Archive for May, 2010

These days, short film ads are fairly ubiquitous. You know the sort: an ad disguised as a short film—which usually follows or precedes an ad about the same product— and presented as a story with characters and plot all wrapped around a-not-so cleverly hidden product placement.

Well, it seems David Lynch has jumped into this particular fray with obvious relish.  The results are really intriguing, and certainly the best of this genre of advertisement. Lynch is not new to the world of ads. He has done spots for coffee and perfume in past years, always with his particular cinematic eye, and this series of short film ads for Dior’s new line of handbags called LadyDior, are no exception. True, the product placement is utterly blatant (it always is), but it’s done in a way that is funny and silly, with that sort of offbeat, Lynchian perspective. The ads themselves are Lynch through and through; from the writing to the lighting and music, David Lynch has been given free rein to do what he does best. And the very hands on nature of these ads harkens back to his earliest short films and first feature; he not only writes and directs the pieces, but he works the camera, edits, writes music and does sound mixing. It’s all very beautiful and mysterious, and you almost forget that it’s an ad for a handbag, which I guess defeats the purpose in way.

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I Am the Camera Eye

It’s been awhile. A long while. The last short film I shot was 16mm sync sound, and that was years ago. Shooting on digital video certainly has it upsides; immediate feedback, no processing, etc. I was behind the camera for about half the shots, Aaron, the writer and director, the other half. Mine is Mine was made as part of the 48 Hour Film Festival (I’m fairly certain most major cities have a version of this). Teams have 48 hours to write, shoot and edit a short film within a certain genre, and given guidelines. Rapid set-ups, one or two takes, no time for over-thinking compositions or shooting ample coverage. It was an interesting experience that was over before I knew it.

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Dog Eat Dog (1964)

Directors: Albert Zugsmith, Richard E. Cunha, Ray Nazarro, Gustav Gavrin

“If you’re going to do something wrong, do it big, because the punishment is the same either way.” Jayne Mansfield

The name Jayne Mansfield carries a lot of baggage. Like Sharon Tate, Jayne Mansfield conjures more than simply an actress that never reached her full potential, but the way in which she died. In the case of Mansfield, the gruesome circumstances of her death are much more the fodder of urban myth than anything cemented in reality. At age 34, Mansfield was in a rear end car collision that killed all of the passengers in the front seat, including herself. While she sustained significant head trauma, she was not decapitated as tabloids would report. Regardless of the circumstances, it was a sad end to Jane Mansfield and a career that was peppered with highs and lows. Mansfield had a run of really great starring roles, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), Kiss Them For Me (1957) and Promises! Promises! (1963) among them.

Dog Eat Dog was one of the last films Mansfield made, one among a handful of b-movies like The Fat Spy (1966) and Las Vegas Hillbillies (1966). Good parts in mainstream Hollywood roles were evaporating and Mansfield began doing more live performances, as well launching a series of publicity stunts to stay in the public’s mind (who can forget the series of photographs depicting a horrified Sophia Loren staring at Mansfield’s cleavage spilling out from the top her form-fitting dress). In fact three of her final films were documentaries that followed her (among other stars) around, filming all manner of bra malfunctions and live performances: Spree (1967)Mondo Hollywood (1967) and the Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield (1968).

Make no mistake, Dog Eat Dog is a terrible film. The acting is uniformly awful, the pedestrian caper plot is endlessly side-tracked and strangely convoluted.  The fact that four directors were behind the lens of this picture  probably didn’t help make the film feel as if it were one cohesive vision. Yet, there are scenes that are so weird, so baffling, and so funny in spite of themselves, that Dog Eat Dog is oddly alluring. Clichés about not being able to look away from a car wreck aside, there really is a compulsive element at work here. Like the worst junk food, B-movies have a way of making us stick around until the last gut-busting, calorie-killing bite and Dog Eat Dog is no exception.

To be honest, what pulled me into this death-trap of movie was the opening shot; Jayne Mansfield dressed in a baby doll nightie rolling around in a bed filled with falling money. It’s an amazing shot; over-sexed, over-campy, over-the-top ridiculous. Afterall, these are the traits that all good B-movies should have: an exploitative, no-nonsense grab at the audience’s attention by any means necessary.

