Listening to Marlon – Beyond the Screen

Listen to Me Marlon, Stevan Riley’s astonishing new film about Marlon Brando, is unlike any documentary I’ve ever seen. During his lifetime, Brando recorded his thoughts about life and work and the world he lived in on hundreds of audio cassettes. Approximately 300 hours of material were made available to British filmmaker Stevan Riley to use in the production of this film. In an overwhelming display of inspired organization, Listen to Me Marlon weaves an intricate tapestry of thought and feeling expressed through Brando’s words, backed up by films clips, archival footage, home movies, and stills that reflect and reinforce what we hear. The result is a kind of impressionistic, time-traveling, oral autobiography, and it will knock you out. Here’s the trailer:

I’ve attended three screenings so far, and each time I responded on a deeper level . It just gets better and better. I’ve been trying to figure this out, how it works for me, because I think it’s unusual. Listen to Me Marlon opened me up in a very emotional way, and tapped into my love of movies and my love for Brando, especially the ferocity of the younger Brando and the amazing power of his best films. Something so naked and beautiful comes out in this film it could break your heart.

The words we hear throughout the film are almost exclusively Brando’s, except for occasional clips of television newscasts and Marlon being interviewed by Dick Cavett and others. In a soothing, nearly hypnotic voice, we hear his thoughts on many topics, including his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, Native American rights, and, of course, acting. He’s incredibly articulate, often poetic, but also clear and direct. I was especially struck when he spoke of the struggle to preserve sanity and the sense of reality that is taken away by success. He speaks of his childhood in Nebraska with an abusive father and alcoholic mother, who he refers to as “the town drunk,” and how he “used to love the smell of liquor on her breath.” Brando loved his mother, but it’s profoundly sad when he begins a thought with “When what you are as a child is unwanted…” Bernardo Bertolucci pushed Brando to use these memories to help fuel his raw performance in Last Tango in Paris (1972).

Brando and his mother, 1932

Brando and his mother, 1932

Brando-smiling in checked shirtBrando-arms crossedMuch of Listen to Me Marlon is about his films and the art and craft of acting. He talks about how important it was for him to study under Stella Adler, a proponent of the Stanislavski “Method.” He says that when there are close-ups in film, your face becomes the stage. Brando’s first feature film was The Men (1950), in which he plays a soldier who becomes paraplegic due to a combat wound. We see footage of Brando with actual disabled soldiers, learning about their behavior and how they live. Even at this early stage of his film career, he went in deep. As he says, “You have to know your subject. You have to know your character.” He also says, “Everything you do, make it as real as you can,” and “Never let the audience know how it’s gonna come out.” I found the following sequence from Listen to Me Marlon to be incredibly moving and powerful.

At the beginning of the film, Brando tells us that he had his head digitized in the 1980s with scans containing every conceivable facial expression. He speculates that this will be the future of filmmaking, with no actual actors necessary. Stevan Riley was able to track down the digital files and use them to create an animated version of the 3D head, which was then synced to Brando’s voice as he delivers Shakespearean soliloquies and other musings. This holographic head becomes a truly ghostly presence drifting through the film, surreal and unsettling.

Brando ghost headAfter seeing Listen to Me Marlon for the third time, I needed more Brando, so I went home to watch On the Waterfront (1954) on an excellent Blu-ray disc from The Criterion Collection. I highly recommend this edition, since it looks and sounds superb, and has Criterion’s usual wide array of supplemental features. Here is a clip from that film, with Brando at full speed:

Listen to Me Marlon is being released by Showtime Documentary Films on July 29 at Film Forum here in New York, and on July 31 at the Landmark in Los Angeles, followed by a nationwide release through the summer and fall. It will air at a later date on Showtime’s cable channel, so there will be plenty of opportunities to see it. This is a unique piece of work, put together with uncommon skill and taste by the filmmakers. It’s a privileged look into the heart and mind of one of the greatest actors who ever lived, and a fine addition to his legacy.


Brando-Last Tango B&W2Film Forum will also be screening a series of ten Brando films from August 7 to August 11, including Viva Zapata! (1952), The Wild One (1953), On the Waterfront (1954), and Last Tango in Paris (1972). Here’s the full schedule.

Listen to Me Marlon was shown at the Film Society of New York’s annual New Directors/New Films series earlier this year. There was a Q&A with director Stevan Riley following the screening on March 27 at the Walter Reade Theater. I was at that screening and asked the first question, which concerned the digital head. Because there were no microphones in the audience, you don’t hear the questions, but moderator Marion Masone repeats them, and there’s not much dead air. Stevan Riley’s responses are very informative and really add a lot. Here is the Q&A.


