Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Moon in the Gutter Q&A with Filmmaker John Levy

Today I am very pleased to present my first Q&A of 2013.  This one is with a man who I admire greatly as an artist and value dearly as a friend.  I first discovered the great short films of John Levy, the co-founder of La Belle Aurore Films, a couple of years back and I instantly felt a connection to his work.  We have since become great friends over at Facebook and I never tire of chatting up films, music and other similar interests with John over there.  John's an incredibly intelligent and passionate artist and filmmaker and I hope after reading this everyone will take a moment to visit La Belle Aurore's official site to watch some of his terrific films, as well as like the group's Facebook page.  Even more of John's work can be accessed at his Vimeo page as well. 
While I was reading John's great responses here I was reminded of that line in Night Moves where Harry Moseby sums up a connection to a new friend by mentioning, "I think we saw the same films".  I think any film fans who came of age in the late seventies/early to mid eighties period will really find a lot to connect and respond to here.  Thanks so much to John for participating in this! 

Hi John, Thanks so much for stopping by to participate in this Q&A. To get us started, can you tell us a bit about yourself and where you are from originally?

Thank you so much having me, Jeremy. I’m from Novato, California. Just north of San Francisco. Where I still live. When I’m not doing anything creative I keep pretty busy as a caregiver. I work a lot of odd jobs as well while trying to get over as a freelance videographer.

 Before I asked what got you interested in cinema and who are some of your early influences, I was wondering if you could share with us your first film related memory?

 
I have very vivid memories of watching segments of Star Wars on an 8mm Brownie projector in my dad’s office. But my earliest memory is as a toddler, my folks buying this mammoth Sony TV that was also a very impressive piece of furniture. With it they got a Betamax player and a bunch of movies. One of those was 2001: A Space Odyssey. And my earliest memory is that film being on a lot in the house and my eyes being glued to it whenever it was. I had no idea what was going on, but it was a fascinating introduction to movies, history, and the future. As time goes by it continues to blow my mind. Other films I remember being on a lot were ‘Jaws’ a lot of Bogart films. ‘Empire Strikes Back’, ‘The Warriors’, ‘Raiders...’ and a lot of Alfred Hitchcock and John Carpenter. 80’s horror in general was really present. When I was 9 I scored a VHS copy of Scream Greats: Tom Savini - Master of Horror Effects. That doc was a huge eye opener to the alchemy behind films and the actual “making” of them. That was the first time I realized, ‘Oh, this is really hard work.’

About those early influences, who were the filmmakers and films that meant the most to you as you came of age?

 
Oh, wow. I gotta be careful here or we may have to do this in volumes! Well, the earliest influences on me as a filmmaker would start with Sergio Leone. Particularly Once Upon A Time In The West and Once Upon A Time In America. My favorite films and the first two I ever bought myself. You can study the hell out of those two films. The imagery, themes, pacing, scores, operatics and character realizations are of the highest level of artistry. I think along with Kubrick, Leone was one of the most visionary filmmakers we’ve ever seen. Hitchcock was top shelf. A wealth of visual storytelling technique. Alan Pakula, Terrence Malick, Sam Peckinpah, John Carpenter. Scorsese and Coppola. Cassavetes. Michael Mann. Early Walter Hill and Ridley Scott. And later Kubrick and Altman. In the mid 90’s when I started working at Video Droid I was heavily influenced by the 90’s independent movement and classics like Wellman, Fuller, Ray, and Lupino. And especially Film Noir and “Neo” Noir.
Specific films that influenced me are Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show, They Shoot Horses Don’t They? Picnic At Hanging Rock. Rolling Thunder. Cloak & Dagger (82) Certainly 2001: A Space Odyssey. Deer Hunter. The Double Life of Veronique. Wild At Heart, The Piano. The Ox Bow Incident. The Third Man. Charade. Touchez Pas Au Grisbi. William Friedkin’s Sorcerer. That is a film I would love to have made. Happily with Roy Scheider too. Life really changed when I discovered the foreign film section though. It was a serious revelation. Melville, Antonioni, and Wong Kar Wai have definitely influenced me. The list is endless. There are a lot of great filmmakers in the past fifteen years and more recently to, many young ones, having a huge influence on me. There are some women filmmakers in particular making really gutsy films these days. I have certainly been influenced by the filmmakers outside the directors chair and camera frame as well. Editors Anne V. Coates and Walter Murch. Cinematographers like Vilmos Zsigmond and Gordon Willis. Costume designer Milena Canonero. Composers like Ennio Morricone, Michael Small, and Tangerine Dream. All these makers of movies are extremely influential.

Talk about your initial journey from film enthusiast to filmmaker.

My brother and I used to shoot our own little movies with our Beta cam. I always wanted to make films or play music. And as much as I love music and came from a musical family, playing music wasn’t as much of a passion for me as listening to it and collecting it. My Mom had done some acting and painting and was more supportive about my artistic endeavors, but my Dad discouraged me a lot. That held me back for years. I wrote a lot of stories and bad poetry. I was interested in almost too many things, but nothing had a hold on me like film. You could explore anything in film. That’s how it trumped everything else for me. The real turning point was when I was about 16 or 17 years old. I was in a really dark place. And I remember I was sitting on the couch flipping through channels when I landed on Roman Holiday. It was the scene after Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn climb out of the water after their near capture by the secret police. It’s this beautiful night time Black and White photography. They are soaking wet and shivering and suddenly lock eyes and kiss. It’s a beautiful scene with really striking imagery. I could feel some kind of aesthetic transference occur. My love affair with film and filmmaking had been reignited. That scene saved my life. And I was so eager to make up for lost study time. I knew I really needed to do three things before I even started to set out as a maker of movies. I had been through a lot of heavy shit already and had narrowly escaped a bad path. I needed to really figure out who I was as best I could outside of my interests as well as in relation to them and what I thought about certain things and I needed to be very honest with myself about it all. Who am I, what do I want, what do I really think? Experiences means shit if you don’t have any perspective. The second thing I needed to do was study as much film as possible. My first day working at the video store I remember asking how many films employees were aloud to rent and my boss at the time said, “As many as you like!” I think she probably meant six to eight videos. I ended up taking something like twenty or thirty films home that first night. Entire filmographies. I was like Tony Montana burying my nose in a mountain of VHS. The third thing I needed to do was to find any cameras from 35mm to DV and start developing my own eye. This was in ‘95. I started recruiting really reluctant people into really bad videos I was trying to turn into short films. I still had no encouragement and no fellow cinephiles in my life at that time. I was juggling community college film courses with my job at Video Droid.
Then while working at Video Droid between ‘96 and ‘04 I met Terrence Kelsey (spektr, The Circle), Peter Heckel (Glimmer), Jack Graham (who’s debut feature Jake's Dead is about to premiere) and this whole crew of really amazing talented people. We were all film nuts and many of us were serious about making them. And we were often collaborating on stuff. Mostly student films. I would act in Terrence’s student films. Pete and I were working on stuff with our pal Chris Tomera. Pete was learning animation. Jack had made some shorts. Terrence and I were often collaborating on scripts. Pete, Chris and I were having writer’s groups regularly. Everyone was working on something or developing something.

