All That Breathes (Shaunak Sen) Powerful film concerning Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud, two brothers in New Delhi who run a clinic that treats black kite birds that frequently fall from the sky because of pollution and other environmental issues. They’ve treated 20,000 black kites during the last 20 years. Daniel Fienberg of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the film “encapsulated a vision of New Delhi in which modern life, particularly pollution and overpopulation, have placed new strain on the balance between humans and nature.” Per director Shaunak Sen: “I am drawn by the subject of the interconnectedness of an ecosystem — one that humans are a part of, not apart from. How man, animals share space and become part of the whole.” All That Breathes is beautifully shot and edited, and deeply moving.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (Laura Poitras, director) Nan Goldin is a photographer and activist. This excellent documentary covers her largely successful efforts to get museums, art galleries, universities, and other cultural institutions to refuse philanthropic donations from the Sackler family because of their connection to OxyContin and the opioid addiction crisis. The film spends a lot of time on Goldin’s life and career, so that by the time she begins her mission against the Sacklers, we have a good sense of who she is. Opioid addiction is still very much an issue, so the film is very relevant.
The Automat (Lisa Hurwitz, director) Immensely entertaining history of the chain of Horn & Hardart Automats, vending machine restaurants that were located in Philadelphia and New York City from 1902 to 1991. I remember there was one on 42nd Street, maybe the last in Manhattan, though I don’t think I ever ate there. Too bad. Lisa Hurwitz had the great luck to involve Mel Brooks in the film. He jumped in with both feet and a lot of enthusiasm. The Automat is punctuated with lively testimonials from Brooks, Carl Reiner, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Colin Powell, Elliott Gould, and others. It’s very well made and a lot of fun.
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song (Dayna Goldfine & Dan Geller, directors) Who doesn’t love Leonard Cohen and this song? I was hooked from the first minute to the last. This film is full of feeling. Hard to resist, though why would you want to?
Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, director) 2003. Remastered. I first saw this astonishing film in 2004 at Film Forum. Comprised of hundreds of film clips — either over 100 or over 200, depending on your source, in any event, a lot — that show how Los Angeles has been represented or misrepresented in feature films over the years. It’s a nearly three-hour feast for film buffs, of which I’m a proud member, and a fascinating, idiosyncratic history. Though for years, due to the overwhelming prospect of trying to clear the rights for all those clips, it could only be seen at museum showings and the like. In 2014, lawyers advised that the rights issue was not really an issue because of the fair use doctrine. A home video release followed. So why is it in this listing of best documentaries of 2022? Because I finally saw it again last July when it returned to New York City, this time at the IFC Center. I think it’s an important film and wanted to include it here.
Moonage Daydream (Brett Morgan, director) Edited comments from my previous blog post on this film:
“Calling Moonage Daydream a documentary doesn’t begin to cover it. I saw the film on opening day on an IMAX screen and was properly overwhelmed. Directed by Brett Morgan, the film is a dense overload of overlapping sound and image. It seldom slows down to let you catch your breath. It was hard at times for me to keep up with, to keep everything sorted. Finally I just gave up and let the film rush over me. Moonage Daydream takes us into Bowie’s life and work in a way that seems to randomly ricochet from one point to another, like a pinball game. It can feel chaotic, but I don’t think it’s random at all. This is far from a traditional movie biography As someone said, it’s not about facts and stats. There’s no narration, no on-screen titles or talking-head interviews to guide us. We hear Bowie in voice-over and clips from various interview shows over the years. He tells his own story. There’s a loose progression from the early years to the later, but it’s not strictly chronological. David Bowie was continually changing his appearance, persona, and musical styles. He’s been frquently called a chameleon. Moonage Daydream shows us Bowie as a writer, artist (painting and sculpture), actor, and most importantly, as a musician. There’s always been something otherworldly about Bowie, as though he was just visiting. That’s what made him perfect casting for The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), in which he was literally an alien from outer space.”
Personality Crisis: One Night Only (Martin Scorsese & David Tedeschi, directors) I love David Johansen and saw him many times after moving here in 1977, usually at The Bottom Line. I was really looking forward to this film, which we saw at the New York Film Festival last October. We stayed for the Q&A after. You can see from the photo that it was quite an ensemble. Moderator Dan Sullivan opened by saying, “I can’t believe I’m on stage with David Johansen.” I find it amusing that he could say this while sitting directly next to Martin Scorsese. Pretty funny. The film is great. Performance and interview clips from Johansen’s career are interspersed with footage shot over two nights during his shows at the Cafe Carlyle in Manhattan. Johansen is quite a character, funny, witty, a terrific musician, and extremely entertaining. The energy of the performances is a rush, going back to his beginnings with the proto-punk New York Dolls and through a solo career that includes his alter ego, Buster Poindexter. Scorsese has a feel for the music and the personalities. He knows how to do this, as his previous films on Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and the Band have shown.
Not yet available for streaming, though the Q&A referenced above will be included in the supplemental post to follow.
“Sr.” (Chris Smith, director) A funny, touching, and very loving portrait of filmmaker Robert Downey, orchestrated by his son, Robert Downey Jr. He’s probably best known for his film Putney Swope (1969), a jaw-dropping satire that deals with, among other things, race and advertising. It’s also incredibly funny (“How many syllables, Mario? How many syllables, Mario?”). If you’ve seen it, you know. Another of his films, which I haven’t seen, is Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight (1975), a great title and a triumph of alliteration. “Sr.” shows the full range of his accomplishments and his relationship with his son.
