Archive | April, 2013

George Hickenlooper and the Challenges Artists Face

23 Apr

In the spring of 2010 I wrote a book proposal with the director George Hickenlooper. The book we were going to co-author (if we could find a publisher) was to be a bio of Hickenlooper with a lot of emphasis on his life as an indie director. I’d become friends with him in that abstract way you do via Facebook. He was the one who proposed doing a book about his life. He did so in a joking, self-deprecating way, saying that his mom and dad would buy it. I liked the idea. A book about a filmmaker who lived outside of the mainstream of Hollywood sounded good to me. Sadly, he died on October 29th unexpectedly at the age of 47. He was in Denver while on a promotional tour for his new film about the corrupt Washington lobbyist, Jack Abramoff. The film is called CASINO JACK. It stars Kevin Spacey, who, Hickenlooper wrote to me, was cast through Facebook !!

At first I didn’t know him except through his films. I was a fan of two of his films without really connecting them or realizing they were by the same director. One is the moody drama called The Man from Elysian Fields. The other is a wonderful documentary about filmmaking. It’s called Hearts of Darkness. The name of the director on those films wasn’t what stood out — it was the intensity of the storytelling.

Some directors have such a distinct style that you will always recognize their films. Hickenlooper had themes that interested him and his style was in service of them. A number of his films were about the struggles of artists and various kinds of challenges they face. For example, Hearts of Darkness is about what Coppola went through while making Apocolypse Now (an amazing artistic journey with great risks and costs). The Man from Elysian Fields is about a writer (played by Andy Garcia) who is trying to support a family and turns to working as an escort for rich women to earn money… and then he ends up co-writing a book with the husband of one of the women he escorts. In the end, he pays a price for being an artist, but does achieve artistic success.

Hickenlooper directed major Hollywood films independently and it was a struggle. He stressed himself out and that’s part of why he died at 47. He made films about artists struggling and he lived that way himself.

He was always on the move — New York to meet his new distributor one day… meeting with new agents at CAA in Beverly Hills a few days later…. then to New Orleans to search for locations for his next film. Then to Denver to shoot ads for his cousin’s run for office as the governor of Colorado (he won and the ads helped)…. Then to a film festival in Toronto where he and Kevin Spacey promoted Casino Jack… and so on….

Life is life but we know there is an end point. Before that we have a finite amount of time.

How will we spend that time? What can we accomplish, learn, do, enjoy, see, feel, dream?

Master Zhuang said this: What if enjoying life is a delusion? What if it’s the case that in hating death I am like a child who was lost early in life and did not know the way home?

He said: Forget the years, forget distinctions. Leap into the boundless and make it your home.

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Detour and Ann Savage — Classic Noir

23 Apr

Detour, 1945, feature film, USA, directed by Edgar Ulmer, starring Ann Savage as Vera, and Tom Neal as Al Roberts

Savage Detours: The Life and Work of Ann Savage, 2009, a biography and filmography by Kent Adamson and Lisa Morton, McFarland, with a Foreword by Guy Maddin

The most fun role for actors is always the bad or twisted character, the weirder the better. Often villains in film are men, but sometimes they are women. The writer in Basic Instinct played by Sharon Stone was bad. The housewife in Double Indemnity was twisted. A list compiled by writers at Time magazine of the top ten movie villains EVER included Ann Savage in the film Detour. She was one of two females given that distinction. Her performance in the film is amazing because she is vicious, brutal, suicidal, and bullying, yet sexually fascinating in her trampiness and foxiness and also, at some level, she’s totally sympathetic. You wish she could get off the blackmail scheme she’s working on her victim, a passive barroom pianist played by tough-guy actor Tom Neal in a weakling role, and just, well, enjoy life without a bottle and the greed. Instead she’s driven, desperate, and on a death march. If you haven’t seen this film and like film noir, put it at the top of your list.

Detour is a relatively low-budget B-movie, not a film anyone thought would become a classic. It was released on November 30th, 1945 from a minor Hollywood studio, PRC. Their lot and offices were over on Santa Monica boulevard in West Hollywood where there’s a Trader Joe’s now. The company cranked out genre entertainment and made money. It was owned by Pathe, a major French film company, so the director, Austrian émigré Edgar Ulmer, had some finishing funds for niceties like a decent score and a few other touches after a fast 28-day shoot with a couple of B-actors. The script was 141 pages, written by a novelist, Martin Goldsmith, who wrote the story as a book first. Ulmer cut it by half. The film packs a lot of intense dark psychodrama into 67 minutes. The film writer Andrew Sarris called it the most despairing of all B-pictures. It has gradually become famous as a cult film and was selected as the first film noir and B-movie to be included in the National Registry of Film by the Library of Congress.

Both leads give great performances, but it’s the bad girl, Vera, played by Ann Savage who steals the show. It’s the film she’s known for. It developed a following among noir and revival film aficionados over the years and her amazing and memorable performance inspired the quirky Canadian director, Guy Maddin, to cast her in the key role of his mother in his 2008 film, My Winnipeg. She was hoping it would be her return to screen acting after years outside the film business, but it turned out to be her last film. Her career had been mostly in B-films in the 1940s, then a long gap until the Maddin film.

In the last decade or so of her life, the LA-based filmmaker, writer, and B-film enthusiast Kent Adamson became her good friend, collaborator, and manager. They were working on her autobiography but ran out of time. Savage died in 2008 at age 87, Before she died, she had contracted to tell her life story to the publisher McFarland. Once she was gone, Adamson wrote her biography with Lisa Morton, who added an extensive, annotated filmography. Savage Detours is a gem for fans of film noir, Ann Savage, the history of Hollywood B-films, and the film Detour. It’s full off insights and inside information. They even included part of the original screenplay with personal notes written by Savage.

I’ve had the good fortune to have three long conversations with Adamson by telephone and another in person. Adamson knows about as much about Ann Savage and the film Detour as anyone on the planet, which is to say in the entire universe. It’s always been a great pleasure to discuss Detour, Ann Savage, and the history of B-films and independent films with him.

Adamson sees her character in the film, Vera, as a role reversal. “She’s playing what was a man’s role in those days, a predatory drifter. She dominates Tom Neal, and he takes it. She’s active and he’s passive. There’s nothing like it in the films of the 1940s. She’s very sexually aggressive. She’s raw, she craves sex – tonight. She’s not the typical mysterious glamour girl femme fatale like Jane Greer in Out of the Past, she dominates, she takes” said Adamson over coffee in Los Feliz, in a nicer part of the once-tawdry Hollywood underbelly area where Bukowski lived from the 1950s to the 1970s and which he called East Hollywood.

Which brings up something important to consider in relation to Detour: the underbelly of Hollywood. Not only were B-movies like Detour the underbelly in terms of filmmaking, but Hollywood itself, a gold-rush, get-rich-quick place, had and still does have its own underbelly of schemers, dreamers, swindlers, and low-wage earners hoping for the big break– people looking for the main chance, a way out. As Adamson pointed out to me, Detour is not only a product of the underbelly of Hollywood in terms of production, but it’s ultimately also a story about a Hollywood schemer, Vera, a dying young woman who tries to force a hapless pianist to play a role, pull a con, by pretending to be, ACTING as, the son of a wealthy dying man so the two of them can get the big inheritance. The characters are on the road to Hollywood, and the last third is set there. Detour is every bit as much a Hollywood story as Sunset Boulevard or A Star is Born, depicting life in the gutter of Hollywood Boulevard instead of the top, Adamson said. It follows a long tradition of stories about unknowns hoping to make it big in Hollywood.

Ann Savage, with careful coaching from director Ulmer, performed so convincingly and powerfully that she defined an archetype, the classic ambitious American female who dominates the male, pushing him relentlessly to strive for wealth. But that drive to achieve isn’t unique only to underdog females in a patriarchal society; one where they had to work through the male to achieve power and money. The near compulsion to make it is built into the American character. Beginning in the late 19th century the last of the old system of European rule-by-the-nobility died out via changes in laws that favored competition and gave rise to the corporation as a legal and financial force with almost unlimited power and reach (at one time corporations were far more accountable and limited in purpose and scope by law). America became a super-competitive place of all-against-all and a big-time robber baron and financial schemer like Vanderbilt could rise from the merchant class to owning about ten percent of American wealth by the time he died. The rise of the merchant-banking class got rolling in Europe with the Medicis in the late 1300s and with the Puritan sober merchants in England in the 1500s who at once point overthrew the king (Charles 1, eventually executed), but it reached its fullest realization in America. The mentality continues to prevail.

Detour is a dark look at relentless, desperate striving, a desire to get rich by any means. It’s neatly encapsulated in a 67-minute small-scale drama about a weak musician who longs to reunite with a girlfriend who left him for Hollywood, and a dying young woman who sees a shot at wealth in a randomly encountered set of circumstances as she hitchhikes west across America. Some degree of ambition and struggle is required to survive, but as Vera and Al Roberts go through the journey of their lives, Vera’s supercharged greediness and desperation plus some random events took them both on a strange and savage detour. This film and Born to Kill are both memorably grim and represent a kind of film that explored and critiqued the dark side of the American dream. It’s Detour that highlighted the feral female most effectively and in so doing, gave Ann Savage the role of a lifetime.

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