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Reel Ink August 2013

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Reel-Ink-August-2013August 2013 -

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The cast of characters in writer/director Curtis Harrington’s autobiography Nice Guys Don’t Work In Hollywood: The Adventures of an Aesthete in the Movie Business (Drag City Incorporated, www.dragcity.com) is nothing short of amazing. A partial list of featured and supporting players includes avant-garde pioneer Kenneth Anger, director James Whale, Jean Cocteau, Shelley Winters, Robert Bresson, Forrest (Forry) Ackerman, Christopher Isherwood (who punched Harrington), Stanley Kubrick, Debbie Reynolds, Roger Corman and the cast of Charlie’s Angels. To call his CV eclectic is something of an understatement, and it’s doubtful that any other major or minor Hollywood figure’s career moved as Harrington’s did: from the resolutely experimental to the realm of low brow American television drama of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Born and raised in California, Harrington was entranced by movies, art and literature at an early age. Among his early accomplishments, he completed a degree in Cinema at USC at a time when there were barely any such programmes in existence, blagged his way into a job at Paramount when the studio system was still in full swing, travelled to France and inveigled his way in with the aristocrats and artists of the Parisian demimonde, and wrote ‘An Index To The Films of Josef Von Sternberg’, which was published by the UK’s Sight and Sound and went some way towards restoring Von Sternberg’s status as a filmmaker of note at a time when his reputation was at a low point.

Inspired by his friend Kenneth Anger (he appeared in Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome), he made several shorts and the cult feature Night Tide, based on his own short story (which is included as an appendix in the book, along with Harrington’s Josef Von Sternberg index) and starring a young Dennis Hopper, but his career followed a downward trajectory in terms of quality and artistic merit; his last few decades were spent primarily working in episodic television.

I’ve often found the memoirs of Hollywood’s less successful personalities more interesting than those of its stars and superstars, as those on the periphery often have axes to grind and are far less inclined towards discretion or gushing flattery. Harrington’s memoir certainly falls within the ‘nothing to lose by saying what I really think’ camp, and is all the better for it. It should be fairly obvious to most readers that the author is gay before he states this explicitly early in the book; his tone is something like a hybrid of film noir classic Laura’s dyspeptic Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) and John Waters, but without the former’s corrosive disdain or the latter’s trademark flippancy.  Nice Guys Don’t Work In Hollywood is a unique autobiography by a Hollywood insider who never managed to reconcile artistic inclinations with the reality of the industry’s commercial imperatives, but who still managed to have an extraordinary life and career.

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Fervid Filmmaking jacket

Cinematic flotsam and jetsam has always exerted a sort of perverse fascination for some, whether it be horrendous ‘so awful they’re great’ uber low budget classics from the ‘30s through the ‘70s, unabashed exploitation films peddling titillation of various stripes, or gems of astonishing dementedness or hilariously misguided sincerity. Mike Watt dubs the films he affectionately analyses and contextualises in Fervid Filmmaking: 66 Cult Pictures of Vision, Verve, and No Self Restraint (McFarland & Company www.mcfarlandpub.com) ‘Kitchen Sink’ cinema, which is as good a collective definition as any for the wildly disparate films he admires and celebrates.

Much has been written about cult/trash/midnight movies since the ‘80s, but this area of cinema remains one for which, to paraphrase a U.S. Supreme Court Justice’s infamous definition of pornography, an exact definition remains elusive and subjective, but we know it when we see it. The 66 films Watt writes about are, even by the most fluid definition of cult cinema, an incredibly diverse bunch, and most rewardingly, Watt includes many films that are not part of the usual canon of the weirdly beloved.

Watt’s eclectic selection includes films made by significant directors (Robert Altman, Alain Resnais, Derek Jarman) as well as unknowns, although many of them, whether studio backed or micro-budgeted indies, have slipped in and out of distribution, and I was happy to discover that a good number of the films championed are new to me. Unlike most who have written about the cinematic hinterland over the last few decades, Watt is more than just a fan boy whose entire gleeful sphere of reference is the hinterland itself, and he writes knowledgeably and thoughtfully about the place of these films within genre and the era in which they were made, or in the context of their creators’ careers.

The thing that loosely connects all of these films is a devil may care, ‘damn the torpedoes!’ attitude on the parts of those who made them, whether it’s a skewed take on the teenage doofus film by Robert Altman (O.C. & Stiggs) or a love letter to LSD by directorial tyrant Otto Preminger (Skidoo), unclassifiable obscurities (Forbidden Zone, Sonny Boy), or labours of love made by directors cashing in their chips, such as Saw II & III director Darren Lynn Bousman’s Repo! The Genetic Opera.

Don’t be put off by the cheap looking cover with its promise of a ‘Foreword by Lloyd Kaufman’ (Kaufman’s usual self aggrandising endorsement of himself and Troma). Fervid Filmmaking is a rewarding and entertaining read which is several notches above the giddy wallowing in gore, sleaze and non-existent production values that characterises much of the writing about the perverse and excessive fringes of cinema.

