Thursday, December 29, 2011

Buscemi

When I first started carving woodcuts, every portrait oddly seemed to resemble Steve Buscemi. With that in mind, I decided to carve the actual Steve Buscemi. A favorite of edgy filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, Buscemi is infamous for his large number of screen deaths. Ironically, he was the only character who survived in "Reservoir Dogs." He often plays sleazy, fast talking criminals and outcasts. One critic called him the cinematic equivalent to junk mail (I completely disagree). He is the lead character in my favorite indie comedy "Living In Oblivion." Before acting, Buscemi worked as a bartender, an ice cream man and a New York City fireman. In 2001, Buscemi and actor Vince Vaughan got into a barroom brawl in North Carolina. Buscemi was stabbed in the face, arm and throat and he still bears a scar on his cheek. He has become a fantastic film director and his directorial episode in the pine forest remains my favorite Sopranos episode of all time. These days he's busy playing Enoch "Nucky" Sullivan in HBO's amazing series Boardwalk Empire. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Reality TV Producer

Javier Winnik is a veteran in the reality tv world. His producer credits include "Last Comic Standing," "Weakest Link" & "Dog Eat Dog." We've been friends since high school and during college we often videotaped private events to help pay our bills. One such event was Nathan Spiegel's barmitzvah at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. For us, the night was an epic disaster. Among the evening's lowlights: we stepped on a $20,000 violin while crossing the stage for a better camera angle; we set a large photo of the barmitzvah boy on fire with a hot camera light; we accidentally unplugged the PA system while Nathan was reciting his thank you speech; and worst of all, we mistook the boy's uncle for his father and spent the evening videotaping Uncle Shlomo in extreme closeup as he danced, socialized and nibbled on chopped liver. The only footage we captured of the "real Mr. Spiegel" was a blurry pan across the dance floor which we had to reference over and over while editing the video in order to get Mr. Spiegel to pay us. Though not quite reality tv, I'm certain the Spiegel barmitzvah remains the most "surreal" video Javier has ever worked on. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Derek Fisher

I was 10 years old when my dad took me to my first Lakers game (1973 Finals: Lakers vs Knicks at the Fabulous Forum.) I've been a huge Lakers fan ever since. As a boy, my favorite player was Gail Goodrich. Today my man is Derek Fisher. Derek is what the NBA calls a "character guy." Well spoken and humble, Derek exemplifies hard work and tenacity. He was drafted in 1997 in the same draft as Kobe Bryant but where Kobe was a prodigy, Derek had to toil for everything he's achieved. Lakers fans know him for his "0.4" miracle shot against San Antonio in 2004 but he's assembled a career of great basketball moments. He saved Game 4 in the 2010 Finals against Orlando with two amazing end of game 3-pointers. In Game 3 of the 2011 Finals, he helped defeat the hated Boston Celtics with an amazing 4th quarter scoring spree. Derek nearly gave up his basketball career in 2007 to devote himself to his 1-year old daughter Tatum who was diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer. His daughter survived and Derek and his wife became spokespeople in the battle against retinoblastoma. Derek is so respected by his peers he was voted as president of the NBA Players Association. He helped end the owners lockout against players which saved the 2012 basketball season. (5" x 6", black ink print)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Hands Of Time

2013 marks the 90th Anniversary of the silent film masterpiece Safety Last.  The film offers arguably the most iconic image from the silent film era: Harold Lloyd clinging from a building clock over downtown Los Angeles.

Known as the "Third Genius" (behind Chaplin & Keaton), Harold Lloyd played a prototypical "everyman" character.  In Safety Last, Lloyd is a small-town country boy striving for success in the big city.  He finds a job as a department store clerk and comes up with the idea to climb the building edifice as a publicity stunt.  Lloyd was inspired a year earlier by seeing a stuntman climb a towering building in Downtown Los Angeles.

During production, a fake building structure was constructed over another building's rooftop.  The camera was positioned across the street at an angle to make it look as if Lloyd were hundreds of feet in the air.  In truth, he was only seven stories high.

When Lloyd first tested the safety precautions for the stunt, he dropped a dummy onto the mattress below the clock.  The dummy bounced off the mattress and plummeted to the downtown street.  When writer and producer Hal Roach saw this happen, he urged Lloyd to use a stuntman.  Like Chaplin and Keaton, Lloyd insisted on doing most of how own stunts.  What made the Clock Stunt more amazing was the fact that Lloyd only had 8 fingers.  He'd lost a thumb and a forefinger on the short film Haunted Spooks four years earlier when a prop bomb exploded in his hand.  Lloyd subsequently wore a light glove with prosthetic fingers and performed his stunt work with only one complete hand.

Lloyd called his special brand of films "thrill comedies."  Safety Last broke box office records upon it's release in 1923.  Years later, actor Jackie Chan acknowledged a creative debt to Harold Lloyd in his own action comedies which perfected the "thrill comedy" format.

Lloyd married his on-screen co-star Mildred Davis in 1923.  A year later he started his own production company at a location that now houses the Los Angeles Mormon Temple in Westwood.  Like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd's popularity waned with the advent of talkies.

In 1947, Lloyd tried to recreate his "thrill comedy" magic in the film The Sin Of Harold Diddleback. Directed by Preston Sturges and produced by Howard Hughes, the film includes a scene where Lloyd is stranded on a building ledge with a full-grown lion.  The film received negative reviews and did poorly at the box office.  This would be Harold Lloyd's last film.

After retiring, Lloyd became known for his nude photos of models & strippers. His subjects included Bettie Page and Marilyn Monroe. (6" x 7", black ink print)


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Liquor Store Proprietor

Tommy Bina is owner of the legendary Canyon Country Store.  Located halfway up Laurel Canyon, the store was immortalized by Jim Morrison in the song Love Street as the "store where the creatures meet." Originally built in 1908 as a lodge for local hunters, the Country Store was the center of the Los Angeles counter-culture hippie movement in the 1960's.

Tommy bought the store in 1982 and quickly became a staple of Laurel Canyon life.  He loves to tell the story about the time a stylishly-dressed man came in asking for "Flakes," a British candy bar. When Tommy realized the man was David Bowie he began stocking the chocolate.  He added "English Kit Kats" for Mick Jagger and specialty French wines for actress Christina Applegate.  Before being accused of murdering his wife, Robert Blake, in an effort to quit smoking, kept an open pack of cigarettes behind the front counter.  He asked the staff to dole them out to him, one per visit.  Though overpriced, the store is a place where music & film celebrities do their local shopping.  I once inquired of Tommy, "Why is your milk is so expensive?"  He responded, "Don't ask me, I don't shop here."

Every year, Tommy gathers locals in front of the store for the annual "Canyon Photo day."  Tommy can also be seen on Sunday mornings with a garbage bag in hand cleaning trash from the Canyon streets.  The store remains much like it was in the 60's and Tommy is the eclectic steward of Laurel Canyon history. (6" x 6", black ink print)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Buster Keaton

Joseph "Buster" Keaton was one of the three great silent film comedians (along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd).  Born into a performing family, Keaton's father Joe owned a traveling vaudeville show with Harry Houdini called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company.  At the age of 18 months, Keaton fell down a flight of stairs without injury.  Houdini observed the event and said, "That was a real buster."  The nickname stuck.

Keaton began performing with his parents at age 3 in a comedy act called "The Three Keatons."  As part of the act, he was manhandled and tossed around stage by his father while his mother played saxophone on the side.  A suitcase handle was sewn into Keaton's clothing to make him easier to toss. Father Joe was arrested for child abuse on stage but after the boy showed authorities he had no bruises or broken bones, the elder Keaton was released. Keaton became known as "the little boy who can't be damaged."

Keaton learned early on how to take a pratfall.  "The secret is landing limp and breaking the fall with a foot or a hand.  Several times I'd have been killed if I hadn't been able to land like a cat."  Keaton also  learned that smiling on stage drew fewer laughs than a deadpan expression.  This is how he acquired his famous "stoneface" demeanor that became his signature.

