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by Bill Gibron

5 Dec 2007


What is it about the Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy that causes so much critical consternation? In some corners, the films are viewed in the proper perspective - wildly entertaining blockbusters that push the limits of spectacle and scope. In other, more perplexing views, they are unsatisfactory stink bombs, poster children for studio excess, superstar hubris, and clueless directorial overindulgence. No matter that the movies have made scads of dough - this is just the lemming like reaction to clever marketing and a manic mob mentality. Dollars do not equal aesthetics. Yet the questioning of their popularity remains. It couldn’t possible have anything to do with the films actually being good - or dare it be said, great.

But indeed they are great. With the arrival on DVD of the third (and for now, final) installment in the series, it’s interesting to look back and see where the franchise originated, and how it came to transcend the House of Mouse’s misguided merchandising scheme. It all started with the atrocious Country Bears. Disney, desperate to trade on any element of its legacy it could, decided that the next great source of motion picture magic was its well known theme park attractions. With their profile and popularity, even a lousy big screen translation was bound to generate some much needed revenue. Sadly, two of the three proposed projects were incredibly lame. After Bears’ baffling combination of live action and actors in clumsy costumes, and Eddie Murphy’s inadvertent homage to Mantan Moreland, The Haunted Mansion, no one could envision the next installment salvaging the strategy.

It had an unproven cast. The director was, at the time, best known for his commercial kiddie film Mousehunt and the hit horror film The Ring. And then there was the subject - the cinematic scourge known as pirates. The last time anyone attempted to resurrect the buccaneer, auteur Roman Polanski was helming the biggest bomb of his career. Disney apparently didn’t learn the lessons from that undeniable disaster. Yet they weren’t the first to revisit the scallywag storyline. In fact, Renny Harlin also ruined his vocational options - and his marriage - with the Geena Davis clunker Cutthroat Island. Still, Uncle Walt’s cronies persevered, They placed idiosyncratic actor Johnny Depp in the lead, surrounded him with dozens of known British talents, and took the entire company to the Virgin Islands. There, on a fully refurbished boat, the same old peg legged clichés were measured out, circling a story about ancient superstitions laced with post-modern irony.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was the result, and for many, it remains the best movie of the entire trilogy. Since it started life as a single entity, not the foundation for an actual franchise, the completeness of the narrative is hard to overlook. Depp’s brilliant turn as Captain Jack Sparrow started an outright cult, and when viewed in retrospect, it’s hard to see anyone else in the role. Still, it was a risk for producer Jerry Bruckheimer to hire the star. He was mostly known for his unusual choices in roles, not for bringing audiences through the turnstiles. Still, Depp’s dandified dance with the material made Curse of the Black Pearl commercial, and indicated the need for another installment in the series.


There are other elements worth noting in the first film, facets that reinforce its claim to classicism. The entire subplot involving Barboosa and his undead crew brought new life to an old genre, and Verbinski’s visual flair found untold tricks within the tired material. When one sees the shot of skeletal bandits crossing the ocean floor on foot, the novelty of such a sequence reinvigorates a dormant fantasy fan’s aching aesthetic. Indeed, everything about Curse of the Black Pearl was built on the old school designs of the original popcorn movie mavens. It’s Jaws jammed into Star Wars, with just a sprinkling of CGI spice on top.

The second installment, subtitled Dead Man’s Chest, tried to trump the evocative nature of the first film, and for the most part, it succeeded. Created simultaneously with the third episode (At World’s End), it marked a decision by Disney to go the bigger, badder, and broader route with the series. Everything here is larger than life - the swordfights (actors Orlando Bloom and Jack Davenport have an actual standoff on top of a rotating mill wheel - as it travels through a jungle thicket. Really.), the situations, and the fatal consequences for all involved. Verbinski shows his true skills here, producing action that rivals the work of his obvious heroes (Spielberg and Lucas). Yet he also handles the smaller moments with grace and gravitas.

The masterstrokes of using Davy Jones, his ocean life encrusted crew, the haunted Flying Dutchman, and the mysterious allure of the sea may have mimicked the original’s villainous monster’s format, but the director tried to turn the combination of acting and artful effects into something almost tragic. Thanks to Bill Nighy’s marvelous performance as Jones, as well as the numerous storyline sidesteps the film provided (the ship-killing Kraken was also amazing in 35mm), made the movie one of 2006’s finest. It also mandated a finalizing piece, a movie that would make everything that came before seem small and insignificant. At World’s End became that necessary knock out blow.

Unlike the other Pirates films, At World’s End feels the most segmented. It has to deal with so many issues, so many characters, and so many arc endings, that it can’t help but appear partitioned. But when the pieces add up to something this satisfying, the knotty narrative devices speak for themselves. Sure, Keira Knightley is a tad shrewish, and Chow-Yun Fat is fine for what is mostly a cameo clip, but who cares. The epic battle in the middle of revived goddess Calypso’s maelstrom stands as one of the most amazing works of visual wizardry ever captured on film. Even better, Verbinski constantly keeps his creativity front and center. Why have a last stand showdown between Captain Sparrow and Jones on the deck of the ship when the same fight along the top rail of the Dutchman’s main mast would do nicely. Why simply repeat the same crustacean crew from Part 2? Why not add in a few new seafood scumbags into the mix?

There’s also a real emotional center this time around. Since we believe this will be the last time we ever see the Pirates crew, we lament the loss of favored personalities, and relish the destruction of the antagonists. When our heroes are in harms way, we fear for their safety, and we understand the doomed dynamic facing some of our most treasured icons. In fact, when the storm has cleared and the dead are left to travel to the underworld, At World’s End seems to stutter, if just by the smallest bit. Instead of ending on a note of defiance or depth, we get cute callbacks that tend to indicate a studio-mandated desire for future installments. If the high standards of the first three films are maintained, it’s hard to envision Disney stopping here.

Still, some will complain at length about these otherwise excellent films - and it could be a literal matter of viewpoint. No matter the set up, no matter the expensive technical traits, these films really weren’t meant for DVD. Their scale is so seismic, so completely off the cinematic charts that to try and rein them in via a home theater package is nothing short of a fool’s paradise. Trying to appreciate the slow motion descent of Lord Beckett in the middle of his ship’s destruction, or the amazing moment when we follow the Flying Dutchman down into the murky depths from a distinct POV on such a limited scale could affect anyone’s judgment. Then again, some people just hate these masterful movies for no discernible reasons but their own. It’s their opinion and their entitled to it. Time will probably alter their otherwise informed judgment.

