And then I got up to introduce my birthday present to Harry. We were set to show two shorts and a special trailer, so I mentioned them. But when I started speaking, I didn't read my prepared thoughts. Hell, I'm not entirely sure what I said. All I remember clearly is that sound when I announced the title. I barely had a chance to start, much less finish, saying "THE MAJES--" when I was hit by that roar of approval. Ready for a little Carrey/Darabont action? Oh, yes... they were.
First up when I took my seat was a videotaped greeting by Frank himself. His keenly developed hambone was on display as he took the audience of a brief walking tour of The Lot in Hollywood, right next to the Formosa CafÃ©, where his offices are. He pointed out the stages where he built the Green Mile and the full-scale Majestic, but what he totally geeked out over was the door used by Porky Pig in the live-action/animated classic short film, "You Oughta Be In Pictures." Frank's still a film lover in the best of ways, unspoiled by the business of show, and I take great pride in having him declare the BNAT as the "epicenter of film geekdom."
The film seemed to play beautifully. There were small sniffles of sorrow from all over the Alamo as the final reels played, and several people came up to me over the course of the rest of the evening to rant and rave. Of course, nothing is unanimous, and there were a few people who felt the film was too sweet, too sentimental. Our own El Cosmico told me with his trademark bluntness that it was "crap," and I can empathize with why he thought so. I think it's a film for a particular audience, and I hope they find it amidst the crowded holiday season.
Leave it to Tim League to show Japanese STAR WARS parody animated porn between films. Many in the audience seemed shocked and stunned to see Chewbacca and C3PO engaged in graphic sexual acts, and I was sorry Tim shut the tape off right before the big finish, the shot of George Lucas being orally serviced by JarJar Binks. It's really no wonder Lucasfilm is suing the hell out of the makers of the film right now, but if Falwell couldn't beat Flynt, how does Lucas expect to triumph?
Next up was ROCK ALL NIGHT, a Roger Corman film that is essentially a one-act play, all shot on one set. Dick Miller stars, and it's a really strong performance by him. The film's not brilliant, and it won't redefine cinema for you if you see it, but it's a nice reminder that Corman didn't set out to make cheesy films. Instead, he was sort of like Rod Serling's slightly less gifted brother. He wrote morality plays, peopled them with familiar types, and had a sense of satire that was easily missed. At the peak of what he did, Corman was one of the hardest working independent filmmakers I've ever seen, and this was a great discovery by Tarantino, who passed it on to Rodriguez, who passed it on to Harry, who passed it on to the BNAT crowd. And in the film's closing lines, as the references to KING KONG were made, the audience got excited. Harry said the two films tied together in an obvious way during his intro. Did Harry really get a print of..?
RKO logo up. Question answered. He did. He got KING KONG. And it's a beautiful print. He later told us that it was the Warner Archives print. It's the cleanest version of the film I've ever seen, including the big collector's edition laserdisc from the early '90s. Seeing the film like that, with the crowd totally digging it, was enough to make me forget what was coming next. I experienced the film through fresh eyes, seeing new details in the world that Cooper and O'Brien and Steiner and all the other artists involved all helped create. It's a great movie, breathless and entertaining even now, even after all the sensory overload we've been bombarded with courtesy of Hollywood. KING KONG retains the power to thrill a roomful of people in the dark because of great writing, good acting, a genuinely adult sense of humor, and the magic of Kong himself. He's fascinating to watch. Some of the first-timers (and there were many) said afterwards that they didn't realize you sympathized with Kong during the film. They had grown up with the perception of Kong as a monster, like Karloff's work in the original FRANKENSTEIN, never realizing how much pathos and humanity was injected into these creations.
