Monthly Archives: May 2010

Discovering I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale

A wonderful documentary will be premiering tomorrow night, June 1, at 8pm on HBO. It’s called I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale. Clocking in at a mere 40 minutes, it’s a profile of one of the best character actors of the 70s. Well, Hell, of all cinema.

Here’s the trailer…

I’m lucky to be friends with the doc’s director, Richard Shepard, and its editor, Adam Lichtenstein. When I saw the film at its Brooklyn premiere last August, I sent them an e-mail with my reaction, which was pretty laudatory. At the end I wrote: “PS So when is this gonna be on HBO? Maybe I’ll finally start my blog in time and put these e-mails up as a post.”

Gratefully, HBO gave me a few months to start Peel Slowly and get my sea legs. So, as I promised, here’s excerpts from that e-mail, written hours after I saw the doc and still on a high from it…

I imagine calling a film “a valentine” is something of a diss, and yet you found a way to be loving without being shameless, touching without being maudlin, and most importantly, you put Cazale on a pedestal but make us damn sure he belongs there. There isn’t one quote that isn’t supported by a clip or a still that does it justice.

This stuff is very tricky for me. I have a real problem embracing anything that scrutinizes 70s cinema. I don’t know why. That Raging Bulls, Easy Riders book, those docs from a few years ago, Stephen Bach’s book about Heaven’s Gate [Final Cut], and so on–all these things do too much of one thing or not enough of another. Adam had already forewarned me that this was NOT a doc about 70s cinema, per se, but in some nutty way, it’s probably the best thing I’ve seen that captures the importance of that era and the shift away from classic looks, classic acting, classic choices of prior decades. I have this theory that if you do it well, you can study one aspect and in turn summarize a much larger trend or period. John Cazale–and the contributions he made to those films–does that.

It’s also been a long fantasy of mine to make a doc about character actors, and I think your doc proves my point. One of these days, I’ll make that one.

The length is perfect! Perfect. I’m of the mindset that every film is too long, and every documentary is too longer. I really appreciate this film’s length, even though its probabaly excluded you from a lot of festivals and venues, right? Well, screw them. Ten minutes shorter and I’d be too hungry for more; ten minutes longer and I’d start thinking, Man, this guy’s forehead is really big!

It’ss the only time in the last 25 years I’ve thought Al Pacino was cool. Now, I’ve never been a Pacino junkie–I’m just a huge fan of some of the films he’s been and his contributions to them–so the fact that he’s evolved into this Patron Saint of Overacting bores me to tears. He bears no resemblance to the guy in the films you reference. So, coming into this doc, I was already prepared to take him with a grain of salt. And sure enough, there his is: bushy hair, leather shirt (OK, I don’t know if it was leather, it just seems to me that that’s what he wants to wear), husky voice (which I think is fake). And miraculously, for all of his praise he never ONCE sounds like he’s bullshitting. He seems unable to top himself in praise of his old buddy, and it always feels genuine. He still looks like an asshole (to me) but clearly isn’t. And I think there’s two men to thank for that: John Cazale and Richard Shepard. A really well-prepared and genuine interviewer can bring the best out of people, encourage them to shrug off the pat answers, and let their guard down.

I’m really grateful you made this film.


Though you might not believe it from what you just read, I do have a gripe about the film—one crucial clip that I felt was missing—and so I’ve decided to post it here. (Consider it a tease for the doc.) It’s the “banana daiquiri” exchange from The Godfather, Part 2, when Michael and his brother Fredo are talking over drinks in Cuba:

A man, helpless and out of his element, asks his kid brother for some help, and the brother gently responds, with good humor. Sweet and subtle (two words I don’t normally associate with either Godfather film). To me, it’s the films’ best positive example of the transference of big brother/little brother status. (As opposed to the negative example, which is, of course, Fredo hugging Michael around the waist, while sitting in the chair.) It’s a perfect example of actors feeding off each other (which is discussed at length in Shepard’s doc). It also may be Michael’s lone likable moment in the film, and therefore Coppola really needed it to be there. (If you’d like to see the whole scene, I posted that as well.)

