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The Day the Music Died (1977)
An amazing mess of a movie about an amazing mess of an era...
This whacked-out documentary is about the ill-fated Randall's Island rock festival of 1970, which was a financial bust, due to its being picketed by a coalition of 21 radical groups (including such people as The White Panthers and the Weather Underground), chiefly because they wanted the capitalist pigs to give back to the counterculture that made them millionaires in the first place. Among the list of demands was $100,000 bail for a Black Panther, and 10,000 free tickets.
Nonetheless, the fences fell because of the demonstrations, and the venue was overrun with freeloading gate-crashers. As a result, many performers refused to play, even though they were paid half in advance. (One scene has a wimpy exec having the unenviable task of telling the ugly crowds that Sly and the Family Stone wouldn't be showing up.)
In order to pad out this documentary, some fictional footage was shot years later, featuring DJ Murray the K taking calls from people relating what's going down at Randall's Island. Also, there is an actor who portrays the concert promoter. In one pivotal scene, he meets with the demonstrators. And since he is an African-American who has worked his way out of the ghetto, he asks why he is the one who has to solve their problems (remembering that these groups feature a lot of well-fed white people).
And truthfully, he has a point. This is a volatile argument in one angry, sarcastic movie. THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED is perhaps the best film I've seen that describes the dichotomy of 60's counterculture.... where hippies who utter peace and love, or people who take the stances of radicals, use these identities as excuses to freeload off of other people's hard work. What is even more incredible is that this documentary makes this point with its ridiculous fictional footage!
And amidst the documentary footage of people bitching that they paid 21 dollars for this event, and some random clips of the performers who did play, -Mountain ("Mississippi Queen"), Van Morrison ("Come Running")- we see footage by artists who were never there! The Doors' "People are Strange" performance film (later featured in their "Dance on Fire" video collection), is prominently featured. While at first this seems like a silly way to give more running time to the movie, it nonetheless makes sense featuring Jim Morrison, the poster boy of chaos and disorder, amidst a backdrop that is out of control.
Similarly, we see snippets of Angela Davis, Richard Nixon, Vietnam, The Red Berets and Malcolm X interspersed throughout, and the choice of music becomes more symbolic. When we hear Steppenwolf, the song is "America". The movie concludes with Jimi Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner", which although played at Woodstock (3 Days of Peace and Love), is in a perfectly Satanic context here.. summarizing this hour-long treatise of a nation (and a generation) out of control.
Sometimes the most profound things occur by accident. This scruffy, out-of-control of a movie is the perfect metaphor of the scruffy, out-of-control generation it eulogizes.
Moment to Moment (1975)
So help me, I like this bloody thing
After having comparatively mainstream success with PUTNEY SWOPE, POUND and GREASER'S PALACE, it is somewhat ironic (and somehow poetic) that Bob Downey made a picture that is a return to the underground: with a narrative that almost defies description, and that it had only been screened a handful of times before disappearing.
This is a collage film in the most obtuse sense of the word... half-baked sketches and unfinished story ideas are chopped up further, mixed in with each other, so as to make even less narrative sense than they already do! In a few minutes of screen time, we see a restaurant skit, people asking for directions to "Jive", a guy on a roof talking to God, people on a park bench, and then we will refer back to more snippets of these scenes, in whatever order. For the most part, this film (presumably) exists as a valentine to Elsie Downey, who, as in her previous film for her husband (CHAFED ELBOWS) plays several characters. Downey's voice rhapsodizes his love for her in the opening credits, in his own brand of wild beat poetry, and throughout Elsie (or, L.C.) is a woman for all men, as a frequent motif is her constantly being chatted up by two-bit hustlers.
Yet when you think that this movie is completely incomprehensible, one begins to see a thread of logic here. A line uttered at the end of one scene has a response to it in the next segment which for all we know, could have been shot years and miles away.
Plus, this film crassly reminds you of how artificial the movie world on screen really is, with a kitchen posing as a restaurant (with piped-in crowd noise), a half-finished spaceship set (which also has a janitor... more than the Enterprise had), and people in paper wigs coming out from the hair dryer. Perhaps the most pivotal moment on screen occurs when characters storm the editing room, much to the surprise of the editor crouched over the Moviola and shout: "Haven't you made up your mind yet?"