Awesome, you know how much I especially dig Terrence (the link to our older Q&A is above). Now tell us about La Belle Aurore films.

La Belle Aurore is what happened when we got tired of letting mass amounts of money stand between us and our work. Instead of following the standard recipe we had been taught all our lives, we decided to come at the process from a different angle. Living on a low income forces you to make something from nothing and I truly feel film is no exception. Money outside of your livelihood shouldn’t stand between you and your art. It’s ridiculous. If we can’t be creative without money we aren’t creative people. So, first we decided to see how much can we do with nothing. And gradually with each film bring more money, more people, more of the standard requirements to the fold as needed. Strip everything down and start all over again from scratch. So far, so good. Tabula Rasa was our biggest budget yet and 75% of that was for the plane ticket to bring Lovelle up. Everything before that cost no more than twenty to fifty bucks. What you end up paying with is time. You miss a lot of meals and sleep, but that is pretty common in filmmaking anyway. We still don’t have any decent sound equipment. We’ve been doing most of the acting ourselves. We steal most our locations. Borrow props. We just work with what we have. It just means we gotta get outside the box and hustle another way. Forget about what everyone else is doing and how. I’ve been around a lot of people who like to “Play filmmaker” and they will never make anything. Nothing with a voice at least. And they’ll waste your time. There is no reason to waste time. It can all be done. There is no one way. Cinema is just coming out of it’s infancy in my opinion. There are no rules. It’s the wild fucking west out there!
There are a lot of different avenues one can pursue to make films. LBA is about creative freedom. We should make films because we’re filmmakers. However we can. We are compelled to. It’s creative sustenance.



Among your early films I am particularly enthralled by The Ghost of Love. Talk a bit about this haunting work as well as your first film for LBA, Coda.

I’m so happy to hear you enjoyed that one. It was a personal almost therapeutic labour of love. That one came from a feature idea. Only to realize once again, I am not in a position to make a feature at the time. But I needed to explore it badly. Someone who was a very crucial and special part of my life up to that point had stopped being part of my life and we had lost this connection or burned it out I’m still not entirely sure. Who knows why such great things end so badly or live shortly. I was very unprepared to lose her in any case. You know how when you’re in love with someone, you reach this scary height of joy? For some people it dwindles over time or they run away, but in this situation, for me it was a higher and higher feeling. A reopening of closed chambers in the heart kind of feeling. It was almost holy to me. I’ve lived and loved through some brutal fallout in my time but nothing that just suddenly stops like that. It’s like death. Something otherworldly and galactic like a star just dies out of nowhere. It was insane emotionally. I began having weird dreams. But the incident that conceived the film was one of those experiences when you are right between being asleep and awake. You are awake but you are almost transitioning between plains of existence. All senses are fully functioning in a tangible “reality”. I was sleeping when I heard her voice. Her voice is what woke me up. I was already having another dream. I can hear her saying my name and saying, “wake up. You’re having a bad dream.” I wake up, my eyes tired and heavy and she is there. Her hair is in my face. I could smell her hair, her breath, I could feel her. She whispers, “I love you.” I then sprung fully awake and she vanished. I was freaked out. It was very real. Very frustrating. I continued to have crazy dreams, but I wanted to get back to that place in between. I felt like if I could get back there I could work this out there or figure out a way to sustain my time there. I never really did but I really thought a lot about it. I knew I should start exploring it on film right away. And maybe I can find some kind of peace from that. And I did. There was never a real script for that one. There was a couple pages of voice overs and some image description. But for the most part the whole process ended up being very experimental. And we shot for months. We ended up with enough footage to make it 60 minutes probably. But it played better as it is. The feature idea was much more haunting. I would still really like to do that now that I have a little distance from the short and source.
‘Coda’ was kind of the challenge that got LBA rolling. After having these writer’s groups for a while and having not shot anything since DV was the latest, Pete and I decided it was time for us to start shooting something again. We just didn’t know what. It was a major switching of gears. I had just spent the past decade writing a trilogy of three hour movies. That’s when Pete found out about the ‘Parallel Lines’ short film competition being put on by Phillips and Ridley Scott and Associates. It was a challenge that really appealed to us. As Ridley Scott fans and as filmmakers looking for a short form project. The film had to be three minutes and everyone had to use the same six lines of dialogue.

We didn’t care about the competition so much. What we wanted was to be cornered into making a 3 minute short. The same time we decide to do that we fly down to L.A. to hang out with Chris Tomera and Terrence Kelsey. On the 1 hour plane ride down we wrote a draft of the script. A completely different film than ‘Coda’. A Science Fiction noir. And we were set to do that one. The only problem was it presented some minor challenges. Special FX and suspended animation being a few of them. And we had fairly simple solutions, but we didn’t have much time or money. That’s when I started thinking about Coda. I wrote it. We read it. We set out on a regimen of shooting days. Adrienne Valentine, who also worked with us at the video store and is in most of our films came on board and we knocked it out in time for the deadline.