Interestingly, there’s a version of the screenplay for The Godfather, Part 2 (labeled “SECOND DRAFT”) that doesn’t have this scene at all. When it entered the shooting schedule is a mystery, but it’s a huge contribution to the notion that Fredo is the real heart of that film (if I remember correctly, this notion is discussed in the Cazale doc).

Anyway, regarding Richard Shepard’s documentary, It Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale…see it.


Filed under Film, Trailer

Farewell, Dennis Hopper

For some final thoughts, I acquiesce to this wonderful and moving piece
by Matt Zoller Seitz.
It’s a love letter straight from his heart.

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Filed under Film, R.I.P.

Links to Go

Time for my first Links Roundup. (I’ll need to come up with a clever name then Links to Go. Link Slowly, maybe?)

Links for the Day: Sex and the City 2 Edition. It’s cheating to link to the links page on another blog, but did a sex-tacular job of assembling many of the best online slams on Sex and the City 2, a film quickly becoming the Showgirls of the new millennium. It also includes a very funny sketch from SNL, with Christine Aguilera doing a spot-on Kim Cattrall impersonation.

Celebrate the me (and you) yet to come. I’ve had a profile of the original Fame (1980) on my to-blog list for a while, but this post might make mine unnecessary. Edward Copeland’s sharp analysis summarizes “this may be an Alan Parker film, but inside a Robert Altman film is trying to break out,” which I couldn’t agree with more.

Happy Birthday, John Wayne! Vincent Price wasn’t the only legend to celebrate a birthday this week. Sheila O’Malley writes at length about the Duke, gathering a ton of interesting and varied quotes and clips. A great thing to read if you, like me, got your hands on the just-released pure-killer, no-filler Criterion Collection Stagecoach DVD. (Jesus, that DVD has a great cover.)

KCRW’s The Business, with Kim Masters. I recently got hooked on this industry-insider podcast about film and TV. These 30 minutes episodes go down like candy, featuring keen observations about the latest trends that are driving us crazy (i.e. the cost of 3-D movie tickets). Smart. Funny. I liked this one in particular, which includes in-depth interviews with the credited screen-writers of Battlefield Earth, the L. Ron Hubbard-written John Travolta sci-fi flick that was voted the Worst Film of the Decade.

The Bachelor & The Bobby Soxer. is subtitled “Motion Picture Commentary,” and blogger Kartina Richardson posts clips from films that are sweetened with her own commentary track, such as this post about the Cary Grant/Myrna Loy/Shirley Temple comedy. I don’t know who else is posting homemade audio commentaries, but it’s a great idea. It’s something I might try one of these days; until then, check out this sight where she provides opinion and insight into films as diverse as Terrence Malick’s Badlands and Hans Christian Andersen with Danny Kaye.

Have a great weekend! I’ll be back next week with some praise for the praise-worthy documentary It Was You, John: Rediscovering John Cazale, premiering on HBO next Tuesday.

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Vincent Price Can “Dig It!”

The charming and always-cool Vincent Price turns 99 today (well, not on our Earthly plane, but somewhere he’s turning 99).

Besides the endless entertainment he gave me as a kid and teenager—in horror films such as The Tingler; as host of PBS’s Mystery!; as Egghead on TV’s Batman (above); and, of course, as the ghoulish promoter of the Shrunken Head Apple Sculpture kit—he capped everything off with his song-stealing cameo on Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

So here’s a curio that’s included on the 2001 edition of that LP. It’s Vincent Price’s VO session for the song, including a verse cut from the final version! What better way to celebrate the man’s special day!

This print ad for the Shrunken Head Apple Sculpture kit was drawn by Mad magazine’s Mort Drucker!

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“For God’s sake, buy this house!”

