Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel” written by Mark Borchardt
Roger Corman had only one financial failure: “The Intruder,” a social issue film featuring of all people: William Shatner. Corman remains proud to this day of that early Sixties attempt at moral illumination and feels that it’s his best, most meaningful work. Shot in the tumultuous South, it concerned race and the citizens down there weren’t too happy once they caught on to as to what the film was actually about. He took a bold chance, withstood an increasingly hostile environment in that testy terrain south of the Mason-Dixon line yet, it was the only movie where it didn‘t prove a fiscal satisfaction. Bless his risk-taking heart, but Corman never went that route again and fell right back into the pattern of successful returns that he‘s most famous for.
A cinematic hero to so many, Corman had a winning formula: keep the budgets low-to-the-ground and the concepts high-to-the-sky. Westerns, rock ‘n roll, monsters, counter-culture all fit the bill. Add to that: sea monsters, biker gangs and acid freak-outs with a touch of gun-toting molls, juvenile delinquency, scantily-clad vixens, cars crashing and blowing up whatever he could get his hands on, on the cheap. He’s a template for maverick low-budget enterprise, a hero to those in the trenches of lo-fi filmmaking looking to crawl out and onto the larger battlefields of sustained success. Welcome to the wonderful world of Roger Corman.
Not only did Corman glom onto the current trends of the time, he also created them whether in the role of director or producer. He rode the wave of “Jaws” with “Piranha” and conversely his “The Wild Angels” led the way to “Easy Rider.” Corman, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were already in cinematic cahoots so it was successful inbreeding yet, Corman wasn’t affixed to the latter project and consequently never got a piece of that financially delicious pie.
And it was the amazing success of “Easy Rider” that opened the doors of Hollywood to the counter-culture auteurs and they were granted about a three year opportunity before “The Godfather” and shopping mall screens put the drop on that brief “anything goes” run. But it was Corman who continued on his own trajectory because he wasn’t beholden to Tinsel Town directives; it remained his money and consequently his way.
He knew his art house films but he also knew the marketplace so, he put two and two together and combined aesthetic vision with fiscal savvy. Even though his earlier films possess a garage movie mentality he upped the aesthetic ante with his half dozen offerings of Edgar Allan Poe interpretations. These were colorful, elegant offerings.
Jack Nicholson made his screen debut in Roger’s 1958 film “The Cry Baby Killers.” And Nicholson tearfully breaks down as he recalls those formative years when Corman gave him his start, and even got to write some of the scripts himself.
This 2011 documentary by Alex Stapleton also features onscreen appearances by the prestigious likes of Ron Howard, David Carradine, Peter Fonda, Peter Bogdanovich, John Sayles and Robert DeNiro. They all weigh in with relevance for the man. And Martin Scorsese’s succinctly observes of Corman’s work, “They’re art in another way.”
Corman truly seems like a nice guy as he possesses a smooth, even-keeled, everyday demeanor all the while being a steadfast master journeyman who has dutifully plied his craft and stayed within his own budgetary terrain. It appears he was never interested in the bigger leagues of the Hollywood dynasty, he was just fine where he was hitting homeruns on 42nd Street and on rural drive-in screens.
a few books on him and those would give any burgeoning filmmaker an advantageous view into the world of hands-on gusto and real-world attitude, playing it smart and having fun while doing it. He’s nobody’s fool and gets while the getting is good, locking onto the current trends, if not creating them with blatantly exploitative offshoot content and titles. Buy hey, he’s an exploitation filmmaker. And that’s what he’s best at, reading the marketplace climate like one does the ease of a cheap dime-store novel. He’s got his finger firmly placed on the pulse of what works and he’s successfully kept it there throughout his career.
Combining cinematic imagination and a smart business sense, Corman created a virtually unerring track record of filmic success. And most importantly, his films hold their richest value in the light of retrospect, providing for a rich tapestry of America’s below-the-radar terrain and the cinematic excesses of the time.
“Vernon, Florida” written by Mark Borchardt
Summer has come upon us. For many, it is a seasonal time to rejoice. For others, it is a year-round attribute in the location that they live; in other words, the warmth is nothing new under the sun. States such as California and Florida immediately come to mind and the latter one is where we find ourselves.
Ned Burgess, who served as the director of photography, provides clean, accessible images of this small town and its quaint, interesting inhabitants. These are the people we usually see from a distance as we’re just “passing through.” We never get to know their names, their circumstances, nor their stories. But this time we stop by and get to check in.
The first shot is of a small, battered road either leading into town or out of it, depending on which way you look at it. A pick-up truck creates slow trails of immense, billowing smoke behind it. Seems like some sort of fumigating going on. And that temporally extended shot sets the tone of a slow, easy feel to this film – just like its residents. The blinking yellow traffic lights of this one-horse town signify the lack of the finite dictates of a hardcore green and red. It’s just ease on through with leisurely caution.
If people are not born in a locale, then there is another reason that they live there. Usually, there may be the comfort of friends or relatives to settle by or the lure of employment; romantic as it seems, rarely does one close their eyes and blindly let a haphazardly planted finger determine their new homestead.
We first get to meet a retiree with his inexpensive house paid off. He’s come to reside in this laid-back town from the urban grip of Chicago. From his perspective, he got out while the getting was good. He’s an unassuming guy and later on, he shows us a photograph of a star and explains his good fortune of getting the shot: “When something turns out, you say, ‘Gee, I’m lucky.’” Good things can be simple things and he inherently realizes this.
An older gent asks us, “Ever see a man’s brains?” He goes on to explain the complexities of our own mental operating system as he exhibits a cacophony of hand and foot movements to illustrate the ability to do more than one thing at once. It’s a sublime sort of chicken-dance we get. Yes, it is those small moments in life.
But it can be argued that the real star of this film is a sleepy-eyed turkey hunter. We first meet him from the backseat of his truck with his hunting partner “Snake” as they traverse a dusky road in the middle of the boonies. There is an ethereal quality to morning twilight, an unbroken quietude as most of mankind is still fast asleep – save for these persistent guys. Our man is more than willing to discuss the science of turkey hunting to the nth degree. And we’re on board for every word, for there is a sort of hypnotizing quality to his obsession, and his soft droll. Snake, is mostly silent, but ever watchful, always listening for turkeys himself. They are backlit by the amber glow of the early morning sun against the lush green of the Florida foliage. Our hunter can determine the weight of turkeys by the depth of their footprints. Humorously, he lets it be known of an inconvenient ailment: “You hear a turkey gobbling and you forget about diarrhea and everything.” We also get to spend time with him on his porch, while behind him on the outside of his house hangs plaques with turkey beards and feet. His obsession is complete.
There are other denizens of this town that the film touches base with and among them we get a trio of elder gents comfortably sunk into a bench outside a gas station. An iconic, Rockwellian image if there ever was one. You may observe those seniors now at a comfortable remove but someday you’ll be joining them on that bench.
Essentially, these townsfolk are a God-fearing people and we even get to spend some time in a church service. We also find ourselves floating on ethereal waters with an old-timer in a boat explaining that God made everything as opposed to: “It just happened.” And along those Godly lines, another explains how divinity granted him a plot of land to build on and a $5,000 van just when he needed one. I have an admiration for those who are content with their assured connections to life. I’m sure it gives one a sense of place and peace.
I found one of the most endearing portraits occurring outside a repair shop as three men change a large tire. The mise-en-scene is of a basic, workingman’s realm; the beauty of the everyday captured on film, something in real life that’s usually passed over with nothing more than a half curious glimpse.
And so, the simple grace of “Vernon, Florida” reflects the simple grace of the lives it portrays. And these once invisible lives have been made manifest for all to see by the magic of celluloid. And it is a film, shot in simpler times – that is for documentaries. There isn’t any frenetic editing or hagiographic espousing. It is a quiet, dignified portrait both in its temporal quality and compositional study, serving as a relief, an antidote from the distracting bombast of contemporary offerings.
