From The Creator of THE TAINT, Drew Bolduc Assembles SCIENCE TEAM!

Science-Team-2014-Movie-Poster

January 4, 2014 – On the frigid (yet I still believe in global warming) first Saturday of the year I journeyed with my friend Jeff Roll to Richmond’s historic movie house the Byrd Theater to take in a super secret screening of the latest feature from maverick local filmmaker Drew Bolduc, Science Team.  So secret was this screening that it had its own Facebook event page and was even announced on the film’s official website – http://scienceteammovie.com/. When we arrived people were already lining up, though some of them may have been there to catch the afternoon showing of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. Regardless, many had come to see Science Team despite knowing little-to-nothing about it outside of a cryptic teaser trailer released early last year. An opening card with white letters against a black screen warned us that what we were about to see was an unfinished screener cut of the movie intended for film festival viewing and the credits were not complete. I got a little charge out of that as those of us who ventured out of our toasty warm domiciles on this sunny but ice cold afternoon were seeing an early cut that might not reflect what the final version will resemble. Since Richmond has never to my knowledge hosted any Hollywood test screenings this was quite a privilege, though there were likely a few there who didn’t realize it then.

science-team-1

The first film Bolduc (pronounced BOWL-DUKE) made was the 2010 apocalyptic splatter horror satire The Taint; check out my review at EuroCultAV.com HERE. It was both one of the funniest and nastiest works of independent cinema to come along since the days when it was possible for a movie to get theatrical distribution across the country even without the benefit of an MPAA rating, such as the twisted and gruesome classics Basket Case and Street Trash. Though Science Team has its much-welcome share of unrepentant violence and gore Bolduc (who also wrote, edited, and helped create the music score and special effects) is working in a completely different genre this time. The Science Team of the title is in fact a secretive government organization with elements of an oddball religious cult – think S.H.I.E.L.D. meets the Church of Scientology. They even have a leader who is part Nick Fury and part L. Ron Hubbard, the wheelchair-bound lunatic Professor Dick Willington (Matt Chodoronek). The team’s lower-level personnel have a habit of wearing matching outfits and are usually seen doing calisthenics. When the world is threatened by threats from beyond the stars Science Team is first and only on the case, and they handle every potentially destructive situation with all the passion and ingenuity of emotionally distant bureaucrats who wouldn’t be out of place ignoring your concerns at the Department of Motor Vehicles. This is all spelled out in the film’s first three minutes, which resembles the mutant offspring of a one-night stand between a 3 a.m. informercial for that revolutionary new carrot peeler that will be available in a few months for a cheaper price at Wal-Mart and an employee training video made for Staples in the late-1990’s.

science-team-2

But a story like this needs an audience surrogate, and we get just that in the person of Chip (Vito Trigo), a struggling writer of….something….who spends his first moments on screen screaming accusations of adultery at his girlfriend (Suzanna Mancini) and smashing nearly everything in their apartment in a fit of rage. This sequence goes on for several minutes and perfectly encapsulates Bolduc’s offbeat sense of humor, draining certain moments completely of intensity until all that remains is bleak, awkward comedy. Chip, still encased in his bathrobe (as great men of popular fiction such as Arthur Dent and Jeff Lebowski were wont to do), piles his meager intact possessions into a box and stomps off to his mother’s house in the countryside to clear his head and continue writing. When he arrives it takes some time for him to realize that not only is his mum pushing up daisies – and I won’t say how for fear of ruining one of the movie’s funniest visual gags – but the alien creature responsible has taken up residence in another room. The extraterrestrial menace spends the entire film immobile, though that doesn’t prevent it from using its powers of telepathy to transmit hallucinogenic visions into the heads of Chip and anyone else who comes within a few hundred feet of its personal space. Chip calls the police for help (after dealing with a particularly sensitive 911 operator) but all they do is accuse him of killing his own mother and freak the hell out. One of them submits Chip to an inspired, possibly improvised rant about how he is going to rape him in the most comedic ways, or at least comedic-sounding. I would be hugely disappointed if this scene didn’t make it into the final cut because it had the preview audience running out of breath at times just from excessive laughter.

science-team-3

Just like that, our confused lead character is caught in a nightmare of government conspiracies and attempted alien diplomacy once Science Team is called in to deal with the problem. Leading the field research team is Joey Tweed (Richard Spencer); imagine every preening jock douchebag from 1980’s teen cinema rolled into one handsome but morally appalling package and given top-level clearance and you’ve basically got Joey. Ever the competent professional, Tweed walks into this comical horror from beyond the stars with great preconceptions of what to expect. As the story gets crazier those expectations are methodically shattered until things make about as much sense to Joey as they do to Chip, which explains why their climatic encounter is a bruising close quarters fight scene that I believe runs almost as long as the back alley brawl between Roddy Piper and Keith David in the 1988 John Carpenter classic They Live. There are multiple chases on foot that are more comical than suspenseful, some deliciously gruesome practical gore (overseen by Bolduc), unnecessarily loud arguments, and more. But none of those scenes can compare to the one where Chip, in his latest to flee from Tweed and his inconvenienced Science Team flunkies, finds temporary sanctuary with a friendly female neighbor. Things take an unexpectedly weird turn, and that is all I will say about that. Oh, did I mention the literally explosive finale and a wordless cameo appearance from Troma Films honcho Lloyd Kaufman?

science-team-4

The cinematography by William Robinette is very bright and takes great advantage of the claustrophobic interiors and the comforting countryside locations. Visually, Science Team is a great step forward for Bolduc, who also edited the film. The pacing of the earlier scenes might throw off potential viewers at first as it takes a while for the plot to come into play, but if you accept its absurd premise with unconditional trust from the start you will find yourself going gracefully with the flow. There isn’t a weak link in the cast, though special mention must go to Trigo for his fully committed performance as the gradually unhinging Chip. Despite his tendency to act more aggressive and violent than the situation demands you might feel a slight twinge of empathy towards this lowly man ensnared in a situation beyond his comprehension. Trigo will next be seen in Troma Films’ Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1, which also features Bolduc on visual effects duty and will be released on Blu-ray by Anchor Bay Entertainment later this year. Spencer makes a terrific, loathsome adversary with the perfect amount of smarm and charm. I would eat up more space just praising every member of the supporting cast. They are that good.

science-team-5

January is usually a pretty drab time to go to the movies unless you’re just now catching the previous year’s big Oscar contenders and critical darlings. The newer releases are mostly films the studios have already taken a loss on. After seeing Science Team at least it can be said that for me, along with everyone else in the audience who enjoyed it, 2014 is off to a groovy start. In the post-screening Q & A Bolduc said that the movie could hit home video by the end of the year once it has made the film festival rounds. This one is definitely going in my collection when that day comes because chances are I will be watching Science Team infinitely more in the years to come than any major Hollywood blockbuster coming our way soon. If you are lucky enough to have this spirited treasure screen in your town this year I triple dog dare you to miss out on seeing a film that will definitely be making my end of the year best list.

- Robert Morgan

Here are the first three minutes of Science Team, released as a teaser trailer early last year.

