Category Archives: Los Angeles
We see wide open desert scorched by the sun. Powder blue sky littered with clouds stretching down to the horizon.
We hear an eerie, wavering droning, drifting in the ether. Then a quivering steel guitar slides into the mix.
We see a man wandering through the bright wasteland. The sound of his footsteps barely disturbs the silence.
The bleached colors of this vast landscape are rendered with striking clarity by cinematographer Robby Müller. The trembling metallic tones that hang in the air are played by Ry Cooder. And the haggard man staggering through this barren emptiness is another one of Wim Wenders’ lonely drifters.
Early in his career, Wenders made many movies about people wandering aimlessly from place to place. Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road, The American Friend and others focus on lonely souls who feel cut off from the world around them. They don’t have families or friends. They don’t have a home. They find themselves taking off on melancholy journeys, sometimes without even knowing where they’re going. Wenders’ early work is filled with images of solitary people surrounded by silent, empty spaces.
Which is pretty much the exact opposite of what you find in the plays of Sam Shepard, who co-wrote Paris, Texas. The stage, by its nature, generally brings people together in a compact space, and the dysfunctional families of pieces like True West and Curse of the Starving Class fill that space with bitter conflict. Shepard’s characters are forced to deal with each other, whether they like it or not, generally resulting in lively, bruising drama.
So Wenders and Shepard would seem to be an unlikely pair, and the process of writing Paris, Texas was long and complicated. Shooting began with an incomplete script, and the two men were continually rethinking the shape of the film, unsure even of how it was going to end. L. M. Kit Carson was brought in to help shape the final version. Apparently creating the film was an open-ended, collaborative process, and no one quite knew where they’d end up.
It may be the difference in the ways Wenders and Shepard approach their work that gives the film its quiet tension. The opening pulls us in with the mystery of Travis, a solitary, sunburned man walking doggedly across the desert. When his brother Walt shows up to take him back to LA, Travis doesn’t say a word, and we wonder if he’ll ever speak again. After some time recovering in the stillness of the suburbs, Travis seems to come around, but then the question is, will his young son ever open up to him? Even as the end draws near, we never know where the film is going, and at the conclusion there are plenty of things left unresolved.
Travis is probably the best part Harry Dean Stanton ever had, and he plays it beautifully. Starting as a spaced-out, scraggly wanderer who seems cut off from everything around him, he slowly reconnects with reality. Recuperating at his brother’s house he’s like a child rediscovering the world, but there’s always a sense of pain buried inside. One of the film’s most moving moments is a brief scene where he’s walking across a freeway overpass. A haggard, angry man stands on the pavement, shouting nonsense at the cars speeding by below. As Travis passes by, he reaches out and pats the man gently on the shoulder. He knows what it’s like to be lost.
Stanton gets strong support from the other actors in the cast, which includes Dean Stockwell, Aurore Clément and Nastassja Kinski. Hunter Carson does a fine job as Travis’ young son. In Wenders’ films it’s not just the words that matter, it’s the space between the words. One of the film’s strengths is that the actors make the silences as expressive as the dialogue.
The structure of Paris, Texas has a beautiful simplicity. We start in the vast landscapes of the American Southwest, then travel to the comfortable confines of suburban LA, then, at the end, back to the wide open spaces. Art director Kate Altman gives Wenders and Müller the bedrooms, barrooms and rundown roadside concerns that make up the physical and emotional landscape for this story of shifting relationships. Having worked with Wenders on a number of films, editor Peter Przygodda understands the director’s unique sense of timing. Paris, Texas moves at its own pace, always allowing the audience to observe the actors, experience the landscapes. And in the same way, Cooder’s music doesn’t tell the audience how to feel about the action. Instead he allows each cue to grow out of the scene’s emotional tone. The wistful, lilting Canción mixteca is used as a recurring theme. This haunting melody, with its words expressing a painful longing to go back home, sums up the ache in Travis’ heart. But for him, going home isn’t about returning to the place he came from. It’s about finding a way to heal the family that he tore apart.
Paris, Texas may have been a summing up for Wenders, a turning point in his career. While his later films still deal with isolation and loneliness, from this point on his characters start trying to connect with others. In Wings of Desire and The End of Violence we see them reaching out to embrace the world, while The Buena Vista Social Club and Pina are about groups of people who come together to share their joy in music and dance.
In his youth, Wenders seemed to be wondering if love even existed. These days, he’s sure it’s out there somewhere. Maybe it’s just a matter of being open to it.
The movie Detour has long been considered a film noir classic. Reams have been written about director Edgar Ulmer’s amazingly terse, unnervingly intense exploration of alienation and despair on the lonely stretches of the American highway. Ulmer was certainly a gifted filmmaker, and Detour is one of the high points of his career, but it’s odd that in the seventy years since it was made, almost nobody has talked about the novel it was based on.
The novel Detour was published at the end of the thirties, and in many ways seems to be a distillation of the period it was written in, the tail end of the Depression. Like Alex Roth, the luckless musician at the center of the story, author Martin Goldsmith had spent some time hitchhiking, no doubt getting well acquainted with hunger and hardship. The film’s screenplay is also by Goldsmith, and almost everything in it comes directly from the book. It’s an unusually faithful adaptation.
