Friday, December 30, 2011

The National Film Registry: Saluting Movies that Made the Cut in 2011

‘Tis the season. In the mail yesterday I received a fascinating handmade what-is-it? from some good friends in Georgia. My email inbox contained a less tangible gift for me and my fellow film buffs: a list of the 2011 selections for the National Film Registry. Annually since 1988, the Library of Congress has chosen twenty-five films of cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance it plans to preserve for future generations. As always, the titles on the list vary widely, from silent comedies (1912’s A Cure for Pokeritis) to landmark social-problem films (1945’s The Lost Weekend); from classic animation (1942’s Bambi) to sci-fi epics (1953’s The War of the Worlds). Documentaries and experimental films are also represented, along with Hollywood blockbusters (1994’s Forrest Gump) and such oddities as the tapdancing Nicholas Brothers’ family home movies.

Naturally, I couldn’t help scanning the list for movies with a Roger Corman connection. Roger himself made the cut in 2005 with the first of his Poe films, House of Usher. (I personally had the pleasure of giving him the good news.) Among the 2011 entries, the unofficial Roger Corman Alumni Association is well represented. One honoree is Norma Rae, the inspirational 1979 drama about a young woman coming into her own as a union activist in a Southern textile mill. Norma Rae may best be remembered for Sally Field’s Oscar-winning performance, but the film was produced by two women, Tamara Asseyev and Alex Rose, who earned their stripes on such Corman exploitation fare as Sweet Kill.

Also on the 2011 list is a great 1981 horror-fest, The Silence of the Lambs. Of course it was directed by Jonathan Demme, who began as a Corman publicist, then quickly moved into screenwriting, and almost immediately won the chance to direct a women-in-prison flick, Caged Heat. I well remember Jonathan wandering the halls of New World Pictures. In those days his hair was shaggy and he favored brown-and-white saddle oxfords. He has since improved his sartorial taste, but he continues to be grateful to the man who kickstarted his career. In fact, Roger appears briefly in Silence of the Lambs as the head of the FBI. And Jonathan has entrusted him with other roles too, including a featured appearance as a crafty businessman who takes the witness stand in Philadelphia.

I mst admit, though, that I was most tickled by the naming of one of my favorite small films, 1975’s Hester Street. Made on the proverbial shoestring, Hester Street is based on an 1898 short story by journalist Abraham Cahan that chronicles the sometimes painful adjustment of Eastern European Jews newly arrived in America. Filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver shot in black-and-white on the streets of New York’s Lower East Side, using actors who learned Yiddish to play their roles. Cleverly Silver shifted the focus of the story from the assimilated husband to his greenhorn spouse, thus highlighting the way an old-world wife must evolve to become acceptably American. With Carol Kane exquisite (and Oscar-nominated) in the central role, the film is a treat. And for every American who comes from immigrant stock – and hey, that’s most of us! – Hester Street may be as close as we’ll get to knowing what it feels like to be just off the boat.

How do National Registry films get chosen? The American moviegoing public can help suggest future candidates by going to a special Library of Congress site. Maybe if there’s a groundswell of popular support, Roger Corman classics like Little Shop of Horrors, The Intruder, The Wild Angels and The Trip might get the recognition they so richly deserve.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Jim (Sorority House Massacre 2) Wynorski Finds Love

With the holiday season winding down, I’m thinking of one of my favorite elves, Jim Wynorski. Jim, who’s directed dozens of Roger Corman movies since Chopping Mall in 1986, has something of the girth (as well as the beard) of Santa Claus, and no doubt could do a great Ho-ho-ho. But Jim, for all that he’s pushing sixty, remains at heart a fifteen-year-old boy. That means he loves movies that are naughty in an adolescent way. His aesthetic, as he once boiled it down for me, is simple: “Big chase and a big chest . . . If you put those two ingredients in a movie, you’re going to have a good time.” Still, though he’s made films with titles like The Devil Wears Nada, Jim retains a youthful naïveté that helps him grasp a child’s-eye view of the world.

Which led him to make Munchie, a kid-friendly trifle about a magical creature who brightens the life of a lonely young boy. Because I was deeply involved with the film’s screenplay, Jim invited me to show up at the Concorde studio, with my family in tow, to take part in a major sequence. We were to play guests at a wild and crazy party thrown by the irrepressible Munchie (voiced by Dom DeLuise). “Wild and crazy” in this context meant a lot of oddly assorted guests dancing around young Gage’s living room in colorful costumes. My husband took a day off from work, and my children were released from school to participate in this “educational” experience. Having been on movie sets before, I knew there’d be lots of waiting around before we were needed. So I didn’t try very hard (shame on me!) to get the gang to the Concorde lot at the assigned call-time. To my chagrin, Jim was running ahead of schedule, and we were whisked through wardrobe and onto the set before the hair-and-makeup department had a chance to grab hold of us. Jim positioned us in a prominent spot, and filming began.

The sequence took most of the day to shoot. During the lunch break, a crew member flagged me down. I was wearing a rather sexy harem girl outfit, but my hair was short and my face was bare. In a few moments I was tricked out with lipstick, rouge, eye shadow, and a glorious cascade of chestnut locks. If you chance to see Munchie, look for me on the dance floor, just behind the main actors. Magically, from shot to shot I go from short hair to long and from paleface to glamour girl. Fortunately for my reputation as a Hollywood extra, Jim Wynorski has never been obsessed with detail.

What he is obsessed with is eye candy. He filled his cast with voluptuous women (including Loni Ackerman as Gage’s good-hearted but definitely hot mom and Wynorski’s sometimes-squeeze Monique Gabrielle as a classroom teacher). The script also called for a cute little girl to catch Gage’s eye at the party. Jim being Jim, he was determined to come up with a young actress whom a preteen boy would find enticing. He chose an adorable thirteen-year-old with a dazzling smile. Her name was Love, and this was her first film. Today she’s a TV star: Jennifer Love Hewitt.

The following year, Jim starred her in a variation on It Happened One Night, featuring a poor little rich girl and the gruff private detective (Howard Hesseman) assigned to track her down. Little Miss Millions, originally called Home for Christmas, is the most innocent and charming film in the often-lurid Jim Wynorski canon.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Artist: Silence is Golden

For all the joy it brings, the best film of the year may be The Artist. At least, this was the movie that gave me the most personal pleasure. I regard The Artist as a splendid holiday gift, reminding me of the delights of the motion picture medium.

So old it’s new, The Artist uses tricks from cinema’s early days to tell a familiar story, one that melds the romance-between-unequals from A Star is Born to Singin’ in the Rain’s fascination with the impact of talkies on the silent film industry. Cleverly, The Artist does all this by calling upon the conventions of silent film: the actors’ broad gestures; the black-and-white cinematography; the carefully-worded title cards; the musical score that clues us in on the emotions behind the matters at hand. In its way, The Artist is saluting the whole history of film. It’s no accident that Jean Dujardin, who plays silent-movie star George Valentin, is almost a dead-ringer for Hollywood legend Gene Kelly. Though we first see Valentin emulating a Douglas Fairbanks-type swashbuckler, the expansive way he flirts with his adoring public closely parallels Kelly’s style as a similar character in Singin’ in the Rain. No surprise, then, that -- for Valentin as for Kelly’s Don Lockwood – the divide between silents and talkies is finally bridged when the dueling cavalier becomes the dancing cavalier.

In fact, famous film moments abound throughout The Artist. The increasingly strained relationship between George and his wife is wordlessly conveyed through a series of breakfast-table scenes that reminded me of Citizen Kane. Then there’s a loyal manservant, a breathless chase to the rescue, and a heroic little dog. And, yes, I’m sure there are specific references I missed, at least on first viewing. I do know that the score is a brilliant pastiche of riffs from classic films of many eras. This is a movie I definitely hope to savor more than once.

