February 16, 2021

Ruby in Paradise

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Victor Nunez - 1993
Quiver Distribution

Ruby in Paradise opens with a scene of the title character on the road, driving on a two lane highway in Florida. The driver behind her honks his horn for Ruby to drive faster before he gets in front and speeds ahead. Whatever speed Ruby is driving, she has set her own pace as the one she is most comfortable with. Ruby is the creation of writer-director Victor Nunez who has created his own brand of independent filmmaking, modestly budgeted stories of outsiders who call small town Florida as their home.

The film takes place in Panama City, a resort destination along the Northwest panhandle, dependent on the seasonal trade. Coming in during the off-season, Ruby talks her way into working at a large souvenir shop, eventually showing her abilities to the owner. Paradise is how Florida is portrayed for vacationers who might purchase small, plastic framed photos of sunsets and sailboats on the beach. For Ruby, the store chock full of sunglasses, inexpensive beach wear and knick-knacks is another kind of paradise. Ruby is self aware that her current aspirations may be modest, but she plans to make the most of what she has at least until she has a more certain idea of her future.

Seeing the film in light of more recent discussions regarding the #MeToo movement and male sense of entitlement makes the secondary plot of Ruby's relationships with two young men more timely. Ricky, the son of the store owner, uses his flashy appearance and his status as the owner's son to impose himself on the female employees he finds attractive. From Ricky's point of view, there is no reason for Ruby not to maker herself available to him. Ruby later begins a relationship with Mike, an employee at a gardening shop. Mike is the opposite of Ricky - gentlemanly, respectful. At the same time, Ruby eventual tires of his condescending attitude her pleasure in "popcorn" movies, as well as her expressing interest in possibly going to college. Mike tries to position himself as a White Knight for a damsel who is not looking to be saved.

The film has been previously noted for showcasing Ashley Judd, at that time credited with a couple of supporting roles on television plus one small film role. While I have only followed her career sporadically, it seems like Judd only infrequently got the kind of roles that displayed her abilities, usually in independent productions such as The Passion of Darkly Noon and Bug. Judd was 25 at the time she filmed Ruby, but I forgot how young looking she was, especially her face, given a natural appearance.

What has not changed is the notion of work, of how people choose to define themselves, or not, by the jobs they have. At one point, Ruby is temporarily unemployed, finally getting a job at an industrial laundry. For her co-workers, it is the kind of work taken with the idea that it is temporary until the proverbial "something better" comes along. Ruby addresses the reality that people find themselves in jobs that in spite of dreams or aspirations, become permanent, and that people do find ways to cope with work that is routine or has specific physical demands. Ruby in Paradise goes against the grain of most Hollywood films by saying even the most modest of realized goals is still worth celebrating.

Ruby in Paradise is available in HD through multiple home platforms.

February 12, 2021

Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodrigquez

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Susan Stern - 2021
Bernal Beach Films

There is a famous scene in the film The Wild One (1953) where a young woman asks the leader of the outlaw motorcycle gang, "What are you rebelling against, Johnny?" Johnny, played by Marlon Brando, responds, "Whaddaya got?". Even though that film is never mentioned, the scene encapsulates the life of Spain Rodriguez, who was also part of a motorcycle gang prior to his establishing himself as an underground comic artist.

Another film that appears influential, is High School Confidential (1958). Rodriguez is first seen in Susan Stern's documentary singing the title song by Jerry Lee Lewis. The film simultaneous condemns and celebrates juvenile delinquency, beatniks, anarchy and general bad behavior. Lewis was famous for his wild performances, preserved with his performance of the title song in the film's opening credit sequence.

While most of Ms. Stern's film is about Spain Rodriguez (1940 - 2012), it is also covers some of the history of underground comics and the cultural changes that took place in the late 1960s through 1970s. Rodriguez's first act of rebellion was to change his first name as a teen from Manuel to Spain, a response to the ethnic divisions in his working class Buffalo, New York neighborhood, honoring his Spanish heritage. Rodriquez's life and art has been marked by questioning of politics, art and culture. The artist himself is acknowledged to be self-contradictory in his art and life, the macho creator of transgressive images who also was the supportive domestic partner doing his share of the housework.

