Friday, August 30, 2013

Bijou Diaries: From Stand-up to Super 8

James and Rodney, the Ace Comedy Team, caught unawares as they wait 
to perform their sketch, The Altman's Pit-Cooked Barbecue Gospel Hour, 
Featuring the Fulbright Family Singers, at a benefit show for UNC's STV.

Publisher's Note: This is the second installment of Bijou Diaries, an ongoing column that tells my story of how the Bijou Film Center project came to be. Much of my love of movies, theaters, stages and show business comes directly from my experience as a performer and media maker. -- James Parrish

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was a performer. I wrote and performed for Off the Cuff, a weekly comedy show that was part of UNC Student Television's offerings during my student years at UNC-Chapel Hill, which led to stand-up comedy and improv (with my good friend Rodney Honeycutt, pictured above), and I majored in Speech Communication with focus on Performance Studies. All of this was a natural progression.

Like Elvis (Presley, not Costello), I started out singing in my church choir as a kid. Thanks to my dad, who I wrote about in my first Bijou Diaries post, It Begins with a Kid, I started making media at a very young age. Using a standard cassette tape recorder, he interviewed me at age 5 about a recent moon landing (though I spent more of the recording talking about and impersonating Oscar the Grouch and other Sesame Street characters) and soon after that cassette recorder was mine. I made radio plays; recorded myself playing piano and singing (I took piano lessons from 3rd through 8th grade); interviewed my kid brother, pretending I was a reporter for Kidsworld, a popular Saturday morning TV show that ran from 1976-1986 where kids were the reporters; and later, in high school, I used it to record original songs and covers with my two best friends, Rodney and Rodney (Introducing them, I often took a line from Newhart, where one of the characters always announced "This is my brother Daryl and my other brother Daryl.").

So, by the time I got to UNC, I was ready for more. When Rodney Honeycutt came to UNC my sophomore year, we both got involved writing and performing for Off the Cuff. Here's the intro to the show. (If you watch closely you'll see "James and Rodney" jumping up and down in front of the camera; also, my roommate Rob Means wrote the theme song and he and I recorded it over Christmas break. He programmed the synth/midi stuff and played the keys; I played the guitar part; we both vocalized "off the cuff.")

Regularly writing and performing comedy sketches for Off the Cuff, led Rodney and me to try our hand at stand-up at a long defunct Chapel Hill bar called Theodore's. Soon after we found ourselves in the right place at the right time -- UNC renovated the Student Union and turned an arcade into a caberet-style theatre. Because we were regularly performing around town and on campus, we got asked to help them create some programming for the space so we put together a few benefit shows, inviting local musicians and fellow Off the Cuff writers/actors to perform stand-up and participate in our emcee sketches between each act. That led to being invited to open for Carol Leifer and Steven Wright. As you can imagine, we hoped these opportunities might lead to our "big break" so we made a comedy tape (yes, a VHS tape, people) to send to Carol Leifer and others. It never led to anything except that we had a great time. Below is one of the sketches that made it on the tape. Rodney and I had always included some Andy Griffith humor in our stand-up act and it had evolved into this sketch where we presented a "lost episode" of The Andy Griffith Show where we explained why Sheriff Andy Taylor never carried a gun. Of course, in our stand-up act, we played all the characters. Here a few of our Off the Cuff friends helped us do a more polished version of Sheriff Without a Gun. (Watch closely and you'll catch me in a secondary role in addition to my lead role as Sheriff Taylor. Rodney plays Barney.)

In addition to making this tape, Rodney and I did some open mic nights at Charlie Goodnight's Comedy Club in Raleigh and a few other things, but eventually, we stopped performing. We had graduated and moved onto to more pressing matters. Katie and I got married in 1990, a month after she graduated (Rodney graduated that same year), and a year after I graduated. I was already working for UNC-Chapel Hill's development office, learning the ropes of fundraising and using my improv skills in a very different way. Rodney got a job teaching high school history, eventually ending up at our former school, South Johnston High.

Throughout college and the years I lived in Chapel Hill after graduation, the two Rodneys and I still got together regularly to write and record original tunes (one day I'll post the Super 8 music video we made for our song "Country Dreamer"), but it wasn't enough; I was feeling a big creative void now that Off the Cuff and James and Rodney were just a memory.

