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Monday, Oct 8, 2007


They’re noted for their insanity onscreen – blood and body parts flying across the frame with reckless abandon, while gyno-Americans explore each others’ naughty, naked nether regions. As toilet humor cascades across the speakers and monsters make mayhem among a cast of literal unknowns, subtext and closeted intelligence fill in the often glaring gaps. It’s like anarchy whittled down into art, the language of film spoken outloud by idiot savants and translated by terrorists. Let’s face it – it wouldn’t be a Troma movie without some spatter, some slaughter, and some satire. It’s been the independent film company’s modus operandi since a mild mannered mop boy named Melvin transformed into the Toxic Avenger.


So it probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that there’s an equal amount of chaos going on behind the scenes. What might shock you is how eager Troma is to share these motion picture meltdowns with its loyal fanbase – and the rest of the world. Long before DVD became known for its context including benefice, founder Lloyd Kaufman and his various apprentice associates where using their productions as a proving ground. It wasn’t a matter of survival of the fittest. In many ways, they were reverse Darwinists – survival of the sickest. Indeed, it takes someone with a strong creative constitution and nerves frayed to the point of numbness to make it through one of these Bataan Death March experiences.


Want proof? Well, then look no further than the four documentaries created by the company to support the films Terror Firmer (Farts of Darkness), Citizen Toxie (Apocalypse Soon), Tales from the Crapper (When Reshoots Go Wrong), and their annual trek to France’s famed film festival (All The Love You Cannes). Differing in both tone and dimension from your standard digital EPKs, we are tossed directly into the maelstrom that is Troma movie making, from Kaufman’s occasional demagoguery to the blatant incompetence of his cast and crew. Collected all together on the definitive DVD box set, Make Your Own Damn Movie, we witness how logistics, personalities, and blatant incompetence conspire to undermine the best laid plans of indie horror mavens.



Farts of Darkness sets up the standard Troma paradox – big budget outsider idealism helmed by untested cast and crew. With Kaufman as ringleader, we get a surreal circus of party hearty goof offs, well intentioned egotists, and legitimate technical talent. In the beginning, the goal is always the same. As a matter of fact, we learn the Troma creed as part of this delicious documentary. Like the Ten Commandments for the tattooed and pierced, the mandates revolve around making a good movie, hurting no one, and being fair to everyone involved. Naturally, such tenets are almost instantly ignored as participants learn of the lack of craft services, the ungodly hours, and the occasional need to defecate in a plastic bag.


Terror Firmer, a fictionalized take-off based on the book version of Make Your Own Damn Movie (by Kaufman, Trent Haaga, and Adam Jahnke) revolved around a film crew making an epic in Manhattan. Unbeknownst to everyone involved, a psycho killer is stalking the set. Believe it or not, this is the least of the film’s potential problems. After all, it’s being directed by a blind man (Kaufman essays the role of sightless auteur Larry Benjamin), and a seedy love triangle between production assistant Jennifer and her diametrically opposed paramours threatens to undermine everything. Naturally, when the murderer makes his presence known, everyone bands together to defend their territory and finish the film. Extreme arterial spray and flatulence ensues.


The madness of independent moviemaking in all its cinema vérité glory is the best way to describe Farts. It’s a backstage melodrama overloaded with logistical nightmares, inconsistent planning, and body wasting work. While it’s commendable that Kaufman wants to collaborate with so many untested young people, it’s clear that, in many cases, responsibility is not a skill earned in film school. Many of these overzealous wannabes are only involved to get high, grab ass, and add a Troma title to their otherwise weak resume. Even the people who’ve been with Kaufman over the long haul tend to let him down once the pressure is on. Unlike the standard Hollywood Making-of which offers up nothing but bragging and “aren’t we great” accolades, Farts of Darkness shows the warts and all reality of trying to make a movie. It should be mandatory viewing for every basement dwelling geek who argues that they could create something more substantial than Kaufman and clan. Such a statement can only come from a lack of perspective – and actual participation.



Things only get worse in Apocalypse Soon. After 11 years without another installment, Kaufman decided to relaunch the Toxic Avenger franchise with a new effort – Citizen Toxie. Rumor had it that the film was also a financial necessity – the company was facing tough economic issues, and hoped that going back to the iconic classic character would right the solvency ship. The storyline was like an amalgamation of everything Troma stood for. Our lovable nuclear mutant must defend a school for special kids from the notorious Diaper Mafia. After an explosion creates a dimensional tear in the fabric of the cosmos, our hero finds himself flung into the parallel universe of Amortville. In the meantime, his evil twin from another realm – the Noxious Offender takes over Tromaville. It’s up to Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD to gather together a team of superheroes to save the day, as well as everyone’s favorite irradiated champion.


Clearly a case of ambition overriding ability, Citizen Toxie would end up being a noble failure, at least commercially and critically. For fans, the film stands as a wonderful overview of the entire Troma mythology – especially when the loony league of justice including Mad Cow Boy, Dolphin Man, Mastor Bator, and The Vibrator all show up. Yet from the very beginning of Apocalypse Now, we can see that personalities and other individual issues constantly unite to undo Kaufman’s goals. First and foremost, the actor hired to play Toxie goes from ‘lucky to have a job’ to problematic prima donna in the span of a couple of hours. Worse, the crew is incapable of taking matters seriously. Abusing Troma’s “learn by example” ideal of education, we come to understand a lot about young cinema wannabes. Most are slovenly slackers who get pissy for no valid reason. Many feel that, at a certain point, hard work is no longer their forte. And a few will mutiny over the dumbest, most ridiculous ideas (like the rumor of lead paint at a location).


Pulling it all together becomes a task of Herculean proportions, and the stress takes its toll on Kaufman. In these days when every famous face wants to be loved (or at least respected) and studios cringe at any kind of negative publicity, Troma wears these filmmaking fiascos on their sloppy, scattered sleeves. It’s almost as if, having survived such a taxing ordeal, and watching the results get little or no respect, Kaufman carts out his dirty laundry and shouts “See? See what we put ourselves through for you fans? Huh? HUH???” While not quite so demonstrative, the message remains crystal clear – art like this doesn’t come fully formed out of the ether, stitched together by cherubs and given a glossy patina by enchanted leprechauns. Instead, Kaufman is like a potter throwing film out of feces. And his hands are almost never clean.



