Redbeard Simmons is an L.A. media marketing consultant and one-off screenwriter (Meet the Applegates). He was the ‘voice’ of AMC’s DVD_TV series for eight years and now curates a listening blog for The Jazz Bakery. His beard is naturally red.
Redbeard is one heck of a nice fella and an extremely passionate cinephile. He and I also share a passion for the books of Danny Peary and he was kind enough to let me interview him for my documentary:
As a movie fanatic, I’m embarrassed that my discoveries were fairly homogenous in 2013. Blame it on two major cultural shifts at home: 1) Music listening is steadily replacing movie watching as my preferred leisure-time activity; and 2) Cutting the cord was a gateway drug to Hulu’s Criterion library, which is now my go-to source whenever I’m in the mood to catch a flick. In addition, I binge-watched a TV series for the first time last year … and while I savored every deranged minute of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, that’s roughly twenty movies I could’ve watched instead that weekend. (Theoretically speaking, of course.) You can’t tell me that streaming isn’t already a MAJOR new twist in home entertainment. Anyway, as I was saying … since my 2013 Discoveries list is on the safe side, Brian said I could include a few other recent discoveries, with the caveat that I disclose they were seen between 2010 and 2013. They’re noted below.
The Americanization of Emily (1964, d. Arthur Hiller)
Johnny Mandel’s theme song is a beloved jazz standard, so it’s kinda surprising how long it took me to seek out the movie it came from. With its Mandel-Chayefsky-Garner-Andrews pedigree and towering critical reputation, The Americanization of Emily arrived on my TV screen with a certain amount of baggage. It’s a superior anti-war satire – a brainiac’s screed against the military and the cruel ironies of war. Except that theme song is so lush and romantic, you expect a soft heart to emerge. And it never does … perhaps to its credit, though I’m still not convinced. James Garner out Clooneys himself as a smarmy “dog robber” (valet) to fuzzy-brained admiral Melvyn Douglas. Meanwhile, Julie Andrews sleeps around as the brittle, unDisneylike title character – a war widow and military groupie who sneers at cowardice. Oddly, I don’t remember her singing “Emily,” although Wikipedia claims she does. My takeaway? Come for the Chayefskyan dialogue, stay for the melody.
Bonus: One of the best “Emily” covers, on Spotify: Zoot Sims – Emily
I confess to liking this legendary box-office bomb during its original release, and with good reason: Peter Bogdanovich was a gracious pen pal of mine during adolescence. Following a meteoric running start, Peter’s Hollywood career imploded over this off-key musical featuring three rising stars who no one else would’ve championed as singers or dancers. At Long Last Love went AWOL afterwards, with the director’s tacit approval. And there its horrid reputation festered for decades. By some small miracle, an editor at Fox secretly recut the picture and sneaked that version out for obscure cable showings. When Bogdanovich caught it streaming on Netflix, he actually enjoyed this alternate edit and gave Fox Video permission to release it (for the first time ever) on blu-ray. Neat backstory, huh? It may be hard to defend this extended/restored version against accusations of miscasting and hubris, but there are some pleasant surprises in store: The black-and-white-in-color art direction is HD retina candy. The spontaneously-sung musical numbers have a pre-karaoke vitality. And Cybill Shepherd sings a fuck of a lot better than Britney Spears or Madonna. The pace often drags due to the long, long takes necessitated by live recording, but Bogdanovich stages them cleverly. I’m glad we finally have this movie to kick around in any form, at long last.
Jack Hazan’s part-fictional portrait of artist David Hockney (then on the verge of superstardom) has got to be one of the weirdest documentaries ever made. I remember when this would occasionally turn up at revival houses in L.A. – it had a sordid reputation for exploiting Hockney’s participation and/or impugning his character. To my surprise, as a Hockney enthusiast, I caught this on Netflix and found it bold and way ahead of its time. Hazan imposes a narrative structure around the constipated gestation of “Pool with Two Figures” that may or may not be bogus. He intentionally mismatches footage, misidentifies locations, manipulates context and ‘directs’ the participants – transforming Hockney’s lowkey breakup into a tormented soap opera that anticipates reality TV. (The overbearing music sounds like something you’d hear in an Almodóvar melodrama.) According to urban legend, Hockney collapsed upon seeing the assembled footage, then went into hiding and tried to buy the negative. Luckily his friends convinced him the film was a valid artistic work in its own right. To my mind, Hockney looks cool as shit traipsing around London in ‘70s dandy attire. Best of all, you get to meet the subjects of his famous double-portraits: Celia Birtwell, Ossie Clark, Mo McDermott and Hockney’s muse, Peter Schlesinger. There’s an extended, graphic homoerotic interlude that makes this an apt double bill with Blue Is the Warmest Color.
