Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films (And/Or Other A/V Items), Round 1

Jeannine Kaspar in Paper Covers Rock.

Welcome to a revival of the shortlived Forgotten Films roundelay a few of us were engaged with a few years back...now more or less formally expanded to include television and other audio/visual artifacts...and what a wealth of artifacts and formats and delivery systems we have, and sometimes no longer have.

I hope to have a weekly example or so of my own, and as many citations of examples of the insufficiently appreciated as others wish to share, every Tuesday. I will post links to their blogs (and specifically to their relevant posts) when possible, and will post any contribution that blogless folks wish to make on my blog, if they like...very much in the mold of the ongoing Friday's Forgotten Books, hosted by Patti Abbott, and the monthly (last Wednesday) Forgotten Music, hosted by Scott Parker.

The following folks have a post up today:
Bill Crider: Condemned
Eric Peterson: Boiling Point
Evan Lewis: Metropolis
James Reasoner: SOS Coast Guard
Jerry House: Loose Shoes
Juri Nummelin: The Murder Maze
K.A. Laity: Straight to Hell
Randy Johnson: Cop Hater
Scott Parker: π
Todd Mason: The Limits of Control; Paper Covers Rock; The Exiles

and, honorarily:
Dan Stumpf: The Night of the Eagle and other adaptations of Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife
Pearce Duncan: on the directorial career of Orson Welles
...but the more the merrier (and these links will be refined at first opportunity.

Now, the range of audio/visual materials for which we don't have easy access any longer is pretty large, and beyond even the lost films and television and radio, whose original prints or recordings were discarded or allowed to deteriorate, when any recording was made at all. While the Internet Archive is just one (and perhaps the most impressive) of the sites on the web that can help ferret out any number of materials hart to get at in any former otherwise (comparable in its excellence and in its necessary incompleteness to the likes of Project Gutenberg), there's so much still only accessible in orphaned formats (up to and including the 33 RPM LP and 16 RPM talking book vinyl discs)...among the supposed facts that used to boggle my young mind was the number of early recordings in the Library of Congress, and presumably collected elsewhere as well, with, as the Guinness Book put it, "no known matrix." I suspect at least a few engineers are working on those...

For another example of Stuff You Probably Don't See Much Of Any Longer: ViewMaster. Now, there's a thriving collectors market, aided like most such by eBay and its competitors over the years, but the new ViewMaster offers for sale the last time I was around a VM display were very sorry, indeed...which I suspect indicated the worsening fortunes of the retail outlet almost as much as the downgraded state of VM in a video and console-game age, with animated 3D still problematic but available. But the beauty of at least some the nature and science packs (VM typically sold its slide discs in three-packs), and the mild (or not so mild) joy of some of the entertainment packs, at least if one was capable of enjoying that kind of photography, was hard to deny (I did throughly enjoy the clay artistry of some of the Peanuts cartoon adaptations). And, of course, that sort of stereo photography wasn't just useful for the entertainment and instruction of children: my only college roommate was a studio art and pre-med major, and as such brought home discs of autopsy photos...a corpse missing a mandible was among the most disturbing images I'd seen to that time. And in dead, nearly palpable color.

The 1970s and the decade before were probably the ViewMaster's heyday, and that of other slide-based toys (I certainly had others, less impressive than VM), and the widespread availability of William Castle's organization's silent 8mm film highlights reels from horror and adventure films, and from his travelog short subjects. And, also, there was no lack of investment, on the part of several small spoken-word record labels, such as Caedmon, Spoken Arts and Argo, in not only readings by authors of poetry and prose, and actors, but also full-cast audio staging of plays; Caedmon particularly would arrange them on three- and four-LP sets so that one could put them on a stacker, and disc one would have side one, then disc two would drop with side two, and on a three disc set one would flip over the stack after side three on disc three and eventually finish with side six on disc one. Tough on the records, but very easy on the listener with the tall spindle on their turntable. Spoken Arts's full-play recording I remember best was their staging of Edward Albee's The Zoo Story, but it'd be hard to recall all the plays I heard through Caedmon Records; they included O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, Mourning Becomes Electra, and an excellent Ah, Wilderness!; Williams's The Glass Menagerie; my favorite of Miller's plays, Incident at Vichy; Sartre's No Exit; Cocteau's The Infernal Machine; the Peter Weiss/Peter Brook Marat/Sade; and many more, including Shakespeare and Sophocles...only the American Film Theater complete soundtracks, such as of Ionesco's Rhinoceros with Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, were likely to disappoint, in part due to the rushed nature of the productions and in part due to the fact that they were soundtracks to filmed plays that might, in many cases, depend even more than the Caedmon-staged productions on their visuals rather than dialog and sound effects. HarperCollins, who now own the Caedmon catalog, have done a remarkably poor job of getting it back out on the market.

