Monday, December 31, 2012

Year’s End: The Legends We Lost in 2012

The end of a year tends to make everyone nostalgic. And, at times, melancholy. I felt sadness wash over me recently while dining in a neighborhood bistro that uses Hollywood classics as a sort of moving wallpaper. While munching on ahi tuna, I kept feeling my eyes drawn to the big rear wall where the 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street was silently unfolding. This whimsical story of a department store Santa Claus should have seemed festive. But in watching jolly Edmund Gwenn, crotchety William Frawley, stalwart John Payne, and (especially) the beautiful nine-year-old Natalie Wood, I couldn’t help remembering that all have left us. (Blessedly, Maureen O’Hara is still around, having lived to the ripe old age of 92.)

At year’s end, magazines and TV programs all trot out their memorial tributes. One of the most moving, from TCM, salutes film people who passed away in 2012. Here are just a few: Japan’s Isuzu Yamada, a favorite of director Akira Kurosawa, was the spookiest Lady Macbeth ever, in Throne of Blood. When I did a serious phone interview with Phyllis Diller, she blew me away with the unexpected announcement that she was a great cook. Surprise!

Then there were the two wonderful character actors we lost on Christmas Eve, Jack Klugman and Charles Durning. Both had an Everyman quality that made them instantly believable in a wide range of roles. Klugman was a household favorite when I was growing up, both for his role as the slovenly half of TV’s The Odd Couple series and for playing a rough-hewn but dogged medical examiner on Quincy, M.E. Though Klugman is less associated with films, there were some modest but memorable characterizations. In the movie version of Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, he gave both credibility and likability to the role of the doting nouveau riche father of golden girl Ali MacGraw. And, as Juror #5 he was part of the stellar ensemble (along with Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, and Ed Begley) that brought the jury-room drama Twelve Angry Men brilliantly to life.

The more I read about Charles Durning, the more fascinating he seems. The defining moment of his life seems to have come on the battlefield of World War II, when he met the enemy face to face and somehow survived. He kept mostly hidden the side of himself capable of killing a young German soldier at point-blank range, but his wide variety of stage and screen roles always hinted that he was a man with unplumbed depths. He excelled as a crooked cop (The Sting) and in the two crass roles that won him Oscar nominations, as a shifty governor in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and a lustful Nazi colonel in Mel Brooks’s To Be or Not to Be. But I’ll remember Charles Durning for roles both funny and tender. As Jessica Lange’s father in Tootsie, he was fully convincing as a man’s man who becomes sweetly besotted with Dorothy Michaels, whom we know to be Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) under a wig and a lot of pancake makeup. And I loved him in a 1975 television drama, Queen of the Stardust Ballroom, about a mailman who woos a lonely widow (Maureen Stapleton) on the dance floor. Critics of the day were amazed to find Durning so light on his feet. But along with everything else, he’d also worked as a ballroom dance instructor. Here was an actor forever capable of surprising his audiences.

May 2013 be filled with lovely surprises for us, one and all.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Approaching High Tower: Raymond Chandler Lives!

When I approached High Tower Drive, the day didn’t exactly scream film noir. The rains of the night before had given way to a brilliant blue sky, dappled with fluffy white clouds. Still, I would not have been totally surprised, when rounding a curve on the steep walking path, to stumble upon a dead body. This is Raymond Chandler territory, a pocket of residential L.A. where you can imagine bad things happening to bad people.

Hollywood Heights, a hilly enclave whose Mediterranean-style villas date back to the 1930s, is sandwiched between the tawdry bustle of Hollywood Blvd. and the dramatic vistas of the famous Hollywood Bowl. What makes this turf so distinctive is the slender italianate tower -– High Tower –- that unexpectedly looms above the pavement. It’s essentially a free-standing five-story elevator shaft, built circa 1920 to accommodate residents whose homes cling to the hills above. You can’t enter the tower without a key, but years ago, while on assignment for a local magazine, I was instructed to park on the street below and take the elevator up. It was dark, and the ride was exceedingly spooky. When the door slid open at the top of the hill, a strange man stood waiting. I’m sure I jumped, imagining a scenario straight out of Farewell, My Lovely. Fortunately, it was the husband of my host, waiting to guide me to their wonderfully atmospheric abode.