Keaton served in France with the 40th Infantry during World War I.  He suffered an ear infection that permanently damaged his hearing.  After the war, he began working at the Talmadge Studios in New York.  He befriended Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle who hired Keaton as a co-star and gag writer. Keaton's first film appearance came in The Butcher Boy in 1917.  Soon, Keaton was directing Arbuckle's films.  (When Arbuckle was falsely accused of raping actress Virginia Rappe in 1921, Keaton was one of the few people to defend Arbuckle's character.)

Keaton's golden period of two-reel comedies and full length features was 1920-29. The films included the classics The General, The Navigator and The Cameraman. He became known for creating brilliant gags and dangerous stunts.  In Sherlock, Jr., Keaton broke his neck when a torrent of water from a railroad water tank fell on his head.  During Steamboat Bill, Jr., Keaton stood motionless as the facade of a two-story building toppled onto him.  He emerged unscathed thanks to a single open window.  The house weighed two tons and provided just a few inches of clearance around his body.  Throughout the stunts, Keaton maintained a stoic, emotionless expression.

Keaton appealed to audiences as an everyman who refused to succumb to life's difficulties.  He became known for his large eyes, solemn stare and his ever-present porkpie hat.  He made the hats himself.  "I knew straw was too fragile for my kind of antics so I took a good Stetson and cut it down, then I stiffened the brim with sugar water."

When movies turned to sound in 1927, Keaton signed with MGM, a decision he later called the worst of his life.  MGM limited Keaton's creative input and cast him in dialogue-heavy scripts with few gags. They forced him to use a stunt double despite Keaton's concern that "stuntmen don't get laughs."  The studio teamed the quiet Keaton with the obnoxious Jimmy Durante, a decision that yielded box office success but less than memorable films.  Keaton complained so much that MGM fired him after production of the 1933 film What! No Beer?

Keaton was demoralized by the state of his career.  He was also stuck in a loveless marriage to Natalie Talmadge, sister-in-law of studio head Joseph Schenck.  They had two children but Talmadge sued Keaton for divorce in 1932 and took his entire fortune.  She also refused her sons any contact with their father.  Keaton turned to alcohol.  At one point, he was briefly institutionalized.  He escaped his straitjacket with tricks he learned from his vaudeville days.

In 1933, Keaton married his nurse during an alcoholic binge.  He later claimed no memory of the event calling those years his "alcoholic blackout" period. They divorced in 1936, again at great financial cost to Keaton.

After making a few films in Europe, Keaton became a gag writer for the Marx Brothers and Red Skelton.  He also mentored Lucille Ball advising her to eschew dramatic films for comedy.  In 1939, Keaton made ten short films for Jules White (who later directed the Three Stooges).  Audiences enjoyed the films but Keaton was simply rehashing his early silent work.  He swore he would never "make another crummy two-reeler."

In 1940, Keaton married Eleanor Norris, a woman 23 years his junior.  They would remain married the rest of his life.  She was credited for saving Keaton's life by stopping his heavy drinking.  Keaton's last starring role came in the 1946 Mexican science fiction film Boom In The Moon.  He appeared in cameos in big budget studio films like Sunset Boulevard, Around the World in 80 Days and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  He also appeared with Charlie Chaplin in the vaudeville tribute film Limelight.  This was the only time Chaplin and Keaton appeared together on film.

Keaton turned to television in the 1950's.  He hosted the Buster Keaton Show and appeared often on the Ed Wynn Variety Show.  During one appearance with Wynn, the 55-year old Keaton recreated a stunt from his youth where he propped a foot on a table then swung up the other foot only to crash to the ground.  Wynn asked Keaton how he did his falls.  Keaton opened his shirt and revealed bruises all over his body.

In 1954, Keaton sold his beloved Beverly Hills home to actor James Mason. Mason found several cans of Keaton's silent films including the lost 1921 classic The Boat. Keaton continued his television work into the 60's including appearances on The Lucy Show, Candid Camera and The Twilight Zone.  He also appeared in the teen beach movies Pajama Party and Beach Blanket Bingo.  His last film role came in 1966 in A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum.  Despite ill health, he insisted on doing his own stunts. Keaton died of lung cancer in 1966 at age 71.  He had no idea he was terminally ill.  He thought he was recovering from bronchitis. He died shortly after playing cards with his wife Eleanor.  (5" x 6", black ink print)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Tom Waits

"I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy." 

Tom Waits is a street poet with a heart of tarnished brass. With a voice like broken tiles spinning in an old washing machine, Tom Waits fuses the pathos of Louis Armstrong, the ramblings of Charles Bukowski and the earnestness of Bing Crosby.

In the 1980's, Waits lived in the Tropicana Motel on Sunset Boulevard.  He could be seen driving the streets of Hollywood in his Cadillac Coupe DeVille, his arm slung out the window holding a cigarette.  He could also be heard playing music at the Troubadour or Burbank Airport.

Waits once witnessed an altercation between local musicians and plainclothes police officers at Duke's Coffee Shop in Hollywood.  When he and his pal Chuck E. Weiss came to the aid of the musicians, Waits was roughed up and arrested by the police.  Waits subsequently won a $7,500 settlement against the Sheriff's Department for false arrest and false imprisonment.

Waits' music has spanned the cultural landscape for four decades. He's a brilliant songwriter, an imaginative lyricist and he's one of the funniest men around. In 2006 he appeared on Bob Dylan's now-defunct radio show "Radio Bob" with a list of famous Jewish curses. (Imagine these uttered with a gravelly, hungover voice):

"May all your teeth fall out except one which should remain for a toothache."

"May you grow like an onion with your head in the ground and your feet in the air."

"May you have a good long sleep and may your dreams be only of your troubles."

"May you be the proof that man can endure anything."

"May your wife eat matzohs in bed and may you roll in the crumbs."

(4" x 6", black ink print)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Friends In Movies 1

Living in Los Angeles, I have a number of friends who are actors. Some are constantly working, some toil in side jobs until the roles materialize. The attached woodcut features my friend Steve Tash who thrived as a character actor in the 80's & 90's. This image is from the opening scene of "Ghostbusters." Steve was the struggling student who volunteered for Bill Murray's ESP experiments for five dollars and a bevy of electric shocks. Steve gets the movie's first big laugh when his chewing gum is shocked out of his mouth. Though his acting days are behind him, today Steve runs a literary management company. (4" x 6", black ink print)

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Artist

Billy Criswell has been many things in life: actor, salesman, restauranteur. In his mid-40's he threw caution to the wind and embarked on a career in the arts. Since then he's become a prominent painter, printmaker and sculptor with works in private collections, galleries and museums around the world. When I think of Billy, two moments come to mind. The first was when he was hiking with his dog Buster in the mountains and Buster was bitten by a rattlesnake. Billy gathered his 40 lb. dog in his arms and literally ran down the mountain to save Buster's life. The second was post-Katrina when Billy flew to New Orleans with a group of animal lovers and helped rescue dozens of abandoned pets. Today, Billy continues his dog rescue efforts in Los Angeles working with a dog adoption agency. When I last saw him, he exited his home with 6 leashed dogs in tow. (4" x 6", black ink print)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Jeff Buckley

It was November, 1994 and I was feeling under the weather.  I ventured to Luna Park in West Hollywood to see my old college friend Jason Luckett play a set of music.  I didn't want to be there.  My throat was sore and my head was pounding.  After Jason's gig, I paid my respects and prepared to return home to bed.  Jason's words changed my life.  "You might want to stay and see this next performer. He's pretty interesting."

So I stayed.  I watched as a skinny guy with a passing resemblance to James Dean stepped on stage.  He had dirty brown hair and he wore a full-length feather overcoat like something you'd find at an old lady's garage sale.  He plugged his electric guitar into an amp with a "Kiss" sticker across the back. The surrounding crowd was oblivious...loud, rude, immersed in their cocktails and movie industry blathering.

The performer began tuning his guitar and testing the microphone with high-pitched squeals and sighs.  Then something amazing happened.  The singer's atonal sounds morphed into a soft falsetto backed by the slow build of a dreamy guitar riff.  Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the crowd became silent and turned toward stage.  They had no choice.  They were magnetized, lifted, pulled toward this compelling force.