Tales of the Purple House (Abbas Fadel, director) I’d seen two previous films by this director. The first was Yara (2018), a narrative feature I liked a great deal; the second was Bitter Bread (2019), a documentary showing daily life in a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. Fahdel is definitely a humanist. His films are a reflection of this. They bear witness to what he sees. Tales of the Purple House has been shown at numerous international film festivals over the last year, including the New York Film Festival, which is where I saw it last October. It’s three hours long and dense with mood and information. Here’s the NYFF description:
“…another extraordinary, expansive cinematic vision combining images of mundane observation with social and political upheaval. Filmed over more than two years, Tales of the Purple House centers on the experiences of Nour Ballouk, a Lebanese artist living in the house she shares with Fahdel (her husband, who stays off-screen) in the dramatic mountainous countryside outside of Beirut. As she works on her latest paintings, communes with stray cats, and bonds with Syrian refugee neighbors, the nation struggles with turmoil, from the breakout of the COVID pandemic to citizens protesting the corruption of the political elite to ongoing violent attacks from neighboring Israel; meanwhile, the vibrant beauty of their home and its surroundings provides solace and regeneration. With the simplest of brushstrokes, Fahdel’s meditative film captures the creation of art amidst pain, the ongoing hope for revolution, and the struggle to live in the present while constantly bearing witness to the past.”
Not currently available for streaming, but well worth seeing when you can.
Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb (Lizzie Gottlieb, director) Terrific film about the relationship of author Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb, his editor for 40 years. They began working together with Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker (1974), continuing through the first four volumes of his massive biography of Lyndon Johnson (over 3,000 pages total so far). Caro is still writing the fifth and final book. They both hope to finish before time runs out. Caro is age 87, Gottlieb is 91, so it’s a concern. This is a film for anyone interested in writing and how writers and editors work. It was directed by Robert Gottlieb’s daughter, Lizzie.
Not yet available for streaming, but it’s still showing in theaters.
¡Viva Maestro! (Theodore Braun, director) I barely knew who Gustavo Dudamel was before seeing this wonderful, life-affirming film. He’s one of the good guys. In the film, he’s a force of nature, incredibly energetic, a great musical talent with a humanist agenda. I’m excited by the recent news that he’s leaving the Los Angeles Philharmonic to lead the New York Philharmonic in 2026. That’s a few years away, but in the meantime, see this film. It’s a real rush.
New York Film Festival interview with director Mathieu Almaric & Vicky Krieps (43:46)
Angelika Film Center interview with Mathieu Almaric & Vicky Krieps (35:41) Note: I was at this screening and following interview. I asked the second-to-last audience question at apparoximately 29:00, if you’re interested.
Here are the best of the rest of what I saw last year, 20 films in alphabetical order, with the exception of the first one listed. I don’t claim that all of these are great films (though some of them are), but they all got my attention and engaged me in one way or another. Sometimes it’s just a performance, a feeling, more often it’s the whole package. You’ll also notice that most of these films were written or co-written by their directors. I think this makes a difference in the result.
RRR (S.S. Rajamouli, director/co-writer) This film opened in the U.S. on March 25 of last year and until a week ago had been playing at various theaters in the city ever since. I somehow hadn’t cranked up enough interest to check it out until I received the following text from a friend of mine in Minneapolis last month: “We watched RRR last night. Have you seen it? Holy shit!” I saw it was showing at Cinema Village, but the day I’d planned to go, it had moved to a later showtime that I couldn’t make. A week later it had returned to the IFC Center, which is where I finally saw it last Wednesday. It’s currently streaming on Netflix, but this is a film that definitely benefits from being seen on a theater screen, the bigger the better. That said, I’m sure the film’s energy will come through regardless of format, though it might shatter your TV screen in the process.
If I had seen it before posting Part 1, RRR would have shared the top spot with EO. Set in the 1920s in India, it tells a fictional story of the population revolting against the governing British authorities. The title stands for “Rise Roar Revolt.” I’ve read that no less than James Cameron is a fan. The two main characters are based on actual people, seen here as freedom fighters who are basically superheroes. It’s also the story of an enduring friendship. Everything is way over the top, and quite wonderful. I loved every minute of its 3 hour 7 minute running time. There’s one scene in particular that had my jaw on the floor. You’ll know it when you see it.
Note: The many animals — tigers, leopards, wolves, etc. — in the film are entirely CGI.
Available for streaming on Netflix. Strap yourselves in.
Per Wikipedia: “Jake and Kyra live with their adoptive daughter Mika and Yang, a previously owned robotic child they purchased from certified reseller Second Siblings, rather than from his original maker, Brothers & Sisters Incorporated. When Yang becomes unresponsive, Jake goes on a mission to repair him. Brothers & Sisters recommend replacing Yang, which means his body will decompose. Not wanting to upset Mika, Jake becomes determined to save his robotic child. In a flashback, Yang reassures a curious Mika that she is still part of the family despite being adopted.”
