Here’s a reprint of Mobius articles that used to headline the main page. Hopefully these will carry over to the new site when it appears. Todd, I was just browsing some of the cached MHVF archives (what there are of them) and saw these. If having these pop up here is a pain in the butt, please delete with extreme predjudice).
MONSTER RALLY ’99 – Boffo Bash for ‘Boomers
Dario Argento, Unzipped at Cinequest 10
The World Premiere of THE EXORCIST (The Version You’ve Never Seen)
By Todd Harbour, March 15th 2000
MONSTER RALLY ’99 – Boffo Bash for ‘Boomers
If I was forced to use just one word to describe the Monster Rally '99 convention, it would be emotional, because that one adjective more than perfectly conveys the tone of the absolutely marvelous three-day celebration that it was my joy and pleasure to attend. Hearts were tugged, eyes were misted, smiles beamed, and tears flowed as fans and celebrities joined together to express their mutual appreciation, gratitude, and love as they honored beloved horror films and cherished horror film stars past and present. 'Twas truly a magical weekend — kudos to Gary and Susan Svelha and all involved who organized and coordinated that gala event.
Halfway to Heaven with Honey
One of the immense delights of these sprees — especially for the starstruck — is the chance meetings with celebrities. I was blessed with four such encounters, all in elevators. The first occasion, I was minding my own beeswax waiting for the lift, cogitating again about how I could snag a wealthy dowager who could rescue me from my (thus far) life sentence as a member of the working class and support me in the style to which I so desperately want to be accustomed. When my ride arrived, the door opened, and who should be standing there but Ray Harryhausen and (oh, my Gawd!) Anne Francis!
I am a twenty-five year veteran of horror film conventions and have seen Harryhausen countless times. Still, it's always a thrill breathing the same oxygen with a bona fide cinema legend. But, to be standing within groping distance near Honey West (beauty mark and everything!), a babe who was extremely instrumental in me developing puberty — 'twas all I could do to keep from fainting from an extreme case of ecstasy! Ms. Francis who, according to the Internet Movie Database, will be 69 (dude!) next month is in delectably exquisite phyiscal shape for a "senior citizen," and I just want to declare, "'Honey,'" you can judo chop me anytime!" Va Va Va Voom!
My following two close encouters of the orgasmic kind occurred when an absolutely stunning raven-haired, full-lipped enchantress and I were waiting for an elevator. She was dressed in a sort of Mary Pickford ensemble complete with a flower-bedecked hat straight out of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm — in essence, an adorable vision of springtime loveliness. We politely chatted and continued our conversation in the elevator until, alas, like all good things, my rapture ended when her floor arrived and she gracefully departed. I was later surprised to discover that I had been conversing with Linda Harrison, whose main claim to fame is portraying the mute Nova in Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Again according to the Internet Movie Database, Ms. Harrison is 54!
. . . Is it something in their genes — to wit, are movie actresses somehow genetically gifted or divinely blessed from the rest of us mere mortals? Every one of the grand dames at the Rally — including Carla Laemmle who will be 90 years old this October but still possesses a coquettish charm and charisma — was a "looker" who, somehow (and who cares how!) has learned the secret of . . . if not eternal youth, then eternal beauty, vitality, and sex appeal! Indeed, I remarked to Ingrid Pitt (again in an elevator!) that I thought the guest actresses looked much better than the actors. The kittenish and irrepressibly erotic Ms. Pitt — who tends to elicit the werewolf in the male of the species — purred, "Really? I'm going to tell Chris [Lee] what you said!"
Could You Step Aside, Mr. Lee? I Can't See Michael Ripper!
And speakin' o' which . . . of course, the star attraction of the entire affair was the incomparable Christopher Lee. I'm old enough to remember when Mr. Lee, rather highmindedly, eschewed such eccentric fandangos, allegedly because he didn't enjoy being exclusively identified with the horror genre. However, now that the inevitable shadows of twilight have cast themselves over his career, Lee, perhaps, realizes that to be admired, respected, and worshipped — even by as bizarre a lot as horror film fans — is not such an embarrassing ignominy after all. After listening to his poignant and painful anecdotes about the appallingly callous treatment he has lately received from boorish Hollywood punk-executives (whose astronomical salaries are exceeded only by their shameless ignorance), I sincerely hope that he was heartened by the warm and loving reception that he received from us weirdos.
Tall 'n tan 'n lean and handsome,
the star from Hammer Films went walking,
and when he appeared,
everyone who peered screamed "Aaauuggghhh!"
Okay, Jobim I ain't, but even the voyeuristic Antonio Carlos would have been distracted from ogling the Girl from Ipanema whenever Christopher Lee was on the scene. Looking a hale, hearty, and smashing 77 years old, he cut an imposing and distinguished figure. As was to be expected, his appearances were always rigidly regulated by Fanex administrators and he was efficiently "protected" by a formidable phalanx of security guards from overly ardent admirers, groupies, and pests. Thus, my ingenious plan to briefly kidnap him and subject him to intense interrogation regarding Mario Bava — per orders from that capo di tutti capi Signor Howarth — were annoyingly thwarted. What can I say, Godfather, I tried!
Though I had always liked to believe that I was above such schoolgirl stuff, arrested adolescent that I am, I acquired an autograph1 from His Nibs and a handshake as well — and a warm and firm grasp 'twas too. But, as much of an admirer as I am of Mr. Lee, I must confess that I later washed my hand.... . though I did purloin the hotel towel with which I dried it and now have the sacred cloth hanging in a place of honor above my VCR.
Lee graciously granted three autograph signing sessions and took part in the all-star lineup for the convention's opening ceremony (a magnificent show cacophonously marred by an abominable heavy-metal band whose name I shall deliberately refrain from promoting). But on Sunday afternoon, the final day of the Rally, he exceeded his largesse by enduring a two-hour-plus question-and-answer session moderated by the scholarly authors Tom Johnson (Hammer Films, An Exhaustive Filmography) and Mark A. Miller (Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and Horror Cinema, A Filmography of Their 22 Collaborations). The teeming multitudes who were in attendance were wonderfully treated to hearing Mr. Lee sing a brief aria from an Italian opera, the opening line of "I Was Born Under A Wanderin' Star" (from Paint Your Wagon), and, most fortuitously, his famous impersonation of Sylvester the Cat — the last performance was an unforgettable thrill that I shall always cherish.
To me, the distinguishing quality about Christopher Lee has always been an unconcealed hauteur accentuated by a bearing that is distinctly regal. From his interviews, I always got the impression that his imperious height was not the only reason that this descendant of Charlemagne (lineage of which he is, understandably, most proud) looked down his high-born nostrils at us shorter, unquestionably more common clay. Thus, I was quite touched, and ultimately felt privileged, to witness a crack in his aristocratic demeanor when he was asked by a member of the audience to recall his friend and frequent co-star Peter Cushing. I daresay that Mr. Lee was not the only individual in the auditorium to feel a sizable lump in his throat during his recollections — and not just because "Saint Peter" is no longer with us. Christopher Lee, bless him, is, apparently, to be the last of a noble and proud order of actors who elevated the horror film genre from crude, low-brow, exploitational entertainment into a (relatively speaking) refined and respected art form. He symbolizes the "end of an era" in filmmaking: the era of the silver screen boogey man begun over 75 years ago by Lon Chaney. That the genre in which he will, undoubtedly, be forever remembered and celebrated is no longer interested in his artistry (indeed, neither is it worthy of him) is both a sad and disgraceful commentary on the state of the modern horror film and a tragic loss — for not only his fans but all moviegoers — that should not be wistfully mourned but vigorously and vociferously protested.
