May 28, 2009 § 1 Comment
May 26, 2009 § 8 Comments
Felix Adler was a prodigious comedy writer whose career aligned brilliantly with the rise of the film industry. Coming out of vaudeville in the teens, Adler began as a title writer for Mack Sennett and wrote scripts for silent films throughout the 20’s. His first big hit as a screenwriter came in 1929, with Harold Lloyd’s “Welcome Danger.”
Working steadily through the 1950’s, Adler wrote for Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and–most famously–The Three Stooges. “Scrambled Brains,” Adler’s 1951 Stooges vehicle, was said to be Larry’s favorite. Adler worked at Columbia Pictures’ Short Subject Department from 1935 to1957, first as a staff writer and then as its head until the division was closed in ’57.
By his death in 1963, Adler’s career had spanned the film industry’s first 40 years as well as the first decade of television. Yet until I started doing interviews for my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” I had never heard of him.
I began looking into Adler’s life when two of my interviewees spoke at length about him. The first was Marcella Meharg, who lives in his former house on Beachwood Drive. Apparently Adler’s retirement from Columbia, though brief, was far from golden. Marcella’s mother, who bought Adler’s house from probate, found a sheaf of sad job-hunting letters he had written to studios and apparently never mailed. The hillside behind the house was littered with the empty whiskey bottles that Adler had tossed there. Another interviewee, Harry Williams, told me about Adler’s remarkable memory for old songs, his role in founding the Friars Club and his consumption of a fifth of Scotch each night, which Harry delivered to his door.
Despite his unhappiness at leisure, Adler was a beloved Beachwood character. A jovial neighbor, he gave money to children and invited passing residents to stop in for a drink on their way to and from the market. Too gregarious to sit at home, he passed his days at the Village laundry, amusing the clientele as they washed their clothes. His poignant retirement ended when he died, of stomach cancer, in the Motion Picture Home in 1963.
The irony of sharing a name with two vastly more famous Felix Adlers–the Jewish intellectual who founded of the Society for Ethical Culture and “The King of Clowns”–probably wasn’t lost on the Felix Adler who wrote films called “Block-Heads” and “A Chump at Oxford,” and was a charter member of the Friars Club. But it did consign him to a curious posthumous obscurity. When I started searching for photos of him, I found nothing–not a single image of a man who had spent four decades in Hollywood, the mecca of headshots. It was incredible.
Finally a search of the photo archives at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences turned up two, both from the 20’s:
- Having no idea what Adler looked like, I was glad to be able to attach a face to the stories. Although I would have liked a photo of him as an older man, it’s fitting that the only two images I found are from the same era but so different. Like the Greek masks of comedy and tragedy, Adler shows his serious and comic sides. He also looks like someone you might like to know.
May 22, 2009 § 50 Comments
One of the great pleasures of making documentaries is interviewing someone who not only remembers great swaths of the past but is able to provide some perspective on them. Such a interviewee was Milt Entwistle, Peg’s brother, who at 90 vividly recalled his bucolic childhood in Beachwood Canyon as well as its Depression Era privations.
I had heard of Peter the Hermit, a Beachwood resident who during the 20’s and 30’s made his living impersonating a Biblical character on Hollywood Boulevard, where he posed for photographs with tourists. He was a legend. But Milt actually knew him and was able to report that Peter didn’t like kids. He also described the Hermit’s workday attire: long gray beard, staff and white robes, as well as his omnipresent collie dog. What this getup had to do with Hollywood is unclear, but to my mind proves Peter was the first to ply the tourist trade in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
Last fall, while I was waiting at Hollywood and Highland for my son and his girlfriend to meet me at a screening, I struck up a conversation with the Jack Sparrow imitator, who can be seen stalking up and down the Boulevard seven days a week. After watching Jack give balloon animals to several kids whose mothers didn’t bother to tip, I felt compelled to give him some money. I also felt compelled to tell him about Peter the Hermit. “He was the original guy in costume in front of the Chinese,” I said. Not surprisingly, Jack Sparrow hadn’t heard of his patron saint, though he listened politely to the story before asking me for a job.
