Friday, December 30, 2011

Happy New Year



1972's The Poseidon Adventure has recently started to show up at various New Year's Eve midnight screenings as campy, audience participation snark. And deservedly so - after all, its cinema at its most over-the-top. But I love this movie and would comfortably place it on my favorite 50 films of all time list.

Back in 1998, I reviewed it for my defunct website, Sky-High Picture Show, and, for New Year's Eve kicks, I thought I'd rerun the review as originally written (warts and all) here.

-----------------------------------------------------

The Poseidon Adventure is one of those movies that quantifies the term 'epic proportions' and truly put the disaster film on the map back in 1972. Sure there was the 1970s airflight disaster flick Airport but The Poseidon Adventure, which is cut from the same formula, captured the hearts and minds of cinematic adventure freaks everywhere.

Outside the obvious air/sea thing, there is a major difference between Airport and The Poseidon Adventure. Where Airport tried to soap up its backstory with romance (Dean Martin and Jacqueline Bisset's illicit affair), The Poseidon Adventure took on a religious backdrop and attempted to remake the gospel according to St. Matthew into the gospel according to Gene Hackman's radical preacher, Reverend Frank Scott.

So underneath the capsized Poseidon - hell upsidedown - we have an array of characters trapped, not only inside the sinking ship, but by their own personality quirks revolving around false pride, sin, etc. Their dilemma, therefore, is a film long debate on doing the smart, brave thing - i.e. saving their asses from certain death by water. Rising, in fact, from hell to a higher level of existence achieved through tenacity, brevity, and faith. Thus, the film's tagline - "Who will survive-in the greatest escape adventure ever!" - gives the viewer a pretty good idea of the movie's surface meaning.

The only way for the survivors to make it is by following - through physical trial and ethereal faith - the dynamic, cursing Scott who, incidentally, has a bevy of young women at his side during the fateful New Year's Eve party when the ship flips. This, of course, signifies his sexual magnetism and alludes to the possibilities of his giving into the temptations of the flesh - which we never see.

The question, therefore, begs - why would we want to follow this man, a man who must choose who's worthy of following him to a better place, one who conveys an obvious anti-religious attitude via cursing and sex? Scott, though heroic, is probably hiding something under his veil of righteousness through radicalism and an open resistance toward prayer. He may even be a liar and agnostic or, possibly, atheist. Yet, he believes he's the chosen one and because of this self-belief, others tend to follow.

The survivors, who decide to follow Scott, run the spectrum of humanity. There's a rogue cop (Ernest Borgnine) married to an ex-hooker (Stella Stevens), a jewish couple (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters - who ironically choose to follow a Christ figure), two kids (Eric Shea and Pamela Sue Martin), a fitness wimp (Red Buttons) and a dim singer (Carol Lyndley). All of whom have fallen away from God somehow or are too naive to understand.

James Martin (Buttons), however, is the one who suggests that they climb up to the bottom of the boat and Scott, who's a man of action, agrees immediately. They rely on information divulged by 10 year old Robin Shelby (Shea), who's smarter and more knowledgeable about the mechanics of the ship than anyone else. He informs them that aft, the Poseidon's hull is only one inch thick.

"Do you know how thick one inch of steel is, kid?" asks cop Mike Rogo (Borgnine).

Scott jumps in with, "Its one inch thinner than two inches" as if that provides all the answers - which, of course, it does for it leads to hope that leads to purpose.

Even though Hackman's portrayal of Scott reaches the edge of overacting - it works. There's no doubt that Hackman enjoyed this role and played it with gusto. Never subtle, Reverend Scott looks '70's chic with turtle neck sweater, flared pants and cool mutton chop sideburns - a tragically hip reverend, to be sure. He's passionate, youthful and strong - its not a chore for him to be cool and its no wonder the women on the ship are attracted to him.

Director Ronald Neame didn't take the sexual aspect of Reverend Scott too far although there are allusions. The main attraction toward Scott is via teenager Susan Shelby (Martin) who eyes Scott with an unabated lust. She's also the truest believer in Scott and easily follows him no matter the consequences.

The denoument at the end of the film, the place where faith and action converge, is no subtle feat as steam blocks the escape route of the remaining flock. High up heavenward catwalks, danger and death are inevetible. The only way through is Scott, who is willing to be sacrificed to appease God who has been nothing but a foil for the Reverend.

Jumping to the red wheel that will stop the spewing steam, Scott hangs on, slowly turning the wheel while chastising God and his willingness to kill innocent people.

"What do you want from us?" Scott screams, clinging to the wheel - his cross - turning it hand over bloody hand. "We made it this far with no help from you!"

All of it, of course, is a test for Scott - he drops to the depths knowing his sheep will get through.

The main aspect of The Poseidon Adventure - the one thing that brings it a notch above most other disaster flicks from the early 1970's, is its character subtext and quasi-relegiosity. Plus, all the main special effects (flipping the boat via a 90 foot tidal wave) are shown about a half hour into the film and not saved for an earth shattering finale.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Apocalyptic heartbreak



I went through an apocalyptic break-up when I was in my early 20s. It resulted in a whole range of misguided behaviors based on heartbreak and anger. I spent months looking for ways to get the girl who broke my heart back - in more ways than one. I was not a pleasant person to be around during those times. I listened to pissed-off punk rock, drank oceans of beer and participated in other forms of self-destruction.

What I didn't do was make my own movie based on this devastation or build my own flamethrower or modify muscle cars ready for a Mad Max-like apocalypse. These are the things that Evan Glodell did for the making of his indie film Bellflower. Glodell, who directed the film, also plays Woodrow - a possibly brain-damaged 20-something who doesn't handle it well when his girlfriend Milly breaks things off with him. Woodrow spirals so deeply into mental illness that its difficult to discern reality from fantasy.

Which is a pretty accurate account of what happens during a devastating personal loss - like a breakup in your early 20s.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Neo Maxi Zoom Dweebie



The Breakfast Club represents an amalgam of kids in high school. And, like it or not (doesn't matter what era), you probably were one of those kids in The Breakfast Club.

If you were Andrew Clark, you probably would've dated Claire Standish - at least for the appearance of it. If you were Brian Johnson, you may have wanted Claire from afar but she never would have noticed. Or acknowledged noticing.

What the movie got right (and it wasn't the only thing it got right - this is a dead-on teen flick) was the John Bender/Claire Standish hook-up. John and Claire were perfect foils. John needed her societal standing and Claire needed his wildness. I imagine John actually going to college and doing well, imbued with an entrepreneurial spirit probably much like Claire's father. I imagine Claire's father giving John Bender his first break.

But The Breakfast Club is of the moment - capturing a time when the day was the most important thing in the lives of high school kids. A day where there is very little room for the future.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Philadelphia Story



The Philadelphia Story (1940) gets better every time I see it.