Dog Eat Dog surprisingly enough has many of these moments. Utterly bizarre moments that do indeed catch your attention. Just before you’re about to eject this movie from your life for good, something else unexpected happens, some other unhinged character emerges that makes you stop, dead in your tracks. The dialogue is another unpredictable part of the equation. It’s hard to know if the script was written on purpose, or if it’s simply a weird, wonderful accident that many of the lines are so funny. Who could forget Darlene’s predilection for the word “crackers” which she punctuates the beginning of any sentence with (“Crackers, you’re cute!”).

Jayne Mansfield plays Darlene, the bubbly moll of an unbalanced gangster named Dolph Kostis played by character actor Ivor Salter, who laughs constantly, at everything. It’s annoying at first, then quickly becomes disturbing, a menacing cackle that carries throughout the film, infecting other characters. Kotis, along with his partner Lylle Corbett (Cameron Mitchell ) have stolen $1 million in cash that is supposed to be heading to the Treasury Department. But Kotis apparently wants the money all for himself, and at the opening of the movie attempts to kill Corbett by running him over (a scene underpinned by a lively jazz score and Kotis’ not-stop laughter). 

Kotis and Darlene escape to their hideout, a strange hotel/villa on an apparently deserted island in the Mediterranean. We soon discover that Corbett is still alive, although badly beaten and has somehow trailed the pair to the island. Corbett is clearly looking for revenge, as well as his share of the rest of the loot. Meanwhile we are introduced to even more deranged characters: hotel manager, Morelli (Aldo Camarada) and his ruthless sister, Sandra (Dody Heath); Madame Benoit (Isa Miranda) a woman who is living out her remaining years on the island and her butler, Janis. Then the situation really spirals out of control; Kotis is found dead in a goldfish pond, Morelli and Jannis are killed and the stolen money vanishes (we later find out that Sandra has taken the money and hidden it on herself, beneath her negligee, making a sort of money dress).

This over-heated series of events does have a bright spot in Cameron Mitchell; as the movie ambles along, he becomes increasingly unbalanced, sweaty and bloodied, his insane on-going laughter transferred from the late Kotis Mitchell. Darlene has by now shifted her affections to Mitchell,  the stolen money still paramount to her motivation.

In a ridiculous final shoot-out/chase scene near the sea, Sandra and Corbett wrestle each other for the money as it falls from Sandra’s money dress, both drowning as they do so (this mirrors, in some respect, Darlene rolling sensually in the same cash at the beginning of the film). Darlene witnesses the struggle and decides to wade in after them and the cash, screaming “Wait for baby!” as the credits roll. 

Based on a novel by Robert Bloomfield called, When Strangers Meet and filmed in Yugoslavia, the film was helmed by four directors, perhaps the reason for this cinematic mess. Albert Zugsmith, wrote and produced Sappho Darling (1968), as well as Sex Kittens Go To College, while Richard E. Cunha directed  Frankenstein’s Daughter (1958) and She Demons (1958), which gives you a hint at Dog Eat Dog‘s pedigree, so to speak.

It’s difficult to actually recommend Dog Eat Dog—especially to a fan of Jayne Mansfield—when there are better films that she starred in, films that would probably be worth their time. Mansfield doesn’t so much act as employee her vapid sex kitten routine; it’s all autopilot for her, but then again it’s the same for the other actors in the film. Yet there are those certain moments, strange, funny, curious moments, that populate this casualty of a movie, that you almost forgive the rest of the film for its transgressions. Almost.

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Exiting Eden


Once upon a time is how the scene begins (don’t they all?) and this is how it unfolds: first we see a sprawling lake, a supine giant, the water of which falls from emerald green to thick, murky browns. This lake has existed here, presumably for a thousand years or more. An old tire, fading, threadbare—a slight impression left in its center where countless children have hunched―hangs from the branch of one the hearty pine trees which populate the acreage that surrounds the lake―a vast, unbroken woodland stretching for miles, the majority of which will be burnt to the ground by arson in the near future.

Feces covers the floor of these woods, the copious dejecta part of an intricate topography of what animals have left behind―the shedding of skin and fur the least objectionable of the lot. The excrement is the by-product of various denizens of the lake region: black bears, chipmunks, skunks, snakes (do snakes actually shit? it occurs to me that I’ve never witnessed a snake having a bowel movement) ferrets, wolves, feral cats, and, of course, birds, the deposits of which are perhaps the vilest; smart bombs dropped from the sky. 

Hideous, filthy birds! cry the other animals.

