd bail him out. any man that will boot a small child square in the ass when he deserves it is alright in my book. i'll watch his movies anytime.


trailer tuesday

this week's entry is for nicolas winding refn's valhalla rising (2009).

refn has taken another uneven step toward greatness with this one. it follows the story of a one-eyed mute slave being exploited by his pagan captors in vicious bloodsport. he escapes, dealing out harsh revenge upon his former tormentors, and takes up with a band of christians on their way to participate in the crusades. our odin/messiah suffers mightily for his sins and makes others suffer even more mightily for theirs. if you've come looking for 300 (2006) just keep moving. this is a different animal. it is grim beyond measure, ponderous at times. it is like no other viking epic you have ever seen. little dialogue, the characters function almost exclusively as metaphor. it doesn't always work, but i am willing to forgive a misstep or two as it is worth it just to watch refn's reach exceed his grasp. it is beautifully shot with the added bonus of a demanding incongruity between what you sometimes see onscreen and sound design elements. it is, i think, a challenge to the viewer in the best way. you have to put the work in for this one. you are left with a lot of time to consider the nasty, brutish and short circumstances of this life in between bursts of violence that are both astounding and a simple fact of this man's daily life. in you are a fan of the meditative takes on man versus nature and man versus man from the likes of herzog, tarkovsky and malick then you owe it to yourself to see this. if you are interested in where film is going in the near future you should also give it a look. refn is one of the most exciting filmmakers in the last several years. when he makes his masterpiece it is going to be something all of us remember. get in on it now.


cover me

during the course of an average workday i see a lot of dvd cover art. today i saw one that i think we need to talk about - the clint eastwood vehicle any which way you can (1980).

i saw this movie in its initial run at my beloved redskin theater in anadarko, oklahoma. i haven't thought about it much in the interim. the artwork on this cover is from the original poster, which i also don't really remember, which seems strange looking at this now because it is complete madness. to better illustrate my point, let's do this. imagine this image free of anything to contextualize it for you.

take your time. soak it in. pretend for a moment that you come from a time and place with no inkling of clint eastwood and his mythology. what are we to glean of the narrative from this artwork?

the main character appears to be this craggy faced, flinty eyed hawk-man who has a fondness for highlights in his tousled hair. perhaps he spends so much time at the salon in an effort to distract our attention from the fact the he apparently has a disproportionately large fist growing out of his sternum. i think that's why he appears to be so angry. a good hairdresser is hard to find and, while he can hold a mug of delicious hot chocolate with his chestfist, he cannot effectively drink it without spilling everywhere and making an absolute fool of himself. at first glance, he would appear to be menacing us but the motion lines actually suggest he is sliding rapidly by us in space, perhaps also in time, which seems like a neat power to have and sort of makes up for the chestfist thing.

the angry hawk-man-god appears to be worshipped by a puzzling assembly who all seem to be longing for relief in some way. reverend jim from the television series taxi appears to both love and fear him. perhaps he is the hawk-man-god's trusted right hand man, which would account for his place at the top of this bizarre totem pole. his furtive glance suggests to me he has possibly embezzled funds.

the cross-eyed blonde angel who visits him in dreams can only speak in dolphin-like squeaks. while appearing to be a woman, the angel is actually sexless.

the village crone is the lone soul who dares to defy the hawk. she appeals to the orangutan god for succor in her hour of need but it turns out it is just a regular orangutan who is wise to the fact that he gets better food if he lets her believe he is a god. she is crushed for her blasphemy. the orangutan has to find another sucker. not a problem, for the orangutan is personality plus!

in an obvious nod to rosey grier and ray milland in the thing with two heads (1972), in the final reel the hawk engages in an epic battle with a two headed monster, one which has horns like a minotaur, the other of which appears to be casually eating a scorpion. very dangerous. using his time/space slide, the hawk prevails and chestpunches the monster into a pit of trucks and rattlesnakes, tragically crushing borat in the process.