Hollywood location scouts have of course long known about High Tower. I have no list of the movies in which it’s been featured, but one stands out vividly in my recollection. Director Robert Altman, updating Chandler in 1973’s The Long Goodbye, gives his down-at-the-heels detective hero a home near the tower. Though it’s hard to imagine Philip Marlowe being able to handle the rent in this neighborhood, its sense of slightly decayed glamour fits perfectly into the Chandler universe.

After strolling the overgrown walking paths of Hollywood Heights, I took a gander at the small but well-appointed Hollywood Bowl Museum. The Bowl’s iconic entry statue, I discovered, is called the Muse of Music, and she was designed by sculptor George Stanley, who had previously created the Oscar statuette (working from a sketch by legendary Hollywood art director Cedric Gibbons). The museum contains memorabilia of famous performances by everyone from Pavarotti to Ella Fitzgerald to the Beatles. Also on display are clips of some of the films in which the 18,000-seat Bowl has played a part. These include Anchors Aweigh, A Star is Born, and yet another film noir classic, Double Indemnity, for which Chandler co-wrote the screenplay.

From the Bowl I walked down Highland Avenue to Sunset Boulevard (those noir names keep coming!), where I wandered through Crossroads of the World, the distinctive office complex built in 1936 in Streamline Moderne style to resemble a sailing ship and its ports of call. Today it provides space for a lot of creative folk. The makers of L.A. Confidential set a major character’s office here. But I’ve also been told one of the quaint outbuildings was used in a Muppet movie as the home of Kermit the Frog. (No film noir hero he. Maybe film vert?)

Back on Hollywood Boulevard, surrounded by tourists and crazies, I happened upon the Walk of Fame star of the late Charles Durning, whose death had prompted a large floral tribute. A passing kid demanded to know who Durning was, and seemed disappointed that his glory days were in the 1980s. But Durning kept on working: he was filming something called Scavenger Killers when he passed away at age 89. Now, alas, he sleeps the big sleep.

(All photos courtesy of Bernie Bienstock)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Tales of (Dustin) Hoffman: Graduating into the Director’s Chair

During this holiday week, we can all enjoy a special gift: the airing of the Kennedy Center Honors gala on December 26. Among this year’s honorees -- along with ballerina Natalia Makarova, jazz great Buddy Guy, comic David Letterman, and three members of Led Zeppelin -- is an actor who catapulted to fame in 1967 with the release of a little comedy called The Graduate. In 1967 Dustin Hoffman was a prickly young man who insisted he had been miscast as Benjamin Braddock. He also made clear to anyone who would listen that he had absolutely no interest in a Hollywood career.

In 1967 Dustin Hoffman was a thirty-year-old stage actor bent on avoiding at all costs being typecast on the big screen as a befuddled post-adolescent. It’s a mark of his determination as well as his talent that he has since played a wide range of challenging roles, in films as distinctive as Midnight Cowboy, Little Big Man, Straw Dogs, Lenny, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Rain Man. Though he remains a perfectionist (see Tootsie for a glimpse of the intensity with which this actor prepares), he has learned over the years to enjoy his status as one of America’s screen legends. Hoffman today has embraced civic involvement: he worked hard to help establish the Broad Stage, an exquisite Santa Monica performance space for music and live theatre. And, even in silly films like Meet the Fockers, he truly seems to be having fun. You might say, he’s become a mensch.

His newest challenge is directing, and to my surprise he has chosen as his debut vehicle a sweet, graceful, and very English comedy set in a home for retired musicians. I saw Quartet at a screening hosted by Stephen Farber, whose Reel Talk series brings films and filmmakers to SoCal audiences. Steve interviewed Hoffman afterwards, and I’m happy to pass along some nuggets from that conversation.

