Elaine Stritch – No Pants, Bela Lugosi, and Godzilla in a Stalled Elevator

In a review of Woody Allen’s September (1987), People magazine referred to Elaine Stritch in that film as a “…roaring presence, like Godzilla in a stalled elevator…” I like that vivid image, which really captures something about Elaine Stritch. Her death last Thursday on July 17th at age 89 has gotten a tremendous amount of attention, and rightly so. She was a force of nature, especially in her later years with her blunt, in-your-face persona. She liked to cause a ruckus and stir things up. In death Elaine Stritch is still larger than life.

But for all the obituaries and write-ups since her death, I’ll bet that none of them have Elaine Stritch & Bela Lugosi 1947mentioned Strich’s connection to Bela Lugosi. Earlier this year we saw Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, an excellent documentary directed by Chiemi Karasawa. In it we see in passing a photograph of a young Elaine with Bela Lugosi looming behind her. I wanted to write a blog post about this film and other recent documentaries I’d really liked (Finding Vivian Maier and Particle Fever), though so far I haven’t cranked up the energy to do so. But I was particularly intrigued by the photo of Stritch and Lugosi. Had she been in one of the many stage productions of Dracula with Lugosi? I hoped so, but it turned out not to be the case (though some references give the impression that she actually was in Dracula with Lugosi). The play in question was Three Indelicate Ladies at the Schubert Theater in New Haven, CT (in the interview clip below Stritch says it was at a theater in Westport, CT, so I’m not 100% sure of this). By all accounts that I’ve seen, this was not much of a play. Still, it was Bela Lugosi. In any event, it never made it to Broadway.

Here is a clip of Elaine Stritch on a television show called Theater Talk speaking about working with Lugosi. Her impression of Lugosi’s distinctive way of speaking is pretty good.

Elaine Stritch Shoot Me poster3Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me  played for months here in New York City. I can’t recommend it enough. Through many interviews and archival clips the documentary gives an excellent picture of her career and the persona she developed over the years. The Stritch we see is feisty, irascible, difficult, outspoken, self-deprecating, blunt, hard to handle, difficult to be around, fun to be around, and very very  funny. She may not have the greatest singing voice, but she sells that by the strength how she lays it out. Rob Bowman, her musical director for 14 years, accompianist, friend and caring companion is a steady presence at her side in the film. I assume he also had the patience of a saint.

The filmmakers were granted an unusual amount of access to her life. We see her in situations where she’s sick in her bed or in a hospital, vulnerable and afraid. At the time the film was made (it was completed in 2013 and released in February of this year) Stritch was 87 or 88. In it she talks quite openly about being near the end of her life. She could be sharply funny on the subject of death. In an obituary that appeared on my Earthlink news feed, she’s quoted as saying, “You know where I’m at in age?… I don’t need anything. That’s a little scary — when you know that the last two bras you bought are it. You won’t need any more.” I really like that, “…the last two bras you bought are it.” It’s funny and also quite touching.

Stritch’s professional career lasted nearly 70 years, an amazing run for anyone. Many people today probably know her mainly as Colleen, Jack Donaghy’s mother on Tina Fey’s terrific NBC series 30 Rock from 2009 to 2012. Five of her eight Emmy nominations – and one of her three wins – were for her performances on this show. Her constant sparring with Alec Baldwin was memorable. She was also on an episode of The Simpsons in 2010. One of her obituaries referenced her signature “no pants” style (wearing a loose-fitting white shirt over sheer black tights). I think one of the reasons she could get away with this is that even at age 87 she had a pair of really killer legs.

Elaine Stritch on The SimpsonsElaine Stritch - no pants

 

 

 

Elaine Stritch & Alec Baldwin

 

 

 

1948

1948

Tonight Show - Oct 1975

Tonight Show – Oct 1975

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With balloon, 1954

With balloon, 1954

In 2013, Stritch moved back to her home state of Michigan after 71 years in New York City and a series of farewell performances at the Carlyle Hotel, where she had lived for many years. She was an entertainer in her bones, a hoofer to the end. She gave it her all. Elaine Stritch was buried in Skokie, Illinois next to her husband, John Bay on Wednesday, July 23rd. She will not soon be forgotten.

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The Wikipedia entry on Stritch is particularly valuable as a complete listing of her credits – theatrical, film, television, and cabaret. Her New York Times obituary is also quite good.

Finally, here is a 25 minute interview with Stritch from the New York Times website.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is available for streaming or DVD purchase from Amazon. It is also can be streamed or rented from Netflix. If you haven’t seen it and have read this far, you probably should. - Ted Hicks

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Movie Poster Art – Foreign Versions

Pickup on South Street-posterCARTEL ESPAÑOL - 70x100When searching online for posters and stills for English-language films, I often stumble upon foreign posters for those films. Many of these simply re-purpose the original poster art, but the ones that really get my attention are re-imagined in ways that are often more dynamic and dramatic. Some are almost painterly, with evocative use of color, light and shadow, and often depict characters frozen in action. Some of the posters I’ve included here do reference the originals, especially when someone like Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, or Ingrid Bergman star in the film. Here are a few examples of foreign posters for American films, most of which are from the 1940s and 50s. They’re not all graphic reinventions (though some are), but I think it’s interesting to compare them with their Hollywood counterparts.

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Big Heat-posterBig Heat-Italian poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Scarlet Street-posterScarlet Street-Spanish posterScarlet Street-Italian poster*****************************************************************************************

In a Lonely Place-poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a Lonely Place-Italian poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Enforcer-posterEnforcer-French poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enforcer-Italian poster******************************************************************************************

Notorious-posterNotorious-French poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Long Haul-poster4Long Haul-French posterI’ve not seen this film, and it’s probably not the greatest, but the French poster at right really pops, and the Italian poster below is truly amazing.

