Histoire(s) du Cinéma

In 1960, Jean-Luc Godard revolutionized cinema with Breathless, but for the true heads, his summative achievement was Histoire(s) du Cinéma, the eight-part, 266-minute video essay that he chipped away at between 1988 and 1998. It’s only well known to serious cinephiles, but to serious cinephiles it has a reputation akin to that of Finnegans Wake in literature. It’s long, dense, difficult to understand without a deep and lifelong engagement with its artistic medium (and even then…), and an unquestioned masterpiece. I’ve seen Histoire(s) du Cinéma twice now (most recently last week, for an episode of my blockbuster podcast The Important Cinema Club), and am ambivalent. I enjoyed watching it, because I enjoy seeing images from classic movies and hearing classical music. Sometimes I even liked trying to follow Godard’s half-formed arguments. I’m unsure that I agree with some of his major ideas or fully respect his way of expressing them. I’m hoping we can maybe work through this together.

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Or We Could Just Stay Home?

The Films of 2022

My local multiplex, the Yonge-Dundas Cineplex in Toronto, has a mural in its lobby featuring many of the icons of film history: Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name… Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life… Antonio Banderas as Zorro… Catherine Zeta-Jones from the same movie… the angels from Charlie’s Angels (2001)… Chris Tucker in Rush Hour 2… Halle Berry in… hang on, can it be? Yes, I looked it up – that photo is from The Flintstones.

The Yonge-Dundas Cineplex opened in 2008, which I remember because the first thing I saw there was Leatherheads – a forgotten movie that is still only barely less iconic than some of the ones in that mural. It was the first theatre in Toronto to show exclusively digital projection, which was the first of many bad developments in theatrical exhibition it has helped pioneer. For example, it’s also the first Toronto theatre I can remember that didn’t bother to project movies with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio on 1.85:1 screens without masking the dead space. It’s a small thing, but it’s one of many things that accumulate to cheapen the theatrical experience. You see a movie that doesn’t fit the screen and then you walk out into the lobby and see that picture of Antonio Banderas as Zorro and you wonder if this whole moviegoing thing isn’t just a little bit passé. I mean, if the theatre isn’t putting in an effort, why should we?

Pandemic restrictions have more-or-less fully lifted, but theatrical movie attendance has not recovered to the 2019 status quo. Why is this? Maybe at one time a sizeable number of people still didn’t want to leave the house during a pandemic, but now that Spider-Man: No Way Home has become the #3 domestic moneymaker of all time, this is no longer a convincing excuse. The more likely explanation is that months of lockdown gave people time to re-evaluate their spending habits, and they’ve concluded that spending $20 per month on Netflix is more enticing than spending $17 for a single movie ticket, plus however much more it costs for parking and snacks. I also persist in believing that the switchover a decade ago from 35mm to digital projection has played a massive subconscious role in the devaluation of the theatrical experience. On some level, we all knew once that a movie looked different in theatres – the image had different texture, depth and weight. But now, the image on the Yonge-Dundas Cineplex screen is exactly the same as the one at home. In fact, I just got a 4K TV – it probably looks a little better. Movie theatres have been fending off the threat of television since in the ‘50s, but now a lot of what’s on TV really is exactly the same or better, then what’s the point?

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Midlife Motern

(Originally published as liner notes to the Gold Ninja Video release of Metal Detector Maniac. For more information about the Motern Cinematic Universe, see this introductory essay)

For those of us deeply invested in the work of Matt Farley and Charlie Roxburgh, their story represents a triumph of art, friendship, community, and creativity over the cold indifference of commerce. Beginning with 1999’s The Paperboy (the hourlong comedy they made while still students at Providence College) and culminating with 2016’s Slingshot Cops (the buddy-cop pastiche that is their most ambitious production to date), they created 11 wonderful feature-length films in the forests and suburbs of New England, far from the contaminating influence of any mainstream film industry. With no one to answer to but themselves, they developed a unique style that combined the aesthetic of low-budget regional horror films by outsider artists like Don Dohler and Bill Rebane; a dryly absurdist comic sensibility informed by Pee-wee Herman, Chevy Chase, Woody Allen, and Chris Elliott; and the let’s-put-on-a-show spirit of the monster movies that kids make with their parents’ camcorders. They assembled casts of friends, relatives, acquaintances, coworkers, and well-wishers to help them play make-believe, and over time built a repertory company as consistent and recognizable as Robert Altman’s. Increasingly elaborate but always charmingly handmade, the Farley/Roxburgh movies ask: What if we could keep making monster movies in our backyards forever? What if we combined the raw creative energy we had as kids with everything we’ve learned since? What if we made the best homemade movie of all time? What’s stopping us?