Part of this documentary puts in context how the underground comics were created as a response to the censoring of comic books in the mid 1950s. My own familiarity with these comics was when a friend introduced me to his collection of Zap Comix in 1969, as college freshmen. A couple years later, in a course on mass media, a teacher directed to reading Fredric Wertham's book, Seduction of the Innocent (1954), a study blaming comic books on juvenile delinquency that was extremely influential at the time. That book as since been academically repudiated due to questions regarding Wertham's actual research.

Of the various talking heads discussing Rodriguez and his work, the most interesting are his comic artist peers. That would include R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Trina Robbins. The film ends with Rodriguez's work on exhibit at a Buffalo art gallery, coinciding with his las month prior to death from cancer. That there was this formal display of the comics, posters and illustrations marked a kind of circular journey from the city Spain Rodriguez loved, but also had to leave to fully realize himself.

Bad Attitude can currently be seen at the virtual Slamdance Film Festival.

February 09, 2021

So Evil, My Love

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Lewis Allen - 1946
KL Studio Classics

One of the problems with Andrew Sarris' book The American Cinema is that for unknown reasons several film directors do not rate any paragraph or even a sentence. One might mistakenly believe it is because the director in question may have any films worth seeing. While I have no explanations for their omission, Mark Sandrich and John Farrow are, if not necessarily auteurs, more than capable craftsmen. Lewis is listed in Sarris' Directorial Chronology, but only for the year 1944, with his debut The Uninvited and Our Hearts were Young and Gay. Prior to seeing, So Evil, My Love, I dived as deeply as I could into the filmography of Lewis Allen. Only about half a dozen of Allen's films are currently available either on home video or streaming. Based on those few films seen, Lewis Allen should be, as Sarris would put it, a subject for further research.

Not that this is found in all of Allen's works, but there is a streak of darkness that is noticeable in several films. This is more obvious in the low budget thrillers of the early Fifties - Appointment with Danger, A Bullet for Joey, Illegal and Suddenly. Each of these films is populated by a sociopath in an unforgiving world. It does not take too long to recognize the characters as such. In So Evil, My Love, Lewis takes his time, like peeling the skin off of an onion, to reveal the depths of Ray Milland's character, Mark Bellis. Taking place near the end of the 19th Century, Bellis is introduced as a malaria stricken passenger on a boat bound from Jamaica to England. He is cured by Olivia Harwood, a missionary's widow. There are indications that Bellis is on the lam for some unnamed crime(s). Ingratiating himself, Bellis becomes Olivia's boarder, then lover. A failed artist turned art thief, Bellis convinces Olivia to participate in a blackmail scheme. Olivia sets aside her scruples in the name of love. Bellis pours on the charm, but the camera shows Milland's smile to be more of a devllish grin. Within the constraints of the production code, Olivia's actions take an exceedingly dark turn.

The blu-ray contains a commentary track by Imogen Sara Smith. There are only a handful of film scholars consistent in being totally prepared in their presentations and fully informative, and Ms. Smith is one of the best. Much of her commentary is devoted to the historical background of the story, and putting the film into the context of both the genre of gaslight noir and the years, mostly the 1940s, when these films were made. What is referred to here are those films, most notably Gaslight (1940 and the more famous 1944 remake), Hangover Square, and this film, all usually taking place around the late Victorian era in England. Where I would disagree with Ms. Smith is that there is a consistency in the dramatic films directed by Lewis Allen. While the director may have related much of his work as assignments, it seems more than coincidental that when his most transgressive characters die in several films, the world is revealed as cruel in death to those inhumane in life.