 

 

 

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Point Blank-poster2Point Blank-French poster****************************************************************************************

Casablanca-posterCasablanca-Italian poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

Casablanca-French poster3******************************************************************************************

Finally, here are English-language posters from the 1930s that exhibit strengths seen in the best of the foreign posters above; i.e. a strong sense of mood, atmosphere, and drama, as well as excellent design, especially in the choice of fonts. I think this approach was largely abandoned in later years. I’ve not paired these with their foreign versions, but they are just too great not to include here.

Little Caesar-posterLittle Caesar-poster2The poster to the left is particularly beautiful, but what’s interesting is that it showcases Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. rather than Edward G. Robinson.

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Maltese Falcon-1931 posterSatan Met a Lady-1936 posterThese are for the first two versions of The Maltese Falcon, the one at left from 1931 and at right from 1936. Both are greatly inferior to John Huston’s definitive adaptation in 1941.

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Frankenstein-posterInvisible Man-poster

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And what better way to close than with a great Citizen Kane poster I’ve never seen before.

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If you’re interested in the films beyond the posters, all of these titles are available on home video. And if you’d like to see more foreign posters for American films, check online. This is only the tip of the iceberg. - Ted Hicks

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“Coherence” – No Exit

Coherence-posterCoherence, an impressive first feature from writer/director James Ward Byrkit, begins with eight long-time friends gathering for a dinner party on the night a comet is passing near the Earth. What follows is a fascinating, maddening mix of The Twilight Zone, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, It Came from Outer Space, The X-Files, the fiction of Philip K. Dick, as well as discussions of quantum decoherence and Schrödinger’s cat. The characters become progressively freaked out and destabilized over the course of a long dark night, and since we never know anymore than they do, it’s like we’re in their shoes. I’ve seen the film twice in two days and I’m still struggling to sort it out, which makes the inside of my head feel like an M. C. Escher drawing wrapped in a Möbius strip. Coherence has stayed with me, and I think it even got into my dreams a couple of nights ago. I love this kind of stuff, especially when it’s done as well as this is. But if you want a story to “make sense” or be resolved by the end, then Coherence is probably not for you. Watching Coherence I was reminded of two films by Shane Carruth, Primer (2004) and Upstream Color (2013). In a post I wrote last year about Upstream ColorI said that both films were “perplexing and demanding, but quite rewarding if you open yourself to them.” This holds true for Coherence as well.

The film opens with a tight over-the-shoulder shot of a woman (we later find out this is Em) driving at night. We don’t see her face, only her right shoulder and a part of her head. The image we see of her goes slightly soft while the dashboard remains in focus. She’s talking on a cell phone to a man, but what he says is unclear, difficult to decipher. She realizes she’s lost the call, then hears a sharp sound and sees with a start that the screen of her phone is now laced with cracks. There’s a struggle for coherence, both visually and aurally, right from the start.

The dinner party is at the home of Mike (Nicholas Brendon) and his wife Lee (Lorene Scafaria), located in the Willow Glen neighborhood of San Jose, California. Their guests are Em (Emily Foxler) and her boyfriend Kevin (Maury Sterling), Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) and his wife Beth (Elizabeth Gracen), and late arrivals Amir (Alex Manugian) and his date Laurie (Lauren Maher). We slowly get a sense of the various connections and tensions between these people.

The performances are excellent throughout, and the actors play it absolutely straight as they deal with panic and paranoia. The increasingly insane situation is all the more disturbing because of the conviction they bring to their roles. It’s nuts, but it feels real.  The cast was unfamiliar to me with the exception of Nicholas Brendon, who played Xander Harris for seven seasons (1997-2003) on Joss Whedon’s great television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a joke in Coherence is that Brendon’s character Mike is an actor who had been on a popular TV series, Roswell – which was a real show, though Brendon was not on it).

Seeds are planted early that provide clues (possibly) to events that follow. At the dinner table the passing comet – “Miller’s Comet” – is mentioned. Em relates that after a comet passed over Finland in 1923, many residents didn’t know who they were, couldn’t find their homes, and that a woman called police to say that the man in her house was not her husband. She claimed she was certain of this because the day before she had killed her real husband, and this guy wasn’t him. Mike jokes that now she can kill him again. It turns out that the screen of everyone’s cell phone is cracked like Em’s, and that no one has cell service, nor is there Internet service. Then the power goes out. They look outside and see the entire neighborhood is dark, except for one house a few blocks down the road.

Events become increasingly strange and disturbing. Has the comet somehow created at least two sets of the same people and houses? As they struggle to make sense of what’s happening, cause and effect become totally scrambled. For these eight people it’s the worst acid trip ever as they try to figure out who are the “visitors,” them or us?

Coherence-still3Coherence is proof that filmmakers don’t need a big budget to do terrific work. The film was reportedly shot in chronological sequence in basically a single location with a cast of eight, one or two cameras and two sound guys. The actors were given limited information about what would happen next, resulting in performances and interactions that feel natural and authentic, almost like we’re watching a documentary. James Ward Byrkit has created a small gem, thought-provoking and challenging. I’m really looking forward to what he does next. - Ted Hicks

Coherence opens in limited release in New York City and Los Angeles this Friday, June 20, with additional theatrical dates to follow. It will also be available for instant streaming and HD downloads beginning August 5, 2014.

 

 

 

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Washroom Attendant to the Stars: My Technicolor Years

Technicolor logoWhen I graduated from the University of Iowa in the summer of 1973 (with an awesome “General Studies” degree), I moved to Minneapolis. Not long after arriving I managed to land a job with a motion picture lab that did work mainly for producers of TV spots and industrial films. I’d taken film studies and production courses at Iowa, but I think that what actually got me this job was having worked in a facility that processed and printed aerial reconnaissance film during the four years I was in the Air Force. Thus began my employment in a series of film labs over the next fifteen years or so, with my nine years at Technicolor being the most interesting by far.

