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‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ comic in fantastic Howard Johnson’s ‘Children’s Menu’

Only the most observant of Kubrick-aholics will even remember the Howard Johnson’s reference in his landmark 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it’s right there, around the 30th minute. Dr. Heywood Floyd, played with purposeful blandness by William Sylvester, finds himself in a veritable barrage of product placement following the legendary Johann Strauss “Blue Danube” slam cut from the apes’ bone to the graceful, silent spacecraft. Dr. Floyd is flying in a Pan Am vehicle, we’re told, and over the next few minutes, at the space station, he walks through a Hilton hotel lobby, places a call to his wife and daughter using a Ma Bell videophone, and yes, walks by a “Howard Johnson’s Earthlight Room.”

As the beneficiary of a truly special promotional opportunity, Howard Johnson’s did their part, releasing a combined comic book/children’s menu depicting a visit to the premiere of the movie by two youngsters—well, the title actually tells it pretty well: “Debbie and Robin Go to a Movie Premiere with Their Parents.” Neat-O! Given that in the movie (SPOILER ALERT) a computer bloodlessly kills off several members of the crew of the U.S.S. Discovery One and that the movie ends in a psychedelic and well-nigh incomprehensible farrago of colorful effects that Mad Magazine insisted was a result of David Bowman (Keir Dullea) crashing into “the brand new 105-story Jupiter Museum of Op Art,” it’s understandable that the comic focuses on the gee-whiz feeling conveyed in the middle chunk of the movie, and glosses over the ending—the two comic panels in which the family emerges from the theater discussing “the way the mystery was solved!” are, given the downbeat goings-on in the movie, perfectly apposite and false in the only way it can be. The synopsis ignores one of the movie’s most noteworthy aspects outright, by which I mean the apes of the opening sequence. But note that the comic’s discussion of the movie—hilariously—does not gloss over Hal’s murders, as evidenced by the above panel.

What we see here is the old Hollywood promotional methods associated with Mary Poppins, perhaps, or Cleopatra attempting to deal with the totally new, technologically sophisticated, and thematically bleak mode of filmmaking. Would you be able to create credibly cute kiddie characters who gush about “The Dawn of Man” and what lies “Beyond the Infinite”? I sure can’t.   







More great cartoon panels and a video clip, all after the jump…..

Posted by Martin Schneider | Discussion
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‘Am I Normal?’: Hilariously dated sex education film on male puberty, 1979
05:30 am


Sex Education

Am I Normal
With all the back-to-school talk this time of year, I’m reminded of the dreaded middle school period, when suddenly our own bodies turn on us. Many of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s remember being forced to watch sex education films in health class, and while these little movies had the best intentions—attempting to help us navigate the most-awkward of life’s phases—all they really did was make us giggle. Am I Normal?: A film about male puberty is one such film.

Our hero here is Jimmy, a boy of about thirteen who’s been waking up to sticky sheets and experiencing random boners. Jimmy has lots of questions and goes to just about everyone—his friends, the school librarian, a zookeeper—to help him find the answers. Jimmy just wants to know: “Am I normal?”

Produced by the Boston Family Planning Project and the Department of Health and Hospitals, the film certainly means well, but is hopelessly behind the times in just about every sense and must have looked dated upon arrival in 1979, at least from a fashion sense (the haircuts and outfits scream mid 1970s). The presentation, with its forced, corny dialogue and situations, will surely only look familiar to kids today in parody form.

Though it tries to incorporate humor and is actually relatable at times, it’s most notable for its unintended hilarity. An IMDb reviewer has a slightly different take:

I remember watching Am I Normal? back in the 6th grade. This film is supposed to be a film about male puberty, but it is so dated that it’s hilarious. I can’t even tell if it’s trying to be funny, or this is actually how people of the 1970s acted.

The moment when Jimmy talks to the zookeeper is the strangest moment of accidental, awkward comedy in this short film (it’s also a whole lotta creepy!), with dialogue that must be heard to be believed.

Am I Normal? was later adapted into a book, and there’s also a sequel for the girls, Dear Diary: A film about female puberty, from 1981, but it’s far less entertaining. 

