Monday, January 28, 2008

Liberty Under Siege

To paraphrase yesterday's post over at the Bright Lights After Dark blog: Lady Liberty seems to be the "unofficial poster girl for apocalyptic sci-fi," as illustrated by their comparison of the iconic posters for The Day After Tomorrow and the current disaster-cum-monster movie Cloverfield. But as can be seen below, the Green Lady has been taking a pop-apocalypse pummeling for generations now:

From top to bottom:
Lady Liberty as bygone relic
• The classic August-September 1953 cover of SF pulp Fantastic Universe by Alex Schomberg, widely considered to be the inspiration for...
• The chilling closing shot of the original Planet of the Apes (1968), both of which in turn likely prompted...
• Jack Kirby's cover for the premiere issue of his DC comic Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth (1972)
Lady Liberty bothered, beheaded and bowled over
• The poster image for John Carpenter's Escape From New York (1981), the acknowledged inspiration for...
• The notorious Cloverfield teaser (2007)
• And of course, between beheadings she was memorably knocked face-down into the muck of New York harbor by interplanetary hooligans in the Emmerichs' other New York smackdown, Independence Day (1996)
How to treat a Lady
• Thankfully, though, director Ivan Reitman demonstrated a little old-school gallantry, showing the Lady some respect and letting her stand tall in Ghostbusters II (1989). He even gave her a police escort!

(Why do I heart Bright Lights After Dark? Is it because of their snark-free love affair with all things movie? Is it because of their breezy and insightful perspective on the broader pop culture landscape? Because they clearly champion black and white film as a legitimate artistic medium with a long and rich legacy? All of the above— but right now I love them for kicking my ass into gear and inspiring my first post for 2008. Thanks for the push, folks!)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Thursday’s Palace #3: Les Arènes de Chaillot (CLOSED BY PARIS POLICE DEPT.)

On the Internet, you should mark your trail with bread crumbs, which wouldn’t work in the catacombs of Paris (all those hungry rats...). Here is my trail of crumbs leading from a Wikipedia “Did you know...” article which caught my eye yesterday, to today’s rather unusual featured Movie Palace:
a) The Covering of the Senne River and urban renewal in 19th Century Brussels. Which links to Wiki’s entry on
b) Haussmann's renovation of Paris which in turn reminded me of the
c) Paris catacombs. Which in turn linked to
d) this item, which is the coolest thing I‘ve discovered on the Internet this year bar none. A mysterious, clandestine cinema in the bowels of Paris, complete with bar, kitchen (couscous only), plumbing, electricity and closed-circuit TV to watch for ze copairs. The cinematheque of my dreams. And ze copairs returned the next day only to find the space abandoned, hastily emptied except for a note which read “DON’T TRY TO FIND US.”

The secret cinephiles turn out to be a group of urban explorers known as La Mexicaine De Perforation (The Mexican Perforation). Further Googling turned up a little more information on the Perfs and their cinema lair. Much of the Parisian Catacombs was carved out of limestone, a Roman-era quarry for the foundations of Paris itself. The location of the Perfs’ cinema was choice, and quite deliberate: a subterranean chamber mere meters from the legendary “above-ground” palace of French cinema, La Cinémathèque Française which is itself also built on the foundations of le Palais de Chaillot. This was pointed out by filmaker and Perf spokesman Lazar Kunstmann in a 2004 interview with Greg of

For all their resourcefulness, secrecy and flouting of authority, La Mexicaine De Perforation seem to be no more subversive or dangerous to society at large than your average nihilistic film nuts, judging from their film programs, which Greg posts here. Naturally they show a preference for films about the hidden, clandestine and subterranean. Good stuff, with enough obscure selections to keep me Googling for some time (1996's Moebius by director Gustavo Mosquera sounds particularly intriguing — a cross between The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 and Aronofsky's π — and currently unavailable in the U.S. in any format). Since the the posted programs only cover their 2003 and 2004 “seasons” (2004's “Urbex Movie” series was interrupted by the police raid), I wonder whether they had ever previously had the chance to screen the 1935James Whale horror classic Bride of Frankenstein. The dinner scene between the Monster and the sinister Dr. Praetorius in the underground crypt would have been pitch perfect for the skeleton-jammed Parisisan catacombs:

Dr. Pretorius: Do you know who Henry Frankenstein is, and who you are?
The Monster: Yes, I know. Made me from dead. I love dead... hate living.
Dr. Pretorius (peering happily around at the skulls and bones): You are wise in your generation. We must have a long talk, and then I have an important call to make.