Posted in Film, Filmmaking, Reviews | Leave a comment

The Red Violin: A Feast for the Senses

The Red Violin poster

A Review by Jessica Lynn Norman

redviolin1

Musical instruments come to us from many different origins. They pass through many different hands, they experience many different moments, and they leave behind a lasting impression on anyone who once possessed these tools of magic. The film, The Red Violin, also known as Le Violon Rouge, is a film that was inspired by one such instrument. Antonio Stradivari, a historical violin maker, made the Red Mendelssohn in 1721. The Red Mendelssohn uniquely features a red stripe on the top right side of the instrument. Francois Girard, director of The Red Violin, made this particular instrument the focus of the film. In making the instrument the focal point, Girard’s film tells of the long, colorful history surrounding the red violin, and beautifully illustrates the effect it has on particular owners dating all the way back to Cremona, Italy in 1681, when the film’s red violin was created, to the year 1997, when the red violin was “reborn”.

redviolin7
One of the most intriguing elements the film features is its framework. The film’s sequence is made up of scene transitions between a French-Canadian auction night in 1997 and its different owner’s situations throughout certain periods in history. This story is weaved together by a tarot card reading done by the household servant for Anna, the wife of the violin maker, Nicolo Bussotti. Anna asks the servant, Cesca, to predict the future for her unborn child. Anna is worried that her age may complicate the birth. Cesca informs Anna that unfortunately she cannot predict the future for someone who is not yet born, but she offers to read Anna’s future by way of tarot cards. The cards that Anna draws, unknowing to Anna, do not depict her future specifically, but the future of the violin her husband is almost finished making. Anna and the child meet an untimely end shortly after the reading and a grieving Bussotti finally varnishes his last violin. The varnish he uses is mixed with Anna’s own blood. From that moment on, the instrument is supernaturally intertwined with the predictions Cesca had made based on the cards that Anna’s own hand drew. Thus, the story of The Red Violin begins.

redviolin6
The first card Anna draws is The Moon. Cesca confirms that this means a long life. For the violin, this rings true as it is donated after Anna’s death to a boy’s orphanage run by Monks in Austria. There, for over 100 years, it is played by the orphanages choirboys. Anna’s second card is The Hanged Man. Cesca says this is to mean sickness and that those around Anna will suffer. Kaspar Weiss, a young violin prodigy at the orphanage with a heart defect, is adopted by a violin instructor who is called to visit the orphanage and witness the boy’s talents. He takes the boy back to Vienna with him in 1793. However, due to intense practice regimens, his heart gives out during an important audition. The instructor was fond of the boy and has him buried at the orphanage. The violin, however, was buried with Kaspar.

redviolin5
The third card of Anna’s is The Devil, which Cesca describes as meaning that Anna will meet the devil and that he will entrap her with his talent and powers of seduction. “The Devil” comes in the form of Frederick Pope, an acclaimed violin player, who hears a band of gypsy’s on his land playing the violin; the same violin which has been taken from Kaspar’s grave and passed down through generations of gypsy’s for over a century. Frederick offers his hospitality in exchange for the violin. His compositions, inspired by his muse Victoria, help him gain fame. But when Victoria leaves to travel, Frederick becomes lost and writes to Victoria that he has stopped playing. Victoria rushes back to England only to find Frederick has found another lover as his muse, and in a fit of rage, Victoria shoots the violin, causing damage to the neck and detaching its strings. Frederick writes that he will take his life and leave everything to Victoria. Frederick’s servant, who is Chinese, takes the violin to Shanghai. He sells it to an antiques dealer, who repairs the damage and encases the violin on a shelf. The violin sits on the shelf for three decades.

redviolin4
Here the fourth card, Justice, comes into play. Cesca interprets this card to mean a trial and judgment will be carried out. In Shanghai, during the late 1960’s, Chinas Cultural Revolution is in full swing. A music teacher, Chou, is accused of teaching “bourgeois” music and is ordered to burn his instruments. The red violin is now in the hands of the daughter of a famed violinist who bought the violin from the antiques dealer to give to her daughter, Xiang, before the revolution. Xiang retrieves the violin from its hiding place and pleads with Chou to take it and keep it safe. He does until the day he dies. Many years later, some days after Chou’s death, Chinese police discover the man’s body as well as all of the western instruments he has hidden over the years. The Chinese government is in its present-day state at this time and they ship all of the instruments, including the violin, to Montreal for appraisal and sale.

redviolin3
The fifth and final card of the red violin’s destiny is Death, but Cesca notes that the card is upside down, meaning not death but “rebirth”. In Montreal during the year 1997, Morritz, and appraiser, is sent in by the Chinese government to appraise the items for auction. He immediately notices the red violin, being familiar with its history. He quickly executes a plan to purchase a copy of the red violin after concluding from lab tests that the varnish does indeed contain the blood of the maker’s late wife. The copy that is obtained is almost exact in every way. During the auction, all of the major players in the red violin’s history, from the monks in the orphanage, a man from the Frederick Pope foundation, an elderly man named Ming, who is Xiang’s nephew, and Morritz are present at the auction with a new addition; Concert violinist Ruselsky. Ruselsky also wants the original red violin for himself. He even plays it at one point, but agrees with Morritz, who insists that it is not the original. Morritz is unable to hide the fact that he had a lab confirm what was found in the varnish and Ruselsky feels that he was tricked and has rightful ownership of the violin. During the auction, Morritz switches the violins and puts the copy on the display, which Ruselsky wins with a bid of $2.4 million dollars. Morritz takes the original home to New York with him, where he intends to give it to his daughter as a present.

redviolin2
One of my favorite things about this film is that the item on display before the debut of the red violin is Stradivari violin; a violin from the same violin maker who created the instrument that inspired the whole film. However, the most beautiful concept about this film is that it is an international co-production film, uniting production companies in Italy, the United Kingdom, as well as Canada to achieve the films message. This kind of unity is rare to find incorporated in one film, and the idea of an instrument being the knot that ties it all together is not only possible, but surely exists behind any musical instrument in history. Music’s influence across the globe is real and powerful, as is a films influence. The Red Violin does a brilliant job detailing the effects of the influence of music on a global scale. Bussotti adding his wife’s blood to the varnish was a detail thought up by the director, which ties in perfectly to the film being weaved together by a tarot card reading done for his wife.

The Red Violin has achieved many accolades, among them the Academy Award for Best Original Score; credited to John Corigliano’s masterful compositions that add so much pure, human emotion to the film. The Red Violin is truly one of the most captivating and magical films of our time. It is sure to become an instant favorite for any music and/or film lover.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Legendary Mario Bava Invites You to Take a Swim (Clothing Optional) in A BAY OF BLOOD

ABayofBlood1

Let’s face it folks, when it comes to real horror that pulls no punches and takes plenty of chances no one does it better than the Italians. They don’t shy away from the good stuff, and by that I mean gruesome gore and sizzling sex. If a Mount Rushmore of Italian horror filmmakers was ever erected there are only three faces that could go on it: Lucio Fulci, the deceased maker of many a classic of phantasmagorical zombie horror; Dario Argento, maybe not the Hitchcock of the Boot (and a bit too preoccupied with filming his daughter Asia in the nude) but needless to say he took the giallo in visually and mentally stimulating new directions; but towering above them all is the late Mario Bava, not just Italy’s best horror filmmaker but perhaps one of that European country’s finest filmmaking talents.

From sordid tales of witchcraft and revenge (Black Sunday) to sweaty, lurid crime dramas (Rabid Dogs) Bava has conquered practically every genre of cinema and did it better than most filmmakers dare even dream. Not even his own progeny, son Lamberto, could follow in his footsteps. When Bava departed this mortal coil on April 27, 1980, two days before Alfred Hitchcock went to his final reward, his passing seem to have a greater impact on horror filmmaking in Italy than he could have possibly imagined. With the exception of Michele Soavi (Cemetery Man) few filmmakers have emerged since Bava’s death who could pose the slightest challenge to the man’s legacy. Without question there is only one Mario Bava!

ABayofBlood2

For those of you looking to get into the master’s work as I was a good entry point is his 1971 thriller A Bay of Blood. Alternately known around the world as both Twitch of the Death Nerve and Carnage, A Bay of Blood is a wildly entertaining cocktail of black comedy, gore epic, and country house mystery. Bava’s film is considered by many to be the first true “body count” horror. Even though Herschell Gordon Lewis’s early films such as Blood Feast and 2000 Maniacs laid the groundwork for modern blood-drenched hack-‘em-up flicks, A Bay of Blood established the formula that every slasher classic from Halloween to the Friday the 13th franchise ultimately adhered to in some way. It’s simple science: get a small group of people out to a rural locale isolated from the outside world and then dispatch each one in the bloodiest ways possible. But A Bay of Blood is unique among the films it inspired because even as it established the slasher movie template Bava (along with co-writers Giuseppe Zaccariello and Filippo Ottoni, working from an original story by Dardano Sacchetti and Franco Barberi) was tweaking the very formula cooking up in the laboratory of his imagination.

On a cold and dark evening the wheelchair-confined Countess Federica (Isa Miranda) is seemingly alone in her vast mansion by the bay. While wheeling herself through the house her husband Filippo Donati (Giovanni Nuvoletti) suddenly appears and kills the countess by putting a rope around her neck and forcing her out of her wheelchair, strangling her to death. Filippo’s pretty satisfied with his handywork until an assailant emerges from the shadows and stabs him. Real estate broker Ventura (Chris Avram) hears of the death of the countess and leaves for the bay to finalize his purchase of the countess’ house and property, unaware that Donati, the man he’s expecting to sell him the property, is also dead but nowhere to be found. Federica’s death is ruled a suicide after a note taken from her own journal is discovered by her body.