Thus, one realizes what perhaps Downey is up to... he is trying to create a jazz improvisation with fragments of film, where each scene is a phrase, and thus tries to make endless "call and response" variations with them.
Amidst this picture's few screenings, it was also titled TWO TONS OF TURQUOISE TO TAOS, which refers to a throwaway line in a throwaway scene with some guys (who have seen way too many Leo Gorcey movies) in a pseudo-gangster plot. Similarly, MOMENT TO MOMENT also refers to a throwaway line in the opening of the movie, but it perhaps makes the most sense in describing this movie. All of these moments from different times are cut together, to simulate the appearance that they are all happening simultaneously... without beginning and without end.
But of all things, MOMENT TO MOMENT ends up being quite a moving experience... it is a return to Downey's roots, and a deeply personal movie. With a beautiful score by David Sanborn, it is a shout for artistic freedom (no matter how demented the artist's vision is), done with an uncompromising structure, made years after such a thing was fashionable. As with all of Downey's films, this certainly isn't for everyone, but if one hangs in there with it a bit, one begins to see the beauty and logic underneath.
The Text of Light (1974)
A Man, A Movie Camera and an Ashtray
This 71-minute effort is one of Stan Brakhage's most enjoyable films. It is a "chance" study of light refracted from a crystal ashtray. With its extreme closeups of the prismatic reflections, this movie creates a micro-universe all its own, which has no relationship whatever with our physical world. In fact I am reminded of the similarly wonderful films of Jim Davis, whose prismatic works also give a sense of weightlessness and otherworldly feel.
But for all that, Brakhage refuses to turn this into a "head" film. Its choppy editing discourages us from surrendering ourselves completely in this world. As the film seems to form its own "chapters" by the way the light shapes and colours begin to coalesce, its rhythm is interrupted by a hard cut and several frames of black before we continue to a different composition. (One wonders therefore, if we are seeing this film precisely in the order it was shot, or in how Brakhage discovered the effects.) Personally, I wouldn't have minded to have been lost completely in this universe, but the choppy editing perhaps allows the camera to be a slave to the subject, rather than the traditional film-making case of manipulating the subject for the good of the camera. In that regard, TEXT OF LIGHT treats its subject matter as though it were a living thing, and the camera thusly records whatever messages it desires to share.
In any event, this film is a joy... these 71 minutes go fast.
Plein Air Etude (1991)
As with his masterpiece MACHINE IN THE GARDEN, Richard Kerr takes a physical surrounding and turns it into a living being with some rhythmic editing. Seemingly shot frame-by-frame, this short is a study of the Montreal River.
The camera "pans up" its varied subjects, in a fragmented way, resembling stop-motion (which is perhaps due to the frame-by-frame shooting). Yet this motion is so mathematically precise, and its persistent rhythm gives one the illusion that the picture is breathing. As the "organism" pulses, so too the colours change from their natural habitat to over-saturated hues of aqua, turquoise, green and red.
Where Richard Kerr would later make rather slow, dreamy, meditative pieces filmed at bodies of water, this film has none of that eloquence. It instead evokes the overwhelming, muscular surrounds with its exaggerated movements.
Cyclone Alley Ceramics (2000)
Another wonderful home movie from George Kuchar
Like his classic film HOLD ME WHILE I'M NAKED, this effort by "camp artist extraordinaire" George Kuchar is similarly structured around chance events. Kuchar is in a motel room in Oklahoma (where his Bronx accent must stand out in this surrounding), whose only companion is this ceramic doll (whose mouth is morphed in post-production to seem like it is talking).
I can't believe I am writing this- so bear with me for this paragraph. "Hell hath no fury like... ahem, a ceramic doll scorned"... and once Kuchar spurns its love for him, it conjures up a tornado! This twisted revision of The Wicked Witch of Oz must have been created once Kuchar saw the dark clouds of the tornado brewing out his hotel window, filmed the rain and wind, recorded some radio announcer's broadcasts of impending weather, and then added the insane plot of the vengeful ceramic doll!