Another excellent film that basically nobody saw. I was interested as soon as I learned it was made by the South Korean director Kogonada. I’d loved his earlier film, Columbus (2017). After Yang has a strong cast that includes the always excellent Colin Farrell and Hayley Lu Richards. The film addresses the question of what it means to be human, an issue that usually comes up when humanoid robots are involved, presented here in a way that is deeply touching and sad.
I’d forgotten this, but just read that at one point in the film, Yang says “The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said that what the caterpillar calls the end the rest of the world calls a butterfly.” An interesting way to look at death.
Bones and All (Luca Guadagnino, director) Cannibals on the road. Was initially very wary of this film, not sure I’d want to see what I might see. But not to worry. It’s about a scattered society of cannibals, working class and lower, just getting through one day after the next. Definitely a love story. Excellent cast, which includes the amazing Mark Rylance, who I’m always in awe of. Could just as easily have been a vampire film. I liked it.
Emily the Criminal (John Patton Ford, director/writer) Aubrey Plaza and the charismatic Theo Rossi are excellent in this story of a young woman in financial difficulty who gets recruited to do some low-risk scamming crime that gets more and more high-risk.
Everything Everywhere All at Once (Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert, directors/writers) I first took a run at this film shortly after it opened last April. Prior to that, I’d been seeing its trailer for weeks and thought it looked very quirky and right up my alley. So I was surprised to find that I hated it and actually left after an hour, something I almost never do. Even if I’m not liking a film, I feel obligated to see it through in order to have a fully informed opinion. Otherwise it feels like I’ve let both myself and the film down somehow. But this time, I’d had enough and bailed. Was confused because I thought the actor playing Michelle Yeoh’s husband had to be Jackie Chan in an unbilled role. Also hadn’t recognized Jamie Lee Curtis as the IRS official. When I saw the rave reviews the film was getting and how much people seemed to love it, I figured either everyone else was wrong or that I’d just had an off day. I kept putting off giving the film another shot, but when it received eleven Academy Award nominations, I thought I’d better see it if I wanted to be part of the conversation. So late last month I did. This time I was on board for the craziness and liked it. Still not sure it deserves that many nominations, but definitely worth seeing.
Available for purchase to stream @ $19.95 from Amazon Prime. This price will surely come down at some point.
The Good Nurse (Tobias Lindholm, director) Based on a true story, this film is low-key and very disturbing. Excellent performances from Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne. I’ve liked the Danish director’s previous films, which include Another Round (2020) and A Hijacking (2012). Noah Emmerich is especially good as one of the police detectives investigating the hospital deaths.
Hold Me Tight (Mathieu Almeric, director/writer) Vicky Krieps, also in Corsage, scores again in this tricky film in which you’re not always (or ever) sure of what is actually going on. Rewards a second viewing.
No Bears (Jafar Panahi, director/writer) Jafar Panahi, a truly great director, was arrested in March 2010 and charged with propaganda against the Iranian government. In December 2010 he was sentenced to six years in prison and a twenty-year ban on directing films, writing screenplays, giving interviews or leaving the country. While waiting on an appeal, he made This Is Not aFilm in 2011, which was smuggled out of the country on a flash drive hidden inside a cake and shown at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. He continued making films in spite of the ban. His films are inventive acts of resistance. No Bears is the latest. Panahi was arrested last July and is currently in prison in Iran.
Nope (Jordan Peele, director/writer) Science fiction film with a high WTF? factor. Since his feature debut with Get Out (2017), Jordan Peele has been expected to deliver something new with each new film, and so far has not disappointed. Keke Palmer is a standout in Nope, as is the murderous chimp that runs amok.
Available for streaming on Peacock.
The following trailers are different enough that I think both are worth including.
The Northman (Robert Eggers, director/writer) Meticulously researched by Robert Eggers, this is purportedly the most authentic Viking movie ever. Set in 914 AD, it’s also very violent. Vikings, you know. A son seeks to avenge the murder of his father and kidnapping of his mother, regardless of what it takes or how long. This is only Egger’s third feature. His first, The Witch (2015), put him on the map. TheNorthman is his biggest production yet, and quite an achievement. You’ll know you’ve seen something.
The Outfit (Joe Wright, director) Mark Rylance gives another masterful performance as Leonard, a Saville Row tailor (or “cutter”) relocated in Chicago, who provides services to an Irish mobster. The film takes place during the course of one night in December 1956, almost entirely within the confines of Leonard’s shop, which becomes a pressure cooker of tension. This noirish thriller takes many twists and turns before the night is over. Good cast, but Rylance owns the film.
White Noise (Noah Baumbach, director/writer) Based on the novel by Don DeLillo, this is, it seems to me, an unexpected film from Noah Baumbach. It’s his first time writing and directing a book-to-screen adaptation. It has a larger scope and focus than his previous films, which include The Squid and the Whale (2005), Frances Ha (2012), The Meyerowitz Stories (2017), and the blistering Marriage Story (2019).
White Noise is fascinating in the way you think you’re in one story and then it shifts gears before you even know it, and you realize it’s become something else. Interesting how Baumbach pulls this off.
Film description from IMDb: “At once hilarious and horrifying, lyrical and absurd, ordinary and apocalyptic, White Noise dramatizes a contemporary American family’s attempts to deal with the mundane conflicts of everyday life while grappling with the universal mysteries of love, death, and the possibility of happiness in an uncertain world.”
