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)                                  http://tdhicks.com/2013/05/23/burt-lancaster-if-its-killin-you-want/

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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“Goodnight Mommy” – Sweet Dreams

Goodnight Mommy, which we saw on Saturday as part of the New Directors New Films series, is not scheduled to open in this country until August, but I’m too excited by the film to wait until then to write about it. Written and directed by Austrian filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, this is unlike any horror film I can recall. Though Goodnight Mommy fits the bill, I think calling it a horror film is reductive, because there’s much more going on, both on and beneath the surface. Goodnight Mommy both honors genre conventions and puts its own spin on them. It’s disturbing and frightening in ways I haven’t seen before.

Goodnight Mommy-twinsMost films work best the less you know about them going in, especially this one, so I’ll try to be brief and careful here. This will be more of an alert than a review. Goodnight Mommy opens with nine-year-old twin brothers, Elias and Lukas (Elias & Lukas Schwarz, amazing in their roles), playing hide and seek in a field thick with grown corn. They live in an ultra-modern house isolated in the countryside, filled with arty photographs, expansive windows, and a crucifix prominently displayed on their bedroom wall. It turns out they’re waiting for Goodnight Mommy-mommy at blinds2their mother (Susanne Wuest), who returns from some form of facial reconstructive surgery, her head wrapped in bandages like a mummy or the Invisible Man. They can’t see her face, and her behavior makes them increasingly suspicious. Who is this woman? What did she do with their mother? (And what’s with that aquarium tank filled with huge Madagascar cockroaches they keep as pets?) The twins’ attempts to uncover the truth have lethal results.

Goodnight Mommy reminds me of  films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Invaders from Mars (1953), with their themes of replicated people, though it has none of their sci-fi trappings. Body Snatchers, with its pod-people metaphor, is an authentic classic. Invaders is a pretty cheesy production, but telling its story from the point of view of it’s 10-year-old protagonist was very effective, especially if you saw it at that age, as I did. In both films there is the paranoid feeling that the people you know are not the people you know. Goodnight Mommy‘s genuine strangeness also reminds me of filmmakers such as Michael Haneke, David Lynch and David Cronenberg — plus it has visual echos of George Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960). If an aquarium filled with cockroaches creeps you out, you’re not alone. But it’s not just the image; it’s the significance it has in the film that creates a sense of dread beyond the visceral jolt of what you see. This is the kind of thing Cronenberg specializes in.

Goodnight Mommy-twins in masks

As Cronenberg’s films often do, Goodnight Mommy makes you afraid of what you might see next. Yes, give me more of that! Visually it’s amazing, and there are twists before it’s over. Seriously, it’s really great. Be on the lookout for Goodnight Mommy when it opens this August. It’s in a league of its own.

The following trailer is in German, but conveys the tone of the film even if you don’t understand the language. In fact, I think it adds to the strangeness of it all. — Ted Hicks

Goodnight Mommy-poster2

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Black & White Visions and Pointless Shootouts – 3 Films

Gunman-poster2Last Friday I saw The Gunman, a film I had hopes for, given that Sean Penn and Javier Bardem were in the cast. From the trailer it appeared to be the kind of action film I like when they’re well done. Unfortunately, this one is a cynical misfire from beginning to end. It seems to exist only to showcase endless shootouts and brutal fights. It’s empty and has no meaning whatsoever (in my humble opinion). The difference between The Gunman and a film like last year’s John Wick is one of style and the filmmakers’ enthusiasm (see my previous post on John Wick). Sean Penn seems like an odd choice for this film. Maybe Liam Neeson was busy. I can’t imagine Penn feels the need to re-invent himself as an action hero, the way Neeson has successfully done. The Gunman was directed by Pierre Morel, who previously made Taken (2008), a hugely popular film that launched the new Liam Neeson persona. Perhaps because of that connection I couldn’t help thinking while I was watching The Gunman that Neeson would have been more credible in Penn’s role. Though I doubt that would have saved the movie. I was also surprised to see in the credits that this film was based on The Prone Gunman, a 1981 French novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette that I liked very much when I read the English edition in 2002. As far as I can tell, The Gunman bears virtually no resemblance to the novel, other than retaining the main character’s last name, Terrier (though Martin in the novel becomes Jim in the film).