Indeed, one can easily see the Pirates of the Caribbean films become the seafaring Star Wars for an entire generation. Like Lucas’ beloved space opera, these outsized extravaganzas with their mixture of comedy, mythos and stunt spectacle could function as the inspiration for a thousand messagaboard debates, and an entire online legacy. Thanks to the Internet, one could envision this happening sooner than later. Indeed, for some, it’s already begun. The Depp contingent have become obsessive, seeking out any and all information they can about their fated star, and minor characters like Marty and the ditzy duo of Ragetti and Pintel have their own honored corp. It’s clear that these movies have made an impact that transcends their viability as populist motion pictures. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise stands as stellar cinema. It should be celebrated as such.

by Bill Gibron

3 Dec 2007


For the most part, exploitation films of the ‘50s-‘70s sold their wanton wares with the usual raincoat crowd components: skin and sin. Your typical overworked white male, bloated from a capitalist combination of liquor, beef, and shame, didn’t require subtlety or cinematic shadings in his erotic entertainment. He wanted bare bodkin and plenty of it.

Violence was also a viable way of getting the grindhouse gang in the mood, since beating a broad for no damn good reason apparently aided the sexual inadequate suburbanite in dealing with his depressed, defensive deviance. Yet, believe it or not, music was also used as a way to spike the common corporeal cavalcade. As part of the genre’s cracked kitchen sink approach, anything was fair game: even the occasionally off-key pop song.

Sometimes, the inclusion of a tainted tune was done as a favor to a friend. Musicians — or their mafia-backed managers — usually had some investable money lying around, and for a little quid pro quo, a play-for-pay scenario was neatly arranged. In other instances, the music was treated as added production value. Many exploitation films could not manage true mainstream talent (no known celebrity was going to go gratuitous for the sake of a slim payday), so bolstering the soundtrack seemed like an ingenious way to make the movie more conventional than its otherwise carnal attributes would indicate. And then there were those nutty outsider auteurs who believed that any narrative facet they fancied — including a totally inappropriate musical number — was par for the perplexing course.

As a result, a great many of the classics in the exploitation genre contain misguided musical numbers; songs guaranteed to get both your toes tapping and your gag reflex responding with equal aplomb. Since there are so many examples to choose from, SE&L will concentrate on the crème de la crap, the evil earworms that, once heard, are destined to dull your brain forever. In reverse order, we begin with:

#10: “Do the Jellyfish” from Sting of Death (1965)
How do you perk up your lackadaisical monster movie about a killer invertebrate? Why, call on a washed-up Neil Sedaka and enlist him in creating the latest dance craze. Director William Grefé was no dummy. He was well aware that the same drive-in demographic that would flock to his passion pit-proof production about murderous man-of-wars also loved that rebellious rock and/or roll, and he set about adding the necessary stomp to his otherwise worthless schlock. Unfortunately, Neil was yet to have “Love Will Keep Us Together” or “Bad Blood” in his sonic arsenal. Instead he dreamed up this obnoxious poolside production number that hoped to rival the ‘Monkey’. Sadly, it made ‘The Freddie’ seem graceful.

#9: “The Next Time” from Blast-Off Girls (1967)
Herschell Gordon Lewis suffered from a similar sense of salesmanship as his fellow filmmaker Grefé. While crafting this obvious rip-off to a certain Fab Four’s ‘difficult day’s evening’, someone should have told the exploitation emeritus that his featured act should actually be able to sing and play. The Faded Blue, a kind of New Christie Minstrels on cough syrup, appeared as the The Big Blast, and they tried to pass off the failed four-part harmony of this disturbing drone as a solid Summer of Love hit. It didn’t work. Not even a cameo from Colonel Harlan Sanders himself could sell this finger-licking flop.

#8: “Yipe Stripes!” from Teen-Age Strangler (1968)
A killer is stalking the adolescents from a local high school. So what do they all do to keep themselves safe? Why, they gather around the local soda shop and watch a barefooted bimbo (Stacey Smith) shout out a song about vertical (or horizontal) lines. Though the movie is far more memorable for a nutzoid nerd named Mikey who keeps whining incessantly over his brother’s felonious fate, this otherwise minor musical moment was a nice bit of additional aural apocalypse. After likening herself to The Beatles and Peter, Paul and Mary, our bee-hived babe climbed on the food counter and attempted to wail a wacky salute to style. All we got was a rockabilly retread that should have been defense enough to any killer’s homicidal urges.

#7: “It All Comes True” from Year of the Yahoo (1972)
It’s really tough to pick just one song from Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Face in the Crowd rip-off, what with real life professional hick harmonizer Claude King supplying the plentiful in-concert cornpone. While his ode to “Wicked Welfare” was a hilarious hambone anthem, this epic bit of balladry as balderdash won out in the end. As he learned the truth about the political machine manipulation behind his ‘honest man’ Senatorial candidacy, King stepped up to the podium for one last impassioned plea to the electorate. Like “Cat’s in the Cradle” cooked in corn squeezings, this drippy ditty was the very definition of democracy in action. Our hero lost the vote, proving that the system does work.

#6: “The Female (is More Deadly Than the Male)” from Satan in High Heels (1962)
When a cut-rate carnival stripper steals her junkie husband’s financial stash and flakes off to New York, one envisions a typical, tragic hard luck story. But it’s the Big Apple that better get ready to run. Stacey Kane gave new meaning to the word ‘bitch’. She apparently studied at Beelzebub’s Studio for Method Meanness. After gaining employment as a nightclub singer, she proceeded to undermine the entire establishment. When she wasn’t bedding her boss, she was teasing his tripwire son (poor lesbian manager Pepé didn’t even get a second look). As if to accentuate her wickedness, Ms. Kane put on a schoolmarm’s version of dominatrix gear and belted out the aforementioned admonishment. The riding crop rim shots seal the sonic scourging.

