Death of a Lens man: R.I.P. Laszlo Kovacs

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 8, 2007)

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You know what “they” say- it always comes in threes. We recently lost two masters of world cinema, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. Then, on July 21, we lost someone with a bit less name recognition but no less importance. I am referring to one of American cinema’s most respected and influential cinematographers, Laszlo Kovacs. This week, we’ll take a look at some “must see” films from this craftsman’s prolific 50-year career.

Kovacs’ journey to the United States from his native Hungary plays like a nail-biting Cold War thriller. When the Hungarian Revolution exploded on the streets of Budapest in 1956, the young Kovacs, together with fellow student Vilmos Zsigmond, boldly documented the ensuing events with a hidden camera (on loan from their school).

The budding film makers then risked life and limb to smuggle the resulting 30,000 feet of footage across the Austrian border. Both men subsequently sought and won political asylum in the U.S. in 1957. (BTW, there is a forthcoming documentary entitled Laszlo & Vilmos: The Story of Two Refugees Who Changed the Look of American Cinema). The cinematography style of Kovacs and Zsigmond was quite literally borne from revolution; and it certainly revolutionized American cinema in the 1970’s with a signature “look”.

I’m not sure what his feelings were about this (or if he even cared), but in the course of his long and illustrious career, it’s interesting that Kovacs never once snagged an Oscar (although he was nominated a few times). His friend Zsigmond fared better with the Academy; likely because to tended to work on higher profile films, whilst Kovacs gravitated more toward artistic and/or independent projects (at least through the period leading up to Ghostbusters, the biggest box office hit he ever collaborated on).

Ironically, the final film that Kovacs is credited on prior to his death was a 2006 project with his old friend Zsigmond, a documentary that was produced to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution called Torn from the Flag. In an artistic sense, you could say that he came full circle.

For additional back story on the American film renaissance of the 1970’s, I highly recommend the documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (Kovacs is a featured interviewee.)

Here’s a  sampler of cinematic gems from Kovacs’ resume:

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Targets (1968)-Director Peter Bogdanovich’s impressive debut and the first of many collaborations with DP Kovacs. Bogdanovich created a minor classic with this low-budget wonder about an aging horror movie star (Boris Karloff, not such a stretch) who is destined to cross paths with a “normal” young man who is about to go totally Charles Whitman on his sleepy community. This film presaged the likes of Taxi Driver, The Stepfather and Falling Down in its implementation of the “disenfranchised white male snaps and goes on a killing spree” theme. A real sleeper.

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Easy Rider (1969)-Dennis Hopper’s groundbreaking directorial debut also put Kovacs on the map. The dialogue (along with the mutton chops, fringe vests and love beads) may not have dated so well, but thanks to Kovacs’ exemplary DP work, those now iconic images of expansive American landscapes and the endless gray ribbons that traverse them remain the quintessential touchstone for all the American “road” movies that have followed in its wake.

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Five Easy Pieces (1970)-“You see this sign?!” Easy Rider collaborators Kovacs, director Bob Rafelson and star Jack Nicholson were reunited for one of  the defining road movies of the 70’s. Nicholson fully realized the iconic “Jack” persona in this character study about a disillusioned, classically-trained piano player from a moneyed family, working a soulless blue-collar job and teetering on the verge of an existential meltdown. Karen Black contributes outstanding support as his long-suffering waitress girlfriend. Kovacs makes excellent use of the verdant, rain-soaked milieu of the Pacific Northwest. No substitutions!

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What’s Up, Doc? (1972)- Another Bogdanovich-Kovacs collaboration, this hysterically funny homage to Hollywood’s golden age of screwball comedies (think Bringing Up Baby) features wonderful tongue-in-cheek performances from Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Streisand. Kovacs works his usual DP magic with the luminous San Francisco locale.

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The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)-The Rafelson-Nicholson-Kovacs triumvirate hits yet another one out of the park in this intense neo-noir character study about a cynical radio talk show host (Nicholson) who attempts to save his low-life con artist brother (Bruce Dern) from himself, only to become embroiled in one of his sleazy schemes. Ellen Burstyn gives one of the best performances by an actress ever, period. Kovacs expertly wrings every possible drop of noir atmosphere from the grim, gray Atlantic City locale. A brilliant work of art, any way you slice it. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

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Paper Moon (1973)-The true test of a cinematographer’s mettle is how well they can work in black and white; and Kovacs passes the “shadows and light” test with flying colors in this Bogdanovich film about a Depression-era bible salesman/con artist (Ryan O’Neal) and his precocious young sidekick (40 year-old midget Tatum O’Neal).

