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NO, AKIRA, NO!
On the recommendation of my dear friend Faisal Qureshi I've been reading ALL THE EMPEROR'S MEN, an English-language version of Hiroshi Tasogawa's KUROSAWA VERSUS HOLLYWOOD. (One of the great joys of academia is that we have a real library here and I have a budget to buy books for its shelves. So when Faisal told me about Mr. Tasogawa's book I ordered up a copy and eagerly consumed it when it came. A pity that they changed the title. But it's certainly worth a read.)
ALL THE EMPEROR'S MEN is the story of Akira Kurosawa's disastrous experience with 20th Century Fox, attempting to direct a film called TORA TORA TORA, about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. When I made my doc about Kurosawa, some years back, Donald Richie told us the story of how Kurosawa expected to be co-directing the picture with a Western director of David Lean's stature. Instead, the studio served up Richard Fleischer (who doesn't even count as a second-rate director, on the basis of his films) as Kurosawa's counterpart. Per Mr. Richie, Kurosawa was deeply disappointed, did a few days work, then quit the film.
Mr Tasogawa fills in the details. They are tremendously, horrifically entertaining. He leaves the reader in no doubt that Kurosawa-san was royally screwed over by 20th Century Fox, and also by his Japanese producer/manager, who spoke English and negotiated the deal. Apparently Kurosawa imagined he had final cut of the picture and was entitled to supervise the American shooting. He had no such rights: his deal was one a Hollywood studio might impose on a neophite director, embarking on his or her first film. Despite the gigantic gulf between Kurosawa's and Fleischer's status, Fleischer would receive first credit, in every country except Japan. (Fleischer, the son of a Hollywood celebrity, was a crony of Richard Zanuck, also the son of a Hollywood celebrity, Daryl F. Zanuck, who put his son in charge of the production. Zanuck Sr. apparently liked Kurosawa, up to a point. Zanuck Jr. didn't like him at all, and - like most of these sons-of-somebody who work in the film business - had serious father issues as well.)
So, even before production began, Kurosawa was in big trouble. Nevertheless, as the author reveals, he compunded his difficulties in quite extraordinary ways. Having recently completed RED BEARD, with a powerful veteran actor, Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa decided he would make TORA TORA TORA with amateurs. Some of these were former military men; others were high-ranking business executives. Tasogawa reports speculation that Kurosawa cast these businessmen to flatter them, in the hope that they would fund his future films. It didn't work out that way.
The shoot took place in Kyoto, at a studio which had recently forced a new contract on its employees. Formerly the staff there had been full-timers, with pensions. To save money, the Japanese studio heads had recently fired them and offered them part-time positions instead. The Hollywood studios love a cheap deal, too, and are always happy to promote a race to the bottom in terms of working conditions (think Apple!) but it turned out to be a false economy.
Day 0 (December 1, 1968). Two of the American producers visited the set in Kyoto to see how rehearsals were going. They found all work had stopped: the stage hands had gone on strike in a dispute over pay.
Day 1 (December 2, 1968). The first day of shooting. Kurosawa arrived late, and discovered wrinkles in the wallpaper. He refused to shoot.
Day 2 (December 3, 1968). Shooting was scheduled to start at 9am, but the crew drifted in after that hour. Kurosawa showed up more than an hour late and continued rehearsals. Daryl Zanuck and the two American producers arrived saw Kurosawa shoot several multi-camera takes. They were impressed.
Day 3 (December 4, 1968). The crew arrived on time, ready to work. But Kurosawa was late again: he had been drinking into the early hours of the morning, and had taken sleeping pills. When he turned up, he was irritable, and shouted at the crew. That afternoon a lamp fell from a catwalk and landed near him. Shaken, Kurosawa cancelled the shoot at 4pm.
Day 4 (December 5, 1968). Shooting went smoothly. Kurosawa completed all five scheduled scenes.
Day 5 (December 6, 1968). Kurosawa, who had had a sleepless night, came to the set at 9am "in an ugly mood." During a rehearsal, he noticed imperfections in an actor's military uniform. He flew into a rage, cancelled the day's work, and expelled all his assistant directors.
Day 6 (December 7, 1968). An all-day rehearsal took place without the assistant directors. Nothing was filmed.
Day 7 (December 8, 1968). One scene was rehearsed and shot. The assistant directors were still absent.
Day 8 (December 9, 1968). Officially a day off. The cast and crew gave up their rest day in an attempt to get the shoot back on schedule. With Kurosawa's "special pardon" the assistant directors were allowed to return. But the director became enraged over a piece of paper - a prop from another film - which he found on the set. He told his assistants to line up, and ordered his principal assistant, Yutaka Osawa, to beat them. Osawa refused, saying, "I can't hit them, sir. It's my responsibility. Please hit me instead." His bluff called, Kurosawa stormed off set, in tears. Shooting was cancelled for the day.
Day 9 (December 10, 1968). After nine days without a break, the cast and crew received a day off. The art department continued to work.
Day 10 (December 11, 1968). Cast and crew were ready for a 9am start. But Kurosawa didn't show up. It turned out he had been found unconscious in his hotel room, and admitted to hospital. The shoot was cancelled.
Day 11 (December 12, 1968). Cast and crew were ready for a 9am start. But Kurosawa didn't appear. He was said to be "convalescing". The shoot was called off at 6.30pm.
Day 12 (December 13, 1968). Cast and crew were ready for a 9am start. Kurosawa showed up an hour late, stinking of alcohol. He fired two assistants. Shooting ended at 7.30pm. His producer/manager demanded bodyguards for Kurosawa, crash helmets for him and his second unit director, and a bullet-proof car.
Day 13 (December 14, 1968). Kurosawa, who had been drinking till 7am, showed up an hour late. Unhappy with the performance of one of his amateur actors, the director was in a foul mood. Unhappy with their director, the crew went on strike.
Day 14 (December 15, 1968). Kurosawa arrived at 9am, reeking of booze. He had been drinking all night, and had not slept. The crew and cast refused to work with him. Shooting was cancelled at 10am.
Day 15 (December 16, 1968). Scheduled as a day off, this became a rehearsal day. The crew presented Kurosawa's manager with a list of demands, "requesting that Kurosawa control himself and act reasonably."
Day 16 (December 17, 1968). Kurosawa showed up at 10am. The crew demanded an apology. He refused to apologise, and went home. The crew complained to the American producers that "Kurosawa is not himself. He abuses members of the crew. He makes demands that have nothing to do with the shoot. He has forced the crew to give military salutes..." In the absence of an apology, the crew went on strike. That afternoon Kurosawa failed to show up for an appointment with two doctors; that evening he and an assistant visited the set. Kurosawa instructed his assistant to smash the stage's windows.
Day 17 (December 18, 1968). Kurosawa spent the day in hospital, under sedation. No shooting took place.
Day 18 (December 19, 1968). There was no call. Kurosawa rested at his hotel. His doctor visited him there and prescribed more tranquilizers.
Day 19 (December 20, 1968). Kurosawa met the crew and told them he understood their demands. They treated this as an apology and called off the strike. But there was no shooting. Kurosawa demanded that a red carpet be installed on the staircase leading to the set.
Day 20 (December 21, 1968). Company day off. No call.
Day 21 (December 22, 1968). Kurosawa showed up an hour late, at 10am, in high spirits. He obliged the crew to stand at attention and salute him and the principal actors. But he did a full day's work.
Day 22 (December 23, 1968). The crew showed up at 8.30 to be ready for a 10am start. Kurosawa arrived half an hour late. He had not slept. He became furious over the colour of the walls and cancelled the morning's rehearsal. That afternoon he cancelled rehearsals again, ordering the art department to tear down and then rebuild the set. He drove them till midnight, at which point his manager led him back to his lodgings. There, drunk and violent, he smashed an urn and was evicted from his hotel.
Day 23 (December 24, 1968). Cast and crew arrived at 9am but there was no sign of the director. The shoot was cancelled. Stanley Goldsmith, the studio's production supervisor, reported that Kurosawa was now ten days behind schedule, which meant he could be replaced. The studio executives fired him immediately, after securing promises from the cast and crew that they would continue working.
Kurosawa slept till three in the afternoon. Then the American line producer, Elmo Williams, met him and told him he had been sacked. According to Williams, Kurosawa threatened to commit suicide. Williams claimed that he replied, "I told him that whatever he did must be his own affair but that suicide to me had always been a coward's way out of a problem."
And that was that. TORA TORA TORA, a medicocre war picture, was directed by two mediocre directors. It lost money at the box office and amounted to nothing. Kurosawa didn't kill himself. And the moral of this story? Well, it's obvious, isn't it. If you're a director, show up on time and be kind to your cast and crew. Directors have every reason to be paranoid - the financiers really do hate them, and want to see them crushed - but this is no excuse for bullying your assistants or the art department. The Tao Te Ching says, "do your work and set no store by it"? That is what we must do.
TONY SCOTT'S SUICIDE NOTE
The Scott brothers, Ridley and Tony, lived in the north of England at the time of the Vietnam War. So did I. Britain didn't send troops to Vietnam and so Ridley, Tony and I didn't have to worry about being drafted and sent to die. But that vicious and immoral conflict played nightly on our televisions: it was the only non-sanitized war of our lifetime. It left many people - me included - with contempt for the CIA - which ran assassination and torture operations such as the Phoenix Program - and for the whole political/military/industrial machine.
My reaction was not uncommon. The United States and Europe are quite different in that in the US there is a nominal culture of respect for the military (though in practice it is the employment option only of the poor, invariably avoided by the rich and middle class), whereas in Europe armies and uniforms are widely disliked. Most of my generation grew up distrustful of governments, opposed to the military and to the creeps and provocateurs who spied on the peace movement. Remember The Clash song, The Call Up? It is an overt call to refuse to serve in anybody's army. Remember Strummer singing Straight To Hell? "There ain't no need for you..."
The Scotts went down a different path. They made commercials, and when they moved to the States became absorbed intothe Pentagon's Hollywood cheer-leading machine. The bros created glossy, highly dynamic recruitment propaganda like TOP GUN and BLACK HAWK DOWN, and - in the case of Tony - torture propaganda in the form of MAN ON FIRE.
So I wonder as to the contents of the various suicide notes Tony Scott left before jumping off that bridge. For a police force famous for leaking celebrity gossip, the LAPD has been close-mouthed about the matter. Perhaps the notes were merely tender messages to his family. Perhaps they were long screeds condemning the Hollywood studios for being a duplicitious, blacklisting mafia cartel. Or - and this is what I hope - perhaps they have been kept secret because they are a mea culpa: an apology for the years Scott wasted his talents working for the Pentagon and the CIA, promoting torture and war.
David Robb's Operation Hollywood is still the key text regarding the entertainment industryand the Pentagon. It is an important book, citing numerous examples of how studio producers, directors, and writers changed the content of their scripts in order to gain free tanks, battleships, and marines. Recently, three other books have appeared which begin to give a picture of how the CIA has shaped the cinema, and the careers of filmmakers.
The best of these books is the most general: Frances Stonor Saunders' Cultural Cold War (in England its title is Who Paid The Piper?). This is a broad look at how CIA money was used to influence the arts. It explains how the work of a talentless boozer, Jackson Pollock, found its way into museums owned by the Rockefellers, and thence onto gallery walls all over the US. Pollock's slap-dash canvases were bought and sold - at US taxpayers' expense - to show that American art was "better" than the crude naturalism which Russians supposedly preferred. Unfortunately, most Americans prefer crude naturalism, as do I: given a choice between a Pollock or a Norman Rockwell I would gaze on the Rockwell any day. Heck, I'd rather spend an afternoon in the Thomas Kinkaide store.
But intel influence didn't end with paintings. For some reason the spooks hated the writer Howard Fast, and managed to get him blacklisted by the American publishing industry. FBI agents visited Little, Brown and seven other publishers to persuade them not to publish Fast's great popular novel, Spartacus. Alfred Knopf sent the manuscript back unopened, saying he wouldn't read the work of "a traitor". Fast, a Jew, was no traitor: he served time in jail rather than "name names" to the House Un-American Activities Committee. And when Kirk Douglas made a film of Spartacus, he gave the screenwriting assignment to Dalton Trumbo, another blacklisted writer who had been jailed rather than betray his friends.
Nevertheless, buoyed by the blacklisting of Fast, the CIA went all out on a massive book-burning binge. A terrified State Department was obliged to remove from American libraries in foreign countries the work of Fast, Dashiell Hammett, Langston Hughes, John Reed, Tom Paine, Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, and many other authors: Herman Mellville's Moby Dick, magnificently illustrated by Rockwell Kent, was also deemed unAmerican, and removed from the shelves. As Saunders observes, many of the books banned by the State Department had been burned by Hitler's Nazis, too. Some writers became active, witting agents of the CIA - including Peter Matthiessen and James Michener, "who used his career as a writer as cover for his work in eliminating radicals."
But, as Allen Dulles - head of the CIA till he was fired by John F. Kennedy - said, "nobody reads". So the spooks threw a wider net - arranging concerts and art exhibits, coming up with a $20,000 poetry prize for the fascist Ezra Pound (who at the time was in a hospital for the criminally insane), and quickly turning their attention to the propaganda possibilities of film.
According to Saunders, a secret campaign was undertaken by the CIA and Pentagon in 1955, called "Militant Liberty". This was designed to insert the theme of "freedom" into American movies, and to remove any elements which were critical of the United States. In June and July of 1956, representatives of the Joint Chiefs of Staff met with a group of Hollywood acolytes which included John Ford, Merian C . Cooper, John Wayne, and Ward Bond, to promote the illegal domestic propaganda program. A producer named C.V. Whitney, not coincidentally the cousin of CIA agent Tracey Barnes, signed on and made THE SEARCHERS (in the light of which we might view the film as an anti-Communist parable, with "redskins" standing in for "reds").
Saunders also observes that when, in 1946, Ford and Cooper set up their independent production company, Argosy, the principal investors were all intelligence men: William Donovan (former head of the OSS), Ole Doering, David Bruce and William Vanderbilt. C.D. Jackson, a CIA agent and vice president of Time, listed as helpful "friends" Cecil B. DeMille; Spyros P. Skouros and Darryl Zanuck at Fox; Nicholas Shenk, president of MGM; producer Dore Schary; Barney Balaban, president of Paramount; Harry and Jack Warner; James R. Grainger, president of RKO; Milton Rackmil, president of Universal; Harry Cohn, president of Columbia; Herbert Yates, head of Republic Pictures; and, inevitably, Walt and Roy Disney.
If Jackson's claim is true, then all the studios except United Artists were in the CIA's pocket by 1954. But CIA influence didn't stop with studio heads. A CIA agent, Carleton Alsop, worked undercover at Paramount, where he prepared lists of actors and technicians to be blacklisted, ordered script changes, and shut down films of which he disapproved. Alsop was quite powerful: he killed the project GIANT at Paramount because it was unflattering to rich Texans and depicted racism against Mexicans.
How many other studios had in-house CIA censors isn't clear: but it's unlikely that Carleton Alsop worked all alone.
Daniel J. Leab's Orwell Subverted deals with the first feature fully-funded by the CIA, ANIMAL FARM. As anyone who has seen it knows, ANIMAL FARM is an unsuccessful movie. The animation is reasonable, but the end - in which the animals rise up and overthrow their Soviet-Pig oppressors - contradicts Orwell's novel and the purpose of the parable. Reading Leab's book one cannot help but note how like studio executives the film's CIA "investors" were: they had no concept of filmmaking, or storytelling, but they were certainly full of ideas, demanding new scenes in which "a sheepdog, walking beside a kindly farmer, hears word of the revolt and laughs it off; so also does a plough horse, driven by another kindly farmer."
Leab has actually unearthed the stupid notes the CIA execs gave to their underlings: like David Robb he has found real material showing exactly how the spooks went about constructing their propaganda film. Years later, does it matter? ANIMAL FARM did not do well. But the filmmakers - John Halas and Joy Batchelor - were paid by the CIA to make a feature, something no other British animators could afford to do. Thereafter they received work from the BBC and the commercials industry. When I was young, animation from the Halas and Batchelor studio dominated British television. There was no other notable British company in the business till Ardman came along. That the CIA "set up" Halas and Batchelor as feature filmmakers, and that the BBC continued to promote them, gave them an incredible advantage over other animators, and set the rather mediocre tone of British animation for twenty years.
Per Saunders, the CIA was also behind the production of NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, pumping at least $100,000 into the picture via the "US Information Agency". Again, Orwell's bleak vision didn't satisfy the spooks, and the end had to be changed: in fact two endings were shot, one for American audiences, and another for the British - in which Winston Smith is gunned down shouting, "Down with Big Brother!" Ironically, the film starred Michael Redgrave, one of 125 people Orwell had shopped to the British secret service for crimes such as Communism, Jewishness, or being gay.
Tricia Jenkins' CIA in Hollywood isn't as comprehensive as one might like. Partially this is due to the spooks' inherent secrecy and refusal to reveal the details of the deals they make with Hollywood filmmakers. But it's also due to a certain authorial naivete regarding the CIA. Jenkins refers to five aspects of the public's perception of the CIA: 1) that the Agency assassinates people, 2) that it is staffed with rogue operatives, 3) that it fails to take care of its assets, and 4) that it is morally ambiguous, and 5) that it is marked by buffoonery and ineffectiveness.
This is an incomplete list. The fact that the CIA assassinates people is not in any doubt: CIA-directed drones perform extra-judicial killings for us on a weekly basis. But what about the DRUG DEALING? After assassination and torture, the biggest complaint, made consistently against the CIA since the Vietnam War, is that it is involved in the international drug trade, and uses the traffic and resale of illegal drugs to enrich its operatives and fund its "black" operations. The reader may consult Alfred McCoy's Politics of Heroin in South East Asia, or Henrik Kruger's The Great Heroin Coup (for chapter and verse detail of CIA involvement in the heroin trade), or Cockburn and StClair's Whiteout, or Gary Webb's Dark Alliance (for the same on CIA complicity in the importation and sale of cocaine). The CIA inspector general, Frederick Hitz, was unable to disprove any of Gary Webb's reporting (the unfortunate Webb was fired from his job, and committed suicide).