“Vernon, Florida” closes as magically as it has begun, this time drifting along a lake as our turkey hunter does a count of birds majestically perched atop high trees. He counts about three dozen in all, but lets us know that they are just buzzards. Ultimately, it’s all in the details. These may not be big stories but they are idiosyncratic ones to each of these lives. And without this documentary we wouldn’t have gotten to know some of them. Yet of course we’ll never remotely comprehend the infinite constellations of countless existences out there. We are thankful for what we get here.
In “Vernon, Florida” it is in the specific that we find the universal. So, as we gaze upon our maps this summer, at the thousands of towns throughout this country that we’ve never heard of, it truly becomes a waking dream of wonder as we ponder just who resides on those dusty back roads, those quaint main streets, those clapboard houses? What are their lives like, what are their secrets, their histories, hopes, desires, failings and achievements? All in all, what are their stories? Everyone’s got one.
“I Am My Films: A Portrait of Werner Herzog” written by Mark Borchardt
Werner Herzog is a cinematic mystic, a shaman of the silver screen whose restless and curious spirit has gifted us with the lush and unnervingly poignant imagery of his idiosyncratic cinematic determinations. His career has been expansive and he himself, has become a recognized and revered icon in the cultural zeitgeist.
There have been a number of films about Werner Herzog including the aforementioned and most famous Burden of Dreams by Les Blank and Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, also directed by him where Herzog loses a bet to Errol Morris regarding Morris’s completion of his reverently lauded Gates of Heaven. Werner literally cooks and eats a shoe ala Chaplin in The Gold Rush to atone his defeat. Even a fictive documentary entitled Incident At Loch Ness directed by Zak Penn emerged in 2004. It’s a cozy romp around the famed, moody lake with the alleged monster thrown in to boot. Herzog comfortably plays himself amidst the forced shenanigans, not falling prey to overacting or the like; and it’s a tribute to his renown and strength of personality that a contrived (and wonderful) narrative such as that was based around him.
The works covered in I Am My Films span 1962’s Herakles to Stroszek which was released in 1977. Along that timeline are amazing offerings such as: Even Dwarfs Started Small(1970), Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner and Heart of Glass where many of the actors Herzog had hypnotized. It’s a remarkable body of work in a short period of time. And as for The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner, that intoxicating opening shot in extreme slow-motion of the airborne skier accompanied by the haunting synthesizer score of Popol Vuh will forever stick with me. The same goes for the beginning of “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” where the explorers descend the steep mountains like slow, determined ants, and also accompanied by the musical enchantment of Popol Vuh.
In I Am My Films Werner’s primarily questioned in what appears to be his office. But he’s concerned that the interview is beginning to feel too much like a “talk show.” They get that resolved and move on. Herzog explains his love of maps; makes sense, the world is definitely his oyster – albeit, a cantankerous one. And that attitude goes for the documentary itself, for it possesses a gritty, and at times, murky look.
Herzog explains that he was raised in a small farm area in Bavaria and was pretty much given free reign from adults. He despised institutional rigors and being forced to read Faust in school made him want to vomit. He hung around with a group of kids, yet at the same time he was also used to spending plenty of time alone. And that comfort with solitude played out later in such episodes as a three week foot trek to Paris from his home land. He believes in engaging in the physicality of life, and that goes for his filmmaking as well. And he learned that art of filmmaking himself, hands-on; no film school.
Highlights of the documentary include a bemused Herzog playing a secretly captured audio tape of a hysterical Klaus Kinski ranting and raving on a film set. And then there’s an uneasy confrontation between one of the brutish lead actors (who appears intoxicated) and Werner Herzog on the set of Stroszek. Herzog dutifully but playfully stands his ground. Nothing more comes of this but as Herzog has reminded us, filmmaking can be a very physical process.
As for myself, I believe that the first Herzog film I ever saw was, Aguirre, the Wrath of God. And if memory serves me correct, it was from a video rental store in Cedarburg, a small town north of Milwaukee, an area lingering in the hinterlands of my own waking dreams. But first I came across a still photo of Aguirre in a film book: of Kinski as the demented leader, in a serious pose with his onscreen daughter, the iconic image of that film. It was a very dramatic, realistic portraiture, and that’s what indelibly hooked me. But even before that I had encountered Herzog in “Burden of Dreams” on 16mm at a university screening.
Back to I Am My Films. It covers La Soufriere, the title being of one of his documentaries and also that of a potentially explosive volcano. This is a threatening situation but it does not stop Herzog on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe where the impending disaster might take place. 75,000 citizens have been evacuated from the area but Herzog heads in the opposite direction right to the nexus of peril. In doing so, he sneaks through military barricades to get up close and dangerous. Ultimately luck is on everyone’s side for the volcano doesn’t explode. It’s amazing to think that our heroic filmmaker put himself in such a precarious crisis. But that’s his bread and butter after all.
In far more subdued worlds, Land of Silence and Darkness concerns people who are both deaf and blind. With next to nothing for money and a two man crew, one of whom is Herzog on sound, he documents this almost unthinkable life-situation brought to bear on those afflicted. It gives one good pause to appreciate one’s own fortunes: for nothing in life should be taken for granted. These challenged souls continued to make a go of it – shouldn’t we?
Stroszek is one of my favorite Herzog films, partly shot in Wisconsin and some of it in Plainfield – the infamous town where Mr. Ed Gein did his business.
In this film, a trio of disparate comrades flee the perils of Berlin to seek the solace of rural Wisconsin and our state’s landscape is portrayed as both an eerie and beautiful firmament. And for a few brief seconds, the film reaches spiritual transcendence with the opening melody of a mournful Glen Campbell tune as Eva Mattes cradles Bruno S. in a mobile home with wood paneled walls – a classic Midwest Americana is felt in this heartbreaking scene.
All-in-all, Herzog’s oeuvre contains a wondrous terrain of soldiers, dwarfs, high-flying skiers, rural landscapes, mountainous peaks, restless volcanoes and everything else in between. It is a dreamlike tapestry of fiction and reality – an uncanny admixture of the real and the realized. And it stands as an important cinema and one that recognizes that it is first and foremost a cinema and not at a forced remove from that fact. And it’s in this knowing engagement that gives Herzog’s films a unique vitality. Even though he admits that at times he manipulates reality in his documentaries for his own purposes, that does not dilute the overall experience of the matter at hand. And his fiction films stand equally strong as well.
Werner Herzog waves the wand of a delirious magician, frame by frame, an adept in the conjuring of cinematic intrigue and importance. He makes us think deeply about the lands that we trek and the people that we encounter. His alternate vision sidesteps the pedestrian, pulling back the veils of the preconceived and offers the world anew through the contours of an enlightened prism.
Each of us possesses our own singular adventures in the labyrinth of our psyches and within the throes of our souls; and fortunately for us, Herzog has turned his own internal wonderment outward and onto the big screen for all of us to revel in and absorb.
As Herzog emphatically states: “All I am is my films – I am my films.” And we believe him.
“Document of the Dead” written by Mark Borchardt
A black screen. Ominous, otherworldly moans permeate. Thunder crackles. But rather than opening on a scene of appropriate horror, we instead cut to Groucho Marx. He proclaims: “This is like living in Pittsburgh…if you can call that living.”
And so we start on an unexpected, yet highly idiosyncratic note. A localized note from Pennsylvania. That’s where George A. Romero, rightfully crowned “King of the Dead,” or just as appropriately, “Auteur of the Dead,” if you will – well, I just crowned him myself (I think) with those two titles for this article – has done his business over the years. And it is his “Dead” that are the true progenitors of the infinite invasion of zombies that we are now experiencing in all forms of media, most notably in visual and print manifestations.
I’ve been a devotee of Romero’s “Dead” films my entire filmic life. That is, “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead,” the first two and only ones for me. But horror itself doesn’t especially appeal to me, for life can be scary enough. However, with those aforementioned films, I’m talking atmosphere: that grainy film stock, stark grey skies, infinite landscapes of barren trees and the down-home dress of the people and the realistic locales. This is not costume laden, backlot stuff. And the essence of that particular reality will always be the attraction of those films for me.