As if to bring things full circle, Darabont asked me after BNAT about the origin of the KONG print since he wants to screen in in Los Angeles. He loves to show films for friends. Last year on his birthday, we all packed the Paramount to watch 2001 on the bigscreen, and the moment where the characters onscreen sing "Happy Birthday" to Frank Poole was surreal, to say the least. This guy who made the film about someone learning the joys of showing films to friends definitely understands that joy and indulges it himself, just like Quentin Tarantino does even when he's not throwing a QT fest, just like Harry does, just like I do. I'm about to start a series of screenings at the Egyptian Theater in LA, working in conjunction with the American Cinemateque, and there's a real joy to that, to programming an evening of entertainment for people.
And we were only halfway through by this point.
VI. "Citizen Dildo"
The next film began without any real introduction. The Paramount logo came up first, then the sight of NYC. It was only when Tom Cruise sat up in bed that the audience realized they were looking at VANILLA SKY, Cameron Crowe's new movie, a remake of Alejandro Amenabar's Spanish film, OPEN YOUR EYES (ABRE LOS OJOS). This is one of the films that surprised me most for the night, since I've seen OPEN YOUR EYES several times and assumed I had a pretty good idea what to expect from Crowe's interpretation of it.
In some ways, my guess was right on the money. The film is largely a faithful translation, with shot compositions, dialogue, and even a major player (Penelope Cruz) lifted directly. But the ways that Crowe chose to sign the picture, the things he did to tell the story his way, caught me off-guard. I found myself fascinated by the echoes of the original that I couldn't shake. Crowe's film is soaked in pop culture, but not in the same way as his films usually are. Here, he seems to be after something, seems to be using it for a reason, and the film is like a puzzle, something to be solved. What is the purpose of pouring all of these touches into the film that refer to other movies, to music, to the world we create around ourselves from album covers and artifacts from things we love like a musician's smashed guitar or an oversized Truffaut poster? What does any of this have to do with the story that Amenabar told in the first place, which is about defining happiness in life, and about the gradual realization of the role of love?
Cruise is good here, but he won't be liked by many of his regular fans. He's an asshole from the first frame. There's something about David that makes you want to smash his face in, just a little. He's too charmed, too blessed, the kind of pretty boy millionaire who skates through life without ever getting any of it on himself. He tears through women who look like Cameron Diaz, uses them up and tosses them away, refusing to get caught by any of them. There's a casual abuse to the way he treats those around him, a refusal to acknowledge that what he does has consequences. He constantly rubs his best friend Jason Lee's nose in his life, always showing off, always playing the alpha male. In short, he's the way many people secretly suspect Tom Cruise might really be. I mean, face it... how is the average viewer ever going to relate to a guy like this? How is the average person in the audience supposed to empathize with a guy whose problems seem to be which of his many cars to drive, which of his many girls to fuck, and which of his many apartments to sleep in?
Having just seen UNTITLED a few times, something odd happened to me as Julie (Diaz's character) becomes more prominent in the film. In UNTITLED, the point is now made quite clearly that the Band Aids, and Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) in particular, really do love the musicians they sleep with. It's not casual for them. They don't have illusions about replacing the wives, or at least, they try not to, but they do fall in love. They believe that they enable the band to play, that they are part of the reason the music happens. Penny Lane loves Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) with a singular focus. And when he reveals himself, reveals how obviously he is not in love, it shatters her. When UNTITLED ends, we're just seeing the beginning of some of these ideas. It's like Crowe said, "Hold that thought" and went and shot VANILLA SKY. Julie picks up where Penny Lane left off. Julie is the social equal to David Aames (Tom Cruise) in the film. She's not a groupie. She's someone he describes as a "friend." At first, they appear to be truly close, but as we get a glimpse at just how hard Aames works to keep her at arm's distance, and we hear his casual dismissal of her to Brian (Jason Lee). Brian mentions how Julie is his dream girl, and to David, she's just another fuck buddy.