Top: Bones from the old Magdeleine Cemetery deposited in the Catacombs in 1859 (Wikipedia)
Bottom: possible image of Les Arènes de Chaillot cinema (thanks to willamina at Stars in the Gutter. Originally found at, though, oddly, not at Wikipedia)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Walter Salles: Road Movies in the Rearview Mirror

Walter Salles, the director of the upcoming film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, penned a nice essay on the history of the road movie which appears in today’s New York Times Magazine. In it, he traces its origins, first back to Homer’s Odyssey, then, at the prompting of Wim Wenders, further back to “our nomadic roots, in mankind’s primal need to leave an account of its passage on earth,” making the cave paintings at Lascaux and Altamira the earliest trace of the narrative impulse.

I suppose that ultimately that would depend on whether the cave paintings function as documents of Cro-Magnon life as well as ritual tools. Salle himself draws an interesting parallel between road movies and documentary film: “The road movie is not the domain of large cranes or steady-cams. On the contrary, the camera needs to remain in unison with characters who are in continual motion — a motion that shouldn’t be controlled. The road movie tends, therefore, to be driven by a sense of immediacy that is not dissimilar from that of a documentary film.” This naturally dovetails with the reports of his On the Road being filmed with hand-held cameras (which in turn led me to draw parallels between Kerouac’s spontaneous prose and the mumblecore aesthetic in a previous post).

Salle must know what he's talking about, being the director of two very individual and critically well-received road movies, 1998’s Central Station and 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries. “In doing different road movies, I also came to realize that a good screenplay grants you more freedom to improvise than a weak one. It’s like jazz: the better the melody, the easier it is to wander away from it, because it will also be easier to return to it later.” I like how Salles slips in another Kerouac trademark here, jazz as the essence of improvisation, only unlike Kerouac he emphasizes the importance of the core melody, or theme. Which parallels, interestingly enough what screenwriter champion David Kipen says (and which I reference in another recent post): a director without a strong screenplay may very find himself or herself on some very questionable back roads.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Thursday’s Palace #2: The Loew’s Jersey

This is my second post in the last 24 hours to feature a Loew’s Wonder Theater; scroll below for a glimpse of Manhattan’s 175th Street Theater as re-purposed by Reverend Ike. I'll get around eventually to featuring the three remaining ones (the Paradise in the Bronx, the Valencia in Queens, the Kings in Brooklyn) in future Thursday’s Palace posts, as they have all miraculously survived the test of time — but what is truly special about the Jersey is that it's the only one still actively screening films.

In an era which has seen the demise of nearly all the pre-cineplex movie houses in New York City, the Loew’s Jersey is a precious gem for New Yorkers; a mere 15 minute PATH train ride from downtown Manhattan across the Hudson, it offers a novel alternative for busy people who've only been able to catch Golden Age classics on the Turner channel or through a Netflix queue. It was a treat for me to see and hearThe Maltese Falcon there a couple of years ago; the cathedral vastness of the theater, its incredible ornamentation and the sheer sound reverb (Bogie’s voice, gunshots booming through the space and in your gut) added up to a viscerally different movie experience. I even liked the heavy pop on the soundtrack at each reel change.

This Saturday November 10, they are hosting an 80th anniversary screening of The Jazz Singer, the very first talkie and an notorious touchstone for enduring racial stereotypes in American popular culture. It will be accompanied by a presentation in conjunction with the Afro-American Historical & Cultural Society of Jersey City. Next week on November 16th and 17th the Jersey will be screening a trio of noir thrillers by director Otto Preminger: Where the Sidewalk Ends starring Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, Angel Face with Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons, and last but not least the classic Laura, again with Tierney and Andrews.