#5 “My Birthday Suit” from Jennie: Wife/Child (1968)
Remember that obnoxious novelty song “Shaving Cream”, with its “almost said ‘shit’” conceit? Well, “My Birthday Suit” was a lot like that fecal fluke, except not quite as clever… nor as intelligent in its humor, either. Director James Landis had to find a way to jazz-up his otherwise ordinary Southern Gothic about a miserable old farmer, his far too young bride, and the brawny hired hand giving them both the big eye. His solution was simple: allow the audience to hear the internal monologue of the characters, and capture said thoughts in song! Thus we get this noxious nod to nudity. And what compelled our title character to sing this silly chantey? Why, she was skinny-dipping, of course.

#4: “Hot Nuts” from Too Hot to Handle (1950)
Granted, it wasn’t an outright original. It was as basic Burly-Q as they came. But that doesn’t mean the song is any less memorable. Since it was a full blown theatrical review captured by a single camera situated in the front row, Too Hot to Handle had to rely on it’s performers to provide the thrills. And aside from the plethora of pulchritude presented by the strip tease “artists” (ah, the good old days of aesthetically acceptable clothes removal) we got the fantastic Jean Carter, doing her best innuendo-filled funny business. Like a less rude Rusty Warren, Ms. Carter crooned a personal testament to the audience’s trouble with enflamed filberts… piqued pecans… charred cashews…burning balls, all right — and the results were resplendently risqué.

#3: “My Own Robot” from Swamp of the Ravens (1974)
Similar to how Grefé decided that his horror needed some hummable hokiness, Spanish moviemaker Manuel Caño realized that his zombie-filled necrophilia fest also required a little show tune support. The result was a subplot revolving around a Don Ho-like lounge singer, whose sole big hit was apparently a piece of pop poetry about worshipping a deceased automaton. And in case anyone thinks something was lost in the film’s eventual translation into English, the android was right on stage with him. It even sang a solo verse! So Caño clearly intended it to be some sort of mangled metaphor. He even insertsed an experimentation scene, complete with bloody beating heart, inside this otherwise cheery supper club sonnet about the dangers of loving technology a little too much.

#2: “You Can’t Fart Around with Love” from Roseland (1970)
One of the rare occasions where a song was seminal to the storyline, this ode to the odiferous nature of affection represented a pivotal plot point in Roseland. As our hero, a self absorbed singer with a one time promising career, sought LSD treatments for his poverty-row porn addiction, we flashback to the event that mangled his entire upward mobility. Appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show (quasi-convincingly realized in memory-enhancing monochrome), our crooner created quite a stir with his production number to poots. While the rest of the film was a flesh-filled freak-out with rampant religious overtones, this single song made this problematic parable a genuine grindhouse gem.

#1: “A Heart Dies Every Minute” from Doctor Gore (1973)
Nothing says rampant, bloody vivisection better than a bearded Roy Clark wannabe busting out a ballad belaboring the loss of a lover. Like Bigfoot with near perfect pitch, our meaty mountain of a musician, otherwise known as the beefy Bill Hicks, took us away from the sinister slaughter of the title character to remind us how affection is like a fatal itching in the blood pumper. Director J.G. Patterson, Jr., a one-time production assistant to Herschell Gordon Lewis, decided to make his own gore epic about a madman medico hoping to create the perfect woman. As he went about removing the necessary parts for his mistress mock-up, Hicks delivered a steakhouse performance worth witnessing over and over again. Even our title character agreed. It’s the music he listened to while preparing for a date… with the electric chair!

by Bill Gibron

28 Nov 2007


In Wednesday’s overview, we discussed the majesty that is the Damon Packard canon. In one ever-evolving oeuvre is insight into one man’s soul, his heart, and his intellectualized infatuation with the media that made up the filmstrip of his life. Yet without access to this material, without seeing it firsthand, it is possible to remain skeptical of Packard’s presumptive perfection. Besides, anyone who really wants to get into the inner workings of this hotwired savant needs to find themselves lost in his rampant cinematic collages. Therefore, these mini-reviews of his most meaningful movies (and short film collections) will hopefully provide perspective into one of the leading avant-garde archivists working in film. It will also argue for Packard’s place among the unsung greats in a cultural category that mistakes popularity with aesthetic success. These amazing works will never be erroneously viewed as popcorn fare. Equally important, the dull as a dirge Hollywood hit factory will never be favorably compared to art. Packard, however, can claim an inventive, near timeless air.

Anyone interested in purchasing these fantastic cinematic masterworks can contact Packard via his MySpace Page, or go to the official rating: 10]

It stands as a singular work, a piece of art so carefully conceived and executed that even in two distinctly different versions it’s a solid cinematic masterpiece. Packard poured his life into this unhinged honorarium - every movie obsession, ever TV touchstone, every film-based fantasy that found its way into the director’s internal diorama. Pasted into it was an equally shocking view of life living in LA, a narrative of daily street strut hard knocks that turned the frequent flashbacks in on themselves. Toss in the clear cult dimensions of Packard’s preoccupation with Stephen Spielberg (the original cut has an extended sequences inside the infamous ET ride at Universal Studios) and a weird sense of self-loathing (though already chubby, Packard plays himself as a fake padded elephantine presence) and you’ve got a package perfect for a think tank of therapists to study and speculate over. Naturally, this is nothing more than the filmmakers own take on the typical ABC Movie of the Week material - lost ghost gal running aimlessly through ethereal post-modern architecture - but with everything else he includes in the mix, Reflections of Evil becomes an amazing manifestation of the new millennial malaise.

Still there are those who can’t stand this seemingly self-indulgent mess. They view Packard as an aimless wannabe whose fan boy fascinations get the geeks all hot and bothered. Sadly, such criticism misses the major point. A film like Reflections of Evil is akin to jazz - it’s not the narrative notes that Packard is hitting on, it’s the remaining cinematic beats he’s purposely avoiding that are important. Like David Lynch’s sometimes indecipherable dream logic, this is one auteur that sees the rules not as a restriction, but as a way of rationalizing his otherwise outsized vision. Reflections of Evil is great because it takes risks, defies expectations, blatantly confronts apprehension, and demands that you pay attention. It’s not confusing on purpose - it’s complex because it can be. Without studios mandating demographically friendly edits or staid script streamlining, Packard is free to indulge in the kind of improvisational, atmospheric mise-en-scene that all of cinema is supposedly built around. He’s not producing commerce - he’s creating canvases. Most geniuses don’t get recognized in their own lifetime. Thanks to DVD, Packard may bypass that artificial fame claim all together.

