Posted by Susan Doll on April 25, 2016
Elvis & Nixon opened over the weekend with little fanfare but with a barrage of unconstructive, ineffectual reviews. Liza Johnson directed this slice-of-Elvis-lore, which chronicles the time that Presley flew to Washington, D.C., on the spur of the moment to meet President Richard Nixon. Their meeting resulted in a famous photo of the two iconic figures shaking hands, which is the most requested image from the National Archives. Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey star as Presley and Nixon.
The movie prompted me to go back to my collection of Presley bios and resources to reexamine the incident. I checked in All Shook Up: Elvis Day by Day, 1954-1977, which is my favorite reference because it objectively and succinctly chronicles Presley’s actions on a day by day basis. I also reread parts of Peter Guralnik’s definitive, two-volume biography. I offer a pared down version of the event here, not to accuse the film of inaccuracy but to provide a proper backstory. On December 19, 1970, after an argument with his family about overspending for Christmas, Elvis boarded a commercial flight in Memphis bound for Washington, D.C. He checked into the Washington Hotel as Jon Burrows, one of his aliases. That night, he boarded a flight to Los Angeles, arriving well after midnight. Jerry Schilling, a former member of Elvis’s Memphis Mafia, met him at the plane with a limo. After dropping off at least two stewardesses, whom Elvis had promised a ride, he and Schilling arrived at Presley’s house on Hillcrest Drive. The following morning, December 20, the pair flew to Washington, D.C., with Elvis using the alias Dr. John Carpenter (his character’s name in his last film, Change of Habit).
Posted by Susan Doll on April 11, 2016
The 18th annual Sarasota Film Festival (SFF) has wrapped, and, as usual, I have mixed feelings about the event. But, I am always glad to attend because of the opportunity to catch indie, foreign, and documentary films that will never be widely released in theaters or touted by reviewers. Some of these titles may find outlets for distribution, but if they don’t get any buzz in the media, viewers will not know to look for them.
Such are the conditions of film exhibition and consumption in America. For example, way too much attention has been paid in the press to that clunker of a comic-book flick that shall remain nameless. The stars worked the talk-show circuit; the film’s opening made the news; and, even its box-office disappointment generated Internet headlines. Meanwhile, I have seen very little buzz for a far superior film, Midnight Special, which premiered at South by Southwest and played opening weekend at SFF. Directed by one of my new favorite filmmakers, Jeff Nichols, this slice of sci fi tells the story of a gifted boy named Alton who is on the lam across the South with his father and a family friend. Alton, who is played by Jaeden Lieberher, knows way too much about secret codes and satellite coordinates, and he has unusual powers that are gradually revealed. Small wonder that various government agencies, who have not lightened up much since E.T., are pursuing them.
Posted by Susan Doll on November 16, 2015
Over the weekend, I participated in a conference called Flickering Landscapes, which was organized by Bruce Janz and Phil Peters of the University of Central Florida. The conference focused on the representation of Florida in film and television as well as the state’s extensive cinema history. Florida is unique in the way that its distinctive landscape has affected the state’s identity and image in popular culture. In addition, tourists, vacationers, and Hollywood image-makers have played a major role in shaping that identity—something native Floridians have learned to live with.
I thought I would share some of the history and ideas that I learned at the conference.
I recently wrote about Florida’s role in early cinema history after I discovered that director George Melford had been part of an effort to launch a film industry in St. Petersburg. (See October 26th post.) I expanded on this piece of Florida history for my part in the conference, and I discussed two other attempts to establish film production on the Gulf Coast. In the mid-1920s, a real estate investor built a beautiful film studio half way between Tampa and Sarasota. Dubbed Sun City, the production center was considered a movie colony, which was supposed to include housing for actors and crew members, a school, a church, a city hall, a power plant, and other facilities necessary to be self-sustaining. The secretary-treasurer of the Sun City Holding Company decided to plat out the streets, pave them, and name them after famous movie stars of the era. He sent maps of Sun City to every Hollywood movie star with a street named after them, hoping they would relocate to Sun City to make films at the new studio. Unfortunately, the land bust caused by rampant real estate speculation destroyed any chance for Sun City to become successful, and the studio never produced a feature film. The only vestiges of this film colony are the town’s streets, which are still named after stars of the 1920s. I am sure current residents have no clue.
I was recently traveling in Oregon, and marveling at what Lewis and Clark must have thought as their years of travel across unknown terrain led them, at last, to such a wonderful and unexpected prize. It is hard in this modern day to find a similar thrill of discovery. The world is too well mapped, too known. It seems very very unlikely that we will ever again experience, on this world at least, the opportunity to find an uncharted island, to discover a new element, to describe a new species. You might as well hope to see a new color.
But, there are such thrills in other avenues of exploration. That is one of the attractions of watching obscure movies—to uncover lost treasures, so see something magical the rest of the world overlooked.
Consider what cult movie audiences in the 1970s and 80s must have thought as they stumbled unawares across the VHS release of Russ Meyer’s 1965 Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill! Here was a thing that was not so old, yet almost throughly forgotten—a low-budget indie film that was at best destined for niche market appeal but which had sunk into oblivion on its initial run. It was so thoroughly drenched in 1960s style (That music! Those fashions!) but also so ahead of its time that we’re still playing catch-up with it. It was somehow sexist and feminist at once, a leering piece of cinematic oogling that also pushed men wholeheartedly away. What happens to a work of male gaze if men aren’t invited to do the gazing? What is the sound of one hand clapping?
Later this week, TCM is screening the 1992 indie drama Just Another Girl on the IRT. I remember very distinctly seeing this on its first run, when I was fresh faced college graduate. It’s an atypical selection for TCM, but I’m glad of it and hope you tune in. But my memories of the film have relatively little to do with its content or quality, both of which have faded in my memory in the intervening 20+ years, and more to do with its role in the then-blossoming American Indie Film scene.