So, it comes with great gratification that “Document of the Dead,” a film by Roy Frumkes (co-produced with The School of Visual Arts), re-enforces that atmosphere with a grainy 16mm look and a foreboding, monotone narration. This documentary came out in 1989 when VHS was still rolling strong. I don’t know when I first laid eyes on it, but it’s always been a treat to revisit throughout the years.
Frumkes is a “Dead” enthusiast and burgeoning filmmaker as well, and he and Romero stroll through the Monroeville shopping mall situated in the Pittsburgh area where “Dawn of the Dead” is being shot and talk all things “Dead.” Chatting amicably about the overall moviemaking process, in these interviews George Romero possesses a down-home, easygoing style that is infinitely far removed from the soul-dead slickness of a caricatured Hollywood type. Yet, he’s always passionate about his craft and his projects. And that easygoing attitude is reflected in his casual dress accented with the ubiquitous scarf draped around his shoulders and his equally present cigarette: he’s one of those guys who makes smoking look like a professional necessity as he laments about the continuous struggles with financing and censorship; inherent beasts in the movie making machinery.
Before this documentary gets too deeply into “Dawn of the Dead,” a major spotlight is put on “Martin,” the more well-known of Romero’s early works populating the interim between the two essential “Dead” films. “Martin” is a contemporary take on the vampire genre but instead of sharpened fangs, the method of attack is attained by that of an injection needle. Queasy stuff.
The low-key rendering of the narration by Susan Tyrell adds to the eerie nature of “Document’s” proceedings and the academic analysis of Romero’s cinema sounds like scholarly film school jargon – which one can get an intellectual kick out of. And that dry aural tenor is a delightfully detached but assuredly pleasing relief from the hagiographic syrup doled out by the gallon in documentaries these days.
Romero’s films “feel” like films. You’re “aware” of the shots, the angles, the editing. Just like Welles, the camera itself is a character in the over-all-experience, the mis-en-scene if you will. And he cites Welles as one of his defining influences. Romero’s cinema is replete with daunting close-ups, eerily canted angles, and jarring spatial juxtapositions. And the accompanying music that poignantly contributes to his movies are not obvious, acoustic annoyances, rather contributory essentials to overall atmosphere. In example, Goblin’s soundtrack for “Dawn of the Dead” is a haunting work of art and I’ve got the LP to prove it. “Night of the Living Dead” had library music, but damn, if that wasn’t totally effective in-of-itself.
Roy Frumkes falls into service as a zombie as Tom Savini makes him up as a member as the walking dead. It’s also a good time to get Savini’s take on things as the make-up master explains his gruesome craft and George‘s willingness to try various imaginative effects.
Director of Photography Michael Gornick explains the challenges of lighting the vast expanses of the shopping mall. And in a key strategy, he hit the books heavily on lighting technique, tightening up his knowledge on that particular science. The production got to use the mall only at night and had to clear out before the stores opened in the morning, so Gornick definitely had to know what he was doing. And during the Christmas season they shut down the production instead of removing the decorations every night and resumed shooting after the holidays in January.
In post-production, we see Romero editing the 35mm film on 16mm work print and using an upright Moviola instead of a flatbed Steenbeck. He really immerses himself in the tactile and wants to see those frames up close and in his hands. And he shoots a lot of film (it’s figured maybe 15, 20 to one) and then likes to figure it all out in the editing process. But ironically his shots don’t last long, for George makes a lot of quick cuts. He learned that tight velocity of craft as a creator of local commercials.
“Dawn of the Dead” was released without a rating (which would most likely prohibit a lot of newspaper, television and radio advertising) and this was a risk that most distributors would never have dreamt of taking at the time. And an X-rating was out of the question for them, it would only imply pornography, which didn‘t exist in this film. Regardless, “Dawn of the Dead” became an unqualified hit and enthusiastic word-of-mouth trumped any lack of conventional advertising.
And it was part of the midnight movie phenomenon and ironically I got to see it at a shopping mall. It was pretty surreal, to say the least, to come out of that cinematic intensity taking place in a shopping center and then directly entering one in real life in the middle of the night – one of the many pleasures distinct of an era more than three decades already in the past.
And if “Dawn of the Dead” was a metaphorical indictment of the soul-less, zombie-fied legions of mindless consumers roaming blankly through expansive shopping malls – that ain’t nothing compared with the catatonic states provoked by the exceedingly more widespread and invasive internet.
Neither of the “Dead” films had any stars, nor any recognizable faces for that matter, and that was a good thing because it didn’t take the viewer out of the films. And being immersed in those movies was a key element as the audience fought for survival along with their onscreen counterparts in the perilous journey to stay alive.
Over time, I’ve met Romero, Savini and even Judith O’Dea ( (Barbra – as in: “They’re coming to get you, Barbra.”) as she arrived at Milwaukee’s Avalon theater (now reopened and refurbished) on a stretcher from out of an ambulance. (Don’t worry – it was all in good Halloween fun.)
The original two “Dead” films have spawned many sequels and remakes. Personally, my interest and loyalty remains steadfastly in “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead,” both works of undeniable horror genius. And together they became an indomitable force in the realm of onscreen terror and the instigators of the ever-expanding and enduring zombie craze, a phenomenon unto itself.
But all-in-all, my vote will always go to the foreboding atmosphere and the cinematic art conjured apart from the obvious chills that those walking dead invoked.
“Anvil: The Story Of Anvil” written by Mark Borchardt
If Heavy Metal had actually died out, our boys in question in the fascinating documentary “Anvil: The Story of Anvil” (directed by Sacha Gervasi) would find themselves in an even more surreal state of flux. Fortunately there exists a steady fan base for the music and the ranks of the devoted are continually replenished with the blood of the young. The hard rockers in the cinematic spotlight here, the aforementioned “Anvil,” were at the crest of the head-banging movement in its formative years; they had a catchy anthem “Metal On Metal,” and for a while it seemed like all-systems-go. But the winds of fate had other ideas for them and their brief notoriety petered out before it could hit the shores of success all the while other Heavy Metal acts flew fast and furious over them and grabbed the body thrashing glory, leaving our boys from Canada unwittingly in the dust.
Two original members remain and they are the fascinating core of this film: Steve “Lips” Kudlow, the lead guitarist and vocalist and drummer Robb Reiner. They’ve been blood brothers from the get-go, having met in their early teens and have been rocking together since the late Seventies. Kudlow is a very enthusiastic fellow but at times it seems like he’s a one man army pushing the band forward – and he just can’t do it all himself as he still craves the fame and glory that has eluded them for so long. Instead of 24/7 rock star status, it’s salt-of-the-earth jobs now and a far cry from their glory days. Kudlow laments as he works delivery for a catering company: “For all this horrible shit that I’ve gotta go through I’ve got Anvil that gives me happiness…it gives me the joy and the pleasure that you need to get through life.” Amen to that.
Both are likeable gentlemen who are life partners in work and any hard-edged disputes lead to tearful reconciliations: they’re in it for the long haul. I felt a real sense of growing sentimentality and admiration for these guys. They really are into their craft and create a contagious sense of camaraderie that any one with a beating heart could ally with.
In the early Eighties Heavy Metal erupted onto the rock scene and it dominated that decade until it fell into the shadows of popularity as the likes of Nirvana, Sound Garden, Pearl Jam and others of early Nineties Grunge music overtook the scene. And for a while it seemed like Metal was all but dead. But truth be told, it never did meet its maker and it now resides comfortably as an enduring genre with a dedicated legion of followers. And those fans haven’t forgotten Anvil, they just have to be reminded that they still exist.
Anvil has all the talent and determination in the world but the proper support system just doesn’t seem to be in place. Attempts at renewed rockin’ life are made with such enterprises as a European tour which has plenty of good intentions but ends up with too many mis-firings. The multi-country five week gig financially yields nothing. Lips even attacks a club manager in Prague when he doesn’t get the payment that he expects and the full brunt of his anger and frustration with the whole scene bursts into full fruition.