The Untitled Star Wars Mockumentary (2003)[rating: 9]

Purists prefer to think of George Lucas as a magnanimous despot, the uber unpretentious overlord of an empire built upon nothing more than good time entertainment spectacle and a USC education. So what if his Star Wars is nothing more than a collection of horse opera clichés strung together with Akira Kurosawa clarity and a devotion to dopey ‘30s serials? They never hurt anyone, and generations grew up on their motion controlled imagination. But Packard knows better. He understands that deep inside the Skywalker family legacy is a lot of loose Lucas family ends, shortcomings and dysfunctional talking points that eventually led to the less than meaningful prequels. The Untitled Star Wars Mockumentary uses DVD material from the Phantom Menace/Attack of the Clones release, as well as other making-of memorabilia, to forge a critical vision of Lucas as completely out of touch with cinematic reality. Workers are depicted using porn voiceover groans to emulate character concerns, their leader lovingly oblivious to the XXX footage flashing before his bearded puss. Crappy effects are celebrated, ridiculous psycho-speak (reminiscent of Alan Alda’s dissertation on comedy from Crimes and Misdemeanors) used to refer to narrative mythology and art design.

Of course, almost all of this material is faked - Packard imposing his own crafted comedy onto the otherwise typical EPK tenets of the standard DVD featurette. Lucas doesn’t come off cruel so much as clueless, a doddering old dofus who still thinks model spaceships and CGI creatures can successfully replace the movie magic of imagination, invention, and intrigue. He doesn’t understand that he successfully stunted an entire genre by focusing on silly string instead of story. Watching him look over a manqué of a proposed character, eyes glinting with computer generated possibilities, is far more satiric than having one of Packard’s fictional employees drop the F-bomb in front of the filmmaker’s supposed presence. Indeed, the brilliant move here is to have the moments of direct outrageousness. They play perfectly within the context of the story, but also highlight the real satire stuck inside the Skywalker saga’s self-styled seriousness. Some may think that The Untitled Star Wars Mockumentary is nothing more than a gimmicky takedown of an already overworked target. The truth is, Packard lets the former ‘70s maverick dig his own egregious grave.

Grizzly Redux: Killer Edition (2005)[rating: 9]

Taking his outright fascination with Spielberg and the phenomenon surrounding the giant’s breakthrough motion picture blockbuster, Packard pulls William Girdler’s goofy grizzly bear rip-off of Jaws and jerryrigs it into that shark tales pristine polar opposite. With slapstick substituting for seriousness, outrageous arterial spray mimicking the modern mandate for gallons of grue, the results rival the best spoofs ever attempted. Girdler’s film is so overwrought and full of itself (the man was a naturalist, and loved the wild, and it shows in every landscape loving scene) that it’s primed for lampooning, but what Packard does is far more meaningful. As with the Untitled Star Wars Mockumentary, he plays with the populist cues within Spielberg’s film, and finds the common ground that many attempted copiers miss. The point of Redux - beyond the blatant referencing of the DVD driven directorial desire to readdress past success - is to expose cinema for what it really is: a craven bastion of unimaginative manipulators who will take any concept (rogue great white shark) and stuff it into a format that hopefully resonates, monetarily, with audiences.

In order to get the full effect of the film, one has to hunt down the Packard tweaked trailer. Taking the exact same voice over narration from the original Jaws ads, and using footage from Grizzly, the pretense is prepared. The movies are so shockingly similar that they appear to symbolically merge. It’s a similar situation with the director’s latest film, SpaceDisco-One. There, he uses Logan’s Run and 1984 in a way that make both works indivisible from each other. Even better, he saves a groan (and snooze) inducing effort by the hands of a noted exploitation pioneer and turns it into a treat. Girdler is a member of the ‘60s/‘70s passion pit posse, moviemakers who knew that all theaters needed product - and the more provocative, the more profitable. No one would ever mistake his standard operating thrillers for the sex and skin epics the grindhouse was noted for, but in Packard’s perverse view, Grizzly had all the makings of a splatter house sensation. All it needed was a little post-modern modification. His intended revamp was a way to address the distinctions - and it works wonderfully.

Damon Packard Short Film Collection Volume 1 & 2 (2005)[rating: 8]
Lost in the Thinking and Other Commissioned Works (2005)[rating: 8]
Roller Boogie III and Other Commissioned Works (2006)[rating: 8]

Described by the director as his “Poverty Years” (Reflections failed to fly on a heavily editied and reconfigured Go-Kart Films release, while Mockumentary remained understandably unreleased) the lack of financial backing combined with the sudden pressures of notoriety meant little work and even less cash. As a stop gap move, he went small, focusing his mighty imagination on investigating his 8mm past (Packard, as with most cinematic masters, made movies from a young age) as well as taking on more artsy assignments from clients of more modest means. While not officially full length films in the traditional sense (DVD allows for such compilation complications), these collections function as equally important statements in Packard’s considered oeuvre. He proves in them an innate ability to channel his considerable inspiration into almost any format - be it an outright spoof (as seen in made for public access satires of noted mainstream films), to a quick cut homage to unknown efforts from the past (like the montage highlight reel for the animated Superman serials of the ‘40s).

Indeed, each one of these compendiums is stellar, featuring such amazing mini-motion pictures as Dawn of an Evil Millennium (the proposed preview for an 11 hour horror epic), a Sage Stallone shot and narrated action flick trailer showing Packard kicking his own car’s ass, the splendid Roller Boogie remix, and the Halloween 3 inspired Thinking. Not only is this amazing imaginative stuff, but the archival value is untold as well. Packard exposes us to things we may never have known existed, like the Harvey Keitel/Johnny “Rotten” Lydon Italian made thriller Copkiller, aka Corrupt, or the equally obscure sword and sorcery effort Hundra. Some of the best stuff remains the amazing Early ‘70s Horror Trailer, the Star Trek satire, and the rough cut of the unreleased elfin fantasy film Apple (which Packard attempted while living in a tent in Hawaii for two years). It all adds up to an amazing overview of one man’s complicated cinematic psyche. It also suggests that Packard has more in common with the experimental filmmakers of the past than the dour independent directors of today.

