Ghost in the Machine

The Cinema of Edgar G. Ulmer

(This essay was written for the liner notes of Gold Ninja Video’s now out-of-print release of Bluebeard)

A man sits alone in a cheap roadside diner. He is sweaty, unshaven, distracted. People try to engage him in conversation, and he swats them away. He is not part of the world anymore – he could have been, but fate stuck out a foot to trip him. The room goes dim, except for a single shaft of light, which illuminates his face, and we hear his inner monologue. Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all, he tells us. The images and mood are pure Edgar G. Ulmer: German Expressionist shadows brought to a seedy American setting. The signifiers of high art wrapped in a trash envelope. Also, that one light wobbles a bit. It’s probably a flashlight.

Like Al Roberts (Tom Neal), the hero of Detour (1946), Edgar G. Ulmer tripped over fate’s foot. The Viennese-German émigré seemed poise to join his onetime colleagues Billy Wilder and Robert Siodmak in the Hollywood firmament, but instead struggled to impose a personal vision on low-budget exploitation. His stylistic hallmarks: German Expressionist-influenced lighting, classical music, fluid camerawork, Bauhaus or art-deco sets, and, if there was no money for sets, heavy fog. His career ran the gamut from historical dramas to musicals to westerns to educational films to a nudist-camp movie, but he is best known today for Detour, the Karloff/Lugosi horror film The Black Cat (1934), and a handful of disreputable horror movies.

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To Freddy on His 20th Birthday

April 20, 2021 marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Tom Green’s directorial debut Freddy Got Fingered. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is more beloved than ever. Certainly it can’t possibly be less beloved than it was on its opening weekend. Typical of the apocalyptic reception was Roger Ebert’s review, which included the following paragraph: “This movie doesn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels.” Actually, Ebert’s review was not typical. Unlike most critics at the time, he evinced a suspicion that Green might be operating on a different plane than his “gross-out” contemporaries. He wrote that Freddy was “in the surrealist tradition,” compared it to Un Chien Andalou, and conceded, “The day may come when Freddy Got Fingered is seen as a milestone of neo-surrealism. The day may never come when it is seen as funny.” Ebert’s review was among the more upbeat the film received, and he gave it zero stars.

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The Eclectic Screening Room: Canada’s Greatest Movie Zine

I first encountered a zine called The Eclectic Screening Room and its creator, Greg Woods, in September 2004. Greg had a booth at Word on the Street, an annual outdoor book and magazine festival in Toronto, and on the table were copies of a dozen-or-so of his xeroxed issues. I was struck instantly by one called “The Weird and Wonderful World of Educational Films” – a 45-page behemoth with capsule reviews of over 50 kitschy educational shorts from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. I flipped to a random page and found What About Juvenile Delinquency? (1955), which I had seen riffed on Mystery Science Theater 3000. “I love What About Juvenile Delinquency?” said Greg. With my meagre savings, I bought every issue he had. The Eclectic Screening Room (or simply “ESR” to fans) was active as a print publication from 2001 to 2012 – long after the ‘80s-era zine golden age and mostly before the form’s current-day, Etsy-fuelled renaissance. I’m not sure I even knew what a “zine” was.

Of interest to me at age 15 were the articles on films that I knew from MST3K: Eegah! (1962), a baffling caveman-in-Hollywood epic starring Arch Hall Jr., a not-especially-charismatic would-be teen heartthrob pushed into a movie career by his dad; The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961), one of several nearly unendurable patience-testers by the Antonioni of Bronson Canyon, Coleman Francis; and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? (1964), an indescribable monster musical by backyard auteur Ray Dennis Steckler. I realized Greg was that rare and exotic thing: a man who preferred these movies without the robot commentary. ESR would perhaps be easier to sell if it were strictly about Z-movies and trash, but what makes it interesting is its broadness. A typical issue might contain articles on film noir, experimental cinema, Laurel & Hardy, late-period Otto Preminger, the 1970s New American Cinema, Aki Kaurismaki, the Kuchar Brothers, rock-and-roll movies, and more. The theme of ESR is: “Things that Greg Woods is interested in.”

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Extremely Online

When I started writing for my undergrad newspaper circa 2007, the big appeal was being able to see my name and words in newsprint. Print was eternal. It was exclusive. It was real. It was everything that writing on the internet was not. Like all newspapers at the time, my undergrad paper used its web presence mostly as a dumping-ground for whatever was in the print edition, and articles were typically uploaded well after the paper had already been distributed around campus. By 2010, we had started expanding the online presence, but mostly used is as testing ground for new writers. I’m not certain at what point things changed, but it was very soon after, and nowadays there is no real difference in prestige between writing for the New York Times or for nytimes.com. It’s still great to see one’s name in print, but it’s impossible to retweet paper.