For a long time I’d envisioned a life of making movies, of being involved with them in some way. But this was more of a wish, a fantasy, than anything that seemed remotely possible for an Iowa farm boy. Making short films and taking film studies courses in college fed that fantasy to a degree, but I think I was waiting for something to happen (rather than trying to figure out how to make it happen). Working in a 16mm lab in Minneapolis didn’t exactly fill the bill, but I was working with interesting people, many of whom became friends. And it was film, images on strips of celluloid. This was undeniably the film world (sort of), though I was on the periphery.

I moved to New York City in 1977 for another lab job, but this lab handled 35mm and occasionally made prints of feature films, some of them pornos (Inside Jennifer Wells, anyone?). This felt more like the real movie business, but the job turned out to be a disaster. The only time I’ve ever been fired from a job was this one, which was probably a good thing, since it would have taken me a lot longer to work up the nerve to quit on my own. But I’ve always thought, yeah, it was a terrible job, but it got me to New York, where I’ve been for 37 years.

I got the job with Technicolor a year later. The name itself had UA logostrong recognition value, and I felt that now I had a real connection to the film world. At the previous labs I’d been an expeditor as well as working in customer service. At Technicolor there were four or five expeditors who handled separate accounts. I was assisting a man from the Bronx named Joe Fratangelo, who had the United Artists account. I thought, “Wow! United Artists!” This felt like I was working for Cadillac instead of some place that made go-karts.

Joe Frat was an interesting guy. He really got my attention one day when Al Pacino was in the lab. Joe mentioned casually that years before, he and his wife would babysit Pacino in their home. I guess this is normal stuff and no big deal when you’re just part of it, but I was impressed.

Aside from the kick I got from being able to say I was working on the UA account at Technicolor, what I was really doing was writing up 16mm print orders of UA titles and helping Joe make sure schedules were met. This was before VHS had taken hold, let alone DVDs, so if a television station in Cincinnati was going to run Breakheart Pass, for example, they’d have to order a 16mm print from us. Super-8mm prints of features were also made to show on airlines. This all seems unbelievably bulky and inefficient now, but digital formats were still in the future.

Print elements for films (35mm & 16mm picture negatives and sound tracks) were stored in a vault in cans on racks that looked exactly like those in the photo below. This doesn’t show Technicolor’s vault, but it could have been. The vault at Technicolor is also where I kept my bicycle, which I rode nearly everyday from my from my apartment on West 92nd Street down to the lab at 321 West 44th.

Film can neg storageAt that time there were at least seven other labs in the city. Most of them are now long gone. DuArt Film Lab, where I worked briefly after Technicolor, is still here, but stopped processing film entirely in late 2010. This is ironic, since DuArt’s motto — displayed on t-shirts and shopping bags, and I think even on the side of their building — was “Shoot Film.” Before digital all major features were shot on 35mm, and until the late 80s all feature dailies were printed on film.

Joe Violante

Joe Violante

Maybe my end of it was the equivalent of working in a sausage factory, but across the hall from us was the dailies department office, which was run by Otto Paoloni and Joe Violante (aka “Joey V”). Any feature film that used Technicolor to process and print its 35mm footage went through this department. The printed footage, called “dailies,” would be shown to filmmakers in a small theater down the hall.

Otto and Joey V were great guys who befriended me and didn’t seem to mind all the time I spent hanging out in their office (which I did a lot of, despite Otto’s penchant for noxious-smelling cigars). I would have killed to be doing the work they were doing, and wanted to find out as much about it as I could. One of the biggest unofficial perks for me was that Otto and Joey V would let me read shooting scripts for features that were going through the lab. Another was being able to watch dailies before the filmmakers saw them. This was on the third floor where the processing and printing machines were, as well as negative cutting and assembly. There was a room with four or five high-speed projectors where Joey and Otto would view dailies fresh out of processing and printing to make sure there weren’t any technical problems. An older woman named Olga operated one of the projectors. She would often put her hand over the lens if there was any nudity in the footage, which was frustrating to the guys who had clustered in the doorway to watch. Everyone on the floor always seemed to know when such footage was about to be projected.

John Huston

John Huston

Sydney Pollack

Sydney Pollack

Having access to all of this was like having an inside track on at least part of the filmmaking process. This felt especially true when I’d catch sight of directors and actors who came in to screen dailies in the little theater down the hall. When John Huston was directing Annie (1982) I followed him out to the elevators and told him how much I loved his films. He thanked me with that voice of his and stuck out his hand for me to shake. Or when I spoke with Sidney Pollack, who was directing Tootsie (1982) while he waited outside the dailies theater. I asked him how he liked the New Balance 990 running shoes he was wearing, hoping he’d think I was one of the guys instead of a nervous movie buff. The truth of it is that I was constantly amazed to be around these people and this world. I felt less intimidated approaching them in the lab than I would have on the street. It seemed somehow more legitimate.

Angel Heart-posterI’d be reading shooting scripts usually months before the finished films would be released (obviously the idea of “spoilers” didn’t bother me too much). Except for the time I finished reading the script for Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987) just seconds before the lights went down at a screening of that film. This had a disorienting effect, as though there was the movie on one screen and the pages of the script on a screen right beside it. I don’t recommend this approach. Angel Heart wasn’t any good, but this didn’t help.

But it was always interesting and instructive to compare the shooting scripts with what ended up on the screen. This was especially true with Milos Forman’s Ragtime (1981). The screenplay by Michael Weller was one of the best I’d ever read. Besides being an excellent adaptation of the novel by E.L. Doctorow, it was a real pleasure to read just for itself. So it was quite a surprise when I finally saw Ragtime in a theater and discovered that every scene in the film was better than in the script. Milos Forman obviously made the difference. It takes a great director to improve on an already great script.

Milos Forman (R) directing Elizabeth McGovern in "Ragtime"

Milos Forman (R) directing Elizabeth McGovern in “Ragtime”

Otto lived in New Jersey and Joey on Staten Island, so they would usually give me invitations they’d received for evening screenings rather than come back to the city after having already gone home, especially since they’d been in the lab since 5:30 or 6:00 that morning to see dailies from the night before. I loved seeing films before they were released; it made me feel like I was ahead of the curve in some way that probably doesn’t really matter all that much. But there it was.