Then came the opening lyrics sung with the voice of an angel: "I'm lying in my bed, the blanket is warm, this body will never be safe from harm."  The next hour passed like a blur.  The music blended Jimmy Paige inspired electric guitar with soft soulful ballads reminiscent of Marvin Gaye.  Between songs, the performer cracked jokes about his days of starvation living in Hollywood and how there was a period in the music industry when "Paul Williams was God."

My headache vanished.  My throat seemed to clear.  By the time the set ended with a majestic cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," I felt transformed.  I sat in silence, my skin covered with goose bumps.  Women crowded the state to get closer to the performer.  Men simply stared, trying to process what they just experienced.

Jeff Buckley was a musical virtuoso.  He wielded his Fender Stratocaster guitar like a gunfighter brandishing a pistol.  His music was an amalgam of his favorite performers: Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, Pakistani legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn, Freddie Mercury, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.  He covered performers as varied as Edith Piaf, Jimi Hendrix and Nina Simone.

Buckley was born into music.  His father, whom he met only once, was Tim Buckley, the revered 60's folk musician who died of a drug overdose at age 28.  His mother, Mary Guibert, was a classically trained pianist and cellist.  He was born in Southern California and began playing guitar at age five.  He played in his high school jazz band and developed an early affinity for the progressive rock sounds of Genesis, Yes and Rush.  He studied music at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood then moved to New York City in 1990.  He toured with several struggling bands and experimented on his own with jazz, blues, punk rock, funk and R&B.

In April, 1991, Buckley made his public singing debut at a tribute concert for his father called "Greetings From Tim Buckley."  He performed four of his father's songs including "I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain," a song Tim Buckley wrote about infant Jeff and his mother.  The performance made a strong impression and became a springboard for Jeff's career.

Buckley began building a following at small clubs throughout Lower Manhattan.  He gained a regular Monday spot at an Irish cafe in the East Village called Sin-E.  Slowly, his reputation spread.  Crowds became larger and record company executives took notice.  In 1992, Buckley signed a deal with Columbia Records.  Two years later, he release his first album Grace.  In 1996, the album went Gold.

Buckley's shows attracted fans such as Chrissie Hynde, Chris Cornell, Lou Reed and The Edge.  Bob Dylan called Buckley "one of the great songwriters of the decade."  David Bowie said Grace was an album he'd take with him to a desert island.  Rolling Stone called Buckley's rendition of "Hallelujah" one of "the 500 greatest songs of all time."

Buckley toured the world, preferring intimate clubs to large venues.  He disliked self-promotion and bristled when people referred to him as "Tim Buckley's son."  In 1996, he began writing songs for his second studio album My Sweetheart The Drunk.

Buckley chose to record the album in Memphis, Tennessee.  On the night of May 29, 1997, his band flew to Memphis to join him.  That same night, Buckley jumped in to Wolf River Harbor, a water channel of the Mississippi River.  He was fully clothed, including his boots, and he was singing Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" at the top of his lungs.  A river tugboat passed creating a wake that pulled Buckley beneath the water.  A roadie in the band, Keith Foti, was standing on shore.  He realized Buckley had vanished.  A search and rescue effort was launched.  Buckley remained missing for several days.  His body was finally found down river on June 4.  An autopsy showed no signs of drugs or alcohol in his system.  His death was ruled an "accidental drowning."

Fans around the world united in grief.  Several musicians wrote tribute songs. These included "Teardrop" by Elizabeth Fraser, "Memphis" by PJ Harvey, "Grey Ghost" by Mike Doughty and "Memphis Skyline" by Rufus Wainwright. Columbia Records released the demo recordings for My Sweetheart The Drunk.  They followed this up with several live recordings.  Buckley had been poised for super stardom.  His legacy grew after his passing.

I was blessed to see Jeff perform twice in Los Angeles.  My wife and I fell in love listening to his music.  On the day we learned he was missing, we walked around in a stupor as if we had lost a family member.  Seventeen years later, it's still hard to believe he's gone.  Jeff Buckley was a comet blazing across our musical skies, burning out far too soon.  He will always be missed.  (4" x 6", black ink print)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Screenwriter

A few years ago, Joe Forte was writing a script for a Harrison Ford action film that called for a crucial kidnapping scene. Yearning for authenticity, Joe hired an ex-Israeli Mossad agent/story consultant to kidnap him at some unforeseen time and space. (This is true.) Two weeks later, Joe was exiting a Big 5 Sporting Goods store with his wife when two men came out of nowhere, put a hood over Joe's head and thrust him into the trunk of a black Mercedes and sped away. Joe had neglected to tell his wife about the kidnapping ruse so she obviously became hysterical. She called the police who told her to wait at home for a ransom request. Joe meanwhile was taken to an empty warehouse and tied to a chair before his hood was removed (even Israeli story consultants resort to cliches). For the next hour, the two Israeli "bit players" screamed profanities at Joe and threatened to waterboard him. Realizing his wife must be frantic, Joe begged the men to let him call home and tell her he was okay. The Israelis refused then insulted Joe for his cowardice. After two hours, the men loosened Joe's ropes and left. Joe squirmed free and exited the warehouse. He found himself in North Hollywood, just two miles from the Big 5. He called a friend to drive him home then spent the rest of the weekend apologizing to his wife. Only in Hollywood. (4" x 6", black ink print)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Aleph

In Jewish Mystical Teaching, the 22 letters of the Hebrew Alphabet are the energetic building blocks of creation. Like the periodic table of elements, God formed all things in the universe through combinations of Hebrew letters (just as atoms of oxygen and hydrogen combine to form a molecule of water). Hebrew letters each have a meaning and a numerical value. Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew Alphabet. It symbolizes that "God is One" and that He is the Master. It is a silent letter and is not spoken just as the name of the Lord cannot be spoken. Aleph stands for Adam (the first man), for Abraham (who recognized there is only One God) and for Abba (hebrew for "father"). The poet Jorge Luis Borges wrote that Aleph is a point in space that contains all other points. Anyone who gazes into Aleph can see everything in the universe from every angle simultaneously. (4" x 6", black ink print)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sam Land

Uncle Sam was named after New York meatpacker Samuel Wilson who supplied beef to the US Army during the War of 1812. The beef barrels were labeled with the initials "U.S." which soldiers joked stood for Uncle Sam. During World War II, America was codenamed "Samland" by the German Intelligence Agency. This woodcut depicts the famous US Army Recruitment Poster which first appeared in 1916. It was used sparingly during WWI but became ubiquitous during WWII. The designer James Montgomery Flagg gave his subject a stern and threatening demeanor. No doubt the army was trying to "scare" citizens to enlist before mandatory conscription began in 1940. The slogan "I Want You" was a friendly euphemism. A more accurate slogan would have been "Your ass is mine!" (5" x 7", black ink print)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Jack Palance

Yes, he was this scary in person. I worked with Jack Palance in 1992 on the tv series "Legends of the West." He was intimidating. His height, his sharp cheekbones, his intense silence--all added to an aura of quiet menace. Yet when I gained the courage to speak with him I learned his silence was merely shyness. He told me about his fondness for watercolor painting, his love of poetry, his huge cattle ranch in Bakersfield. He shared his concerns over his son Cody who was battling drug addiction (Cody worked as a stuntman on the production.) He also told me about his ongoing battle with hemorrhoids and how he was apprehensive about riding a horse in the next few scenes. Palance's stark appearance was partly due to his time in the military. He was badly burned during WWII when a bomber he was piloting crashed.  The resulting plastic surgery gave his face a taut, leathery look. Jack Palance died in 2006 after losing his son Cody to melanoma in 1998. The attached woodcut shows the fierce Jack Palance, ala the gunslinger from "Shane." Behind the mask he was a great guy. He was also a hell of an actor. (4" x 6", black ink print)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Monkey Man

A few days before the freak show came to town, news reports began circulating of a strange monkey-like creature that was appearing at night and attacking people. Eyewitness accounts were inconsistent, but the creature was described as about five-feet tall covered in black hair and amazingly human-like. Imagine it's 1908, you're a young child in London, you've survived another flu season and your dad is taking you on a stroll down Piccadilly Street. You make it within a block of Hyde Park and there outside the Pickard Theater stands a monkey in a business suit. At least you think it's a monkey. The sign on the theater marquis advertises Solomon the Monkey Man. This was the nature of the circus in those days. Bearded ladies, strong men, two-headed boys and animal-human hybrids. The attached woodcut depicts an actual poster for a traveling circus/freak show from turn-of-the-century Europe. "Solomon" was supposedly found in the Solomon Islands. I have no idea what his performance consisted of, but if I were a kid in 1908 I would've killed to see him. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Salesman

Conrad Romo is a lifelong salesman who's hocked everything from pens to chimney cleaning services to fresh meat to computer diskettes. He's also a talented writer who crafts honest stories taken from his own life. He is a devout practitioner of Zen Buddhism who studies at the Zen Center in midtown Los Angeles.