This is a blog about the seventh art, so for this stroll down memory lane I’d like to look at what the internet meant for film and film criticism in the years before it eclipsed print. I obviously don’t have the time or inclination to be exhaustive (the internet is a vast and multifaceted thing), so I will focus strictly on film-related websites that I frequented, and from this admittedly shallow data pool, try to spin a “point.” This is a harder task than it seems, because even though I probably spent more of my adolescence dicking around online than flipping through books, the books that were important to me remain on my shelf. It’s often said that everything you do on the internet lives forever, but while that might be true if you’re a porn star, most of the websites I frequented in middle school have fallen offline. Also, a lot of time and thought was put into my favourite books, whereas most of the websites I visited circa 2001 were very bad.

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To Free the Cinema

On Ray Dennis Steckler

In 1957 in New York, John Cassavetes began work on a dramatic film with only an outline, having his cast of local stage actors improvise most of their dialogue. In the late summer of 1959, Jean-Luc Godard and his cinematographer Raoul Coutard went into the streets of Paris with a newsreel camera and actors who quickly memorized whatever dialogue Godard had written the night before. That same year, in the pages of the Village Voice, Jonas Mekas called for a new kind of experimental cinema, writing: “Every breaking away from the conventional, dead, official cinema is a healthy sign. We need less perfect but more free films. If only our younger film-makers – I have no hopes for the old generation – would really break loose, completely loose, out of themselves, wildly, anarchically!” A year later, Michelangelo Antonioni caused a scandal at Cannes for never resolving the central mystery in L’Avventura, while Alfred Hitchcock creating the most shocking moment in film history when he killed off his star halfway through Psycho.

The revolutionary influence of all of these heroic moments converged in Hollywood in 1966, where an independent filmmaking named Ray Dennis Steckler was making an unpromising thriller called The Depraved. Midway through production, Steckler became bored and frustrated, and decided to turn the movie into a superhero comedy instead. The resulting film, Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, spends its first 40-or-so minutes on a serious and fairly dull story about a gang of criminals who harass and kidnap a rock star’s girlfriend. A little after the midpoint, the rock star and his friend walk into a closet and emerge dressed in ski masks and sweatpants as superheroes Rat Pfink and Boo Boo. “Together they wage a four-fisted campaign against the enemies of truth, justice, and the American way of life!” says the narrator. The camera grinds and grinds as our heroes ride around Hollywood in a motorcycle and sidecar, eventually arriving at a park and having aa goofy fight with a guy in a gorilla suit. The film climaxes with Rat Pfink and Boo Boo crashing a real parade, and ends with the whole cast, including the gorilla, dancing on a beach. Also, the “serious” portion of the movie is interrupted several times by musical numbers. Why? Because it’s Steckler’s movie and he can do what he wants. The total budget was $8,000, and the title is Rat Pfink a Boo Boo because the person who designed the opening credits accidentally dropped a few letters from the word “and” and Steckler didn’t have any money left to fix it. Steckler told this story in many interviews, although in one he admitted that it wasn’t actually true. Print the legend.

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On Jonas Mekas

I’m not the ideal person to write about Jonas Mekas. For one thing, there are a lot of people writing on the internet who actually knew and/or worked with him, and have a more complete knowledge of his many activities as a filmmaker, promoter, diarist, poet, businessman, and/or personality. Indeed, many friends, acquaintances, and colleagues spanning generations wrote moving reminisces after his passing in January 2019 at age of 96. As far as I know, I was in the same room as Mekas exactly once: in September 2016 at a Toronto International Film Festival screening of I Had Nowhere to Go. It was an experimental documentary about Mekas’s internment in and eventual escape from a German labour camp during the Second World War, built around readings of Mekas’s autobiographical writings. He was a few months from 94 at the time, so I was frankly amazed he had made the trip. He called Toronto “the city of Michael Snow,” and then pointed out that Snow was present in the modest audience (in the row behind me, in fact).