I don’t want to spoil any surprises, but two examples of Michel Hazanavicius’s filmmaking smarts linger in my mind. One is from the very beginning of the film, where we are drawn from watching the silent-movie-within-the-movie into the realization that even when off-screen these performers will not be speaking aloud. It’s a graceful segue, designed to soothe modern viewers who expect that their movie tickets will buy dialogue and noisy sound effects. Then, at the film’s dramatic climax, Hazanavicius allows an ambiguous title card to fool us into momentarily reaching the wrong conclusion. When the truth was revealed, the audience who shared the film with me let out an audible gasp, a tribute to the power of the written word to manipulate our emotions.

In fact, though this is a silent film, language can be regarded as one of its central subjects. Although The Artist has a Belgian pedigree, and its two headliners are French-speakers, an American audience can enjoy it without language barriers getting in the way. It’s proof, if proof be needed, that cinema is truly a universal language.

A final note: it’s a pleasure to see a movie that treats vintage Los Angeles with such affection. Movie palaces like the Orpheum Theatre and architectural gems like the Bradbury Building are displayed with loving care. I especially enjoyed the glimpses of Fremont Place, a once-exclusive gated community which gained notoriety in the 1950s because singer Nat “King” Cole was not white enough to take up residence. In the era depicted in The Artist, it bore no such obvious stigma, and I loved seeing it looking so ready for its closeup.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ding Dong, Kim Jong Il is Dead

On Sunday I glimpsed, by chance, a televised airing of The Wizard of Oz. The Wicked Witch of the West, perverse and dangerous, was terrorizing the Munchkins, not to mention Dorothy and her friends. Monday morning I read in the L.A. Times about the death of Kim Jong Il. Though glorified by the North Korean propaganda machine as the people’s “Dear Leader,” Kim too was both hated and feared by the subjects over whom he ruled with an iron fist. The Wicked Witch may have had her secret sorrows (hey, it’s not easy being green!), but she dealt with them by gleefully inflicting torment on those beneath her. From what we know about Kim’s repressive regime, he wasn’t so very different. Extremely short, unattractive, and by all reports desperate for love from the despot father (Kim Il Sung) who preceded him in office, he literally starved his people while personally enjoying sumptuous gourmet meals. He also locked his countrymen up by the thousands while he himself gallivanted through life, enjoying romantic flings and hobnobbing with celebrities. And, most seriously as far as the world is concerned, he spent the bulk of his nation’s limited resources on developing a nuclear bomb, a far more dangerous prize than the ruby slippers.

Wouldn’t you know it? Kim Jong Il was a movie buff. That puts him in the same camp with other totalitarian leaders determined to mold their people’s outlook through the motion picture medium. When cinema was still a young art form, Stalin used the work of Sergei Eisenstein and other brilliant filmmakers to build support for Marxist ideology within the Soviet Union. And Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels enlisted filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to rally the Germany people to the Nazi cause. Her Triumph of the Will (1935) masterfully made Hitler into a larger-than-life hero. Kim Jong Il apparently hoped for some of the same movie magic. He even wrote a book on the subject, espousing the idea that movies and other “revolutionary art” could inspire a nation. In 1979 he went so far as to kidnap a prominent South Korean actress and her director husband, forcing them to work in the North Korean film industry for eight years, until they managed to escape.

Though Kim Jong Il maintained a personal library of 20,000 movies, including many American classics, the average North Korean could be sent to prison for watching U.S.-made films. It’s clear that Kim realized how powerful movies can be in showing a repressed people what the wider world looks like. I’ve run across countless stories about individuals in faraway lands whose lives were forever shaped by what they learned through American movies. The movies taught them about personal choice, and about the right to pursue one’s dreams. And Hollywood movies also showed them a lifestyle that a poor North Korean or South African or Eastern European couldn’t hope to emulate. For the price of a ticket, movies provided far more food for thought than Kim Jong Il could ever permit his countrymen to taste. And so he kept his movie collection -- his treasured copies of The Godfather and Gone With the Wind -- to himself.

Today’s headlines remind me of the dangerous power vacuum now left by Kim’s death. And photos of grieving North Koreans send me back to John Donne’s timeless message that “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” Still it’s hard to feel sad that the Wicked Witch of the East has now gone where the goblins go . . . below, below, below. Yoho!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Susan Gordon: A Child Star Makes An Early Exit

How sad to learn that Susan Gordon has left us. Susan — who as a child played Danny Kaye’s daughter in The Five Pennies, starred in a memorable episode of The Twilight Zone, and became a fantasy object for ten-year-old males in The Boy and the Pirates — grew up in my neighborhood. Of course I was aware of Susan’s celebrity, which made me feel slightly jealous. How did this little blonde girl get to make movies?

Years later, I spent an evening with Susan, discussing her life as a showbiz kid. She had taken a brief holiday from her husband and six children to enjoy a whirl of reunions and nostalgia events. She was petite, pretty, and very serious as she explained how her career began by accident: “My parents never wanted any of us girls to be in movies. They thought Hollywood was the wrong place for a child to grow up.” Yet her parents were movie people themselves. Her father, Bert I. Gordon, made low-rent movies in the Roger Corman mold. In 1958, he was shooting Attack of the Puppet People, which contained a small role for a young girl. Though Susan coveted the part, he hired a professional actress, then invited Susan’s Brownie troop to be extras in the scene. When the young pro fell ill, Susan stepped into the breach: “I did the scene, one take—and history began. . . . When the film was released, we got some calls from agents. And finally my parents said, ‘Susan, if you’re really interested. . . .’ But they set some ground rules.”

Rule #1: she was not to make her sisters jealous. Skimpy costumes were out too. And her father announced, "The day that they say, ‘There goes Susan Gordon’s father’ is the day you quit the business." He was joking, but he didn’t want his daughter to outshine him. Years later, though, his pride in her achievement was unmistakable. Still, this was not a case of stage parents pushing their darling toward ever greater success. It was drilled into Susan by both elder Gordons that Hollywood flattery should not go to her head. In protecting her from unrealistic expectations, they helped stave off the despair that hits many child actors on the inevitable day that “you don’t have this adoration any more. You’re off of the pedestal and your balloon is deflated.”

But Susan was so careful to keep her accomplishments under wraps that she ended up short on self-esteem. She told me about a long-ago playground incident: a close pal confided that “when I first became friends with you, it was because you were in the movies, but now I really like you.” Said Susan, “Although I’m sure she meant it as a compliment, it shattered my world.” Her voice dropped low as she recalled thinking, “Well, does everyone — all my friends — want to be friends with me because I’m in movies? What about me?” At this point in our conversation, her eyes filled with tears.

Susan was once up for a film with William Holden that would have taken her to Africa. As always, her parents warned her not to raise her hopes. Her own attitude was different: “Let me dream about it. Let me dream I’m going to be in Africa. And then if it doesn’t happen, . . . . at least I’ve had that moment of being in it.” She added, “I feel that way basically about life. Looking forward to things.”

I’m grieving now that cancer cut a good life short. Susan Gordon, alas, can’t look forward to things any more.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Descendants: No Small Parts, Just Small Actors

The Descendants is not my favorite movie of the year. I found it somewhat predictable, and missed the creative energy of such previous Alexander Payne films as Election and Sideways. Still, there’s much to like, including a spot-on vision of Hawaii that meshes sun-kissed tropical vistas with aging white men in bermuda shorts and flipflops.

Of course George Clooney is wonderful (who doesn’t love George Clooney?), but for me the very best part of the film lies in director Payne’s work with featured players. He is, it seems, a master of casting. Sideways worked so well partly because its central foursome was so deftly chosen. Paul Giamatti became a star through his portrayal of the hangdog wine aficionado, Miles. The soulful Virginia Madsen was perfection as his sadder-but-wiser leading lady. Thomas Haden Church, previously known as a TV actor, gained a whole new career after appearing as everyone’s favorite horndog, Jack. (I’ve heard that George Clooney himself campaigned for this role, but Payne turned him down, probably guessing that Clooney’s star wattage would have thrown off the delicate balance he wanted.) And Sandra Oh, who at the time was Mrs. Alexander Payne, was an unusual but effective choice as the ready-for-anything Stephanie. Still, part of what made Sideways work like gangbusters were the small roles that gave the film texture. I remember especially Marylouise Burke as Miles’ cheerful but somewhat addled mother, Missy Doty as the chubby waitress charmed by Jack’s tableside repartee, and M.C. Gainey as Cammi’s Neanderthal spouse, not at all pleased to find his wife in flagrante delicto. Browsing the credits, I was also tickled to discover that the telephone voice of Miles’ New York agent was supplied by Toni Howard, doyenne of Hollywood casting circles and possessor of a distinctive cigarettes-and-whiskey alto.