Of course, he’s the first one everyone comes crawling to when things go painfully awry. Case in point – Tales from the Crapper. Taking advantage of the digital explosion, Troma hired a producer named India Allen to oversee the creation of two separate direct to DV-R films featuring manufactured sex kitten Julie Strain. Working in LA, Kaufman was unaware of any problems initially. The two movies – one about a shape-shifting, bloodthirsty alien man-eater and the other centering on vampire strippers – were completed, and sent to the company for approval. When Troma finally saw what they had (and what they had paid for) they went ballistic. Basic moviemaking concepts like characterization, storytelling, and continuity were thrown on the window. In their place was scene after scene of unsalvageable material, most of it shot in a manner that rendered everything almost unwatchable.


How Kaufman and company saved this artistic abortion forms the basis for When Reshoots Go Wrong, a lesser if still effective behind the scenes exposé. Looking tired and dejected, the director offers a first person tour of the carnage, presenting Troma’s side of the story and taking Ms. Allen to task at every opportunity. For those who’ve seen the finished DVD product, it’s not hard to envision what Kaufman is complaining about.  During the documentary, Lloyd frequently holds the camera on himself. He’s not the same chipper chappy we’re used to. Instead, he’s all too serious. He talks about how hard it was to work with the material and how unhappy he was with some of the post-production circumstances. We then get to see more interns acting atrociously. Experiencing the usually giddy Troma chief in grim businessman mode is amazing. Gone is the jovial jokester. In its place is a man struggling to stay sane.


Of course, many could argue that much of this is Kaufman’s own fault. If he didn’t run such a loosey goosey ship, if he didn’t rely on unproven volunteers to do what professionals take decades to perfect, if he simply sat down and connected with his crews instead of disappearing to locations around the globe to cameo in other people’s productions (under the guise of supporting independent art), he might not have so many mishaps. But even when he takes precaution and prepares diligently for his annual trip to Cannes (for the film expo element of the festival), a few inebriated bad apples will spoil the company’s already marginalized name. It’s something we witness firsthand in All The Love You Cannes.



Starting off like an instructional video, this full length feature finds Lloyd narrating, giving us a basic idea about how things work at the famed French institution. He highlights the way movies are packaged and sold, and the necessity of generating any and as much publicity as possible. Without hype, international buyers won’t stop by your booth (or in this case, your hotel room) and you leave without making significant syndication and foreign distribution deals. These are the lifeblood of little companies like Troma. It literally could mean the continued existence, or the end, of a struggling outsider organization. Of course, said pronouncements slowly backfire on the company as – thanks to their unruly interns – they get in Dutch with their hotel, with public relations people, and the local French citizenry.


Part ugly American dissertation, part lesson in doing a better job of picking your assistants and associates, this is the lesser of the four major Behind the Scenes features discussed, if only because the individuals mucking things up for Troma are so reprehensible. Watching drunken dullards take advantage of their boss to publicly embarrass themselves and said employer has never been so shocking. Maybe it’s the clueless posing of everyone involved – a little power taken to inhuman extremes. It could be the massive quantities of alcohol consumed. It might be the notion that kids who basically know nothing about the business end of cinema are destined to act like dorks. Whatever the case, All The Love You Cannes is educational on many levels. The pitch and shill of the international film trade is intriguing. How quickly your reputation can be ruined by dozens of directionless mooks is just irritating.


Apparently, that’s the point. What other company besides Troma would tear down the façade and let the viewing public see their shameful, disorganized reality? Though he’s typically outnumbered by the crudeness of his crew, Kaufman himself comes across as a surly, sometimes insensitive jerk who appears hindered by all that’s happening around him. Even worse, those looking for an excuse to diminish the company’s output as of late can look at the onset anarchy of Citizen Toxie or Tales from the Crapper and have their case proven, pointblank. But there is still something so rebellious, so anti-Hollywood-in-your-face about the way Troma does things that such a scattershot approach borders on the endearing. Mavericks are supposed to make a mess. They’re supposed to stumble and break stuff. They’re revolutionaries. By their very nature, they buck tradition.


And no one bucks up more than Lloyd Kaufman and his crews. Whether it’s the guerilla filmmaking follies of Terror Firmer, the actor inspired angst of Citizen Toxie, the overall ineptness of Tales from the Crapper, or the lack of suitable corporate etiquette while visiting Cannes, Troma has taken to playing the clown both in front of and behind the camera. For a glimpse at what such a Hellsapoppin’ plan might achieve, go out and buy a copy of the Make Your Own Damn Movie boxset – or better yet, collect copies of the four films mentioned here. Not only will the company be happy for the cash, but you’ll be rewarded with the truth about independent filmmaking. As usual, the facts are never pretty. 


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Wednesday, Oct 3, 2007


Back in the ‘80s, it was a running joke. It seemed like, every time you turned around, another Stephen King work - no matter how minor – was being prepped for a cinematic styling or on its way to your local Bijou. To call it overkill would be too simplistic. It was, as if, the man’s massive imagination was being purposefully corralled by an industry that believed his muse was all too fleeting. The “hurry up and hit it” mentality (otherwise known as strike while the iron’s assets are liquid) meant that, in some cases, the film version of a famed tome was in preproduction before the book even made the bestsellers. It was a buyers market and the author had literary real estate to spare. Among his many novels, numerous short stories, and projects purposefully created for the movies, he was a one man idea factory. A funny thing happened on the way to maximum production capacity, however. Audiences began to balk.


At first, all was business as usual. The studios kept churning out the chum, delivering subpar motion pictures and endless, unnecessary sequels. And while they weren’t overwhelmed, the crowds kept coming. But diluting your inventory never results in quality, and before long, King’s name was as marginalized as his turnstile reputation, a lamentable presence in a genre that had long since surpassed his undeniable storytelling expertise. Additionally, the remaining items in his oeuvre were becoming more and more complicated to realize – massive magnum opuses sprawling out over hundreds of pages and dozens of subplots. With visionary elements far exceeding Hollywood’s ability to realize them, and narratives that touched on subjects both controversial and complex, the days of simple story arcs (killer dog, killer car, killer kid) were long over. So while the viewers were turning to other macabre makers, Tinsel Town turned its back on the once heralded cash cow.