At the time, I was an aspiring filmmaker myself, so I proselytized the story of Just Another Girl and its kindred indie flicks as proof that American cinema was undergoing a revolutionary moment that would throw its doors open to—me, I guess. I was foolish and follhardy on that count, and willfully ignorant of the true meaning behind the success of things like Just Another Girl. Wiser minds tried to get me to see reason, but I refused to learn the lessons until many years later. Only know, with the sober perspective of age, can I look back on that early 1990s American indie scene with objectivity and see what I refused to see back then…
It’s not uncommon for well-established movie directors to return to the scene of the crime, as it were, and revisit old successes. The defining masterpieces of brash young artists get remixed by older artists with a new perspective: Fritz Lang’s M and While the City Sleeps, Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion and The Elusive Corporal, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and Rio Lobo… and then there’s Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Mr. Arkadin.
Both films begin with the death of a Great Man, and ruminate through intersecting circles of flashbacks as an investigator attempts to retroactively recreate that life and understand the man behind the legend. One was a blockbuster triumph that changed movies forever and remains hailed as one of, if not the, greatest films in Hollywood history. The other was a slapdash independent concoction brewed up far from Hollywood’s industrial organization and distributed in a scattershot way as if marketed by ADHD-addled amnesiacs.
Guess which one I prefer :)
Posted by Richard Harland Smith on May 6, 2015
I haven’t been everywhere but I’ve been some places, some pretty good places. At the top of the Eiffel Tower. in the labyrinth of the Dorsodura in Venice, gazing down into the belly of the Coliseum in Rome. idling on Carnaby Street in London and Central Park in New York and meandering without purpose in Amsterdam. I’ve been on a thousand thrill rides and in a thousand carnival fairways and more houses of horrors than churches but I don’t think of them all that often. When my mind wants to go to somewhere special, some place that has value, like treasure, like magic… I find myself in the most mundane of places. With my mother in the supermarket as a kid in the 60s or watching my then-girlfriend/now-wife water plants on the fire escape of her then-apartment on the Upper East Side in the late 90s (a moment that lasted for mere seconds, but which has stayed with me for nearly 20 years), or gazing at the green, green grass of a field somewhere one day in the 70s, or feeling the first breeze of summer come in through the open window of my Yorkville tenement apartment on some anonymous Saturday morning of the New Millennium, a day which holds for me no other memories. I remember colors and smells and far off sounds and what was on the radio that one time and I think it’s this inclination towards favoring sensation over sensational that brings me back to the films of Jim Akin. The LA-based filmmaker’s second feature, THE OCEAN OF HELENA LEE (2015), is having its world premiere at the Egyptian Theatre (under the auspices of the American Cinematheque) in Hollywood on Friday, May 8th, at 7:30pm. [...MORE]
Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide (coming up on TCM on Thursday) is a thing of sunshine and jazz music, set at a seaside amusement park. Instead of assaulting the viewer with gore or violence, Harrington finds suspense in such subtleties as watching a girl eat a fish, and or when she then catches a seagull with her bare hands.
This is still a genre film, mind you–Dennis Hopper plays a sailor who falls in love with a girl who believes herself to be a mermaid–but the casual naturalism of the film seems unrelated to the world of gothic monsters and bug-eyed aliens that characterized horror fare of the early 1960s. If audiences had ever seen anything quite like this before, it would have been in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless—a riff on lowbrow genre elements to provide structure to a film that presents itself as slice-of-life glimpse of a disaffected youth culture. The distributors recognized the affinity, and played it up as a marketing strategy. The press kit sold Night Tide as a “unique American New Wave thriller,” and went on to highlight Harrington’s work in experimental film.
Let’s set aside the incongruity of a movie company trying to sell a teen-oriented horror flick on the basis that it was an arthouse film in the French tradition made by an underground artist. That’s weird, but it’s not even the weirdest aspect of all this.
Posted by Susan Doll on November 17, 2014
As Hollywood continues its love affair with 12-year-old boys, who make up the desired demographic, real movie lovers seek alternatives to the noisy blockbusters that are long on CGI and short on story. Film festivals of all types and sizes have proliferated in the last fifteen years to fill the void created by Hollywood for well-crafted films with an engaging story and three-dimensional characters. I recently attended the Cine-World Film Festival in my adopted hometown of Sarasota, Florida, and I was impressed with the selection of foreign, indie, and documentary films.
Though a small, low-key fest, Cine-World has been a Sarasota fixture for 25 years. Opening day included Mike Leigh’s latest feature Mr. Turner, a biopic of Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner, while the fest closed with Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night starring Marion Cotillard, who redeems herself after slumming in Anchorman 2. Film festivals prove that Hollywood no longer has the lock on feature filmmaking; indeed, studio blockbusters seem like lumbering behemoths compared to the stripped-down indie dramas that do so much with so little. Sadly, a lack of distribution to medium and small markets continues to keep these films from audiences who would doubtless appreciate them.
Posted by Susan Doll on June 2, 2014
I caught only one film at the Sarasota International Film Festival this past April—The Lucky 6, a drama about a group of coworkers who win the lottery. I had a vested interest in watching this film, because it was written, shot, and edited by Ringling College faculty members and students. According to department head Brad Battersby, the Ringling Digital Film department is the first undergraduate cinema program to make a feature film. Though I had nothing to do with the production of The Lucky 6, I felt closely connected to it because many of my students worked in key crew positions, and I watched the film being made last summer. After being behind the scenes during the shooting of several sequences, there was something magical about watching the final version on the big screen in a packed theater. Scenes looked familiar yet registered in a completely new or different way.
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