Visit the Friends of the Loew’s website for more information on these shows as well as the history of the theater and the valiant/gargantuan efforts by a community of volunteers to salvage it in the face of overwhelming red tape and politics: something of a noir thriller in its own right.

JaySpace, Bright Lights After Dark, Noir of the Week

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

From Plato’s Cave to Ike’s Church

Most of my quasi-religious experiences have happened in movie theaters, not churches. It’s no mystery, really. One sits in the dark, preferably a cavernous space, where one senses the presence of other souls, only you and they are focused on the visions before you, as intimate as dream, or memory. Or, in the case of the popular re-tellings of the Exodus story, as intimate as God speaking to you from out of a Burning Bush.

Actually, the first time I heard God at the movies He was awesome and terrifying. It was the late 60s, and my father had taken me to see a holiday revival of De Mille’s The Ten Commandments at the Loews Paradise on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, one of the five Loews Wonder Theaters in the New York area. The decor of the place was impossibly lavish, even pagan. It was an “atmospheric” movie palace, meaning that the vast barrel-vault ceiling of the auditorium was designed to imitate the open sky, a deep blue which faded to night when the show started, tiny electric lights winking on to evoke the stars. The audience of thousands sat in the midst of a ruined Roman villa, its broken columns silhouetted against the artificial twilight along the walls on either side. My dad and I sat in the lower of two balconies piled high above the orchestra seats. After the film was over and the house lights went up, or rather, when the artificial dawn arrived, I looked down over the brass rail on the teeming, milling masses below. It was a sea of people, like De Mille’s Israelites, huddling under the towering walls of water in the cleft of the Red Sea.

That was the point of the Wonder Theaters. You didn't go to the Paradise for Cassavetes’ earthbound human dramas, but for De Mille's spectacle, for Ford's sweeping vistas, even for the tortured camera angles of Hitchcock. You went to have an out-of-body, almost spiritual experience, helped along by the temporal displacement of being in an ancient outdoor ruin, or a pagan temple. The movie palaces of the 1920s were going for the vestigial memories of mankind unreeling their imaginations in ritual spaces, what was known as theater to the ancient Greeks but which still had an odor of burnt offerings. It's no accident that the earliest movie theaters, the nickelodeon arcades and bijous, were essentially magical caves.

In fact, the very history of the 20th Century movie theater resembles a super-compressed history of western religion: the caves and grottos gave way to lavish temples and imperial palaces, which fell into neglect and ruin during the Dark Ages of the Great Depression. Many of the palaces were razed to the ground to make way for purely secular office towers, but a few, including some of New York's Wonder Theaters, survived to become places of Christian worship.

The transcendent sensory experience of early 20th Century American moviegoing found a ready counterpart in the postwar religious revival. Reverend Ike, for instance, purchased the Loews 175th Street Theater (see picture at the top of the post) and transformed it into his United Palace Church, keeping this most elaborate of the Wonder Theaters in a state of near perfect preservation. Its gilded interiors are an appropriate setting for exalted states, whether of enthralled movie audiences or ecstatic evangelicals. Today, it is rare to see a movie in such grand surroundings; but I still believe the big screen offers a better chance at epiphany than our home theaters, laptops and iPods, the Lumiere Manifesto notwithstanding.

The second time I heard God at the the movies, it was in the featureless black box of a modern multiplex. His voice was gentle and soothing. Once again he called to Moses from the Burning Bush, but this time it he was a God of persuasion, not of command. De Mille's blinding atomic bush had become a gently iridescent shrub. "Moses," God whispered, almost inaudible in the desert breezes. And while I don't consider myself a religious person, per se, I wept. Because of the intimacy of scale, it was a powerful little scene in an otherwise run-of-the-mill animated musical (Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt): on the big screen, in that dark room, the message is aimed right at you, only at you.

