Friday, June 12, 2009

Reading the Movies

The Dancing Image has encouraged its readers and fellow bloggers to share the film-related books that have had a special significance for them. The original poster encourages the tagging of five friends to do the same; I won't, since it always seems like a guilt-trip if you happen to be too busy to participate. Let us just say you're free to join in if you want to. At any rate, here are my picks:

In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch. A friend of mine lent me his copy some years ago, which I read from cover to cover in one sitting and promptly ordered my own copy shortly after. Murch's film editing credits include Apocalypse Now, Godfather Part III and Cold Mountain. His book is probably the single best volume I have ever read on what a film actually is, and how an audience responds to it psychologically and emotionally.

Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi by John M. Gibson and Chris McDonnell. This sumptuous, coffee table-styled volume has a sentimental meaning for me, because Mr. Bakshi signed my copy when I got to meet him at a gallery event in Soho. Moreover, though, this is an incredible, career-spanning scrapbook full of animation artwork, and a sometimes hyperbolic but always sincere and passionate biography of one of America's most misunderstood and underrated film artists.

Cult Movies by Danny Peary. One of the finest collections of film criticism essays that I own. Peary uses "cult" as a pretty broad umbrella term, reviewing Casablanca, The Searchers and The Wizard of Oz alongside fare like Two-Lane Blacktop and The Honeymoon Killers. His Freudian reading of King Kong, wherein Kong is the manifestation of Carl Denham's sexual frustration a la the Id Monster in Fordbidden Planet, is one of the most fasctinating I've ever read. Like all of my favorite critics, Peary's writing says just as much about him as it does the films in question.

Making Movies by Sidney Lumet. A real gift of a book: one of America's finest filmmakers candidly sharing his experiences from a storied career. This book details the nitty-gritty experience of directing, the importance of each aspect of production, and instructions on how to use every single tool in the filmmaker's toolbox to better tell your story. A must-read for anyone interested in getting into the business.

Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger. And speaking of books by respected filmmakers... while Anger enjoys a reputation as one of the fathers of the post-modern cinematic language, his famous written work is really little more than enjoyable, mud-caked load of the famous and the dead's dirtiest laundry. Every grain should be taken with a grain of salt and simply enjoyed. More than anything, this is a secret-handshake book for cinephiles, something that automatically starts conversations when people see you reading it on the subway. Did I also mention that it's just a hell of a lot of fun?

Gilliam on Gilliam, edited by Ian Christie. I got this as a birthday present when in my early teens, when Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton were my greatest cinematic idols. Gilliam is remarkably candid here and recalls his career and his many battles with producers and studio chiefs with great clarity. It's a fascinating portrait of a very neurotic but highly intelligent and creative artist.

The Psychotronic Video Guide by Michael J. Weldon. The most tattered and battered book on my shelf, this is the Leonard Maltin guide's black sheep brother. No B-movie (or A-film with B-ish roots) is left unreviewed, from horror to blaxploitation, martial arts and grindhouse pictures of all kinds. Though most video guides of this nature have been rendered obsolute by IMDb, this book is still probably the only place you'll find any info a great number of unloved genre pictures.

Hitchcock/Truffaut, by Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut. When one great, young filmmaker interviews an even greater, older one, the results are one of the finest film books ever committed to print. Hitchcock starts off very joke and anecdotal but eventually starts to probe deeply into his own work and his methods of working. An indespensible volume.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

It's part of the race: David Carradine 1936-2009

The untimely death of David Carradine came as a shock to everyone, from youngsters who knew him as the eponymous assassin squad leader and father figure in Kill Bill, to the baby boomers who watched him on TV as Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu, to cinephiles the world over, for many wonderful roles over the years. He was Cole Younger, leader of the Younger gang in Walter Hill's The Long Riders (alongside real-life siblings Robert and Keith), an existential circus acrobat in Ingmar Bergman's underrated The Serpent's Egg, and Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby's Paths of Glory. But out of all the roles of his long and storied career, my personal favorite is the wackily nihilistic, low-budget, subversive Roger Corman opus, Death Race 2000.

The film was recently given a toothless and irony-free remake treatment by Paul W.S. Anderson and Jason Statham, but the original, directed by Paul Bartel of Eating Raoul fame, and scripted by the brilliant Charles B. Griffith, is undoubtedly the superior picture. By the year 2000, the United States have dissolved and become a totalitarian state. Population control and popular entertainment are handled simultaneously in the form of the Transcontinental Road Race, a cross-country automobile rally in which the contestants score points by mowing down innocent pedestrians. In keeping with the theme of fascistic empires, several of the racers have names like Mathilda the Hun (who sports a German helmet decked out with swastikas) and Nero the Hero. A pre-fame (and hilarious) Sylvester Stallone is Machine Gun Joe, the tommy gun-wielding, short-fuse bad boy that the fans love to hate. And David Carradine is Frankenstein, the unchallenged champ and star of the show.

According to Carradine, he sought out the role in this film to distance himself from Kwai Chang Caine as much as possible. Frankenstein wears a black leather bodysuit and gimp mask, and talks in a monosyllabic Alpha 60 voice, although this is revaled to be a front for a suave and philosophical individual. Striving to outwit his opponents as well as a ragtag group of liberal revolutionaries who set booby traps for the racers, Frankenstein, like Lemmy Caution, is a poker-faced anti-hero in a farcical, dark-witted spoof. One of the film's many highlights is a scene in which the elderly and terminally ill are lined up in the middle of the road outside a hospital for "Euthinasia Day," and Frankenstein displays his "red-blooded, American sense of humor" by driving up the ramp and taking out the doctors and nurses instead.

With its mix of sci-fi satire, grindhouse violence, Benny Hill "Yakity Sax"-inspired sped-up car chases, and 70's post-watergate sentiment (Peter Fonda reportedly turned down the lead in this film... his loss) Death Race 2000 is a deliciously poisoned cupcake for any cult film fan. And Frankenstein may well be the ultimate David Carradine performance - never winking at the camera and always acting like a professional, no matter how loopy things got. He was an actor of immense talent and charisma who will be fondly remembered.