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Shampoo (1975)-Sex and politics (and more sex) are mercilessly skewered, along with the shallow SoCal lifestyle in Hal Ashby’s classic satire. Warren Beatty (who co-scripted with Robert Towne) plays a restless, over-sexed hairdresser with commitment “issues” (Oy, having to choose one “favorite” between Lee Grant, Goldie Hawn and Julie Christie would give anyone such tsuris!) Beatty allegedly based his character on his close friend (and hairdresser to the stars) Jay Sebring, one of the victims of the grisly Tate-LaBianca slayings in 1969. This was one of the earliest films to step back and satirize the 60’s counterculture zeitgeist with the hindsight of historical detachment. Kovacs gives the L.A. backdrop an appropriately soft, gauzy look that perfectly matched the protagonist’s fuzzy approach to dealing with adult responsibilities.

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Heart Beat (1980)-John Byrum’s slightly flawed but fascinating take on the relationship between beat writer Jack Kerouac (John Heard), Carolyn Cassady (Sissy Spacek) and Neal Cassady (Nick Nolte) over a 20-year period. A well-acted character study, with great work by Kovacs.

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Frances (1982)-The sad story of how the bright, headstrong and politically outspoken actress Frances Farmer transitioned from a promising young Hollywood starlet in the 1940’s to a lobotomized mental patient, dying in near-obscurity is dramatized in this absorbing biopic from director Graeme Clifford. Jessica Lange throws herself into the role with complete abandonment, providing a compelling impetus for staying with this otherwise overlong film. Kovacs drenches this dark, tragic tale with a gothic atmosphere.

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Shattered (1991)-Kovacs teamed up with action director Wolfgang Petersen for this Hitchcockian tale of a man attempting to piece his life back together after suffering amnesia following a serious auto accident (or was it an accident?). Granted, this plot has been done to death, but the attractive leads (Tom Berenger and Greta Scacchi steam up the screen), taut direction and the dynamic lens work by Kovacs make it a worthwhile watch.

Summer of Darkness: Warner’s Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4 ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 11, 2007)

The summer of 2007 has been belly belly good for aficionados of film noir (guilty, your honor!). Recent DVD reissues include Criterion’s long awaited restoration of Billy Wilder’s cynical masterpiece Ace in the Hole, a trio from MGM including Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the WIndow, Orson Welles’ The Stranger and Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential (all three sporting transfers superior to public domain prints on previous DVDs) and now  there’s an outstanding  10-film set from Warner Brothers, the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4.

The real jewels among the treasures in the Warner Brothers box set are a pair of cult films that hardcore noir geeks have been itching to get their mitts on for years-Crime Wave and Decoy (both on one disc-it’s almost enough make me believe that there is a God).

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Crime Wave (1954) was directed by Andre de Toth, perhaps more well-known for directing stark westerns like Ramrod (1947) and Day of the Outlaw (1959). After languishing in B-movie obscurity for decades, this strikingly photographed, low-budget wonder has built a cult following over the years.

The story itself is fairly standard issue; an ex-con trying to go straight (Gene Nelson) is framed and blackmailed by two former cell mates (ubiquitous noir heavy Ted de Corsia and a  young Charles Bronson). Nelson’s character gets a shot at clearing himself by helping a homicide detective (played by a looming, toothpick-chewing Sterling Hayden) bring his blackmailers to justice.

The two main factors setting Crime Wave apart from other era B-movies are the meticulously composed cinematography (by DP Burt Glennon) and the ingenious use of L.A. locations. Although the decision to shoot almost exclusively on location was likely based more on pragmatism (budgetary constraints) than artistic vision, the end result was a neo-realism that makes the film seem less dated than its contemporaries. The DVD transfer is nearly flawless, taken from what looks like a pristine vault print.

I also send out major kudos to whomever it was came up with the inspired idea to pair up film noir expert extraordinaire Eddie Muller with the master of modern pulp crime fiction, James Ellroy for the commentary track. Muller’s encyclopedic torrent of fascinating trivia and savant-like grasp of All Things Noir is always worth the ride (I heartily recommend you pick up his book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir) and having Ellroy in the passenger seat is extra icing on the cake.