Finally, when I was searching online for photographs I might use for this post, I was struck by this one of Brando before and after makeup was applied for his role in The Godfather (1972). It’s a jolt to realize he was only 48 when he played the aging Don Corleone. Of course, his performance was much more than makeup. Brando was uniquely gifted, both as an actor and as a man. Listen to Me Marlon makes that abundantly clear. — Ted Hicks

Brando-Godfather makeupMarlon Brando as Vito Corleone

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Supersonic Spy Planes & The House of a Thousand Curios

In October of 1966, I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force for four years to avoid being drafted into the Army for two. It may seem that I had a problem with math, but the Army could send you anywhere, such as Vietnam, a likely destination at that time. I was fairly certain I didn’t want to go there, if it came to that. Earlier that year, I’d received a notice to report for a physical in Des Moines, which I passed. I was still at the University of Iowa at the time, but was told by the army that since I hadn’t graduated after four years in a liberal arts program, I was no longer exempt from the draft, because people “normally” got a degree in that amount of time.

My dad, Milton Hicks (center), 1944

My dad, Milton Hicks (center), 1944

My dad had been in the Army Air Corps during World War II as a navigator on a B-17 bomber, stationed in England. I remember watching a documentary television series called Air Power with him in 1956 and ’57. This connection made me lean more toward the Air Force than the other branches. Besides, by this time I’d spent several years in the film department at Iowa, and hoped to continue filmmaking in the military. Someone I’d known at Iowa had already enlisted and was shooting films for the Air Force at a base in Florida, so I knew it could be done. Then I found out from the recruiter in Iowa City that they had a delayed-enlistment program, which meant I could sign up, but not have to report for three months. This was perfect for someone like me; I could make this decision but not have to actually do anything about it until later.

I had six weeks of basic training at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas. We were allowed to go into the city twice. The only things I remember were visiting the Alamo (of course), a trip to the zoo, and seeing Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie. One day several weeks into basic, we were herded into a building to pick our “career field.” Available choices were written on a blackboard at the front of the room. As much as I searched, I didn’t see anything related to filmmaking. I finally went up to one of the NCOs in charge and asked him about this. He said there wasn’t anything open in film production that day. The closest was something called “Precision Photo Processing,” but he said I probably wouldn’t get that anyway. Well, in the end I did get it. After basic was over, I was sent to Lowry AFB in Denver for six months training in this field, which turned out to involve the processing and printing of aerial reconnaissance film. So I’d be working in a film laboratory situation. At least it had something to do with film, though not what I’d hoped for.

Professionals-poster4Blow Up-French poster The thing I liked best about being in Denver was that it was the first time I was in a big city environment with many more movie theaters than I’d had access to in Iowa. We could leave the base only on weekends, but I made the most of it. I vividly remember seeing The Professionals (with Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster in top form), an incredibly entertaining and repeatable Western directed by Richard Brooks. Seeing John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix in Cinerama was pretty mind-blowing. I was also attending late-night underground cinema programs that showed films like Mike Kuchar’s epic Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965). But the big one was Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, released that December. I’d been anxiously awaiting this one. It did not disappoint, and I saw it several times during its run.

When training was complete, I received orders to go to Beale Air Force Base in Northern California, near a town called Marysville. After a short leave back in Iowa, I decided to travel by train on the California Zephyr, which went from Chicago to San Francisco. The Zephyr was operated jointly by several railway lines (this was before Amtrak). The main feature of this train was the dome cars, which provided amazing scenic views. I loved trains, though I hadn’t been on that many. I couldn’t afford a sleeper on this trip, so I had to go coach for the two or three days it took to get to Marysville, which was about eight miles from the base. The route went through Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California. For someone who hadn’t traveled much, this was an amazing experience. Going through the Rockies out of Denver really peeled my eyes back. The vast expanses of desert in Utah and Nevada gave me a sense of the country I hadn’t had before. I didn’t sleep much, but it was worth it.

California Zephyr adAt one point, I got into a conversation with an older woman on the train. This was on the last leg of my trip, not far from Marysville. I was traveling in uniform, and she asked where I was going. When I told her, she shook her head and said that people in that town didn’t like servicemen. As you might imagine, this didn’t exactly make me feel better about what I had to look forward to. I didn’t talk to her much after that (and, as it turned out, she was wrong). At another point, I found a newspaper someone had left behind and read a review of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, which was just being released. The review made the album sound great – a musical milestone. I couldn’t wait to hear it, though it would be a while before I finally did. But just reading about it provided a vivid connection to my other life, which I was missing more and more.


