Keyframe Director Spotlight: Sidney J. Furie

I published two articles today, on Keyframe, an online independent film magazine powered by Fandor.  One covers Sidney J. Furie's The Leather Boys (1963), which Fandor has just licensed for streaming in HD, and the other is a video-enhanced production diary from the set of Sidney's newest film Drive Me to Vegas and Mars.  Check them out!

Raise Your Kids on Seltzer: The Filmmaker's Statement



   I started with the title, then I made the film.
   To many artists, that’s like naming a baby before conceiving the baby in question.
   As my film inches towards its August 6 world premiere (a cast, crew, friends and family only event), I consider the process of having made the film, what it means to me now that it is complete, and how it has evolved and morphed over the period of its production.

   Years ago, though, I was struck by a particular combination of words when shooting another project, a rather unfocused documentary about a close friend, a woman whose uniqueness is unrivaled.  She then lived in a small, windowless Upper East Side apartment with her 100-year-old mother and nineteen cats.  I do not exaggerate.  This arrangement reminded me at least somewhat of Grey Gardens (and as it turns out, she happened to have once been the secretary of Grey Gardens filmmaker Al Maysles).  Speaking off the cuff about what being Jewish meant to her growing up on an upstate chicken farm resided over by her beloved Socialist poet stepfather (whose fifteen minutes of fame came in writing lyrics to the Paul Robeson tune “Spring Song”), she said, “You know, you had bagels on Sunday and you raised your kids on seltzer, and that was it.  That’s what I thought it meant to be Jewish.”  I never finished that particular project because it never really took me anywhere, but the words “Raise Your Kids on Seltzer” echoed through my synapses years after she first uttered them.

   Over six years later, her mother is gone (having passed at the age of 101) and the number of cats has dwindled from nineteen to three.
   
   I knew I wanted to one day make a film entitled Raise Your Kids on Seltzer, but I could not imagine the subject matter.  Would it be about a seltzer water dynasty, kind of like Visconti’s The Damned, except for replacing the family’s metallurgy industry with soda water?  The truth is, I just like the way it sounded.  It was snappy, it was punchy, it was catchy, and the word “Seltzer” looked attractive to me on paper, and not just in the merit of the drink itself.

   When I shot the still-in-editing Ezer Kenegdo throughout 2013 with my collaborator Deniz Demirer in the San Francisco Bay Area, I had the tremendous fortune of meeting most of the members of the current Rob Nilsson filmmaking troupe, who are now my fulltime filmmaking partners following my move to San Francisco in March of this year.  Never let it be said that a single fateful meeting (in this case, my meeting Deniz and having an epic six-hour conversation with him on an initial 2012 business trip to San Francisco) can’t determine the unpredictable direction your life takes.

    On one of my trips to shoot that project, I was able to catch a rough cut of Rob’s film A Leap to Take, an ensemble feature set at a wayfaring birthday bacchanal and shot in a single night (in what was originally planned as a single unbroken take).  Two minor characters, a sculptress and her blind husband, were played by Penny Werner and Jeff Kao.  Quite simply, I found them incredibly funny and charming together onscreen, and thought a film in which they were front and center playing a married couple would be priceless.  I even voice my delight to Deniz that night, with a cockeyed smile that was still in the midst of reacting to them as a team, “I want to make a film with Jeff and Penny.  That’s my next project.”

    Now, what’s funny is that I had first met them individually and never saw them together before seeing them in Rob’s movie.  And I think Deniz first deemed my random musing a “haha, that’s funny” lark of a comment.  But I was serious.  Really serious.  They really turned my wheels that night, and they were really only in two scenes.

    So, I went about approaching them to suggest this project.  All I said to them was, “I want to do a movie where you guys play a married couple, and I already have the title.  Raise Your Kids on Seltzer.”  They were suitably puzzled, as was I.  “I don’t know why, or what any of it has to do with seltzer, but that’s what I want to call it,” I told them.  At the foundation level, I wanted them to play a corporate video production tagteam notorious for their unintentionally funny affectations.  They were to make corporate media with style…bad style.  This was of course based on my many years working in the world of corporate media and wanting to scream at the top of my lungs just to spite how indescribably boring it all was.  I thought, the movie could be about how we all try to enliven the drudgery in our lives by injecting it with whatever dose of art and making it personally fulfilling in spite of itself.