ABayofBlood3

More characters come out of the woodwork. Paolo (Leopoldo Trieste), an entomologist, lives in a smaller house by the bay with his wife Anna (Laura Betti), a fortune teller who also specializes in tarot readings (just like Alejandro Jodorowsky). Close to where they live is Simon (Claudio Volonte), a handyman and fisherman with his a mysterious connection to the countess and Donati. The dead Donati’s daughter Renata (Claudine Auger) arrives at the house with her husband Albert (Luigi Pistilli) and two children (Renato Cestie and Nicoletta Elmi) with an eye on a healthy inheritance. Duke (Guido Boccaccini) and his friend Robert (Roberto Bonanni) tear ass around the bay with their new respective girlfriends Denise (Paola Rubens) and Brunhilda (Brigette Skay) and break into Ventura’s cottage for one helluva fun night. They have no bloody idea what they’re in for because Countess Federica’s home and fortune are up for grabs and everyone involved has motive enough to kill in order to claim it, and they most certainly will. They don’t call this flick A Bay of Blood for nothing!

ABayofBlood8

Being a jaded horror fan who’s seen more than his fair share of dull slasher movies, I was genuinely surprised by A Bay of Blood. Smart, stylish, and very sexy, Bay is the kind of hardcore horror I like to see. Devotees of Mario Bava’s filmography tend to dismiss this film and they are mistaken for doing so because this movie is great fun for adult horror fans. Bava turns his distinctive visual eye on full blast and you can clearly tell that like great horror filmmakers from James Whale to John Carpenter he enjoys playing with the expectations of his audience. From the very beginning when we watch as Donati coldly murders his own helpless wife and then as we are now believing that this is the villain we’ll be keeping an eye on during the story he himself is brutally killed. That’s a pretty great way to start a horror movie! Now we have no idea what to expect. Watching this for the first time I sure as hell was hooked.

SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!!

You see, there is no one killer in Bava’s film. This isn’t about some mongoloid running around in a hockey mask eternally avenging the death of his mother. There are no summer camp caretakers burned beyond recognition hacking up horny teenagers with a pair of gardening shears. In A Bay of Blood the stakes are much higher. Bava presents us with a group of opportunists all with very good reasons for going on a bloody rampage. For some it’s about revenge, but for the rest it’s all about having their cake and eating it too. The murders are motivated mostly by sheer avarice and we have a sizable list of suspects to choose from, much like the mysteries of Agatha Christie. All we need is Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple to gather the remaining suspects together in the drawing room at the end and cleverly deduce which one is the killer. Imagine Robert Altman’s Gosford Park with bleaker humor and infinitely more violence and sex and you might have something close to the greed-driven mayhem of Bava’s Bay.

ABayofBlood7
The movie probably most indebted to A Bay of Blood is Friday the 13th Part II. The scene where the two lovers in bed writhing on top of one another are impaled with a spear was taken verbatim from Bava’s film but of course Steve Miner, the director of F13II, isn’t even 1/1000 of the filmmaker Mario Bava is and Bava never had to worry about bowing to the whims of prudish censors and Hollywood studio executives as soullessly avaricious as the characters in Bay. Another scene from F13II I noticed that was ripped off from Bay was the scene where Kirsten Baker’s character goes for a nighttime nude swim in Crystal Lake. Much like the impalement murder Bava’s movie does it best because in Bay the scene takes place during daytime and the voluptuous Brigette Skay is worlds sexier than the virtually anorexic Baker and there’s a dreamy erotic quality to watching Skay swimming nude in the cool, sunlit waters of the bay, even when Bava puts another dark twist on the scene.

ABayofBlood5

Serving as his own cinematographer Bava uses bright bursts of color and strange camera angles to heighten the tension and draw the viewer into the mystery. Even the ugliest, more vicious moments in A Bay of Blood are made into works of depraved beauty thanks to Bava’s painterly compositions and the art and production design of Sergio Canevari. Next to them the star of Bay is the standout make-up effects work by the renowned maestro Carlo Rambaldi, a true artist who has had one of the strangest career trajectories of any VFX master going from crafting the brutal gore of Bay and classic giallo such as Lucio Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and Dario Argento’s Deep Red to winning Oscars for creating the iconic creatures of Alien and E.T. Rambaldi may have ended his career nestled in mainstream respectability but years before names like Rick Baker, Tom Savini, and Greg Nicotero emerged he was creatively killing off unsuspecting victims on the big screen with the best of them, and his work in A Bay of Blood is first-rate and would prove to be highly influential in the years to come. Here Rambaldi is granted license to serve up a hearty full-course FX meal with plenty of meat and sauce in the gore pasta. The double impalement is just the tip of the iceberg because we’ve got dudes getting meat cleavers in the face, decapitations shown in grisly close-up, multiple stabbings, and a beautiful woman’s neck slashed with lots of the red stuff splashing across the screen. Plus I couldn’t forget that time-honored staple of the slasher genre, the scene where one of the survivors finds the dead victims lovingly displayed in the most convenient of places like a nightmarish art gallery exhibit. Even if the twisty narrative doesn’t hook them right off the bat, gorehounds will still find plenty to love about A Bay of Blood.

ABayofBlood6

The cast is a mixed bag of performers, but frankly that’s to be expected of an Italian horror film. The standouts include: Claudine Auger as the scheming Renata and Luigi Pistilli as her jellyfish of a hubby; Leopoldo Trieste and Laura Betti as the mysterious Fossatis; and Claudio Volonte as the instant suspect Simon. The actors playing the partying teens fare the worse as they’re no more or less talented than the punks you’d usually find cast as cannon fodder in slasher flicks but they do just fine under Bava’s direction, and did I mention that Brigette Skay was a major fox? If she was a president she’d be Babebraham Lincoln. In French she’d be known as la renard and would be hunted with only her cunning to protect her. She’s a babe, a robo-babe, and I’ll wager a hundred bucks that you probably never thought you’d live to see the day when you could spot Wayne’s World references in a review of a Mario Bava horror film. Party time! Excellent!

ABayofBlood4

A Bay of Blood is a movie that should be seen by anybody who calls themselves a horror fan. It’s not merely a watershed event in the evolution of modern horror, but a supremely twisted and entertaining flick with memorable moments out the wazoo. I love it, and so will you ya sick freaks!

- Robert Morgan

Posted in Film, Horror, Mario Bava | Leave a comment

Overlooking/ Looking Over Huston

johnhuston1

When director John Huston died in 1987 during post-production of James Joyce’s The Dead, filmdom lost its last reigning monarch—for Huston was the last of the Hollywood lions, harking from D. W. Griffith through Howard Hawks and John Ford. But if any made the screen equivalent of the “Great American Novel”, it was John Huston. He lived his life as if he were the most vigorous and most colorful character from that mythical novel, and it was Huston who successfully made over a couple of great American books– Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled classic, The Maltese Falcon (’41, WB), setting the tone for the noir-detective genre and creating the Bogie-cult in the process; and Moby Dick (’55 ), whose Ahab-Peck colored my vision even as I read Melville’s novel years later. His adaptation of B. Traven’s novel, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (’48, WB) is perhaps his version of the Great American novel, and says as much about American ideals and experience as say, Welles’ version of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, which preceded it by several years. Welles and Huston also both made their first features in 1941—both dark commentaries on the American dream—Citizen Kane and the aforementioned …Falcon.

johnhuston2
Yet unlike Ford and Hawks, John Huston was not simply a great American director, he was also the prototype of the new international director of the 1950s and 1960s. Treasure of the Sierra Madre (’48, WB) was the first Hollywood project to shoot the bulk of its length outside the U. S. (a location/studio version of Mexico that is still fixed in my mind as the true representation of the country) and during the fifties all of his films were shot and often produced abroad. It was Huston who would survive the studios’ collapse to turn out some of his most interesting films in the seventies and eighties: The Man Who Would Be King, Fat City, Wise Blood, Under the Volcano, Prizzi’s Honor. How’s that for a Hollywood Renaissance?