The Descendants – a story of love, loss, and family inheritance -- works similar magic with its minor characters. I’ll remember Beau Bridges as a Clooney cousin whose laid-back Hawaiian folksiness can’t entirely mask a greedy streak. Then there’s Judy Greer, as a loyal wife who comes unglued at the worst possible moment. Some young actors playing Clooney’s daughters and a goofy sidekick do great work too. But for me the performances to cherish come from Hollywood veteran Robert Forster and the completely unknown Barbara L. Southern as the parents of Clooney’s dying wife. Forster once lit up the screen as the enigmatic nature-boy in John Huston’s 1967 Reflections of a Golden Eye, then returned to the spotlight in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 Jackie Brown. Here he is the very epitome of tough-but-tender. Toward son-in-law Clooney and almost everyone else, he’s angry, bitter, even vengeful. But when his wife is helped into the room, he turns gentle. She is clearly in the throes of Alzheimer’s disease, and the love he lavishes on her somewhat redeems him (in my eyes, at least). It’s a gem of a characterization, and it’s matched by that of Southern. When she appears on the screen, well-dressed and carefully coiffed though she may be, it’s immediately evident that something is very wrong. As a woman so disconnected from the here-and-now that she misinterprets her daughter’s fatal accident as a visit from the Queen of England, she is heartbreakingly convincing.

Back in my high school drama days, we were told (endlessly) that there were no small parts, just small actors. This old bromide was supposed to make us feel better when we were cast in lousy roles. Still, there’s truth in it – and Alexander Payne knows as well as anyone in Hollywood how to combine small parts into a big, beautiful whole.

Friday, December 9, 2011

A M*A*S*H-Note for Harry Morgan

I miss Harry Morgan already. Yet I’m sure I’ll be seeing him around for a long time to come. Morgan, who just died at 96, was one of those invaluable character actors who add credibility to every film they make. It’s amazing how often I’ve seen him pop up in classics, like The Ox-Bow Incident and High Noon. He played the judge in Stanley Kramer’s fictionalized rendering of the Scopes Trial, Inherit the Wind, and a lawman in John Wayne’s last film, The Shootist. With his flat Midwestern voice and rough-hewn features, he represented Americana in all its permutations. Over the years, soldiers and sheriffs were his specialty.

I first got to know Morgan’s work in easygoing 1960s sitcoms like Pete and Gladys. He was Jack Webb’s acerbic sidekick on Dragnet too. But his chief claim to fame was his role as Colonel Sherman T. Potter for the last eight seasons of M*A*S*H. On M*A*S*H he had the unenviable task of following McLean Stevenson as the commanding officer of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, located near enemy lines in the thick of the Korean War. Stevenson’s Lt. Colonel Henry Blake had been a lovable goofball, oblivious to army protocol, and his departure from the show had been one of its most indelible episodes. But Morgan, as Colonel Potter, brought into M*A*S*H a new gravitas. As a regular-army officer who respected military life but never lost sight of war’s human face, he helped the show move from the anarchic zaniness of the Robert Altman film on which it was based into something richer and deeper.

I never met Harry Morgan. But I was lucky to spend a day on the M*A*S*H set, while researching an article for Theatre Crafts magazine. In exterior scenes, Korea was played by Malibu, California. (Hikers at Malibu Creek State Park still enjoy coming upon prop ambulances and signposts left behind when the series wrapped in 1983.) The bulk of the show, though, was shot on Stage 9 at Twentieth-Century Fox, and that’s where I went to talk to gaffers, makeup artists, and prop people about the challenges of re-creating the Korean War era. The episode before the cameras on the day that I visited showed Morgan’s Colonel Potter became entranced with a visiting USO cutie, a not-so-young chorine played by Bob Fosse’s favorite muse, Gwen Verdon. I recall her teasing a beaming Colonel Potter with a fluffy hot-pink boa, a far cry from the olive drab uniforms that were the mainstay of the M*A*S*H wardrobe rack. Though devoted to his wife and kids back home, the good colonel seemed fated to succumb to this adorable hussy. (Body chemistry: these two ageing but attractive people had it – in spades!) Still, for all its artistic originality, M*A*S*H was not about to alienate its core audience. The writers found a way to get Colonel Potter out of this sticky situation with his honor intact.

During my day on the M*A*S*H set, I got taken to lunch by crew members. No hoity-toity studio commissary for them! Instead, we drove to a beer-and-ribs joint that filled their need for a hearty meal. One thing I love about crew folk: they speak their minds. All were happy to have steady work, and they approached their on-set duties with total professionalism. But none of them seemed to grasp that they were part of a series that was truly groundbreaking television. Hardly starstruck, they regarded M*A*S*H as just another job. Harry Morgan was a great actor, but also a down-to-earth kind of guy. I think he would have understood.

(I can't resist sharing a post that brings to light another aspect of Morgan's life. Just this morning I was told on good authority by a fellow biographer that he was a mean drunk. Very sad.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Loretta Young and the Basketball Hottie: Thoughts on Motherhood in Hollywood

I’ve become obsessed with the passing of Judy Lewis. It’s not that Lewis’s twenty-year career as a TV actress much interests me. Rather, I became intrigued when I discovered her bloodlines.

Lewis grew up believing she was Loretta Young’s adopted daughter, plucked from an orphanage at 19 months by a star beloved for her good-girl roles. Meanwhile rumors swirled that Judy was in fact the byproduct of an affair between Young and the very married Clark Gable. The story – not confirmed until the publication of Young’s memoir after her 2000 death -- was that the two screen icons fell in love for real while shooting romantic scenes in the forests of Washington State for 1935’s The Call of the Wild. Young’s trip to Europe concealed the pregnancy from public view, and Judy was later born in a Venice, California cottage rented by Young and her mother, before being quietly whisked away. As Judy approached school-age, her oversized ears (reminiscent of Gable’s Dumbo-worthy ones) were so alarming to Young that she dressed her little girl in bonnets until the doctors finally scheduled corrective surgery.

Somehow Judy intuited none of this, though she always felt great tension between herself and her “adoptive” mom. The subject didn’t come up between them until 1966, when Young finally confirmed the deception. Young’s reasons for concealing her daughter’s parentage were straightforward. Stars like herself and Gable were bound by morals clauses in their studio contracts. Any hint of sexual impropriety could destroy their careers. Beyond this, Young was a practicing Catholic who took very seriously the notion of sin. The ultimate victim, of course, was poor Judy . To her credit she went back to school, emerging in 1992 as a credentialed family therapist. Fittingly, she specialized in issues relating to adoption and foster care. In 1994 she published her own memoir, writing that “it was very difficult for me as a little girl not to be accepted or acknowledged by my mother, who, to this day, will not publicly acknowledge that I am her biological child,” Once the book came out, mother and daughter did not speak for three years.

I thought of Judy Lewis this past weekend while at my gym. Somehow, channel-surfing on the TV set connected with my treadmill, I happened onto a talk show called Basketball Wives, in which some leggy young lovelies (including several actresses and wannabes) gab about their love life. A ravishing creature in blue spoke feelingly about how she’d just separated from her jock fiancé, after a six-year relationship, in order to move out on her own. After all, she’d been with him since the age of 20, and now sorely craved a more independent lifestyle. Mentioned in passing was the fact that this relationship had produced two children. But while she and her supportive circle of lady-friends happily clucked over her new living arrangements, her career aspirations, and her sex life, no one returned to the subject of those apparently discarded kids, whom I suspected were suffering from their mother’s determination to put her personal needs first.