    I didn’t dislike that idea, but it wasn’t enough.  It ran the risk of being too precious.  I asked myself, how could I make it really intriguing?  So, I probably did what any writer would do.  I gave the characters a past.  A doozy of a past.  A humdinger of a past.

   As a teenager, I was rather obsessed with cults and the charismatic individuals at their helm who had an uncanny power to control people.  I knew the most minute details concerning the Manson Family case and the Jonestown massacre, and would often pour over literature written about cults.  At many junctures, I got the feeling that my parents were concerned about this obsession.  So, with Raise Your Kids on Seltzer, it was about time I made a film that put my “magnificent obsession” to use.

   I considered Martha Marcy May Marlene to be one of the finest films of the new decade, but I started a regiment of watching and re-watching slightly older movies about the cult phenomenon, pictures made at the height of the boom, like Ticket to Heaven (1981), Blinded by the Light (1980), Split Image (1982), and Guyana Tragedy (1980).  A fairly consistent but backgrounded element in these dramas was the figure of the deprogrammer, the person called upon to kidnap and counsel the main character out of their brainwashed state.  Normally, the deprogrammer enters the story as the third act begins, and ultimately saves the day.  They are the deus ex machina.  What interested me in watching these films was something the directors of them didn’t seem to care much about: What kind of person deprograms cult members for a living?  How does one become a deprogrammer?  What are their lives like?  Only in Ted Kotcheff’s Split Image do we get a sense of the character of the deprogrammer, played by a deliciously unhinged James Woods.  But the problem for me was that the character felt cartoonish and overbaked.

   I contacted Jeff and Penny and told them that they were now playing retired cult deprogrammers (kind of a good cop/bad cop mom-and-pop operation, if you will) who, in the last 5-10 years, switched professions to corporate media, and are now running away from their past.  They ran away from deprogramming, despite its lucrative-ness.  Penny’s first reaction: “Whoa! That’s heavy!”  I expressed my passion for the idea, and with equal doses of trepidation and excitement, they immediately got to work on researching the roles, as did I.  As the center of my own research was the real-life figure of Ted Patrick, the “father of deprogramming,” and perhaps the most famous in the “business.”  Patrick earned a reputation and notoriety because of his liberal use of physical violence and indiscriminate abuse of all varieties, in order to initialize the rousing of his subjects from their mentally comatose state.  He was often met with lawsuits from “clients” after the fact.

   All of this reading and researching of the process fascinated me, but what really intrigued me was the story of the marriage itself.  I remembered something that Alan Alda claimed that a friend told him, which inspired his 1981 comedy The Four Seasons.  Friendships and relationships go through seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter.  I wanted to examine the winter of a healthy marriage.  I wanted them to get downright nasty and abusive towards each other, but know deep down that love hadn’t died.

   It was around then that the McGuffin of the movie hit me.  I had conspired at one point to write a short story about a “snail mail” letter that makes a claim for a character’s complicity in a suicide.  The letter would suggest that the main character was named as an “accessory” in the suicide note, or rather a reason for this person’s decision to kill him/herself, either because of a previous transgression the character had committed against the deceased, or some other unknown reason.  The baffled, emotionally dumbstruck accused would then go about the rest of the story questioning why, and what he really did to inspire the suicide, questioning his own actions, grilling and thus torturing himself with guilt.  I worked that concept into the film.  The letter would throw a monkey wrench into both their marriage, and into their efforts to effectively put their past behind them.  It would also jumpstart the rest of the story.  The deprogrammers would now get such a letter from one of their ex-clients.

    Then came the idea of “ritual,” as it exists in the home.  The notion came to me gradually.  To what degree are any of us “programmed”?  How much of life and love is based in the idea of control?  How much do we stoop to control, and how much do we allow ourselves to be controlled?  I then encountered a literary quotation from Jorge Luis Borges: “To fall in love is to create a religion that has a fallible god.”  A few such rituals were deleted from the final cut, but a vital one that remains involves the dream diary sequences, in which the characters keep daily written accounts of the dreams they have, then share them at the breakfast table.