My latest viewing was focused on Katherine Hepburn's performance, which was sublime and amatory. I've never considered Hepburn an actress who imbued eroticism but, then again, I didn't grow up in the 1930s and 1940s, which is when she was starting to come into her own as a leading performer having starred in more than a dozen films before The Philadelphia Story. And it was only a couple years prior to this film that she stopped the show in the Howard Hawks directed Bringing Up Baby - a movie highly regarded by auteur theorists as well as modern filmmakers when they talk about their favorite and most influential films (Quentin Tarantino, for one, gushes when discussing his love for Hawks movies in general and Bringing Up Baby specifically).

Hepburn's character of Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story is referred to (either verbally or myopically) as a "goddess" by the men who surround her: Cary Grant, James Stewart, and John Howard. But Tracy wants to be seen as more than merely a "goddess."

Yet, while Tracy denounces her "goddess" stature (when she speaks she express a self-aware and shrewd intellect), director George Cukor - with the help of cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg - represents Hepburn in the most goddess-like fashion possible. Her features are shadowy softness - due to Ruttenberg's exemplary lighting - and she's often lit from behind, allowing her statuesque figure to show through diaphanous white clothing, which pops in gorgeous black and white photography. Its not by accident that Hepburn's wardrobe (designed by Adrian) pays homage to the clothing often ascribed to the goddesses of Greek mythology.

I don't believe the film is (or was) a sexist affair and, in 1940, attitudes toward women were different. Instead, I find The Philadelphia Story armed to battle sexism in its own way but from the point of view of its own time. And it is from that perspective - especially viewed through the ironic lens of George Cukor - that the movie succeeds.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Magic



1978 was a great year for the horror film: Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, just to name a couple of the big hitters.

But the horror film from '78 I find myself returning to most often is Richard Attenborough's unhinged and certifiable Magic.

Magic was a big studio film directed by a very well regarded and established filmmaker who was better known for his acting gigs in movies like The Great Escape, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, The Flight of the Phoenix, among others.

Magic also starred Anthony Hopkins as ventriloquist Corky Withers who is controlled by his dummy Fats. Burgess Meredith plays Ben Greene, Corky's concerned manager, who tries to convince Corky to take some time away from Fats. Corky, however, needs to make a living and Fats is his money-maker. But, the truth is, Corky can't stop being Fats and Fats is actually Corky uncorked.

Fats does anything he can to keep Corky from making friends. He especially doesn't want Corky to fall in love, which he does anyway - to Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margret, you know, the infamous "Kitten with a Whip"). Peggy Ann is a threat to Fats but there's really not much she can do about Fats - er, Corky - anyway.

Attenborough and writer William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) weave an intense, psychologically complex thriller that's unpredictable, perverse and creepy.

And the little ditty floating above Fats' head in the poster is marketing brilliance. It tells you everything and nothing:

Abracadabra,
I sit on his knee.

Presto chango,
and now he is me.

Hocus pocus,
We take her to bed.

Magic is fun;
We're dead.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Hey Santa! Butt me!



This is going to be my last Christmas post for 2011. But you gotta hand it to Lucky Strike for their marketing cajones.

Does UPA's Frosty the Snowman = Creepy?

Okay, so I kinda Grinched myself when I recently tweeted that the clip below was "creepy."

But that doesn't mean its bad. Its jaunty, jazzy and of its time. It was produced in 1954 by UPA Studios and became a Chicago-area Christmas staple. Kids growing up during the 1960s and 1970s saw this thing a lot if they watched a morning show on WGN-TV called Ray Rayner and His Friends. Anyway, its a piece of nostalgic charm that's probably lost on anyone born after 1980.

Even if it is a little creepy...



Friday, December 9, 2011

Xmas


I find this film uninspired and the characters unappealing. But the poster has a way of embracing the season and I do appreciate that.

Plus I have a warm spot for this:


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

God Forgives...I Don't



One of my favorite lines in Robert Rodriguez's certifiably insane Machete is when Cheech Marin says, while pointing a gun at the head of a man begging for his life, "God has mercy...I don't."

A fantastically blasphemous statement punctuated by Marin pulling the trigger and blowing the man's brains out. What's better is that Marin plays a priest, so what he says, while not subtle, is hysterically offensive.

Machete began as a faux trailer in the Rodriguez/Tarantino film Grindhouse and Rodriguez developed it into a feature film that easily could have played second or third tier at some drive-in back in the 1970s.

What I recently learned was that the Marin statement actually spins off from an Italian film from 1967 called Dio Pardona...lo no! The American release was renamed Blood River, possibly because the distributors were nervous about the actual translation - God Forgives...I Don't!

The film stars Terence Hill who plays a character named Cat Stevens. Hill goes on to play this character in two other films: Ace High (1968) and Boot Hill (1969). These films also star Bud Spencer.

Terence Hill and Bud Spencer may not be known here in the States now but - believe it or not - in the early 1970s, they actually got some play and kids that hung out at Saturday or Sunday afternoon matinees during this time probably remember them.

Hill and Spencer paired up for a double shot of spaghetti western mayhem in My Name is Trinity (1970) and Trinity is STILL My Name (1971). My father took me to see both of them when I was really young. He must have liked My Name is Trinity because it wasn't long after seeing it that he hauled me to see the sequel.

I haven't seen either one since they came out but I do remember snippets. I remember Trinity riding into town, laying on a make-shift wooden sled pulled by his horse. Hill played Trinity so laid back that the character simply oozed charismatic obstinance. He was the perfect character for a generation trying to adopt a "What, me worry?" attitude despite the Vietnam War, campus violence, skyrocketing inflation, the gas crunch - all raging in life's background.

What's changed since then? Besides Vietnam, that is. The truth is we need Trinity now more than ever.


Friday, December 2, 2011

Pulp Fiction



"A book containing lurid subject matter, and being characteristically printed on rough, unfinished paper."

Vincent: I think we should be leaving now.

Jules: Yeah, that's probably a good idea.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Kitten with a Whip



If you've never seen Ann-Margret in her early 1960s prime, then you probably can't imagine the concept behind the "sex kitten," a sexist, condescending term that, back in the day (possibly coined in the late 1950s and, again possibly, attributed in 1958 in reference to french actress Brigitte Bardot), meant "hottie."

In the early 1960s these up and coming "sex kittens" (Bardot, Raquel Welch, etc.) - while splashed all over movie fanzines - didn't carry the extra burden of being exposed and defined by their proclivities, i.e., rampant sexcapades, drug-fueled frenzies or shoplifting rampages a la Lindsey Lohan.

Ann-Margret, who went to New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois and attended Northwestern University, started to gain notice shortly after the death of Marilyn Monroe in 1962. In her career, Monroe had defined the concept of "bombshell," ultimately inspiring the looks of such B-graders as Mamie Van Doren and Jayne Mansfield. Ann-Margret, on the other hand, was something completely different - thinner, red hair - someone who purred sex and meant it, as opposed to Marilyn Monroe, who played her roles alluring (at that time, anyway) with an aware unawareness of self.