A few years back, the Zen Center experienced a series of break-ins by a convicted sex offender.  The perpetrator (who turned out to be an ex-student of the Center) entered the premises at night and attempted to sexually assault female residents. Conrad, who had several years training in the Israeli martial art of Krav Maga, decided to get involved. He volunteered to serve as an all-night security guard. In accordance with non-violent Buddhist teachings he armed himself only with a can of mace.

The first two nights passed without incident.  Conrad caught up on his reading and wrote letters to friends. By the third night Conrad was exhausted. He found himself struggling to keep his eyes open. Sometime after midnight he fell asleep. He was awakened by a loud noise in the kitchen. He opened his eyes, disoriented and confused. He reached for the mace knocking his glasses to the floor.

A blurry figure moved through the kitchen toward the adjacent residency hall. Filled with fear and surging adrenalin, Conrad moved toward the figure. The perpetrator attempted to enter one of the dorm rooms.

"Don't move," Conrad yelled. He pointed the mace toward the man. In the darkness, the man mistook the mace for a gun.

"Don't shoot me, please."

Conrad did a quick mental calculation. The guy could be on drugs.  He could have a gun. He could have grabbed a knife from the kitchen.

Realizing the danger, Conrad aimed the mace and unleashed a heavy dose of pepper spray. Unfortunately the canister was pointed backwards and Conrad maced himself. He screamed. The suspect pushed past him and ran toward the kitchen. Conrad gave chase.

Conrad caught up with the man as he was halfway out the kitchen window (the same way he'd broken in). Conrad doused the man's face with three heavy sprays of mace. The man yelled and fell out the window. Conrad called the police then spent five minutes rinsing his own eyes.  The man escaped but he would never break in again.

A few years later, Conrad heard that the man committed suicide. The Zen Center conducted a special ceremony blessing the man. Conrad objected to the ritual. The man had terrorized the facility. He shouldn't be celebrated.

At the ceremony, the Roshi lit candles around a wicker basket which represented the "hungry ghost" or  departed one. Residents were asked to leave offerings in the basket to help the man's passage into his next incarnation. People added flower petals, pieces of fruit, little carved Buddhas. Conrad waited for everyone to leave before adding his own tribute. He placed a canister of mace in the center of the basket. He'd already scared away the man once. He wanted to make sure the man would never return.

Conrad currently hosts a once-a-month writing salon in Los Angeles called "Tongue And Groove." He is a bonafide Los Angeles iconoclast. (4" x 6", black ink print)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Dad


My father Igo Kantor is an old school film producer of the type you rarely see anymore.  He was born in 1930 and raised in Lisbon, Portugal. He learned english from comic books and American movies. His favorite films were the Republic Serials (Spy Smasher, Captain Marvel).

In 1947, Igo said goodbye to his parents in Europe and boarded a ship to New York. While at sea, he met the film director Max Nosseck (Dillinger, Rin Tin Tin). He told Mr. Nosseck he wanted to make movies and the director gave Igo a written introduction to his brother who ran a projection room in Hollywood.

Igo made it to Los Angeles and looked up Nosseck's brother. He was hired as a projectionist. Five nights a week he ran private screenings for filmmakers including actress Jean Peters who was dating Howard Hughes at the time. Hughes would sneak into the theater next to Peters while a film was playing. Hughes was quiet and aloof and though polite, he refused to shake hands with anyone.

In 1951, Igo was hired as an assistant film editor at Columbia Pictures. He worked on All the Kings Men with famed editor Al Clark (Mr Smith Goes to Washington). Clark was a lunchtime drinker and sometimes after lunch he would show up late or not at all. On those days Igo edited the film himself. (He remains proud that he edited the famous railroad speech in Kings Men.) Igo was elevated to music supervisor and he worked on Bye Bye Birdie and Under the Yum Yum Tree.

In 1962, Igo met my mother Enid through the help of a Jewish matchmaker. They were married and had three children. Igo opened a post-production house in Hollywood. He wrote the musical theme for two Tarzan features and became post-production supervisor on The Monkees. He was hired by Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson of Columbia/Screen Gems to head post production on Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens. He also supervised post-production on Dennis Hopper's infamous film The Last Movie. After the film soared over budget, Universal pulled editing privileges from Hopper. Hopper asked Igo to participate in a clandestine plan to steal the negative from Universal. Igo refused though he and Hopper remained friends.

Igo received Emmy Nominations three years in a row for editing the Bob Hope Christmas Show. He worked with renowned writer/director Dalton Trumbo (of "Hollywood Ten" fame) on Trumbo's indie film Johnny Got His Gun. Sadly, Trumbo refused to pay his hefty bill and Igo was forced to close his post-production facility.

Igo moved into producing films. For the next 20 years, he made low-budget thrillers and horror films. These include Kingdom of the Spiders with William Shatner, Hardly Working with Jerry Lewis and Act of Piracy with Gary Busey. He also produced the musical opening for the 1988 Olympics in Korea. In 1992, Igo won a Western Heritage Award for his TV documentary Legends of the West with Jack Palance. Today, Igo continues working in the film industry. He's ramping up several new projects which he's hoping to start shooting in 2017. Movies are in his blood and he is happiest when immersed in the 24/7 chaos of film production. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Genus Equus

On the day I proposed to my wife in Central California, we saw a pack of "wild" zebras running in an open field next to Highway 1. We later learned these animals were the progeny of William Randolph Hearst's original San Simeon zoo collection. Since that day, zebras have been my favorite animal. This woodcut depicts this beautiful beast. According to African folklore, zebras were initially white until a baboon tossed a zebra into a burning fire where the resulting burn marks became their distinctive stripes. (4" x 6", black ink print)

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Macguffin

Alfred Hitchcock always wanted to make a film involving a chase scene across the presidential faces of Mount Rushmore. He had no specific idea for a plot.  All he knew was he wanted the hero to hide from villains in Lincoln's nose while suffering an uncontrollable sneezing fit. In 1957, Hitchcock teamed with screenwriter Ernest Lehman (Sweet Smell Of Success) to write what would become North By Northwest.  (The working title was The Man In Lincoln's Nose.)

Hitchcock wanted the story to start with a murder at the United Nations and he wanted a plot where the protagonist is mistaken for a non-existent secret agent.  Somehow, Lehman and Hitchcock combined these elements into an original spy thriller.  The film includes several Hitchcock signatures: an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances, POV shots forcing the audience to engage in voyeurism, a hero with an unresolved mother complex, a creative chase scene and the use of a famous landmark.  Cary Grant plays Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive mistaken by Communist spies as an undercover agent named George Kaplan.  After being kidnapped, Grant escapes across country, falls in love with a beautiful blonde and desperately tries to figure out who George Kaplan is.

James Stewart wanted to play the lead role but Hitchcock preferred Cary Grant. The director waited until Stewart committed to the Otto Preminger film Anatomy Of A Murder before casting Grant.  For the female lead, Hitchcock wanted Sophia Loren but she wasn't available.  He opted for Eva Marie Saint who'd come to prominence in On The Waterfront.  Saint was from the method acting school for which Hitchcock had notorious disdain.  When a method actor once asked Hitchcock, "What's my motivation," he replied, "Your salary."  Eva Marie Saint later said that Hitchcock gave her only three pieces of direction.  "Keep your voice low, always look directly at Cary Grant and stop moving your hands so much."