Ellroy is a riot; panting and growling his way through the commentary and acting like a perverse version of the proverbial kid in the candy store as he spots and identifies familiar L.A. locales. Most interestingly, he posits Crime Wave as a spot-on visual time capsule of the 1950s LAPD milieu that informed the backdrop for the series of crime novels  referred to as his “L.A. quartet” (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz). Fans of L.A. Confidential (the book and/or the movie) in particular will fall out of their chair like I did when Ellroy exclaims “That is Bud White!!” the first time Sterling Hayden’s world-weary, physically intimidating LAPD detective shambles onscreen.

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And then (hoo, boy) there’s Decoy (1946), which gets my vote for the closest thing to a David Lynch film prior to, well the moment David Lynch unleashed his first full-length feature film on an unsuspecting public. Featuring a truly demented performance from British actress Jean Gillie as one of the most psycho femme fatales ever (replete with an insane cackle that could de-calcify your spinal column at twenty paces), this mash-up of Body Heat with Re-animator defies description (although…I believe I just described it!).

Gillie masticates all available scenery as Margot Shelby, mastermind of a small gang of thieves, who comes up with an elaborate scheme to literally bring a former associate back from the dead immediately following his execution in the gas chamber (don’t ask) so she can put the squeeze on him and find out where he hid $400,000 (can’t call that a cliche narrative).

In order to get to that loot, Margot charms, uses and then unceremoniously discards a string of hapless male chumps in record time (the film runs less than 80 minutes). In the film’s most infamous scene, she runs over her lover, then just for giggles, backs up the car and runs over him again (remember, this movie predates Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! by a good 20 years). A must see for genre diehards who think they’ve seen it all.

Warner is selling the five double feature discs in the box set “a la carte” as well; but they list at $20 each. I would recommend picking up the box set-Amazon and some of the brick and mortar retailers are selling the collection for around $40 (averaging out to $4.00 per title) making this set the bargain of the year for noir enthusiasts.

Arise, Commie Pinko Hollywood Lefties: Reds (****) & The Internationale (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 17, 2007)

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Every time I see our illustrious VP’s mug on the tube or hear mention of Halliburton, I always flash on my favorite scene in Warren Beatty’s Reds. Early on in the film, the story’s protagonist, journalist/activist/Communist Party member John Reed (Beatty), is at a meeting of Portland’s Liberal Club, where discussion has turned to the current war in Europe (WWI). Reed is asked what he thinks the conflict is “about”. Reed stands up, simply mumbles one word, then promptly sits right back down. The word: “Profits”. The crystalline brevity of that answer blew my (then) twenty-something mind back in 1981.

Indeed, it is a testament to Beatty’s own sense of conviction and legendary powers of persuasion (or as Tom Hanks put it, repeatedly, at the recent Golden Globe Awards, “Balls”) that he was able to convince a major Hollywood studio to back a 3 ½ hour epic about a relatively obscure American Communist (who is buried in the Kremlin, no less).

As we know now, of course, the film turned out to be a critical success, and garnered a dozen Oscar noms (it won three, including Best Director). Almost unbelievably, it was not released on DVD until late 2006. If you haven’t seen it in a while, or have never seen it-you owe yourself a screening, particularly if you are a history buff.

Diane Keaton turns in one of her best performances as Reed’s lover, writer and feminist Louise Bryant. Maureen Stapleton (who we sadly lost last year) earned her Best Supporting Actress trophy with a memorable portrayal of activist Emma Goldman. Jack Nicholson’s take on the complex, mercurial playwright, Eugene O’Neill is a wonder to behold. And Beatty deserves kudos for assembling an amazing group of surviving real-life participants, whose anecdotal recollections are seamlessly interwoven throughout, like a Greek Chorus of living history. No one makes ‘em like this anymore.

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If you really want to make a “subversive” night of it, a certain rousing anthem that figures prominently in the Reds soundtrack is the sole spotlight of another recent DVD release. Blending archival footage with thoughtful commentary, The Internationale takes a look at the origins and historical impact of the eponymous political anthem, from its 19th century roots in the French Commune movement to Tienanmen Square and beyond, packed into a breezy 30 minutes.

Arguably one of the most idealized (and frequently misinterpreted) rallying songs ever composed (just the melody alone gives me goose bumps), the tune has been embraced by Socialists, Marxists, anarchists, anti-Fascists, workers and labor activists alike over the years, transcending nationalist and language barriers. The most interesting aspect the film examines concerns the bad rap the song received after it was “officially” adapted by the oppressive, post-revolutionary Soviet regime. Pete Seeger (a perfect choice, no?) emcees the proceedings, with support from historians, musicologists, and multinational participants (veteran and current) in some of the aforementioned movements. British punk agitprop troubadour extraordinaire Billy Bragg also makes a brief appearance. C’mon everybody! You know the words…

Whacking philosophical: The Sopranos coda

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 10, 2007)

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Well, this is it. After tonight, no more Sunday night dinners with Tony, Carmela and the, erm, Family (Hmmm…maybe no more Tony-we’ll know definitively by 10pm Eastern).

