Category Archives: Film

W.C. Fields Suffers the Weight of the World

Beginning tomorrow, Friday, April 22nd, New York City’s Film Forum, will have a 12-day W.C. Fields film festival, showing most of his films (all 35mm prints!). So it’s a perfect time to share some of my observations on Mr. Fields. I think most people nowadays—those unfamiliar with his films—would characterize his iconic persona as ‘a drunk who doesn’t like children.’ There’s a lot of truth to that interpretation, but there was much more, something that I became more attune to as I got older. The characters in his domestic comedies (i.e. The Man on a Flying Trapeze or The Bank Dick) endured a very deep suffering. The struggle of being a husband, a father, a provider is a theme I began to appreciate as I’ve moved on in years. Subsequently, my aching laughter when watching his films has evolved into empathy.

A case in point is It’s a Gift (1934), generally regarded as Fields’s masterpiece and the film that kicks off the Film Forum Festival this weekend. Fields plays Harold Bissonette, a family man and owner of a grocery store, who suffers endlessly at the hands of his wife, children, customers—even his neighbor’s children–all the while dreaming of buying an orange grove in California. Most scenes are set-pieces, isolated sketches, typical of comedies of the early 30s; for example, early on, in his store he concurrently battles an enraged customer demanding kumquats, an inept employee, and the blind, near-deaf, cane-swinging Mr. Muckle. It’s sisyphean comedy at its best. It’s not unlike scenes from his earlier shorts, i.e. “The Dentist,” but thanks to the context—a middle-aged man pursuing his dreams against tremendous odds—the pain in these scenes is all the more painful.


I think my point is shown best midway through the film. It’s nighttime and having already endured endless hen-pecking from his wife, Harold takes his pillow and blanket outside (A). Thus begins an 11-minute sequence, where he tries in vain to sleep on their apartment balcony (B). Although the clock says it’s 4:30am—when all the world should be asleep–he’s unknowingly moved into the eye of the storm.



In short order, he’s tormented by a falling cocoanut (1), a bottle-clanking milkman (2), an ice-pick-wielding toddler (3), and a continuation of his wife’s needling (4).


He’s even harassed by an insurance salesman…

In my teens, the funniest part of this scene was the prolonged spelling of the ridiculous name “LaFong,” however, as an adult/husband/father/freelancer trying to eke out a living, I’m struck by the sad, sad irony of trying to sleep while a man cheerfully tells you you’ll have to work every day until you’re 90. That’s when my laughter turns to fatigue. And fear. And bonding. If you listen closely, at the end of the clip, he emotes under his breath, “If I could only retire now.” No wonder at one point later in the scene, he looks at the camera—at us—as if to say, “See what I have to deal with?”…

The film is such an endless gagfest, it’s easy to miss its most subdued moment, its most poignant. Harold’s just used a recent inheritance to purchase an orange grove, much to his wife’s dismay. She badgers and bemoans, all of which he takes without rebuttal, like any beaten man would. However, at the end of the scene, he quietly tells her, as he’s leaving the room, that he’s sold their grocery store, a selfish act that will uproot his family. Her shock and outrage tells us he’s never done anything like this before.

But it’s Fields’s delivery that is so effective. There’s no fanfare, no argument, no “I’m putting my foot down!” outburst. He just says it. Because if Harold didn’t seize control, didn’t act impetuously, didn’t instigate change with his own hand, then all the other suffering would truly be unbearable. And so when he tells his wife that he’s irrevocably changed their lives, it’s the film’s Moment of Clarity, Harold’s quiet assertion of controlling his own destiny.
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For further reading I steer you to “Godfrey Daniel!”, an excellent piece by Ivan G. Shreve, Jr., on the blog Edward Copeland on Film. Shreve and I share a similar take on Fields’s film persona, and he astutely observes that his characters “suffer the slings and arrows…with a Zen-like stoicism that instantly puts the viewer in his corner.”

I also heartily recommend going to Film Forum and seeing any of Fields’s films with a packed house, which is how his films were meant to be seen. You shouldn’t take anything I’ve written here as an indication to look for something deeper, certainly not at the sake of laughing your pants off. But it’s there. It doesn’t make the films funnier; it just makes them more than funny.