It was an exciting moment, this hat-tip between two legends at a far-from-sold-out screening. It was a humble enough setting that I allowed myself to fantasize that, had circumstances been a little different, I could have known Mekas. Wishful thinking, perhaps, since Mekas was a towering enough figure in New York’s art/culture scene to count Jack and Jackie Kennedy among his friends, not to mention Andy Warhol, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Markopoulos, Hans Richter, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Stan Brakhage, and Carl Theodor Dreyer. Most of those distinguished figures appear in Mekas’s monumental three-hour diary film Walden: Diaries, Notes, and Sketches (1969), but so do a lot of other, less famous people, including skaters at Rockefeller Plaza, dance troupes at community festivals, and smiling parkgoers. Walden is a collection of home-movie footage shot throughout the 1960s, assembled seemingly at random. One minute we’re with Jonas riding the bus; the next we’re at the foot of John and Yoko’s famous bed in Montreal. The mundane and the iconic live in the same ecosystem, and Mekas treats them equally, but he’s the only man who has access to all of it. A lot of Walden is less than riveting, and during one particularly prosaic section Mekas playfully acknowledges as much, saying in voiceover that “this film is just images … the images go, no tragedy, no drama, no suspense, just images for myself and a few others.” Mekas would eventually trade his Bolex camera for a digital one, so his later movies contained longer shots and synchronized sound, but the fundamental pleasure of his cinema – finding the poetry in the everyday, and the everyday in the world-historic; enjoying the privilege of being able to open bottled time – remained the same.

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Late Allen

Once the pandemic is finally over and I can go back to therapy, I think the first item on the agenda will be getting to the bottom of my obsession with Woody Allen. Allen is back in the news because of HBO’s documentary miniseries Allen v. Farrow, and prominent in my mind because I recently saw his 49th official feature, Rifikin’s Festival (released in Spain last fall, and currently undistributed in North America, but circulating as a digital file among incurable Woodheads), so once again I’ve been finding myself falling down a rabbit hole consuming every news article about him I can find. I’ll admit that all of this is irrational, and also that I’ve written about Allen on this blog too many times (most recently after the publication of his memoir), but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Allen’s oeuvre, it’s that the heart itself is irrational. So, unfortunately, I must ask for your indulgence, because as Woody Allen discourse levels reach fever-pitch, I am compelled to write about him once more.

I will not be using this space to render a verdict on Allen’s guilt, nor interrogate the new information presented in Allen v. Farrow, nor weigh the ethics of financially supporting Allen’s work. These are issues on which I have no unique insight. Rather, I’d like to try to answer a question that a lot of people have asked about the Allen films released after the publication of Dylan Farrow’s 2014 open letter, and especially after the 2017 MeToo wave that finally rendered him a pariah in his home country. Even fans and defenders largely concede that Allen’s late work represents a low water mark in his half-century of filmmaking, so the question is: why watch it?

This question was stirred in me by Rifkin’s Festival, a terrible movie that had me riveted, and that I have been unable to shake from my mind ever since. It’s the first film Allen has made since Amazon cancelled his contract and a slew of his former collaborators distanced themselves from him. In a moment when Allen’s reputation has become toxic, Allen has responded by making one of his very worst movies – a movie so lazy, so regurgitated, so tone deaf to the world around it that it all but volunteers itself as Exhibit A in the case for why Allen is no longer a hill worth dying on. Despite, or actually because of this, I believe it is a movie worth thinking about, if not defending. It represents an extraordinary coda to a career like no other.

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My Life as a Film Critic

I remember the moment when I realized that I was bad at writing film criticism. At the end of 2011, I had been tasked by Exclaim, a Toronto-based music magazine, to write a short blurb about Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive for their end-of-year film roundup. My 150-word review climaxed with this sentiment: “Some might call it ‘style over substance’ – but in this case, style is substance.” I sent it to my editor, and immediately felt bad about myself. I was in New York for a year for graduate school and considered myself “on hiatus” from Exclaim, and hopes to return to reviewing movies whenever I got back to Toronto. When I filed that blurb, I think I sensed that I wouldn’t write for them again. “Style is substance”? Wow, what an original take.

At that point I had been writing film criticism casually for most of my life and publishing it for over four years. I had served as the chief film critic for The Varsity, the University of Toronto’s student newspaper; as the lead critic for Kitchener-Waterloo’s alt-weekly, Echo Weekly; and as a second-stringer for various Toronto publications. I felt pretty pleased with my ability to write a withering pan of a movie like Marmaduke, and so when I spent the first few months of 2011 in a film criticism class at U of T, I frankly thought it was beneath me. For the first assignment, we all had to write a 400-word review of a current theatrical release, and I chose Tron Legacy. I thought I knocked this easy assignment out of the park, but when I got my review back it had received a B-minus. The professor – a local critic I casually knew, respected, and even dared imagine as a peer – began his comments with a backhanded compliment: “This is a punchy newspaper-style review…” Not exactly how you’d describe the second coming of James Agee. I felt a little hurt by this, but deep down I knew he was right.