Ann-Margret's first film - A Pocketful of Miracles - came out in 1961 and was a tame, non-threatening effort - a family affair. In '62 she was in State Fair with boring, clean cut Pat Boone. In '63, she started to define herself in Bye Bye Birdie but it was her role as Rusty Martin in Viva Las Vegas (1964) that exploited her physical attributes with her "sex kitten" coquettishness playing alongside Elvis Presley, who was reaching his apex. Yet Ann-Margret was still blooming wholesomeness - someone you could easily bring home to mother.

That is until her next movie (released the same year as Viva Las Vegas), Kitten with a Whip. Even in 1964, the title alluded to something vaguely sadomasochistic, something you might see on 42nd Street.

Despite the film's S&M title, the movie is actually an obscure juvenile deliquent romp, with Ann-Margret playing head JD and juvie detention hall escapee, Jody Dvorak. Now the clean-cut "sex kitten" is implied to carry a whip (which Jody does not in this movie), making things a little naughtier.

About Ann-Margret's performance in Kitten with a WhipShock Cinema editor Steven Puchalski says, "Lemme tell you, this flick is without a doubt the finest showcase of Ann-Margret's talents. She's a tough, no-nonsense bitch, using sex 'n' a smile to get what she wants, and this harder edge makes her more alluring than ever. When she snarls and brandishes the broken end of a whiskey bottle --- well, I think I'm in love."

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

He lives on skis...



In 1979 I learned how to ski at a small place called Majestic Mountain located off Illinois Route 47 just over the Wisconsin border right outside of Lake Geneva.

I learned to ski there on cheap rental equipment and less than $10 got you an all day ski pass from 10:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.

This place fueled my dreams (though short-lived) to chuck family, friends, college to become that dreaded societal pariah...the SKI BUM.

Majestic's long gone but here's some footage of what remains of that formative ski hill:



Wisconsin Footage 1 from Mike Kwielford on Vimeo.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wait


There was a time when people were allowed to smoke in movie theaters. There were actually smoking sections but smoke would still pervade throughout the theater. Its amazing the power big tobacco and rude smokers wielded over us unfortunates who didn't find taking the gamble - with lung cancer, emphysema, stench, premature wrinkles, destruction of brain cells, lung capacity, loss of memory, inability to partake in long walks, inability to run or do anything remotely athletic, inability to rationalize logically, and so much more - worth the nothingness you get in return for lighting up.

On the initial run of Wait Until Dark in 1967, during the final eight minutes of the film, theaters would shut down all extraneous lighting (including Exit lights), plunging the audience into complete darkness save for what was playing out on the screen. This little novelty worked - viewers became completely immersed in the world of a blind woman (Audrey Hepburn) being terrorized by psychopathic thugs led by Alan Arkin.

Funny. This poster for Wait Until Dark makes a politely pandering plea to smokers asking them to refrain from "lighting up" during this sequence as doing so will break the spell of the movie.

Who says B-movies don't have an agenda?


Larry Cohen's It's Alive is a blatant metaphor for hatred and fear of kids and, if it wasn't so hilarious in it's badness, the film's politics would be downright scary.

It's Alive played the drive-in circuit for years after initially released in 1974 and spawned (unintentional pun intended) queasy sequels: It Lives Again (1978) and Island of the Alive (1987) and it was remade in 2008.

Monster babies? So what? Monster or not, get rid of 'em all. It isn't by chance that Cohen shows a close-up of printing on the back of an ice cream truck that says, "Stop...Children."

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Alien invasion


It happens every year at the same time. Mid-November I get so sick it knocks me "out of the box." I feel it come on slowly, first in the lungs and throat, then it disappears for about a day, fooling me into thinking I somehow beat it. Then it comes on full force evolving into a debilitating sinus infection that impacts my whole being body and soul.

This year I was smart and instead of "riding it out" for days as it tightens its grip, I went to a doctor immediately and was - happily - prescribed the proper medication, shortening (somewhat) its intensity.

Last year I battled a week's worth of pain and suffering that led to an inability to physically remove myself from bed. I forced myself to the doctor on the fifth or sixth day, received antibiotics, which kicked it out in short order.

This year, I received antibiotics quickly, the suffering wasn't as deadly-seeming and I only missed a couple days of work, with final stages ebbing over the weekend.

I'll be right as rain come Monday, happily bounding to the workplace knowing full well I'll be able to enjoy a long Thanksgiving holiday healthy and wise.

So why The War of the Worlds? Because I think the aliens were invaded by an alien (to them) infection not unlike my annual bout that eventually killed them at the film's forehead-slapping conclusion (I'm talking the 1953, Byron Haskin directed film).

Sunday, November 13, 2011

This is this...



On a sickbed (nasty cold) and on leave from a family gathering (not wanting to spread germs), I decided to revisit Michael Cimino's only masterwork, 1978's The Deer Hunter. I've had a love/hate relationship with this film since first seeing it when it was released.

I was still in high school when I saw it the first time and, in fact, saw it twice in '78. The first time I saw it with a friend and the decision to see it was based on my recommendation as I had probably read a review about the film and knew it was not to be missed. A couple things I remember about seeing it then - neither of us realized how long the movie was. We went to a 9:00 p.m. screening on a - God forbid - school night. I wasn't under the hammer of strict parents and curfew but my friend John was. I remember him whispering at around the two hour mark (about 11:00 p.m.), that he was dead. But I was the driver and I wasn't about to leave. By the time it ended, just after midnight, John ran out of the theater to get to the car fast - as if that was going to make up being late. We still had a about a half hour drive home ahead of us. And that drive home was in complete silence.

And, while John may have been fearing the wrath of his parents, I think the silence was due to the film. At 17, I couldn't fully grasp the establishing first hour (what was that all about, I wondered), the second hour was unbearably tense and the final hour unbearably sad. Probably 95% of the film's symbolism and flash forwarding was lost on me on a conscious level. But something happened subconsciously.

I saw the film with another friend a couple weeks later and this time I eased into it's flow and time frame. The film's three-part structure made more sense and I realized that the conclusion of the film wouldn't have had the same power had not the establishing first hour happened. Simply, I needed that second viewing to come to terms with it. And the friend I saw it with - Larry - got it immediately. He had also been writing a paper on Vietnam for a class so the film provided a humanistic framework for his research. John, on the other hand, got in trouble at home and that overshadowed his experience with the movie. He never wanted to talk about it.

When I saw the film on videotape 10 or so years later I was disappointed. The image (though I now know why) was washed out, small, chopped, and crushed. Because it was panned and scanned, its vistas were lost, main characters in the margins of the screen were missing. It was like watching half the film but in its three hour time frame. I was depressed by it and found it completely unbelievable.

