FILMS GONE WILD – HOW SERIOUSLY DO YOU TAKE YOUR MOVIES?

This column has been a long time coming. Actually, posting a new column has been a long time coming but me weighing in on this subject has been gestating for almost that entire time as well.

How seriously do you take your movies? I first began mulling this philosophical and existential thought for those of us that really film. Some, like myself are fortunate enough to have made a career within the film and entertainment community but there are many, many others from many different and varied walks of life that love their movies and sometimes even “live” through them no less (and likely even more so) than I do.

I have had a few anecdotal experiences over the last few months that all touch on this subject which I will describe and then hopefully launch the readers of this column into their own thoughts and debate on the subject:

#1 THE GUATEMALAN HANDSHAKE – Is it good or not?
I first thought about this after watching and listening to a conversation between two friends of mine at a good-bye party thrown for my wife and I prior to leaving L.A. for New York (and my new job at the Film Society of Lincoln Center). During the party, my friend Mark Woodvine, a literary agent, asked Robert Koehler, longtime Daily Variety film critic, film festival programmer and founding member of the FESTWORKS film fest consultancy firm, if he was aware of a short film directed by Todd Rohal which starred Danny McBride as a gonzo version of Koehler in reaction to Koehler’s, uhmm…not so positive review of Rohal’s THE GUATEMALAN HANDSHAKE. Now, I knew Mark had wanted to find out the answer to this question for sometime now since he knew that Robert and I were friends and I always forgot to ask myself. As it turned out, Robert was not aware of the “homage” and an entertaining discussion ensued. But the best part of the conversation for me was this exchange (paraphrased from memory):

MARK: So, you know of Todd Rohal, who directed THE GUATEMALAN HANDSHAKE, which you gave a really bad review to?

ROBERT: Oh, yes. Terrible movie.

MARK: Well, it isn’t actually.

ROBERT: Oh, yes it is.

MARK: No, it’s not.

ROBERT: Yes.

And then the conversation moved on to details of McBride’s Koehler impression. But both guys stood firm in their assessment. No one was budging. It wasn’t awkward or heated, mind you, just a conversation. But they were serious about their Pro-GUATEMALAN HANDSHAKE, Anti-GUATEMALAN HANDSHAKE positions. They might have been an inch away from a classic Saturday Night Live “Mark, you ignorant slut” declarative, thus was the commitment and conviction on both sides.

#2 PARIAH – Excellent or just very good?
A few days after arriving back in the offices at FSLC following a whirlwind Sundance Film Festival trip, I was speaking to one of the programmers about the lineup of films for the upcoming New Directors/New Films festival, a few of which I had managed to see. We were discussing the films that had played at Sundance and would also be playing at ND/NF and the prospects for press interest in them.

During that conversation, I mentioned that I had seen PARIAH at Sundance and was thrilled that it would be at ND/NF because it had already received great buzz, would be relatively easy to garner press interest for it, and I genuinely thought it was an excellent film.

To which the programmer, “corrected” me stating it was very good as if they were delivering the scorecard for a stingy Russian judge during an Olympic ice skating competition.

I thought it was excellent, I assured the programmer.

“Very good,” they replied firmly.

“I’ll give it an excellent” was my equally firm response. Then they kind of chuckled and said something along the lines of “well, that’s why you do (publicist) what you do and I do what I do (programmer)”.

Ouch. And this was over the difference between “excellent” and “very good”. Don’t get me wrong, the button was meant to be funny. But there was plenty of serious in there, too.

#3 HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN – Show some damn respect to the altar of film!
Another film I had caught at Sundance that made its way quickly to the Walter Reade was HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN. I was excited about seeing the film as I was a huge fan of Jason Eisener’s short film TREEVENGE, which took a look at the Christmas tradition of chopping down trees and decorating them in our homes from the trees’ point of view. In fact, that movie is now a holiday staple for my wife and I and we watch it alongside IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, THE BISHOP’S WIFE, and the various Mad TV parodies of “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer”. So, I was all geared up to see HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN at Sundance and was satisfied that it delivered the gory goods one would hope for and expect from the makers of TREEVENGE.