Tristana (1970, d. Luis Buñuel)
Comedy directors usually fall into two distinct camps. The purveyors of good-natured lunacy, such as John Landis, Jerry Lewis and Jacques Tati, are called humorists. The other, nastier bunch are labeled satirists. Robert Altman, the Coens and Alexander Payne belong in this category. They’re the kind of goofsters who enjoy depicting humans at their stupidest. And that’s OK by me – I never did buy into the sermon that Sullivan’s Travels preached (ironically, that movies shouldn’t preach). The human race is petty and cruel and selfish on most days, with the herding instincts of sheep. So I had no problem with these two sardonic, not especially witty comedies directed by that grand crank Luis Buñuel. In Exterminating Angel, a dinner party for stuffy bourgeois phonies disintegrates when no one summons the intestinal fortitude to show independence and leave. Tristana delights in watching an arrogant intellectual hypocrite (Fernando Rey) suffer a vengeful karma for defiling his adopted charge (Catherine Deneuve). Buñuel would hit his commercial stride a few years later with the sparkling The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but these two Spanish-language parables illustrate how misanthropic he could be in pursuit of laughs.
L’Eclisse (1962, d. Michelangelo Antonioni)
Red Desert (1964, d. Michelangelo Antonioni)L’Avventura was my most rewarding viewing experience of 2013, and I’m half-ashamed to admit it. Not because it’s a guilty pleasure, but because I waited so damn long to give it a spin. A haunting exercise in cinematic subtraction, it’s still a mindblower 54 years after it was made. And more of a career gamechanger than Blow-Up, I would bet. L’Avventura could be considered a companion piece to La Dolce Vita (also 1960), but artistically, it cleans Fellini’s clock. I could write an entire blog about this movie … and guarantee it would sound like pretentious horseshit. So let’s leave it at this: L’Avventura is the reason why cinema is a superior medium to television, in spite of the current meme to the contrary.
Hats off once again to Hulu Plus for making Criterion’s library affordable and accessible to everyone. They also stream Antonioni’s subsequent collaborations with Monica Vitti, his iconic muse (L’Eclisse and Red Desert). She’s captivating in all of them, and Ingmar Bergman’s bitchy dismissal of her talent betrays a surprising blindspot. It’s not just her flawless complexion and facial symmetry that absorbs your attention; there’s something beatific and noble about her suffering, too. Note to Self: Add Modesty Blaise to this year’s queue.
La Cérémonie (1995, d. Claude Chabrol)
My entire beef with the Oscars can be boiled down to one charge: How much credibility can a nominating body expect if they fail to nominate Isabelle Huppert for anything? I mean, are they still pissed off about Heaven’s Gate? Year after year this formidable French actor gives devastating, unmannered performances … yet she remains persona non grata to the Motion Picture Academy. Therefore I skip the Academy Awards and go out of my way to watch her in something/anything on Oscar Night. Or Daniel Auteuil, my favorite actor.
La Truite is Joseph Losey’s next-to-last picture, the tale of a shrewd, sexy bumpkin who blueballs her way into the business class by teasing, then squeezing the pathetic CEOs who throw themselves at her. The character is an odd fit for Huppert because she’s supposed to be unsophisticated yet irresistible (she’s neither). Despite this handicap, she forges ahead like she’s Brigitte Bardot. To be honest, the whole production reeks of badly lit ‘80s Euro-Skinemax. At least it shows you how to drain fish sperm by hand.
La Cérémonie is inspired by the same lurid double-homicide that was the basis of Jean Genet’s The Maids and countless other adaptations. Claude Chabrol’s variation moves the action to the present, and instead of psycho-lesbian-sister-maids, he makes one killer an illiterate housekeeper (Sandrine Bonnaire) and the other (Huppert) a nosy postal clerk whose self-delusion becomes the film’s ticking time bomb. She is probably Huppert’s most despicable character – and that’s saying something. It was a real kick watching Jean-Pierre Cassel (Vincent’s dad) talk shit to Huppert in this one, after he slobbered all over her in La Truite; things turn out badly for him in both pictures. For me, La Cérémonie’s biggest shock was the climactic bloodbath. Though it’s hardly Looking for Mr. Goodbar, I wasn’t expecting exploding squibs from Chabrol, either. At least no fish were rubbed out.
