Tag Archives: Woody Allen

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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New York City, Seen from a Distance

Don’t you see? The rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.

Of course, that’s Alvy Singer talking, Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall. When I’d watch that film as a high school student in South Jersey, longing to move north, that line made more of an impression on me than others in the film (which is saying a lot). None of those labels (communist, Jewish, etc.) applied to me, but being an outsider in high school, I certainly knew the feeling of being labeled and mislabeled.

I’ve been an NYC resident a couple of decades now and still see the truth in Alvy’s comment, particularly the how the “rest of the country looks upon New York” part. Here’s some examples of when his observation comes to mind…

The 1974 film The Taking of Pelham One Two Three presumably shows an atypical day in New York City, one where a subway car is hijacked and its passengers held for ransom. Although a few different posters promoted the film, here’s the one used the most worldwide. It’s a POV shot of what a passenger might see if peeking into the next subway car…

I expected this didn’t seem so farfetched a sight to the rest of the world, because as they all know (or imagine), it’s commonplace for New York City subway passengers to point semi-automatic rifles at a mother and her children, right?


Here’s another instance. A buddy of mine, Jonah Kaplan, made a student film in 1990. It’s called Bicycle and includes an intense recreation of the perils of bike riding in NYC (his home town). Here’s a 30 second sample…

(Sadly, the internet is a total letdown here. To see this 7-minute film on the big screen, in a packed theater, is to enjoy a 3D-like experience that makes Avatar look as 1 dimensional as its script.)

Jonah’s film enjoyed enormous success on the festival circuit (it played in almost 20, many of them in non-English-speaking countries). He admits that it was accepted at foreign festivals in part because there’s no dialog in the film—but he says the audiences generally felt that “this is what living in New York is like all the time.”


My final example comes from 1977, an infamous year in the city’s history (detailed thoroughly in Jonathan Mahler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning). Political upheaval. Son of Sam. The Blackout. More than usual, the outside world perceived NYC as a blighted metropolis on the brink of disaster or self-destruction. And in the midst of that, the Yankees were in the World Series. The pressure was on since they hadn’t won one in 15 years, an unfathomable drought for New Yorkers. (Man, sometimes I wish the average Yankee fan could spend a few years living in Philly.)

By Game 6, the Yankees had won three games, and the LA Dodgers had won two. That night, Reggie Jackson made history by hitting 3 home runs, in 3 consecutive times at bat, in only 3 pitches, off 3 different pitchers. (Un-believable.) His last was in the 8th inning, and when he took the field in the top of the 9th, the Yankee fans were bloodthirsty for victory and couldn’t contain themselves. Even though security had been quadrupled, it wasn’t enough: some over-enthused fans threw firecrackers towards Reggie in right field, forcing him to take drastic measures.

This two minute clips begins with his reaction to being pelted by the explosive love of his admirers, and concludes with the final out of the game and its aftermath. It’s very famous footage, but if you’ve already seen it, I encourage you to give it another look—and this time pay close attention to announcers Howard Cosell and Keith Jackson…

Now I’ve seen plenty of footage of World Series victories: players jumping on each other, fans storming the fields, and so on. But this clip is seriously fucked up. It’s not so much like “The Giants win the Pennant! The Giants win the Pennant!!” as it is “Oh, the humanity!” Cops with raised nightsticks, kicking fans on the ground; a cloud of dust rising above the melee; and poor Reggie Jackson running for his life, bodyslamming New Yorkers.

But Keith Jackson and Howard Cosell make no allusion to the violent insanity, no cries for someone to declare martial law. Something tells me they were saying to themselves, “Well, what do you expect? This is New York, isn’t it? Just another night in the Big Apple.”

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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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Play It Again, Woody…Wait. Is That Woody?

(This blog is still clips-free! My research on Vimeo and DailyMotion, as alternatives to YouTube, has left me flat. The former moderates clips and has no time for the words Fair or Use, in any order; and I think the latter looks pretty damn bad. I put up a few test clips and was less than satisfied with the results. Currently, I’m exploring VideoPress, which is WordPress’s video hosting tool. So far, I’ve posted a few clips and none of them play at all. Not a good sign. To be continued.)

A few months ago I ranted on about MGM’s insulting behavior towards that gem-in-their-crown Annie Hall. While I think abuse of Woody Allen’s film is artistically damaging, I’ll give them this much credit: at least they know what he looks like, which is more than I can say about Paramount Pictures.

Paramount released Allen’s Play It Again, Sam in 1972. It’s an unusal film in his canon since it takes place in San Francisco (instead of Manhattan) and was not directed by him (Herbert Ross did). It’s about a nebbishy cinephile (played by you-know-who) who falls in love with his best friend’s wife and receives encouragement and advice from the ghost of Humphrey Bogart. The film was successful, as was the play it was based on, both written by Woody.

The cover of the 1979 VHS (right) is all well and good, with artwork based on the film’s US poster (not the Belgian version above). Very “of its time.”

The ridiculousness begins, however, when you flip it over. There are three photos on the back, one is wide and there are two smaller ones beneath it. Here’s the top one…

Because I’ve seen the film, I can guess it’s Woody Allen to the right, but mind you, that’s an educated guess.

Here’s the one on the lower left…

This is marginally better since it has exposure though our hero is inexplicably camouflaged. I’m not sure if it’s Play It Again, Sam or Platoon.