While researching this post, I found a clip of the scene on YouTube ... only to find no trace of the original power. The flame, it seems, burns brightest in the temple.

Thanks to Strange Culture for hosting the Film + Faith Blogathon, November 7-9, 2007.

The Schreibers Strike!

“The writer is the most important person in Hollywood. But we must never tell the sons of bitches.”
Irving G. Thalberg, legendary production honcho at Universal and MGM

Every few years the film industry feels the wrath of its unsung auteurs — or schreibers, as author David Kipen calls them. We are now in the midst of a new screenwriters strike, and the effect has been immediate, at least on television, as the late night talk shows (scripted — who knew?) go into reruns. I think this is as good a time as any to recommend Kipen's little manifesto The Schreiber Theory, which bestows ultimate creative ownership of a film on the screenwriter — a formal refutation of the auteur theory (director-as-auteur) popularized by American film critic Andrew Sarris, which of course is as solid as the theory of evolution amongst film critics and fans alike. The few writers with any real recognition or following are themselves directors or have, like David Mamet, made a name for themselves outside of film altogether.

Needless to say Kipen's thesis is controversial (even "perverse" as a film/culture critic friend has suggested). Yet his detractors seem to brandish the same pantheon figures (Hitchcock, Ford, Fellini, Bergman) in defense of the auteur theory. One could counter that these are in essence dependable "blue-chip" directors, who would never even begin to plan a film without a solid script. It's worth looking at Kipen's examples of celebrated directors who ultimately fall from grace through acts of hubris such as coming to rely on style over content, or employing editor as fixer and partner-in-crime. Ultimately, even if you don't agree with the Schreiber Theory, Kipen's index at the back of the book listing classic studio films by screenwriter rather than director is a fascinating cross-reference of Hollywood history and will have a salutary effect on your Netflix queue.

The Writers Guild of America's list of 101 Greatest Screenplays

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Thursday’s Palace #1: The Lafayette

I've chosen the awesome Lafayette Theater in downtown Suffern, NY as my inaugural Thursday Palace. You can read all about it here at their official site and here at a surprisingly in-depth Wikipedia entry; suffice for me to say that while Suffern is a bit out of the way for most frantic Manhattanites, it is well worth the fare and hour train ride to reclaim the nearly-forgotten institution of the Saturday matinee.

The Lafayette is in the midst of its popular
fall/winter Big Screen Classics series, Saturday mornings from September 8 to December 15, showtime at 11:30a.m. Doors open at 11 a.m.: come early for pre-show music by Jeff Barker on the Mighty Wurlitzer! They are very good about getting pristine prints whenever possible, by the way, so don’t expect a grindhouse experience. Top-notch film exhibition, a classic repertoire, a stunning auditorium, fresh hot popcorn and Wurlitzer serenades. Watching movies doesn't get any better than that (so get off the couch).

Last but not least, the Lafayette's annual Horror-Thon kicks off tomorrow night with Ed Wood’s Plan Nine From Outer Space plus what is advertised as Ed Wood’s home movies. And that’s kinda scary, yes. You might also want to drop in on Sunday at 2 p.m. for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and a gander at the original Dracula cape worn by Bela Lugosi in the horror-comedy, which will be on display!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Beatcore, Mumblenicks

Jack Kerouac's On The Road, published a half-century ago this fall, has been considered virtually unfilmable — until now. Brazilian director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) has been tagged to deliver the long-awaited film adaptation in 2009 for Francis Coppolla's American Zoetrope, according to IMDB. Even Coppolla, who's held the novel's film rights since 1968, claims that On the Road "... is inherently difficult to adapt to the screen, and we've never quite found the right combination of director and writer to do it justice until now." This is interesting — a road story unfilmable? Think of the length and breadth of a film genre that Kerouac's book helped redefine for the jet age: from Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde to Thelma & Louise and Little Miss Sunshine; and of course there are Salles' own Motorcycle Diaries and the Cuaróns' Y Tu Mamá Tambien, two imports which resonate with American viewers for their themes of socio/political and sexual discovery along the crooked-line narrative device of the road. And therein lies the problem: most road movies use the road to thread together a story with an overt theme (the Depression, feminism, political revolution, coming-of-age). Keroauc's story is more document than tale; its themes and lessons are one with the action, and the typical Hollywood treatment would make a hash out of teasing them into plain view.