If you’d like to own a copy of Am I Normal?: A film about male puberty, you’re pretty much out of luck—unless you can score a VHS copy.

Posted by Bart Bealmear | Discussion
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‘Saturation 70’: The Greatest Sci-Fi Cult Movie (starring Gram Parsons) You’ve Definitely Never Seen

Six years before Alejandro Jodorowsky’s extraordinary but ill-fated 1975 attempt to film Frank Herbert’s Dune—the story of which was compellingly told in the recent documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune—there was another similarly ambitious and ground-breaking film project that, until recently, was largely unknown: Saturation 70, a science fiction movie starring Gram Parsons, Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas and Julian Jones, the five-year-old son of Rolling Stone Brian Jones and Linda Lawrence (later Linda Leitch, Donovan’s wife, of “Legend of a Girl Child Linda” fame.)

Unlike Dune, Saturation 70 did actually make it into production and was shot, but never completed, then was forgotten and undocumented for over forty years. Dangerous Minds pal Chris Campion reveals the story of the film’s production in an article for The Guardian:

The film was the brainchild of an American writer-director named Tony Foutz, the son of a Walt Disney company executive and a friend to both Parsons and the Rolling Stones. The film was shot (but never completed) at a 1969 UFO convention at Giant Rock, near Joshua Tree in the Mojave desert, and in Los Angeles. It tapped into the spectrum of esoteric interests and outlandish ideas — aliens, psychedelics, time travel— of the late 60s counterculture. “The whole experience of making the film was like a technological tribal throw-down, with an energy buzz off the Richter scale,” Foutz says now. “It took on a life of its own.”


The Kosmic Kiddies, from R to L: Tony Foutz, Michelle Phillips, Gram Parsons, Phil Kaufman and Andee Cohen. Photo: Tom Wilkes

Also appearing in Saturation 70 were Stanislaus Klossowski de Rola (aka Rolling Stones confidant, ‘Prince Stash’, the son of painter Balthus) and Nudie Cohn, creator of the Nudie suit. The shoot took place from late 1969 to early 1970.

Filming guerrilla-style, without permits, they managed to realise several ambitious set-pieces, including a surreal shootout between a Vietcong soldier and an American GI in the aisles of Gelson’s supermarket in Century City (Phil Spector, a noted gun fan, visited the set to watch from the sidelines) and a parade of Ford Edsel cars roaring through the City of Industry in a flying-V formation.


Skid Row Los Angeles, 1970. Not much has changed. Look closely at the signs.

Director Tony Foutz was also behind another, even wilder film project, a vehicle for the Rolling Stones to star in and write an original soundtrack for, entitled “Maxagasm,” which was co-written with Sam Shepard in 1968.

Closer to Mad Max than the Beatles’ Help!, the film was to feature the group as a band of unemployed mercenaries wandering through Moroccan desert, in a plot that involved UFOs and Mayan-style human ritual sacrifice.

For years, Saturation 70 was little more than a rumour among Gram Parsons fans—a strange anomalous event in his short gloried career—but now all the existing footage and production photos have been dusted off for an exhibition in London that recreates the film shoot, and the story of Saturation 70 can finally be told.

Saturation 70: the Gram Parsons UFO film that never flew (The Guardian)

Saturation 70, the exhibition, runs at the Horse Hospital in London from September 6th to 27th. More information here.

Julian Jones and his fairy godmother

Posted by Richard Metzger | Discussion
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Hell on Wheels: Vintage outlaw biker movie posters
08:45 am


Outlaw Bikers

Today’s youth culture seems quite tame when compared to the cheap thrills exhibited in this selection of outlaw biker movie posters from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Films like Twilight or (your favorite Marvel superhero here) can hardly compete with The Cycle Savages (starring Bruce Dern), Werewolves on Wheels (genius idea, though apparently the speeding lycanthropes howl and growl for a mere five minutes in this flick) or Angels: Hard As They Come, an early Jonathan Demme movie in which “Big men with throbbing machines” met their match in “the girls who can take them on.” Fnarr..Fnarr…