   I hatched a subplot idea of a reformed, ex-cult leader in the couple’s circle, who is ironically being “controlled” and “programmed” by his own daughter, whose job it is to handle him, especially in his dealings with potential outside influences (like our main character, in his efforts to write a book partly about him).  The ideas flowed like a pulsating river current, with one idea bleeding into another, lending everything an added complexity.  An off-handed comical remark from Penny about a “twin” single-handedly invented a rich, new aspect of the story, and before we knew it, we had a strange creature of a movie.  A sasquatch.  I was asked by my mentor Sidney Furie, “It’s really interesting, but what would you call it?  A comedy?  A thriller?  A drama?”  I couldn’t answer.  I don’t think he expected me to.

   A few days before departing for the west coast (I still lived in New York when the film was shot), I met up with director Josh Safdie (Daddy Longlegs, Heaven Knows What) to record ADR for Ezer Kenegdo, in which he plays a key role.  At the end, I told him I was about to embark on shooting Raise Your Kids on Seltzer, and we proceeded to discuss cults, about which he seemed to have much knowledge.  We discussed “cult leader” Mel Liman, the related appearance of Zabriskie Point stars Mark Frechette (“The main purpose of the community is to serve Mel Liman”) and Daria Halprin on The Dick Cavett Show, what became of Frechette, and what became of Mel Liman’s “community.”  Josh instructed me to be careful, stating that he tried to write and direct a film about a cult at one point, and that it just got too messy for him.

   Shooting the project over fourteen days, with nothing but a detailed outline, in late April/early May 2014, predominantly in Lafayette in the East Bay, Raise Your Kids on Seltzer quite organically took root by the time we turned our cameras on.  A “Siamese pickle” that I found in a jar the night before departing to San Francisco from New York for shooting played a major role in the first sequence we shot.  We arrived in the daytime and staged a beautiful scene around the pickle that night, hitting the ground running.  I started with something I thought would be fun and I knew from their performances that we were in business.

   My trusty cinematographer Aaron Hollander was back on hand, devising some of his most painterly lighting and shot design yet (we based much of the visual style on his namesake Adam Holender’s gorgeous work in Jerry Schatzberg’s Puzzle of a Downfall Child, with its delicate, earthy mix of exterior and interior light, which spoke to our primary location needs as well as our themes).  The camera style was to be deliberate, mostly steady, locked off, with selected moments of “embedded-war documentary photography,” domestic-style.

   Though much of the film was “stolen” guerrilla-style in terms of shooting strategy, we shot most of the film in a house belonging to two of our friends, who were moving out of it at the end of the month.  So, we went into it knowing there was no possibility of reshoots (as the house would also to be redesigned and renovated after move-out).  The house, however, was too perfect not to use and, with its wide-open windows, suggested many high-concept motivations for its use.  “Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” for one.  Another idea for me was the couple being, in a way, exposed, out in the open for all to see.  There were no secrets anymore.  Look inside and you can see them at their most pathetic with little effort.

   At this point, we still didn’t really have a handle on the title’s meaning.  I concocted that it was a mantra they used when deprogramming: “Raise your kids on seltzer, bubble per bubble.  The best things are the most painful going down.”  The code for the deprogramming location became “the RYKOS center,” and the film itself became commonly known as Rykos.  Only after picture wrap on principal photography did someone inquire, “Does the title have anything to do with Kool-Aid?”  The problem was thus immediately solved.  “For those who’d rather not drink the Kool-Aid, raise your kids on seltzer!”  We went back to include it later in the pickup shots.  The title also speaks to the theme of complacency.  Kool-Aid is sweet and non-abrasive.  Seltzer is refreshing because of its roughness; the bubbles seizes the throat and, when the carbonation is potent, provides a wake-up call to the gullet and the taste buds.  The central marriage in the film needs such an awakening from complacency.

   Two additional pick-up scenes included a special appearance from actor Barry Newman (Vanishing Point, “Petrocelli”, The Limey), who did me a favor in playing the attorney of the film’s central Neoneida (Nee-oh-nigh-dah) cult.