The house that was (is?) possessed is up for sale. In the 70s, this Dutch Colonial chilled the hearts of millions, first through the book The Amityville Horror and then via the 1979 blockbuster of the same name.

Anybody who lived through that decade will vouch that the whole thing was a freakin’ phenomenon. Jay Anson’s book was incredibly successful. It’s also, in a word, garbage. Written on a third-grade reading level, it has a font so big you’d swear it was published by Scholastic Books. Anson’s use of exclamatory sentences make him sound like a housewife describing a horror movie over the phone. (Here’s two of my favorite “shocking” moments, here! and here!) Irregardless, the book sold millions of copies.

Thanks to the book’s Da Vinci Code-like popularity, the film had tons of hype. My mother, brother and I were in the audience opening weekend, July 1979, and I’ll vouch for the communal vibe. (When that cat scared James Brolin, I felt the whole theater jump.) It was BIG.

I guess there was something low-rent about the Lutzes that tapped into a collective vein. They weren’t ambassadors living abroad (The Omen); they weren’t movie stars (The Exorcist); they didn’t live in an awesome Upper West Side apartment (Rosemary’s Baby). No, they were a struggling family who’s suburban home was tearing them apart. Babysitters were tortured, the basement was a gateway to Hell, and the walls bled. All of that scared the fuck out of me.

Shit, I still get upset if I look at the clock in the middle of the night and it’s 3:15. Don’t you? (Honestly, until I was a teenager, I didn’t even like 3:15 in the afternoon.)

So, what’s my Amityville Horror story?

Labor Day weekend, 1992. It was the middle of the night, and I was lost in the middle of Long Island. As is the case with most men driving lost at two in the morning, it was because of a woman. (Let’s leave it at that.) I’d been groping my way, town to town, for a couple of hours, looking for a bar or a diner to pass some time or get my bearings, and saw a sign welcoming me to Amityville.

Finally, my night had a purpose. First, I drove down side streets, certain I could find the house out of sheer geekdom. Once I gave up on that, I found a 7Eleven. Walking in, I said, “Excuse me. I’m looking for—“

“Head down this street three lights.” the bored guy behind the counter said instantly. “Make a right there onto Ocean Avenue, and go two blocks. It’s four houses after that, on your left.”

Wow, I thought, popular place. A few minutes later I was there, my generation’s 1313 Mockingbird Lane. In the dark, it was pretty unspectacular, but I was still scared. Naturally, I wanted to see the windows, aka the Devil’s Eyes, but didn’t dare sneak onto the property. I didn’t want Satan—or the Amityville police—to kick my ass.

Cautiously, I checked my watch. 2:45am. Whew. If it had been 3:15, I would have wet my pants. Speaking of which, I needed to pee like a gladiator, so I relieved myself next to the garbage cans in front of the house. Of course, in the dark, some of that made it onto the cans themselves, which prompted me to say, “Hey, I’m pissing on Satan’s garbage!”

Infantile I know, but what would you do outside a bona fide haunted house?


And now for the requisite clips. First, the “tour” scene from the film. This happens in the first few minutes. Prior to this, we know a young man killed his family in the house, but we didn’t see it happen. Now, George and Kathy Lutz are seeing the house, as prospective owners. Thanks to the combination of hard cuts, jarring music and sound effects, this sequence has always scared the bejesus out of me.

Secondly, I think Lalo Schifrin’s score, with its choir of children’s voices, is as effective as the scores for The Exorcist and The Omen. (Yep, it was running through my head while I pissed in the streets of Amityville.) Here’s the theme song.

The Amityville Horror – Main Theme (2:27, right-click to download)


So, quick, drum up 1.15 million bucks and this could be you…

But just remember one thing…


Filed under Film

Joe Louis and the Opera of Losing

Just a trifle today to take us into the weekend. I saw this clip in an HBO doc about boxer Joe Louis and have never been able to shake its “Italian-ness.”