You have also worked on some music videos. I am curious as to how a filmmaker correlates their own personal visions with the work of musician (whose song is their particular personal vision) and what are the challenges that go into it?

I’m not sure I’ve done enough to really know too much about it yet. I will always want to hear their vision first. If we gel on the concept I will tell them what I want to bring or suggest taking away. I haven’t faced the challenge of vision collision yet though. The two videos I did for REAL TALK came about very casually. We were friends already and he had been at this music for some time but he had no videos. I ran into him at a party one night and told him he needed a video and I wanted to shoot one. I wanted to keep it simple. I haven’t watched Mtv in almost 20 years, so when it came to Hip Hop music videos I was old school. I wanted to just keep it simple, keep it about him and his message. Allow him to introduce himself. With the second video I mostly just wanted to improve on the previous one. I wanted to keep it about him again but bring much stronger visuals and representation. We didn’t have any budget or anything for those. I was fortunate to have a lot of help and ideas from my friend Babs. Between she, Jesse, and I we composed a series of nice shots.

I would love to do a narrative video and explore other genres of music visually. I want to mix the bag with projects and genres.

Okay, I have to ask you about your extraordinary tribute to The Deer Hunter. Please discuss this as it really is one of the most moving tributes to a film that I have ever seen.

 

Oh, man. Thanks! I really appreciate that and am glad someone likes it as much as I do. Every once and a while I get this editing fever and I’ll be listening to a song and suddenly I start seeing images and moments from either a movie I’m conceiving or a movie I‘ve seen. In this case it was The Deer Hunter. It happened with Klute and Coming Home as well. I was just listening to that Johnny Cash song a lot. And the images were cutting together in my mind while I’m listening to this song. And then repeating and I stop what I’m doing and just cut it together. I had to. I love the film so much. So little is ever said about it beyond the Russian Roulette scene and Vietnam in general. I wanted to try create a tribute that captures what the film as a whole is really about to me. Love, friendship, home, and how unnesecarry and destructive war is beyond the battlefield.

Okay, onto the incredible Tabula Rasa. Tell us about the genesis of the film.

 

It began as a feature. About six or seven years ago I was in the middle of writing this trilogy I’ve been working on for some time. I had this character of Ray Hauk, that felt like he needed his own movie. I had also been researching a lot about the world of debt bondage and sexual slavery in America for a small scene in one of the films. I knew nothing about it at the time. I knew it was very common in many countries, but I had no idea how bad it was here. I questioned it initially because you never hear about. It’s the kind of thing that should be on the front page every day. But the deeper I dug the more I discovered how horribly true it is and how far it reaches. I knew I had to explore something about it more. It was almost impossible to determine what approach to take to the subject because there are so many different facets and factions and I prefer not to be too political or preachy and just approach things from a very human place. I knew I had to start with character as opposed to plot with this particular project. And I started writing this story about a woman in such a position. That had been in this world through her entire twenties and decides to fight her way out or die trying. That became Joanie’s story. It was strange how the two characters came together. Their lives were existing separately in this world of my trilogy outside of it’s central plot. And the characters separate backstories led them to a convergence. It was great because in the back of my mind I had really wanted to tell a story about two minuses that made a plus. Two people who each made a single bad decision at the beginning of their adult life that resulted in the loss of their innocence and sale of their soul. And then being resurrected by each other. The only people they can trust are each other, flaws and all, but even more, the only people who could ever understand them, on a deep level, are each other.
I began writing it with two specific actors in mind. Eventually I realized I would never get them for it and then made another pass at the script, removing the sort of tailored scenes. After many drafts I felt I needed to explore the material live. See other people in the roles. But as far as doing it short form I clearly couldn’t abridge the whole story. I decided to take the first act and rewrite it as a three act short. Focusing on the convergence of their lives and pasts and ending with the forging of their friendship. The first act of the feature script ends almost the same way the short ends. What follows in the feature from that point is a whole other movie almost. About these two dim and distant lights (Joanie and Hauk) drawing nearer and nearer.

Can you tell us a bit about the two stars, Lovelle Liquigan and Peter Heckel?

Well, Lovelle is a Los Angeles based actress. She’s done theater for many years and the occasional short film. We met back in 2006 on the internet. We discovered each other through our mutual love of Zulawski’s L’important C’est D’aimer. And more specifically our love for Romy Schneider. We always wanted to work together and over the years I was fortunate to be able to see brief clips of her performances and shorts she’d been in. She is very driven and passionate about her work. When it came time to do Tabula Rasa I knew she could do it, I had a feeling she would want to, and I knew it would be worth it to fly her up for it. She brought a lot to the project. I am often reluctant to work theater actors because they often want a lot of dialogue and I am not a huge fan of dialogue. I left a lot of dialogue in the script in hopes of workshopping it down with her. When she got here she wanted to cut a lot of the same dialogue I did. It worked out well. She rewrote a line or two and best of all delivered them some times in ways that would surprise me and really elevate the scene.
Pete is the other half of LBA. He, along with Frynrare Fletcher go back to the video store days with me and Terrence. He’s composed all our music up to this point. He’s been there for me as an actor, producer, composer, and brother. And he has his own worlds and stories he’ll be sharing through LBA. La Belle Aurore’s next short will be a Peter Heckel original.

 
What were some of the biggest influences on the film?

