In the early 1960s, advertising probably really didn’t get any more avant garde than this homage of Alain Resnais’ “mysterious” (some might say “confusing,” others “pompous”) Last Year at Marienbad, perhaps the ultimate incomprehensible “foreign film.”
Around the time of its 1961 release, Marienbad was much parodied. This seems more sincere than a lampooning, though.
This week, I’ve been wandering around DM Towers dressed like this. While it’s been fun to whack about with a 9-iron, I doubt I looked as cool (or as cheesy) as these two guys: Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H.
M*A*S*H was the first ‘X’ certificate film I sneaked into, when I was about 14. It was on a re-release with the pornographically titled The Last Hard Men, which was (disappointingly) a western starring Charlton Heston, James Coburn and Barbara Hershey. An interesting double bill that nearly explains what was good and bad about the seventies
Donald Sutherland’s big break came in Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen, when co-star Clint Walker refused to play a scene—as Sutherland explained to the Daily Telegraph:
‘...Clint Walker sticks up his hand and says, ‘Mr Aldrich, as a representative of the Native American people, I don’t think it’s appropriate to do this stupid scene where I have to pretend to be a general.’ Aldrich turns and points to me and says, ‘You — with the big ears. You do it’....It changed my life.’
“Big Ears” was born Donald McNichol Sutherland in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, in July 1935. He moved to England in the late 1950s, where he briefly studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, leaving after 9 months to start his professional career as an actor. Sutherland was soon acting in various BBC plays, and guest starring in episodes of such cult TV series as The Saint and The Avengers. Sutherland also co-starred with Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Michael Gough in the classic Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, where he played a newly-wed doctor who suspects his wife is a vampire. After a stint in repertory theater, including 2 disastrous productions, Sutherland’s career seemed stalled. The Dirty Dozen changed that.
During the 1970s, Sutherland made some of the most iconic and seminal films of the decade, including M*A*S*H (a film he originally hated), Kelly’s Heroes (which nearly cost him his life), Klute, Little Murders (a cameo), the unforgettable Don’t Look Now, The Day of the Locust (as the original Homer Simpson), 1900, Casanova, The Eagle Has Landed and National Lampoon’s Animal House.
When asked on the set of Bear Island, in 1979, if he considered himself a star, Sutherland replied that Peter O’Toole is a star, as he has that certain something, while he just makes a lot of movies. Personally, I’d beg to differ. Sutherland gives a brief history of his career, discussing the highlights M*A*S*H, working with Fellini on Casanova and the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
FEBRUARY 2013, LOS ANGELES: It’s 5pm on a lazy Sunday afternoon and I’m riding my bike home through Silver Lake Junction when I hear someone singing his heart out and playing piano. I think to myself, “This sounds eerily like Daniel Johnston from the early Stress cassettes.” The music fades as I pedal onward. “Hmm… is this as great as I think it is?” I spin my bike around and follow the music to see where it’s coming from. Lo and behold, I turn to my left and parked on the street in front of the 99¢ Only Store is a dilapidated 1980’s Ford Econoline van, the side door open revealing a very dapper, charismatic guy inside singing “49 Bye Byes” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on a beaten-up upright piano. The piano fits so perfectly within the van, it’s as if it were an accessory purchased from the dealer, its side cleverly painted with school-green chalkboard paint bearing the words “Tips Appreciated” punctuated by the upturned mouth of a smiley-face.
I immediately start rolling Super 8mm on my iPhone 5. “Do you know any Daniel Johnston songs?” I ask. “No. I love the guy and I’ve actually been called ‘the Daniel Johnston of Piano’… in the van, but I do know a lot of indie rock. I played in a pretty famous indie rock band. You ever hear of Silver Jews?” I reply, “Yes. David Berman.” He then launches into an amazing heartfelt rendition of “We Are Real” from their landmark LP American Water and proudly tells me “I’m on this record.”