Marysville CA postcardMarysville, California is located just east of Yuba City, directly across the Feather River. Yuba City gained a certain notoriety a few years later as the residence of Juan Corona, a Mexican serial killer who murdered 25 migrant farm workers in 1971 and buried them in shallow graves along the river. This was my first time in California. Beale would be my first base after basic and the additional training in Denver. It was a dry, dusty Sunday afternoon in June of 1967 when I got off the train. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, but I didn’t have to report at the base until Monday, so I checked into a small hotel near the train station, which in retrospect makes me think of the hotel in El Paso where the final shootout takes place in Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972). In the meantime, I was also thinking of what the woman on the train had said, which made me anxious that I might get beaten up by local toughs wielding pool cues. Needless to say, this did not happen.

Beale AFB main gate sign2The next day I signed in at Beale, which is about eight miles east of Marysville. After getting situated in a room in one of the barracks, I had a couple of days of in-processing. The only thing I remember about that was walking into the base education office and hearing the Doors’ “Light My Fire” playing on a radio, the long instrumental break from the album cut. I thought, well, this is interesting. It was 1967, remember. The counter-culture was getting to its feet, and there I was, in uniform.

SAGE buildingMy job was in a facility called the SAGE building, which was an acronym for Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, whatever that meant. This was a virtually windowless concrete cube several stories high. I worked in a lab mixing photographic chemicals in huge tanks, and learning how to operate continuous processing machines that developed large rolls of classified reconnaissance film ranging from 35mm to 9 inches wide. Periodically, after higher ups had done whatever they did with the processed film, some of us would get assigned to “burn detail.” This required taking the rolls of film to a room in the bowels of the building and feeding them into large shredding machines. The tiny pieces that resulted were then put into bags that were sealed and taken to a landfill to be buried. Like I said, this stuff was classified.

Gathering of Eagles-posterI didn’t know it at the time, but a 1963 movie with Rock Hudson, A Gathering of Eagles, had been shot at Beale. It received poor reviews and didn’t do well at the box-office. The success the following year of Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove suggested that audiences were ready for more critical — and hipper — material than the flag-waving in A Gathering of Eagles. 

SR-71A-photoI soon learned that, in addition to B-52 bombers and F-4 Phantom jet fighter-bombers, Beale was also home to the Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird,” which was the source of the recon film we were processing. This supersonic aircraft, designed for long-range reconnaissance, flew more than three times the speed of sound at an altitude of 80,000 feet. It was part of the 9th Strategic Recon Wing at Beale. The SR-71 was also called the “Batmobile,” for obvious reasons when you saw it. We weren’t supposed to talk about it to anyone off base, as if it wasn’t actually there. So I walked into a barbershop in Marysville one day and saw a framed color photo of the SR-71 on the wall. Everybody knew about it; it was the main attraction. You could certainly hear it miles away. I’ve never heard anything louder taking off. And I have to say, at the time it felt pretty cool to be even tangentially associated with an aircraft that seemed more like science fiction.

Chiseler's Inn, The House of a Thousand Curios MarysvilleBonnie & Clyde-posterThe barbershop I mentioned was directly connected to a bar called The Chiseler’s Inn (photo above), which had the tagline, “The House of a Thousand Curios.” It was filled with items like Winchester rifles, animal heads mounted on the walls, and jars containing two-headed goats and other freakish oddities. Per a reference I found, “This greasy spoon had everything from jackalopes to mannequins in the restrooms. You could visit many times and still find something new.” It was a great place to pass the time while waiting for a chair to open up in the barbershop next door. As I recall, the Chiseler’s Inn was down the street from the State Theater, where I saw Bonnie and Clyde that August. After the extended ambush at the end, I staggered out into the daylight, devastated and exhilarated.

I didn’t have a car, so to get into town I had to take a shuttle bus that ran between Beale and Marysville. From there I could catch a Greyhound to Sacramento, which was 40 miles south, or an express bus to San Francisco, three hours away. I usually went to San Francisco about twice a month (after we got paid), mainly to see movies and wander around the Haight-Ashbury district, which was in full psychedelic bloom at the time.  Sacramento seemed like it could be any city in the Midwest, while San Francisco was, well, San Francisco.

Bullitt-posterIt was a terrific city for movies. Seeing John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) at the Northpoint Theater stands out, as does D.A. Pennebaker’s Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back (1967), which was the first time I heard someone say “fuck” in a movie. A strange thing happened when I saw Bullitt (1968) the following year. I’d already seen it in Sacramento, but the film had been shot entirely in San Francisco, and I felt like seeing it again the next time I was there. There’s a scene near the end between Steve McQueen as the title character and Robert Vaughn as an ambitious senator. In the print I saw in Sacramento, when Vaughn says, “Frank, we must all compromise,” there’s a cut to McQueen looking disgusted. In San Francisco, after Vaughn’s line, McQueen says, “Bullshit!” They’d cut this in Sacramento. It was startling, because you don’t expect a movie to change from one viewing to another (unless it’s a director’s cut on a DVD, which didn’t exist then).