Loretta Young, hampered by the puritanical moral code of her times, put herself ahead of her daughter. (Clark Gable, of course, did the same.) The blithe young “basketball fiancée” can publicly admit to her sexual urges in a way Young could not, but she too – like many in today’s Hollywood -- seems to be putting personal gratification ahead of her obligation to the children she’s borne. Call me old-fashioned, but I worry about the kids. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Speed – The LAX Version

Returning to Los Angeles International Airport, known to frequent flyers as LAX, can be a daunting experience. The other day, I boarded a shuttle that was supposedly heading to my off-site parking lot. Instead I was stuck in airport limbo, on what looked to be a bus to nowhere. After what seemed like hours, the situation became clear. L.A. had been deluged by rain earlier in the day – almost two inches! – and so the airport was in chaos. The tunnel leading to my lot was flooded, and because I was in a bus, not an ark, the going was slow indeed.

That’s when my imagination kicked in. Hey. I teach screenwriting, so shouldn’t I be thinking like a screenwriter? And, given my Roger Corman experience, it was only natural for me to adapt our situation as a low-budget thriller, perhaps a sort of Speed in slow motion, with a villain holding a small cluster of travelers hostage aboard an oversized van. I studied at my fellow passengers, and decided I’d hit the mother lode. Across from me sat a very Hollywood young couple, both of them tall, slim, and casually but expensively dressed. She was blonde, and a little bit pregnant. With elegantly tapered fingers (one sporting a large diamond) she kept delicately patting her belly. They were perfect, the two of them, as my leading man and lady.

Then I spotted an Asian-American man with an amiable, amused face. Yes! Here was my salt-of-the-earth character, who would warm hearts with his wit and wisdom in the face of danger. Unluckily for him, I saw a sudden death in his future. He was just the guy to ramp up the viewers’ emotions with his dramatic demise. My husband and I would serve as the comic-relief older folks, prone to bickering as the tension rose. Since the casts of today’s Hollywood movies skew young, we two would naturally be incapable of heroics. Instead we would merely be hindrances to the good guys’ efforts, earning ourselves a few sardonic chuckles. (Of course, Shelley Winters helped save the day in The Poseidon Adventure, but swimming was never my strong suit.)

That left me with some slightly more enigmatic characters. In the very back of the van sat a young man of uncertain ethnicity. Who knew what was going through his head? Was he a political terrorist? An ex-military man gone rogue? Or just your common-garden-variety demented killer? And then there was our driver: competent, quiet, polite . . . or was he not what he seemed? Was there, in fact, a conspiracy afoot?

That left me with only one more passenger, and I came to see her as the key to the whole story. She was a mousy young thing, slight of build, wearing a ponytail and thick horn-rimmed glasses. What fascinated me was that throughout our ride to nowhere, she was deeply immersed in reading a book. I caught a glimpse: it was a fat library copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Aha! I didn’t spot any tattoos on this young woman, and she certainly didn’t sport thick boots and a mohawk, like Lisbeth Salander. Still, who knew what she was capable of? I suspected that at the first sign of danger, she’d fling aside her glasses (a disguise, of course) and show her true colors. Then – watch out! (Just the role for a young Sandra Bullock.)

Fortunately, when I was at this point in my story, the shuttle arrived safely at the parking lot. Everyone emerged, unscathed, and I went back to being a mild-mannered blogger with a rampant imagination.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Czeching Out the Film Scene in Prague

On my last night in Prague, sauntering through the narrow medieval streets near my hotel, I came across a movie shoot. Gaffers and grips were busy setting up lights outside the James Joyce Pub. No telling what city Prague was standing in for, this time around.

Prague is a place of spires and turrets that make it look like one enormous movie set. And, in fact, Prague has served as the backdrop for a number of major films. Most famously, it has evoked the Vienna of Mozart’s day in Amadeus. (This is not inappropriate, because Mozart himself chose to premiere Don Giovanni in Prague’s Estates Theatre, where operas are still performed today.)

While Hollywood takes advantage of the visual beauties of Prague, the Czech people continue their own love affair with films. In the historic Lucerna Building, near Prague’s famous Wenceslas Square, I was shown one of Europe’s oldest movie theatres. It first opened its doors in 1909, and today houses screenings and film festivals. And the Czechs don’t just watch movies: they make them. The first feature film shot in the historic Czech region of Bohemia dates back to 1896, and the scandalous Ecstasy, introducing Hedy Lamarr in the altogether, captured the world’s attention in 1933. By the Sixties, Czech filmmakers Jan Kadar and Jiri Menzel were recognized with Best Foreign Film Oscars (for The Shop on Main Street and Closely Watched Trains). Milos Forman, who started out making wry Czech comedies like The Firemen’s Ball, quickly made the jump to Hollywood, where he gave us (along with Amadeus) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and a host of other major films.

In a somewhat jarring modern building that’s part of Prague’s National Theatre complex, the Laterna Magika stages regular performances. I first discovered this innovative dance troupe while working at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan. All of its choreographies combine live performance with cinematic images, in such a way that the dancers sometimes seem to move in and out of the unspooling film. At Expo I was tickled by a slapstick extravaganza in which an androgynous figure in a red leotard is chased by various bad guys through a series of filmed Prague street scenes. The Laterna Magika of today’s Prague, however, would apparently rather be arty than whimsical. On the night I attended, a ballet called Casanova presented the life of the great lover in solemn, portentous fashion, using cinematic footage merely as a substitute for fancy sets. The imaginative fun of the Expo-era performances was, alas, missing in action. What I liked best about my Prague Laterna Magika visit was a lobby sculpture that used film projections to give fascinating life to frozen blobs of glass.

One of Prague’s main attractions is its medieval castle, which today is the official home of the Czech Republic. I’m told (by tour guide extraordinaire Ron Hoffberg) that when Vaclav Havel took office in 1993 as the republic’s first president, he created a tourist attraction at the castle by decreeing an elaborate changing of the guard. Havel, a playwright who did not lack for media savvy, called upon friends in Hollywood to come up with appropriate uniforms, and they supplied his tall, strapping guardsmen with surplus band uniforms from The Music Man. Only one problem: some of these guards turned out to be moonlighting in Prague’s highly developed porn industry, and so the Music Man uniforms were showing up in some highly questionable scenarios. But that’s Prague: where movie magic comes in all shapes and sizes.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Moving Pictures: Truth, Fantasy, and Lies

Overseas flights go a lot more smoothly when you’ve got one of those seatback video screens to keep you company. Typically, they offer a wide range of movies, both old and new. It’s the ultimate couch-potato experience, except instead of sprawling comfortably on a sofa you’re strapped into a tiny seat with your knees approaching your chin. And bathroom breaks are tricky indeed. But I digress.

Since I never manage to conk out on airlines, I spent the long hours between Newark and the Middle East in movieland. First up was the Michael Jackson documentary film, This Is It. The shock here, of course, was the realization that Jackson, who appears so vital in the filmed dress rehearsals for his upcoming concert tour, would soon be dead. Pictures don’t lie? This Is It gives no glimpse of the tortured insomniac we all learned about in the news media following Jackson’s too-soon demise.

Next I watched, back-to-back, two of my favorite British comedies, A Fish Called Wanda and Four Weddings and a Funeral. The surprising discovery here had to do with the British response to American females. Though Wanda is an outrageous farce and Four Weddings a rom com, both feature American heroines (Jamie Lee Curtis and Andie MacDowell) who are smart, bold, and sexually assertive. In their presence, meek British males turn to jelly. Nice to see that Henry James’ late nineteenth-century view of the naïve American overwhelmed by the far-more-sophisticated European has been so thoroughly upended. On the other hand, the classic 1968 musical Funny Girl keeps to the older view in its portrayal of Fanny Brice (Barbra Streisand) as a sheltered American innocent who’s putty in the hands of the suave, accented Nicky Arnstein (played by a handsome but unlikely Omar Shariff). As seduction loomed, the lyric that stuck in my head was Brice’s panicked “Would a convent take a Jewish girl?” They don’t make ‘em like that anymore, I was thinking as my plane landed in Tel Aviv.