 Definitely a lot of 70’s American and International crime films. Klute in particular. Visually, the most prominent influence for the interior scenes was Gordon Willis’ work. As far as embracing darkness and using singular practical lighting. Having been influenced by Noir as well and even some of the Val Lewton stuff, I tend to have as much love for darkness as I do light. Mystery, concealment, and ambiguity are important to me. The delivery of light and information has it’s time and place. Klute even more so influential that there are specific shots from it directly influencing shots in the film. A lot of shots from other films were used to reference a shot. The wide shot of Rilke and Hauk looking out over the city during their meeting is in part inspired by a shot of Peter Cable in his office in Klute. And Joanie and Hauk’s first scene in the bedroom is inspired by Klute as well as an airport shot of Barry and Lena silhouetted against a window in Punch Drunk Love. The film as a story wasn’t really influenced by anything particular though other than the research.

 I know you are planning on turning it into a feature. Can you tell us a bit about that?

It’s a struggle. This is where we do actually need some kind of budget and we’re broke. But thankfully, right now, I’m really just preparing mostly. The short was really part of that preparation. It’s a labour of love. For six years it has lived with me and I am just inching my way along with it right now. I’m looking forward to bigger strides. I’m finishing the rewrite right now. And now that I have explored the material live, I know what I need to do with it. Once the re-write is done we’ll start a search for our feature cast and crew and private investors. Once I have a production team together I won’t be spread so thin. I juggled way too many jobs on the short. We’ve done a lot of location scouting already, but we still have some more. Then sometime next year we’ll launch a crowd funding campaign. We have a lot of work ahead of us. I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve lived with these two characters for years. They are very dear to me and I want to tell their story.

Finally, outside of Tabula Rasa, are there any other career plans you want to share with us?

Well, LBA will keep making an assortment of short films. Terrence and I have a horror/action script we’d love to sell. And aside from the trilogy I have a few other small feature scripts in the works. All in pretty early stages though. Ones a western. Another is a kind of coming of age love story. And a post-apocalyptic thriller. I have a couple spec scripts I want to develop as well. And an Easter Island project I want to try and get a grant for. But I am really itching to do some sci-fi. Too many things. I have always had a list of projects I want to do, but as I get older I find myself looking at it and crossing some stuff off because there simply isn’t enough time left to do it all. It’s coming down to essentials and opportunity. It’s all part of the journey. We’ll see.

Thanks so much John! I love your work, appreciate your time and wish you all best!

You’re welcome! Thank you for having me. I appreciate your interest and support. It means a lot. And as a fan of MOON IN THE GUTTER and all your extended columns, best wishes and good luck to you!!

-Jeremy Richey, John Levy 2013-

Friday, January 25, 2013

Mondo Macabro Announces Five Alain Robbe-Grillet Films

 
The great Mondo Macabro label made a huge announcement yesterday that stands with the most exciting home-video related news in sometime.  Arriving later this year are five of the late Alain Robbe-Grillet's greatest films, Trans-Europe Express, The Man Who Lies, Eden and After, N Takes the Dice (the elusive alternate cut of Eden and After) and Slow Slidings of Pleasure.  While no extras have been announced as of yet, Mondo Macabro's blog has confirmed that these releases have been "painstakingly remastered in HD" and that a "BD or two may be a real possibility"!
I have a written a number of times here how much these films to me and have even included Eden and After and Slow Slidings of Pleasure in my screenshot series.  This news stands along with Distribpix's Henry Paris Collection, Kino-Redemption's Jean Rollin line and Mondo Vision's Zulawski sets as probably the most important archival releases in recent memory. 
Bravo Mondo Macabro!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

All Tomorrow's Parties: A Look at Jill C. Nelson's Golden Goddesses

Film critic Mark Cousin's exhausting 2011 fifteen-part documentary The Story of Film serves as a frustrating reminder that mainstream film studies continue to ignore the valuable alternate history of adult, exploitation and genre cinema, as well as many of film's most brilliant fringe filmmakers.  The 'Story' of film belongs as much to what many would label 'bad' cinema as it does to what most agree on as 'great' cinema and until filmmakers as far ranging as Borowczyk, Findlay, Franco and Metzger are given their proper place along such esteemed directors as Ozu, Sirk, Welles and Spielberg then the accepted history of film is false or, at the very least, incomplete.  
Thankfully there are an increasing number of number of film critics, historians and enthusiasts who are becoming more and more vocal about the history of cinema that mainstream film authorities have been spent decades attempting to wipe out.  Author Jill C. Nelson's astonishing Golden Goddesses:  25 Legendary Women of Classic Erotic Cinema 1968-1985 is one of the best in depth studies yet that delves into one of the most notoriously ignored genres in all of cinema and it stands as one of the most important books dealing with an 'alternate' history of film since Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohill's Immoral Tales and Tim Lucas' Mario Bava:  All the Colors of the Dark.  
An epic near 1,000 page book, Golden Goddesses is made up of 25 fascinating, and lengthy, interviews with some of adult and exploitation cinema's greatest actresses.  Beginnning with Ann Perry and ending with Nina Hartley, Nelson offers up portraits of two dozen of the bravest and most intriguing figures in film history that you may, or may not, be overly familiar with.  Golden Goddesses stands in sharp contrast to the endless number of books dealing with recycled information on the same film icons who get covered year after year...Nelson's book is a shockingly new and refreshing work and remains a compulsive read from the first page to the last.  
Golden Goddesses is a noteworthy book due to many factors with perhaps the first being Nelson's incredibly refreshing non-judgmental stand and writing style.  Golden Goddesses isn't presented with the same 'cautionary tale' stand style as most books dealing with adult cinema.  Nelson shows a clear care and love for these talented artists and her goal of just letting them tell their stories (while Nelson puts their tales and work into historical perspective) is inspiring.  Golden Goddesses offers up a startling portrait of twenty-five strong women all with very different stories to tell...some triumphant, some sad but all unique and very, very real.  
While Golden Goddesses operates as a biography on the actors Nelson gathered together, it also operates as the history of this ignored genre film history so greatly deserved and I salute Nelson for her mini-reviews of the film's that come up in discussion throughout the book.  While most authors would have been content in  skirting the films (bad and good) that these actresses appeared in, Nelson understands that one of the most important aspects of each one of these women's lives are indeed the cinematic legacy they left.  
While each chapter of Golden Goddesses stand on their own as truly valuable works, there are definite highlights throughout the book.  Nelson' chat with Georgina Spelvin is quite an eye-opening look at an incredible life that includes cameos by everyone from The Rat Pack to Bob Fosse and the talk with filmmaker Roberta Findlay is, simply put, one of the most important looks at an important cult-filmmaker we have ever had.  Personal favorites include the section on the glorious free-thinking flower-child Serena, actress turned feminist-filmmaker Candida Royalle and the astonishing Veronica Hart, whose razor-sharp wit and intelligence comes through on every page.  Golden Goddesses also includes one of the final interviews conducted with the legendary Marilyn Chambers and what a bittersweet read it is.  
While there are tales (Rhonda Jo Petty, Sharon Mitchell, Kelly Nichols and Amber Lynn's in particular) that detail many of the struggles with abuse and addiction that is so often aligned with the history of adult film the main attitudes that leaps off the pages of Golden Goddesses are defiance, independence, originality and strength.  These twenty-five artists are ultimately not anyone's victims...they remain, for the most part, wonderfully rebellious free-spirits who LIVED a life and Jill C. Nelson has served them up a fitting and powerful tribute with Golden Goddesses


