Wednesday, April 29, 2020

1988's 8mm Concerts: Butthole Surfers, Half Japanese & Alex Chilton

Somewhere in the back of your closet buried among cassette mix tapes and the Frankie Say shirt you're embarrassed to have ever worn but secretly love might be 8mm film footage that you should've digitized decades ago. It's the kind of millstone you'll never divest yourself of, but which will take an act of god before you put the pieces in motion to do something about. In my case it's an astonishing trifecta of my childhood home burning down, a global pandemic and surgery on a broken toe that opened up vast swaths of unlimited time for sit-down projects. That and winning the high bid on a Wolverine Pro 8mm film scanner.

Presented here for you to poke with a stick is the product of that trifecta: vintage digitized 8mm film footage of the Butthole Surfers, Half Japanese and Alex Chilton all filmed over the waning months of 1988.

Butthole Surfers at Numbers, Houston April 27th 1988

Looking at this from the perspective of 2020s technology it seems absurd that one can now hold aloft a Hershey bar sized 4k / 60 frames per second low-light video camera that's also a phone and think nothing of it. Back then I borrowed a camera from the university A/V department and spent money I definitely didn't have on Super8 Kodak film and captured these shows on two 50ft reels. The limitations of the film are enormous: slow ISO speed, hard to focus in the dim viewfinder, can't set proper apertures in strobe lights, etc. Yet here it is.

Half Japanese at Tipitina's, New Orleans Dec 9th 1988

Chances are the film does have sound - but the Wolverine Pro film scanner doesn't do sound, so I'll link to someone's fantastic recording of the Butthole Surfers concert for full effect. Some lovely savant also enshrined the Half Japanese setlist here - obviously a giant among men. Another lovely act of generosity tells us that Alex Chilton played at Hal and Mal's, Jackson, Mississippi May 19th, 1989 but alas there's no setlist. Happily there's now a grainy 8mm film commemorating a night on Earth.

I'm an alumni of Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, a tiny oasis of culture in a vast cultural wasteland of churches, pastures and soy farms. If I wanted to see a good show that meant up to a 600+ mile roundtrip to New Orleans, Houston or Dallas. Being broke meant carpooling. The Butthole Surfers show in Houston was a road trip with Michael Donaldson, Les Jordan myself and others. The venue was DIY punk ethos personified, Houston's Numbers club, a dilapidated warehouse in an apocalyptic industrial district straight out of Repo Man. (I could be wrong on the venue and would love comments from anyone in the know.)

Cameras were not welcome but I'd prepared a laughably unlikely ruse to bring my 8mm film and still cameras in: a laminated card that simply stated "PRESS" which I tucked into the front band of a very cliche felt fedora I found at Goodwill ... which worked. Once inside it was mayhem and insanity as the show had started. Some was filmed from the pit where being moshed upon was a risk so I decided to try my luck carting my gear backstage to film from the side. A bouncer guarding the stairs glanced at my dumb hat and unbelievably waved me up but took great exception to the guy behind me emboldened at my success who tried to follow but instead got a brutal shove well back into the crowd.

What cultural gems are lurking in your closet?

Thursday, April 16, 2020

10 Sublime Movies + Film Critics I Loathe and Love

Before I indulge myself with this polemic on movies that have most informed or entertained me in my half century of existing, let me be clear: I'm not "qualified" to review cinema nor am I a "film critic". Despite that, a lack of talent in this realm doesn't stop some film critics from achieving that very thing as a paid vocation. I have strong opinions on cinema but might lack the industry lingo to adequately elucidate why I believe what I believe. A good reviewer could conjure up the minutia of Federico Fellini's entire oeuvre with a smattering of references to Ingmar Bergman, Dogme-95 and concepts more obscure in a simple review of an Adam Sandler movie. Me? I can barely smash the buttons on my laptop to form cohesive sentences. Yet here we are: I'm about to make my opinion on a difficult subject concrete.