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(By the way, I may not make it to Film Forum this weekend, where It’s a Gift is sharing a bill with “The Dentist.” If anyone does, please tell me which print of the latter they use. For further explanation of the various prints of the film that exist, check out my post W.C. Fields and the Musical Laughtrack.)

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From Hyannisport to the Jersey Shore

This timeline (cynically) charts the evolution of observational documentary in America, from 1960 to the present. The first still is from Primary, a game-changing film about JFK and Hubert Humphrey’s life on the campaign trail. Its principal architects were producer/soundman Robert Drew and photographer/editors Ricky Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, Terence McCartney-Fillgate, and Albert Maysles.

Fifty years later, four of those gentlemen are still making films, but sadly, Ricky Leacock recently passed away. Peter Schneider, an old friend of mine who co-owns Gotham Sound, a sound gear sales-and-rental house in NYC, asked me to write about Mr. Leacock for their blog, the Gotham Gazette. I was thrilled and flattered since their blog passionately promotes the values and standards of 60s and 70s New York City location filmmaking at its best.

Click here to read my post Ricky Leacock and “The Sense of Being There.”

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Neil Diamond and The Last Waltz…WTF? (or An Appeal for Neil)

Recently, Neil Diamond was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which prompted the requisite confusion that accompanies any sentence with the words “Neil Diamond” and “Rock and Roll” in it. A few years ago, I would have joined in on the Neil-bashing, since I, too, have had contempt for him for most of my life. Luckily, I have a few cronies who’ve set me straight.

Honestly, my fandom is limited mostly to his first singles, the mid-60s period when he was on Bang records and rose to stardom on such hits as “Solitary Man,” “Cherry, Cherry,” and “Kentucky Woman.” Jesus, they’re great songs. And anytime I’m a late-comer to an artist, film or LP, I rack my brain to figure out why, why, why? Why have I lost decades I could have spent listening to “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” which I now have to make up for, replaying it morning, noon and night (much to my wife’s frustration).

Why did I forsake you, Neil?

The answer is simple: Martin Scorsese’s 1978 film The Last Waltz.

I got the film on an RCA CED videodisc in 1983. My brother got it, actually, convinced by some elders that any self-respecting rock and roll fan should love that film. (Sound advice.) I was unfamiliar with most of the performers in the film, and I inched my way through it a song at a time. I’d hear an Eric Clapton song on the radio, then I’d queue up “Further on Up the Road” in The Last Waltz. I’d notice “Mannish Boy” in Risky Business, so I’d revisit Muddy Waters’s version in the documentary. I’d see Dr. John on SCTV and –boom–I’d have a fresh take on his performance from the Scorsese film. And so on. Before long, I was wearing a scarf around high school, à la Robbie Robertson (see below) and named my first car “Ophelia,” after the Band song.

But one ongoing sticking point was that damned “Dry Your Eyes” number smack dab in the middle of the film. In 1983, at age 13, I already had a dim view on Neil Diamond. He was beloved by people’s parents, but not for me and my expanding rock and roll palate. He was too busy being that jazz singer who stopped bringing flowers to Barbra. I was alienated by his presence in Scorsese’s film, thought he was a stiff snooze, and that this was the last nail in Neil’s coffin: I wrote him off and closed my ears and heart to All Things Neil. He was dead to me.

If you need a reminder of Neil’s contribution to the 1976 concert/1978 film, here it is…

And if you’re still reading, you probably fall under one of three categories: 1. Neil Diamond fans who will follow him anywhere; 2. Last Waltz fans who are strongly opinionated about his appearance in the film, pro or con; or 3. someone who just saw the film and wonder why that sunglasses-wearing sore thumb was on the stage. If you’re in that last category, than this post is for you. This is what I wish I could have read when I was 13 years old.

In the next few paragraphs, I’ll explain why Diamond was there that night; why his performance misfired; and how it might have gone down if it were handled differently.

Fashion hero Robbie Robertson

Intellectually, Neil’s participation in The Last Waltz makes some sense: Band member Robbie Robertson had spearheaded the event and wanted representation from all the aspects of the Band’s sound, their “musical wheel,” as he called it: Southern blues, Canadian folk, New Orleans funk, and so on. Neil Diamond represented the NYC-based “Brill Building Sound,” named after the building on Broadway where several talented songwriters wrote hit after hit in the 60s, writers that included Leiber & Stoller, Goffin & King, Bacharach & David, and Greenwich & Berry. Although the Band sound didn’t exactly scream “New York City,” Robbie had an affinity for that era of popular song writing. In fact, he had just produced Neil Diamond’s latest LP, the critically-acclaimed but poor-selling Beautiful Noise. (You can raise a cynical eyebrow now, if you like.)

