California 2015: the ‘Tribune’ postcards
1. FÊTING RAOUL
The desert is no place for ghosts, but the darkness of a cinema offers kindly spectres a safe refuge. So it was in March this year when the 4th American Documentary Film Festival (AmDocs for short) took place in Palm Springs, the well-heeled resort city that, with its year-round heat, makes even Los Angeles—100 miles to the west—seem welcomingly temperate. AmDocs will never achieve the noisy international profile of Coachella, the music festival which happens shortly afterwards elsewhere in the same small valley. But its renown is growing fast among aficionados of non-fiction cinema, attracted by its idiosyncratically eclectic programming and its exotic, intriguing location.
AmDocs is just one of several film-festivals hosted in Palm Springs, the most famous of which is the Palm Springs International Film Festival—held early January and notable for showing every one of the 150+ submissions for the Best Foreign Language Film category of the Academy Awards. This scheduling is a practical way of exposing contenders to voters, as for generations Palm Springs has been known as a retreat—and often a retirement-spot—for showbiz figures of all types, alongside eminences in many other fields. Not for nothing can you here motor down Frank Sinatra Drive, turn left onto Bob Hope then right onto Gerald Ford.
There’s currently no street here named after Raoul Walsh, however, despite the legendary director having resided in the ‘Movie Colony’ neighbourhood on 1062 East Buena Vista Drive in his later years. The oversight is perhaps explicable on the basis that the dude responsible for White Heat (1949, with James Cagney—as Peter Bogdanovich wrote, “only a hard-boiled director like Walsh could get away with Cagney sitting on his mother’s lap”), High Sierra (1941, Humphrey Bogart) and The Thief of Bagdad (Douglas Fairbanks, 1924)—among countless others in a stupendously long and varied 51-year directorial career—ever quite achieved the public profile of his peers Howard Hawks and John Ford (ironically, it was Walsh, not Ford, who first discovered John Wayne—for 1930 flop The Big Trail).
Walsh was never nominated for an Oscar—he didn’t even get the customary and compensatory Honorary trophy in retirement—and none of his movies were nominated for Best Picture. But 35 years after his death—aged 93, on New Year’s Eve 1980—Walsh’s reputation continues to steadily build. The French have always loved him; Rainer Werner Fassbinder ranked his 1958 adaptation of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead as his #2 all-time favourite film, and often used the name ‘Franz Walsch’ to denote his alter-ego (“even with the studio system, where there was always something in the way, you can see clearly that this film can only be by Douglas Sirk, say, or this other one only by Raoul Walsh.”)
Even at home Walsh had his devoted admirers, including Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich and two of the most revered of all American writers on film: James Agee (“Raoul Walsh is one of my favourite directors”) and Manny Farber: “Raoul Walsh’s films are melancholy masterpieces of flexibility and detailing inside a lower-middle-class locale.” Here’s Farber on The Roaring Twenties (1939): “One pounds along with a broken gun on walks and fights that are tensely coiled with forlorn excitement. They are not walks so much as anatomical probings of densely detailed backgrounds that give a second level of formed life to a movie about the last throes of Capone-type gangstering.”
The director’s Palm Springs connections made AmDocs an ideal venue for the north American premiere of The True Adventures of Raoul Walsh—directed by Joel Bender and Marilyn Ann Moss, based on the latter’s book of the same name. Over the course of 100 minutes we’re treated to a slam-bang account of Walsh’s rambunctious life, taking in his cash-strapped early years in New York, his unlikely entrance into showbiz (as David Thomson put it, “he was first employed in a theatre as someone who could ride a horse on a treadmill”), and his star-studded exploits as director-cum-adventurer, equally at home in the jungle, on the water, in the boudoir or nightclub. It’s a boozy, bawdy chronicle of a bygone era—one related with thrilling immediacy in Walsh’s own voice—and what seem to be his own words.
In fact, Bender and Moss have pulled off a remarkable creative sleight-of-hand here—it is only via the end titles that we realise that the Walsh we see (in brief prologue and epilogue sequences) and hear is in fact not the man himself, rather veteran actor Johnny Crear. Crear, whose IMDb listing includes minor parts in various 1980s TV shows and The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), turns in phenomenal voice-work here, utterly convincing at all times and occasionally— as when discussing his close professional/hellraising/bromantic relationship with Errol Flynn (whom Walsh directed to career-crowning work in Gentleman Jim  and Objective, Burma! )—unexpectedly moving.