North By Northwest was Cary Grant's fourth Hitchcock film, and he could be demanding.  Throughout North By Northwest, Grant is almost always on the left side of screen presenting the right side of his face to the camera.  He preferred the right side of his face because of a small mole on his left cheek.  Grant was also a known penny-pincher.  A few weeks into production, Saint was impressed by how many autographs Grant gave to star struck fans.  She later learned Grant charged fifteen-cents per signature.

Hitchcock was denied permission to film at the United Nations building. Undeterred, he hid in the rear of a cleaning supply truck while the crew secretly filmed master shots of Cary Grant walking into the UN.  Hitchcock was also denied permission to film at Mount Rushmore.  South Dakota Senator Karl Mundt felt portraying a murder at the location would "desecrate the monument."  MGM created a massive replica of Mount Rushmore in a Culver City soundstage.  The set was so large it included 100 ponderosa pine trees.

The most famous scene in the film is a crop duster chase through a barren cornfield.  The 8-minute tension-filled scene is largely silent and has no music. Cary Grant stands beside a highway in the middle of nowhere thinking he's about to meet George Kaplan.  A stranger appears and points out a crop duster plane in the distance telling Grant, "That's funny.  He's dusting crops where there ain't no crops."  The resulting scene is one of the most iconic in movie history.

North By Northwest was the first spy film filled with deadpan humor.  The film served as a creative template for the James Bond movies that came out a few years later.  Cary Grant's drink of choice is a Gibson--gin & dry vermouth--similar to Bond's "shaken, not stirred" martini.  The crop duster scene is blatantly copied as a helicopter chase in From Russia With Love.  And the pre-Bondian dialogue includes lines like, "I never make love on an empty stomach."

Renowned graphic designer Saul Bass created the film's opening credits. Hitchcock's signature cameo appears just after the credits.  He arrives late at a bus stop and misses the bus.  The modernist home owned by the villain at the peak of Mount Rushmore was based on a Frank Lloyd Wright design.  The house didn't actually exist.  It was recreated in an MGM studio.

North By Northwest was nominated for 5 Academy Awards.  The American Film Institute lists it as one of the top ten movies ever made.  The film's title is taken from Hamlet and the meaning is a class MacGuffin (unexplained plot point) since north by northwest is not a true aviation direction.  (5" x 7", black ink print)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Milhous

This woodcut is an amalgam of Nixon campaign posters. The slogan was actually used in his 1972 re-election campaign while the image is from 1960. I wanted to make Nixon look happy but as his battle with JFK was falling apart, he must have been miserable. Eisenhower helped sink Nixon when he was asked to name one positive thing Nixon accomplished as Vice President. Eisenhower's response: "If you give me a week , I might think of one." Ouch! (5" x 7", black ink print)

The Bootlegger's Son

It was August 1960, three months before the presidential election, and the polls gave Richard Nixon a slim lead over John F. Kennedy.  Nixon had the advantage of being the reigning Vice President under Eisenhower and Republican strategists were labeling Kennedy as "too young and inexperienced." There was also suspicion of Kennedy's Roman Catholic religious affiliation.  Some Protestants feared Kennedy would take his orders directly from the Pope in Rome.

In a speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Kennedy addressed the issue directly.  "I am not the Catholic candidate for President.  I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president who also happens to be a Catholic.  I do not speak for my Church on public matters and the Church does not speak for me."

Nixon's campaign was plagued by bad luck.  In a televised interview, a reporter asked President Eisenhower to cite an example of a major idea Nixon contributed during Ike's presidency.  Eisenhower responded, "If you give me a week I might think of one."  This undercut Nixon's claim of having greater experience than Kennedy.  Democrats turned the comment into a TV commercial.

Nixon suffered a serious knee infection which caused him to lose two important weeks of campaigning. Nixon had pledged to campaign in all 50 States.  He ended up wasting valuable time visiting states where he had no chance to win or states that had few electoral votes.  (He spent the final weekend before the election visiting Alaska that had only 3 electoral votes while Kennedy spent the final weekend in Ohio, New Jersey, Michigan and Pennsylvania.)

The candidates' choices of running mates were crucial.  In a move later deemed a "stroke of genius," Kennedy chose Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson.  Kennedy and brother Robert despised LBJ for his attacks on the Kennedy family, but Kennedy recognized he needed the support of traditional Southern Democrats most of whom had backed Johnson as the Democratic nominee.

Nixon chose former Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. as his running mate.  Lodge made numerous campaign mistakes including a pledge--not approved by Nixon--that as president Nixon would appoint a black person to his cabinet.  The remark was viewed as pandering by African Americans and it also offended southern whites that still supported segregation.

1960 was the first year the presidential debates were televised.  The first debate would be the turning point of the campaign.  Nixon had not fully recovered from his knee infection and he looked pale, sickly and tired.  He also refused makeup causing his bearded stubble to show prominently on the black and white television sets of the era.  (After the first debate, Nixon's mom called him to ask if he was sick.)

Kennedy took time off before the first debate.  He relaxed at home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts and acquired a generous tan.  As the debates began, Kennedy looked calm and confident while Nixon appeared irritable and ill at ease. Subsequent studies claimed that tv viewers overwhelmingly believed Kennedy won the first debate while a much smaller radio audience believed Nixon won. The post-debate polls seemed to validate this theory as Kennedy moved from a small deficit into a small lead.

On October 19, Martin Luther King was arrested in Atlanta while leading a civil rights march.  Nixon refused to become involved.  Kennedy placed calls to political authorities to get King released from jail.  After the incident, King's father endorsed Kennedy leading to favorable publicity in the black community. Kennedy would win the black vote by a huge margin helping to secure victories in New Jersey, South Carolina, Illinois and Missouri.

On election night, November 8, 1960, Nixon watched the returns from his suite at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles (where Robert Kennedy would be killed in 1968).  JFK watched with his family from the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. The early returns from northeastern states and midwestern cities gave Kennedy a large lead.  Later returns from rural areas in the Midwest helped Nixon close the gap.  Before midnight, the New York Times went to press with the headline "Kennedy Elected President." Times managing editor Turner Catledge soon realized the election was too close to call.  (He feared another "Dewey Beats Truman" debacle.)  Not until the next afternoon was Kennedy finally conceded the election.

Kennedy won the popular vote by less than two-tenths of a percentage point (112,000 votes).  In the electoral college, the vote was 303 to 219, the closest election since 1916.  Thanks to Johnson, Kennedy carried most of the South including North Carolina, Georgia and Texas.

Some Republicans believed Kennedy benefitted from voter fraud in Illinois and Texas.  Kennedy won Illinois by just 9,000 votes (out of 4.75 million votes).  He was helped by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's political machine that gave him a 450,000 vote advantage in the windy city.  In Texas, where Lyndon Johnson was a standing senator, Kennedy won by 46,000 votes.  Some Republicans argued that Johnson's political machinations in the state's lower Rio Grande Valley produced forged votes for Kennedy.  But the state Board of Elections, whose members were all Democrat, certified Kennedy as the winner in Texas.

Had he won Texas and Illinois, Nixon would have earned 270 electoral votes, one more than the 269 votes needed to become president.  Nixon's supporters urged him to pursue recounts and challenge Kennedy's victory. But three days after the election, Nixon gave a speech stating he would not contest the election. Kennedy was president and the Camelot era was about to begin. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Jewish Superhero

His name is synonymous with magic, but Harry Houdini (born Erich Weiss) rose to fame as an escape artist and stunt performer. Long before David Blaine, Houdini perfected the art of death-defying public spectacle. He hung from skyscrapers while tied in a straightjacket and he immersed himself in freezing rivers while trapped in a barrel.