As difficult as it might be to imagine that Christopher Lee could be upstaged, it happened, and 86-year-old Michael Ripper was the guilty party. Standing side-by-side, the two former co-stars looked like a Mutt 'n Jeff act, yet the film legacy left by the diminutive Ripper is a shining testament to his stature as a giant in the genre of horror films. Fortunately, that legacy has been chronicled in a commendable biography2 by Derek Pykett. The dashing Mr. Pykett paid a most heartfelt tribute — unequivocally, his accolade was the most eloquent of all that were expressed — to Mr. Ripper before awarding him with a Fanex Laemmle. Even moreso than the appearance of Christopher Lee, the pleasure of Michael Ripper's company was an monumental joy that shall always be a warm and loving memory for me.
Thanks for the Memories
Memories. Monster Rally '99 blessed me with so many of them:
· As previously alluded to, the first annual Laemmle awards were bestowed. Posthumous awards were presented to Peter Cushing and accepted by the scions of Carl Laemmle (the man unintentionally responsible for the creation of the American horror film), the Chaneys, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Vincent Price. Ray Harryhausen, Michael Ripper, and Christopher Lee were awarded as well. Would that all of the honorees could have received them in person.
· The precious recollections of her father by Victoria Price (whose physical resemblance to Vincent is favorably strong). Her eagerly anticipated A Daughter's Biography is forthcoming this fall.
· Joyce Broughton, secretary to Peter Cushing for 35 years, regaled listeners about her life with Saint Peter; 'twas a touching and tender memorial that, again, elicited tears — both her own and, I suspect, many audience members.
· The Ed Wood Awards — tasteless but wickedly humorous ribbing hosted by genre "giants" Ted A. Bohus and Fred Olen Ray. The Number One reason that Christopher Lee is the favorite guest of Fanex? He doesn't ring up a bill for room service or for long-distance phone calls because he won't sign anything for free!3. "Funny stuff," guys.
· A thrilling preview of Universal Home Video's releases of some of their horror classics on DVD, courtesy of David J. Skal. Lucky attendees were treated to two documentaries: The Road to Dracula (sound like a Hope 'n Crosby comedy?) and She's Alive, which will respectively accompany the features Dracula and The Bride of Frankenstein. "Classic monster" fans, you're going to love these new presentations!
· Rex Reason — 'nuff said!
· A pointless, but pleasurably innocuous, panel discussion concerning which horror house is "the best," Universal Pictures or Hammer Films. Among the learned panelists was MHVF participant Shane Dallman, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the actor Cary Elwes. Enjoyed the debate, Shane!
· Pneumatically pulchritudinous Yvette Vickers — still foxy after all these years — doing a "duet" of Fever with Peggy Lee and tearfully expressing her appreciation for the interest of, and attention by, adoring fans.
· The comment made by a fellow conventioneer after Linda Harrison exited the elevator that she had shared with us: "Gosh! They're just like normal people!" Au contraire! If that were true, neither of us would have been where we were that day.
· That tantalizing triumverate of killer blondes: Veronica Carlson, Yutte Stensgaard, and Suzanna Leigh (whose familiar face and shapely gams were my deliciously stimulating confirmation that "diz muz be de playz" when I checked into the hotel). Why is this memory the last one on my list?
V.S.O.P.*? I Pray Not!
Ultimately, the emotions that linger in my heart and mind these nine days after the closing of Monster Rally '99 are a bittersweet joy and nostalgia. The Rally was a three-day tribute to, and remembrance of, "classic horror" films by fans — predominantly Baby Boomers (although people of all ages were in attendance) who look upon contemporary, puerile dreck such as Scream, Scream 2, and their even more odious ripoffs and want to . . . well, scream from frustration and boredom. These were the fans whose affinity for horror films was defined by Shock Theatre (or variations thereof), Famous Monsters of Filmland, the A.I.P. Price-Corman-Poe pix, Hammer Films, the Harryhausen-Schneer oeuvre, William Castle's free-wheeling fright extravaganzas, the fantasies of George Pal, the Godzilla-Toho saga, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and '60s classics such as Psycho, Rosemary's Baby, Planet of the Apes, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Zounds! What rich childhoods and adolescences we had! We are the "old-timers" who were around for the original version of that exemplar of "atmospheric horror" The Haunting and the groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead. We are the middle-aged fogies who listen (not always patiently or politely) to "the younger generation" earnestly debate about whether The Blair Witch Project redefines the horror genre and either gently shake our heads in amusement at their intensely serious analyses and arguments or angrily shake our fists in disgust at their impudence and ignorance or dismissal of film history. For three grand and glorious days, we sons and daughters of Ackerman giddily time-tripped back to our youth and joyously celebrated our own "golden age" of horror, science-fiction, and fantasy films.
But, intermingled with my joy was a perceptible sadness. I could not help but recall the last time that I was a guest at the splendid Hyatt Regency Crystal City. 'Twas Memorial Day Weekend 1993 to celebrate the resurrection of Famous Monsters magazine. Some of the celebrities who showed up at that shindig were also in attendance at Monster Rally '99. Conspicuous by his absence was author Robert Bloch who died in 1994 (as did Peter Cushing), one year after the death of Vincent Price. Bloch, a consummate raconteur, was a regular at horror film conventions, and I dearly missed his resonant baritone and playful wit. Because I am morbidly melancholic by nature, I was constantly haunted throughout the entire weekend by the inescapable, grim thought that Monster Rally '99 was probably the last time that I would encounter some of the famous faces in attendance. In my foolish optimism, I presumed that it will be some of them who will have booked passage with Charon across the River Styx.
Monster Rally '99 went by much too swiftly. The magic of the many exhilirating and unforgettable moments was experienced too, too briefly. My appetite has been far from sated, and I want more — more escape from humdrum reality, more classic horror films in general and more Hammer horror films in particular, more serependipitous rendezvous in hotel lifts with breathlessly beautiful boyhood fantasies, more stimulating analytical discussions about movies (horror movies!), more fascinating remembrances by the precious progeny of Messrs. Chaney, Lugosi, Karloff, and Price, and most especially, more hours in the company of the engaging Christopher Lee.
To Susan and Gary Svelha, and to all horror film convention entrepreneurs, I express my profound thanks and warmest gratitude for allowing me the opportunity to be blessed with experiences and memories that shall live with me for all of my life. Bravo, to you all, and, the Fates allowing, see you all next year!
