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.