The son of a rabbi, Houdini became a strong moral figure in the magic community often resolving disputes between competing magicians. In 1906 he started the magazine Conjurer's Monthly which helped unite magicians who had no union at the time.

Legend has it that Houdini was killed by a punch to the stomach.  Though parts of the story are accurate, it's not the whole truth.  Here are the details.

It was October 18, 1926.  Houdini was scheduled to perform at the Princess Theater in Montreal.  On the day of the performance, Houdini gave a lecture at McGill University about exposing fraudulent spiritualists and mediums.  After the speech, three students visited Houdini backstage.

As the students entered his dressing room, Houdini was lying on a couch reading mail.  One of the students, Joselyn Gordon Whitehead, brought up the question of Houdini's strength and his ability to take a punch to the stomach.  Houdini stated that his stomach could resist much, but he did not offer to test the statement.  He remained reclined on the couch having broken his ankle a few days earlier while performing his famous Water-Torture Cell Escape.

Suddenly, Whitehead struck several fierce blows into Houdini's gut.  Houdini winced in pain and gestured for the student to stop.  Houdini stated he'd not been given time to prepare.  Had he known the punches were coming, he would have stood up.

By mid-afternoon, Houdini was suffering from severe stomach pain.  He made it through that evening's performance as well as two more shows the next day.  On a train to Detroit for a week of new shows, his stomach pain had become insufferable.  His wife Bess wired ahead for a doctor whom met them in the Detroit theater dressing room.  Houdini had a 104-degree temperature.

The doctor urged that Houdini go straight to the hospital.  Houdini proclaimed, "I'll do this show if it's my last."  By the show's third act, Houdini could not go on.  His assistants finished his act and Houdini finally agreed to go to the hospital.

The surgeon determined that Houdini had a ruptured appendix and he was suffering from peritonitis.  These were the days before antibiotics and Houdini's condition was serious.  Houdini hung on for four days before undergoing a second operation.  Though he seemed to be recovering, Houdini died a few days later on Halloween.

Newspaper reporters wrote that the blows to Houdini's stomach had killed him. Today, medical experts agree that appendicitis caused by blunt trauma is not possible.  Houdini was likely already suffering from appendicitis when Whitehead punched him.  (His wife Bess confirmed Houdini was in discomfort for weeks.) Houdini possibly wrote off his pain as a residual effect from the blows thus delaying the medical treatment that might have saved his life.  At the time of his death, Houdini was just 52 years old.  (5" x 7", black ink print with watercolor)

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Le Voyage Dans La lune

A Trip To The Moon was a French silent film made in 1902 by Georges Melies. Just 14 minutes long, the movie is recognized as the first science fiction film ever made. The movie is a surrealistic romp with giant mushrooms and insect aliens that attack six astronauts after they crash their spaceship into the moon's eye. Director George Melies was a French illusionist and magician. He became a filmmaker as an extension of his illusionist act. He became a pioneer in the use of special effects originating such filmic devices as multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, dissolves and hand-painted color. Between 1896-1913, Melies directed 531 films. He intended to release A Trip To The Moon in the United States but Thomas Edison's film company made secret copies of the movie and distributed it throughout the country. Melies ultimately went bankrupt and most of his movies were either lost or destroyed. The only known hand-colored print of A Trip To The Moon was rediscovered in 1993 in a state of near-complete decomposition. A frame-by-frame restoration began in 1999 and was completed in 2010. The restored version premiered in 2011, 109 years after its original release. Martin Scorcese's film Hugo depicts a fictionalized version of George Melies' life and journey through film. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Evils of Alcohol

The temperance movement can be traced back to 1784 when Dr. Benjamin Rush first declared alcoholism "a disease."  He made the connection between the poor and sick and how much alcohol they consumed.  In the 1820's, a new movement with strong religious connections claimed that alcohol led to crime, sin and ultimately Hell.  The American Temperance Society was formed in 1826 and "demon rum" became their primary target.  By 1830, the average American man over 15 years old consumed seven gallons of pure alcohol a year (three times today's average).

Temperance was popular among abolitionists who viewed alcohol as an evil commensurate with slavery.  The movement was rooted in America's Protestant churches.  They first urged moderation, then voluntary abstinence and finally government prohibition.  Maine was the first state to ban alcohol sales and consumption in 1851.  (They remained dry until passage of the 21st amendment.)

The popular artist Nathaniel Currier created a lithograph called The Drunkard's Progress.  The chart featured the nine stages of a drinker.  Stage 1 was called "a glass with a friend."  Stage 4 was "drunk and riotous."  Stage 6 was "poverty and disease."  Stage 8 was "desperation and crime" while the final stage was "death by suicide."

After the Civil War, Europeans migrated en masse to America.  The Germans and Irish gained a reputation for heaving drinking and rowdy behavior.  In 1869, the National Prohibition Party was formed focusing on legislation against alcohol.  The movement gained support from the Anti-Saloon League, the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Ku Klux Klan.

This odd alliance considered alcohol responsible for the destruction of families and for inciting societal crime and violence.  Organizers released pamphlets and newsletters with specious claims.  "Medical experts" wrote that alcohol was made from poisonous substances like tobacco, hemlock, nut vomica and opium.  They said the nutty taste of Madeira wine came from cockroaches dissolved in the liquid.  They also claimed "alcohol was made from excrement released in the fermentation process."  In other words, to drink alcohol was to drink poop.

A 1900 book called Leaves of Healing by Reverend John Alexander Dowie claimed that doctors conducted experiments by injecting cats with small doses of alcohol.  The cats became paralyzed and quickly died of alcohol poisoning. Dowie condemned breweries and taverns as murder factories, further writing that alcohol was no less a poison than arsenic.  (He conveniently ignored the fact most over the counter medical remedies contained at least five percent alcohol.)

Temperance advocates also focused on the flammable properties of alcohol. They claimed that people who drank too much would spontaneously combust. They said this occurred when alcohol fumes leaked from a person's skin and ignited when exposed to a nearby heat source.

The KKK claimed that minorities who drank too much were likely to commit crimes against innocent white folks.  White women would be raped and white men murdered.  The Klan targeted bootleggers, tarring and feathering them as punishment.

The WCTU preached that the effects of alcohol were passed down to future generations.  They said the offspring of drinkers would suffer from stunted growth, disfigurement and insanity.  They further stated that drinking caused "fat organs" and caused the heart to become enlarged and ultimately explode.  Beer drinkers would die from "dropsy" (an old term for edema) and drinkers of cheap spirits like run and gin would get blood poisoning.  Radical temperance advocates like Carrie Nation attacked saloons with a hatchet destroying alcohol supplies and bar fixtures.  Other supporters like Mary Hunt urged temperance instruction in schools.  By 1900, Congress passed legislation making anti-alcohol classes mandatory in schools across the country.

Silent filmmakers found a lucrative niched making movies with an anti-alcohol message.  In 1902, Pathe made Les Victimes de L'Alcoolisme, one of their most profitable films.  Absinthe, a 1913 film by Gem Pictures, is the only surviving American temperance film from the era.

The 18th Amendment in 1919 made it illegal to produce, transport of sell alcoholic beverages in the United States.  The "noble experiment" spawned an age of bootlegging and organized crime led by Al Capone in Chicago and Legs Diamond in New York.  Mob violence became a national nightmare and public outcry quickly grew.  The passage of the 21st Amendment in 1933 ended prohibition.  It also functionally ended the temperance movement.

The WCTU still exists.  They have shifted their focus to activism and advocacy for women's rights.  They continue to preach about the dangers of alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs.  But like their early days, they have returned to supporting voluntary abstinence instead of mandatory prohibition.  (5" x 7", black ink print)

At Breath's End

Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 French film Breathless is one of the most influential movies ever made.  Along with Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Claude Chabrol's Le Beau Serge, Breathless signaled the emergence of French New Wave Cinema known as the "nouvelle vague."  The movement purported to see filmmaking in a new way viewing film directors as auteurs responsible for everything on screen.  Godard utilized documentary style hand-held cameras, natural lighting and frequent jump cuts.  Breathless was shot on location in Paris without permits and the style is daring, frenetic and raw.