johnhuston3
Huston was a survivor of many things: falls while hunting foxes in Ireland, numerous affairs and a handful of marriages, angry African elephants, boxing matches, a constant indebtedness that sometimes forced his hand into film projects he had no heart for, a near fatal swim through a canal sluice that might have killed him as a boy. He survived the “auteur theory”–as dubbed by Andrew Sarris in 1962 in his interpretation of the French “la politiques des auteurs”–an aesthetic notion that posited the director as author, based on the foundation of a recurring style and thematic. He survived it by continuing to choose as film material stories of a disparity not usually found in the oeuvre of noted auteurists—before he mined the literary echelons of Joyce in The Dead, he’d also yelled ‘action’ on Annie, and after that turned actor Albert Finney loose in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, one of the most ponderously subjective novels of the 20th century. He shrugged off questions regarding style, since the style of each of his pictures had been determined by its content (from the steely look of Moby Dick to the coppery Moulin Rouge, in both the director battled studio and Technicolor to get the look he wanted) and location—putting the camera and crew in tough remote spots gave his films a kind of Hustonian authenticity. An extension of Huston’s combative personality was in fact his insistence on putting the camera in places where they’d never attempted to film before, an us versus the jungle, or desert, or sea mentality (i.e. his insistence on filming Moby Dick at sea necessitated a double decked rig, lost ships and mock whales, and insurance issues for cast and crew, but there’s so much of the book made visceral by the fact, the film virtually smells of salt).
No American director ever worked so hard to get “art” into his films as did Huston. He had a strong sense of composition and set-up and had sketched and painted his way thru hard times in Europe, was an art afficianodo; he had visited the great museums of the world, and could talk at length on Western and Eastern painting, and had a knowledge of pre-Columbian art as a collector.

johnhuston(a)

Despite an early life of being on the move, Huston got a good dose of the classics, and read widely all his life; as a boy he especially enjoyed the heroic, exotic stories of Kipling, and later professed admiration for Joyce, Flaubert, de Maupassant, Balzac, Dreiser, O’Neill and Heminway, according to biographer Lawrence Grobel. He would dabble in the theatre, and write a sort of memoir of his travels and experiences—bullfighting and the Mexican cavalry, his bumming around Europe—but his professional life would begin at Warners. There, as a writer, he learned the art of collaboration, for writing at that time was a group project—with credits often shared amongst two, three or more writers. It was on action and dialogue that Huston would hone his skills: for the blue-collared WB his credits include Jezebel, Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, Juarez, Sergeant York, High Sierra, and at Goldwyn/MGM, Wuthering Heights. Later, he worked the same way as a director—hunkering down closely with writers like Ray Bradbury on Moby Dick, James Agee on The African Queen, Truman Capote on Beat the Devil. But the one thing that unites these titles is not so much the writing or the camera as the desperation of his recurring oddball characters and the impish, wrinkled grin of Huston behind them.

John Huston During Filming of
Like most of his heroes, Huston was a bit of misfit, a rogue and a dreamer–self-imposed exile in Ireland as a gentried regular, disdain for the little bean counters of the studio yet needing those beans to support his extended familial obligations. He was addicted to gambling and horse racing (he once took a $40,000 advance on his next film to cover a bet in Vegas, flying roundtrip to SF overnite to get the money)—and perhaps it’s in this way that one finds the thread of the director running through the bulk of his forty-three films. It’s been suggested that Huston’s real art was the life he led, that his film output was but an avocation. Despite the tempests and the carousings, he managed to put his directorial stamp on the action-adventure odyssey, the caper, the detective noir, the dark comedy, the epic, and tackle some of the tougher adaptations. And that’s the half of it—he also acted in over 30 films, played Noah in his own adaptation of The Bible, was nominated as Best Supporting for Preminger’s The Cardinal, and who can forget his Noah Cross face-to-face with Nicholson’s Jake Gittes on tide pools and moral culpability in Chinatown? His documentaries produced for the War Dept. during WWII – Report from the Aleutians, Battle of San Pietro, and Let There Be Light - have been noted by critics and film historians. Yet since his death no major study of Huston has emerged (excepting Lawrence Grobel’s essential biography, The Hustons), no major retrospective mounted. John Huston’s films could stand looking over, before history overlooks his considerable talent and contributions.

johnhuston5
In Hollywood it’s long been fashionable to label directors—Capra, “Master of the Screwball”, Hitchcock, “Master of Suspense”, Wyler, “Master of the Long Take”, Welles, “Master of the Baroque”, Hawks, “Master of Any Genre”. It’s perhaps to Hawks that Huston owes the most—a no-nonsense style of camera movement and framing that centers traditionally on the action and the dialogue, and exploits the actors’ talents, depending on the tone and story need. Like Hawks he would try his hand at many masculine genre forms, but also romantic comedy–his screwballer was The African Queen – and like Hawks seemed to leave no visual trace of his personality behind. What was Hustonian (or Hawksian) were the characters and their relationships and a code of behavior that transcended gender. A Daniel Boone of filmmaking, Huston liked remote locations – he spent his last years living alone on Indian lands in Mexico, reachable only by boat. Like Boone he appreciated “elbow room”, and set his stories of uneasy camaraderie on a frontier of busted dreams, be it an urban wasteland or an alkaline desert.

johnhuston6

At Warners, Huston formed a friendship with producer Henry Blanke, which led to his first directing assignment, The Maltese Falcon (’41), a property WB already owned and which had been made twice unsuccessfully (in ’31 by the same title, in ’36 as Satan met a Lady). Huston’s idea was to minimally adapt Dashiell Hammett’s book, to lift whole passages of the book as it stood, and too excise the rest. The lean, constricted look and pace of the film are a perfect counter to the intricacies of the plot and the overly rich characterizations. The actors were almost all Warner regulars—Humphrey Bogart would get a break here, playing the tough detective Sam Spade after a near decade playing gangsters; it was a pivotal career move for the actor who would work with Huston five more times. Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet would also shine and the film would be a great success with critics and the public. In fact, Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade have become the archetypes for most of the detective films issued during the American film noir cycle of the forties and early fifties, and if Bogart did Marlowe, as in The Big Sleep, the crowd remembered Spade. And of course Roman Polanski and Robert Towne’s Chinatown (’74), with Huston as the leering, ultra-malevolent Noah Cross, is a Watergate-filtered right-to-the-source homage.
The Maltese Falcon is a movie that continually satisfies, even today—Bogart’s cynicism, Astor’s always fatal femme, Elsiha Cook’s Wilmer, and the final line and repudiation of the American pursuit of happiness, after half a dozen murders to acquire a priceless yet ultimately worthless bird statuette—“It’s the stuff dreams are made of”. The falcon was a fake of course—and there’s Huston grinning off-camera. James Agee and Pauline Kael considered it the best private-eye film of all time.

johnhuston(b)
During WWII, Huston, like most of Hollywood and America, was part of the Allied effort. Under the auspices of the Office of War Information and Frank Capra, Huston and Anatole Litvak produced three wartime documentaries – Report from the Aleutians, and Let There Be Light, the latter perhaps the most significant. A cutting-edge chronicle of veterans being rehabilitated in a military hospital state-side, using modern psycho-therapeutic methods, it was filmed with hidden cameras and microphones. At a screening for the Pentagon in ‘46, an angry general huffed, “He’s made an anti-war film, a goddamn anti-war film”, to which Huston sarcastically replied, “If I ever make a pro-war film, take me out and shoot me”.

johnhuston7

With the acquisition by WB of Maxwell Anderson’s play, Key Largo, Huston would work again with Bogart only this time with his new wife, Lauren Bacall, and the legendary Lionel Barrymore, old screen gangster figure Edward G. Robinson, and Claire Trevor as Robinson’s ex-babe, a role for which she took the Oscar. The film unfolds like a play, set in a hotel during a hurricane until the plot boils over into the Gulf, but what makes it work is Huston’s use of camera and his rapport with actors. Bogart, Barrymore and Bacall are adequate here, but it’s Robinson as the reptilian Johnny Rocco (who can forget his thick torso in a bathtub, surrounded by suds with a fat stogie in his mouth?) and Trevor as the singer-girlfriend that makes this a joy to watch. The ending is Hemingway-esque and owes a lot to Hawks’ version of To Have and Have Not; in fact, it could have been the ending to any of a number of Hemingway’s own stories.