But with the emergence of a new sensibility weaned on years of reality TV and camcorders comes fertile ground for an On the Road movie. Salles will supposedly be taking a low-fi approach, using hand-held video cameras and unknown actors, two much-touted hallmarks of “mumblecore,” which has come into prominence this past year as the film school rejoinder to YouTube video verité. Like these new lo-fi auteurs, Kerouac was accused of indulging his generation's angst-driven minutiae — recording every goofball scenario and all words mumbled, yelled, slurred, or fervently proclaimed in his account of postwar twenty-somethings living in the moment and in pursuit of an unarticulated something.

The literary merits of his compressed lyrical shorthand were hotly contested at the time of On the Road's publication: Truman Capote famously derided it as mere “typing.” Today, some accuse the directors of “mumblecore” of simply leaving their camcorders running. I personally think of Hannah Takes the Stairs as the first "smaller-than-life" movie; I was underwhelmed by its microscopic angst and mostly untouched by its inarticulate characters. Kerouac's Beat protagonists were, in spite of all the benzedrine popping, infinitely more expressive, and almost fatally hyper-engaged with the world at large. But that's just me, or at least that's just Hannah. It's only a matter of time before mumblecore's hyper-self-consciousness meets bigger-world-consciousness. It may already have already happened (I haven't seen Quiet City yet — from the trailer it does indeed seem a lyrical and world-conscious work). And as for our sad but gloriously kinetic Road heroes Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty — I'm anxious to see how they come off on the big screen. Will they connect with the Internet generation? Will they blaze longer and brighter than Into the Wild's Christopher McCandless or will they end up as irrelevant and ghostly as poor old Sky Captain? Perhaps the Beat and Mumble Generations will, in the end, save each other.

Above: Hanna Takes the Stairs' Greta Gerwig shares a quiet moment with Jack Kerouac

Monday, October 15, 2007

Fall Resolutions

The lazy fleeting days of Summer '07 are past. I know that now. Scarf days are here. The gals on the city streets are knocking around in boots again. People are beating it indoors. (No one says beat it anymore. No one says whaddayou, kiddin’ me? anymore either). The good thing about fall weather is it gives you new resolve, though. So here are my fall resolutions:
1) shorter posts
2) writing “The Myth That Wouldn't Sit Still, Part 3”
3) getting through my Outer Limits (Original Series) and Firefly box sets

I'm not even gonna think about a bigger flat screen yet, you kiddin’ me?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Myth That Wouldn't Sit Still, Part 2

On May 29, 1977, a Sunday, I finally got myself down to the Loews Astor Plaza, off Times Square, to see what all the hubbub was about. If you're following the Edward Copeland-hosted Star Wars 30th Anniversary Blog-a-thon, I'm sure you'll find no shortage of memoirs and reminiscences of May 1977 and the variety of first-ever Star Wars experiences, so to cut to the chase: what I saw that day, sitting in about the fourth row, on a screen which spanned my peripheral vision, was fairly unprecedented and had no conceivable follow-up. I love Roger Ebert's summing up so I'll just lift it wholesale here: “It's... as corny as Kansas in August--and a masterpiece.”

Probably the most gratifying thing about Star Wars in retrospect was that it was oddly vindicating. It spoke directly to my particular and peculiar set of tastes, as an introverted, bookish and highly romantic high-schooler (i.e., romantic in the sense of obsessed by adventure and mystery, not yet in the adventures-with-the-opposite-sex sense). Special effects, gadgetry, pulp space opera, old-Hollywood swashbuckling, heaving full-orchestra music scores, anachronistic movie effects like wipes and iris fades, over-the-top comic book heroes and villains, Arthurian romance... somehow, as eclectic and private as it was, this guy Lucas harvested my world and showed everyone else how cool it was. He made my movie, and the best part was how uncompromisingly clunky and corny it was; I mean, what kind of title is "Star Wars” anyway? The kind you make up on a thoughtless summer afternoon when you're eight years old, playing ray guns with your best friend and you just happen to need a quick title for your improvised adventure; or the kind you make up with a little self-mocking bravado for the comic book pastiche you're drawing in your high school sketchpad, the cruddy little mishmash of Dune, Lord of the Rings, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels.