SpaceDisco-One (2007)[rating: 10]

What do you get when you cross 1984, Logan’s Run, and a failed film production viewed from the director’s slightly arrogant perspective? The latest Packard masterwork, that’s what. Using the War on Terror, the failed information skewering of the Fox Network, and the rising media influence of the Internet as a foundation for a narrative about the mindless pursuit of purpose, this amazing feature is even less optimistic than Reflections. It argues that Big Brother has long since stopped being a threat and is now an embraceable reality, much more a part of our everyday life than concepts of personal freedom, love, and respect for human life. By recreating scenes from the seminal 1984 Michael Radcliff adaptation, with amazing work contributed by Simon Prescott (as O’Brien) and Robert Myers (as Winston Smith), we see the truth about our current cultural climate and how close to complete fascism our world really is. Sure, there are moments of chaotic self-reference (Packard can’t release anything without a sly shout out to his past work), and the standard ‘70s inserts, but thanks to the subject matter he’s working within, everything about SpaceDisco-One resonates.

In fact, it’s safe to say that time away from the medium, years spent on the fringes of financial disaster has sharpened Packard’s skills. He’s more fluent here, letting performance and words take over for visuals and celluloid stunts. Granted, there is some blatant humor as when our heroines (Stargirl 7and Francis 8 are supposedly direct descendant’s from Logan 5 and Francis 7) discuss Starbuck and the original Battlestar Gallactica, and 1984‘s Ministry of Truth turns out to be the Universal Citywalk. Additional outlandish elements (the title starship has its own roller rink), mean we get more shots of actors racing around like it’s a teen party circa 1977. In fact, one could argue that SpaceDisco-One represents the final word in Packard’s Me Decade fascination. He’s already ripped through the seminal ABC Movie of the Week, reconfigured Jaws and its much celebrated creator, took Lucas to task for returning to the scene of his cinematic mind crime, and even touched on the more obscure, outsider elements of the era. Merging disco with the post-Wars world of kiddie oriented speculative fiction fills in some necessary pop culture gaps. It also suggests that Packard is ready to move on - figuratively and literally. Where he goes next will be interesting indeed. Rest assured, this convert will be there, waiting to see what transpires. You should too.

by Bill Gibron

11 Nov 2007


Many have never heard of him. Others only know selected works—the ‘80s effort Santa Sangre, the consistently mentioned “midnight movie” El Topo - but even for those who claim an intimate knowledge of cinema, director, poet, agitator, self-described “deity” Alejandro Jodorowsky remains an enigma. This could be due to the fact that the filmmaker has only helmed seven projects in the 50 years he’s been in the business (that’s right, seven in half a century behind the camera). Part of the problem is also that Jodorowsky remains a vehemently idiosyncratic artist. Like many Latino moviemakers, he lives his works and is only driven to create when the passion (and the fiscal possibility) strikes him. The final issue with his covert career is the lack of access to his major films - Fando y Lis, El Topo, and The Holy Mountain. Only the first title has ever appeared on DVD, the other two considered “lost” due to ongoing animosity between the director and infamous ‘70s business bully Allen Klein. Now, with all wounds apparently healed. The recently released Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky box set provides a chance to see the works that loom largest in the auteur’s considerable legend.

In the grand tradition of fellow experimentalists Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, Alejandro Jodorowsky is, at his heart, a surrealist. He works in the weird and fashions out of the freakish. Like all artists working within said medium, the Chilean-born Renaissance man loves to break convention as he embraces the recognizable. In fact, it’s safe to say that Jodorowsky is the most arcane avant-gardist ever to take up the genre’s mantle. Typically, a surrealist tackles the real world from a ridiculous yet recognizable avenue. But Jodorowsky isn’t content to simply shock and confuse. His is an aesthetic of contradiction, the juxtaposing of the sacred with the profane, the beautiful with the grotesque, the simple along with the complex. Out of said incongruities, he hopes to unlock the secrets of love, desire, death, evil, happiness, hate, terror, wisdom, God, man, the Devil, and the bifurcated nature of spirituality and physicality. Sometimes he succeeds in stunning fashion. But even his missteps are fabulous in their fascination.

After beginning life as a performance artist and theatrical “terrorist” (part of the Panic Movement—inspired by the god Pan—in early ‘60s France) Jodorowsky’s move to film was seen as a way of extending his influence beyond the simplicity of the stage. After fooling around with a work about a lady who sells substitute heads - La Cravate - he went off to tackle his first full-length project; a quasi-adaptation of a play written by Fernando Arrabal. While neither was completely successful, they proved that Jodorowsky had an eye for cinema and could really tell a story visually. Anyone who was lucky enough to see Cravate may recognize Thomas Mann’s 1940 absurdist effort The Transposed Heads. Using players from his Panic productions, and an obvious bow to Marcel Marceau and the mime movement that was popular during the time, the scant story was saved by the unique visual approach the director brought to the project. Resembling the German Expressionism of the early 20th Century with the precision of a painter like Chagall, the colorful, confusing tale remains something visually sumptuous, but rather empty and vague.

Fando y Lis, on the other hand, was prepped as Jodorowsky’s grand statement of social perception. In Arrabal’s play, the title couple is searching for a kind of literal nirvana, a place where he can live free and she can escape her life of handicapped helplessness. The magical city of Tar is basically a metaphor for acceptance and, all throughout the film, Jodorowsky drives that direct point home. This helps explain the movie’s vignette-oriented approach. Across an amazing monochrome wasteland, the pair are poked at, prodded, perverted, played with, and made to feel equally ashamed of their desire to live outside the surreal norm, while wholly trapped in a universe of unexplainable horrors and happenings. Sex plays a major role in the narrative, as many of the people our leads meet seem locked in a lustful lewdness that brings out their worst, most abhorrent behavior. Even Fando gives in, beating the helpless Lis mercilessly and abandoning her for sequences at a time. In the end, his act of brutality is meant as a kind of consciousness cleansing, a way of showing the supposed hero what a bad man he really is.

