Friday, September 25, 2020

Balls: The Criterion Collection Release of Town Bloody Hall (1979)

“It was a trivializing, peripheral, silly sort of event, in the best uptown tradition,” Germaine Greer said in 2004 of the panel discussion — or public forum, or celebrity sideshow, or one-off improvised sitcom episode — that was staged by the Theatre of Ideas at New York’s Town Hall on April 30, 1971, under the banner “A Dialogue on Women’s Liberation.” In one respect at least, she wasn’t wrong: the event, which put Greer onstage with three other women representing a range of feminisms, plus Norman Mailer, was very much a production of and for the Manhattan intellectual elite. But the evening was also what it promised to be, a theater of ideas — ideas held up, tossed down, kicked about, laughed at, shouted over, defended, derided. It was raucous and suspenseful and dirty and funny and unsettling, and everything else we’d want theater to be.

It’s all there in Town Bloody Hall, which D.A. Pennebaker (along with two other cameramen) filmed on the night, and which Pennebaker’s creative partner and wife, Chris Hegedus, edited into shape in 1979. The film has now been restored and given its first DVD release by the Criterion Collection, with stellar extras including a new interview with Hegedus; years-later interviews with Greer and Mailer; a partial reunion panel convened in 2004; audio commentary from Hegedus and Greer; and the complete Dick Cavett Show of December 1, 1971, in which Mailer, his brow darkened by drink and professional resentment, took a combative posture toward guests Gore Vidal and Janet Flanner, Cavett, and finally the audience. The Criterion release is a nifty package, and the main attraction still packs a punch. Whatever evasions are attributable to the event or its participants, as a film and as a document Town Bloody Hall is nothing less than thrilling for anyone who cares about the people, the issues, or the history. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Ambience of Mind: Music and Meditation

Tony Scott's Music for Zen Meditation. (Verve Records, 1964)


“We ought to listen to music or sit and practice breathing at the beginning of every meeting or discussion.” – Thich Nhat Hanh,Vietnamese Zen Master and music lover (Plum Village Records).

What kind of music, if any at all, serves the environmental purpose of establishing the equilibrium sought after by all meditators? Some teachers would suggest that music is in itself a distraction, and perhaps it is, but it’s one which I’ve always felt formed a core place in my own longtime practice. Mine is a kind of beat hybrid of Zen and Dzogchen, and I’ve long used sound as an ideal accompaniment to concentration on the breath, which is in itself a kind of reverberating music created by our own lungs. Putting on a piece of music in order to facilitate meditation also provides me with a set formality and a ritual pattern, within which one can briefly forget all limits.

Rather than calling it meditation music, however, composed or performed to aid in meditation or prayer in a literal religious or spiritual sense, I prefer calling it meditative music, almost as if it’s the music itself which is doing the meditating, through us. The approach of certain modern composers using meditational techniques in their creative practice, with or without application to or focus upon specific religious content, has long been recognized. Many notable examples have also combined concepts, meditation and music in their artistic work. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

Diana Rigg: In Memoriam

Dame Diana Rigg (1938-2020) as Emma Peel in the 1960s TV series The Avengers. (Photo: Terry Disney)

Diana Rigg, who died on September 10 at the age of eighty-two, belonged to the first generation of classically trained English actresses who were permitted to be devastatingly sexy as well as brilliant (Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren). Royal Academy of Dramatic Art-trained, a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1959, she became an international sensation over her three seasons as Emma Peel on the television series The Avengers. Mrs. Peel, as her sleuthing partner John Steed (Patrick McNee) always called her, could down a villain with a kung-fu kick and then dispatch him once again with a wisecrack, delivered with the effortless dryness of a perfect martini. And she wore leather!

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Barwood and Robbins

Mark Hamill in Corvette Summer (1978).

When TCM ran Corvette Summer not long ago, I decided to take another look at it. The last time I’d seen it was in a movie theatre in 1978 and I’d been surprised and delighted by it. It starred Mark Hamill – it was his first movie after the car accident that disfigured him during the shooting of Star Wars – as a graduating high-school senior from the suburbs of L.A. with a gift for auto mechanics (the auto shop teacher, played by Eugene Roche, is his hero) who is obsessed with a ’73 Corvette Stingray that he and his class rescued from a junkpile and reconstructed into a spangly, candy-apple, eye-popping gem. When it’s stolen and he learns that it’s been spotted in Las Vegas, he goes in search of it. The irresistible, uncategorizable Annie Potts – a wild card like Betty Hutton in her Preston Sturges comedies – plays the novice prostitute he meets when he arrives; eventually she overcomes his nervousness and gets him into bed, and then they become a couple. The movie turned out to be as much fun as I’d remembered, as great to look at, and as unusual in tone and texture. It was the first picture Matthew Robbins directed, and he and Barwood inspired the usually lackluster cinematographer, Frank Stanley, to give it a rainbow palette and a neon glow. Corvette Summer is a road movie, a teen comedy and a coming-of-age movie, but it’s highly unconventional as an entry in all three of those genres. Yes, there’s a romance between Hamill’s Kenneth Dantley and Potts’s Vanessa (and a very satisfying one), but the real love story is between Kenneth and the Stingray. The story takes twists you don’t see coming, and not all of them work; neither do all the tonal shifts. But the movie’s charm never wears off, and more than four decades later it still feels fresh.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Memo from the Future: The Trans-Temporal Work of Kirk Tougas

A frame from Kirk Tougas' The Framing of Perception (1973). The monolith-like altar of ultra-consumption ironically reveals that we ourselves are the ones actually being consumed by a seemingly benevolent Moloch.  Image: Tougas.