The main reason Peter the Hermit didn’t make it into the documentary is that I couldn’t find a single photo of him, despite long searches on the Internet and through library collections. Even James Zeruk, Peg’s tireless researcher, couldn’t find one. A lack of photographic evidence is always a dealbreaker in documentaries, but in Peter’s case it was also hugely ironic. How could a man who posed with thousands of tourists leave behind not a single photo of himself? I imagined countless Midwestern attics hiding albums of long-ago trips to Hollywood, complete with photos of Peter, under blankets of dust. But it didn’t help me.
Then today, out of the blue, James sent me this:
This photo of Peter (and two very well-dressed, unidentified men) comes from Jeanne Ringland. She found it in the collection of her grandfather, Fred Allen Edgeworth, who worked as a still photographer for D.W. Griffiths and Mack Sennett and lived in Hollywood during the 20’s and early 30’s.
It’s always a pleasure to find an undiscovered piece of Hollywood history. Thank you, Jeanne and James. And thank you, Milt, for telling me about Peter the Hermit.
May 20, 2009 § Leave a comment
May 19, 2009 § 1 Comment
“Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk” was a little silent film with titles long before I incorporated the footage into my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign.” Its initial version attracted an enthusiastic audience on YouTube (I’ve since taken it down) and was seen by a researcher, James Zeruk, who in turn led me to Peg’s family. They kindly opened a treasure trove of photos and documents to me, so in the end I had no lack of biographical material. But “Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk” has taken on a life of its own; recently, I’ve made a new version and entered it in film festivals.
It’s hard to live near the Hollywood Sign without thinking about Peg. Nearly 77 years after her tragic, premature death, she is as much a part of the neighborhood as any living resident, casting a long shadow over the canyon where she lived. Long misunderstood because of her death, she was no failure. A rising young star who inspired Bette Davis to become an actress, Peg worked steadily on the stage, where she earned only glowing reviews. Her brief career faltered because of family tragedy, a disastrous marriage and the Great Depression, but her talent foretold a great future.
May 18, 2009 § Leave a comment
Once upon a time, filmmakers on the festival circuit had to obtain an application for each festival, fill it out and mail a check along with videocassette (remember those?). I’m not making this up; moreover, this was the way it was done in 2001, when I started sending out my first documentary. I can’t even remember how I obtained the applications, but I do remember the process was tedious and discouraging enough to prevent me from entering more than a handful of festivals.
How things have changed. Now there’s Without A Box, a website that allows filmmakers to fill out a standard online application used by hundreds of festivals. While the WAB application– which includes a press kit–takes some time to fill out, it only has to be done once. After that, it’s just a matter of choosing the festival and providing a credit card number before sending every conceivable bit of information about the film–including production stills–off with a single mouse click. The DVD does have to be mailed, but that’s the only manual labor involved.
This is why I find myself with two films–one long-form documentary and a short feature– entered in a dozen festivals. And why I often can be found tending my WAB web page by updating information, browsing the descriptions of upcoming festivals and pruning my watch list as I apply (or don’t apply) to new ones. If the Internet is a virtual world, Without A Box is (for the moment) my virtual home.
The only catch–besides the expense–is that not every festival is on Without A Box. The larger and older the festival, the less likely it is to want to surrender part of each entry fee to be on the WAB roster. Toronto, New York, Montreal, Venice and Deauville go their own way with online applications, while Cannes maintains some mysterious application process that apparently doesn’t involve the Internet. Recently, my filling out one of these festivals’ applications was a crawl through the gaslit streets of the misty, pre-Without A Box past. Though the application was online, the site was so much more difficult to navigate than WAB’s that I would have gotten through it faster using paper, and perhaps a quill pen.
As much as most filmmakers dread selling their wares, Without A Box has made the crucial marketing phase so much easier that it’s easy to forget how much worse things used to be. Until, of course, they apply to a festival that’s not on it. Though it’s probably unrealistic to expect the most famous festivals to put themselves on WAB, it’s not so far-fetched to imagine a WAB-inspired redesign of their applications and websites. I can dream, can’t I?