There are some major differences. In turning his slender novel into a surprisingly spare film, Goldsmith cut one of his characters almost entirely. While the book is framed by Alex’s story, starting and ending with him, the chapters he narrates alternate with chapters narrated by his girlfriend, Sue. The two met and fell in love working at a club in New York. Determined to become an actress, Sue left for Hollywood, postponing their marriage indefinitely. Desperately lonely, Alex decided to hitchhike to LA so he could rejoin his girlfriend. The book goes back and forth between the two of them, giving us an intricate portrait of their tangled relationship.
While Alex and Sue are basically decent people, they’re both driven to degrading acts by loneliness and lack of money. Goldsmith lets them explain themselves in their own words, and their stories are a mix of desperate self-deception and brutal honesty. Alex knows he’s basically a bum, but he can’t let go of the idea that some day he’ll become a successful musician. Sue realizes she’s just another star-struck fool scraping by as a waitress, but she keeps telling herself that somehow she’ll break through in Hollywood. They’ve both done things they’re not proud of and spend a good deal of time trying to justify their actions. Bottom line, neither one of them is perfect, and they know it all too well.
In the movie Sue is pretty much gone after the first reel. The screenplay gets her out of the way to focus on the poisonous relationship between Alex and Vera. This makes sense for a commercial feature, but it also makes the movie more conventional. Part of what makes Goldsmith’s book so interesting is the audacity of using a pulp thriller to dig into the maddening contradictions inherent in most relationships. Making Vera the central female figure brings the movie much more in line with the classic pulp framework, a more or less innocent guy dragged down by a scheming femme fatale.
Another interesting aspect of Goldsmith’s adaptation is the fact that he cuts out all of his rants about Hollywood. In the movie, pretty much all we see of Tinseltown is a series of rear projection shots, and the characters only refer to it in passing. In the book, the author spends pages describing his characters’ reactions to film capitol, and gives us a fairly detailed account of what it was like to live in the community at the end of the thirties. Goldsmith was living in Hollywood when he wrote Detour, and it’s clear that he was both horrified and fascinated by the place. His characters have wildly different reactions to what they see there. Alex arrives in Hollywood and likes it right away, describing how clean and sunny everything looks, admiring the people who look so healthy and tanned. But Sue, who works as a waitress because she’s had no luck with the studios, is bitterly angry that she was foolish enough to believe the hype. “I had arrived so thoroughly read-up on the misinformation of the fan magazines that it took me a full week before I realized that the ‘Mecca’ was no more than a jerkwater suburb which publicity had sliced from Los Angeles….”
The movie is just as relentlessly cynical as the book, but in a different way. Born in Vienna at the beginning of the twentieth century, Edgar Ulmer was steeped in the northern European traditions of romanticism and expressionism. Before he started his career as a director, he had worked as a designer in stage and film, assisting Max Reinhardt, Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau. In making a film out of Detour, he brings a significant shift in emphasis. Goldsmith’s book is rooted in gritty reality, and in their moments of honesty the characters acknowledge that their lives were shaped by the choices they made. In contrast, Ulmer’s movie is about an innocent man whose life is completely derailed by fate. He has no choice. And there is no escape.
Ulmer spent most of his career working on low-budget and no-budget productions. At the time he made Detour he was under contract at PRC, possibly the cheapest outfit in Hollywood at the time. Most of PRC’s output was shot in six days and cut in one, an outrageously short schedule for making a feature film. In spite of these extreme limitations, Ulmer charges the movie with powerful imagery, making the visuals more striking and expressive than almost anything the major studios were doing at the time. Whether hitching a ride through the burning desert or brooding over a cup of coffee in a tiny diner, Al Roberts* is travelling through a dark psychological landscape. It often feels like the movie is taking place in his mind. Al is briefly enraged by a jukebox song that reminds him of his girlfriend. When he calms down again, the camera dollys in quickly to a tight close-up and the frame suddenly grows dim except for a small patch of light illuminating his eyes. Ulmer has no qualms about using a blatantly artificial effect to show the character’s emotional state. When Al stands over Vera’s corpse on the hotel bed, we see the room from his perspective, the camera panning slowly over various random objects, bringing them briefly into sharp focus, then allowing them to go hazy. We’re brought into the room with him, we share his feeling of stunned disbelief.
Another major difference in the movie is the way Vera dies. In Goldmsith’s novel, Al is so maddened by anger and fear that he strangles her when she tries to call the cops. It may not have been premeditated, but it’s definitely murder, and while Al is shocked by what he’s done, he doesn’t spend much time mourning. He runs. In the movie Vera’s death is definitely accidental. Having decided to call the cops, she grabs the phone, runs into the hotel bedroom and locks the door behind her. In total panic, Al grabs the cord and pulls with all his might, hoping to rip it out of the phone. Then he breaks down the bedroom door and finds Vera dead, the phone cord wound around her neck. There’s no knowing how this change came about. Did Goldsmith alter the scene on his own? Did Ulmer ask for something different? Was the production code a consideration? Whatever the reasons for the change, it definitely alters our perception of Al’s story. In the first version, he’s a murderer, even if he didn’t consciously choose to kill Vera. In the second version, he’s a helpless victim of forces beyond his control. After Haskell’s sudden death, Al’s chance encounter with Vera, and then her death in a freak accident, there’s no question that fate has taken a hand. He can run but he can’t hide. It’s only a matter of time before the darkness closes in.