johnhuston8
His next project would reunite him with his father–Walter, who cameo’ed as the skipper in The Maltese Falcon, and was one of America’s top stage leads– in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (’48), based on a book by the reclusive, practically nonexistent author, B. Traven. Traven, an exiled German Communist living in Mexico had produced an action-adventure novel, clumsy with political allegory. Huston’s version sidesteps the rhetoric that cluttered the book and concentrates on the dream of riches and the saga of odyssey. Treasure… is the basically the same story Huston always tells: a group of oddball dreamers striving for something ultimately unattainable. This plot thread runs from The Maltese Falcon through The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, Beat the Devil, Moby Dick, The Man Who Would Be King, Fat City, and certainly The Misfits. Huston again expanded the range of Bogart (as Dobbs, the heavy, a role he wasn’t overly eager to play), and Tim Holt was as usual, adequate in his way. But it was from his father that Huston got a great performance. The elder Huston was one of our stage’s legendary performers, but his film roles are remarkably few. Son John had him play the old timer without his false teeth, but Walter got his laughs when he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The film was shot by Gabriel Figuerora, and manages to successfully intercut the studio sets and actual locations, evoking a sense of Mexico both real and mythic. Noteworthy are the shots of the fist fight in the cantina – quite groundbreaking for the time, extremely striking in composition and cutting. One is struck by Huston’s (and some of this owes to Traven) sympathetic portrayal of the country and its people – the Indian peasants are honest and intelligent and proud. Both men had lived and traveled in Mexico extensively—Traven was married to a Mexican, and Huston lived by special arrangement on the seaside of native reserves in Las Caletas in latter life. In pre-production Huston tried to rendezvous with the mysterious Traven in Mexico, but was only met by his “agent”; later, Huston would insist that the agent was really the author in disguise! Also of note, the thousands of air miles Huston logged scouting locations—typical of his thirst for adventure and of travel. Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of our classic adventure-odyssey pictures, and one with more of a message than most. (It is not as some assert, a Western, but a protracted “caper”; by mere presence of Bogart as much as anything.)

MCDASJU EC006
His work with crime novelist W. R. Burnett on High Sierra would pay off again with the co-written The Asphalt Jungle in 1950. The opening shots are as grey and dismal as any noir cityscape and the plot twists tighter and tighter like a vice on the caper—a heist of half-million dollars worth of jewels through manholes, sewers and basement walls. Sterling Hayden played the hooligan hooked on the horses, Sam Jaffe the professor and brains of the outfit who had a yen for young girls, Louis Calhern the corrupt attorney who was suddenly short of cash, Jean Hagen as Hayden’s loyal love interest and Marilyn Monroe debuted as the naïve, sexy temptress who fondly called her keeper—Calhern–“Uncle Lon”. Cappy, played by Marc Lawrence outdistanced the rest of the cast with his nervous, sweating bookmaker, and James Whitmore did a nice take on the humpbacked diner operator with a real chip on his shoulder. The film seems almost formally perfect on every level; it’s only real weakness is the didactic DA played by John McIntire, ensuring the American public that crime doesn’t pay. Today it’s considered the prototype of the “big caper” film influencing later capers like The Killing, Ocean’s Eleven, The Getaway, and Reservoir Dogs.

johnhuston10
His next, also for MGM, was a pet project, The Red Badge of Courage, based on Stephen Crane’s Civil War classic; in which Huston cast authentic WWII hero Audie Murphy in the title role over the objections of the studio. He also cast GI-cartoonist/ journalist Bill Maudlin, and when he couldn’t shoot in Virginia (where the story was set) he shot on a California ranch he’d once owned. Though a low-budget novella of a film, Huston still tried for a type of naturalism, pointing his cameraman to Mathew Brady’s photographs and a bright, stark finish—it plays like a newsreel from 1864. After a preview screening, audiences and critics were unmoved and MGM proceeded to cut the film virtually in half. So what remains is one of those cinematic curiousities like Greed or The Magnificent Ambersons, whose duration was dramatically excised without the participation of the director. Huston couldn’t figure out what went wrong but in various biographies mentions it with fondness. It must be remembered that Huston was, like Maudlin and Murphy, in WWII and under fire with his camera crew—his sequences in Battle of San Pietro have a similar starkness, and cold immediacy, and his respect for Crane’s story makes for a very personal film. It would be an apt double bill with Jean-Luc Godard’s Les Carabiners.

1265746.jpg

Perhaps Huston’s softest romantic take would be The African Queen, which he co-scripted with the equally hard-drinking James Agee. It’s known he wanted a darker ending – the German boat torpedoed only after Hepburn and Bogart had been executed as spies. Producer Sam Spiegel was probably right about the ending though, as the film has gone on to be one of America’s classic romantic comedies, with conventional antagonisms between gender, class and world-view; plus it featured Katherine Hepburn, a natural screwball heroine. Shot on various locations in Africa and later wrapped on-stage in England, the woes of the production have been widely documented—the boat was a big problem, the weather, and Huston’s insistence on combining business with pleasure, i.e. big game hunting. Eastwood’s White Hunter, Black Heart, based on a script by Huston confidante Anthony Veilier, is probably as close to the drama -and for Huston, one suspects the drama in real life was keenly important – and the truth as any other account. The fact is that Hepburn herself went hunting at least once with the director and that Huston had accidentally endangered his hunting companions, hoping for the big score. Bogart was anxious to get out of the jungle and back to civilization and the studio, where he could film the leech sequence with fakes in a tank. Huston continued however to tease Bogart that the scene needed real leeches to succeed, to the point that Bogart threatened to walk off set.

johnhuston12
Who would you hire to write a script based on Moby Dick? Perhaps one of the best young sci-fi writers around, say Ray Bradbury? So he had Bradbury (who refused to fly) take a boat to London where he would hammer out a half-dozen screenplays. Huston had his hands full dealing with logistics – i.e., Huston insisted on filming on an actual sailing ship which necessitated a double decking, one for camera and the upper for actors, and his running battle with Technicolor for a cooler (no reds or yellows) palette. The casting of Ahab initially had some resistance, but now it’s hard to imagine anyone but Gregory Peck in the role – and he has several commanding moments, as when he nails the gold doubloon to the mast, or as he goes twirling off to oblivion ensnared by his own harpoon to the whale’s hide. Orson Welles has a powerful cameo as Father Mapple preaching from the pulpit-bow, and one of Huston’s old cronies, Count Friedrich Ledebur plays Quuequog quite convincingly. Richard Basehart however, as narrator Ishmael, is clearly too old to play the part, and seems as out of place as he did in Fellini’s La Strada; born in 1914, he was forty-two years old and actually two years older than Gregory Peck. The cinematographer was Oswald Morris of the BSC, and it was his dedication, along with the director’s that produced a look as icy and as dispassionate as Melville’s voice. The film came in finally at $4.5 million, fifty percent over budget, but the reviews were stellar – Newsweek called it “one of the greatest pictures of the decade, if not the century”. These accolades were nothing new; Huston had been garnering great reviews for the past decade and more.

johnhuston13
Unfortunately, his next four pictures, in the last half of the 1950s, would represent a downturn in his career, capped by a particularly disastrous picture with John Wayne, The Barbarian and the Geisha. Huston frequently clashed with The Duke, who had his own ideas about script and camera, and was being paid nearly $750,000 to star. Huston, with his usual ambiguous direction, and constant rewriting, drove Wayne nuts. Originally scripted as The Townsend Harrison Story, the title was changed by Fox before release, and disowned by Huston.