That comment comes back to haunt David later, after a party in which Brian brings a date, one Sofia Serrano (Penelope Cruz), a dancer who almost immediately connects with David. Brian practically begs David to back off, to not make any moves on Sophia, but it's too late. Something draws them together from the moment they lock eyes. Julie, who haunts the party like a ghost, uninvited and jealous, watches David and Sofia together, and tries to corner David alone, tries to mark her territory. David shakes her off, almost getting angry about it. David steals Sofia away for a private party, one that a drunk and belligerant Brian interrupts. All of this stuff is very well performed. I like Jason Lee, and he plays all of this at just the right pitch, veering between drunken lout and broken romantic. The irony is that David and Sofia make a genuine connection. The spark that happens between them isn't a sexual one; not entirely, anyway. Sofia almost serves as a clarion call for David. It is, after all, a birthday party where they meet. The long night they spend together afterwards would be the entire running time of the film, one suspects, if Richard Linklater were making it. The two of them have an easy, natural charm onscreen together, and watching this long sequence, I had one of those moments where you're watching a film and one half of you is paying attention, and you're getting it all, and you're focused, but there's this other part of you that is somewhere else, that is suddenly sent reeling, thinking about something because of some connection between real life and what is onscreen. For me, listening to Cruise and Cruz talk made me think of my girlfriend of the last seven months. She is from Argentina, and her heavily accented English has become one of my favorite sounds. This was actually the second such moment of the night for me. First was when I was watching THE MAJESTIC and got to the stretch of about ten minutes that I saw the scoring session for. I took her along to see the orchestra that warm Sunday morning, and she loved it. She lit up as she watched the flickering footage above the musicians, and as the sounds of Mark Isham's score swelled, she squeezed my hand, thrilled. Obviously, anyone who is part of my life is going to share moviegoing experiences with me, and I love to take her to see things she wouldn't otherwise check out. I love it when I just lay something on her that she's never heard of, and she flips out for it. Again, it's that exhibitor in all film geeks, that William Castle side we can't help but indulge.
I don't want to really get too far into the plot of VANILLA SKY. If you've seen the original, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect. If you haven't, then I don't want to spoil it for you. There is a car crash, and Tom Cruise is disfigured, and slowly the corners of reality begin to curl around him. Sofia is in his life. She's out of his life. Julie continues to serve as a sort of sexual albatross around his neck. He and Brian play out a complicated dance of friendship. And Noah Taylor hovers at the edge of the frame, that jagged slash of a smile playing about his lips. By the time Tilda Swinton shows up, audiences are either going to be enjoying the gamesmanship of the whole thing, or they're going to be exasperated by what is in some ways a MATRIX for adults.
I thought the film packed a punch, and there is a scene towards the end of the film that is one of Tom Cruise's very finest, bringing to mind the naked quality of some of his work in BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY. There's a lot going on here, and for some viewers, it seemed to turn into white noise, an overload of ideas. I liked the fact that Crowe seems almost dizzy because of all the questions he raises, all the ideas he gets to toy with. One certainly can't fault the look of the film, a distinct stylistic sidestep by Crowe and cinematographer John Toll. I thought Toll's work on THE THIN RED LINE was stunning, and he brings the same kind of intelligence to his work here. Instead of pastoral greens and life's-blood reds, though, he's working in the chillier tones of modern urban life. This is a cold film in many ways, except in key moments where Crowe uses a handheld camera to capture something looser, more intimate.
After the film, I ended up in a conversation with Scott Martin, one of the producers of the film, and a key member of the Vinyl Films team. He's worked closely with Crowe on a number of projects now, and they have a number in the offing as well. I've traded e-mail with Scott in the past, but never met him, and right away, I felt comfortable chatting with him. He's friendly and enormously knowledgeable about film, with an easy enthusiasm about the work he's involved in that never reads as arrogance. He gave me a stack of UNTITLED DVDs to hand out to the BNAT crowd in whatever way I saw fit, and told me he was planning to drive the print back to LA in one 20 hour driving jag, arriving in time for the Monday night premiere in Hollywood.