Film description from IMDb: “Set in The Irish Midlands in 1862, the story follows a young girl who stops eating but remains miraculously alive and well. English nurse Lib Wright is brought to a tiny village to observe eleven-year old Anna O’Donnell. Tourists and pilgrims mass to witness the girl who is said to have survived without food for months. Is the village harboring a saint ‘surviving on manna from heaven’ or are there more ominous motives at work?”
Florence Pugh plays the English nurse. I always like seeing her. She’s a very interesting actress. This fascinating, disturbing film is another strong addition to her filmography.
I was going to add some interviews and clips at this point, but I suspect this may be too much already. I’ll post that supplementary material separately. After that, stay tuned for my picks for best documentaries of 2022. Stay safe. — Ted Hicks
I saw a total of 322 films in 2022 – 214 in theaters and 108 streaming or on discs, both new and old. I’ve come up with 30 films that are the best of what I saw, or at least my favorites. My “Top Ten” films will be covered in this post, with the remaining titles in Part 2. Of all of these, my picks for the top three films of the year are EO, She Said, and Women Talking.
EO (Jerzy Skolimowski, director/co-writer) If I had to pick only one film as best of the year, it would be this one. To think that an 84-year-old Polish director who’s been making films since 1960 could come up with something this fresh and free, unbound by conventions. EO is a road movie like no other, the picaresque journey of a donkey as he travels in and out of other people’s lives, fragments that suggest larger narratives. Not surprisingly, EO is the most human presence in the film. Six donkeys were enlisted to portray EO, but you’d never know that. The film is mysterious, deeply moving and at times, heartbreaking. I can’t recall seeing anything like it before. I loved it.
She Said (Maria Schrader, director) Terrific film concerning the New York Times reporters who broke the Harvey Weinstein story and effectively kicked off the Me Too movement. It would make a good double-feature with Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015). An important, serious film that has unfortunately done very little business, which is a shame.
The Banshees of Inisherin (Martin McDonagh, director/writer) Reuniting Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleason from the same director’s In Bruges (2008), this film feels like a story told in an Irish bar. I always like seeing Colin Farrell. There’s a very likeable quality about him. Both he and Gleason are excellent in this rather unlikely narrative. Kerry Condon as Farrell’s sister is a standout.
Corsage (Marie Kreutzer, director/writer) Vicky Krieps is excellent as Empress Elizabeth of Austria in this stylized historical drama. What I especially loved were the anachronistic touches scattered throughout the film, such as Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and the Stones’ “As Tears Go By” performed on period instruments, and modern tractors on the road, to cite a few. I’m not sure what the purpose of these anachronisms were, but I liked them.
Crimes of the Future (David Cronenberg, director/writer) Hard to take seriously and I don’t think it’s meant to be. More of a straight-faced comedy with really weird stuff happening. In an unspecified future, something called accelerated evolutionary syndrome is causing people to develop “brand new organs, never before seen.” Performance art is involved. Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux are two such performance artists. Kristen Stewart plays a character who works in an agency that registers new organs. She always brings something different to her roles. Her character here has a weird affect, odd line readings, seems to be on the spectrum, but the spectrum of what, exactly? This film is a kind of return to form for Cronenberg, expanding on his earlier science fiction and horror films. Not for everyone — which is probably a good thing — but he’s a visionary filmmaker I really like.
Dead for a Dollar (Walter Hill, director/writer) It’s nice to see Walter Hill back in the saddle, so to speak. Westerns have always been one of his strengths as a director and writer. Hill’s The Long Riders (1980), about the James and Younger gangs, is one of my favorite films. Dead for a Dollar isn’t on that level, but it’s very good, with a committed cast that makes it more or less believable. I always like a well-done Western that takes itself seriously.
Holy Spider (Ali Abassi, director/co-writer) This incredibly tense film is based on the true story of a serial killer in Mashhad, Iran who targeted sex workers and killed 16 women from 2000 to 2001. He saw himself as being on a holy mission. Members of the public applauded his actions. A fictional female journalist investigating the killings takes us into the story. We learn the identity of the killer early on and the film alternates between his lethal activities and the journalist’s efforts. The tone of this film is very harsh. I hesitate to call it a thriller, because there’s nothing “thrilling” about it. Hard to watch at times, but I think it’s really great. Zar Amir-Ebrahami, who plays the determined journalist, won Best Actress at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, for which she received death threats at home and the condemnation of the Iranian government. Sure.
Prey (Dan Trachtenberg, director/co-writer) Talk about high concept. This is the fifth film in the Predator series and the first prequel. Set 300 years ago in 1719 in the Northern Great Plains of this country, we’re a long way from Arnold Schwarzenegger in the original Predator (1987). Naru, a young female Comanche warrior, encounters one of the alien hunters who apparently have visited Earth over the centuries to hunt humans and take trophies. This is an inventive mashup of genres that’s very well done and deadly serious. I was attracted by the novelty of the premise, but then got really caught up in what was at stake.
Tár (Todd Field, director/writer) Cate Blanchett plays a world-famous orchestra conductor who slowly unravels. It’s an amazing performance. She’s in virtually every scene and seems fierce and unstoppable until things start to fall apart. It’s definitely her movie, and a fascinating study. Oddly enough, I don’t remember the music that much. I don’t think that was the point.
Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
Supplemental materials for some of the films in this post appear below.
Interview with director Jerzy Skolimowski and co-screenwriter Ewa Piaskowska at the New York Film Festival (26:47)
Here I am slamming this out on the last day of the year. Rather than trying to come up with something clever and pithy about the year just ending, let’s get right into the usual grab bag of random images I’ve collected over time that interest or amuse me in one way or another.
I think that about does it. Stay tuned for my picks for best feature films, documentaries, and television for 2022, as well as my much delayed post on Bela Lugosi. HAPPY NEW YEAR!!! Stay safe. — Ted Hicks
I started seeing Virgil Finlay‘s amazing artwork in the science fiction and fantasy magazines I was reading in the 1950s. I was aware of his name from the start because he signed his work with a distinctive signature, which usually appeared in one of the corners of the image.Like his signature, his work was very distinctive. You knew immediately that a cover or illustration was his, you wouldn’t mistake it for anyone else’s. Per Wikipedia, Finlay “specialized in, and became famous for, detailed pen-and-ink drawings accomplished with abundant stippling, cross-hatching, and scratchboard techniques. Despite the very labor-intensive and time-consuming nature of his specialty, Finlay created more than 2600 works of graphic art in his 35-year career.”
I didn’t know the definition of the terms stippling, cross-hatching, and scratchboard before starting this post, but I’d certainly recognized the results as being his style. I begain downloading and saving Finlay’s illustrations months ago.
Virgil Finlay was born in 1914 in Rochester, New York. He was an aspiring artist heavily influenced by science fiction, fantasy, and horror pulp magazines in the 1920s and ’30s. In 1935, at age 21, he submitted six unsolicited artworks to the editor of Weird Tales magazine. His illustrations for three stories were published in the December issue. His work subsequently appeared in 62 issues of Weird Tales, including 19 color covers. Finlay illustrated stories by writers such as H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon, and many others. Lovecraft told stories of ancient gods from other dimensions wreaking havoc in our world — hideous, monstrous beings. Lovecraft’s influence can be seen in Finlay’s vivid depictions of these stories. He also appeared in many other publications and received numerous awards.
Without knowing the content of stories depicted in his covers and illustrations, these images, often extreme and disturbing, take on the aspect of a Rorschach test as we attempt to give them meaning. Most of these are so strange, abnormal even, that it’s easy to imagine they come from a dark place in Finlay’s mind. I mean, most of this is very weird stuff.
Here is a sampling. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
I was familiar with Ed Emshwiller’s science fiction illustrations long before I knew his name or anything about his career. From 1951 to 1979, he created over five hundred covers for many science fiction magazines and paperbacks. In the 1960s, he began making experimental films, which came as a total surprise to me. It was also kind of a disconnect, as I wasn’t used to people crossing over from one discipline go another, both of which I had a strong interest in. I read a lot of science fiction while growing up in the ’50s. I loved Emshwiller’s covers for their realistic detail, imagination, and frequent playfulness. The cover above is a good example of this. Below are some others.
It wasn’t all laughs in his art work. One of his most powerful and evocative covers for me was for “Rat in the Skull,” an equally powerful and evocative short story by Rog Phillips in the December, 1958 issue of If Science Fiction. I haven’t read the story since it first appeared, when I was 14 years old. The feeling I had then has stayed with me, if not the details. Earlier today, I found the story online, downloaded it, and plan to re-read it before finishing this post. We’ll see if it holds up to Emshwiller’s depiction. *** Just finished. It’s not great writing, but the concept is still strong, original, and tragic. A rat, strapped from birth in the skull of a mechanical body, gains a “soul,” so to speak, without the awareness that it’s actually a rat. No happy ending here. Has a certain resonance with Flowers for Algernon.
Emshwiller’s wife Carol was an award-winning science fiction writer. Author Ursula K. Le Guin called her “…a major fabulist, a marvelous magical realist, one of the strongest, most complex, most consistently feminist voices in fiction.” No small praise, that. I haven’t read any of her work, but think I have to now. Emshwiller frequently used her as a model (I that’s her in the “Rat in the Skull” cover above). Below is a photo of Carol with a painting Ed had done of her, which had appeared on the cover of an edition of her collected short stories. She died in 2019 at age 97, having outlived her husband by 32 years, who died in 1990 at age 65.
In 1964, Emshwiller received a Ford Foundation grant for filmmaking. The result was his 38 minute film Relativity in 1966. In his original proposal to the Ford Foundation (per IMDb), he outlined the film as “something that deals with subjective reality, the emotional sense of what one’s perception of the total environment is — sexual, physical, social, time, space, life, death.”
A description at the Film-Makers Coop website says this: “A man wonders, measures, views relationships, people, places, things, time, himself. A sensual journey through a series of subjective reflections.”
I may have seen Relativity back in the day, but my recall of non-narrative experimental films is sketchy at best. But Emswhiller definitely got attention for this film. During this time, he was also a cinematographer on documentaries and feature films, including Hallelujah the Hills (1963). An interesting detail is that he shot the footage of Bob Dylan singing “Only a Pawn in Their Game” in 1963 that appears in D.A. Pennebaker’s Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back (1967).
