Thursday, July 29, 2004

Here's the Thunderbirds link, as promised:

Jonathan Rosenbaum, possibly the best working film critic in print these days (I'll be posting a review of his new book "Essential Cinema" soon) , uses the new documentary Outfoxed as an entry point to think about how DVDs have changed the way we use movies.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Either I've lost all critical facilities or I'm just feeling generous. I went to a screening of Thunderbirds Saturday expecting the worst, and actually enjoyed  it. My review will be hitting print on Friday and I'll provide a link to it. 

Meanwhile, the latest edition of "Senses of Cinema" - now a quarterly, to judge from the headline- is on line - check out the link at the left - with articles on Welles, Kill Bill, Guy Maddin and the latest from Jacques Rivette.


A new book and film take detailed looks at the creation of two cultural sensations of the 60s and 70s:  the scandalous comic novel "Candy" by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg and the 1971 film Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song. Now read on....

Good Grief! It's our literary correspondent Nadja Bartleby!: 

 In the 1950s, two expatriate writers living in Europe collaborated on a dirty book. Well, not so much a dirty book - though there's no doubt that  lecherous thoughts provided inspiration - as a satire of pornography, of postwar America, of various  intellectual trends. Using Voltaire's "Candide" as their model, these two authors created the story of a naive but well-intentioned young girl whose empathy for the suffering and unfairness of the world somehow unavoidably leads her to provide sexual favors to every man she meets. It also became a marker in the legal road that would gradually undo literary censorship in this country and the victim of imprecise copyright laws in the US and Europe. Young Candy Christian would inspire not only lust but, outside the printed page, greed, litigation and outright theft. Not a bad streak for a girl who just wants to help others.
    The novel, of course, was "Candy", written by the great Terry Southern and the more obscure Mason Hoffenberg, but the story behind the novel proves to be every bit as absorbing as (though certainly less amusing than) the bawdy adventures of a their Voltairean innocent. With access to reams of unpublished material from both parties, as well as their first publisher, the notorious Maurice Girodias, Southern's son Nile,a keeper-of-the-flame without equal (In addition to compiling "Now Dig This", a collection of previously uncollected pieces, he was able to find a permanent home for Dad's archive and maintains a groovy website at, has produced a fascinating volume called "The Candy Men"  (Arcade Publishing, , $27.95) chronicling the strange and twisted story of the book, its creation and its subsequent career as both hip cultural scandal and legal battleground. 
     Southern and Hoffenberg were part of the wave of quasi-beat Americans who migrated to Europe after World War Two to write or paint or just hang out in cafes soaking up an artistic vibe, grateful to escape the stifling atmosphere Eisenhower America. Some lived on next to nothing, while others were fortunate enough to burn their way through a trust fund - or to attach themself to someone who had one. Southern was in the "next to nothing" category, while Hoffenberg, a soul-eyed poet with a serious fondness for heroin, had family money he could call for when things got too bleak.
     Enter Maurice Girodias, one of the most incorrigible con men to walk the streets of France. Girodias was a publisher who specialised in the kind of literature that couldn't be discussed in polite company, as well as more serious writing that strayed into taboos generally out of the realm of the mainstream publishing world. His ideal book was that which combined both, and he was the first to bring out such distinguished titles as "Lolita", "The Green Man" and "Naked Lunch".
     It was Southern's idea to take expand a short story about a young woman's wide-eyed journey through a jungle of sexually needy characters into a full-length satirical novel, perfect for Girodias' under-the-counter line.  With other projects also on the burner, he recruited Hoffenberg  to add a few chapters. (It was one of the misfortunes of Southern's career that the three works for which he was most known, "Candy" and the screenplays for Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider, were all collaborative, with later debates about credit inevitably rising. One of the welcome aspects of "The Candy Men" is that it clears up most of the confusion about who penned what.)  The work went slowly, but eventually the nubile heroine wrapped herself in a book cover (whose author was listed as "Maxwell Kenton" ) and made her public debut.
Then the troubles began.
     S & H had already learned how difficult it was to get money from Girodias while they were writing "Candy", but once published, it became next to impossible. "Gid", as he was known, would beg economic woe caused by his many legal troubles (which was partly true since most of  his titles, "Candy" included, were regularly found obscene) but it appears that he was constituionally incapable of paying royalties without duress. The authors dueled with him for years, but had to play their side very carefully since they had no easy way of verifying sales figures. (They didn't realise that he outwitted the ban on "Candy" by reprinting it as "Lollipop", an edition for which they never saw a dime.)
     By 1964, "Candy" was starting to the attention of America publishers, but clearing  ownership was as  difficult as negotiating with Girodias. By failing to hold a European copyright, the work was considered to be in the public domain, a major concern to Putnam who brought out the first US edition. (Their suspicion was justified: as the book became a success, more than a half dozen companies specializing in pornography made pirate editions.) The once-friendly authors became distant: Southern had made a name for himself writing for "Esquire", published " The Magic Christian" (which happens to be one of the funniest books ever written) and launched himself as a screenwriter with Strangelove. Hoffenberg, between bouts of addiction, became paranoid and insecure, irritated at press pieces suggesting that TS was,if not "Candy"'s sole author, then its most talented.
Between piracy, legal fees, vagaries of international copyright law and outright deception, the authors received very little  money from the book, even as it climbed the best-seller list   The complications over the rights, the pirates, and the ever scheming Girodias guaranteed that even with great sales and a movie deal on the horizon (the movie, which could be politely labeled a mess, came out at the end of 1968), neither author would ever see more than chump change.
   No staid literary bio (for these were not staid literary men) "The Candy Men" becomes  a frantic portrait of two men riding on the fringe of a cultural change, watching their book evolve from stoned fantasy to cause celebre, from a smut-for- hire job  to contractual nightmare. But there's not a dull page in it, thanks to the generous selections from the authors' correspondence. Southern, in particular,  was a master of the put-on, the absurd reverie, and notes to friends may have been his ideal medium. Fans of his distinct, wildly comic voice will find it here in abundance. 