I went downstairs to where the pay phone was and used my calling card. It was around 1:30 in Austin, still before midnight in LA. My girlfriend picked up as I was leaving a message on her machine, surprised to hear from me during the actual BNAT, and we talked for a while. It did me good to hear her voice after all the reminders during the first part of the fest. We talked about the movies I'd seen so far, talked about her evening, talked about nothing at all. Just being in touch for the moment was the point, and by the time I hung up, I had a smile from ear to ear.
I went outside to chat with the nicotine fiends and to grab some cold night air, trying to wake myself up a bit. More than tired, I was starting to get sore from sitting in the chair. I stretched, walked around the parking lot, tried to get the circulation going again. When I felt ready, I headed upstairs. As I crossed the lobby, heading for the theater, I heard my name. I turned and saw Scott with a cel phone at the ready. I had it in my hand and almost up to my ear by the time it registered that Scott had just said, "It's Cameron. He wants to talk to you."
I've been a fan of his since I was 13 and I first read FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH. That book was like Holy Fucking Writ for someone who wasn't in high school yet. To me, that book was a how-to manual, a dissection of exactly what I should expect from the impending years. Like the characters in the book, I went to school near a Disney park, and there was no way for me to make it through my own Grad Night without thinking of what Crowe wrote about it. When ALMOST FAMOUS hit theaters, I was trying to decide what I wanted from my writing. Did I want to write films? Did I want to write about films? Did I want to play the balancing act between the two? The film played to me on a personal level that had very little to do with what was onscreen, coming at just the right moment to make a difference. So for me to suddenly be chatting with him on a phone in the lobby of the Alamo was a wee bit strange. At first. He's such a personable guy that he put me at ease quickly, and our conversation was a lot of fun, ambling from one topic to the next with no particular purpose. I talked to him about the way UNTITLED and VANILLA SKY were sort of blurring as part of my weekend overdose of movies, and we talked about other films coming up, and then I realized it had been nearly a half hour. Scott was waiting for his phone, the next film was already playing, and I quickly said my good-byes and got back to my seat.
I love the way Harry gets lucky with thematic echoes between movies. This year, more than ever before, things fell together perfectly. Harry hadn't seen ABRE LOS OJOS or read a script for VANILLA SKY, so he really didn't know what to expect from it. Yet he somehow managed to program it right before Vincente Minnelli's first musical, CABIN IN THE SKY. Both films are ultimately about defining happiness via love, and both films feature women who die in pursuit of the man they believe will make them happy. It was surprising how much of a dialogue the placement of the films seemed to suggest. I didn't dwell on such things while watching, though. I was too busy enjoying the movie. I've seen it before, but there's a lot about it I like and enjoyed seeing again. Evidently, Harry showed an animated Fleischer cartoon version of "Goin' To Heaven On A Mule," the closing number from last year's WONDERBAR, before he started CABIN IN THE SKY, and I bumped into a young black reader of the site in the lobby, a kid named Trey who was actually the first person in the Austin line to buy tickets. He was uncomfortable with the imagery in the cartoon and was waiting it out, not wanting to head back inside. Harry's come under fire before for showing films (like WONDERBAR or SONG OF THE SOUTH) that many people have labelled racist for one reason or another. Whenever I see these films with Harry, I can't help picturing him the way he must have been when he fell in love with the movies: a kid. Harry watched these musicals as a kid and flipped for them. Free from the baggage that so many adults have when thinking about race, Harry just fell for the sound and the movement and the joy of these musicals. He loves them in a way that is very innocent, and I think he sometimes doesn't even realize someone else might have a problem with the material for racial reasons. I don't say this to apologize for him... no need. I just find it fascinating to see what it is that speaks to Knowles as he programs these fests. It's revealing, putting together a 24 hour lineup. Says a lot about you.
Which is why it makes total sense that he followed up a sweet musical fable about doing the right thing and going to heaven with the world premiere of Hershell Gordon Lewis' BLOOD FEAST 2: ALL YOU CAN EAT.
