Today while Googling for John Cassavetes – something I do quite regularly just as a reminder that filmmaking is art – I found this 1982 short film by American filmmaker Tamar Simon Hoffs. At the time, she was a student at UCLA and needed an actor for her lead role. Cassavetes decided to do a favor for her because Ben Gazzara’s daughter was producing the film. So he gave the filmmaker 24 hours of his time and they made this charming and excellent short film about a recording industry guy getting a really good haircut. It’s a great film because it doesn’t try hard. It just watches a man get happy because of where he is and who he is talking to.
What a magnificent thing for an artist to do – to share his time helping a student make a film. I think that’s great.
This is a Dutch documentary about dangerously anti-establishment Italian poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was brutally murdered in 1975 under extremely suspicious and unexplained circumstances. The Italian justice system – if such a phrase doesn't make you bust a hernia with too much laughing – dismissed his death as the act of a single young man upset about the filmmaker's sexual advances. This film points out that Pasolini was utterly smashed, his body broken and shattered everywhere. He'd been beaten and run over with a car. The evidence does suggest that he was slain by a group. Director Philo Bregstein attempts to draw a connection between the outrage caused by Pasolini's leftist, harshly critical works and his death. It's a tough connection to fit together because there is really very little good police work done by the Italians to provide any reliable information. I remember going to Italy as a boy and upon seeing an Italian policeman saying to my father, “But that's not a real policeman!” That was one year before Pasolini was killed.
There's just something always ridiculous about an Italian who either thinks they are a cop or a soldier. The country is absurd. It elects Berlusconi, a man who is actually a monkey, as if the entire nation just wants to make a big joke and cause the world to laugh at its expense.
My main reaction to this documentary is nostalgia for a time when the work and thinking of filmmakers and poets was taken seriously enough to warrant a documentary that immerses one in the mind of an artist. We don't see that anymore. We get jokey pop nonsense about what people are up to, but nothing approaching an understanding of a director's viewpoint. We are spoon-fed pablum about the moronic Martin Scorsese's eternal and cuddly love of cinema. The guy is a chipper little dolt who cannot function without De Niro's slightly winded masculinity nearby. A documentary about such a clown would not be worth making. I imagine him with a collection of old popcorn makers in his living room. Pasolini was engaged, angry, excited, subtle, harsh, contradictory, confused, dangerous, and beautifully unlikable. We don't allow those people to work now. What we get through an endless comment feedback loop are feeble protests about Tarantino's massive ego as he thinks he can be white and make a film about slavery. Tarantino's Django Unchained is actually the closest thing to Pasolini that this country may have ever produced. The present day outrage and the joy of expressing it is like a bomb going off throughout the length of that film which I consider a masterpiece.
A documentary like this makes me feel as if the world needs these people like Pasolini to show us how beautiful is a lack of common sense. How insightful contradiction can be. How anger and violence are really the material of poetry.
By the way, the story told by Bernardo Bertolucci about how he first met Pasolini is worth the entire film. That moment of doubt, of thinking that someone is a thief, a suspicious person, is at the heart of what an artist is. Listen to that part carefully and then think about how most artists now want to do something good for you. Take those artists out in the alley and shoot them. Leave only the bad guys alive.
John Cassavetes’ first film was called ‘Shadows.’ It was made in 1959 and I think it might be the greatest film about race in America that’s ever been made. Cassavetes has always struck me as having an element of that required con-man aspect of the personality that is present in many good actors. When he talks he seems impressed with what he is saying and he knows how to deliver it with just the right amount of humor and a few self-deprecating remarks. But he means every goddamn word of it and he puts all of his thoughts into his film works. He’s one of those rare objects of confusion that sometimes crop up in American art. I’ve been watching a bunch of his films lately and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a filmmaker so interested in looking at the inability of the American adult to understand or even perceive the meaning of their habitual mannerisms. For me, his films illuminate what it means to be a grownup and how the performance required of grownups contrasts with what they really want to be.