One day, I noticed a flyer for something called Flicker, a bi-monthly screening of short Super 8 and 16mm films, being held at Local 506, a Chapel Hill club. It sounded cool. Out of curiosity and longing for some creative inspiration I went, and I remember leaving Local 506 feeling like I was walking on air. I was energized and inspired, full of my own ideas for little Super 8 masterpieces. In fact, that night I wrote down several ideas, including an idea to make a film about the Benson Sing, a Southern gospel singing convention that has been held in my hometown since 1921. (I don't want to go too far down the rabbit hole today, but I got some grants from the NC Humanities Council and NC Arts Council to shoot 16mm footage of the annual outdoor event, but still haven't finished the film, thanks to a move to Richmond and a big choice I made ... you'll have to read the next installment to find out about that.)

Anyway, I became obsessed with acquiring Super 8 equipment and began shooting rolls of film on every vacation and making music videos and comedy shorts with Rodney and Rodney.

But the most meaningful film I produced during my Super 8 period is one that Katie and I made with my Grandma Peedin. It's called Grandma's Biscuits, and in it Grandma tells the story of the first time she made biscuits (she was 11 years old) and shows me how to make them. It took the news that she had cancer and not long to live to light a fire under me to finish the film. Thankfully she got to see it before she died, and I learned how to make her biscuits. I've got a long way to go before they are as good as hers (if they ever will be), but then again, she had been making them for 66 years by the time I made this film.

So, I'll close with Grandma's Biscuits and a promise to pick up the Bijou story again soon. Warning: Don't watch this film on an empty stomach!

Grandma's Biscuits from James Parrish on Vimeo.


Thursday, August 29, 2013

Five Film Favorites: Underrated Films by Woody Allen

by Ted Salins

Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” has opened bigger than any of his films with a whopping two week total of $8 million at only 121 theaters (Box Office Mojo calls this “historic”). It will likely be his third film in this century to top the $100 million mark, but in a long prolific career not all of his films were adored -- there have always been hits or misses. In the late 1990s and early 2000s his movies were grossing less than their cost. Critics lost their gush, home TV audiences had given up and his producers were scrambling until they accepted the tax exempt offers from Europe which revitalized his oeuvre; but a mediocre Woody Allen movie is still usually full of sharp observations and great scenes. I’ll take a bad one over most movies any day.

Below are five films that are generally cited as critical and box office failures. They all need to be re-evaluated:

“Shadows and Fog” (1991)

A Kafkaesque black and white horror movie about a deranged strangler loose on the streets of 1930s Eastern Europe? From Woody Allen? You betcha. Filmed at night on the cold, foggy streets of Newark and Manhattan by Carlo Di Palma, it is as atmospheric as a Universal horror classic. If you don’t think Allen can’t handle the horror genre, watch the scene where the strangler confronts aging scientist Donald Pleasance in his lab -- it will send chills up your spine. You’ll momentarily forget this is a comedic parable about creeping fascism. In addition to Pleasance and Allen, it has a modest cast (I’m joking): Mia Farrow, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Madonna, Fred Gwynne, Kurtwood Smith, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly and a delightful trio of bawdy prostitutes played by Jody Foster, Lily Tomlin and Kathy Bates. One of his best movies ever.

“The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” (2001)

Unlike his insecure schlemiels in other films, Allen for once plays a confident womanizer, C.W. Biggs, an insurance fraud investigator, who is a successful, self-assured professional at the top of his powers. It’s fun to watch him play this type, especially as he seduces a fetching Charlize Theron. He’s more William Powell than Alvy Singer, but he meets his match in an efficiency expert played by Helen Hunt brought in to modernize old school techniques as practiced by veteran C.W. They HATE each other. Hunt, performing under Allen’s direction and speaking his dialogue is a match made in acting heaven. She is smart mouthed, sassy, concise but ultimately warm hearted -- Allen obviously had the snappy dialogue of “His Girl Friday” in mind when he wrote this. Beautifully filmed, great period atmosphere of the 1940s; Dan Ackroyd co-stars.

“Cassandra’s Dream” (2007)

Nothing like the stylized, heavily art directed period pieces above, “Cassandra’s Dream” takes place in the belly of modern day London and is the most terrifying, edge of your seat exploration of guilt, murder and mayhem. Allen, an admitted paranoiac, clearly wants you share in his personal anxiety and in that sense this film is a triumph. Ewan MacGregor is Ian, Colin Farrell, his brother Terry, two working class stiffs who see a way upward with the help of their gangster uncle played with sinister aplomb by Tom Wilkinson. Without giving anything away, Terry is tormented by his criminal actions and descends into a booze and pill swilling anxiety -- I don’t think the actor has ever been better. This film is raw and when Hayley Atwell’s character, Angela, goes on a first date with Ian, her banter is so sexual and full of lust you’ll wonder if some movie screens caught on fire. As always, Allen is not afraid to put women in the driver’s seat; the nearly eighty year old continues to school much younger people on sex and seduction. The great Sally Hawkins co-stars.