Of course, that’s just one interpretation, and Fando y Lis is a movie that can mean many things to whoever sees it. Because black-and-white deadens the dimensions in the imagery - color both corrupts and clarifies your standard visual responses - much of the movie feels flat. Not lifeless, mind you, just strangely similar, almost repetitive. Fando and Lis argue, one or the other looses their temper, a oddball collection of people enter into their psychological space (old ladies playing cards for lychee nuts and the sexual favors of a male prostitute, a holy man who worships a nauseatingly naked female), and then its time to ease on down the tarmac path toward happiness. When viewed with the films he would go on to make, Fando y Lis is best described as a mangled minor masterwork. It lacks the resonance that would come when Jodorowsky dropped the pretense and shot straight from his psyche. It also offers incomplete characters whose flaws are much more memorable than their finer moments. Visually, there is no denying the talent - Fando y Lis announces a major motion-picture player. But it would be his second film that solidified the director’s status as a surrealistic God.

Believe it when you hear it - El Topo is brazenly brilliant, a true motion-picture masterpiece of epic and undeniable proportions. All the legends you’ve heard, all the myths made up about the film’s founding the midnight movie craze are completely legitimate. Everything promised in Fando y Lis is present and perfectly built upon in what is, in essence, a spaghetti western sans the saddle sores. While he touched on it some in his first film, El Topo begins the clear contravention of organized religion and the meaningless morality given to the ethics of good and evil. Forged in two parts, the first centering on the viability of violence, the second scourging the reward of benefice, what we have here is a personal journey amplified into a statement of cosmic consensus. Jodorowsky himself plays the lead—a gunslinger whose life is empty inside—and he pours on the preposterous visuals and stunningly imaginative imagery with grace and gratuity.

When we first meet “The Mole” (the translation of El Topo), he is harboring a young naked boy - perhaps, as a protégé, perhaps for something more salacious. It is never explained, and Jodorowsky likes it that way. Soon, a choice must be made and, with it, comes the first-half condemnation of our lead. Working his standard scattered narrative approach perfectly, our hero must find the four greatest gunfighters in the desert and defeat each and every one. Many have likened this half of the film to the Old Testament, with El Topo taking on the four main prophets in the Biblical text. Others simply see it as a regular rite of passage, with each foe representing an element of the main character’s consciousness that he must confront and conquer. In each battle, El Topo twists the rules to his own ends. When he finally falls, it’s not by the hand of any of the masters. No, he is double crossed by the faith of his own heart, and the woman who pledged her undying love for saving her.

Now it’s true that Jodorowsky is tough on women. Some would even argue that he’s a clear-cut misogynist who views the female as festering and wicked, only capable of tricking men and then using their failing feminine wiles throughout the rest of their sad, sexually repressed life. But for every act of abuse, for every slap in the face, or tableau where overweight grandmothers draped in lingerie strut and fret like fools, we have characters who try to countermand that image. The dwarf girl, who helps El Topo after he is mortally wounded and left for dead, represents the one area that Jodorowsky tends not to mock - the maternal instinct of a caring woman. Throughout the second act of the film, when our hero goes from sinner to savior, desperate and willing to do anything to build a tunnel into town, the little lady by his side is grace and giving personified. Jodorowsky was obviously influenced by Fellini and his Satyricon-era style. Human oddities, disfigured and disturbing in their limbless, twisted deformities, are prevalent in the director’s work and, if you were to ask him why, he’d probably say, “They are interesting to look at, no?” In fact, a great deal of what he does as a filmmaker exists solely because it looks good locked in a timeless frame of celluloid.

Because of its clear narrative focus - unlike Fando and Lis, who never really get anywhere during their journey - El Topo is a series of cause-and-effect story sequences and visionary vibe. It’s not surprising to learn that Jodorowsky became an early ‘70s sensation, championed by none other than John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The ex-Beatle, a man of principle and awareness totally tapped into the fading remnants of the generation he helped form, felt a kinship with the director. Using images straight out of the counterculture’s cookbook (including the notorious self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thích Quang Duc), Jodorowsky was purposefully taking the piss out of the era’s symbols and icons. This went down well with a musician who spent the first half of his solo career primal screaming the Fab Four out of his system. Thanks to the influence of Allen Klein (in charge of the business operations of the Beatles’ Apple Corp), El Topo got attention—including some much-needed press and distribution in the United States. This led to the film’s frequent showings at midnight and, thus, the resulting legend. Even better, when Jodorowsky was looking for financing for his next project, Klein and the Lennons gladly stepped in.

What they got was almost more astounding than El Topo. The Holy Mountain - an unambiguous bashing of faith, church, God, enlightenment, and Eastern theology - became a serious scandal. While Jodorowsky was no stranger to bad audience reactions (the first screening of Fando y Lis turned into a riot, and the director had to be smuggled out of the theater to avoid the angry mob), nothing could have prepared him for the denouncement he received when the final cut premiered at Cannes. Condemned as blasphemous and sacrilegious, critics and crowds couldn’t get past the striking similarity between the lead thief and a certain Jesus of Nazareth. Even worse, Jodorowsky went on to strip his Messianic character – literally - having the actor playing the part more or less nude throughout the film’s opening act. By making our substitute savior a criminal, a con artist, and a partaker of perversion (he is helped along by an armless and legless dwarf who enjoys kissing his carrier on the mouth), the director was obviously arguing for the corruption buried inside Christianity. When our figure of faith finally meets the Alchemist (played by Jodorowsky himself), all he wants to know is the secret of turning shit into gold. How shocking!

But it’s not just religion that gets a reaming here. Our maverick moviemaker is out to undermine capitalism, the law, government cronyism/incompetence, pop culture, the police force, war, and the sovereignty of the state, all in one fell swoop. He does this by creating the council of immortals - eight enterprising people of power who represent the planets within the solar system. For a fee, including complete obedience and a rejection of material things, the Alchemist will provide a path to enlightenment and a chance to replace a similar group already residing on Lotus Island. There, they will supposedly live forever, free from all the issues they themselves create in the typical, tainted social structure. With this road-movie plotline in place, Jodorowsky is free to indulge his every visual whim, resulting in, hands down, one of the most sumptuous and sublime optical experiences ever captured on film. As if in reaction to everything El Topo stood for, the filmmaker purposefully avoids the elements that made said movie so shocking.