This production marked Allen's return to England, where he was born and began his stage career. The cast is all British with Ann Todd as Olivia Harwood and Geraldine Fitzgerald as the friend duped into being a victim of the blackmail scheme. Milland is so ingrained as a Hollywood star that it is easy to forget he was actually Welsh born. Ann Todd's relatively brief stardom is curious as her career peaked when she was hitting 40, with Hitchcock's The Paradine Case (1947) and her three films with then-husband David Lean. One of the more recognizable cast members is Leo G. Carroll, with a bushy mustache, as a private detective with the goods on Bellis and Olivia. So Evil, My Love was a box office disappointment at the time of release. New York Times critic, Bosley Crowthers, complained about the film's "tempting but trivial details". Critical reception towards the film has risen more recently. After seeing several of his films, a general reappraisal of Lewis Allen would also seem in order.

February 02, 2021

The Hills Run Red

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Un Fiume di dollari
Carlo Lizzani - 1966
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

The original Italian title translates as "A River of Dollars". At a time when Sergio Leone's first two collaborations with Clint Eastwood were successful in Europe, but as yet to get released in the U.S., producer Dino De Laurentiis tried to mimic the formula with both a similar title and the casting of an expatriate American actor as a star. Even though Carlo Lizzani had previously made his one other western, Requiescant under his name, this time some of the conventions of giving American sounding names too place with Lizzani credited as Lee W. Beaver, screenwriter Piero Regnoli as Dean Craig, and composter Ennio Morricone as Leo Nichols. The Hills Run Red was released in Italy in September 1966, but not screened in the U.S. until November 1967 when the popularity of Leone's films ushered in a flood of Italian westerns.

There is a double-cross involving a missing cache of $600,000 dollars transported by two rebel soldiers during the Civil War. One of the men is caught by Union soldiers and imprisoned for five years. Discovering his wife has died and his young son is missing, he seeks revenge on his former partner. Unexpected help comes in the form of an old codger with his own hidden agenda. Unlike Requiescant, or many of Lizzani's other films for that matter, there is no obvious political reading here. The closest Hills comes to thematically resembling Lizzani's work is in the corrupting influence of money, especially of conspicuous wealth.

Both of Lizzani's westerns do take on the basic narrative that appeared in several Hollywood westerns of the Fifties of the outsider who takes on the capitalist who owns a small town. Several Italian filmmakers were politically engaged as a result the schisms in Italian life during World War II as well as entering the film industry during the era of Neorealism. It may be more than coincidental that both of Lizzani's westerns take place in the American Southwest within a few years following the Civil War.

There are a couple of visual moments worthy attention. When the putative hero, Jerry Brewster, returns to his home, it is revealed to be a long abandoned cabin. The dusty interior is entirely gray. While he reads a letter from his late wife, the voiceover shifts to the voice of the wife, while the camera moves left, revealing an empty cradle, an open birdcage and a dust covered portrait. The voiceover shifts back to Brewster as he steps back into the camera frame. Later, during an outdoor square dance, Brewster causes a herd of horse to stampede out of a corral. Lizzani films several of the characters caught in the confusion in close-ups of their faces, while the horses running in front of them are large blurs. There are extensive close-ups throughout the film, the most given to almost operatic Henry Silva.

Reportedly a chance meeting with De Laurentiis propelled Thomas Hunter from a small supporting role in Blake Edwards' What Did You do in the War, Daddy? to top billing in what was only his second feature appearance. Perpetually unshaven, quick on the draw, Hunter is histrionic where Clint Eastwood would keep his emotions in check. Henry Silva's villainous henchman is sometimes a bit more broad than necessary but for the most part works within this film. Perpetual onscreen slimeball, Dan Duryea, is a good guy here, not immediately recognizable with a mustache, still using his established relaxed demeanor though not for ill-purposes. The blu-ray only has the English language track with the American stars dubbing their own voices.

There is a bit of unintended connectivity following the production of this film. As mentioned in Mike Peros' biography of Dan Duryea, The Hills Run Red was planned with Burt Reynolds in the lead role. Reynold's replacement, Thomas Hunter, also appeared in an episode of Reynold's short lived detective television series, Hawk, also in 1966.