In the early days of DVD, I watched it again and saw its power but strugged with character believabilty. I also had a problem with the "God Bless America" ending and wrestled with its meaning. Directorial irony? Too forced. Reality? Possibly. Maybe the characters would do this and mean it on a literal level but I don't know if they were capable of irony except possibly for Michael, a character who undergoes phenomenal change by the end of the film. But I don't know that Michael would do this because, by the film's conclusion, he is a fully internalized man.

So with this recent viewing, I didn't try to find all of its subtext. And this time I believed these characters would act how they did. I believed in the environment on all fronts - home pre-Vietnam, Vietnam and home post-Vietnam. I believed Nick would end up where he did and I believed Michael would have kept his word to Nick even though he failed.

And, shedding the struggle to find deeper meaning, I even believed the "God Bess America" finality.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Cinderella Liberty



When I first saw this particular poster for Cinderella Liberty, I didn't know what the film's name really meant (leave time for a soldier/sailor that starts at revielle and ends at midnight). Or that the girl in the photo was a hooker.

What I also failed to see - at age 13 - was the street James Caan and Marsha Mason are walking along. Its gritty, dirty; it's Deuce-like (New York City's infamous 1960s/1970s Times Square area was called the Deuce. Cinderella Liberty was filmed in Seattle and most big cities during that time had similar Deuce-like environs) string of theaters. The theater marquees behind Caan and Mason advertise illicit movies. At age 13, I missed all that - at least overtly - but that stuff wormed its way into my unconscious mind.

Another poster for the film included this (which barely resonates on any kind of psychological level):

She's 32.
She drinks too much.
She hustles pool.
She's got a 10-year-old mulatto son.
She's got a different boyfriend every night.
She's in trouble.

And he's in love.

It simply says too much.

I've never seen the film, directed by Mark Rydell and released in 1973. I've only seen clips. I've always had the feeling that this is one of those movies probably best lived in a long ago adolescent mind.

Says Roger Ebert, Cinderella Liberty "wants us to take these people and their situation seriously, but it keeps finding Norman Rockwell solutions to its problems. It suggests complexities and then never resolves them. It never surprises us with truth."

But the poster is great.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Drivin' hard...Ridin' easy



Back in 1974 I wanted to be Larry Rayder from the film Dirty Mary Crazy Larry.

I thought Peter Fonda was the coolest actor in the world. Since his role as Wyatt in Easy Rider, nobody had a handle on laid-back counter-culture cool like Fonda. Before Easy Rider in 1968, Fonda had already starred in countless TV shows and movies. Once Easy Rider hit, he became the unofficial spokesperson for a generation already embracing anti-authoritarian psychedelia, acid-rock, and movies far from the Hollywood fray. Fonda's movies "spoke" to youth tired of being force-fed the hypocritical trappings of their parents. His connection to 1960s kids only strengthened once Easy Rider took hold.

Shortly after Easy Rider, Fonda directed an obscure, elegiac, Western called The Hired Hand, which, like Monte Hellman's early 70s oaters, was anti-Western, opposing the tired Hollywood take on the wild west favoring, instead, deep character study.

But it wasn't long before Fonda moved into action-movie mode (around 1974). And it was during this phase that I started to watch the actor more intently. With Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, Fonda advanced his anti-authoritarian disposition that appealed to kids at my age. I found myself attempting to adopt Fonda's onscreen persona. I tried to be laid back, not easily flustered, cool with the chicks - all with a slight chip on my shoulder. But, at the age of 14, which was how old I was when I first saw Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, I failed at all of these things. The one thing I could handle at that age was Fonda's style of dress - jeans, boots, denim shirts, aviator style sunglasses, etc. But again, for me at 14, this 'look' struggled to fly.

Dirty Mary Crazy Larry became my La Dolce Vita (supposedly the film Roger Ebert dreamed of emulating). I wanted to run the countryside as an outlaw in a Dodge Charger with a girl like Mary (Susan George) by my side.

But at 14, without a driver's license or the attention of a chick like Susan George, this never happened.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Sensory deprivation



In 1987 I paid $50 to spend a hour in a sensory deprivation tank (aka "floatation tank," "isolation tank") at a tank spa in Chicago called "Space Time Tanks." The marketing pitch for tank floating was that you will experience a "reduction in tension," "an increased ability to visualize, create, imagine and problem solve," "super-learning by increasing the mind's powers of retention, comprehension and original thinking," and "peak performance enhancement."

The mood was set at "Space Time Tanks" as soon as you entered the tiny lobby, which floated with strawberry incense while the clerk was wearing tie dye, sporting flaxen hair and exuded a very hippy vibe. She was pleasant in that girly stoney way, handed you a couple of plush towels and led you to your tank room. The room was small with a coffin shaped metal box in its center and a shower in the corner. The rule was you had to take a shower before entering the tank. And you went into the tank nude.

The tank itself was white and had a portal-like door that you opened to crawl through a hole that led to brackish water that was filled with epsom salt to keep you afloat with your face above the water line. You also wore ear plugs to block out rushing water as well as all extraneous sound. Once you closed the portal, you were weightless in the pitch black without sound or vision. The idea was to emulate a womb-like experience and to put you into a state of complete mind/body relaxation.

I actually did three sessions over a month long period.

Noted neuro-psychiatrist John Lilly argued that elongated time in an isolation tank, with all stimuli cut off, would lead to discovering the origin of consciousness. However, it was eventually concluded that time spent in a sensory deprivation tank was more likely to help with some stress-related disorders, pain management or insomnia.

Unless, of course, you believe Ken Russell's 1980 film Altered States, in which a scientist, Eddie Jessup (William Hurt), primes himself with hallucinogenic plants and takes a dive into a tank...for hours...days...weeks...on end. So naturally he devolves into pure primordial being - a physical devolution as opposed to a psychological one, although his psyche nearly breaks in the process.

The production of Altered States was plagued with problems most notably attributed to screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky demanding that his name be removed from the final result. You see, Chayevsky also wrote the novel Altered States. So he was resolutely invested in this project. And he hated Russell's crazy, trippy interpretation.

But, fact is, Altered States is a trip and still looks great some 30 years later. Granted, its science is wonky - naturally - but its a fun lysergic ride. When I first saw it, it literally blew my mind. But I was of an age where innervision was a new realm of the senses and seeing this movie was like opening some previously unopened doors of perception.

Unfortunately, my real time spent in the actual tanks years after seeing the film weren't as mind-blowing. The sessions resulted in, essentially, hour-long naps. Although, in one of the sessions, I had a dream that I had found my lost car keys.

And, when I awoke, I was convinced this must have been some sort of Freudian breakthrough since I hadn't lost my keys at all.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Anytime, anywhere


I've not had the good fortune of walking through Times Square in the mid- to late 1970s. Good fortune? Yes because that was a time when it looked like we, as a society, were mired resolutely in the sewer and there's something to be said about experiencing a hellish, lurid reality that opens your eyes to the goodness of life.