The Peckinpah-like bloodshed in Topo, grue flowing freely and effortlessly from various violated bodies, is now a striking psychedelic array of rainbow humors. The ample nudity is presented pristinely, lacking the down-and-dirty qualities that made his whacked-out western so erotically charged. The former subtle slaps at religion are now big, bold, brash bombshells, like the skinned goats substituting for Christs on a procession of crosses. Once we get to the moment of clarity, when temptation tries to thwart our pilgrims from their progress, Jodorowsky goes all out, mixing swinging ‘60s jet-set cool with a graveyard setting to up the sacrilege. Of course, it’s not surprising to learn that all the events of the last 90 minutes are meant as a kind of cinematic in-joke. The final bits of dialogue in the movie pull the rug out of the previous pomp and circumstance, operating like an affecting “F-You” from Jodorowsky to anyone who would take him seriously as a sage. While it lacked the personal touch of a strong lead character (unlike El Topo himself, the Alchemist and his charges are fairly interchangeable), The Holy Mountain proved that his previous efforts were no fluke. Jodorowsky was a filmmaker to be reckoned with. All he needed now was a mainstream success.

It was to come in the form of Dune. In 1975, the filmmaker gathered together an eclectic crew including H. R. Giger (for design), Pink Floyd (for musical score), and French comic book artist Jean Giraud. His goal - bring Frank Herbert’s incredibly popular sci-fi allegory to the big screen. Hoping to cast famous faces (Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen, Mick Jagger as his son Feyd) and to once again revisit some familiar narrative themes (Dune definitely matches a certain Messianic story), Jodorowsky was eager and excited. Then that old familiar foe – money - reared its ugly halting head, and it wasn’t long before the entire production was shut down and sold off. Bitter over this turn of events and the way Klein was carrying out their business arrangements, Jodorowsky started shunning the spotlight. He made a couple more films in the next 30 years - a 1980 children’s film entitled Tusk, 1989’s well-received Santa Sangre, and 1990’s The Rainbow Thief. Several times he tried to jump start a sequel to El Topo, this time following the child of the main character (he wanted to call it Son of El Topo or Abelcain). Yet aside from an appearance in the 1994 documentary about his career, La Constellation Jodorowsky, he stuck to comics and graphic art.

Because of his lack of output, Jodorowsky has since been marginalized. He’s been considered a fluke, a one (or, in the case of Mountain, two) hit wonder, a difficult creator who can’t understand a need to compromise for his craft. Instead, he remains staunchly defiant, even allowing his movies to fall out of print until the issues with Klein could be resolved. What this has meant, sadly, is that audiences for over 30-plus years have been deprived of some of the most amazing motion pictures ever created. Visually stunning, deeply personal, and philosophical without being preachy or intellectually obtuse, both El Topo and The Holy Mountain are merely fables formulated out of fever dreams, one man’s attempts to depict a crisis of the soul via pictures and predicaments. Unlike the work of some surrealists, who seem to be tossing random images at the camera for the sake of their own oddness, Jodorowsky tries to tie everything together, giving his apparent arbitrariness a lasting heft that transcends the art form’s tricks. His films can be hard to look at, even more appalling in their approach, but there’s also a beauty and an elegance generated by his frequently fractured dynamic that’s impossible to avoid.

Surrealism, by its very nature, sets itself up for constant criticism. There are those people who simply do not respond well to such a mannered approach to ideas, as well as the seemingly impenetrable insularity of it all. For them, Alejandro Jodorowsky will be the poster boy for the problematic, a man obviously obsessed with death, sex, God, and man. If you take away the various visual elements, the sense of narrative experimentation and nonlinear logistics, all you’d have left is one man’s arrogant interpretation of the world around him. Thanks to surrealism and, at the same time, the counterculture movement he functioned within, this director managed a kind of miracle. He took nonsense and seriousness, reality and the ridiculous, and managed to find a way of having a crackpot combination of them all equal intelligence and insight. The proof of such an artistic triumph is located here, in this collection of brazen borderline masterpieces. If one walks away from his films, it should be an appreciation of one of medium’s forgotten renegades. He may not have been the first, but he is definitely one of the medium’s best - and most baffling.

by Bill Gibron

6 Nov 2007


Upon reflection, it’s interesting that the WGA – the Writers Guild of America – has decided to go on strike. It’s not that these studio scribes don’t have their rights, and the ability to properly execute them, in order to protect their Union and their honor. And no one would argue that the new media – the Internet, downloads, DVDs, and future formats – need their residual and fee structures reviewed and settled. But there’s a bewildering lack of vision here, something that goes to the very heart of what’s happening to cinema in general. While it may seem harsh to say it, somebody needs to – screenwriters are screwing up the artform.

Now part of this is proactive. Mediocrity can be found all over the movies, from journeyman directors who wouldn’t know creativity if it bit them in the Rob Schneider cameo, to underage actors who lack the life experience to successfully tap into their supposed sense memory. But even the most accomplished and rewarded A-List performer can be paralyzed by directionless dialogue, pointless plot twists, and incomplete thematic elements. The late, great Gene Siskel once said that a vast majority of the bad film he experienced failed in the script stage – and by the look of many in 2007’s underachieving cinematic class, it’s the reason large entertainment ambitions have resulted in such mediocre motion picture product.

First, a clarification. Only the most naïve of film fan believes that a writer’s words arrive onscreen unscathed. Between studio input, director vision, actor interpretation, pre-production doctoring and punch-ups, onset skirmishes, focus group fine tuning, test screening comments, last minute reshoots, and MPAA mandated cuts, it’s hard to imagine how anything someone puts on paper makes it to celluloid unaltered. Insider stats have illustrated that approximately 40% of what the author of a screenplay creates lasts until the final phases of moviemaking. And while that number might seem high, the truth is that it takes into consideration the writer/director combo that uses such a status to protect their work. Without them, the number is rumored to be closer to 20%.