Diane Keaton & Warren Beatty - "Reds"

Diane Keaton & Warren Beatty – “Reds”

They’d also pass on invites to the wrap parties that would take place shortly after a featurehad finished shooting. The wrap party for Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) was different. It was was held a month or two after the film had been released in theaters. So it wasn’t really a “wrap” party, but it was definitely a party, and promised to be fairly elaborate. It was being held in a theater with a band (Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, if you remember them), dancing, food, and a large area in the lobby space with an open bar. I saw a bearded Robert De Niro standing alone at the bar, totally unobtrusive. Usually at these wrap parties it was mostly just the crew that would attend, but this one was clearly a bigger deal. Diane Keaton was there, along with Maureen Stapleton, and the great film editor Dede Allen, to name a few. But something very interesting happened when Warren Beatty showed up. It seemed to me that everyone, without being obvious about it, was totally aware that he was there. It was like the center of gravity in the room had shifted.

For a hard core film buff like myself, seeing actors and directors on a regular basis was more than a little surreal. Sometimes very surreal. Like the time I rode up in the elevator at the lab with Meryl Streep and another person. As were getting off the elevator I suddenly realized this other person was Robert De Niro. They were shooting Falling in Love (1984) at the time. It was weird, but off-screen you hardly noticed him. Or the time Paul Newman appeared in the doorway to our office and asked if he could use the phone at the desk next to mine. His call was mundane stuff, like anyone would make – dinner arrangements, something like that. When he got up to leave I pulled out my usual “I really like your work” line (and meant it). He thanked me and I added, “Especially Buffalo Bill and the Indians.” A beat after he’d left the office he stuck his head back around, gave me a thumbs up and said, “You’re in a minority.” If you’re impressed by stuff like this, which I obviously am, you remember it.

Paul Newman, Sidney Lumet, Lindsay Crouse (left to right), shooting "The Verdict" 1982

Paul Newman, Sidney Lumet, Lindsay Crouse (left to right), shooting “The Verdict” 1982

I realize I still haven’t explained the “Washroom Attendant to the Stars” part of the title for this post. The men’s restroom was just around the corner from our office. The restroom was locked and the key hanging from a hook on the wall near my desk. Anytime someone wanted to use the men’s room, they got the key from me. This was pretty straightforward, but sometimes it got a little more interactive. Liza Minnelli was in the small theater down the hall, probably watching dailies from Arthur (1981). I was startled when she burst into our office and said she needed a restroom. I told her the ladies room was further down the hall near the elevators. She said she didn’t have time and wanted to use the men’s room, which was closer. So what the hell, I went into the restroom and verified that it was empty, then stood guard outside for Liza Minnelli. Anyway, I used to joke about writing something with “Washroom Attendant to the Stars” as the title, and now I’ve done it. - Ted Hicks

(I’ve probably exceeded any acceptable quota for shameless name-dropping in this post, but I hope it’s been interesting.)

 

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Christopher Walken & Talkin’ (& Dancin’)

Everyone knows Christopher Walken, or thinks they do. He is a singular presence in American film, largely due to his uniquely eccentric line readings and vocal mannerisms, filtered through a frequently deadpan affect. Walken has cultivated this over the years, to the point where I think most people now expect his characters (and Walken himself) to be definitely strange, genuinely weird, and predictably unpredictable. But it took him awhile to get there, to go

from this…                                               …to this.

Chris Walken3Chris Walken4Walken doesn’t turn down many parts, so he’s been in more than a few second-rate (or simply bad) films during his career, but even in these he gets your attention, because he brings something special to the table in interesting and compelling ways (and sometimes he’s just weird). Walken believes that making movies (whether they turn out good or bad) is always a worthwhile experience (in one way or another). He’s been quoted as saying, “I’ve enjoyed making movies for lots of different reasons. Sometimes, it was the other people. Sometimes, it was the fact that I was really good in it. Sometimes, it was the location. Sometimes, it was the paycheck. Sometimes, it can be lots of different things, or a lot of those things. Or there can be reasons why you’d like to avoid it the next time. Like the jungle. I’ve made a couple of movies in the jungle, and I don’t want to go back to the jungle.”

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This post is not intended to be at all comprehensive. I think I’m mainly using it as an excuse to display a variety of clips and stills from Walken films I really like that give a good sense of his range and show just how great an actor he can be when everything is in alignment.

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Chris Walken-Next Stop G'wich Village still1The first time I saw Christopher Walken on screen must have been in Paul Mazursky’s Next Stop Greenwich Village (1976), but it was his appearance in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) that really got my attention. As Annie’s off-kilter brother Duane, he brings an intensely odd vibe to a small but memorable role. Woody’s encounter with Duane culminates in one the funniest payoffs in that film. It’s a short, intense sequence where we can see the Walken persona begin to be defined.

Only a year later he starred, along with Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep, in The Deer Hunter (1978), Michael Cimino’s epic film of the Vietnam War years. Regarding the impact that film and Annie Hall had on his career, Walken says, “I was already 35 years old, and I’d been in show business for 30-plus years, and suddenly there was this big Chris Walken5movie and I was getting an Oscar, and this enormous thing happened. In Annie Hall I played the strange brother who wanted to drive into oncoming cars. Immediately after that was The Deer Hunter, where I played this nice guy who shoots himself in the head. Something happened there. The fact that they came so close together, and they were both important movies, two big public things where I was simultaneously . . . ‘disturbed’. That got the ball rolling for me in terms of being an actor.” His role in The Deer Hunter earned Walken an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He would subsequently be nominated in the same category for his performance in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can (2002).