The low-budget picture, which knits together dozens of Walsh clips to entertaining and informative effect, captures the great man’s inspiring and irrepressible joie de vivre, showing how his devil-may-care attitude to life—his cavalier account of losing an eye in a ludicrous car-wreck says it all—fed directly into the enduring movies he helped create. As vocal performances go, meanwhile, Crear’s is of the very first rank—worthy of comparison with Paul Scofield’s contributions to Patrick Keiller’s London (1994) and Robinson In Space (1997), and with the finest narrations of Welles, James Mason, Werner Herzog and John Hurt. The True Adventures of Raoul Walsh is—thankfully —a world away from the slick, issues-based fare which currently constitutes the vast bulk of documentaries that get wide coverage and release. But it will surely find a home in other film-festivals around the world—perhaps London in October—and Walsh’s genial shade will get to gallop out into the limelight yet again.
20th April 2015
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2. ANCIENT EVENINGS
Who needs a time-machine when you have access to a cinema? Especially if the cinema in question is Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, and most especially during the Noir City Film Festival, which—several nights a week for three weeks each spring—offers 35mm double-bills of economic, no-nonsense black-and-white crime-pictures. This is time-travel of the most effortless and stylish kind, among savvy patrons—several nattily (if smugly) attired in retro fashions—who shun the crass environs of digital-only, separate-performance multiplexes in favour of the classic one-screen, two-movie experience.
Strictly speaking, the Egyptian—whose 1922 opening took place, with niftily optimal timing, two weeks before Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb—hasn’t been a one-screener since December 1998, when it was relaunched as the main venue for the American Cinematheque. A dinky 77-seat room named after Steven Spielberg was created during the $13m project—a grand refurb which saved the decaying behemoth from an ignominious final reel.
The splendour of the two-level, 616-seat main house—named after philanthropist Lloyd A Rigler—remains intact, accessed via a palm-tree-dotted courtyard which isolates the cinema from the cacophonously tourist-infested Hollywood Boulevard. Under a sprawling green-and-gold, scarab-crowned solar ceiling-ornament, Noir City kicked off this year’s event (theme: ‘Unholy Matrimony’) with an evening dedicated to Ann Sheridan.
The sparkily seductive Texan, dubbed the “Oomph Girl” by publicists, enjoyed
considerable success at Warner Brothers from the mid-30s, appearing opposite Jimmy Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and Ronald Reagan in Kings Row (1941). By 1950 Sheridan’s career was sputtering, and she branched out into television and into producing. The latter resulted in Woman On the Run (1950), set and shot 380 miles up the coast in San Francisco. Noir City is itself much more San Franciscan than Angeleno—SF is the home of the Film Noir Foundation and has hosted the original Noir City Film Festival (which takes place in January) since 2003.
Directed and co-written by Orson Welles’ occasional associate Norman Foster—the duo were jointly responsible for 1943’s Journey Into Fear—Woman On the Run belongs squarely that tricky sub-genre which may be termed “screwball noir”. The usual dour/sinister mood is, in such enterprises, leavened by means of snappy, witty dialogue and a savvy, streetwise self-awareness that occasionally anticipates the post-modern. In Woman On the Run most of the laughs are provided by veteran Robert Keith, who commits scene-stealing on a grand-theft scale as a world-weary, bow-tie-sporting police inspector investigating the murder of a shady politician.
The only witness to the crime, Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott), rapidly scarpers after being quizzed by the coppers, and is sought across the city not only by the law but also by his not-so-loving wife Eleanor (Sheridan)—the latter aided by a breezily cynical reporter (Dennis Keith). As Eleanor visits Frank’s haunts and learns more about his artistic and sensitive sides, her long-held antipathy towards her husband starts to thaw. This emotional, internal journey (“I felt things I didn’t know I could feel”) parallels the progress of Eleanor and her news-hound cohort around the inescapably photogenic city, with its vertiginous perspectives affording all manner of arresting z-axis compositions across an array of stimulatingly varied neighbourhoods from Fisherman’s Wharf to Chinatown and beyond.