     For an artist who has remaned largely in the margins of popular culture, Melvin Van Peebles has had a very busy career. He's been an actor, a novelist and a filmmaker, written and directed Broadway musicals, recorded his own songs and, for a brief period when he faded from public view in the 80s, even had a seat in the stock market. But while Van Peebles clearly likes to move around artistically, he will probably remain most fixed in the public mind as the man who made Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song, a technically crude but sociologically daring film that launched the short but influential trend of black exploitation films in the early 70s. (MGM's Shaft, a more conventional crime film, opened three months later.)
Van Peebles published a diary of the making of Sweetback, a slim paperback that remained in print long after the blacksploitation trend had faded. (In fact, it's still in print today, in an updated edition.. see below) The book is stronger on personal information than technical advice,  but it's considered something of a primer in guerilla filmmaking. Of course, this was at  a time  when every film studio had a token hippie producer in hopes of luring a share of that Easy Rider-Woodstock green and an "indie" film hadn't become a euphemism for "self-indulgent crap that you can put on your resume to impress producers at the WB". 
      Sweetback really isn't much of a film (it's not nearly as entertaining as Superfly  or as ambitious as Bill Gunn's Ganja and Hess), but that in no way diminishes its cultural and important significance. So perhaps it makes sensee that the story behind it, recounted in Van Peebles' book and now in a fascinating, comical film Baadasss!, directed by his son, proves to be more enduring that the object itself.
     Baadasss! ( still in release from Sony Pictures and due on home video  in the fall) , is a curious film, part companion to other recent tales of minor history like Ed Wood or Man in the Moon, sometimes playing like a dramatized version of a "making  of" featurette on a DVD, and always a manifesto about filmmaking, race and artistic independence. Mario Van Peebles' films (which I generally like, including New Jack City and Panther ) tend to be a bit more pedantic than those of his father, but he manages to lay the message on  with a light touch. He's like the rare high school teacher who can actually share his enthusiam for a subject, rather than merely drill it into the students.  And since he's actually portraying his own father and recounting his own reluctance, at age 13, to be involved with Sweetback (where he even had to participate in a sex scene), there's a built-in ambivalence to his story that could keep therapists shaking their heads for months. 
     Van Peebles sees his father's film and the struggle to make it as both a symbolic show of unity in the black (and hippie/political) community and a comic adventure. Besides having almost no money, the crew consisted largely of inexperienced if not outright amateurs. To prevent interference from the movie unions, they had to pretend to be shooting a porno film. Strapped for cash, the director even arranged a secret meeting to borrow from Bill Cosby, whose appearance in the fringes of the film (he's played by T.K.Carter) says much about the position of black talent at the time.
     Faced with a project both daunting and absurd, Melvin Van Peebles perservered and Baadassss! gives a pretty good picture of both the time in which it was made and the inspired madman who made it. For the first half hour, you might find yourself thinking "this is amusing, but why bother to tell this story?" By the time it's over - and especially after the final credits in which the real participants (including Cosby) reminisce about Sweetback- you'll be convinced that it's an episode in film history that deserves to be told.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Cat Stevens !?!
Our musical correspondent Anne Dante is being followed by a moonshadow:

There are some things that will simply never reach those people standing at the edge of the great Chasm of Hipness sneering at those on the other side: Remember trying to explain Abba to your friends in the 70s as they floated in their smoky cloud of Eagles-Ronstadt-Fleetwood Mac? Did you ever try to get your 13 year old Britney Spears-fan niece to listen to Leonard Cohen?
Well, I’m afraid that Cat Stevens is one of those issues that will probably not make that leap back over to the edge of hipness anytime soon for most of you, even though his records are back in print and there’s even a greatest hits collection being hawked on tv at 3 am. He started to off some time around 1974 when he released “Foreigner”, an underrated album that featured one of his best songs, “The Hurt”, but was built around a rambling 20-minute long “Suite” of song fragments that was accused of overplaying the tortured artiste effect. (It’s really not that bad if you keep in mind that being a tortured artiste was part parcel of the whole 70s singer-songwriter bit for almost everyone  - except Harry Nilsson). His next album, the excellent “Buddah and the Chocolate Box” got a better reception, but the release of a mid-70s greatest hits collection essentially stood as a career-ending marker. When the Cat announced his retirement a few years and albums later, few people noticed. Ask someone about him today and they’ll probably say “’Peace Train’ was alright, but didn’t he try to kill Salman Rushdie?”.
            Scoff all you want, but the small and gloomy Stevens fans among us, the recent release of the “Majikat” DVD is a treasure. Filmed during a Stevens’ last tour (a theatrical event that apparently included magicians, jugglers and all that – very few of whom are preserved on the DVD), it consists of a 1976 concert with Stevens in top form. The real treats, however, are in the bonus materials, which include a reproduction of the concert program, a handful of early tv clips, including the animated “Moonshadow” short, and a lengthy interview with the man himself, now known as Yusuf Islam, who speaks openly about his career and his abandonment of the same.
            Will it convert anyone (to use an appropriate metaphor) to Stevens’ music? Probably not. But if you’re in that small group that clings to your old vinyl copy of “Teaser and the Firecat”, “Majikat” is a pleasant rediscovery, a portrait of the artiste in a not-too-tortured mode.
So phooey on the rest of you.

Editorial note: The editor of this site is not sure that he approves of saying "phooey" to our readers.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

"We've got to make a movie where on the way out of the theater people are going to ask the ushers if they have any torches."
       That's Michael Moore in an interview in the latest "Film Comment". It's a good piece, one of the few in the dozens of recent pieces on Moore that actually deals with his work from a cinematic perspective rather than concentrate solely on the controversy and the attacks surrounding Fahrenheit 9/11. It's not on the FC website, but they have posted some excerpts that didn't make it into print. You can also read Kent Jones' review online here.
Also in the latest FC: articles on Jacques Tati, Kill Bill, and documentaries about making movies (Burden of Dreams, American Movie, Lost in La Mancha, etc).  But alas, nothing's perfect; they've also brought back the "Guilty Pleasures" column with a contribution from Joan Rivers, of all people. 
     It's ironic that Film Comment's last interview with Moore, a notably hostile piece that appeared in 1989 at time of Roger and Me, is rumored to have been one of the things responsible for ousting then-editor Harlan Jacobson, thus indirectly contributing to the magazine's gradual and uneven improvement over the last fourteen years. I' ve been buying FC since 1976 (only missing one issue in that time). but in the 1980s it had become nearly unreadable.
     Which makes another small item in the current issue an ironic sign of change. A passing reference to James Toback's Fingers in the "Opening Shots" column calls it "Toback's only watchable film". That might be true, but it's quite a step away from the days when FC allowed film critic/novelist/habitual name-dropper David Thomson ramble on about nothing in particular in almost every issue, many of his pieces little more than extended love-letters and press releases to and on behalf of the director of Exposed.
Incidentally, my favorite Thomson moment had nothing to do with Toback or even with his endless references to his friendships with Toback, Warren Beatty, Buck Henry and others. Here's an excerpt from a 1982 interview with Goldie Hawn.