· Very Special One-time Performance Return
· High marks to Gary, Sue, and their assistants for their smooth and efficient handling of the autograph sessions. Return
· A "quick read" (I read it in less than a day), Pykett's tribute to Ripper recounts the honorable Michael's fascinating and exceptionally full life from his harrowing childhood (his father used to brutally beat him), through his career as a respected character actor — who occasionally got starring roles; would you believe Michael Ripper as Hamlet? Believe it! — and to his present-day retirement. On a painfully poignant note, Ripper doubted if anybody would be interested in reading about his life. I fervently encourage all enthusiasts of Hammer Films and especially fans of Michael Ripper to acquire this bio and disprove his suspicions. Return
A definite sore point with several attendees was the trend by celebrities to charge a fee for their autographs. The thought that such hallowed and idolized movie demigods and demigoddesses must anxiously scrape for simoleons to survive is too saddening to dwell upon. More distressing to me (autographs, shmautographs!) was an embarrassing auction of old, dog-eared pulp magazines and some forgettable comic books that were purportedly from Christopher Lee's personal collection. I'll restrain myself from commenting on Mr. Lee's choice of "light" reading (comic books?!) and merely express my heartfelt concern that the great Christopher Lee isn't in such dire financial need that he must resort to such desperate means to pick up some badly needed dough.
Dario Argento, Unzipped at Cinequest 10
By mac, March 2000
'Twas Thursday last, the third of March, when blackness insidiously blighted the sedate, friendly California valley known as Santa Clara. The god Apollo had been seen racing his mighty steeds (in terror, some whispered) across the blackening sky, causing a deathly winter chill to settle upon the land. Playing children were dragged indoors by fearful guardians who bolted locks and shuttered windows. The sweet songs of birds became stilled and were replaced by the unholy melody of scampering rat claws. Flowers that had blossomed and proudly stretched upward to receive the warm kiss of the sun quickly cowered and curled their petals to protectively hide. An eerie, lunar light shone over all, as fearful shadows loomed to cloak both real and imagined horrors. From the bowels of the earth, melancholy Pluto delicately plucked a spider's web, playing it like a lyre while cold, slimy things that once slept underground awakened to rise and crawl and feed.
Now astronomers, parents, and graverobbers will tell you that such phenomena are merely natural occurrences after nightfall (it was, after all, nine o' clock in the evening, Pacific Standard Time). But, I knew better. I knew the real reason darkness had descended . . .
Dario Argento, Master of Horror, was in town.
Argento Honored At Cinequest
As I earlier reported, Argento was honored in San Jose, California at the 10th annual San Jose Film Festival aka Cinequest.
Seeing Signor Argento in the flesh was, I hope, not a "once in a lifetime" experience for me. 'Tis my fondest wish that either he will one day return to The Bay Area (as his enraptured fans encouraged him to do) or (even better!) I will visit him while on holiday in Italy. Because, contrary, to my foolish preconception of him, he was a thoroughly charismatic fellow with a delightfully playful and provocative sense of humor. Not that I seriously expected him to behave like a psycho in one of his movies; I was just unprepared for what a truly charming character he is.
But, let me begin at the beginning . . .
I've Got Lots Of Friends In San Jose
On Thursday evening March 5 Il Maestro blew into "Silicon Valley" to be tributed after a screening of Suspiria. The audience was informed that Argento had journeyed eighteen hours from Italy, yet upon making his appearance, he appeared daisy-fresh and tack-sharp, displaying no tell-tale signs of "jet lag." A short (about 5'7" or 5'8" tall. Hey, anybody shorter than I is short!), average-built fellow, he was clearly older than the photo used by Cinequest (he is 56, to be precise). Joe Franklin's charitable opinion aside (see the Anchor Bay Entertainment edition of Phenomena), Dario Argento is an odd-looking duck, "blessed" with the type of arresting visage that Federico Fellini used to adore in his movies. Despite a mug that, in the right light, could definitely seem sinister, he possesses a gentle, ebullient, and friendly personality (away from the job, anyway) that is quite winning.
Although his English, "she's-a not so good," he was effectively able to communicate without the aid of an interpreter, who would have been entirely unnecessary because Argento does not communicate with words alone; to wit, he is a very emotional and theatrical speaker. He gesticulated, bounced, pranced and danced about, reminding me very much of his fellow countryman Roberto Begnini (another "subdued introvert"). An "Italian" trait, perhaps? Occasionally, mike in hand, he would calm down and, head bowed and eyes downcast, seem to be addressing the floor instead of the audience. But when discussing an especially tender topic — e.g., the editing of his movies — he would spring about like a possessed marionette and his voice would rise to a fever pitch. During such episodes, to describe his demeanor as excited would be putting the case mildly.
He accepted (blessedly, intelligent) questions from the audience and seemed to be actually surprised that attendees were knowledgably informed about both him and his films. Yes, Cocteau was an influence on him when he made Suspiria. Yes, he co-wrote Once Upon a Time in the West with Bernardo Bertolucci. Further elaborating, Argento made a point that completely escaped me, a devout Sergio Leone enthusiast: OUTW is the only Leone western to feature a female protagonist (portrayed by Claudia Cardinale). Leone, according to Argento, did not feel comfortable working with actresses. Cardinale's character had been specifically created by Argento and Bertolucci because they felt a female presence would enrich the story.
Another revelation to me was that the actresses in Suspiria were stand-ins for young schoolgirls. Because of the violence in the story ("I make . . . strong movies."), he was unable to use children. Thus, he chose actresses who conveyed vulnerability and were "childlike," specifically, women who were built like girls: small-breasted or flat-chested and waiflike (hence, Jessica Harper). To further achieve the deception, he had the sets designed so that the women would appear smaller (e.g., doors were constructed with high doorknobs so that the actresses would have to reach up to turn them).
The Terribile, Orribile Muppet Show Of Stanley Kubrick
Queried about his collaboration with George Romero, Argento responded that he liked Romero and had enjoyed working with him, an aberrant occurrence, in his opinion. He disclosed that directors tend not to get along and generally have nothing either good or kind to say about one another. Then backing up his claim, he forthrightly expressed his views on the state of cinema today, singling out for especial excoriation George Lucas and Stanley Kubrick. Re Kubrick, as a member of that distinct MHVF minority who considered Eyes Wide Shut an excruciatingly soporific dud, I was very gratified to hear Argento cry "Fowl!" and roast that overrated turkey.
"Stanley Kubrick," began Argento, ". . . was great director . . . But . . . this film?"
He looked at the audience with a comically exaggerated gesture that dramatically broadcast his incredulity, raising his voice to almost a shriek,
"This film?! . . . and Tom Cruise! I mean, TOM CRUISE? And Nicole Kidman? NICOLE KIDMAN? They . . . they . . . they are . . . they are muppets!"
A mere transcription of Argento's tirade does not do justice to just his amusing performance. The audience enthusiastically applauded and roared with laughter during his spot-on critique. Perhaps they did so out of respect and politeness. Perhaps they thought that he was just a funny, entertaining little man. I prefer to think that they, as did I, appreciated an individual who did not automatically genuflect at the name of Stanley Kubrick and was unafraid to "calls 'em as he sees 'em." Bravo, Dario, for so humorously exposing that emperor Kubrick, in his swan song, had no clothes!
