Monday, September 20, 2004

R.I.P. Tiny Doll

The New York Times > Obituaries > Elly Annie Schneider, 90, Ex-Munchkin, Dies

Elly Annie Schneider, also known as Tiny Earles and Tiny Doll, passed away earlier this month. While she was best known for playing a Munchkin in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), Tiny and her other small siblings--Harry, Daisy, and Grace--had solid careers in both the film industry and the circus, often performing together as The Doll Family. Most notably, Harry and Daisy had featured roles in the notorious Pre-Code era film FREAKS (1932). In that film, Harry played the owner of a traveling carnival and Daisy played his very chaste love interest--brother and sister cast as a couple. I plan on writing more about FREAKS in an upcoming post.

If you would like to see a photo of the Doll Family, please check out my friend's photo blog Snapatorium.

Movie Rentals, Week of 9/13/04

HAIR (1979): I rented this musical because 1) I’ve never seen it, and 2) a local theatre company is doing a production and I keep hearing the music everywhere on commercials. I had high hopes for the film because it was directed by the great Milos Forman. I don’t know if it was the film itself or because I was so tired when I tried to watch it, but I found it so tedious that I actually turned it off after 30 minutes. That’s very rare for me, because I will usually stick things out until the bitter end. Maybe I’ll give the film a second chance some other day.

THINGS BEHIND THE SUN (2001): This intense little film by independent filmmaker Allison Anders features a struggling musician self-destructing from the effects of her childhood gang rape. A handsome magazine reporter arrives on the scene, ostensibly to interview her, but is hiding troubling connections to the musician’s past. This is a somewhat difficult film to watch. The violence—both physical and psychological—is very palatable. Anders, a rape survivor herself, aptly portrays the wreckage wrought by rape, and shows the seeds of healing and redemption. I’m a big fan of her work, and Things Behind the Sun has the hallmarks of a great Allison Anders film—great cast, good storytelling, and focusing on stories that normally aren’t told on film. This redeemed my film watching week after the Hair misfire.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Gael Garcia Bernal

The New York Times > Movies > Gael Garc�a Bernal: Just Another Homeless Young Star

Okay, I LOVE Gael Garcia Bernal! The talented and oh-so-handome actor from Mexico has two new films on the horizon: THE MOTORCYLE DIARIES and Pedro Almodovar's BAD EDUCATION. The link above takes you to a very nice profile of the actor in today's (9/19) New York Times.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

R.I.P. Johnny Ramone

I was very saddened to hear the news this morning that Johnny Ramone succumbed to prostate cancer. I think everyone knew that his passing was on the horizon, but it still doesn’t lessen the shock of the loss. Three of the four original members of the band have died within the past three years, with only Tommy remaining. The Ramones’ legacy is undeniable, and the world becomes a little less cool with each of their passing.

In a previous post, I’ve discussed The Ramones on Film. Johnny’s death comes at a time of new releases in the band’s filmography. On September 28th, RAMONES RAW will be released on DVD, featuring a compilation of rare concert and behind the scenes footage of the band. Also on the horizon is the documentary END OF THE CENTURY: THE STORY OF THE RAMONES, which is already in limited theatrical release, with plans to expand to theaters across the nation throughout fall. To see if this film is coming to your town, please check out the official website.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Early Japanese Cinema

You can tell it’s a busy week for me when I start recycling old school papers! Here is another excerpt from my grad school paper on Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. This is an oh-so-brief overview of the various influences that shaped early Japanese cinema:

The Japanese public’s first exposure to the film medium came in an 1896 exhibition of Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope—the first movie camera. This occurred some two years after the camera’s first appearance in Europe. Approximately one year later, the short films of France’s Lumiere Brothers were shown to mass audiences. Inspired with the possibilities that the medium presented, Japanese began making their own films in earnest. In the beginning, the filmmakers turned not to Western imagery, but to their own within the traditional theater. The very first movies, in fact, were filmed theater performances.

Subsequent film genres and methods of characterization evolved from two traditional drama types—Kabuki and Shimpa. Kabuki is a historical drama, its main characters consisting of samurai. These idealized warriors are characterized as strong, wise, and determined. Imbued with Confucian morals, samurais’ loyalty to feudalistic lords is above that of family, placing no value on romantic love whatsoever. Shimpa, on the other hand, is a contemporary drama, coming into existence around 1890 as a potential replacement for Kabuki, “whose feudalistic forms were no longer capable of reflecting the mores of a modernizing Japan.” (Tadao Sato) The majority of these plays are love tragedies.

Many foreign films were imported as well, exerting considerable stylistic influence on the Japanese. Set designs were copied from German Expressionist films of the 1920s. Psychological insight was injected into characterizations in response to French film of the 1930s. The Japanese leftist “tendency films” made circa 1930 mimicked the montage style of Soviet Sergei Eisenstein’s films, resulting in a fad for an extreme style of editing. The pre-World War II American films had the most profound influence. The youthful movie-going audience, who detested what they considered their oppressive, authoritarian society, liked the “liberal spirit” of the American films. As Japanese film critic and historian Tadao Sato notes, “What they envied most were the heroes and heroines, who were ordinary people, the love stories, and the American freedom of spirit.” Up until the late 1940s, it was common practice to model Japanese films after American hits.