johnhuston14
In the late fifties, Huston read an Arthur Miller story about washed up contemporary cowboys who made extra cash by mustanging wild horses for the dog food factory. At the time, Miller, along with Tennessee Williams (with whom Huston would work on Night of the Iguana in a few years), were America’s most important playwrights, and the collaborative possibilities intrigued Huston. (Note: he’d also recently met with the esteemed existential writer/philosopher Jean-Paul Satre about a script on Sigmund Freud, and now he could be working with Miller.) So Miller went to Ireland and came up with the initial script for The Misfits, after Huston clarified his characters as misfits, anti-heroic types who refused to sell-out. Miller’s script would arguably give his wife, Marilyn Monroe, and Clark Gable, their finest roles. It would also be their final roles. The shoot was rife with tension from the onset since Miller was losing Monroe, and Monroe was ever dependent on her acting coach, Paula Strasberg, wife of method guru Lee Strasberg. Strasberg, dressed in long black robes and pointed hats, stood off-camera during every shot Monroe was in, infuriating Huston. He complained that Monroe was taking all her cues from Strasberg, while Gable was forced to wait hours in the hot desert sun for Monroe to finally emerge from her dressing trailer. Expectations were high based on the assembled cast, and everything Monroe did was news—the entire production was under scrutiny by one publication or another—so Huston hit the gambling casinos by night. Yet what came out of it was a fine, fine picture. For Huston, he’d stumbled back into his old magic, no matter how tough the production nor the acrimony on and off set, there’s always the possibility that what you were doing was worthwhile. Like every Huston film, the actors sparkled, veterans all, with Thelma Ritter’s performance as memorable as the leads, and Monroe’s hair shone bright platinum against the desert night in Russell Metty’s photography. Huston had shot the film chronologically nurturing the off-set tensions and pulling a performance from Clark Gable many were surprised to see. Going against the studio’s wish for a color picture to flatter the stars they’d lined up, Huston insisted on B & W, the color, he said, of “waste” (at $4 million, it was the most expensive B & W film ever, mostly due to star salaries. The B & W also reinforces the film’s connection to Stroheim’s Greed, the desert setting certainly but more to the point that characters at the edge/end of the frontier in both tales are desperate!). Westerns then were big-budget color epics, and Huston and Miller knew what they had was a smaller, character-driven story, a post-Western look at say, Ford’s Ethan Edwards, from The Searchers, finally ready to settle down, if he could have only met Monroe’s character about eighty years earlier. There’s a leanness, and a meanness and an aura of defeated sadness in The Misfits, a feeling that anticipates Ritt’s Hud with Paul Newman (also in B & W). Both chronicle the demise of the Western male in terms of domesticity, both display a bitterness and a resignation at the prospect of “Western life” in the future, both end with “new beginnings”. Gable was proud of doing most of the stunts himself – when asked how fast to drag Gable behind the stunt truck resembling a runaway mustang, Huston supposedly responded, “why 30-35 mph”, as fast as a horse gallops. No one knew more about horses than Huston, who’d broken his leg just months earlier in a fall during a hunt in Ireland. Clark Gable would die just weeks later of a heart attack, exacerbated by his drinking and smoking, and some said, the rigors of the The Misfits shoot. Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe divorced shortly after; Marilyn, who’d gotten her first role in Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle in 1950, died in 1960 before playing in another picture, but she’d saved her best for last.

johnhuston15
A short while later, Huston would hook up with a Tennessee Williams story, Night of the Iguana, about an ex-New England minister turned tour guide in Mexico. Huston had been spending time there since his youth and knew and loved the country. The film would be a wild bus ride with Huston as the driver and Richard Burton as the defrocked master of ceremonies. Elizabeth Taylor would be there too as wife (supposedly to keep the hard drinking Burton in line, while shooting he stuck to beer), along with actresses Deborah Kerr, Ava Gardner and Sue Lyons of recent Lolita fame. Gardner had a great time as the hotel owner and for the naughty midnight swim managed to get over the hump with a few suggestions from the director, but Burton was the whole show, and his exuberant performance probably tickled the hell out of Huston. It’s not just the irreverence (Huston was a professed atheist), but the fact that Huston was an actor in real life himself, not just on screen where he was quite successful (an Oscar nomination for Preminger’s The Cardinal) but seemingly in the dramas of his life and career, where the sticky situations of Burton’s character had a precedence. Plus the reputations for living large, that he shared with the actor. Though Burton was Welsh, Huston saw himself as a kindred spirit having lived a great deal in Ireland. Still, the film has a feeling of spontaneity that was lacking in most Hollywood productions—because the wild bus ride was an actual, crazy wild bus ride, you are in Mexico not in a Hollywood back lot–it seems a film that somehow anticipates when everything studio began to break apart. The film would seem a companion to Under the Volcano, made two decades later; Albert Finney was also allowed to chew up the set and his fellow actors, as Malcolm Lowry’s alcoholic Consul. Yet Night of the Iguana (also shot in B & W) has an uncharacteristic, un-Hustonian balmy fecundity; maybe the warmth I feel for this picture has to do with the fact that my father considered Richard Burton the greatest actor of his generation, and that’s good enough for me.

johnhuston16
During the rest of the sixties Huston’s choice of work went in boundless directions, from The Bible (he played Noah) to Casino Royale, Sinful Davey,and the gimmicky The List of Adrien Messenger. In 1967 Reflections in a Golden Eye was released – its production had paired Huston with Southern writer Carson McCullers, who visited the director at his Irish estate. An eerie Gothic piece almost now forgotten – the film has the look of murky pond water and feels like its played underwater – a typical brooding role by Marlon Brando as an Army base commander with a fixation on another GI (his homophobic voyeurism echoes Psycho or Peeping Tom), Elizabeth Taylor plays the wife and, oh yeah, there’s a horse involved. The accents are not right, and there’s a heck of a lot wrong with it, but as a curio Reflections retains a kind of morbid fascination with its own tragic telling. And it’s probably more McCullers than Huston. Later, in 1979 Huston would film fellow Southerner Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, one of the most offbeat films of the entire offbeat decade.

johnhuston17

The success of Fat City and The Man Who Would Be King, one critical, one commercial, got Huston off to a rousing start in the seventies. Stacy Keach stars as a washed-up boxer who takes a kid (Jeff Bridges) under his wing in the washed-out looking Fat City (’72). The low-budget film has an atmosphere akin to a Bukowski saloon, with characters who are too worn down to get up and leave. There’s a brilliant scene at the end with Keach and friends drinking in a bar, and for a second, or maybe two, everything just STOPS – a crystalline moment for Keach’s character when he sees the depravity and broken promises of his life frozen on the end of his fork. A moment not unlike beat writer Kerouac’s analogy of a “naked lunch”, which was appropriated by William Burroughs for his book. It wasn’t a freeze frame, for the smoke was drifting. Huston claimed the idea just came to him, that the Devil inside him made him do it. Improvised or not, it worked beautifully. This picture, photographed by veteran Conrad Hall, put himself and his director on the carpet- Columbia was worried about the look of it, but released it as Huston and Hall intended. The finished film premiered at MOMA in NY and critics approved, taking note of Keach’s and newcomer Bridge’s performances. Fat City is one of the really great films of the seventies, a decade which would find Hollywood and Huston revitalized.

johnhuston18
Huston’s love of Rudyard Kipling was what kept The Man Who Would Be King (’75) project alive, that and the enthusiasm of actors Michael Caine and Sean Connery. Caine had nothing but respect for Huston and was thrilled to be working with him—his admiration went back to his teenage years when he had watched Treasure of the Sierra Madre at his neighborhood theater six days in a row. Huston found a couple of drinking buddies and Connery the role of a lifetime as the King’s sergeant, deluded and ultimately done in, by his self-promoted throne. Caine serves as narrator and royal sidekick, and a framing device attempting to tie the work to Kipling (played by Christopher Plummer) seems arbitrary and clumsy, but the thrust of the film is typical Hustonian tragedy on a grand scale. The film was shot in Morrocco (for India) and was one of the more rugged terrains Huston had ever shot in. It would be one of the last of Huston’s large-scale, commercial successes, released by Columbia, featuring two mainstream stars.