In the 1970s, Emshwiller began working in video. Sunstone, a three-minute work he made in 1979, uses 3-D computer-generated video. This early example of CGI is considered groundbreaking, and is in the video collection of the Museum of Modern Art here in New York.
I definitely saw an earlier film of his, George Dumpson’s Place (1966). I especially like the evocative title. The running time is just under eight minutes. I just watched it for the first time in many years. It’s great. Here’s a description from the National Film Preservation Foundation website:
George Dumpson’s Place is one of several short films in which Emshwiller explored the worlds of other artists with which he felt strong sympathy. George Dumpson was an impoverished African-American handyman who squatted on land in Long Island. Emswhiller saw him as a folk artist, a scavenger and assembler of found objects in the tradition of Joseph Cornell. “I felt he was an artist because my definition of an artist is a person reorganizing the world, creating a world in his internal likelness.” In the film, Dumpson’s overgrown “place” on Long Island is a densely textured mystery of broken dolls, ruined sculpture, and tangled housewares, a world of uncertain boundaries between rural and urban landscapes, interior and exterior spaces, investigated through the sinuous tracking shots for which Emshwiller was noted. At heart of his maze is Dumpson, glimpsed at the end of a walkway, followed by the startling close-up flash of his face, all white beard and black skin.
Ed was also an educator. In California, he was the founder of the CalArts Computer Animation Lab and was the dean of the School of Film/Video at the California Institute of Arts from 1979 to 1990. Though I always go back to his science fiction artwork. That’s my earliest and strongest connection to his work. Below are three shots of Ed through the years.
Last month we traveled to Minneapolis to see friends. Mark Ryan, one of my oldest friends and, like me, an obsessive movie buff, had been telling me for several years about the Heights Theater and how great it is. After going there on a Friday night with Mark and his wife Marge, Nancy and I tend to agree.
The Heights is the oldest continuously operating movie theater in the Twin Cities, showing films since 1926. They run both new and old films, with an emphasis on classics. The schedule below is an example of their eclectic programming.
The night we were there we saw a new film, See How They Run, directed by Tom George, featuring Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan, Ruth Wilson, David Oyelowo, and Adrian Brody. Good cast. Set in 1950s London during the run of Agatha Christie’s play, The Mousetrap, the film is a farcical mystery comedy that becomes quite meta by the time it’s over. The way everything neatly fits together is clever and satisfying. (See How They Run is currently available for streaming from Amazon Prime.)
We got there early for the 7:10 show and had a chance to check out the lobby and auditorium. An organ, which rises up in front of the screen, was being played when we arrived. This was very cool. The organ is played before the 7:10 shows on Friday and Saturday nights. It really adds to the mood of the place.
When we were there, tickets were being sold at the candy counter. Mark tells me that the original ticket booth is also sometimes used to sell tickets. It’s beautiful. (The view from outside the theater is at left; inside the theater at right.)
Here is the history of the theater per their website:
“The Heights Theatre is located in Columbia Heights, Minnesota, a Northeast Minneapolis suburb. The theatre was originally constructed in 1926 by Gluek Brewery heir Arthur Gluek as a prohibition real estate venture.
“Built in the Beaux Arts style of the last century, the Heights Theatre building was a simple neighborhood movie house showcasing local talent in stage plays and “High Class Amateur Vaudeville Acts.” The Heights has survived at least three fires, one bombing and “The Big Blow of 1949” when a Fridley tornado twisted the tower sign.
“Tom Letness and Dave Holmgren bought the Heights Theatre in November of 1998. At first sight the theater looked completely different: it was a turquoise box. The original blueprints from the University of Minnesota’s archives revealed that the ornamental plaster of polychromed woodwork and the front windows had been walled-up during World War II. To top it all off the previous owners had slathered the building with turquoise paint.
“Today the theater has been restored to its original glory. A scarlet motorized Grande drape covers the proscenium stage and gilded grills conceal the organ’s pipework. Antique chandeliers are suspended from the ceiling restored with 2600 Egyptian lead crystals. Hand-painted reproduction Edison Mazda bulbs in four colors on separate circuits allow a multitude of effects from 152 lights above four hundred seats. An orchestra pit was discovered under the floor where the mighty Wurlitzer Theater Organ now rises for Friday and Saturday night concerts.
“The Heights has a grand piano in the lobby and an upright piano in the auditorium connected to the organ. The 1926 Williams Brothers steam boiler was replaced with two new high-efficiency hot water boilers and new electrical service as well as plumbing upgrades has been completed over the years. The entire lobby and auditorium were recarpeted, and a sparkling new tower sign crowns the marquee.
“Tom Letness, who became sole owner of The Heights in 2003, specializes in upscale first run films, classic film series and events.”
In addition to concession items, The Heights owns the Dairy Queen next door to the theater and in the, spring, summer, and fall, all theater patrons can purchase items at the DQ and bring them into the theater. The DQ has a full treat line as well as Orange Julius premium fruit smoothies, Hot dogs, BBQ and Grilled chicken sandwiches.
Supplemental – Tech Specs edited from the theater’s website
The Heights WCCO Mighty Wurlitzer
Originally the Heights Theater had a small Robert Morton pipe organ installed in 1927, but this organ was removed in 1936 when the theater was remodeled.