Lonely Are the Brave-poster2In November ’68, I went to an event at the San Francisco International Film Festival where Kirk Douglas was receiving an award. I think Lonely Are the Brave (1962) had been shown earlier in the evening. Then Douglas entered, strode down the center aisle and vaulted onto the stage. It was a real moment. I hadn’t been around this kind of thing before.

During one of my trips to San Francisco in either 1967 or ’68, I was approached on a street corner by a young man in a pea coat trying to recruit me into Scientology. I hadn’t heard of Scientology, but what this guy was selling and the way he was doing it gave me a really bad vibe. I walked away as quickly as I could, creeped out and disturbed. That was my brush with Scientology.

I was stationed at Beale AFB through the end of 1968, which was a bad year for this country, a weird time. The Vietnam war was escalating; Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated; the Democratic convention in Chicago that August was insane; Nixon was elected president in November; and later we found out about the My Lai massacre. Everybody was going crazy. I was politically indifferent when I joined the Air Force, but was becoming increasingly radicalized the longer I was in. Proximity to San Francisco and all its hippie glory probably didn’t hurt. In mid-January of 1970, I was sent to Thailand for a year, leaving the SR-71 and the Chiseler’s Inn behind. But that’s another story. — Ted Hicks

SR-71 Blackbird taking off

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Famous Monsters and Me – Pt. 4: Christopher Lee

When I heard that Christopher Lee had died on June 7, my first thoughts were of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958), the two British films that made him a star and forever associated Lee with horror films and the character of Dracula in particular. To say these films had a huge impact on me would be a gross understatement. As I stated in the first installment of Famous Monsters and Me (5/17/12),  I became obsessed with horror and science fiction at a very early age. The years 1957 and 1958 were of key importance due to the release of these two films; the appearance on television in October ’57 of Shock Theater, a syndicated package of 52 horror and mystery films from the ’30s and ’40s; and the first issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland in early ’58, which tied it all together.

Curse of Frankenstein-poster2Horror of Dracula poster3


Horror and science fiction films seldom had regular runs in the movie theaters where I lived in Iowa. I usually learned of their existence from movie ads in the Des Moines Register. I would clip these ads from the paper, day after day. They would diminish in size as the films got closer to the end of their runs, but I’d cut them out anyway. I kept the ads in a scrapbook (long gone, alas). Not everything played in Des Moines theaters, but The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula did. It was frustrating that it could take weeks or months before such films made it to second- and third-run theaters in smaller Iowa towns — if at all. There they might get a short run at one of these theaters or the local drive-in. Often it was just a single midnight showing, usually on a Friday night.

Vista Theater-Storm LakeI don’t remember the exact circumstances of seeing The Curse of Frankenstein, but I saw Horror of Dracula as a midnight movie at the Vista Theater in Storm Lake, Iowa, sometime in 1959. (The theater is still there! They added two smaller screens some years back in an adjacent space, but the lobby and original auditorium are just as I remembered them.) The logistics of pulling this off were formidable. Until I was old enough for a driver’s license, which was a year or two away at the time, I had to persuade someone with a license and a car — who also liked these movies — to take me. This involved much sucking up and selling how great this one was sure to be. Once I’d done this, I still had to get my dad’s permission to stay out that late, which was always a challenge since he usually needed me to help with farm work the next day. From my dad’s point of view, my anxious need to be scared to death by vampires in living color did not take precedence over cleaning out the hog house on Saturday morning. In this particular case, all the effort was worth it, because Horror of Dracula took the top of my head off with how great it was. It was terrifying and thrilling, and I loved it.

I’d already seen The Curse of Frankenstein, which had a huge impact on the genre, and on me as well. It inspired me to attempt to create my own monster, or at least a life-size figure of one. I got an old pair of my dad’s coveralls, which I began stuffing with straw in the attic of our garage. I stopped work on this project before I got around to fashioning a head for the body. I think I lost enthusiasm when I realized my dad was not about to let me hang this thing from the yard light that extended from the roof of the garage. However, it did have a life of sorts a couple of years later when it was tossed into a bonfire at a school pep rally the night before the big homecoming game.

Curse was Hammer Films’ first horror film in color. Prior to this most horror and science fiction films had been shot in black and white. Color gave a rich texture to the period Gothic setting and created quite a sensation at the time, including outrage in some quarters at the amount of blood and gore on screen. This seems tame when seen today, but in 1957 and ’58 it was definitely something new.

The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula really put Hammer Films on the map, along with the stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. In Curse, Cushing plays Victor Frankenstein, a role he was to vividly inhabit a total of six times. As the Creature, Lee has no dialogue, but he makes a strong impression, as can be seen in the following scene of his entrance in the film:

Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing appeared in a total of 22 films together, though in the first two — Hamlet (1948) and Moulin Rouge (1952) — they had supporting roles in separate scenes. The Curse of Frankenstein was their first film as co-stars; from then on they were the main attractions.