If it were not for the ability to fly, the birds would be up shit-creek-without-a-paddle―this is, of course, in regards to Bird Vs. Bear, another such scene I have concocted previously: the bird’s wings broken, held together with the aid of tiny splints, must use only their wits, and possibly a well-timed stab of the beak, in a final showdown against the boiling rage of the bear, having been shit upon―literally and figuratively―by just such a bird one too many times. The ending of this scene is too horrible to recount here, although, it should be said, if black bears had a human counterpart it would be that of Charles Manson.

Meanwhile, back at the previous scene: The stench that surrounds this lake is so foul that not a soul dare breach its soiled shores. The lake, once picturesque in its beauty, now wallows in its own filth.  But what could possibly illicit such a deluge of droppings? Too much bran in the diet of the animals? A predilection for jokes scatological in nature? Or had they simply scared themselves shitless?

I have left the evacuation of animal bowels in this scene because it seems as much a part of the lore of these woods as the two people I have previously placed within it: a man and a woman, their lusts and desires anything but errant, their wills obscenely willful and free, roaming the land around the lake as if they owned the joint, naked as they day they were born, (“this isn’t a nudist colony”, I informed them again and again) frequently, unabashedly partaking in the rib. They were over-sexed, as horny as wayward adolescents, their constant copulations embarrassing, so I have since removed them from the scene. They will have to fend for themselves without aid of my pleasant and evocative descriptions forging the world around them.

But I digress.

Of particular note to this scene: the lake is similar in some respects to a lake I once frequented with my girlfriend of several years. We would smile brightly, sunning ourselves on the shore, making plans for the future as I inscribed arcane drawings into her newly sun-screened back; an index finger indexing our entire history together. We stayed in a cabin near the shore, one that was built by some pioneering spirit of the recent past. We had gone on like this for months, the insular beauty of the lake keeping us from the troubles of the outside world.

That was until three days ago when I found myself crouching in the dense underbrush beside the lake, covered in mud and leaves―partly for camouflage, partly for the obscene drama that it evoked―watching my girlfriend: she in the lake swimming nude with another man, the pruned-pair eventually conjoined; their bodies at work below the placid surface. Nude I tell you! Just like those two heathens in the previous scene.

Nonetheless, I am making plans for her in my head.

A few moments later we are talking:

She: Stop following me.

Me: I wasn’t following you. I just happen to be at the lake this weekend.

She: Covered in mud? Spying on us?

Me: I was bird watching.

She: You threw our clothes in the water!

Me: You looked cold, like you could use a pair of pants.

She: I have a restraining order!

Me: You don’t mean that.

She: I don’t love you!

Me: You don’t mean that.

She: Brian, get your pants on!

Me: You don’t mean that―

And then the fist of Brian―pants now on―hits me squarely on the nose, the crunching of bone loud inside my skull.

My girlfriend’s face is pinched, unforgiving.

The latter section is meaningless digression. I am creating a new scene concerning the lake in a darkened motel room off of I-7, scribbling on a notepad I found in the top drawer of the nightstand. I watch a compact TV bolted unceremoniously to the wall, the breaking newscast composed of quickly scrolling fonts and graphics and music built of menacing chords―


―the well-groomed anchor needlessly buoyant given the subject matter. A carefully edited montage of video footage follows—firefighters in action poses, blasts of water striking the towering flames with little to no impression. A wider shot, from a higher vantage point, reveals fires on all sides of the lake, the mad reflection of the flames gyrating obscenely upon the surface of the otherwise undisturbed water…

(I have been careful to leave all of this out of my previous scene—it has no substantive relevance, particularly the part where I initiate several small brush fires in the vicinity of the lake with the aid of an engraved lighter that my girlfriend gave me two birthdays past)

…wait, wait. Again I am drifting―at hand, the new scene: I am a bird―that is, I am myself dressed in a giant bird costume, taking wing across the lake, my girlfriend and Brian sunning themselves on shore as she and I had done so many times previously. I swoop down from the pale, dreadful sky and snatch her up with my yawing plastic claws, voiding my bowels upon Brian as I ascend. She lays limp in my grip, a fainted heroine in a b-movie, Brian on the ground below marshalling a look of hurt and surprise. Poor put-upon, shat-upon, Brian, shackled by gravity, effluvium rising in contrast.

The lake hums with vivid colors.

