Category Archives: 30Hz Bl-g

Ramblings at the frequency of 30Hz

Joe Versus the Volcano: The Cult and the Magnificent Disaster

In July of 2002, Tom Hanks sat next to me at a round table in the conference hall of the Ritz-Carlton Chicago and talked about the particular demands of acting in comedies versus dramas. I asked this question because I’d been assigned the story, but I wasn’t especially interested in his response. It was, after all, being recorded on cassette tape. I could transcribe it all on the plane back home. Naturally he’d focused on the rewards of acting in dramatic fare (the specifics elude me all these years later) and the opportunity to act opposite Paul Newman. He said all the things he needed to say because Tom Hanks was (and still is, as far as I know) the consummate professional Hollywood actor.

Part of that consummate professionalism required him to promote his current film and say glowing, positive, effervescent things about Road to Perdition. The last thing anyone expected him to say was that this gig was merely the culmination of his master plan to create a gleaming, golden coffee table with Oscar-statue legs for his sitting room. Tom Hanks punched his time card like a pro; I had amateur stenciled across my forehead. I hoped I’d get to ask a second question before getting sandbagged by everyone else’s agenda.

Little did I know I was about to get sandbagged by my own agenda. I’d written for InSite Magazine for almost a year at this point. My editor took the choice assignments while I reviewed the latest Not Another Teen Movie or Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever. Just a couple months earlier, my editor had handed me my first talent interview because, he said to the best of my recollection, “I handled bad movies with the respect they deserved.” I still have no idea if that was an actual compliment. As a 23-year-old writer who believed quite highly in himself and pined for any shred of (due) enthusiasm over my writing, I stitched that merit badge on my canvas messenger bag.

The interview? Quite predictably I’d been tasked with discussing a C-grade movie, albeit with a notable commodity. Fresh off Rushmore Jason Schwartzman made a pond dredge teen movie called Slackers. In case the “pond dredge” comment wasn’t leading enough, I’ll say it plain: Slackers stunk. When he made a joke about my Gap jacket, I’d been so focused on obscuring how much I hated the film that I failed to come up with any rebuttal.

I still regret the zinger I never made. I replace the tags so not to intimidate my interview subjects with the posh lifestyle of a tabloid-format journalist. Maybe not the ultimate burn, but still better than a nervous laugh that surely betrayed the fact that I took his crack about “having that same jacket” seriously for an embarrassing number of seconds. Welcome to the business, you’ve just been roasted by a snarky actor two years your junior. I just wanted to conduct the interview and vacate the hotel suite before someone faxed him my D-grade review. It also wouldn’t be the last time I regretted questions or thoughts left unsaid in an interview.

Determined to not repeat past failures, failed to hear the entirety of Mr. Hanks’ response before firing off a second question, or rather a leading statement, which was really the question I’d been dying to ask all along. I said, “I actually consider it a shame that you’ve turned your attention away from comedy because I consider Joe Versus the Volcano the most important movie you’ve made.”

He paused, befuddled perhaps, and regarded this petulant whippersnapper (as I’m sure Tom Hanks’ internal monologue uses words like “whippersnapper”) with some sense of dismay and concern, brow furrowed at a gently sloping 45-degree angle. Was I confused? Impaired? Should security be called? Who was I to suggest that some silly movie he made way back in 1990 was better than award bait like Philadelphia, better than Saving Private Ryan and Forrest Gump, better even than the movie we’d all just watched, which was the most impactful movie in the history of cinema for the duration of this particular gladhand? Surely I’d prefer to assuage his ego about his latest most important accomplishment.

Ultimately, he laughed and thanked me for the sentiment, but did not specifically address my claim about Joe Versus the Volcano before others around the table began lobbing their favorite comedies like holy hand grenades from the trenches, making sure the actor had duly noted each of their picks, all of which seemed like an entire career ago. Someone mentioned Splash and Bachelor Party. Big came up. One of the guys even dropped The Man with One Red Shoe. I’d love to recast the table with at least one woman (because equal opportunity memoirism matters) so we’ll say this hypothetical woman mentioned Joe Dante’s The ‘burbs because The ‘burbs is also terminally underrated and this fictional ‘she’ would have had the good sense to make mention of it.

Nobody else, however, corroborated or acknowledged my Joe Versus the Volcano sentiment.

As our time with the actor ended, and as Mr. Hanks stood to move on to the next table, I asked him to sign my Road to Perdition pressbook. I’d never asked anything of any of the dozen celebrities I’d interviewed. These were just men and women doing their jobs who also happened to be household names. We were just doing ours. Some of us even got paid for it, but nobody knew our names. All of the other on-screen talent I’d interviewed had duly reinforced their celebrity status. Lists of things that couldn’t be asked, warnings about certain lines of questioning, untimely entrances and unusual water concoctions in pitchers provided by personal staffmembers.

Tom Hanks fulfilled every fantasy about Tom Hanks — cordial and friendly and inclusive. He happily signed my pressbook and all others at the table. He treated each of us like old friends and then abruptly exited our lives. Yet he never calls. He never writes.

On my flight home I began to transcribe the interview and I finally stepped out from behind the glow of conversing with Tom Hanks. I recognized how deftly he’d sidestepped my comment about Joe Versus the Volcano by responding modestly and without haste, thereby inviting others to chime in and dilute the precision of the question. A diabolical counterattack. His lack of displayed ego, coupled with the enthusiasm of the gathered round table allowed my Joe Versus the Volcano comment to dissipate without a trace, much like the movie itself in March of 1990.

joe versus the volcano on VHS

If Tom Hanks didn’t see beyond the lackluster box office numbers, the confused moviegoing masses, and the unshakable scarlet “B” for bomb; what hope did anyone else have? Did he not think as highly of it as I’d assumed? Who else out there saw Joe Versus the Volcano for what it really was? Surely he could see that the real bomb wasn’t Joe Versus the Volcano at all, but The Bonfire of the Vanities, which kindly supplanted Joe as the headlining disaster on Mr. Hanks’ resume.