Blood on coffin nameplate2Horror of Dracula was released in the U.K. as Dracula. It was retitled for release in America apparently to avoid confusion with the the Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931). Peter Cushing is billed above the title, while Lee gets a “with Christopher Lee” credit below Michael Gough and Melissa Stribling on the second credits screen. I’ve seen this film many times over the years, most recently a couple of weeks ago on DVD. The heavy chords of James Bernard’s opening music over the slow, inexorable tracking shot down stone steps into a sub-level crypt always give me a thrill and a chill and a sense of dread anticipation as the camera moves in to a closeup of the Dracula nameplate on a heavy stone crypt, climaxed by blood splattering on the letters. I found the film to be even more effective this time than I’d remembered.

Terence Fisher (1904-1980) directed these two films, as well as most of the best Hammer horror films, including The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Mummy (1959), The Brides of Dracula (1960, a Dracula film without Dracula), The Curse of the Werewolf (1961, with Oliver Reed as the title character), and Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966). Fisher’s contribution to the Hammer horror films can’t be over-estimated.

Christopher Lee-Dracula2Christopher LeeLee appeared as Dracula in a total of nine films, all but two of them for Hammer. After the first one it was eight years before he agreed to play the role again, in Dracula: Prince of Darkness. He has no dialogue and is almost a peripheral character in the film. I like it because it has a lot of atmosphere and some terrific scenes, but Lee is not the seductive, ferocious, alien, truly iconic figure that he was in Horror of Dracula. Lee is right to disparage the subsequent Hammer Dracula films. In interviews he makes it sound like he was practically forced to be in these films, but who knows?

As an actor, it seems that Christopher Lee never lacked for work. Per IMDb Lee has 206 feature film credits from 1948 to 2015, and many television credits from 1955 to 2008, as well as lending his distinctive voice to Vengeance of Fu Manchu-postervideo games from 1994 to 2015. Though he’ll always be best known as Dracula, he also appeared as the villainous Fu Manchu in five films from 1965 to ’69. This was when Western actors could still get away with playing Asian roles, as Peter Lorre had done with the detective Mr. Moto and Boris Karloff had in Fu Manchu films from the ’30s. Lee portrayed Rasputin in Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), a film I’ve not seen but would like to. He was in Hannie Caulder, a western with Racquel Welch in 1971,  and a Bond villain in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). He was Rochefort in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1974), The Four Musketeers (1974), and The Return of the Musketeers (1989), and more recently in several Tim Burton films, including Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Dark Shadows (2012).

I was surprised to learn that he’d had a singing career as well, recording opera and other musical pieces between 1986 and 1998. This was followed, bizarrely enough, with a series of heavy metal albums from 2005 to 2013. He referred to these as “symphonic metal.” This is covered in a piece from The Daily Beast that appeared last month.

Christopher Lee worked right up to the end of his life at age 93. We should all be so lucky. He’s probably best known to younger audiences for his roles as Count Dooku in two of the films in the Star Wars prequel trilogy (2002 and 2005), and as Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. I loved seeing him in other films, but they always reminded me of the first time I’d seen him in The Curse of Frankenstein and especially in Horror of Dracula. I was sad when I heard that he’d died, but it’s not like he’s really gone. We have the films. — Ted Hicks

Christopher Lee-collage


Here is Christopher Lee talking about his career.

Christopher Lee hosted Saturday Night Live on March 25, 1978. He appeared in sketch called “Mr. Death” with Jane Curtin and Loraine Newman. I was unable to find a clip, but here’s a link to the transcript of that sketch. It’s pretty good.

Christopher Lee - SNL 1978***********************************************************************

Christopher Lee-youngChristopher Lee-older2

Christopher Lee-bye2Note: All of the films referenced in this post are available on home video for rental or streaming.

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Les Blank & Leon Russell – Gumbo Stew

Les Blank’s A Poem Is a Naked Person is a very strange animal, a film that resists easy classification. I’ve seen it three times so far at press screenings, so I guess you could say I’ve been hooked. Ostensibly, it’s a documentary filmed between 1972 and 1974 about musician Leon Russell in concert and in the studio. But it’s more expansive than that would suggest. The first time I saw A Poem Is a Naked Person, I loved the concert and studio scenes with Russell, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Charlie McCoy and others, but was thrown by material that seemed to have little or nothing to do with the film I thought I came to see. For me, it was great music sequences interrupted by bizarre local-color sequences with eccentric characters, such as a man on the ground at a parachuting competition who downs a glass of beer and then proceeds to break off pieces of the glass with his teeth and chew them up, or a small chicken that gets tossed in with a boa constrictor with predictable results. These are fascinating scenes, but I thought they should probably be in a film of their own.