Consider the potential disaster someone like Ozzy Osbourne would have to face without his wife/manager Sharon dutifully at his side. A musical career, not unlike the management of any other successful organization, needs proper leadership, vision and marketing in place. Without that necessary overseeing, it’s a boat without sails in a tumultuous sea of anything goes. I’m not saying someone like Sharon Osbourne could make Anvil superstars (that’s up to the dice of fate) but someone possessing her wherewithal could most likely ensure a consistent living and a better status from their obvious drive and talent – and that’s all they ever wanted, a fair shake at things.
Finally, a respected veteran music producer who’s worked with them in the long ago past comes back onto the scene and gets them over to England to produce their thirteenth album entitled fittingly enough: “This Is Thirteen.” Yet they end up with those boxes of CDs in their van and not in the record store. They decide to sell directly to the public and it would behoove you to order one on their website.
Not only is Kudlow still a musician at the height of his prowess, he’s also an unabashed fan boy of other hard rock musicians and bands. He loves the world of Heavy Metal music and the people in it. At a Swedish rock fest he hangs around a tent hoping to run into Ted Nugent but then is quickly distracted by another hero of his, Tommy Aldridge (from Osbourne‘s band), and runs over to revel him with his enthusiasm. And there is a contagious joy in “Lips” fevered interests, he‘s got a big heart and really rides the vibe of his obsessions, undoubtedly drawing us in as well.
Top hard rockers pay their respects and reverence to Anvil: Lars Ulrich, the drummer for Metallica, feels bad that they didn’t make it further then they have and Slash, from Guns and Roses, concludes of their marginal destiny: “Sometimes life deals you a tough deck.“
The film ends with a performance in Japan, a place which they haven’t been to for about a quarter century. They are extremely happy about the overseas gig but upon arriving they find out that they’re the first act on at 11:35 in the morning and are noticeably concerned that no one will show up. That’s a heck of a long way to travel to face sincere disappoint just after breakfast. We’ll leave that up to the viewers to find out for themselves as to how many people actually show up.
I really, really respect Anvil’s talent, drive and attitude and it really breaks my heart that a better support system wasn’t in place to fully recognize what they had to give. If anybody deserves success, these guys do – their heart is definitely in the right place.
Anvil have been in the game since the game existed and now these guys have hit their fifties at the time of the documentary and they realize, like anyone else, that time waits for no one. They still possess the spirit of warriors and pray that they’ll still get their due. This film only can serve to bring their quest for deserved acknowledgement closer to possibility. Regardless of how the story continues to play out, I admire these guys immensely and continue to wish them only the best.
“An Evening at Angelo’s” written by Mark Borchardt
In a brief running time, filmmaker Kara Mulrooney amazingly and intimately captures the picturesque texture of a neighborhood Milwaukee bar on New Year’s Eve – deftly satisfying the curiosity one briefly possesses as so many warmly lit corner taverns fleetingly pass within quick eyeshot: Ah, what is it like in there one wonders? Mulrooney lets it be known as she takes us inside “Angelo’s Piano Lounge” and gracefully allows us to hang out for the evening. The warm, embracing cinematography of “An Evening at Angelo’s” gently pushes us into the scene and endearingly allows us to figuratively partake in the intimate proceedings – almost, just almost, we’re able to share a cocktail or two with its small but amiable populace as it nears the hour of year‘s close.
It turns out that a few of those seemingly everyday people lingering about the warmly lit interior, one’s that would otherwise sink into the milieu of everyday ordinariness in the environs of a local watering hole – are actually magnificent crooners. Well, it is a piano lounge of course. And a few can really knock it out of the park – clichés aside, I could really feel some of those deep vocal renditions it in my heart. As the evening progresses and as various personalities take the mic – whether respectfully cajoled or enthusiastically volunteering – one can just sense the presence, the history of their lives as bygone songs come back to life in a magnificent present.
Angelo Mortellaro, the proprietor, and Ginni Smith, the house singer, make for cordial company as the nocturnal patronage increases. In a heartwarming moment Mortellaro takes the stage, and despite obviously having weathered a long road, gives it what he’s still got and we’re all the more enriched for it as he belts out a soulful tune.
Throughout this magnificent film, the camera adoringly tracks by photos of the past as well as those faces in the present, a confluence of good times separated only by the ineffable nature of the clock itself, as the countenances of both eras realize that each moment is their moment in time. “Live while you can” would seem to be an appropriate motto to the proceedings. And I think the good people at “Angelo’s” got that understanding down pat.
Thanks Miss Mulrooney for inviting us in – we enjoyed our stay.
Mark Borchardt on “PSYCHOPATH”
Victor Marquez has a dream. No, it’s not to retire one day and lounge around on some far-off beach with a tiny umbrella residing in a tall, bright drink; nor is it to hike the outback of Australia with only a backpack slung over the shoulder; neither is it to just slump forevermore in front of a big-screen TV after forty years of good service and a gold watch meet eye to eye. No, nothing like that at all. You see Victor’s one and only obsession is with conjuring some backwoods terror at almost any cost, his steadfast vision in life is to create a haunted theme park. A haunted trail if you will. And the heartwarming as well as heart-stopping filmic rollercoaster ride of “Psycho Path” (which is also the name of the trail) documents that perilous road of uncertainty to attain a very risky dream.
I had a chance to sit down with filmmaker Manny Marquez (Victor’s nephew) and his beautiful family. His enthusiasm for life and his work was readily apparent but in short order he put a sinister spin on things when he revealed: “When I was a kid my dad had a best friend…who was a serial killer…and when I was eight years-old he tried to kill me.” Whoa – how’s that for encountering the fear factor right out of the proverbial gate? Manny wrote a script based on that fiendish incident and is still seriously considering making a film about it – he plans on making it a dark comedy. Dark indeed. And that incident leads to the road we find ourselves on now.
For it was while scouting locations for his “Murder Movie” based on that horrific encounter, that he came upon his uncle Victor’s land and as well as his vision to create the ghostly trail: “Psycho Path.” Manny became enamored with the land itself and the quest to turn it into something more than a swamp. “The woods itself became a character,” Manny realized as he began to document the earnest proceedings. He saw his uncle taking on his dream so Manny pursued his own as well. Manny had been stuck working on truly bad reality shows of which he found had “nothing to do with cinema” – his true calling. Now finding himself back in his formative stomping grounds, Manny had something he could sink his real talents into.
It turns out that Victor and Manny both possess the same kind of pesky creative visions, the sort that just won‘t go away until something is thoroughly done about them. And their interests both happen to fall into the realm of the visual arts. Consequently, a neat symbiosis occurs as nephew documents uncle. Victor even bought Manny an ARRI BL 16mm camera for film school – talk about tactile support. “He’s been an enabler of cinematic mischief,” he fondly says of his uncle.
In his youth, Victor himself touted around a Super-8 camera and then moved on to video, bringing about short horror films and the like to the small screen. Manny was very inspired by his uncle’s formative cinematic adventures. “I wouldn’t be a filmmaker if it wasn’t for Victor,” Manny attests, obviously carrying a deep affection for their relationship.
Initially, Victor wanted to go out to Hollywood to be a special effects make-up artist but the fickle fingers of fate had other plans for him. Instead he found his calling in his own backyard. Literally – well, five miles from his backyard. On forty acres of dubious terrain.
And that brings us back to our story. Sperry, Oklahoma is the location of said perilous property which one of Victor’s other nephews, David, poignantly deems a “shithole.” Certainly no condos are going to crop up there anytime soon amid the tangled trees, snakes, mosquitoes and general swamp land. The property is also near a Civil War battleground and it’s alleged to be haunted. A neighbor, Robert Sisk corroborates, “You get an immense feeling that you shouldn’t be there…it’s like crossing a barrier almost…you get the feeling something doesn’t want you there.”
If other-worldly manifestations nipping at Victor’s heels weren’t enough, as luck would have it, the neighbors are very unhappy about other mysterious goings-on, those conjured up by Marquez and his colleagues. And unfortunately the Sheriff owns some of the adjacent land. His wife takes a petition around to the local residents to get Victor to stop whatever it is that he’s doing – no one seems certain – but they do know that they want no part of it. A large clan, the Sisk family, doesn’t want any part of it either. And there’s a lot of them.