Coming home by way of Prague, I resumed my coach-potato ways, catching up on Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (beautiful, slow, and excellent for catnaps) and the thoroughly engaging Friends with Benefits. But the man ahead of me was watching a segment of Band of Brothers that incorporated actual Holocaust-era footage of emaciated bodies being bulldozed into a common grave. A glimpse of these horrors sent my mind reeling. In Jerusalem, I’d visited Yad Vashem, where the methodical Nazi slaughter of Jews is chronicled in excruciating detail. And outside of Prague is Terezin, also known by its German name, Theresienstadt. Inside this ancient fortress, Czechoslovakia’s Jewish population was sequestered by the Nazis in what was billed as a model community. In fact it was the first of the Nazi concentration camps, where residents quickly succumbed to starvation and rampant disease.

When the International Red Cross came to check on the Jews’ fate, the Nazis were one step ahead of them. They hid the sick and dying, and trotted forth new arrivals who were still in relatively good health. The carefully-coached Jewish inmates cheered each other on the soccer field, and the visitors were guests of honor at a charming soiree featuring a children’s opera group. The Red Cross folks went off, satisfied. The Germans also shot propaganda footage of the “happy” Theresienstadt inhabitants. Bits of it, often referred to as The Führer Gives a Village to the Jews, can still be viewed. But not by the film’s stars, who were soon on their way to Auschwitz. Who says pictures don’t lie?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Maria Ford, and a Pier without Peer

On a beautiful early fall day, just as the sun was slipping into the Pacific Ocean, I found myself in one of my favorite L.A. places, the Santa Monica Pier. Yes, the pier is the home of that brilliantly colorful solar-powered Ferris wheel you can find decorating the border of my website. I love Ferris wheels in general: they offer a great view, as well as a dramatic reminder that life has its ups and downs. But, even more, I love the old pier itself. It’s so tawdry, so vulnerable (to shifting social and political tides as well as to the ravages of rain and wind). On the pier, the air is pungent with the smells of salt and fish and the deep-fryer. Gulls cry; vendors hustle passersby into making impulse purchases; someone is always playing the drums. And as the sun inches through the clouds on its way to its watery resting-place, the sky turns golden.

This is what they call in the movie biz “magic hour,” that fleeting time of day that cinematographers try so hard to capture on film. Given the inevitable delays that filmmakers expect on their sets, it’s extraordinarily difficult to shoot an important dialogue exchange at magic hour. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.

Still, the Santa Monica Pier is photogenic at any hour. Given its location near major Hollywood studios, it’s probably the most photographed pier in existence. In fact, the official website (which traces the pier’s history back to 1909) gives particulars about how to book a shoot. The list of movies and TV episodes photographed here is a long one. In the Nineties, it appeared in Titanic and Forrest Gump. It also had a picturesque role in an earlier Oscar winner, The Sting: Paul Newman’s character lived in one of the tiny apartments still flanking the historic carousel built in 1916. I also remember glimpses of the pier in Inside Daisy Clover, one of those Hollywood movies that savage Hollywood life. And the pier played itself in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Sydney Pollack’s dark and powerful look at marathon dancing during the Great Depression. In that film, dancers desperate to win cash prizes tried to stay on their feet in a ramshackle ballroom perched just above the waves of the cold Pacific.

One of my strangest pier memories involves a fledgling actress named Maria Ford. She was discovered by Concorde producers Anna Roth and Andy Ruben dancing nude in a seedy joint in the San Fernando Valley, and she was just what they needed to play a stripper in Dance of the Damned. Since her talents were obvious to anyone with eyes, Roger Corman quickly decreed that she would star in his next film, Stripped to Kill II. Because we had a strip-club set handy, the dances were filmed first, after which it was time to create an actual story. That’s where I came in. I was asked to meet Maria on the Santa Monica Pier, where writer-director Katt Shea Ruben was shooting pick-ups for the previous film. Maria, clearly working on her image, had poured herself into an ultra-red dress. She had powdered her face kabuki white, and drawn onto her cherry-red lips an endearing little cleft. I have never before felt so clearly that I was meeting someone of a different species. The combo of sexpot and Little Girl Lost she projected couldn’t help but remind me of Marilyn Monroe. But Maria was for real . . . or as real as anything on the Santa Monica Pier ever gets.

(I'm delighted to add a link to a Maria Ford fansite I've just discovered.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Corwin, Corman, Korman –- It’s All Good

I owe Norman Corwin an apology. I guess I’m too late to deliver it, since he died October 18 at the age of 101. Still, I feel a bit guilty. Let me explain.

Back when I was Roger Corman’s story editor at Concorde-New Horizons Pictures, it was not uncommon to see fan-mail lying around the office. Generally the letters (often badly spelled and punctuated) that our mailman delivered were from passionate young Corman enthusiasts, overflowing with affection for the King of the Bs. One letter was different, so different that it got scotch-taped to the wall above the copy machine. It was from a fan too, and yet it was addressed not to Roger Corman but to Norman Corwin. It turned out to be a serious note of appreciation thanking Corwin for his long and meaningful career in radio. Clearly, the sender had mailed his heart-felt missive to the wrong address.

The office flunky who posted it for all of us to read had scribbled an off-hand comment poking fun at this geezer who didn’t know the difference between Corman and Corwin (whoever the hell HE was). Personally, I knew who Corwin was, though his great days were well before my time, and I felt sorry for the fan whose letter had gone so far astray. Still, I made no effort to send his letter on to the right destination. (Hey, I was busy making 170 movies!) Now that Norman Corwin has left the building, the newspapers are filled with obits detailing how much he once meant to earlier generations of Americans. For capturing in his voice-plays the epic moments of the World War II era, he was called “the poet of the airwaves” and “the poet laureate of radio.” And he was obviously a great guy, to boot. One twenty-year colleague told NPR how Corwin finally came up with an answer for journalists who pestered him with questions about the wording of his epitaph. He said he’d like his head-stone to proclaim that he was shot in a duel (at age 126) by a jealous lover. Too bad he went 25 years early, felled by natural causes.

Meanwhile, Roger Corman lives and thrives. (At 85, he’s a mere youngster). But even he is not immune to name confusions. When I used to tell people I worked for Roger Corman, acquaintances would occasionally mention how hilarious he was. Yes, Roger made some dark-comedy classics, like Little Shop of Horrors and Bucket of Blood, and in conversation he could show a certain dry wit, but I had a strong hunch we were talking about two different people. Sure enough, they meant Harvey Korman, the clown-prince of the Carol Burnett Show. In 1987, by the way, Harvey Korman was cast as a space archaeologist (and his evil twin) in a Gremlins-type Concorde monster comedy called Munchies. He did his usual sterling job, but the casting also had a whiff of inevitability: a film combining the talents of Corman and Korman was one of those ideas whose time had finally come.

I had little to do with Munchies. But somebody at Concorde obviously liked the title. A few years later I worked on (and, along with the rest of my family, briefly appeared in) a good-natured family film called Munchie, about a less-scary supernatural critter who comes to live with a lonely young boy. But that, of course, is another story.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Cirque du Soleil’s Iris: Starshine and Shadow Waltzes

It was inevitable. The Cirque du Soleil, the Montreal-based circus troupe that features theatrical magic instead of animal acts, now has a permanent Hollywood home base. This was hardly the Cirque’s first visit to the City of Angels. I remember taking my kids to see a performance in a huge tent erected on a vacant lot in Downtown L.A. They were mesmerized, and I was too. This was 1987, when the newly-launched troupe took a flyer, gambling that participation in the Los Angeles Arts Festival (a wonderful but now long-gone offshoot of L.A.’s Olympic Arts Festival) would earn enough money to get them all back home again. Los Angeles audiences, of course, took the mystic jugglers and acrobats to their hearts, and the rest is history.

Now the love affair with L.A. continues. After years of temporary stays on the sands of Santa Monica, the Cirque has created a show designed to inhabit Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre for many years to come. It’s no surprise that the world of movies has provided the inspiration for Iris, a show whose name conjures up the human eye as well as a key camera component. (It’s also an old film term for a particularly fancy transition, mostly seen in silent movies, from one scene to the next.) Iris is not so much interested in capturing the history of Hollywood. Instead, in its trademark ethereal fashion, it explores the allure of Hollywood, the ways that movies enter our dreams.