This article first appeared in the Spanish film magazine Found Footage, March 2020.
“The assertion for an art released from images, not simply from old representation but from the new tension between naked presence and the writing of history on things; released at the same time from the tension between the operations of art and social forms of resemblance and recognition. An art entirely separate from the social commerce of imagery.”  – Jacques Ranciere, The Future of the Image (2003).

“When is appropriation appropriate?” – Kirk Tougas, 2019.
Every film is a tattoo etched on the surface of time, some more so than others. Certain filmmakers, however, eschew entirely the tradition of distracting the audience from awareness of the fact that they are watching and are customarily invited to submit to a wilful disappearance into a real or life-like story. These consummate others instead tend to invite the audience to relish and savour the viewing experience as a sequence of electric paintings, which may or may not contain a program beyond the temporary tattoo incised onto the dream space they occupy while in a theatre. Some of them, such as Kirk Tougas, go even further: they implore the viewer to actively engage in watching their own watching.

Monday, September 7, 2020

The Jesus Rolls: Blier Country

Bobby Cannavale, Audrey Tautou and John Turturro in The Jesus Rolls (2019).

It takes guts these days to remake Bertrand Blier’s freewheeling, anarchic 1974 screwball sex farce Going Places, and that’s what John Turturro has done in The Jesus Rolls (available on Prime). Blier ran afoul of feminist critics back in the seventies when he made Going Places and, four years later, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs. Both films star Gérard Depardieu and the late Patrick Dewaere as stumblebum buddies whose chronic misunderstanding of women is at the heart of both the comedy (in both pictures) and the sadness (in the final scenes of Get Out Your Handkerchiefs). In Going Places, they play Jean-Claude and Pierrot, scruffy, hedonistic auto mechanics in their mid-twenties whose desire for instant gratification is as unmediated as it is in little boys. They pursue sexual pleasure with exactly the same heedlessness and inability to imagine the consequences as they display when they steal a car. The emblem of the movie is a motif of images in which they run for their lives – from the gun-toting owner of a beauty salon whose beloved vehicle they borrowed just for a little drive, from a revenge murder they unwittingly get involved in, and so on. They’re hopeless schlubs whose epic miscalculations trigger one fiasco after another while the universe laughs uproariously at their antics. They’re constantly on the move, but in this context “going places” means “going nowhere”; the movie ends with them (and the woman they share, played by Miou-Miou) relaxing in relative peace and enjoyment of life, but they’re wanted by the law and we know there’s no place they can escape to. The French title of both the movie and Blier’s novel, on which it’s based, is Les Valseuses, which means “balls” and makes it explicit that their relentless bumbling is linked inextricably to their gender. But it’s impossible to envision an audience that would welcome the film now, since Blier takes the prerogative of an artist and makes these morons likable. God preserve the writer or director (Blier co-wrote the screenplay with Philippe Dumarçay) who doesn’t wag a cautionary finger at ill-behaved characters to make sure we know we're supposed to disapprove of them.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Neglected Gem: American Hot Wax (1978)

Tim McIntire (seated) in American Hot Wax (1978).

Aloha Bobby and Rose, about the doomed romance of a pair of Angelenos, a car mechanic and a young single mom – an earthbound beauty who might have stepped right out of a Bruce Springsteen ballad – slipped in and out of theatres in 1975 without attracting much notice.  But the writer-director, Floyd Mutrux, turning out only his second picture, is immensely talented. He shows an unerring instinct for the 1970s working-class milieu; the two lovers, on the run as a result of a convenience-store prank that goes disastrously wrong, are dreamers whose pragmatism, the bitter consequence of living in a world where the odds are always against you, keeps souring their reverie. The two actors – Paul Le Mat, riding a brief period of stardom after he walked away with George Lucas’s American Graffiti, and Dianne Hull, who went on to become a highly respected Hollywood acting coach – give offbeat, subtle, mood-inflected performances that should have become classics. And Mutrux stays on their wavelength, framing scene after scene to showcase the way their faces and bodies convey the quicksilver shift in their emotions. The soundtrack is heavy on early Elton John, and songs like “Bennie and the Jets” and “Tiny Dancer,” with their starstruck visions of rock ‘n’ roll glory, seem mysteriously, unexpectedly appropriate for Rose and Bobby’s road trip, which breaks our hearts because we want so badly for it to take them out of their lives and we know those lives are going to catch up to them by the final reel. And Mutrux and DP William A. Fraker’s soft-focus SoCal images of service stations and bus stops, bars and motels and endless freeways, are strangely magical. There’s a car-crash sequence that doesn’t look like any car crash you’ve ever seen in a movie; watching the picture again recently, I thought of the auto accident that opens Carroll Ballard’s 1996 Fly Away Home, which shares that distinction.