Not only that, but Victor of course plans on opening for the Halloween season and that coincides directly with another season: hunting. The film crew goes around querying the community at hand and they all seem none-too-happy about those parallel events. One even plans on hiring a lawyer and speculates, “It’s going to get rough on them…it’s going to get real bad.”
I myself thought, man, if your neighbors are against you on top of it all, that’s really a rough, rough thing – my heart just broke. And if there ever was a time to throw in the towel…but Victor’s got a will of steel and presses forward. Yet, with the local’s ire stirred, he and his enterprise are summoned to the county board. This is getting real. But the local government lets him proceed, temporarily that is, allowing him to prove that his project won’t be a public nuisance, nor hazard.
Victor’s been a sanitation man for over thirty years but obviously that’s not where his dreams lie. He puts whatever penny he can in the project and after a day’s work of slinging trash bags he looks forward to the only thing he wants to really do: work on that park. Neighbors, government, weather and the like have not stopped him yet. But it’s a long road to continuously conjure interest in all the work that needs to be done: lots of land has to be cleared, numerous props need to be built and a general cohesion of scare-worthy terror needs to be created in short order.
On the home front Victor has both his supporters and his detractors. His father, brother and son all have their doubts and keep a safe distance. And that son makes it clear to his father: “that’s your dream, not my dream.” But it’s his wife Suezette, daughter Victoria, and best friend Mike Perry, who stick by him with much needed support, not only psychologically but hands-on, both very necessary to retain the course. It’s revealed that Victor didn’t marry his high school sweetheart, but rather, his teacher. Good for him. And Suezette. In fact they absconded into the proverbial sunset heading to California with Heart’s “Dreamboat Annie” playing all the way. Talk about a romantic vision made manifest.
But those glory days are long past and with the heavy financial strain bearing down on the family by the scare trail, they even consider putting the fate of their home in the mix as well. Suezette is still a teacher and when she asks her current students if any of them has any interest in attending “Psycho Path” not one raises their hand. Man, it’s disheartening when you can’t even rally the kids to your side. And with familial contentions understandably brewing as well regarding the taxing project, one couldn’t fault the over-burdened Victor if he threw up his hands at any time and called it a day. But iron-clad warrior that he is, he persists diligently through the storms of challenge.
Well, others do rally to the cause, and enter Kage Hunter, (not his real name but one he bestowed upon himself) a troubled youth from a dysfunctional family. Suezette found him as a student to be an “Off-the-wall different-type personality.” It becomes rapidly apparent that he’s really into the world of monsters and special effects. Consequently, he fits into this project like hand-in-glove and becomes Victor’s ambitious right-hand man. He’s an enthusiastic ally and carries with him the ideas and energies of the young man that he is. But on down the line he’s found to be a bit too enthusiastic and rubs some people the wrong way, and after an unfortunate incident, he has to be let go – his own zeal doing him in. And later on, Kage regrettably passes away. But that sad note cemented a realization in Manny: “It wasn’t until that Kage died that I realized we had a movie.” Mr. Hunter’s legacy has been ensured.
A local troupe of actors comes out to the spook park in-the-making, spear-headed by one visionary Tom McCay. He’s a man of energy and imagination, too, and he wants to do more than just provide thespians it soon turns out as he puts his hand in the broader proceedings as well. Victor is taken off-guard by this, for he himself is to be the sole visionary – but he can’t really knock what he’s damn lucky to have. McCay even sets up a party to attract more interest to the cause, but all that’s really attracted is a rain storm and tornado warnings. But the show must go on, hell or high-water.
Helping hands abound but that doesn’t erase the dire reality of how much more needs to get accomplished by opening night. Suezette becomes increasingly worried by the daunting due date and the ongoing stress puts her in the hospital. Trooper that she is, once checked out, she gets back on-point. Victor remains one lucky man. And Manny and crew even put their cameras down behind the “behind the scenes” to help Victor out when it comes down to serious crunch time. That’s the stuff.
But when Manny did have the cameras rolling over the course of ten years, he eventually shot over 250 hours of footage in nine different formats and he stressed that his film wasn’t any how-to video: “We’re talking about a man’s life and dreams on the line.” Ain’t that the truth.
October 1st arrives and so does the aforementioned hunting season. Shots are heard in the ominous dark one night and the haunted crew surmise that those shots are probably intended for them. And they are extremely disappointed by the abject turnout, only a few people trickle in.
But wait, hold on to your hats – we’ve come too far to let it all end like this. Soon, people do start to arrive in gradually increasing numbers. And even a large contingent of the Sisk family comes out – once the endeavor’s staunchest detractors. In a surprising, heartwarming twist, they even offer to help out with “Psycho Path” next year. Wow.
We cut to 2013. It is the first year that the park has turned a profit, drawing close to 10,000 visitors. Tom McCay is still on board and he embodies the role of “Trail Master.” Victor Marquez and family have been granted their victory, albeit a very hard-earned one.
And Manny makes clear of his documentary’s intent: “It’s not a movie about a haunted house, it’s not a movie about zoning laws, it’s a movie about a man and his dreams and failures…and his eventual success.” Yes, truly, “PsychoPath” the film glows as a loving tribute to his uncle, his family, his coterie of believers and their preternatural determination.
Ultimately, Manny puts forth to the audience at large: “I hope you’ll like the movie otherwise I just made the world’s most expensive home movie…”
Don’t worry, Manny, we all like the movie.
Was “COPS” the Ultimate Documentary? By Mark Borchardt
I watched “Cops” for about twenty years before I stopped watching TV altogether. Sure the box gets fired up for the Packers, you can bet on that, but other than that hallowed ritual, it remains as a black monolith in my living room ala “2001: A Space Odyssey” (not counting VHS and DVD viewings). Ask people who knew me, whatever it took, Saturday nights I’d find myself planted in front of the electronic fireplace for the two riveting back-to-back episodes offered 7 p.m Central time sharp. And that’s when the “Bad Boys” theme would begin to reverberate in living rooms across the U.S.A. I never was a big TV watcher but there was something definitely special about that show.
When “Cops” premiered in 1989 our television culture wasn’t yet mired in the miasma of the “reality show,” but soon came the likes of “Survivor,” “American Idol” and such, and the dam of forced perspective burst force. The bulk of many of those reality shows spawned by those initial hits were ostensibly produced and consequently as fake as a three dollar bill. Participants were coerced into contrived situations and cajoled to malevolently react against each other. “Cops” of course remained sincere, how could it not? It was the real deal and these were real police at work out on the streets, in the alleyways and within the kitchens of domestic disputes. It was happening in the moment, no furtive cues from the sidelines, the officers were there to do their job.
Many people couldn’t understand my obsession with “Cops.” What was it about the show? Was it the heart-stopping, high speed car chases? Not really but somewhat. Was it the close foot pursuits through tight alleyways and over precarious fences and through winding yards? Not really but somewhat. Well, what was it then? Over time some people began to understand where my interest was coming from. And that interest was in the show’s humanity. Yes, its humanity. And the humor. Humor on a real police show? You bet, lots of humor, often times sub-textual as it may be, but therein resides one of the clever conceits of the show. It is about us.
For “Cops” is about the human condition, albeit one that predominantly takes place out on the streets of America. It’s about people in heightened situations and how those people react toward each other, whether trying to candidly explain their circumstances or furtively cover up some wrong-doing. It concerns the rhetoric of the streets and the way we communicate with each other and how some miscreants stealthily dole out disinformation. It exemplifies the clever use of language between those trying to avoid arrest and the authorities justifying that arrest. It is the ultimate documentary coming at us directly into our homes each and every week.
Often times the paradigm was patternistic: The police officer would get out of their pursuing squad and cautiously approach the stopped vehicle in question. Brief formalities would be exchanged between driver and soon-to-be interrogator. Both knew what was on the docket. But the stage was set for the stage itself. Someone trying to find out, the other trying to evade, both doing their jobs to the best of their ability at the given moment. Rarely was it a draw but sometimes it was, for occasionally the skirmish with words was entertaining enough. Yet, in most cases, the cuffs came out providing a finite conclusion.