These films mixed Western outlaw narratives (sometimes directly lifted from other movies) with the heightened anxieties of suburban parental America and a dash of spice from some real Hell’s Angels to give it flavor. They also offered meaty roles for the likes of Bruce Dern, John Cassavetes, Alex Rocco, (the ubiquitous) Jack Nicholson, Ann-Margret, Jane Russell and even Casey Kasem, and a chance for many a young director to learn their trade. Taking a look at these posters one can almost smell the grease and gas fumes from here.
More outlaw bikers after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
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‘Symbiopsychotaxiplasm’: Mind-boggling, multilayered 1971 film is an experimental masterwork
05:29 am


William Greaves

“Are we making a movie, or are we not?” (William Greaves in Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One)

Filmmaker William Greaves recently passed away at the age 87. Greaves, an African-American, left behind a respected body of work, including award-winning documentaries that tackled issues of race. But he is perhaps known best for a movie that doesn’t address race directly. In fact, lack of direction is one of the fundamental elements of the film.

Shot in Central Park in the spring of 1968, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One at first glance appears to be a documentary about the making of a film. But what’s with the clichéd dialogue, and why are multiple actors playing the same characters? Are they shooting a film or is it a screen test? Or is the finished product going to be something else entirely? Does the director even know what he is doing? Cast, crew, and audience alike ask these questions and are left to wonder: What kind of film is this?

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One is a film within a film within a film. One camera recorded the drama Greaves was directing, while another documented the making of the movie, and a third recorded all of the action on set. A fourth camera was handled by Greaves, on occasion. All of these viewpoints are incorporated into the film at various times. If it all sounds like a formula for total chaos, it is anything but. Greaves had a master plan—he just didn’t let anyone else know about it.

Greaves went out on many a limb during the filming of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One, including the way he chose to depict his own character, which was a fictionalized version of his true self. Early on, he makes an overtly sexist comment, and then proceeds to act as a bumbling, indecisive director, one who is constantly asking others for their opinions. Greaves was surreptitiously pushing buttons, testing the concepts of power and collaboration in art and elsewhere, but his race was also a factor. In 1968, there were relatively few African-American film directors, and Greaves, by playing the fool, was baiting the cast, crew—and the audience—into making judgments based on the color of his skin.

Of the many fascinating sequences in Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One are those that show the crew meeting to theorize about the nature of the production, speculating on Greaves’ mind-set and his competence (or lack thereof) as a writer and director. There is much confusion as to what exactly is going on, yet one crewmember has a prescient view of what is happening in that moment—that their on-camera discussion concerning Greaves and his movie—is, in fact, their “function” in the film.
William Greaves creates a diversion
William Greaves creates a diversion.

To ponder too many specifics is akin to getting sucked into the rabbit hole Greaves has created, and, frankly, spoils some of the fun for a first-time viewer. The director, in notes he jotted down before cameras rolled, acknowledged the fruitlessness in outlining the project in great detail, which is also part of his modus operandi for Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One:

Refuse to give total explanation of the film! First of all, it is impossible due to its complexity. Give only as much of an explanation as will satisfy the performers and film crew. To give more will kill the truth and spontaneity of everyone.

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One was first screened in 1971, but for decades was only shown sporadically. It would take the support of two high-profile fans, Steve Buscemi and Steven Soderbergh, to finally bring the film into wide release in 2005, when it at last earned the attention and acclaim it deserves.

At one point, while filming in Central Park, Greaves is asked for the name of the movie they are making: “Over the Cliff,” he says. “We’re going over a cliff.” A director with less ability (and nerve) couldn’t have pulled-off the experiment that became Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One, but William Greaves had the confidence and skill to not only take his cast and crew, but also the audience—and the director, himself—right over that cliff.

Check out the trailer:

Then watch the entire film:

Criterion’s definitive two-disc DVD set of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One (which includes Greaves’ 2003 sequel, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take Two) is still available.