As well as a deftly-concealed killer twist, Foster includes a slew of delightful, semi-non-sequitur scenes that give Woman On the Run (why the title of the source short-story was changed from Man On the Run is itself a mystery) an idiosyncratic liveliness. And the tense funfair climax is a corker, notable for a wild, near-comically nightmarish sequence—all off-kilter angles and machine-gun editing—in which Eleanor finds herself a hapless rollercoaster-passenger, helpless to save her spouse in mortal danger nearby.
As explained in a pre-screening intro delivered by Film Noir Foundation president Eddie Muller (“the Czar of Noir”), Woman On the Run has had a chequered history in terms of visibility and availability—after a fire at Universal Studios it was feared to be irretrievably lost. A tatty print eventually turned up, which was to form the basis of the 35mm version screened at Noir City, created with the help of a $65k donation from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association—the organisation best known for giving out the Golden Globes.
Foster’s cracking thriller was unusurprisingly passed over during “awards season” back in the day—according to IMDb, Sheridan’s sole gong was the Golden Apple for ‘Most Cooperative Actress’ in 1943. But it’s aged much more gracefully than many Oscar-winners of its era and amply deserves to take its place in the pantheon of second-tier noir classics. The same is true for Roy Rowland’s rousingly enjoyable Witness to Murder, which for six decades has been comprehensively—and unfairly—overshadowed by a higher-profile, bigger-budgeted production with a strikingly similar theme, released four months later in August 1954.
As well as being a gender-switched counterpart to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Witness to Murder is nowadays best known as a chiaroscuro showcase for the art of peerless cinematographer John Alton (also responsible for Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris and Birdman of Alcatraz, etc.) And the Hungarian-born maestro does indeed deliver a masterclass in the power of deep shadow here, via the story of a Los Angeles dress-designer who—in the slam-bang opening seconds—happens to spy a homicide from her window one windy night. When she reports the crime to the police, she finds herself enmeshed in a Kafka-esque labyrinth that includes a short stint in a psychiatric ward—thanks to the machinations of her urbane neighbour-tormentor.
Alton is indeed the MVP, but Witness To Murder boasts unbeatable casting for the two leads with Barbara Stanwyck and George Sanders’ contributions easily outweighing the screenplay’s occasional reliance on contrivance and coincidence. And at its best—Sanders’ “de-Nazified” German philosopher launching into a full-tilt Nietzschean rant; a hair-raising finale atop an unfinished building— the picture mines a seam of berserk energy that can (with apologies to Hitchophiles) make Rear Window seem just a trifle dowdy.
6th May 2015
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3. DOWNTOWN AFTER DARK
In Los Angeles, lovers of cinema still flock (the fools!) to Hollywood. But for those passionate about cinemas, the buildings themselves, the undisputed epicentre of their brick-and-mortar ardour is seven miles south-east in Downtown. Eighty years ago, the main thoroughfare bisecting what is now being branded as the city’s ‘Historic Core’—Broadway – was to the moving-picture business what its Manhattan namesake was (indeed, still is) to the theatre.
A dozen large movie-houses—movie-palaces, as they were accurately dubbed—could be found within half a dozen city blocks: the highest such concentration in the world, capable of seating more than 15,000 patrons. Downtown’s heyday is now but a spectral memory, but most of these extravagant creations still stand—the Palace (1911), the Million Dollar (1918), the State (1921), the Orpheum (1926), the United Artists (1927), the Los Angeles (1931)—with several more on adjacent streets.
None are now cinemas. Some lie empty; some are live-music venues, or harbour cut-price markets or churches catering to the area’s large Latino population. Films are occasionally shown in the wildly opulent United Artists (now restored as part of a new hipster hangout, the Ace Hotel) and also at the Million Dollar, whose magnificent frontage steals the show in Alex Holdridge’s monochrome romance In Search of a Midnight Kiss (2007).