In December 1947, Joe Louis defended his heavyweight title against Jersey Joe Walcott. The judges decided in Louis’s favor and the giveaway to everyone in Madison Square Garden is when the announcer says, “…and still the Heavyweight Champion…” What really caught my eye in this clip are Walcott’s poor cornermen, who had a lot riding on this fight as you can imagine.

Here’s the announcement, twice in quick succession—check out the small guys in the upper left, the moment they hear the word “still”:

Are these the Most Italian Men Ever? (Being very Italian myself, I know I’ve reacted to things this way on occasion.) It really makes it clear how high the stakes were for everyone.

Anyway, have a great weekend!

Poor guys

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Filed under Plucked from Obscurity

“Jesus Christ! That’s Henry Fonda!”

On face value (literally), Henry Fonda’s always been perceived as an upstanding kinda guy. A decent everyman. It’s what prompted director John Ford to cast him as a young Abraham Lincoln and as Tom Joad. Thanks to his trustworthy puss, director Sidney Lumet cast him in Fail Safe as the President of the United States—a good one.

But one director shrewdly took the opposite approach: In 1968, Italian director Sergio Leone asked Fonda to play the heavy in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Casting against type is nothing new, but it’s normally something more facile, such as casting a brute in a soft-spoken role (think Ernest Borgnine in Marty). What Leone does with Fonda, however, is take a face the audience has trusted for thirty years and subvert it. It’s more than a face, actually, it’s a projection of American values such as trust and honor.

Here’s two clips. One is the Fonda’s opening scene in Once Upon a Time in the West (truncated), where he kills a whole family (how’s that for subverting the audience’s expectations?). The other clip is his 1975 appearance on Michael Parkinson’s UK talk show where he explains why he got the role. He also (humorously) re-enacts the scene from the Leone film.

(Within the context of Once Upon a Time in the West, this scene is about 15 minutes in. We’re introduced to a small family having a pleasant enough dinner outside. That’s where the clip begins.)


Filed under Film

David Byrne Explores Your Mind

David Byrne’s been a hero of mine for going on twenty-five years now. His music, art and approach to life have had an incalculable impact on me. I’ve seen him around town a couple of times (he’s a street-friendly New Yorker), but only met him once, oh so long ago.

Friday, January 26, 1996. I was getting ready for yet another night shift as an assistant sound editor. The graveyard shift. I packed some CDs in my backpack, tossing in my latest acquisition: 1974’s Al Green Explores Your Mind. A great, great soul record, which inexplicably came with two copies of the CD cover.

Before I left for work, I saw in the Village Voice that there was a 6:30 screening of Youth of the Beast, a 1963 film by Seijun Suzuki, at the Japanese Society, on the East Side of Manhattan. I decided to see that and go into work later, which would make it an especially late night, but at least I’d see a cool film.

As I was sitting in the half-filled theater, waiting for the film to begin, I noticed David Byrne sitting a few rows ahead of me. No way! I thought. Awesome. I love this town!

But then he began turning around and staring at me. A lot. I was kinda unnerved because, well, he can look a little creepy. Finally I realized he was just checking out the Japanese lady sitting behind me. (Whew.)

After the film, I paced myself to leave when he did and got his attention on the stairwell leaving the building. He was cordial, and I spent most of my time thanking him and apologizing for taking up his time. I reached into my bag and gave him a VHS copy of my short film In Person (which I carried around NYC waiting for a moment exactly like this one) and asked for an autograph. He said, “Sure,” and while he looked for a pen in his bag, I looked for something for him to write on.

As luck would have it, I remembered my spare CD cover on the Al Green CD. Y’see, it wasn’t just any Al Green CD; no, it was the one with “Take Me to the River” on it, a tune Talking Heads covered in 1978! He smiled when I asked him to sign it and he too saw the irony. A beat later, he pulled a Sharpie out of his bag and said in that David Byrne kind of way—somewhere between naïve and scared, with a smile—“Look! It’s green!”