Penn & Bardem

Penn & Bardem

While this is a definite change of pace for Penn, Javier Bardem has been down this road before, though Bardem’s character here is frequently drunk and appears more foolish than threatening. Idris Elba, who in mind will always be Stringer Bell from HBO’s The Wire, is wasted as an Interpol agent with less than eight minutes of screen time. However, bright spot is Ray Winstone, an actor who brings a solid authenticity to virtually every role I’ve seen him in. The Gunman could have used much more of him.

Ray Winstone

Ray Winstone

The following two clips will tell you all you need to know about The Gunman. The downtime between action sequences in this movie exists only to get us to the next one. It’s not like there’s anything at stake.

Believe me, I wanted to like this movie, but I just couldn’t get on the ride. As a User Review of The Gunman at IMDb put it, “If you have nothing else to do and feel like throwing your money away, you might consider seeing it.”


Tu dors Nicole-posterI might not have been as hard on The Gunman  if later that same day we hadn’t seen Tu dors Nicole, a terrific French Canadian film written and directed by Stéphane Lafleur. Tu dors Nicole was shown as part of New Directors/New Films, an annual series co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. When you see something this fresh and engaging, it makes a film like The Gunman just seem that much worse.

Tu dors Nicole is set in a suburb of Montreal. It’s summer, and 22-year-old Nicole is on her own while her parents are on vacation. Julianne Côté is wonderful as Nicole. She brings an interesting affect to the character, not flat, exactly, but off-kilter and observant, as though she’s an outsider taking her time trying to figure out what’s going on. Throughout the film, Nicole struggles to get a good night’s sleep (the English title is You’re Sleeping Nicole.) Nicole has a job sorting clothes in a thrift shop, but spends most of her time with her best friend Véronique (Catherine St-Laurent) as they hang out in Nicole’s house or aimlessly wander about.  Tu dors Nicole-Nicole & Vera3Nicole’s older brother Rémi (Marc-André Grondin) shows up unannounced with his three-man rock band. They move into the house and take over the living room to rehearse at high volume, complete with drum kit, guitars, amps and a lot of cable. Life goes on from day to day. Nicole and Véronique take bike rides. Nicole gets a credit card in the mail and thinks that whatever she buys with it is free. A 10-year-0ld boy named Martin has a serious crush on Nicole. Before he appears, Nicole tells Véronique that Martin’s voice has recently changed. When we first hear him speak, it’s a joke, and a very funny one. His voice is impossibly deep and mature, and the feelings he expresses for Nicole are those of a much older person. This probably shouldn’t work, but it does.

Tu dors Nicole is quirky and unexpected. If I had to make a comparison, I’d say it has a kind of Jim Jarmusch vibe at times. It’s also beautifully shot in black and white. I can’t imagine it in color. Black and white feels so perfect for this film that color would almost be an intrusion. Tu dors Nicole is a reminder that great French films can also come from Canada. It was shown at 20 film festivals last year, and will be distributed in this country by Kino Lorber later this spring. Try to see it. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.


Duck Season-posterI mentioned above that Tu dors Nicole reminds me somewhat of a Jim Jarmusch film, which is true, but what it really reminds me of  is a Mexican film titled Duck Season (2004), which was shown at New Directors New Films in 2005. We saw it the following year and absolutely fell in love with it. As with Tu dors NicoleDuck Season feels totally original, though of course it has antecedents in other films from the deadpan school of filmmaking. We watched Duck Season again last Saturday night, and it’s just as good as it was the first time.

Duck Season takes place in a high-rise apartment building on a quiet Sunday from 11:00 am to 8:00 pm. Flama’s mother has just left to visit a relative, leaving Flama (Daniel Miranda) and his friend Moko (Diego Catana) to fend for themselves in the apartment. As soon as she’s gone, Flama and Moko, both 14 years old, break out Coca-Cola and fire up a video game. Power outages disrupt their game from time to time. They’re also disrupted by Rita (Danny Perea), a 16-year-old neighbor who commandeers the kitchen because her stove doesn’t work and she has to bake a birthday cake. Flama and Moko decide to order a pizza from a place that guarantees delivery within 30 minutes or there’s no charge. When the deliveryman, Ulises (Enrique Arreola), arrives out of breath from having to rush up many flights of stairs due to yet another power outage, they refuse to pay because he’s 15 seconds late. Ulises says he’s not leaving until they pay. A standoff ensues, during which time power is restored and Ulises challenges them to a soccer video game to determine if he gets paid or not. Out of this mix, an afternoon of friendship and communion develops as the film spins lazily from one incident to the next.