It Ain't The Sword That Counts, It's How A Man Wields It
On a distinctly more serious note, when asked how he handled directing his daughter in nude love scenes, Argento admitted that he felt "embarrassed" and uncomfortable. He cited the rape scene in The Stendahl Syndrome ("my best movie"), reporting that his daughter Asia ("It is not pronounced Aay-zha, but Ah-see-ah!") would cry. But, he asserted, she is an actress and he is a director, implying that one must behave professionally, rise above one's own shame and discomfort in such circumstances, and get the job done.
I was most surprised by the number of women in attendance at Suspiria (and throughout the entire Argento tribute) and was very amazed that Argento was not challenged about the extreme violence committed against his female characters. I was absolutely flabbergasted when I heard his answer to a question about the relationship between sex and violence in his movies. Citing the second murder in Suspiria (which, he lamented, had been cut), he explained that the violence was indeed sexual. He described that the victim had been repeatedly stabbed (not just once as was shown in the festival print). The knife symbolized a phallus and the multiple stabbings were like . . . like . . . como se dice . . .
". . . like . . . fuck?" he ventured, his tone raised in query.
The tickled crowd assurred him that was the correct term.
"Si! The knife, it is like fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! . . ."
With each "fuck," Argento made a violent, stabbing motion. Hoo boy, I thought. Is he gonna get it! The location of the theatre was near San Jose State University, and I waited for outraged, assertive, college grrls and appalled, militant-feminist academics in attendance to savagely rip into him for such a misogynistic (not to mention hackneyed) analogy. But such was the charm of Signor Argento that the enchanted audience (either more liberal-minded or more thick-headed than I presumed them to be) simply laughed off his disturbing (to me, anyway) rationale.
The audience similarly cut him some slack when he lambasted the Star Wars series. Silicon Valley is infested with a sizable science-fiction fan community, most notoriously "Trekkies" (hawwwwwk-ptooey!) and their equally fanatical counterparts, those for whom The Force is with (hawwwwwk-ptooey!). Perhaps Argento did not realize that he was in "the lion's den" while he was knocking that "sacred" saga, but for such a little guy so far away from home, he sure was (wickedly) cocky. Che favoloso!
"You're in the Silicon Valley," spoke up one of the local technophiles, "which is defining motion picture special effects technology." Actually about 75 miles northward in upscale Marin County lies the "hallowed" temple of George Lucas: Industrial Light and Magic. Would Argento ever use "CGI" in his movies was the inevitable question. The director responded that it was a style of filmmaking that was very different from his own and one that held little interest for him (although, apparently, certain visual effects in some of his more recent movies would indicate that he is not as disdainful of computer generated imagery as he insisted that evening).
Argento then took the opportunity to lay into the entire film industry for making movies that are all the same, uncreative, and uninteresting. Citing The Blair Witch Project, he stated that everybody paid attention to it because the filmmakers proved you can make a boxoffice success without special effects. BWP was "not good," in his opinion (I love this man!), but at least it was different, an attribute for which he was appreciative and respectful. 'Twas during this particular rumination, that a distinct weariness — even sadness — became noticeable in Argento. He decried the formulaic nature of movies today and, most frustratingly, the diminishing opportunity to be as daring and creative as he was able to be when he made Bird With the Crystal Plumage. Referring to Suspiria, he complained that the print that we had watched was cut (Two-wenty-fiiiiivve cuts!) and was the "television" print. An Argento scholar behind me chimed in saying that the first murder was missing. The criminals who eviscerated his movies with their editing ("Cut! Cut! Cut!") should be arrested, bewailed Argento. They should . . . no not be executed, but put in prison or forced to do some kind of community service.
"Why?" he railed, why do they have to cut his movies, and make so manny cuts. Then answering his own question, he ruefully declared that it is because "they [the producers and distributors] think you are all fools . . . you are not smart enough . . ." to understand his movies. On an emotional roll, he revealed that, for him, the most enjoyable part of filmmaking is writing the story. He is less thrilled with directing, and his view on actors was certainly Hitchcockian. He disliked dealing with their insecurities ("Ohhhhh, I do not look good!") and frailties. The following evening, before the showing of Tenebre, Argento would skewer Anthony Franciosa, working with the thirsty star had not been a pleasurable experience.
"I don't care if you drink," he would exclaim, "Just don't drink on my movie!"
In response to a question about animals in his movies, he excitedly replied that he liked working with animals because they knew their parts.
"An ant is ant! A rat is rat! . . . It behaves like rat!"
Towards evening's end, Argento was given the Cinequest award, which he buffoonishly placed on his head like a hat. Then, in a quite peculiar moment (but not the most peculiar, as I was to later witness), he ebulliently and excitedly exclaimed (in that familiarly ebullient Begnini fashion1),
"I am . . . bisexual! I love men! I love women! I love animals! I love you! . . . I love everybody!"
I could be way off base on this one, but I suspect that Signor Argento was not "coming out of the closet," but expressing, clumsily, his enthusiasm for his fans and his appreciation of their love for him.
Let Me Entertain You, Let Me Make You Smile
The next evening I attended two screenings of Argento movies: Tenebre and Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Tenebre was shown late afternoon and, again, festival goers were blessed to be in the presence of maestro Argento. This time, however, "Crazy Dario" would shock the audience in a way that even hardcore Argento fans would never have imagined. Microphone in hand, Argento expressed his hope that the audience would enjoy his movie. Unsure about the print, he hoped that it was uncut and briefly repeated his tirade ("Why? Why must they cut my movies? Why?!"). He was touched by the interest in his movies that had been shown by Cinequest attendees who not only loved his films but knew so much about them . . . and him. Then in an amazingly bizarre moment that I doubt all in attendance will never forget, he handed the microphone to a nearby Cinequest rep, removed his jacket, shirt, undershirt, and dropped his trousers!
I kid thee not.
Dario Argento, internationally renowned filmmaker, removed his clothing in front of a live audience and stood before them clad only in his underwear.
"You . . . you know everything about me! But you don't know this!" he cheerily exclaimed, his face beaming while he posed before us with his pants down around his ankles. Needless to say, the audience was in hysterics.
A spontaneous cacophony of frenzied shutter clicking echoed throughout the dimly lit theatre auditorium, which had become instantly illuminated by countless bursts of light flashing from the bulbs of a dozen or more cameras.
Dario Argento — Live! In Person! And In His Underwear! Oh, yeah! Take it off, Daddy! Take it all off!
Stop the presses! Alert the media! Call out the National Guard! Famed Italian Film Director Does Striptease Before Festival Crowd!
Film at eleven.
Whew! To paraphrase the lyrics of a popular tune from Dumbo,
Ah be done seen ev-er-ree-thing
but Ah never thought Ah'd see Dario's fly (unzipped)!
The cruelly unkind who witnessed that jaw-dropping spectacle might cattily opine that the sight of a near-nude Dario Argento was more terrifying than any grisly murder in his entire ouevre and heave a sigh of relief that Il Maestro spared them the sight of the "fruit" from his 'Looms. As for me, 'twas an incredible moment, indelibly burned within my brain, that I shall carry with me to the grave.