Tom Neal has a forlorn charm that’s perfect for Al, an ordinary guy who’s trapped by an extraordinary set of circumstances. He just wants to get by, and at first he thinks everything will be okay if he just plays it cool. As things get worse and the pressure grows, Neal shows us Al’s nerves go from ragged to raw. He goes from ranting and raging to bargaining and begging, desperately trying to claw his way out of the mess he’s in. As Vera, Ann Savage burns a hole in the screen. It’s easy to believe that Al’s afraid of her. She’s a bottomless pit of anger and bitterness, and her intensity is scorching. But unlike the book, the movie gives us brief glimpses of another side of Vera. In her own way, she’s just as lost as Al. Vera’s led a hard life and probably doesn’t have long to live. In the few moments that Savage lets us see flashes of insecurity and desperation, it makes the character more than just another femme fatale. She seems vividly, pathetically human.
In the book, Alex manages to evade the law, but he can’t go home and he can’t go back to his girlfriend. He’s haunted by the memory of Sue, and tormented by the fact that his musical career has ended before it began. Goldsmith leaves Al stuck in limbo, bumming rides from one small town to another, earning a buck whenever he can. Still, he keeps moving forward. Life goes on. Ulmer’s ending is much more bleak. Al may have momentarily slipped free of the hangman’s noose, but he knows it’s only a matter of time before he’s caught. It’s not just bad luck that’s sent him on this detour. A mysterious force has singled him out, and there is no escape. When the highway patrol car pulls up alongside him at the end, he doesn’t struggle or try to run. He meekly steps inside. Because he knows it isn’t the police taking him down.
In the book the character’s name is Alex Roth, but in the movie it’s changed to Al Roberts, no doubt because nice “normal” Anglo names were always preferred for Hollywood heroes.
Can we ever understand our parents? Probably not. When we’re young they seem impossibly clueless and unfair. As we get older, as life starts beating us down the way it did them, we may start to empathize with them. We may begin to get some insight into why they were so angry and frustrated. But we can’t ever really understand what they went through because we can’t ever understand the times they lived through. Inevitably, their world is different from ours.
Still, we have to try to put ourselves in their shoes, if only to understand ourselves better. When we’re young, we see ourselves as the center of the universe and the setbacks we suffer seem horribly traumatic. When we get older, hopefully we start to realize that other people have suffered, too, and that when we put it all in perspective, the difficulties we’ve experienced often pale in comparison.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is generally credited with starting the blaxploitation cycle that flourished in the seventies. Certainly it made Hollywood aware of the fact that there was money to be made off black audiences, but the film itself has little to do with the routine genre flicks that followed. Melvin Van Peebles made Sweetback because he wanted to create a hero for an audience that didn’t have any movie heroes. He was sick of having his community misrepresented, when it wasn’t being completely ignored, by Hollywood. And so he decided to make a movie that would inspire Blacks. The movie he came up with was cheap, raw, and ragged, but it was also lively, imaginative and burning with anger. Black audiences had never seen anything like it, and they flocked to the theatres where it played.
I’m a little skeptical of Mario Van Peebles’ claim that he initially didn’t want to play his father in Baadasssss!, the story of the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. To my mind, he’s the only one who could’ve played the part. There were probably other actors who could have done a fine job with the role, but no one else could’ve brought the same intense commitment to it. Maybe the idea scared him at first, but whatever his reservations, I’m glad he took the part. Seeing the son play the father sets up a resonance that vibrates throughout the movie. This isn’t just another film inspired by true events. This is Mario Van Peebles conjuring up the demons that possessed his father.
And his father was possessed by many demons. A smart, proud, angry man, he was determined to make Sweetback no matter what it cost him, and it cost him a lot. We’re not just talking about money, either. Melvin’s obsession with putting the story on the screen put a tremendous strain on his family, especially his son. In Baadasssss!, we see Mario being recruited by his father to play the young Sweetback, and how the boy’s initial enthusiasm turns to extreme discomfort. He wants to be a part of what’s going on, but he’s obviously freaked out when his dad asks him to play a pretty explicit love scene with an older woman. When Melvin makes Mario go through with it, it’s clear the boy is wounded. And the film’s strange reflexive quality makes the sequence especially poignant. This is Mario, playing Melvin, telling his own story within his father’s story.
But I don’t want to make Baadasssss! sound like some depressing psychodrama. It’s actually really entertaining. This improbable story of how an outsider with no money made a hugely successful independent film is totally engaging. The script, by Mario Van Peebles and Dennis Haggerty, is full of outrageous episodes, all of which are apparently based on the actual facts. The early scenes, where Melvin and his friend Bill are trying to raise the money they need, are very funny. We’re introduced to a huge cast of characters, and it’s a sign of Van Peebles’ skill as a director that he not only makes them all distinct individuals but he also shows us how the relationships between them develop. When the shooting begins, everybody’s excited and enthusiastic. By the time they wrap it up, they’re all completely fried, ground down by the grueling schedule and the overwhelming obstacles they’ve had to face. But the ones who stick it out have all grown from the experience. None of them will ever be the same after having taken this journey.