There are a lot of possible rejoinders to that last question. In his cinematic self-portrait Local Legends (2013), Farley tells us that the budget of a typical Motern Media/ShockMarathons production like Freaky Farley (2007) or Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! (2012) is roughly the same as a used car – and while none has come even close to making a profit, “I’d rather have a bunch of movies than a bunch of used cars.” That spirit still burns inside Farley and Roxburgh, but it’s one thing to make The Paperboy when you’re living in the same dorm; it’s another to make Freaky Farley when you’re living on opposite coasts and filming on your vacation week, and it’s another when you’re making Slingshot Cops after your life has grown to include newborn babies and houses with mortgages. And then add to that the stress of wrangling a huge cast of nonprofessional actors with their own lives and obligations, all of whom have been asked to give up a weekend out of the goodness of their hearts. Farley and Roxburgh have said that coordinating Slingshot Cops’ centrepiece party scene, in which nearly all their regular actors were present, was a breaking point for their traditional methodology. The truth is that Farley and Roxburgh really do live in the real world, and really are only human, and whatever they were doing was no longer sustainable.

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The Johnny Duncan Story

One time when I was five years old I wore my Batman costume to the grocery store. I wore it most days around the house, so why not out in public too? It was a pretty exciting afternoon – I still remember adults at the store looking at me and saying, “Hey, it’s Batman!” I knew I was an imposter, but hey, isn’t the whole point of the mask that anyone could be behind it? Later that day I wanted to wear my Batman costume to the library, but my dad decided I shouldn’t. He told me, “If people see Batman at the library, they might think there’s been a crime.” Seemed reasonable enough.

The point telling you this is to make clear the extent to which, for a few years in my boyhood, Batman was the main thing I watched on TV and thought about in daily life. I did not discriminate between various incarnations of Batman, whether it was “the Adam West Batman” (as I called it) or “the Michael Keaton Batman” or “the cartoon Batman.” I knew that certain of these were clearly newer and more expensive than others, but they were all Batman to me.

This included Batman (1943) and Batman and Robin (1949) pair of black-and-white, 15-chapter serials produced by the Columbia Pictures shorts department. These low-budget slot-fillers played in weekly instalments to mostly kiddie matinee audiences, and were easy to find on bargain-bin VHS tapes when the Burton/Schumacher movies were being released. In these films, Batman and Robin keep their costumes in a file cabinet, drive a convertible instead of a Batmobile, and keep getting tangled up in their felt capes during fight scenes. Seen today, they recall a time before the superhero genre was the dominant mode of blockbuster filmmaking, when superheroes were considered merely disreputable crap for undiscriminating audiences. I have a soft spot in my heart for them.

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Screw on the Screen: The Cinema of Al Goldstein

(This article was first published in Weng’s Chop #11 in 2018. Please be advised that this article contains several references to the now-disgraced performer Ron Jeremy. For details on his crimes, check out the 2021 documentary Ron Jeremy: Fall of a Porn Icon)

Before there was Larry Flynt, there was Al Goldstein, and before porn was an industry, there was Screw Magazine. From 1968 to 2003, Goldstein’s scuzzy rag was New York City’s “Consumer Reports for sex.” Porno films, dirty books, strip joints, swinger’s clubs, massage parlors—all facets of the city that the Times never touched were lovingly chronicled by Screw’s roving reporters. Sex-work ads were the magazine’s lifeblood, but political satire was its soul: crude, rude stuff combining the spirit of National Lampoon, Spy Magazine, and bathroom graffiti. Nobody could have better embodied the magazine’s aesthetic better than Al Goldstein—a vulgar, obese, proudly Jewish creature of id who could only get laid if he paid for it. Nobody could have been a starker contrast to the urbane, sophisticated Hugh Hefner. Nobody looked more like a porn consumer.