   The name Neoneida is a conflation of Neo and Oneida, adopting the principles of John Humphrey Noyes’s original Oneida colony, founded in the 1860’s, whose members practiced free love, complex marriage (a polite word for polygamy) and believed in the notion of Perfectionism (bringing about the Christian milennial kingdom on Earth, freeing oneself of sin in this life, and being perfect in this world and not just the next).  John Humphrey Noyes is a historical figure that has fascinated me since my high school days, mostly because I perceived him very much as an early cult leader in America, and because his community possessed all the qualities of a cult and what one does to its members.

   Editing proved a formidable challenge because of the number and variety of story threads, and how they subsisted on each other and flowed into each other.  You couldn’t excise one of the threads without affecting or negatively impacting the others.  As I joked with Aaron and the cast, “I think maybe we got too ambitious on this one.”  Narratively, the film was a juggling act during the post-production process.  It was akin to arranging and conducting for a mega orchestra.  I had to establish the nine individual plot threads, fade them out for some stretches, bring in another, fade that one out, bring in another, etc. while considering how they would cohesively fit into the film’s larger context.  Success came only in striking the most delicate balance.

   The film took the better part of a whole year to reach an assembly cut.  In addition to the fact that I was trying to finish my book on Sidney Furie, the meticulous plot thread “orchestration” took time and care.  And because the film was improvised within tight parameters, every take was different.

   Raise Your Kids on Seltzer has screened four times in rough cut form and, with each successive screening, I made adjustments and organized two important reshoots.  It was during this stage of the process that I was made aware of the movie Faults, an independent film about a former deprogrammer employed to spring a young woman from the cult of the title.  I was motified when I discovered it, because I was convinced that I had something utterly original.  I saw my way to actually scoring a copy of the film, but upon seeing it, I was relieved to discover that not only was it a radically different film, but that I also didn’t care for it very much.

   Now, it is in picture lock mode, standing as my longest film at 118 minutes.  The film is as good as I hoped it would be with the material shot, and reactions have been fairly uniformly positive and, I daresay, even enthusiastic.  Like I had hoped, people connect with the couple’s story, seeing the cult material as an intriguing and compelling backdrop for the story of a relationship.  I look forward to unleashing it to audiences after the premiere screening next month.  It is a quantum leap forward for me in terms of my own filmmaking, and was a personal triumph for me in the creative process.

Coming Soon: Daniel Kremer's Book, Sidney J. Furie: Life and Films

University Press of Kentucky Screen Classics Series is releasing Daniel Kremer's first book Sidney J. Furie: Life and Films on November 5, 2015. Award-winning biographer Patrick McGilligan is the series editor at Screen Classics, and the Foreword of the book was written by Piers Handling, head of the Toronto International Film Festival. Learn more about the book here and pre-order it on Amazon.com here. The same press also published Nick Dawson's Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel and Marilyn Ann Moss's Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood's Legendary Director.  Their recent releases include Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical, by Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo, and Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance, by Brent Phillips. Kremer's book, written and researched with the collaboration and cooperation of Sidney J. Furie himself, details the life of the venerable director of The Ipcress File (1965), The Leather Boys (1964), Lady Sings the Blues (1972), The Appaloosa (1966), Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970), The Boys in Company C (1978), The Entity (1982), Iron Eagle (1986), and many others.  The book features interviews with Michael Caine, Rita Tushingham, R. Lee Ermey, Billy Dee Williams, and many others.  A full-length biographical documentary film, Sidney J. Furie: Fire Up the Carousel!, is also in production as the veteran director steps into making one last personal film on a shoestring budget in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. The title originates from the Frank Borzage quote, "When you make pictures for studios, you are just operating the carousel, disengaged but vigilant. When you make personal pictures, you fire up the carousel."  Stay tuned for further updates!

"How wonderful that there is finally a book about Sidney Furie, one of the best directors in the whole of my career . . . and one of my greatest friends. I wouldn't have had a career without him!" ―Michael Caine

"One hell of a book on one hell of a director, with one hell of a career! I originally wanted to make The Godfather with him but wound up working with him on two other pictures―and had about as good a time as I ever had on a movie set. Sidney J. Furie is one of the favorite directors of my career, and now, finally, there is a book to tell his story. He has survived fifty years as a filmmaker on grit, determination, and genius . . . especially genius!" ―Albert S. Ruddy, producer of The Godfather, The Longest Yard, and Million Dollar Baby

Meanwhile, Kremer is signing with Oxford University Press, under series editor Gary Giddins (Warning Shadows: Home Alone With Classic Cinema, Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of the Second Century), for his book on director Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street, Chilly Scenes of Winter, Crossing Delancey).