For more information of Golden Goddesses, please visit the book's official blog and Facebook page.   You can also visit the official page of Jill's first incredible book (a co-written work on the life and career of John Holmes) and my own interview with Jill can be read here.  Golden Goddesses can be ordered via its publisher BearManor, at Amazon or any other major bookseller of your choosing.  

-Jeremy Richey, 2013-

Monday, January 14, 2013

31 Performances Ripe for Rediscovery (1) Richard Pryor in BLUE COLLAR (1978)

"Man, where am I going to get that kind of money?  Shit, you're talkin' about, 'bout my life...I take home two-ten a week man, goddamn. I gotta pay for the lights, gas, clothes, food... every fuckin' thing, man. I'm left with about thirty bucks after all the fuckin' bills are paid. Gimme a break, will ya mister?"


In Leonard Schrader's novelization of Blue Collar, based on the searing script he wrote with his brother Paul, the character of Zeke Brown is introduced, and described, with this paragraph:

"Zeke Brown was a lightening bolt.  Thirty-one, lanky and sly, he was an urban-bred black who didn't know where he would strike next.  His quick eyes never missed a trick.  Though his devilish smile promised madcap excitement, his wiry body emitted a restless energy in search of power.  He wanted to rip off the whole system for anything possible, or at least his fair share.  But he never did because he was everybody's scapegoat:  an assembly worker with a wife and five kids."


Richard Pryor was nearing his fortieth birthday when he appeared as Zeke Brown in screenwriter Paul Schrader's directorial debut Blue Collar and he was already one of the most famous performers in the world.  Through a series of dazzling albums, television performances, concerts and film-roles, Pryor had established himself as one of the most trailblazing and visionary comedians, and popular cultural figures, of the post-war era...an artist and man as fearless as he was funny, angry as he was witty and as poetic as he was vulgar.  Richard Pryor was at his absolute peak when Schrader took the bold move of casting him in the most overtly dramatic role of his career and it is one of the great tragedies of his career, and life, that more people didn't turn out for what would turn out to be one of the most towering performances of the seventies in what was one of the decade's greatest films.  



One of the books I had constantly by my side as a teenager in the eighties was Schrader on Schrader, a volume that is still among my favorite film books.  Glancing at the chapter on Blue Collar recently, I noticed I had scribbled on one of the pages these words, "Blue Collar as good as Taxi Driver" and all these years later I still feel that way.  Schrader's film might not be the cinematic equal to the monumental work he would pen for Scorsese but Blue Collar meant as much to me back in the day and as time has gone by, and life has caught up, it God's lonely men of Blue Collar that I relate to more than Travis Bickle.  Blue Collar is a part of me and it says as much to me about life in this country as any other American film I have ever seen.  Schrader's film is shockingly relevant and I have never seen a performance that so clearly essays the frustration, and justified anger, of the working man more than Richard Pryor's work as Zeke in this film.  It's a performance of staggering authority and weight...funny, caustic, enraged and, ultimately  tragic.  It's as though Pryor took the best of one of his most realistic comedic routines and transformed it into a portrait of a man destined to be run-over, forgotten, and then sold to the system he so hates.  



The shooting of Blue Collar was fuelled with drama from fist-fights and ego-clashes between Pryor and his co-stars (Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto) to constant screaming matches in-between takes.  Schrader would describe it as, "introducing three bulls into a china shop and asking them to get along...right after you would say 'cut' a fight would break out."  The volcanic and troubled Pryor would prove to be Schrader's most difficult challenge.  The opposite of the trained Keitel, Pryor would be magic in the first several takes and then would become bored and start improvising in the later ones.  Schrader said that, "the first (take) would be good, the second would be really good, the third would be really terrific and the fourth would probably start to fall off."  
I have always suspected that Blue Collar was made up of those third takes.  


Paul Schrader would describe Blue Collar as being a film about, 'the politics of resentment and claustrophobia, the feeling of being manipulated and not in control of your life."  Richard Pryor was the classic example of a man who triumphed over the manipulation he was constantly pressured by and the claustrophobia of a system that had been set up for him to fail.  Pryor finally lost his way in a mirror of his own self-doubt and inner demons but he was ultimately a heroic figure who did that very rare things most great artists strive for but fail to really do...he changed people, he changed minds and in works like Blue Collar and Richard Pryor: Live in Concert he told us truths about ourselves that we might have been afraid to face otherwise.  