Back in the early days of movies, audiences couldn’t quite believe that what they saw before their eyes was not real. The last shot of Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) was a desperado pointing his gun at the camera. When he pulled the trigger, viewers shrieked with alarm—but also, I suspect, with pleasure, as they realized they had been drawn into a harmless but exciting illusion. To this day, we still enjoy the frisson of feeling that we’re part of a movie. That’s why we flock to the Universal Studios tour, where we’re threatened by King Kong and feel the heat of the conflagration from Backdraft. There’s also something quite wonderful about the mix of live human beings and their cinematic doubles. When I worked at Osaka’s Expo 70, I loved to visit a Czech attraction, the Laterna Magika, in which a stageful of dancers seemed to move magically in and out of an unspooling movie.

The Cirque du Soleil specializes in magical feats. Without benefit of wirework or green-screen trickery, acrobats soar about your head, doing the seemingly impossible. If they miss a step and plummet downward, the audience knows there’s no chance of a re-take. This sense of performing without a net is one distinction between the stage and the movie screen. But Iris, though not much interested in the history of the motion picture industry, does aspire to capture movie stylistics. In its use of atmospheric projections, silhouettes, and breathtakingly symmetrical arrangements of young lovelies, I saw reminders of Busby Berkeley musical extravaganzas like “The Shadow Waltz” from Gold Diggers of 1933. A soundstage scene could rightly be called Felliniesque. A climactic roof-top brouhaha recalled the stylized action sequences of film noir. It was only in an extended comedy sequence, one combining speaking performers and audience participation in a grotesque parody of movieland awards shows, that Iris missed its mark. Cirque du Soleil is at its best, perhaps, when -- like the very first movies -- it’s both mysterious and silent.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Almodóvar’s World: There’s More than One Way to Skin a Spaniard

What’s the Spanish word for chutzpah? Whatever it is, Pedro Almodóvar’s got it, in spades. The Spanish filmmaker’s latest, The Skin I Live In, was released in Los Angeles just in time for Halloween. Though there’s nothing supernatural about this film, its dark tone and macabre humor make it perfect for the time of the year when we expect things to go bump in the night.

The Skin I Live In fits nicely into that long list of films about mad scientists who dare to do the unthinkable. Starring Antonio Banderas as a brilliant surgeon with his own ideas about synthetic skin, it could not fail to remind me of other movies in which a doctor overreaches, using his medical talents for less than noble ends. David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers – with Jeremy Irons playing twin gynecologists -- immediately comes to mind. (So does The Collector, and one of the lesser plot strands of The Silence of the Lambs.) But whereas I remember Dead Ringers as an ice-cold movie, The Skin I Live In has moments of great passion, even love. The twisted adoration that Banderas’ character feels for his wife and daughter helps set the stage for all the destruction to come. As I watched his mind unravel, I couldn’t help thinking of Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre stories, and of course the films of Poe’s most famous cinematic interpreter, Roger Corman.

If you were to cross the hypersensitive, long-suffering protagonist (usually played by Vincent Price) of Corman films like The Tomb of Ligeia with the obsessive scientist of Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, you’d have something like the role played by Banderas in The Skin I Live In. But there are some key differences too. Back in the early Sixties, when Corman was directing his Poe cycle, a filmmaker couldn’t delve too deeply into sexuality and gender politics. In any case, Corman himself has long tended to be slightly queasy when it comes to exploring sex and skin. (The films of his protégés at Concorde-New Horizons have always shown plenty of both, but their erotic scenes are never allowed to stray far from the purely conventional.) Almodóvar, on the other hand, loves to undercut traditional notions of male and female body language. It’s probably oversimplifying to say that his own position outside the sexual mainstream encourages him to flirt with the notion that gender identity is fluid. In any case, though, he comes at sexuality from an idiosyncratic perspective that allows anything and everything to be possible.

I won’t say more, because it’s exciting to see a movie that from moment to moment is able to take you by surprise. Be forewarned, though, that Almodóvar pulls no punches. The Skin I Live In is not a gross-out movie of the horror-porn variety beloved by some teenage boys. It is, though, lurid in an adult way: its blood is truly bloody; its sex is (at times) truly painful; its skin is truly bare. And its painful depiction of social and sexual isolation will haunt me for a long time to come.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ghouls Just Want to Have Fun: George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead

Novelist Colson Whitehead, recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant and a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize, has devoted his latest novel to zombies. Is there a trend here? These days zombies are showing up in all the best places, including alternative versions of the genteel novels of Jane Austen. (I’m referring, of course, to Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 mash-up, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which one of these days may be coming to a movie theatre near you.)

Whitehead, who’s usually more interested in the African-American experience and the history of New York, chose to depict a zombie-ridden apocalyptic future in his new Zone One. His choice isn’t entirely out of the blue when you realize he’s been having zombie nightmares ever since he saw Dawn of the Dead (zombies take over a shopping mall!) at age nine. In promoting his new novel, Whitehead released a list of classic films that have stoked his imagination. Kicking off that list is George Romero’s seminal zombie trilogy (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead), which Whitehead categorizes as “Sane Black Man Vs. The Crazy White People.”

Whitehead’s focus on the racial aspect of Romero’s films isn’t inappropriate. In Night of the Living Dead, the last man standing in the war against the encroaching zombies is black. The 1968 film, made on a shoestring and shot in shaky black-and-white, centers on a Pennsylvania farmhouse where a cluster of locals seeks refuge from creatures who are literally blood-thirsty, and won’t take no for an answer. As the number of humans holed up in that farmhouse starts to dwindle, some become belligerent, and others weepy. Yet Duane Jones as Ben stays cool, bravely inventing stratagems to keep the monsters at bay. Ben’s skin-color is never mentioned, but it gives additional punch to the film’s shocking conclusion. When state troopers arrive at the farmhouse with guns and dogs to disperse the zombies once and for all, Ben is the only human being still alive. The troopers spot him in an upstairs window, quickly decide he’s one of “them,” and capably pick him off with a bullet to the brain, with one man congratulating another on his marksmanship.

Romero had never planned to make a movie about race. He cast an African-American as his hero because Duane Jones was the best actor who auditioned. But in the late Sixties, when the civil rights struggle was coming to a boil, the accidental resonance of this film could not be denied. Jason Zinoman’s article for Vanity Fair chronicles how on April 4, 1968, the print of Night of the Living Dead was sitting in the trunk of Romero’s Thunderbird convertible as he drove to New York to try selling his fledgling directorial effort to Columbia Pictures. Over the car radio came word that Martin Luther King had just been assassinated in Memphis. Though personally devastated by the news, Romero couldn’t help thinking, “Man, this is good for us.” King’s death convinced Romero of the timeliness of a film “whose defiant black hero fights off an army of the undead only to be gunned down by an all-white posse.” Americans already edgy about black-and-white tensions quickly picked up on the racial nuance.

This Halloween, we have a brand-new monument to Martin Luther King on our National Mall. But that’s not to say that all America’s racial problems have been solved. If Republican-leaning zombies start lurching toward the White House instead of a farmhouse, let’s hope Obama comes off better than poor Duane Jones.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Francesca Lia Block: Pretty in Pink (Smog)

Imagine my surprise when Francesca Lia Block enrolled in my online screenwriting course. I don’t usually get students who are well-known authors. Back in 1989, Francesca shook up the staid world of Young Adult fiction when she published Weetzie Bat, a simultaneously lurid and romantic novel about young punks in old Hollywood. I’ve heard librarians refer to Weetzie Bat as “a modern classic.” Since its publication, she has written a host of other books, most set in a gaudy, glittering version of L.A. that is a hipster’s paradise. Coming up next year is the latest entry in the Weetzie Bat saga, Pink Smog.

Still, despite all her success as a novelist, Francesca wanted to work on her screenwriting chops, with the goal of adapting the original Weetzie Bat story -- now called Dangerous Angels -- for the screen. I hadn’t realized until we chatted recently that movie-making has always been her secret love. Trouble is: all she knows how to do was write. So she decided at an early age, “If I just make these movies in my head, and write them down, it’s almost as good.”