But before I do that, let me discuss arguably untalented film reviewers, guys who somehow were anointed by respectable newspapers with the aegis of smearing their opinion upon the cinematic crafts. There's two with whom I've had the misfortune of crossing paths, one a miserable Disney flack and mediocre grifter and the other a man who'd buy your girlfriend an unwanted drink at the bar while you're off putting money in the parking meter: respectively former Orlando Sentinel writer Jay Boyar and The Austin Chronicle's Marc Savlov.

I 'lived' in Orlando from 1989-91 and used cinema as an avenue of escape from the dreary reality of attending the painfully mediocre University of Central Florida, a school I accidentally transferred to from a far superior university. The only easily acquired film reviews to determine if a movie merited my pauper's patronage was The Orlando Sentinel. If the director was someone familiar like Hal Hartley or Wim Wenders I could skip the research, otherwise I'd scan my local paper and count the stars next to the film's name. Their primary critic Jay Boyar in particular earned my ire for his blatant sycophancy of Disney and to a lesser degree Universal Studios, understandable given that they own Orlando and their payola must've been legendary. I'd literally look for the movies Boyar panned and regard it as an endorsement.

Cool As Ice: so astonishingly bad that it circles back around to being good?

One turkey film I purposely attended out of an incomprehensible depth of loathing and disgust for the lead man was Vanilla Ice's fall from grace: Cool as Ice. It was as beautifully horrifying as I'd hoped it to be, a cinematic catastrophe. I recall that after seeing it Jay Boyar gave it 2.5 stars out of four. 2.5! That it could even move the meter was a staggering admission, but 2.5 out of four? Inconceivable! If before I'd considered Jay to be a flack, now I regarded him as the enemy.

And so it was that I found myself in a financially strapped, stunningly cold budget theater and sat upon hard and unergonomic seats awaiting the latest from Peter Greenaway: Prospero's Books. Provisionally I'm a Greenaway fan and loved all his films so my expectations were high. As the lights dimmed I noticed a man a few rows ahead of us sitting solo and scribbling in a notebook with a penlight which continued apace and it dawned on me "the balding head, the notebook ... it's my nemesis Jay Boyar"! This is the point where my girlfriend and I began discreetly tossing popcorn at the back of his head. He'd whirl around hoping to identify his antagonist but there were too many potential culprits. In retrospect that was the best part of Prospero's Books, my Waterloo for Greenaway. I read just now that it's 109 minutes long but my recollection was a film that staunchly refused to end, mocking our attention spans, our discomfited butts and leaving us nearly frost bitten, but even the worst Greenaway film has to be better than the crap Boyar lavished praise upon. Somehow Jay persevered to the end and glared at everyone on his way up the aisle. His review a few days later in the Sentinel perhaps reflected his popcorn pelting: 1.5 stars. He ranked a Peter Greenaway film below a Vanilla Ice film. Am I to blame? Nope. That was classic Boyar.