* * *

You swept your hair back off your face just now, and you have lovely hair. But when your hair goes back you look less pretty and stronger. Your eyes get older.
That's why these hairdressers are making a fortune of money.
But don't they do what you want them to do?
Some do, some don't. What I'm saying is that people want to look a certain way, so they have their hair done a certain way. I'm not somebody who's liked the hair off my face. I don't think it's becoming. And I must admit I like to look as nice as I can. But for a film I'd do it. But, you know, right now we're in a meeting, and why would one arbitrarily put one's hair up if you don't think you would look nice?
You must have sat for hours in front of a mirror experimenting as a child. I didn't tell you anything about your hair you didn't know already.

* * *
Could Bruno from the Ali G. show have done any better?

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Cowboy Apocalypse
The enthusiasm of Quentin Tarantino aside, the Spaghetti Western remains a cult taste even more esoteric than one for  kung-fu movies or Seventies cheerleader comedies. The days when The New York Times could dismiss Spaghettis as "The Burn, The Gouge and the Mangle may be gone but once you get past the Leone canon, you're not likely to find much in the way of critical recognition. (An exception to be made, of course, for Christopher Frayling's masterful "Spaghetti Westerns: from Karl May to Sergio Leone" which covers all aspects of the Europeanised version of the West ).
Spaghetti westerns made less of an impact in the US than you might think, once the dust had settled and the dollars counted from United Artists' highly profitable release of the Dollars trilogy. Though most of the major studios picked up one or two Spaghettis for their drive-in markets, most of the US releases came courtesy of smaller and now forgotten distributors.
Over the last few decades (the Spaghetti boom was more or less over by 1971), most of the non-Leone films became almost impossible to find. Thanks to a few DVD companies, the situation has improved slightly especially with the release of two boxed sets, Once Upon a Time in Italy, from Anchor Bay and The Spaghetti Western Collection from Blue Underground . There are no classics on the level of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or Once Upon a Time in the West, but for those with an interest in the western genre, the nine films display the wide range of variations Italian directors played on familiar frontier themes. Those who only know Leone's masterpieces will find surprises here: European-filtered westerns that rework traditions, bend generic rules and add elements of politics, slapstick and even horror.
The oddest film in the Anchor Bay collection - not the best - is unquestionably Lucio Fulci's Four of the Apocalypse, of which little has been written. Frayling simply cites it as an example of a Spaghetti western made late in the cycle and claims that it attempts to apply the style of Easy Rider to the genre. That's true up to a point: there are lots of solar effects, self-consciously loose focusing and a vague sense of counter-cultural sympathy. But that doesn't begin to cover the inadvertent and almost heavyhanded weirdness of the film.
Four of the Apocalypse is based on stories by Bret Harte, loosely strung together as random encounters. (I don't know much of Harte's work, but I recognised elements from "The Outcasts of Poker Flats" and "The Luck of Roaring Camp".) A chance encounter in a prison massacre brings four outsiders together: a gambler (Fabio Test), a pregnant prostitute (Lynne Frederick), a drunk and an off-balanced black man who talks to the spirits of the dead. Heading out with particular destination, they cross paths with a psychotic, Manson-like outlaw (Tomas Milian) who torments them, feeds them peyote and leaves them to die in the desert.
(Much of the film's loopy charm is in the casting. Testi is likable in an only-here-for the-ride way. Frederick, better known as the widow of both Peter Sellers and David Niven, is an actress of limited skills, yet endearingly earnest. Pollard, of course, was a cult figure whose post-Bonnie and Clyde career never really happened. And Milian is a major figure in the Spaghetti canon, but better known for his comic work in political Spaghettis like Companeros, which gives his complete lack of sympathy in this film an even more chilling edge.)
Fulci is best known as a director of gory and occasionally colorful horror movies, a specialist in the Italian sub-genres of zombies and cannibalism.And true to form, he even manages to include a particularly unpleasant meal and a gratuitous torture scene in a film that shifts its emotional tone with every sequence. (The "Luck of Roaring Camp" episode, for example, is an unabashedly sentimental segment in which an exclusively male mining town become surrogate fathers to a newborn baby.)
No, it's not really a very good movie, nor a particularly coherent one, but that's part of the charm of minor Spaghetti westerns. The filmmakers simultaneously borrow the traditions of the western genre and treat them in the most cavalier fashion. They love the genre but they can't stop trying to change it.
Click on either of the links below to buy Frayling's book or either of the DVD collections from Amazon.