And all that (nostalgia) doesn't even take into account all the nationally-broadcast radio drama one could find in the US in the 1970s, I'd guess at least twice as much as in the '60s, when matters had dwindled to the last two CBS series, Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar ending in 1962, Bob and Ray continuing largely as a part of NBC's weekend Monitor umbrella, and some Pacifica Radio productions. While few series were consistently good among the new series from CBS and the new NPR, Pacifica (which shared the Firesign Theater with "underground"/free-form commercial rock stations at the turn of the '70s) and such projects as the ZBS production and syndication unit, there certainly was a ferment, ranging from such long-running series as the CBS Radio Mystery Theater and Earplay (and Christian radio's Unshackled) to a new series of full-length Bob & Ray shows and The National Lampoon Radio Hour, Rod Serling's Zero Hour through The Sears Radio Theater to The Fourth Tower of Inverness...and such British and Canadian imports as The Lord of the Rings, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, (1980's) Nightfall and such kids' fare as The General Mills Adventure Theater and the NPR Star Wars adaptations.

Tilda Swinton and Isaach De Bankolé in The Limits of Control

But most of the contributions to this weekly list are likely to be cinematic and television (and perhaps increasingly web) presentations, and I've got some of those to briefly discuss, too (believe it or not, given all the above). I haven't been exploring too many of the really obscure corners of these arts, recently, but I'd like to draw your attention to at least The Limits of Control (2009), a typically beautifully-shot, extremely deliberate, funny and not altogether vague Jim Jarmusch film, which involves characters involved in a conspiracy that borders on the edge of crime and espionage, and has a weight and thoughtfulness that can easily be taken, by the likes of Rotten Tomatoes reviewers, for excruciating pointless pretense. I'd disagree, of course...I think the point is pretty clearly spelled out in the title, for all the characters and for the larger forces around them. If you want more traditional thrills amidst an attempt to add some weight and humanistic wit to spy drama, you might want to check out the similarly good A Few Days in September (briefly mentioned in yesterday's reprinted list) with Juliette Binoche as a spy-master thrust into trying to keep the young-adult children of one her ex-colleagues alive long enough for him to reunite with them, or the slightly more clownish, but still impressive Fay Grim, the sequel to Henry Fool I half-liked upon first viewing, and liked much better upon the second viewing...again, Parker Posey's Grim is forced into a ridiculously complicated situation while simply attempting to see her spy husband again, and does her damnedest to try to make sure as few as possible of the people around her get killed while she attempts this.

Paper Covers Rock (2008) is a pretty grim film, even in comparison to Limits, featuring Jeannine Kaspar as a woman attempting to pull her life back together, after falling into a trough of suicidal depression and being hospitalized for it; we join her, and see all the interpersonal and other obstacles she has to face, and good and not so good people close to her, sometimes supportive and too often insufficiently-so, and how her behavior can trigger them as well as vice verse. Very well-acted and absorbing, and worth the time.

More alienated than actually downbeat, the characters in The Exiles (1961) are from various Native American nations, mostly first-generation escapees from the reservations, who are mostly not doing so well in lives spent in and around the now-vanished Los Angeles largely-native-ghetto Bunker Hill. Made with almost no money with a mostly amateur cast, and meant as a document of the players' actual lives or at least those of their peers, it has post-filming-recorded sound, and a lack of throughline-plot that would presumably enervate those who find The Limits of Control pointless, as it follows the adventures, such as they are, of relatively young adults through the course of a night in the city. Nonetheless, the utter lack of slickness helps the film, in part in the same way that many better no-budget films have a certain fascination for the viewer, as you can see how the desired effect was almost achieved, or achieved in spite of the handicap; the amateur cast isn't put through the kind of ridiculous paces that one finds in such films as Kids, but instead seem to be doing their best to represent the Way We Live in that Today. This film might even be the least obscure of the three I'm highlighting here, as a "lost" film, from its completion by newly graduated USC Film School student Kent MacKenzie in '61 till a revival, with much attendant publicity, in 2008. And, personally, it was very striking that the women in the film looked a whole lot like my aunts, who are, oddly enough, like my mother in being Italian/Cherokee/Irish, but my mother the most Milanese-looking by far among her gen, and the rest of the family much more strongly Cherokee in features, when not also complexion.