Clunky, corny, perfect.
And in the summer of 1977, on the huge screen of the Astor Plaza, with the wonderful Ben Burrt sound effects and John Williams' soaring music in Dolby Surround Stereo, completely real. (There are hundreds of us in the audience that day, but we might as well all be huddled around a campfire in the deep dark woods, enjoying the monster tales. Princess Leia growls "It could be worse," having fallen into the Death Star's garbage disposal, and the audience titters with giddiness when something growls in response, echoing menacingly around us in six-track Dolby, leaping from speaker to speaker. “It's worse,” observes a shaken Han Solo. We burst into laughter). Apparently, however, to Lucas' mind, the movie was clunky, corny and far from perfect, and not nearly as real as the sprawling space opera in his own head. I think this is the big reason that fans take it so personally that Lucas keeps fiddling with the myth. Once upon a time, beyond all probability, it was just right; so Lucas' change of tack seems like a kind of betrayal, a denial of the original miracle. In 1977, the adventure was perfect, unique, stand-alone. It was simply, Star Wars. In 2007, the original adventure, now called Episode IV: A New Hope, sits embedded in the middle of a twisting, lumbering epic that has adopted the original no-nonsense name. It's a bad fit.

Don't get me wrong.
I actually enjoy the saga, flawed as it is. The creativity and sheer invention of Lucas and his team has never flagged, as far as I'm concerned, and the story is fairly satisfying overall, I think. It's grating in the details: leaden direction of some key dramatic scenes, cringeingly bad romantic dialogue, wrong-headed plot developments (midichlorians?) and wrong-headed characters (guess who). I follow the conventional wisdom that the three best episodes are The Empire Strikes Back, A New Hope, and Revenge of the Sith, in more or less that order. But I still believe that Star Wars, the original experience, is a separate entity. Even with the changes Lucas made to it, his supposed refinements (and I'm not even referrring here to the revised “Han Shot Second” scene), A New Hope, aka Star Wars, just does not flow properly with the rest of the saga. If one watches the series in the order Lucas intends, the first two-thirds of Episode IV essentially becomes an intermission; after the increasing tension and density of the first three episodes, A New Hope is jarringly sedate and simplistic, and there are a host of plot and character inconsistencies between Star Wars '77 and Star Wars, the Saga.

One senses that Lucas would just love to scrap the current Episode IV and start from scratch, updating the music themes and digitally replacing incogruous characters (the “Darth Vader Theme,” aka the Imperial March, is very obviously missing in Episode IV, and honestly, Obi-Wan Kenobi just cannot have aged that badly in twenty years, unless he did a lot of hard living down there on Tatooine; maybe he knows his way around that seedy little Mos Eisley cantina a little too well...) Despite all the vitriol directed at the prequels by the fanboys (just read the comment threads on Harry Knowles’ Ain't It Cool News site going back to 1999 and you will see the genesis of truly vicious Internet snark), I think the real seams are between A New Hope and the other five episodes, not between the "classic trilogy" and the prequels. The moment we step onto the larger emotional and narrative stage of The Empire Strikes Back, we're in a different work altogether.

A modest proposal: separate the twins.
restore the 1977 classic edition of Star Wars to its original glory and make it available as a separate disk in its own appropriate packaging, distinct from the six-episode saga; this would then allow Lucas to further refine Episode IV to his heart's content and integrate it completely with his bigger storyline; further gripes from the fanbase would be totally without merit at that point. George Lucas (and the fans) would finally have his New Hope and eat it, too.

Next: The Saga—— An Unprecedented Event in the History of Narrative (Really)