Christopher Walken was born Ronald Walken on March 31, 1943 in Astoria, Queens to immigrant parents. His mother, Rosalie, came from Scotland and lived to be nearly 103. His father, Paul, was from Germany and operated Walken’s Bakery in Astoria; he died at age 97. Good genes. Walken and his two brothers were child actors on television during the 1950s. In 1953, credited as Ronnie Walken, he got a regular part on a series titled The Wonderful John Acton. In 1963 he changed his name to Christopher because a friend had said he thought that was a better name for him than Ronnie. Walken’s first role (as “The Kid”) in a feature film is with Sean Connery in Sidney Lumet’s heist film, The Anderson Tapes (1971).

Walken initially trained as as dancer before deciding to focus on acting. He’s often been able to utilize this skill in his films, as he ably demonstrates in the following showstopping scene with Bernadette Peters from Pennies from Heaven (1981), lip-syncing to “Let’s Misbehave” while he dances and does a striptease atop a bar. It’s a stunner. (Walken tries to put a little dance number or movement into all of his roles, whether scripted or not.)

In 1982 Christopher Walken appeared with Susan Sarandon in a 60-minute film of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Who Am I This Time?, directed by Jonathan Demme for American Playhouse on PBS. Walken plays Harry Nash, a shy, introverted man who works in a hardware store in a small town. He breaks out of his shell whenever he performs in local theater productions. For Harry this is acting out in extreme fashion. Sarandon is Helene Shaw, a new arrival in town working for the phone company. She’s attracted to Harry when she sees him onstage, but is thrown for a loop when she tries to get something going with him offstage. Her solution to this problem is worked out in a very charming way. I haven’t seen this for years, but remember being quite taken with it. Demme is a very humanistic director, and tells this story in a relaxed, respectful way. It’s quite a different kind of role for Walken, and he’s great in it.

In 1983 Walken starred in David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, which for my money, is the best film adaptation of a Stephen King novel that I’ve seen to date. Cronenberg is a great director, and he really puts his stamp on this. Walken brings humanity, heartbreak, and loss to the role of Johnny Smith, a mild-mannered school teacher who gains (or is cursed with) the ability to foretell future events, at great cost to himself.

"The Dead Zone" - 1983

“The Dead Zone” – 1983

In At Close Range (director: James Foley, 1986), Walken is the leader of a gang of thieves based in rural Pennsylvania in the late 70s. Sean Penn (almost unrecognizable) plays his son, who is trying to extricate himself from this life. Walken is deadly serious and pretty scary in the following scene from that film.

Christopher Walken has made four films with director Abel Ferrara, the most notable being King of New York (1990), in which Walken plays recently-paroled crime boss Frank White making moves to regain control and expand his turf. This is one of my favorite Walken performances, and a rare lead role for him. Ferrara’s strongest films have a take-no-prisoners approach, and Walken is definitely up to the challenge here. He vividly conveys the sense of threat, power, and control that this character has, which is well expressed in the following clip:

In 1993 Walken appeared in True Romance, written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott, where he makes a lethal impression as a lawyer and enforcer for the Sicilian Mafia in Detroit. Walken is in the movie for a single 10-minute scene with Dennis Hopper as he tries to determine the whereabouts of Hopper’s son, played by Christian Slater, who has made off with a suitcase packed with the mob’s cocaine. The interrogation takes place inside Hopper’s dark and smokey trailer, which only adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere, especially with several of Walken’s minions (including James Gandolfini) crowding the background. Walken and Hopper have never been better. I haven’t watched the entire film for a long time, I frequently return to this scene to watch them give a master class in acting as they move toward a conclusion that was never in doubt. It’s a mini-movie within the movie.

Christopher Walken’s part in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) is similar to True Romance in that in both films he appears in a single scene to great effect. The following scene is one of the many high points in the Pulp Fiction. Walken’s Air Force captain has come to the young Bruce Willis’ home to deliver the gold watch that had been passed on from his grandfather to his father and now to him. Walken carefully explains the ludicrous method employed by the father to safeguard the watch during his years of captivity in a Vietnamese prison camp.

A lot of affection for Christopher Walken has developed over the years. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like him. He can be very entertaining and very funny. Walken hosted Saturday Night Live seven times from 1990 to 2008, where he most memorably appeared in the famous “More cowbell!” sketch. Anyone who does impressions has a “Christopher Walken” in their bag (Kevin Spacey and Kevin Pollak are two of the best at this). This is a measure of how familiar everybody is with Walken.

But he can still surprise us when he has the opportunity to move beyond the humor that exaggerations of his vocal mannerisms provoke. In 2012 Christopher Walken appeared with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Mark Ivani in A Late Quartet, directed by Yaron Zilberman. Walken is Peter Mitchell, who plays cello in a classical string quartet that’s been together for 25 years. He announces at the beginning that he’s been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and that their upcoming concert will be his last. How everyone deals with this forms the substance of the film. This is acting at a high level for Walken and the rest of the cast. His performance is quiet, heartbreaking, and totally unsentimental.

In the following clip from A Late Quartet, Peter movingly describes meeting Pablo Casals when Peter was a young musician. The scene is subtitled (possibly in Polish, I’m not sure), which is only mildly distracting.

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I want wrap this up with another clip of Walken dancing, which I’ve always seen as a wonderfully playful aspect of his long and durable career. He’s a song and dance man! This is a music video for Fat Boy Slim’s Weapon of Choice (2001) directed by Spike Jonze. It’s simply amazing.

One more thing. Here’s a Walken quote I love that says a lot about his approach to language and dialogue: “I have this theory about words. There’s a thousand ways to say ‘Pass the salt’. It could mean, you know, ‘Can I have some salt?’ or it could mean, ‘I love you.’ It could mean, ‘I’m very annoyed with you’. Really, the list could go on and on. Words are little bombs, and they have a lot of energy inside them.”

And another thing (the last). Christopher Walken supposedly doesn’t use a computer and has never owned a cell phone. Strange, indeed. You gotta love the guy. - Ted Hicks

Walken "good movie" quoteAll of the films referenced here are available on home video via rental, streaming, or purchase. Use this link to see Christopher Walken’s complete filmography.