But that doesn’t mean King is tapped out. Far from it. As a matter of fact, there are a half dozen or so interesting production possibilities just lying around, waiting to be discovered. At SE&L’s suggestion (and we will gladly accept any and all finder’s fees, thank you), here are six wonderful works that would make riveting entertainment options. We’ve purposely avoided anything already planned (The Talisman, Cell, From a Buick 8) as well as remakes, reimaginings and outright rip-offs. As far as we known, this sextet of stellar novels are languishing in limbo, caught somewhere between 1408’s recent success and past calamities still stinking up the artform. Each one argues for two incontrovertible truths. First, there has never been a man as prolific as Stephen King. And second? That for every mediocre motion picture pried from his prose, there’s a possible gem waiting in the wings, beginning with:


The Long Walk


As part of his Richard Bachman persona, King tackled the dystopian future as only his insular mind could imagine it. The results are this spellbinding thriller about a group of 100 randomly picked boys sent on a mandatory trek across a totalitarian American landscape. With a storyline similar to Speed (the lads must maintain a certain pace to avoid being ‘warned’ and then ‘ticketed’ by the accompanying soldiers) and a breathtaking narrative drive, it has the makings of a fine action adventure. Even better, the Lord of the Flies like characters, each one bringing their own precarious personal situation to the contest, allows for endless subplotting and openness. Rumor has it that Frank Darabont owns the rights. If anyone can realize this intricate tale, he can.


The Regulators


Granted, the plot feels like a revamp of the classic Twilight Zone episode where little Anthony is the “monster” who can create unimaginable evils with his mind, but in a CGI reliant industry desperate for more bitmap magic, this could be the next horror hybrid hit. Maybe studio heads are waiting to see if the similarly styled The Mist makes a mountain of money come theatrical release time. Remember, King is still considered a tenuous source of material at best. And because this book is another example of his Bachman alter ego, there’s the possibility of a less than bestseller backlash. In the hands of the right visionary director, however, this reality in flux narrative could be a sensational slice of eerie eye candy.


Eye of the Dragon


Why this excellent sword and sorcery epic hasn’t been made into a movie is baffling? After all, if subpar crap like Eragon can stumble along and stink up a Cineplex with its dumbness and dragons, why not the work of an actual adult writer? Part of the problem, at least at the time of publication, was realizing the more “magical” elements of the story. It was reported that animation was initially suggested, the cinematic category’s open palette more readily capable of bringing the fanciful to life. But just like The Regulators, the supercomputer has changed the face of filmmaking, and with the proper director – someone in tune with the genre’s inherent pitfalls and possibilities – this excellent example of good old fashioned yarn spinning would make a wonderful bit of wistfulness.

 


Gerald’s Game


Actresses are always complaining that there are no good roles for them. King, fortunately, loves to feature women in complex, life changing situations. In this very dark single character piece, our heroine Jessie Burlingame finds herself alone, tied up, and very afraid after her husband dies during some rather rough sex. As she lies in bed, hunger and dehydration taking its toll, she recalls horrors from her past, while envisioning even more dreadful terrors in the shadows of her isolated cabin. While it’s true that any star who wanted the part would have to agree to some demanding physical trials (nudity, suggested violence), the rewards would be well worth it. Within the usual setting, the author creates some undeniably powerful prose.


Insomnia


It stands as one of his oddest ideas – an old man, unable to sleep, who can literally see the “strands” or mortality that rise from our body…and the creepy creature killers carrying the scissors to ‘cut’ them. And then there’s the whole abortion subtext filled with dogma and social terrorism. But Insomnia is still one of the author’s best books, a character driven exploration of mortality and aging drenched in a weird wickedness that is hard to shake. Even better, the book finally explains King’s favorite setting – the paranormal plagued town of Derry. With all this amazing material at their disposal, the right creative team could make something truly special. And with a lot of great actors approaching their twilight years, the casting possibilities are also tempting.


Blaze


Another Bachman book, another potential for some major acting tour de forces. The story revolves around a mentally deficient con man who decides to kidnap a wealthy couple’s baby for the ransom money. The crime begins to go awry, and Clayton Blaisdell, Jr. (or “Blaze” for short) starts flashing back to his own childhood, and the reasons for his own damaged brain. Imagine this unusual tale told by one of our modern movie icons, or better yet, driven by a fascinating newcomer (like Casey Affleck, perhaps) and you could have a character based dynamo. Though it was written way back in the early ‘70s (in between bouts with Carrie), there is a modern mentality to the piece that plays perfectly in these desperate post-millennial days.

 


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Sunday, Sep 30, 2007


He’s the most popular author of genre fiction ever. His sales have staggered a publishing industry used to thousands, not millions of units moved. His name is synonymous with fright and fear, a moniker mentioned alongside the classical macabre names. Yet when it comes to motion picture translations of his titles, Stephen King can’t catch a break. Granted, it’s an old story, one that’s been going on for nearly three decades now. But when Brian DePalma took the novice novelist’s first successful tome – the telekinetic teenager tale Carrie – and made it into box office gold, it opened the door for dozens of like minded auteurs to attack King’s canon. To say that the results have been scattershot at best would be some manner of historical heresy. With rare exceptions, he’s the King all right – the king of cinematic crap.


From a purely technical standpoint, there are well over 100 adaptations of the author’s work available for consideration. The split is about 60/40 between short stories and actual full length works. The vast majority of these movies were made between 1976 and 1996, and more than a couple represent the franchising or serialization of pieces (Children of the Corn, The Lawnmower Man) that lacked the necessary narrative heft to sustain multiple takes. In completely subjective terms, King’s craft has resulted in around 15 well regarded films. There are another half dozen or so that could be called successful without necessarily arguing for their overall artistry. That still leaves nearly 80% of the output in the average to awful category, and for anyone who has waded through that celluloid swamp, the garbage far outweighs the merely mediocre.