We soar above everything, altitudinous in our coupling.

I with my love―our convergence complete.

Happily ever after.

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Love and Death (1975)

Director: Woody Allen

In the illuminating collections of essays, Conversations with Woody Allen (2007) by New York Times and Vanity Fair writer, Eric Lax, Woody Allen discusses being at a sort of crossroads upon the completion of his film Sleeper (1973). He wants to do a departure film, what he refers to as a “real-person film”. In other words, a movie that does not propel the characters forward with the use of a plot based on a silly or “flamboyant” idea. He wanted the characters to exist organically, to deal with relationships and real conflicts that arise from those relationships. At the time he was working on three ideas, one of which would eventually become Annie Hall (1977)(his first film to eventually win four Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture). The other was an earlier version of Annie Hall, which would resurface decades later as Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), and the third, his Napoleonic farce, Love and Death, which would be made first.

It is interesting to note that Allen was truly struggling with his ideas at this point. He wasn’t sure that his established audience would respond positively to either Annie Hall, the relationship picture or Love and Death, the flamboyant picture. Even though Love and Death shared many of the same obvious qualities as his other “straight” comedies, it also signaled that Allen was no longer content being a stand-up comedian and writer turned director, that he wanted to be known as a filmmaker. For these reasons, among many others, Love and Death should be viewed as an important film in the Allen canon, its impact on everything that followed even more important than that of its follow-up, Annie Hall.

First and foremost, Love and Death is a funny film. Really funny. Probably the funniest of Allen’s “early, funny movies”.  It has the same surreal slapstick and rapid fire dialogue of previous pictures like Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971), Play It Again, Sam (1972), and Sleeper (1973),  shot through keen satire–a send-up of Russian novels (if that was possible) and of period pieces. It’s Woody Allen doing some of his best Woody Allen shtick: awkward, over-sexed, philosophically astute, oozing false bravado, cowardly—loveably so. Indeed,  Love and Death is a showcase of some of Woody Allen’s best comedic material. The film is endlessly quotable. By Allen’s own admission it’s him doing his impersonation of Bob Hope. It is his deep admiration of Bob Hope, of his delivery, of his self-effacing comedy, that influenced so many of his early films. And yet, this persona, the Allen persona, is so deeply ingrained in the history of cinema, to the point that it has ceased to be mere homage, that it really has become its own character, and, consequently, you have other actors trying to do their own “Woody Allen” (i.e. Edward Norton in Everyone Says I Love You (1996)). It’s Bob Hope three times removed.

And there are still other influences as work here; Groucho Marx and the Marx Brothers to be sure, and Ingmar Bergman, particularly Seventh Seal and Persona. Dostoevsky goes without saying. Allen lovingly embraces all of these seemingly disparate elements, re-imaging them into something that can only be the work of Woody Allen.

True to form, the opening of Love and Death is a monologue of the main character Boris Grushenko’s (Woody Allen) life growing up in Russia. We meet his family, consisting, by his own estimation, mostly of idiots and eccentrics. Boris eventually becomes a scholar in adulthood, who is more of a coward than pacifist, and is forced to enlist in the Russian army once Napoleon invades Russia. He is devastated to learn that his cousin, with whom he is in love/obsessed with, Sonja (Keaton), is about to marry a herring merchant who he feels is beneath him intellectually speaking. Boris, of course, is a disaster as a soldier, and it is only after accidently falling into a canon then shot into a tent containing a horde of French generals who he inadvertently kills, that he is viewed as a national hero.

Upon returning from battle, Boris pleads with Sonja to marry him. Sonja finally gives into Boris when she thinks he might be killed in a duel. Much to her chagrin, Boris survives, through dumb luck again, and they are married. But their subsequent life together is dull in comparison to the fields of battle. It is also marriage devoid of money. They spend their days contemplating all manner of human existence. Later, convinced that Napoleon’s invasion deeper into Russia will disrupt their attempt at having a family, Sonja and Boris concoct a plot to assassinate Napoleon (James Tolkan).

After an absurd and hilarious series of events leading up to Napoleon’s attempted assassination, Boris and Sonja are unable to go through with their plan, both laboring over the moral impact of killing another human being, even someone like Napoleon. After a long, anguished contemplation, an assassin, hiding in a closet, kills Napoleon. French soldiers happen upon the scene, and assume, naturally, that Boris is the killer and he is hauled off to jail. While awaiting execution in prison an angel arrives claiming that he will save Boris from the firing squad, which has Boris questioning  his own atheism (an Allen hallmark). But when he is executed without interference, Boris is again thrown into a philosophical quandary, even after he is dead.