Few fictional narrative filmmakers rely so much on chance and found situations as Kuchar does-- and this wonderfully cracked, visually innovative little gem is another reminder that George Kuchar can make something out of scraps.
El camino de las hormigas (1994)
If you like BARAKA....
....then you will be interested to see this experimental hour-long feature from South America, which also offers a highly stylistic look at "life in the balance" (to take the English translation from BARAKA's sister film KOYAANISQATSI). With time-lapse photography, voice-overs of commuters in a traffic jam, candid cameras watching suburban drug dealers make the rounds, a man reading the paper to the lens, and people selling goods amidst a jammed highway, this is a study of how people's lives are governed by the out-of-control society (which they unwittingly help support).
If it's not on the same overwhelming, all-encompassing nature of BARAKA, it is nonetheless a fascinating effort, and I would be interested to see any future work by this filmmaker.
Sobering Study of Activism
This is an absorbing and thought-provoking look at a Middle Eastern activist who is captured (in an exciting opening sequence in which he and his fellow renegades become slowly aware of rival forces surrounding them in their meeting place), and then is tortured in prison by people who are supposed to be his allies!
His persecution is intercut with the arrival of his newborn-- during his capture, his wife is giving labour; and during his incarceration, she clutches their baby, crying incessantly, knowing that this infant will never see its father. BOYCOTT avoids the complexity of the political and religious issues surrounding the Middle East conflict, and instead fleshes out a human story of a man who is a martyr for a belief system that similarly exploits him.
Of the handful of films I have seen by the wunderkind Iranian director Mohsen Makmalbaf (whose work I actually prefer to the more recognizable style of his more well-known countryman Abbas Kiarostami), not one of his films are like any other he has made. (Even his masterpieces, GABBEH and MOMENT OF INNOCENCE are technically and stylistically different from each other) And of the master's movies of I have seen, this perhaps is his most "commercial", if because it relies less on visual ideas than a more conventional narrative. With its hyperactive chase scenes, gunshots sounding like those in Spaghetti westerns, and melodramatic music, this perhaps is more imbued in Western film-making techniques than any other... ironic for a film featuring a world that is unlike that of the Western World.
Saturday Night at the Movies (1974)
My film education began here....
How does one begin writing comments about something like this, which for most of my years on this planet, was the instrumental thing that nurtured my passion for cinema, and showed me the rich diversity of film history. It isn't just enough that this show continues to show two films every Saturday night since its inception. It simply goes without saying that this show would not be the legend it is, had it not been anchored by the love, lore and enthusiasm of Elwy Yost.
Although "Saturday Night..." had already been on television a few years, I had actually first discovered Elwy by way of his serialized weeknight show, "Magic Shadows" (see my review). So, when I was old enough to stay up late on Saturday nights (or for that matter, strong enough to wrestle the TV away from my babysitter's Saturday night staples of (ick) "Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island"), I was thusly introduced into an even broader spectrum of movie-making.
Even more, between and after the two films (which were often paired as themes for studying genres, directors, actors, or social matters), we were greeted to a "who's who" of movieland- interviews conducted by Yost correlating to the films at hand. In his annual pilgrimage to Hollywood, Elwy had the good fortune to interview stars, directors, writers and technicians from Hollywood's golden age before they had passed on. For that matter, he also sat down for conversations with some of the young lions who were then making names for themselves in the present-day movie world.
Southern Ontario viewers never had a better crash course in cinema than they would get with this weekly show. Elwy took you increasingly further into the magic of the movies, and you came away with much more substance than that thin "Entertainment Tonight" pap that passes itself for TV journalism these days. He would take us out to see how those bullet holes in THE WILD BUNCH got made, behind the scenes for the stop motion animation of THE LOST WORLD (1960), or he would check in on an editor hunched over a Moviola. While you would turn on knowing who Henry Fonda or Bette Davis were, you would leave also learning about Preston Sturges, Franklin Pangborn, Nunnally Johnson, Powell & Pressburger, or Sven Nykvist... to name only a few out of hundreds.