I think it’s a journey Mario Van Peebles had to take. Watching the movie, it’s clear that being the son of a rebellious iconoclast like Melvin Van Peebles could be really tough. But watching the movie it’s also clear that Mario has a growing awareness of the fact that his father’s intensity and anger were a reflection of the era. As a child, Mario must have thought at times that his dad was completely crazy. But then, he never could have made Sweetback if he’d been completely sane.
Biopics can be a problem. Most peoples’ lives are so complex that it’s hard to boil them down to a sizeable book, let alone a two hour movie. On top of that, you’ve got the pressures of commercial filmmaking, which demand that stories follow certain accepted formats. And you’re also relying on screenwriters, actors and directors, all of whom have their own perspectives or agendas, to present an unvarnished account of somebody’s life. So you can see where problems might arise.
Back in the studio era, critics and audiences weren’t as demanding when it came to biopics. In some cases they just accepted the film version as being more or less true, even when there was plenty of evidence to the contrary. And on those occasions where the inaccuracies were really glaring, people would often shrug it off. The attitude was something like, “What do you expect? It’s Hollywood.” Nowadays movies about real people come under much greater scrutiny. Just in the last year extensive debates have played out in the media over the accuracy of films based on or “inspired by” actual events. Writers and directors who even seem to bend the truth can become a target for intense criticism.
So if we’re talking about Ed Wood, the low-budget filmmaker best known for Plan 9 from Outer Space, how important is it to tell the truth? Wood didn’t play a major part in shaping American history. He didn’t even play a significant role in Hollywood history. His shoestring productions have gained a cult following among those who wander down some of the darker alleys of American pop culture, but I’ve never heard anyone claim he was a major filmmaker. If somebody makes a movie about him that really doesn’t tell the truth, does it even matter?
Yeah, I think it does. But I still love the movie that Tim Burton made about Ed Wood. It does follow the general outline of the director’s life. Everyone who knew him agrees, Wood was passionate about making movies. Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski make Wood an innocent optimist who’s so obsessed with his vision that reality fades into the background. The humor arises out of the distance between his ambitions and his abilities, but the point they make is that it doesn’t matter how talented he was. The important thing is that he knocked himself out to make the best films he could. This is a great premise, and they develop it beautifully.
You can see why Tim Burton wanted to shoot the script. Not only does it deal with the low-budget horror films he cherishes, but the hero is a director who’s fighting the system to do things his way. Burton handles this offbeat biopic with impressive style and grace. Production designer Tom Duffield lovingly recreates Hollywood in the mid-fifties, the tacky, tawdry urban wasteland that remained after the ephemeral glamour of the studio era had evaporated. Cinematographer Stefan Czapsky captures the bland cheapness of stucco bungalows and low-budget sets, and still imbues it all with a fairy tale innocence. And composer Howard Shore somehow manages to create a blend of cheesy macabre, pop exotica and sinister soundtrack music that’s tongue in cheek without being condescending. He’s having fun exploring all these genres, but he’s not making fun of them.
Johnny Depp is absolutely wonderful in the title role. With a winning combination of charm, tenacity and absurd optimisim, he makes you want to believe in Wood’s madcap visions. It’s a highly stylized performance in a highly stylized film, and Depp pulls it off with incredible elan. He’s helped by an unusually strong supporting cast. Patricia Arquette is completely believable as Kathy Wood, just as innocent as Ed and willing to stand by him to the very end. Bill Murray brings a sense of melancholy resignation to the role of Bunny, the director’s long-suffering friend. Jeffrey Jones plays the Amazing Criswell with marvelous swagger. He’s an unabashed fraud who seems to always be ready for anything.
And of course, there’s Martin Landau’s remarkable performance as Bela Lugosi. While the other characters are essentially comic, there’s much more depth in this portrait of the aging horror star. The studios are through with him, he’s hooked on morphine, and he’s desperate enough for work that he’s willing to take a chance on a charming hustler like Wood. This is the emotional center of the movie. Wood may be exploiting Lugosi, but he also reveres him. Lugosi may harbor doubts about Wood’s talent, but he’s genuinely grateful that somebody still shows him some respect. For the most part the movie is gleefully superficial, but the bond between the two men is genuine, and you can feel the love between them.
Unfortunately, this is one of the areas where the facts are in question. When the movie was first released, Bela Lugosi’s son went public with a scathing critique, saying the filmmakers had misrepresented his father’s life in numerous ways. We can argue about how important the individual facts are, but Lugosi’s son asked why the filmmakers had never bothered to talk to him. He was practicing law in LA. It would have been easy for them to track him down and give him a call. If they really wanted to respect Lugosi’s memory, couldn’t they have spent a few hours interviewing his son?
Beyond that, the film’s portrayal of Wood is an idealized fantasy that only resembles the real man in its general outlines. It keeps us on his side by presenting him as a grown up kid. He may be a hustler, but he’s still innocent at heart. The reality is a lot more complicated, and not so appealing. They don’t show that Wood was a stone alcoholic. They don’t show him joyriding with a bottle in the car. They don’t show him staggering around a set, too wasted to direct anybody. And the supporting characters in Wood’s real life were a lot less wholesome than the amusing band of eccentrics we see in the movie. The real Ed Wood and his buddies were all hanging on to the bottom rung of the Hollywood ladder, and they lived out some pretty twisted scenes.