Cassavetes on making ‘Shadows:’
That people can go out with nothing and through their own will and through their determination make something that exists… out of nothing. Out of no technical know-how, no equipment. There wasn’t one technician on the entire film. There wasn’t anybody who knew how to run a camera… walked in and started to read the directions of how to reload it. Got a Movieola and looked at it. Did all the things in the world and we made eight million mistakes. But it was exciting and fun.
This is a 1968 French documentary that was probably shot just after or during the making of his great marriage disaster film, ‘Faces.’
This is a short film made in 2000 for the Toronto International Film Festival by David Cronenberg. ‘Videodrome’ actor Les Carson talks about how afraid he is of the movie camera while children bring one into the house and set up to shoot their own movie with professional equipment. The actor’s fear and doubt contrast sharply with the enthusiasm of the kids. But of course they are interested in him as subject matter because they know that he is real. This is an excellent and moving study of time, creativity and how all art is an unfathomable mixture of enthusiasm and terror.
I did not know this filmmaker, Paolo Gioli, existed until yesterday. And that really bothers me because I feel a very strong kinship with this filmmaker just on the basis of having seen two of his pieces. What can a filmmaker do with his own backyard? That is the question that comes to my mind as I watch his films. Can a filmmaker take his camera out back and make something astounding? Of course. In fact, that skill is central to being a creative filmmaker. It is the feeling I get from Gioli. He makes films that have a guiding concern but he is not afraid to slip a little off of the main track and let you see him experimenting. One can observe his enthusiasm for a new mechanical technique and he allows his film to wander into the territory of the new machine or splicing method for a while. And then he comes back to the main thing. He never lets this get out of control and it is a miracle to watch. One can learn how to experiment by watching a brilliant experimentalist. It’s that simple.
There are many filmmakers I wish I could meet and perhaps work with. Gioli is one of them. In fact, this brings to mind again my thought that things like YouTube are the greatest cinematic development of the past half century. The reason has nothing to do with screen format or size or image quality. It has to do with intimacy. The feeling of connection one can get by watching a filmmaker’s work on the computer is far more intimate than could be achieved in a theater. It is this quality that is the most important contribution of online film to world cinema. Intimate connection to the artist. It has a powerful effect on artists and communicates ideas and inspiration from generation to generation far more effectively than any prior cinematic display technology.
Filmmaker Andre Perkowski is working on a huge 3 hour plus adaptation of the novel ‘Nova Express‘ by William S. Burroughs. It’s a wild, ragged, disjointed, warped, damaged, serious and funny mashup of found footage, original film and Burroughs’ reading voice along with others. It’s got those incoherently combined sci-fi and thriller elements that Burroughs so easily manipulated as if in a delirium. The film is itself a kind of cutup, mirroring the technique Burroughs used that involved gathering unrelated bits and pieces of other books and newspaper articles to formulate sentences that somehow ramble on without necessarily leading anywhere specific. The novel is about exposing the secrets of those who attempt to control all thought and life with virus-like ideas, machines and drugs.
Perkowski is a filmic oddball who delights in making things that are messy. He draws and collages to create new images, purposely ruining his images to create the unexpected. I think his mental immersion into Burroughs is leading him through his wonderful film with great assurance. Apparently, Perkowski is constantly adding to the film and changing it. He has at least six different ‘drafts’ of the film. As he goes, he posts chunks of the film on his YouTube channel which I happen to think is a fantastic idea. There are similarities between the way he works and the way I work on films like my ‘Yellow Plastic Raygun.’ I have often told people that I suspect the video scrubber button in non-linear video editors that allows a filmmaker to fly through a full length feature film in seconds is perhaps the single most important cinematic tool of the last thirty years. It is this little tool that allows for the searching and matching of cinematic elements that could never have been found in a human lifetime before the non-linear editor. So it leads to entirely new form of cinema. That’s what you are watching here with Perkowski’s film. It is a powerful work of new cinema and may well be the best adaptation of a Burroughs work that I have ever seen.