Check it out…

All in all, a great meeting. Was it my best one with a rock and roll star? Well, there was the time Iggy Pop told me I was “so cool!” but that will have to wait for another post.

Naturally, this would be incomplete if I didn’t include both versions of “Take Me to the River.”

Take Me to the River – Al Green (3:42, right-click to download)

Take Me to the River – Talking Heads (5:03, right-click to download)


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The Godfather, The Big Chill…The Cutaway

Picture an edit room, with a filmmaker, an editor and a lot of cigarette smoke. They watch a scene again and again, and finally the filmmaker says, “There’s something missing. The timing’s all wrong.” And that’s when the editor comes to the rescue, and for this post, we’ll say it’s a cutaway that saves the day.

In film terminology a cutaway is “the interruption of a continuously filmed action by inserting a view of something else. It is usually, although not always, followed by a cut back to the first shot” (Wiki). There are many reasons a filmmaker and editor would settle on using a cutaway, sometimes to mask a problem in the shooting, other times to help tell the story cinematically. Many current TV shows, such as 30 Rock and Family Guy, use cutaways as a form of punchline. (Quickly becoming the lamest kind of joke on TV, I think.) My favorite reason for a cutaway is to help the pace, to allow the viewer to absorb information the way the filmmaker intended.

Here’s some examples…

The Godfather (dir. Francis Coppola, editors William Reynolds and Peter Zinner) has a fantastic cutaway early in the film, when Michael is telling Kay about his father’s relationship with singer Johnny Fontaine. It happens right after Michael says, “That’s a true story.”

Dramatically, he’s dropped a bomb, both for Kay and for us, and I think the cutaway to Johnny, which does three things. First, Michael’s pause is now incredibly long (11 seconds!), which is a hint of the Michael to Come: silent, calculating. Second, even though Kay is not looking at Johnny Fontaine, she’s clearly confused and stunned and re-thinking everything she ever thought of him, so why not see Johnny at that moment? And third, ideally, we’re doing something similar: we’ve been given our first taste of how brutal it might get and need a beat to process it.

How would it have played otherwise? Since we’ve all seen the film so many times (admit it), it’s hard to say. But here’s a simulation, the end of that scene with the cutaway removed

Next is something early on in The Big Chill (dir. Lawrence Kasdan, editor Carol Littleton). Meg (Mary Kay Place) and Nick (William Hurt) are talking about their friend Alex, who’s recently killed himself.

I expect that in the edit room they realized this scene had two endings: Nick’s joke and Meg’s comment. The cutaway allows Nick’s quip to get a healthy laugh from the audience as well as establish how dark his humor is. But Meg’s line is just as important. The cutaway to the street—not to the interior of another car and another conversation, mind you—lets us process each piece of information equally.

The last sample is from left field. God’s Step Children (dir. Oscar Micheaux, editors Patricia Rooney and Leonard Weiss) is a low-budget 1938 all-black-cast melodrama. Micheaux made his films outside of the studio system, and this was his 38th film since 1910.

The plot concerns Naomi, a light-skinned black woman who can pass for white. She and her brother Jimmy are unaware that she was adopted and are tortured by their attraction to each other. Here’s a scene where they see each for the first time in years. Since most of you haven’t sees this (few have), I’ve edited out the cutaway, to enable a before-and-after demonstration. Pay attention to their kiss.

OK.  Now, look at the end of that scene with the cutaway:

I know it’s crude filmmaking, but humor me and think of what that cutaway accomplishes: That innocent, split-second kiss is now 5 seconds long, which makes much more of an impression of forbidden love than any of the writing, acting or shooting.

So whether it was a New York edit room in the 70s, a Hollywood cutting room in the 80s, or God-knows-where in the 30s—I think the same thing occurred: the filmmaker’s point was crystallized thanks to the cutaway.