I saw these films in those utterly obscure venues, respectively cable channels Showtime, IFC, and TCM...cable does have its uses, still (quite aside from upgrading the budget and showcase of the likes of Children's Hospital). I look forward to what others have to suggest for us, today and in the weeks to come...and please feel free to join in (and please let me know, in comments or via email, that you've done so! Thanks).


David Cranmer said...

I'm glad to see you starting Overlooked Films up again. Most of my film viewing these days comes from suggestions of fellow Bloggers and this will be helpful. I will try to be involved next time around. Thanks for the invitation, sir.

C. Margery Kempe said...

Hee! I aim to do this but I have to take care of a few things first, it being the first day of classes and despite the weather, no cancellation of classes. But no, not Figgis.

If anybody wants Hotel just ask me: it's all yours.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks, folks! I look forward to your contributions, today or later...and though Kate will disagree (though perhaps not quite categorically), you can do worse than HOTEL (such as SOME LIKE IT HOT, he notes heretically).

Hope the ice isn't too bad up there, Kate...it's starting to go all slush here, but only starting.

C. Margery Kempe said...

Right -- done!

C. Margery Kempe said...

I'll probably do Tony Hanock next week, just to make up for this.


Todd Mason said...

Sounds good! Well, Cox did do one almost inarguably good film, in REPO MAN (the one a.i. good film in the Emilio Estevez c.v., too)...and this one is Notable. There are Lots of interesting bad films I might address in future installments...

Richard R. said...

I'm not participating in any contributory way but I will mention that a very forgotten film I really liked and saw many times was DAVID AND LISA.

Todd Mason said...

Well, Richard, you could write it up! Janet Margolin certainly seemed to drop off the radar in the '70s, and I now wonder why (I will resist the temptation to note she was a pearl). It was also interesting to see Kier Dullea in that film, for the first time when I was a youngster, after essentially only having seen him in 2001...

Evan Lewis said...

By adding OTR, recorded drama and even Viewmaster to the mix, we should have no end of material. Thanks for hosting, Todd!

Todd Mason said...

I thought I'd limn a few outliers for folks. There're so many media...and so many orphaned media...and so many (such as interactive electronic gaming) that I barely interact with. You're welcome, and thank you for being the first participant, Evan!

Todd Mason said...

And, Evan, congratulations on winning the Robert Fish Memorial Award from the Mystery Writers of America! (Robert Fish specialized in part in humorous short fiction, though also wrote the likes of the source novel for the film BULLITT, and one of Evan's stories has just been tagged as the 2011 winner.)

C. Margery Kempe said...

I think Sid & Nancy is a terrific film (despite factual errors that drive me crazy because they can't be bothered to learn anything about Nancy, so beholden as they are to the glorification of Sid and the visual "facts" -- yeah, good on you, the sweatband is just like the one Sid had in Mr. Mike's Mondo Video [another possibility for TOF, eh?]).

And the record for longest parenthetical comment goes to --

Todd Mason said...

In this blog, that's the soul of brevity, Kate. And, indeed, the (cut and) print the legend approach to SID AND NANCY is offputting to me.

Man, I could use some sleep, and yet there's an FFB to write...Evan, whose first pro story won the Fish Award as noted above, will be hosting FFBs tomorrow while Patti scopes out seallife off the coast of Cali...

Iren said...

Todd-- I am planning to have film post's every other tuesday this year, feel free to link to any that catch your fancy. The first one was Boiling Point, and this Tuesday will be The Outfit.

Todd Mason said...

Will do.

Libby Cudmore said...


Just found your comment on Record of the Month . . . I would love to join your merry band, and will link you from my site too. Thanks, and let me know what I can do!