TO LOS ANGELES

It’s always a pleasure to visit the Pearl of the Pacific and at the end of next week I’ll be in Hollywood CA to present four fims at the American Cinematheque: EL PATRULLERO (HIGHWAY PATROLMAN) and WALKER on Friday 15 March; and REPO MAN and TOMBSTONE RASHOMON on Saturday 16 March. Both screenings start at 1930hrs at the Egyptian Theater.

This is the LA premiere of TOMBSTONE RASHOMON and also of the new 4K transfer of EL PATRULLERO, which got a very nice write-up from J. Hoberman. I’m hoping that Lorenzo O’Brien, who wrote and produced EL PATRULLERO and produced WALKER, will be there on Friday, if his NARCOS duties permit.

The REPO and TOMBSTONE screening may be of interest since it’s a double bill of my first feature – released 35 years ago; US rights just reverted to me! – and my most recent one. An opportunity to see if I’ve improved, or only got worse.

There will be a Q&A between shows on both evenings. (UPDATE: The first evening was attended by my dear friend Zander Schloss, composer of EL PATRULLERO and Strummer’s partner on the WALKER soundtrack. Dick Rude and Olivia Barash from REPO MAN and Eric Schumacher and Rogelio Camarillo from TOMBSTONE RASHOMON were present the following evening, as were Lorenzo, and Merritt Crocker, producer of TOMBSTONE. Thanks for your presence, and to the American Cinematheque for two great evenings.)

10000Ways-1.1Also! Entirely unconnected, I’ve completed the second edition of my Italian Western book, TEN THOUSAND WAYS TO DIE, which will be coming out from Kamera Books later in the year. Just received this attractive piece of cover art, in my favourite colour.

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DEADWOOD … AND McCABE & MRS MILLER

I haven’t written much about TOMBSTONE RASHOMON of late — though there is much to tell, it’s been going directly to the film’s backers as updates. So if you backed the film you already know how the shoot went, and what’s happening in post.

But last week I was struck down by a summer cold and, incapacitated, decided to watch the first season of DEADWOOD, which Cindy and Drew – the kind neighbours who also donated boots to the production – had lent me. I live in my own little world, do a lot of reading, and don’t watch television. So this was the first eposodic TV drama I had watched in its entirety since THE PRISONER.

The biggest surprise of my binge-watch was how linear the whole thing was. I had imagined that DEADWOOD would consist of separate, free-standing episodes with the same basic cast — like RUN FOR YOUR LIFE, or THE MAN FROM UNCLE, or early STAR TREK. This is a nice format which permits the shuffling of directors, multiple writers, many cast members, and sometimes permits an individal episode to stray far from the reservation (“Living In Harmony”).  Instead, I was presented with something very old fashioned indeed: what they used to call a “TV series”.

The constraints of a TV series seem very tight indeed. First: the characters must be established in the first episode, and reappear in every episode thereafter. Once they have been established as characters, they cannot be killed — unless their death is a necessary part of the historical story, as in the case of Wild Bill Hickock — so you can guarantee that almost everyone you met in episode one will still be hanging around at the end of episode ten.

Two: there cannot be a plethora of characters. Supporting actors may come and go, but DEADWOOD relies on a basic cast of about a dozen individuals, all of whose stories must be told. This is unfortunate, since few of the supporting characters have much character: there is a doomed gunfighter, an angry, alcoholic doctor, a no-speakee-English Chinese merchant, more than one whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, and so forth. We are familiar with these stereotypes which is why regular feature Westerns give them so little screen time. But in TV series, we are invited to share their lives at some length.

Three: it all moves extremely slowly. The first season of DEADWOOD contains as many gunfights as the average Italian Western. An Italian Western may run from eighty to 180 minutes. The first ten episodes of DEADWOOD are five hundred minutes long. My dog Pearl doesn’t like gunshots, so she won’t stay beneath my desk if I watch MY DARLING CLEMENTINE or FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. But she lay happy and at peace there thoughout DEADWOOD, gunshots being far less frequent than sentimental music and closeups of people looking at things. The slow pace is exacerbated by the sub-plots involving the various stereotyped supporting characters, who often fill up their screen time by describing what is happening, or what has just occurred.