So, sometimes, it’s not all the scripts fault. But let’s take a look at the notion of film writing from a bigger perspective. When a political thriller like Rendition is greenlit, someone obviously sees the potential in the project. They read the words of an untried, unproven Kelley Sane, and start to do some immediate mental casting. Two years later, Reese Witherspoon is carrying her post-Oscar baggage as your lead, Jake Gyllenhaal is your hunky CIA scrub, and the entire Arab world is a group of flash paper fanatics just waiting for the right religious rationale to suicide bomb the planet. Toss in some gratuitous torture, a subpar subplot involving star-crossed Muslim lovers, and the pitch meeting prose practically creates itself.

Too bad Sane didn’t let the screenplay do the same thing. While the jumbled narrative approach taken by director Gavin Hood couldn’t have helped matters much, one senses it was part of this scribe’s original intent. After all, when we learn the truth at the end, and realize the actual time frame of the events we’ve been watching, there’s supposed to be some manner of emotional and intellectual epiphany. Unfortunately, it all ends up playing like one giant joke, a gratuitous gag that treats the audience as children. Apparently, viewers can’t handle a straightforward story of Middle East policy failures and citizen torture. The tale has to be gussied up with unimportant tangents to keep the pea-brained viewer in constant check.

It’s a similar situation with the sappy and stupendously maudlin Things We Lost in the Fire. Foreign filmmaker Susanne Bier took the scattered script by feature first-timer Alan Loeb and tried to distill as much meaning and emotion from it as she could. But there is no doubt that when looking at the reality of a widow and her late husband’s heroin addicted best friend shacking up under one overpriced roof, the mind behind Fox’s one hour drama New Amsterdam failed to fully grasp the psychological or logistical flaws in such a set up. Disconnected, overflowing with pointless flashbacks, and dizzying in the number of motivational inconsistencies, it was as if Loeb looked up the worst facets of melodrama and decided to incorporate each and every one – and do a piss poor job in the process.

From El Cantante, which took the biopic format and then stupidly shifted the focus away from the central subject (salsa superstar Hector LaVoe) to Feast of Love, where big picture pronouncements about love and life were weirdly wedged into a Terms of Endearment tearjerker, scripts undermined many a Hollywood heavyweight. But there are also incidents where a screenplay suffers from the opposite problem. Instead of being insufficient indicators of a story’s true intent, they are overwritten maelstroms that fail to make their point in profound – or even an appreciable – manner. In the case of these purposefully pompous efforts, the more words and ideas on the page, the less success the end result.

Take the upcoming Lions for Lambs. If polemics were pastries, every attending audience member would be in danger of instantaneous obesity. Robert Redford directed this dopey debate like the stagiest play in the history of one set theater, and then made it even more bombastic by turning a liberal leaning eye on the entire Iraq/Middle East equation. Of course, The Kingdom scribe Matthew Michael Carnahan apparently decided to reverse the fine work he did on said Peter Berg directed action thriller. Instead of enlivening his preachy monologues with some manner of movement, he simply wrote his screeds and let the filmmakers find a way to make it sizzle. In Redford’s mind, this meant keeping everything inert and absolutely sedentary. Even our army men spend the majority of their screen time supine.   

Sadly, something that could have been a significant anti-war statement comes off like Vietnam for the easily impressed. Toss out a few figures, give the characters enough personal history to soften their manipulative moralizing, pepper it all with “We Hate Bush” blame, and the end result should look like Platoon from the politician’s point of view. Instead, it’s a horrible unfocused mess – just like the deconstructionist Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. In a genre that’s seen more reinvention than Madonna in mid midlife crisis, this adaptation of Ron Hansen’s novel by Australian Andrew Dominik is like a mini-series micromanaged down to John Jakes sized scribblings. It’s so desperate to capture every facet of the book upon which it was based, and the era when it is set, that it ends up marginalizing the myth it is hoping to create.

It’s not that the movie doesn’t have its moments, it simply has far too many of them. When we realize that Dominik’s take on the material will be more 19th century fame whoring and stalking than hammy horse operatics, our heart leaps. But then we are bogged down with side characters, ancillary subplots, tangents that never pay off, and an ending that literally forgets the meaning of that word. While some have championed this effort as a thoughtful, expressive look at the celebrity of the day, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is fifteen films all vying for cinematic relevance. Only half of one manages to maintain its position.

Certainly each example described can be argued over and supported. There are critics who claim that Lions for Lambs is a pointed and balanced presentation of the War on Terror, while Things We Lost in the Fire is an amazingly deep and affecting story of hope. Yes, that voice you hear in the background is indeed the late Jim Jones, and he’s got a supersized Kool-Aid Slurpee with your name on it. The truth is, ever since Akiva Goldsman became the bearer of Oscar Gold, when Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were given the same Academy consideration, when Paul Haggis can pull 47 intertwined clichés out of his tuckus and still be considered the cream of the crop, there is something wrong with this print picture.

Perhaps if the writers were striking over aesthetics instead of cash, they’d gain more sympathy. The industrial unions figured this out in the ‘80s. Now, when they go to the mat during negotiations, it’s over USA friendly facets like job security, trade protection, imports and tariffs, and the scourge of outsourcing. If a few extras greenbacks result from such bait and switch strategies, all the better. Honestly, if a spokesman for the WGA got up and said something like “we demand that management recognize the autonomy of the author”, if they went on to whine, “We want failed SNL comics to stop adlibbing their own lame lines. We seek redress for every instance when a clueless bunch of demographically specific viewers alter our narrative arch. We want a halt to all script doctoring and authorship by committee. We will except nothing less than the same respect and creative control you give your best directors, your superstar performers, and your high profile producers.”, they’d have our hearts and minds. Currently, it’s pennies for DVDs. 

Writers have always been the third class citizens of the creative conspiracy known as film. Harlan Ellison often argued that the reason he stayed away from all forms of visual media was that, the minute you signed the contract, the studios saw the exchange of cash as the end of the writer’s worth. Even in arenas (Star Trek, Babylon 5) where his input was appreciated, he was viewed as a pushy, persistent pariah. While their paychecks might not reflect it, at least not since the rightly named Greed Decade made the screenwriter as marketable as the movie itself (Joe Eszterhas! Shane Black!), what the members of the WGA really need is a boost of artistic integrity. As long as they keep churning out chum, any call for more moolah will seem like the blind leading the avaricious. And they control the core of the artform. Maybe it’s the audience that should stage a walkout.

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