Posted by Bart Bealmear | Discussion
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‘ABCs of Death 2’: Gory, hilarious trailer with 26 ways to die, a different director for each letter
12:59 pm


Julian Barratt
Drafthouse Films

I’m not a big fan of the whole “gore” genre. Although I do harbor a fondness for Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs and The Wizard of Gore—and hey, I even saw Joel M. Reed’s hilariously gruesome Bloodsucking Freaks in an old school Times Square grindhouse (shudder)—generally speaking, modern “torture porn” movies are not my idea of a thick shake (if you’ll pardon my obscure Bloodsucking Freaks reference). Those films are goofy, camp fun, but I don’t feel like I’m missing anything having not partaken of the Saw films…

I write this by way of telling you that I have no idea what possessed me to click on the publicist’s email this morning for the latest release from the mighty Drafthouse Films, the anthology film ABCs of Death 2. I’d have thought there was nothing there for me, but I watched it, I laughed out loud and now I cannot wait to see this sucker…

Featuring 26 directors, each exploring the theme of death a letter at a time, including The Mighty Boosh’s Julian Barratt, Juan of the Dead director Alejandro Brugués, Rodney Ascher director of Room 237, animator Bill Plympton , Vincenzo Natali (Cube), twin sister horror auteurs Jen and Sylvia Soska (Dead Hooker In A Trunk), Lancelot Imasuen (star of the Nollywood Babylon doc) and many others.

ABCs of Death 2 will have its world premiere at Fantastic Fest on opening night, September 18, in Austin, TX.  The film will be available on VOD on October 2 and in theaters on October 31.

This is seriously NSFW unless you work at a morgue… and seriously funny, too.

Posted by Richard Metzger | Discussion
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The creepy fantasies that inspired John Fowles’ novel ‘The Collector’

John Fowles was a 37-year-old school teacher when his first novel The Collector was published in 1963. Though Fowles had been writing for fifteen years completing two novels and an early draft of his second book The Magus, he considered himself “unpublishable.” Then he started work on an idea about a man who kidnaps a young art student and keeps her imprisoned in the basement of his home.  Fowles wrote the book in about a month, and thinking he had nothing to lose sent the manuscript off to his agent, Michael S. Howard who liked it and passed it on to the publishers Jonathan Cape. Tom Maschler at Cape thought The Collector a powerful and impressive debut, but was concerned that Fowles (who thought of himself a “serious writer”) may damage his reputation with such a lurid and disturbing tale. Fowles was adamant—he wanted the book published under his own name.

Anyone familiar with The Collector may have wondered what inspired Fowles’ grim tale. In a letter written to Maschler in July 1962, the author explained his sources in writing the novel:

...all this came from a newspaper incident of some years ago (there was a similar case in the North of England last year, by the way). But the whole idea of the woman-in-the-dungeon has interested me since I saw Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, which was before the air-raid shelter case.

Film poster for ‘The Collector’ starring Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar, 1965.
The news story Fowles mentioned concerned “a man who had kidnapped a girl and imprisoned her for several weeks in an air-raid shelter at the bottom of his garden.”

While the musical reference Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle (1911) told the story of Duke Bluebeard who warns his new bride Judith not to open any of the seven doors in his castle. Impelled by curiosity, Judith opens each of the seven doors finding behind the first a torture chamber and behind the last, the ghosts of Bluebeard’s previous wives.
Terence Stamp as butterfly collector Frederick Clegg.
However, there was far darker, more personal and disturbing inspiration for the novel, which Fowles explained in his journal entry for February 3rd, 1963:

The Collector. The three sources.

One. My lifelong fantasy of imprisoning a girl underground.

I think I must go back to early in my teens. I remember it used to be famous people Princess Margaret, various film stars. Of course, there was a sexual motive; the love-through-knowledge motive, or motif, has also been constant. The imprisoning in other words, has always been a forcing of my personality as well as my penis on the girl concerned.

Variations I can recall: the harem (several girls in one room, or in a row of rooms); the threat (this involves sharing a whip, but usually not flagellation—the idea of exerted tyranny, entering as executioner); the fellow-prisoner (this by far the commonest variation: the girl is captured and put naked into the underground room; I then have myself put in it, as if I am a fellow-prisoner, and so avoid her hostility).

Another common sexual fantasy is the selection board: I am given six hundred girls to choose fifty from and so on. These fantasies have long been exteriorized in my mind, of course; certainly I use the underground-room one far less since The Collector.

Two, the air-raid shelter incident.

Three, Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

Samantha Eggar as art student Miranda Grey.
Fowles separated The Collector into three sections, where the captor (Frederick Clegg) and his prisoner (Miranda Grey) describe the events of the book. It begins with Clegg describing the subject of his obsession:

When she was home from her boarding-school I used to see her almost every day sometimes, because their house was right opposite the Town Hall Annexe. She and her younger sister used to go in and out a lot, often with young men, which of course I didn’t like, When I had a free moment from the files and ledgers I stood by the window and used to look down over the road over the frosting and sometimes I’d see her. In the evening I marked it in my observations diary, at first with X, and then when I knew her name with M. I saw her several times outside too. I stood right behind her once in queue at the public library down Crossfield Street. She didn’t look once at me, but I watched the back of her head and her hair in a long pigtail. It was very pale, silky, like burnet cocoons. All in one pigtail coming down almost to her waist, sometimes in front, sometimes at back. Sometimes she wore it up. Only once, before she came to be my guest here, did I have the privilege to see her with it loose, and it took my breath away it was so beautiful, like a mermaid.

Clegg (Stamp) and Miranda (Egggar) in William Wyler’s film version of ‘The Collector.’
Fowles’ intention was not just to write a horror story, but to use the characters of Clegg and Miranda as conduits for his own analysis and critique of modern society, in particular his contempt for the lack of intellectual rigor in contemporary fiction—the Angry Young Men who had so forcefully invaded with John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger—and for the failure of socialism to bring equality and change to Britain:

The plot of the novel was:

1. present a character who was inarticulate and nasty, as opposed to the “good” inarticulate hero, who seems to be top dog in post-war fiction and whose inarticulateness is presented as a kind of crowning glory.

2. present a character who is articulate and intelligent—the kind of young person I try to make Miranda Grey—and who is quite clearly a better person because she has a better education.

3. attack the money-minus-morality society (the affluent, the acquisitive) we have lived in since 1951.

On its publication, The Collector was a best-seller. The paperback rights were optioned for “probably the highest price that had hitherto been paid for a first novel”.  The film rights were sold and a movie starring Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar was made in Hollywood and London directed by William Wyler.

In 1984, The Smiths used a still of Terence Stamp as Clegg from The Collector on the cover of thier single “What Difference Does It Make?” As the actor had not given permission for the image to be used, the single was quickly reissued with Morrissey copying Stamp’s original pose—though a glass of milk had replaced the chloroform.
Terence Stamp as Clegg on the cover of The Smiths single ‘What Difference Does It Make?’
Morrissey as Clegg on the reissued single.

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
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‘The Weird World of LSD’ is an unwitting beatnik masterpiece
07:01 am



Everything about The Weird World of LSD reeks of bad faith. Everyone calls this the Reefer Madness of the hippie era, and that’s certainly true, but the deadpan hysteria of the cautionary voiceover doesn’t, in the end, have the ring of sincere belief to it. For whom was this movie really intended?

What The Weird World of LSD really is is a series of brief vignettes, sans dialogue, of people ostensibly freaking out after having taken acid. A young woman from out of town turns to LSD out of loneliness and before you know it, she is playing with three kittens—as if that were perfectly legal!! Another woman loses herself in an unattended mannequin warehouse. An overweight “art dealer” helps himself to entire table heaping with food. And so on. A good many of the women in the movie are “voluptuous,” and many of the vignettes involve them taking off their clothes or generally acting out. The whole thing feels a lot like The Twilight Zone overseen by Russ Meyer.

The score is free jazz all the way, daddy-O—there’s tons of flaring flute work here, and in general it helps make the proceedings feel even more staid than the flat black-and-white camerawork would merit on its own. The premise of the movie is that LSD unleashes one’s innermost desires and fears, and also that there’s no going back—once those desires and fears are expressed, you will have no choice but to become their slave. This concept inevitably leads to a certain surrealism in the approach, and if you squint your eyes just so you can pretend that Salvador Dalí himself shot this otherwise undistinguished footage.

LSD may induce you to frolic with kittens—WHY WERE WE NOT TOLD??
Around six minutes in, a whole sequence is shot behind what looks to be a Googie McDonald’s—I suspect it’s not the famous Googie McDonald’s in Downey, California; it looks too small to be that one. I’d love to be set right on this—was this shot in Downey?