Whatever happens tonight on the series finale of HBO’s The Sopranos, one thing we can count on is this: It’s not likely to resemble M*A*S*H: The Final Episode (with the possible exception of the gunshot traumas). Let’s just say I don’t foresee a lot of hugging.

This mash-up of The Honeymooners with I, Claudius was a stroke of genius, and we probably will not see its like again anytime soon. Love it or hate it, David Chase’s epic mob drama has changed the formula of what constitutes a “hit series” and upped the ante considerably on TV drama in general. A 48 minute story arc just won’t cut it any more.

The Sopranos has weathered many storms since its 1999 debut, from initial accusations that the show was only serving to reinforce the Italian-American gangster stereotype, to a sophomore slump (Chase allegedly endured a paralyzing creative block getting the much-delayed and grumpily received fourth season underway), and most recently suffering a dramatic drop-off in viewership.

But despite the vacillating loyalty by viewers, the outcries from the PC police regarding stereotypes, sex and violence, and all the fan boys hand wringing themselves silly online over who shouldn’t have been whacked and who deserves to be whacked, one thing about the show has remained consistent. The directing, writing and acting has been, hands down, some of the best I have seen in any medium, whether it be network TV, cable or film. The Sopranos deserves every Emmy it has received and more, and I miss it already.

So what are we going to watch now on HBO Sunday nights? John from Cincinnati?! I hate it already. Somehow, the idea of a show centered on a philosophical surfer dude by the creators of Deadwood isn’t exactly grabbing me (why don’t they just call it “Driftwood”-because that’s all it’s going to be in the wake of The Sopranos, IMHO).

And the biggest question of all-what’s James Gandolfini going to do now? Will he face the “Spock” curse of being so indelibly linked with one particular television character that he can never be taken seriously in any other role? Well, maybe he could look to Bill Shatner for inspiration… wait a minute…that’s it!

Picture if you will: later tonight, after the final episode has been put to bed, Denny Crane and Tony Soprano are sitting on the balcony, enjoying their well-earned scotch and cigars. Denny turns to Tony and says reassuringly, “Don’t worry, Tone. There’s life after a cult series. Seriously.” Tony raises his glass, and with a sparkle in his eye, says: “Sleepover tonight?” To which Denny replies: “You don’t mean…’with the fishes’, do you?” Both men laugh and clink glasses.

(Music up, fade to black.) Adieu, Tony. Adieu.

SIFF 2007: The Life of Reilly (***1/2) & Delirious (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 14, 2007)

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This week, we’ll examine a pair of films that offer two different perspectives on the business we call “show”- from the inside looking out, and from the outside looking in.

The Life of Reilly is a new performance film featuring a veritable tour de force of masterful showmanship from a very unlikely source-Charles Nelson Reilly. Yes, I’m referring to that Charles Nelson Reilly, instantly recognizable by his flamboyant demeanor and propensity for catty zingers, and best known for his ubiquitous presence on the talk show/game show circuit from the late 60s onward (Younger readers may recognize him as a recurring character on the X Files and its spin off series Millennium.)

Reilly, who passed away in May of this year, once resignedly predicted that all of his obits would undoubtedly contain the phrase “game show fixture” somewhere in the lead sentence. Actually, it would surprise many people to learn that Reilly was in fact classically trained as a stage actor. It certainly surprised a group of college students once attending one of Reilly’s master acting classes, when they were unexpectedly treated to a lengthy but enthusiastically received performance piece (improvised on the spot), in response to a simple question: “How did you become an actor?” The incident inspired Reilly’s autobiographical one man show Save it for the Stage. Reilly had officially ended the run before he was asked to perform it one final time (in 2004) for this film.

Reilly runs the theatrical gamut, segueing from hilarious anecdote to moving soliloquy without missing a beat. He begins with a series of wonderful vignettes about growing up in the Bronx. Reilly had a tragicomic family background tailor-made for a stage show (an overbearing mother, institutionalized father and a live-in aunt with a lobotomy) and he milks it for all its worth. His mother’s favorite admonishment, “Save it for the stage!” becomes the teenage Reilly’s secret mantra as he begins to gravitate toward the boards.