The story is deceptively simple.  Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a smalltime gangster who idolizes American crime films and yearns to be Humphrey Bogart.  He steals a car in Marseilles, shoots a policeman and turns to his American girlfriend played by Jean Seberg who tries to help him escape to Italy.  Seberg ultimately betrays him to police and in the closing scene he is shot to death in the street.

The film is a "nihilistic road movie" with a pre-punk rock sensibility.  The plot is disjointed, the dialogue meanders and the film quality is overexposed and grainy.  Godard could not afford a camera dolly so he pushed the cinematographer around in a wheelchair.  He started production without a shooting script and he wrote scenes each morning and filmed them the same day.  The put Belmondo and Seberg off balance since they had no time to rehearse or build character motivation.  Their frustration and confusion yielded an edge and naturalism to their performance that came off as completely real.

The storytelling is ragged at times, shifting from kinetic action to leisurely dialogue where nothing much happens.  Godard embraced style over story and his movies can seem pompous, self-obsessed and even clunky at times. In Breathless, passersby stare directly at camera and the jump cut editing makes the plot hard to follow.  But this was Godard's intent.  He wanted audiences to see movies in a new way even if the viewing experience was uncomfortable.

Godard once said, "To make a film all you need is a girl and a gun." Breathless embodies this ethos.  The movie is inspired by the American gangster genre and Godard pays homage to his predecessors.  Belmondo's character quotes dialogue from John Huston's The Maltese Falcon.  Seberg tries to evade police by escaping into a cinema where Otto Preminger's Whirpool is playing.  The lobby card outside the cinema displays Bogart's final film The Harder They Fall.

Godard's influences included jazz, the Beat Generation, film noir and the Italian neorealist filmmakers of the late 40's and early 50's.  Breathless was as much a documentary about Paris as it was a crime thriller and romance.  The free-form realism and lack of regard for traditional storytelling methods influenced directors like Sidney Lumet, Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma.  Arthur Penn's 1967 film Bonnie And Clyde has been referred to as a more violent version of Breathless.

No American director owes a greater debt to Godard than Quentin Tarantino. The films Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were virtual homages to Breathless including non-linear plot lines, non sequitur dialogue, aspiring tough guys and stylish anti-heroes.  The famous dance scene in Godard Band of Outsiders directly influenced the John Travolta and Uma Thurman dance sequence in Pulp Fiction.

Breathless still embodies the essence of cool.  In 2012, the British Film Institute ranked the film as the 13th best movie of all time.  It was made for just $90,000 and shot in three weeks.  A half-century later, the film remains fresh and spontaneous and still inspires people the world over to flock to Paris. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Dystopia

The 1927 German Expressionist film Metropolis is the most influential science fiction movie ever made.  Fritz Lang's nightmarish vision inspired Star Wars, Blade Runner and Brazil.  George Lucas modeled the design of C3PO after the robot in the film.  Stanley Kubrick imitated the mechanical right hand of one of the characters in Dr. Strangelove.  The creators of Superman named their comic book city after the film.

Metropolis offers a futuristic view of industrialized life as an external utopia masking a vision of Hell on earth.  Thriving capitalists live in a modern city above ground while workers struggle in an oppressive compound below.  The story follows the son of the wealthy "city master" as he tries to mediate the gap between the haves and have-nots.  Lang focuses on the inevitable class divide of modern cities between oppressed workers and the political bourgeoisie.

Lang believed that automation created drudgery rather than relieving it.  He was a critic of the industrial age and his gothic art deco production and heavy Biblical symbolism likened modern cities to the Tower of Babel.  Lang claimed "the film was born from my first sight of skyscrapers in New York in 1924."  The story was also inspired by Karel Capek's play R.U.R. about a robot revolt and by the writings of H.G. Wells.

The movie was made in Germany during the Weimar period, the republic preceding the Nazi era.  Lang's wife Thea Von Harbou wrote the screenplay.  She later became a passionate member of the Nazi party causing Lang, who was Jewish, to divorce her.  Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels were big fans of the film considering the story a social blueprint.  After the film's release, Goebbels met with Lang and told him he could become an honorary Aryan adding, "Mr. Lang, we decide who is Jewish and who is not."  Lang immediately left Germany for America never to return.

Production began in 1925 and lasted more than a year.  The film utilized 750 supporting actors, 26,000 male extras, 11,000 female extras, 750 children and, as written in the promotional notes, "100 Negroes and 25 Chinese."  The film's budget reached 5 million Reichmarks ($200 million today), the most expensive film made up to that point.

Metropolis gained acclaim for groundbreaking special effects.  Miniature sets were filmed with stop-motion photography depicting a city with massive skyscrapers, monorails, futuristic airplanes and gridlocked freeways.  The film was the first to use the Schufftan Process, a special effect where a large mirror is placed at a 45-degree angle between the camera and the miniature sets.  Actors performed in front of the mirror making it appear as if they were interacting with the environment.  (The technique was later replicated by matte paintings.)  The movie also utilized double-exposures, massive Tesla coils with leaping electrical sparks and a futuristic "television phone" created by aiming a film projector through a translucent screen.

Lang was a perfectionist with a reputation for cruelty.  He drove cast and crew hard with little regard for their safety.  During a scene where the worker's underground quarters is flooded, Lang directed the child extras to hurl themselves into the water jets.  Several children nearly drowned.  In the scene where the female robot is burned at the stake, Lang insisted on using real flames. The dress of actress Brigitte Helm caught fire and she was nearly burned alive.

When the film was finally released, the running time was 2 1/2 hours.  German audiences were mesmerized by the special effects but critics scoffed at the sentimental truce between labor and management.  (A title card in the final scene reads: "Between the mind and the hands, the heart must mediate.")  Lang was crestfallen when H.G. Wells wrote, "I have recent seen the silliest film.  I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier."

The film flopped in Germany.  Paramount acquired the US rights and cut the film to 90 minutes.  Lang's original version was lost to posterity.  In 1984, composer Georgio Moroder was the first to attempt a restoration.  He released a color-tinted version of the film with an original soundtrack by Adam Ant, Freddie Mercury and Pat Benatar.  The newly restored film was nominated for two Razzie Awards for worst movie of the year.

Kino released a restored version of Metropolis in 2002 with the original score from composer Gottfried Huppertz.  The version was well received, making the rounds of revival houses and museums.  In 2008, a 16mm negative of Lang's original version was discovered in the archives of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires. The print was in poor condition and several sequences could not be salvaged. The print was restored and released on Blu-Ray in 2011. (5" x 7", black ink print)

C'est La Vie

The French Connection is a 1971 police thriller starring Gene Hackman. Hackman plays Jimmy 'Popeye Doyle,' a racist, trash-talking cop chasing drug smugglers between France and New York.  Based on the life of actual NYC Detective Eddie Egan who broke a drug smuggling ring in 1961, the film features the most famous car chase in movie history.

William Friedkin was a young, unknown director with four movies under his belt. He'd just made the unpopular gay-themed film The Boys In The Band and his career was going nowhere.  He called legendary filmmaker Howard Hawks for advice.  Hawks told him, "People don't want stories about people's problems or any of that psychological shit.  They want action stories."

The French Connection was Friedkin's stab at an action film.  This was the Vietnam-era and the movie reflected the murky morality of the period.  The hero is gruff, unsympathetic and not afraid to shoot bad guys in the back.  The villain is suave and likable and, in true anti-genre fashion, he gets away with his crime in the end.

The lead role of 'Popeye Doyle' was turned down by a spate of Hollywood stars. Steve McQueen felt the movie was too much like Bullitt.  Lee Marvin hated New York cops.  James Caan feared the character was too unlikable.  Jackie Gleason called the story depraved.  Robert Mitchum thought the screenplay was garbage. Peter Boyle turned down the role because he wanted more romantic parts. Amazingly, the role was initially given to New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin, a non-actor. Breslin was summarily fired after Friedkin learned he didn't know how to drive.