My mind raced with all the questions I didn’t ask, that I couldn’t ask. If only I’d had ten minutes to clarify his stance on this very important issue. I’d ask him about John Patrick Shanley’s script, about working with him as a first time director. How the chemistry between he and Meg Ryan eventually gave birth to the mega-hit Sleepless in Seattle. Did they see the eccentric beauty on the pages of the script? The novelty of philosophy? What registered with audiences beyond the jokes and face-value absurdity of a tribe of Celtic/Jewish/Roman/South Pacific islanders obsessed with orange soda and governed by Abe Vigoda needing a willing sacrifice to the Great Woo?

Alas, Joe Versus the Volcano remains an underseen gem that seems to just keep carrying on in the margins of film appreciation. To call it a cult film feels rather anomalous. Joe Versus the Volcano was a $25million Hollywood production fronted by two of 1990’s biggest stars that one and a half times recouped its budget, but it still can’t shake that stigma of failure.

The term “cult” has typically been reserved for films such as Eraserhead, Repo Man, Donnie Darko, weird movies, beyond the fringe movies, movies that evaded commercial acceptance because they shunned mass appeal in favor of some sort of eccentric or singular vision – be it a failed artistic enterprise or misunderstood genius. The term encompasses massive misfires that have come to be enjoyed ironically and films that took a circuitous route to find a small, but devoted fanbase. Rarely does the term “cult” find assignation on a big budget mainstream semi-success mislabeled a bust. It was viewed by a great many and still written off as an ephemeral trifle. Vincent Canby, the longtime critic for the New York Times likened its misfire to that of Howard the Duck and called it “theoretically comic” and a “mixture of comedy, fantasy and mock-dirge.” He wasn’t alone in that sentiment.

joe versus the volcano title card

Joe went to work. Joe hated every minute of it. His only escape from this circle of hell was the recognition of his own imminent death. The acknowledgment of his own mortality, grants Joe Banks a second chance at life. The most damning thing about Joe Versus the Volcano was that it just wasn’t what anyone expected because it wasn’t really like anything we’d ever seen. The film’s marketing embraced the rom-commy coupling of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan because they didn’t know how to construct a marketing campaign that sold anything but the reputation of its stars.

It looked like puerile comedy. Many critics likewise called it a simplistic oddity or a trifle. I’m always been unable to fully grasp how so many critics seemed to have watched a completely different film. Now, having written about film on and off for the last twenty years, I understand more fully how something so stunningly original could slip through the cracks and become misunderstood. Rotten Tomatoes didn’t exist in 1990, but the critical consensus still imposed its will upon the box office, leading all of its witnesses to the same conclusion.

Would a trifle of a film dare to examine commercialism, the soul-crushing burdens of adulthood? Could a “flat” film deftly champion spiritualism while undermining organized religion? It astounds me that a movie with so much individualism and eccentricity could be read as having nothing interesting to say. Joe Versus the Volcano wasn’t a silly romantic comedy as advertised in the trailer, as expected by everyone that walked into the theater; it was a darkly comic fable about the value of agnosticism, about using the awareness of mortality as raison d’être

joe versus the volcano

These misconceptions have hindered the film’s rediscovery more than any other factor. “Odd,” “bizarre,” “weird” – these are terms that pique a cinephile’s curiosity about movies on the fringe. Terms like “trite” or “flat” or worst of all, “boring” sentence a film to the very real cinematic purgatory reserved for something like that Matthew Broderick vehicle Out on a Limb from 1992. (Stephen Holden correctly called it “frantically unfunny.”) The ripples from which stopped being felt the minute that VHS tape disappeared from the New Release section of your video store. It slipped into total obscurity because it was unfunny, but not incompetent or bold enough in its failure to warrant curiosity.

It’s a very real possibility that John Patrick Shanley’s film could never have found success. For years I bemoaned the film’s reception and how it likely derailed Shanley’s film career. After all, we want these daring writers and filmmakers to be rewarded for their efforts. These films mean something special to us, so why shouldn’t they duly reward their creators? But what if John Patrick Shanley never anticipated or even craved commercial success? In comments about his experience in Hollywood, the playwright has suggested that the filmmaking gig was not an ideal match for his singular personality. He called the moviemaking industry “antithetical” to his nature and seemed more than happy to abandon it and return to writing and directing for the stage – a situation that the perceived failure of Joe Versus the Volcano surely expedited.

In a perfect world, our favorite films make billions of dollars, and studios give people like John Patrick Shanley unlimited budgets to make any film they want in perpetuity. Shanley’s Academy Award for writing Moonstruck, allowed him to make Joe Versus the Volcano, an eccentric passion project. And just like that his meteoric and circuitous career trajectory from playwright to failed Amblin Entertainment-backed auteur and back to playwright had been completed in a little under three years.

Alas, it is and forever will be the way of the world. When movies dare to be something beyond expectation, they risk commercial failure. Great movies often, however, eventually find their audience. Many people forget that John Carpenter’s The Thing and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner were both box office disasters before they became certifiable classics of their respective genres. Their only mistake was appearing in theaters the week after Spielberg released E.T.

Carpenter and Scott eventually found their audience, but I can’t necessarily say the same about Joe Versus the Volcano. Unlike those films, Joe wasn’t merely obscured by an unfortunate release date. While the specter of Pretty Woman looms large in the Joe Versus the Volcano story, I can’t actually blame the film’s relative obscurity on a Julia Roberts’ starmaking vehicle (although I desperately want to).