Leon Russell on stage with foodBut even with those reservations, there was much to hold my attention during this first viewing. To begin with, Leon Russell is a mesmerizing presence. During an early performance scene, with the camera in position on the stage behind the piano, Russell enters carrying a plate of food in one hand and sets it on the piano, then sits down and eats a forkful before he starts to play. It’s a great detail that says a lot about the time and place, and how relaxed he was. Another great scene has Russell singing Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” on the soundtrack under a shot of the moon being slowly obscured by passing clouds. This is one of the most beautiful songs of longing ever written, and the juxtaposition of Russell’s performance with the image just about killed me.

So there was plenty to engage me the first time, even the oddball stuff. It stayed with me, and I jumped at the opportunity to attend another screening to see how the film played a second time. And guess what? I loved it — all of it — and even saw it a third time a couple of weeks later. Something keeps pulling me back.

The film was shot by Les Blank and his assistant, Maureen Gosling, at Russell’s studio on Grand Lake in Oklahoma northeast of Tulsa, and in concert in New Orleans and Anaheim, California. Per the film’s press notes, Blank and Gosling were constantly “on the lookout for curious things in the area that might add weird but appropriate texture to the movie.” As Daniel Egan wrote in a Film Comment article, “…Blank uses Russell’s music as a gateway into a striking and largely vanished world of floating motels, goose grabs, and tractor pulls.” Blank has ethnographic concerns as a filmmaker, and A Poem Is a Naked Person is no exception. It’s populated with people who might at first glance seem like oddballs and outsiders, but Blank views them with respect and humanity. Leon Russell is not really the “star” of this film; it’s more like he’s one of many characters, all of whom have equal importance in the rich stew Les Blank has stirred up.

Leon RussellThroughout all of this, as a performer Russell  just knocked me out. His music often has a revivalist fervor, with some Jerry Lee Lewis tossed in. Blank at times intercuts scenes filmed in an African-American Pentacostal church with Russell’s concert footage. The music in the church was rocking out so much that at one point I didn’t even realize we’d cut from one setting to another until a couple seconds into it.

Gosling estimates they shot 50 to 60 hours of 16mm color film during the three-year production. The film was produced and financed mainly by Leon Russell and his partner at the time, Denny Cordell. Russell was reportedly unhappy with Blank’s initial cut of the film. Creative differences and extensive music clearance issues held up the release of A Poem Is a Naked Person for forty years. During that time, Les Blank, who had been hired to direct  by Russell and did not own the rights, was permitted to show the film at non-profit venues if he was there in person, so it developed a reputation. Blank passed away in 2013, but his son Harrod Blank, also a filmmaker, oversaw the film’s restoration and was able to obtain necessary releases for the music. A Poem Is a Naked Person finally had its public premiere at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas this past March.

A Poem Is a Naked Person opens on Wednesday, July 1, for a two-week run at Film Forum here in NYC. A DVD and Blu-ray release will follow, with a release date to be announced. I definitely recommend that you see this film when you can. The following trailer gives a pretty good sense of what you’re in for. — Ted Hicks

Les Blank, 1935 - 2013

Les Blank, 1935 – 2013


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Brain That Wouldn't Die-stillDue to a glitch, the post that appeared earlier today, The Best Seat in the House, was put up before it was entirely ready. A photo was missing from the end and I hadn’t done a final proof of the text. I’ve since updated it. The post is now basically finished (unless I find additional typos to correct or copy to be tweaked in the next few days). – Ted Hicks

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The Best Seat in the House

This Thursday, June 11, is our tenth (!) wedding anniversary. I’ve been trying, with limited success, to wrap my head around this. Nancy and I met at the movies. This seems appropriate, since films have been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember. One of my friends once asked how I was ever going to meet somebody if all I did was go to movies. Yeah, well, you never know.

Tuck Everlasting-poster2Everyone always asks what the movie was. I wish I could say it was a double bill of Citizen Kane and Tokyo Story, or something like Gun Crazy, but it wasn’t. The movie we saw that day – Saturday, October 19, 2002 – was Tuck Everlasting, an adaptation of a popular children’s book by Natalie Babbitt published in 1975which concerns a young girl who encounters a family of immortals and falls in love with one of them. As a film it’s okay, with a cast that includes Alexis Bledel, William Hurt, Sissy Spacek, and Ben Kingsley, but it’s a Disney film, so it doesn’t have any sharp edges that might have made it more interesting.

Earlier that day I’d already seen Phillipe de Broca’s 1997 film On Guard (Le Bossu) at The Paris Theater, a great single-screen art theater near the Plaza Hotel. I wanted to see another film, and checked schedules to see what else was playing that I might be interested in. I was working for the Christopher Awards at the time, which gives annual awards to feature films, TV and cable programming, and publishing. My supervisor had mentioned that we probably should check out the film of Tuck Everlasting, since Babbitt’s book had received a Christopher Award in the children’s books category in 1976. We usually got screening invites to films before they opened, but we either hadn’t received one for this film, or we had and hadn’t gone. In any event, I saw it was playing nearby and decided to go.

