Tuesday, April 30, 2013

My Sofia Coppola Month Kicks Off Tomorrow

 
Five suicidal sisters imprisoned inside their suburban home in the mid-seventies, an aging depressed Hollywood star on an advertising assignment in Japan in the early 2000s, a young girl attempting to find direction as Queen consort of France in the mid 1700s and a bored modern-action star at a crossroads finding a reason to exist with the help of his 11 year old daughter.  These are just a few of the unforgettable characters Sofia Coppola has given us in the past decade and a half, and starting tomorrow I will be kicking off my month long celebration of Sofia's work as a actor, filmmaker, photographer and writer.  The month will consist of a variety of different posts including my own personal write-ups on each one of Sofia's films.  As an added bonus, I have lined up several of my favorite writers to offer up some of their own thoughts as well.  It's going to be an awesome, and very personal, month here at Moon in the Gutter and I hope it proves very enjoyable.  My celebration of all things Sofia Coppola will begin tomorrow with a look at the 1998 short film Lick the Star, the first film Sofia directed. 


Monday, April 29, 2013

My look at the career of Mary Mendum in the new Weng's Chop

 
Weng's Chop #3 is now available to order at Amazon.  This issue has three collectible covers to choose from, including the special Jess Franco memorial one pictured above.  My memories of Franco are featured in the magazine as well as an article I wrote on the career of the wonderful Mary Mendum (Rebecca Brooke).  I hope everyone might give the issue a look and order a copy. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Coming in May from Moon in the Gutter

 
To celebrate the premiere of her new film at Cannes, and to combat my depression over my upcoming 40th birthday, I will be paying tribute to Sofia Coppola all throughout the month of May.  Sofia, along with Paul Thomas Anderson and David O. Russell has been my favorite American filmmaker for the past decade and my tribute will include posts on all of her films and videos, screenshots, looks at her soundtracks and, perhaps, even a guest article or two.  It begins May 1st and I hope it proves enjoyable for fellow fans. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Men of Good Fortune and Bad Nature: F.W. Murnau's NOSFERATU (1922)

Released more than ninety years ago, F.W. Murnau's still horrify and absolutely brilliant 1922 film Nosferatu:  A Symphony of Horror remains one of the most transcendent, trailblazing and forward thinking horror films ever released.  It is so much more than a great horror film though, as its sharp political and social statements on themes ranging from class-separation, to how we interact with nature, make it one of the great political statements in all of film history.  Murnau is an absolute giant and Nosferatu resonates remarkably well all these decades later.
While it is the unforgettable Max Schreck that almost always comes first to mind when thinking of the original Nosferatu, the first image that always comes to my mind when I think of the film is a strangely eerie shot early on of a kitten.  While it seems random on first viewing, it is one of many instances in the film where Murnau returns to shots of animals.  A brilliantly edited work, Nosferatu is at its purest when Murnau intercuts these many shots of animals with the crazed visage of Schreck as the menacing vampire.  With this iconic character, Murnau suggests that it is his title 'monster' that is actually the closest to nature in the film.  The vampire is ultimately a much more organic being than almost any of the other characters, specifically the rich that Murnau justifiably savages through both humor and satire.  Nosferatu, like the creatures he dwells with, has been forced to fight for survival in a world catered to the rich, the inhumane and the inhuman.  He might very well be one of the "rats in the streets", as author Gerald Mast would write, but he is also very much that innocent kitten we see early on who is guided by an instinctual urge to hunt, eat and survive.
Murnau's distrust of the evil, weak, and ignorant, men of good fortune in the film can also be seen in the way that he treats the poor villagers.  Shown in shadow and left mostly nameless and faceless, a sly commentary on how they are treated in real life, it is the villagers who are ultimately right about Nosferatu.  It is their superstitions, and not the 'smarts' of the wealthy that turn out to be correct.   It is the wealthy's inability to accept the possibility that such an evil might come into their blessed and easy lives that brings Nosferatu to them. 
It is indeed the well to do men of Nosferatu who Murnau holds up as the real villains.  This is especially seen in the case of the character Hutter, the stand in for Harker, who is a man who doesn't just pick a flower but kills it...a man who ultimately relies on the poor farmers he has always detested to save him from drowning late in the film.  Hutter is a man who has lived a life that has totally separated him from his natural surroundings and it takes a 'monster' to help him truly connect for probably the first time. 
Powered by Murnau's stunning directorial styling, unique framing choices and wild editing (that really allows the audience an extra eye in every frame of the film), Nosferatu is one of a handful of masterful films that reside in true ground zero territory.  It is an astounding and haunting creation that stills feels ahead of its time. 
If it comes down to one moment though then it is surely the iconic image of Schreck magically rising from his coffin.  A stunning testament to Murnau's skill behind the camera, this moment is still breathtaking to watch.  Schreck rises, his head slips partially out of frame (a touch that makes the moment all the more otherworldly) and we, the audience, stop breathing.  It's an odd and surprising moment that presents us with something truly odd, exotic and alien in the most cinematic way possible. 
As the line goes in the film, "Nobody can escape his destiny"...just as cinema can ever escape the brilliant imposing shadow of F.W. Murnau. 