Despite some critical acclaim, Blue Collar failed to find an audience back in 1978 and it has slipped in and out of print on home video since its initial release.  Pryor's jaw-dropping performance as Zeke Brown should have led him to greater and greater roles but he seemed to begin to self-sabotage shortly after.    
The fact that such a special and unique talent would find himself in something like The Toy less than five years after Blue Collar's release is absolutely heartbreaking.  Only Some Kind of Hero (1982) and Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986) contain traces of the dramatic fire Richard Pryor possessed under the laughter...and his stand-up films, which all showed his genius.  
There was disappointment, there was heartbreak, there was tragedy but when I think about Richard Pryor all I think of is greatness and the knowledge that I wouldn't be worth a damn if I hadn't discovered his work when I was a young man filled with a rage that needed challenging and a heart that needed direction.  

-Jeremy Richey, 2013-


"They pit the lifers against the new boy and the young against the old. The black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place..."
-Yaphet Kotto with the closing lines of Blue Collar-







Friday, January 11, 2013

31 Performances Ripe for Rediscovery (2) Melora Walters in MAGNOLIA (1999)

"Now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing me again?"


Paul Thomas Anderson's sprawling Magnolia contains career best performances from a number of multi-award winning performers, superstars and legendary actors but the absolute best performance in the film is given by a virtually unknown actress who was probably best known upon the film's releases in 1999 for a Seinfeld episode she had appeared in several years earlier.  


Born in Saudi Arabia, raised mostly in Holland, Melora Walters was nearing her fortieth birthday when she shot Magnolia, the third film she would make for Paul Thomas Anderson.  Her performance, as the abuse survivor Claudia Wilson Gator, in Magnolia remains one of the most bravest and devastating I have ever seen.  While Walters had been terrific in Anderson's Boogie Nights, there was really nothing in her filmography that could have suggested just how unbelievably great she could be...but she really is beyond great in Magnolia.  It's one of those rare performances that has the ability to change a viewer and just thinking about her work in the film chokes me up.  


Melora Walters deserved every acting award and kudo imaginable for Magnolia but her work in the film was overshadowed by her more famous cast members.  Anderson's film should have led to more great roles for the talented Walters but, sadly, it wasn't meant to be and her work since has mostly been in television with sporadic small film roles appearing in between (like Cold Mountain).  In 2011 Melora released a book of poetry entitled Sonnets and Failures.  Intriguingly her voice was used earlier this year in Anderson's The Master, a fact that has many of us hoping that the two might eventually work together.   


Even if Melora Walters is never again granted a role as rich and rewarding as Claudia in Magnolia, she will always have this haunting final moment...a glorious closing shot that has the kind of impact most of our most legendary actors spend a lifetime searching for.



-Jeremy Richey, 2013-

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

31 Performances Ripe for Rediscovery (3) Nastassja Kinski in PARIS, TEXAS (WITH A GUEST CONTRIBUTION FROM STACEY MARK)

"I used to make long speeches to you after you left. I used to talk to you all the time, even though I was alone. I walked around for months talking to you. Now I don't know what to say. It was easier when I just imagined you. I even imagined you talking back to me. We'd have long conversations, the two of us. It was almost like you were there. I could hear you, I could see you, smell you. I could hear your voice. Sometimes your voice would wake me up. It would wake me up in the middle of the night, just like you were in the room with me. Then... it slowly faded. I couldn't picture you anymore. I tried to talk out loud to you like I used to, but there was nothing there. I couldn't hear you. Then... I just gave it up. Everything stopped. You just... disappeared. And now I'm working here. I hear your voice all the time. Every man has your voice..."


I have written so much on the career and life of Nastassja Kinski in the past six years that I am not sure what more I can say with this little tribute.  Simply put, Kinski's work in Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas is my favorite performance of all-time. 


The only reason's Kinski's work as Jane isn't number one on this list is due to the fact that, unlike most on this roles on this countdown, her work has garnered a considerable cult-following.  Kinski's work in this film has influenced a countless number of artists since...in film, music, fashion and photography.

 

When thinking on Kinski in Paris, Texas the moment that always comes to my mind first is the astonishing close-up that Wenders' captures of her during Harry Dean Stanton's moving monologue towards the film's shattering conclusion.  This close-up, which lasts for several minutes without a cut is my favorite cinematic moment ever...it represents cinema at its purest and Kinski shows herself as an artist of staggering composure, grace and skill.  It's the kind of monumental moment most 'great' actors strive for throughout their entire career but few ever reach.


Kinski's presence looms so large over all of Paris, Texas that it is hard to believe how relatively small her part in the film actually is.  Wenders understood that Jane had to be played by someone so electrifying that just a photograph of her would make us understand Stanton's obsessive and epic journey.  


It is fitting that Nastassja Kinski had her greatest screen moment for Wim Wenders.  It was after all Wenders who had discovered her in the mid-seventies and given Kinski her first role, in the brilliant Wrong Move.  The two would reunite again in the nineties for the undervalued Faraway So Close.  Listening to Wender's commentary on the Paris, Texas DVD one can hear how important the collaborations were to both artists.


While the celebrated close-up of Kinski is her most iconic scene in Paris, Texas there are many other smaller moments which are just as resonate and special including this one:


and especially this one:


Nastassja Kinski's work in Paris, Texas has influenced and haunted many notable artists including Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith (both called Paris, Texas their favorite film before their tragic passings).  The film and Kinski also inspired one of my favorite photographers, the fabulous Stacey Mark, who, along with model Hailey Gates, paid special tribute to the film in the July/August 2011 edition of Jalouse magazine.


Stacey Mark has been one of my favorite photographers for several years now and we struck up an online friendship, which I greatly value, a couple of years back.  Stacey's work is absolutely mesmerizing and has graced the pages of Nylon (she worked as their photo director for a time), Purple, Jacques, Lula and many many other publications.  She has photographed everyone from Emily Blunt to Kate Bosworth and her stunning shots of Asia Argento have already become the stuff of legend.  Outside of being one of America's most gifted young artists, Stacey is a really special person and I am so honored that she agreed to stop by here and share her memories of her Paris, Texas inspired Jalouse photo shoot.  After reading, please pay a visit to Stacey's official site, follow her at Tumblr and like her page on Facebook.  
All right, enough of my rambling...let's here from the awesome Stacey Mark, one of the most inspiring people I know (and a fellow Roxy Music devotee to boot!).