In the end, perhaps a comedy rooted so deeply in the philosophy of our very existence could never have hoped for anything but adoration from the cult of a few impassioned fans.

Joe Versus the Volcano opened the 2012 Ebertfest. That might even surprise the most devoted fans of the film. Roger Ebert had been one of film’s earliest champions. He wrote in advance of Joe’s screening “I continue to believe it deserves greater recognition, and cannot understand why I gave it 3.5 stars instead of 4.” Great films need champions and certain great films need even more championing.

This isn’t a call to right the egregious wrongs of a prior generation of moviegoers – this is a suggestion that Joe Versus the Volcano has something important to convey to all of us and maybe, just maybe, the world would be a better place if everyone had a copy of the movie of their shelf and took the heart the message contained within.

Yes. Joe Versus the Volcano deserves consideration alongside such quirky cinematic classics like Harvey or The Princess Bride. I believe this in my bone marrow. I also have to consider whether widespread notoriety or acceptance benefits every movie. Does Joe Versus the Volcano mean so much to me because it’s not widely considered a classic? How would my perception of the film change if everyone believed, as I do, that it’s a near-perfect modern masterpiece? Compare it to the aforementioned The Princess Bride, which is similarly quirky and magical and funny, but broadly consumable, whereas Joe attempts to make light of the human condition.

Assessing what makes Joe Versus the Volcano unique requires an evaluation about how we feel about life and death and religion and our ability to effect change – not exactly comfort viewing if you peel apart the film’s whimsical external layers. To those unwilling to take that plunge with Joe to appease the Great Woo, it makes perfect sense that the film would seem like trite, feather-lite entertainment. Joe Versus the Volcano has never been more relevant than it is today, but is a modern re-evaluation even possible when mainstream audiences seem more intent than ever to insulate themselves from meaning?

Some movies become cult films because they can’t be anything else. Does the art of being a cult film have more to do with the ways in which they connect so viscerally with a small percentage of people? Maybe Joe’s greatest purpose was this connection – this major importance to a minor few. I decided it was important to find out by digging into John Patrick Shanley’s philosophy, the reasons that certain people connect to the film so deeply and analyzing how my own affection has changed and evolved with my own greater perspective accumulated during the last 30 years.

This is the first of a multi-part series on Joe Versus the Volcano. If you’ve yet to take your first plunge into the volcano with Joe Banks, pick up the Warner Archive Blu-ray. Support Joe and the Archive. 

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add this nonsense to the list. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook

Gene’s Picks, Netflix, and the War on Physical Media

I’ve been thinking about the war on physical media lately. And usually that’s trouble. I’ve been writing blog posts based on Netflix DVD arrivals. These are posts I’d have written normally, but because I feel indebted to physical media in some capacity I make sure to point out that I held the movie I watched in my hand before placing it in my region-free Blu-ray player and viewing it on my television.

Netflix and DVD and the war on physical media

Netflix

I’ve taken part in their push to maintain physical media relevancy in 2018 at the age of 20. I’ve indulged in their nostalgia and tried to get into the headspace of the 27-year-old me who made The Lake House (2006) his first ever Netflix DVD-by-mail rental. (Who am I kidding? I liked it. No guilt. It’s gonzo romance starring two of my favorite beautiful humans.)

the lake house netflix

I can’t help but think that they’re mocking me, however, with that ‘Nice choice!” crack. I see you Netflix. I know what you’re doing. I’ll see your smarmy judgment and order the movie on SwapaDVD.com. I’ve got extra credits I can spare on statement purchases. I’m not bluffing! Here’s proof.

Still, I couldn’t have recalled that information on my own. The Lake House came as a bit of shock. I would have guessed Series 2 of Red Dwarf, something that would have predated 2006.

Red Dwarf is something you should rent, maybe from Netflix.

As I was saying before The Lake House derailed logical thought (as it tends to do because it’s about a magic mailbox!), I’ve been thinking about the necessity of physical media in this digital age. How the shifting methods of viewing movies have ushered in a world where otherwise sane humans find it perfectly normal to watch entire movies on their phone… when they’re not even on an airplane or at the gym! They choose this method.

Physical Media

The war on physical media is part of a systemic degradation of the film viewing experience — from the cheapening of theatrical exhibition to the general unavailability of films made before 2000 on streaming media. (FilmStruck excepted, of course.)

Dozens of streaming services have popped up, hooking viewers with the promise of unlimited entertainment at their fingertips. Netflix streaming, in fact, would probably have to stand up as the most prominent perpetuator of this myth. And the “everything available all the time” promise of streaming is indeed a myth. You could subscribe to every service imaginable — Netflix, FilmStruck, Shudder, HBOGo, Hulu, etc, etc. — and still barely scratch the service.

Check out the info graphic below and see if you can come out of that experience sober.

The demise of the brick and mortar video store (likely by the hand of Netflix DVD delivery, so that’s a little slice of irony for this meditation) has left a kind of void for moviewatchers of a certain age, those of us old enough to remember the unlimited possibility of the video store.

heroes in the war on physical media
Seattle’s still-thriving Scarecrow Video, a hero in the war on physical media

Gene’s Picks

Streaming services, by and large, require pre-existing notions from viewers. Netflix streaming likes to tell us “Because you watched Glow,” here are twenty other Netflix shows you’ll want to watch. It’s the algorithmic replacement for “Gene’s picks” at our local video store, only Gene didn’t have a financial stake in the number of eyes that watched Weekend at Bernie’s II. Gene placed Weekend at Bernie’s II on that shelf because he liked Weekend at Bernie’s II. Full stop.