johnhuston19

In 1978 he would commit to a small-scale vehicle produced by Michael Fitzgerald, featuring the up and coming Brad Dourif (then a recent Oscar nominee for his performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) in the lead role. It was to be based on Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, shot on a shoestring of one million dollars, and would not only be one of the strangest films Huston ever made, but one of the real curios of American cinema.
The film was to be shot in Macon, Georgia, with a supporting cast of Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright, Ned Beatty and Daniel Shor. The script had been finished for some years as producer Michael Fitzgerald tried to line up the financing. Story goes that Huston told him he’d direct it for $100,000 if he ever got it lined up. So in the fall of ’78 atheist Huston found himself directing a film about religion again, this time featuring a Christ-like Hazel Motes who returns from the service to confront his fundamental Baptist past (Huston even played the bit of the grandfather preacher). As Motes tries to out-martyr every other “pretender”, he ends up self-blinded, with his chest self-encased in barb-wire. There was some rewriting evidently on the ending, and when Huston saw the final pages he remarked, somewhat surprised, that, “Jesus had won.” The plot itself (which features a fake gorilla and a stolen-mummified baby Jesus) is but one of the curious aspects of Wise Blood - the flat, drab set pieces which seems as timeless and unmemorable as the buildings in a Hopper painting, the tone of the film which veers from black comedy to outright farce and slapstick. Even the score is a little goofy. But underneath is the performance of Dourif, whose stricken look of hurt and outrage powered the film. Huston got another bravura performance from his lead actor even if he did not quite understand O’Connor’s novella. The finished film puzzled some critics, delighted others. Gavin Miller in the British Sight and Sound, declared Motes “the ultimate Huston protagonist. He manages to do what Ahab was trying to do in Moby Dick – beat the devil. But for the first time the Huston misfit drive himself, comically or tragi-comically, not toward survival, but to extinction”. I first saw this film in Paris in ‘79 where the line for Wise Blood was dwarfed by the line down the street for Apocalypse Now. Judging from their reactions the French audience loved it, and so did I. Still do, it’s way up high on my inner cult list. Even watching it now though, my laughs are uncomfortable, as if wondering if it’s OK to laugh. (footnote: Grobel mentions in his book, The Hustons, that actor Dourif had countered to screenwriter/ producer Fitzgerald that maybe Motes should’ve laughed at Stanton’s Asa Hawks character, instead of taking him seriously, that his performance would be less “flat”, and the film more “poetic”, to which Fitzgerald replied that that was what one got from author O’Connor, “there was nothing poetic about Flannery. It is as black and brutal as you can get”. Which explains the protracted deadpan that is the inner joke.

johnhuston20
Into the eighties Huston was as busy as ever—and would direct three important films—Under the Volcano (’84), Prizzi’s Honor (’85) and The Dead (’87). But first in ’82, there was Annie. Featuring child-star Aileen Quinn in the title role, it boasted a solid supporting cast with Albert Finney in a surprisingly good fit as Daddy Warbucks and tasty roles for Carol Burnett and Tim Curry. What attracted Huston to a musical? Remember even action director Howard Hawks had turned to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes late in his career, and for Huston it was perhaps a kind of challenge as his health was declining and emphysema had him attached to oxygen tanks. For a man who loved adventure and high risk, maybe Annie was all the risk he could afford to take. Perhaps he saw something very American in the funny page story of the the red-haired orphan girl who was a pop icon of the 20s and 30s, as well known as Mutt and Jeff and the Katzenjammers. And certainly there was the money. Huston’s mercenary choices of film vehicles through out his career certainly links him to the characters in his fictions. But at the same time, the movie worked, was a hit and still enjoys annual sales.

M8DUNTH EC002
Huston would team up with Albert Finney again in 1984 in Under the Volcano, with a script by Guy Gallo from the Malcolm Lowery novel. The collaboration quite likely enabled Finney to his best acting performance as that of the alcoholic Consul, who pontificates and reels into his death in 1930s Mexico. Once again Huston found an actor who he could let go on the set, and Finney was doing his best Burton, and again in a Mexican setting. Jacqueline Bisset flitted through the film as the Consul’s wife, and Andrew Stephens played the younger brother Hugh, but their performances are mere background for Finney’s revels. Gallo’s script from the densely subjective Lowery novel is nothing short of art itself, and Huston knowing a good script when he had one made the most of it. Still the ending is drearily final. Where was the one glimmer of hope, of ironic optimism, so much a part of earlier Huston films?

Prizzi's honor 1985 John Huston Jack Nicholson Kathleen Turner
Darkness, albeit comic, abounds in Prizzi’s Honor , his next film starring Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner as two smitten-mobsters hired to off one another. It had an excellent role for Angelica Huston too, who would get the career boost she needed from her director father and win an Oscar. Nicholson would go against character as the slightly-dim, Charley, his jowls and waistline thick with Jerseyese; and Turner, who’d only acted in a handful of films at the time, would solidify her comedic talents under the director’s tutelage. Nicholson, who’d had a long relationship with Angelica and was practically Huston’s son-in-law, was awed by the ease with which the director put the actors through their paces. Prizzi’s Honor was well-received: Huston won the NY Film Critic’s award for Best Director, and the film received eight Academy nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor. But it won only one—the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress went to Angelica Huston, and the father-daughter tandem everyone hoped for failed to happen. Nevertheless, it’s one of the director’s best efforts, and perhaps only Huston could fully exploit the sly, dark humor in Richard Condon’s and Janet Roach’s script (from Condon’s novel).

johnhuston23
By this time Huston was living alone in Las Caletas, Mexico, in a hacienda accessible only by boat. He spent his time writing a memoir, painting, mulling new projects. His health had worsened and he was no longer able to indulge his beloved cigars. Yet he pushed on—with an adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead, from a script by his son Tony, with a choice role for daughter Angelica, and a heavily Irish cast. Everything was coming full circle—Ireland, and the dark Catholic musings of Joyce on love and marriage. From the Dubliners collection, the fairly plotless story is set on Christmas day and climaxes with a confrontation between husband and wife; it was perhaps this commentary on fidelity that attracted Huston, or more a chance to be reunited with his children. His spirits were high, but during production work was halted at times by Huston’s emphysema, and his receding energies. Finally, it was decided that Tony would finish the shoot. Upon its release, The Dead brought in excellent reviews, making many critic’s Top 10 lists for the year. The old guy was going out on a roll!

johnhuston24
John Huston died on August 28, 1987 in Los Angeles at the age of eighty-one.
His directorial career spanned forty-six years; forty-six years of the rockiest in American studio history. Yet, despite occasional lulls, he managed to produce quality titles throughout that span, finishing strong with some of his best work in his sixties and seventies. The filmmakers Huston was known to admire were D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa; directors admired for the depth of their characters and breadth of their story-telling talents—to his private pantheon let us add one more.

- Mike Jones

(footnote: There was a film released in 1972, Never Give an Inch, directed by and starring Paul Newman, Henry Fonda, Lee Remick, Michael Sarrazin, and it feels like a John Huston film. It was based on Ken Kesey’s sprawling novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, the story of a renegade logging family headed by stubborn patriarch Fonda. It stands as Kesey’s contribution to the idea of the Great American Novel, featuring fiercely self-reliant generations, against the backdrop of progress and wilderness. The movie ends with Fonda’s death but with his amputated arm nailed to the logging boat, his dead hand formed into the finger, with son Newman grinning underneath those squinting eyes. The impish, rascally end of the film, as well as the characterizations, making me wonder if Huston had ever seen the script by way of Newman, maybe even discussed it. Paul Newman had starred that same year you see in Huston’s parodic Western, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, when director and actor got along famously, mutually enjoying the antics of Huston’s pet-dancing bear!) .

Posted in Essays, Film, Filmmaking, History | Leave a comment

The Brad Pitt-Andrew Dominik Double Feature Picture Show

pitt dominik

It seems Andrew Dominik’s two Brad Pitt films, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Killing Them Softly, are destined to be no more than footnotes in American film culture.  It’s a bummer.  Jesse James made only 4 million dollars domestically, while Killing Them Softly made only 7 million its opening weekend.  The failure of these films to find more of an audience is remarkable, especially since they feature one of Hollywood’s most photogenic and recognizable men as the lead and were not badly reviewed.  (Perhaps they don’t like the goatee/mustache combo Pitt sports in each?)  Despite these poor performances, I believe Dominik has made two of the best “violent” films of the last decade.  The heavy dread of death which Dominik manages to elicit is almost cleansing after so many other depictions of careless human dispatch.  The body counts are refreshingly low, and each death is meant to be felt.