May 11, 2009 § Leave a comment
One of the certainties of documentaries is that I never feel like watching them when I’m in the heat of making them. Regardless of how things are going with my own projects, it’s safe to say the last thing I want after a long day in the editing room is to sit down with someone else’s documentary (though features and TV are generally OK).
Now that I’ve finished “Under the Hollywood Sign,” however, I’m avidly lapping up documentaries as well as features. In the past four days, I’ve seen two documentaries in theatrical release: “Every Little Step,” and “Valentino: The Last Emperor.” The former is moving in exactly the same way “A Chorus Line” was when I first saw it on Broadway. The latter, while it doesn’t quite live up to its fabulous trailer, is a fascinating portrait not only of Valentino and his partner in business and life, Giancarlo Giametti, but the dying needle trades of haute couture. “Apres moi, le deluge,” Valentino says, and anyone watching his seamstresses as they stitch yards of tiny pleats from gossamer silk (and somehow managing to add to them such details as ribbons and sequins) would have to agree. Clothes aren’t going to be made this way in the future, for anyone. And all of us–including the vast majority who will never wear couture–will be poorer for the loss of artistry.
As for features, “Star Trek” bowled me over and I couldn’t be more pleasantly surprised. Although so far removed from Trekkie concerns that I don’t recall watching an entire episode of the television series, I can hardly remember a time when “Star Trek” wasn’t playing in the background, like Greek mythology for the space age.
The new “Star Trek” is at once an homage to the television show and a welcome departure from it. While the Enterprise looks reassuringly familiar, the actors playing Kirk and Spock (Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto) surpass their elders’ performances, brilliantly reinventing their characters when they could have settled for imitation. The effect is rather like seeing in 3-D for the first time after a lifetime of reading comic books. And the nonstop action is thrilling rather than gratuituously violent.
In an era of generally dismal movies and pointless remakes, it’s wonderful to see a worthwhile film of any kind, but “Star Trek” goes far beyond worthwhile. J.J. Abrams could have easily failed in his attempt to revitalize the franchise; instead, he has succeeded so well that his previous work, including “Lost” looks wan and wooden by comparison.
May 8, 2009 § Leave a comment
Seven or eight years ago, I attended an IDA (International Documentary Association) function at which Michael Moore called on each multiplex in the country to devote one screen to documentary films. The crowd roared its approval, but Moore’s idea seemed fantastical at the time.
Even a decade ago, documentaries rarely hit the theaters; the lucky ones were shown on TV or screened occasionally at colleges and art house theaters in large cities, while the rest were seen in festivals, if at all. Except in Los Angeles and New York, where documentary series were shown in museums and guild theaters, moviegoers simply didn’t have the chance to see documentaries, including the ones that won Academy Awards.
How times have changed! A few years ago, I saw “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” in a packed house and realized the audience that used to see serious American dramas and daring foreign films–a large, well-educated group no longer served by Hollywood or even Europe–now watches documentaries instead. As for Moore’s challenge, Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood is currently showing “Tyson” and “Every Little Step” on two of its fourteen screens. In fact, it’s rare that Arclight isn’t showing at least one documentary. While it certainly isn’t a typical multiplex, this commitment bodes well for other theater chains that follow Arclight’s lead.
We have Michael Moore to thank for much of the increasing popularity of non-fiction films. Even though his own films aren’t actually documentaries, he has been a vocal and tireless champion of the form. The next time you see a documentary on the big screen, you’ll know whom to credit.
May 3, 2009 § 1 Comment
The recent Oshima retrospective at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood–continuing at LACMA–was a bracing reminder of the Japanese New Wave, which lasted much longer than the French one– from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s–and whose directors included Shohei Imamura, Seijun Suzuki and Hiroshi Teshigahara. Unlike their French counterparts, who mostly began as film critics, most Japanese New Wave directors came up through the studio system, serving traditional apprenticeships before rebelling against the restrained filmmaking styles of their elders (Ozu, Mizoguchi) .