1970s Times Square - the Deuce - was wall-to-wall movie theaters but not as we currently know them. These theaters catered to the basest of humanity, focused on grindhouse and pornography for the lowliest and lonliest people on the planet.

There's a strange nostalgia for the Deuce now and its probably in response to the the neon-blasted falsified cheerful Times Square of today, which was "cleaned up" years ago to appeal to mainstream America.

Don't let 'em fool ya - this chain-restaurant, chain-retail smeared corner of the earth is just as sleazy as it was back in 1976. But its sleaze is based on pop culture marketing, selling the masses crap that they'll consume and throw away within minutes. But I'm not complaining, Times Square is, if anything, entertaining. The predominance of hookers and drooling junkies are just buried within the masses of roustabout teenagers, families and happy loving couples.

If you want to see remnants of the 1970s, just take a walk down Eighth Avenue between 42nd and 50th.

Or - better yet - watch Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Conquest


By the time 1972 came around we were good and fed up with the Vietnam War. We were sick of minority oppression and we were slowly discovering that the United States political system was completely corrupt and led by a popular - albeit crooked - president who eventually embitters and almost single handedly destroys a nation already embroiled in domestic and global violence while struggling with crazy out of control inflation. News was peppered by outrageous stories like that rugby team resorting to cannibalism to survive after their airplane crashed into the Andes Mountains.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes hit audiences like a visceral blow to the solar plexus. Never mind its already built-in sequel cache. This was a film ripe for revolution - serious and violent. The opposite of its predecessor, Escape From the Planet of the Apes, but a fitting sequel/prequel/dystopian nightmare (that is if you were a human; to an ape it was verging utopian).

I first saw the film's poster hanging in the lobby of the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove, IL about two weeks before its release on June 30, 1972. I spent those next two weeks in a hyper pre-adolescent rage, rambling endlessly about what I thought the film was to be based on my impressions inspired by that poster.

I wasn't entirely right in my predictions about the movie. After seeing it, I didn't grasp (on the surface anway) its political and humanistic implications. I saw it as an action film first and foremost. I related to the apes and saw it wholly from their perspective.

Now? As a human being, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is terrifying.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Seven-Ups




The chase in The Seven-Ups isn't as innovative as the one in The French Connection (remember the chase in The French Connection is car vs. elevated train) but I find it more exhilarating than the chase in Bullitt. While Bullitt was one of the first to bring the viewer inside the car and intercut with shots from outside the car, The Seven-Ups chase was faster, sloppier, more desperate and dangerous.

This poster doesn't allude to the chase in the film (a movie that's pretty much cat and mouse) and its minimalist design points to the plot's bleak nature. Its not your typical "show the action" marketing ploy and raises more questions than it answers, which is what you want a movie poster to do. Roy Scheider's expression here is more resigned than angry although it's both. He's obviously been pushed over a cliff - whether society and/or career driven or purely psychological.

Philip D'Antoni (who produced Bullitt and The French Connection) was, I believe, attempting to explore the complexity of a cop's psyche. I think the film missed that mark but its still explosive.

And the chase? It's the film's raison d'etre.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Una 44 Magnum per L'Ispettore Callaghan



I never really warmed up to Dirty Harry. Don't get me wrong - I love the 1971 film but I just can't relate to Eastwood's portrayal of the cop Harry Callahan, whose super-human, right-wing swagger puts me off. He's too mechanical (and righteous) as opposed to Gene Hackman's flawed Popeye Doyle in The French Connection - a film I consider a classic of early 70s American cop cinema. I tend to go back to Doyle more than I do Callahan. Doyle's swagger is human and The French Connection just feels real.

The Dirty Harry franchise became a parody of itself (even though Dirty Harry is itself a parody) and I find the sequels unwatchable, particularly Ted Post's drab Magnum Force. At least Harry, despite his conservatism, dukes it out with his own kind - ultra-conservative cops (albeit crooked).

Even though I don't care for Magnum Force, I think this poster - from Italy - is more spellbinding than the movie. What's great is how it captures the film but puts a sort of psychedelic spin on the proceedings. It certainly emphasizes Harry's appendage - his .44 Magnum. And I think the title, Una 44 Magnum per L'Ispettore Callaghan basically translates to "A .44 Magnum for Inspector Callahan," which hilariously deflates the power of the film's title: Magnum Force (BTW, Callahan in the Italian title is spelled incorrectly).

Ultimately, the movie simply can't live up to the swagger of its American title nor the wonkiness of this crazy Italian poster.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!


Movie posters don't have the marketing cache they once did. In fact, you rarely give them a second look when you walk through the multiplex to the shoebox that acts as a theater.

When's the last time a movie poster caught your eye? When's the last time you saw a movie poster and thought, "I gotta see that!"

What I love about this poster is it tells it like it is yet, at the same time, you can't help but wonder what you're in for. This film came out in 1965 and is decidedly non-conformist and anti-Hollywood. Its a big "F-You" to the movie studio system and a double dare to the movie going public. This poster is action packed and proto-feminist despite accentuating the Russ Meyer obvious.

Action, speed, thrills, kicks...its all here on this fantastic one-sheet.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Period

A sentence ends with a period and a period denotes an ending.

If you keep rereading the same sentence over and over, you'll never get to the next sentence.

Writers stuck editing the same sentence over and over never write a new sentence.

People on rewind, running the past over and over never move on.

When this happens, they wrestle with those things in the past that went "wrong." The frustrating part for them is that you can't "right" those "wrongs."

So while every second, every minute, every hour and every day ends with a period, editing and rewriting isn't an option.

You have no choice but to write the next sentence.

And the next.

Friday, October 7, 2011

I didn't do anything

I took a couple vacation days right before a long Columbus Day weekend because I need to burn some before the end of the year. I'll be taking the week of Thanksgiving and Christmas off as well and will still have days left over.

I work a lot and rarely take time off - even those given to me as part of the company's vacation plan. I like my job, so I'm not scrambling to take time off. Even when I'm not there for a day, I miss it.

I get that everyone needs time off, including me. So when I do take a handful of days for myself, my goal is to disconnect. No checking voicemail and absolutely no checking e-mail.

The not checking e-mail is a challenge for me - I use my phone for lots of stuff so when I do something with it during time off, its tempting to check that e-mail monster. But I won't. Because if I do, I'll get caught up in work and vacation time - even if a couple days - is meant to recharge so that when I do go back to the office, I'll feel refreshed.

Granted, I'll have hundreds of e-mails to go through and half of those will be on fire. And while I could get a jump on them during my time off, then what's the point of taking the time?

So today what did I do on my day off? Not a freakin' thing. I could feel my mind empty.