as the hawk sits amidst the wreckage in the aftermath of this final battle, he is wracked with guilt over borat's accidental death. the ghost of gene autry appears to comfort him and sings him to sleep, which is also possibly his death. it is not entirely clear.

that's what it looks like to me, anyway.


he's got the look

hey! olyphant! do that thing you do like you're looking over the top of your glasses at someone, except you're not wearing glasses.



santa-graph, american

december is here and your holiday shopping clock is ticking. not to worry. i'm here to help.

for all of you who didn't get everything you needed on black friday/cyber monday, welcome to the vitagraph, american holiday gift guide for 2010. below are some of the best things i have come across this year. if you are short on ideas for the cinephile in the family, these suggestions might help.

for the locals:

if you're from austin, or someone you love lives here, you should consider a one-year membership in the austin film society. it's one of the most thoughtful gifts i have ever received. starting at $30, they are a bargain. you get free admission to their essential cinema series for an entire year, which showcases films from home and abroad that you will seldom get the chance to see anywhere else, much less on the big screen. you also get discount admission to their avant cinema and documentary tour series and to events at the alamo drafthouse and the arbor plus advance shots at premieres and other red carpet events. if you want to go with them you can get a pair of memberships for $50. if the recipient is a budding filmmaker you can also opt for the higher membership levels, starting at $50 for one, that include access to other AFS resources, eligibilty for fiscal sponsorships and more. support local cinema!

for the quiet type:

you may have already read my impressions of criterion's new edition of charlie chaplin's modern times (1936), their 3 silent classics by josef von sternberg and about our upcoming screening of buster keaton's sherlock jr. (1924) and fritz lang's metropolis (1927). if you have someone on your list that enjoys silent cinema like i do, i would like to recommend, in addition to the aforementioned titles, kino's three-disc set of louis feuillade's fantômas: the complete saga.

these five films, made between 1913-1914, mark the appearance of the first master criminal in cinema history. everyone that follows, from dr. mabuse to keyser söze, is indebted to the man behind this mask. this is the rosetta stone of crime thrillers and it comes with a couple of short bonus featurettes and two commentary tracks. who is fantômas?!

for the music lover:

ok, so if silence isn't their bag, dig this!

both the t.a.m.i. show collector's edition (1964) and the best of soul train recently hit the dvd shelves! the t.a.m.i. show, the holy grail of concert films, has long been unavailable in any version except shoddy bootlegs and this version has restored the beach boys material that was removed from the initial theatrical release. between this and the best of soul train, you get marvin gaye, stevie wonder, chuck berry, the supremes, the soul train scramble board, the jackson five, barry white with full orchestra (!), afro sheen commercials, the rolling stones attempting to follow james brown (the worst mistake the band ever made, according to keith richards) and sweet don cornelius action.

you'd be a fool not to get this.

for the explorer:

these won't be for everyone, but if you have someone with more avant-garde sensibilities on your list, these are some of the most fascinating experimental film sets this year.

both eclipse series 19: chantal akerman in the seventies and by brakhage: an anthology, volumes one and two are simply amazing. these two filmmakers tread ground that most never come near. there is nothing safe or sanitized here. akerman is a perfect stillness. her camera is gently insistent, never wavering in its gaze, asking you to look and then look again until you begin to see through the mundane to the sublime underneath. brakhage, on the other hand, was moving in a million directions at once, filming it all, at times escaping the bonds of the camera altogether. he will make you reconsider what you think movies are and what they are capable of.

for the mistie in the family:

2010 saw not one, but three new mystery science theater 3000 collections arriving in stores (volumes XVII, XVIII, and XIX).

the special edition of volume XIX has this collectible gypsy figure in it. keep circulating the tapes!