In a feature film, obviously, there is no time for this. In 90 minutes (what Buñuel wrote was the duration of a human dream cycle) you must introduce your characters, depict things as they happen, show the results, and wrap it up. This is the type of storytelling I’m used to, yet strangely I find my DEADWOOD viewing reassuring. Pondering the future of REPO MAN when it reverts to me three years from now, I’d imagined that to create an episodic TV series involved a very complicated plot and scores if not hundreds of characters. Not a bit of it! Just write a regular feature treatment, slow it down by a factor of 25, and hire Walter Hill to direct the pilot. Leisurely if not glacial pace guaranteed.

Not that I mean to be mean. There are good things in DEADWOOD. Some of the acting is excellent. Who cannot admire Ian McShane’s horrendous saloonkeeper, or his scurrilous henchmen, or the posh ex-laudanum-addict in widows’ weeds? There was a tendency to sentimentalize McShane’s character as the series progressed, though: in the first episode, he is the mastermind of the murder of a pilgrim family, offering $50 apiece for severed Indian heads; by the end of the first series he is the upright hero’s supporter and friend, performing mercy killings and revealing he is an orphan. Aaahhh…

It’s interesting to compare DEADWOOD to McCABE & MRS MILLER, a film the series’ creators have presumably seen. Both feature a similar number of characters, similarly attired. McShane’s character (at least before he starts to reform) is a combination of McCabe – who relies almost exclusively on charm and vision to get his way – and the gigantic English murderer who is sent by corporate interests to execute McCabe and appropriate his saloon. McShane is such a good actor that he pulls the mixture off, but his character is graphic novel-deep at best. He beats his whores and threatens to murder them, and is the master of every situation, whereas Beatty’s saloonkeeper is consistently charming, never swears, doesn’t abuse women, doesn’t even raise his voice, and fails at everything, in the end.

McCABE & MRS MILLER is a fine film, from that fecund period of New American Cinema, which ran from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, which experimented with a new type of protagonist, and achieved amazing things. DEADWOOD is a product of its times, as well.

 

TOMBSTONE RASHOMON GOES LIVE

My dear friend Merritt Crocker and I are trying to raise money for a low-budget, vastly ambitious Western about the gunfight at the OK Corral from multiple perspectives, with a science fiction overlay. You can read about the project in further detail on the Tombstone Rashomon page on this site. We have just over 30 days to raise $200,000.

And you can back the project on Indiegogo here!

VANISHING POINT

VANISHING POINT is a road movie made in 1971. I saw it years ago, and had a brief and enlightening email exchange with the original author of the tale, Malcolm Hart. On my shelf of DVDs sat the Japanese “King Records” double disk version, assembled by the great Japanese cineaste Katsumi Ishikuma… So I took it down, peeled off the shrinkwrap and opened it up.

There are two versions – the American release version, and the UK version, which is a little longer and contains a splendid scene in which the taciturn protagonist, Kowalski, picks up a hitchhiker, played by Charlotte Rampling. Like the beautiful lady who tells Toby Dammitt “I’ve been waiting for you for a long time” it is pretty clear that she is Death. It seems like the American producers really didn’t get the film. For Richard Zanuck, the child studio head, it was a low-budget way of showcasing a muscle car and paying off some debts to his pals. But Zanuck’s parents fired him during the production – according to the director, Richard Sarafian, whose commentary is spendidly disgruntled and old-school – and took over the studio to make it safe for HELLO DOLLY and their real films.

Which was unfortunate, since VANISHING POINT is a very good picture, which – if Sarafian is correct – was the first road movie to feature the extreme telephoto shot of cars approaching out of the heat haze, a shot now de rigeur in all road movies made since, including DUEL, ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE, and my own EL PATRULLERO.

MORE THOUGHTS —

The authorship issue… Malcolm Hart, who wrote the original screenplay, is credited with quite a demeaning title card: “Original Story Idea by…” Instead, the screenwriter is identified as one Guillermo Kane. In his commentary, the director recalls Kane as creating the Super Soul character (who was supposed to be a Latino disk jockey named Super Spic – an idea which didn’t go far). One of his pursuing policemen makes a joke about Kowalski taking the car to Cuba, which perhaps might be attributed to Kane – who was in fact the Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante.

VANISHING POINT was green-lit by 20th Century Fox in order to do “some people” favours. One of the recipients was Barry Newman, who wasn’t the director’s choice: Sarafian wanted Gene Hackman. Newman is fine in the role, but he wasn’t a big star and Sarafian is adamant that his casting was done to please some associates of Fox… The car itself – a Dodge Challanger – was imposed on the picture. Chrysler/Dodge had been in the habit of loaning cars to the studio for a dollar a day. The director didn’t get to choose the Challenger: it was a done deal.