Who knows who made the decision to clean things up. It may be that Alexander and Karaszewski felt they needed to maintain an air of innocence to give the film a fairy tale quality. Or maybe that was Burton’s choice. Or maybe they all wanted to do something grittier, and the studio told them to scrape away the grime to make it more marketable. As much as I love the movie, I wish they’d just invented a fictional character to hang their story on. You may be wondering why it’s such a big deal for me. If the world isn’t getting the whole truth about Ed Wood, does it really matter?
Again, I think it does. If you care enough about somebody to make a movie about them, you need to really make a movie about them. If not, then stick with fiction. That way you can make up whatever you want.
But if Alexander, Karaszewski and Burton don’t tell the literal truth about Ed Wood, the story they do tell is a beautiful parable with an important moral for all those who are struggling to do what they love. I’ve seen the film many times, and I still get emotional during the scene when Wood runs into Orson Welles at Musso & Frank’s. We may think of them as coming from completely different worlds, but Welles immediately understands the difficulties Wood is facing, and utters these immortal words.
“Ed, visions are worth fighting for.”
Whatever you may think about the movies he made, Ed Wood fought hard to make them. His trials and tribulations on the fringes of Hollywood led him to some pretty strange places, and I’m sure there are many things he did that he wasn’t proud of. We’re all flawed, and we all get beaten down by reality. But those who struggle to do the things they’re passionate about should never let reality get in their way.
If you’re interested in learning more about this absolutely unique man, there are a couple of good resources for further study. First, I highly recommend Nightmare of Ecstasy, an oral biography by Rudolph Grey, which the movie was based on. The author talked to many of Wood’s closest associates, and weaves the interviews together into a mind-boggling account of the director’s life and times. Some of the stories are shocking, and the details of Wood’s last days are terribly depressing, but the book offers a convincing, complex portrait of this man. On top of that, the book paints a fascinating panorama of the world the director lived in. This isn’t the fantasy Hollywood that the media promotes. This is the actual, physical place called Hollywood, where people struggle in poverty for years hoping to some day hit it big. It’s not a pretty picture, but it is true to life.
I’d also recommend The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood Jr., an excellent, imaginative documentary. It, too, features interviews with many of Wood’s associates, and doesn’t shy away from his critics. Some people complain that the views are contradictory and don’t offer a clear picture of the director. I think this approach is more compelling, because the filmmakers allow for ambiguity instead of trying to reconcile the contradictions. There were people who loved him and people who hated him, and others who just didn’t know what to make of him.
If you don’t live in LA, you’ve probably never heard of the New Beverly Cinema. Even if you do live in LA, you may never have been there. But for a small group of people who love film, the New Beverly has been a home away from home. I think I started going there back in the eighties, when it was run by Sherman Torgan. Sherman died several years ago, and since then his son Michael has taken over. For both of them, running the theatre wasn’t a job, it was an act of love.
I’ve seen so many movies at the New Beverly. It’s been so important to my life. These days I don’t go as often as I used to, but I still check in a couple times a year. Not too long ago I saw Reflections in a Golden Eye there. It’s a very interesting and very obscure film, directed by John Huston from a novel by Carson McCullers. I never expected to see it in a theatre, but the New Beverly ran it as part of a Marlon Brando retrospective. I was so happy to see it on the big screen. But it’s not just the programming that makes the New Beverly a special place. It’s special because it’s always been run by people who care about film.
Quentin Tarantino has provided support for the New Beverly for years, and actually bought the property when Sherman died in order to keep the theatre alive. I know it means a lot to him. But apparently there’s been a dispute going on about how the New Beverly should be run, and Tarantino has decided he wants to be in charge, effectively taking control of the theatre away from Michael. I just learned of this recently, and I’m not privy to all the details, so I suggest you follow the link below to hear the story from someone who’s been a witness. Ariel Schudson has been part of the New Beverly family for years. Here’s the post she wrote about the situation….
Honestly, I don’t know what to say about all this. I feel like a kid watching Mom and Dad argue. I don’t want to take sides, and the whole thing just makes me feel really awful.
I was a teenager through most of the seventies, and I spent a fair amount of time in Santa Monica, but I had no idea that a revolution was going on there. While I was catching as many local bands as I could, and camping out at revival theatres that showed stuff by Welles and Godard, there was a whole other scene happening that eventually would change the world. I missed it completely. I’d never even ridden a skateboard.
Dogtown and Z-Boys doesn’t just document a sport. It captures a cultural shift. Using footage from the seventies along with an explosive collage of music from the time, the film shows how a rowdy band of kids living in an urban wasteland ended up becoming heroes to a generation. Skateboarding became a vehicle that would carry art, style and attitude to kids all over the world. Dogtown and Z-Boys is an exhilarating look back at how it all happened.
This movie has incredible energy. While it uses the standard talking head format for the interviews that tell the movement’s story, the footage from the past gives us a swirling, kaleidoscopic view of the seventies. If you’ve seen video of skateboarders doing their stuff, you know movement is everything, and I’m not just talking about the kids riding the boards. The camera leaps, jerks, swoops, trying to capture whatever’s happening. The images careen across the screen, sometimes flashing past so quickly it’s hard to say exactly what we’ve seen. The filmmakers splice it all together in inventive and expressive ways, capturing the energy of a movement that was all about movement. They also do an excellent job of using the present day interviews to provide context without slowing the film down or turning it into a lecture.