And here’s the kicker, the photo on the lower right…

Are you shitting me? Who the fuck is that?! Was there someone at Paramount who said, “Hmmm…Curly hair…big nose…glasses…I’m thinking ‘Jew.’ Yep, it’s Woody”? I’ve double-checked—triple-checked–the film and this guy isn’t even in it! Is it possible that these are the only three production stills taken for the film? No wonder Woody’s characters get nauseous in Hollywood.


(Hey, I just noticed this in the homestretch of making this post. I wonder if there’s any coincidence between this essay, which essentially calls Paramount Pictures a bunch of idiots, and the fact that they were the studio that made YouTube pull my clips down. Well, well, well. Blog-as-Rorschach Test…)

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Sid Caesar & the Sight Gag that Got Away…Almost

Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and Woody Allen all wrote for Sid Caesar in the 50s1  .  When their writing and filmmaking careers were riding high in the early 70s, someone put together a ninety-minute film called Ten from Your Show of Shows. It was exactly as described: ten sketches from the legendary series that aired from 1950-54 and starred Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris2  .

(For the uninitiated, it’s very hard to describe the humor of Your Show of Shows. I could say something clever like “With one foot silent film comedy and another in zany cartoons, it’s all held together with a tight borscht belt,” but it’s best to see for yourself, which you’ll have a chance to do before this post is done. Oh, and there’s also YouTube.)

As a kid, I was a fan of Brooks, Simon and Allen, and my folks would frequently tell me about Your Show of Shows, so when this film aired on the local PBS in 1984, my VCR and I were eagerly waiting. And, man, my hopes were high; thinking of the combined laughs I got from those three guys made me giddy at the notion of what they would write collectively. (I was unaware that Allen and Simon did not have a hand in any of the sketches in this film.)

So I watched with very high expectations. The first two sketches have some incredibly funny bits, but there’s a sight gag in the third sketch (“The Recital”) that I gave me what might be the biggest laugh of my teen years. At least from watching something on TV. I remember I saw it late at night and am pretty sure my laughter woke up my folks a floor above me.

In 2001, nine DVDs-worth of material from Your Show of Show and Caesar’s subsequent show, Caesar’s Hour, were released. Almost all of the sketches from the 1973 compilation film made their way to these DVDs, but sadly “The Recital” wasn’t one of them.

And so it was time to drag out my 24-year-old VHS tape and pump this sketch into the computer. And here it is, all 4 minutes of it, with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca.

Want to take a guess at the joke that did me in? (Hint: it gets one of the two biggest laughs from the audience. Another hint: it has “Mel Brooks” written all over it.)

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BACK TO POST 1There’s a longstanding myth that Woody Allen wrote for Your Show of Shows, which is not true. However, he did write for Sid Caesar in 1958, for a short-lived program called The Sid Caesar Show. On the other hand, in 2001 Allen gave on-camera interviews for some Sid Caesar DVDs and spoke lovingly about his time spent with Sid. As those who know how little Woody talks to cameras about anything, I think this is adequate proof that he is proud of his time spent under Caesar’s wing.


BACK TO POST 2Howard Morris makes a cameo in another of my posts.

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Great Annie Hall Gag Dumbed-Down to Near Extinction

Back in 1979, Woody Allen inadvertently helped invent the Home Theatre Experience when he insisted that his film Manhattan be transferred to VHS only in the letterboxed format.



So, instead of this aesthetically compromising pan-and-scan version…





                        …we got this:


And since there were no “rules” in place yet, Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis settled on a neutral gray matte for the letterboxing.

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Ever since then, however, Woody Allen has been less concerned with how his body of work is preserved for the home market, which is sad since that’s where it will be seen most from now on.


The first thing I noticed is that when Manhattan went to DVD in 2000, the gray bars were gone:

This is hardly cause for alarm. Certainly, Woody’s allowed to change his mind, and I know some people thought the gray was a little twee. As for me, I’ve seen Manhattan with the gray bars dozens of times, so it’s disconcerting to see it otherwise. The sad truth is that I don’t think MGM (who released the DVD) asked Woody Allen for his opinion, and I don’t think he cared one way or another.

Still, that’s small potatoes compared to this…

Twenty-five minutes into Woody Allen’s 1977 Annie Hall, his character Alvy Singer and Annie have their first meeting. This extended sequence of memorable lines (“That’s OK. We can walk to the curb from here”) and 70s urban mating ritual culminates with the Balcony Scene, which plays more like a year of therapy than a scene in a comedy. In it, while Alvy and Annie try to impress each other with intellectual observations, we see their insecure thoughts as subtitles. For those who need a refresher, here’s the scene. For the rest, here’s a sample of how it once looked on film, TV and VHS:

And yet, now, when you watch the only version on DVD available in the US, here’s an idea of what you see…

HuhI? Someone at MGM really thinks I need to be told that the words on the screen aren’t the ones coming from Annie and Alvy’s mouths? If they think I’m that dumb, then why not do these subtitles as well…

Or…

Sadly, I can easily imagine a first time viewer of the film (and my generation has to accept the fact that not everybody has seen Annie Hall) being confused by the inclusion of “[thinking]” in the subtitles, assuming that that’s what Woody Allen had intended. (God, what a dreadful thought.)

I can accept and respect the fact that Woody doesn’t do commentaries or ‘making of’ docs (more in a later post on my feelings about that), but I hope he’d at least protect one of his most brilliant and enduring gags. (And I mean that, too; it might not be the funniest joke in Annie Hall, but, my God, does it stick with you.)

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And just for the Hell of it, what if Woody Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman decided to limit their insights to just Woody’s character (perhaps calling the film Alvy Singer). Then maybe the Balcony Scene would look a little something like this…

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