Posted in Film, Home Video, Music, TV | 1 Comment

Al Feldstein — Seriously Mad

Feldstein-photo at Mad Feldstein & Alfred E. NewmanAl Feldstein died the week before last on Tuesday, April 29. The obituaries I’ve  seen since then focus mainly on his association with Mad magazine, which he edited for 29 years, from 1956 to 1985. Mad is likely to be what he’ll be most remembered for, but what I think of first is the incredible work Feldstein did with the EC horror, crime, and science-fiction comics during the early 1950s. According to Wikipedia, Feldstein started at EC in 1948, where he “began as an artist, but soon combined art with writing, eventually editing most of the EC titles. Although he originally wrote and illustrated approximately one story per comic, in addition to doing many covers, Feldstein finally focused on editing and writing, reserving his artwork primarily for covers. From late 1950 through 1953, he edited and wrote stories for seven EC titles.”

Bill Gaines (L) & Al Feldstein (R), 1950

Bill Gaines (L) & Al Feldstein (R), 1950

William M. Gaines became the publisher and co-editor of the EC line after his father, M.C. Gaines, was killed in a speedboat accident. EC originally stood for Educational Comics (later Entertaining Comics), which were best known for illustrated adaptations of Bible stories, as well as subjects such as world history and science. There’s a certain irony to that, given what came after. According to Feldstein, the elder Gaines was “losing his shirt, so he had to start putting out crime books and Western books. That’s what Bill inherited.”

The covers for these comics are what I would have remembered when I was a kid in the 50s. My dad was pretty strict about keeping me away from material like this. Superman and Batman were okay, but the closest I usually got to comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror was seeing them in magazine racks at news stands and drugstores. The covers were great and really fired my imagination, though of course I didn’t have any idea who the artists were. I also didn’t have a deep exposure to these comics until the mid-80s, when I started buying boxed-set reprints of all the EC titles. It was too late by then to turn me into the dope fiend and juvenile delinquent punk I obviously would have become had I started reading them earlier, though they probably set me back a few years anyway.

Here are two covers by Feldstein that reflect his distinctive style.

Shock Suspense Stories #12Weird Science '51The Weird Science cover above has a fairly juvenile sensibility, though no less engaging for that. This is the one I would have responded to at the time, more so than the Shock SuspenStories cover, which is something different altogether. How many comic books in the 1950s would showcase a depiction of drug addiction as graphic as this cover does? Per the Wikipedia entry on Feldstein, “In creating stories around such topics as racial prejudice, rape, domestic violence, police brutality, drug addiction and child abuse, he succeeded in addressing problems and issues which the 1950s radio, motion picture and television industries were too timid to dramatize.” Tackling these subjects within the comic book context of horror, crime, and science-fiction seems subversive in retrospect, and that’s not a criticism. This was probably also a motivating factor in the Congressional investigation of the comics industry a few years later.

Feldstein elaborates on the improvised way he and Gaines worked in an excellent career-spanning interview conducted by Jason Heller in the A.V. Club section of The Onion in 2007: “One day (Bill Gaines) came in and slapped two pulp magazines on my desk, and he said, ‘What do you know about science fiction?’ I said, ‘Absolutely nothing.’ And he said, ‘Well, I love it. Take this home and read it.’ I came back to Bill — greedy little me, I was a whore — and said, ‘I can write this stuff.’ (Laughs.) So we started putting out Weird Science and Weird Fantasy. Then we got into the political aspect of our society at the time: the fact that we had racial intolerance, anti-Semitism. What we went to World War II for, at least in my mind, was not getting taken care of. It was supposed to be a brave new world, but we were getting back into the old ruts, and we were in a cold war with Russia. We started this title called Shock SuspenStories, because it had these shock endings. Bill labeled them ‘preachies’ — they were stories that had to do with racial intolerance, politicians, corruption.”

Years before he started at EC, Feldstein, at age 15, began working in the Eisner & Iger studio, which was begun by Will Eisner, creator of the great Spirit comic books. Eisner had left the studio by then, but Jerry Iger gave Feldstein a job running errands and cleaning up pages for $3 a week. He was eventually given the opportunity to work on the Sheena Queen of the Jungle comic, painting leopard spots on Sheena’s top and loincloth. This awesome effort was his first published artwork.

Feldstein then spent some time in the Special Services branch of the Army Air Corp during World War II, where (per Wikipedia) he gained experience “creating signs and service club murals, decorating planes and flight jackets, drawing comic strips for field newspapers and painting squadron insignias for orderly rooms.”

After his discharge, Feldstein began working for Fox Comics, where he wrote and drew two comic series called Junior and Sunny. I was somewhat amazed to find these rather jaw-dropping covers by Feldstein, both of which are extremely suggestive. Or is it just me?

Junior - fireplug cover

Sunny skater coverFeldstein soon left Fox Comics to join Bill Gaines, with whom he worked with at EC for the next 35 years. It was during his tenure that EC began running into trouble in the early ’50s with organizations and parents concerned about the effect these comics were having on young Seduction of the Innocent-jacketFrederic Wertham-photopeople. Frederic Wertham, a German-American psychiatrist, was the leading proponent of the belief that this effect was seriously negative, and contributed to juvenile delinquency, a hot-button topic at that time. His book, Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today’s Youth (1954), got serious attention and added to the growing alarm among parents and civic groups. At the time I remember getting a copy from either the school library or one of our local public libraries and reading it several times. What I don’t remember is why I read it more than once, or what I got out of it. It certainly didn’t dissuade me from reading comics. I think it may have interested me that a book had been written about comics and was treating them seriously, even though it was attacking them, which I clearly chose to ignore. (The photo above left shows Dr. Wertham at work, probably appalled by what he’s seeing. He does not look like an especially fun guy, and definitely not someone likely to appreciate comics with titles like Weird Science and The Haunt of Fear. Or any comics, really.)