VII. "Have You Ever Considered Being An Altar Boy?"
The STUNT ROCK trailer is too cool for you.
If you weren't there... if you didn't experience the exhilarating rush of discovery as the trailer played for us... if you haven't beheld the power and the majesty of Sorcery for yourself... then don't expect me to explain it. I can't. No one can.
You are either aboard the STUNT ROCK train, or you are left behind at the station, and there is no STUNT ROCK for you.
Have I mentioned yet that Harry is like a mad scientist? He assaults his audience at points. He dares them to stay seated, dares them not to charge the booth in fury. Showing a Shirley Temple "Baby Burlesque" short is the surest way I can imagine to emotionally upset a roomful of adults at this end of the 21st Century. These shorts all put Temple in adult situations, with adult dialogue, with children surrounding her all also playing adult roles. Sexual innuendo flies furiously, and there is something deeply, deeply wrong about a three-year-old in highcut hotpants with a case of cameltoe. "Kid In Africa," the film Harry played, was creepy and evil, and I'm not entirely convinced the whole audience isn't going to Hell for sitting through it. We'll see.
And then came the movie. This is an old-fashioned no shit grindhouse gore film, with real red meat from wall to wall. It's not as willfully outrageous as Lloyd Kaufman's CITIZEN TOXIE was when we saw it at Fantasia this summer. In fact, there's a sort of third-grade goofiness about BLOOD FEAST 2 that dates it. This is the work of an older man, no doubt about it. Lewis took an intentionally campy script and made it silly squared. This is the kind of film where it's a very good idea for a bridal party to throw a lingerie fashion show for one another. This is the kind of film where real organs, obtained from a slaughterhouse, are pulled from fake bodies and squeezed for the benefit of the camera. This is the kind of film with running gags that simply aren't funny, ever, much less after playing out the same way ten times. And the crowd had a lot of fun with it. Personally, I thought the high point was John Waters, who shows up as an obviously gay priest during a wedding sequence late in the movie. Shot on 35mm, we saw a video version, a rough edit that was brought by Jacky Morgan, the film's producer, and the rest of the hard-working crew. They're trying to find a distributor for the film now, and of all the prospects Morgan mentioned, Anchor Bay sounded like the best fit. There is an audience that will lap up BLOOD FEAST 2 gleefully.
We were supposed to see FLESH GORDON afterwards, porn being a very important part of Harry's assault on his audience, but Harry and Tim decided to drop the film to keep things running closer to on-time. They showed the trailer ring they planned for FLESH GORDON instead, full of films like LOGAN'S RUN and REVENGE OF THE JEDI and (sorry you missed this one, Mr. Underhill) FLIGHT TO MARS. Then he tossed a few shorts in like a minimalist THOR and the agonizingly unfunny HARDWARE WARS. People were hitting the wall by this point, and the Alamo came through, serving the breakfast buffet at just the right time to energize the crowd and prepare them for the homestretch.
THE TERROR OF TINY TOWN. An all-midget Western. With songs. What more do I need to say? And we had a live cast member, an 80 year old veteran of THE WIZARD OF OZ, there onstage after the movie, pleased as punch to be there, dressed in his cowboy finest.
I'm not entirely sure I didn't dream that part.
And then came the finale. Peter Jackson shot a 35mm original short for Harry's birthday. Think about that... the director of what is arguably one of the biggest films of all time, takes a moment out of the insane release schedule to shoot you a birthday film. Pretty sweet. I used to think I was cool because I had a signed FRIGHTENERS poster. Of course, Knowles must trump all. It is his way.