The current organ began its life in 1929 as the WCCO studio organ, back in the days when WCCO had studios located in the old Nicollet hotel at Washington and Hennepin Ave in downtown Minneapolis. It was then a 3 manual instrument with 12 ranks of pipes. Then in the 1960’s it was sold to a private collector and eventually purchased by the Land O Lakes Theatre Organ Society in 1998. Soon after, a deal was struck with the management of the Heights Theater to install the organ, thus making the Heights the first movie theater to have a functioning pipe organ since the Downtown Minneapolis Radio City Theater closed its doors in 1958.
The organ currently has 16 sets of pipes (known as ranks) and also boasts a glockspiel, xylophone, chimes, piano, and marimba, as well as an assortment of rhythm percussions and original theater pipe organ sound effects such as train whistle, bell, birds, and so forth. The section which currently plays is housed in the former dressing room on the right side of the auditorium. The organ’s voices include Tuba, Trumpet, Post horn (the loudest stop) strings clarinet, and a variety of other organ voices to fill out the ensemble.
Organists play a short program Friday and Saturday nights before the 7:10 shows, and also for special movie events and silent movies.
Projection & General Presentation Information
The Heights Theatre is one of the best-equipped venues for film and Digital presentation in the Twin Cities. In 2012, a complete D cinema installation was done using a Dolby Digital cinema package combined with a brand new BARCO 2K digital projector. Unlike most theaters though, we have kept our full 35mm-70mm Norelco AAII legacy film projectors in place and operational. All film prints are projected reel to reel and not from an automated platter system. The Heights also has one of the best cinema sound systems supporting full Dolby Digital surround sound, DTS Digital as well as excellent mono and stereo optical and magnetic systems.
After being discharged from the Air Force in August of 1970, I returned to the University of Iowa in Iowa City to resume my education and my old job at a local bookstore. After three somewhat erratic years, I emerged armed with a prestigious General Studies degree. An Air Force friend of mine was living with his wife in Minneapolis. Shortly before I was due to graduate, he wrote to say that there was a lot of film work there, and that if I didn’t have other plans, I could come and stay with them until I found a job. This seemed perfect. I had hopes of finding work in the film world, but no practical thoughts on how to achieve that. Staying in Iowa City as a “professional student” had a certain slacker appeal, but I knew I wasn’t ready to give up just yet.
I’d finally managed to buy a stereo of my own, a portable KLH that packed up into a kind of compact briefcase for travel. I got a lot of use out of this machine and took it with me when I made the move to Minneapolis in the fall of 1973.
The photo above shows me in my first of three Minneapolis apartments. Note the records on display lined up on the floor against the wall. Easy to flip through. I’m sure I acquired most of these in Iowa City, because at the time of this shot I hadn’t been in the city very long. The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East is in front of the first row. It’s a hell of an album. I’ve always loved their version of “Stormy Monday.” When I want to hear something from this album, that’s the cut I’ll play.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s monumental tribute to bluegrass music, was released in November of 1971. It features an amazing collection of musicians, including Doc Watson, Vassar Clements, Earl & Randy Scruggs, Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, and Roy Acuff. I got it in Iowa City and it’s been with me ever since. One of my favorite cuts is “Down Yonder,” which starts off with Doc Watson talking with other musicians about what song they’re going to do. They decide on “Down Yonder,” and there’s this incredible moment when they’re getting ready to start and Doc Watson says to Vassar Clements, “How does it go, Vassar?” This immediately kicks off the number in exuberant fashion. It gets me every time.
Still in Iowa City I came across an album by the Sir Douglas Quintet called Mendocino. I found it in a record cut-out bin in a downtown drugstore for 50 cents. There was something about it that I thought I should check out. Doug Sahm (aka “Sir Douglas”) was from San Antonio. His band’s music was Tex-Mex all the way, but the Sir Douglas Quintet name had been taken to make it sound like a British band. No one who heard them would ever make that mistake. Anyway, the Mendocino album was such a bargain. I especially love the title cut. Listen to Augie Meyers on organ!
About three weeks or so after moving to Minneapolis, I found a job with a 16mm motion picture lab where the work included TV spots (anyone remember K-Tel?) and medical films for the University of Minnesota. Most of my co-workers were in the same age range and we shared many of the same interests and preferences. We saw each other socially as well as at work. In a way, it felt like being back in college. Music and movies were focal points for us, always topics for discussion and debate.
In a recent blog post on David Bowie, I told how I first heard his music in Minneapolis in the house of friends from work. Another time I remember being alone in the third floor room of a different house, lying on a mattress on the floor with large stereo speakers on either side of my head listening to the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” at high volume. I knew the song and loved it. This seemed like just the thing to do.
“Sister Ray” sounds like it’s punching its way out of a soggy cardboard box. It’s brutal, heavy, and kind of great. Here are a couple of apt comments re “Sister Ray” made on YouTube:
Sounds like they’ve been playing it 12 hours straight the moment it starts.
…the song gyrates between cohesion and chaos like seven different times in 17 minutes. This is like a Formula 1 driver going 225 miles an hour, losing control of his car 7 times, not crashing and still winning the race.
