Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2017 - Marc Edward Heuck ""

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Film Discoveries of 2017 - Marc Edward Heuck

Marc Edward Heuck runs the wonderful blog, The Projector Has Been Drinking which gets a high recommend from me. Marc's been with this series since it started in 2010, so please check out his other lists as he always brings the good stuff and his list are always greatly appreciated:

I have now spent a full year as a regular correspondent for the New Beverly Cinema blog, with a particular emphasis on filling in the details for those films where intelligent scholarship and analysis is scarce or almost non-existent. As I quipped to a regular reader, who else is going to treat THE GIRL FROM STARSHIP VENUS with respect and look into its historical significance? If you’ll indulge me, let me give you a deeper window into this thought process before we get to the list.
In January, I wrote an article for the Bev to promote a double feature of two Anthony Quinn movies: the familiar ACROSS 110TH ST. with the lesser-known TARGET OF AN ASSASSIN (aka TIGERS DON’T CRY). I had never seen or heard of the latter film, so I did as much research as I could so that I could make a strong case for it. And I think I found the juiciest bits to sell it with, and I'm happy with what I wrote. But after having watched the film during its run, I wish I could have seen it before I wrote the article, because these had not just been paired together for spits and giggles, there was unifying tissue beyond just having two '70s Quinn performances: there were parallel notions of desperation crimes, of men facing mortality, racial and power tensions. Now, is TARGET a lost gem? For me, not quite, more just an interesting programmer on a par with the DTV stuff that, if you live in L.A., gets contractual-obligation play at the lesser multiplexes. But I'm glad it got a fair hearing and the weighty respect of playing with a genuine great like ACROSS.

A situation like this though demonstrates how sometimes the IMDb and even blog culture are really deficient in film discourse. Most of the IMDb reviews were all of the "this was dumb, durr" without any attempt to really judge it on what it was trying to do, and what few bloggers reviewed it weren't much better. You'd think maybe one correspondent would know about Peter Collinson's early promise from THE ITALIAN JOB and UP THE JUNCTION and at least try to look at it through that prism, since it does have some great shot compositions and edits. Or consider the uniqueness of being a South African production and what kind of climate that must have been like in the '70s. But yeah, the internet, home of 50,000 Marvel hot takes and not much else. I'm also annoyed that IMDb had bad info the film that I wound up perpetuating in my article, again because whoever contributed that detail didn't pay attention or give a damn. And, since this is one of those quasi-PD films that pop up in cheap "50 Flicks for $5" sets at Wal-Mart from old tape masters, that creates a mindset where people feel free to shit on it and not take it seriously. Packaging, graphics, picture quality, those matter, the same way that, say, there's a difference between your mom dropping a plate of boiled peas on the table as a kid turned you off on them, but getting a really nicely prepared dish of them made you reappreciate them as an adult. Which, again, is why it's gratifying when innovative cinemas and writers treat a B-picture or even a Z-picture with the same gravity they would an A-picture; it makes an audience ready to respect it.

So yeah, if you missed TARGET, eh, you didn't miss that much in terms of your crucial film education. But it's good that it was publicly screened, and that more oddities like this have been programmed at the better repertory venues. Maybe one of those will be the lost gem you didn't know you were missing.

So it’s been occasionally intimidating, but always enormous fun, to write about film on behalf of a theatre like New Beverly, and it’s gratifying to see my essays result in encouragement from the boss, shares and retweets from heavyweight filmmakers and other critics, and most importantly, getting people to take a chance on watching something they may have otherwise not left the house to watch.

And these are the first-time discoveries that, barring one homevid watch, I am most glad I ventured out to see writ large.
The ‘70s sex comedy, a favorite source of easy ribbing for even the most novice of film viewers. How many times have you made a joke involving “ditsy” performances, or in the case of a European-made project, canned dubbing and weird sentence phrasing? Most of us grew up watching these on cable when our parents were asleep, possibly even through a scrambled image, or traded through smeary bootlegs. And all those circumstances helped create a notion that they were “less than” what we considered real movies, no matter how much fun they brought. But when you’re given an opportunity to watch one in a cinema with an audience, you’re reminded that these had just as much ambition and realness as any other sensible film. Sergio Martino’s LOVING COUSINS, while probably conceived as a cash-in on SUMMER OF ‘42 with some timely jabs at ingrained Italian bi-polar puritanism, has the feel of a sillier heterosexual preamble to CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, as we get caught up in the push/pull of two fetching youths who will only have one summer to impact each other. Its lush score by Claudio Mattone and sunny CinemaScope vistas drive home that this was meant to be a theatrical experience and not just half-watched in panscan on Showtime After Hours. And REVENGE has an exceptionally anarchic spirit to its comedy, recognizing that plot is useless when you’ve come to watch cute kids score, while never succumbing to the smugness that makes modern takes like WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER so unbearable. And it has skilled usage of the late Rainbeaux Smith’s capabilities; she sells jokes and physical comedy with a vigor that I’ve not seen her given room for in other films. (And the white knee-hi nylons w/ silver wedges look needs to come back!)
Amazon Button (via