In many ways Love and Death lays the groundwork of the prolific auteur that would follow. The camera work and lighting is decidedly more artful than his previous films. The warm rich, colors provided by cinematographer Ghislain Cloquetset highlight the elegant set decoration. As a period piece, Love and Death demanded location shooting, which removed Allen from his comfort zone of New York.

Love and Death also marks the beginning of a decade’s long wrestling match with philosophy of all sorts; there had been hints of it here and there, but in this film in particular, Allen embraces his own love/distrust of philosophy fully and completely; matching his predilection for slapstick with more serious pursuits. He’s just starting to get to the meat of the matter and it’s both thrilling and hilarious to watch.

His admiration of Ingmar Bergman, which would manifest as direct homage two films later with Interiors, is alluded to in the ending of Love and Death, albeit a little more playfully with a direct parody of Bergman’s Persona (1966). In the final scene of the film, Allen can no longer avoid the specter of death, and is ushered off into the afterlife by a Grim Reaper that has a close resemblance to the one in the Seventh Seal.

And then there’s Diane Keaton. These early Allen films would have not been the same without her (who could imagine any other person in the role of Annie Hall—well OK, maybe that’s a hard argument to make given that Diane Keaton was the actress, still, it’s difficult to imagine). More than any other actress that has starred opposite of Allen over the years, Keaton is someone who can go toe to toe with Mr. Misanthrope. Keaton’s comedic timing is undeniable and her mannerisms, so distinct, so funny to watch, have been the blueprint for other comedic actresses like Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Meg Ryan (Sally in When Harry Met Sally is a terribly adept homage to Diane Keaton, especially the Keaton of Annie Hall). 

Annie Hall was the film that would put Keaton on the map, and certainly Allen as well, not just as a comedic actor writer and director, but as a more serious, finely honed filmmaker, who’s skills would only continue to flourish, especially with the film that followed Annie Hall, Interiors. But it is Love and Death where they are at their most playful, their most charming. They are exciting to watch as on on-screen comedic couple. As with Burns and Allen or Tracy and Hepburn, the chemistry is undeniable. The dialogue crackles. The pacing is relentless. The script is studded with great lines, gems of every sort: 

Boris: Sonja, are you scared of dying?
Sonja: Scared is the wrong word. I’m frightened of it.
Boris: That’s an interesting distinction. 

And this:

Boris: Nothingness… non-existence… black emptiness…
Sonja: What did you say?
Boris: Oh, I was just planning my future.

Then there’s this wonderful exchange between Napoleon, Boris and Sonja which recalls a Marx Brothers routine:

Napoleon: This is an honor for me.
Boris: No, it’s a greater honor for me.
Napoleon: No, a greater honor for me.
Boris: No, it’s a greater honor for me.
Napoleon: No, a greater honor for ME.
Boris: Well, perhaps you’re right. Perhaps it IS a greater honor for you.
Napoleon: And you must be Don Francisco’s sister.
Sonja: No, you must be Don Francisco’s sister.
Napoleon: No, you must be Don Francisco’s sister.
Sonja: No, you must be Don Francisco’s sister.
Boris: No, it’s a greater honor for me.
Napoleon: I see our Spanish guests have a sense of humor.
Boris: She’s a great kidder.
Sonja: No, you’re a great kidder.
Boris: No, you’re Don Francisco’s sister.

Along the way, there are many discussions about love and life, death and the after life, the nature of reason, Allen and Keaton forever cracking-wise about all of these, sharp one-liners layered upon more sharp one-liners; the effect heady, a dizzy concoction that never lets up, that practically begs for repeated viewings. There’s simply no way to take in all of these verbal and visual gags in one sitting.

Love and Death is a significant film. It is the work of a comedy genius but it also represents a filmmaker on the verge of even greater works of cinema. It is Allen doing his best Bob Hope, but it is also Allen doing his best Bergman, the results totally and utterly his own. It is the culmination of a partnership with Diane Keaton that would result in Annie Hall, that would mark him, finally, as a filmmaker, as an auteur, as someone who could be compared against his heroes Bergman, Fellini and Renoir.

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