Flash! MHVF exclusive: Signor Argento is a boxers man.
"I Am Not Angry"
Well, after a several minutes of freezing his capezzoli, His Nipples . . . err, I mean His Nibs decided to quit the Chippendales dancer act and rejoin us the fully clothed. After the audience calmed down (and he had picked up all the dollar bills — I make-a da joke!), Argento bid everyone arrivederci.
"He'll be back after the movie," assurred the Cinequest rep.
"No!" rebutted Argento. He would not be back because he was scheduled to appear at the 10:00 p.m. showing of Bird with the Crystal Plumage. He had spent a busy day in San Francisco, that beautiful, foggy City by the Bay that is famously adored by Europeans.
"I love The Bay Area!" he exclaimed, then reported that he had been to Chinatown and The Castro (the notorious flamboyantly gay district in San Francisco3) The poor chap had been on the run all day (San Francisco is about an hour's escape from San Jose, depending on the nightmarish traffic); he was hungry and wanted to eat dinner. The audience understood, bid him "Buono appetito!" and settled down to enjoy Tenebre.
. . . which was a poor anticlimax after Argento's impromptu burlesque performance. Instead of a theatrical print, the Anchor Bay Entertainment DVD was shown on the huge screen. A presentation that was . . . como se dice? . . . how you say? . . . tacky. I am not at all up on aspect ratios but the DVD image did not fill the screen, which meant that the audience "enjoyed" the film with the familiar black bars framing the picture (Yee-ha! This is jes like watchin' it in mah livin' room!). Conversely, after the movie ended and the tardy projectionist allowed the disk to continue to play, the DVD menu appeared "full screen." Besides the annoying letterboxed effect, the picture quality was not very satisfying. The experience confirmed for me that no matter how "big screen" and "high res" the TV and no matter how digitally tweaked the transfer, viewing movies (in whatever format) at home simply cannot compete with the superior experience of watching 35mm celluloid prints on a motion picture screen.
Later that evening I returned to the festival for Bird with the Crystal Plumage and another rib-tickling session with Signor Argento. This time, though, Argento was noticeably tired. He assured the audience that he would be keeping his pants on (Oh, that man! He's such a tease!), then spent about five minutes, eyes cast downward, addressing the floor.
"This movie . . . when it first come out, everybody hate it," he soberly reported.
As he continued with his introduction, I again sensed a weariness in Argento and not just because he had been on the go all day.
"For me, writing the movie is the best time," he iterated; directing his movies was not very satisfying.
Argento reported that Bird had not been as savaged by editors as were his later movies. After listening to his now familiar jeremiad ("Cut! Cut! "Cut!"), I perceived his physical reaction to the "criminal" editing of his movies as almost psychosomatic; he genuinely seemed wounded by the damage that had been done to his movies by vandalistic editors. During the discussion after Suspiria he had declared that he preferred that people watch his movies on DVD because he was closely involved during the DVD production process and had more creative control over the presentation of his films. The theatrical prints were disappointing and depressing bastardizations committed by ignorant producers and distributors, and because they were bastards, he (understandably) disowned them.
"I return to Italy tomorrow!" Maestro Argento announced, refuting the Cinequest publicity and schedule, which promoted that he would be a guest throughout the entire series, which was to end on Sunday.
"Come back again!" cheered the audience.
Then the theatre darkened; as the presentation started, Argento sat down a few rows in front of me.
"Mamma mia!" I thought, "I'm going to watch a Dario Argento movie and Dario Argento is going to be sitting right in front of me! I hope that he doesn't talk, for cryin' out loud."
Okay, I didn't quite think that, but I was thrilled that I would be sharing the same carbon dixoide with Maestro Argento while watching with him what some critics regard as his best film. Alas, after five minutes, he arose and quietly exited the auditorium. Apparently, he'd already seen the flick. Or maybe he just didn't want to be again disappointed by what butchering distributors had done to his film. I had not seen Bird in a theatre since it had played in the U.S.A. in 1969-1970 when my father had taken me to see it (we might have seen it with another Italian import Investigation of A Citizen Above Suspicion). How could I, then a towheaded fourteen-year-old lad, have ever imagined that the next time that I would theatrically behold this stylish thriller would be while I was (briefly) sharing the company of the director. The print was decent, a little speckled and faded by age, but remarkably intact (except for one brief break in dialogue). Whether or not, it was a "cut" print, I could not say, but it seemed to resemble the print available on the VCI DVD (apart from the controversial panty snafu, of course).
Thus was my weekend with Dario Argento. The following evening, Saturday, I attended the final installment in the series, Inferno. I had never seen this movie and was delighted that the print was absolutely pristine — the best print in the entire series. As for the movie itself, its plot is a typical "EuroCult" muddle: elliptical, erratic, episodic, and, maddeningly, inconsequential. After it ended, I recalled the sentiment of a local film reviewer: Argento made stylish psychological thrillers that, after an initial viewing, he had no desire to revisit. Another critic, in his report of the Argento series, described Argento's horror films and gialli as "an acquired taste." Regarding Inferno, I'm inclined to agree with them on both counts, but chacun ?son go?, as the Frenchies say.
Although I would never describe myself as a rabid Dario Argento aficionado (extremely sadistic "ultra-violence" is just not my cup of tea), I do admire his artistry as a filmmaker. Had he remained longer at the festival, I would have liked to have engaged him in a lengthy discussion about why he makes the movies that he does and asked the (perhaps naive, perhaps judgemental) question, "Why, Signor Argento? Why the violence? Why the graphically explicit blood and gore?" The answers have been, undoubtedly, published in horror magazine articles or a biography, but I know that hearing an explanation from his own lips would be infinitely more meaningful.
"I make . . . strong movies," Argento had stated during the opening night presentation. Later he declared, "I make angry movies . . . but I am not angry."
I interpreted "angry" to mean violent. I do not think that Argento is "angry" (in either sense of the word), based upon the lamentably brief time that he shared with me and everyone who attended his tribute. His criticisms of Kubrick, Lucas, Cruise, et. al. were, I think, not jealous, mean-spirited attacks on fellow filmmakers but simply the expressed frustration of a "maverick" artist who is bored, and feels creatively stunted, by the influence of "Hollywood" on international cinema. He is also a passionate man who, I perceive, regards filmmaking as not merely a vocation or artistic expression but life itself. His movies are his children, and it hurts him when he sees them abused and disrespected.
My perception of Dario Argento is that he seemed to be a genuinely friendly and hospitable chap with a marvelously audacious sense of humor. He was very approachable, was not surrounded by an intimidating phalanx of bruiser-bodyguards (unlike some celebrities whom I could name) during each of his appearances. He graciously shook hands and cheerfully posed for photos with admirers; to wit, he is an utterly warm and congenial gentleman. Perhaps he is so because — as has been claimed about himself by another horror meister, Stephen King — the mayhem that he commits in his art is a catharsis that purges his psyche of demons that might (were they not to be exorcised) manifest themselves in truly horrifying and terrible acts in real life.
Though the opportunity seems remote that Argento shall ever return to Silicon Valley (and I would not blame him one bit if he didn't; the bland, industrialized flatland of the terminally suburban "Silly Valley" evinces all of the breathless beauty and charm of a computer chip), I do hope that one day I will again have the opportunity to see Signor Argento and mayhap engage him in a philosophical discussion of his art and learn the appeal of graphic, sadistic violence for both him and his fans. It wouldn't have to be a humorlessly intense debate. Just a casual chat, a very friendly meeting over cup of cappuccino and a dish of spumoni.
Clothing optional, of course.
1. What is it with these crazy, emotional Italians? Several weeks ago on Roger Ebert & the Movies, guest Bill Clinton described how Roberto Begnini, upon seeing him, raced across a room in The White House, jumped into his arms, wrapped his legs around Clinton's waist, and hugged him tightly. "What did the Secret Service operatives do?" queried an amused Ebert. Replied The Prez, "What could they do? It was Begnini!"
3. As opposed to the closeted, Republican-conservative gay district; respectable, three-piece suited, upwardly mobile, latently homosexual Yupster district; the too-elderly-to-wear-heels, lavender-soaked, tired, old queen district, etc.
The World Premiere of THE EXORCIST (The Version You’ve Never Seen)
By Todd Harbour, March 15th 2000
A newly revised cut of THE EXORCIST, christened "The Version You've Never Seen," made its world theatrical premiere on March 15, 2000 in Austin, Texas at the South by Southwest (SXSW) 2000 Film Festival. Producer/screenwriter William Peter Blatty was in attendance and remained afterwards for Q&A session with the audience. To a packed house, Blatty introduced the picture as the version he's been waiting 26 years for, the restoration of "Billy" Friedkin's first cut with an additional 11 minutes of footage originally excised for length concerns. I consider it a rare privilege to have been among the first in the world to experience this new chapter in THE EXORCIST's storied history. According to Blatty, our print was literally finalized two days earlier; our audience was the first to see this new cut outside of director William Friedkin and assorted crew involved with the restoration, even before Warner executives and Blatty himself. (Warner executives were scheduled to watch the new cut that evening too, concurrently or slightly later than our screening.)
The screening was an absolutely thrilling experience. The film has been remixed with an incredibly bold and directional sound mix, including some additional (newly recorded?) foley work to beef up the soundstage. (There was a brief sound level problem during a bed-shaking scenes, but it was noted by Blatty for correction.) The new mix sounded GREAT, and it triggered some genuine jolts in the audience during Regan's demonic howls and other unsettling sound effects. (Tim McCanlies, screenwriter for THE IRON GIANT, sat 2 rows behind me, and I could hear him raving about the new sound mix.)
The highlight of the picture was the restoration of the spiderwalk sequence — a sequence that produced huge applause in the audience as the scene faded to black. It works AWESOME! It is quick, creepy, bloody, disconcerting and horrific. It startled all in the audience, including me, and I was expecting it! Although rough footage of the spiderwalk sequence is contained on Warner's 25th Anniversary home video release, it does not adequately prepare you for how great the sequence truly is in its final restored form. Friedkin utilizes a different take than the one shown in the previously released rough footage, ending with a stunning shot of Regan that I won't spoil for you.
Friedkin has added a few new subliminals (including one, Blatty jokingly complained, that Friedkin sneaked in without his knowledge!) and a subtle CGI morph. Friedkin also added additional footage of Regan's doctor visits early in the film to correct the continuity problems during the urination scene and, more importantly, to stretch Regan's eventual possession into a more gradual process. Friedkin also removed the previously puzzling footage of a cheerful and happy Reagan before said urination scene. Most of the remaining additional footage is padding on existing material — for example, in the 1973 cut, when Chris is notified of Burke's death by a production assistant, the scene fades to black as the two embrace in sorrow; in the expanded version, the scene ends with the production assistant rushing nervously out the front door, muttering "I'll see you later." And yes, the infamous Blatty "happy" ending has been restored, for better or worse. In all honesty, the revised ending does not bother me, and it certainly did not lessen the impact of the film's previous 132 minutes.
Blatty, casually dressed in jeans and a blue pullover sweater and looking quite vigorous for a 72 year-old man, remained after the screening for about a half-hour Q&A session. (He would have stayed longer but the theatre manager ended the session to close up the theatre). Blatty seemed to enjoy interacting with audience; he thoroughly answered questions on all sorts of subjects, including: THE EXORCIST III sequel (made after Warner dangled a $500,000 check to him and Friedkin — Friedkin bailed out the night before their meeting to finalize the deal with Warner); the Catholic Church and its reaction to THE EXORCIST (surprisingly positive); how Lee J. Cobb was cast (Blatty and Friedkin ran into him by chance in the audience at a play production); whether audience laughter during the screening bothered him (Blatty observantly recognized most of it as nervous laughter); and convincing Friedkin to change the ending (easy to do once Friedkin viewed it edited back into the picture in context).
Blatty briefly mentioned his directorial debut THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (referring to it as TWINKLE, TWINKLE, KILLER KANE) in a discussion about his use of medallions as a supernatural cinematic device. The device has its roots in a supernatural event Blatty experienced while holed up in a rented cabin to write The Exorcist (interestingly, a novel Blatty has not read since its completion). While leaning over a bathroom sink to look at himself in the mirror, Blatty saw two medallions hanging from his neck in his reflection (he was only wearing one at the time). The extra medallion depicted the Immaculate Conception, and he instantly recognized it as a medallion belonging to his late mother [cue for spooky music].
Blatty does not believe in "the curse of THE EXORCIST" — a curse that supposedly has brought misfortune to many involved in filming THE EXORCIST — but he did acknowledge the existence of mysterious and unexplained thumping on the soundtrack of some unnamed scenes. The thumping went undetected by headphone-wearing sound technicians recording the takes, even though the technicians, Blatty said, were particular enough to end a take at the sound of a barely audible stomach grumble! As Blatty closed the Q&A session, he explained he was on his way to call Friedkin, who was expecting a prompt report from Blatty about the screening.
I highly recommend experiencing this restored version theatrically for its incredible sound mix and to see the spiderwalk sequence in its full panoramic glory. THE EXORCIST opens on March 17, 2000 in Austin, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Athens, Georgia with little fanfare by Warner. I hope the response is positive enough for the film to continue a theatrical run across the country to your hometown. If not, you should have the opportunity to watch it via yet another THE EXORCIST special edition home video release coming soon to your favorite retailer!
Another good article from the Mobius front page:
THE 2001 (SXSW) FILM FESTIVAL
By Todd Harbour, March 2001
The South by Southwest (SXSW) Conferences and Festivals is an annual 9-day event in Austin, Texas, US covering music, film and interactive technology during the Spring Break holiday season in March. This smart bit of scheduling ensures that Austin's 50,000+ University of Texas college kids hightail it out of town in search of suds, sex and sand just as SXSW begins, clearing elbow room for a smaller but equally ravenous horde of SXSW artists, industry professionals, critics, and fans to worthily take their place.