I don’t really think that The Weird World of LSD is a lost Beat masterpiece, no, but that is a pretty cogent way of getting at a movie that’s otherwise difficult to describe. If you’re throwing a party and want to throw something kooky on the wide screen TV, you could do a lot worse than this—but I wouldn’t recommend sitting through it as you would a regular movie. It might make you lose your mind…

Posted by Martin Schneider | Discussion
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‘Superstars In Concert’: Jimi, Cream, Rolling Stones, Ike & Tina Turner & more in obscure classic

When the question of “What’s the best/great rockumentary of all?” is asked, the answers can range quite widely obviously, from something like Don’t Look Back or Let It Be to The Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense (which both seem to make almost everyone’s lists) to something totally out of left field and life-affirming like Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King. I really loved the new Pulp: a Film about Life, Death and Supermarkets... and wouldn’t “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” be in the running for all-time best rockumentary? Of course it would be!

It’s an impossible question to answer, but sidestepping it somewhat, if I had to pick the best overall “time capsule” of the rock era to preserve for future generations, it would probably be Peter Clifton’s Superstars In Concert.  Also known as Rock City in a different edit, the film was directed and produced by Clifton (The Song Remains the Same, Popcorn, The London Rock and Roll Show) and is a hodge-podge compiling (mostly) his promotional short films and snippets of concert performances shot between 1964 and 1973 by the likes of Peter Whitehead (Wholly Communion, Charlie Is My Darling, Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London), Michael Cooper (who shot Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising), Ernest Vincze (the cinematographer responsible for the 2005 Doctor Who reboot) and Ivan Strasburg (Treme).

Featured in the film are The Rolling Stones (several times), Eric Burdon and The Animals, a typically demure appearance of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Otis Redding bringing the house down, Cream, Steve Winwood, Blind Faith, Cat Stevens (a stark Kubrickian promo film for his “Father and Son” single) , The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Donovan, Joe Cocker, a segment with The Ike and Tina Turner Revue that will bring a smile to your face, Pink Floyd and Rod Stewart and the Faces. Pete Townshend is seen getting in his digs at the Stones for promoting pot use, managing to make himself look like a blue-nosed twat in the process, while Mick and the boys are seen doing “Jumpin Jack Flash” in the (decidedly more evil) warpaint version of that promo film (there were two, this is the one that was NOT shown on The Ed Sullivan Show for obvious reasons) and in their promo film for “We Love You” which features Keef in a judge’s wig, Marianne Faithfull as a barrister and Mick nude wrapped up in a fur rug (a sly joke that if you don’t get, then google “Rolling Stones,” “Redlands,” drug bust, her name and “Hershey Bar.”)

Superstars In Concert came out in Japan on the laserdisc format and that’s how I first saw it, in the late 80s. Since then, other than the various clips showing up cut from the film on YouTube, it’s remained an obscurity. Apparently there was a Malaysian bootleg and then in 2003 a Brazilian magazine called DVD Total gave away the film for free with one of their issues. So far fewer than 200 people have viewed the video.

DO NOT miss what’s perhaps the most intense version of Pink Floyd’s “Careful with That Axe Eugene” ever captured on film. This entire film is absolutely amazing from start to finish, but it jumps off the scale during that part (Otis Redding is no slouch, either!) I highly recommend letting it load first before you hit play, otherwise it’s kind of flickery. If you wait a while, it doesn’t hang up and looks and sounds great.

Posted by Richard Metzger | Discussion
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‘The Balcony’: Peter Falk, Leonard Nimoy & Shelley Winters frolic in Jean Genet’s twisted whorehouse

The Savage Eye was an early example of American cinema vérité that began as a film project worked on (over several years at weekends and days off) by three friends Ben Maddow (famed and award-winning screenwriter of Asphalt Jungle amongst many others), Sidney Meyers (radical film-maker and documentarian), and Joseph Strick (successful businessman and ambitious film-maker). Their movie mixed social documentary and drama that told the story of one woman’s (low) life in big, anonymous, brash, modern Los Angeles. It became a major hit at the Edinburgh Festival and won the trio a BAFTA—the equivalent of a British Oscar—in 1960. Encouraged by the film’s success, Strick sought out another project to work on.