So there is a heady logic to Neil taking the stage after Joni Mitchell and before Van Morrison. After that, logic falls apart at every turn, blame falling entirely on the choice of song. Whether or not “Dry Your Eyes” is a good song is irrelevant; it’s a woefully inappropriate song for that concert.

Neil Diamond was one of the only two performers that night to perform exclusively new material. Every artist that performed more than one song shrewdly included one tried-and-true house burner: Neil Young wowed them “Helpless,” Van Morrison slayed with “Caravan,” Muddy Waters destroyed with “Mannish Boy,” and so on. And the artists who did perform only one song, each chose a surefire classic: Dr. John brought the house down with “Such a Night,” Ronnie Hawkins’s “Who Do You Love?” turned the Winterland into the world’s largest backwoods bar, Paul Butterfield (dueting with Levon Helm) took everyone on the “Mystery Train.” Besides Neil Diamond, only Joni Mitchell did all new material, but I don’t think anyone was expecting her to come out singing “Help Me.”

You could argue that Neil’s peers played it safe—or you could say they gave the fans what they wanted. Irregardless, Neil Diamond comes out, sporting stand-offish sunglasses and “looking more like a movie producer than a musician” (to quote music journalist Barney Hoskyns) and does a song that no one could sing along with, a song that just doesn’t swing, y’know?

And there’s the rub: Robbie wanted representation from the 60s NYC pop scene—but chose a song written in the 70s, on the West Coast—coincidentally, a song that just happened to be co-written by Robbie Robertson. (Being a huge Robbie supporter, that detail has always pained me. It’s just reeks of opportunism.)

If Neil had “played it safe” and performed something he’d literally written in the Brill Building, there would have been plenty to choose from, all familiar to the audience. At the very least, the Winterland’s universal voice would have said, “Aw, man, I know this tune,” as opposed to, “Huh…? Dry your what…?”

And how would have that sounded if Neil had played something surefire? What if, for example, he went all the way back, to his first single, “Solitary Man” from 1966? It might have sounded like this, which is his performance in Australia six months before The Last Waltz.

OK, it’s definitely not as good looking as The Last Waltz—and Neil’s swapped his lapels and shades for rhinestones and leather pants. But that aside, I could imagine the Band backing him on this, with Garth Hudson providing sweeping organ fills and Robbie punctuating the lyrics with his fractured-note style. (That night, the Band did an excellent job of making sure their guests did not sound like oldies acts.)

And then maybe in 1983, the 13-year-old version of me—a Neil Diamond skeptic—would have sought out the original version of the tune, and embraced it, and become one of those gung-ho NeilHeads you meet every now and then.

So my parting advice to anyone who’s written off Neil Diamond because of his 3 (long) minutes in that great, great film, The Last Waltz: Don’t give up on the Man. Check out the recently released The Bang Years 1966-68 collection and you’ll hear some timeless music.

And for those Neil Loyalists out there who defend him to the grave and insist on putting that 1976 performance on a pedestal, just remember this: that was the only time Neil ever performed “Dry Your Eyes” live, so perhaps Neil himself isn’t a fan of his performance that night.

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Eric Mendelsohn and the Extra Mile

Eric Mendelsohn’s new film, 3 Backyards, opens this Friday, March 11, at the IFC Center in Manhattan. stars Embeth Davidtz, Edie Falco, and Elias Koteas.

In 1998, I was the Supervising Sound Editor for Judy Berlin, the first feature by Eric Mendelsohn. It was an experience that pushed me to my limit physically and emotionally. However, Eric was charming enough and naïve enough to convince me that anything is possible. Here’s a perfect example…

In the thick of the sound editing, he and producer Rocco Caruso asked me to make a “temp mix” for the videotape they were submitting for Sundance consideration. In layman’s terms, this meant that I stop the meticulous sound editing of the finished film so I could crank out something sounding half-way decent on a VHS tape–not the best use of my time. At one point, when I was definitely running out of patience, Eric turned to me, looked me dead in the eye, and said sincerely, “I want you to imagine that this one sound effect you’re putting in is going to be the one thing that makes the difference between Sundance saying Yes or saying No.” And it worked: I went the extra mile for Eric. In fact, I did so over and over again, so many times during the next few weeks, that the film should have been called The Extra Mile.