All of which leads to the question of why – why can’t King’s brainchildren catch a motion picture break? It seems like, for every Stand By Me, there’s a pair of unnecessary ‘Salem’s Lot sequels, for each Shawshank Redemption, there’s a similar big budget failure like Dreamcatcher or Hearts in Atlantis. Of course, some may argue that the man’s outstanding oeuvre, containing more text than a century of filmmaking could possibly handle, begs for such a hit or miss maxim. But the fact remains that some of the author’s best books – Pet Sematary, The Dark Half – have ended up delivering incredibly average entertainments. Even the seemingly successful interpretations – The Stand, IT – have issues among the faithful, from casting to editorial cuts.


It’s important to note why King is so heralded in the first place. Among his kind – writers specializing in horror – he’s one helluva storyteller. In fact, he’s so good, so adept at getting into your subconscious and laying down the ground rules, that it’s almost impossible for a film to step in and match your imagination. It’s the reason Stanley Kubrick rewrote The Shining as more of a psychological character study vs. a harrowing haunted hotel saga. Without the effects to accurately recreate King’s kinetic set pieces (the killer topiary animals, the shape-shifting interior design) the famed director had to rely on atmosphere, and acting, to carry his vision.


Or consider Christine, for a moment. John Carpenter is a horror maestro, a man responsible for a bevy of brilliant terror treats. When it was announced that he would helm an adaptation of King’s killer car novel, aficionados of both the writer and the director were psyched. To have two legitimate legends of their craft collaborating seemed like a dizzying dream come true. Of course, such a fantasy flew squarely into the reality of what Carpenter had taken on. As a book, Christine is almost all internal monologue, the character of Arnie Cunningham’s best friend Dennis Guilder explaining how his buddy slowly went insane under the influence of the evil automobile. There are also additional plot points that the movie completely avoids.


Now, this is nothing new for a book to film transfer. You can’t take the text verbatim and expect it to become a meaningful motion picture. But when you mess with a beloved work of fiction, you invite two kinds of criticism. The first comes from fans upset at the changes made. The second arrives from individuals who can’t quite figure out why this title deserved the big screen treatment in the first place. Both may have a point and still be completely wrong. Novels are not perfect, and sometimes, what seemed good on the page can appear paltry blown up 70 feet high. In fact, it’s clear that a lot of King’s works play better in the theater of the mind than the local Cineplex.


But that still doesn’t address the issue of his slipshod status. Perhaps a compare and contrast could help. In 1983, venereal horror icon David Cronenberg became attached to direct one of King’s more commercial works – the psychic thriller The Dead Zone. The basic premise found Johnny Smith, an average man, awaken from a coma after five years. Involved in a horrible auto accident, he barely escaped with his life. During rehabilitation, he discovers he has a gift of second sight. By touching a person, he can look into their past as well as their future. He even has the ability to influence and change events yet to come. All of this leads to a confrontation with a Presidential candidate who is out to start World War III. As the wheel of fate would have it, Smith must play assassin to stop the political favorite.


Again, Cronenberg tweaked the tale, removing backstory and emphasizing other aspects of King’s book. With the West still battling a frigid Cold War with the East, the importance on nuclear annihilation was illustrated, and thanks to a wonderful performance by Christopher Walken, Johnny’s dilemma was given depth and gravitas. So while some of the book’s more important twists were avoided or amplified, Cronenberg stuck to the basics. He believed in King’s ability to tell a tale, and did very little to vary from his prophetic prose. It remains one of the main reasons that The Dead Zone is a brilliant film, as well as a powerful page turner.


In sharp distinction, something like Pet Sematary pales in comparison. While it has its defenders, many find this film a shadow of King’s horrifying, hellacious original. Dealing with a topic that automatically hooks many prospective parents – the death of a child – and using reincarnation as a means for a far more terrifying prospect, the novel was originally scrapped by the author. He felt that, in a creative realm where he pushed the envelope of the gruesome and grotesque, a killer kid was just too much to fathom. Luckily, King’s better half (his wife Tabitha) convinced him otherwise, and yet another bestseller was born. Yet when it finally came around to making the movie, a series of bad decisions resulted in a less than successful product.


Up front, director Mary Lambert was a moviemaking novice. She only had one feature under her belt (the little seen Siesta) and may have helmed some successful music videos (for Madonna, among others), but that’s hardly the resume for taking on such a tricky piece. To make matters worse, she cast mostly unknowns. Among the leads, only Fred Gwynne (Herman Munster himself) had any real name or fame value. The final nail in the creative coffin was the direct participation of King. By this time (1989), he had grown tired of how his books were treated by screenplay writers, and he took a stab at the script. Yet even the man who originated the story failed to stay true to it. There were changes in both situations and tone that bothered longtime fans.


All the missteps did eventually add up. While slightly effective, Pet Sematary the movie is nowhere near as powerful as the book. Part of the problem is the actors. Aside from Gwynne, everyone else has a tepid, TV movie like quality to their presence. Even worse, the subject matter seems severely toned down so as not to totally derail already angst ridden Mommys and Daddys. Such audience friendly fiddling seems to go hand in hand with a King adaptation. This is especially true of broadcast standards and practices. Many of the author’s tales have been translated into small screen mini-series, the better to deal with their scope. But such a strategy limits content, undercutting the epic evil of IT, or the end of the world wonder of The Stand.


And yet some artists manage to turn the tentative into the terrific – and they seem to follow the Cronenberg method of manipulation (which can actually be traced back to DePalma and Carrie). Take The Shawshank Redemption. Frank Darabont took the original prison story and kept the core conceits. Changing very little, but streamlining some of the subplots, he managed what many consider to be one of the greatest films of all time. Rob Reiner reinvented both “The Body” (which became the nostalgic classic Stand By Me) and Misery by playing to King’s strengths (story) while deemphasizing his weaknesses (his lack of visualized action). Recently, Swedish director Mikael Håfström took 1408 and created a wonderfully moody minor classic – and he did so by remaining faithful while still striking out on his own.