Of all the movies on my list, this one possibly has the very least documentation of its origin, production, or reception. But I’m willing to conjecture that writer/director/co-producer Bernard Girard contemplated that often times, the ordinary dealings of local government can have the intrigue of a solid melodrama, and there probably weren’t that many folks in the early ‘60s who had the serious civic engagement to even know about the legislative process. And that led to a eureka moment where he realized by gum, you could educate the peoples with a good yarn. Thus, we got this effective intersection between film noir and “SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK,” where we are ostensibly following the saga of a crusading state senator trying to stop the unscrupulous tactics of collection agencies, but what we’re really seeing is, well, how the sausage is made in the Capitol: drafting the bill, how the lobbyists grease palms and plan dirty tricks, the good guys counter with some tricks of their own, the votes are counted…(pitch pipes)…“And that’s how I become a law…!” It’s definitely way more entertaining than any social studies movie I saw in high school.

OUR TIME (1974)
I’ll freely admit that I’m devoting a significant chunk of this list to films with direct female involvement, because elevation is good, and dammit, these movies are great. And it starts with this jewel about teenage friendship in the ‘50s written by playwright, mystery writer, and part-time poker shark Jane Stanton Hitchcock, which I finally sought out after years of recommendation from fellow Pupkin contributor Larry Karaszewski. It’s full of small but keen observations that get ignored in other period teen dramas, like how girls were beginning to recognize the arbitrary nature of the patriarchy while lacking the tools to fight it, or how a less-conventionally pretty girl would shock her friends by not settling for the equally awkward boy they assume she should pair with, or that the thinking on reproductive freedom was already changing but not enough to really help women. Co-star Betsy Slade deserved a much longer career of roles after her moving performance here; unfortunately, her most-cited bit of acting history is that of almost playing the title role in CARRIE. It also features a rare appearance by THE CHILDREN’S HOUR star Karen Balkin, which also should have led to more work but instead became her last film credit. There were potent movies that took teenagers seriously before John Hughes, and this is a standout.
Amazon Button (via

The piece of writing I am most proud of from this past year of writing for the Bev was my ambitious career history on faith-based writer/director Horace Jackson. It was assembled from a disparate array of sources, and without any concrete information on his life after leaving filmmaking. After the article’s publication, it led to an initially tense but ultimately mutually rewarding direct exchange with the man himself. All of which led to me appreciating his directorial debut even more than I already did after my first viewing. There is absolute earnestness throughout this story of a sweet but increasingly unruly pre-teen, his fractious parents whose want for more greatness in their lives blind them to his situation, and his primary teacher’s inability to look past keeping order in class to better grasp why his kids act out. It’s message filmmaking, the kind your aunt keeps trying to get you to embrace when she raves about the GOD’S NOT DEAD series, but with a grit and urgency that makes it compelling for even the most non-religious moviegoer. The success of Tyler Perry and DeVon Franklin is partly due to the unsung work of Horace Jackson opening that door.

GET ROLLIN’ (1980) / TAXI ZUM KLO (1980)
I’m pairing these together because they both occupy a unique space between documentary and fiction – the people and life experiences are real but onscreen events are staged – and they both capture a time and mindset that are now lost. ROLLIN’ was a wonderful capsule of roller disco culture and the promise it offered for people on the margins who had skills that had been long dismissed; for a short shining moment, if you were graceful on wheels, the world wanted to reward your gifts. Meanwhile TAXI presents an unforgettable portrait of pre-AIDS gay sexual freedom, and how its wily protagonist Frank Ripploh is brought to reckoning not because of his orientation or even his appetite, but by his own conflicting desires; he works at having a close and loving relationship with one person (played by his then real-life partner), but always is drawn back to anonymous cruising. While we live in a present that would seem to be more conducive to unconventional people and lives, knowing how regression, repression, and reinvention impacted how we are now, versus seeing the liberating emotion of that Wild-West era in these films and the future it envisioned, it makes me a little wistful, imagining how that alternate timeline could have gone.