Actually, it “worked” on Sundance, too: that year Eric won their Best Director award. His latest film, 3 Backyards played at Sundance in 2010 and he won the same award again. (He’s two for two.)

3 Backyards (God, I love that title) is about a day in the life of a handful of people who live in middle class Long Island. Since I haven’t seen the film, this post is not a review, although you can certainly get the gist from Marshall Fine’s review at Huffington Post. Instead, Eric, who’s as shrewd a PT Barnum as he is a filmmaker, gave me an interview, which pulls back the curtain on the making of the film.

This film, like Eric’s other films–the short “Through an Open Window” (1993) and the aforementioned Judy Berlin (1999)—was produced by his old friend and business partner Rocco Caruso, on an incredibly tight budget. A mere $300,000, meaning the film wasn’t “made” as much as it was “willed into existence.”

Getting a cast and crew together on such a shoestring—or “on a micro-micro-micro-budget” as Eric calls it—actually isn’t as Herculean as keeping them there, getting them  to work beyond their normal breaking point, all in support of Eric’s vision. Personally, I always wondered if his plea to me 12 years ago was in fact a “line” or some shtick, duping me into doing his bidding. He insists it was not the case at all and never his style. “I so firmly believe in the Importance of the Moment that I’m not using a new tack, or coming up with a strategy to win someone over. I teach [directing at Columbia] and I tell this to my students all the time: ‘You have a choice when you make any kind of artwork. It’s a tradeoff. The tradeoff is between being exhausted on the one hand and creating something great, potentially, on the other hand.’ That’s such a fair tradeoff. Why wouldn’t you just be exhausted?

“So at times when I feel we are never going to have this Moment again and I need to rally people, I try to make everyone remember, OK, we will be a little exhausted this week or this month, but in the end we will have something concrete that we’re proud of, that we did, that we worked for.”

And although Eric’s capable of inspiring a cast and crew to such extremes, he had no deulsions that the production couldn’t collapse at any time. “We thought we were going to run out of money after Day 5 and have to close down, and I said, ‘Well, then these will be the five great days where we played with actors and cameras and zooms and lenses, and those were really five great days that we will remember.’ It sounds incredible to me that I said this, but I really believed it. I was totally invested in the process and it was the most exciting creative experience of my life.”

Obviously, the challenge of pulling this off provides its own rush and incentive for Eric. He explains, “Do you know in E.T., when the little alien is making the kids understand what planet he is from and he lifts all the balls into the air and they swim into a solar system? [see above] Well, making 3 Backyards, I had this vision in my head of an entire film lifted up into the air, floating there by sheer willpower, and floating there were actors and houses and props and costumes and transportation, and crew housing, and everything. I had this thought: Could one person–and it wasn’t just me, but a lot of it fell from me to sort of excite people to do–lift everything in the air and keep it lifted until production was over?

“For example, in the opening of Edie’s part of the movie, she is painting in her backyard. The backyard of the house is donated by a local resident of the town. The easel that she is painting at is donated. The artwork was painted by a local artist. The paints that she is using are donated from Grumbacher Art Supplies. The plants in her backyard were on loan–if we kept them alive–from the local florist in Northport. There is nothing about the scene that is paid for or substantial. It’s all just floating in air. So, if you can extrapolate every scene in the movie that is held together like that–every car, every location, every house, every crewmember was put up in a homeowner’s house for the entire shoot; some stranger agreed to have people sleeping on couches—that’s how the film was made.

“I still get nervous sometimes at night thinking the whole thing is going to fall apart, and I have to remember the film is over.”

As much as Eric speaks of art and sacrifice for the sake of art, he is open to compromise.  “Look, the film was originally called 4 Backyards, and ten days before shooting, we realized we could not financially accomplish four backyards and, like that character in 127 Hours, I cut off my own arm. I just said. ‘No. Nothing is going to stop me from making this movie. I see a way that it can perfectly exist and I will rewrite it a week-and-a-half before we go.’ We had to tell the actors who were involved in that ‘fourth backyard’ that we were canceling it; all the locations, everything, and it was a really liberating way of working. Not being crushed by every problem, but instead looking at it as an opportunity.”