Francesca came by her passion for movies naturally. Her mother’s mother had written for radio, then came out to Hollywood for a screenwriting career that ended in broken promises. Her father, Irving Block, had better luck. He contributed visual effects to a host of Fifties sci-fi flicks, even creating Robby the Robot for Forbidden Planet. There’s a Roger Corman connection too: Block was a writer and co-producer on War of the Satellites, Roger’s quickie response to the launch of Sputnik.

Francesca herself grew up amid the suburban sprawl of the San Fernando Valley. Craving excitement, she and her friends would drive over Laurel Canyon into Hollywood, where she found her own Land of Oz by way of Marilyn Monroe, pink sunsets, bougainvillea, and the Hollywood Sign. Along with Old Hollywood, she also discovered the New Punk Hollywood of the 1980s: “That’s the sensibility that formed Weetzie Bat.”

But translating Weetzie and her friends to the silver screen has not been easy. The material has been optioned by some of the biggest names in town (think Spielberg), but somehow the project has never come to fruition. Determined to write the screenplay herself, Francesca has revised her version “hundreds and hundreds of times,” which is how she ended up in my rewrite class. (She was a diligent student, unfailingly gracious to classmates with a lot less experience and talent.) Alas, Hollywood producer-types can’t seem to see the world through her eyes. Trying to define her aesthetic, she’s prone to refer to Juliet of the Spirits, a film few Hollywood honchos remember. What she craves is a blend of “Felliniesque, over-the-top, saturated-color, beautiful romantic vision with this very dark, gritty, punk-rock, hand-held camera, club-scene vision . . . Those two things – to me they go together perfectly.” But no one seems to understand.

A dedicated Angeleno, Francesca praises films like L.A. Story and (500) Days of Summer that capture the landscape she knows so well. Nonetheless, she can’t think of a single movie that shows her own private Shangri-LA. Director Catherine Hardwicke, trying to help her launch a Weetzie Bat film, advised her to pare down any scenes set in Hollywood and eliminate any references to the Eighties as a way of saving on expensive locations and period costumes. Good advice, but not something Francesca can accept, because in her work “the city becomes a character. You lose a whole character if you don’t pay attention to that stuff.”

(Photo credit by Maria Andreotti)

Monday, October 24, 2011

UCLA Writers’ Program: Far Beyond Kindergarten

My colleague, Ernie Contreras, got off a good one the other day. We were at an instructors’ retreat sponsored by the Writers’ Program, UCLA Extension’s widely acclaimed program for those wanting to study (either in the classroom or over the Internet) the art and craft of writing. All of us who teach screenwriting through the Writers’ Program can share with our students our own hard-earned experience in film and television. And we take our responsibilities seriously. That’s why we’d gathered on a Saturday morning to discuss ways to enhance our teaching skills.

In a session designed to focus on “How to Solve Problems Before They Start,” we moved onto the thorny topic of giving feedback to novice writers. Sometimes, we agreed, the problem was with a hypersensitive student unwilling to hear even the most constructive advice. But there also were students who used the chance to critique their peers as an opportunity for rampant nastiness. I mentioned to the group an example from early in my teaching career. Though I had made it a point at the opening class to discuss the need for courtesy and a positive approach, a young man who’d missed the first session was later discovered to be scrawling all over his classmates’ submissions helpful comments like these: “Boring!” “I nearly fell asleep here!” and the ever-popular “This sucks!” Ironically, I noted to my colleagues, this very opinionated young man showed no particular talent in his own written work. That’s when Ernie quipped, “Sounds like this guy has a great future as a studio executive!”

A knowledge of the industry is one thing that binds us instructors together. Another is a genuine desire to help fledgling writers get their foot in the door. We all have our success stories, of working with student writers who’ve ended up signing with major agencies, joining the staff of established TV shows, or winning prestigious writing contests. (A few of us can boast of having had the ubiquitous James Franco in our classes, which has got to be a victory of some sort.)

One of the issues that arose at our retreat was whether to tell a student writer that his or her screenplay-in-progress lacks commercial appeal. Pragmatic as we are, we feel the need to make clear the basic parameters of what Hollywood is looking for. After all, our students expect practical advise from people who have been there and done that. On the other hand, the last thing we want to do is stifle someone’s creative impulses. And it’s also true that, as screenwriter William Goldman famously said, in Hollywood “nobody knows anything.” Times change, approaches vary, and you never know where that next great movie hit will be coming from.

It so happens that at the gym yesterday, while huffing and puffing on the elliptical trainer, I found myself watching my former governor’s 1990 hit, Kindergarten Cop. This thriller about a cop who goes undercover as a kindergarten teacher in order to track down a drug-dealer has it all: an appealing hero (Ahnold at his best); a pair of scary, complex, picturesque villains; some sparkling featured players; plus kiddie humor, a cute little boy in jeopardy, a tightly-plotted climax, and a classroom pet who helps out when least expected. I’d be proud if any of my students ended up writing a movie on that level. On the other hand, whether their goal is a top-notch commercial flick, a deeply-felt personal story, or a funky experiment, I’m there to help them move from Fade-In to Fade-Out.

Read more about the UCLA Writers’ Program here.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Muammar Gaddafi: Condi’s #1 Fan Bites the Dust

Well, the world is now rid of another brutal dictator. The demise of Muammar Gaddafi (or Kadafi or Qaddafi -- take your pick) is not something I feel the need to mourn. But I can reflect on what goes through the minds of powerful guys with too much time on their hands. In the case of Gaddafi, the world has just learned that he filled a well-stuffed scrapbook with scores of photos of his political fave: Condoleezza Rice. Which reminded me, of course, of passionate movie fans, then and now.

I just recently learned that the Library of Congress’s film and TV reading room collects the occasional fan scrapbook, like the beautiful one from the 1930s I browsed on my last trip to Washington DC. Its focus was on Greta Garbo, but other celebrities too were incorporated with loving care. Such scrapbooks tell us a good deal about how movie fans of all ages put their screen idols on a pedestal, especially in the days before 24/7 Internet gossip. My own childhood scrapbooks contained the occasional Hollywood reference: a clipping about the re-release of The Wizard of Oz, a souvenir program from a new Danny Kaye flick. But I never put together an album devoted solely to movie stars.

I did, however, make one special scrapbook. It dates from the days when I was about seven. As a student at Lester Horton Dance Theater, I was totally in love with lead dancer Carmen de Lavallade. Like the other little girls in my classes, I diligently clipped newspaper photos of the Horton troupe and pasted them into a homemade “Carmen book.” To further adorn my album, I solicited autographs, complete with personal messages, from the senior dancers. The ones addressed to me by pioneering choreographer Lester Horton (who died suddenly in 1953) and by the late Alvin Ailey are probably valuable today.

Less valuable, I’m sure, are the autographs I occasionally came home with after attending public events. I went to some big charity show at the Shrine Auditorium, and afterwards spotted two of the featured performers, Jerry Colonna and Marilyn Maxwell. She, in particular, meant nothing to me (once I figured out that -- despite the initials and the blonde hair -- she definitely wasn’t Marilyn Monroe). But a star was a star, and I’m sure those two scribbled names are still somewhere at my mother’s house, tucked away for safe keeping.

Then of course there were those special times when I was photographed with a celebrity. As a UCLA student journalist I went to a press luncheon, and someone took a photo of me with Harry Belafonte, my mother’s absolute hero. I was sent an 8x10 glossy to commemorate the event, and it has been up on Mom’s bulletin board ever since. (I myself occasionally got covered up by other memorabilia, but Belafonte’s smiling face has always had a place of honor.) Why do these photos and scrawled names mean so much? I think because it’s proof that you and I occupy the same world as the stars, that we breathe the same air, that for one brief moment our lives have intersected. Too bad for Muammar Gaddafi, though: he and Condi Rice are no longer on the same planet. If, of course, they ever were.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Moneyball: The Musical

I finally saw Moneyball. With autumn arriving and the 2012 World Series just around the corner, my timing seemed perfect. I like baseball, and have fond memories of cheering the Dodgers on to the National League pennant. (Yup, that was long ago.) So I was prepared to enjoy this look at how General Manager Billy Beane used statistical savvy to power his Oakland A’s into the play-offs.