-Jeremy Richey, 2013-



When Jalouse Magazine proposed I shoot a "Paris, Texas" inspired fashion story, I immediately said "no." The image of Nastassja Kinski in that fuzzy pink sweater behind the reflective glass of her peep show room is often imitated but never duplicated. Many photographers have tried and most have failed. Not only was I turned off to the idea of being the one of many artists to attempt this intimidating feat, the fact that the magazine wanted me to create 12 pages based on one iconic image seemed impossible.



The overall theme of the issue was to cast theater student and international girl of mystery Hailey Gates as the lead in all of her favorite films. When I researched Hailey, I learned that not only is her father the television director Tucker Gates, her grandmother is Joan Tewkesbury. Tewkesbury wrote two of Robert Altmans most respected films, Nashville and Thieves Like Us. With heritage like that, who am I to stand in the way of her cinematic dreams? Hailey as Kinski in a 12 page Kinski in 'Paris, Texas' it is.



I enlisted some of the best artists I know to recreate Kinski's butter blond bob to hide Hailey's waist length brown hair, her subtle yet seductive makeup and a wardrobe stylist to hunt down that fuzzy sweater. I decided to have the entire shoot take place in the imaginary room behind the glass. Budget concerns forced me to turn my Brooklyn apartment into a makeshift Texan peep show. 



Fast forward to the recreation of that scene. That scene was haunting me the entire shoot and I had decided to do it at the very end of the day as the very last shot. The wardrobe stylist found a replica of that sweater, the hair stylist had recreated that hair and it was up to me to recreate that scene. We created a background of curtains based on the colors of her the scene, and set the lights around Hailey to both light her from the front with a warm spotlight as well as a light behind her to create a backlit glow. Having the bright lights almost blind her had the same effect as the one way mirror: I could see her but she could barely see me. The apartment was dark except for the light as an iphone quitely repeated the familiar creepy sound of the film's score. It was the first time all day that everyone was silent...hushed. There are few moments where you "experience" a photo, and this was one of those moments. Hailey looked at the lens with longing, the heat and brightness of the lights forced tears down her cheeks. This was, for me and the rest of the crew, our iconic moment.

-Stacey Mark, 2013-

Thanks again to Stacey for submitting this fascinating piece!  After visiting her sites please also check out the official page of the much anticipated film The Turning, which Stacey appears in (and graces the poster of, as seen here):




Sunday, January 6, 2013

31 Performances Ripe for Rediscovery (4) Oliver Reed in I'LL NEVER FORGET WHAT'S'IS NAME (1967)

"This man is a success. 
He has a wife, two mistresses an alfa romeo and one day he decided to get rid of them all."


For many younger film fans the name Oliver Reed will probably call to mind the roaring aging boozer who would show up sloshed on television talk shows, virtually creating the 'viral' video long before the internet.  While he is perhaps among the most 'famous' people on my list I feel like the late Reed is one of the major actors in need of rediscovery, due to the public persona that took over the artist by the end of his life, and for the fact that so many of his greatest films are unavailable on disc.  It's especially tragic that his work in the sixties with director Michael Winner are so relatively unknown here in the states, as it was such an important and fruitful collaboration.  Folks who only know of the older Oliver Reed might be shocked by just how beautiful, how commanding, how touching and just how talented he was in his prime.  Take for example his monumental work as advertising Andrew Quint in Winner's extraordinary 1967 feature I'll Never Forget What's'isname, one of the best films of the sound-era and one of the most prophetic works of art ever created.


I feel unbelievably close to the frustrated Andrew Quint, a man so hungry to escape life's modern dance but who's ultimately trapped by the pleasures he is so accustomed to.  As Quint, Oliver Reed is simply magnificent.  His performance is one of the most moving and resonate I have ever seen.  It's one of those rare performances, like Gene Hackman  in Night Moves or Mickey Rourke in The Pope of Greenwich Village, that haunts me on a near daily basis.  When one of life's many walls gets put up I always flash on the opening image of Reed carrying an Ax through the busy London Streets to destroy the office desk he has been held prisoner by and I think 'if only'...


I'll Never Forget What's'isname is also a brutal reminder to just how amazing a leading man Oliver Reed was and his scenes with the tragic Carol White (who will appear on my next 'Ripe for Rediscovery' list I do) are exquisitely touching and seductive.  Reed was one of cinema's great poets and I think his work as Andrew Quint is his finest screen performance, even better than his savage turn in Ken Russell's The Devils a few years later.



We lost a true champion in 1999 when we lost Oliver Reed and we lost one of our truly great actors.  He was bigger than the Oscar he was never even nominated for throughout his dazzling career.  Unlike some of his greatest films, I'll Never Forget What's'isname isn't impossible to see in this country as copies of the out of print Anchor Bay DVD (which features an extraordinary Winner commentary) can still be found.  Seek it out anyway you can find it...it really is one of the very best films I have ever seen and Reed's performance should be legendary.
 
-Jeremy Richey, 2013-




Friday, January 4, 2013

31 Performances Ripe for Rediscovery (5) Jennifer Jason Leigh in GEORGIA (WITH A GUEST CONTRIBUTION FROM J.D. LAFRANCE)

"Poor little girl,
ran away for good.
I try to explain why she won't say a thing..
Sad, sad thing,
I'm so far away now.
How can I say why she won't talk at all?
She holds a deck of cards.
She wants to be alone.
'I've been very ill, I've tried waking up.
Now I want to be alone."
-John Doe, Exene Cervenka, "Poor Girl", 1983-


It happened around 1991, around the time of Rush, when Jennifer Jason Leigh went from being one of America's most talented young actors and became some kind of supernatural force of nature...the likes of which cinema only sees every other decade or so.  For a five year period or so Leigh delivered a series of performances that rivaled any seen in American film history from Brando in the fifties to De Niro and Pacino in the seventies to Rourke in the eighties.  Not all the films were great but when Leigh was given a suitable role in this period the results were electrifying and unforgettable.