A decade has passed, I am now 32 years old, and I realize that I am once again regularly generating what might be called “film criticism” in the form of two regular podcasts, periodic freelance essays, and this very blog you see before you. In the intervening years, much has changed, both in the landscape of film criticism and in my own interests/goals. If you’ll allow me, I’d like to take a navel-gazing look into the past to determine where I’ve been and how I got to wherever it is I am, and perhaps determine if I’ve accumulated any wisdom or insights during my cutthroat journey to becoming this generation’s Gene Shalit.

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Pretend It’s an Insight

Notes on Martin Scorsese’s Pretend It’s a City, starring Fran Lebowitz

In 2011/2012 I had the opportunity to live in Manhattan for a year, and during that time I never lost my sense of wonder. Wow… the Big Apple. The Naked Cowboy is busking in Times Square. Woody Allen is playing clarinet at the Carlyle. Hey – that’s Jim Jarmusch carrying his guitar through Washington Square Park. Only in New York!

I was 22 at the time and not particularly worldly, but I was clever enough to at least know that it was not the New York of the 1970s. I knew that the block where the porn theatres once were was now where Disney staged its musicals, and that a force called gentrification was pricing a lot of lower-income people out. I was concerned about Manhattan’s vanishing identity. I remember strolling down Little Italy, which had shrunk down to just a few blocks between SoHo and Chinatown, and feeling sad. How sad to see such a historic neighbourhood just barely hanging on – hopefully it will be able to survive. A few years later I went back to Mulberry Street and realized that Little Italy wasn’t hanging on at all. The battle was lost a long time ago, and if a Little Italy still exists, it’s in New Jersey now. However, there are still some spaghetti restaurants and accordion players on the street, because the BIA must have felt they needed to be there to keep the tourists coming it.

It can be a melancholy experience to walk down the Upper West Side and see only Starbucks, or to go to Midtown and see a variety of Noo Yaawk Diners™ that make the city look like a simulacrum of itself. Fran Lebowitz, who moved from New Jersey to Manhattan in 1969, also feels melancholy. Now 70, she looks back with fondness on the 1970s, when Manhattan was still a lively place for a young writer to live. The city reversed its fortunes partly by becoming a tourist mecca, and for Lebowitz this is where things went wrong. In the opening minutes of Martin Scorsese’s new Netflix miniseries Pretend It’s a City, an audience member at one of Lebowitz’s Q&As asks if she is ever bothered by the people (read: tourists) who stop in the flow of traffic to look at their maps. Yes, in fact, this does bother her. “Unfortunately, I’m not gonna have time to answer this question. Do people in the street bother me? Absolutely, they bother me, and here is why. I feel like I should write a manifesto – I used to be a writer – the title of which would be – and this is kind of advisory to these people that you’re talking about – ‘Pretend It’s a City.’”

This is the kind witticism that has earned Lebowitz a lifetime of comparisons to Dorothy Parker, and which also reminds me of the Facebook group I briefly joined in 2006 called “I Want to Punch Slow Walking People in the Back.” It sets the tone for Pretend It’s a City, which offers nonstop Lebowitz across seven episodes totalling 203 minutes – only six minutes shorter than Scorsese’s The Irishman. Within the first 10 minutes I felt the compulsion to write this blog post, which obliged me to stick around for the subsequent 193.

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There Is a Man

There are many movies I wish I could see again for the first time, and Citizen Kane is no exception – but I’m fortunate to have kept a clear memory of my first viewing. It was 2001, when I was 12 years old and in the final weeks of sixth grade. I fancied myself a budding Movie Expert™, so I was aware that it was directed by Orson Welles (from The Muppet Movie), that it was the officially sanctioned Greatest Movie Ever Made™, and that Rosebud was a (spoiler alert) sled. Like a lot of people, I felt intimidated by its reputation. I worried it would be slow and obscure, and that I wouldn’t “get it.”

Eventually I rented it from the library and, six days later (the night before it was due), watched it. Here are a few things I remember about that first viewing. I was seriously impressed by the early “News on the March” newsreel, which seemed to lay out the entire plot in advance. (In fact, I even remember pausing the tape to go upstairs and tell my mom about it. I’m sure she was riveted.) Around the time of the famous Breakfast Montage, I realized that this stuffed-and-mounted Masterpiece was very entertaining. Around the time that Kane sat in the balcony for his wife’s opera debut, I realized that Welles, in addition to a great director, was also a great actor. And I remember the power of the closing scene at Xanadu, where the camera drifted over the many objects and artifacts accumulated over Kane’s life. It felt like I really had gone on a journey with this character. These are not groundbreaking insights, but they are pure and unaffected, so I try to hold on to them.

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