Loews Lincoln Square-exteriorTuck Everlasting was showing at Loews Lincoln Square, a 13-screen multiplex at Broadway and 68th Street. It’s still there, but has since been acquired by the AMC theater chain. Each of the screens in this multiplex is named for a Loews theater that once existed in New York City. Tuck was playing in the “Paradise,” the namesake of a grand movie palace that opened in 1929 in the Bronx with a seating capacity of 3,885 . In retrospect, considering how things worked out, it’s pretty funny that this is where we met.

Tuck movie ticket4Paradise 1Okay, so get on with the story. What happened? I purchased a ticket for the 3:45 pm show and entered the theater through an archway that makes it look like you’re entering an Egyptian tomb. I was early, as I usually am.

The theater was already filling up, but I found a seat centrally located in an row I liked, and sat down directly to the left of a woman in a black turtleneck (Nancy filled in this detail later, because I couldn’t remember). I didn’t pay any attention to her at the time. Instead I pulled out a book and started to read. I never go anywhere without something to read. It wasn’t long before a group of young girls filled in the seats in front of me. They were laughing and talking and I feared this could be trouble if they kept this up during the movie. I saw there were some empty seats to my left near the end of the same row, so I moved to one of those. Almost immediately, another group of giggling girls sat in front of me. I figured if I had to put up with this I’d rather be in the seat I originally picked, so I moved back to sit next to the woman in the turtleneck. As I sat down, she said to me, “Looking for a quieter spot?” To which I replied, “That’s a lost cause.” Then the house lights went down and the movie began.

While the end credits were rolling we began chatting about the movie. I felt like this was okay since she’d already opened the door, so to speak. We continued the conversation in the lobby, talking about the kind of work we did. We kept talking on the escalator down to the ground floor and then out on the street. I learned her name was Nancy and found out we lived only a few blocks apart on the Upper West Side. I said that I often got screening invites to new movies and maybe she’d like to see one of those with me. We exchanged contact information and went our separate ways, while I tried to process this encounter. I guess I thought Nancy might be someone to go to movies with, but wasn’t thinking much beyond that.

You have to realize that I’m an only child. I’d lived alone all my adult life. I hadn’t been in a relationship for at least 10 years. I went to movies all the time. It’s not that people in movies were sometimes as real to me as people in real life, it’s that people in real life were sometimes as real to me as people in movies. I could identify feelings I had while seeing a film, but had a harder time doing that out in the world. So the fact that I was open to what followed is still a mystery to me.

Cronos-posterTruth About Charlie-poster3Keeping my priorities straight, the next day I saw two more films: Cronos (1993),  Guillermo del Toro’s truly original take on the vampire mythos, and The Truth About Charlie, Jonathan Demme’s doomed remake of the Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn Charade (1963).

Interview with the Assassin-poster2The following week I sent Nancy some information about the Christopher Awards, and eventually sent an email asking if she wanted to join me for a screening on Monday, October 28. She said she would, so we made arrangements to meet at the Magno Review screening room. The film was Interview with the Assassin (directed by Neil Burger), about a man who claims to be the second shooter on the Grassy Knoll in Dallas when Kennedy was shot. It’s quite chilling, and while maybe not the greatest movie choice for a first date, it was definitely interesting. After the movie, we took the subway uptown. When we got off at 86th Street, Nancy asked if I wanted to get a bite to eat at a nearby restaurant. I begged off, saying I’d had a late lunch and was just going to go home. Smooth, right? We went to another screening a week or so later, and this time I made sure to ask if Nancy wanted to stop for something to eat after. This time it was her turn to opt out. Touché! We eventually worked past this kind of stuff, but it was a challenge, since I basically had no idea what I was doing.

The first several weeks we only went to movies together. I saw that this could turn into being just movie buddies. Nancy had already started calling me Movie Guy. So I decided to change gears and asked her to brunch one weekend. The relationship developed. I was just doing the next thing, and the thing after that. Eventually we moved in together and eventually we got married. We still see a lot of movies together, though Nancy’s not as obsessive about it as I can be, so I see a lot more. And that’s okay.

Pauline Kael’s first collection of film reviews in 1965 was titled I Lost It at the Movies. I’d have to change that to I Found It at the Movies. You never know what’s going to happen when you take a seat in a movie theater. It might not be just what’s on the screen. – Ted Hicks


And here we are in Madrid, New Mexico, on our way to Santa Fe in 2007. Nancy Waks on the left and yours truly on the right.Santa Fe 2007

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Films etc. – Three Years Down the Road

Film blogger in jailLast Saturday, April 25, marked three years since I started this blog. Since that time I’ve written 77 posts and have gathered 644 followers. I know these aren’t big numbers by Internet standards, but I’m not complaining. Here’s a kind of recap and a preview.