Gene Hackman had burst on the scene in 1967 after his appearance in Bonnie And Clyde.  Friedkin gave the role of 'Popeye Doyle' to Hackman without the benefit of an audition, script reading or screen test.  When reading the screenplay, Hackman cringed at the racist dialogue he had to utter.  Only after spending a week on the New York streets with Eddie Egan (the real 'Popeye Doyle') did Hackman realize the dialogue reflected real life.

The film starts out slow for an action movie.  An hour goes by before gunshots are fired.  The story focuses on the drudgery of police work, the uneventful stakeouts, the hours of paper work.  Cops slowly cruise city streets looking for criminals.  Details are subtle, the tone brooding (much like Scorcese's Taxi Driver that came out five years later).  The film has a documentary feel as if we're watching unedited B-Roll from 1970 New York.  At one early point we can see the first World Trade Center Tower under construction in the background.

When the action finally kicks in, it's relentless.  The highlight is a scene where a car chases an elevated subway line through Lower Manhattan.  The chase was not in the original script.  Producer Phil D'Antoni, who also produced Bullitt (with it's memorable San Francisco car chase), suggested the idea to Friedkin.  Details were improvised on a last-minute location scout.

The chase was filmed without obtaining proper city permits.  Traffic was cleared for five blocks in each direction and the filmmakers shot between 10am-3pm.  Off-duty NYPD officers teamed with assistant directors to direct traffic.  The producers had permission to control traffic signals on streets where they ran the chase car. But the chase illegally spilled onto streets where there was no traffic control forcing stunt drivers to evade real cars and pedestrians.  The crash that occurs midway throughout the chase involved a local man driving to work when his car was suddenly struck by the picture car.  He was unhurt but producers had to pay for his car repairs.

A camera was mounted on a car's bumper for low-angle POV shots of the streets racing by.  The camera was undercranked to 18 frames per second enhancing the sense of speed.  Famed stunt driver Bill Hickman drove at 90 mph for 26 blocks without stopping.  Friedkin wanted a hand-held camera in the back seat. His camera operators, all of whom were married with children, felt the scene too dangerous.  Friedkin, young and single, operated the camera himself.

Hackman did some of his own stunt driving until he struck another vehicle and crashed into a concrete pillar.  At this point, the producers pulled the plug. Friedkin lacked the coverage he wanted but he made do with the footage.  The final scene has no music, only the ambient sounds of screeching tires, car horns and smashing metal.  Friedkin claims he edited the scene to the tempo of Santana's "Black Magic Woman."

The French Connection spawned an era of documentary-style cop movies dedicated to gritty authenticity and morally ambivalent characters.  The film won 5 Academy Awards.  It was the first R-Rated movie to win Best Picture.  (5" x 7", black ink print)

Strange Love

In 1963, America was in a heightened state of anxiety.  The country had witnessed the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the escalation of the Vietnam conflict, the building of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The Cold War was at its peak and civilization was at the brink of nuclear annihilation.  Director Stanley Kubrick was obsessed about the possibility of nuclear war.  He read a novel by Peter George called Red Alert about a rogue US Military Officer who attempts to trigger an unauthorized nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. Kubrick paid $3,500 to option the screen rights to the novel.  He began writing the screenplay, a dramatic thriller he titled Edge Of Doom.

Kubrick completed the screenplay around the time the United States discovered Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba.  Public anxiety was so intense Kubrick realized the only way to tell the story was as a satirical comedy.  He began remaining the screenplay in comic form.  He explained, "Confront a man in his office with a nuclear alarm and you have a documentary.  If the news reaches him in his living room, you have a drama.  If it catches him in the lavatory, the result is comedy." (An early draft of the comedy screenplay begins with extra-terrestrials observing earth after a nuclear holocaust.)

Kubrick decided his new comic approach required a sense of inspired lunacy.  He turned to novelist Terry Southern, writer of the book Candy that offered an absurd look at modern sexuality.  Kubrick told Southern to come up with "the most outrageous thing a character can say and still be credible."  Southern responded with classic dialogue.  Base Commander Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) says, "I can no longer sit back and let the international Communist conspiracy sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids."  Later, President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) yells out, "Gentleman, you can't fight in here!  This is the War Room!" Southern came up with the name "Dr. Strangelove."  Kubrick added the film's subtitle, "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."

The film was shot at Shepperton Studios in England.  The primary set was the awe-inspiring War Room.  Production Designer Ken Adam devised initial sketches inspired by the classic films The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis.  The huge triangular room was 130 feet long, 100 feet wide and 35 feet high.  A massive electronic "Big Board" showing the paths of bombs headed toward Russia  took up the back wall.  Crew members wore slippers to avoid scratching the shiny black Formica floor. The room's centerpiece was a 22-foot diameter circular table suspended under a ring of light.  Kubrick insisted the table be covered by green felt to give the impression of a high-stakes poker game (even though the film was shot in black and white).

Ken Adam also had to recreate the interior of a B-52 Bomber without the cooperation of the US Government.  His only reference photo was a blurry image of a B-52 cockpit featured on the cover of an obscure book called Strategic Air Command.  Adam built the sent from his imagination spending hours designing switches and warning lights.  His ultimate creation was so accurate that military air personnel thought Adam had obtained unauthorized access to an actual B-52. Kubrick feared he might be investigated by the FBI for revealing government secrets.

When it came to casting, Kubrick approached Peter Sellers who'd appeared in his last film Lolita.  Sellers would play three roles: RAF Captain Lionel Mandrake, American President Merkin Muffley and wheelchair-bound, ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove.  The part of Mandrake was easy for Sellers.  He'd impersonated British officers for years.  For President Muffley, Sellers initially portrayed the role as a meek, effeminate character constantly using an inhaler to treat a bad cold. Kubrick instructed Sellers to be more serious since Muffley was the only character who understood the consequences of his actions. Sellers mimicked the voice and gestures of Adlai Stevenson for the new persona.  The role of Dr. Strangelove was an amalgam of RAND Corporation strategist Herman Kahn and rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun.  Much of Sellers' dialogue was improvised as when he refers to the president as "Mein Fuhrer."  Kubrick and Sellers both denied patterning Dr. Strangelove after Henry Kissinger.

Sellers initially agreed to play a fourth role that of B-52 pilot Major King Kong. During rehearsals, Sellers & Kubrick were seated in a plane suspended 15 feet off the ground.  Sellers fell out of the plane and broke his leg.  Kubrick had to recast Major Kong.  He turned to Slim Pickens, a character actor he'd seen in the Marlon Brando film One-Eyed Jacks.  When Pickins arrived on set, he wore a cowboy hat, fringed jacket and weathered cowboy boots.  The crew assumed he's come in costume not realizing this was how Pickins always dressed.  The final scene of Pickins riding the nuclear bomb toward Russia remains the most iconic image in the film.

George C. Scott was cast as General Buck Turgidson.  The part was loosely based on hawkish, anti-Communist General Curtis LeMay.  Scott, known for his volatility and heavy drinking, initially resisted Kubrick's urgings to play the role for laughs.  After Kubrick destroyed him in several games of chess, Scott relented. General Turgidson is stuck in perpetual adolescence pouting when scolded by the president and taking calls from his mistress while he's in the War Room.  He is always the optimist as when he voices his opinion about nuclear war.  "I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed.  But I am saying no more than 10 to 20 million killed, depending on the breaks."

Production on Dr. Strangelove was completed in spring 1963.  The original climax to the film featured an epic pie fight in the War Room.  Kubrick removed the scene fearing the farcical aspect would undermine the film's satirical tone.  The first test screening was scheduled for November 22, 1963, the day JFK was assassinated.  The film was delayed until January 1964.  Because of the tragedy, one line of dialogue had to be changed.  When Slim Pickens say, "A fellow could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with that stuff," the line is reduced as "Vegas."

The film was a box office and critical success.  Theaters promoted the film by giving away pocket radioactivity detectors.  The movie ultimately received four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Screenplay.  AFI called the movie the #3 comedy of all time behind Some Like It Hot and Tootsie. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan became president, he asked to see the White House War Room.  His Chief of Staff had to tell him no actual War Room ever existed.  (5" x 7", black ink print)