“Cops” takes us into homes and situations we otherwise never had access to before. When the series began it was a unique premise and it caught on readily with audiences. And many people, not living the white-collar dream, saw their own people up on the screen for the first time, people that they could relate to, characters and circumstances they may have encountered in their own backyard, driving down the street or fixing a car in a back alley. On-screen it was everyday people pushed from the sidelines into the momentary spotlight of the camera. There they finally were, people we knew, in our living rooms, finally for all to see and experience.
Roger Ebert: “Life Itself” by Mark Borchardt
Roger Ebert lived a full life. That is made resoundingly clear in the new documentary Life Itself based on Ebert’s autobiography of the same name. Renowned documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie, The Interrupters) gifts us with a loving, engaging tribute to Ebert’s robust life and its heartbreaking but inspiring final chapter. Ebert left a rich legacy not only as an informed, impassioned film critic but as an old-school newspaper man and most importantly as a family man. He led a distinguished life, pursued many interests and left the world a better, more informed place. He made us care about movies and showed us the amazingly deep impact they could have on our lives and the way we looked at the world.
James has set forth a vivid portrayal of the life and times of the great man without over-sentimentalizing or laying on the schmaltz. Instead, as usual, he has created a classy production, placing a working man‘s halo over Ebert minus any dubious deification. His life is what it is.
I, like many, was introduced to Roger Ebert through his weekly movie review show with Gene Siskel on PBS. Well, that show exponentially gained in popularity and catapulted both to fame but Ebert more so. Siskel was the critic at the rival paper, the Chicago Tribune. The jovial, if not often times biting, bickering between the two critics drew us in like a curious, intimate fireside chat. Viewers were pulled into the throes of the sporting, if not at times downright contentious, cinematic jousting. Ebert and Siskel were acutely insightful but they kept their reviews within a populist understanding yet without ever dumbing them down. That was the secret and the charm of their success: everyone could tune in and no one would be alienated, all were invited, they kept things at a comprehensive level while not losing an ounce of passion or insight. That’s why the show worked. After all, they were just two guys from Chicago.
Ebert was always a newspaper man and he was already working professionally by his mid-teens. And at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, he became editor of “The Daily Illini.” Ultimately, he landed at the Chicago Sun-Times. But not as a film critic. Sports and general reporting were essentially his domain.
Amazingly enough, the job as film critic came to him by default, it landed in his lap when a vacancy opened up in that department. Yet, in 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for it. Not a bad result for an unexpected gig.
But there was a bit of a dark side to his continuing success as alcohol definitely had a grip on Ebert. So he figured he’d better quit while he was still ahead. And in August 1979 he did so. With his talent for writing and the lust for life he persistently pursued, he didn’t need a crutch or an inhibitor like alcohol. He was too large for life for that.
Friends and associates weigh in with valued memories. They respect the man, that is evident, and as for any faults, there is nothing to hide. Venerated WGN Chicago broadcasting host Rick Kogan contributes his take on his beloved acquaintance. For me, personally, it was great to finally see Kogan, the man behind that gravelly voice which delightfully haunted my early Sunday morning radio for years. And Werner Herzog espouses Ebert’s life as well, in of course his own uber-famous tone.
And on our side of the fence, Frankie Latina’s Super-8 epic “Modus Operandi” caught the appreciative eye of Ebert and he put a hearty entry of it in his popular annual film book. Yeah, that’s right, that down-home extravaganza shot out and about in Milwaukee. That’s the kind of guy Ebert was. He gave many a fair shake.
I myself ran into Roger Ebert a number of times throughout the years. The first was in Toronto, at the film festival. I was enamored by the whole scene and who of fame I might spot. Well, of all people, there was Roger Ebert. He didn’t have a clue as to who I was when I enthusiastically called out his name; he looked decidedly perplexed, “Who the hell is that?” he must have silently wondered. Years later he found out and invited me as a guest to his “Overlooked Film Festival” in Champaign, IL where I had the great honor of receiving Ebert’s “Thump’s Up” award with, of all people, Werner Herzog. A heck of a legend to share the stage with.
Later, in the dark of the night, Herzog bummed a cigarette off of Mike Schank and announced he was heading back to the jungle early that morning to continue to work on a film. There’s an anecdote in film history for you. The year was 2004.
Then in 2011 I was invited back to the festival and Roger at that time was in the throes of his illness. His wife, Chazz, was as accommodating as ever and Roger was glad to see us. I had three out of my four kids in tow and it was one of the highlights of my life to share that experience with them. And the film that night at the palatial Virginia Theatre was an epic presentation of “Metropolis” with a stunning musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra. That was the last time I saw Roger but obviously that memory will always be with me. And cherished memories of him will be held by so many, many others, for he made an impression upon the numberless.
I happened to see “Life Itself” on opening night at Milwaukee’s renowned Oriental Theatre by the kind invitation of my oldest daughter. Initially, I went to watch a film but ended up, far more importantly, celebrating a life. Thank you, Roger, for all that you gave us. Thumbs up, my man.
Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker‘s Apocalypse
I’m not sure when and where I first saw Apocalypse Now, but it immediately became one of my favorite films and had a huge impact on me as a burgeoning filmmaker.
I was in awe of the spectacle itself, and could feel its episodic quality going from one exciting scene to the next. Most films do not lay claim to such a wide and memorable array of characters from Colonel Kilgore to Mr. Clean, from Dennis Hopper’s riveting portrayal of a drugged-out photographer to Colonel Kurtz himself. All those characters and the many more that populate Apocalypse Now have never left my mind. Truly remarkable.
It was such a compelling piece of evidence of what perseverance and vision can accomplish. It was also a strong cautionary tale echoing Captain Willard’s sentiment itself: “Never get off the boat, unless you’re going to go all the way.” Regardless of the mega-pitfalls one can encounter in the filmmaking process, sometimes it’s the only chance you’ve got. And as a young filmmaker, I took it all to heart, both the pros and cons.
Hearts Of Darkness is a remarkable documentary about a “man” and his “movie.” Said “man” is director Francis Ford Coppola and said “movie” is Apocalypse Now. The director of the documentary itself is Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, commissioned by United Artists to produce a behind-the-scenes publicity piece—who ultimately rewarded us all with a feature-length testament to unyielding perseverance in the heart of a very harrowing, but ultimately fulfilling, journey to create an epic film.
I use the term “movie” (which can have a sophomoric intonation) for effect because in this case it fits—verified by Coppola because he unapologetically makes no bones about what he wants Apocalypse Now to be: a no-holds-barred, bombastic spectacle of violence, sex and explosions. He desires a perennial entertainment and that‘s what “movie” stands for. Yet it is also very much a “film,” a connotation of art. He went for—and undeniably got—both.
Joseph Conrad’s Hearts of Darkness
Apocalypse Now is based on Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella Heart Of Darkness, which follows the tenuous journey of a captain manning a commercial boat up the dangerous Congo River to investigate the condition of the company’s Mr. Kurtz, who is suspected of malevolently running amok at the end of the road. The suspicions are confirmed; Kurtz, it turns out, has lost all contact with the civilized world, both geographically and psychologically, and has set up his own self-serving kingdom of dread at water’s end.
An adaptation of Heart of Darkness was to be Orson Welles’s first project in Hollywood, but was ultimately deemed too financially unwieldy a project to be undertaken by the studio. In consequence, we got Citizen Kane. Decades later, Hearts of Darknesswas realized as a TV movie starring John Malkovich as the madman on the finale shore.
Coppola set his vision in Vietnam, yet followed the basic conceit of the source material, that of a boat’s upriver journey to deal with (and in this version, the death-hand to) a twisted intellectual demigod, this time played by Marlon Brando. Martin Sheen took the role of the captain on the ambiguous mission and among the myriad problems that beset the production, he suffered a heart attack in the middle of the shoot. A double was used until the actor returned to good form some weeks later. Oh, and just to back up a bit, Harvey Keitel originally had the role of Captain Willard and was painfully fired during production. Add to that a typhoon wrecking sets and other contentious cast members wreaking havoc on Coppola’s psyche.