2017 was one of those years when, looking at the parade of horrors the world had to offer on a large and personal scale, you definitely had to laugh to keep from falling apart. And this game-changing Milos Forman comedy is the perfect embodiment of that mindset. The presentation of escalating chaos during one ill-fated community gathering is just as applicable to the modern-day class divide as it is to the rampant corruption of ‘60s era Communism, from stolen lottery prizes to unpaid bar tabs to malfunctioning safety equipment. The moment when an elderly man, thrust into bitter winter temperatures as his home goes up in flames, asks for a respite from the cold, and all anyone can do to help is seat him in one of his surviving chairs closer to his own house fire...yeah, that’s what it’s felt like. I also gotta love it for having the most lovably mournful cover of The Beatles’ “From Me to You” that I’ve ever heard. 
Amazon Button (via

IT’S ALIVE (1974)
In a 2002 interview connected to the release of the Hitler-as-failed-artist drama MAX, John Cusack observed, “I [knew] intellectually that Hitler was human but emotionally I didn’t want to accept it. It was easier for me to imagine him as Grendel in the cave, breathing fire and drinking blood...It would be much easier for me if Osama bin Laden didn’t have a mother or father...But the reality is more painful.” This quote resonated with me as I finally took in Larry Cohen’s horror classic this past October. There are plenty of readings one can bring to this now-iconic story, but the immediate thought that came to mind was that the film was a near-perfect encapsulation of the tragedy of being the parent of a serial killer or other violent pariah. Here, the creature almost literally follows Cusack’s hypothetical scenario – he is killing and ravaging everything in his path as soon as he’s out of the womb, it should seem like a slam dunk that it must be put down. And the parents naturally express their horror at their offspring’s deeds and their sympathies to the victims, with his father actively calling for his destruction, yet they still face scrutiny and ostracization as the spree continues. But when each parent has to look that creature eye to eye, they cannot completely disown them, they see his vulnerability and fear, and beg the authorities to find another solution besides death – confinement, scientific research – anything to keep both the public safe but their child alive, and maybe learn from the horror. I don’t know if Cohen’s heart is as bleeding as his movie gore quotient, but like all great horror films, here he has stirred up some deeper ideas to be pondered after the last scream has been uttered.
Amazon Button (via

WILD SEED (1965)
The Bev devoted a significant amount of August programming to the varied career of Michael Parks, and for me, who knew and respected him more from reputation than actual viewing experience, this was a gift. Telling small-scale stories about small-scale people was still an anomalous concept left mostly to foreign films like IL SORPASSO, until later hits like EASY RIDER and MIDNIGHT COWBOY made the trope bankable, so this intersection of two vulnerable souls on the road serves as an important and too-long-ignored missing link between those eras. Moreover, it’s not just exciting to bear witness to the young Parks as he was being positioned (uneasily but not undeservedly) as a successor to James Dean, but also to note the quiet milestones of having UCLA film school’s first black graduate Ike Jones as the story’s author and director Brian G. Hutton as the first film school graduate to ever helm a studio picture, as well as the first credits for Conrad Hall’s cinematography and Albert S. Ruddy’s producing. It’s as if this film is literally the seed for so much talent that went forth to make change, at a time when filmgoers were not quite ready. It’s time for this to take its rightful place in the canon.

Smarter writers than I, especially female, have already gone at length eloquently about the importance and emotional joys of Claudia Weill’s narrative feature debut, you don’t need me to wax about it. All I feel qualified to say is I was holding out for a proper public viewing with a crowd, and thanks to UCLA, I finally got my wish. When it was over, I was awash in happiness, and yet also melancholic that it took me this long. And for me in my personal moviewatching year, it ties in somewhat nicely with my earlier pick OUR TIME, in that 20 years after that story, another generation of women have somewhat better circumstance for exploring their dreams, yet are still fraught with institutional impediments and some of their own bad decision-making to overcome. So maybe there’s part of me that is still having Emma Stone-ish reveries about what could have been during those years before GIRLFRIENDS came into my life, but thankfully, it’s here now, and will be of grand comfort for all these years to come.
Amazon Button (via