Clearly, staying true to King is not an instant guarantee for achievement. Such efforts as Needful Things, Secret Window, and Apt Pupil all managed minor liberties with their source, and still they appeared underwhelming and incomplete. On the other hand, open interpretations often end up equally unexceptional. Graveyard Shift abandoned most of what the short story had to offer, and yet the giant rat retread was dull and dopey. Similarly, The Mangler made the mechanical horror of the original into something far stupider and unbelievable. Apparently, for every insightful interpretation (Dolores Claiborne) there’s a failure to figure things out properly (The Night Flyer, anyone?).


Perhaps the key is talent. While not a given (Dreamcatcher came from Lawrence Kasdan, after all), it is obvious that when individuals of great artistic insight take on King’s work, something worthwhile usually results. Darabont did it again with The Green Mile, which makes his upcoming work on fan favorite The Mist all the more exciting. Mick Garris usually makes the most of the author’s words, having guided several entertaining TV efforts. George Romero gave the sensational schlock of Creepshow the proper EC comic coating (though his Dark Half was merely a marginal triumph) and even the man of letters himself argued for his frequently misplaced participation when he directed the disastrous Maximum Overdrive.


So maybe it is just a statistical anomaly. A man with so many adaptations of his work is bound to have more than his fair share of failures. And when you consider that he’s working in horror, an already tricky cinematic type, that anything with his name attached actually gels should be cause for celebration. Yet King has written very few clunkers in his four decades behind the typewriter, and the subpar productions (Firestarter, Thinner) keep cramping his reputation. In fact, the hack nature of his many movie flops has definitely impacted his literary worth. Though he’s frequently referred to himself as the medium equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries, the vast majority of his writing is not junk food. Sadly, most of the movies made from his ideas are barely digestible. 


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Sunday, Sep 2, 2007


Jerry Lewis remains an elusive cinematic figure. For most, he’s a joke, the punchline to a slam on the foolish French, or the kooky caricature of a nerd screeching “HEY LAAAAADY!” at the top of their nasal voice. Others have a more proper perspective, recognizing both his work with former partner Dean Martin (they remain the biggest phenomenon and unquantifiable gold standard in the now dead art of night club entertainment) and his tireless efforts on behalf of muscular dystrophy (summed up by this weekend’s telethon). But when it comes to film, especially those he’s personally written and directed, he stays a fool, a jester as jerk de-evovling the artform into nothing more than senseless silly slapstick. It doesn’t matter that Lewis authored one of the standard textbooks on the craft (The Total Film-Maker, 1971), or conceived technical innovations that revolutionized the production process.


Few see that he’s actually a bridge between the old fashioned chuckles of Hollywood’s Golden Era and the more experimental, existential humor of the post-modern period. Instead, he seems forever fated to be the dopey dude who takes the pratfall and pulls his face like putty – that’s all. Sadly, such a sentiment diminishes a great deal of very good work. While it’s true that Lewis lacks contextual sophistication – especially when it comes to subject matter and storyline – he is a procedural and visionary marvel. Thanks to a famous collaboration with Warner Brothers animator turned director Frank Tashlin (who’s really the aesthetic lynchpin for the look of most Lewis films) and his own turns in the creator’s chair, we can witness the rise, fall, and unjust dismissal of an amazing artist.


We begin by ignoring his first two solo efforts – the oddly dark The Delicate Delinquent (nothing more than a Martin and Lewis project gone sour) and the military farce The Sad Sack (good, but not quite there). After that, we can trace his talent, his tenacity, and his tendency toward self-indulgence. Hopefully, this will paint a better, more believable portrait of Jerry Lewis, an image beyond the frog-mouthed braying and the pantomime typewriter routines. For all his flaws, his hubris and his ego, the man could really make movies. The proof lies in the following list of legitimate cinematic statements, starting with:


Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958) (with director Frank Tashlin)
For many this stands as the first ‘legitimate’ Jerry Lewis film. It’s not a leftover from his partnership with Martin, and marks the moment when Tashlin’s cartoon conceit steps in. It becomes the standard for most of the comedian’s work for the next two decades. While sappy and saccharine, it’s also the start of greater things to come.


The Geisha Boy (1958) (with director Frank Tashlin)
While far from politically correct (watch out for lots of slant eyed Asian awkwardness) and hitting, again, on the “Lewis with a foundling” formula that would guide his initial output, this otherwise ordinary film represents something miserable, not memorable.


The Bellboy (1960)
After the routine returns of Don’t Give Up the Ship and Visit to a Small Planet, Lewis was looking for a way to express himself without the interference of studio stooges who didn’t understand his style. In the meantime, Paramount wanted to save his upcoming Cinderfella for the Fall. So during a nightclub appearance in Miami, he made an agreement with the studio to create this on the fly homage to silent slapstick comedy. It became Lewis’s breakthrough. It also marks the introduction of ‘video assist’ – the use of video playback to allow a director to test how a scene plays and how the compositions work. Yes, Lewis is credited for creating the now-obligatory tool.


Cinderfella (1960) (with director Frank Tashlin)
Tashlin’s take on the classic fairytale is so weepy and maudlin that it’s hard to believe that anyone thought it would be a sizeable hit. But because of his stature as a legitimate solo superstar (eclipsing his previous partner many times over), Lewis’s career in front of the camera was now secured. His next effort would establish his prowess behind the lens as well.


The Ladies Man (1961)
It remains a monumental achievement in set design and art direction. Throwing his weight around as a box office behemoth, Lewis demanded and received an entire Paramount soundstage to create what is, essentially, an entire four story house complete with grand concourse, spiral staircases, open walled bedrooms, and an old fashioned elevator running up the side. It was a massive masterpiece of a playset, and Lewis made the most of it. Visually, Man is amazing. Unfortunately, the comedy is a tad forced, relying more on small moments than the epic environment created.


The Errand Boy (1961)
As a love letter to the studio that stood by him, Lewis made this simplistic silliness. Standing as one of his true classic comedies, this skewering of Hollywood hubris in combination with the filmmaker’s fleet footed physical shtick resulted in a creative combination that would underscore his next few films. Tinsel Town never took such a well-intentioned tweaking.