Hoffman became interested in directing back in his Santa Monica College days, at a time when he had no clear career goal in mind. He had enrolled in drama classes for one simple reason: he was not doing well in his other course work, and “Nobody flunks acting – it’s like gym.” He took to it, of course, and ended up a serious student of the craft. After he’d made a splash as a film actor, he set about trying to direct himself in a prison drama, Straight Time, but gave up in disgust. Quartet came about when a cinematographer-friend recommended him for a greenlit-project that had lost its director. He responded to the material because “rather than a film about aging, it was a film about people who refused to retire -- who refused to give in to the aging process.”

Perhaps Hoffman’s greatest directorial contribute was to insist that everyone in the geriatric cast (outside of the central quartet of Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, and Pauline Collins) be actual retired performers who could contribute their musical skills on camera. He talks about these gifted singers and musicians with great warmth, saying, “I have new icons, now that I’m 75.” Maggie Smith is one of those icons, along with Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, who is still shooting movies at age 104.

Clearly, making Quartetwas a happy experience for Hoffman. His greatest on-set pleasure lay in encouraging his actors to surprise him with their artistic choices. Now he delights in sitting in the rear of an auditorium, watching the audience watch his film. This he calls “my biggest joy, outside of going to the bathroom, eating, and sex.” Too much information, perhaps?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Apocalypse Now: The Mayan Calendar Brings Us to Doomsday

Hey, I guess the world didn’t end on December 21, though recent news events might lead us to think the opposite. Frankly, I’ve enjoyed the creative ways movie buffs have been dealing with the end-of-times predicted by the ancient Mayans. Bill Dever, über-fan of genre films, has posted on his B-Movie Nation site a long list of movies to help you check out whether the world will end with a bang or with a whimper. (Soylent Green, anyone?) And Cinefile, one of L.A.’s most beloved video stores, is urging customers to prepare for the coming apocalypse by way of a major sale on its Gold Card, which now offers 10 rentals for $25. (An extra bonus: if life as we know it grinds to a halt, you don’t have to worry about returning your selections!)

Cinefile, by the way, devotes a wide shelf to its collection of End of the World films. By no means have I seen them all. But, of course, in my Roger Corman days I worked on several. Typically we went the Mad Max route, creating an end-of-the-world scenario in which a ragtag collection of tough, sexy types struggles for survival against a backdrop of futuristic squalor. Such films were usually set in some kind of desert outpost. The reason was obvious: squalid desert outposts (like the ones we depicted in The Terror Within and its sequel) make for cheap sets. I vaguely recall that Cirio Santiago, Roger’s Manila-based crony, had the wild notion that for once we try a different tack, and create an apocalyptic world in which dry land has been completely submerged by ocean waves. Survivors would live aboard boats, and fight over drinking water. If this sounds like the much maligned Waterworld, I’m convinced it was an early incarnation of that same doomed project.

One End of the World film that stands out for me because it so dramatically reflects the fears of its era is Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach (1959), adapted from a blockbuster 1957 novel by Nevil Shute. In the late Fifties, the great international fear was nuclear holocaust. On the Beach is set in Australia in the year 1964. Though no one quite speaks of it, the rest of the world’s population has been wiped out by nuclear war. It will take five months for the deadly radiation to arrive Down Under, and in the meantime the citizenry braces itself for impending doom.

On The Beach relies for its power not on fancy special effects but on a script that highlights the psychological trauma of waiting for the end. For some of the characters, like Ava Gardner’s Moira, it’s a time of unabashed hedonism. The good-guy Australian naval man played by Anthony Perkins (one year before Psycho) worries over the well-being of his young wife and baby. The most dramatic scenes involve a nuclear scientist (played surprisingly well by Fred Astaire) who turns auto racer, channeling his personal sense of guilt into a reckless abandonment of basic safety precautions. Though everyone’s Aussie accent rings hollow, the film grabs us, especially when a submarine captained by Gregory Peck makes a sad voyage to San Francisco, looking for survivors who don’t exist.