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At 96, Kirk Douglas is perhaps the very last of the Golden era leading men who is still with us. He began his career as a contract player, and when he became a major star he used the clout stardom brought him to set up Bryna Productions (named after his mother) in 1955. Bryna went on to produce 19 features, of which Spartacus is arguably the best and most enduring.

In I Am Spartacus! Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist (Open Road Integrated Media http://www.openroadmedia.com/kirk-douglas), Douglas recounts his budgetary struggles with financial backer Universal Pictures, his creative struggles with the film’s two directors (Universal’s choice Anthony Mann was fired when the scale of the production proved too much for him, and a young upstart named Stanley Kubrick was brought in), and his attempts to contain and placate the cast’s egos.

Most importantly, his most serious challenge as he saw it was to get the Blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s name up on the screen. Douglas was confident this would bring an end to the then decade old Communist witch hunt and the Blacklist which had destroyed many lives and careers and resulted in jail time for the Hollywood Ten (which included Trumbo) in 1950.

Much has been written about how driven and uncompromising Douglas was at the peak of his career, and he wistfully acknowledges having regrets about the often difficult and unpleasant character of his younger self. He also addresses the issue of whether Otto Preminger’s bloated epic Exodus was actually the first to break the Blacklist by first announcing that Trumbo would be credited for that film’s script. Douglas contends that Preminger only summoned the courage to credit Trumbo when he learned that Douglas/Spartacus was going to do so; interestingly, in Blacklistee Bernard Gordon’s Hollywood Exile, originally published in 1997 and reviewed in this month’s IN BRIEF section below, Gordon contends that it was the other way around, and that Douglas wavered about openly crediting Trumbo until Preminger made it clear he was going to do so..

This is a lively, entertaining read despite the seriousness of the subject matter, and Douglas’ distinctive authorial voice imbues the book with the feeling of sitting rapt at a dinner party, while he recounts the entire fascinating tale.

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Hollywood Copyright Wars cover

If you thought that the legal and cultural turmoil surrounding film and music copyright is a modern phenomenon, think again. In Hollywood’s Copyright Wars: From Edison to the Internet (Columbia University Press cup.columbia.edu), Peter Decherney coherently describes and analyses the struggles undergone by content creators and owners and the American legal system to define and control content ownership since the birth of moving pictures.

The concept of film piracy is as old as the medium itself, as it was an accepted practice by early distributors and producers to freely copy and distribute each other’s films. Following on from tentative precedents set in the 1880s that wrestled with the concept of patents in the realm of still photographs (the issue being whether pushing a camera button to capture images in front of it constituted authorship), the first motion pictures registered with the copyright office were categorised as photographs, not as a unique medium. A legal standard was thus set that has largely remained in place, and the legal system and content owners have stumbled along in their attempts to incorporate major changes in the distribution and consumption of moving images, the two biggest challenges coming in the form of the home video revolution of the ‘80s and the enormous upheaval wrought by the rapid growth of digital distribution.

This is an engrossing one-stop history of an important subject that might appear dry and pedantic on first consideration, but is anything but.

IN BRIEF

Flickering Light (2)

Neon lights and signs are quintessential Americana and have a strong association with cinema, both in the magnificent exteriors of the now extinct grand movie palaces and in the cityscapes of film noir. Flickering Light: A History of Neon (Reaktion Books www.reaktionbooks.co.uk ) by Christoph Ribbat is a thorough history of the invention, development and rise and decline of this symbol of modernity and commerce.

Initially considered sophisticated and elegant, within a few decades of its widespread proliferation in the U.S., neon became associated with inner city squalor and cheap road side motels and hostelries, and its delicacy and artistry was replaced by much cheaper plastic moulded signs lit by bulbs. Ribbat’s book is a concise and revealing history of this once maligned, now nostalgically fashionable lighting beloved of retro connoisseurs, and also considers neon’s place in modern art and popular music. Neon will never return to prominence, but it will continue to function as a romantic signifier of a rapidly disappearing form of urbanity.

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Hollywood Exile or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist (University of Texas Press www.utexaspress.com by screenwriter Bernard Gordon was originally published in 1999, and recently made its e-book debut (University of Texas Press www.utexaspress.com).

Gordon’s story of the effect of the Blacklist on his life and career is a stirring read. He was a reasonably successful screenwriter with a promising future whose career in Hollywood came to an end after his involvement with the Communist Party led to the issuing of a HUAC summons, although he never actually testified.

The most important person in Gordon’s post Hollywood European career was Oscar winning writer/producer Phillip Yordan, and their somewhat murky relationship is at the centre of the second part of the book. While he falls just short of explicitly branding Yordan as a thief of others’ credits, Gordon does call into question Yordan’s screenwriting ability, and he makes it clear that he felt that Yordan and has producing partner Samuel Bronston took huge advantage of the many Blacklist exiles working in Europe. Yordan paid expatriate writers a fraction of what they had been making in Hollywood, which they were forced to accept in order to feed their families, and of course these underpaid writers only received their screenwriting credits decades later when the Writer’s Guild campaigned successfully to right this wrong.

Gordon’s story is one of triumphing over adversity, as he managed to make a decent living and live a rather exotic life peopled with colourful characters, while maintaining his moral integrity. It’s an inspiring, fascinating read.