Too bad the film seemed so sluggish. I learned a lot about the role of a general manager on a big-league baseball team, but the energy of good baseball was largely missing. Moneyball instead lingered on the softer side of Brad Pitt’s character. We got a glimpse of his past as a one-time hot prospect who never lived up to his advance billing. And much time was spent on a hackneyed exploration of his bond with his young daughter, which apparently remained strong despite the tensions of a divorce. Games were won and lost in the course of Moneyball, but I never felt like root-root-rooting for the home team, because baseball in this film seemed more like an intellectual exercise, to be observed from afar. (In fact, Billy Beane apparently DID see his teams play only from afar – via TV screens and video feeds – because he simply couldn’t bear to watch up-close. But the passion I gather he brought to the game never came through to me in my bleacher seat.)

It seems wacky, I know, to jump from baseball to its prissy-looking English cousin, cricket. For a red-blooded American it’s hard to grasp the logic of a game that lasts for days, stops for tea-breaks, and talks of stumps, wickets, and creases. But I still feel great affection for this gentlemanly sport, because it led me to meet some splendid people. In 1975, on our first trip to England, my husband and I spotted a group of teenage boys playing cricket behind a stately home. Watching, we somehow made a close connection with Mary and John Gower and their adorable five-year-old Daniel, whose older brothers were out on the cricket pitch. We’re still friends, and Daniel has evolved into a movie buff too.

Despite my sentimental attachment to cricket, I wouldn’t have thought to see a movie on the subject. Especially not one that’s four hours long. Then in 2001 I started hearing about a Bollywood flick called Lagaan. Set in the days when the Brits ruled India, it presents a David-versus-Goliath conflict in which residents of a drought-stricken Indian village are challenged to a cricket match by a British colonial lord. If they win, three years of tax obligations (lagaan) will be cancelled. If they lose, their tax bill will triple. Since these humble folk know nothing about cricket, gathering a proper team is challenging. When they take the field, their ranks include a farmer, a fortune-teller, an “untouchable,” and a spy for the other side. Fully half the film shows us the match, in detail – and I could follow what was happening every step of the way. The characters and their plight were so engrossing that I was thoroughly caught up in the action, and so was everyone else in the theatre. No wonder Lagaan has been named one of the greatest sports movies of all time.

Since Lagaan is part of the Bollywood tradition, it is of course a musical, and I’ve just discovered that the catchy tunes are by A. R. Rahman, who won two Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire. Like Lagaan itself, they capture the passion for sport and for life that Moneyball so completely overlooks.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Roger Corman’s Fearless Biographer

If it weren’t for Roger Corman, I wouldn’t be a biographer today. But I am – and I’ve joined the company of a lot of smart folks. One is Dona Munker, who kindly invited me onto her “Stalking the Elephant” blog, which covers not big-game hunting but the writing of biography. I provided ten tips, the first of which reads: “In starting out, scour your life for a subject you are in a unique position to explore. When writing a biography, consider making your own relationship with the central figure a part of the story.” Good advice, if I do say so myself.

My first book, the tastefully titled Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers, begins in the personal realm: “I first laid eyes on veteran Hollywood filmmaker Roger Corman in the summer of 1973, when he interviewed me for a job as his assistant.” I had a great anecdote from that meeting, and an even more telling one from the day I learned he was replacing me, both to help out a needy former staffer and to save the difference between her salary and my own.

Throughout most of my Corman book, though, I stayed in the background. Because this was Roger’s story, not mine, I never spelled out how hard he tried to take charge of my project. But since I’m now persona non grata in the Corman world -— barred from any film documentary or DVD commentary over which he has control —- it seems high time to set the record straight.

When I told Roger in 1998 that I had a contract for a book about him, he had a ready response: “I would be happy to cooperate with you in any possible way, as long as you can reassure me that this book will be largely favorable.” Taken aback by his bluntness, I stammered that I had spent wonderful years in his employ, and hoped to bring that spirit to the book. Soon afterward he handed down an ultimatum: he wanted my publisher and me to sign a legal document allowing him to read my book in manuscript and remove anything he considered “derogatory.” Obviously, this was not the ideal way to do biography, especially since I knew from experience that Roger could be prickly about his public image. I let a few weeks pass, then wrote a polite letter explaining that of all the lessons I’d learned from him over the years, one of the most valuable was the importance of artistic independence.

Roger didn’t give up easily. Once my research was well underway, he phoned to say he had told various celebrity alumni not to speak to me, because he’d heard my book was to be “a hatchet job.” No, I said, it was intended as an objective study, worthy of the finest libraries in the land. My answer pleased him, I think, but I asked no favors. Because by then I grasped that Roger would never be satisfied until he had reshaped my book to his best advantage. (Earlier biographers, eager to be hired onto Corman movies, had willingly agreed to his demands.) I wrote the biography my way, and was gratified by the number of Cormanites who insisted my book had come far closer than any other to capturing the essence of a very complex man.

I’m sorry that in its aftermath, Roger has seen fit to shun me. But I’m proud my book sits on the shelf of the Library of Congress, and in many of our best libraries. Artistic independence, it seems, does pay off.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Jacqueline Cooper: An Intern Gets Lucky

The thorny topic of unpaid interns is once again on the lips of Hollywood insiders. Two ambitious fellows who worked behind the scenes on last year’s Black Swan, have filed suit against Fox Searchlight for violating minimum wage and overtime laws. This is not exactly the way to earn points in Hollywood: the two interns will definitely never eat lunch in this town again. Still, I can understand the frustration of those who toil long hours for no money and little credit, on behalf of a movie whose glamour never quite seems to rub off on them.

Nonetheless, for aspiring filmmakers who can’t rely on nepotism to help them break into show biz, internships remain a good way to get a foot in the door. I broached the subject with a family friend, Jackie Cooper. Jackie grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, near the famous national laboratories where her father still works as a physicist. She has an older brother who’s a science-type and an older sister who’s an artist-type, so it’s perhaps not surprising that her own interests combine the technical with the creative. Jackie graduated in 2002 from University of California at Santa Cruz with a degree in film and digital media. Nine years later, she’s a visual effects artist (what’s known as a compositor), who has worked her magic on such big-budget films as Tron and Harry Potter. Currently she’s in London toiling on Clash of the Titans 2.

How did it happen? Certainly not because family connections paved the way. I’ll let her describe how she left funky little Santa Cruz for the big bad world of Los Angeles: “When I first arrived I took a job as an unpaid intern for a production company, which was essentially a man with his own screenwriting company looking for interns to ‘teach how to make films.’ My personal belief is that he wanted interns to help him build his new office. The bright side for me was that I learned how to use carpentry equipment and stucco.” Not surprisingly, she soon quit.

“Two weeks after that, I started applying for jobs in the post-production world. I actually thought I wanted to be an editor. A kindly editor named Steve asked me to do my interview at a visual effects studio in Santa Monica, and helped sneak me into a presentation they were giving on visual effects. The first time I saw a walking dinosaur on the screen using 3D, I honestly thought to myself that ‘this is what I want to do with my life.’ I asked to get an internship at that company, and a wonderful woman named Katherine took me in. I worked for her by day, driving around reels of our visual effects house to different production companies around town. It was pretty neat, as I got to go to Disney, Warner Bros., and Sony. . .

“But by night, I would do what they call in VFX “RTFM,” which stands for "read the f!(@#&* manual." till about 3 AM, doing tutorials. After three months, I showed that I was good for something, and I stopped doing the driving and started working on music video projects. After six months they kept me on and started paying me.”

Jackie concedes that she was very lucky. As an unpaid intern, she found bosses who truly were ready to invest in her future. Here, from her demo reel, are the kinds of cool things that now fill her days. (Do check out the rest of her website too.)