Alex Cox provided the commentary track. Cox also wrote about The Hills Run Red in his his book on Italian westerns. He points out how the basic story resembles that of Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks. Unlike the bulk of Italian westerns which were filmed in Spain as international coproductions, The Hills Run Red was entirely filmed near Rome at De Laurentiis' studio and western set known as Dinocitta. Cox offers brief information on the main cast and crew members. The source print appears quite good, with some of the abrupt fade-outs being part of the original film with its relatively short running time just under ninety minutes. Another reminder that not every Italian western worth seeing was directed by someone named Sergio.

January 26, 2021

Just Don't Think I'll Scream

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Ne croyez surtout pas que je hurle
Frank Beauvais - 2019
KimStim Films

There was no way that Frank Beauvais would have anticipated that a segment of his life would find itself repeated, with variations by millions of people a few years later. The French documentary filmmaker and music consultant had broken up with his partner of the time, leaving Paris for a small, remote town in Alsace in 2016. For part of his half year, he virtually isolated himself and watched four hundred films. What we see is primarily a montage of clips from those films with Beauvais reflecting on his life at that time, his relationships with friends and family, as well as thoughts on the state of the world at that time and life in a village he regarded as alien.

Having "sheltering-in-place" for almost a year, I can not help but be struck personally by what it means to be living alone, having limited contact with the outside world in person, and of course having the time to watch movies, binge if you like. Yes, the circumstances are different. But I was reminded indirectly of my own situation of living in a condo where for the past several months I have occasionally heard, but not seen, one of my next door neighbors. Unlike Beauvais who watched some films with his father, the closest I come to at this time is watching certain streamed films on the day of release or immediately after, and discussing them on Facebook.

As part of the end credits, we see a list of all the films which had excerpts. Many classic French films, some Hollywood films, a few from Asia, and a host of obscurities are listed. A good number of the titles are films I have seen. Some of the films are also familiar to the more casual filmgoer. But there is a visual choice that Beauvais makes in keeping with the sense of disconnection with the world. With the exception of a couple of brief shots, we never see full faces. The shots used include close-ups of eyes, hands and arms, legs, or the camera placed behind the actor(s). It comes as a shock to check that credit list, knowing that without a single, full face, there were clips from personally familiar films like The Age of Innocence and Torso.

Beauvais has subverted the montage documentary as we have usually known it. Even if we think of the world in terms of landscapes or urban environments with anonymous people, memory of cinema, at least narrative cinema, is primarily dependent on the face of the actor. Not that you have to necessarily know who the actor is, but more so actor's function within the story. An example of one of the shots is of an actor lying on a beach, his face away from the camera. A pair of women's legs walks into the shot. And I am sure that the clip is from a film I have seen before. Which raises another question: is it important to know the source of those film clips?

Beauvais discussed the unusual way his film was developed and why he made certain choices in this Filmmaker magazine interview.

January 21, 2021

Six in Paris

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Paris vu par . . .
Douchet, Rouch, Pollet, Rohmer, Godard, Chabrol - 1965
Icarus Films Home Video DVD Region 1

This newly issued DVD is sourced from the 2K restoration. I do not have any information regarding the restoration, but the film, comprised of six shorts, were originally filmed in 16mm and blown up to 35mm for the theatrical release. Following the production of two short films written and directed by Eric Rohmer, producer Barbet Schroeder enlisted Rohmer and five other filmmakers to each make a short film that was loosely centered on a different section of the city. The original French title, which translates as "Paris seen by . . ." may be more indicative of how each short film is different from each other, not only in the choice of locations but in the kind of stories told. Each of the shorts is about fifteen minutes long, mostly using relatively unknown actors. The two big exceptions are Jean-Luc Godard's film which features Joanna Shimkus, just a couple years before her brief stardom in the late Sixties through 1972, and Claude Chabrol's film starring himself and then wife Stephane Audran. Those who have followed French cinema of the Nouvelle Vague will recognize several of the behind the camera credits.