Stanley Kramer, a master of publicity, played up the social relevance of On the Beach by staging simultaneous openings in various world capitals. But though it may have sparked debates over nuclear disarmament at the United Nations, nothing much changed. Five years later, another Stanley released a black comedy that suggested we’d all learned to stop worrying and begun loving the bomb. Dr. Strangelove, of course.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Pixelvision: Easier Than Child’s Play

This is not a happy time for media watchers. In a era when huge TV screens are ubiquitous -- even in the locker room at my neighborhood gym -- I can’t avoid graphic reminders of the massacre at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. As I changed out of my sweats this past Sunday, I was confronted with a father’s poignant memories of his beautifully little daughter, so cruelly snatched from the world. It made me feel less like getting in shape and more like sobbing.

TV brings us tragedy, but we also turn to television to help us heal. Our President’s remarks to a community in mourning are televised. Pundits on various news shows debate what should be done. CNN, the station blaring in my locker room, featured Levar Burton discussing how to talk to children about tragedy. Why Burton? Maybe because his debut role as Kunta Kinte on Roots and his later appearances on Star Trek: The Next Generation have made him a sympathetic presence in America’s living rooms. But also because by hosting (and executive producing) Reading Rainbow for PBS over 23 seasons he has become a trusted advocate for children’s literacy. TV, it seems, confers expertise.

But I don’t want to talk about TV and tragedy. I want to view childhood in a happier light, as a time of creative experiment. My visit last week to a set of brief screenings at a funky Santa Monica coffeehouse has given me that opportunity. The traveling film festival known as PXL THIS was started twenty-two years ago by Gerry Fialka, a star of the L.A. experimental film scene. (Fialka has been hailed as SoCal’s pre-eminent underground film curator and as a “multi-media Renaissance man.”) All PXL THIS films were shot with the Fisher-Price PXL-2000 camcorder, a lightweight plastic thingumabob that somehow records audio and video on the same cassette. The PXL-2000 was developed in 1987 to enable kids to shoot their own movies. Over the years it’s been discovered by artists looking for new ways to capture the world around them. Because the raw but somehow poetic look of Pixelvision’s black-and-white images meshes nicely with the sensibility of punk rock, the PXL-2000 has frequently been featured in music videos. Filmmaker Richard Linklater called upon it in 1991 when making Slacker, his break-through indie about low-life types wandering aimlessly around Austin.

PXL THIS 22 shows off the many uses to which this toy camera can be put. Two of the featured filmmakers are not quite ten years old. One of them, Chester Burnett, has staged a comic exorcism featuring a Barbie doll. The other, Donovan Seelinger, takes advantage of Pixelvision’s grainy quality for an almost hallucinatory look at Venice Beach’s skateboard park. (Donovan’s dad Geoff contributes a complementary visual study of the rush of automobile and foot traffic at a busy Venice intersection.) Some of the night’s offerings are surreal, like the film in which oddball puppets try to stage Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. Some make a satirical point; others pay serious homage to writers, artists, and musicians. I was especially fond of Fialka and Clifford Novey’s eight-minute “I Think I’m in Something,” which is hard to describe but mesmerizing to experience. (Think of one of those air-inflated advertising figures that bobs and twists in the wind like a dancer gone amok. Then add actual dancers emulating the figure’s outlandish contortions. Score this with some Alice Coltrane jazz, and you get the general idea.)

Pixelvision’s grainy, gnarly images allow artists to play like children. Too bad that in this world of ours, children sometimes must grow up far too fast.


On Thursday, January 17, USC’s Cinematheque 108 presents "Genuine Fake Films By Gerry Fialka" Admission is free.

Friday, December 14, 2012

"The Sessions": Ben and Judi Put On a Show

“Tis the season when movie award nominations are coming thick and fast. If you live in L.A., you’re bombarded on a daily basis by ads that tout various films “for your consideration.” In a cozy bungalow on the edge of the Pacific, Ben Lewin and Judi Levine are living out an indie filmmaker’s dream. Their labor of love, The Sessions, is on everyone’s radar, thanks to award-caliber performances by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. Both actors have been nominated for SAG and Indie Spirit awards, and now Golden Globes. And the L.A. Times is even mentioning Ben as a possible contender for a screenwriting Oscar.