After a promising start in “Miss (Uta) Hagen’s $3 Tuesday afternoon acting class” in NYC in the early 50s (you won’t believe your ears as Reilly rattles off the names from the actual roll call), he hits a brick wall when he auditions for an NBC talent scout, only to be bluntly informed “They don’t let queers (sic) on television.” In a brilliant callback later in the play, Reilly gets the last laugh when he recalls poring over TV Guide every week at the peak of his saturation on the tube, to play a game wherein he would count how many times his name would appear (including reruns). “I know I was once told I wasn’t allowed on TV,” he quips, “…but now I found myself thinking: Who do I fuck to get off?!” At once funny, moving, and inspiring, The Life of Reilly is a real winner.

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Our second SIFF feature this week is the latest offering from writer-director Tom DeCillo, Delirious. (Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.) DiCillo returns to the same sharply observed, navel-gazing territory he explored in his previous films The Real Blonde and Living in Oblivion, namely, pointed meditations on the personal and artistic angst that performers (and all those who take succor from their celebrity) must suffer as they busily claw their way to fame and fortune.

DeCillo regular Steve Buscemi portrays the peevish Les Galantine, a bottom feeding paparazzi who fancies himself as the heir apparent to Richard Avedon. We are introduced to Les in a scene that strongly recalls Martin Scorsese introduction of the desperate and needy autograph hounds in The King of Comedy; a group of photographers hurl insults and elbows at each other as they jostle for position waiting for a glimpse of the ridiculously named K’Harma Leeds (Alison Lohman), a wispy pop diva. We observe as Les establishes himself as the alpha parasite, shoving his way to the front of the swarm.

Also on hand is an aspiring actor turned homeless bum named Toby Grace portrayed with wide-eyed, angelic, erm, grace by Michael Pitt. Quite by accident, Toby literally stumbles into affording Les the money shot of the diva as she steals out a side door. Toby subsequently ingratiates himself into an overnight stay on Les’ couch, and, with the opportunistic instinct of a street person, proceeds to convince the initially suspicious photographer that he needs an assistant to help him get more of those page one tabloid photos (a job he will gladly fill in exchange for room and board).

To avoid spoilers, let’s just say serendipity (and a tremendous suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer) eventually lands the homeless Toby into a plum role in a hot new TV series, and a star is born, greatly complicating his friendship with the now embittered and still-struggling Les, who feels Toby is “his” discovery (Pitt is basically reprising the same All About Eve-styled character he portrayed in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.)

DiCillo isn’t exactly breaking new ground either, but he executes it with his patented blend of darkly comic cynicism, tempered by an occasional touch of magical realism. Buscemi is at his “lovable weasel” best here, and the strong supporting cast includes the always dependable indie stalwart Kevin Corrigan (Who?! If you saw him, you would say “Oh yeah-that guy.”) and Gina Gershon, who displays a real flair for vicious comedy as a cutthroat agent (her character is sort of a female version of Ari Gold from HBO’s Entourage.) Also look for Elvis Costello, as himself in a hilarious cameo. I wouldn’t call this DeCillo’s best film, but fans of “backstage” tales are sure to get some jollies out of it.

SIFF 2007: The Planet ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 30, 2007)

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This week we’re looking at The Planet, a powerful new Scandinavian documentary. The “planet” in question would be the Earth. The issue would be how we are methodically destroying it. Now, I know what you’re flashing on (and it has something to do with a former VP, PowerPoint presentations and a Melissa Etheridge song, right?).

Yes, directors Johan Soderberg and Michael Stenberg do trod upon much of the same ground that was covered in An Inconvenient Truth, but speaking from a purely cinematic viewpoint, I would have to say they execute their message in a less prosaic, more attention-grabbing manner. (Before I get jumped in an alley, let me say that I would recommend An Inconvenient Truth to strangers on the street, it is an important film, and Al Gore is a sincere and passionate crusader, but there is something about the man’s languid drawl that lulls me into a drowsy state of alpha. But that’s my personal problem.)

“The Planet” appears to take some visual inspiration from Godfrey Reggio’s classic observation on the global environmental zeitgeist, Koyaanisqatsi and mixes it up with sobering commentary from environmentalists, scientists and academics. The visuals are stunning, yet also distressing. Zebras and gazelles graze against the backdrop of a modern urban skyline, whilst a renowned wildlife photographer reminds us in voice-over that all those documentaries depicting boundless expanses of habitat untouched by human encroachment are just so much puerile fantasy. Kind of takes all the joy out of watching Planet Earth on Discovery HD Theater, doesn’t it?