SXSW Music, now 15-years-old, is a well-known and respected event in the music recording industry. With surprising speed, SXSW Film, added just 8 years ago, has grown into a vibrant showcase on the film festival circuit, attracting independent filmmakers and industry professionals from all corners of the United States. SXSW Film 2001's mission statement is to "showcase visionary filmmakers and innovative films" in both narrative and documentary film categories. In addition to films shown in the award-eligible categories, SXSW Film typically showcases a solid collection of special screenings of films in limited or festival-only (but already in the distribution pipeline) release, giving SXSW audiences the perk of experiencing a national or regional US premiere. This year's narrative special screenings feature high profile titles like Christopher Nolan's Memento, Ted Demme's Blow, and the Best Foreign Film Academy Award Nominee Amores Perros. Lower on the radar but certainly more memorable is a screening of Satan Was a Lady, cult exploitation filmmaker Doris Wishman's first new film in decades, accompanied by a Wishman Q&A. SXSW Film widens its scope this year with a brand new category of international film programming, introducing an assortment of remarkably high quality feature films from Australia, Sweden, Israel, Italy, Argentina and France.
SXSW Film is particularly strong in its feature-length documentary programming with the best of the lot eventually gaining distribution on US pay or public television networks like HBO, Showtime and PBS. This year's Documentary Feature Jury Award winner is Hybrid, the story of eccentric corn seed researcher Milford Beeghly, with runner-up awards to Amato: A Love Affair With Opera and Okie Noodling. I never caught up with Hybrid, but its festival buzz is moderately positive, chiefly for its superlative, sweeping visuals. Still, many festival goers are more energized about Okie Noodling, a film about an unfathomable subculture of fishermen ("noodlers") in Oklahoma who catch monster catfish by completely submerging themselves in murky lakes and offering their hands/arms as bait, fishing poles be damned! Indeed, Okie won the Documentary Feature Audience Award.
The narrative film competition programming has been hit or miss in past years, and this year's mixture of indie dramas and black comedies is no exception. The award-eligible narrative film with the most buzz going into the festival is Bartleby, a funky, modern update of Herman Melville's 1853 story "Bartleby the Scrivener" starring Crispin Glover, David Paymer and Glenne Headly. The buzz quickly fizzled and the film left the festival sullied and empty-handed. The Narrative Feature Jury Award winner is Canadian Blaine Thurier's Low Self Esteem Girl, a mind-numbingly amateurish and technically underachieving digital video feature about blonde ingénue Lois and her unremarkable struggle against the manipulative influences of sleazy sexual opportunists, zealous Christians, and substance abuse. I searched high and low for someone at the festival who actually liked the film, but I literally couldn't find one person to even moderately praise it. Narrative Feature Jury Award Runner-Up and Audience Award winner The Zeros is a somewhat novel black comedic (and slightly futuristic) spin on the "buddy road picture" formula, but nevertheless still a middling film. The other films I viewed in the narrative feature competition category — Manna From Heaven and red deer — are dreadful, so I suppose the victory of Low Self-Esteem Girl is a hollow one at best. The most satisfying film in competition is Narrative Feature First Film Audience Award winner (a category not eligible for a Jury Award) The Journeyman, a stylish, divergent riff on the spaghetti western genre nimbly written and directed by Texan newcomer James Crowley.
The conference portion of SXSW Film is a collection of panel discussions, mini-meetings, and one-on-one mentoring sessions covering all aspects of film creation and production, from screenwriting through distribution. The topic tracks for 2001 include digital filmmaking, animation, documentary filmmaking, film festival circuit wrangling, and even "Filmmaking 101," which advises on such nuts-and-bolts issues as raising funds, post production, and how to get a film distributed. This year's panels are stacked with many notable creative artists and film professionals, including directors D.A. Pennebaker, Penelope Spheeris, Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater and Eric Schaeffer (scheduled director Jim Jarmusch cancelled his panel appearance at the last minute, and Quentin "No-Show" Tarantino unexplainably split mid-conference before his panel appearance with Rodriguez and Linklater on the conference's final day). The conference is a too-good-to-be-true resource for burgeoning filmmakers, a golden opportunity for intimate (and sometimes hands-on) access to industry players unheard of at larger competing North American festivals like Sundance, Telluride and Toronto. Where else can you pony up a measly $255 to rap with D.A. Pennebaker about shooting documentaries and then wander next door to pick Miramax Films Director of Acquisitions Michelle Krum's brain about the basics of distribution? Speaking of Pennebaker, in a coincidence that could only happen at a film festival, I hit the men's restroom immediately following a screening of the fine documentary Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment, and none other than the cinéma vérité pioneer himself pulled up to the urinal next to me. Pennebaker made the moment even more surreal by relaying his experience to a waiting colleague of filming then-US Senator John F. Kennedy taking a leak while Pennebaker was a cameraman on Robert Drew's landmark documentary Election about the 1960 US Presidential primary between Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey!
A highlight of SXSW Film is its director retrospective, a showcase of 4 selected films from an honored director with said director in attendance for Q&A sessions. This year's honoree is spirited director Penelope Spheeris. While she's recognizable as the director of mainstream (and financially successful) Hollywood comedies like Wayne's World, The Little Rascals, and The Beverly Hillbillies, Spheeris is worshipped as a cult icon by punkers, metalheads, and cineastes alike for her seminal The Decline of Western Civilization... music documentary trilogy, which happen to be the featured works for her SXSW retrospective.
The Decline of Western Civilization... films are culturally and historically significant snapshots of Los Angeles' fringe music scene and completely engaging films from a cinematic perspective. Part I documents a slice of the L.A. punk scene in 1980; Part II documents big-name and grunt players alike from the L.A. heavy metal scene in 1987; and Part III returns to a subsequent generation of punk music in 1997 and takes a deeper look at the plight of "gutterpunks," a subculture of homeless young people living self-destructive lifestyles with punk attitude (much like the characters of Spheeris' early indie feature Suburbia). Filmed in a similar stark, stripped-down style (her interview sets consist of a monochrome backdrop and a lone, unshielded light bulb suspended from the ceiling), the documentaries ultimately triumph because Spheeris wittingly shatters the documentary filmmaker tenet of not becoming emotionally attached to your subject — she clearly loves the music and cares deeply about her subjects. Decline III, Spheeris' personal favorite of the series, remains in unreleased limbo because every theatrical distribution offer she's received to date requires her to relinquish the DVD and video rights to the entire Decline series. Her response? An old-school punk "no fucking way!"
Spheeris' latest documentary feature is We Sold Our Soul for Rock 'n' Roll, a film shot during the 1999 Ozzfest music festival tour. Shot on high definition digital video at 15 concert dates, the film is a gorgeous-looking, kick-ass gut punch that will make your ears bleed with pleasure. Spheeris, dressed in black with attitude at the screening (indeed, I never saw her wear another color the subsequent 3 times I saw her at the festival), described its filming as "the best and worst experience of [her] life." Given the inescapable ocean of drunk, sweaty, sunburned metalheads consistently engulfing her and her crew like gnats, it's easy to understand the latter. Spheeris keeps the film fresh and kinetic by bouncing between candid behind-the-scenes/interview footage of the Ozzfest bands and explicit illustrations of the festival's chaotic cultural underbelly — volunteer topless mechanical bull riding, a gruesome freak sideshow (involving violating human flesh with tools like a staple gun, an electric drill, and a hammer-and-nail), and a live S&M show by the "Devil Girls and Slave Boy," among other spectacles. Most fans attending Ozzfest are misfits at best, but lovable misfits through the lens of Spheeris' camera. Ozzy Osbourne, following his affable and hilarious appearance in Decline... Part II, continues to be a fascinating subject as the atypical dichotomous aged, rehabbed rock god and devoted family man. Without a doubt, Spheeris still has the magic touch for this material.