Not bad for an Australian couple who shot their last feature in their native country in 1994. After almost two decades in California (where in order to support their three children he dealt in antique watches and she worked on catalogues of vintage motorcars), they are suddenly poised to be The Next Big Thing. To which Ben quips, “I’d like to think of myself as the next hot young thing, if no one has any objection.”

Ben’s coup was finding an essay by Mark O’Brien, a brilliant but severely disabled writer, detailing how he set out to lose his virginity at age 38 with the help of a sex surrogate. Because of the essay’s sad ending -- though Mark had been thrilled by his first sexual experience, he held out little hope for a long-term relationship with a woman of his own –- Judi had her doubts. But Ben’s research yielded up wonderful news. Toward the end of his short life, Mark had formed an intimate connection with the woman of his dreams. This woman, Susan Fernbach, became a strong booster of the film, as did the actual surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene. Their help was invaluable, and so were the financial contributions from family and friends. It’s clear this movie was a true Mickey and Judy affair. Using every resource at their disposal, the Lewins were doing “Let’s put on a show!” for real.

Ben’s script, strong enough to attract big-name Hollywood actors, gives cinematic life to both Mark and Cheryl. For me it was Cheryl’s positive but businesslike approach to the mechanics of sex that was the true revelation. Helen Hunt prepared for her role by meeting with the real Cheryl Cohen Greene. By gaining insight into Cheryl’s comfort with her own body, Hunt was able to accept the script’s demands for considerable full-frontal nudity. I asked Ben what he had to do, as a director, to free his Oscar-winning star to bare all on camera. First, he says, she needed to decide he wasn’t a creep. Hunt clearly found reassurance in the fact that Judi dropped Ben off at their initial meeting, after which their eleven-year-old daughter burst into the room to discuss surfing.

That precocious eleven-year-old, Phoebe, appears in the film’s brief memory sequence, shot guerrilla-style on a California beach. Even though Phoebe’s now almost thirteen, her parents were not eager for her to see The Sessions. But when it won the Audience Award at Sundance they finally relented. Judi, parent as well as producer, notes that today’s kids are surrounded by offensive media messages about body image and casual sex. For Judi, it’s much more urgent to monitor her daughter’s TV viewing than a film about “having an intimate and respectful relationship with somebody else, regardless of whatever the circumstances are.” She notes that in this regard the Swedes are well ahead of us. In Sweden The Sessions has been rated G, suitable for children twelve and over.

For Southern Californians: the American Cinematheque will host Ben Lewin and Judi Levine at a screening of The Sessions, scheduled for Tuesday, December 18 at 7:30 p.m. The place is the Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave, Santa Monica, CA 90403.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Gore Vidal and Me (or Remembering My Goriest Job)

The death of Gore Vidal on July 31, 2012 almost got by me. Hey, I was busy enjoying my summer, and Vidal has never been a favorite of mine. Of course I admire his malicious wit: you can't help loving a guy who announces “the four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so." Still, I found Vidal's apparent coldness profoundly unappealing.

This despite some clever work on the page and on the stage. Vidal had a fair number of movie moments too. His plays The Best Man and Visit to a Small Planet both became successful films, the latter with none other than Jerry Lewis playing an outer-space alien checking out life on earth. His novel Myra Breckenridge, a satiric comedy about transsexuality in Hollywood, was made into a notorious Raquel Welsh vehicle that Theadora Van Runkle described to me as “arguably the worst movie ever made.” (Theadora designed the film’s costumes, so she’s entitled to her opinion.) As a script doctor, Vidal took credit for adding a homoerotic subtext to Ben-Hur. (Who knew?) Later he wrote, and then disowned, the script for the notoriously lewd Caligula.

But when I reminisce about Gore Vidal, I think about my own short, not-so-sweet career as a Hollywood script reader. It occurred in 1994, after I was suddenly cut adrift from Concorde-New Horizons. (For more about that, see the Introduction to my Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers. One thing Vidal and I have in common: we’re not ashamed to blow our own horns. For proof, see below.)