The film begins by giving us a sketch of the surfing scene in Santa Monica, Venice and Ocean Park back in the early seventies. The area had gone from oceanside suburb to urban wasteland in the space of about a decade. The guys riding the waves in that part of town had an aggressive style and were openly hostile to outsiders. Jeff Ho, Skip Engblom and Craig Stecyk opened up a surf shop where young surfers would gather to work and hang out. But somewhere along the way these kids turned from surfing to skateboarding, and the rowdy, crazy energy they’d shown riding the waves got channeled into their moves on concrete. Ho, Engblom and Stecyk acted as godfathers and midwives to the movement, creating the Zephyr Team, which was the tightly bound and tightly wound unit that was soon shaking up the skateboarding world.
While the film may appear chaotic, it’s actually very carefully constructed to give us not just the stories of the individuals or the history of the team, but also to give us the necessary context to understand what was actually going down. The film deftly weaves together observations about society, technology, commerce and culture to give us a well-rounded picture of the time and the place these kids grew up in, and to explain why their brash style connected with teens all across the country.
The one gripe I have with Dogtown and Z-Boys is that the makers don’t fully acknowledge their involvement in creating the story they’re telling. Sure, if you look at the credits you’ll see that it was written and directed by Craig Stecyk and Stacy Peralta. And in watching the movie you’ll make the connection that Stecyk’s work for Skateboard magazine garnered a lot of attention for the Z-Boys, while Peralta was one of the sport’s first stars. These two played a huge role not just in creating the initial scene, but in publicizing it and shaping the perception of it. I’m not bothered by the fact that they’re writing and directing the movie. Certainly they’re well qualified to tell the story, and as a piece of filmmaking Dogtown and Z-Boys is outstanding. But if you set out to make skateboarding a phenomenon, and then you make a documentary that shows how skateboarding became a phenomenon, you really have to acknowledge your dual role as subject and storyteller. Not just by putting your name on the credits, but by allowing that to be part of the fabric of the film. While I don’t distrust Peralta and Stecyk, I don’t think they’re being completely honest. In other words, I have no problem with them giving me a subjective account of what went down. I just want them to acknowledge that it is a subjective account.
Aside from that, I totally love this movie. These guys are smart and funny, and they have some great stories to tell. The footage from the seventies takes me back to the days when LA seemed like a vast, decaying paradise that you could wander through forever. And the score, featuring Jimi Hendrix, Alice Cooper, Pretenders and many others, matches the searing energy of the images.
Dogtown and Z-Boys is a joy to watch.
Nowhere are Fuller’s strengths and weaknesses more evident than in The Crimson Kimono. The film’s main characters are two LAPD detectives, Joe, a Japanese-American and Charles, an Anglo. From a twenty-first century perspective, it may be hard to understand how provocative this was in the fifties. The Crimson Kimono was released less than fifteen years years after WWII, when Japanese-Americans had been rounded up and sent to prison camps, ostensibly because the US government felt they might be a threat to national security. For most filmmakers of the time, it would have been daring enough to introduce a Nisei cop in a crime thriller. But the central conflict in the story actually comes out of the fact that Joe gets involved in a relationship with a white woman. How this film got released by a major studio back in nineteen fifty nine is beyond me.
The turning point for Joe is when he falls in love with Chris. She loves him as well, but he suddenly becomes aware for the first time that as a Japanese man he is seen as an outsider. In reality this is completely absurd. It’s hard enough to believe that any Japanese-American could come of age in mid-century America without having encountered racism, but the idea that Joe would fit right in with the LAPD at that time is laughable. Still, Fuller deserves credit for even talking about this kind of alienation in the fifties. Whether or not we accept the specifics of Joe’s story, the director was trying to make the point that in this “land of opportunity”, there were many people who felt excluded.
Fuller opens the film, as he often did, with a wallop. The opening shots bring us to a burlesque theatre in downtown LA. We see Sugar Torch dancing onstage as the band in the pit belts out a raucous tune. Moments later she’s lying dead on the crowded street outside. Much of the film was shot on location, and we get a good look at Los Angeles in the fifties. But even more important, the film is an amazing document of the Japanese-American community during that era.
Fuller’s camera follows the detectives as they roam through the streets of Little Tokyo. We see Japanese women working in a wig shop. Cooks in a kitchen making rice cakes. A couple of nuns standing in front of the Maryknoll School. To my mind the most remarkable scene shows Joe looking for an older Japanese man who may have information about a witness. He finds Mr. Yoshinaga at the Evergreen Cemetery, where the man is visiting the grave of his son, killed in WWII. Few Americans were aware then (and fewer now) that Japanese-Americans fought with the Allies in Europe. To make sure no one misses the point, Fuller lingers over monuments dedicated to these men. Joe asks Mr. Yoshinaga for help, and the man agrees, but says he must first attend a memorial service for his son. We follow him into a Buddhist temple to witness the ceremony, watching as the priest strikes a gong, taps a wood block, recites a prayer. This scene does nothing to advance the plot, but it opens a window on a world that most Americans have never seen. A world that’s right in our own backyard.
Whatever his faults as a filmmaker, Fuller challenged himself and he challenged his audience. It’s not just that he didn’t support the status quo. He was infuriated by the complacency with which most Americans accepted the bland reassurance that Hollywood dished out during the studio era (and still dishes out today). He tried to show us America in all its diversity, all its contrasts, all its complexity.