Duck Season-group shotI’m a big fan of Warner Bros. cartoons, so the immediate connotation the title Duck Season has is with a great Chuck Jones cartoon, Rabbit Fire (1951), in which Bugs and Duck Season-Bugs & DaffyDaffy debate whether it’s rabbit season or duck season so Elmer will know which one of them to shoot. As usual, Daffy doesn’t stand a chance. This has no immediate connection to Duck Season, though the film does share an anarchic spirit with the Warner Bros. cartoons. And there is, in fact, a painting of ducks in the apartment, the ownership of which is a bone of contention between Flama’s divorcing parents. As the day unfolds, the sources of everyone’s individual loneliness are revealed. Like Tu dors Nicole, Duck Season, directed and co-written by Fernando Eimbcke, is in black and white, which feels just right. The following trailer suggests a madcap tone, but the film is deeper than that.

Duck Season is currently available for streaming from Amazon. Be sure you watch all the way through the final credits, because there’s a great payoff at the end. It really caps the movie. — Ted Hicks

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“Grey Gardens” – Then & Now

Grey Gardens 1975-posterI first saw Grey Gardens nearly 39 years ago at the Film Society of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. I saw it again last Friday when it opened for a one-week run at Film Forum. For the current release, Grey Gardens has received a 2K digital restoration by The Criterion Collection that preserves all the grain and grit of the original 16mm footage. The film was shot in 1973 by the Maysles Brothers, Albert and David, edited by Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, and produced by the Maysles and Susan Froemke. It had its premiere at the New York Film Festival in 1975 and was released the following February.

In 1976, I was writing film reviews for The Entertainer, a local paper in Minneapolis that had the sub-heading, “The Newspaper for Young Twin Citians” (very hip). My review of Grey Gardens appeared in the Friday, November 5, 1976 edition. Here is that review in all its glory. I’ve resisted the temptation to make any edits, so this is exactly as it originally appeared (though I’ve added some photographs).


 Like something out of a fading Scott Fitzgerald dream, the mansion appropriately called Grey Gardens rises above the foliage surrounding it. Though we’re somewhere in East Hampton, Long Island, in the fall of 1973, the feeling is one of dislocated time and space. Grey Gardens, we are soon to discover, is a time and space unto itself, a world apart created by its occupants, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie, as a kind of charged-up Proustian Rememberance of Things Past.

Albert and David Maysles’ Grey Gardens (at the U. Film Society this weekend) is a feature-length impression of this extraordinary mother and daughter. In 1971, Grey Gardens was raided by a variety of county officials who found “a garbage-ridden filthy 28-room house with eight cats, fleas, cobwebs and no running water, conditions so unsanitary that the Suffolk County Health Department has ordered them to clean up, or face eviction.” This situation had become the concern of socially-conscious neighbors worried over property values and propriety, but it was the Beales’ blood connection to Jackie Kennedy Onassis that made the story a “significant” news item resulting in the headlines the Maysles use to introduce the film.

Grey Gardens serves as a kind of time machine for the Beales. Early in the film Edie says, “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.” Edith and Edie are constantly seeking to reaffirm who they were, and most importantly to Edie, what she could have been. In a large way, this film is about identity.

Edie Beale @ 56

Edie Beale @ 56

Young Edie Beale

Young Edie Beale

Photographs are unearthed almost like war souvenirs from piles of debris, and examined for the memories they trigger. In the pictures we see two beautiful women at different times in their lives, Edith and Edie in another, earlier reality. A conflicting, overlapping, running commentary is provided by Edith and Edie as they show us the photographs, describing them for us and each other in a tug-of-war for the “truth” they represent.

Grey Gardens is primarily the close study of a relationship as witnessed by two friendly visitors. It’s an antagonistic relationship, sometimes cruel, as recriminations are volleyed back and forth, but finally loving, as we see the need Edith and Edie have for one another. They probably are not so different from any of us, beneath our respective inhibitions. That recognition, I think, is one of the values of this film.

On the surface there’s plenty of melodramatic raw material here: an overgrown Southern Gothic quality to the setting that at times suggests Tennessee Williams in the wings; echoes of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane; an Eastern aristocratic class spurned in favor of a bohemian life style; etc. To whatever extent we are aware of this is an indication of our conditioning by conventional forms of drama in literature, the stage, and the fiction film. It is to the Maysles’ credit that they didn’t exploit these aspects, but simply presented them as they saw them.