Anyway, I was looking for an honest paycheck, and a phone call from an exec at Interscope Pictures seemed an answer to my prayers. She’d heard about me at an industry cocktail party. When I accepted her offer of employment, I was suddenly plunged into one of Hollywood’s worst jobs. The whole point was to winnow the company’s submission pile, saving busy development folks from having to read most scripts themselves. Here’s how it worked: in mid-morning I’d be summoned to drive to Interscope headquarters (in a highrise at one of L.A.’s most congested intersections) to pick up a script. At home I’d read it, write a detailed synopsis, and add comments that were supposed to focus on the negative wherever possible. Then I had to drive back to Interscope that same day, in rush-hour traffic, to deposit my work in a special cubbyhole outside the office door. Though I enjoyed virtually no human interaction, at least I was efficiently paid. I think my checks rose from $35 to $50 during the few months I was there.

Maybe because I seemed like a sucker who’d put up with anything, I started being assigned novels that someone thought might translate into a Hollywood movie. That’s how I found myself reading Vidal’s historical novel, Burr, about the man who served as our country’s third vice-president and was later tried for treason. It was 562 pages long, so I was given the entire weekend to write my report. Iconoclastic as always, Vidal used his novel to upend the story told in American history books. In his hands, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were fatuous windbags, while Burr (who among other misadventures killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel) became an unlikely hero. I spent a miserable weekend on Burr, for which I earned a princely $135.

Soon thereafter I stopped taking assignments from Interscope Pictures. Eventually the company changed hands, then shut down in 2003. I wish there were someone at Interscope to whom I could say, “I told you so.”

By the way -- if you’re a fan of B-movies and Roger Corman, I encourage you to check out the new Facebook page built for me by ultra-fan Bill Dever. (Thanks, Bill!). It’s named after my biography and soon-to-be ebook, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers. Write to me at if you’d like to be invited to join.

Friday, December 7, 2012

So Lucky to Have Had Dave Brubeck – and Susan Luckey

I lost two favorites this week. The first was Dave Brubeck, whose 1959 recording, Time Out, was one of the great jazz albums of all times. Brubeck’s polyrhythmic skills as a pianist and composer were unsurpassed, though ironically his signature tune was not his own composition. “Take Five,” written by Brubeck’s longtime sax player Paul Desmond, will always live on for me. Curiously, I associate it with a play I did at Hamilton High School. The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s take on the Salem witch trials, is powerfully dramatic. In rehearsal, we serious junior thespians would work ourselves up to a fever pitch. Then -- take five! In an instant, we were rambunctious teenagers again, cool and loose and free. The Brubeck Quartet’s recording, for me, captured exactly that wonderful release of tension.

The world mourns Dave Brubeck, who died of a heart attack just shy of his 92nd birthday. But I feel equally sad about the loss of Susan Luckey, who passed away at age 74, mostly forgotten by the public. No, I don’t mean Susan Lucci, soap opera star and perennial Emmy nominee, who remains very much alive. Susan Luckey was a dancer and actress who made a big impression on me when I was a dreamy youngster enamored of movie musicals. The pinnacle of her career was probably playing Zaneeta, Mayor Shinn’s giggly daughter, in the 1962 film version of The Music Man. A sweet young thing, Zaneeta was forever exclaiming “Ye gods!” when caught canoodling with Tommy Djilas, the immigrant kid from the other side of the tracks. Her father may have disapproved, but Zaneeta and Tommy danced so beautifully together that we in the audience knew their love was here to stay.

But Susan Luckey had already won me over back in 1956, thanks to her role in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. Based on a Hungarian drama that was transplanted to a New England setting for Broadway and then Hollywood, Carousel is a most unlikely musical theatre piece. It begins (SPOILER ALERT AHEAD) with a romance between a local girl and a hard-living carnival roustabout. (In the movie they’re played by Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae, though at one time Frank Sinatra coveted MacRae’s role.) They marry, she becomes pregnant, and then he’s killed in the course of a robbery gone wrong. That’s the end of the leading man -- except it isn’t, because we know he’s secretly watching over the little family he left behind. (This is starting to sound like Ghost, but so be it.)