Goldstein’s legacy is vast. His magazine was the first to review porn films (including a little movie called Deep Throat), and its pages are a time-capsule of a long-gone New York. It employed artists like Wally Wood, Art Spiegelman, Drew Friedman, Danny Hellman, and countless others to illustrate its covers. It interviewed Henry Miller, Terry Southern, Gore Vidal, Jack Nicholson, John Lennon & Yoko Ono, and Salvador Dali, plus innumerable figures from the porn industry. Goldstein testified at the U.S. Senate Committee Hearing on Pornography in 1984 (a/k/a the Meese Commission), and fought 19 obscenity trials, including a major lawsuit in Kansas for transferring obscene materials over state lines (the jury deadlocked; Goldstein celebrated by flying sympathetic jurors to a New York swinger’s club). And Goldstein became a TV star of sorts with his public access show Midnight Blue, where he spewed vitriol at celebrities, politicians, and local businesses in between phone-sex ads, porn-star interviews, and “video centrefolds.”

These days, that legacy is mostly forgotten. Goldstein was never able to expand the Screw brand nationally, and he watched as Larry Flynt rode his template to fame and fortune. By the turn millennium, divorces and harassment lawsuits eroded his fortune (estimated at $11 million), and the changing porn industry forced Screw into bankruptcy. Goldstein spent 2004-2005 homeless on the streets of Manhattan until the magician/comedian Penn Jillette paid for an apartment. He spent his final years in poverty and obscurity, and died in December 2013 at age 77 of renal failure.

In this article, I’d like to consider a small sliver of Goldstein’s career: his contribution to cinema as producer, performer, and documentary subject. Goldstein never produced anything comparable to Roman Polanski’s Macbeth or Monty Python’s And Now for Something Completely Different (as Hefner’s Playboy Productions did); never achieved a success du scandal like Bob Guccione’s Caligula; and never earned a glossy Hollywood biopic like The People vs. Larry Flynt. Even so, he participated in enough films and videos to justify a modest Cinematheque retrospective, and by studying these films, we can observe the remarkable arc of his career.

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Cinema Studies

In one of my last weeks as a high school student, circa April or May of 2007, I saw David Lynch’s Inland Empire during its roadshow engagement at Toronto’s Royal Cinema. The experience of 180 minutes of abrasive Mini-DV surrealism was a challenging one. When I came home, I told my dad that I didn’t like the movie. I can’t remember what else I said, but knowing myself from that time, it was probably some bullshit about Lynch not providing his audience with a “point of entry” or whatever. I remember that my dad listened patiently to this, and eventually said, “I’ll be interested to hear how your perspective on the movie changes after your university film classes. You’re just going to be exposed to so many different ways of thinking about film that you’ll understand and appreciate things on a much deeper level.”

At the time I felt a little miffed. Here I was, a precocious 18-year-old who had trekked to a downtown cinema to see a new David Lynch film all by himself. Hadn’t I earned my opinion fair and square? Looking back, I now feel very strongly that my dad was right. From 2007 to 2011 I was a Cinema Studies major at the University of Toronto, and while I can’t exactly pinpoint how or when, I know that the experience had a strong impact on me. This feeling is tempered somewhat by the stone-cold fact that a classroom is a terrible place to watch a movie. This is especially true of Innis Town Hall at U of T circa 2007, where most movies were projected from 2007-era DVDs on a screen that would be smothered in white light every time someone would enter or exit the room. I’d like to take this opportunity to try to separate the good memories from the bad, and figure out exactly what legacy being a U of T Cinema Studies student has left with me.

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James Bond

With his new adventure No Time to Die opening in theatres, it’s safe to say that James Bond is one secret agent with a license to thrill. When it comes to guns, gadgets and girls, “nobody does it better” than 007. From daring stunts to gorgeous women to exotic locales, Her Majesty’s greatest servant always keeps moviegoers shaken and stirred.

With nothing to do in the early months of the pandemic, I found myself with an unquenchable thirst for vodka martini, and so embarked on a project to rewatch every James Bond film. What follows is my report…

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“Big Movie. Big Screen. Loved It.”

There are certain moviegoing experiences I had in late 2019 that I hold very close to my heart. I remember the electric current I felt running through a Toronto International Film Festival screening of Uncut Gems, and how it sounded like a bomb went off in the audience when Adam Sandler finally reached his inevitable end. I remember seeing the then-much-debated Joker on opening night, which had already generated several waves of reaction and backlash before it had even opened. I remember an early morning screening of The Irishman, and a weekend matinee of Richard Jewell, and I remember having a good long laugh with my pal after seeing and hating Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker a few days before Christmas.