What unifies the films appears to be a kind of ambivalence about Paris. This would be the feeling where "in spite of" is sometimes the same as "because of". Perhaps this is because this is the work of people who have lived in Paris for years and are not providing the tourist's "City of Lights" romantic Paris. Instead, there is an almost constant sense of claustrophobia, tiny apartments, crowded streets, a lack of privacy. Even the middle class apartment with separate rooms in Chabrol's film seems cramped with its very narrow staircase. In Rohmer's film, his protagonist can not avoid bumping into people or being bumped into while on the sidewalk or riding the metro. While some of the Paris of fifty-five years ago is still here, the films are more revealing of the filmmakers rather than the city.

The two least known filmmakers here, Jean Douchet and Jean-Daniel Pollet, both have had careers making documentaries and short films. Douchet's story is of an American student who discovers following a one night stand that her lover is not who he appears to be. Pollet has a gently comic story of a very shy, sexually inexperienced young man spending a chaste evening with an older prostitute. The documentarian, Jean Rouch, has the most serious work here, of a young married woman who walks out on her husband following a quarrel at breakfast. A chance meeting with the driver of a car that has almost hit evolves into an extended conversation about love and the choices one makes. The Rouch film is visually the most interesting, using many long takes, and with the hand-held camera following actress Nadine Ballot as she leaves her apartment, goes down an elevator and into the street on her way to work.

Eric Rohmer had yet to establish his reputation as a filmmaker at the time he made what was his third short. His haberdasher is the perpetual victim of unintended slights and small accidents that comprise a career in customer service and life in a big city. Godard's story of a young woman who thinks she sent wrong letter to the wrong lover and then tries to fix the error is slight, but it is thematically consistent with some of Godard's features with characters who end up outguessing and ultimately undermining themselves. Claude Chabrol's entry is unsurprisingly the most polished of the six. A boy gets ear plugs to block out the voices of his parents' arguments. Chabrol plays with sound with part of the film silent as the boy is in his study, cutting to the verbal jousting of the parents. The noise blocking turns out to have unintended consequences.

Especially as this is in no way the classic, romantic presentation of Paris, the more casual film viewer may wonder what the fuss is all about. The more serious cinephile will take pleasure in the renewed availability of Six in Paris, particularly in what have become early works by three filmmakers who continued working into our current century.

January 12, 2021

Up Country

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Lucas McNelly - 2021
DPress Productions

Before discussing the film, I need to mention that Lucas McNelly and I are acquainted with each other from our blogging activities over the past decade and a half.

In McNelly's film, three men who appear to be in their late twenties are first seen as passengers in a gray sports utility vehicle. An older man has driven them to an unmarked location near some woods. The four walk through what may be a restricted area, through the woods, past some rail tracks, to a stream. The three men awkwardly make their way while carrying their fishing rods. The guide easily walks through his path easily. When the three get to the stream, they are absorbed in joking with each other that they do not notice the guide silently walking away.

The three men can not really be described as friends. John, who organized the trip has invited Mark, his brother-in-law, and Paul, a tax attorney whom John hopes will provide him with some professional help. They know each other in that one might describe as a business acquaintance. John, Mark and Paul have gone fishing, but with the guide gone, they have become the proverbial fish out of water, trying to find their way back. Even before they find themselves lost, their situation is anticipated by their unease in navigating their way following the guide and the walk to the stream which seems to take an unusually long time.

The film carries with it some similarities to Deliverance, albeit more intimate and stripped down. There are a couple of moments that are uncanny. Parts of the narrative includes ellipses which add to the discomforting conclusion, and ending that may frustrate those who demand full explanations for what has been seen or even not seen.

Certainly I would encourage would-be filmmakers to take a look at Up Country. This is a micro budget film, reportedly $4000.00, almost completely shot in the woods of Maine with the exception of an interior shot in a cabin and some shots inside the gray SUV. The film neither looks nor sounds cheap. There are some nice nature shots of the environment, including shots of a caterpillar and a small frog. McNelly is comfortable with filming an extended static shot of John walking away from the camera, on the bumpy and jagged path, the camera impassively observing him as he walks further away from view. Sometimes the most interesting way to be cinematic is also the simplest.