It’$ Only Money (1962) (with director Frank Tashlin)
Relatively forgotten, even among Lewis fans, this oddball detective farce – Lewis is a TV repairman and alongside a shifty private dick, get caught up in the search for a rich family’s missing heir – is one of the funnyman’s forgotten gems. Tashlin really amplifies his anarchic style, and Lewis looses himself in the relatively low key role. Instead of playing to the audience, he’s playing FOR them.


The Nutty Professor (1963)
Without a doubt, this stands as one of comedy’s major cinematic milestones. By riffing on his relationship with ex-partner Martin (who Buddy Love is obviously mirrored after) and putting to use every kind of cleverness imaginable, we get a wonderful whirlwind of dopiness and deftness. Lewis actually plays CHARACTERS here, not just weird variations of his own stick boy persona, and the emotional underpinning of the relationship with Stella Purdy is heartfelt and very human. Granted, this satiric Jekyll and Hyde has its slack sequences, but if you wonder what keeps Lewis part of the motion picture equation, even four decades later, this fantastic film is the answer.


Who’s Minding the Store? (1963) (with director Frank Tashlin)
After Professor, another go round with Tashlin seemed like a step backward. Still, Store is fun, using the premise (Lewis is a clerk put through the ringer by an owner who doesn’t want him marrying her daughter) to explore some major spectacle set pieces. It’s hit or miss, but there’s more to love than loathe in the end. 


The Patsy (1964)
Often cited as one of Lewis’s more cynical films, this droll look at celebrity and the shallowness of fame is, in reality, on par with Professor as a certifiable sensation. A dynamite combination of silent film gags, pop culture spoof (see Ed Sullivan mock himself!), and insightful evisceration into the cult of personality, it’s a brilliant, brazen farce.


The Disorderly Orderly (1964) (with director Frank Tashlin)
For his last film with Tashlin, Lewis resorts to stereotyping – that is, merely playing a version of the klutzy character he perfected in The Bellboy and The Errand Boy. Still, Disorderly is a surreal bit of insanity. It’s a cookie-cutter confection that only wants to entertain. And it definitely does so in small, sublime doses.


The Family Jewels (1965)
Marking the end of an era in more ways than one, this unfunny flop would represent the last time Lewis worked within such a cartoonish carelessness. Playing seven separate roles (the film focuses on a butler – Lewis – looking to place an orphaned girl with one of six specious Uncles – again, all Lewis). Some may marvel at the extensive use of split screen, and the attempt to distinguish the ridiculous relatives by outrageous make-up and costume conceits, but by going back to the days of fostering wee ones, Lewis seemed to suggest that he needed such a crutch to remain relevant.


Three on a Couch (1966)
Attempting to make the leap into more ‘adult oriented fare’, many feel Lewis succeeded with this sincere psychobabble. Again playing multiple roles (the plot has the clown wooing the man-hating patients of his psychiatrist fiancé so the pair can vacation in Paris), we get the battle of the sexes circa the swinging ‘60s. Unfortunately, the envelope pushing concepts of gender politics and free love are nowhere to be found. In many ways, this film’s view of relationships is so conservative it would make ‘50s suburbanites smile.


The Big Mouth (1967)
Here it is - the last straw in the lumbering Lewis legacy. After the failure of two films made without his direct input – the sci-fi stupidity of Way…Way Out! and the British bunk Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River – Lewis retook the reigns of his motion picture product. The result was this horrendous, mean-spirited mess. Overstuffed with stereotypes (including more mandatory Oriental awfulness) and painfully unfunny, it signaled the final nail on the comedian’s almost closed creative coffin.


Which Way to the Front? (1970)
After once again failing to connect both as an actor (in the mediocre Hook, Line and Sinker) and director for hire (the Peter Lawford,/Sammy Davis Jr. vehicle One More Time), Lewis was desperate to revive his cinematic fortunes. With such war-oriented comedies as The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming and Start the Revolution Without Me creating significant buzz, Lewis jumped into the genre with both feet. The plot involved a rich army reject desperate to battle Hitler’s Nazi nogoodniks, and there’s a lot of attempted anarchy here. Most of the movie is inert, however.


Hardly Working (1980)
After his attempt at a semi-serious Holocaust drama was sidetracked by funding issues and a creative concern for the actual material (more on this in a moment), Lewis left filmmaking. He claimed he was angered when he saw one of his films playing on a double bill with the then popular porn film Deep Throat, and announced he was no longer “in tune” with the crass concerns of the industry. After a decade out of the moviemaking limelight, Lewis released this ‘comeback’ effort, a collection of cobbled together vignettes centering on a schlub who just can’t stay employed. Varying wildly between good and grating, the result was deemed a dud by a savvier motion picture marketplace. Lewis again blamed everyone but himself, and regrouped. He still had one more aged Ace up his sleeve.


Cracking Up (1983)
Though he would spend the rest of his career playing character parts (and quite well – his work in both Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy and the TV series Wiseguy were performance epiphanies), Lewis longed to be a big screen buffoon once again. Hoping to avoid the flaws of Working, he brought in old script collaborator Bill Richmond (who had worked with the actor on several of his seminal hits). The result was a weirdly uneven effort that still manages to be uproariously funny. Though he was about as old as the material he was mining, Lewis proved that no one understood this kind of craziness better than he. Sadly, physical limitations and demographic denial prevented any further films.


The Day the Clown Cried (Unfinished)
For a long time, this rumored fiasco acted as an artistic albatross around Lewis’s neck – and with good reason. As Roberto Benigni proved with his painfully insulting Holocaust comedy Life is Beautiful, some subjects can’t stand up to dimwitted dopiness. Clearly, the killing of six million Jews by Hitler during World War II is one of them. Still, Lewis believed he had stumbled onto something substantive when he discovered Joan O’Brien’s novel about an imprisoned clown employed by the Nazi’s to entertain little children as they were sent off to the gas chambers. True, there is a queasy quality of tastelessness when matched up against Lewis’s love of all things overdone and overbroad, but it’s quite possible that he could have pulled this off. Naturally, those who’ve seen a rough cut have argued for its awfulness, but if a stunted Italian gimmick can get audiences to appreciate his jesting snuff stuff, why couldn’t Lewis? Sadly, it appears this will merely remain fodder for further mythologizing, nothing more. 