And it was great.

P.S. I actually did do something. I watched Brian DePalma's SCARFACE on Blu-ray. Truly a feat of greatness.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Fear

I run. Five to seven days a week. Two to five miles a run. It helps alleviate stress, the biggest reason I do it. It also helps to keep fear at bay.
Fear. Of what? Failing? Winning? Dying?

I can't remember the last time I failed at something that was debilitating. I've walked away from stuff by choice. But doing so didn't mean I failed. I just walked away and was better for it.

Yes, people close to me have died. And it was horrible. But fear of this happening didn't stop it from happening.

I've had winning moments where the win was overshadowed by the fear. Ironically, the win came easily when fear was pushed away.

But often fear, it seems, is actually unfounded and is more of a low-grade constant psychological aberration that plagues many, if not all of us most all of the time.

I see people living in fear everyday. The truly fearful overcompensate - they're either hyper-confident, hyper-funny, or bully their way through life, or they brag, or they mumble their words and give up trying anything that's unfamiliar or in the spotlight. Or they back-pedal without answering you straight. They drink a lot. Or they condescend. The fearful rarely raise their hands. They let people run all over them. And the truly fearful don't even know that they do any or all of these things.

Fear. There's an uncertainty - always. That's the way it is.

And since that's the way it is - stop. Don't hide behind out-of-character behaviors.

Be self-aware. Ask yourself: "What are you so afraid of?"

You never know. One day you might answer, "Nothing."

Monday, September 19, 2011

I don't give a shit about Netflix

And, obviously, they don't give a shit about me. But I am tired of all the consumer grousing about Netflix and their new and more expensive rental policy.

Either stream low-fi movies directly to your box or have superior quality DVDs and Blu-rays mailed to your house. Apparently, speed trumps quality because most people want to stream right now, instead of waiting for the disc. Netflix knows this so, basically, they're cutting off the disc arm of their business and placing DVD rental under something called Qwikster to add confusion to their newly adopted price raising policy. The streaming arm will be called Netflix. And it will win.

Netflix raised their rates but they don't owe me any convoluted explanations (like CEO Reed Hastings does here).

Just say it like it is: "We're basically the only game in town (Redbox is just an annoying gnat) - a corporation in it to make as much money from the consumer as we possibly can and the best way to do that is to double your monthy rates or give you half of your subscription for half the newly doubled price. Yes, we are fully aware that you, citizen consumer, are a sucker."

I'll stick with the disc option - quality trumps speed. But ultimately I'll probably acquiesce. Hopefully by the time I give in to streaming, the quality will be at disc levels (or, in the least, cable levels).

Or I'll just drop the service all together. It really doesn't matter much to me or Netflix.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Buzzkill

Am I creative? My ego says yes.

My  evil alter ego - the one that wants, for some ego crushing reason, to keep me in check (right or wrong) - says no. I hate my alter ego but sometimes he rears his ugly mug anyway because, too often, I let him.



I've killed off creative thinking that comes out of others because I've let my alter ego win.

I've killed off my own creative thinking because I let that alter ego bastard get the best of me.

This article at Brainzooming opened my eyes: How Creative Thinking Gets Killed by Team Members: 8 Fatal Blows.

Its time to kill the buzzkill.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

They Call Her One Eye

"Vengeance is a dish best served cold..."

Notoriously known in Drive-in circles as THEY CALL HER ONE EYE (which is really the best title for this film, particularly in terms of exploitation cinema) or HOOKER'S REVENGE, if you were lucky enough to experience it back in the late 70s (say '76 or '77), sandwiched between VAMPIRE HOOKERS and HOUSE OF HOOKERS as part of a traveling outdoor theater "Hooker Extravaganza" road show.



THRILLER - A CRUEL PICTURE was orignally titled THRILLER - EN GRYM FILM (giving the movie "artistic" cred as opposed to being a stark exploiter-cum-sexploiter as it was presented here in the States - its European distribution history is sketchy) in its home country of Sweden where it was subsequently banned for its extreme violence. THRILLER - A CRUEL PICTURE was written and directed by Bo Arne Vibenius - who, incidentally, became very angry when Synapse Films released the DVD of this film a few years back even though Vibenius originally gave Synapse his blessing.

But this was before Quentin Tarantino professed his love for THRILLER. While filming the KILL BILL double threat, Tarantino had the female cast - specifically Daryl Hannah - watch the Vibenius film. Without a doubt, THRILLER was one inspiration for Hannah's character of Elle Driver, who, like Frigga [the main character in THRILLER], wears an ever-changing eye patch. But I'm willing to bet eye patch inspiration was multi-dimensional for Tarantino. Another of Tarantino's favorite films is Jack Hill's SWITCHBLADE SISTERS, which also has a character who wears an eye patch. She is named, fittingly, Patch, and was played by missing-in-action B-Queen Monica Gayle [and Tarantino has never mentioned the Duke's Rooster Cogburn but, typically, when I see eye patch, I think Henry Hathaway's original TRUE GRIT - so, too, would film-buff Tarantino, one would think].

When Vibenius realized he could've jumped on the KILL BILL bandwagon and possibly made a bundle with the DVD release of THRILLER, it was too late - DVD clean-up and production had begun. Finally, Synapse released THRILLER in a limited edition - 25,000 - squaring it firmly with DVD obsessives (almost gone on Amazon, which carries two disc versions here [red box and uncut] and here [yellow box and the version seen at Drive-ins in the 1970s]).

Regardless, it should be on your shelf - whether you can warm up to it or not - simply because its so obscure and so weird. Besides the fact that its a great conversation piece and, if you want to shatter psyches, host a THRILLER screening at your next gathering.

That said, its difficult to peg Vibenius as an artiste based on this film but it does make the viewer wonder if the film's artistic elements (and there are quite a few on display) were accidental or naive or with purpose. And note that while the film's structure is unsettling, its pace is almost interminable.

Take, for instance, the opening sequence where we see a young Frigga wandering through an autumnal woods. The camera dwells on the colors of fall, bright yellows and reds (Frigga's jacket is also yellow), with the occasional sun flare hitting the lens, as Frigga meets an old man. The old man takes Frigga by the hand, walks with her and lifts her in the air and spins her around. The soundtrack plays some scratchy child-like tune, which is not at all joyful but filled with dread.

Vibenius presents this scene in a series of long, medium and POV shots, holding onto the the scenery for literally minutes. When the old man rapes Frigga, this turn of events holds little suspense (which, admittedly, adds to the disturbing element of this scene) but it goes on ad nauseum with ugly, fish-eye shots of the old man's face with his lips dripping tobacco seen from Frigga's perspective (we never see any physical contact between the old man and the young girl, but its certainly not implied - the intent is viewer as victim meant to impose a psychological reaction/relationship with the girl) . The scene ends with the old man being hauled off by the police while Frigga is cradled in her mother's arms. The mother slaps the man across the face but, obviously, Vibenius doesn't know how police procedural works - victims would never be allowed contact with their attackers after an arrest.