In most violent films you’re allowed, if not encouraged, to forget a character after he dies. But Dominik works against that coarse amnesia, even going so far as to follow the remains.  In Jesse James, one man’s naked corpse is thrown into a snowy ditch, the camera lingering on his bluing skin amid the whiteness.  Near the end, the titular gunslinger’s form is literally put on ice and displayed for ghoulish fascination and profit.  In Killing Them Softly, we watch the internment of two victims in a morgue, where they are toe-tagged and slid into shiny silver walls. Perhaps most filmmakers would like to do something like this, but feel they don’t have the story time to do so.  Dominik makes the time.

04-jesse-at-sundown1

I wonder with a sick heart if audiences might have welcomed this type of approach if Dominik had picked more likable, “justified” characters to depict.  I’m glad he didn’t.  There are enough righteous gunmen—you might call them “designated killers”—who get free passes to maim and murder if a blood tie has been kidnapped/raped/tortured,  the country’s safety is threatened, or if their quarry is neon vile with a foreign accent.  Ripped, ferocious avatars for the audience, they are the player ones who get to avenge their formulaic injustices in the most vicious ways, decorating screens balloons-and-confetti-style with blood, fire, and noise.  But in Dominik’s films, the circumstances are mostly absurd, brought about by greed or sycophantism, the killing and dying done by men who are often slimy, cruel, and dishonorable.  But when they are shot through the skull at close range or when their chests are blown open by pump shotguns and they whimper and gurgle, the pathos is real. Before they are killed, they live and breathe.  They are people.

brad-pitt-jesse-james-casey-affleck-robert-ford-the-assassination-of-jesse_james-by-the-coward-robert-ford

In addition to the qualities mentioned above, the two films share first-rate cinematography and sound design, superlative ensembles, and two strong performances from Pitt.  They are very different films.  Clocking in at almost three hours, Jesse James has a mythic, mesmeric (some claim somnolent) grandeur, while Killing Them Softly is compact, punchy.

Jesse James is a dirge, a moaning depiction of obsession and hero worship.  The visuals supplied by Roger Deakins and score by Nick Cave work seamlessly to create a strange, lush, melancholy dream of the past.  Casey Affleck owns his role as Robert Ford, the man who infiltrates the James gang just before its dissolution and gains access to Jesse James as he succumbs to the paranoia and misery of life as a hunted man.  Their relationship alone makes me like the film, because it is so odd and uncomfortable and unclassifiable.  Does Jesse James keep Ford around to determine his viability as a threat, or does he like to loyal pet?   Or does he see all, and decide it is right that Ford should kill him?    The questions drift and echo and you are allowed to wonder.  Dominik has the taste not to supply the answer.

screenshot_00003

Killing Them Softly, the story of a mob enforcer’s efforts to find those responsible for a robbery at an illegal poker game, is the weaker film for two clear reasons: the use of music and the preponderance of references to the 2008 election.  In the first case, Dominik forgoes any traditional scoring and uses pre-existing songs instead, often using music that rings just a little too obvious in any active filmgoer’s mind.  Pitt, as the killer and enforcer Jackie Cogan, enters the film to the strains of Johhny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around.”  When one of the robbers shoots up, the sleepy guitars of The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” chug-chug-chug-chug into life.  The real sin of the film, though, is the absolute blasting of the viewer with audio and visual cues meant to connect the political and criminal spheres.  As these hoods go in and out of bars and cars, Obama, McCain, and Bush are all heard uttering their empty promises and pat phrases, to the point where Dominik isn’t just beating the drum, but punching his fist through the drumhead.

maxresdefault

Still, the film features brutally funny and depressing dialogue, and a layered vision of the mob that does, as Dominik knows all too well, smack of workaday life.  How badly a man should be beaten, the tendency of man to “get touchy-feely” if you execute him at close range, the cost of an outsourced hitman’s plane ticket—these matters are all discussed with the same tired obligation as expense accounts and overtime hours.  It’s all such a drag.  In brief instances you see the weight of all the desperation, greed, and deceit weighing on Pitt’s character, and when it comes to getting his money at the end of the film, he lets fly a barrage of hard, angry sentences about America that are as thrilling and satisfying as any action scene I’ve ever witnessed.  Killing Them Softly is so satisfyingly bitter that you almost miss the venom dissipating in your veins once you’ve left the theater.

Other recent films have treated violence with a similar gravity to what I’ve described here.  Some even won Oscars and topped the box office, but the ratio is still so lopsided.  Expendables 3 will be here soon enough, or Taken 3. The good guys will kill again.  But maybe try out one of Dominik’s films.  Drift into the limbo, where no one really deserves it, but it comes anyway.  Feel that feeling.  “You made a mistake,” Jackie Cogan repeats to a man he’ll be killing soon, and the camera hangs on his face, his lip quivering as he digests this.  He made a mistake and now he’s going to die.  He’s not a bad guy, but he made a mistake.  When he finally does die, it’s so sudden, so final, and you feel something.  You feel something.

Posted in Film | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Deep In the Woods : On the Set of Jim Stramel’s ‘Reviled’

Reviled

What better way to usher in the Halloween season than to take you on the set of Jim Stramel’s upcoming zombie pit fighting web series “Reviled”. It took me over an hour to get to the remote set in the boondocks of Powhatan County, Virginia . There in the back woods of an old farmhouse were signs posted telling a weary traveler how to get to the set. The trail went long and deep into the woods, but finally you get to a clearing to see what Stramel’s successful fundraising on indiegogo paid for. The make up tents, the spread of food, coolers full of beverages and the lighthearted feel of the place on a warm September afternoon.

Once I got there I saw that Jim’s wife Renee was applying the gore to Randy Boyer, one of the actors playing a zombie. Renee’s experience in gore goes way back to the early days of Jim’s reign as the kingpin of homegrown exploitation films like “The Thrillbillys” (2001) and “Degenerates Ink” (2010). Don’t sit to close to the screen, you might get some on you. I’ve known Jim for a number of years through my work with the James River Film Society. Jim has always felt comfortable in the underground; he would rather promote his flicks at Tattoo conventions than at film festivals. Plus he puts on one hell of a yard sale full of horror and B movie memorabilia .

Once I got to the set I saw a cage built from scratch . Jim said it took them four days to build it.

Reviled

Made from old barn wood, barbed wire, and straw, the custom-built cage also featured smoke barrels in the background and a few bales of hay used for seating the onlooking audience. Each zombie was equipped with a metal hook in his back to be controlled by their keeper. These keepers are controlling their zombie fighters with long poles with grappling hooks. Observing Jim and the way he manages his set was quite an experience. He likes to keep the atmosphere very lighthearted. Everyone is joking around. Jim lets his actors improvise their lines. But Jim is also a man with an eye for detail. Using a single camera he shoots the action from several angles, often doing reshoots to capture the light refracting off of a character’s hat.

The fight scenes take a long time to shoot. Jim was filming the zombie’s face getting raked along the fence in order to capture the latex flesh being rolled back in gory detail. He often calls upon Renee to do touch ups on the make up, calling out specific colors by name.

Reviled

The final shot is of the audience placing their bets on the carnage to follow. All the extras – myself included – were there shouting and cheering the fight taking place in the cage. Latex body parts were hurled out in the audience for comedic value, because after all this web series is tongue in cheek all the way. The zombies were being poked and prodded by onlookers. For a September afternoon it was 90 degrees out in rural Powhatan and I’m sure the guys in all of the zombie make up were suffering for their art. As the evening was approaching , Jim was losing sunlight. He knew he had to rush to get those last few shots in.

Jim told me ‘Reviled’ was making it’s debut at the end of 2013 or very early 2014. Keep an eye on the Facebook page for further details regarding“Reviled”, a horror web series not to be missed. Happy Halloween and remember try to to get any on you . – Jeff Roll

Reviled

Posted in Film, Horror, Internet, The Web, Zombies | Leave a comment

Déjà vu

A view through an iris, followed by a direct cut to a kiss. In 1957, it was Gene Barry and Eve Brent in Sam Fuller’s western Forty Guns. Three years later, it was Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Godard’s debut Breathless.

40 Guns 01 Breathless 1 40 Guns 02 Breathless 2 40 Guns 03 Breathless 3 40 Guns 04 Breathless 4 40 Guns 05 Breathless 5 40 Guns 06 Breathless 6 40 Guns 07 Breathless 7 40 Guns 08 Breathless 8

Posted in Film, History | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments