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.

Continue reading “Pretend It’s an Insight”

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.

Continue reading “There Is a Man”

At Least the Rum Tastes Good

Movies of 2020

This week brought news that Warner Bros. Pictures will release Wonder Woman 1984 on its in-house streaming service, HBO Max, on Christmas Day – a week after opening in foreign countries that have kept the coronavirus under control. By my count it will be only the third blockbuster-scaled American movie to be released since March. Blockbuster #1 (Christopher Nolan’s Tenet) was an experiment to see if theatres could still summon audiences in a pandemic, and #2 (Disney’s Mulan) was an experiment to see if theatres could be bypassed altogether. The first experiment was an unambiguous failure, and the second has been inconclusive. Disney Plus, home of Mulan, now has over 70 million subscribers, but the Disney Company has reported its first annual loss in over 40 years, and so, most of this year’s would-be blockbusters are still leapfrogging across next year’s calendar. That is, unless a streaming giant will adopt these white elephants. The asking price for the new James Bond movie, No Time to Die, is reportedly $600 million, but not even deep-pocketed Netflix and Apple have been willing to pay.

If Sony wants $600 million, then I’m guessing the movie has cost at least $500 million to make and market, including the cost of two separate marketing campaigns built around two separate scuttled release dates. $500 million is probably typical for movies like this, and the business model almost makes senses when movies are routinely earning double, but it’s funny how completely the entire model collapses if just one element – movie theatres – is removed. It’s also funny how obscene and ridiculous $500 million for a movie looks during a time of mass death and 30% unemployment.

Continue reading “At Least the Rum Tastes Good”

Something Weird Video: A Personal Canon

I like almost every topic we’ve ever covered on my smash-hit podcast The Important Cinema Club, but there have been certain weeks when the subject of the episode did not exactly correspond to what I was in the mood to watch. If, for example, you’re going to immerse yourself in the dense, formally overwhelming, emotionally draining work of Andrzej Zulawski, it’s best not to do so with one eye on the results of a U.S. presidential election.

This week, however, I had no such problem getting in synch, because the subject was Something Weird Video. I’ve written on this blog before about the venerable Seattle-based rescuer/distributor of cinematic detritus, but a quick recap: founded it 1990, Something Weird has been vitally important in preserving and promoting the work of mid-century exploitation filmmakers like Herschell Gordon Lewis, David F. Friedman, Harry Novak, Joe Sarno, Michael & Robert Findlay, Doris Wishman, and Andy Milligan. Beyond these marquee names, the company has also made available all manner of flotsam, ranging from cartoons and commercial to Christian educational shorts and drivers-ed scare films to burlesque shorts, stag films both gay and straight, and rock-bottom hardcore adult features.

Continue reading “Something Weird Video: A Personal Canon”

Notes on Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

October 30 will mark the 10th anniversary of “The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” where Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert used the clout they had built during the Bush years to stage a massive protest for… civil discourse. The rally had the same thesis as Obama’s “Red States and Blue States” speech: most of us generally agree on most things, but we get distracted and divided by a negative force called “politics” and negative people called “pundits.” Stewart’s message was that we all need to calm down a bit. We need to advocate for our beliefs, whatever they may be, while respecting the other side, which is presumably not so different from or side. A deeply ideological event that loudly scorned ideology, “The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” is a shining example of bad liberal comedy. So too is Stewart’s recent film Irresistible, which carried almost the exact same thesis. By contrast, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is a good and even admirable liberal comedy. I do, however, have some misgivings. A good liberal comedy is not the same as a good leftist comedy.

Continue reading “Notes on Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”

Scary Movies

Movies don’t scare me very easily. I’ve seen a lot of them by now, so I can usually tell when a jump-scare is about to happen, and I’m conscious enough of the artificiality of the medium that I rarely need to remind myself, as per Last House on the Left, that “It’s only a movie… it’s only a movie…” Gripping as The Shining is, I know that Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall are two famous movie stars playing dress-up.

This is not to say that movies have never scared me. In fact, in my younger days I used to be a bit of a fraidy-cat. As the calendar says Shocktober, I’d like to take you on a tour of the horror movies that left cigarette burns on my brain and turned me into the broken and haunted man I am today.