Big Edie, David & Al Maysles, Little Edie

Big Edie, David & Al Maysles, Little Edie

In 1971 Al Maysles said, “We preserve a kind of spontaneous quality of the diary and then make a novel out of the film – without committing it to fiction or an artificial kind of structure.” The documentary filmmaker has an artist’s prerogative to edit and organize the material, but also a responsibility to do so in a way that conveys a sense of the truth as perceived by the filmmaker. To that extent we have to trust the filmmaker. I tend to trust the Maysles.

It’s been charged that Grey Gardens is an invasion of the Beales’ privacy, that they’ve been exploited by the Maysles. And at times, watching Edie dance for an unblinking camera, it seems that maybe they are being taken advantage of. But it’s hard to believe that as we become increasingly aware of just how turned-on by the camera they are, especially Edie. It’s sometimes as though Edie is offering evidence in support of her existence. If the film is taking advantage of the Beales, then they are just as certainly taking advantage of the film.

The Maysles’ presence is never hidden in the film. They are constantly being referred to in Edith and Edie’s often concurrent monologues. They are welcome visitors at Grey Gardens. It’s obvious that the Beales, who are very much aware that a film is being made, regard Al and David with trust and friendship. The Maysles act as a surrogate film audience, and to that extent we are drawn in very close indeed. I really feel that the way Edith and Edie have chosen to present themselves in this film is the way they would have if I were right there, an unlikely visitor at Grey Gardens myself.

Little Edie & film poster


Grey Gardens was shown at the university on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings, with a four-hour workshop with Al Maysles on campus that Saturday. I gave Maysles a copy of my review after one of the Friday night screenings. At the workshop the next day, he told me how much he’d liked it. This made me feel great, as you might imagine. It feels like I saw basically the same film in 2015 as I did in 1976, though I think I had much more compassion for the Beales this time around. This might be because I’m older now myself, and it’s easier to empathize. Big and Little Edie are eccentric for sure, completely crazy at times, and probably very tough to be around for any length of time, but Grey Gardens is not a freak show.

Grey Gardens-musical posterA fascinating thing about Grey Gardens is the multiple lives it’s had over the years. A musical version opened Off-Broadway in February of 2006, subsequently moving to Broadway that November. It was quite successful, and there have been productions in Australia, Canada, and Japan. An Independent Lens documentary about the making of the musical, Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway, was screened at the Hamptons International Film Festival in 2007, and later aired on PBS. This was the first musical to be adapted from a Grey Gardens HBO-posterdocumentary film. Grey Gardens seemed to me like an odd choice to make into a musical, but if something works, it works. Maybe we’ll see musical versions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Night of the Living Dead on Broadway one of these seasons. But I digress.

In 2009, HBO produced a TV movie called Grey Gardens. Starring Jessica Lange as Big Edie and Drew Barrymore as Little Edie, this version dramatizes the shooting of the Maysles film, as well as events occurring both before and after, showing us the Beales earlier in their lives and at the premiere of the actual documentary. I don’t remember it that well, but Lange and Barrymore nailed Edith and Edie’s speech patterns and intonations.

In 2006, Al Maysles put together another documentary, The Beales of Grey Gardens, assembled from outtakes from the 50 hours of footage shot for the original film. I haven’t seen this film, but I gather it acts as a kind of supplement to the first, expanding on that film and the Beales’ frequently contentious relationship. When a film has generated as much interest as Grey Gardens has over the years, it’s not surprising that people would want to see more of it. The film and the Beales resonated with audiences in ways that have supported the various recreations. Nearly 40 years later, Grey Gardens is just as vibrant and bizarre — and human — as ever.


Al Maysles3After seeing Grey Gardens last Friday, it was quite a jolt to learn later that day that Al Maysles had died the night before at age 88. Al and his brother David (who died in 1987 at age 54) were major figures in the field of documentary film. True pioneers, along with D.A. Pennebaker, Frederick Wiseman, Robert Drew, and Richard Leacock, they helped develop cinema vérité and Direct Cinema as we know it, aided by the new lightweight cameras and sound equipment. Of their many films, standouts also include Salesman (1968) and Gimme Shelter (1970). Despite pushing 90, Al had not slowed down at all. His new film Iris, about fashion icon Iris Apfel, premiered at the New York Film Festival last year and will open at Film Forum on April 29. Based on the trailer, it looks fascinating. Al also had other films in the pipeline. It’s impossible to over-estimate his importance in the world of film. He will be greatly missed. — Ted Hicks

The Maysle Brothers, Al & Dave

The Maysle Brothers, Al & Dave


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