Acclaimed latter Truffaut drama is one of those backstage dramas that’s more fun to describe than to watch. (The Black Swan also comes to mind.) During World War II in Occupied France, frosty drama queen Catherine Deneuve runs her Israeli husband’s theater company after he disappears underground. She butts heads with the troupe’s star (Gerard Depardieu) … and you know where that kind of thing leads. This a tailor-made part for Deneuve, who ultimately reveals the humanity behind her haughty mask. Depardieu is in the middle of his skinny/sexy brute phase, and Truffaut’s economy as a director is always impressive. But I’d be lying if I said I preferred Metro to Mississippi Mermaid, the previous Truffaut-Deneuve outing. That Noir-meets-New Wave thriller may be a sprawling mess, but Deneuve’s chemistry with Belmondo is much more feral and satisfying.
It’s too easy to dismiss Neil Simon’s filmed Broadway comedies as talky and visually stagebound (which they are). He wrote some genuinely witty dialogue for some very funny actors in his day. This movie stands out among his credits because it’s a bit raunchier than Simon’s usual fare. Coming on the heels of his non-breakthrough in Catch-22, Alan Arkin goes for broke here playing a neurotic, middle-aged, finger-sniffing horndog. Only 38 at the time, Arkin competes for laughs opposite three of the kooky-est actresses of their generation. Paula Prentiss and especially Renée Taylor get giant laughs as two of his would-be conquests; but it’s Sally Kellerman, in full vamp mode, who steals the show as a chainsmoking lush who picks up Arkin at his fish restaurant. Her smoker’s hack – whether it was actually Kellerman’s or the sound FX team in overdrive – is worth the cost of the rental. In fact, I’d happily buy a ringtone.
This beloved classic, adapted by James Goldman from his own play, has been hovering near the top of my ‘Must I?’ must-see list for 30 years. I planned to stream it over last Thanksgiving weekend, put it off another week, and next thing I knew, Peter O’Toole had died. So I finally watched it in his honor. Truth be told, this fictionalized family meltdown involving Henry II, his MILFy ex-wife and their three conniving asshole sons over Christmas break isn’t as “thespy” as I feared. The actors mostly keep it in check, and while Goldman’s anachronistic dialogue is stiff enough to sound stagey, it isn’t so Shakespearian that you can’t follow along. As written, the characters’ behavior exhibits a communal bi-polar disorder; one minute they’re declaring undying love for each other, two pages later the shivs come out. I guess that’s sorta the point of holiday get-togethers? The musical score by John Barry is particularly out-there and reminded me of the Satanic choirs in the Omen movies. Happily, the surprises keep coming. I never thought I’d hear Katharine Hepburn describe swinging jewels from her nips, but just wait for it. Nor did I anticipate the implied intimacy between Hannibal Lector 2.0 and James Bond 4.0 (Sir Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton, in their film debuts). Whatever you do, don’t conflate this title with The Wind and the Lion, as I did for years.
This classic became available to stream on iTunes on New Year’s Day 2013, which is when I finally saw it. Since I’d seen the notorious 1973 musical remake during its aborted theatrical release, I was always curious about the “good” version. Well, Frank Capra never lets you down … unless you don’t subscribe to his sunny outlook. Which I rarely do. Even so, source author James Hilton’s utopian premise makes this one worth watching and spending a day or two contemplating. Could little pockets of civilization evolve enough to live by the golden rule? Is “Be Kind” a practical motto? It’s a nice dream … unless it’s not a dream. See what you’re in for? On the downside, Jane Wyatt is a very disappointing dream girl (brace yourself for her braying “Whhhyyyyyyyyy?” exchange). On the upside, Ronald Colman and H.B. Warner (as Chang) are tits. Honestly, though? I think I may prefer the remake. It’s pretty straightforward until they get to Shangri-La and everybody breaks out singing show tunes. Maybe they should’ve called it That’s Dystopia!
Know how some titles you’ve always been curious about never manage to get added to your rental queue? This one’s been on the tip of my tongue forever, and it was a revelation to find it available for streaming late one night. Peckinpah’s critically reviled swan song used to play on cable TV throughout the ‘80s, but for some reason I always stumbled on it toward the end, just in time to see Meg Foster work her bow-and-arrow voodoo. But whose team was this wolf-eyed badass playing for, I always wondered? Roy Batty’s or Coach’s? The answer is … I honestly forget. Who gives a toss, right? This is Cold War studio pulp at its trashiest and sleaziest. You have to marvel at the introductory snuff movie surveillance footage that comes with its own softcore porno soundtrack. And award bonus points when the same footage later airs on a national news program that’s supposed to be 60 Minutes. Peckinpah, the Old Iguana, directs with a shaky/iron (probably drunken) fist that I find remarkable given the shitty script. And it’s always fun to encounter cult actress Foster (They Live, A Different Story) at the height of her unsettling beauty.