Even if Jenkins doesn't believe that the CIA smuggles drugs, the accusations are there, they've been there for a long time, and they're backed up with evidence. A book dealing with the reputation of the Agency and its manipulation of the media should address the issue of alleged CIA drug dealing. This is not done.
This is strange, as it was with Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes - a supposed history of the CIA which also ignored the Agency's "drug problem". This is a re-writing of history, in which some of the worst blowback from US intelligence activities is simply ignored. The Hollywood movie AIR AMERICA - based on a book about CIA drug dealing operations - airbrushed the drugs out, but not all pictures dealing with US intelligence have done likewise. What about that highly intelligent thriller WHO'LL STOP THE RAIN, in which a merchant marine played by Nick Nolte is pursued by CIA agents who want their cut of his drugs operation? Not worthy of mention? It is a good fiilm.
CIA in Hollywood also suffers from an incomplete index, which covers only a handful of the names and motion pictures cited, and an incomplete bibliography, which doesn't contain all the books the author cites.
Jenkins makes an excellent point that by choosing to support certain films and to deny other filmmakers assistance, the CIA is violating the First Amendment to the Constitution. And since the Agency is not allowed to propagandize domestically, its support of Hollywood films and TV shows like 24 is a violation of its own Charter. Not that the CIA is all that worried, I suspect. As Robb observed, the Pentagon, the FBI, the Secret Service and numerous other federal agencies breach the First Amendment in exactly the same way. And Hollywood - an illegal cartel - is unlikely to utter any protest. The CIA has even acted as a TV distributor - pumping episodes of DYNASTY into East Germany during the Cold War "in order to sell those residents on capitalism and the luxury life it could afford."
For your edification, here follow the actors, directors, writers, producers and studio execs who the author links to the CIA, usually found 1) visiting CIA headquarters to party with the spooks, 2) taking instructions from CIA, or 3) actively helping to encourage CIA recruitment. Tony Scott heads the list: Jenkins reports that CIA was particularly fond of his masterpiece TOP GUN, "the single best recruiting tool the navy - and specifically naval aviation - ever had" and "was looking for a project that could help them do something similar."
Tony Scott, RIP; John Ford; John Wayne; Cecil B. DeMille; Darryl Zanuck; Luigi Luraschi (head of domestic and foreign censorship at Paramount in the 1950s); Joseph Mankiewicz; John Chambers and Bob Sidell (studio makeup men); Jack Myers; David Houle; Scott Valentine (VP of Sony Pictures); Jack Gilardi (ICM agency); Rick Nicita (CAA agency); Ron Meyer (COO of Universal); Matt Corman; Chris Ord; Kristy Swanson; Tim Matheson; Roger and Robert Towne; Tom Berenger; Ron Silver; Michael Frost Beckner; Jennifer Garner; Jeff Apple; Roger Birnbaum; Colin Farrell; Ben Affleck; Phil Alden Robinson; Lawrence Lasker; Mark Bowden; Mike Myers; Kevin and Michael Bacon; Mace Neufeld; J.J. Abrams; Paul Attanasio; Doug Liman; David Arata; Kiefer Sutherland; Tom Cruise.
(Not all Hollywood actors are thus inclined. Post 9-11, some have spoken out against CIA and government spying: Jenkins lists Al Pacino, Martin Sheen, Hector Elizondo, Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, Kristin Davis, Samuel L. Jackson and Jake Gyllenhaal as standing up for the American Civil Liberties Union in a series of advertisements.)
HARRY HARRISON, PRESENTE!
As we were leaving Oregon for Colorado, Tod activated her internet-enabled device to read The Guardian and told me Harry Harrison had died. I'd known Harry since 1984, when I took what remained of my REPO MAN salary and used it to option his book, BILL THE GALACTIC HERO.
So Harry, on one of his trips to Hollywood (the studios were invariably talking about making DEATHWORLD, or THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT, never BILL), invited me to stop by his poolside suite at the motel where everyone used to stay, the one with the coffee shop, which was long ago pulled down. I turned up at nine a.m. and left at ten having consumed at least three gin and limes. Harry was a prodigious drinker as well as a prolific writer. Our subsequent meetings were similarly fueled, but as I recall he was always lucid and consistent, full of bright ideas for our film of BILL, or crazy anecdotes from the Golden Age.
Harry occupied science fiction's pantheon: up there with Clifford Simak, and Brian Aldiss, and Isaac Asimov, and Eric Frank Russell, and Arthur C. Clark, and several layers of the frieze higher than the hack Heinlein, whose STARSHIP TROOPERS he mercilessly parodied in BILL. Heinlein, Harry told me, never spoke to him after reading BILL and realising it was the better book. Touché, war-lovers! BILL THE GALACTIC HERO is science fiction's CATCH 22 (only funnier).
Only one of Harry's books made it to the screen. MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM! - his cop novel set in a super-overpopulated New York - was filmed as SOYLENT GREEN. The film has its merits but is a pale shadow of the novel: there is no "soylent green" in the book, and it wouldn't matter if there was. MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM! is an illustration of Kurosawa's dictum, hold fast in the face of blankness and despair. This is what his hero does, not that it makes much difference.
Harry Harrison with portrait of Eager Beager
In the last decade, Harry became the most popular science fiction writer in Russia, where - not distinguishing between the H and the G - they called him Garry Garrison. Why were his boooks so big there? I suspect because, in addition to being wildly adventurous and often very funny, they were invariably anti-authoritarian and anti-war. Unlike the British and the Americans, the Russians apparently learned a lesson from the Second World War (25 million Russians dead), and seem in no hurry to repeat it. When you have armed madmen for neighbours and a church-loving secret policeman for president, Harry's unequivocal pacifism, atheism, and loathing of The Boss no doubt make perfect sense.
Over the last year, Harry and I worked intermittently on the shooting script of BILL. He also blazed through an autobiography. I knew his health was failing but I hoped he'd be around to approve the finished piece. Oh well... By his writings we shall continue to know him. He sold the DEATHWORLD rights to one of Gazprom's media offshoots a coule of years back, and I tried to help him connect the producers with a director who might be to their taste. I was off the radar, of course, but when they came out to LA I had a raft of suggestions: Verhoven, Coppola, Charles Burnett -- the directorial A-list. Those Reds proved implacable. Only one American director was acceptable to them: George Lucas.
Harry and I marvelled at the ironic joke as it unfurled. Of all the directors in the world, the Russians had picked the one they couldn't have: the only one who really, seriously, didn't need Gazprom's money. We tried to explain that Lucas was rich beyond anyone's dreams thanks to his toy franchise, and that he didn't live in Los Angeles. It made no difference. I visualised the Gazprom execs, in their black suits and ties, sitting in the Presidential Suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel, with champagne and similar accoutrements, waiting for Lucas to come knocking...
This did not occur. But Harry was sanguine, amused by just about everything. The only time I saw him get annoyed was when it was revealed that Julian Assange had borrowed his name to go internet dating, and some Australians made a play about Assange, and called it THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT. Bizarrely, this wasn't the first time someone from spook-world had stolen Harry's monicker. When David Atlee Phillips, the CIA man who may have run Lee Harvey Oswald, wrote a novel about his dealings with the Marxist Marine, he used the pseudonym "Harold Harrison" as well.
The latest version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes an amendment to legalize the Pentagon's use of propaganda on the American public. The amendment — proposed by Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and passed in the House last Friday afternoon — would effectively nullify the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which explicitly forbids psychological operations aimed at influencing U.S. public opinion. You can read more about this (which may be a done deal already) here.
A cynical person might say that it doesn't make a difference: that the Pentagon already has Hollywood and the TV companies doing what it wants. Certainly David L. Robb's book Operation Hollywood: How The Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies suggests this. From my own experience and observations, the industry has turned very right-wing over the last thirty years: there is no possibility of an anti-war picture getting made. Nevertheless, in the United States, the military is supposed to keep its distance. Active duty generals are not allowed to involve themselves in politics, or in policy making, or in policy promotion. Suddenly, a bipartisan repeal of Smith-Mundt changes the game. It gives the military - which already has a gigantic media budget - carte blanche over what used to be thought of as an art form: American film.
If the NDAA amendment passes, the Pentagon (and presumably the intelligence agencies) won't just be influencing scripts or what films get made. They'll be in the misinformation biz directly, covertly financing and producing films, TV, and games. The military will have a hand in shaping the foreign policy agenda, framing the domestic debate, selling us products, and 'entertaining' us. And it can all be done in secret.
On the subject of secrecy, the Electronic Frontier Foundation reports that filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow was given "exclusive access to details about the classified Osama bin Laden raid" from a high-ranking Navy SEAL, while the Obama administration publicly warned other government officials that they would face
investigation if they did the same. The Obama adminsitration has charged six former government employees-turned-whistleblowers under the Espionage Act - an unprecedented use of the Act.
The reason for Bigelow's immunity to secrecy laws? She was directing a Pentagon-approved feature about that extrajudicial killing, to be released in December.
TOMÁS BORGE, PRESENTE!
Maybe it's appropriate to be writing this on May Day, not that we celebrate workers or revolutions here. But The Guardian reports that Tomás Borge, the last of the original FSLN founders, has died. He was 81. I knew Tomás when we were making WALKER in Nicaragua, in the 1980s. He was Minister of the Interior then, a tough man greatly feared by some, with good reason. Borge had been tortured by the Somoza dictatorship; while we were there the country was under constant attack by Jimmy Carter's contra terrorists, whom Ronald Reagan had enthusiastically endorsed (American foreign policy, then as now, being as bipartisan as it is stupid and anti-democratic). So Borge had an enormous remit - from ferreting out spies to dealing with the food and resource shortages that the US war and embargo caused. It's hardly surprising that he wasn't loved by all. But he was dedicated, and effective.
He was also very funny, if you were around him for any length of time. He was a joker, and often the jokes were at the expense of any gringoes in the vicinity. So I was the butt of them, and so was Lorenzo O'Brien - a Peruvian, but the Nicaraguans tended to think of anyone who wasn't Nicaraguan as a gringo. I won't repeat any of the jokes here - you can read them in my book X FILMS (where I mistook Borge's partner in humor for a Cuban: it was Eduardo Galiano, the Uruguyan author of Open Veins of Latin America, who set us up for our pratfall).
When the Sandinistas won the Revolution and established a government, several of them, including the new Minister of Culture, Ernesto Cardenal, and the writer, painter and poet, Ramiro Lacayo, wanted to establish a film ministry. Tomás said fine, go ahead and make your films - and the Frente set up a film enterprise, INCINE: it made mostly 16mm films, and a feature or two, and was our partner on WALKER. But they didn't do video: Comandante Borge was too canny for that. Twenty years before I realised that it was an important, worthwhile format - even before Mike Figgis figured it out! - Tomás realised the power, flexibility, universality and cheapness of video production. As a young man, he'd dreamed of being a film producer. As Interior Minister, he made himself a TV exec.
In the comment section of The Guardian, Paul Baker Hernandez reprints this poem which Tomás wrote: "Mi Venganza Personal". Nicaragua was, and is, a country of poets, but this poetic work was a little more intense than most. Borge dedicated it to his torturer:
Oh, I will be revenged upon your children
When they've the right to schooling and to flowers
My vengeance will be sweet when I can sing them
This song born in the freedom and the quiet hours
My revenge will be to show you all the goodness
I see shining in the eyes of this, my people,
Courageous and unyielding in the battle
But still more constant and more generous in the victory
When that day comes I'll greet you with 'Good morning!'
And there will be no beggars left to haunt us
For you, my brother, I can demand no prison
But call on you to clear your eyes of sadness
For when you, the one who tortured me, stand forward
Your eyes downcast and all your strength forgotten
My revenge will be to reach to you, my brother,
With these the very hands which once you tore and tortured
Without being able to destroy their tenderness ...
Que viva Nicaragua Libre! Aqui no si rinde nadie! Comandante Borge, Presente!
(You can see Tomás in top form, taking over the direction of WALKER as we staged the burning of Granada, in the documentary Dispatches from Nicaragua, which accompanies the Criterion DVD in the USA)
APPLE, BRING IT HOME!
An illuminating conversation apparently occurred between Barak Obama and Steve Jobs last year. The deferential president asked the dear leader if Apple couldn't make their products in the US. Jobs replied, "Those jobs aren't coming back".
And why should they, when Jobs and his successors can afford to pay impoverished Chinese women pennies an hour (or pressganged student interns nothing) in a dangerous factory without health and safety regulations, where nets hang between buildings to catch the desperate workers who try to commit suicide? Yes, we are talking about Foxconn, the Chinese contractor for Apple and other big computer companies, in whose iPad factory the air caught fire. Apple, like Foxconn, are all about making money, and no one - certainly not the President of the United States - wants to get in the way of that.
But today The Guardian reports that the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (a project of the British University of Manchester and the Open University) have finally done the math -- and come up with what it would cost for Apple to manufacture their expensive products in the US (where health and safety laws apply) rather than China (where they don't). According to their Working Paper on the Apple Business Model it costs Apple $178.45 to make an iPhone in China, whereas to build one in the USA would cost $337.01.
Since iPhones sell for some $630, this means that Apple would make almost 50% profit on every unit they manufactured in the US, as opposed to 72% profit on phones made in China. If they wanted to avoid those dangerous things called unions, they could always situate their American factories in "right to work" states like South Carolina, where Boeing recently moved (and where the National Labor Relations Board has accused them of breaking federal labour laws).
Which raises two obvious questions: how much profit do these billionaire one-percenters genuinely need? And how much misery are they willing to create in pursuit of it?
And an attendant question: why is it that British economists and academics had to come up with this report? Aren't their American counterparts interested in the politics of profit versus employment?
MORE STUDIO LIES ABOUT PIRACY
Al Parry, a senior executive at Paramount, has been sent on a university roadshow by his employers, attempting to explain to the students of elite law schools why Hollywood's desire for total domination of copyright law and the Internet is a good thing. As Ars Technica reports, his tour hasn't been very successful: the Yale student audience was described as "very hostile" to his arguments - partially because Parry apparently doesn't know much about copyright law, and is entirely ignorant about Fair Use.
It might help if Parry told the truth. At the moment he's parroting the MPAA/Chris Dodd argument that "piracy" is costing Hollywood workers their jobs. Not just millionaire actors and directors are affected, Parry claimed: "We have drivers, florists, people moving things around." According to Ars, Parry asserted that due to
online file-sharing, Hollywood is making fewer movies, and
spending less on each one. That, he said, means fewer jobs.
Perhaps Parry should consult with his boss, Viacom chief Philippe Daumon. Last year, Daumon told The New York Times that Paramount Studios are making fewer (and more expensive) movies as a matter of policy: specifically Daumon referred to TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON, which, having grossed more than a billion dollars, "affirmed our strategy of a reduced release slate."
So there you have it, Al. Your own boss says that it's corporate policy, not piracy, that's throwing Hollywood workers onto the streets.
To oppose Hollywood one-percenter greed, the reader might like to sign this petition.
And one can learn more about the New American Pirate Party here.
HOW DO YOU FIX A BROKEN HEART?
So a couple of months ago I got an email from a production company in Mexico: they were making the new feature of Felipe Cazals, and did I want to act in it? Did I? Is the bear a Catholic? Of course I did. It didn't matter what the part was: Cazals is one of the last of the old-school Mexican directors. Him, Fonz, Ripstein, El Perrito... who else is left? So naturally I said yes. When they sent me the pages I was even happier: for I was to play a ghost, and not just any phantasm: the shade of Ambrose Bierce. You may have seen the boring film THE OLD GRINGO. It was peripherally about Bierce, and Gregory Peck was in it -- not that Peck was ever boring, just some of the films he was in. Anyway, to play the ghost of the author of The Devil's Diectionary is an honour beyond most of the possibilities that swing one's way. (Especially as, long ago, Dennis Hopper hired me to play the ghost of D.H. Lawrence in his Taos-based thriller, BACKTRACK ... collect the set of ghostly early twentieth-century authors!)
I was all set up to leave this coming weekend. Flights arranged -- from Denver to Mexico City, then a drive up to Hidalgo (which in my mind was a beautiful colonial town, full of cobblestones and pulque and extras from a Buñuel film like EL or SUBIDA AL CIELO, although I'm sure the reality is somewhat not like that). Then, on Friday, an email came from the production manager: they were running late, my sequence was delayed, more to follow. I am used to that. Production schedules change all the time, and if they can afford to run late it means they have money to spend! (If cash is tight, you have to stay on schedule.) Silence for a couple of days. Then, on Sunday, an email from the maestro, himself, advising me that he's shot too much footage already, the film is plenty long enough, and they're cutting my scene. Apologies. I showed the email to Miguel Sandoval who pointed out that it said "Sent from my iPad". The bastard! He hadn't even had the courtesy to pull his laptop out to cut me loose -- just fired up his toy from Apple, made by his Chinese slaves...
Oh well. I didn't think that anything could upset me any more (other than the misbehaviour of the likes of Dodd and Viacom). But I was wrong. I hadn't realised how much I missed Mexico, and how much I was looking forward to going back, to act in an authentic Mexican film... Oh well. Somewhere in Mexico City is a painting which belongs to me and to the late Claudia Becker: it's called EL APANDO, and it shows the lissome Delia Casanova swimming in a red-tiled swimming pool. It's based on a scene from Cazal's film, of the same name. Fantastic film, best prison picture ever. It's just a little retrato, and like most of my art collection it's drifted away from me. But not indefinitely. One of these days, the old gringo is coming to pick it up...
Abrazos y besos, todos.