Still, it is important to note that Elwy was more than just a host-- he was a surrogate friend on the other end of the cathode ray tube. With his warm demeanour and natural gift for storytelling, he emerged as more than simply a well-read scholar, he was first and foremost a fan. Through Elwy you were introduced to films without bias or reservation. Whether his films of the week were Ingmar Bergman, or Dorothy Lamour sarong pictures, it ALL mattered. And with his wide-eyed enthusiasm, he was eager to share it with you. Needless to say, we eagerly took it all in.
In 1999, Elwy Yost had left the show. His retirement was certainly well deserved, but he left a long shadow to be filled. Nonetheless, Shelagh Rogers, to our delight, was a fine replacement (I believe, hand-picked by Mr. Yost)- an affable, knowledgeable host, with a wonderfully game approach to the material. However, (if my memory serves) after one year she had to leave the show out of commitments with the CBC. And for years, the program remained without a host. Simply, screens with typeface would introduce the films, and even the newer interviews appeared to be faceless (as the offscreen interviewer never seemed to have any kind of presence). Now there is a new host, delivering the exact same introduction before both films on the bill, whose monologues are with big words and no panache.
Even so, after thirty-odd years, "Saturday Night at the Movies" remains the best date on television.
Before I go, I want to share this with you. In 1989, I had the honour and privilege of meeting Mr. Yost and his wife Lila on the subway. This was even a bigger treat because that season, he -tried- to lighten his work load (introducing only one film on Saturday Night, and then Jay Scott's "Film International" would fill the second slot), and thusly wasn't in Toronto as much. (However he was back the following year, working full time.) So for the duration of about ten subway stops, I managed to talk cinema with Elwy and his wife (and they are a team by the way- no "celebrity-and-spouse" business here), and amusingly enough, he was amazed at how many films a young guy like myself had seen. (He hadn't yet seen Murnau's THE LAST LAUGH!!)
So, as I got out at my subway stop and walked down the platform, Mr. Saturday Night went by on the subway car, doing his trademark wave that ended his show every week, and I had tears in my eyes.
Unfinished Business (1984)
On paper, doing a sequel to the classic Canadian film NOBODY WAVED GOODBYE seemed like a good idea. 20 years on, it would be intriguing to revisit the tragic characters of the 1964 movie, to see how they could have gotten on. We see that Julie and Peter got married, had a daughter and then became another divorce statistic.
The sequel nonetheless focuses on their rebellious daughter Isabelle who, like her screwed-up father in his day, is trying to make an identity for herself in this big bad world. All right, but this sincerity is made somewhat contrived as the daughter begins a "save the earth" crusade. These segments seem somewhat forced. In fact the entire film reeks of good intentions but rewards instead with sophomoric results. UNFINISHED BUSINESS, indeed.
In fact, Isabelle's scene with Peter later in the film is one of the few poignant moments. Since Peter and Julie were such fascinating people, it is a shame that they didn't appear here more often. That is the drama- instead the main thread of Isabelle, her environmental crusade, and her relationship with her boyfriend comes off as second-rate.
UNFINISHED BUSINESS is once again a depressing example of one of our country's most famous filmmakers having to churn out such poor material for a living.
The Rubber Gun (1977)
Intriguing Canadian movie, worth seeing again
Our "CanCon" (Canadian content) legislation can be both a blessing and a curse. Because 30% of our TV waves have to have homegrown content, a lot of stations fill lazy afternoons with Canadian movies to honour that. In some cases, it isn't very flattering, because any more they often show the same mediocre stuff again and again. However, one station squeezed in RUBBER GUN about 12 years ago. Typically, I haven't seen it on air since- this is a shame because I remember it being a rather remarkable little movie.
Before Allan Moyle went to Hollywood to make movies about counter-cultural lifestyles (TIMES SQUARE, PUMP UP THE VOLUME), he made this fascinating, gritty ensemble piece about drug users in Montreal. Now, since mainstream cinema had had its fill of movies about addiction in the 10 years prior, this one may be a case of too little too late.
People who remember Stephen Lack's rather unappealing performance in SCANNERS may be interested to see his animated portrayal of a gonzo character. But RUBBER GUN is however unique for it is the rare film (or at least among the first) that shows drug addiction as seen through the eyes of children. Even though these substance abusers have grown up and have children of their own, their habits inevitably affect the family unit.
I'd love to see this picture again; are you listening, Bravo?