I quickly learn that his name is Chris Stroffolino and he is not only a Silver Jew, but also a Ph.D. holding Shakespearean scholar and published author of no less than eight books of poetry. For reasons that are still fuzzy to me, he is disabled from a bicycle accident, walks with a cane, has recently fled San Francisco (and a relationship with a woman) and landed homeless on the streets of Los Angeles, living in this crazy van with a rescued piano that he’s ingeniously bolted to the chassis. As I listen to his patter and the music pouring out of the van it becomes clear that he is blessed and cursed with the same affliction as the subject of my documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
Flash forward to a week of spontaneous piano-driven street karaoke outside his van door: “Mony Mony” by Tommy James, “Red Rubber Ball” by The Cyrcle, “Baby It’s You” by Burt Bacharach via The Shirelles, “Lisa Says” by The Velvet Underground - the Live 1969 long version with all the cool parts, Richard Hell’s “Time,” “Stand” and “Everybody’s A Star” by Sly and The Family Stone, The Animals, Metal Circus era Hüsker Dü, obscure Lou Reed-style David Bowie on “Queen Bitch,” and Roxy Music. And my beloved early Kinks — killer Kinks covers! – all performed in the Vons Supermarket parking lot on Sunset (a fave spot of his for tips it seems). The proto-punk gem “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” “Everybody’s Gonna Be Happy” and “Dead End Street,” the lyrics all delivered with a poignancy that Ray Davies could never have imagined. Truly heart-breaking and optimistic at the same time.
Another chilly night, Chris lights off an 80’s nostalgia bomb with a set of early Replacements tunes (he’s wearing a Let It Be T-shirt under his jacket and scarf) from their first Twin/Tone LP Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash. “Hangin’ Downtown” is re-imagined as a rollicking honky-tonk ditty and the Paul Westerberg down-and-out classic “Here Comes a Regular” literally brings tears to my eyes. I had a friend with me and we agreed that singing along to these songs with Chris, while standing outside his magic van under the halogen lights, is about as much spontaneous fun as you can have in Los Angeles. I’ve always loved experiencing music outside of the traditional club venue and Chris’s street karaoke takes the performance intimacy quotient to a whole new level.
I soon discover that Chris’s talent goes beyond covers. Over the course of five evenings, I take Chris and his Piano Van up to the parking lot behind the old carousel in Griffith Park. It’s there, under the stars, in the cold, among the trees and the occasional car of teenagers looking for privacy, that I record (in the spirit of Alan Lomax’s field recordings) thirteen of his original compositions of unrequited love - songs I’ve come to adore and sing along with as much as the covers that he and I grew up listening to. “Break Up Make Up,” “Make It Rain, and “I’m Not Going Astray” sound like they’ve always been a part of my life and I credit that to our shared love of what Chris has chalked upon his van door – “Indie, Punk, Motown, Brill Building, and Velvets.”
The album will be titled The Piano Van Sessions and a few tracks are currently available on Bandcamp as well as a selection of single-take Super 8mm videos I directed which are posted on YouTube. I hope this will cause Chris’s @Piano_Van daily tweets (of his roving Pied Piper-like location) to ignite a street karaoke phenomenon.
In addition, my friend and former manager of Daniel Johnston, Jeff Tartakov, will manage Chris (the first artist he’s agreed to work with since Daniel Johnston) with the goal of getting him a proper publishing deal, a record label, and hopefully enough success so that he no longer has to live in his van.
The world of exploitation cinema is seemingly inexhaustible. Just when you think you’ve seen—or at least heard of—every grindhouse flick that the 60s, the 70s and the 80s had to offer, something so far out of leftfield, like Brazil’s Bruce Lee vs Gay Power comes onto your radar. Here’s a description of this near mythic gem from Super Strange Video:
Bruce (Adriano Stuart) discovers his parents have been murdered by a roving gang of homosexuals. Then, with his Karate kicking girlfriend along to assist him, he vows revenge on these hooligans and sets out to systematically murder them all, until street justice has been served.
It’s actually a Kung Fu comedy more than a straight-faced attempt at “Bruceploitation.” The “gays” here tend to look more like, um, vain pirates to me (and they only seem interested in girls, so maybe there was something lost in translation?)
Well this is one bobblehead I must have. Lucio Fulci’s Zombie is my all-time favorite walking dead flick and it features one of the most excruciating scenes in the history of horror movies: the big fucking splinter in the eyeball scene. Oh man.
I love the movie’s tagline: “We are going to eat you!”