***Nosferatu is now available on Blu-ray via a splendid 2 disc special edition set from Kino Lorber.  Read about the disc here and order it here

-Jeremy Richey, 2013-
                            

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Written Collage for Polly Jean

While I was a student at the University of Kentucky in the mid nineties I had the tremendous opportunity to study under the great poet James Baker Hall. I was in my early twenties and got to take a number of courses Jim taught over several semesters. The late James Baker Hall was a wonderful man, teacher and writer. He was everything a professor should be and so much more. Simply put, it was an honor to be involved in those intimate round table classes and I will always cherish those memories. 
 
 
James Baker Hall (photo copyright Sarabande Books)
 
Most of my writing from that period has been lost, which is probably a good thing as I am sure most of it was fairly lousy, but a few pieces have survived including this little oddity that was featured in the 1995 collection small, Hard Braveries (sic).   It's a bit surreal looking back at these pieces that I wrote nearly two decades ago.  They bring back a lot of memories and remind me of the guy I used to be.  Honestly most of my creative writing just embarrasses me but I have gotten to the point in my life where I can accept it as being a part of me, so I thought I might share a few of those surviving pieces here. 
 
These words were obviously inspired by PJ Harvey, an artist who I am still as enthralled by today as I was back in 1995.  My only real memory of this piece is that Jim was extremely enthusiastic about it, which meant a great deal to me and that part 1 was lost long ago.  
 
 "A Written Collage of Words for Polly Jean (Part 2)"
 
...to see you
     I stare into a bright WHITE LIGHT for as long as I can stand
then close my eyes tightly.
With white light reflections, I see you
clearly
sitting in your house,
sitting by your stereo
sipping on breathe-easy tea.
It's a stormy Tuesday afternoon
with Captain Beefheart's Bat Chain Puller
playing in the background.
You're waiting
for your brother to arrive
for your weekly Scrabble match.
 
You're sitting
your left leg tucked underneath your right
which is pushed out over the wooden floor.
-Black lace bra and FADING BLUE cut off sweats-
tight around your thighs,
bare feet (chipped-polished
RED).
 
Your eyes scan the lyric sheet as you listen to the music,
black hair falling on warm white skin
as each song
fades
into the invisible distance.
Each word slips slips off the page
as you push aside
your unwashed hair
and brush an itch off
your left cheek.
 
Between songs your paranoid glance is directed
to the kitchen.
Is the stove off?
Are the lights out?
Will those lit candles eventually burn you down?
You smile that brilliant grin at this thought and
consider
pulling
your hair back
with that grey-purple scarf hiding
underneath
that picture of me
 in front of the fireplace
feet away from you. 
 
Polly Jean smiling her rare smile
on a stormy Tuesday afternoon
left leg under the right
the body in the bedroom
and
Captain Beefhearts's Bat Chain Puller on the turntable.

-Jeremy Richey, originally written in 1995 (revised 2013). 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

We Have Lost Jesús Franco Manera

 
 
Many of us are more than a little saddened, shook-up and stunned this morning by the loss of the great Jess Franco, one of the great, and absolute, auteur's the world of cinema has ever known.  I am at a loss for words to describe the impact Franco, his life and his films have had on me in the last twenty years since I discovered them thanks to Tim Lucas and Video Watchdog.  I adored this man and his unique cinematic dreams have haunted mine like few others. 
It's a heartbreaking loss but the thought of Jess back together with his two greatest muses, Lina and Soledad, in a sweet distant otherworld should bring us all comfort.  We love and miss you Jess and thank you for your great mad genius and spirit. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Overlooked Classics: Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home (1966)