I think the presence of Cabrera Infante falls into the same category. The author, recently defected from Cuba, had been the Revolution’s Minister of Culture. He was a big catch for the Americans. Political defections may occur for various reasons, and one is the desire for a better material existence in the United States. When a high-ranking politician jumps ship there’s plenty of negotiation as to the pay-off they’ll receive. English wasn’t his first language, and he has almost no other script credits. But so what? A writing credit on a Hollywood movie would be a good way for him to receive one of his CIA pay-offs…

Go on, tell me it isn’t so! CIA and the Pentagon would never involve themselves in Hollywood movies, would they?

But my main thought about VANISHING POINT is how great it might have been. It’s a good film, of course, particularly in its beginning and at the end. Barry Newman and the Challenger carry the film. It is buoyed up by some fantastic stunt work and the splendid photography of John Alonso. And it is weighed down by a series of encounters with eccentric, unbelievable characters.

The vice of VANISHING POINT is its failure to follow through on its premise: that Kowalski is all alone. Kowalski, as we are shown him, has no friends he can rely on (other than to score him drugs). He is literally only about speed – in the sense of the amphetamines which keep him awake and kill his judgement, and in the unbeatable velocity of his white muscle car. This makes him a very, very interesting character. The flashbacks which fill in his back story (girlfriend dead in surfing accident! the only honest cop on the Venice police force!) are unconvincing and unnecessary. So are almost all his interactions on the road – with gay stickup artists, with an old prospector, with a revivalist minister, with a naked woman and her goofy boyfriend – who cares about these?

If you’ve seen the film, imagine it without them – yes, even without the nude biker girl. Imagine Kowalski all alone, with just his car and the voice of Super Soul on the radio. Imagine all those interactions and sideshows gone — just Kowalski, pursued from state line to state line by different armies of cops, escaping all of them — headed for his meeting with Charlotte Rampling, the hitchhiking Angel of Death.

What a film that would have been!

How many talking pictures had an entirely mute protagonist? I can only think of a couple – IL GRANDE SILENZIO (what if Corbucci had directed this film?) and COCKFIGHTER (where TWO-LANE BLACKTOP director Monte Hellman directed Warren Oates in an almost-entirely silent role). Both pictures are excellent – as is the first act of PARIS TEXAS, which Harry Dean Stanton plays in a similar vein.

Malcolm Hart told me that Kowalski didn’t die in his first script. Facing a road block of police cars and bulldozers, Kowalski put pedal to the metal… and drove right through ’em. The last shot was of Kowalski at the wheel, smiling to himself as the muscle car flies on through the stratosphere.

(Years later, that would be the ending of REPO MAN, of course… But did Otto and Bud follow Kowalski to the Other Side? Or will they return? We’ll have to wait for REPO MAN 2, in 2019, to figure that one out…)

Fascinating in addition to the film itself was the map included with the Japanese DVDs — for it is the map of my commute from Oregon to Colorado – via Highway 50 (“Loneliest Road in America”) and the Interstate through Green River and Glenwood Springs. In 1971 there was no Interstate though Glenwood Canyon, just a two-lane highway, and it’s tremendous to see how that iconic canyon looked before all that concrete got cantilevered in there. Whereas Austin, Nevada, home of the Serbian International Hotel, looks exactly the same.

I’ll be taking that commute one more time, soon, even though I’m no longer teaching at CU Boulder — for the launch party of my next film, TOMBSTONE RASHOMON.

What (I hope you ask) is TOMBSTONE RASHOMON? All will be revealed on 27 August, when the new crowdfunding campaign goes live. Unlike BILL this will be a commercial feature, and we plan to pay the cast and crew (imagine that!). And it will be quite unlike any other film about certain events in Tombstone, AZ, as you’ll see…

For now, if you’re around at the end of August, I’d like to invite you to join me and my esteemed producer, Merritt Crocker, in Boulder for a beer to celebrate the launch of the campaign. Venue and date of this exciting event to follow…

And if you ever felt an urge to tear the t-shirt of the director’s back, rewards this time will include my personal collection of production t-shirts from REPO MAN on…

My Way t-shirt from REPO MAN

Love Kills London t-shirt

Love Kills London t-shirt