The flattering reviews from New York Magazine and Variety make no bones about it: 3 Backyards is an out-and-out Art Film, aka not everyone’s cup of tea. Clearly, this isn’t a revelation to Eric. “There is something really perverse about putting all of this time and energy and effort into artwork. It’s like half of the cave is going out and trying to kill, hunt and gather, and the other half, or maybe two cavemen, are painting cave paintings, but taking it just as seriously as everybody out killing mastodons. When you see movies like The Conversation or any Jacques Demy film, you’re looking at the work of somebody who took the time and the energy and the effort to care about your experience. So you only have a certain amount of those opportunities in your life to do that for someone else.

“Not to compare myself, but my heroes are people like the Impressionists. And if they had listened to everyone at the time, they would have been making the boring Salon paintings, which nobody even gives a shit about today. They had a new idea and they said, ‘Let’s go and do this. Maybe we will poor. Who cares?’ And I love that spirit. If films didn’t cost so much, the experimentation would be immense. But because they cost so much, everyone is so Goddamned timid. But Rocco Caruso’s said three times in my life now, ‘Here. I have saved up the money. Let’s do something exciting that is new and is a stab at what we think a film should be rather than cautiously hewing to what convention tells us we should be doing’. I don’t want to die and say, ‘Here’s my body of work. It is cautious and fits the template of many other things made by my generation.’”

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I’ll wrap things up with an anecdote, perhaps my most memorable experience with Eric, one that sums up his acute sensitivity to others and his keen ability to seize the moment. In December, 1998, when we were in the home stretch of mixing Judy Berlin, I was about to have something pretty much unheard of in the NY dating scene: a second date stemming from a blind date. She was a costume designer, and I was really nervous because I had no sense of fashion. I expressed my fears to Eric. He stopped what he was doing and sized me up and down.

“Don’t worry, “ he said confidently. “I have the perfect sweater for you.” It was cashmere and fit like a glove and, yes, it helped make my second date a success. Craziest of all: it had been worn by Woody Allen. Y’see, prior to being a filmmaker, Eric was an assistant costume designer on four Woody Allen films, and the sweater was from Husbands and Wives. Considering I totally bought into the whole “I love Woody and I’m dating in New York and it’s Annie Hall all over again” philosophy, it didn’t hurt to literally wear the man’s clothing. I mean how freakin’ cool is that?! It was all very voodoo of Eric, but then again, he’s proven to me repeatedly that he can make magic happen.

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Once again, Eric’s 3 Backyards opens this weekend at the IFC Center in Manhattan. At the moment, it’s only scheduled for one week, so if you’re at all interested, I urge you to go. It’ll be opening March 18th on Long Island, in Huntington, at the Cinema Arts Centre.

Here’s the film’s website and you can get IFC tickets here. Eric will be at several of the 8:10 screenings for a Q&A afterwards. And if you go to the IFC Center tonight, and see a guy that looks an like the picture on this post, passing out 3 Backyards postcards, well, you can guess who it is. Yep, Eric’s idea of “micro-micro-micro-budget” doesn’t end when the film is finished. He does whatever he can to personally deliver his film to a hungry audience.

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Woody Allen, David Lynch and the Craziest of Double Features

In October, 1980, my mother took me to London for a week. I was 11 years old. As much as I was enjoying myself, I was hopelessly “American” and going out of my head after a few days. I may have loved the Beatles and Monty Python, but I was pining for things like baseball and commercial interruptions on TV. By the end of the week, my mother admitted that she, too, was missing the good ol’ U S of A, and we decided to see an American film in Picadilly Circus. One theater was showing Annie Hall—what could be more American than Woody Allen, right? And it was a double feature, with another American film that neither of us had heard of it. Understandably, we figured that if it was paired off with Annie Hall, it must therefore be a comedy in a similar vein. It even had a funny title: Eraserhead.

Ultimately, we passed on both films and it was a few years before I saw David Lynch’s first feature, the entire time saying, “This?! This?! The Brits thought this played well with the Best Picture of 1977?!”

Admittedly, it is a dazzling combo—but that’s the revisionist in me talking. (For example, Annie Hall’s tagline is “A Nervous Romance,” which, let’s face it, wouldn’t be such a bad tagline for Eraserhead.) But from a commercial standpoint—for a broad and mainstream  audience—it’s quite the mismatch.