In my very first post I wrote, “I realize the world hardly needs another blog about anything, but I’m going to take a run at it anyway. I plan to write mainly about movies, and also television, books, or anything else that gets my attention that I feel compelled to pass along. I love movies of all kinds, shapes and sizes, from truly great films, e.g. Children of Paradise, Tokyo Story, and Grand Illusion, to the totally bizarre, e.g. the totally inept yet strangely wonderful Plan 9 from Outer Space. I’ll try to be entertaining and informative, whether writing about old films or new. Hopefully readers (assuming there are any) will let me know how I’m doing with this goal.”

I’ve tried to live up to that. My biggest challenge, as always, has been how to overcome procrastination. As I wrote about this in a post last year, “If this was an actual job where I had to turn in something every Friday, for example, I’d be able to do it. Might not start until Thursday night, but I’d get it done. I’m the world’s worse boss to myself. It’s too easy to go to another movie, which is ironic, since this blog is ostensibly about movies. Seeing all these movies gets in the way of writing about them.”

Even though it can be a struggle, this is the most sustained writing about film that I’ve done over the years. Early on I knew that if I wasn’t going to be making films, I wanted to write about them. When I returned to the University of Iowa after four years in the Air Force, I wrote reviews for the campus paper, The Daily Iowan. After that, in Minneapolis, I wrote film reviews for a monthly, The Minneapolis Review of the Arts, and a weekly, The Twin Cities Reader. In 1975 I wrote a short piece for a New York magazine, Filmmakers Newsletter, about an annual film festival at the University of Iowa called “Refocus.” I was excited to see myself in print in a national magazine, and planned to continue this when I moved to New York City in 1977. But I didn’t make that happen until now, though I did manage to see thousands of movies in the meantime.

Some of the posts I’ve enjoyed writing the most, and that I think tend to hold up pretty well, include the following:

Famous Monsters and Me (May 17, 2012)

Seeing Movies with an Audience (November 17, 2012)

Kubrick and “The Killing” (April 2, 2013)

Burt Lancaster – “If it’s killing you want…” (May 23, 2013)                        

James Gandolfini and Richard Matheson – Jersey Boys (June 27, 2013)

“Born in Chicago” – Black & White Blues (August 9, 2013)

Gunfights at the OK Corral (January 31, 2014)

Christopher Walken & Talkin’ (& Dancin’) (May 25, 2014)

“Coherence” – No Exit  (June 18, 2014)

“Rosebud was his sled!” – Random Notes on Orson Welles (November 11, 20114

John Huston – The Stuff That Dreams are Made Of” (December 31, 2014)

Looking ahead, there are a lot of films and filmmakers I plan to write about, including the following:

— The profoundly disturbing horror film Island of Lost Souls (1932), based on H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, with Charles Laughton in an over-the-top performance that’s perfect for this film’s nightmare world.

— Robert Aldrich’s corrosive World War II drama, Attack (1956), and his brutal Western, Ulzana’s Raid (1972), with Burt Lancaster.

— The amazing series of strange and unusual films produced by Val Lewton for RKO from 1942 to 1946, especially I Walked with a Zombie and The Seventh Victim (both 1943).

— Edgar G. Ulmer’s unhinged The Black Cat (1934), with Boris Karloff as a necrophilic devil worshipper and Bela Lugosi as a good guy for once (albeit more than a little nuts).

— John Frankenheimer’s deeply paranoid Seconds (1966), with John Randolph as an unhappy man surgically reborn as Rock Hudson reaching for a second chance.

— Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962), with two of my favorites, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott.

— The silent films of the impossibly great Buster Keaton.

— Ed Wood’s totally inept yet always entertaining films, especially the strangely brave and wonderful Glen or Glenda (1953) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).

— The great series of Westerns Budd Boetticher made with Randolph Scott and Anthony Mann made with James Stewart (as well as Mann’s terrific film noirs from the late ’40s).

Robert Wise, Robert Siodmak, Don Siegel, Jacques Tourneur, Jules Dassin, Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean Renoir, and many many others, plus drive-in movie theaters, and film noir, always noir.

Plus I’ll be writing about new films that get my attention as they come along, as well as some of the great stuff on television these days, such as Daredevil, the Neflix series based on the Marvel Comics character that began streaming last month, which I liked a lot.

One of my goals is to pick up the pace and follow through. Hopefully, saying this in print will motivate me to do that. — Ted Hicks

Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo, "Kiss of Death" (1947)

Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo, “Kiss of Death” (1947)


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