Continue reading “Scary Movies”

The Paul Marco Story

When Edward D. Wood, Jr. died – homeless and penniless – in 1978, none of the Hollywood trade papers ran an obituary. Two years later, critics Harry and Michael Medved named his Plan 9 from Outer Space “the Worst Movie of All Time” in their influential book The Golden Turkey Awards, kickstarting a process of posthumous canonization that culminated with Tim Burton’s biopic Ed Wood (1994). By the time the Disney Company came knocking, many of Wood’s colleagues and collaborators had emerged from obscurity to bask in some of the fame that eluded Wood in his own lifetime. Of them, no one sought or enjoyed that glory more than Paul Marco.

Paul Marco earned his footnote in film history by playing the recurring role of “Kelton the Cop” in three Wood films, tying Bride of the Monster (1953), Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), and Night of the Ghouls (1959) into the same “cinematic universe.” A proto-Barney Fife, Kelton was the bumbling, stumbling comic relief: getting knocked out by zombies, complaining to his bosses about being assigned so many “spook details,” and generally giving viewers a little levity amidst the gravely serious sci-fi/horror surroundings.

Continue reading “The Paul Marco Story”

The Making of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!

Have you ever watched classic films like Freaky Farley, Monsters Marriage and Murder in Manchvegas, Slingshot Cops, and Local Legends and found yourself asking what minds could have produced such work? Wonder no more! I’m proud to announce Motern on Motern: Conversations with Matt Farley and Charles Roxburgh, a new book by myself and Justin Decloux about the greatest horror-comedy auteurs that Manchester, New Hampshire has ever known.

In the tradition of Hitchcock/Truffaut, Bergman on Bergman, and This Is Orson Welles, Motern on Motern is an exhaustive film-by-film interview book with Farley and Roxburgh about their eccentric oeuvre. It’s a story of wrangling zero-budget productions and tangling with fly-by-night distributors. It’s a story of friendship, community, and the agony and ecstasy of filmmaking. It also features bonus interviews with Motern Media cast members and a never-before-seen Farley Roxburgh screenplay.

“Will Sloan and Justin Decloux have created the definitive work on two of cinema’s most inspiring artists. Matt Farley and Charles Roxburgh make films for all the right reasons, if not always in the precisely right ways, and their output and methodology merit study by any gestating independent filmmaker.” – Simon Barrett, writer of The Guest and You’re Next

The book is available for preorder at Gold Ninja Video for $15 here.

It’s also available as part of a limited-edition collector’s set with a spectacular new Blu-Ray of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, the Farley/Roxburgh favourite Creature from Black Lake, and a Kevin McGee trading card here.

It is also coming soon to Amazon.

The following sample chapter covers the production of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! (2012).

Continue reading “The Making of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!”

The Star Ratings Roger Ebert Would Have Given

Have you ever wondered what the late and beloved film critic Roger Ebert would thought of today’s hottest movie releases? Wonder no more! Though the Pulitizer-winning critic passed away in 2013, I have been able to gaze into my crystal ball and decipher with 98% accuracy what Ebert’s star ratings would have been.

Over the past few days I have been wowing Twitter with my extraordinary revelations, which have met with both wonder and controversy. Now, I have decided to also share my findings here for posterity.

Continue reading “The Star Ratings Roger Ebert Would Have Given”

TIFF Memoir

An event calling itself the 45th annual Toronto International Film Festival kicked off last Thursday with a drastically reduced slate of films, a mix of streaming and socially distanced public screenings, a limited and entirely virtual press gallery, and celebrity Q&As held via Twitter. As someone who has himself been tasked with reconceiving square-peg events into the round hole of the pandemic, I sympathize with the dilemma faced by TIFF’s executives and organizers. It’s a no-win situation, but they’ve made a festival. Good for them. That said: this is the first TIFF in many years that I won’t be participating in. It’s nothing personal. I just don’t want to go to a movie theatre right now, and I also don’t want to pay $30 for a virtual screening when Tubi is available on another browser.

TIFF occupies such a disproportionate space in Toronto film culture that kvetching about it is a hobby for local cinephiles. But the fact is, I love TIFF. I love seeing movies when they are shiny and new, and I love seeing famous people, and I love waiting in a line that stretches around the block, and I love the particular energy that overtakes the patios on King Street for 10 days every September. I love the whole thing. As a teenager, I remember watching a local show called Reel to Real where critics Geoff Pevere and Richard Crouse would stand on a street corner in Yorkville and talk about their festival experience between screenings of Where the Truth Lies or Head in the Clouds, and I have never fully outgrown the fantasy of wanting to be on that street corner with them. TIFF has done a commendable job of finding ways to show movies this year, but the festival isn’t the same without the street corner. I hope it will be back next year.

Continue reading “TIFF Memoir”