There were several performances Jennifer Jason Leigh has given in her now four decade career that I could have chosen for this series.  If I had to pick her absolute greatest role I would say that few actors in cinema have ever delivered a performance as truly touched by genius as her work in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) but I had to go for her work in the crushing Georgia (1995), not only for personal reasons but because the thing that blows me away so much about her work as the heartbreaking Sadie Flood is that it is a creation that comes entirely from the heart and soul of Jennifer Jason Leigh, whereas she had a real-life basis with Dorothy Parker.  
I've never seen anything quite like Jennifer Jason Leigh in Georgia.  Her work is an unbelievably original and unique creation.  It's as though she was able to take all of those X albums we listened to in the eighties and transform them into this performance...all those haunted, lonely and strung-out characters in those songs (how fitting that John Doe shares the screen with her here) come to life in Leigh's performance in Georgia and it is spellbinding to watch.  It's a crushing performance to watch as well...if Bridget Fonda represents the wonderful vibrancy of my twenties, then Leigh is my dark place.  Memories that are hard but necessary.  


I knew that the great J.D. Lafrance, who runs the always unstoppable Radiator Heaven, admired Jennifer Jason Leigh as much as I do so I was thrilled when he agreed to write me up a piece for this series.  Thanks so much to J.D. for this wonderful piece and VIVA Jennifer Jason Leigh!
-Jeremy Richey, 2012-

J.D. Lafrance on Jennifer Jason Leigh in Georgia, written for Moon in the Gutter in 2012.


Georgia was a very personal, passion project for actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose mother, Barbara Turner, produced the film and wrote the screenplay. Georgia depicts the tempestuous relationship between two sisters, both of whom are singers with Leigh playing Sadie, the younger, less talented one, and Mare Winningham playing the older, more successful one. The film is rich with characterization as it explores the complex relationship between two siblings. Leigh delivers a truly fearless performance as she actually sings in the film, unafraid to play someone who makes up what she lacks for in talent with passion. 


At one point, she sings a cover of Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue” in a raspy whisper that is mesmerizing to watch and then sings backup for a band terribly, screeching her way through a song. It really takes a lot of guts to put yourself out there like Leigh does, not just in the music scenes but also off-stage in the way she relates (or doesn’t) to those around her. As always, the actress fully inhabits the role and it starts with her look, adopting raccoon-eye makeup and a perpetually disheveled appearance that represents her messy life.


Leigh’s gutsy performance culminates in an intense performance of Van Morrison’s “Take Me Back” that seems to go on forever (in a good way) as we see Sadie at her most vulnerable. This sequence encapsulates her character perfectly – all ambition and passion with no talent. She tries so hard that your heart really goes out to her despite being a painfully awful singer. It is this scene that really divided critics and fans of Leigh but I’ve always found it powerful and real with a rawness that is rare. 


While Georgia belongs to Leigh, she is a gracious performer, allowing others to take center stage while she supports them. Sadie is just one of those people that eventually rubs everyone the wrong way whether it be her sister, her manager or her husband. She is one of the many damaged characters Leigh has excelled at playing over the years and perhaps the most fascinating. She runs the emotional spectrum in a performance that is among her very best. By the end of the film you really feel like you’ve gone on a journey with Sadie and seen her through ups and downs. The film ends very much as it began with each sister living their own very different life, leaving us to wonder what might happen to Sadie as she continues to pursue her dreams.



Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy New Year!


Happy New Year everyone!  I hope all reading here had a great 2012 and that 2013 turns out even better.  Thanks for the continuing support here and at my Jean Rollin and Sylvia Kristel blogs.  New posts are coming at both my Rollin and Kristel blogs, for those interested, and I will be finishing my 31 Performances Ripe for Rediscovery list here at Moon in the Gutter (my apologies for falling a few days behind).  Very warm wishes to you all and I leave you with this personal new year resolution as well as my final first-time viewings list of 2012. 




First-Time Viewings (November and December 2012)


  • Brian Eno: The Man Who Fell to Earth ****1/2
  • Cat Run ***
  • Demon Rage **
  • Grizzly Redux **
  • Madhouse (1974) **
  • Olga's Girls ***
  • Scusi, facciamo l'amore? ***
  • Sgt. Bilko ***
  • She Freak ***
  • Silent Scream ***
  • Square Times (Short) ****
  • The Audition (Short) *****
  • The Honeymoon (Short) ****
  • The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) ****
  • The Innkeepers *
  • The Liberation of Cherry Jankowski ***
  • The Touch of Her Flesh ****1/2

2012 Films


  • 21 Jump Street ***1/2
  • Anna Karenina ****
  • Argo ****1/2
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild ****
  • Casa di me Padre ***
  • Contraband ***1/2
  • Damsels in Distress ****1/2
  • Django Unchained ****1/2
  • Five-Year Engagement **1/2
  • Frames ****
  • Haywire ****1/2
  • Lawless ***1/2
  • Les Miserables ***
  • Magic Mike ****1/2
  • Moonrise Kingdom *****
  • Prometheus ****1/2
  • Red Dawn ***
  • Resident Evil: Retribution ****
  • Ruby Sparks ****1/2
  • Savages ***
  • Skyfall ****
  • Snow White and the Huntsman ***1/2
  • Ted ****1/2
  • That's My Boy 1/2*
  • The Avengers ***1/2
  • The Cabin in the Woods ***1/2
  • The Dark Knight Rises ****
  • The Devil Inside **
  • The Girl ***1/2
  • The Hunger Games ***
  • The Master ****1/2
  • The Tall Man ****
  • The Woman in Black ****
  • Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 ****
-Jeremy Richey-