These movies varied in quality, but most of them felt plugged into the zeitgeist, and all of them felt like events. I saw them all with big audiences, and I talked about them over drinks with friends after. I thought about these experiences a lot during the long lockdown months, when new movies kept appearing and disappearing from the front page of Netflix and I didn’t really keep up. Was there something wrong with the movies, or with the streaming model itself? Am I more inclined to follow current cinema if it’s playing at a multiplex instead of competing for my attention with the entire history of the medium on my TV? Was there much passionate debate or excitement surrounding, say, Trial of the Chicago 7? Remind me, what was Mank?

As pandemic restrictions have lifted, I’ve become a regular moviegoer again. Things don’t yet feel back to normal – not just because half the seats are covered in police tape for social distancing, but also because almost nothing I’ve seen has come close to selling out. Every week, a new big-budget movie flops, although there are always reassurances that it would have done much better if there wasn’t a surge in COVID cases and if it hadn’t premiered simultaneously on HBO Max. I agree in principle that you should wear a mask indoors, but if you’re in a cavernous theatre with two other people, both 40 feet away, seeing The Protégé on a Tuesday night, then I think you can take it off. It doesn’t quite feel like I’m back in 2019 yet. Will it ever?

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David DeCoteau Talks!?!

(The following article first appeared in 2019 in The Important Cinema Club Journal)

“Eric Roberts as a talking cat.”

Few movies could hope to match such a pitch, but 2013’s A Talking Cat!?! is like few movies. Described by The A.V. Club as “The Room of anthropomorphic animal movies featuring Eric Roberts,” its plot (two families are brought together by a magical cat who can only talk once to whoever he encounters) sounds like a typical Disney sitcom, but its rock-bottom special effects and otherworldly, vaguely porn-y ambience have made it one of the defining cult oddities of the decade.

Anyone who sees A Talking Cat!?! leaves with question, “Who made this?” Though credited to “Mary Crawford,” it was actually the work of David DeCoteau, one of the most prolific exploitation filmmakers of our time.

DeCoteau’s B-movie credentials couldn’t be stronger: he worked as a production assistant for Roger Corman, cut his teeth in the porn world, and eventually landed his first mainstream directing assignment, Dreamaniac (1986), from legendary producer Charles Band (head honcho of Empire Pictures and Full Moon Entertainment). Since then, he has worked nonstop. If you spent any time at a video store in the ‘90s, you’re probably familiar with a few of DeCoteau’s dozens of eye-catching titles: Creepozoids (1987), Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988), Nightmare Sisters (1988), Beach Babes from Beyond (1993), Test Tube Teens from the Year 2000 (1994), Retro Puppet Master (1999), and many more.

There’s plenty of fun trash in that list, but for me, DeCoteau really gets interesting in the 2010s, as shrinking budgets have turned his films into strange Hollywood dreamscapes. For starters: in contrast to the jiggly boobfests he made in the ‘80s and ‘90s, DeCoteau’s own queerness pervades his post-2000 output. His signature latter-day franchise is the 1313 series—bizarre, no-budget PG-13 homoerotica in which hot dudes in tightie-whities are terrorized by aging scream queens (Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens, Helene Udy, etc) in haunted mansions. Running parallel to these, and often using the same sets and actors, have been his family films, including A Talking Pony!?! (2013) and An Easter Bunny Puppy (2013); period action films like Bonnie & Clyde: Justified (2013); horror films like Bigfoot vs. D.B. Cooper (2014); and more recently, holiday fodder like A Husband for Christmas (2017) and A Christmas Cruise (2018). He is credited on IMDB with directing 11 movies in 2017 alone… but for all the disparate genres he works in, his 2010s work blends together into one long, weird, slightly homoerotic movie. The only other filmmaker who compares to him is Jess Franco—another exploitation auteur whose films were like a free-associative writing exercises, with his personal fetishes bleed into his work.

In October 2014, I had the privilege of conducting a phone interview with DeCoteau, tied to the release of several of his then-recent films (including Doc Holliday’s Revenge and Bonnie & Clyde: Justified) by Lionsgate. This interview was the basis for a profile in Flavorwire (bearing the accurate if slightly unpleasant title “Meet David DeCoteau, the King of Homoerotic On Demand Schlock”), but is presented here for the first time uncut.

DeCoteau is a true cinephile: he has recorded DVD commentary tracks for films by Andy Milligan and Ed Wood, and contributed trailer commentaries for Joe Dante’s Trailers From Hell website. What I like most about DeCoteau is a quality he shares with Wood: his unabashed love for movies, moviemaking, and the stars he works with—even (or especially) when they have fallen out of fashion.

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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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