Apocalypse Now was a big budget film, very big for its time, but it’s making comes off as a very personal endeavor. You can see how far Coppola became entrenched in it, a true labor of love and angst, even putting up his personal assets as financial collateral to pump more cash into the film. Yet, whether it’s a crisis in the realm of money or with the vagaries of the eccentric cast, Coppola and his people soldier on. The production lasted about a year.
Francis Ford Coppola on set of Apocalypse Now
The shoot takes place in the Philippines, with the film company using President Ferdinand Marcos’ helicopter fleet to portray American air cavalry forces. On abrupt occasions, the copters are jettisoned from the shoot to go do the real thing, when rebel forces that Marcos’s government are battling are suspected to be close at hand. This of course, throws the already taxed production into additional tailspins. Painful as it is, it’s all ultimately worth it as we’re treated to some of the most spectacular air attack scenes ever filmed. And by cranking a little bit of Wagner during the awe evoking assault, this scene has become an iconic lodestar in cinema history.
This is not a talking-heads doc, but when it does pause to get some fixed reflection, we get some wonderful anecdotes from the likes of Martin Sheen, Sam Bottoms, Frederic Forrest and Laurence Fishburne. Other encounters with the cast come in the form of a very close fly on the wall.
Dennis Hopper appears as the wild child that we’ve come to know and love; he’s as zany off-screen as he is on, in the role of an American journalist jovially, yet quite intensely, marooned at the end of this jungle road. We find him with Coppola, haggling over the fact that Hopper doesn’t have the right to forget his lines if he hasn’t learned them in the first place. Nonetheless, Hopper is a memorable presence on the screen and doesn’t fail
Marlon Brando shows up on set for an unprecedented salary of a million dollars per week, for three weeks, to play Colonel Kurtz. He’s arrived more overweight than they suspected (far from the emaciated specter of Mr. Kurtz in the book—it’ll just have to be indicated that he‘s been eating very well these days), and then another shocking fact reveals itself: he hasn’t even read the novella that the film is based on, forcing intense, elongated discussions between Brando and Coppola, which eats up the clock. These are some of the precious moments that give this documentary it’s invaluable place in portrayals of the filmmaking process.
John Milius co-wrote the screenplay with Coppola, but Coppola himself feels he still doesn’t have a satisfactory end for the film and we share Francis’s struggle to arrive at some meaningful conclusion. When he does come up with one, he admits he’s not completely happy with it—but it can be respectfully argued that the ultimate results are very satisfying, both cinematically and metaphorically.
With Apocalypse Now, Coppola created a masterpiece—and Hearts of Darkness is a testament to the unrelenting passion of one man’s vision, which overcame nail-biting odds to come out on the other side to share the best picture prize at Cannes in 1979.
Consequently, Hearts of Darkness should be an inspiration to any up-and-coming filmmaker as well as those that have been around the block, tired out and now need a little kick in the butt to get back in gear.
Roughly a dozen years ago I had the good fortune to spend some time with Michael Moore and some of his associates at a downtown Milwaukee hotel bar. He held court, and his primary—if not sole conversation—regarded his socio-political concerns. He was the same in real life as he was on the screen; wearing his passions unabashedly and wholeheartedly on his sleeve. He was a good guy and this event was approximately between now and the release of Roger and Me. So, by that time, he was the Michael Moore celebrity that we all know.
And that’s what brings us to: Roger and Me. Not only was it a turning point in Moore’s career, it was also one in the realm of documentary itself, because Roger and Me hit the theaters—very unusual for non-narrative films. It was an aesthetic and financial success as well, catapulting the form into the public eye. Prior to that, documentary usually found itself in the firmament of the school classroom (putting heads on the table for some furtive naptime) or on PBS, which was avoided like the plague by the hip. Well, at least in the case of PBS, that has all changed, for the hip gravitate to that fine institution in droves now. And if I watched TV, I’d find myself there as well.
DOCUMENTARY AS MAINSTREAM ENTERTAINMENT
So, “Roger and Me” demarcated the dividing line of the documentary trajectory. It put the form into the populist zeitgeist and we haven’t looked back since, taking the genre out of the doldrums of avoidance and into a highly regarded and anticipated entertainment.
Did I say entertainment? Yes, I did. Because that was essentially one of the functions of Roger and Me, as well as it was to inform. And it’s that mixture of disparate elements that made it a game changer. No longer was the form a bore, no longer did it just serve to merely document, now it had a life of its own. And, it was Moore who gave it that life by making himself a central character in the film, possessing a kind of rustic charm and making plenty of irreverent quips along the way.
Roger and Me was released in 1989 and I happened to see it at the theater, so I shared in that little bit of cinematic history. I believe I saw it at the Northridge Shopping Mall—now far defunct, as are most of the theaters in the Northwest side of Milwaukee. Those too became the faded icons of filmic history as well.
MICHAEL MOORE—POLARIZING DOCUMENTARIAN
Times have changed since the film’s release. Back then, Michael Moore was the new thing, and most rallied around his exposure of the everyday man’s plight, but now Moore has become a point of contention between many divides of opinion and political leanings. Say his name and you’re sure to get a charged reaction; people will definitely have their opinions.
As for the film itself, Roger and Me concerns the shutting of an auto plant in Flint, Michigan, by the chairman of General Motors, Roger Smith. This will cost up to 30,000 jobs with an understandably devastating economic impact on the city and more so to the lives that are now thrown into harrowing uncertainty. This brings native son Moore back on the scene with his documentary crew in tow. The narrative follows his dogged pursuit of Smith, but Moore just can’t get to him, except of course toward the film’s conclusion. Moore gets ousted out of a lot of ritzy places in his continual quest for Smith. He’s made aware that he’s definitely out of his class echelon in no uncertain terms.
Along the way we meet some interesting citizens of the blighted town. We follow a sheriff around as he evicts one family after another from their homes for lack of payments to the landlord. The sheriff has an even-tone as he informs the families that they just have to go; they take that equilibrium to mean business, yet he has a down-to-earth compassion for their plight. He’s truly just “doing his job.”
And then there is the “rabbit lady,” a character unto herself who either sells or slaughters her herd of bunnies. The queasy will be shocked by what they see. When the alternative to sale is enacted, the camera does not cut away.
But arguably, the crown jewel is “The Newlywed Game” host Bob Eubanks, who is miffed by the suggestion that he would say “breast” instead of “chest” in a bout of moral indignation, yet shockingly tells the camera some jaw-dropping, incendiary jokes. I tell you, that was crazy. And there’s other luminaries as well, to varying degrees, who make their charming appearances that you’ll get additional kicks out of.
One of the most poignant moments in the film occurs when Roger Smith is giving a holiday sermon to the converted and that footage is continually juxtaposed with a family getting thrown out of their home with all of their belongings, along with their Christmas effects, including presents and of course the tree itself. The woman of the house is not happy and she makes this all-to-clear in a stream of cursing while our chairman let’s us know that all is well in this Christmas season.
Moore had cleverly put himself in Roger and Me to good effect, but his continual presence in his subsequent films, as well as his politics, have rubbed some the wrong way. But of course that is to be fully expected, for that in itself, fulfills the narrative arc of public tolerance: they only build you up to ultimately tear you down.
I look back on that meeting so many years ago with Mr. Moore, realizing of course that the march of time waits for no one; one wonders what happened to all of those beleaguered citizens of Flint, Michigan.
“Notes On Marie Menken” written by Mark Borchardt
I attended the film program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where there is a heavy emphasis on the experimental film. Consequently, I got to experience a perpetual flow of avant-garde 16mm cinema. Our syllabus’s were replete with titles throughout its history – I had gotten more than familiar with the genre.
So, in watching Martina Kudlacek’s “Notes On Marie Menken,” an insightful tribute to the life and career of the esteemed mid-twentieth century experimental filmmaker (Menken initially was a painter, turned filmmaker then as an aside, an underground actress), I got a chance to journey back in time a little bit to those bygone university days. And Menken shot with the ubiquitously famous Swiss-made 16mm Bolex camera, the most respected spring-wound, go-to camera for shooting quality silent footage, the same camera we used in film school after we moved up from the Bell and Howell 70-DR. It was nice to see an old companion back in action.