He tried and failed to option James Joyce’s Ulysses, a project he had long cherished, though he would eventually film Ulysses with Milo O’Shea in 1967, and later produce and direct the big screen adaptation of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with Bosco Hogan and John Gielgud in 1977. Having failed on a first attempt with Ulysses, Strick approached Friedrich Dürrenmatt to option his play The Visit—in which a woman offers her home village money and success at the cost of killing her ex-boyfriend—but was also knocked back. He then approached Jean Genet and asked to option the film rights to his highly controversial play The Balcony. This time he was successful.
Jean Genet.
The Balcony is a brilliant and often disturbing drama, hailed as either the play that re-invented modern theater or the first great piece of French Brechtian theater—take your pick. Set in a high-class whorehouse situated in some unnamed city during an apparent bloody revolution, the play works as a metaphor for the different classes and corrupt structures of society. Genet wrote the first version of The Balcony (and a first version of The Blacks) in the spring and summer of 1955. Over the next ten years, Genet constantly wrote and rewrote The Balcony and between 1955 and 1961 he published five different versions. (There are some—like the play’s editor Marc Babezat—who believe Genet destroyed the script through his incessant revisions.)

In his introduction to the first version of The Balcony, Genet explained the drama’s story:

This play has as its object the mythology of the whorehouse. A Police Chief is infuriated, chagrined, to notice that at the ‘Great Balcony’ there are many erotic rituals representing various heroes: the Abbe, the Hero, the Criminal, the Beggar—and others besides—but alas, never he Police Chief. He struggles so that his own character will finally, through an exquisite act of grace, haunt the erotic daydreams and that he will thereby become a hero in mythology of the whorehouse.

Though Genet claimed he had no interest in films (“Cinema does not interest me”), he agreed to Strick’s offer to produce a movie version of The Balcony. Edmund White in his biography of Genet described the original meeting between French playwright and American film-maker:

Strick first encountered Genet in Milan, where Genet had reserved rooms in two different hotels ‘in case he had to reject my idea—he’s that sensitive,’ said Strick. Genet had seen one of Strick’s earlier films The Savage Eye, the story of a sad, recently divorced woman and her view of the seedy side of California life. Genet instructed Frechtman to speak to Strick for him: ‘Tell him that a lot of the images in his film touched me, but that the plot construction, the under-pinning appeared to me very weak. He doesn’t prove to us that this woman has changed at the end of the film. Now, a film adapted from The Balcony needs a very solid structure. Who will provide?’

While Strick stayed in the luxurious Hotel Negresco, Genet preferred a ratty hotel he called the Horresco. He was clean and neat but always dressed in the same corduroy trousers, turtleneck sweater and black leather jacket. Genet wrote a long treatment, a detailed description of the action without dialogue. Two stumbling blocks were the character Roger’s self-castration, and the whole end of the play, which is not well integrated with the preceding scenes. In the final version the castration was indeed removed. Genet worked four hours a day. Strick wanted Genet to do a shooting script and promised to follow every shot, but Genet didn’t want to invest any more time in the project. He latter told Marianne de Pury that he found the collaboration very irritating. He was still working on The Screens. He did accept, however, the idea that The Balcony should take place in a film studio and not a whorehouse.

Peter Falk as the Police Chief and Shelley Winters as Madame Irma in Strick’s ‘The Balcony’.
Ben Maddow was then employed to write the final script. The movie was then shot a very low budget, with the actors all working for minimum wage. Strick originally wanted Barbara Hepworth as Madame Irma, but she refused working for a minimum fee. Strick therefore approached the Hollywood star Shelley Winters to play the madame. Peter Falk, in only his second movie, agreed to play the Chief of Police, while future Mr. Spock, Leonard Nimoy played the role of Roger. Ruby Dee reprised her stage role as one of the prostitutes. Though considerably tamer than the Genet’s play, Strick still manages to maintain much of the play’s integrity. However, critics were mixed on the film’s release, with some papers, like The New York Times—quelle surprise—hating it. Watching it now, Strick made a bold and brave venture of a difficult and powerful drama.

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
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