Wow. Wow. Wow. #2 on my 2013 Discoveries list. You can file Spirit of the Beehive in the same visually-poetic-masterpiece category as Walkabout, as far as I’m concerned. An immersive experience from frame one to the final image. (In other words, see it altered.) Two young sisters from a rural village in Franco’s Spain see James Whale’s Frankenstein, and the younger one (Ana Torrent) becomes infatuated with the Monster. Anyone who was traumatized by a horror film during the impressionable ages of 7 and 10 (for me it was 1973’s TV movie Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark) will relate to this serious kid who runs away from home and pops some mushrooms when the chips are down. I love this strange movie and look forward to revisiting it in about five years, when the stark imagery has soaked in.
Another Criteron-on-Hulu notch and another helping of Hepburn. This time Great Kate’s a spinster traveling abroad who finally gives it up for a local merchant once he catches the scent of a (desperately horny) woman. I watched this with a friend who was about to travel to Venice for the first time; we groaned through most of it, although I did end up enjoying it. (She didn’t care for Venice, either.) David Lean aims for a quiet, melancholy tone and partly achieves it. But the vivid color palette and tourist-friendly compositions will provoke eyerolls from anyone who’s been to Venice lately. Hepburn plays it self-aware and wins your sympathy, although you may want to backhand her around the 20th time she calls somebody “Cookie.” (Somehow that tic must’ve been less annoying when Shirley Booth played the role on stage.) Rossano Brazzi (South Pacific), now there’s an offbeat choice to play the Italian stud who sweeps Kate off her feet – he’s all puppy dog eyes when he’s not otherwise resembling Jon Lovitz. The best moment occurs when he’s trying to be seductive and suddenly bellows in exasperation, “You [Americans] say, ‘I want beef-a steak!’ My dear … EAT THE RAVIOLI!!”
Skolimowski’s Deep End (more than one movie bears this same name) is one of the best movies of the 1970s, and certainly one of the most underseen. It took me 30 years to track it down after first reading about it in Danny Peary’s Cult Movies. Finally, if you own an all-region player, you can now spring for an excellent British blu-ray released by the BFI. Sexual rites of passage don’t get much ickier than the one depicted in this seedy London bathhouse (filmed and overdubbed in Germany) toward the end of the Love Revolution. Saucy flamehead Jane Asher dominates this unclassifiable tragi-comedy, channeling a ballsy eroticism that no one saw coming from Paul McCartney’s mousey ex-fiancée. She’s the object of our virgin protagonist’s obsession, a dirty cocktease, a false idol doomed to fall from her pedestal – and for the entire running time, we can’t take our eyes off her. She’s at her sexiest whenever she pops a fuse. Now that I think of it, this should be on a double bill with Roeg’s Bad Timing.
This unfinished 35mm demo reel from cult actor/underground filmmaker Clu Gulager is the most hypnotic, fucked-up thing I’ve ever watched in a movie theater. American Cinematheque ran this 30-minute, four-scene sampler during a tribute to independent cinema one night, and you could feel the entire Egyptian Theater tripping. It’s an ultraviolent, technically polished, blaring rock opera written and performed by the Gulager Clan. (Clu’s wife, Miriam Byrd-Nethery, has mad pipes!) It treats cross-dressing, physical deformity, bank robbery, lesbianism and crotch-shooting as subjects worth singing about. And not just singing – belting out like Meatloaf. Can you imagine The Umbrellas of Cherbourg re-envisioned by John Waters, directed by Ken Russell and scored by Led Zeppelin? It’s no surprise that Gulager never found the funding to complete his severely twisted vision, but I, for one, regret it.
Every year, the late, great hippie editor/director Hal Ashby inches further up my Favorite Directors list. Having watched all of his ‘70s output from Harold & Maude through Being There many times over, I was ecstatic to finally find his first film (as a director) on Netflix. Admittedly, The Landlord’s lumpiness did not win me over the first time. Broad comedy mixes uneasily with pathos, and Ashby fumbles the tone more than a few times – the sure sign of a novice. But his empathy and sly, good-humored editing encourage repeat viewings. I’ve watched The Landlord more than a dozen times now, and it gets funnier and deeper after you get a handle on Ashby’s wavelength. (The cut to “WHITE” on the truck grille floors me every goddamn time.) The script by Bill Gunn is unapologetically anti-establishment, even for its day. Story follows a wealthy white douchebag who buys a tenement in the ghetto, aspiring to gentrify, but instead fathers a mixed-race baby with a married tenant while falling in love with a neighborhood go-go dancer. Ashby assembled a very hip ensemble cast and does right by each; Beau Bridges (this is his signature role), Diana Sands, Pearl Bailey, Lee Grant, Marki Bey, Susan Anspach, Louis Gossett Jr. and Robert Klein have rarely been better. Let’s beg Warner Bros. Archive to clean this up and release it on blu-ray so we can marvel at Gordon Willis’ slumdog cinematography. While they’re at it, let’s ask them to throw in a CD of Al Kooper’s funky soundtrack, too. It remains out-of-print except on vintage vinyl.