***Carol White would have turned seventy years old today.  Here is a repost detailing one of her greatest      films in honor of the day.**                        Moving, meaningful, insightful, and downright life altering, Ken Loach’s extraordinary 1966 British teleplay Cathy Come Home is one of the most essential works of the sixties and its current unavailability is frustrating to say the least.
Starring an absolutely devastating Carol White, Cathy Come Home is a socially outraged production that takes a searing look at Britain’s homeless and housing problems of the mid sixties. The fact that many of the themes and issues it looks at are still relevant in not just Britain but all over the world make it as necessary in 2008 as it was in 1966.
Cathy Come Home started out as a play written by Jeremy Sandford, a well to do Londoner who had moved to the struggling Battersea district in the late fifties with his wife (Up The Junction author Nell Dunn) to research the living conditions of the lower and working classes. Cathy Come Home is not an exploitative piece at all though, and Sandford should be applauded for creating one of the most sympathetic and honest portrayals ever written about several of the key social problems that have plagued modern urban society since the Industrial Revolution.
The BBC expressed interest fairly quickly in Sandford’s heartbreaking story of a young married couple and their children who lose everything after the husband loses his job. Sanford's work needed just the right treatment though, and 29 year old television director Ken Loach was called in to handle what was destined to be the intense and delicate directorial duties.
Loach had been working in British television since the early sixties and was a year away from his extraordinary big screen debut (1967’s Poor Cow) when Cathy Come Home made its shattering debut on British television. Loach’s work on Cathy Come Home would set in motion one of the most consistently brilliant careers in all of modern cinema, and his trademark character studies filmed in a documentary style can all be traced back to his work on this 75 minute teleplay.
Sometimes called the 'British Bardot', 25 year old Carol White was already an established star in Britain when Cathy Come Home premiered in 1966. Long undervalued as an actress, White gives a historic tour-de-force performance as the teleplay’s doomed title character. Loach recalls on the DVD’s terrific and informative audio commentary that White threw herself into the role with a wild abandon and that the part took its toll on her personally throughout the three week shoot. The brilliant White would work again with Loach on the unforgettable Poor Cow (co-starring with Terence Stamp) and she would continue to prove herself as one of Britain’s great actors throughout the late sixties and early seventies. She would tragically pass away in the early nineties, and she has still yet to receive her due as a great actress and major figure in film history.
Character actor Ray Brooks had already worked with Loach in the series Z Cars and he turns in a solid and knowing performance as Cathy’s out of work husband Reg. The rest of the cast is filled out with some familiar British character actors and many first timers cast because Loach knew that some unfamiliar faces would give the film the kind of authentic look he was hoping to capture.
One of the most striking things about Cathy Come Home is the way Loach manages to combine an obvious narrative with such a seemingly free form documentary style. Other lesser filmmakers could spend years and millions of dollars and not match the intimate details Loach achieves here with a small television budget in just three weeks. The film, shot on location in 16mm, is an absolute visual wonder to behold. Filled with many sometimes unforgiving close-ups of his cast and shot starkly in black and white, Cathy Come Home manages that rare feat of not feeling like a film about real life but instead seems to somehow actually capture it.
Expertly mixing Stanford’s dialogue with improvisation, Cathy Come Home is a bravely grueling experience that manages to expose the fatal flaws seemingly inherent in the Social Systems it is exploring. Loach points out in the commentary that it was important for him to communicate to the audience that Cathy is a victim here, and the frustrating obstacles that continue to come her way are the system’s fault. The film presents a catastrophic snowball effect that takes everything away from the young title character from her family to her humanity, and one would have to be pretty heartless to not feel for her during her plight at the hands of a bureaucracy unable and unwilling to care for those in need.
While it’s often remembered for those mesmerizing close ups of a damaged and destroyed Carol White, Loach’s film (like Charles Burnett’s later 1977 production Killer of Sheep) manages to capture bits of daily life that just aren’t often seen in cinema. From families putting out their wash on lines connecting their run down tenement homes, to the fury of an elderly man being forced from his nearly unlivable shack, to children playing in an eerie graveyard like car dump, Cathy Come Home is one of the most penetrating looks at the fragility of the lower and working classes ever captured on film.
Cathy Come Home stunned the 12 million plus viewers who tuned in on the night of November 16’th 1966 to watch it. Outraged letters from viewers who had never seen the plight of the poor expressed so strongly or eloquently on film began to pour into the offices of both the BBC and British politicians, and by December the charity organization Shelter was started in order to combat Britain’s growing homeless problem. Outside of being one of the most shocking masterpieces of the cycle of films known as The British Kitchen Sink Dramas, Cathy Come Home is one of the rare films in history that directly caused social change.
Cathy Come Home was named the second greatest British Television program in history in a 2000 BFI poll. It came out on DVD on a British Region 2 disc in 2003 but I have been told it has now slipped out of print. It has never to my knowledge been available in the United States. The film's current unavailability is a real tragedy considering that many of the problems facing Cathy in the film are a reality for a countless number of people all over the world. Speaking to the BBC during an interview on the film, Ken Loach said, "We were saying ‘this happens and it shouldn’t’.” It continues to happen and it still shouldn't. Cathy Come Home is a major masterpiece and one of the most heroic pieces of cinema I have ever seen.

-Jeremy Richey, originally written in 2008-