"What good is revenge if you don't remember it?" Christopher Nolan's Memento, still riding the positive buzz of its 2001 Sundance Film Festival appearance, is a stunningly beautiful and elliptically cerebral film noir with a stylized narrative technique rivaling the freshness of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction at the time of its 1994 release. In Memento, detective Leonard Shelby (commendably played with cool, detached intensity by Guy Pearce of L.A. Confidential and Ravenous) seeks to settle a score for his wife's brutal death while burdened with an Alzheimer's-like inability to recall short-term events triggered by the trauma. Director/writer Nolan infuses familiar staples of noir with the subversive, noir-busting concepts of infinite, unrequited revenge and the existence of truth (or lack thereof) in the absence of visceral memory. Memento's reverse linear style, employing a narrative structure rarely used in mainstream cinema (David Jones' film adaptation of Harold Pinter's play Betrayal is the only cinematic precursor I recall, although sporadic literary examples are found in the works of contemporary writers like J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick and Martin Amis), transcends gimmickry as a crucial, metaphorical immersion into Shelby's permanently traumatized brain. Attentive viewers will find other subtle cinematic devices at work in this densely layered film, such as varying black & white/color sequences to represent opposing directions within the film's time continuum, as well as subtly-changing point-of-views as the film uncoils (recoils?), embodying the viewer's shifting perception of Shelby.
Tillsammans (aka Together), an entry in SXSW Film's new international features category, is talented Swedish director/writer Lukas Moodysson's follow-up to his well-regarded drama Fucking Åmål (aka Show Me Love). An equally engaging film, Tillsammans is a 1975 period piece about the merging of contradictory lifestyles — leftwing socialism and conventional family principles — and generational conflict at a multifamily commune in Stockholm over the Christmas holiday season. Although the film ultimately indicts socialism for its confusing and damaging effect on the family unit (especially to children), it is just as critical of more conventional, nonpolitical ills like alcohol abuse, domestic violence and spousal neglect. The beauty of Tillsammans is Moodysson's skill at handling this potentially depressing material with delicate sophistication and splendid humor. It's not often you find a movie that is both emotionally stirring on one hand and damn witty on the other. The fascinating characters, well-acted by an ensemble cast, are written with remarkable sympathy and complexity. Moodysson brings a cozy, documentary-like style to the movie with his reliance on handheld cameras and an oft-used technique of quick zooms on his character's faces, creating a "home movie" vibe. Tillsammans is a poignant, rewarding film and the richest viewing experience I had all festival.
The Australian film Risk, another entry in the international features category, is a curiously gun-free film noir set in the corporate world of automobile insurance. Taking several pages from Oliver Stone's Wall Street and Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity and The Apartment, director Alan White presents a slick but ultimately toothless thriller about fresh-scrubbed corporate newcomer Ben Madigan's (Tom Long) battle against the dark temptations of greed, sex and ruthless ambition as enticingly dangled before him by his mentor, white collar shark John Kreisky (well-acted by veteran Australian actor Bryan Brown). Risk is a visually stunning film, from its treeless, urban vistas to the attractive looks and well-toned bodies of leads Long and Claudia Karvan (whose killer legs belong in the femme fatale Hall of Fame). Still, the film's polished technical style, clearly benefiting from White's expert experience at directing television commercials, doesn't quite have the power to gloss over the narrative's rather tepid, unsophisticated, and relatively double-cross-free approach to corporate intrigue.
Blood-spattered low-budget gem Ginger Snaps is quite simply one of the best North American horror films since The Blair Witch Project if its overlong, limp-across-the-finish-line ending can be forgiven. Helmed by Canadian television director John Fawcett (Xena: Warrior Princess, La Femme Nikita), Ginger Snaps is the unruly account of two goth teenage sisters and the werewolf that intrudes into their dark but previously-harmonious lives. Digging beneath its furry werewolf surface, Fawcett and screenwriter Karen Walton's rebellious tale is evocative of the biological-revolt horror themes of fellow Canadian David Cronenberg with its equating of lycanthropic transformation to first-time menstruation and burgeoning female sexuality. Ginger Snaps is splendidly gory — buckets of syrupy, cherry-red blood ubiquitously saturate the proceedings — and amusingly vulgar (with enough utterances of "fuck" to rival Goodfellas), swinging effortlessly from brutal ferocity to dead-on, biting wit. The film's gender roles are divergently nonconforming to genre conventions ("Who's the man here?!" shouts a teenage boy during a soon-to-be-regretted sexual encounter with the titular Ginger) and cunningly challenging to modern standards of feminine body image and sexuality that are questionably pushed on young girls at the cusp of womanhood.
The festival closed with an open discussion panel with Austin-based directors Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, The Faculty) and Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, subUrbia, The Newton Boys, Before Sunrise) moderated by Peter Biskind, author of the critically acclaimed book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," which concerns 1970s-era Hollywood. The panel opened with Linklater asking for a show of hands from aspiring filmmakers in the overflowing audience. Predictably, a good number of arms shot up like springs in a jack-in-box. Then he asked for a show of hands from aspiring film distributors. None were raised, unsurprisingly. He then recounted the experience of his recent return in 2001 to the Sundance Film Festival for the first time since his early-1990s Slacker days to shop his visionary animated feature Waking Life (which enjoyed an unannounced and exceptionally well-received screening at SXSW) for a distribution deal. He was shocked to meet with the exact same distributor representatives he encountered 10 years ago — "just a little older and grayer." Linklater is troubled by this monopoly, and he encouraged — or "planted seeds," as he called it — audience members to consider careers in film distributing, especially as entrepreneurs, so the art of filmmaking won't suffer from present-day limitations.
Rodriguez was an enthusiastic presence, arriving with arms full of audio and video/film production samples from his latest film Spy Kids, including computer-animated storyboards, before-and-after special effects shots, and soundtrack recordings. Rodriguez is an unabashed HD digital video evangelist (the digital video technology George Lucas is using to film the next Star Wars sequel, not the format currently available on the commercial/consumer market), declaring that he will never shoot on film again. He converted the panel audience by projecting a test reel comparing sequences he shot on high definition digital video and 35mm film during rehearsal downtime for Spy Kids. To be sure, the HD digital video-shot sequences demonstrated an astonishing improvement in image clarity, contrast, color, and black-level reproduction compared to duplicate sequences shot on 35mm film. Rodriguez's infectious zeal for all aspects of filmmaking, perfectly illustrated by the staggering 6 credits he receives on Spy Kids (producer, director, writer, editor, composer, and special effects supervisor), was a fabulous boost to close SXSW Film 2001.