One of the more chilling observations comes from geography professor Jared Diamond, who makes a convincing case citing Easter Island’s man-made and irretrievable ecological devastation as a microcosm of what is now occurring to the planet as a whole.

And it gets even better (er-don’t ask me about what could be happening as early as 2010).

The interviewees are all insightful, and they certainly pull no punches (viewing this film may be traumatic for depressives and those who have empathetic tendencies). In a nutshell? If we don’t change our present course, we’re fucked. And it will not be cinematic.

SIFF 2007: Monkey Warfare ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 23, 2007)

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Monkey Warfare, written and directed by Reginald Harkema, is a nice little cinematic bong hit of low-key political anarchy. The film stars Don McKellar and Tracy Wright (the Hepburn and Tracy of quirky Canadian cinema) as “off the grid” Toronto slackers Dan and Linda, who dutifully hop on their bicycles every morning at the crack of dawn to go dumpster-diving for “antiques” to sell on the internet. They live in a ramshackle rental, filled with the type of posters and memorabilia that suggest an aging hippie mindset, with a particular interest and nostalgic attachment to 1960’s radical politics.

The longtime couple’s relationship has become platonic; they interact with the polite diffidence of roommates making a conscious attempt to avoid pushing each others buttons. We quickly get the sense that Dan and Linda also have a stronger bond that transcends the relationship itself; perhaps a shared secret from their past that feeds a just-barely palpable sense of chronic paranoia tempered only by smoking pot. A lot of pot.

Panic sets in when their regular dealer is suddenly hauled off to jail. Despair quickly turns to relief when our heroine rides into town-not on a white horse, but on a bicycle (merrily flipping off honking motorists like Emily Lloyd in Wish You Were Here). Enter Susan (Nadia Litz) a spirited twenty-something pot dealer/budding anarchist who keeps her basket full of some heady shake she calls “B.C. Organic”.

When Dan invites Susan over to make her first weed delivery, she becomes intrigued by his extensive library of subversive literature. Dan, who is deliriously baked on the B.C. and flushed by the attention of such an inquisitive young hottie, decides to give Susan a crash course in revolutionary politics, which (hilariously) includes dusting off his old MC5 and Fugs LPs. However, when he loans her his treasured “mint copy” of a book about the Baader-Meinhof Gang, Dan unintentionally triggers a chain of events that will reawaken long dormant passions between himself and Linda (amorous and political) and profoundly affect the lives of all three protagonists.

Monkey Warfare is not exactly a comedy, but Harkema’s script is full of great lines, and the actors deliver them in that peculiarly Canadian deadpan style (I call it the “time-released zinger”). I also like  how Harkema cleverly makes political statements without being heavy-handed.  For instance, all of the principal characters (including a gang of eco-terrorists) ride bicycles. Obviously, Harkema is thumbing his nose at the oil companies, but almost subliminally.

There is also some basis in reality; the director partially modeled the characters of Dan and Linda on the real-life “Vancouver Five”, members of the Canadian anarchist scene who were arrested in 1983 for their links to several politically motivated attacks, including an explosion at a Litton Industries factory where a component for the U.S. cruise missile was being manufactured.

By the way, if you do get an opportunity to screen this film (outside of Canada), be sure to hang around until after the credits roll. There is an audacious scene tacked on the very end in which a gentleman demonstrates, step by step, “how to make” a Molotov Cocktail as he prattles on in (non-subtitled) French (the scene was greeted with some nervous titters, even though it is mostly played for laughs.)

At any rate, it’s certainly not something you see every day at the multiplex. According to the director, who was at the screening I attended, this scene has been censored by the Canadian government and must be excised from any prints that are to be distributed in his home country. (Welcome to our brave new world.)

SIFF 2007: Kurt Cobain: About a Son ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 16, 2007)

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It’s virtually impossible to live here in Seattle and not be constantly reminded of Kurt Cobain’s profound impact on the music world. Every April, around the anniversary of his suicide, wreaths of flowers and hand taped notes begin to cover a lone bench in a tiny park sandwiched between the lakefront mansions I pass on my way to work every morning. Inevitably, I will see small gatherings of young people with multi-colored hair and torn jeans holding silent vigil around this makeshift shrine, located a block or two from the home where he took his life.