When I walked into my local video store, I often didn’t have any idea what I wanted to rent. Sure I had ideas, but I certainly couldn’t guarantee any of those dreams would be in stock. You had no idea what kind of movie would walk out of that video store with you. I browsed the new releases and then wandered the shelves. Some of my most profoundly affecting movie experiences happened as a result of chance rentals.

My first viewing of Suspiria, for example, was inspired by an impulse viewing after seeing the VHS cover at my video store. I rented movies based on VHS covers. I rented movies because “how the hell did this get made?” and because I was there, and they were there, and because what else was I going to do?

heroes in the war on physical media
Gene’s still alright by me, also a hero in the war on physical media.

It was the golden age of discovery, the video store culture, Gene’s picks, chatting up folks who worked as local programmers, tossing rarities on TV/VCR combos behind the counter. It was the age of absurd home video artwork slapped on top of low-budget, direct-to-video offerings clamoring for your attention. We’ve lost all this and for a not insignificant number of movie fans, the near extinction of the local video store felt like a death in the family.

(A vivid memory is the week my wife and I became obsessed with Freaks & Geeks right when it hit first DVD and trying three different video stores to find the third disc because there was a “short wait” from Netflix. I will not wait, thank you very much!)

The “Long Wait” and “Very Long Wait” clocks are indeed very distressing.

The Future of Physical Media

Mail-to-home DVD services might have been the beginning of the end of mom-and-pop video, but it wasn’t until the proliferation of streaming services that people decided, once and for all, that it was just easier to stay in their pajamas and watch whatever was digitally available — whatever the gatekeepers chose to make available at that particular moment in time.

Some of this gatekeeping took place during the video store-era when Blockbuster made it store policy to not stock unrated or NC-17 films to preserve their family-friendly pretense. This resulted in a de facto censorship practice that prevented many innocent films from finding an audience, undermined the relevance of NC-17 and unfairly discriminated against non-pornographic sexual content. But I digress.

The common and wrongheaded idea that the method of watching movies is not important has made life for physical media increasingly difficult in 2018. The quality of streaming differs wildly and is based on factors far outside the control of the original filmmakers. Pixellation, compressed audio. When studios determine that it’s fiscally prudent to eliminate physical media based on your closely tracked digital moviewatching habits, DVDs will go the way of the Laserdisc.

Go ahead. Watch that on your phone. I’m sure it’s the same experience.

I don’t intend to state the obvious, but some people need to hear it, The impact of watching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 on your phone is not the same was viewing it in 70mm on an IMAX screen. People have said this very thing to me. My argument isn’t based on opinion. It’s 100% fact that your emotional and psychological proximity to the screen is less distant when there are no distractions and the screen extends beyond your standard field of vision. You can say you’ve watched a movie on your phone, but you won’t have felt that film. You won’t have identified with that film on any level beyond the activity of holding your phone and being a click away from your next Snapchat session.

As far as home video is concerned, physical media such as DVDs and Blu-rays and UHDs provide the best experience and broadest catalog of available films. Due to the nature of film rights and distribution, no streaming service could ever compare. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy how streaming can supplement my ever-increasing home library, but it will never be my main source of entertainment. My stand in the war on physical media will end when you pry these cases out of my cold dead hands.

dvd library
A slice of my library.

This is why it’s still important to support physical media in all of its forms, whether its through a Netflix DVD-by-mail service, by renting locally (if you’re lucky enough to have such a store still available to you) or by purchasing new Blu-rays and DVDs from distributors that give a goddamn. Special mention goes out to the fine folks at Criterion, Warner Archive, Kino Lorber, Twilight Time, Olive Films, Arrow, Shout Factory, and Mondo Macabro and Eureka and Indicator in the UK among many others who still restore and release important films for purchase.

I can have this beloved copy of Little Murders (1971). I can hold it in my hand and put it on my shelf to view whenever the need arises. (Side note: Watch Alan Arkin’s Little Murders.)

little murders

So even though I wish Netflix expanded their available catalog (it stops well short of including releases from many of the above-mentioned niche distributors), it’s still a service worth supporting because they are, by sending out thousands of little red envelopes, fighting on the side of good in the war on physical media.

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

Disclaimer: I earn rewards from DVD.Netflix.com, which has thousands of movies to choose from, many that you won’t find on streaming services. I do this because the availability of physical media is important. The popular streaming notion of “everything available all the time” is a myth. We are always our own best curators. #PhysicalMedia #DVDNation #ad

 

Summer Reading Challenge: Don’t Disturb the Dead – The Story of the Ramsay Brothers

Don’t Disturb the Dead: The Story of the Ramsay Brothers
by Shamya Dasgupta
Harper Collins India (June 5, 2007)
238 pages
ISBN: 9352644301

Unwittingly my Classic Film Summer Reading Challenge jumped from the pioneers of American horror films at Universal Studios to the pioneers of horror on the subcontinent — the Ramsay brothers.

For those that haven’t been exposed to the Ramsay oeuvre, I’ll give you quick rundown of the fundamentals. Low-budget amalgamations of violence, gore, ancient curses, atmosphere, monsters, voodoo, skin and (always obscured) sexuality, and traditional Bollywood musical numbers. Until one has seen a Ramsay film, a Western viewer likely will not understand how all these pieces fit together. Even though I’d been aware of the Ramsays as filmmakers, I couldn’t wrap my head around the notion of a Bollywood horror film. And then I watched Veerana for my Halloween Horror Challenge last October.

The Ramsays were a family of filmmakers that discovered an untapped niche in the Indian film industry. Until the early 1970’s when the Ramsay’s conquered the market, no one in India made horror films. Despite their financial success, they met both cultural and market-driven barriers to widespread acceptance. Conservative viewers condemned their risqué output, and operating as independents outside the Bollywood system caused friction within the traditional chain of release. As a result, the Ramsays peddled their spook films to areas outside major metropolitan areas. Over the years their films became events, celebrated entertainment for the masses, but they also never gained the respect bestowed upon successful filmmakers.

Purana Mandir (1984)
Scene from Purana Mandir (1984) directed by Shyam Ramsay, Tulsi Ramsay

Before viewing Veerana, I knew the Ramsays only by reputation. India’s version of Hammer Horror. In as much as that rings true (they Ramsays modeled themselves after Hammer studios) it also sells their enterprise short. Using Hammer as inspiration they created culturally specific horror films that defined a generation.

Don’t Disturb the Dead breathes life into the Ramsay’s global reputation by focusing on the way the filmmaking collective assembled an internal team of directors, editors, cinematographers, costume designers, set designers and shot full-length feature films on shoestring budgets and cultural limitations.

As my exposure to Bollywood is limited, the names and places that Dasgupta spouts as reference points for the Indian film industry models of success and failure wash over me. At first I spent time looking up each name, but this grew tiresome and I soon left explanation to authorial context. As a comprehensive history, Dasgupta relies on familial anecdotes and therefore fails to convey a concrete sense of history. Many stories are undermined by the hazy or conflicting recollections among the surviving Ramsays. In many ways this seems fitting coming from an industry that even into the 1980’s believed that cinema was merely a transient form of entertainment. The lack of preservation has left us only with storytellers.

The English-as-Second-Language translation of Don’t Disturb the Dead could be viewed as a detriment as well. The narrative descriptions sometimes feel clipped from amateurish imdb.com synopses. Take for example the following description of the film Darwaza (1978):

“Let’s go over the story, though it’s more more fun – obviously – watching it; if nothing else, for the atmospherics of fear, the sheer spookiness of it, the effect of the hand-held camera sneaking up on you, which is something Gangu uses is many of the films very smartly. Ye, the screaming Ramsay leading ladies are all there somewhere, and so are some random bits, but it’s a taut screenplay, all of it leading somewhere, and, before the end, there are a number of questions that remain, which keep you hooked. And spooked.”

Long segments of interview with some of the Ramsay brothers appear unedited and these, translated into English, also offer some simple charms where translation has made an earnest attempt to turn Indian idioms into proper English. I made a point to mark a quote from Arjun Ramsay (editor): “You can’t only add chili in your food – thoda khatta, thoda meetha (a little salt, a little sugar) … and we did what we did and the aim was that the audience liked it.”

The structure of the book allows for an occasionally maddening centripetal nature. Don’t Disturb the Dead highlights the different parts of the production team, but as Dasgupta begins each segment he takes us back through the Ramsay filmography as it serves the topic. Rather than going film to film and organizing his thoughts chronologically, he continually circles back. While this allows each of the brothers to get a moment in his spotlight throughout the production chain, it also creates a Back to the Future-esque branching timeline for someone unfamiliar with the films and Bollywood players that float through the Ramsay’s story. From his perspective, this serves a specific end: the movies themselves stand as a testament to the family that made them and the stories they told and shared. Readers will note a specific, culturally-ascribed attitude difference toward the actresses in their films and the women in their family, but we must view these through an appropriate lens.

The Ramsays
The Ramsay family of filmmakers. Standing: Arjun, Kiran, Kumar, Gangu, Keshu; Sitting: Tulsi, F.U., Shyam

While not an especially exhaustive discussion of the films themselves (I did just read an encyclopedic textbook about every Univeral horror film), Don’t Disturb the Dead paints a specific picture of familial devotion and the closed-circuit nature of the Indian film industry. Little scholarship has been devoted to the Ramsays, and their films remain underseen curiosities in the West. I would be shocked if someone read the introduction to this book and wasn’t at least curious enough to check out a Ramsay movie… or at least a clip.

If Dasgupta manages to expand the Ramsay’s audience and finds a few more fans in the West, he’s done his job. Even though the movies will look rather cheap and more than a little silly to our eyes, there’s talent and devotion to the craft behind these escapades that welcomes sincere and ironic enjoyment in equal measure.

Luckily, the films are now available on YouTube for our enjoyment. Here’s the film that jumpstarted my curiosity in the Ramsays.

This review is part of my participation in the Summer Reading Challenged hosted by Raquel Stecher’s Out of the Past Blog

2017 TCM Film Festival Recap

2017 TCM Film Festival Recap: The Year the Popcorn Went on Strike at the Egyptian

Past recaps: 2015 TCM Film Festival / 2016 TCM Film Festival

Each night in Los Angeles, I fell asleep listening to Julie Byrne’s excellent new record Not Even Happiness. The number of songs I’d hear each night decreased until, upon the third and final night, I finished nary a song. Did I even press play? If an album plays when no one lays awake to hear it…

That’s what the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival does to you – if you’re doing it right, it stretches you beyond the point of human exhaustion. Wring every ounce of blood from that gracious movie stone. It tests you. It brings you to the point of breaking. You’re tired physically – good luck getting on with a total of 8 hours of sleep over two nights. You’re drained mentally – after seven feature length films in one day, you exit that midnight screening of Zardoz beating your chest, yelling “IS THAT ALL YOU’VE GOT?!?”

TCM Film Festival

Even though this test of endurance takes place once a year, each subsequent festival conditions you for the next. Sleep deprivation. Survival techniques. Making due with irregular and insubstantial sustenance. Remembering to pack emergency nut clusters.

At the 2017 TCM Film Festival I dozed off during only one film – High Anxiety – and survived both midnight screenings with nary a cat nap. I’ve found that a late afternoon lunch supplemented with a little popcorn  adequately nourishes the sedentary moviewatcher without inducing the midnight groggies. Which is precisely why I found this whole Egyptian popcorn strike so unsettling.

When asked about the case of the disappeared popcorn, Egyptian staff could only cite the prepared statement that the theater had just been renovated. Popcorn – that apparent defiler of classic cinemas – had become corna non grata. Only packaged items could be sold. You could only buy a packaged bag of popcorn. What brand of heinous trickery is this?

2017 TCM Film Festival #Bond_age_ Day 3 t-shirt

But back to the movie thing.

Each of the past two years, I’ve composed a letter to family and friends regarding my experience at the festival. The first time it happened organically while I waited for my departing flight to board. Last year I still had new feelings to enhance my original thoughts. This year? Meh. I’m running on instinct and repetition. I’m two days removed from the festival and rather well rested, having taken the afternoon flight home on Sunday to save myself the horrors of the red eye with a layover in San Francisco. So now, with sound mind, and a headful of clarity, let’s compose an obligatory message that lacks the bleary-eyed delirium of years past. Just imagine it on a really nice stationery to class it up a little bit. Continue reading 2017 TCM Film Festival Recap

3rd Time’s a Charm – My 2017 TCM Film Festival Preview

2017 TCM Film Festival preview ScheduleOn my 2016 Turner Classic Movie Film Festival preview post, I showcased a picture of my tentative schedule. It featured more irregular and irrational lines than the roadmap to China I drew up when I was six years old. This year I’m older. It’s my third festival and therefore I must be wiser. That’s the logic. I’m not sure logic holds with reference to these 2017 TCM Film Festival previews, however. It is, after all a four-day film festival. Movies scheduled from 9:00am until 2:00am. While scurrying between theaters and queue lines you have just enough to scavenge for sustenance. This means a Baja Fresh burrito and/or a bag of popcorn.

Pro tip: Buy a large popcorn so you can carry it around with you for days! Offer it to friends! 

The uninitiated are reading this with more than a small amount of skepticism. Burritos? Popcorn? When do you sleep? Wait. Do you sleep? If you’re thinking this sounds #amazeballs and you haven’t been to the TCM Film Festival, you owe it to yourself to set aside time one of these years to make the trip happen. The only thing you might regret is catching the bug thereby requiring a trip every year. Because it’s not just the movies. It’s the people you meet. The conversations you have. These are not ordinary people. These are movie people. They are your people.

For my 2017 TCM Film Festival preview, I attacked the printout with far more reserve. Just a green highlighter, a green pen and a whole lot of indecision.

Fun fact: I took all my notes in college with green pens.  

Previewing trips to the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival is the epitome of solipsism. This is what I’m doing with four days of my life and you probably can’t join me! Fun! Yet it’s an honored attendee/blogger (in this case bl-gger) tradition. What’s the reason for this phenomenon? First, it’s a fun way to share your schedule with fellow attendees. We’ll earmark screenings and plan a quick meet up beforehand — it’s also a handy way to see who might save you a seat at a buzzy event. Second, and this is probably the important part, we like to share our passion with those that won’t be in attendance. Maybe it’ll provide the necessary kick in the ass to plan for next year.


Three Quick Impressions of the 2017 Festival Schedule

 

The TCM Film Festival boasts the equivalent of the Sedgewick Hotel’s 12th Floor. At best it’s merely a minor disturbance. At worst it’s Thunderdome. It’s called Chinese Multiplex House 4. Traditionally, TCM has shown many pre-codes and rarities in the smallish Theater 4. The 2016 Fest will linger in memory as “the Double Harness Festival,” referencing the twice sold out screening for an average William Powell pre-code comedy.

This year, it seems that TCM has learned from their repeat mistakes. Finally recognizing that most attendees gravitate toward these harder-to-find rarities, they’ve moved many of them to the much larger Egyptian Theater. As a result I’ve only noted a few films that will lure me back to the Theater 4 Thunderdome. While I’m relieved TCM has taken steps to ameliorate the Theater 4 crush, I’m going to miss the war stories and battle scars.

Fun fact: I was one of the select few that witnessed the very first Double Harness screening at the 2016 fest. I’m in the process of stitching my own merit badge.

There isn’t one screening at the 2017 TCM Film Festival that I’ll fight you to see. 2015 had George Lazenby introducing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. 2016 had Elliott Gould introducing The Long Goodbye and Angela Lansbury introducing Manchurian Candidate. Sure, I’m jazzed about Peter Bogdanovich (more about this in a minute) and Michael Douglas and The Jerk, but I also didn’t plan my entire day around any individual screening. This year I’m charting my course through the movies offered on film.

 

Despite one screening not ruling my festival, I’m faced with no fewer of those “Sophie’s Choice” scenarios where I’m staring down three, four or even five (!) movies I want to see that are all playing at the same time. Look no further than the Friday night conundrum.

Pro tip: Eliminate potential conflicts by watching widely available and tempting movies at home before the festival.

All that said…

My 2017 Turner Classic Movie Film Festival Preview

2017 TCM Film Festival preview image


 

The non-stop from Pittsburgh arrives slightly later than in past years, so I won’t be able to participate in the “Remembering Robert Osborne” session at 12:30, but I’ll be there in spirit. I’ll also miss out on my 2pm power nap, which could have dire consequences. My filmgoing schedule meanwhile won’t begin until 6pm. While the big spenders dance the night away with Sidney Poitier and the 50th Anniversary of In the Heat of the Night, I’ll begin my evening at the Egyptian… with one of those movies that probably would have played at the Chinese Multiplex 4 in past years.

2017 TCM Film Festival preview Joker

This year’s theme is “Comedy” — I hear TCM’s awarding a special prize for the attendee who’s face most resembles The Joker by the end of the festival. The 2017 TCM Film Festival preview proper begins now.

 

Thursday, April 6thlove crazy 2017 TCM Film Festival preview

6:00pm – Love Crazy – Egyptian Theater

Not the best of the Powell/Loy collaborations, but Dana Delany’s been chosen for introduction duties. I don’t really need to see Some Like It Hot again. Jezebel, William Wyler’s 1938 “fearless feminine” picture, holds some sway as something I’ve never seen… but even a lesser William Powell and Myrna Loy lark is a lark worth revisiting.

Fun fact: Dana Delany in China Beach, you guys.

 

the man who knew too much 2017 TCM Film Festival preview

9:30pm – The Man Who Knew Too Much – Egyptian Theater

Here’s a tough one. I’ve seen The Man Who Knew Too Much. Quite a few times. I even just picked up the Criterion Blu-ray at the last Barnes and Noble sale. But it’s shown on Nitrate film stock — a rare treat. Meanwhile at the Chinese Multiplex, Harold and Maude, Requiem for a Heavyweight and I’m All Right Jack battle it out for supremacy. Of all of the films in this slot, I’ve only not seen Requiem for a Heavyweight. The “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller introduces, and that might be enough to cause a last-minute disruption in plans.


 

Friday, April 7th

 

The first full day begins. So do the tough decisions.

 

rafter romance 2017 TCM Film Festival preview

9:00am – Rafter Romance – Egyptian Theater

The Ginger Rogers 1933 romantic comedy is being presented in 35mm and introduced by Leonard Maltin, which gives it the edge over the “Beyond the Mouse” presentation. I’d still love to see the shorts from early Disney animator Ub Iwerks on the big screen, but I own most of these through the numerous Disney collections that have been released. Even though I own three different articles of clothing featuring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, I’ll defer to Ginger on film, which sounds a little bit like a pornography. Bonus points.

The funny thing about this festival and this time slot in particular is that The Maltese Falcon is being shown in Multiplex 1, and I didn’t even circle it as a possibility. Films achieve higher priority by excelling in the following three categories: 1. Unseen; 2. Film; 3. Special presenter/presentation. If you meet all three criteria, that’s a must see event.

The necessary exclusion that drives me crazy is It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World at the Cinerama Dome. My trip to see Holiday in Spain in Smell-o-vision at the Dome last year unexpectedly became my favorite experience at the festival. Seeing IaMMMMW in Cinerama would be something special, but it would sacrifice two time slots… and I’d really like to see…

 

beat the devil 2017 TCM Film Festival preview

11:15am – Beat the Devil – Chinese Multiplex 6

John Huston’s crime spoof has regretfully eluded my eyes for years. I once began watching a DVD of Beat the Devil but the print quality was so poor I couldn’t continue. Bogart and Lorre. Script by Truman Capote. I’ll gladly take this opportunity to scratch another film off my Cinema Shame list. This comes at the expense of the Lubitsch musical One Hour With You and Born Yesterday, both of which I’ve seen. Not recently and not on the big screen, of course. Temptation remains.

Fun fact: This will be the first TCMFF at which I’ve not seen a Lubitsch musical starring Maurice Chevalier.

 

monkey business 2017 TCM Film Festival preview

2:00pm – Monkey Business – Egyptian Theater

Panique looks interesting over in Multiplex 6, but this is out of my hands. Dick Cavett’s introducing a Marx Brothers favorite and I’m going to be there. This renders other options null. Apologies also to Rob Reiner and The Princess Bride, which I’m sure would be a blast on the big screen, especially with this audience.

 

so this is paris 2017 TCM Film Festival preview

4:30pm – So This is Paris – Egyptian Theater

I’ll just go ahead and start paying rent at the Egyptian. I atone for not seeing the other Lubitsch with the silent rarity So This is Paris on 35mm. Sure, I could go see old familiars The Bridge on the River Kwai introduced by Alex Trebek (?) or Broadcast News with James L. Brooks in attendance. I could also partake of W.C. Fields in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. But I return to the three checkboxes presented above. So This is Paris checks off all requirements. Unseen. 35mm. Live piano accompaniment.

The brevity of So This is Paris will allow me plenty of time to head out into the evening air and return immediately to the Egyptian for…

Pro tip: There’s a very nice breakfast place on the street perpendicular to the Egyptian. Decent coffee. Egg sandwiches to go.

 

red-headed woman 2017 TCM Film Festival preview

7:00pm – Red-Headed Woman – Egyptian Theater

This isn’t my favorite Harlowe, but it’s a 35mm presentation. I could be persuaded to venture back to the Multiplex for a change of scenery and “The Great Nickelodeon Show” which will recreate the Nickelodeon experience of early 20th century. The Vitaphone and hand-cranked silent presentations of past years rekindled that juicy film school nostalgia.

 

high anxiety 2017 TCM Film Festival preview

9:15pm – High Anxiety – TCL Chinese Theater

So. This slot takes no prisoners. I would love to be five places at once. Over at the Egyptian, viewers will be treated to Laura on Nitrate film stock. Howard Hawks’ first sound comedy, Twentieth Century at Multiplex 1. Cat People in 35mm at Multiplex 4. And then there’s Those Redheads from Seattle in 3D at Multiplex 6.

It’s. Not. Fair. But it’s the best kind of not fair.

Fun fact: Festival attendees love to complain about their conflicts, but goddammit they thrive on these decisions.

How much do I love thee, Mel Brooks? A lot. Mel Brooks introduces his Hitchcock spoof and I wouldn’t be anywhere else.

 

zardoz 2017 TCM Film Festival preview

12:00am – Zardoz – Chinese Multiplex 1

Sean Connery. In a red banana hammock. At midnight. Be there.

Even though we just live tweeted this on #Bond_age_ not too long ago, there’s nothing like a live audience for the insanity that is Zardoz.

 


Saturday, April 8th

You’d rather be hungover than get up at 7:45am to get in line for your first movie of the morning, but it only gets worse on Sunday morning so suck it up, shower off the Zardoz and get back in the game.

 

china syndrome 2017 TCM Film Festival preview

9:00am – The China Syndrome – Chinese Multiplex 1

I’ll go for Michael Douglas who’ll be there in person. But I’ll have a They Live-style fisticuffs with myself over not seeing Arsenic and Old Lace in 35mm next door at the Multiplex 4. Meanwhile Alex Trebek is over introducing Stalag 17 for some reason. This festival is full of surprises.

 

david and lisa 2017 TCM Film Festival preview

12:00pm – David and Lisa – Chinese Multiplex 4

My first trip to the Thunderdome takes place on Day 3. I won’t even need to put up a fight. Lame. This is another brutal time slot, however. The Awful Truth, Rear Window, The Great Dictator and The Last Picture Show with Peter Bogdanovich in attendance all happen concurrently. That’s four amazing films… and then the one I’m seeing. David and Lisa is in fact the only one I haven’t seen. It’s on 35mm with star Keir Dullea in the house. I might shift gears and see Peter Bogdanovich because I’ll miss out on his chat before What’s Up Doc? on Sunday. The problem with The Last Picture Show is timing. David and Lisa gets out much earlier, which allows me to head over to the TCL Chinese Theater to get a good seat for…

 

the jerk 2017 TCM Film Festival preview

2:45pm – The Jerk – TCL Chinese Theater

So I’ve seen The Jerk a few times. Seeing The Jerk on the big screen prefaced with a Carl Reiner chat might by my special purpose of the festival. I saw Reiner and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid last year, but Carl Reiner chats are the best kind of chats, full of wisdom, humor and optimism. I’ll gladly double dip.

 

theodora goes wild 2017 TCM Film Festival preview

6:30pm – Theodora Goes Wild or King of Hearts – Egyptian / Multiplex 6

Toss up. An unseen Irene Dunn screwball in 35mm or Genevieve Bujold in an unseen anti-war comedy. I’ll do some research on home video availability and watch one of these (if possible) before the festival to alleviate any lingering doubts about my choice here. Stay tuned for updates.

Fun fact: I know you will.

 

black narcissus 2017 TCM Film Festival preview

9:30pm – Black Narcissus – Egyptian Theater

Scratch another Shame off the list. I’ve long meant to watch Black Narcissus. On Nitrate stock in the grand Egyptian? Doesn’t get much better for a first time viewing. This comes at the expense of personal favorite Top Secret! introduced by the Zucker brothers and the unseen The Incident introduced by Martin Sheen. Also worth noting here is that I didn’t even consider The Graduate or Unfaithfully Yours. I’ll resort to the “I have those on Criterion DVD” defense.

kentucky fried movie 2017 TCM Film Festival preview

12:00am – The Kentucky Fried Movie – Chinese Multiplex 1

And here’s the reason I’m okay with missing Top Secret! Not only do I get the Zuckers and Jim Abrahams, but also John Landis chatting before a screening of the legendary Kentucky Fried Movie. The crowd will be locked and loaded for this one. John Landis!!

Fun fact: I love John Landis.


Sunday, April 9th

If getting up on Saturday morning is a hangover, getting up on Sunday morning is the equivalent of jumping in front of a moving truck on Hollywood Boulevard. Daylight is your punishment. Mind over sleep deprivation.

Pro tip: Hydrate whenever possible. It’s too easy to forget. Especially when you’re loading up on salty food throughout the day. Upon arriving, pick up a few big bottles of water. Keep them with you.

My abbreviated final day. I must depart the festival a touch early to return home, to return to daily life and function as a real, live human on Monday morning. The only way to do that is a mid-afternoon non-stop. The past two years I’ve taken the midnight red-eye. A regular red-eye is brutal. A sleep-deprived red-eye is banned by the Geneva Convention.

cock of the air 2017 TCM Film Festival preview

9:00am – Cock of the Air – Chinese Multiplex 6

If there’s a Double Harness of the 2017 TCMFF it’s this little pre-code Howard Hughes ditty. Originally censored by the Hayes Office, the original cut of the print was thought lost. Until 2007 — when it was found, except without the soundtrack. The original cut has been restored using voice actors and new sound effects and music. I’ll be in line early to make sure I get prime real estate.

Pro tip: You know the old saying… the early bird gets to see Cock of the Air.

lured 2017 TCM Film Festival preview

11:15am – Lured – Chinese Multiplex 6

My final screening of the festival before departure. Also not a comedy. Film noir-esque drama directed by Douglas Sirk and starring Lucille Ball, George Sanders and Boris Karloff (?!?). I know nothing about this movie, but the creative minds involved requires a viewing. I have no problem sacrificing The Front Page for this one because, say it with me, “Criterion DVD.” Technically, it’s just a bonus on the recently-released His Girl Friday Blu-ray.

I’m not especially happy about missing Peter Bogdanovich and What’s Up Doc? Sunday afternoon, but thems the breaks. The reward for leaving mid-afternoon is a non-stop flight and my own bed instead of a 90-minute layover in San Francisco followed still by the upright seat of a cramped airliner for 5+ hours. This will also result in a far happier wife who gets to return to her regularly scheduled Monday activities rather than worrying herself with my ability to function in the real world. She takes days off work to permit me this brief dalliance.

I look forward to seeing the old familiar TCM Festival faces and sharing all that movie talk and queue standing. I’m still lobbying for built in cocktail hours and a full bar in the Multiplex.