Really, he was trying to get us to take a long, hard look at ourselves.
Often a filmmaker’s most original work is the work he does outside the system. The constraints that directors have to deal with in making a commercial feature can tie them in knots. Producers who invest large sums of money in a project generally want something safe because they feel that’s the best way to turn a profit, which is why so many of the films we see have a ring of familiarity. A director may set out to make a movie that’s completely unconventional, but by time they’ve finished negotiating with the money men their groundbreaking work of art often becomes a rehash of last year’s hit.
Charles Burnett made Killer of Sheep when he was a student at UCLA in the seventies. It has the fearless originality, the breathtaking openness, the disturbing directness that maybe only a young artist is capable of. Working on a shoestring, using unknowns as actors, assisted by a crew you could probably fit in a VW, Burnett just made the film he wanted to. It’s a deeply personal and wrenchingly honest look at life in Watts, a run down, low income suburb of Los Angeles.
The film starts with a brief prologue where a teenage boy is first scolded by his father and then slapped by his mother for not taking his brother’s side in a fight. Early on the message is being drilled in. Violence is a part of life. Get used to it. We can choose not to fight, but we can’t escape the fight. It’s all around us. And the world is always trying to drag us into the fray.
Violence pervades the slowly decaying neighborhood where Stan lives in a small house with his wife and two children. Caught in the act of stealing a TV, a petty thief flies into a fit of rage when one of the neighbors calls the police. A couple of thugs come calling, looking for someone to help them out with a murder. And Stan works in a slaughterhouse, butchering sheep in order to make a living.
The scenes of Stan doing his job are brutally graphic. Sheep are kept in pens until they’re hung up and killed. Their carcasses are carried down a line as they’re skinned and dismembered. Stan is a gentle soul, but he spends his days slaughtering animals and we can see that it’s grinding him down. Trapped in a life he can’t escape, he seems exhausted and dazed. He talks about how he can’t sleep at night. His wife wants him to make love to her, but he rebuffs her. He barely speaks to his children.
Stan may literally be a killer of sheep, but everybody who lives in this depressed neighborhood is caught in a pen, waiting to be slaughtered. Burnett spends a good deal of time showing us the local children at play. They’re just kids, and they play the same games that kids play everywhere, but their aimless, innocent fun often seems to involve fighting, wrestling, rocks and BB guns. Violence bleeds into their lives early on.
This all may sound pretty bleak, but Burnett is so passionately engaged with his characters and the lives they lead that his film has a kind of subdued radiance. Wound up with the suffering and the sadness of Stan’s world is an implacable love that somehow survives. The glorious, eclectic score plays a major part in putting this across. Burnett brings together a variety of artists working in a range of styles, from Paul Robeson to Elmore James, from Scott Joplin to William Grant Still. But it’s Dinah Washington singing This Bitter Earth that reveals the film’s core of love wrapped up in pain. Near the end of the movie Stan and his family return home after a flat tire ruins their outing. It’s been a frustrating day, but as he’s sitting on the sofa with his wife he suddenly seems able to show her some tenderness. The final scene shows him back in the slaughterhouse, doing his job, but for the moment he seems to have found a reason to keep moving forward. And the last thing we hear before the credits is Washington singing the line, “…This bitter earth may not be so bitter after all.”
The Trip is one of his smartest, sharpest films. Though he wasn’t into drugs himself, Corman understood that drug experiences were central to the counterculture movement. In a way it seems he may have even anticipated the drug culture with features like The Masque of the Red Death and X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes, which included delirious, hallucinogenic imagery. Corman understood that a shift in consciousness had taken place. As a commercial filmmaker, he was interested in exploiting current trends, but as an artist, he was also interested in exploring the changes that were happening in the world around him.
The first draft of the script was by Charles Griffith, who had already written numerous Corman films, including Not of this Earth, Little Shop of Horrors and The Wild Angels. But apparently the director wasn’t satisfied with Griffith’s screenplay and handed the job to Jack Nicholson, who received sole credit. The script is pretty unconventional. There’s no plot, at least not in the usual sense. Corman avoids the melodramatic structures that had served him so well for years. He doesn’t need them because he’s not trying to deliver a message about drugs. He just wants to immerse the audience in an experience. From the beginning of the film to the end, we simply stay with the main character while he’s tripping on acid.
Corman starts off with a shot that sets the tone for the movie. We see a beautiful young couple embracing against a blue sky. Then the woman speaks, and we realize that she’s reciting an ad slogan. The camera pulls back to reveal that the couple is standing in the middle of the ocean. We then see two men perched on some rocks by a camera. The director yells cut. We’re at the beach, watching a commercial being filmed. The director, Paul, is satisfied with the shot and tells his crew to bring the couple back to the shore. Opening the film with a surreal image of an idealized couple is not accidental. Paul is shortly confronted by his wife, who is angry that he missed an appointment to sign divorce papers. It’s clear that Paul isn’t happy about splitting up with his wife, but it’s also clear that he’s interested in getting together with other women.