Due in no small part to the alarm created by Wertham’s book, a U.S. Congressional inquiry into the comic book industry was held in 1954. The investigation especially focused on EC Comics, which were more artistic and imaginative than just about anything else on the market, and this, if anything, made them that much more dangerous to the powers that be. EC’s sensationalistic approach frequently left good taste (however that’s defined) in the dust, making it an easy target (along with rock ‘n’ roll and Elvis Presley) for proponents of decency and morality. William Gaines’ testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency didn’t help his cause, nor did covers like the three below, drawn by Johnny Craig. They’re pretty extreme, but I have to say, living in New York City and being a frequent subway rider, I get a big kick out of this The Vault of Horror cover.

Vault of Horror-subway coverCrime Suspenstories-straight razorCrime SuspenStories-Head & axeThe cover at right became a flashpoint for Senate Subcommittee members. My original plan was to position it just below The Vault of Horror cover above, and in the same size. The more I looked at it at that scale, the more I thought, “Man, this is just too much, it’s overwhelming.” So I had a failure of nerve and reduced the size to what you see here. By comparison, the rather meta cover at left, with a maniac (one assumes) wielding a straight razor as he attacks (by implication) the person holding the comic, seems somehow more acceptable. Whew.

How does one defend this kind of material? It’s not easy. It’s like you’re either tuned into Comics Code logothis sensibility or you’re not. Gaines tried his best to defend and explain it, but failed, and was demonized in the national media. The result was the creation of the Comics Code Authority, which effectively drove EC out of business, except for one title, and that title was Mad. Harvey Kurtzman had joined EC in 1950 and had already established himself with his realistic war comics, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, when he created Mad in 1952, writing most of the first issue and illustrating it, along with EC stalwarts Wally Wood, Will Elder, and Jack Davis, three artists who came to define the Mad‘s visual style.

Mad's 1st issue, Oct/Nov 1952

Mad’s 1st issue, Oct/Nov 1952

Mad was a comic book for 23 issues until 1955, when Gaines changed it to a magazine format, mainly to avoid the restrictions of the Comics Code. Kurtzman continued as editor for another year, when Al Feldstein took over in ’56. Feldstein edited Mad for the next 28 years, until 1984.

It was during Feldstein’s tenure, especially in the 60s, that I became a loyal Mad reader. Feldstein’s first issue as editor was also the first to showcase the incredible work of Don Martin Steps Out-PB coverDon Martin. Martin’s distinctive way of rendering figures became a signature feature of the magazine. (I wish I still had the first paperback collection of his strips for Mad.)

But the signature feature of Mad has to be Alfred E. Neuman. His distinctive image had been around for years, with sightings dating back to 1894. He made his first official Mad appearance on the cover of The Mad Reader, a paperback collection of material from the first two years of the comic published by Ballantine Books in 1954. This and the many subsequent collections (Utterly Mad, The Brothers Mad, etc.) were my first exposure to what had appeared in the original Mad comic. They were proud possessions in my library for years, becoming increasingly worn and frayed, until at some point they disappeared entirely.

Proto- AE Neuman imageMad Reader-'54As Wikipedia puts it, after becoming editor of Mad in ’56, Feldstein “seized upon the face.” Per Feldstein: “I decided that I wanted to have this visual logo as the image of Mad, the same way that corporations had the Jolly Green Giant and the dog barking at the gramophone for RCA. This kid was the perfect example of what I wanted. So I put an ad in the New York Times that said, ‘National magazine wants portrait artist for special project’. In walked this little old guy in his sixties named Norman Mingo, and he said, ‘What national magazine is this?’ I said ‘Mad’, and he said, ‘Goodbye.’ I told him to wait, and I dragged out all these examples and postcards of this idiot kid, and I said, ‘I want a definitive portrait of this kid. I don’t want him to look like an idiot—I want him to be loveable and have an intelligence behind his eyes. But I want him to have this devil-may-care attitude, someone who can maintain a sense of humor while the world is collapsing around him.’ I adapted and used that portrait, and that was the beginning.” Mingo went on to paint a total of 97 Mad covers, all of which feature Alfred E. Neuman.

Under Al Feldstein, Mad became hugely successful, with circulation increasing more than eight times after he became editor, reaching a peak of 2,850,000 in 1974. It also became a much-loved institution. I especially liked the movie and TV parodies. An example of the affection that was felt for the magazine can be seen in an episode of The Simpsons titled “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson” (airdate September 21, 1997), which had the distinction of being pulled from syndication after 9/11 because the World Trade Towers figure prominently in the storyline. Near the end of this episode, Bart visits the office of Mad magazine. He’s initially disappointed when it seems like just an ordinary office, but then a door opens and Alfred E. Neuman leans out, with all sorts of Mad shenanigans visible in the room behind him. Bart proclaims he will never wash his eyes again. It’s a lovely grace note in the episode.

Feldstein retired from Mad in 1984, left Connecticut and moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and eventually to Paradise Valley, Montana, near Livingston. During this time he began painting again. It’s ironic, and even a little weird, that his subjects were landscapes and wildlife, worlds away from the grotesque and often shocking covers he did for EC.