Revisiting London in 1998, I went looking for some exciting film posters. I found this beaut and snagged it for a mere ten pounds…

OK, it’s not as insane as combining Diane Keaton and Jack Nance, but it’s definitely unusual. For those unfamiliar with the films, in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) Dustin Hoffman plays a mathematician forced to protect himself and his wife by killing a band of marauding, raping English villagers; while Bert Gordon’s The Food of the Gods (1975), loosely based on the sci-fi novel by H.G. Wells, is exactly as the poster appears: giant rats, worms and wasps eat and kill their way through a lot of faded stars and b-movie regulars. (Its American tagline was “For a taste of Hell…”)

I’ve never seen these films consecutively, though I expect the sheer intensity of Straw Dogs would make The Food of the Gods even more of a snooze than it already is. But as far as pure magnetic advertising goes—something to entice you to shell out your hard-earned pounds—it’s genius. Barum-esque. This poster was in my bedroom for years, over my desk, and I used to stare it endlessly, wondering why it was so damn fascinating. Was it..



…the brutality associated with Straw Dogs’s director OR the terror associated with The Food of the Gods’s author?









The image of a blonde being raped by a man OR a brunette being eaten by a ginormous, feral rodent?










The steely gaze of Dustin Hoffman sporting a rifle OR the razor-sharp fangs of enormous rat?









The extreme close-up of a sweatered-but-braless chest OR the heaving, negligee’d cleavage?






No matter how you slice it, there’s something to disturb, offend and/or entertain everybody: Dogs…rats. Guns…fangs. Nipples…cleavage. What a night on the town!

Please, if anyone reading this has seen other exciting and highly imaginative British Double Features, let us know in the Comments section.

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On a personal front, I’ve cherished this Peckinpah-Wells poster for years, though the only people to see have been a few roommates, some friends and a few “lucky” girlfriends. Since getting married—and losing most of my apartment’s poster real estate in the process—this awesome artifact has languished in the basement. To liberate it for this post—and share it with all of you wonderful people—the 20”x 30” poster had to be scanned in 40 pieces and stitched together in Photoshop. Honestly, if I knew it would require that much damn work, you’d be looking at a blank post right now.

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I Knew It Was You: The Sixth John Cazale Film

A few months ago, when Richard Shepard’s documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale aired on HBO, I wrote a post about it, going on and on (and on). Well, today the DVD of that doc hits the stores. (Inexplicably, it’s not yet available via Netflix, but if you add it to your queue, they’ll get the idea!)

The DVD’s bonus features include 40 minutes of outtakes from the interviews with Al Pacino and playwright Israel Horovitz; all of “The American Way,” a 1962 short film featuring Cazale (only clips are shown in the doc); and an audio commentary by Shepard. I’m a fan of Richard’s other commentaries (i.e. The Matador) as they are funny and informative, real How To’s for independent filmmaking.

OK, I’m biased. I’ve known Richard for a dozen years. I’ve worked for him, played poker with him, and, hell, he even recorded one of his commentaries in my living room. One of our favorite pastimes was hanging out with Adam Lichtenstein (the documentary’s editor) and talking endlessly about 70s cinema.

Recently, Richard gave me some time to talk about the film and its effect on him as a filmmaker…
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Richard Shepard: I am really happy the doc is even getting out on DVD. Y’know, for a forty minute short to come out on DVD is not an every day occurrence.

Stephen Altobello: A forty minute doc barely has a market in the first place, much less on DVD. It was awesome that BAM did a Cazale festival last year [screening all five of his films] and screened your doc a couple of times with it. I can imagine for a revival house that a Cazale festival is a license to print money.

Richard: That is so true. You would think they would do this all the time. There was just a screening of Dog Day Afternoon up in San Francisco where they showed the documentary, and I can imagine going forward in my life showing this movie in various film revival places, whenever they show those movies. Because it is a perfect companion to them. I kept joking that I was interested to see the Netflix demands for these movies after its aired on HBO. I think any Film Lover who sees one second of so many of those movies gets that Film Lover Erection.

Stephen: Sure. I’m picturing people having double feature nights, where they show your film and, say, The Godfather. It would be also awesome if it lives, like you said, in a revival house capacity. That it becomes known as the sixth Cazale film.

Richard: That would be insane if that was the case.