The 1968 British cult film The Committee starred Manfred Mann lead singer Paul Jones (who was in Peter Watkins’ better known UK cult classic Privilege the year before) in a Kafkaesque (some might say Pinteresque) tale that also put me in mind of Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner and Albert Camus’ The Stranger with a hefty dollop of R.D. Laing thrown in for good measure.
Jones may have been the star of the film, true, but today The Committee is remembered, if it is remembered at all, for featuring some of the earliest recorded work of David Gilmour with The Pink Floyd. Originally the film was to have been scored by Syd Barrett, but when that proved impossible, Roger Waters stepped in and offered the band’s services to director Peter Sykes and producer Max Steuer.
On the Pink Floyd fansite Brain Damage, writer David King offers a brief description of what happens in the film, which was based on a dream that Steuer had turned into a short story:
Briefly, a hitchhiking draughtsman (the ‘central figure’) accepts a lift from a Mercedes-driver. Perceiving the latter to be entirely vacuous - to be ‘not really alive at all’ - the hitchhiker seizes the opportunity, when the driver is looking under the hood of the car, of using the hood to behead him. After due reflection and contemplation, he sews the head back on, at which point the driver, slightly dazed, drives off. Back at work, the draughtsman receives a summons to a mysterious Committee, the function of which is to mediate with regard to the problems of the world. The draughtsman is taken by the Director on a nighttime stroll through the grounds of the institution, and it is at this point that philosophy - the raison d’être of the film - takes center stage. Issues discussed include alienation; the assumption that all faceless committees must be hostile; and the responsibility we have to our own future self. (The head which was removed then re-attached to the driver’s body is a metaphor for the learning process - the sudden change in perspective we receive at various points in our lives.) The film ends with a wiser and more enlightened central figure, presumably able to profit from his encounter with the Committee.
Detail from Robert Crumb’s poster for ‘Louie Bluie’
Before I even knew who R. Crumb was, I was obsessed with Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel Ghost World (I know, I know, I’m in my 20s, give me a break). As per a lot of weirdo girls my age, I read the book and watched the movie religiously, eventually looking into director Terry Zwigoff’s more famous work, his documentary Crumb, which was buttressed again by my interest in comics, and my love of Zwigoff’s tone.
The root of Crumb and Zwigoff’s friendship was actually their shared love of Americana and roots music—Zwigoff played in Crumb’s string band, R. Crumb & His Cheap Suit Serenaders—so it makes sense that Zwigoff’s first project was a documentary on Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, country blues fiddler, folk artist and expert story-teller.
The movie is an absolute gem, and Armstrong’s story and music, along with Zwigoff’s genuine love of the music, really shines through.
Hugh Parker Guiler (1898–1985) was Anaïs Nin’s husband from 1923 until her death in 1977. He was a successful banker who used the name “Ian Hugo,” to keep his art and experimental filmmaking career separate from the disapproving financial world.
In 1954, “Hugo” made a short film called Bells of Atlantis, featuring Nin, who appears as a mythical queen of Atlantis, reading from her 1936 surrealist novella House of Incest and an electronic music soundtrack courtesy of Louis and Bebe Barron (who made a similar score for Forbidden Planet two years later). Kinetic artist Len Lye also worked on the film with Guiler.
At a May 27, 1977 lecture, [Guiler/Hugo] said after screening his Bells of Atlantis... “Thank you for your kind response, which I am sure is also meant as a tribute to Anaïs Nin. I do think that this film does bring her closer to you—to her style as a poetic writer of the first order, and her presence as an extraordinarily sensitive, and warm human being. I can certainly testify personally to this through the almost 54 years that we were married, to the time of her death in January of this year.” (It should be pointed out that there was an audible gasp by the audience, since they only knew Ian Hugo as an artistic collaborator of Nin.)
“And I will add that her physical beauty seemed to glow as if from some inner light which, as I now see more clearly, enabled her to explore, day by day, ‘the lost continent within ourselves’ (a phrase by the poet Marianne Moore in referring to Bells of Atlantis). And it is only now that I fully realize how much I owed to her presence and her encouragement all those years in trying to explore my own ‘lost continent’ which I first tried to reach out to in making this film.”
Although the quality here is fairly beat—it’s all there is—just imagine how utterly visionary and weird this film would have seemed at the time it was made, contemporaneous as it was with the early work of Stan Brakhage and Kenneth Anger.