A NEW LEAF (1971)
Yes, Elaine May’s masterpiece was another empty box in my cinematic dance card that finally got checked, though I had no opportunity to be upset at not having seen it sooner, because I was too busy screaming with laughter. The comedy pleasures that came out of this movie were exponential, like one of those Magic Grow pellets you put in water that turn into wacky animals. Where do you start with all this movie’s gifts? Is it the quotable dialogue? The top-shelf commitment of Matthau, May, and her entire supporting cast to adhering straight-facedly to an escalation of gamesmanship and venality? Mmm...these are all just carbon on the comedy valves. No, at the end of it all, for me what makes this movie nigh perfect is its legitimate affection and support of its unlikely couple, making it the most ingenious and unexpected reworking of Max Beerbohm’s THE HAPPY HYPOCRITE that has ever been conceived. And I eagerly await the chance to have another mental Malaga Cooler and watch it again.
Amazon Button (via

With increased frequency over these years, I have learned a lot of names that were given their one cup of coffee only to see their seat at the table disappear, and it’s been my willing mandate to start boiling a second pot for them. And the name that has meant the most to me in 2017 is Brenda J. Perla, a real-life petty crook and car thief who found a calling during a prison stretch, and taught herself how to be a screenwriter. She thus came up with this particularly personal dramedy of Dandy, a girl from indeterminate hardship who clearly has skills and charm, but instinctively knows the only way she’ll step up in the world is to take her own initiative...and someone else’s wheels. And as embodied by Stockard Channing, in an early headlining performance, she’s like JUNO with a rap sheet, funny, frustrating, and poignant, as she makes her giant strides to acquiring the $20,000 Dino Ferrari she believes will give her the credibility she craves. Besides being just a great character study, the story serves as a potent metaphor about many gifted women who watch lesser people overtake them, and provides the exhilaration of going outlaw while not shying away from the potential consequences lying in wait. Not to mention Perla’s own trajectory and eventual disappearance won’t leave my mind; director Jerry Schatzberg picking this script as his followup to PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK and SCARECROW should have been her golden ticket, but the movie got high-hatted by the studio, and not long after, Perla’s writing voice faded out. I can think of three top-dollar screenwriters I love whom I would nonetheless pink-slip back to the shoe store tomorrow morning to get her back. Will you dig this movie as heavily as me? Your mileage may vary. All the more reason to watch it, tonight, and take the ride.
Amazon Button (via

So what do we have as my sort of checklist of the elements that intrigue me in a cold film viewing? Obscurity from another time – check! Cryptic synopsis – check! Near-zero scholarship or other writing to be readily found about it – check! Female writer and/or director – check! Painstaking restoration by UCLA Film & Television Archive – bonus! The second film by prodigious stage actress Juleen Compton is is my favorite discovery of the year, a haunting intersection of magical realism and southern gothic, that always manages to expand its purview when the viewer thinks they see where it’s going. What starts as a deceptively larkish romp of the titular girl and her brother improbably acquiring a giant performance space in a desolate section of the Ozarks, and her purported psychic gifts bringing a local would-be-Beatles boy band into their orbit, soon takes grim turns as her gift is exploited to benefit the band and satiate the wants of the audiences that come to their dome. For as much as critics of the era saw fleeting allusions to the myth of Marilyn Monroe, notions of artist worship, media hype, and paranormal predestination come into play and build the dark charms of this most singular film. Compton, like Perla, is another endless fascinating woman who has been mostly relegated to rumor by most cultural historians, along with her films. She married The Group Theatre founder Harold Clurman, made her own fortune in real estate and interior design which allowed her to finance her own films without outside interference, collaborated with legendary British “kitchen sink” auteur Lindsay Anderson, provided material support to the AFI’s first Directing Workshop for Women, and more recently, founded the off-Broadway stage company Century Center for Performing Arts. And while this film, which did not get a U.S. release until 1974, remained little seen, one of the cues by Michel Legrand, “Norma Jean’s theme,” was heard by Barbra Streisand, who commissioned lyrics from Marilyn & Alan Bergman and turned it into the song “One Day,” which she first performed live in 1968 but never commercially released, though it has been covered by others. In short, Compton and her film have made indirect impact on the culture at large without either of them receiving proper credit. Getting my introduction to her and her work was a gift of the Movie Godz for which I must express deep thanks, and show my gratitude by spreading the gospel here. There is still no easy way to see this right now beyond an adventurous 35mm venue booking UCLA’s print, or until an equally adventurous home video label makes it available on physical media, so if you know such parties, take the initiative to press them into action. Let’s get this done while Ms. Compton is still alive to get her due.

No comments: