Archive for June, 2009

Monks – The Transatlantic Feedback

monks_combinedAnother addition to the “long overdue” department is this film, by Dietmar Post and Lucia Palacios about the mysterious band The Monks of the mid 1960’s. Highly influential in underground music, this band’s story is told here with revealing footage and interviews with most original members as well as the German avant-garde managers who shaped the image and sound of the band. The historical context for the band’s approach is well explained and makes this a film of value also for those interested in the art culture of  the 60’s. In this case we get an examination of Vietnam-era Germany where band members stayed after military service to create music. The DVD features much live footage of the band before as the Torquays and after transformation into The Monks. Released by PlayLoud! Productions, May 9, 2009.

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Scott Walker – 30 Century Man

scott3 eyeLike a flashlight beaming into a dark room, this is the long awaited film about one of the most curious singer songwriters ever. Walker left the 60’s pop group The Walker Brothers in 1967 to escape the insanity of being a pop star, and would embark on a solo recording career during which he has made some of the most dark and compelling music known to man. This film, by director Stephen Kijak, features impressive historical background and talking head interviews about the subject, but really delivers with Scott himself being interviewed and most of all with glimpses of him working in the studio on a current project. For fans it is a real treat without destroying the mystique at all. For those unfamiliar, it serves as a great introduction. Released on DVD June 16,2009 by Oscilloscope.walkerposing

The Friends Of Eddie Coyle – Finally Available!!

friends_of_eddie_coyleThanks to the Criterion Collection, this item from the “LOST” list surfaces in a very nice, although bare-bones edition. The 1973 Paramount film, directed by Peter Yates (Bullitt) and starring Robert Mitchum, is possibly one of the best films of it’s genre and of the 70’s. It’s also a late tour de force for Mitchum. Friends and the 1975 Farewell My Lovely would mark a return to the noir pictures of his heyday in the 40’s and 50’s, and Mitchum would show that he never lost his chops despite hard, wild living.

Based on a crime novel by Boston prosecutor George V. Higgins, the film is set in the very realistic world of small-time hoods in early 70’s Boston. The tone is set mostly by the tough-guy dialogue deftly written in the book and expertly delivered by Mitchum and Peter Boyle in the film. Eddie “Fingers” Coyle is up to his neck in a gun deal with small-timer Jackie Brown, and the law is not far behind. Eddie’s associate and bartender Dillon (Boyle) is caught between Eddie and the mob, and must play both sides, as Eddie does. It’s every man for himself.

The entire film is shot on location in and around Boston, which at the time was the perfect run-down mean kind of town for the film’s aesthetic. Yates’ use of long-shot exteriors and dark, claustrophobic interiors enhances the mood. Near the climax of the film there is also the bonus of a glimpse into the long-gone Boston Garden, where the famous Bobby Orr-era Bruins play a game attended by our hoodlums. Priceless. It may be the best film of Boston ever.

On DVD, the film retains its grainyness and washed-out look, and there is a very fortunate commentary track by Director Yates, now in his 80’s. The only other extra is a booklet with reprints of some articles, one in particular by Grover Lewis written on the set and behind the scenes with Mitchum that is really good. Released on June 2, 2009.  Get it before the “mooks” at Paramount get it back and shove it on a shelf for another 30 years.

Speaking of Mitchum – Get out your VCR

farewell_my_lovelyAs mentioned in my piece on The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Robert Mitchum was in another noir in 1975 called Farewell, My Lovely. So far no DVD release has come for this overlooked film from the cycle of 70’s noirs.  It’s a color film version of the Raymond Chandler potboiler, set in 1941 L.A.  Mitchum plays private eye Philip Marlowe, of course, but the supporting cast is excellent also, including Harry Dean Stanton, Charlotte Rampling and Sylvia Miles.

Directed by Dick Richards, a former Life photographer, the film is an updating to 70’s realism of an old story from the days of the dark, sinister dream-world noir style. The period L.A. of this film stands out much more than it would in earlier films, and feels much more lifelike. The noir lighting style is employed, but here in dazzling reds and shadows of all colors, for the first time you get a sense of things as they looked for real. Neon signs jump out of the night, and sidewalks are washed in color. Broad daylight is, well, broad daylight. Refreshing.

Polanski‘s Chinatown, Altman‘s Long Goodbye, Penn‘s Night Moves, Kulik‘s Shamus and Benton‘s Late Show are the other stand-out films of the 70’s that revisit the 40’s private eye film and reinterpret it for their own time. The 40’s paranoia becomes 70’s cynicism and the made in studio picture becomes a location feature. All are very successful and worthwhile films, but Farewell is somehow the most perfect balance of style and revision, and is made more poignant by the presence of the aging Mitchum, who seems  a more world-weary version of Marlowe than he would as a younger man.

big sleep picHe also appears as Marlowe in Michael Winner‘s 1978 The Big Sleep, an all-too-flawed remake of the nearly perfect 1945 Howard Hawks film of the same name with Bogie and Bacall. Winner’s film is mostly forgettable but for Mitchum, who tries his best but is undone by the director’s ineptitude and the film’s overdone approach to updating, so far as to set the film in England with an overly-jazzy score. Worth mentioning on this subject of The Big Sleep, the 1973 Buzz Kulik film Shamus, starring Burt Reynolds as private eye Shamus McCoy, has a great homage to the Hawks original. It’s a replay of the scene where Bogart stakes out the shop across the way and “whiles” away the afternoon with a nice young lady and a pocket bottle of rye, except no whiskey and much more sleazy talk. Really fun.

Both Mitchum films are in the non-DVD limboland, but Acme Video, the only place that cares, has them available for you to watch on cassette, so dust off your VCR.

The Sublime Weirdness of David Carradine: A Retrospective

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Reports from Bangkok, Thailand, June 3, 2009 announced that David Carradine, beloved star of Kung Fu and most recently Kill Bill 1 & 2 was found dead. The circumstances are yet to be revealed, but it was said at first that it was possibly suicide, as he was found hanged in his hotel room. Rumors also have it that possibly it may have involved some type of auto-erotic activity. More on that as it develops. Weird maybe, but somehow I was not shocked. The strange death of an actor who was great at strange, an always enigmatic yet thought-provoking and somehow very real guy.

His iconic wandering character Caine on Kung Fu, is a great and well-known example. Best described by Sam Jackson in Quentin Tarantino‘s Pulp Fiction, Caine “just walked the earth- havin’ adventures ‘an shit”. As a boy Caine, a white orphan, trained as a Shaolin monk and learned the art of Kung Fu. On the show he was a foreigner alone and wandering the wild west of yesteryear and having encounters which often required him to defend himself with his awesome skills. It was a character he totally inhabited. It wasn’t him being extreme, but rather natural,to the consternation of many of the show’s producers. According to Brandon Cruz, formerly a child actor on the show, he would show up to the set in a cloud of dust driving his beat up Studebaker, in wardrobe, mostly his own clothes, in character and barefoot. Cupping a joint, he’d look around and say,”OK, what are we doing?” For three seasons, this was Carradine’s main job in acting, a grueling run which wore him out and eventually led to the ending of the show when he quit. He was a big but reluctant TV star by then. If you grew up in the 70’s like me, you saw Kung Fu on prime time from 1972-1975. It was a sensational show, beautifully shot and with exaggerated slow-motion martial arts action sequences. There were many guest appearances on the show by familiar actors like John Saxon and William Shatner, and some just starting out like little Jodie Foster in a particularly memorable episode. Topps even put out trading cards of the show and then parodied those with the Wacky Packages line of cards, hugely a part of pop culture at that time. Kids often had the Kung Fu lunchbox with Carradine on the lid. Young and old, people loved the show and the character.

David Carradine GrasshopperThe show reflected the 70’s craze for Zen and the mystical/spiritual nature of things. Keep in mind that people were generally unfamiliar with Asian culture. It was just the beginning of a long exploration. A breakthrough, really, considering the long history of wartime hostilities with various Asian nations. In typical TV fashion of the times, Carradine played an ethnically Chinese character but was Caucasian. Many ethnic actors were considered and turned down, even Bruce Lee. It was a wise choice in the long run to cast Carradine, as the challenge brought out his true talent. His unorthodox methods and the subtleties of his face and physique enabled him to pull it off in a fantastic way. Initially there was resistance from Asian cast members, but David’s personality and ability came to the fore and people realized it was a hit show. The producers and designers also paid much attention to getting the most authentic details down. The rest is history. The door was opened for a flood of martial arts genre material to be produced and shown to American audiences, and now the genre is firmly a part of mainstream film culture.

Over the years, I’ve been struck by several of his other more offbeat portrayals, especially brief cameos. In Robert Altman‘s 1973 film The Long Goodbye, an updated noir with Elliot Gould as a wisecracking 1970’s Phillip Marlowe, Carradine shows up as a fellow jailbird when Marlowe is brought in by the cops. Carradine plays a guy apparently jailed for dope possession. He rambles on in ad-lib fashion,”You know, they don’t have murderers and rapists in here anymore. You know what they got in here? People who smoke marijuana. They’ve got people in here for possession…..possession of noses…. gonads…. possession of …life. It’s a weird world….someday all the pigs will be in here and all the people are gonna be out there.” To which Marlowe responds,” You can bet on that. Just remember Dave, you’re not in here- it’s just your body. See ya when you get out.”

Previous to this turn, he’s in Martin Scorsese‘s first studio film as a director, Boxcar Bertha. The film, produced by Roger Corman, and as such a quickie low budget special, was a depression-era story of Bertha Thompson, a true-life wanderer and ne’er do well and Big Bill Shelly, a union organizer, who become outlaws together. It was another entry into the new genre opened up by the success of Bonnie and Clyde of depression crime stories, except the Corman touch meant exploitative sex and violence for the drive-in crowd. Carradine and Barbara Hershey, real-life lovers during this time, turn in performances that not only float this movie but make it more memorable than it would have been for sure. Added was the the capable and already interesting camera work and direction of Scorsese. (John Cassavetes, when Scorsese showed him the film, told Martin never to do a project like that again, that he was too talented and should do films of things that were important to him). The character of Bill meets a weird end, being crucified Christ-like to the side of a boxcar and sent hurdling down the tracks, an example for all to see. On the one hand, a message to all who would “talk union talk”, or be on the wrong side of the law. On the other, a Scorsese Christ-image for the audience to consider, a wider message about us as humans and how we treat each other. Carradine portrays each facet of Bill earnestly, as if he again inhabits the character. He seems natural even through the bizarre conclusion. More on killing Bill later.

Right after this film, Carradine again worked with Scorsese, this time a small and strange role in Mean Streets, a violent film of small-time gangsters in 1970’s Little Italy New York. It is Scorsese’s first personal feature length film. In it, Carradine is a drunk in a shirt and tie at the bar where the main characters, Charlie and Johnny Boy, played by Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, hang out. After pulling himself off his barstool and hoisting himself onto the bartop, writhing and mumbling incoherently, he gets down and weaves his way toward the Men’s room, overturning chairs as he goes. The object of scorn by the main wise guys, he is referred to as something out of Season of the Witch (an in-joke referring to the original title of Mean Streets). Then Scorsese cuts to Carradine slumped over a urinal trying to remain upright. A long-haired assassin enters and shoots him three times in the back. Does he simply die? No, he lunges for the guy, out of the men’s room, back out into the bar, smashing things and struggling to choke his assassin. He gets dragged further, then blasted again, this time from the front, and winds up in a heap outside the bar and exhales his last just before the bar sign and jukebox are extinguished as a foil for the soon-to-arrive cops.  With barely a line, Carradine is again an enigmatic presence. We’ll never know why he’s killed or who he is even, but it’s for sure that this sort of thing is a regular if bizarre ocurrence in the Mean Streets part of town. Why Carradine? It’s obvious- he just IS that guy on screen. When you need an enigma, you call on one.

After the success of Kung Fu and the aforementioned notable roles, he seems to have disappeared into sub-mediocrity with several schlock films including the always entertaining Death Race 2000 . A futuristic road warrior named Frankenstein, he battles his nemesis Machine Gun Joe (Sylvester Stallone). A companion movie followed later, called Deathsport, in which Carradine plays Kaz, this time a Desert Ranger 1000 years into the future, battling enemies on his Deathcycle. An added attraction in the Corman formula here is Playboy bunny/actress Claudia Jennings. These have to be seen to be believed, and are mentioned here for those who may need a good trashy double feature for some delirious 2 a.m. viewing sometime.

The most major role of his career at this point came when Tim Buckley, Hal Ashby‘s first choice to play Woody Guthrie in his film Bound For Glory died, leaving the role available. Again cast as second choice, he showed up owning his character and the film is a true gem, although not totally a straight biopic of Guthrie but more of a trip through a few of the the depression years with David Carradine as Woody. The film was nominated for Academy Awards, but faced stiff competition that year from Taxi Driver, All The President’s Men, Network and Rocky, which took Best Picture. Director Hal Ashby would return later with a nomination for Coming Home in 1978, but would lose to The Deer Hunter. Carradine would be overlooked, but would continue in film for years.

In 1977, he worked with the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman in The Serpent’s Egg, in which he plays Abel Rosenberg, a trapeze artist in 1923 Berlin. It was a big budget Bergman film in which the director was re-creating the atmospheric German cinema of the 20’s. A dark and psychological thriller, also very lavish and Cabaret-like, it was very involved, and was a different experience both for the director and his actors. The large sets and vast numbers of extras were challenging for Bergman, used to smaller productions which focused on characters.

Interviewed for the DVD release of the film, Carradine reflected positively on his performance and working with Bergman to a degree. He seemed to think the director wanted his outer mystique more than inner complexity, which worked pretty well for the type of film it was. He really was awed by working with Liv Ullmann, who remarked that David was somewhat out of his element working with Bergman. The film stands as a solid part of the Bergman works, and did very well financially. Carradine looked at it as his most artistic film experience up to that point although it got him no further in the Hollywood scene. He quotes a conversation he had with the iconoclastic director Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre) in which he says, “David, sometimes you need to choose between power and….eternity.” As an actor, Carradine felt that power was less important, and the eternal nature of a character was the essence of his art.

When Bruce Lee died suddenly in 1973, he left more than a few loose ends. In the late 60’s he was talking to James Coburn (just one of his celebrity martial arts students) about a story idea for a movie called The Silent Flute. Bruce would play the character of a master who guides and inspires a young unorthodox fighter who would be challenged three times on his quest to attain the Book of All Knowledge. The flute of the Master could only be heard by the one facing the trials, hence the title. Coburn was on board for a part and as a producer, but the film was slightly ahead of its time and could not get backing despite some inside track connections through Coburn. Just before his death, Coburn had been working to get the film green lit, and called Lee in Hong Kong to give him good news when it finally looked good. Lee, a huge star by then, told him, “You can’t afford me now”. The film was put in limbo.

A few years later, rights to the story were acquired by director Richard Moore and writer Sterling Siliphant, who won an Academy award for his script for In The Heat of The Night. Carradine was summoned and expressed a big interest right away, and they began to flesh it out. Carradine would play four roles in the picture –  the Flute-playing Master, the Monkey-Man, Zetan, or the possessor of the Book, and Death. The film was shot on amazing locations in Israel’s mountains and deserts. The Silent Flute, or Circle Of Iron as it was called upon release finally in 1978, is a classic. Despite some flaws in casting and the obvious lack of Bruce Lee, whose action scenes one can only imagine would have been better, Carradine felt that it was his best and very favorite film and it does have a mystical side which stands out and makes the film retain much of the original intention. He actually grew, harvested, and carved the bamboo which became the Silent Flute of the picture. Some memorable lines include, “One year ago I took a vow of silence.” “When did you break it?” “Now. Why are you following me?” And, “A fish saved my life once.” “How?” “I ate him.”  It is a must see film of Carradine’s and is also referenced later in Tarantino’s Kill Bill 1 & 2

The 80’s brought about a few bright spots in his career, more notably his role in The Long Riders (1980), a return to westerns for him, in which he plays Cole Younger, eldest of the three Youngers that rode with Jesse James. The film is a solid western directed by Walter Hill, and all three Carradine brothers and both Keach brothers, both Quaids and both Guests are also in it. It’s familiar territory for Carradine, who began his acting career with small roles in many westerns and western themed TV shows (Wagon Train, The Virginian, Gunsmoke). The highlights include Carradine fighting yet another foe, a knife fight at arms length, measured by a piece of cloth clenched in the teeth of both fighters.

Q-The Winged Serpent, a Larry Cohen film (much more on him later on this blog), came out in 1982, in which Carradine plays a New York detective. This time, he is the straight man (as much as he can be), but in un-typical fashion for this type of monster movie, the cop investigates the true nature of what he’s dealing with- a huge flying serpent from Aztec legend living in a nest atop the Chrysler building. Q swoops down and munches on the unsuspecting New Yorkers and various topless sunbathers. The fact of Carradine doing this film shows his ability to embrace the weirdness and jump in there and give it all he’s got. He fits in as a perfect presence in this, one of the essential Larry Cohen horror movies and one of the great cult movies ever.

In 1983, Carradine finished his one and only film as director, Americana. It was begun in 1973 and financed with his own money, and took the full ten years to complete. He plays the central character, a Vietnam vet returning home to a small town in Kansas. Like the Caine character, he is quiet and mysterious, and goes about fixing up an old carousel while suffering much resistance and scorn from the townspeople. It is a huge and somewhat heavy metaphor for his life. Carradine is really hitting a stride with this character, even if the film is flawed and out of time. If only the film could have come out in 1973, it would have found its audience. By 1983, Reagan was in the White House (wow, John Fogerty was right…) and Vietnam was being rehashed and rewritten over and over with very mixed results. Americana was never given a chance to screen widely but stands out now a solid entry into the existential cinema of the 70’s that was more authentic and represented a independent voice. Seeing this film is very difficult due to scarcity of tape releases and a very poor dvd release long out of print. Thanks to Rhino though, for caring enough to put that dvd out. Hopefully some responsible film person will get the rights to this and fix it up for a posthumous new release.

The rest of the decade was certainly busy for Carradine, mostly TV material, including the North and  South civil war mini-series, and Kung Fu The Movie, a return to the Caine character. Into the ’90’s he worked constantly, but had mostly minor roles, many forgettable. In 1992, he made an appearance in a great little-known film called Roadside Prophets. It was a road movie starring John Doe of the band X and Ad-Rock, or Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys. The two were wanderers on the road to El Dorado, in this case a casino in Nevada, riding motorcycles across country and encountering various prophetic weirdos and truth tellers along the way. Of course, they come to a clearing looking for a place to stay, and there is David Carradine, or Othello Jones, sitting on the porch of his trailer in a tux singin’ a lil’ ditty. They partake of the hash pipe and sit down to a fancy dinner and discuss the sixties, Nixon, Reagan and Roman gladiators. It’s a great sidebar in a mystical road adventure, once again propelled into the sublime by Carradine.

The 90’s also brought about yet another re-hash of Kung Fu, called The Legend Continues. From 1993 to 1997 the show ran, and featured an updating for the ’90’s as Caine’s son Peter is introduced, a big city cop joined by Caine fighting off crime and evil. Fight sequences were the focus for the newer audience, rather than the earlier philosophizing. It is certainly entertaining, but Carradine seems past it at times, and perhaps is starting to show his age.

Although he kept busy with constant TV and minor film stuff into the new century, most of it was obscure and it looked as if he would fade away finally. And then….Warren Beatty, Quentin Tarantino’s first choice to be this Bill character in his new Grindhouse ode to Hong Kong martial arts pictures, seemed not to “get” what the movie was about. He was “fired”, or let go from negotiations. Meanwhile, Carradine had heard about this project and wanted to do it, but was out of the loop. He packed up and headed back to town from his horse ranch and “showed up” wherever Tarantino would be. First at the premiere of Jackie Brown, which revived the careers of both Pam Grier and Robert Forster, and then several other events where Tarantino could be engaged in film talk. At the moment of he and Beatty’s bust, Quentin’s light bulb went off, and he decided that Carradine would make so much more sense as Bill, and having told Carradine they would work together, he knew it would be a go. Kill Bill Parts 1 & 2 was ON.

billandbbAt 67 years old and a bit out of shape, Carradine worked out and got himself into the role. He was excited, invigorated. He dusted off the Silent Flute and got a Hanzo sword.  His actual appearance in the film doesn’t happen until part 2, but when he makes the scene, it’s typical Tarantino, where everything old becomes new again. In a black and white scene, Carradine is sitting on the porch of an adobe chapel in the middle of a forsaken dusty place outside of El Paso, playing….THE Flute. Inside, Uma Thurman, playing Beatrix Kiddo, a.k.a. Black Mamba, is about to get married after quitting the gang. She comes out upon hearing the tune, and asks why he’s there. Bill, in black, is there to kill her. It is a stunning moment on screen and off, as those familiar with Carradine’s connection to this material realize he’s back, and this time it’s gonna be BAD!

The iconic image of Bill from this film would be the most successful thing he would ever do on screen. Off screen, he’d appear in similar garb to Bill from the movie, as if he’d found the image so very comfortable, or was it that Bill was not so far off from the man? He even worked the bad-boy image for a while, appearing drunk in public at a screening of Bound for Glory during which he made quite a nuisance of himself. Although he worked as constantly as before following the Tarantino show, Carradine remained ever-enigmatic, with long grey hair and his shrunken-head complexion and bulging eyes. One of his very last screen appearances was no surprise, a character confined to a wheelchair in an episode of  the medical TV-drama Mental. A clip of this strange performance is included here. In Thailand, he was working on a French action film eerily titled “Stretch“. No clips of this are as yet available, but perhaps down the line we will get to see the final performance of this figure who will be missed but remembered always for his portrayals that inspire us to think, or at least scratch our heads and wonder.