But Downtown denizens seeking cinematic stimulation must now venture slightly afield, to the fringes of this most unpredictably vibrant and (to European eyes) recognisably “city-ish” of Los Angeles’ myriad urban zones. There are multiplexes in L.A. Live, a repellently mall-like development—designed by Baltimore architects—which was completed in 2007 and encapsulates the most banal excesses of Californian corporate modernity. And there are screenings most days at week at the Downtown Independent, a one-screen arthouse whose location (a stone’s throw from the site of Tally’s Electric Theatre, which in 1902 became the USA’s first purpose-built cinema), is at least as much Little Tokyo as it is Downtown.
Ten minutes’ walk from the Downtown Independent, meanwhile, is Bunker Hill—one of Los Angeles’ legendary “lost” neighbourhoods. Haunt of the writer John Fante—who immortalised its densely-packed, low-income streets in novels like Ask The Dust—and shooting-location for such classic pictures as Kiss Me Deadly (1956) and Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles (1961), the old Bunker Hill was gradually wiped out in a controversial, multi-stage project of urban “renewal” which started in 1955. Nowadays few folk live on or near the Hill, which fringes the skyscraper-packed business district and is dominated by such gigantic post-WW2 constructions as the Cathedral of Our Lady, MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) and the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Nestling in a corner of the latter is the I.C.A.-like REDCAT, Los Angeles satellite of CalArts—the private university located half an hour north in Valencia. Both institutions were founded and funded by the Disney family: REDCAT, the Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater, is named after Walt’s brother and sister-in-law. It describes itself as “an interdisciplinary contemporary arts center for innovative visual, performing and media arts” and since 2003 has hosted radical ground-breaking theatrical and cinematic programmes—a world away from the mainstream, family-oriented product with which the Disney brand is synonymous..
The CalArts tie-in means REDCAT often gets early previws of work by the university’s august staff-members such as James Benning and Thom Andersen, whose mammoth documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) contains a superb chapter on Bunker Hill in the movies. My sojourn in the city unfortunately didn’t coincide with the March 6th-7th screenings of Andersen’s latest, The Thoughts That Once We Had, a history of cinema through the philosophical prism of Gilles Deleuze. But I was able to catch a rare opportunity to catch two seminal works by the enigmatic Ohio-born avant-garde director Gregory J. Markopoulos (1928-1992), whose essays on the medium have just been published in handsome hardback under the title Film As Film (Visible Press, $30).
The volume’s editor—British curator— Mark Webber introduced the evening’s 16mm programme on April 6th, comprising the first two films Markopoulos made following his relocation to Europe in 1968.
And while Gammelion, a sombrely elliptical study of an Italian castle, proved something of a soporific slog even at 55 minutes, the accompanying short Bliss provided evidence to support Markopolous’ high standing among aficionados of experimenta. Shot in a Byzantine church on the Greek island of Hydra, it was entirely constructed “in camera” without benefit of subsequent editing. Rapid glimpses of the church’s interior, some of them double-exposed, alternate with stretches of Markopoulos’ beloved black frames. Using the simplest of means, a disorienting but stimulatingly immersive effect is created which, offers a small, fragile window into a zone of ruminative transcendence.
A romantic, seductively shadowy presence on the far fringes of cinema, Markopoulos’ biography and mystique give him the air of a fictional being who’s escaped from the pages of a novel by John Fowles or Don Delillo, or perhaps a Borges short story. With his partner Robert Beavers, he spent the final decades of his life in and around Lyssaraia, his father’s home village in Greece. Here the pair constructed the Temenos, an archive-cum-projection space where his oeuvre—which the director saw as one continuous work, entitled Eniaios—could be properly appreciated. Eniaios is nowadays screened in its ten-hour entirety, over the course of three evenings, every fourth summer.
The next opportunity will be probably be in 2016, and avant-garde aficionados with deep pockets are already sorting out the logistics of this pricey pilgrimage. But there’s a lot to be said for catching a film like Bliss in a place like Bunker Hill, for emerging out of REDCAT as chill comes in off the ocean on a calm April evening, and heading down to the just-scuzzy-enough Redwood Bar on 2nd Street to parse Markopoulos’ rarefied achievements over a cerveza or three. John Fante would certainly approve. And as Petula Clark put it, “Don’t hang around and let your problems surround you / There are movie shows—downtown…”
25th May 2015
more from Los Angeles: No Weapon Formed Against Me Shall Prosper (from the Bendix Building to Bela Lugosi… on foot)