“Celebrity” (1998)

Woody’s blatant, vicious, wince inducing look at the world of New York celebrity, fashion, show business and ego. Critics and audiences walked out of screenings, hardly anyone saw this box office bomb; yet if you find chunks of society to be pompous, arrogant, vapid, self-centered and shallow -- this may be your cup of tea. I love it. Time will be good to this audacious classic. Shot in glorious black and white by the legendary Sven Nykvist, it is relentless and funny. Kenneth Branagh plays the Woody Allen schlemiel as if it is a dramatic Shakespearean convention; Judy Davis, the female lead, is his neurotic ex-wife. For the price of one film you get a cast at their trashy best: Leo DeCaprio, Charlize Theron, Melanie Griffith, Jeffery Wright, Wynona Ryder, J.K. Simmons, Dylan Baker, Debra Messing, Famke Janssen, Michael Lerner, Adrian Grenier, Sam Rockwell, Aida Turturro, Hank Azaria, Joe Mantegna and Gretchen Mol among others.

“Scoop” (2006)

After the critical success of “Match Point” audiences seemed disappointed in this light comedy, but it’s one of those great “bad” Allen films. The film opens on The Grim Reaper’s boat;  Ian McShane is Joe Strombol, a celebrated crime reporter who has been killed in a car accident; he strikes up a conversation with a young secretary newly murdered by her dashing financier boss Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) after she learns he is the serial killer terrorizing London’s young women; What a scoop! Strombol’s appeals to The Reaper fall on deaf ears -- he’s got to get back -- so he jumps ship into the dark, foggy waters. Woody is hilarious as Sid Waterman, a second rate illusionist from New York doing a series of shows in London. He pulls a volunteer from the audience, a young American journalist wannabe Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson) to make her disappear inside a “de-materializer” box. Once inside, Strombol’s ghost appears and gives her the scoop. This is her big chance! She needs to get to know and investigate Lyman. She employs Sid to be her father as a cover and the comic duo encounters near misses and mishaps. Of course Sondra is unsure if the financier is in fact guilty and she falls in love! Charles Dance and Romola Garai co-star.

Ralph Kiner, the baseball Hall Of Famer and long time N.Y. Mets radio broadcaster was interviewing the legendary, rotund Dodgers’ manager Tommy LaSorda before a game.

“They say you love Italian food Tommy,” Kiner asked, “what’s the worst you ever had?”

LaSorda responded, “It was magnificent.”

Each one of these so called “bad” Woody Allen films is magnificent.

All rights reserved by the author © 2013 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Ed. Note: 'The Story of Film: An Odyssey'

Ed. Note: Starting this week, Bijou Backlight publisher James Parrish has begun teaching an Introduction to World Cinema course at VCU. For this semester Parrish is using Mark Cousins' "The Story of Film: An Odyssey" as the syllabus for the class.

This 15-hour series, which played at MoMA and the Walker Art Museum, among others, is currently streaming on Netflix (each episode is about an hour long). For background, click here to read Peter Schilling’s interview with Cousins.

James says, “If you'd like to join in this cinematic odyssey through world cinema, watch one episode each week for 15 weeks and weigh in [on the Bijou Backlight’s Facebook page] the next day.”

Watched the first chapter last night and enjoyed it. So, OK, I’m in. How about you? Click here to visit the Bijou Backlight's Facebook page.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Short Subject: 'No Joy'

Ed. Note: Why are amusement parks so easily made into creepy/scary settings in countless movies? 

Filmmaker Mike Petty knows, as he demonstrates with his four-minute film, “No Joy” (2011), which was filmed in a abandoned, decaying amusement park in Wichita, Kansas; in its day it was called Joyland. Without the benefit of a plot or characters, Petty makes the viewer wonder what sort of fright may be lurking outside the frame. 