Susan Luckey played daughter Louise, growing up fatherless and unhappy. At the center of the film’s second half is a long, dramatic seaside ballet in which we learn all we need to know about her sorrows and her dreams. That ballet, combined with the final stirring scene in which Louise -- reconciled at last to her father’s memory -- has joined her high school classmates to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” invariably moved me to tears.

I admit I’m a total sucker for dream ballets. And the musicals of the post-World War II years were full of them. I suspect that Gene Kelly loved them as much as I did, because he starred in some of the best. Like the “Gotta Dance” number (featuring the outrageously slinky Cyd Charisse) in Singin’ in the Rain. And, best of all, the finale of An American in Paris, in which the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec come to exuberant life. That finale made me cry too: it was just so gorgeous. As was Susan Luckey in Carousel. Rest in peace.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012 Giving a Swift Kick to “Men of the Cloth”

What is it with crowdfunding? Everywhere I turn these days, someone’s relying on social media and the kindness of strangers to try to raise money for a worthwhile project. Veteran literary blogger Ron Hogan ( is drumming up funds to further his goal of introducing readers to great new writers; aspiring filmmaker Owen Dara has tried crowdfunding (along with a lot of blarney) to finance his comedy, Credit Crunch, now filming in Ireland. Even the Lakota Sioux, intent on buying back a piece of sacred land they call Pe’sla, have launched a crowdfunding campaign, which has gained support from such Hollywood types as P. Diddy and Bette Midler.

Fern Reiss, self-publishing guru and CEO of, calls crowdfunding “a more egalitarian form of Renaissance patronage.” She’s using this concept –- which incorporates the idea that donors receive tangible gifts in return for their generosity –- as a way to promote her latest book, The Breast Cancer Checklist. And she graciously supplies her personal tips for getting started.

To find out more about how crowdfunding works, I chatted with Vicki Vasilopoulos. As a journalist, Vicki spent years covering the men’s fashion industry. While attending runway shows in Europe, she chanced to meet an Italian master tailor, part of a dying breed of craftsmen trained since childhood to fit and flatter the male form. “Italian men,” says Vicki, “dress better than American women.” Explaining the appeal of a “bespoke” (custom-made) suit, she refers to the sprezzatura, or self-assured but nonchalant personal style, we associate with someone like Marcello Mastroianni.

Vicki, captivated by the humble yet highly-skilled craftsmen who turn out threads worthy of Italian film stars, has now devoted ten years to a documentary film, Men of the Cloth. It follows three Italian master tailors who ply their trade in the U.S. Her enthusiasm for her subjects is contagious. She calls them “the last tribe of the Kalahari, except they just happen to be old-world artisans.”

As Men of the Cloth moves toward completion, Vicki makes full use of a Facebook page that has 1,359 fans, some of them in places as distant as Brazil and Kuala Lumpur. From these fans she’s received modest financial contributions, for which she is tremendously grateful. Now she’s also launched a one-month campaign to drum up finishing funds. is a prominent crowdfunding website that establishes ground-rules, collects donations through, and takes a small cut for its trouble. Kickstarter rules require that no money actually change hands unless the entire fundraising goal is met. That’s why this year December 21 is a bigger date for Vicki than Christmas. If her project doesn’t meet its $20,000 goal by then, all she’ll get is a lump of coal in her stocking.

Another Kickstarter rule is that thank-you gifts must be unique items, not purchasable in any store, that specifically represent the project to which they’re connected. Of course such gifts often include DVDs of a finished film and invitations to special screenings. But Men of the Cloth boosters who are passionate about craftsmanship and are able to donate the big bucks have some real treats to choose from, including custom-made cashmere scarves, dress shirts, suits, and even an elegant hand-made leather briefcase.

One of the biggest surprises for Vicki is that interest in her project is not confined to older folks nostalgic for the past. She’s discovered that today’s young hipsters, too, are keen on the charms of fine tailoring, to go along with their passion for hand-crafted bibelots and artisanal chocolate. And maybe old-fashioned letter-writing as well. Without the speed and the wide reach of the Internet, though, Men of the Cloth would still be running around naked.