Needless to say, A.J. Schnack’s new rock doc Kurt Cobain: About a Son (scheduled to open in select cities in August) has certainly been a highly anticipated film here in the Emerald City (ironically, it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last fall; I was surprised that the director, who took the stage after the film for Q & A at the SIFF screening I attended , wasn’t called out for this slight by any of the numerous flannel-wearing diehards in the audience).

The film is a reflective and uniquely impressionistic portrait of Cobain’s short life. There are none of the usual talking head interviews or performance clips here; there’s nary a photo image of Cobain or Nirvana displayed until a good hour into the documentary. Nonetheless, Schnack is holding an ace; he was given access to a series of surprisingly frank and intimate audio interviews that Cobain recorded at his Seattle home circa 1992-1993. He marries up Cobain’s childhood and teenage recollections with beautifully shot footage of his hometown of Aberdeen and its Washington logging country environs.

As Cobain’s self-narrated life story moves to Olympia, then inevitably to Seattle, Schnack’s POV travelogue follows right along. The combination of Cobain’s narrative voice with the visuals has an eerie effect; you begin to feel that you are inside Cobain’s temporal memories-kicking aimlessly around the depressing cultural vacuum of a blue collar logging town, walking the halls of his high school, sleeping under a railroad bridge, sitting on a mattress on a crash pad floor and practicing guitar for hours on end.

The film is almost an antithesis to Nick Broomfield’s comparatively sensationalist documentary Kurt and Courtney. Whereas Broomfield set out with a backhoe to dig up as much dirt as quickly as possible in attempting to uncover Cobain’s story, Schnack opts for a more carefully controlled excavation, gently brushing the dirt aside in order to expose the real artifact. And again, in spite of the relative dearth of actual visual images of its subject, About a Son succeeds in giving us a thoroughly intimate portrait of the artist. I also have to give a nod to the fantastic soundtrack (although Nirvana themselves are conspicuously MIA, likely due to copyright issues).

2 Rock Docs: The Devil and Daniel Johnston (***1/2) & The Mayor of the Sunset Strip (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 5, 2007)

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This week I’m spotlighting two recent rockumentaries of merit, both available on DVD. First up is The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Iconoclastic musician Daniel Johnston’s life story is a documentary filmmaker’s wet dream-a tragicomic Grimm’s fairy tale version of the American Success Story that plays like a cross between Dig and The Grey Gardens.

Throughout most of the 1980’s, Johnston’s prodigious output of homemade, self-distributed cassette-only albums went largely unnoticed until they were famously championed by Kurt Cobain, who helped make the unsigned artist a household name of sorts in alt/underground music circles.

Johnston has waged a balancing act between musical genius and rampant madness for most of his life (not unlike Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Roky Erikson and Joe Meek). The film recounts a series of apocryphal stories about how Johnston, like Chance the Gardener in Being There, stumbles innocently and repeatedly into the right place at the right time, amassing an ever-growing grass roots following.

Everything appears to be set in place for his Big Break, until an ill-advised tryst with hallucinogenic substances sends him (literally) spiraling into complete madness. While on a private plane flight with his piloting father, Johnston has a sudden epiphany that he is Casper the Friendly Ghost, and decides to wrest the controls, causing the plane to crash. Both men walk away relatively unscathed, but Daniel is soon afterwards committed to a mental hospital.

The story becomes even more surreal, as Johnston is finally “discovered” by the major labels, who engage in a bidding war while their potential client is still residing in the laughing house (only in America!). The rest, as they say, is History. The film also delves into Johnston’s childlike, oddly compelling drawings and paintings, which recall the work of the bizarre, posthumously discovered artist Henry Darger (the subject of an equally fascinating documentary called In the Realms of the Unreal). By turns disturbing, darkly humorous, sad, and inspiring, The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a must-see.

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The Mayor of the Sunset Strip is another worthwhile rock doc for your consideration. An alternately exhilarating/melancholy portrait of L.A. music scene fixture Rodney Bingenheimer, it was directed by George Hickenlooper, who most recently helmed the Edie Sedgewick biopic, Factory Girl.

The diminutive, skittish and soft-spoken Bingenheimer comes off like Andy Warhol’s west coast doppelganger, or perhaps the Forest Gump of rock and roll. Somehow, he has been able to plant himself squarely in the hurricane’s eye of every major music “scene” since the mid-60’s…from Monkeemania (he worked a brief stint as Davy Jones’ double!) to present-day (becoming the first U.S. radio DJ to break current superstars Coldplay).