The Guthrie Theater, with a capacity of 1,437, was originally attached to the Walker Art Center. The years I was in Minneapolis, the Guthrie had theatrical productions and musical performances. The first couple of concerts I attended were were due to a Duke Ellington concert that didn’t happen. I’d seen that Ellington was going to perform at the Guthrie on Saturday and Sunday, January 19 & 20, 1974. My parents were planning to drive up from Iowa to visit that weekend. They loved big band music, especially my mother, so I decided to get tickets for the Saturday concert. My mother couldn’t quite get her head around the fact that they were actually going to see Duke Ellington in person. As it turned out, they didn’t. Ellington was ill and the concerts were cancelled. He was to die that May.
This was a disappointment, but instead of getting a refund for the three tickets, I elected to get tickets for two upcoming concerts at the Guthrie. The first was Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt on February 2. Late for the Sky wouldn’t be out until that November, but Jackson Brown was well known. Linda Ronstadt was giggly and seemed nervous, though this could have been part of her stage persona. She already had released three studio albums. It was a good show.
I saw Miles Davis two days later. This was not the Miles of Sketches of Spain or Kind of Blue, this was more Bitches Brew and beyond that. It was an experience. And it was Miles.
I then saw Herbie Hancock on May 6, followed by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen on May 19. I’d completely forgotten about the Commando Cody concert, except I know I saw Hoyt Axton at the Guthrie, so I must have been there for that gig.
That was it for Guthrie Theater concerts until October 6 when I saw Randy Newman and Ry Cooder, and then the Keith Jarrett Quartet on December 22. I filled the time between Guthrie dates at other venues.
A group of us from the film lab loaded into a van and drove to Eau Claire, Wisconsin for a Mothers of Invention concert at the University of Wisconsin campus on April 26. Dion was the opening act and he had a rough time of it. This was Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts, whose music includes “Runaround Sue,” “The Wanderer,” “Ruby Baby,” and “A Teenager in Love.” He was accompanying himself on acoustic guitar in this large auditorium space, and many in the crowd were not having it. I was appalled when they began heckling. They’d come to see Frank Zappa and the Mothers, not someone out of rock ‘n’ roll history. Had to wonder what genius had put this booking together. Well, Dion is still standing, still making music, so there’s that.
I remember seeing Jerry Jeff Walker on May 24 at the Cabooze, a very interesting music venue that I think was built around an actual railroad caboose. I went there frequently, mainly to hang out. That night I’d wanted to go out, drink beer, and hear live music. I’d previously defined Walker by “Mr. Bojangles,” which I thought was pretty light weight. Couldn’t have been more wrong. He ripped the place up and then some.
My concert attendance slacked off in 1975, though I continued to buy records and play them by myself or with friends. It’s what we’d do, get together and listen to music. I’d show up at parties armed with a stack of LPs I thought everyone should hear. I’d also see local bands in neighborhood bars. Records I bought mostly came from two stores, Oar Folkjokeopus (aka Oar Folk) and the Electric Fetus. I wrote briefly about Oar Folk in the first installment of this music saga. It was only a few blocks from my first apartment and I went there a lot. Electric Fetus was a little further away. Didn’t go there as much, but both stores had an excellent inventory.
The only significant concert I attended in ’75 was a doozy — Bruce Springsteen at the Guthrie Theater on Sunday, September 21. Born to Run had been released on August 25 to a great deal of fanfare. A month later he appeared in the same week on the covers of Time and Newsweek. He was on his way to becoming a very big deal.
It was a great concert. What makes it even more memorable to me is that the day before had been my dad’s funeral in Iowa. He’d died that Thursday in a hospital in Omaha, Nebraska. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was glad I was able to make it back to Minneapolis in time for the concert. That probably sounds cold or uncaring to some, and maybe I shouldn’t admit it, but there it is. I miss my dad a lot and wish I’d known him better. Bruce Springsteen was just what I needed under the circumstances.
Sometime in 1976 I learned that Woody Herman and his band would be doing a concert. I don’t remember the date or the venue, but when I checked yesterday I saw that he’d performed many times at the Prom Center in St. Paul. I’m assuming that’s where it was. My mother had grown up loving big band music of the ’30s. She flew up from Iowa and we went to the show, which she loved. The next day we were on a bus in downtown Minneapolis when I saw Woody Herman in a trench coat walking along the sidewalk. I didn’t say anything to my mom, but I fantasized that we’d rush off the bus after him and have a nice encounter. Didn’t do it, but it was nice to imagine.
March of ’76 was a triple header for me. I saw Patti Smith at the Guthrie on March 7, The Who at the St. Paul Civic Center on March 14, and Roxy Music at the Guthrie on March 18.
Patti Smith’s album Horses had been released on October 10, produced by John Cale with a cover photo by Robert Mapplethorpe. Horses got a lot of attention and it more than justifies it. Somehow I’d scored a front-row seat at the Guthrie. The stage isn’t raised much, so it felt like I was rightthere. I saw her perform as often as I could after I moved to New York. Turned out that Lenny Kaye, Smith’s lead guitarist then and now, was living in the building I’d moved into. It was a kick seeing him in the lobby or elevator.
The first cut on Horses is “Gloria,” which tells us with its first words that this is something different, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” The energy in the song builds and takes you in a rush.