WHY IMDB IS OUT OF LINE
The Guardian reports that an actor, who has not been named, has sued IMDB for misusing her credit card information to discover her birth date, and publishing that info online. Who cares, the reader might ask? Especially when Richard O'Dwyer faces extradition to the US for a victimless Internet 'crime' and Philippe Daumon gets obscenely richer by the minute? Here's why it matters, and why IMDB ought to end its practice of publishing actors' ages:
Acting is a fun profession. Some actors even make a living at it, though most support themselves via other jobs. But getting acting work - particularly in film and television - is very hard. The industry is sexist, racist, fattist, and ageist. It's the only industry left - as far as I know - where you can be rejected for a job on the basis of your sex, your race, your weight, your disability, or your age. Of course, these prejudices exist in other businesses, as well. But they are illegal. Refuse to hire someone at your fast food restaurant because she's a woman, or reject a competent programmer because he's in a wheelchair, and you open yourself up to some serious litigation (if the person gets to hear about it, and can afford a pricey lawyer).
Casting actors, on the other hand, is inherently discriminatory. Actors are routinely rejected because they're the "wrong" sex, not beautiful enough, too fat, the "wrong" colour, or "too old". Of course, directors and casting directors should be smarter, and more sensitive, and not limit themselves by sticking rigidly to a pre-existing notion as to a character's race, sex, size, or age. But, sad to say, as a rule directors and casting directors are neither sensitive, nor smart. They don't think beyond the very small box their intellects and financiers have built for them.
By publishing individuals' ages on an influential website, IMDB gives lazy casting directors a chance to exclude people who don't fit their preconceptions. If actors don't get to audition, they lose the chance of landing a role which they may be great for. They lose the chance of getting work. Acting is indeed fun, but getting acting gigs is very, very hard (unless you're the son of Donald Sutherland, or the nephew of Francis Coppola, which most actors aren't). IMDB must stop this practice. It isn't funny. It's demeaning and career-damaging.
What if IMDB really went for it and started publishing actors's weights, and sexual orientation, and colour, too? Wouldn't you feel a little sick about visiting a website which listed actors as 187 lbs, homosexual, negro? Or 130 lbs, bisexual, octaroon? IMDB is meant to be a useful database - not a slave market.
ONE PERCENTER VERSUS NINETY-NINE PERCENTER
Who are these two men, and why does one of them want to put the other one in jail?
The person on the left is Richard O'Dwyer, a 23-year-old English student at Sheffield Hallam University. The person on the right is Christopher Dodd, millionaire head of the MPAA and a former US senator. What do they have in common? Not a lot, except that Dodd is a water-carrier for the organization which wants to imprison Dwyer - and other foreign nationals, living abroad - who have displeased Big Copyright.
O'Dwyer is accused of of 'inducement to commit copyright infringement'. He allegedly did this, a few years ago, by starting a website called tvshack.net. O'Dwyer didn't actually post any infringing material, or download any illegal files (as far as we know). Instead - like Google - he posted links to sites where non-copyright and copyright material might be obtained. For this, he was visited by the British police, and their masters, ICE agents who refused to identify themselves. They confiscated two of his computers, and, thoroughly intimidated, O'Dwyer took his site down -- even though it did't violate English law, and its servers weren't located in the US.
None of this was enough for Big Copyright, which continued to go after Dwyer and now - thanks to a compliant English judge and a spineless home secretary, Theresa May - has secured his extradition to the United States, where he faces a trial and an unknown number of years in jail if convicted.
How could this come about? O'Dwyer's mother, who attended the extradition hearing, said that the judge "lacked the technical brains to know about the whole thing." Note that one judge was all that was required for the MPAA/RIAA/ACTA goons to get their way: no jury needed here! No one approves of violent criminals and scofflaws getting away with murder, but is this really an appropriate use of the British and American legal systems (our taxes at work!)?
According to English law, O'Dwyer hasn't commited any crime at all. He has just posted links to things, as you or I might also do, believing our actions legal as fair use, and in the public interest. Let's compare his record with that of Dodd (the toadlike creature on the right -- and why do these MPAA millionaires always look like toads? (See the picture of Viacom's Philippe Daumon, below, for another example)
In January of this year, Christopher Dodd boasted to Fox News of the American politicians he had in his pocket. They include Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Sen. Harry
Reid (Nev.), Rep. Howard Berman (Calif.), Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.),
Sen. Chuck Schumer, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Rep. Henry Waxman
(Calif.), Rep. John Boehner (Ohio), Sen. Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), Rep.
Colin Peterson (Minn.), Rep. Melvin Watt (N.C). Dodd told reporters that he and the MPAA gave these politicians money, and expected to them to vote the way they were told, in matters of copyright leglislation such as ACTA and PIPA.
Dodd's admission was amazing. He stated, point blank, that the MPAA was in the business of paying elected officials to obtain changes in the law. I'm not an expert in these matters, but this sounds to me like an admission of bribery. I don't believe that suborning politicians is legal either at home or abroad. Isn't another former politician, Rod Blagojevich, starting a long prison sentence today for bribing other elected officials for his personal and business ends? In what way is Dodd's and the MPAA's buying of politicans' services any different? Since these changes in copyright law are for the benefit of an illegal cartel - the studios - and since Dodd's money crosses state lines, racketeering is probably involved The RICO statutes, if applied, might cause Dodd, Daumon, and other Big Copyright Goons some sleepless nights.
How soon will we see Dodd and his cronies extradited or taken down for their apparent crimes: crimes a great deal more serious than building a website and making some links? Read about Hollywood union members opposing Dodd and ACTA/PIPA here. And sign a petition demanding that the suborned politicians return the bribe money they've received from the MPAA here!
As a creator of original content which the studios use and abuse, and whose revenues they systematically conceal, I ask the gentle reader two more things in moral support of Richard Dwyer: don't buy the lousy 20th Century Fox DVD/BluRay of SID & NANCY (I didn't make that film for Murdoch, and receive no revenues from its sales), and email these profiteering politicians, telling them to give that money back!
CHARLIE SELBERG, COLESTINIAN
Charles Selberg was an American fencing master who ran the school at UC Santa Cruz in the nineteen sixties and early seventies. Those were the days when UCSC was a rebel school: the profs didn't grade the students, the students graded themselves based on an honest assessment of their efforts and work. Charlie said it worked very well, but it didn't catch on in the UC system. I knew him in his retirement - though he never retired: he was always teaching fencing to avid students, in his Colestin salle. So, not being a fencer, I knew him not as that but as a Colestinian - a brilliant, eccentric, erudite resident of the Colestin Valley, OR.
El Maestro, Selberg
Last spring, Charlie threatened to teach me fencing. Only severe whiskey treatment prevented this. He was a fount of fascinating stories, of VHS tapes and DVDs of classic films (his taste was excellent and I often ended up writing about his choices in Film Comment), of ZAP! comics, of catfood for the racoons and skunks who loved him; he was, in return, immensely attached to the giant trees. Charlie died last Friday, at home. I found out by accident, today, calling him up and yelling, "Selbergs!" "There's only one Selberg left," his wonderful wife, Julie, replied.
CHARLIE SELBERG - PRESENTE!
THE JOY OF CINEMA: 'DIABLO' PREMIERES IN THE US
They take films seriously in Boulder. Last Friday there was a tribute screening of Theo Angelopoulos' SUSPENDED LEG OF THE STORK - a picture which though it stars Mastroianni and Moreau has never (as far as I know) had a release in the English-speaking world. All plano secuencia with opening and closing shots unlike anything I've ever seen. Yesterday was Cocteau's ORPHEE (all right, I screened that myself, for the screenwriting class. But, amazing script and cinematography and performances and costumes aside, it still astonishes me on the VFX front as well. That shot where Orpheus and Heurtebise drag their way along a ruined wall, turn a corner, and are suddenly swept into space... all the film's effects seem to have been made in camera: superimpositions, reversals, rear-projections... so how did they manage to fly???)
Then, tonight, came the US premiere of DIABLO. While Sean Penn's support for Las Malvinas is to be applauded for its awesome bravery, one fears that his Hollywood masters may punish him for standing up to the English Superstate, with its nuclear-powered Jack Tars and their fearsome leader, Prince William of the Stylin' Uniform. Take it easy, Sean. Help is at hand. DIABLO suggests that imperialists should think twice before messing with the modern Argentinian, personified in this splendid film by Juan Paloma -- playing a former boxer with Juan Perón tatooed on his right breast, and Eva Perón on his left.
DIABLO, directed by a good-hearted, talented sadist, Nicanor Loreti, is the liveliest film I've seen in years. It makes DRIVE look tame and sentimental. There is no weeny-little-boy or sympathetic-doomed-loser stuff in DIABLO. Just macho stupidity, and fighting, and more macho stupidity, and then more fighting. Fantastic! How fortunate and cunning of the Underground IFS to seize the US premiere out from beneath the grasp of Sundance and Toronto! This was also the opening night of the Boulder International Film Festival (featuring a film about a noble dog, strong competition): but DIABLO entertained a large, frequently horrified audience, and will surely receive a wide theatrical US distribution pronto.
WHO IS THIS MAN WHO WANTS TO PUT YOUR CHILDREN IN PRISON?
Take a good look at the picture of the somewhat flaccid-faced individual below.
His name is Philippe Daumon. He is, if not yet quite a billionaire, more than a multi-millionaire. Philippe is the CEO of Viacom, parent company of Paramount Studios, MTV, and 'Jersey Shore', which via its MPAA subsidiary, buys the services of politicians, extradites file-downloading young people from England, and tells the media that you and I are members of a 'mob' because our websites went on strike over his attempts to control the Internet.
Monsieur Daumon earns a fantastic salary. Yet is is clearly not enough, as he also earned a FIFTY MILLION DOLLAR PAY-RISE for his good efforts in 2010. Who knows how much he'll get based on his excellent work last year? But, what good work did he do, exactly?
M. Daumon controls Paramount. As such he is responsible for crap such as the TRANSFORMERS franchise. Last year he told the New York Times that TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON, having grossed more than a billion dollars, "affirmed our strategy of a reduced release state."
There you have it, from the horse's mouth. Paramount are making fewer pictures so as to make more money . The reason my co-workers in Los Angeles don't have jobs, and 'independent' pictures don't reach the cinemas, isn't poor lads like Richard O'Dwyer, who (thak you MPAA!) faces extradition and ten years in a US jail for file-sharing. The absence of jobs in Hollywood is thanks to a policy decision by M. Daumon and his friends at the MPAA - who have decided to maximize profits by minimizing output. Your son or daughter, downloading pirateria, isn't to blame (though they may still go to prison). The production famine is a conscious, cash- and bonus-related decision by one percenters like M. Daumon.
I hope one day you or I get to meet M. Daumon. It isn't very likely, of course. I doubt that he stands in the same line at the airport as we do, or bothers with things like customs and immigration, or takes the bus. But you never know. One day when we're in court, accused of 'illegal' downloading or viewing an 'illegal' site, we may yet glance Philippe being escorted into a much higher court - with far superior security, and a longer jail term in the offing - charged with racketeering, participating an illegal industrial cartel, and violating the RICO statutes. At least, we can dream.
So, dear friends, if we ever do get to see M. Daumon, let's not be shy about saying hi! to him - and thanking him, effusively, for his wonderful work.
Viacom, by the way, also own Comedy Central, something to bear in mind as we enjoy John Stewart and the Colbert Rapport and imagine we're somehow above his company's egregious bullshit.
BOYCOTT PARAMOUNT! ADIOS PHILIPPE!
STOP HOLLYWOOD GREED
Following the collapse of SOPA and PIPA, the Motion Picture Association of America (i.e. the studios' self-rating agency and mouthpiece) issued a daring threat to the politicians on their payroll: vote the way we tell you, or we'll cut off the money supply. This terrifying warning was issued yesterday by Chris Dodd, a former Senator who now carries water for the MPAA, via the studios' preferred medium, Fox News:
“Those who count on quote ‘Hollywood’ for support need to understand
that this industry is watching very carefully who’s going to stand up
for them when their job is at stake. Don’t ask me to write a check for
you when you think your job is at risk and then don’t pay any attention
to me when my job is at stake.”
The 'industry' isn't watching anyone. It's struggling to find a job and pay its bills, while the studios pursue a race to the bottom (Our state is the cheapest, most corrupt place to shoot! We will give you money to buy Jaguars and SUVs and pretend they were for the production! Our taxpayers will pay Johnny Depp's salary if you film in our mosquito-infested bayous!). Last year, and the year before, and the year before, GE - Universal's Parent Company - paid no tax at all. Last year, Viacom made a billion dollars in profits off one film alone. Yet still the studios whine, and increasingly they threaten.
And the threat is real. MPAA Chairman Dodd made it crystal clear to Fox News: he writes checks to politicians who vote the way he tells them. Among the pols in Dodd's pocket are Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Sen. Harry
Reid (Nev.), Rep. Howard Berman (Calif.), Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.),
Sen. Chuck Schumer, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Rep. Henry Waxman
(Calif.), Rep. John Boehner (Ohio), Sen. Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), Rep.
Colin Peterson (Minn.), Rep. Melvin Watt (N.C), not forgetting the Senator for Hollywood himself, Al Franken.
Fortunately, the activist site Demand Progress has come up with an elegant solution to the problem. They propose that Feinstein, Berman, Waxman and the rest make a clean break and give the money back. Not just refuse to accept studio bribe money in future, but actually give back all the studio money they have received.
What a simple idea! It's surprising no one thought of this before. Of course, these Senators and Representatives are busy people - they have to take bribes from many lobbyists, not just the MPAA's paid goons - so they may need a reminder or two to do the right thing. You can send a letter headed STOP HOLLYWOOD GREED to these special interest mavens by clicking here.
PEDRO ARMENDARIZ, JR.
Pedro died the day after Xmas in New York. A great actor who did over 100 films and much TV, and, lately Broadway musicals in Spanish, on the Mexican stage, and a good friend. I saw Pedro in a matinee of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF 4 or 5 years ago. He was totally involved in it - dancing and singing and wearing this big beard. Later in life the versatile actor I knew from EL PATRULLERO and WALKER and LA LEY DE HERODES had found a new career: stage musical star! How he enjoyed himself. We plotted to do THE PRODUCERS in Mexico City. Pedro as Max Bielestock! It would have been fun.
Kuniaki Negishi wrote, about Pedro:
The brave man - he too must die away in the end, like a whirl of dust in the Mexican wind... from the bell of Gion temple.
KEN RUSSELL ADIOS
I met Ken Russell only once, in the doorway of an off-license in Islington. I held the door for him - a big, burly man with long white hair and a scarf, as he headed out into the night with a bottle of wine. That was it. I have no stories to tell, no insights received. Yet he had more influence on me and on my work than almost any filmmaker - not in a stylistic sense, since his films were all amazingly different, but in the sense of his ambition, his epic vision, and in his refusal to bend with the prevailing winds. He was one of the very few real film directors who - like Francis Coppola and Giulio Questi - when the commercial tide of 'mainstream' cineama turned against them, kept on making films. His budgets got smaller and smaller, and his casts less splendid, till he was shooting shorts in his garage. Yet he went on - writing, teaching, planning projects - until the end.
Russell's was the greatest generation of British directors - it included Lindsay Anderson, and Tony Richardson, and John Boorman, and Nik Roeg, and Stanley Kubrick (that honorary Brit) - and one could make the case that he was the most talented and furthest reaching of them all. Who else but Ken could have made those films: violent maalstroms like THE DEVILS, light musical comedies like THE BOYFRIEND, epic tragedies like VALENTINO (which is still my favourite of his films). His weakest work (the only one I didn't like, in fact) was his Hollywood 'drug' epic, ALTERED STATES. Dopey critics lapped it up, but it was a poor work by comparison with his real films -- it was obvious that Russell didn't take halucinogens, because didn't need to! He was tripping permanently, like that other great English visionary, William Blake. Seeing things with greater clarity than most of us, he walked in his own path, following his own star.
Even his more modest later works contain moments of great merit - who can forget Amanda Donahoe in LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM? His great films are among the best motion pictures ever made. How many British directors can be placed in the company of Welles, of Kurosawa, of Cocteau? Ken Russell was the only one, perhaps. Yet he seemed in other ways a humble person, too - who knew how to defer to his creative collaborators (think of Derek Jarman's sets for THE DEVILS! Think of the performances of Reed, Redgrave, and the others), who never forgot that to make an independent film you had to feed the crew - and feed them well.
A few years back I shot a documentary about Kurosawa. It was an opportunity for many film directors (including Coppola, Bertolucci, Arturo Ripstein, John Woo and Mike Hodges, to name only a few) to talk about the great man and his influence on their work. Of all the directors I saught to interview, only Ken Russell turned me down. We discussed the project on the phone; I tried to convince him that his input would be valuable, nay, essential, to my film. "Not at all," Russell replied. "I like Kurosawa, but I have nothing original to say about him. Come back to me when you make a documentary about Cocteau! Then we can talk."
R.I.P. Ken Russell. Thank you so very much.
MAR DEL PLATA 2011
To Argentina, where the MAR DEL PLATA FILM FESTIVAL is screening a retrospective of my films. They're showing all my 35mm work with the exception of WALKER (Universal Studios refused to provide a print). It's the first time I've been here, and the Festival seems quite wonderful - both in the warmth of the reception (especially from Pablo Conde, the programmer, Jose Martinez Suarez, the director, and Belen Formaggioni, who is my 'angel' and guide) and in the quality of the films being screened - my own poor works aside.
So far I've seen three films of quite exceptional quality: Victor Kossakovsky's LONG LIVE THE ANTIPODES! (a marvellous and thoughtful picture which I'll write about in Film Comment), Alejandro Brujes' JUAN OF THE DEAD (a zombie apocalypse set in Cuba, which features epic scenes of special effects destruction in Havana Vieja, makes many jokes at the expense of the Revolution, yet remains splendidly patriotic at the end), and Nicanor Loreti's violent yet hilarious DIABLO, an Argentinian gem in the PULP FICTION vein - far better and more intelligent than any Tarantino film.
Today there's a presentation of the Spanish translation of my Italian Western book, 10 THOUSAND WAYS TO DIE - a coproduction of the Festival and Fan Books, who specialize in film-related stuff. Fernando Martin Peña, who provides a new introduction to the book, has also found a 35mm print of Lina Wertmuller's BELLE STAR - the only Italian Western directed by a woman, and perhaps the last existing copy in the world. I've been watching and presenting films so I haven't seen much of the city, much less the country. But I'm impressed to learn that, with the entire planet gripped in the banksters' crisis, Argentina manages to provide free heath care AND free education (including University education). Maybe their ruling class isn't quite as rich as ours, and, of course, they don't have an empire to maintain.
Tonight I'm off to see SLACKER 2011, a remake of the original American indy feature, shot in Austin, TX, by no less than twenty-four Austin-based directors, represented here by its dapper producer, Daniel Metz. Tomorrow I'll do research for my next feature, a three-hour epic on the street dogs of the city. Tod and I have two rescue animals of our own, but the Argentinians (or, at least, the Platenses) treat abandoned animals differently from the way we Northerners do. Instead of rounding them up and executing them or mistreating and starving them, they feed 'em and let 'em hang around. It is a marvellous thing to see - numerous perros callejeros - most of them well-fed and in very reasonable shape - hanging out in the company of people who don't own them, or running after mopeds for the fun of it.
Somebody said that you can tell the quality of a civilization by the way it treats its prisoners. By that measure there probably isn't a civilized country anywhere. So I propose a different standard: how do they treat abandoned animals? By this measure, Mar Del Plata is one of the most civilized cities in the world.
Since we're in the land of Borges, I must share this photo of the staircase in my hotel. It's one of the best caracoles I've encountered (I wish we'd known about it when we shot LA MUERTE Y LA BRUJULA), and I suspect there's an Aleph located on one of the stairs ... but which one? Vamos a ver ...
LA VIDA ACADEMICA
We were blessed last week with the presence of Richard Beggs, who came to talk to our production class about his profession - sound design. Usually audio matters get left till late in the process but it seemed - based on Richard's repeated observations - that it's good to get things (especially SOUND THINGS) planned sooner, rather than attempt a mad dash at the end. So Richard flew out from London (where he's preparing a studio picture for Alfonso Cuaron) to chat with me and the 3400 students. The outcome was pretty amazing. He and I had prepared to show clips from a very sound-designed film he made for Barry Levinson, SLEEPERS. Instead we got drawn into a round-table discussion of the class's projects. He gave everybody hands-on advice about recording sound, finding sound effects, recording sound effects, and why everyone must get the very best audio they can - and how. I, knowing little about sound, found it beneficial.
The ALTAS building - film studies and more - on the CU campus, where my office lies.
Richard dropped in on the ProTools class and watched LONELY ARE THE BRAVE with the screenwriters before introducing the opening film of the IFS season - TUCKER - which he also sound-designed. He flew on to San Francisco to finish the audio on TWIXT the next day. It was a fanstastic visit (thank you 3400 guys for applauding the man).
Bon voyage, Richard! Come and see us again, soon.
DIGITAL VIDEO UPDATE
Have been in transit for the last couple of months working on EXTERMINATING ANGEL PRESS commercials... there are two for the extraordinary book SNOTTY SAVES THE DAY, a true story of everyday life in Liverpool, which the viewer may enjoy Part One here and Part Two here.
These are on the vimeo site, which is perhaps a little less cluttered and more up-markety than youtube. There you can also find a video I did for Kid Carpet's very touching song LAST WORD, and the USER'S GUIDE TO 3 BUSINESSMEN, based on the writings of Peter Watkins re. the Monoform. Roaming around vimeo I also found two short films by Kim Ryan -- one of me at the Futurist Cinema, talking about Peckinpah and the masons; plus her remarkable documentary about the anti-war demonstration we all went to in London... two million strong.
Kim's PEACE TRAIN is a great short film, best of the bunch, and an inspiration in view of all the extra anti-war and anti-bank-bailout demos we'll be attending shortly.
JOHN ROSS PRESENTE!
John Ross was one of the 'Red Diaper' babies - born to communist parents in New York City in 1938. He was arrested by the FBI in 1963 for refusing to report for induction in the US Army; he became the first draft resister to be jailed for declining to go to Vietnam.
He spent the sixties in San Francisco as a tenant organizer. In the 70s John discovered a taste for journalism. He wrote on environmental politics and social movements in California, Spain, and North Africa, and was one of the first international reporters to report on Sendero Lumnoso in Peru.
John was always drawn to where the action was - so after an earthquake leveled the center of Mexico City in 1985, he moved there. For many years he lived in a hotel only two blocks from the Zocalo -- the huge square where all the political demonstrations end up. He covered the theft of the Presidential election there in 1988 (when Salinas stole the presidency from Cardenas) and the theft of the election in 2006 (when Calderon stole the presidency from Lopez Obrador). Nothing changed - not the corruption of the political sector, nor the US media's willingness to play along with the charade, nor John's loquatious outrage at the never-ending scam.
John Ross, periodista
I read his dispatches in a small town California newspaper called the Anderson Valley Advertiser; then subscribed to his self-printed newsletter, MEXICO BARBARO. As his sight failed, he renamed his journal BLIND MAN'S BLUFF. I tracked him down in Mexico City and introduced himself. He was energetic, funny, moral, perennially short of cash. When other reporters flew to the scene of the story, John took the bus. "Gets there last, but gets there fast!" was his motto. And it served him well: Ross did some of the very best reporting of the Zapatista movement, which he followed - not uncritically - as it developed from a social movement in Chiapas to a world-wide phenomenon.
When I mentioned that my friend, Pedro Armendariz, was trying to mount a stage production of THE PRODUCERS, John told me that his father was the model for Max Bielystock (the part played by Zero Mostel in the Mel Brooks film). "He was a theatrical entrepreneur," John told me. "He would seduce widows and use their money to put on shows that failed. He had a cardboard belt!"
I believed him, absolutely. Why would he lie? John was one of the 'human shields' in Iraq: the original embedded journalists. After our last lunch in Mexico City, I hesitated before getting into a cab. All those stories about cabbies kidnapping their passengers and holding them to ransom... "Get in!" John told me, sternly, opening the door. "Taxi drivers have a harder time than you do - you'll be fine!" I turned back to watch the tall, old, bearded blindman, making his way with easy grace through the great crowd.
(John died in Patzcuaro, Mexico, two nights ago)
John's site is http://www.johnross-rebeljournalist.com
STRAIGHT TO HELL RETURNS SAYS THANK YOU
This is just a note to say THANK YOU VERY, VERY MUCH to all the theaters which hosted the STRAIGHT TO HELL RETURNS TOUR, and to wish all involved a very merry Xmas and a happy and prosperous (especially prosperous...) new year. The theatrical reissue took off at the Roxie in San Francisco on Halloween, then the San Rafael Film Center in Mill Valley, the Zeitgeist in New Orleans, the Nickelodeon and the Clinton St in Portland, the Grand Illusion in Seattle, the CCA in Santa Fe, The Guild in Albuquerque, the Vancity in Vancouver, The Loft in Tucson, le Cinéma du Parc in Montréal, the Billy Wilder in LA, Movies on a Big Screen in Sacramento, the Bijou in Eugene, the Olympia Film Society in Washington's capital, the Pickford in Bellingham (one week before they move to their new premises!) and the Grand Cinema, Tacoma.
Mil garcias to all concerned -- and particular shout outs to Keif and co at The Guild in Duke City, to Seth and all at the Clinton St Cinema in the Rose City, and to Shannon and the UCLA Archive/Billy Wilder crew. You made me, dogs, cast and crew feel more than welcome!
(STRAIGHT TO HELL RETURNS screens in 2011 at the Times Cinema, Milwaukee, the FilmBar, Phoenix, Lincoln Center in New York, and other venues TBD... it's also available on DVD and, one of these days, via download)
THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL TRAIL...
To Portland, to record the presentations of Danbert's 3 DEAD PRINCES fabulous fairytale and E.E. King's hysterically funny GUIDE TO THE AFTERLIFE at Powell's. These are wonderful books, full of beautiful pictures, from the highly-regarded Exterminating Angel imprint, and I can impartially recommend them to all my readers, or reader.
At Wordstock, later in the week, I'm told that websites have gone the way of buggy whips and the Palm Pilot. The contemporary hipster has no time for tedious blogs or pages of outdated facts uploaded weeks or months or even years ago... John McCain said he understood the importance of the blogs but does he know how to do the facebook or to twitter?
Neither do I. I remain blissfully unaware of these things, and this happy state of inability to communicate is enhanced by losing my cellphone in the sand at Cannon Beach and the thought that if no one reads the blogs anymore I can cease boring my imaginary friend with these outpourings!
Pearl on her bed
How splendid instead to be a henchman, assigned to checking the enterprise out of its hotel rooms, carrying the occasional box of books, and walking the publisher's dogs!
I used to think that every aspect of post production was fascinating. Anything that entailed sitting at a moviola, or a flatbed, or a nonlinear editing station, was fine with me. I enjoyed shooting mainly for the chance to get into the editing room because that is where the film gets made... even if the film is made entirely of long takes.
Straight to Hell Returns trading card, by Webster Colcord
But dust busting is authentically boring, and, like other jobs designed by the Devil, is an undending one. It seems to be a bit like proof reading. Keep going over the same material, over and over again, and you'll keep on finding mistakes... In the days when films were projected in cinemas we didn't need dust busters. Those pups shot through the gate at a rate of 24 images per second. Stop the projector and the celluloid would catch on fire (as it does so memorably at the end of TWO LANE BLACKTOP... and that was in the script! This was no improv or something they came up with in the editing room. It was the Work of the Master, Wurlitzer).
Now, people have big plasma screens and the capacity to freeze frame whenever they so desire. Dust and scratches no longer flash by, but hang, frozen in time, like kinfe-scars in the canvas of the Mona Lisa. Or at least a Velasco. Endless work ensues. HD projection and dust-busting go together like Disney and Draconian Copyright Laws.
So, anyway, last week I downed the dust pan and drove with Tod and the dogs up to Twisp, where Danbert was presenting his book, 3 DEAD PRINCES. Tod is the publisher, and I the illustrator. The do went very well, I thought. Nobacon sang a new song - the first rock song I've heard which mentions H.G. Wells - and cooked us breakfast before we hit the road.
The Twisp River Inn is very scenic and dogiferous, but we were tired by the drive (and by a ghastly night in Goldendale, whither we will not be hurrying any time soon), so when we reached Hood River in the Colombia Gorge, Tod decided we would stay two nights.
How right she was. The Colombia Gorge is scenically amazing, but what really blew my mind is the amount of human transport and power-generating infrastructure crammed into it. There are highways, bridges, railroad lines on both sides of the River, locks and power-generating dams. All overshadowed by the magnificent natural beauty of cliffs and waterfalls.
(There were also two magnificently beautiful brew pubs - the Double Mountain in Hood River and Everybody's Brewing in White Salmon, across the 75 cent toll bridge - a moderate consumption of whose products enhanced my enthusiasm for a fine if somewhat rainy place.)
Tomorrow Danbert will appear at Skylight Books in Los Angeles to read from his book and entertain in other divers ways. I shall be filming the proceedings, then attending the LA premiere of SEARCHERS 2.0 at the Aero. If time permits I'll also try the East LA extension of the Gold Line. Whee!!
[SHAMEFACED UPDATE 2010.9.26: I must apologise for my failure to appear at either of the above events! Setting off at 5.45 I had a flat tire (a.k.a. tyre) at the top of our dirt road and spent the rest of the day engaged in its replacement. Thus is life in the WUI, or Wildland Urban Interface.]
When, a couple of years back, we made the picture, it seemed like a good idea for our male actors to appear extremely sweaty. This was pretty easy, given that they were wearing thick wool suits and the temperature was 110 Farenheit, in the shade. But Tom Richmond, the sadistic cinematographer, and I, were driven to further excesses: spritzing the actors with faux 'sweat' which was really sugar water, in the hope that flies would land on them.
What this translates into, in the dust-busting phase, is dozens of glinting white highlights on the faces of Joe Strummer, Sy Richardson, and Dick Rude -- each of which resembles a scratch in the emulsion, or a speck of white negative dirt. Software would remove them all, equally. But Tom and I don't want them all removed! We worked hard to get those glistening beads of moisture on or actors' brows. So scratches and sweat-drops must be distinguished by the human eye, because software doesn't know the difference, any more than spell check can discern between their and there.
Likewise -- when a black dot appears -- is it dust, or is it one of those flies we so carefully cultivated? Black dots, too, must be scrutinized by a semi-human eye. My rule of thumb: if there's a white dot on the face of Courtney Love or Grace Jones or Michele Winstanley, get rid of it; if there's a white dot on the face of Shane MacGowan or Elvis Costello, investigate further, as it may be one of ours.
Meanwhile, blood-stained VFX continue to flow in from Collateral Image. To give a little taste of what Collateral are doing with RETURNS, of its enhanced violence and new colour scheme, I've put a wee trailer here.
(Doesn't time fly! I't almost time for our annual trip to Twisp, WA, in support of the artistic ventures of our dear pal Danbert Nobacon. I have drawn the picture's for Nobacon's fairy tale, 3 DEAD PRINCES, but it it is a fine book in spite of this, and Danbert will be reading from it at the Twisp River Pub on 16 Sept. (A very fine porter is brewed and served in this establishment, but this is purely coincidental.)
I WAS SHANE MACGOWAN'S PLASTIC SURGEON
SEARCHERS 2.0 comes out in theaters next month, courtesy of Microcinema International Releasing. You can watch the trailer here.
SEARCHERS was shot digitally, and digital is digital. Whatever you think about the format, it's pretty predictable and reliable. Digital photography has difficulties capturing detail in both bright and dark areas; beyond that, what you see it what you get, whether it's the original master or the millionth copy. Film is another matter. The detail it captures - in dark and light areas simultaneously - is vastly greater; so when we discovered that UCLA Film and TV Archives had a copy of the original interpositive of STRAIGHT TO HELL (think missing scenes!) I jumped at the chance to make a HD transfer.
Vittorio Storaro has estimated that there are a minimum of 6000 x 3000 bits of information in one 35mm celluloid frame - in other words, eighteen million bits of pictorial information. In our HD transfer, there are roughly 2000 x 1000 bits of information per frame (or there would be, if we were working in Storaro's ideal but theoretical 1X2 ratio) - i.e. about two million bits of information.
So even the highest quality HD transfer - which is what we've got from STRAIGHT TO HELL - contains only a fragment of the 35mm frame's potential. Still, what a difference! The transfer was done as a 'one light' - the basic colour and detail, as in a RAW still photograph. But such detail! I hadn't really bought the HD hype before I saw the difference between the old DVD version of STRAIGHT TO HELL - made from a digibeta tape - and our new transfer. It is amazing. You can see things that were previously invisible: the double-entendres carved onto Frank McMahon's belt buckles; the Michael Jackson air freshener hanging from Karl's Wiener Cart; the names on the crosses in the cemetery...
Tom Richmond, ace cinematographer, and genius colourist Beau Leon have since given the transfer an entirely new colour treatment - heavy on the yellows with deep contrast and thick blacks - which looks extraordinary. Richard Beggs is dragging the audio into the 21st century. And Collateral Image are working on a host of bullet hits, bursts of gunfire, and VFX violence: stuff we only could have dreamed of, back in the day...
With such beauty comes responsibility, of course... And the dread task of dust busting. Dust busting is something we never thought of back in the days of film. We wanted the negative as clean as possible, of course. And we wanted the prints clean and unscratched, too, at least for a while. But, watching a film in the cinema one didn't complain too much if individual frames showed scratches, or traces of hairs or dust balls, or if there were occasional imperfections in the grain, or tiny holes in the emulsion. These things flashed by, lost in the action and excitement of the story. Or so it seemed.
Now, thanks to non-linear editing and image adjustment software, it's possible to spend day after day staring at a screen, watching your picture frame-by-frame and debating whether that tiny little spot is sufficiently annoying to warrant the dust-buster. It takes less than a minute to to get rid of a spot; a big scratch may take a couple of minutes. But there are 24 frames in every second of film, and sixty seconds in every minute, and STRAIGHT TO HELL RETURNS - in its new incarnation, with added skeletons, five extra scenes, and high-tech violence - is 92 minutes long.
Perhaps you get the idea. Dust busting is how I spend my days now. Two weeks in I've still an hour of film to go. Still, it's worth it. For every twenty debatable dust specks, there's a genuinely obnoxious hair or scratch which really needs to go. Consider the following examples:
Figure One shows Shane MacGowan, in the role of Bruno McMahon, in the original DVD version of STRAIGHT TO HELL. If the image isn't too tiny, can you see the light-coloured 'loop' marring Shane's cheek? This is not actually part of our hero's face: it's a hair which somehow landed on this frame of the negative, and ended up on the 16X9 video master which was used to make our DVDs and TV prints. The horizontal lines intersecting Shane's profile are nothing to do with him either: the PAL transfer of the film was 'interlaced' which means that this screengrab is a mish-mosh of two not-entirely-identical half-frames.
Figure Two shows the same image, in the new HD transfer of STRAIGHT TO HELL RETURNS. Observez la difference! This is a screengrab of one clean, progressive frame, with that irritating hair removed. The aspect ratio isn't fixed yet - the final version will probably be 1:2.35, the original scope ratio in which the film was theatrically released - but it gives an inkling of the look of the new version.
STRAIGHT TO HELL RETURNS! With a world premiere at the Roxie in San Francisco this Halloween. Now, if you'll excuse me, the dust buster calls.
MORE! FASTER! CHEAPER! NOW!
The end of the Film Council is bad news for the Hollywood movie studios and their employees in London: British filmmakers, especially those who live outside London, are less likely to be brokenhearted.
The FC was a fairly typical New Labour product: much-hyped, packed with consultants, overly fearful of the Americans, apt to re-brand. It sported six-figure executives and snazzy premises off Oxford Street. No cheap operation, it disbursed Lottery money but failed to achieve what one assumed were its goals: supporting and growing British film.
Was this really the Film Council's or New Labour's agenda? Possibly not. In the computer design world there's an acronym, POSIWID: the Purpose Of a System Is What It Does. Looked at from this viewpoint, one of the FC's purposes was to give Lottery money intended for the cinematic arts of Britain directly to the American studios, or their subsidiaries: a diversion of arts funding which hadn't previously occurred. In managing this, the FC has been a success.
But is such success good for British films? Or even... though I shudder at the word... British movies? The American director Michael Mann told me he didn't make films, only movies. I didn't get what he meant. We were discussing a script and there was the chance of a job in it, so I asked him to elaborate. "A film costs a maximum of six million dollars. A movie costs thirty million at least. Your script is for a film."
Movies are attractive because they have vast budgets, amazing special effects, and glamourous, popular American movie stars, who you may see pass you in a limo, en route to their boutique hotel. Movies are also hugely costly when they tank. In the exciting world of movies, one bad investment - consider Film Four, and CHARLOTTE GRAY - can do enormous harm.
Britain can't afford to make movies, and shouldn't try. Films, on the other hand, are something we have always been good at. Considerably less expensive, sometimes they make money, and - if enough of them are made - the film industry becomes a self-perpetuating artistic community/job creation scheme. The really hard part isn't making the film, in any case: it's getting it seen. A sensible new film policy wouldn't support the big cinemas which make their money mainly from Hollywood blockbusters: it would actively attempt to create an alternative distribution network, for independent British (and other!) films, made outside the studio system.
In the old days, in America, Roger Corman did this, almost single-handedly supplying drive-ins and second-run cinemas with sci-fi, horror, comedies and action films, while simultaneously providing foreign movies to the urban 'art' market. Corman's own films were predictable: some action, some social commentary, some girls. But it was he - not the Hollywood studios - who 'discovered' Francis Coppola, and Martin Scorsese, and James Cameron, and Jack Nicholson, and gave them their first paying creative work.
Can David Cameron play Roger Corman? I'd like to see him try! Lottery money and tax breaks help the studios to shoot in England, and keep American visual effects guys on the job, in London, on HARRY POTTER films. But who cares? What has Harry Potter, an American franchise tied up with fast-food and Coca-Cola, to do with us, or with the long-term health of British cinema? The day Prague or Shanghai offer Harry a better deal, his studios will whisk him thither. Everyone knows this, and anticipates the day. Studios don't need subsidies, but, giant beasts that they are, they'll gobble 'em up, if offered. (The next episode of the TWILIGHT saga is to be shot, not in the Pacific Northwest where the books are set, but in South Carolina. Tax rebates talk.)
Over the years, attending the Rotterdam Film Festival, I was impressed by the way that city took off as a hub of film and television production. I guessed the Festival had something to do with it. Later - looking for funding, naturally - I discovered that the real engine of this creative industry was Rotterdam FilmFonds. This was a two-or-three person operation, with a budget of several million Guilders (later Euros), whose stated goal was to grow the city's creative industries.
The way Rotterdam did it was this: it offered free money to producers - in the form of an interest-free loan - on the basis of the producer's spend in the city. Spend 200,000 Euros, they'd loan you 100,000. The catch was this: all that money, yours and theirs, had to be spent in Rotterdam, on the creative aspect of the movie. In other words, it all had to go on salaries - of the crew people or actors you hired locally - or on locally-rented camera equipment, or editing facilities. The producer received no subsidy for hotels, or taxis, or meals. All the subsidy money went into the creative sector of Rotterdam, plus another 200%, courtesy of the visiting producer, who had been lured into this mutually-beneficial 'trap'!
It wasn't a trap, of course, because the Rotterdam technicians were terribly good and all spoke fluent English, and our film - THREE BUSINESSMEN - turned out fine. The last time I was in the city I realised an abandoned warehouse on the docks - one of those industrial-derelict places which film directors love - had become a media office complex. It now housed production companies, editing suites, two special effects companies, and a lab. All the companies in the building had received support, one way or another, from FilmFonds.
This doesn't mean that everything in Rotterdam is wonderful, or that British film policy should replicate that one city's experiment in every way. But, to grow and support a cultural industry, one must support the cultural workers - the writers, directors, technicians, actors - as directly as possible. Funneling Lottery or tax money directly into studio pictures, or studio-owned companies, is not the most sensible way to do this. Subsidizing the studios is trickle-down economics. It leads to a long-term inequality, in which some studio executives - or executives of government quangos - receive six-figure salaries, while most independent filmmakers make a pretty lousy living, sustained by the love of what they do.
Examples as diverse as Corman, Bollywood, and the Netherlands Film Funds suggest that maximizing production is the way to go. A judgmental attitude is not called for: what is needed is support of British filmmakers sufficient for them to make many low-budget features; and a real and innovative effort to create and maintain an alternative distribution network, so that - whether in the cinema, on telly, or online - these films are seen. It is worth studying Film London's 'Microfeature' project, and other attempts at super-low-budget production, with a view to stimulating similar projects nationwide.
Nationwide is important. Too much money, public and private, is already spent on creative industries within the M25. Creativity is everywhere, and a bold government initiative which genuinely targets the provinces (rather than London transplants with an address in Leeds!) and stimulates artistic expression and artistic commerce would repay itself a thousandfold.
Shunning the studios and letting a thousand independent features bloom may seem impossible. It ain't. Creativity in British arts is at an all-time high -- yet, in the film industry, most of the best and brightest players are underused. The 15 million pounds to be spent over the next twelve months to keep the Film Council open while it closes could bankroll 150 microfeatures.
Who's going to be in charge of this? One could look among the ranks of the old British Screen and BFI Production Fund, two entities which worked well with small staffs and limited budgets. Or, why not ask filmmakers to run the operation? Artists, rather than bureaucrats, disbursing money to artists! Wouldn't that be a novel idea?
I'd love to see Ken Russell and Mike Hodges, or Sally Potter and Peter Greenaway, persuaded to act as public servants, deciding where that Lottery money ought to go. Film Czars! Ahabs, of Limited Duration! No one to serve for more than two, years, though - or three at the most. Their mission is to make and screen uniquely British films -- and lots of 'em -- while avoiding, at all costs, another bureaucratic film quango.
(The above piece provoked a rather startling ad hominem attack on me in the pages of The Times. According to its author I am opposed to the principle of giving British tax and Lottery money to the Hollywood studios because I was "rejected by them". Since the offended one is both on the staff of the Film Council and an employee of Universal Pictures, maybe he could supply a little more information about this process of "rejection". Do all the studios "reject" filmmakers simultaneously? Do they do this by coincidence or by design? And if said "rejection" is coordinated, might not "blacklisted" be a better word? Just askin!
My pal's other substantive objection was that "most microfeatures aren't very good." So what? Most films in general aren't very good. Nor is most art. This is judgemental thinking, which leads to misdirected funds and errors of public policy. Those who alot public funding shouldn't be sitting in judgement over artists - we already have critics and academics for that: state film funders are there to maximize opportunities for work in the creative industries, so that they grow, and generate further employment - and to do this nationwide, not just in London. This means funding lots of projects, most of them low-budget, sooner rather than later, and getting them seen.)
REGULAR WINTER REVISITED, TOO
That'll teach me to write about Nuclear Winter: the regular Winter has been revisiting us ever since. I'd barely got my lettuces and turnips in the ground when the snow began again. And at the same time we're training for the summer's fire season... You can see a video of our rural fire deparmtent here: shot at the retirement ceremony of Hilt Deputy Chief, Andy Herskind. New volunteers are always welcome!
The lizards were out for a few days but have vanished again. I'll keep you updated on their inevitable reappearance. And if anyone would like to know about the Museo Nacional in Mexico City, where the Velasco paintings are, well, I just happen to have penned a brief intro for you, while watching the snow fall, here...
NUCLEAR WINTER REVISITED
An exhausting trip with Tod to many places in The Old World: Brussels, for the wonderful Cinema Nova Italian Western Festival, and a vist to the RITS film school, Paris for lunch, the Paris-Madrid night train (which is a marvellous trip, and includes a decent meal aboard the train, unlike the microwave fare I've been enjoying on Amtrak!), Almería to shut down my old house in Tabernas (books donated to the library, clothes to the church, tables and art supplies to Charley Braun's maginficent daughter Anushka), London to visit Hanway and Margaret Matheson, Bradford to support the International Film Festival, which has grown to a huge enterprise under the stewardship of Tony Earnshaw, and finally Aberdeen University, where I pretend to the students of the Granite City that I know something about independent film.
En route I read an early Tony Hillerman - LISTENING WOMAN - which I enjoyed a lot, and Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD, which needless to say was pretty disturbing. McCarthy is quite a writer. As usual, he has trouble finishing the book - but his vision of a world wrecked by nuclear winter (who on earth thought this was a book about global warming? It ain't) is remarkable and very appropriate, given the ongoing possibility that something in the Russian or American (or British, or French, or Chinese, or Israeli, or Pakistani, or Indian) nuclear apparat will go badly wrong.
There's an interesting 'spot the mistake' moment in THE ROAD (the book, not the film, which I haven't seen). Father and son at one point find a wheelbarrow, and swap it for the shopping cart they've been pushing through the bleak and terrifying landscape. They set off with their possessions piled high in the wheelbarrow -- then, two pages later, it's a shopping cart again, and remains that way until the story's end. Far be it from me to suggest that McCarthy's agent asked him to write another chapter to make the book a bit longer, ergo pricier. But that's presumably what happened. This is the curse of books written on computers: it's easy to cut, paste, and insert extra bits, and - presumably - equally easy to forget to adjust everything that follows the insertion so that the story makes sense.
I only complain because otherwise the book is quite extraordinary - the best I've read since BLOOD MERIDIAN. And the warning about the insane consequences of our Great Leaders' nuclear posturing is very timely.
For a non-ficitonal update on the climactic consequences of nuclear war, check out this article from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, or the website nucleardarkness.org.
There's also a nuclear firestorm simulator where you can see the results of a nuclear detonation (chose your weapon, Russian or American, and its kilotonnage) on your own home town here.
GILBERT ROLAND ON ACTING
The image below is of the Cine Esteli in Nicaragua: a genuine 35mm picture house, playing almost-first-run 'international' films! When we were in Nicaragua, back in the day, mumble, the embargo against the Sandinistas meant that the cinemas couldn't show new American features. So they showed old American features, instead. This was done in very good taste. One day I bought a ticket for a film whose Spanish title I didn't recognise, and watched - to my delight - RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. It was a battered old print, its colours faded to a hideous combo of pink and blue, but it was still a print! And a Peckinpah Western! One of the great ones.
Cine Esteli, Esteli. Suerte!
Meanwhile, Jon Davison has very kindly sent me, on DVD, two new Buñuel films I hadn't seen: LA ILUSION VIAJA EN TRANVIA and DEATH IN THE GARDEN. DEATH IN THE GARDEN is a new digital transfer from a very good print, and looks spectacular. It has subtitles in English and you can watch this strage story of French expatriates in French or Spanish, depending on your mood. Made in 1956, this is the social/existential territory of WAGES OF FEAR: no trucks, but a Surrealist-crashed-plane. Is it Buñuel's first film in colour? It is quite beautiful.
The DVD of LA ILUSION VIAJA EN TRANVIA is very bad: no elements, no subtitles, a telecine from from a beaten-up old print. But the film is excellent! The story of two guys who hijack a tram and drive it up and down Rio Churubusco, giving people rides. Wealthy drunks, old women with lifesize religious icons, slaughterhouse workers carrying animal caracasses, schoolboys, and a beautiful girl, all crowd aboard the phantom bus -- cheap, made in black and white, it is important work (I think) by the Master!
(It seems you can download English subtitles for your DVD of LA ILUSION here -- but I have not done this and don't know how or if it works...)
Peter McCarthy reports sadly that he has seen the trailer for Universal's faux-sequel, REPO MEN. I have missed this delight.
Gilbert Roland was, as you know, a Mexican actor who starred in Hoillywood films. When he died, his widow came up to Talent, OR, where she became friends with my barber, Mike. After she died, Mike ended up with a copy of Gilbert Roland's never-published, untitled, autobiograpy. He lent it to me last week. It is great. Gilbert Roland - real name Luis Alonso - seems like one of those guys who gets along with everybody. Nothing disturbs him. He has a ready smile, a clean shirt, and a trim moustache always. Needless to say, his father was a bullfighter. From Spain.
Yet I enjoyed it. Its hero is indefatigable, undefeatable, always ready for a game of tennis or a dramatic role. You want to kill him, but he's so ingenuous, and truthful, and gentlemanly that he wins you over. He is aware of the reality of his profession. Here's what Gilbert wrote about acting in a prison drama on location:
"We spent two weeks in San Quentin dressed exactly like the regular prisoners, carried the same identification cards, excpect that in the space for 'offence' our crime was listed as 'actor'."
CONAN DOYLE AND H.G. WELLS
Another good friend died at the end of the year: Elizabeth Fallaize, a brilliant academic at St Johns, in Oxford. I won't burden the reader with the details of her extraordinary career since several long obitiaries appeared in the press; you can read one here.
Over Xmas, in search of light entertainment, and following in Tod's footsteps, I re-read the Sherlock Holmes stories. This led us to rent a bunch of DVDs starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes. I'd never seen that series (I suppose because I was living in the States when it came out). I was used to Peter Cushing and Basil Rathbone and doubted that Brett could ever surpass them in his performance. But I was wrong, and Tod right: Brett is perfect in the role. Unlike his predecessors, he makes Holmes a hysteric... somewhat autistic, even. His choices are quite amazing, totally in keeping with the character in the books, and far beyond the decent but restrained work of Rathbone, Cushing et al.
I'm ashamed to say I knew nothing of Brett's too-short career till now, having avoided "quality" television like the plague.
Rereading the Holmes stories, which remain exemplary into their third century, led me to a biography of Conan Doyle by Andrew Lycett. This is a pretty good and thorough book. Conan Doyle seems to have been a pompous and detestable character, a war-lover who avoided military service but made sure his younger relatives signed up and went to the front. Those who didn't die in uniform he kept shackled to him via financial handouts, which ruined the family. The best chapter is the epilogue, in which Lycett describes his loathing of Doyle's playboy sons:
"These two sons used the Conan Doyle estate as a milch-cow ... Because neither man ever did anything useful in his life, they both took pleasure in making things difficult for anyone who tried to write about their father."
They sound like certain so-called film distributors I've had to deal with.
Conan Doyle was a big booster of the First World War. Lycett mentions HG Wells in the same context, as a war propagandist. This struck me as strange, given what I knew of Wells, so at the library I tracked down Michael Foot's biography of Wells and discovered that, sure enough, HG did indeed work for HMG, abandoning his internationalist sentiments and his Socialism, and promoting that obscene and useless waste of millions of young lives.
So this was a lesson to me. Foot's book is as bad as Lycett's is good: hagiography pure and simple. As far as Foot was concerned, Wells never did a bad thing. His anti-semitism, his dastardly treatment of younger women, his abandonment of his principles, all are glossed over, or ignored. I still like Wells, as the author of the greatest of all science fiction novels, THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. And I still like Foot, the politician. But in this writing, Foot shows the politician's glaring weakness: generalism, a blinkered and inadequate world-view, and an inability to acknowledge incovenient facts.
Two other books I enjoyed over Xmas. One was Rudy Wurlitzer's "two-fer" QUAKE and FLATS - like one of those old Ace sci-fi or Western novels, when you finish the book, you flip it over, and there's another one waiting for you to begin. QUAKE I read when it first came out: it's a horrific tale of the aftermath of the Big LA Earthquake. Rudy thinks catastrophes and disasters bring out the worst in people. I believe they reveal people's finest qualities. For this reason Rudy and I are the best of friends. FLATS is a tough read, at first: an experimental novel, with no fixed protagonist, no settled first- or third-person. A man, or men, near death, grovels through a desert or a wrecked factory during the night, as a menacing Police Machine hovers overhead, and the horizon burns. Nothing much happens - this is the point! - and if you stay with it, the book will stay with you for a long time.
My other read was Roberto Donati's new book about Sergio Leone - L'AMERICA, LA NOSTALGIA, E IL MITO. My Italian isn't very good, and he deals mainly with Leone's last films, DUCK! YOU SUCKER and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, which are his weakest. But there are some fascinating interviews in the second half, particularly Giancarlo Santi's recollection of one day on the set of ONCE UPON THE TIME IN THE WEST, when the news of Robert Kennedy's murder came.
"Bronson applaudiva; Fonda, republiccano, rimase indifferente, e Jason Robards invece in lacrime."
I translate this as: Bronson applauded, Fonda, a Republican, seemed indifferent, and Jason Robards was in floods of tears. Interesting to see how these three Hollywood icons reacted on the day of Bobby's death, and to be reminded how the US Right rejoiced when the Kennedy brothers were klled. This story has been re-written subsequently, so I'm grateful to Donati and Santi for telling it as it was.
Audio-wise, I've been listening to my ancient copy of Link Wray's superb 'Link Wray' album - made back when the creator of Rumble was still an American Indian - and to the Sex Patels' wonderful version of The Clash's Straight to Hell. The lead singer of the Patels has the most beautiful voice and the clearest diction: what a pity she's just left the band!
No more for now. I'm still trying to figure out my response to Universal's fake REPO MAN sequal: a breach of my contract, and completely illegal. But what can one lone filmmaker do against a huge malevolent media corporation? In my February blog I'll share the strategy...
CLAUDIA BECKER PRESENTE!
I've tried writing this blog over the last couple of months, but, reader dear, I have done little worthy of your attention. My time has been spent following Tod on the Exterminating Angel Press Pacific Northwest Tour, as she reads from her book Jam Today in diverse charming and eccentric independent bookstores.
Here my assignment is 1) to shoot the show on the little JVC camera, or 2) to hold the dogs, assuming the premises are dog-friendly. Truth to tell, this is a happy existence, expecially when it replaces the less-than-enjoyable aspects of independent filmmaking.
Last week I was trying to put together something for this site and realised I had THREE COMPUTERS running simultaneously: the big editing one, plus two laptops, all engaged in some ridiculous process or searching for something, surrounding me in my hut like great, white, blind, glowing eyes. What the **** was I doing? I turned all the machines off and went outside.
But yesterday Lorenzo phoned from Mexico City and told me we've lost another friend: Claudia Becker, the demure, beautiful, ironic woman who cast all my films in Mexico, and who was also my agent and got me acting jobs in some interesting films.
Now, there's an inherent contradiction in being a casting director AND an actors' agent, but Claudia handled the grey area well: I don't think she did this for many clients, but she was especially kind to me. She was like Hercules in London: the friend I stayed with, when I was in town. "Come to Mexico right away and read for this part!" Claudia would instruct me. "Of course, your house is here; you will stay with me!"
Claudia lived above the office, in a big apartment she had designed herself. Downstairs, all was hustle: actors or - worse - actor-children, waiting to be put on tape for commercials; Claudia's nefarious staff, bent over catalogues of actors, and later computers, putting telephone petitioners on hold, which was a form of torture as the 'hold' music was the theme from THE STING, played over and over and over. All around, people were shouting 'action!', child actors were crying, the camote cart was rolling past whistling its weird birdlike cry...
Upstairs, a sea of tranquility. Claudia Becker, in her robe or one of several daily outfits, seated demurely - with perfect posture - on a sofa beneath one of her many paintings, a shot glass of tequila in her hand...
Claudia was second-generation Mexican cinema - of the generation of Arturo Ripstein and young Pedro Armendariz. They all grew up together, knew each other too well, worked together, fought, fell out, then worked together again. Her mother was Lonka Becker, a Jewish refugee from Austria, who became Mexico's most famous actors' agent.
For Claudia, who grew up knowing old Pedro, 'El Indio' Fernandez, Katy Jurado, who dated Peckinpah, the die was cast. She loved the cinema as much as she hated commercials, which in later years paid for her daily bread.
Lorenzo hired Claudia to cast WALKER's Mexican actors. I fell in love with them, with Mexico, with her. She introduced me to young Pedro, to Blanca Guerra, to Jorge Russek, to Alfonso Arau... Then, in EL PATRULLERO, she put us in contact with the new generation: Roberto Sosa, Zaide Silvia Guttierez, Damian Alcazar, Vanessa Bauche, the Bichirs... She was connected to everyone, to everything. And Claudia introduced me to directors; to Ripstein, to Casals, to Fons - who had just clandestinely directed the incredible ROJO AMANACER - to Carlos Carrera, to 'El Perrito' Estrada. Great directors, and a thrilling time.
Claudia's list of credits is immense. Her influence on modern Mexican cinema is similarly great, thanks to her great taste and real love of actors: something not all casting directors or movie people share. She was utterly generous, a thrower of big, lively parties, a great friend to sit with, watching somebody's reel, some other friend's new film. Claudia cared little about food, had an incredible capacity for tequila, yet always remained completely poised, demure, and perfectly upright, in circumstances where I was prostrate, and Charley had fallen off the balcony. Sometimes, on a rare occasion when she was hungry, she had me drive her car through the back streets and then up Insurgentes, to her favourite antro. Driving Claudia's car at night in Mexico City is something no gringo should do.
If you see EL PATRULLERO, Claudia has a cameo as "Hermana Zeldita," a cigarette-smoking, kickback-pocketing nun. She was a good actress (she also appears in PERDITA DURANGO) but she preferred to see actors do it. When she got me the job of the drug-lord in ROSARIO TIJERAS, her commission was a trip to watch me and the other actrors at work, in Medellin. I'd been a little trepidatious about working in the capital city of drug crime and express kidnapping, but when Claudia showed up, all was well. Thanks to the presence of this tiny, bird-like, powerful character, I felt able to venture out, ride on the metro, and visit the Posada museum.
In Claudia's company, I knew no fear.
When striking deals with actors, Claudia's policy was this: it didn't really matter how much you paid them, as long as you treated them respectfully. She could get really good, gifted actors like El Indio and Katy to work for not so much money: because she always insisted on the first class ticket, and the good hotel. She knew actors well.
A couple of years back, Claudia suffered a stroke, and ran up some hefty hospital bills. Her children put the word out, and her friends covered it. A second stroke hit her on Thursday; she passed away that night. I was hoping to fly down for the BIG FUNERAL, but Claudia was an Atheist, and will be cremated without ceremony. The big party - the VELORIO - was last night. Lorenzo told me there were fifty people around the coffin, in the little room. There was apparently much drinking, and laughing, and good memories. I wish I had been there.
Just as La Becker would have wanted it. Adios, Hermana Zeldita. Que le vaya bien!
AND POINTS WEST
At Venice our premiere and the public
screening were packed, the audiences enthusiastic. Some
old friends were there: Marco Giusti, Lars Bloch, and Max
Arvelaiz from Venezuela, who stayed an extra day to catch
the film. Jaclyn had dinner with Max and Hugo Chavez the
previous evening: it was the first time a Latin American
president attended the Venice festival, I was told. Marco
Muller and Giulia Vallan gave us a wonderful welcome: no
festival has better, kinder hosts. And Giulio Questi was
there, as well!
I've been Questi's fan since I was a teenager, when I
watched, agog, his brilliant Horror-Western DJANGO KILL,
at the Scala Cinema in Liverpool. That Questi came to watch
a film of mine is an honour beyond words. It's as if Buñuel
or Ambrose Bierce had returned from the misty beyond to
see my picture.
But I felt sad in Venice, too. My old pal Hercules used
to rent a grand palace on the Big Island for the duration
of the festival. When the vaporetto stopped at San Samuele,
I got out and sat on a bench outside Herc's place. In my
friend's absence, the Big Island didn't seem as full of
wonders as it had when he was alive.
After our screenings I flew down to Almeria. I've rented
a place in the desert there - not far from where we filmed
STRAIGHT TO HELL - for twenty years or so. There were ghosts
there, as well. This is where the late Karl Braun and I
had our production company - a company which made no films
but poured money into the economy of several local bars.
Now a desire to get rid of stuff possessed me. I piled
up scripts, notebooks for films made and unmade, correspondance
with revolutionary orgs, conspiracy books, old clapper
boards, and threw the whole mess out. One thing I found
harder to dispose of: a prop from HELL, made at an actor's
request during production. The actor was Xander Berkeley: back then, playing
the Preacher, he'd wanted an icon of a skeleton, nailed
to a cross. Andrew McAlpine, the production designer, rustled
one up for him at short notice, and, in the intervening
two decades, the grisly thing has hung above my bed.
It's a fine piece, and it didn't seem right to bin-bag
it. So I walked out into the desert, under a dark sky -
via the canyons west of Tabernas, beyond Decorados, past
Mini Hollywood and the Rancho Leone, and through the tunnel
under the Granada highway. I headed up a narrow, multicoloured
ravine which Joe Strummer had once named - for the most
obvious reason - Dead Donkey Gulch. The ravine leads to
the Blanco Town, where HELL was filmed. The place is almost
gone now: remnants of adobe walls and tumbled bricks are
all that remain. And a surprise: among the strange rocks
which surround the place I found 20 or 30 young gringos:
hippies? geology students? They carried sketch pads, and
were clambering about just as Strummer and Berkeley and
Braun and the rest of us had, back in the day when we were
young (or young-ish) and entirely mad.
I left the skeleton icon in a niche in one of the surviving
walls of the 'church'. It fitted perfectly. As I clambered
down the Gulch, the heavens opened up, and to avoid the
downpour I took shelter under a rock overhang. A small
black bird with a white tail flew down and sheltered beside
me: then, realising what I was, it fluttered away.
The rain stopped. I headed back towards town.
[via telephone] "I'm currently
in Spain, walking in the desert. Will return to blogging
On the interstate not far from our shack is a sign dedicating
the last stretch of freeway in California to Dwight Eisenhower,
the president who warned the public of the dangers of a
'military-industrial complex' after devoting his life to
creating and expanding it. The interstate highway system
(like the 'information superhighway' itself) was a military
project, designed to facilitate the easy movement of tanks,
rocket launchers, and other big polluting machines around
the country in anticipation of the Russian invasion which,
as far as I know, never occurred.
So instead the interstates are full of 18-wheelers exceeding
the speed limit, private cars exceeding the speed limit,
SUVs exceeding the speed limit, and your correspondent,
whose vehicle is so old and funky it could not exceed the
speed limit if it tried. I bought my truck to take the
dogs out to hotsprings in Eastern Oregon. During production I've been driving up
and down this endless, overcrowded interstate: Oregon to
San Francisco, Oregon to LA, and back again.
When we shot SEARCHERS 2.0 I used to make the journey on
a train, and sometimes I still do. But usually I'm travelling
with a shitload of equipment - cameras and hard drives
and tripods and model trains, not to mention the dog Pearl
- and so it's in the truck we go.
The interstate in question is called Five. Five runs from
San Diego all the way up to the Canadian border, I think
(though with luck I won't have to find out). The first
part of the journey south is picturesque, through high
desert and past pretty mountain towns like Weed and Dunsmuir.
But south of Lake Shasta Five becomes a nightmare: a long,
hot, straight stretch of four lanes bordered by ugly towns
like Redding, slaughterhouses, and 'tribal' casinos. There's
no air conditioning in my old truck, and one of the windows
has fallen into the bowels of the door, so it's a sweaty,
unrelieved, demented excursion - at least until you get
to Williams, 220 miles later, where there's decent coffee
and a proper taco stand.
On a recent journey south, instead of continuing on Five
I turned west at Williams. My idea was to take a leisurely
drive through the 'wine country' and spend the night in
Petaluma, before hooking up with Richard Beggs - our sound
designer - at his office in the Presidio. Oh, foolish choice!
The two-lane blacktops that wind through the 'wine country'
are just as busy as the interstate: but the drivers are
all half-pissed, courtesy of 'wine tastings' at every turn-off;
they have also rented expensive BMWs and Audis and the
like, to make their fantasy of empowered holidaymaking
complete. On these roads I can manage the speed limit,
but no matter: invariably I find myself leading a long
column of expensive motors and motorcycles, and pulling
over every chance I get, so that the assholes can shout
at me as they roar by.
All of them are tailgating. What pleasure do these doofuses
derive from racing too fast down windy lanes, nose-to-tail
with the car in front of them, in twenty-vehicle blocks?
As a lad, I used to be a bit of a cop magnet, and became
nervous whenever I saw a state trooper, or the LAPD. Now
the sight of a highway patrol car lurking behind a bridge
or in the meridian warms my heart. Go, officers!
Tod warned me to avoid these backroads, but what did I
do on Sunday, exiting the Golden Gate Bridge? Tried another
little 'shortcut' through the 'wine country' with even
more dire results. This time, it was getting dark, and
I found myself on the two-lane road between Novato and
Vallejo (villages which have become sprawling, Bakersfield-style
city-ettes) when all traffic ground to a halt. Miles ahead,
some kind of accident had happened. There was a concrete
barrier down the central divider, so I was well and truly
trapped. But wait! Just ahead was a break in the barrier,
with a big 'no u-turn' sign. I followed the scofflaw in
front of me thru the gap, and headed back the way I'd come.
By the time we got wherever it was we were, I was pretty
wrecked. It was nine at night, the dog was starving, and
there were no motel signs anywhere to be seen. At a gas
station, two women took pity on me. One of them, going
off her shift, actually led me to the well-concealed motel
a few miles away. It was such an act of kindness - generously
offered to a total, manic stranger - that I felt the blessed
Virgin of Los Angeles must still be watching over our production.
Gracias, Diosita! Mil gracias!
And what am I doing on all these trips? Nothing directorial,
any more. Just watching the VFX guys build their amazing
models, and writing and collecting contracts, and gradually
inputting the results of other people's work - animation,
music, audio files - into the finished project. I am an
administrator now: a proper producer, in other words. And
soon, even that work will be done.
Maybe then the Goddess can take a holiday: rent a VW Jetta
and tailgate her co-deities through the California 'wine
country'. But not just yet, please, Diosita. We need you
for a couple of weeks yet!
I anticipated the "cease and desist" letter from The Studio, attempting to stop production of one of my films on the spurious grounds that it was an illegal sequal to REPO MAN. That was inevitable, given the history of the company, whose parent - MCA - stood for "Muscle, Cash and Attorneys." So, when a letter came, forbidding me to make my movie and signed by no less a personage than the Executive Vice President In Charge of Litigation, I stuck it in the drawer labeled 'Restraint of Trade' and carried on.
What I wasn't prepared for was the e-mail Jon Davison sent me today: an article reporting that "Universal's embattled execs" were putting their big hairy monster picture on hold, and rushing out a film called REPO MEN.
REPO MEN is definitely not a sequal to my film. I still have a contract with these guys and - if they ever want to make a film based on my original work - they have to ask me to direct it. What fun that would be! But it seems The Studio has, among its souvenirs, a Jude Law thriller called THE REPOSSESSION MAMBO, shot in Canada, almost two years ago. I'm sure this is an excellent film, which Universal accidentally forgot to distribute, and now are passing off, in their innocence, as the new REPO MAN. Only a cynical person might see any attempt to catch the upward draft of my picture, and give loft to a turkey.
These MEN have nothing to do with me. For shame!
AMTRAK TRAIN # 14
After shooting some footage on the second-class bus in Mexico, I returned to Los Angeles for our foley session (that's where essential audio like footsteps and the cup-downs are recorded. Presumably the process is named after a Mr or a Ms. Foley -- in Mexico, it's called Gavira, after the man who did it for Churubusco Studios). This we did at Post Creations, in Van Nuys: a splendid facility, if you're after a fast, well-organised foley place. I spent my LA evenings lurking at the Union Station, downtown, filming arrivals of trains.
Next day I took the Coast Starlight north from the Union Station, headed for Oregon. I woke next morning to find our train, #14, parked south of Redding, CA. A UP freight had broken down ahead of us, and we were four hours late.
Now, if you're in a plane or a car, or sitting aboard the Branson Hell-Train from Liverpool to London, a four hour delay is an absoloute nightmare. On train #14, or #11 (the same journey in reverse), such anguished certainties don't apply. People don't take long-distance trips on Amtrak because they're in a hurry. They do it because they like the ride. So, after a leisurely breakfast in the Parlor Car, I got off the train at Dunsmuir, CA, to stretch my legs.
There I discovered the Silver Solarium, hooked to the back of the train.
Now, it was the Silver Solarium which inspired me to write a train-based screenplay. Riding #11 down to LA one time, I saw it and another California Zephyr car - the Silver Lariat - join us at Oakland. I enquired about it, and learned that these magnificent relics of the Golden Age of Rail are rented out: sometimes to millionaires for private parties, sometimes to train enthusiasts, like me. I began thinking of a story involving a super-luxurious antique train car, pursued by a repo crew, packed to the gills with dignitaries and millionaire celebrities, and SOMETHING VERY BAD HAPPENING TO THEM...
Burt Harney, who rents the Silver Solarium and the Lariat, let me ride with him up to the next station. I was able to get the one shot I was missing, for my train interiors. Then I just stood on the platform between the cars, with the window open, watching Mount Shasta recede, and the pine forests give way to volcanic rock, and the wetlands south of Klamath Falls.
So I must say thank you to Burt, and to someone else, as well: Mr Max Nakahara, of JVC cameras in Japan. I met Mr Nakahara at a trade show in Tokyo, and - when in the process of filming toy trains and real ones - got back in touch with him and asked if JVC would lend me one of their new HD cameras: either a GY-HM100 or a 700. Max-san told me that all the 700s were spoken for, but that I could borrow a 100 for the duration of post, if I wanted. I said yes, of course: and this was the camera I took to Mexico and LA. So far it's proved quite an amazing thing.
First, its size is tiny. It fits in my SLR case. But it comes with a separate audio controller and a phantom-powered mike which gives much better sound than the in-camera mikes this class of camera usually includes. I showed it to Steve Fierberg and he pronounced the ergonomics impressive: we're both fans of the old VX-1000 and this camera is about the same size as the old Sony, and even easier to use.
Unlike Panasonic, Canon, and most Sony models, the JVC shoots both PAL and NTSC. JVC seem to be the only manufacturer who doesn't want to maintain two separate markets just to move a few units more. It's simply a software issue now, and JVC are to be praised for making a truly worldwide camera. The image quality seems excellent - the GY-HM100 records onto two SD cards in full HD - and my only criticism thus far is that the wide angle of the fixed zoom isn't really wide enough (maybe it's the equivalent of a 34mm lens on a 35mm camera? At least a 28mm equivalent would be preferable, though JVC do make a wide angle converter for the camera).
I've tried the Sony EX1, which I don't like much, and I went and bought a PAL version of the Panasonic 151 to shoot the previous train interiors: something I regret now. The JVC GY-HM100 is the best of the bunch, and - on the basis of these experiences - seems ideal for under-the-radar independent filmmaking.
So domo aregato, JVC, and Mr Max, for entering into the spirit of REPO CHICK, where money rarely changes hands, and high levels of creativity are everything.
(Speaking of stellar creativity, I just finished reading the new script by Luis Estrada and Jaime Sampietro, EL INFIERNO. These are the guys who made LA LEY DE HERODES, the most popular Mexican film of all time. I'm blown away by how good EL INFIERNO is: better, funnier, and sadder than anything I've read in a very long time. Adelante, mi Perrito! Suerte en la carretera...)
KARL H BRAUN PRESENTE!
To Vera Cruz, to say goodbye to Charley Braun.
Charley was German, born in Tokyo during the second world war. So his birth certificate - as he would gleefully point out - had a swastika on it. He delighted in winding people up, and playing the bad guy, and yet he had no meanness in him, no cruelty of any kind. He was working as a ski instructor in Switzerland when he met Sergio Leone. Leone, always on the lookout for big, tough, blond guys, invited him to come to Almeria and play a cowboy in his next Western.
KHB bust; Scharlach's mask
The film was A GENIUS, produced by Leone and directed by Damiano Damiani. Charley had a few scenes with Klaus Kinski: if you see the film, he's playing cards with Kinski in the ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST saloon. Charley liked the film world, liked playing a cowboy, liked the desert. So he stayed, finding a place in what was then a hippie enclave called Mojacar. He soon hooked up with Kate Mulock, widow of Al Mulock, another tough-and-crazy-looking character actor who had died during the filming of Leone's art Western.
I met Charley in '85, when I was looking for a location manager for a video clip: Joe Strummer's LOVE KILLS (it's the only pop promo to feature Gary Oldman; visible here). By this point Mojacar had filled up with useless English expats who spoke no Spanish, and who surrounded Charley because he was quadri-lingual, and could order their drinks and count their change. Unlike the worthless limeys who populated the Spanish coastline, Charley was intelligent, thoughtful, and intensely competent.
His principal interests seemed to be smoking and driving. Cigarette in one hand, asthmatic inhaler in the other, he would race back and forth between Mojacar and Tabernas, where the Westerns were made.
In '86 we shot STRAIGHT TO HELL in Almeria, and Charley was our production manager. Needless to say, he quickly became one of our actors, too: he played the Pogues' blacksmith, and had a dramatic death scene - machine-gunned by Sy Richardson, in the town well. Miguel Sandoval was impressed by Charley's acting and suggested that we ask him to play a serious role in WALKER: that of the Prussian freebooter, Bruno Van Namzer. Charley was quite nervous about this - it was a real part, with a lot of dialogue - but Miguel and Ed Harris both spend time with him, working on his part. It's hard to imagine two better acting teachers, and Charley pulled it off with great elan. In San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, he decided that, rather than ride a horse, he would show up on a huge white bull. He rode that bull, which was only half-tame, extremely well.
Back in those days I was quite naive politically. I would never have guessed that the Sandinistas - our partners on the picture - would morph into a right-wing political party. Charley was under no such illusions. During his time off, he flew to Corn Island and the Atlantic coast. On his return, he told me that the Sandinistas had no support at all on the Caribbean coast, that they treated the Afro-Caribbeans with disdain, and that a top-down, elitist revolution wasn't going to last. I didn't believe him. But he was right.
Blacklisted after WALKER, I returned to Spain. Charley had started a production company - Castillo Films - and opened an office in Tabernas. I became his partner. This was our least successful enterprise. Malcolm McLaren came to check out our facilities; otherwise we had no visitors at all. In the absence of production, we spent our time in the adjacent bar. In '91 Lorenzo O'Brien invited me to Mexico to direct his script, EL PATRULLERO. We hired Charley to play the nameless drug dealer who Roberto Sosa kills and buries in an unmarked grave. Charley loved the locations - in Durango, Parras, Zacatecas and Sombrerete - returned briefly to Mojacar to pack his bags, and moved to Spain. The following year he produced DEATH & THE COMPASS, which I directed.
Thereafter Charley worked as a line producer, a location manager, and an actor. He fell in love with one of the locations he discovered - the lagoon at Sontecomapan, in Vera Cruz - and built a shack there. For a decade he commuted between Sontecomapan and Mexico City, where the work was. He was diagnosed with lung cancer a couple of years back. Despite the usual arduous and expensive treatments, the cancer spread. One of his last features was BANDIDAS: a mediocre VIVA MARIA! remake which he blessed with incredible locations. He played a minor bad guy in that film.
As Charley's health worsened, his friends came through. Lorenzo and Miguel Camacho paid for his medicines. His magnificent daughter, Anouschka, travelled from Spain to care for him. Javier Gunther, the transportation captain, arranged for his return to Sontecomapan, where old friends visited. Last week, Lorenzo and I flew to Vera Cruz and took a complex series of taxis, buses and launches, to say goodbye.
I'd hoped to talk about the old times, but it was too late for that. The big man had lost a lot of weight, could no longer walk, could barely speak. I spent three days sitting beside him, looking out of his window at the tropical forest and the lagoon which he loved. When some devout locals tried to send for a priest, Charley's response was admirably characteristic: "Fuck that!" He fell into a coma on Friday, and died yesterday.
Adios, dear brother Braun.
WHY OBAMA HATES POLAR BEARS
Pretty funny to see my Democrat friends swinging in the wind trying to explain why the President refused to put polar bears on the Endangered Species List. In so doing, Obama distressed environmentalists and bear-lovers worldwide, and garnered praise from his future running-mate, Sarah Palin.
Obama doesn't really hate the bears, I'd guess. He just doesn't care about them. He and his crack economic team of Lawrence Summers (ex-World Bank/IMF) and Robert Rubin (ex-Goldman Sachs) answer not to the electorate, but to the big corporations - just like Palin, McCain and Bush. If Obama were to put the bears on the Endangered Species List, the government would be obliged to ACT to protect them. And that would mean legislation and action to roll back climate change, instead of bullshitting and making up stuff.
But what a miserable disappointment the guy is! Guantanamo Bay Torture Camp still open, extraordinary rendition still in operation, the transfer of taxpayers' money to the banks continuing, the occupation of the Iraqi oilfields and the Afghan heroin operation intensified, harrass the Russians with radar/missile systems based in Poland, warrantless wiretapping a bipartisan project... and now two fingers to the polar bears.
The only thing that's actually working to hold back global warming, and the Deluge, seems to be the Recession. So maybe we should be glad we don't have jobs. But, other than throwing millions of people out of work, worldwide, do these clowns have any solution to the fix we're in, or know how little time is left to repair it?
None of the stupid ideas Obama and co. propose regarding climate change will work. Carbon trading is merely moving deckchairs around a sinking ship - it doesn't reduce overall levels of CO2 at all, and does nothing to address the methane pouring out of America's factory farms. Carbon sequestration doesn't exist. It's merely a wonderful idea, like Nuclear Fusion, and Clean Coal, and Nuclear Power Too Cheap To Meter. All are fantastical, magical ideas, backed by the governments' top scientists, who - comfortably employed in highly-paid jobs - throw fairy dust at desperately real problems.
Meanwhile, in Britain, a wind farm is to be destroyed to make way for a nuclear power station; and a sea barrage power generation project (another unproven piece of technology which might actually work, if it were ever finished) is abandoned.
Will the electorate get real and give us some Green MPs in the next General Election? I certainly hope so, and promise to work hard in my usual stumbling way towards this goal. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, has just been interviewed by the Multinational Monitor. He says that - contrary to the propaganda of the nuke, oil and coal industries - wind and solar could power the entire United States, using technology already available. And what applies to the US presumably would work in most of the rest of the world, as well.
It's a very important interview, I think, though I can't say if he's entirely right, or wrong. But his proposals seem more practical than moving deckchairs around, murdering Iraqis to steal their oil, and giving what's left of our money to to total bankers.
TEN THOUSAND WAYS TO DIE
So, I have a new book out - a chronological history of the Spaghetti Western - no relation to the previous book of the same name, now lurking somewhere on this site as a .pdf called MASSACRE TIME.
I haven't seen the book yet, though it came out on May 1. Sending authors copies of their lovely works must be low on a publisher's agenda, but I'd still love to see one: especially as I believe it's the first book about Italian Westerns published in English which DOESN'T have a picture of fucking Clint Eastwood on the cover! Instead there's a still from Giulio Questi's DJANGO KILL / SE SEI VIVO SPARA, courtesy of the director himself.
Excellent! And at the same time, apologies to Howard Hughes, Katsumi Ishikuma, Marco Giusti, Lars Bloch, and Don Giulio himself, all of whom have been promised copies. As soon as I get any, I'll certainly send 'em on.
In the mean time, anyone who desires some background on this obsessive project can find it in this article for the FT. Sorry about the picture: I sent them some nice ones of me, Marco and Don Giulio, and a great shot of the 'El Paso' set in ruins after a storm. Instead they printed one of some monkey in a brown shirt. Oh well...
Without having seen it, I still have high hopes for the tome. My energy ran out in the chapter on the seventies, and I probably should have taken more time to digest films like DON'T TOUCH THE WHITE WOMAN and CALIFORNIA, both of which struck me as remarkable on a first viewing. But the chapters on and 1967 and 1968 - the period Marco calls the golden age - are, I think, pretty good.
TO THE BUNKER!
In Liverpool, meeting with Kim Ryan and Sparkle Media, I see an amazing convoy of cops: the Manchester Road is briefly and completely taken over by police cars - blocking crossroads, weaving back and forth across two lanes with blue lights flashing - four or five cop cars, followed by an armoured prison truck, then three vans, packed with cops.
It is a hugely macho display, alien, scary, show-offy and dangerous. Kim Ryan, who has pulled over to let the cops pass, tells me this happens every day. In the morning this small army of fifty boys in blue burns down the motorway from Manchester to Liverpool, where presumably the unseen prisoners are on trial. Then at five they burn back to Manchester, weaving across dual carriageways, blocking intersections, flashing lights.
Who are these prisoners? That's the mystery. The Liverpool Post and Echo have no news of any high-profile trials. Sometimes Manchester gangsters are tried outside their home turf, in Liverpool's Crown Court. But these trials are big news, and everyone knows who's in the prison van. This time, nobody knows what's going on.
Clearly this is fun for the police and means plenty of overtime. But who are these high-profile prisoners, being moved around the North West in brazen secrecy?
A week later I'm driving down Interstate 5 from Oregon to Los Angeles. South of San Francisco I start seeing squadrons of motorbikes headed north. I think at first it's a Harley club (the real bike gangs are too busy with their business activities to go on runs these days), but no, as they pass I see it's cops: scores of motorcycle cops, riding their Hogs and their Beamers and their Kawasakis north. I count more than a hundred: broken into groups of 20-40.
These guys' mission I understand: they're on their way to the funeral of the four cops murdered in Oakland a few days before. Two of those guys were bike cops and, as an old biker myself, I can assure you it's no fun at all riding up and down 5. Bikes are for blacktops and back roads, not for truck-infested freeways smelling of cow shit. But duty calls.
In LA we shoot on a spaceship set, in a fine, clean sound stage in the Valley: this is the scene we were forced to drop when our equipment was stolen. Pearl comes down with me and is a very good girl in the sense of not running away or barking during the shoot. But like all heelers she is food-mad and I fear some of my colleagues must have fed her donuts. We deal with the consequnces of this on the way home.
The shoot goes well, with only one disaster: a great actor, and veteran of REPO MAN, gets in a car crash on his way to the stage, and is taken tothe emergency room. At the eleventh hour we're forced to draft another thespian to replace him. Such bad luck! But he is still alive. Despite robberies and car crashes, La Señora de Los Angeles continues to watch over us.
The bunker stuff fits into the film marvellously. Steve Fierberg has always been a great DP, but lately he has morphed into a genius. I have never had a film cut together as well and as easily as this one: his illumination of the green screen footage was amazing, while his bunker material looks like the out-takes from DR STRANGELOVE.
Then right away I'm en route to LA again, this time aboard the antique California Zephyr 'Silver Solarium', shooting interiors for our train scenes. The first private owner of this car did it up amazingly: there are hand-made wooden blinds in every window - including the vista dome. This is a 'train movement' - the Solarium and its companion, the Silver Rapids, are on their way to LA for the use of a private party who wishes to travel to Seattle in style. So I have the whole coach almost to myself, for 12 hours.
Next day Del drives me to the Marina del Rey and up into the mountains above Pasadena, where we shoot more background plates. That evening, Miguel and Linda take me to USC, the rich kids' film school in Los Angeles. I've never been before, but an old friend of ours, Candace Reckinger, is showing some of her work in the... get this... Steven Speilberg Building! You couldn't make this stuff up. The Steven Spielberg Building looks for all the world like the Holiday Inn Express. Directly opposite this architectural masterpiece is... the George Lucas Building! This, a mirrior image of the Spielberg Building, resembles, err, another Holiday Inn Express.
Well, those rich kids' parents get what they pay for, I suppose. And after all, an education in the Spielberg Building, plus at least one parent in the industry and considerable personal wealth, is all any young person needs to gain a foothold in the exciting world of film.
(photos by Miguel Sandoval)
HERCULES BELLVILLE PRESENTE!
Not so long ago I found myself adrift, at Frankfurt Airport.
I'd been invited to Russia, where I'd never been: only to discover, in a distant cold-war airport terminal, that my papers were not in order, and - according to the people who had invited me - they could not be put in order, and I could no longer come.
I had no return ticket. No reason to be in Frankfurt, or Germany, or Europe. What to do? Where to go? I wondered who, on that continent, I could call, at 0900 hours on Saturday, and ask if they had plans for the weekend. Such people are few. Most people I know have children, or aged relatives, or are putting in overtime at the repo yard or the corrections center. Only one name occurred: Hercules Bellville. I called Hercules, got his machine, and told it I was coming to London on a whim, and hoped Herc was free and didn't have houseguests.
At the railway station I bought a ticket to London, via Brussels. At Brussels I called again, and found Herc in. He'd rearranged his schedule, had no houseguests, and invited me to stay for the weekend. That evening we had a takeaway and watched a film and some short subjects on his plasma screen. Next day we took a boat ride to Deptford, and walked along the south path of the Thames , approaching the Dome by foot - something neither of us had known was possible. It was a winter day but brilliantly sunny. Hercules always eschewed the Tube (when he lived in Chelsea he was a 38 bus man) but on this occasion he graciously agreed to go on a tour of the new underground stations, including Bermondsey and Southwark.
Bellville and the Domes
Not only was Hercules Bellville the only person I could consider imposing myself on in this manner, he was also the only person I would WANT to impose myself on. Sometimes, when I was based in Liverpool, I would call him up and invite myself down to his pad in London - not because I liked London. I liked Hercules. In the sixties he'd worked for Roman Polanski: those are his arms that come through the wall and grab Katherine Deneuve, in REPULSION. We lived in Los Angeles around the same time, though Herc refused to believe this, insisting it couldn't be true, as he'd never seen me at any parties. On his return to London he became Head Henchman to Jeremy Thomas, the independent producer, a job he held for almost 30 years. As Henchman, Herc hefted a mean address book, and was often called upon to wine and dine actors and directors. It was in this context that we met. We never worked together, but we hit it off, and remained good friends for 25 years.
Herc produced a few films, and directed at least one: a popular English gangster thriller, credited to a commercials director, who couldn't make the days. He was intelligent, always contrarian, studiously hip, and very knowledgeable about filmic things. Only Hercules could have made Tod and me watch THREE HUNDRED. And only Hercules would have screened LORD LOVE A DUCK! His greatest asset was his capacity for friendship. And he was the most generous individual I've met.
For many years he kept a pad in Chelsea, on Glebe Place. It was packed with stuff, books and VHS tapes piled on the staircases, pictures on every wall but one. You would be sitting in his front room, on the sofa, looking at Hercules, a big telly, and a wall densely packed with framed art pieces, mostly commercial art or Erro-esque stuff, and getting visually utterly over-stimulated. Hercules, on the other hand, would have a restful view of you, and his other guests, against the backdrop of a plain, white wall - the only such surface in his house.
This represents, I think, an ability to create areas of order amid chaos for which one is also largely responsible: a tremendous asset in the film business. Hercules died last weekend, after a period of illness.
GONE! BUT NOT FORGOTTEN.
Today I have time on my hands, as last night our production equipment was stolen. It had been locked up in a supposedly-secure room in our supposedly-secure sound stage, and then the door was open and the camera, batteries, a lens, tripod, camera head, et al... all went walkies.
The endless cycle of upgrades and the presence of a green screen means that the SEARCHERS 2.0 camera has been set aside in favour of a higher-end machine which records RAW data onto drives. All this involves computers and screens. Gone are the days when Steve Fierberg would hand me a newly-shot MiniDV tape and I'd put it in my pocket! Gone too are our computers and screens. All must be replaced, software reinstalled, things that need to be calibrated calibrated.
It means a lot of scrambling and the loss of a full day's shoot. But things are only things, of course, and they can be replaced.
The master criminals are clearly filmmakers, since they made off with just enough stuff to make an indy feature with. And it doesn't take Sherlock 'Olmes to twig it was an inside job, as, in order to break into the storage space, the geniuses bypassed a non-existent guard, evaded non-functional 24-hour video cameras, and used their keys to the stage! But next time, guys, why not break into one of the studios? They have even more stuff than we do!
(This of course was the fate of the Chevy Malibu on REPO MAN, which went mysteriously missing a few days into that shoot... But it is still an enormous waste of time and energy and causes good, hard-working people a lot of useless extra work.)
A fascinating week in Tokyo and Yokohama is followed by a frenetic drive from Oregon to Los Angeles. Instead of writing about any of this, let me share something really important with you, discerning reader: the location of one of the best hot springs in the United States.
This is called Buckeye, and it's some ten miles southwest of the town of Bridgeport, CA, where I spent my first night en route to LA. Part of the road is paved, and it was a sunny day, but there was ice and my guess is that, when the snow comes, you'd have to snowshoe or ski in. No matter. You can get directions in town, or at Doc & Al's Resort. They're proud of the place.
When you reach the hotsprings, you see a tree with a small pond under it.
The water is warm, and as you can lie there you've a view of two snow-covered mountain ranges and the edge of the Great Basin Desert. The scene is spectactular, and the water is almost warm enough... But it's a little tepid. Closish to perfect, but if only it was a few degress hotter...
Look down into the ravine, then. See steam rising from the partially-frozen creek? There are more hot pools, a short hike down the hill, on the creek's edge. Water pours down moss-covered rocks, creating a shower in a HOT soaking pool.
There are cooler pools, downstream, as well. Buckeye is reputed to be popular, but if you arrive midweek, early enough - this was around 0930 hrs last Thursday - there may be no one there. Ditto when it snows.
If you're an on-sen enthusiast, you must visit this place. I checked out a couple of others, too - Crab Cooker and the Travertine - but they were more visited, and more exposed. Buckeye is extraordinary.
THE END OF THE SPAGHETTI TRAIL
Today I finished it. By 'it' I mean the all-revised, all-new 10,000 WAYS TO DIE.
It was a year ago, I think, that my dear friend Steven Davies said, "Al, why don't you write a Spaghetti Western book for Kamera? They're very nice." And for a long time, it's true, I had been thinking - sort of as an art project - of watching all the Italian Westerns I could find, on DVD and video, in the order in which they were made. So I got in touch with the publisher, and did it.
Over the last 12 months I have watched over 100 Italian Westerns, starting with Corbucci's RED PASTURES and ending, today, with Michele Lupo's CALIFORNIA. I know there are later ones, but you have to stop somewhere, and I am bushed.
But it was wonderful to end on such a high note - CALIFORNIA is a good film, the best of the Giuliano Gemma Westerns. And the book is still a few months from being done - I have to revise it, do the index, all that stuff.
But it's good to have reached the end of this particular trail.
ART MEETS ART, SORT OF...
Rudy Wurlitzer told me recently, "This is the worst time to be selling art or photography. Absolutely the worst time." Rudy knows his stuff. But I thought it might be worth conjoining the cox.com with the coxart.com and coxpix.com sites as some of the large images make charming screensavers, especially the reptiles.
The 35mm film pix were taken with my old Pentax K-1000. Some of the digital pix were taken with a Konika Minolta Dimage 7i: a big point-and-shoot with a long zoom. This was a nice camera. Stills on the set of Searchers 2.0 were taken with a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2. This is an amazing camera with native 16X9 format: it has survived being dropped, bashed, and crushed.
The most recent pictures - and all the lizard ones - were taken with a Pentax K10D and, most often, a Sigma 70-300mm lens with a 2X teleconverter. Stumpy is still around and doing fine as a mature lizard. All are hibernating now.
You're welcome to use these electronic versions for any and all non-commercial purposes, via a Creative Commons license. If you'd like prints, or to use the images commercially, get in touch.
(All proceeds from sales of the Worcester College pic will go to the College, old members!)
SID & NANCY STALKS YOUTUBE
Bellingham was enlightening for several reasons. The cinema where we played - The Pickford - is a great little art theatre in the middle of downtown. It's relocating to two screens, across the street, next year. Good people. One feels that foreign-language pix and marginal stuff like SEARCHERS 2.0 will continue to be available, as long as there are cinemas and cineastes like these.
Tod and I had lunch at a big independent bookstore, also in Bellingham. Impressive place. Old building, done-up, with giant windows, a cafe serving beer and wine, kids being read to in the story area, selling lots of books. Some of the cinemas we've seen are struggling a bit: what will happen to the Bijou, in Eugene? Will this wonderful, eccentric space remain a cinema? If I was an alien looking to set up in business and my options were independent filmmaking or independent publishing, my alien brain might opt for the latter.
(Bought a copy of the new Project Censored 2009. Number one ignored story is the Iraqi casualty figures. The authors estimate as many as 1.2 million Iraqis killed by the Americans, the British, and their allies in the Coalition of the Killing. This in addition to the million Iraqi children who died as a result of sanctions in the Clinton/Albright years. Amazing.)
We came back down the Washington coast, which neither of us had seen. Amazingly austere and thickly forested. Very unlike the Oregon coast, which is more open and visibly dramatic. We stayed at the hot springs in Sol Duc, where there is no televison, and so missed the Vice Presidential debate. What a pity! Next night, in Iron Springs, we watched the storm over the Pacific.
Total mileage: 1,546 miles. Cheapest gas, Florence, OR: $3.23 a gallon.
In email land, Abbe Wool and I creep slowly towards our goal of learning how much money SID & NANCY has made. The receipts are split three ways, it seems - between a foreign sales company, Studio Canal; Granada International (who have inherited two territories, Britain and Eire, from the original producers, Zenith); and MGM, who have taken over the US rights once owned by Embassy Home Entertainment.
MGM have, apparently, sublicensed SID & NANCY to Murdoch's 20th Century Fox, who are selling an American DVD. I am disappointed, and do not in any way approve of this. At the time we made SID & NANCY, Murdoch was in the process of breaking the London printers' unions, by relocating his crap newspapers to a fortress, in Wapping. He had enormous help from Thatcher and the police. At least one trade unionist was killed.
So, at the time, many British filmmakers vowed never to work for Murdoch or his creepy companies, and not to give interviews to his lousy rags. I don't know if our vow is still in vogue or not, but I'm still keeping it, and the thought that the Dirty Digger has got his murderous mitts on one of my films is deeply troubling.
This worries me more than the discovery that some enthusiast has apparently put ALL OF SID & NANCY - in ten minute segments - up on the net. Big chunks of SEARCHERS 2.0 and REPO MAN are up there, too, and it doesn't seem to do any harm to the films' respective prospects.
But I am pissed off that Murdoch's Fox has raided my cultural henhouse, and would recommend - if you must watch all of SID & NANCY - the British DVD, on the Momentum label. It has better elements, too: including a drunken commentary by me and Drew Schofield.
Interestingly, another enthusiast has compared both these DVDs with the Criterion DVD - no longer available - and by means of screen grabs, bitrates and other yardsticks deems the Criterion DVD far superior to Murdoch's or Mo's.
Best leave SID on the shelf, and rent Criterion's DVD of WALKER instead. Thank you.
Abbe and I still await an accounting from MGM.
AND THENCE TO BELLINGHAM
A thrilling week of SEARCHERS 2.0 screenings followed by Q&As wraps up tonight in Bellingham, WA. Our first date was in a converted church in Eugene: the Bijou. A charming venue and a good alternative use for a religious building, of which there are far too many. Before the show we watched the 'Debate' between Obama and McCain. But there was no debate at all, as both expect the taxpayers to bail out the bad debt con-men of Wall Street. No problem there, then, and no reason to vote for either. On the peace front, Obama positioned himself to the right of the War Criminal, calling for an expanded war in Afghanistan and a possible American attack on Pakistan.
Because the screening was a midnight one, I did the Q&A next morning in a coffee shop. One of Harry Harrison's many collaborators, David Bischoff, turned up. He told me BILL THE GALACTIC HERO persuaded him not to go to Vietnam! What better compliment could one give to any writer? David's life - and the lives of many Vietnamese - were saved by this brilliant parody and anti-adventure saga. Harry is not only the most popular SF writer in Russia, he is a hero of the Anti-War cause! Memo: must make film.
In Corvalis, we showed the films at the Darkside, a fine four-screener in a defunct department store. In Portland we screened at Cinema 21 and got completely snookered with some nice people from Powell's and our old screenwriter chum, Wes Claridge. Somehow I acquired the proofs of Lawrence Lessig's new book, REMIX. Excellent!
In Portland and Eugene, some nice chats with homeless guys who increasingly resemble me in terms of age, education, and demographic. These are not winos or junkies but lower-middle-class guys suddenly sitting on a pack bench with a backpack. The homeless situation is the worst it's been since the early days of Reagan and Thatcher.
To Olympia, the Capitol of Washington State, whose streets house many homeless. This has been a sunny week, but Olympia will be less lovely when it rains. Screened at Evergreen University Campus in the woods nearby. Amazing: it's like Warwick, or UCLA North Campus, but in a rain forest!
The Grand Illusion in Seattle was also host to me and Eddie Izzard on the REVENGERS tour; a lovely cinema. Among the attendees this time, Danbert Nobacon - now a resident of Twisp, some four hours into the woods. He gives us a copy of his fine new CD, The Library Book of the World. And thence to Bellingham!
A short 'making of' documentary - depicting the behind-the-scenes drug-taking and orgies common on independent films sets, and crucial to SEARCHERS 2.0, can be seen here.
PACIFIC NORTHWEST TOUR DATES
And here, I'm pleased to report, are the details of the SEARCHERS 2.0 Pacific Northwest Tour, featuring that fine film and several others. Kick off is:
Friday 26 Sept at the BIJOU ART CINEMA in beautiful Eugene, OR. This is the first of several screenings, including WALKER.
Saturday 27 Sept at the dog-friendly DARKSIDE, in Corvalis, OR.
Sunday 28 Sept at CINEMA 21 in lovely Portland, OR - copies of X FILMS, my book, will be available courtesy fo Powells gigantic bookstore.
Monday 29 Sept at EVERGREEN COLLEGE, WA, I'll introduce a double bill of SEARCHERS 2.0 and WALKER.
Tuesday 30 Sept it's the GRAND ILLUSION, Seattle, where Eddie Izzard and I showed our REVENGERS TRAGEDY not so long ago.
Wednesday 1 Oct we bid adieu at the PICKFORD CINEMA, Bellingham, WA. Another book-friendly event.
Apologies to friends and a fine cinema in Vancouver, BC, who also invited us and the film. But crossing the border with two rabid dogs seems too risky, at least on this occasion!
And thanks to STEVE TENHONEN, the genius who has organised it all.
THE BANK CALLS
The bank called me on Monday and said there was a wire transfer for 225,000 dollars waiting to go into my account. Then they rang back and said no, it was pounds, so worth about $390,000.
I was thinking, who has sent me all this money? Lorenzo, in Mexico City?
Negi-san, in Japan? The owners of SID & NANCY? How kind of them!
The experience concentrated my mind wonderfully.
What would you do if you unexpectedly had 225,000 dollars in your account?
Or 225,000 pounds?
I'm pleased to report that I decided to produce my own film, rather than something sensible like paying off the mortgage or sending the dogs to college.
And what film? I thought about all the projects in the Commies From Mars portfolio. What could be made for such a modest, unrespectable sum?
The bank called back and told me it had all been a mistake. One of the world's giant media conglomerates had wired me money which they owed to someone else, instead of a smaller sum, which has yet to show up.
(More video has gone up, including parts of the SPANISH TRAGEDY reading with Derek Jacobi and other wonderful actors, and, in three episodes, JAIL ME!, written by Tod Davies, produced by Sol Papadopoulos, with music by the mighty Pete Wylie.)
EDGE CITY / SLEEP IS FOR SISSIES ONLINE
Just a note to report that EDGE CITY, a.k.a. SLEEP IS FOR SISSIES, is now available for download/streaming. It's broken into four parts, the first of which can be found here.
With luck Chapter One of XFILMS will now make sense to its diehard readers. It was an interesting experiment to break this 38-minute film into four pieces, make title cards etc. Only 28 years later there are gaps for the commercials at last!
Part two of EDGE CITY can be found here.
Part three is here.
And the thrilling and mysterious finale is here.
DENNIS POTTER: AN APOLOGY
Apologies to all Dennis Potter fans for the weird claim, on the cover of the US edition of XFILMS, that I was thick with him, or that he was one of the luminaries with whom I've worked.
Sadly, it isn't so. Whoever wrote this blurb obviously has Potter confused with one of the other Dennises I've been privileged to work with - Muloney, Hopper, and Dolan. But not Potter. Maybe they thought I was Tom Richmond, talented cinematographer of THE SINGING DETECTIVE.
Or maybe they didn't think at all. Apologies, too, for the very dark printing of the REPO MAN stills on pp 42, 43 and 60. These were edgy, but the British publisher managed to retain the detail. Somehow the faces got lost in the American edition. Enough apologies! The rest of it is excellent. Buy now!
I'm reading a good book called DIGITAL DESTINY, by Jeff Chester, published by the New Press. It talks about the amazing left-right fusion which managed to defeat, or partially defeat, the FCC's cave-in to the big media conglomerates in 2003. The EFF and the National Rifle Association on the same side - freedom of speech! - against Murdoch, GE, and AOL/Time/Warner. It's noteworthy the way the media companies created (and continue to create) 'front' groups of fake consumers, and paid-for academics, to promote their power grabs - in the same manner as the CIA created fake student groups, and trade unions, and 'Free Europe' committees, early in its history (it would never do that today, of course, since this is now the job of privatizing spookery has itself been privatized). Chester's is an important book, I think.
These fake 'front' groups are ubiquitous. They oppose windmills and support nuclear power; they demand obscure, expensive medical procedures and 'patient choice'; some of them are even charities, and human rights groups. All claim the middle ground. In the human rights and charity area, they even tut-tut about bad things in the West - the number of black prisoners in the US, say - and then go back to their principal work, spending their CIA stipend and helping find targets for those cluster bombs. (Note how Brown was able to screw-up the wording of the cluster bomb treaty on behalf of the US? Amazing! Now he's on his holidays in Martha's Vinyard. Surely Harvard awaits him, after he's kicked out of England?)
A left-right fusion is what these middle-ground, free-trade, corporate slaveys dread the most. Who knows? Perhaps that's one of the reasons - besides being paid to do so - that media liberals mock conspiracy theories, which sometimes - as in the case of JFK and 9/11 - unite left wing and right wing in disgust at the 'official' version of events. Right now, in the US, McCain and Obama share the same essential policies on everything. As a result, Obama's early lead has evaporated, and the two run neck-and-neck. There is no Green candidate for President. Ralph Nader is running as an independent, with Matt Gonzales, the San Francisco supervisor, as his VP candidate. This is fine. But what about a Nader/Buchanan ticket? Pat Buchanan is an old rightwinger, I know, but he has been more anti-NAFTA, more in favour of American industry and Mexican agriculture than any Democrat. And he also seems to be against the wars in Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Nader/Buchanan in 2008! The bumpersticker along would strike terror into a free-trader's heart. (This was proposed back in 2000 by the website antiwar.com. Both are ready, if not rested!)
Another correction. It was a cricket bat, followed by a metal barrier, which decapitated the eight-foot Thatcher statue in London. Not a piece of scaffoling. The valiant decapitator refused to plead guilty of anything, and was sentenced to prison for three months. Thanks to Chumbawamba for the song, I Did it For Alfie, which makes all this clear.
OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!
Three cheers for the good German who went to Mme. Tussaud's house of waxworks in Berlin and knocked off the dummy Hitler's head. The fact that the fellow had been drinking beer beforehand demonstrates how that splendid beverage can be a spur to right-thinking and political activism. In biru, veritas!
Of course, one is inevitably reminded of the valiant Englishman who, a couple of years back, decapitated Thatcher's statue with a scaffolding pole. That was a good thing, too, but it pales beside the sabotage of Hitler's dummy. Frau Tussaud should leave Adolf this way, brooding at his desk in the bunker with his head knocked off. Instead, no doubt she'll fix him up and put him in a bulletproof box, or give him an armed guard. Too bad. A headless wreck is a perfect symbol of Hitler the man, genocidal killer, free-trader, and pro-corporate internationalist.
Thoughts of Hitler, Thatcher, and free trade bring me for no particular reason to Peter Mandelson. This dodgy crony of Tony Blair got bumped from 'English' politics a while back, and was appointed a European Commissioner. Now, I know pan-European politics can seem very complex. It's almost as if they are intentionally presented in a dense and boring manner, so that we won't pay attention to them. All the argument about referenda, and revoking democratic rights, and the European Parliament, and the European Commission, is quite puzzling, but there's one sure way of sorting out the bad from the good, or at least the rats from the mice: whose side is Peter Mandelson on?
Whoever Mandelson's working for, oppose them. This never fails, as Mandelson always fronts for the richest oligarchs, the biggest cartels, and the most powerful corporations. In the case of the European Union, Mandelson represents the European Commission - an unelected supra-national government composed of professional politicians, spooks, and corporate flacks. This is the evil, anti-democratic, snickering twin of the European Parliament, which is by comparison benign. Some MEPs may be shambolic and corrupt, but at least they're all democratically elected - and via a transferable / second preference vote which gets smaller parties like the Greens and UKIP elected, too. There are two Green MEPS from Britain - Jean Lambert and Dr Caroline Lucas; both are intelligent women who do excellent work.
Mandelson is currently flacking for the WTO at the latest 'free trade' talks: trying to convince third world countries to privatize their water and their health services, and submit to American and EU 'intellectual property' laws. See what a reliable bellweather the guy is? Mandelson: Occam's razor of darkness versus light! Stand with Pete and you have Mr Tony, Shrub Bush and the World Bank on your side. Oppose him and you're stuck with Brazil, Argentina, Christian Aid, Oxfam, the Zapatistas, and the Greens.
The Guardian Diary reported that in London Mandelson is protected by armed bodyguards - either plainclothes cops or something more top secret - at the taxpayer's expense. The Guardian was told he received this treatment becuase he'd been a Northern Ireland secretary. But Mo Mowlam was also a Northern Ireland secretary, and she received no offer of police or secret service protection. And Mayor Ken Livingstone, a more high-profile and recognisable figure, rode the Tube to and from work, alone.
So Mandelson has powerful protectors. And, possibly, some fascinating helpmates among his 20-person Bruxelles staff. Recent articles about the trade talks quote not Mandelson, but his spokesman, one Peter Power.
Now that's a familiar name. Isn't Peter Power the name of the 'crisis managment specialist and government adviser' who claimed he was running a 'terrorist bombing simulation' in the three Tube stations attacked on 2005/7/7? Who told the BBC his exercise 'went live' once they realised the bombs were real?
Well, yes. Now, to the best of my knowledge no journalist has grilled Peter Power about the nature of this exercise. Is his story true? If so, what did the 'exercise' consist of? How many people were involved? Who were his clients? Is there any possibility that the criminals who planned the 7/7 terrorist atrocities had advance knowledge of the 'exercise' - and took advantage of it? Or is it just a coincidence - like the Vigiliant Guardian 'crisis simulation' and the NSA plane-crash evacuation practice on 9/11?
This is very interesting stuff, and the only explanation for such journalistic indifference is that Power's claim is considered 1) untrue or 2) too 'hot' to touch.
But why? And is Peter Power 'crisis manager' the same person as Peter Power 'spokesman' for Peter Mandelson? It would be handy if he were, since one could then start treating Mandelson's office as conspiracy central, rather than a mere bellweather of evil.
One researcher who's investigated Peter Power I is The Antagonist. His discovery that Power I faked his resume (pretending to be a senior London police officer when he was actually a West Dorset cop, under investigation and suspension from duty, who retired early on 'medical grounds') can be found here. So it's possible that Power is a fantasist who's been conning the media, and who made up the story of the 7/7 exercise. Maybe.
Such a nut would be an ideal spokesman for Peter Mandelson, and the European Commission. But there's a small photo of Power II on Mandelson's EC web page, and it looks like a different Power to me. Another power-ful coincidence! Still, any excuse to be reminded about this ongoing 7/7 mystery.