for the bogart lover:

you have a couple of ways to go here. the essential collection has practically everything it. all the big ones are here - the maltese falcon (1941), casablanca (1942), the big sleep (1946), treasure of the sierra madre (1948) along with twenty others, not to mention fifteen full-length commentaries, fourteen historical featurettes, newsreels, cartoons, a book and more. if they love bogart, but don't already have all of these, this is damn near perfect. if they have a lot of the titles included in the box, or that price tag is too steep, a nice alternative is the commemorative edition of the african queen (1951). finally released on dvd this year, this set includes a second disc with the original lux radio broadcast with bogie and greer garson and a reproduction of katharine hepburn's out of print memoir of the making of the film.

for the criminally-minded:

the red riding trilogy is a grim and gritty fictionalization of circumstances surrounding the yorkshire ripper case in the north of england in the mid-seventies. among contemporary crime fiction, only the wire is superior. this universe of corruption, bureaucracy, greed and horrific murder is thoroughly inhabitable and completely compelling. if you prefer the golden age, turner classic movies just released the james cagney: greatest gangster films collection. in addition to white heat (1949), the set includes three other lesser known, but no less deserving, cagney pictures and is packed with commentaries, newsreels, shorts and featurettes that let you re-create the experience you would have had seeing these films in the theater. top of the world, indeed.

for someone you must like a whole lot:

this elia kazan collection has the heftiest price tag in this bunch but you can find it for prices that break down to less than $7 per disc if you shop carefully. it's almost worth the whole price tag just because it means america, america (1963) is back in print. if you have a serious fan of american film in the fifties on your list, this one will knock them out.

for the sartorially splendiferous:

any nitwit can slap a movie title on a t-shirt and call it a day. the folks at last exit to nowhere go the extra mile. with an eye for the little details, they create clothes for discerning movie geeks. ever wanted a shirt from the pub in withnail and i (1987)? well, you're looking at it. would you like to show the world that you are a long-time listener, first-time caller to adrienne barbeau's lighthouse radio station in the fog (1980)? they can fix you up. clever folks, neat idea. check them out.

for the reader:

film noir - the encyclopedia edited by alain silver, james ursini, elizabeth ward and robert porfirio is the book about film noir, as far as i am concerned. it's just a must have. it's great for hard-luck dames, two-bit gumshoes and anyone else with even a passing interest in the morally ambiguous world of post-war film. definitive. the new biographical dictionary of film - updated and expanded by david thomson is a different animal altogether. it is voluminous but not a comprehensive reference, as the title may lead you to believe. there are some brilliant bits of analysis and some equally infuriating. he and i definitely don't see to eye to eye on a number of the entries (tom cruise, akira kurosawa) but, damn it, he is witty and eminently readable. his take on richard gere: "there are times when richard gere has the warm effect of a wind tunnel at dawn, waiting for work, all sheen, inner curve, and posed emptiness. and those are not his worst times". ZING! half the time you'll want to throw the book across the room. every copy should come with his home phone number. either way, it's a great read and he certainly gets conversations started, and here at vitagraph we are all about that.

for the person who has everything:

check these out!

jon-paul kaiser took a bunch of mini munny vinyl toys from kidrobot and reconfigured them to be the seven samurai (1954)! unfortunately, these aren't available in retail stores but he does do custom figures on commission. you can contact him via his blog. he's in the UK and it's awfully close to christmas, so i doubt anything could be done for this year. it could be pretty expensive, as well. i haven't inquired about rates. but, if you have someone that this would be suited to, you can start working toward next christmas or any other special occasion. what would you have made? the universal monsters pantheon? the original ocean's eleven (1960)? the marx brothers? the dirty dozen (1967)?! how cool would it be to have a li'l lee marvin, charles bronson and ernest borgnine? a tiny john cassavetes would be just about the best present in the world.

well, i hope that helps. in the interest of keeping it manageable, there were tons of other things that i left off. if you'd like to talk about some of those, or add your own good ideas, please feel free to put it in the comments section. ho ho ho.