Monday, August 26, 2013

Feature: The Failure of 'Elysium'

by Todd Starkweather

The summer of 2013 has produced a large number of cinematic failures. I might have said that the summer of 2013 has produced an inordinate number of failures, but then I think back to all the previous summers of cinematic stinkers, and this summer's number of failures is probably ordinate. Indeed, most seasons produce large numbers of failures.  Summer’s (mostly financial) expectations, however, highlight and accentuate those failures.

Three weeks into its run, Neill Blomkamp's Elysium (2013) looks to be headed toward the "bust" or "bomb" category. Now, a box office bust or bomb does not always indicate a film's quality. Fritz Lang's epic and now near-universally revered Metropolis was, by the cruel logic of box office receipts, an epic bomb. Popular audiences have been known to ignore quality cinema, but Elysium's critical reception has, at best, been mixed. Even the more positive reviews, such as Anthony Lane's review in The New Yorker, take hundreds of words to dissect the more disappointing aspects of the film in an attempt to redeem its more positive features.

Part of the disappointment that Elysium has elicited seems to have stemmed from the expectations surrounding Blomkamp's second feature film. His first, District 9 (2009), was both a critical and financial success, garnering four Oscar nominations, including one for best picture. In both its script and direction, District 9 was a cleverly crafted sci-fi film with heavy doses of social criticism, yet the social criticism was added deftly enough so as not to spoil the film.

Similar to District 9, Elysium is a sci-fi action flick with heavy doses social criticism. Class struggle, lack of social mobility, unequal distribution of resources, healthcare, immigration, and countless other contentious issues worm their way into Blomkamp's second film. Unfortunately, the delicate mix of ingredients does not balance out, and the final product in Elysium tasted like an overcooked meal with too much seasoning.

The film's two distinct geographical locations, a dystopian, futuristic Los Angeles and the compass shaped space station/resort spa, Elysium, never effectively meld together. Los Angeles is essentially a slum, and Elysium is a high priced gated community. It is obvious that the workers in the slum sell their labor to the CEOs of Elysium for a small pittance, but Elysium fails to further analyze the dialectic situation it presents.

Elysium also fails to make Elysium attractive. While Blomkamp may have intended to create Elysium in the mold of the most boring, sterile gated community, he unfortunately created an environment that was a boring, sterile gated community. Aesthetically, the film suffers at any point when it moves to Elysium. The direction, editing, and camera work all seem weaker during the scenes on Elysium. And I cannot believe that I am about to admit this, but Jodie Foster's character, Delacourt, Elysium's director of defense, is rather boring and baseless. Any setting or location that makes Jodie Foster boring is a place that is most undesirable and probably should not exist.

By contrast, the scenes in the slum-ridden outskirts of Los Angeles are taught and visually compelling. Blomkamp and Elysium seem much more interested in Los Angeles, and, not unsurprisingly, the portions of the action that take place in Los Angeles are far more interesting. Elysium would have been a better film and script without Elysium.

Yet even if Elysium becomes a failure by whatever critical or financial standards apply to cinematic failures, such a failure is not always a bad thing. Many failures often lead to great things. I often tell my students that they need to fail in their initial readings and writings before they can become better. The above referenced Metropolis failed during its initial release and languished for years. But I doubt that Metropolis's fate will be the fate of Elysium. If Elysium is eventually regarded as a monument of cinematic achievement in the next hundred years, then that world will be far more horrifying than the one portrayed in Elysium.

I think (or hope) that a more accurate counterpart for cinematic failure would be Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee (1965). Prior to Major Dundee, Peckinpah had created two smaller-scale Westerns: The Deadly Companions (1961) and Ride the High Country (1962). Similar to Blomkamp's District 9, Peckinpah's first two critically acclaimed films allowed him access to a bigger Hollywood budget and bigger Hollywood stars. And while Peckinpah would go on to work with big stars and big budgets in later projects, this first foray did not go well. And just like Elysium seems inconsistent with Blomkamp's previously displayed talents, Major Dundee fails to exhibit Peckinpah's exceptional directorial qualities. The film's lead, Charlton Heston, seemed to be an awkward fit for someone like Peckinpah. (Of course, Heston seemed to be an awkward fit in many films.) Similarly, Foster and Blomkamp seem ill matched. Both Blomkamp and Peckinpah were given shiny new toys, and in their initial excitement, they created their own fantastic messes.

Hopefully, Blomkamp can learn from his latest mess the same way that Peckinpah did from his. Peckinpah followed up Major Dundee with The Wild Bunch (1969). If Blomkamp comes anywhere close to approximating Peckinpah's success, then Elysium's failures will be much more palatable.