Feldstein-June '12 with landscapeCowboy & horseLion painting

 

 

 

 

Al Feldstein, October 24, 1925 (Brooklyn, New York) to April 29, 2014 (Livingston, Montana). 88 years of age. He left his mark and then some. Rest in peace, Al. – Ted Hicks

Feldstein-3D issueEC logo

 

Posted in Books, Comics, Fiction | 1 Comment

On the Radio — Movies, Zombies & “Homecoming”

Homecoming-banner still

Two weeks ago I traveled to New Jersey with Mark Svenvold, a published author of non-fiction and poetry who teaches creative writing and literature courses at Seton Hall University. Mark, who I’ve known for many years, also co-hosts a half-hour Saturday morning show called “Talk Art Radio” on Seton Hall’s campus station WSOU @89.5 FM. I got a kick out of the fact that WSOU (which proudly calls itself “Seton Hall Pirate Radio”) basically airs nothing but heavy metal throughout the week, and then there’s this weekly arts show where writers, musicians, and artists come on to talk about what they do. Mark had asked me a month or so earlier if I’d be interested in being on the show to talk about movies. Despite some reflexive panic and anxiety at the thought of doing something I’d never done before, I realized I’d be nuts not to give this a shot. Besides, Mark and I have a good rapport and share a love of movies and the bizarre in general, so that made it feel safer. The show doesn’t air live, which also lightened the pressure a lot. However long we talked would be edited down to a hopefully brilliant 28 minutes. So not to worry if in my excitement I let loose with an F-bomb or two (which, for the record, I did not).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI Walked with a Zombie-poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mark follows this blog, so he’s familiar with what I write about. In preliminary discussions we decided I should talk about my background as an Iowa farmboy and how I fell in love with the films that hijacked my imagination at an early age (which was covered in one of the first pieces I posted, “Famous Monsters & Me”). On the drive from Manhattan to Seton Hall in South Orange, New Jersey, it became clear that Mark also wanted our discussion to focus on zombie movies. We were talking about the state of zombie movies before and after George Romero’s jaw-dropping Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Nobody had seen anything like this. It was a game-changing, watershed moment. There was a profound difference between zombie films before Night of the Living Dead and basically everything after. Films such as White Zombie (1932), with Bela Lugosi, and the Val Lewton production of Jacques Tourneur’s incredibly poetic I Walked with a Zombie (1943) followed the more traditional concept of zombies as being created for slave labor, generally a product of Haitian Vodou (aka Voodoo) practices. Zombies also appeared in comedies, such as The Ghost Breakers (1940) with Bob Hope, and its remake, Scared Stiff (1953), with Martin & Lewis. Romero’s flesh-eating, brain-chomping, highly contagious walking dead forever changed the template for zombies in films, television, fiction, and in the culture at large. Its influence cannot be over-estimated. The contagion aspect has a particularly metaphoric resonance in a pandemic world. And really, in addition to everything else, just think of that movie being released in 1968, a year as filled with domestic turmoil, assassinations, and general insanity on a national level as any in our recent history. It’s no wonder that Night of the Living Dead was such a freak-out, amped up as it was by all that anxiety and paranoia. As the evocative tag line for Romero’s 1978 sequel, Dawn of the Dead, put it, “When There’s No More Room in Hell, the Dead Will Walk the Earth.”

Night of the Living Dead-posterAt one point during the drive I mentioned Homecoming, a 1-hour film Joe Dante had made for Showtime’s Masters of Horror series in 2005, in which the bodies of soldiers being sent back from a war (unnamed, though obviously Iraq) start coming back from the dead in an election year in order to vote out of office the president (unnamed, though obviously George Bush) who started the war.  When I told Mark the premise he jumped right on it and said we had to talk about that on the show.

Homecoming-posterI first became aware of Homecoming in a review by Dennis Lim that appeared in The Village Voice in November, 2005. Referring to the film as “The dizzying high point of Showtime’s new Masters of Horror series, the hour-long Homecoming is easily one of the most important political films of the Bush II era.” Michael Sragow, writing in The New Yorker in April 2006, calls Homecoming “The best political film of 2005…” High praise, indeed. Lim goes on to write, “With its only slightly caricatured right-wingers, the film nails the casual fraudulence and contortionist rhetoric that are the signatures of the Bush-Cheney administration.” So Homecoming is not a traditional post-Romero zombie movie, though it utilizes the format to promote a very angry agenda which is clearly not meant to please anyone who was for George Bush and the Iraq war. There’s never a doubt where it’s coming from. It’s the kind of black comedy where the laughs are spiked with bile. (Another insightful review of Homecoming is by Grady Hendrix in The Slate online in 2005.)

Homecoming-"Vote Today"The Village Voice review made me really want to see Homecoming, but we didn’t have Showtime, so I was out of luck until it came out on home video. When I finally saw it, I was definitely not disappointed. It reflected my take on things, so naturally I liked it. But it’s not just that. I’ve always liked Joe Dante’s films. He started out, as did so many others (John Sayles, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Ron Howard, etc etc — the list is long) working for Roger Corman making low-budget exploitation films, getting paid very little and learning everything about filmmaking in the process. In 1978 he made Piranha, a Jaws knock-off written byJoe Dante-photo with gremlin John Sayles, who also wrote one of my favorite Dante movies, The Howling (1981), a werewolf film that paid homage to the basic tropes of the genre while reinventing them at the same time. Dante may best known to general audiences for the much-loved Gremlins in 1984 (which he followed up with an edgier, satiric sequel in 1990, Gremlins 2: The New Batch). Per Wikipedia, “Dante has cited among his major influences Roger Corman, Chuck Jones, Frank Tashlin, James Whale, and Jean Cocteau…” His filmography certainly reflects that range. Homecoming shows those influences in various ways, though the film is fueled by a serious anger I don’t think is seen in his other work. If you haven’t seen Homecoming and think you might be interested, I highly recommend it. It’s almost 10 years old, but Homecoming still resonates and still has a nasty jolt. – Ted Hicks

All of the films referenced here are available for sale, rental and/or streaming from Netflix and/or Amazon. Homecoming is available for rental from Netflix and for sale from Amazon, listed in both venues under the lengthy title “Masters of Horror: Joe Dante: Homecoming.”

WSOU logoP.S. “Talk Art Radio” programs are available as audio podcasts and iTunes downloads at the station’s website. When the show I was on (which has not yet aired) is available, I’ll put a link on one of my blogs for those who are interested. I had a really good time doing it, and it turns out this might become a semi-regular gig for me. Our next one is slated to focus on Film Noir. Stay tuned.

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