Sato, Tadao. CURRENTS IN JAPANESE CINEMA. trans. by Gregory Barrett. New
York: Kodansha International Ltd., 1982.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Filmmaker on the Fringe: Doris Wishman

Recently, I viewed an excellent retrospective of the photographer Diane Arbus at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Seeing Arbus’s portraits of nudists, carnival workers, transsexuals and others on the margins of 1950s-1970s society made me think of Doris Wishman, auteur of 1960s “sexploitation” films. Wishman made over 25 feature films from 1959 to 1983, and is one of the most prolific women filmmakers of the sound era. Sadly, she is mainly a footnote in mainstream filmmaking history because of her chosen genre: exploitation films, with titles such as BAD GIRLS GO TO HELL (1965) and 1970s-era DOUBLE AGENT 73 and DEADLY WEAPONS, featuring well-endowed actress “Chesty Morgan.” Wishman has the distinction of being the only woman to work within this genre.

Wishman had no formal filmmaking training, her only introduction to the film world was through a job at a film distribution company in the late 1940s. She threw herself into filmmaking after the early death of her husband. Wishman started in the early 1960s making charmingly naïve “nudie” films and later moved on to “roughie” films, exploring darker topics of sexual freedom, violence, and sexual anxiety. She briefly retired after her 1983 film A NIGHT TO DISMEMBER. Aging and in need of money, Wishman sold all of her film rights to two businessmen and later worked at the Pink Pussycat Boutique in Coconut Grove, Florida selling sex toys. With a growing cult fan base, Wishman came out of retirement and made two more films and was working on the third when she succumbed to cancer in 2002. Wishman was 90 years old.

A small number of Doris Wishman’s films are available on DVD. She is also featured in the documentary SCHLOCK: SECRET HISTORY OF AMERICAN MOVIES (2001). For more biographical information, discussion of her films and list of web resources, check out her page at Senses of Cinema.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Movie Rentals, Week of 8/30/04

After spending a week wrestling with a wicked case of PMS, I really needed a good laugh. Here is what I watched:

OLD SCHOOL (2003) Starring Luke Wilson, Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn, Old School follows three, thirty-something guys as they revert to their college ways and set up the perfect frat house on campus. I hate to categorize films by gender, but this is probably more of a “guy comedy”, but that doesn’t mean I did not enjoy the laughs. I’m also a big fan of Vince Vaughn, so that helped a lot!

RAISING ARIZONA (1987) This is one of my favorite Coen Brothers film. Raising Arizona features Nic Cage and Holly Hunter as a childless couple who kidnaps a baby, and a wacky group of characters that try to steal the baby back for the reward money. I’ve seen this film so many times, yet there is always a detail that I’ve either missed or forgotten that will crack me up. This time, a character asks if a bag of balloons blow up into funny shapes. The clerk deadpans, “Not unless you think round is funny.”

WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER (2001) This is one of those films that you either love or hate—the satire is so broad that it can be either the funniest thing ever, or the stupidest. Count me in on the love. Created by the guys that brought us television’s THE STATE, American Summer follows kids and their camp counselors on the last day of summer camp, 1981. Every camp film from MEATBALLS (1979) to LITTLE DARLINGS (1980) is mined for comedy gold, and like Raising Arizona, the big laughs are in the little details. You’ll find yourself quoting the dialogue long after the movie ended. The stellar cast includes Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Michael Showalter, Paul Rudd, and Christopher Meloni.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

A Tale from the Hollywood Canteen

At 22, Gene Tierney was living a fairy tale. She was a beautiful rising starlet in Hollywood, married to designer Oleg Cassini and pregnant with their child. As the country was thrust in to World War II, Tierney, like many of her colleagues, threw herself into volunteer work at the Hollywood Canteen, a hospitality club for U.S. soldiers. Sadly, while working at the cantina, Tierney contracted German measles; her child was born severely disabled.

Many years, later, Tierney was at a Hollywood tennis party. A fawning guest approached her. Excitedly, the woman told Tierney that they had met before. During the war, she had been stationed at a Marine Corps camp. The camp had been quarantined because of a measles epidemic, but she sneaked out one night to go to the Hollywood Canteen just to see her favorite movie star—Gene Tierney. She had kissed Tierney on the cheek, the gushing fan remembered.

Soon after this chance encounter, Tierney lapsed into a severe depression and attempted suicide. Eventually, she was briefly committed to a mental institution. While she recovered enough to continue her career, Tierney was never quite the same after that fateful meeting at the tennis party. She later retired to Houston, Texas, where she died of emphysema in 1991.

---From David Wallace, LOST HOLLYWOOD (2001)

Friday, September 03, 2004

Movie Rentals, Week of 8/23/04

Well, better late than never….here’s what I watched the week of August 23rd:

THE LADYKILLERS (1955): This is the original film that was recently remade by Joel and Ethan Coen. This British production stars the incomparable Alec Guinness as the leader of a robbery gang holed up in a boarding house run by probably the sweetest little old lady ever on film. Hilarity abounds as the precious old gal thwarts the group’s best laid plans. I have not seen the Coen Brothers remake, but this version would be hard to live up to. The film also features a young Peter Sellers.

PLATINUM BLONDE (1931): This Pre-Code screwball comedy directed by Frank Capra stars bombshell Jean Harlow as a rich girl who impulsively marries a hard-nosed reporter—a classic story of two diametrically opposed worlds colliding. A pretty Loretta Young co-stars as a reporter who vies with Harlow for her colleague’s affections. A pleasant film—great for a rainy Sunday afternoon. I was interested in the engaging male lead in the film, Robert Williams. I did not recognize the name and hadn’t recalled ever seeing him in any other film. After a quick check in the Internet Movie Database, I discovered that Williams died of appendicitis in 1931. This was the last film he ever made.

ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS (2000): This Dogme film from Denmark follows the lives and loves of eight lonely people brought together by an Italian language class. The movie was shot on videotape using a hand-held camera. This is somewhat jarring at first, but once you get used to it, the characters and story shines through. This is a very sweet, romantic film.