Jump forward seven-ish years and I'm now an Austinite and The Austin Chronicle is my go-to newspaper for both urbane op-eds and movie criticism and again I have found a nemesis and allies in the fight for honest film criticism. I, like many of you count The Blues Brothers among the finest films made, it's a sublime rollick and the prospect of a good sequel from John Landis was at that moment in time a believable proposition. And so it was that I read Marc Savlov's 3.5 of 5 stars review of Blues Brothers 2000 and cast doubts aside and spent my dosh and time on an unmitigated, despicable turkey of a film. Life being short and time being valuable, I took his misdirection personally and was quite motivated to pen an angry missive to the paper that found its way into print the following week:
Dear Editor:
Landis and his cronies should be stood up against a wall for desecrating the memory of the original film [Blues Brothers 2000]. I haven't been so appalled by a film since I saw Vanilla Ice in Cool as Ice at the dollar cinema years ago - and I went to that just so I could celebrate awfulness in full bloom. And damned if I didn't enjoy Cool as Ice just for that very reason. But Blues Brothers 2000 is undeserving of the barely restrained accolades your reviewer gave it. The 10-year-old Buster Blues was worse than I could have imagined, the musical numbers were arbitrarily thrown in and lacked all relevance to the movie, and the audience sat mute through the movie hoping something/anything funny would happen.
Your reviewer wrote, "...its heart and soul and sense of unbridled fun is so on-target that it doesn't matter..." Heart and soul? Unbridled fun? Did that reviewer accidentally sit in John Turturro's Brain Donors or the Cohen Brother's Raising Arizona? Then the description might apply. Otherwise the film is dreck, pimping the good name of the original for undeserved pocket change. Your reviewer should hang his or her head in shame for misleading me into throwing my money away. I haven't been so upset with a film reviewer since I lived in Orlando and regularly read Jay Boyar's movie reviews in the Orlando Sentinel, but only because he's the most idiotic person ever to put words on paper and is always consistently wrong. If you'd like a primer on how not to write film reviews, go to this site and read some of his reviews (URL), you'll reel backwards in horror in much the same way that I did at the execrable BB2000.
So please, print a retraction, and give BB2000 the La Bomba it earned. Or else bring me the head of that anonymous reviewer.
David Sanborn
[Ed. note: Mark Savlov wrote the review. His initials are signed at the end of the review.]

Savlov did make the smallest effort replying to my vitriol, noting in a later missive (that I sadly now cannot find despite my best efforts) that he was very much stoned when he watched BB2000 which accounted for his ... optimistic 3.5 star rating.

Maybe don't get stoned while doing your "job"?

Later that year our pal Michael Donaldson aka Q-Burns Abstract Message was in town for a gig at a SXSW venue and gave a couple artist passes to me and my girlfriend. We went to a swanky downtown bar hosting an industry event and hobnobbed with local celebrities and saw the mayor there. At some point I realized I had to go pay our parking attendant and left for a few minutes. When I returned I found my girlfriend uncharacteristically sipping a flamboyant cocktail at the bar. She smiled and said "you'll never guess who tried to pick me up" and pointed at a guy across the bar. Yep: Savlov. She really appreciated it too. Thanks!

So that I'm on record as being capable of praise, let me affirm that AusChron film critics Kimberley Jones and Marjorie Baumgarten were my touchstones back then: if they gave a movie more than three stars then I'd like it, guaranteed. If they rated a film four or higher then clear a path motherfuckers I'm going to the movies. But Marc Savlov was a wildcard unlike Jay Boyar. Sometimes he liked good films (unlike Jay who reliably disliked anything good). Savlov gave 3.5 stars to Chicken Run, a film that extremely underwhelmed me and pushed my buttons for its egregious, cliched portrayal of Americans as loudmouthed blowhards with that character being played by an Australian no less. The horror! I penned a perhaps unnecessarily vitriolic reply and for the most part, I still stand by it, though in retrospect I might've been channeling some disdain from the bar incident. Who knows?

Anyway! On to my protracted 10 Best Films According To Me segment that this has been leading up to, hey ho! So here they are in no particular order other than Withnail & I being first and Henry Fool a very, very close second depending on my mood:

  1. Withnail & I (1987): a film I randomly saw on a rainy Seal Beach California day in 1987. We ducked into an arts cinema to escape the deluge and I saw a film destined to change my life and the way I look at cinema. This film is sublime and beautiful and tragic and darkly hilarious. I have a signed Richard Griffiths casting photo on my coffee table to prove it. It put dialog like "I mean to have you even if it must be burglary!" into my repertoire forever. 
  2. Henry Fool (1997): Hal Hartley was godlike before I saw this film. It's the perfect story of broken egos, fallibility, hope, insecurity and everything that makes us flawed.
  3. Rubin & Ed (1991): My wife Jennifer and I once had the immense pleasure of sitting down with Crispin Glover and chatting. Literally ALL I wanted to talk about was his appearance on Letterman to promote Rubin & Ed. Trust me, this cat can eat an entire watermelon. That writer & director Trent Harris could corral his stars into making this unlikely comedy boggles my mind.
  4. Barfly (1987): Gritty and uncompromising look at what motivates an artist. This is what made me hate "obviousness" and what it represents for the rest of my life. 
  5. Dr Strangelove (1964): I grew up convinced that at any moment I could be incinerated in a blinding atomic blast. This film illustrates everything wrong with how the military and governments work.
  6. Cross of Iron (1977): It's a Sam Peckinpah film starring James Coburn so I have to love it. Criminally overlooked too. Again, this is a film that exposes our military as being the crass, nepotistic ass-kissing fraud you suspected it was. Never mind that it's the German military here, they're all bad.
  7. Betty Blue (1986): Quintessentially French, the French-est film ever made. A fiery love affair destined to implode, mental illness, an amazing score and featuring a relationship I swear I was once trapped in.
  8. Hanabi (1997): It's astonishing that Kitano "Beat" Takeshi got his start as a stand up comedian, but then again only a master of the darkest humor could write, direct and star in a film this nuanced. I genuinely love this film. The ending chokes me up. 
  9. Dark Star (1974): This is the 1st 'art' film that I saw. I was reeling from the pain of freshly installed braces and was 13 years old. This film just happened to be on Tampa Bay's channel 44 and I sat transfixed by it, all pain temporarily forgotten. Honestly, I can't watch this without wondering what I've done with my life. This was John Carpenter's film school project for Chrissakes. 
  10. Kelly's Heroes (1971): I could note the very famous stars or the director or the premise or the amazing score by Lalo Schifrin but I'll dispense with that. This is the best war film ever made if your yardstick is based on dark humor. 

Honorable mentions: 
  1. The Waitress (2007): Adrienne Shelly's only film before being stolen from us by an act of unspeakable evil. Hal Hartley cast her in his early movies and I like to think she was channeling him when she wrote, directed and played a bit role in this amazingly beautiful polemic on struggle and attaining happiness.
  2. Winter's Bone (2010): directed by Debra Granik and starred Jennifer Lawrence, no film better illustrates the quiet desperation of rural America. I've been in many communities like the one depicted here and I'll attest it's dire and murderous. 
  3. Repo Man (1984): Possibly the most quotable film ever made. Alex Cox at his finest. I lived in Los Angeles in the mid 80's and yep, that's what it looked like. I'd buy punk rock at Zed's Records in Long Beach and skate and work shitty jobs there just like the protagonists in the movie. I'm astonished that Alex then filmed the horrible Straight To Hell. As it stands, anyone making a film that bad can't be entirely trusted. 
  4. Space Station 76 (2014): This is sci-fi done right. It's campy yet somehow gripping and poignant. Fans of Todd Rundgren won't believe their fortune. 
  5. Catch-22 (1970): The Joseph Heller book was as good as a book can be. Somehow the movie is better. Similar to Kelly's Heroes, the all star cast of this dark comedy will amaze you. If you still want to enlist in the military after watching this farce then god bless your tiny heart.
A sad and happy footnote: after penning this polemic on films and their critics I realized that Jay Boyar passed away in mid-2019. I would be doing him a disservice to edit my criticism of his writings as either way, dead or alive, that's the legacy he left. I do sense a sad vacuum where he once existed and I'm sure that he brought joy to people's lives, especially those who enjoy the most mediocre of Hollywood's commercial offerings. He'll be missed.

Happily, I just Bing'ed Kimberley Jones, a film critic I revered and noted to my happiness that she's the goddamned Editor in Chief of the Austin Chronicle now. Mazel Tov Kimberley! Marjorie Baumgarten meanwhile still plies her trade as a wordsmith and critic of immense talent: huzzah Marjorie: you two mean the world to me, carry on!