However, the screening I saw also included an introduction by Eisener of the “Hope you’re ready to par-tay!” and “We’re gonna burn this place down!” variety.
But that’s just because it was a Sundance midnight movie, right? You tailor the intro for the crowd, yes? Well, not exactly. Because Eisener not only did a similar intro for the film at the Walter Reade (where it screened as part of the Film Comment Selects festival), he added the showman’s touch of running around the stage with a bag over his head which had previously held promo “Hobo” stocking caps that he had thrown out to the enthusiastic crowd.

Bag over his head. At the Walter Reade. At Lincoln Center.

Now, to be fair, that actually was a proper intro for this film. Meaning, that it’s not an auteur’s vision of existential beauty, it’s not a devastating think-piece, it’s not a witty comedy of manners. No, it’s a bloody, gory, silly-ass neon 80s trash-style movie about a hobo hell-bent with a shotgun. Now, whenever I have a director introduce a movie by throwing some metal headbanger’s goat’s horns out to the crowd, exhort the audience to get their drink on, and egg them on to generally prepare to “rip this place apart!” I know not to assume I’m about to view the work of the next Sturges, Spielberg or Soderbergh, for that matter.

Which is fine. Truth in advertising. But I had a friend at this screening, another young filmmaker that was excited to see the film, and he was not just put off by Eisener’s display, he was mad. Through his eyes, my friend saw a filmmaker squandering the privilege of having his film presented at one of the most celebrated true movie lover theaters in the entire world. He had seen Robert Benton, Darren Aronofsky, Peter Weir, etc. speak about their films on that very stage in just the previous couple of weeks and now this young dumbass (his words) was strutting around with a wrinkled paper bag over his head.

One guy was serious. The other was not. At least to his specifications. Which of course, made the first guy even MORE serious. I’m the last guy to point fingers at someone putting on a show or bringing a little Barnum and Bailey into the big movie tent, but I understood his uhmmm…consternation. Because I still have the awe of filmmaking as an art within me. Let’s face it, look at where I am now. I actually put considerable thought into it as I differentiate between what I label a “film” versus what I decree is a “movie”. And even though I am filled with giddiness as I watch a director like Takashi Miike play the drums on the Sushi Typhoon promo reel, that is still a filmmaking artist that makes films – not movies.

#4 Bertrand Tavernier LOVES him some Andre De Toth!
As little punk sprite Avril Lavigne would chirp, “Why do you have to make things so complicated?”

For me, one of the very best things about the recently concluded Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival was a conversation on film between FSLC’s Program Director Richard Pena and French film Renaissance man, Bertrand Tavernier. Titled “The Cinema Inside Me,” the presentation included clips from some of Tavernier’s favorite films and led the two into a discussion of various filmmakers that Tavernier found inspirational and influential through the years. It was like a mini-film class and I joined with everyone else that filled the house as we just wallowed in the primer to some and informed and flavorful review to others. A thorough discussion of Michael Powell was not unexpected, although the use of a clip from A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH (or as we in the U.S. know it, STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN) highlighted one of the Powell films not already in my DVD library. But then Tavernier started talking about Andre De Toth and his underrated contributions to film. We watched Burl Ives in a scene from THE DAY OF THE OUTLAW and I was forced to reconsider my personal take on De Toth.

Here’s where it gets complicated. You see, when I first came to L.A. (or Hollywood, if you really have to go there), I was an actor. And I did a series of really bad, embarrassing…movies (please re-read difference between “films” and “movies” above). That was, until they all came out around the same time and all sucked to high heaven and in my discouragement I decided to get a “real job.” Anyway, after we were near completion on the last of my string of not-even-B-movie wonders, a film titled TERROR NIGHT, the producer made the acquaintance of Andre De Toth. The director was not only at death’s door, but he looked it as well. A patch over one eye, a neck brace and cane holding his head and body upright, he had talked his way into taking over the film. So, all the actors were called in to the production office where we met De Toth one by one and were given brand new pages to reshoot the end of the movie.