This sets up the dynamic for the film, the conflict that will shape Paul’s hallucinations once he drops acid. His friend John is going to act as his guide while he’s tripping, staying with him to make sure that everything goes well. They go to John’s home in the Hollywood Hills, a large, comfortable house decorated with an array of psychedelic colors and op-art patterns. When the acid first starts coming on, Paul is childlike, enchanted by everything he sees. Simple objects suddenly seem incredibly beautiful. We see Paul roaming through the house, enthusing about the living energy he sees around him, and these scenes are intercut with subjective images of Paul’s visions.
In this imaginary landscape Paul encounters all sorts of strange things. His wife appears, but there are other women, too, and it seems that the conflict between love and desire is very much on his mind. We see two riders on horseback, completely covered by black cloaks with hoods. At first they seem to be figures in a landscape, but suddenly they’re pursuing our hero and he runs into a cave filled with mist. As the film goes on, Paul’s hallucinations become darker and more complex. He starts getting very paranoid, and when John leaves the room for a moment, Paul bolts from the house, running down the side of the hill to the Sunset Strip. Somehow Paul manages to negotiate the colorful chaos of the Strip at night, though he does have a couple close calls. Finally he meets a woman in a club and goes back to her home to spend the night. When he wakes up the next morning, the LSD has worn off, leaving him wondering what has happened. He dropped acid to gain insight, but he’s unsure if he’s learned anything at all.
Corman gives us a striking snapshot of LA in the late sixties. From the illusionistic opening at the beach, to John’s colorful hillside home, to the happy frenzy of the Sunset Strip at night. The Trip doesn’t just document the locations, it also captures the state of mind of the hipster crowd in LA at that time. Everything’s cool, everything’s mellow, everything’s groovy. Until the cops show up, and then you just run like hell. By this point in his career Corman had become an extremely capable filmmaker, able to produce interesting, intense movies on very tight budgets. He was always concerned about holding the audiences’ attention, so there’s usually a fair amount of action and a certain amount of sex. But his best films were also visually expressive, and he knew how to create potent, compelling images. I wish that he’d invested a little more time and money in The Trip, because some of Paul’s visions seem to have a cut-rate quality, and some scenes could have benefitted from a little rewriting and a few more takes. To their credit, Nicholson and Corman are tackling some serious themes. I feel like they could have dug a little deeper, taken it a little farther. Still, Corman was not out to deliver a message, and the movie is honest in that Paul doesn’t claim to have any more answers after taking acid than before. It is maddening, though, that AIP changed the ending, superimposing something like shattered glass over Paul’s face in the final shot to imply that he’d been damaged by the experience. It’s a nasty scar on a film that is otherwise an imaginative and engaging look at a moment in American culture. It’s a rare example of a commercial film that’s willing to engage the counterculture on its own terms.
* The Intruder, a sharp, tough little movie about racial prejudice.
Before that happened, Kent MacKenzie made two films about Bunker Hill. The first is a fairly conventional documentary short in which residents give their views on the city’s plans to bulldoze the area. The second is a dazzling, poetic ramble in which we spend the night with three Native Americans who have left the reservation and made Bunker Hill their home.
It’s not exactly a documentary, but it’s not exactly fiction either. The film focusses on three people, Yvonne, Homer and Tommy, who play themselves. MacKenzie interviewed the three to learn about their lives, and then wrote the script based on what they had told him. As we watch the characters roaming through the neon lit streets of downtown, we hear them talking in their own voices about who they are and what they feel. Yes, everything we see is staged, but the three protagonists seem completely unselfconscious. They seem to be giving us an honest account of their lives.
The word documentary is kind of problematic to begin with. We tend to think the term describes a factual account of the world as it is. In reality, most documentaries are staged to some degree, and the filmmakers can’t help but organize the material from their own perspective. Robert Flaherty had his subjects act out scenes for the camera to achieve the effects he wanted. John Grierson believed that film should be a tool to bring about greater awareness and social change, and advocated using the medium to achieve that end. It may seem that Frederick Wiseman is an impartial observer who stands back and lets the world unfold before the camera, but Wiseman himself rejects that view. He insists that his documentaries are not objective, but rather an account of his experience making the film.
And in talking about a movie as vivid and original as The Exiles, why worry about definitions. The film may not be a documentary, but it is a document. It shows a neighborhood, Bunker Hill, once an elite enclave for the wealthy, now a bustling, lower-income community where the streets are brimming with life. It shows people, Native Americans who left the dead-end reservations they grew up on and came to LA looking for something different. It shows places and spaces, streets, bars, juke joints, hotels, tunnels and hilltops. The images are real, even if the scenes may have been staged.
Though the film doesn’t have a score, it’s filled with music. We hear songs jumping out of radios and jukeboxes (including some by the Revels). We also hear Native American chants which take us outside the amped-up sound of city life. Toward the end a group Indians drive to the top of a hill overlooking Los Angeles for a gathering. It’s a place where they can be themselves, where they can drink and talk and sing. We may not understand the words, but it’s clear the music brings them together. It reminds them of their kinship.
Certainly MacKenzie shaped the material, but it feels as though Yvonne, Homer and Tommy are taking us through their world. The Exiles is an invitation to see life from someone else’s perspective. As a pretty square guy living a pretty straight life, it blows my mind to hear Tommy talk about being in jail. “Time is just time to me. I’m doin it outside so I can do it inside.” MacKenzie’s great gift is that he gets people to open up, and then just lets them be who they are.