This scene sets action in motion but it also sets up the film's pacing - long shots, continuous shots of the mundane (people on the phone, people lighting cigarettes, people filling glasses with alcohol, etc). But, beyond inducing boredom, these continuous shots affect the viewer psychologically, lulled into a nightmare with little chance of escape. Frigga's world slowly devolves into one of complete degradation and eventual annhilation - an existential howl (though silent - because of the childhood trauma, Frigga is rendered mute) of pain and humiliation.

In a jump cut after the attack, Vibenius introduces Frigga (Christina Lindberg, who is now Editor-in-Chief of Swedish Aviation publication FLYGREVYN) as a young adult, working on her parents' farm, milking cows. One day, on her way to therapy, she's picked up by a man who brings her to his apartment where he seduces her with alcohol until she passes out. The man turns out to be a pimp, who has a stable of women strung out on heroin. After being force fed smack, Frigga loses contact with her mother and father, and experiences a myriad of sexual abuse. At one point, Frigga angers the pimp and, in retaliation, he cuts out one of Frigga's eyes with a razor in an excrutiating scene that Vibenius elects to show.

From that point on, Frigga dons a patch that matches not only her clothes but her moods - pink to match a pink neglige, which she innocently wears for her johns; red to match a red dress that signifies firey anger; and black to go with her black leather duster coat where she hides a sawed-off shotgun, hell-bent for vengeance.

Pre-dating TAXI DRIVER, Frigga goes through a training sequence - learns how to use weapons, is tutored in kung-fu, learns how to drive a car - to ready herself for slaughter, to get back at the people who have spent their time abusing her. Unfortunately, the training sequences are dull - and Frigga never really gets physical at all - the kung-fu is done mostly by her teacher, the driving by her instructor. Sure, she shoots, but that's easy.

While the pacing of the film is tiring, Vibenius shoots Frigga's final acts of revenge in excrutiating slow motion. Her weapon of choice is a sawed-off shotgun and she sprays buckshot everywhere - as her johns are dispatched, they fly, fall, flip in almost stop action motion - blood bags exploding in reaction to the slow motion pulsations of Frigga pumping her shotgun. These scenes are bizarre yet achingly beautiful - Vibenius uses this method at least a half dozen times and it never loses its impact. In fact, this motif in THRILLER - the use of ultra slo-mo for acts of violence - out Peckinpah's Peckinpah and almost approaches odd parody.

Ultimately, THRILLER's images burn into the viewer's subconscious - you certainly never forget the experience.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Southern Comforts

Arguably director Herschell Gordon Lewis' 1964 MOONSHINE MOUNTAIN gave birth to a whole new type of exploitation film—"hixploitation."

The typical hixploitation movie was filled with inbred, wild-eyed hillbillies, horny farmers' daughters, corrupt big-bellied cops, and chainsaw wielding maniacs wreaking havoc over "normal" citizens unfortunate enough to head south across the Mason Dixon Line.

During the 1970s, the drive-in was bursting with a whole heap of hixploitation, which tackled violence, sex, and comedy with plenty of bar brawlin’, ass whuppin’, car crashin’, and barnyard screwin’.

It wasn’t hard to find local passion pits running double features like MIDNIGHT PLOWBOY (1971) and COUNTRY CUZZINS (1970); SOUTHERN COMFORTS (1971) and TOBACCO ROODY (1970); or THE PIGKEEPER’S DAUGHTER (1972) and SASSY SUE (1972) – southern-fried sex/comedy flicks that made the drive-in rounds throughout the wanton 1970s.

The problem with these movies (all of which are available via Something Weird Video), is that when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying to avoid these hee-haw humdingers – it’s just that the cornpone gags squeezed between the copious pulchritude has the same numbing effect as drinking kerosene-spiked moonshine from an old fruit jar.

In other words, there’s better hixploitation out there. Good films bypassed by indoor theaters that were busy making their dimes on legitimate movies like STAR WARS. The notes that follow analyze some of the best movies that have transcended their dubious place in the hixploitation subgenre.

WALKING TALL (1973)
Directed by Phil Karlson

WALKING TALL brings us into the nightmare world of the Deep South with non-corruptible sheriff Buford Pusser (played by Joe Don Baker) continually getting his ass whupped by the praetorian local yokels.

They don’t cater to Pusser’s conviction that running moonshine, managing whorehouses and operating gambling dens are not activities conducive to the basic tenets of southern hospitality. Because Pusser busts stills with a big stick, the corrupt powers-that-be decide to make the sheriff’s life as miserable as possible. Pusser shies away from physical violent retaliation – that is until his wife Pauline (Elizabeth Hartman) is murdered, sending the baseball bat-wielding sheriff over the edge, cracking skulls instead of stills.

What makes WALKING TALL so great is its over-the-top reactionary stand making DIRTY HARRY (1972) seem outrageously liberal in comparison. WALKING TALL reeks of Old Testament stuff and vengeance is the platter du jour – especially relevant during the early '70s when the "system” was seen as totally corrupt thanks to Richard Nixon's White House follies.

At that time, everybody felt a little like Buford—abused by those in power, helpless in the wake of violence (think Vietnam) and looking for good old frontier justice.

WALKING TALL, based on a true story, was so successful that it spawned two sequels—WALKING TALL PART II (1975), and THE FINAL CHAPTER – WALKING TALL (1977), and a TV show called WALKING TALL (1981). The sequels and the show starred Bo Svenson as Pusser but Baker's strong performance in the original attributed to that film's long lasting legend.

WALKING TALL was remade in 2004 and starred The Rock – not as Buford Pusser but as a character named Chris Vaughan! The remake – directed by Kevin Bray – tanked at the box office most likely because its anti-authoritarian disposition didn’t ring true like it did in the original. The 1973 film tapped into a burgeoning social breakdown that gripped the U.S. citizenry fed up with an impending governmental crush. Its sentiment still holds today.

MACON COUNTY LINE (1974)
Directed by Richard Compton

Remember back in 1999 when people actually thought THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was real? Even folks who copped to the film's phoniness whispered a conversation ending caveat, "But you never know..."

The Blair Witch myth, first introduced via the Internet (the site's still live, by the way), was a major marketing coup. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT became a moneymaking event. And the film itself, despite its detractors, turned out to be a tidy piece of indie film work—atmospheric, claustrophobic, and psychologically twisted.

But in 1974, all it took to get the buzz going on MACON COUNTY LINE was a clich├ęd but ominous teaser line splashed across the screen before the movie started — "This story is true. Only the names and places have been changed."

No Facebook. No Twitter. No Internet.