While it’s “about” Rodney, the film also serves as a whirlwind time trip through rock music’s evolution, filtered through a coked-out L.A. haze. The ongoing photo montages of Rodney posing with an A-Z roster of (seemingly) every major seminal figure in rock ’n’ roll history recalls Woody Allen’s fictional Alfred Zelig, a nondescript milquetoast who could morph himself to match whomever he was with at the time.

Throughout the course of the film, Rodney himself remains a cipher; in one very telling scene he fidgets nervously and begs Hickenlooper to turn off the camera when the questions get too “close”. There is also a sad irony-despite his ability to attract the company of the rich and famous (and they all appear to adore the man), the fruits of fame and success evade Rodney himself. He drives a an old beater to his DJ gig at L.A.’s legendary KROQ; he lives alone in a tiny, cluttered hovel, where treasured memorabilia like Elvis Presley’s first driver’s license collects dust next to the empty pizza boxes. Which begs the question: Is he a true “impresario”, or  a lottery-winning superfan?

The film is peppered with appearances and comments from the likes of music producer Kim Fowley (whose whacked-out music biz career warrants his own documentary), Pamela des Barres (legendary super-groupie and former member of Frank Zappa protégés The GTO’s) and her husband, actor-musician Michael des Barres (who steals the show with some priceless backstage tales). Brilliant!

SIFF 2007: Mon Meilleur Ami (My Best Friend) **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 9, 2007)

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In French director Patrice Leconte latest film, Mon Meilleur Ami (“My Best Friend”), we are introduced to glum-faced antique dealer Francois Coste (Daneil Auteil) as he attends a funeral. After the service, Francois approaches the grieving widow and mutters a few perfunctory condolences. She doesn’t seem to recognize him; he explains that her husband was a client, then after pausing a beat, asks her if it would still be okay to stop by and take a look at a piece of furniture he had arranged to appraise for him before his unexpected demise. His faux pas (and the look she shoots him) tell us everything we need to know about our protagonist’s complete and utter lack of charm.

Later, at a dinner with clients, Francois tells his business partner Catherine (Julie Gayet) about the sad lack of attendees at the funeral, an image he can’t shake. Imagine leading such a pathetic, friendless existence that no one shows up at your funeral! Catherine seizes this moment to confront Francois about his own inability to connect with people, which he naturally denies. Flustered and humiliated, Francois accepts her challenge to produce a “best friend” within the week. Francois has his work cut out for him.

Serendipity leads Francois to the perfect mark-Bruno Bouley (Dany Boon) an outgoing cab driver who seems to have an effortless manner of ingratiating himself to strangers. As we get a closer look at Bruno, he seems an unlikely mentor; he is divorced, takes anti-depressants, lives alone in a tiny apartment next door to his elderly parents, where he spends all his spare time cutting out newspaper articles and memorizing trivial facts in hopes of someday winning a fortune on a quiz show.

Initially, Francois takes an anthropological approach; he observes Bruno with the same sort of bemused detachment that Alan Bates studied Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek. What is Bruno’s secret to connecting to people…to Life? In spite of his ulterior motives, Francois begins to develop a genuine bond with Bruno, leading to some ironic twists and complications. Uh-oh, you’re thinking-we’re going to learn Life Lessons about the value of True Friendship, aren’t we? (Cue the ABC After School Special theme…)

I was reminded a wee bit of another French film, Francis Veber’s 1999 social satire The Dinner Game, in which a group of snobs, for their amusement, challenge each other to feign friendship with an “idiot” and invite him to a special dinner night, competing to see who can produce the “biggest idiot”. And of course, the “idiot” gets the last laugh, and Lessons are Learned. (Apparently, the French adore “comedies” steeped in discomfiture.)

In his previous films, Leconte has displayed a knack for delivering compelling character studies that are wistful, brooding, darkly humorous yet simultaneously uplifting and life-affirming (his 2002 masterpiece The Man on the Train resonated with me in such a deeply profound manner that I have become emotionally attached to it). I wish I could say the same for Mon Meilleur Ami.

It is certainly not a “bad” film (even lesser Laconte stands head and shoulder above most Hollywood grist) but there is a bit too much contrivance in the third act that mixes uneasily with what has preceded. I would still recommend this film, especially for the wonderful performances. Auteil, one of France’s top actors, is always worth watching, and Boon delivers nary a false note with a funny and touching performance as the ebullient yet mentally fragile Bruno.