Not really a movie to recommend, but notable (to me at least) because it contains the only film appearance by Jill O’Hara. She was Broadway’s “It” girl at the time Pigeons was made – and New York City was the Mecca of raw talent back then. Future movie stars Pacino, Dreyfuss, Keaton, De Niro and Clayburgh were making their Off-Broadway debuts in radical new plays every week. Meanwhile, 21-year-old ingénue O’Hara was at the center of things, winning lead roles in the original productions of Hair and Promises, Promises and introducing the showstoppers “Good Morning Starshine” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” At the age of 5 or 6, I saw her play Fran Kubelik opposite Jerry Orbach in Promises – a Burt Bacharach/Neil Simon musical based on Billy Wilder’s The Apartment – and fell in love … basically for life. She had these large liquid eyes, beatnik bangs and a folkie singing style not steeped in musical theater tradition (she’d begun her career as a bistro singer in Greenwich Village). If my memory can be trusted, she played Fran less like Shirley MacLaine and more as a proto-Annie Hall with moodswings; I vividly recall that she sang the living shit out of “Knowing When to Leave.” And then, following her first and only movie, she just vanished. Pigeons (originally called The Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker) was recut and retitled but still received only regional distribution until Scorpion released a DVD in 2012. Seen today, its cast of stoned hipsters is a far cry from Five Easy Pieces’ entitled dropouts and drifters. Yet it’s got a bitchen electronic score (performed on a Moog!), a large cast of hammy theater actors (including Melba Moore, David Doyle and Elaine Stritch) and authentic period NY locations. As the manic pixie girl-next-door, Jill O’Hara is precisely as I remember her – vulnerable and endearing and honeyvoiced. I wish fame had not eluded her.
Technically this one doesn’t count being just 13 years old, but I can’t not recommend it. Fans of The Tindersticks especially should track down this obscure entry in the Claire Denis filmography (I ordered a Korean DVD from Amazon). She’s one of my favorite working directors, and though Trouble Every Day is not as solid as White Material or Bastards (her newest), it’s still a movie that only she could or would make. Vincent Gallo and Béatrice Dalle are perfectly cast as genetic-experiment freaks who turn into bloodthirsty cannibals and sex addicts. It may sound arch, but Denis approaches every shot in every one of her movies with utmost sincerity, whether it’s a genre picture or a human-scale drama; she’s never coy about anything, ever. That’s what makes her filmmaking so beguiling, so immersive and ultimately troubling. She doesn’t flinch. (Bear that in mind when the gore starts.) This is also the best of The Tindersticks’ multiple collaborations with Denis, and they came up with a killer title tune. The recent CD boxset of their film scores gets my highest recommendation.
The golden age of MOWs (network TV’s Movies of the Week) produced several class acts featuring top-tier talent, such as Sybil with Sally Field, Brad Davis and Joanne Woodward and The Execution of Private Slovik with Martin Sheen and Ned Beatty. The UFO Incident gets my vote for most underappreciated of this sub-genre. It was based on published accounts of Barney and Betty Hill’s alleged alien abduction while returning from a road trip in New Hampshire in 1961. Incorporating dialogue from actual transcripts of the Hills undergoing regression hypnosis (you can hear the original tapes on YouTube), a small cast of dynamite actors keeps your spine tingling as the flashbacks get creepier and spookier. James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons star as the Hills, with Barnard Hughes as the skeptical hypnotist who ends up more frightened than they are. Despite the occasional groaner (mostly dwarves in Spandex alien costumes), there are moments when you’ll simply bolt out of your seat. What really elevates this superlow-budget production, however, is the emphasis on Barney and Betty’s interracial marriage (pre-Civil Rights) and the brave face they display outwardly while crumbling internally from undiagnosed PTSD. Their pillow talk is devastating. This is a very tough movie to track down in anything but bootleg form, but it’s a master class in acting and economic suspense plotting.