No one pushed the envelope more than Oshima, who in his rejection of tasteful indirection also depicted an amoral new generation of Japanese–mods and punks, gangsters and juvies–flailing their way through life in a developing superpower. The post-war images of genteel city dwellers in the black-and-white films of Ozu give way to Oshima’s blasts of 1960s neon, bouffant hairdos and stylish outfits, showing the world just how much had changed in Japan during the 50’s.
In “Cruel Story of Youth,” a pretty, aimless high school girl takes up with a sadistic but handsome petty criminal, with predictably tragic results. In “Pleasures of the Flesh,” a besotted young university student’s obsession with his high school tutee leads him to commit murder on her behalf, a crime that renders him both a victim of blackmail and his own bottomless appetite for self-destruction.
The films take place in the Tokyo of my childhood, whose locations–Shibuya, Yoyogi, Asakusa–I recognized with delight. I was far too young to have seen any of them when they came out and it would be decades before they were available on video, so seeing them for the first time was both a relevation and a reminder of how many decades have passed since rich Japanese men aspired to big American cars (which they apparently used to cruise jailbait on the Ginza). Oshima’s characters–however stupid, violent or wrongheaded–are so vivid that the screen barely contains them; in their determination to get rich, get the girl, get revenge, they seem on the verge of bursting through the frame.
The strangest of the Oshima films I saw last weekend was “Japanese Summer: Double Suicide,” in which a hilarious, nihilistic, nymphomaniacal teenage girl hooks up with a suicidal stranger in hopes of having sex. The two wind up in a bunker of paramilitary assassins preparing for the start of a gang war. The result is an unforgettable mashup of Godot’s “Weekend,” “Waiting for Godot,” and “The Wild Bunch.” The female protagonist–ballsy, profane and unlike any other–is still making me laugh a week later.
Other directors have been compared to Jean-Luc Godard, but in this case the comparison is apt; not only do Oshima’s early films and their concerns mirror his, but both men came to filmmaking the same way, starting as critics, which made Oshima atypical in Japan and Godard typical in France. Like Godard, Oshima writes his own scripts and is a master of unexpected dialog. “She’s mute and a little crazy, but she’s nice,” says a madam about one of her prostitutes in “Pleasures of the Flesh.”
The first Oshima film I ever saw was the also the first I was aware of: “In the Realm of the Senses.” When it opened the New York Film Festival in 1976, the police shut it down; arrests were made. It caused rioting in Cannes and has never been shown in its uncensored form in Japan. When it finally came out on video in the early 90’s, I rushed out to rent it, mentioning to the cashier at Rocket Video that I had been too young to see it when it was new. “You may still be too young,” he laughed, and he had a point. What I saw was not only the first hard-core pornography of my life but also the most purely artistic film I’d ever seen, one that burned so deeply into my mind that I remember it vividly nearly two decades later. (It opened the Cinematheque retrospective, but I missed it because of a shut-down of Hollywood Blvd. for a Depeche Mode concert.)
“In the Realm of the Senses,” obsessed me for days, during which I talked about it to any adult who would listen. My tendency to ruminate on it unnerved my boyfriend at the time, who once threatened to get out of my bed if I didn’t stop describing the plot to him. (Spoiler alert: the heroine, a prostitute swept up in a amour fou, cuts off her lover’s penis and carries it around in her obi for a few days, until the police catch up with her. It’s a true story that took place in the 1930s.)
Eventually I stopped talking about the film, but I’ve never stopped thinking about its amazing power. Oshima’s psychological fearlessness, coupled with his superb visual and writing styles, are keys to his greatness. His work puts him head and shoulders above most of today’s directors, even the best of whom care more about “likeability” (both their characters’ and their own) than depicting life in all its beauty, brutality and complexity. In a time of increasingly inane and boring cinematic pablum, it’s a relief to know that–at least on DVD–there are brilliant alternatives.