Filed under Film

The World at War and That Jerk-Off Hitler

Comedians Dudley Moore and Peter Cook had drunken alter egos named Derek and Clive, and during the 70s they’d tape their off-the-cuff and very vulgar thoughts for comedy records. One of their exchanges goes something like this (I’m paraphrasing):

Clive: I was watching that Holocaust thing on TV, y’know, that story about Hitler and–

Derek: What a prick he was, eh?

That’s pretty much sums Hitler up, as far as they’re concerned. They were young boys during the Blitz, when he bombed London for 76 consecutive nights in 1940, and it’s clear that experience left a bad taste in their mouths, to say the least.

Meanwhile, I’ve been watching The World at War, a 1973 British documentary series about WWII. I’ve never been a war history junkie and never heard of The World at War until recently. Since then I’ve found a handful of people that know and swear by it as the ultimate visual document of that war—while the rest of us have no idea of it or its importance.

On face value, when I heard the words “World War II,” “British documentary,” and “early 70s,” I imagined the worst. I expected something stodgy, formal, and probably dull. Well, I’m happy to say that’s not the case. This doc is a mother. Ken Burns this ain’t. Just the opposite, thank the Lord Baby Jesus.

Where to begin? OK, for starters, there’s only eyewitness accounts. No book-types recounting shit that happened twenty years before they were born. Nope, this series has interviews with the likes of, say, the Japanese officer who planned the invasion of Midway and Churchill’s personal secretary and Hitler’s interpreter in the negotiations with the Soviet Union. Real “you are there” stories. And since these interviews were done in the early 70s, most of the subjects are lucid.

Gun-toting Siberian soldiers skiing into battle

Next, there’s the archival footage, which accounts for about a whopping 85% of the visuals. According to Jeremy Isaacs, the series producer, there’s no cheats for any of the battle footage. If they’re talking about German soldiers entering Moscow, than the footage we see is of precisely that. I had no idea there was so much freaking footage shot during that war, but the coverage is out of this world. For example, I never thought I’d see footage of the Siberian army—heavily armed and on skis!—attacking the German army on the outskirts of Moscow.

And lastly, there’s the tone of voice, which brings us back to my opening paragraphs about Hitler being a “prick.” As Isaacs explains in the “Making of” doc, “Britain was bombed. Not invaded. Not occupied. Not fought over. Britain’s war was not Poland’s war and not Russia’s war.” That unique experience informs the mood that prevails over the series, and it’s: True, Hitler was a genocidal maniac and vicious dictator—but let’s face it, he was also a real jerk. This manifests itself in droll narration from Laurence Olivier, at times sardonic but always biting. (When I heard he was the voice of the show, I thought that spelled doom—but who knew he could “underact”? His delivery is spot-on, with an undercurrent of opinion and even anger. Again, miles away from the standard PBS play-it-safe tone. How refreshing.)

These three brief clips will hopefully illustrate my points. All are from the first episode, “A New Germany (1933-39).” This clip describes how Hitler’s paranoia in 1934 led to the killing of his peers and the formation of the SS. You can see the filmmakers’ resourcefulness, unusual sense of humor and even their love of Terry Gilliam:

This very brief clip of may give you an idea of Olivier’s dry take on the Nazi way of life. It’s German newsreel footage from the 30s of the League of German Maidens (the female version of the Hitler Youth), and Olivier’s spins it into a reverse propaganda film. Particularly I’m referring to his timing and delivery of the phrase, “…and so on.”

Lastly, here’s a sample of the quality and uniqueness of the archival footage. It’s Eva Braun’s home movies from late 30s (complete with the title card “The Variety Film Show No. 2, Filmed by Eva Braun”). The use of music, followed by silence, is powerful.

Eva and her family may have shot it, but World at War editor Alan Afriat cut it, and somehow the combo is chilling. The edit from this to this is particularly jarring:

Netflix has The World at War, but I went whole hog: someone on Amazon is selling the complete 11 DVD set for under $37. That’s only $3.40 per disk! I’m seven hours in and loving every blood-soaked minute of it. I say if you wanna learn about our grandparents’ war, this is the way to go.


Filed under Film