Stephen: Have actors and directors come up to you after seeing the film?

Richard: Well, it’s an unintended positive consequence of this documentary in that it is so actor packed that if you’re sending out a script, trying to get an actor attached to it, sending this documentary with it, it’s like people see this and they suddenly believe, truthfully or not–and I would like to believe its truthfully–that I love actors and the craft of acting and understand its importance. So in some strange way, it’s like this incredible catnip for actors for me getting them into other projects. Which is not what I intended, obviously, but I certainly don’t mind that consequence, and certainly every actor that has seen it has been extraordinarily moved and positive about it. It’s not like I’m getting phone calls from Brad Pitt, but it is strange how many meetings I go to and parties and whatever, and people are like, “Oh my God, you made that movie, I loved it!”

Stephen: I guess the big question is, since you’ve immersed yourself for so long in this project, do you feel you have been directing actors differently, better, more intuitively? How has it paid off for you in that sense?

Richard: Well, yesterday we were auditioning actors and this actress was really good, but she just wasn’t listening at all, and it was this weird moment where I am like, “She really can say her lines great, but she is not really listening to the other lines and not really reacting in any organic away.” And while everyone in the room was like, “She was great,” I’m like, “She was great, but let’s watch the tape of her because you’re going to see she is not acting because she’s not reacting, and thus we’re going to die moving forward because there is no real heartbeat there.” And that realization came from what I learned from Cazale, and I was like, “Wow.” I think I have a different eye than I might have even had a year ago, and I would like to see how that extends to actual work, as opposed to an audition process.

Stephen: Right. I suppose if you were an asshole, you might have a stack of those DVDs at your auditions and that would be your way of saying they didn’t get the role: “Here, take a copy on your way out.”

Richard: Or pay for one and maybe you’ll get a role! [laughs]

Stephen: About your interviewing process for the film, I heard you explain you’re not an interviewer but just very, very curious, which is a real difference. I hadn’t seen that many interviews with Pacino, but I was surprised at how generous and sincere he seemed. Were you similarly surprised during the interview?

Richard: Yes. I felt that when that interview was done that we didn’t need to do any other interviews and we would still have a documentary. He really came into that room wanting to talk. It was almost as if when we finished, he was upset that we were leaving. Which, by the way, is a great place to be if you’re doing a documentary, because it’s like, he was just ready…he came very thoughtful and passionate and emotional. I think that Pacino appreciates that we were coming at it from a place of love, and he didn’t think we were being disingenuous. He really came in there and said, “I’m giving you myself. This is all I’m doing today. I’m going to do this. I’m going to eat a dinner and have a glass of wine, and that’s my day.“

Stephen: I was so amazed. Everything you just said, by the way, reads in the film. What vibe you got while doing the interview, is on the screen. Sometimes a great interview doesn’t necessarily mean it will be great in the doc. And you lucked out there. I had a similar lucky experience interviewing Scorsese about The Last Waltz. Nobody would ever talk to him about that film more than what it would take to get from Taxi Driver to Raging Bull. It would get, like, a paragraph. And he gave me ninety minutes on The Last Waltz when his assistant assured me I wouldn’t get even an hour with him.

Richard: And he was probably thrilled about it, because, a) he doesn’t talk about it a lot and b) he is sitting next to someone who loves the movie and is smart about it. There is nothing better than giving an interview to someone who knows what they’re talking about. When I was promoting The Matador…my God, there was one day at the Toronto Film Festival when we did a three straight press junket and it came right after three straight days in France doing the same thing. It was six straight days, every fifteen minutes a different interviewer. And it was mind numbing on a level that you can’t even imagine. I was, like, this is the hardest work I have ever done! Trying to make these answers seem fresh. Trying to remain enthusiastic. Trying not to punch someone in the face. And so I know there’s nothing better than talking to someone who is passionate about your film and doesn’t feel like, “I am just a piece of the process as well,” or, “I have to do twelve interviews today,” but instead is like, ”I want to sit down with you and talk about your movie in a real way.” Those are the best interviews because you’re like, “Oh, I am totally connected to this person.”

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So, this holiday season, what could be a better gift for the Film Lover in your life than a DVD of one of Cazale’s films, coupled with I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale?