At the onset of the film we follow Marie’s nephew, Joseph J. Menkevich who leads us down a narrow hallway in an indoor storage facility and discovers heretofore unknown footage of hers. Rusty cans of 100 and 400 foot rolls of film are uncovered and subsequently opened, a revelatory testament to forgotten work.
And in one fascinating reel, a rooftop cinematic jousting match between Menken and Andy Warhol is revealed, both prodding the other with a camera back and forth. They are clearly having fun, two avant-garde idealists having a go at each other, entwined in a rare aesthetic understanding few others could share. And Andy took a huge liking to Marie, he put her in some of his films and she inadvertently became an impromptu actress. Menken also shot fascinating fast-motion footage of Warhol producing silk-screens and followed him out and about on the street as well. Oh, and she also caught Andy wrapping up those infamous Brillo Boxes. That’s some history in and of itself.
Menken’s camera roamed the terrains of her instincts, capturing her filmic musings on people, places and things. She was fascinated by movement and the architecture of space and time that that movement created. She was also enthralled by light and liked what it could do when altered in time for delirious effect. Menken was also interested in sped-up flirtations with the outside world, street scenes, beach scenes, gardens, sculptures, the world was her canvas. It becomes obvious how that experimental ethic of vagabond imagery from underground filmmakers bled into 1960’s psychedelic films and other assorted B-pictures.
Musician John Zorn and company provide an enchanting score to “Notes On Menken,” further enmeshing us into her dreamlike world. Many of Menken’s contemporaries contribute insights into her illustrious career as do many Warhol colleagues such as Billy Name, who designed Warhol’s silver factory; Gerard Malanga, who collaborated on Warhol’s three minute screen tests; and actress/artist Mary Woronov who was one of his “Superstars.” Woronov subsequently became an actress in a slew of B pictures and some Hollywood fare but what was most enchanting was finding out she had roles in Rob Zombie’s “The Devil’s Rejects” and Ti West’s “House of the Devil.”
San Francisco experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger of “Scorpio Rising“ fame (his biography is a fascinating read) furnishes memories along with Jonas Mekas (his “Movie Journal” is an equally fascinating read and an exemplary diary of attending underground films). We also get to see Kenneth Anger physically etching into film frame by frame as he weighs in as well.
But for me, the most compelling part of this documentary is the revelation that Marie Menken and her husband, poet Willard Maas, were the basis for Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” That I did not know. Or at least don’t remember knowing. Before I lost track of it, I was reading a fascinating book on the history of that classic play and now I wonder if that amazing fact was brought up in the book. Marie and Willard were notorious weekend bingers, going steady from Friday into Monday. Often times they would be at college faculty cocktail parties and Mr. Albee would be there, enthralled by the couple’s intoxicated sparrings while making judicious mental notes to himself. Marie/Martha. Kenneth Anger confirms that, “They expressed themselves by drinking and shouting at each other.” Well, we got a hell of a play from it. Ironically Menken and Waas had a child that died. And the dramatic subtext of “Virginia Woolf” is an imaginary child. Albee was a voyeur of a real-life psychodrama and subsequently turned it into a revolutionary work on the stage. Amazing.
Menken’s films remain a cultural time capsule seen through the prism of an avant-garde lens and included on the DVD are three of her works: “Visual Variations On Noguchi” (1945), “Glimpses of the Garden” (1957), and “Arabesque For Kenneth Anger” (1958-61). Elsewhere, seek out “Notebook” (1962), her most famous film of her prodigious career.
Orson Welles – “F for Fake” by Mark Borchardt
Soon after I entered the wonderful world of filmmaking, I became aware of Orson Welles. I was entranced with his eclectic work and larger than life reputation. Of course it was his films that got me: The Stranger, Citizen Kane and The Trial were, most likely, the first ones I encountered.
Something was different with Welles’s filmic style; it breached the prosaic and didn’t fall within the iron templates of conventional filmmaking. The pace of the montage, and the disparate but rewarding cacophony of the angles at times proved eccentric, creating spatially and circumstantially confusing scenes—but that was a good thing: it made a Welles’s film a Welles’s film. You just had to get acclimated to it.
I realized another thing as well, that which set him apart from the crowd: he wasn’t just creating stories with plot and character, he was creating narratives with the camera—the camera itself became a character. It was a unique and provocative presence throughout the films, providing psychologically off-setting dutch angles, the infinite clarity of full depth of field, and its persuasive and pesky sense of place to heighten quirky sensations.
I devoured all of these cinematic possibilities as an enthusiastic neophyte would. Everything was new and I had the blessing to be taken in by the cream of the crop, a master of the form. It was the energy of Welles’s cinema that I carried with me for my own aspirations. He, along with Scorsese and Romero, were my strongest formative influences.
Welles has about a dozen finished films attributed to his oeuvre, – depending on how you ultimately look at some of the projects—some incomplete, some realized into completion by others, footage biding time in faraway vaults. It’s a common but misguided consensus to decry Welles for his fall from grace with Hollywood while at the same time speculating as to the greatness that might have been. What might have been would be a path taken by any other Hollywood filmmaker; and who needs that? Welles was his own man and cinema remains damn lucky for that. He was the independents’ independent; so what if they wore bed sheets for costumes in Othello?
1973 brought Welles’s last cinematic trick (not taking into account a feature documentary on his Othello that he did for German TV) to the screen. This magnificent coda, F For Fake, was a delightful patchwork of old footage and innovative new work; the boy magician casting one last enchanting filmic spell, conjuring a range of disparate delights; a lyrical tapestry of charming personalities and conniving ambitions.
Featured are Clifford Irving, whose claim to fame was faking a biography of Howard Hughes (and duping Morely Schafer on 60 Minutes) and forger-painter Elmyr de Hory who sadly ended up taking his own life rather than face a prison term for his precise replications. These guys are fascinating in the way that they had imposed themselves onto life, and in their subsequent fall from false-grace as the con-men they really were. And like good magicians, these intriguing personas also operated by persuasive sleight of hand, and specifically in their case: word and paint. It‘s fun being allowed to spend some time in their raffish company.
Irving even unwittingly brought the super-reclusive Howard Hughes back from the dead, figuratively, and back into a public appearance, at least aurally, to defend himself against Irving to state that he had never even met the faux author. Irving had walked away with a $300,000 advance for the book and eventually into a prison sentence. This bizarre event returned to the spotlight when it was turned into a film, Hoax, with Richard Gere inhabiting Irving‘s mystique.
Beautiful, exotic Oja Kodar is also featured, equal soul-mate and help-mate, (for the last twenty years of Welles’s life) a necessary alchemy intertwined in the great man’s existence, aiding and abetting him in his continuing pursuit in a productive work-life. Intelligent, ambitious, loyal. Lucky him: a conservator of his work and a protector of his much maligned image. She’s sensually portrayed in a beautiful montage with an intoxicating score from Michel Legrand, and it’s bits in the film like this that give it a stand-apart presence from run-of-the-mill documentaries.
Welles, himself, is a joy to behold in F For Fake and even more so, to listen to—his bassy voice resonates with a dubious but delightful authority. His immaculate presence remains intact throughout the years. He, too, sponsors his own worlds of possible true and false: the realm of braggadocio lays no small claim on almost anyone in this boisterous firmament of braggarts; each with a gleam in their eye, telling and retelling sordid tales of intrusions into the hallowed halls of veracity.
Ultimately, Welles was a factotum in his own servitude, a prodigious polymath: writing, directing, acting and cobbling together the money for his various ventures. A charismatic conjurer assembling all the necessary elements to conjoin his cinematic adventures. He never gave up the ghost until the ghost got him, as it will all of us: but the man was taken away figuratively standing, always a project in mind, a lunch to attend, a tale to tell, a dream to pursue.
Orson Welles will always remain one of my cinematic heroes.