Peter was apologetic about not giving us FELLOWSHIP, but he built up SALOME like it was going to be the greatest thing of all time. He told us to pay attention to the tracking shot "about three hours in," the birth of the tracking shot by his reckoning. And then SALOME kicked in. If you don't know the story behind FORGOTTEN SILVER and SALOME and Colin McKenzie, then do yourself a favor... go pick up the First Run Features DVD edition of the film. It's Peter's quietest joke, and the one I love the most. In addition, there's a great documentary on that DVD that explains what happened in New Zealand when FORGOTTEN SILVER first aired. It's as fascinating as the film itself. Seeing this "director's cut" of SALOME on the bigscreen was very funny, and one is struck by just how faithfully Jackson recreates all the conventions of silent cinema. Anyone would be fooled into thinking this footage was taken almost 100 years ago by some crazed Kiwi, instead of less than ten years ago by an entirely different crazed Kiwi. If Jackson does decide to take SALOME on a festival tour this coming year, expect a lot of hornswoggled viewers. Much of our audience didn't fully grok what they were watching, and as a result, may not have enjoyed the joke fully.
And then it was out and down the stairs and into the car and home. We relaxed, fell asleep for a while, got up, grabbed a little grub, and went right back to sleep. I put on Anchor Bay's SUSPIRIA for Mongo as we drifted off, and we talked a bit about how Argento used Disney's SNOW WHITE as a style guide for the film, and then everything just sort of faded away, and Sunday was done.
VIII. "RUSH HOUR Travel"
Jacky Morgan of BLOOD FEAST 2 is sitting across from me on the flight on the way back, reading a CINESCAPE special issue about the A-Z of Horror the whole way. Somewhere up in front of us, Dr. Hfhurrurr, an evil genius like myself, is stretched out in first class. Brain surgery pays well, evidently. And on the other side of me, slouched up against the window, Henchman Mongo sleeps fitfully.
The whole way back to Austin, I watch the DVD of RUSH HOUR 2, a film I skipped in the theater. It looked like more of the same, and I was no great fan of the original. Now that I've seen the DVD for the new one, I can confirm that it is pretty much more of the same. There are a few ingredients that make RUSH HOUR 2 a slightly tastier version of the bland original, like Zhang Ziyi or Rosalyn Sanchez, and the score by Lalo Schifrin is awesome, a definite nod to his wonderful work on movies like ENTER THE DRAGON. The one thing I got from watching the film and playing the commentary track by Brett Ratner and Jeff Nathanson, the same thing I picked up by watching all the documentary shorts on the disc, is that Brett Ratner is nothing if not enthusiastic about his exceedingly average movies. This guy seems to really care. He looks like he works his ass off on a set. And he maintains the ability to be surprised and entertained by his cast. There's a great gag by Jackie Chan late in the film, when he is being chased and he leaps up and through the small opening in a money-counting window, a small space that doesn't look like it would even accommodate his full girth. Ratner talks on the disc about how Chan wanted to try the gag, and how no one thought he could do it. Ratner's obvious glee at the successful attempt in the film is pretty appealing, I must say. Even though I can't say I'm a fan of any of his films so far, I feel bad about taking a shot at Ratner. He has an energy I don't see in a lot of filmmakers with much better bodies of work than his. Maybe he'll connect with a piece of material like RED DRAGON and really knock one out of the park. Remember what Curtis Hanson looked like as a resume before he made LA CONFIDENTIAL?
And as I type this all up, transcribing my longhand notes made as things unfolded, I play a CD that was slipped to me by Disturbed during the BNAT. It's a mix disc he put together, one of many he distributed to various chatters and site contributors. There's one song that sums up what I was saying about telling a story your own way, one that seems to perfectly encapsulate the difference between the personal and the commercial, and I get that feeling of synchonicity once again as Billy Preston sings:
I wrote a simple song/With simple words and harmonies/Wasn't very long/Before a star I was bound to be/I didn't care if it made the charts/I only wrote it for you and me/They think they're so smart/They're not as smart as they want to be/They took my simple song/Changed the words and the melody/Made it all sound wrong, yeah/Now it sounds like a symphony/Who told them to mess with my song?/Who gave them the right?/That song was personal/Because I wrote it for you/It's yours and mine, girl