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The Thin Man and the Little Erection, or How to Imagine Myrna Loy Talkin’ Dirty

I’ve been intimate with the Thin Man films since I was 13. And “intimate” is a good way to put it: it’s easy to feel close to such a hip couple as Nick and Nora Charles, as vividly portrayed by William Powell and Myrna Loy. They’re funny, smart and incredibly sexy (especially Ms. Loy. Whoa). The series of films is considered to be one of Hollywood’s strongest and most consistently entertaining. Still I’m surprised how few people I’ve met who’ve also read the book, written by Dashiell Hammett and published in 1934 (a mere five months before the first Thin Man film was released).

The book was Hammett’s fifth crime novel in as many years and was an instant bestseller (more below on the reasons why). There are many similarities between the book and the film, although mainstream literature of the day was even spicier than pre-code cinema. For example, although Nick and Nora drink heavily in the film, it’s a drop in the (ice) bucket compared to the book: with over 20 references to cocktails in the first 7 pages alone, Hammett’s prose is enough to make Don Draper order a Shirley Temple.

The book is more of a mystery with comic undertones, whereas the film plays more like a comedy with a mystery attached to it. (Well, not exactly, but I’m always surprised how The Thin Man tends to be referred to as one of the great screwball comedies of the 30s.) Like the film, the witty repartee between Nick and Nora is the key to its charm. 1   Screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich take that sexy banter as written by Hammett and run with it. For example, here’s Nick and Nora’s first conversation in the book…

Dorothy Wynant said she had to go back to her table. She…patted the dog’s head and left us.
        We found a table. Nora said: “She’s pretty.”
        “If you like them like that.”
        She grinned at me. “You got types?”
        “Only you, darling—lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.”
        “And how about the red-head you wandered off with at the Quinns’ last night?”
        “That’s silly,” I said. “She just wanted to show me some French etchings.”

Which Hackett and Goodrich stretched out to this…


And this is why I urge fans of the Thin Man films to read the book: thanks to the wonderful chemistry between its lead actors, when you read the book, you can hear Powell and Loy saying the lines, even the racier ones that were removed or watered down for the film. Here some examples of the book’s more unusual exchanges, most the kind you wouldn’t hear even in pre-code films:

NICK: How about a drop of something to cut the phlegm?
NORA: Why don’t you stay sober today?
NICK: We didn’t come to New York to stay sober. Want to see a hockey game tonight?
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NORA: (tasting a speakeasy drink and shuddering) Do you suppose this could be the ‘bitter vetch’ they used to put in cross-word puzzles? [Google it.]
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NICK: Do you mind putting the gun away? My wife doesn’t care, but I’m pregnant and I don’t want the child to be born with—(he gets interrupted)
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NORA: Tell me something, Nick. Tell me the truth: when you were wrestling with Mimi, didn’t you have an erection?
NICK: Oh, a little.
NORA: (laughing) If you aren’t a disgusting old lecher.

Even with a broad-minded reading public, this last exchange was over the top. The attention it received helped the book become a bestseller. To fan those flames, publisher Alfred Knopf placed this ad in the New York Times, on January 30, 1934, even signing it:

(It also helped the book get banned in Canada.) Most subsequent editions—those not published by Knopf–altered the passage to “…when you were wrestling Mimi, didn’t you get excited?” 2

Do I think these risqué passages make Hammett’s final novel worth reading? Not exactly. (Though it makes for a hell of blog post title!) But I think the book as a whole is an excellent compliment to the film, we’ll say the R-rated version to the film’s PG-13. Nick and Nora in print-form are a little looser, a littler drunker, and a little dirtier.

So if you ever pick up a copy of the book—and I highly recommend any and all Hammett—you should first check out the conclusion to Chapter 25. If it makes you blush then you know you’re holding something Hammett-approved.

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BACK TO POST 1 Hammett supposedly based Nick and Nora on himself and his lover, author Lillian Hellman. He dedicated the book to her and told her she was Nora. “It was nice to be Nora,” Hellman wrote in 1965, “married to Nick Charles, maybe one of the few marriages in modern literature where the man and woman like each other and have a fine time together. But I was soon put back in place—Hammett said I was also the silly girl in the book and the villainess.”

BACK TO POST 2 As I’ve only read the Knopf edition, this alteration was news to me. Once I met someone who’d recently read the book; I said, “How about that ‘erection’ line?’ which created much confusion in the ensuing conversation.

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