I’ll try to be concise here: Basically, the rewritten pages tried to rewrite the entire film by not just changing the last 15 minutes or so, but by changing each of the main characters as well – their motivations, how they behaved, damn near how they looked. It was remarkable in its both its audaciousness and its wrongheadedness. And, as a very young and earnest actor fresh out of school and on a run of doing four films more or less consecutively in a year’s time, I had no tolerance at all for that kind of crap. And I said so. And not that I had any allusions as to the quality of the film, but this was heaping ridiculous on to bad. In short, that didn’t go over well. He had worked with Randolph Scott, he had done this film and that film and all of the actors in this little movie were “stiff as squirrels” (yes, that’s a direct quote), but he would make us “genius” (and yes, that’s the word he used).

I said no. And after calmly asking the other people in the office who this guy was and why he was listing his credits to me, while he ranted and screamed at me, I finally refused to play and I walked. Several months later, the film had a cast and crew screening and it was a convoluted sight to behold. Amusing now, and to be honest, pretty damn funny then too. More than a decade later, the film was released on DVD under the title BLOODY MOVIE and De Toth was not credited, which is kind of too bad as it would have served as a very bizarre finale to his career. So for several years, De Toth was the subject of a very funny and weird story I often retold and an object of my ridicule. Until now. Tavernier put him in an entirely different context and attention demanded to be paid.

The next day, I was sharing a cab with Tavernier following a photo shoot and talked to him about the Cinema Inside Me conversation with Pena and told him that I had already ordered my copies of STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN and THE DAY OF THE OUTLAW thanks to him. His first response was to scold me for using the STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN title and to insist that I make sure the version I had ordered was actually was the U.K.’s A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH version of the film (which was apparently 20 minutes longer). He was serious about this and described Powell’s anger over the decision to release the film with those cuts and that title here. I then expressed surprise at his feelings about De Toth’s work and he immediately launched into suggestions of other films of his I should seek out, etc. In fact, he was so energized by the thought and subject that had I any inclination at all to recount my personal experience with De Toth (which I honestly did not), I would have quickly buried them. Because he was a serious fan.

Which brings us to today. As I write this, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA are soon to begin the 40th edition of New Directors/New Films. At the same time, FSLC will begin a series of weekday screenings of classic foreign films from the Janus catalogue (including CRIES AND WHISPERS, THE FIREMAN’S BALL, IVAN THE TERRIBLE PARTS 1&2, RULES OF THE GAME, THE SEVENTH SEAL, SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER, etc.). And whether it’s to see a film by a filmmaker you likely have never heard of (hence the “new” in the title of that festival), or to stop by during an afternoon to catch a subtitled classic in black and white that was made years and years ago, I, along with my fellow PR teammates here at Film Society have to figure out ways to introduce people to these films and their filmmakers, or remind them of how amazing it is to experience the work of Bergman, Eisenstein, Renoir, Truffaut, etc. on the big screen in a great theater.

It’s not all that easy sometimes, to make these films accessible and build some kind of bridge to a public that is getting the heavy duty sales pitch from the big studios to watch movies with stoner aliens and Easter bunnies that crap jelly beans. But we are serious about getting people here because we love these films. The reason I pulled up stakes and moved across the country to work for the Film Society of Lincoln Center is the same reason people dig their heels in about the difference between a good movie and a great film. It’s the same reason friendships are strained over the debate between slow zombies and fast zombies. It’s why a filmmaker friend of mine wanted to throw some idiot from California off the balcony at the Paramount in Austin, because they were bitching about a theater we consider to be a movie palace.

Because, whether you call them films or movies, we are serious. So, the question is – how serious are you?




Posted on March 17, 2011 in Features, Films Gone Wild by
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