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Wednesday, Aug 15, 2007


For a time, he was the bad boy of British filmmaking, a moniker that actually meant something back in the productive, post-modern phase of cinema. A director by whim instead of choice, he turned an obsession with visuals into an iconic, inventive style. His fascination with religion, symbolism, nature, and human frailty became the calling cards of his fractured, sometimes frightening vision. Today, his oeuvre forms a footnote in the ongoing deconstruction of late century consensus, and that’s really a shame. Before all the ballyhooed bandits who supposedly struck substantive blows against the artform’s stodgy empire, Ken Russell was the original rebel. And unlike his current compatriots, there was a slightly ludicrous legitimacy to his creative cacophony.


It was English TV where the former dancer and avid still photographer found his initial infamy. After a series of short films, Russell began creating his impressionistic biographies of famous composers, narratives that would usually avoid the facts to find the metaphysical import of the artist. While many forgave his frequent factual miscues and meshing of period placement with modern sensibilities, not every denizen of the dead was amused. The estate of Richard Strauss withdrew the musical rights to the acclaimed musicians catalog after viewing The Dance of the Seven Veils, an effort described by Russell as a “comic strip in seven parts.”  To this day, they have never allowed the supposedly scandalous work to be shown.


That was 1970. The year before, Russell had caused even greater international controversy with his award winning film Women in Love. Only his third feature (after French Dressing and Billion Dollar Brain), this reimagined D, H. Lawrence adaptation featured robust sexuality and that most taboo of big screen stigmas – full frontal MALE nudity. Of course, no outrage goes unnoticed in the UK’s tabloid mentality, and Women became one of the year’s biggest hits. It was nominated for four Oscars, several BAFTAs (the English equivalent) and three Golden Globes (where it won Best Picture). Russell’s reputation was secured, especially among his fellow countrymen. He quickly became the era’s most important filmmaker. But even that wasn’t good enough for the confrontational creator. He would top the Strauss imbroglio with an even more contentious effort – 1971’s The Devils.


After the issue with Veils, Russell quickly regrouped. He tackled the life of Tchaikovsky, including a confrontation of his horrible childhood and closeted homosexuality, in The Music Lovers. Once again, he was the toast of the critical community. Looking for his next project, the director decided on two. One would be an adaptation of the renowned stage musical The Boy Friend (starring supermodel in transition Twiggy). The other would be a reworking of Aldous Huxley’s non-fiction focus on superstition and religious fanaticism in 17th Century France, The Devils of Loudun. Starring Oliver Reed (in one of many collaborations between the actor and the filmmaker) and Vanessa Redgrave, Russell used the book’s factual foundation to mount a vicious attack on the Church and its brutal, backwards mindset.


The film, rife with sex, purposeful perversion, and uncompromising criticism, was more than an early ‘70s audience could handle. Banned almost immediately in Britain, Russell also fought with Warner Brothers over its decision to further edit the final cut. Similar to the stance taken by fundamentalists when Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ hit theaters, conservative groups and religious proponents responded angrily at the director’s decision to mix dogma with explicit acts of carnality. The story, focusing on Reed’s character, a disillusioned priest targeted by Cardinal Richelieu, was seen as a scathing denouncement of organized religion. Fr. Urbain Grandier is accused of corrupting a local convent, and with the help of the deformed, sexually obsessed Sr. Jeanne, he is found guilty and burned as a heretic. Featuring a notorious sequence where naked nuns molest a statue of Christ, Russell’s inspired insidiousness drove censors, and the cash men, crazy.


Yet his reputation only soared after the motion picture was completed. The Venice Film Festival and the National Board of Review both picked him as their Best Director, and the added attention brought audiences to his genial, jovial Boy Friend. Besides, in less traditionalist countries, Russell’s version of The Devils played unedited, meeting with much acclaim. After 1972’s Savage Messiah (a self financed study of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska) and 1974’s Mahler (nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes), Russell was handed the perfect vehicle for his opulent visual passions. Roger Stigwood was looking to capitalize on the popularity of The Who, and in particular, their groundbreaking 1969 rock opera Tommy. Long a favorite among fans and aficionados, the core concept for the production was simple. Let lead singer Roger Daltrey play the deaf, dumb, and blind boy who becomes a media messiah. Gather together a collection of current popstars for support. Let composer Pete Townsend flesh out the narrative. And then put it all in the hands of England’s foremost motion picture agent provocateur.


Purists initially balked at the changes requested by Russell and the producers, yet the final result remains the most accurate visualization of Townsend’s take on commercialized and manipulated false idolatry ever attempted. Much of the movie’s genius remains in its dead clever casting. Ann-Margaret played Tommy’s mother, a master stroke considering her earlier incarnation as a part of the packaging of Elvis Presley (as the lead in the satire Bye, Bye, Birdie and the King’s actual costar in Viva, Las Vegas). Reed was once again a part of the picture, his atonal squawk a perfect illustration of his character’s corrupt nature. Supporting roles went to noted names in the current pop purview. Eric Clapton played a nefarious preacher, while Tina Turner was the drug wielding Acid Queen. Who bandmate (and noted party boy) Keith Moon was the perverted, pedophilic Uncle Ernie, and UK idol Paul Nicholas became the callous Cousin Kevin.


The two biggest casting coups came when celebrated megastars Jack Nicholson and Elton John agreed to be part of the production. The star of Five Easy Pieces and Chinatown came on for a cameo, singing (!) the part of Tommy’s quack physician. For the all important role of the Pinball Wizard (for those unfamiliar with the work, our hero becomes a cause celeb thanks in part to his unusual adeptness at the classic arcade amusement) Rod Stewart was originally targeted. But the phenomenally popular keyboard player was a much more obvious choice. His 1974 album Caribou had produced two #1 hits (“The Bitch is Back” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”) and the release of a Greatest Hits package later that year lead to another chart-topping smash. Decked out in gigantic Doc Marten boots and playing a ‘pinball piano’, John literally stole the show, driving fans to the film for his single scene appearance alone.