MACON COUNTY LINE is pretty simple—two brothers, Chris and Wayne Dixon (played by real life brothers Alan and Jesse Vint), get violently mixed up with a psychotic Southern sheriff (played to the hilt by Max "Jethro Bodine" Baer, Jr.) resulting in plenty of bloodshed and a pretty effective shock ending. The film's deliberate pacing and sharp juxtaposition from comedy to horror are still fairly unsettling. The acting throughout is natural and director Richard Compton utilizes a documentary feel to the film, which is shot under all-natural lighting.

In 1974, on the outdoor screen, the grainy images became an extension of the surrounding landscape adding to the movie's stark quality. On DVD, the film is a visual revelation—almost painterly.

According to Compton, when MACON COUNTY LINE played to test audiences, nobody liked it. Then, when producer and star Baer, Jr. decided to put the teaser at the start of the film, MACON COUNTY LINE box office broke wide open. The film's final production budget was $225,000. It brought in a remarkable $18.7 million playing almost exclusively at Midwest and Southern drive-in theaters. The key to its resonant success was the perpetuated myth—people believed the events in the movie really happened. And nothing spreads the word quicker than a duped audience.

COCKFIGHTER (1974)
Directed by Monte Hellman

Writer Charles Willeford – known as the “pope of psychopulp” – wrote one of the best little-known novels ever about filmmaking obsession. “The Woman Chaser” was down and dirty, Southern California sleaze with dialog that bristled better than David Mamet.

Willeford was also responsible for the screenplay of one of the best drive-in movies of the early ‘70s – COCKFIGHTER, which was based on Willeford’s novel of the same name and directed by underrated filmmaker Monte Hellman (THE SHOOTING; TWO LANE BLACKTOP; CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37) . Even though the script to COCKFIGHTER has its share of salacious down home spun nuggets, the lead character, Frank Mansfield (Warren Oates) doesn’t speak.

Mansfield, a veteran cockfighter, rambling from hick town to hick town, rooster in hand, makes his living battling chickens. In fact, he’s the Minnesota Fats of cockfighting, with every two-bit rooster rounder wanting a piece of his action. Mansfield’s reputation precedes itself and, because he threw a career-making fight, he takes a vow of silence until he can come out on top again. But the only way for Mansfield to do so is with roosters armed with spurs tearing up some of the most blood-soaked cockfighting pits in the south.

Hellman didn’t care for Willeford’s screenplay, which emphasized the sheer brutality of the “sport,” while coming up short on the redemptive aspects of the story and Mansfield’s obsessive character. Hellman wanted COCKFIGHTER to be more lyrical – a rumination on living in this depraved world of animal cruelty while finding nobility by trying to be a winner in life. Hellman didn’t have a lot of time to rewrite the script and producer Roger Corman wanted to make sure the movie had plenty of money-making action and skin.

Subsequently, COCKFIGHTER plays like a poetic cross between the meditative cinematic explorations of BADLANDS-era Terrence Malick and the contemplative yet alcohol-soaked bloodbath of Sam Peckinpah’s BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA. With COCKFIGHTER, Hellman almost seemed heir apparent to Peckinpah. If you ran COCKFIGHTER, ALFREDO GARCIA, and JUNIOR BONNER on a triple bill, you might think that they were all directed by Peckinpah, particularly when the camera slowed down to emphasize the brutality of two roosters ripping each other apart.

Yet Hellman was able to transcend Peckinpah with COCKFIGHTER by its overt romanticism especially as seen in the relationship between Mansfield and his lost love Mary Elizabeth (Patricia Pearcy). Where Peckinpah seemed uncomfortable exploring a loving connection between a man and woman, Hellman seemed at home with the idea even though it’s inevitable that the love will quickly shatter.

Hellman shot the film in 23 days with a keen eye on the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) movement of the 1960s, with cinematographer Nestor Almendros (who shot Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN) inspired by the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and, to a certain extent, the emotional, unblinking lens of Eric Rohmer. Almendros used natural lighting outdoors as well as indoors, giving the film a spontaneous feel with long shots languid while bird fights were cut with whiplash precision by Lewis Teague.

As poetic as Hellman’s intents may have been, Corman wanted a slam-bang drive-in film and when the movie was ready for release, the producer had no idea how to promote it. He had the film recut, inserting a car chase and some T&A, and ran those segments exclusively in the film’s trailers. Struggling to attract an audience, the film was released with three different titles at different times: BORN TO KILL, GAMBLIN’ MAN and WILD DRIFTER. None of this helped and COCKFIGHTER faded into relative obscurity.That is, until it was released in Europe, where film critics lauded it as a masterpiece in American cinema. Except, that is, for England, where COCKFIGHTER was banned for its depiction of animal cruelty.

ROLLING THUNDER (1977)
Directed by John Flynn

The late '70s boasted a long list of fucked-up-from-the-war Vietnam Vet flicks including, but not limited to, Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER (1976), Jeremy Paul Kagan's HEROES (1977), Hal Ashby's COMING HOME (1978), and Michael Cimino's THE DEER HUNTER (1978). All eventually culminating with Francis Ford Coppola's napalm-cum-acid drenched opus – APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).

But one heavy vet-on-a-rampage flick called ROLLING THUNDER somehow, sadly, slipped through the cracks after it finished the rounds on the drive-in circuit in 1977. In retrospect, ROLLING THUNDER—written by Paul Schrader, not long after he and Scorsese blew cinema apart with TAXI DRIVER—is just as incendiary as the Scorsese flick but not nearly as complex.

Where Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) was constructed with an almost impenetrable degree of motivational ambiguity in TAXI DRIVER, Schrader, with ROLLING THUNDER, writes the character of Charles Rane (William Devane) in wholly black and white terms.

Returning from Vietnam after 2,500 days in a POW camp, Rane and his friend, Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones), have a difficult time adjusting to life in the "world." When Rane's family is shot up by a bunch of hick thugs (psychotically spearheaded by James "Roscoe P. Coltrane" Best), the vets head down to Mexico on a bloodletting spree of murderous revenge. Pretty straightforward, pretty simple. But that doesn't lessen the film's power. While certainly not a dumbed-down version of TAXI DRIVER, ROLLING THUNDER, with its linear plot and minimal dialogue, was definitely written for the drive-in masses.

Director John Flynn shoots the scenes in Mexican brothels with grainy film stock that glows with bleeding reds and oranges. His south-of-the-border saloons are stocked with boozed up gringos and slippery Pancho Villa types—not unlike the festering chili dumps prowled by Warren Oates in Sam Peckinpah's BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974).

Flynn's cathartic violence is operatic yet less extreme than the slow-motion styling of Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH or the final hallucinatory tabloid nightmare of TAXI DRIVER. But that doesn't make the explosive finale of ROLLING THUNDER any less potent. While Flynn's overall direction is relatively static, the impact of Schrader's minimalist words has the power to permeate and haunt long after the final credits roll.