Even today, Tommy stands as a remarkable cinematic statement. Russell, working flawlessly within the parameters of the corrupt celebrity spotlight, exacts amazingly nuanced work from his cast. Since there is no dialogue (Tommy is an all singing storyline with additional visual narrative to supplement the songs), everything must be told and sold through performance. Daltrey, having more or less played the lead for the better part of six years, was a perfect golden boy icon. Ann-Margaret is an equally compelling mother Mary (she received a well deserved Oscar nomination or her turn). Even performers unfamiliar with the motion picture format shine in Russell’s revisionist world. Even better, the director’s delirious reliance on visual surreality and symbolism effortlessly matched Townsend’s psychological subtext. Had the movie been a simple, straightforward interpretation of the album, we’d be bored by the time Tommy becomes a quasi-cult leader. But because of its biting social satire, its amazing musical score (given one of the first multichannel Dolby presentations), and the filmmaker’s fascinating vision, it remains a minor masterpiece, and a terrific time encapsulation of the growing Me Decade malaise.


Unfortunately, Tommy would become Russell’s last real meaningful mainstream statement. He tried to copy its anti-fame facets with the blatantly blitzed out Listzomania. Reteaming with Daltrey, the director attempted to turn the life of Franz Liszt into a junk culture jaunt through the wicked world of celebrity excess. Envisioning the classical composer as the world’s first pop star, Russell sets up a rivalry with Richard Wagner. He even depicts Hitler’s favorite musical savant as the bastion of all that is evil (quite literally - he’s a vampire here). His war of ideals – the creative vs. the corrupt, the genuine vs. the false – was overflowing with eccentric and downright bizarre imagery. From an oversized phallus wielded as a weapon, to a last act confrontation including a spaceship (???), this follow-up to the internationally embraced Tommy almost obliterated Russell’s reputation. Viewed as wildly self-indulgent and reckless, it remains one of the director’s most notorious (and unseen) efforts.


Once Listzomania started the ball rolling, Russell never regained his stature. In 1977, he tried to sell a sexed up take on the life and career of silent film star Rudolph Valentino (starring a frequently naked and awkward Rudolph Nureyev), but even three BAFTA nominations couldn’t erase his stained standing. In one fell swoop, he had gone from creator to crackpot. The trouble with his 1980 adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s sci-fi novel Altered States didn’t help matters. Based on the work of scientist John Lilly and his research into sensory-deprivation, the award winning playwright and screen scenarist envisioned a storyline which suggested that, deep inside every human being, was his primordial, prehistoric ancestry, desperate to get out. Tapping into that genetic memory via drug-aided sessions, a sort of biological devolution could take place. Though not an award winning tome by any far stretch of the imagination, Chayefsky believed it made a salient point about the state of mankind.


Russell didn’t really ruin the source material as much as make it his own. Star William Hurt was put through all manner of make-up torture to depict the then novel onscreen physical transformations. The subtext of LSD and other hallucinogens gave the director license to literally create a big screen interpretation of a trip, and the standard Russell obsessions – religion, blood, carnality – came pouring forth. Though surprisingly faithful to the novel’s middle act (Hurt turns into a primitive caveman, wrecking primal havoc in the process), the ending was like an explosion inside the aging filmmaker’s Id. It was quite clear what he was going for (a character trying to reclaim his modern humanity), but the overly stylized and mannered way it attempted to get there caused more confusion than clarity.


Well respected and praised today, Altered States was a decent sized hit at the time. But Chayefsky, furious with the liberties taken with the material (he saw it as a serious speculative effort, not an infantile F/X freak out), asked for his name to be taken off the production (he had also provided the script). Somehow, that translated into Russell being difficult and demanding, and with the cloud of his previous cinematic foibles still in full flower, he was dismissed as part of a sad, hedonistic decade. It was four years before he would make another feature film, and his 1984 take on sex for sale, Crimes of Passion, proved to be his final Hollywood effort. Tapping the then rising Kathleen Turner for the role of prostitute China Blue (who, by day, is a fashion industry employee) and offering Anthony Hopkins the plum role of corrupt preacher Rev. Shayne, the saga of corporeal identity and interpersonal kink caused quite a stir with its frank depictions of fetishism and the erotic. While some praised its frankness, others saw it as a middle aged man’s fantasy fodder.


The next seven years would settle Russell’s reputation as a has-been. His take on Lord Byron and Mary Shelley (including the creation of her seminal work, Frankenstein) became the stagnant and unimaginative Gothic. Whereas his version of Oscar Wilde’s Salome’s Last Dance was novel (the director intercuts the play with sequences set inside a brothel where the production is being helmed) it was Lair of the White Worm that brought him back into the populist arena…if ever so slightly. Featuring a standard horror narrative (Satanic snake charms and disarms a local countryside community) and an early turn by future heartthrob Hugh Grant, it remains a crazy quilt cult hit. But after another trek into D. H. Lawrence territory (1989’s The Rainbow), and 1991’s ‘been there/done that’ Whore (controversial in its NC-17 rating only), his cinematic importance was all but erased. He turned to making music videos, oddly enough working once again with Elton John, and concentrating on television back in Britain.


Today, Russell stands as a well regarded artifact from filmmaking’s wild and wonky past. He is pigeonholed as a man more interested in style over substance, and thanks in part to his eccentric efforts for UK television (including a jaunty take on the English Folk Song), he’s become, at 80, a twee goofball granddad. He’s continued making movies over the last 20 years, little seen efforts with intriguing names like Lion’s Mouth, Revenge of the Elephant Man, and his rock and roll take on Edgar Allan Poe, Fall of the Louse of Usher. Almost all are self-financed, and many are filmed on the fly on his own estate. Granted, remaining active has its advantages, many believe his recent output to be nothing more than an elaborate collection of in-jokes from one of Hell’s more histrionic harlequins.


Just this year, the much maligned maverick announced his newest project – a take on Daniel Dafoe’s Moll Flanders. Whether it sparks renewed interest in the man’s considerable creative canon remains to be seen. The fact that it even requires rediscovering is perhaps the saddest aspect of Russell’s tale. Though he was frequently his own worse enemy, he left behind a legitimate legacy of big screen artistry that’s almost impossible to ignore. One day, the world will once again wake up to this passionate, if problematic cinematic visionary. Until then, Russell remains an enigma, one that should be welcomed back with open, appreciative arms.


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