ConFluence-Film Moves to the San Francisco Bay Area!

I’m moving to San Francisco this week, so on the eve of this momentous relocation, I took a moment to consider my favorite San Francisco-set films and decided to write about them. I am going to bypass the usual titles included on such a list, so please do not kvetch about my neglect of Vertigo, Bullitt, The Conversation, Dirty Harry, Point Blank, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Zodiac or any of the other canonical San Francisco titles. Briefly, I will digress and just say, for the record, that Zodiac is my favorite Fincher film, and beyond that, simply sounds the least “recited” and the least overwritten of Fincher’s films.  I found his most recent offering, Gone Girl, distasteful, far-fetched and flat-out ridiculous, and I felt overly conscious of the actors reciting "precision-timed" dialogue.


1. The Strawberry Statement (1970, Stuart Hagmann) Whenever I think San Francisco and film, I think immediately of this movie, produced by MGM during a troubled era of their history that saw studio head James Aubrey greenlighting unusual projects like this one, then taking power away from the director in final cut.  Nothing much happened to this one in that department, thankfully.  I saw it at the age of twelve or thirteen, and it became what San Francisco and the Bay Area means cinematically to me. Winner of the Cannes Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, it is intriguingly packed with visual gimmicks, some that are of course dated, and others that are ravishing and still original. While its source, James Kunen’s book The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary, covers Columbia’s student activism, the film’s subject, the Berkeley campus riots, is rife with rich Bay Area history, and its soundtrack, by Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Neil Young solo, Thunderclap Newman, Buffy Saint-Marie and others, is out of this world. I had the pleasure back in 2009 of meeting actor Bruce Davison at a DGA screening of a Henry Jaglom film, and speaking with him about making The Strawberry Statement.  Rembering the brouhahas surrounding the shooting of the film on the Berkeley campus put a nostalgic smile on his face. Davison's comments to me about shooting echoed the opening title crawl that coyly thanked the school with a detectable degree of tongue-in-cheek irony. Critics of the time dug it, then, within just a few years, trashed it in retrospect as a faded relic. I love it and have seen it a ton of times and know many of the lines by heart. We are all conditioned by films we see at the youngest of ages, and I find that I am prone to connecting specific early viewing experiences to places, feelings, dreams I had for my own future. Of all movies, Brian De Palma’s Greetings! (1968) exemplified the call of New York City.  The Strawberry Statement is my San Francisco, a San Francisco best defined in my own mind. The film is filled with a line-up of memorable sequences, including its frightening finale, a harrowing, graphically violent police raid during a student sit-in. The supporting cast is something of a who’s-who, including Bud Cort, Jeannie Berlin, Bob Balaban, James Coco, Michael Margotta, Bert Remsen (an Altman and Ashby repertory player), and the film’s screenwriter, playwright Israel Horovitz.  Recently, the Warner Archive Collection of DVD's released the film on a double-disc set, one with the original theatrical cut and the other with an extended international version.  Boy, do I love distributors who care about stuff like that!


2. Signal 7 (1983, Rob Nilsson) One of the earliest film shot in video and then transferred to 35mm, this ensemble film about actors moonlighting as taxi drivers is inspirational to any filmmaker directing flicks on the cheap.  It proves Rob's status as a pioneer and true visionary.  I wrote about the film back in ’09 here.


3. Bushman (1971, David Schickele) I feel grateful that Rob Nilsson was kind enough to get the filmmaker's widow Gail Schickele to send me a video copy of this just a few months ago. Rob, who had been close personal friends with David Schickele (the brother of P.D.Q. Bach creator Peter Schickele), spoke to me of it many times as a masterpiece and as one of his favorite films. He also formally named it as one of the best films ever made in the Bay Area in a Focus Films website showcase. Rob couldn't be more on-point in this case. It's one of the most stellar examples of the fiction-documentary hybrid, much like Robert Kramer’s Milestones (1975), but somewhat less sprawling and more focused towards an engagement with its chief subject. Shot in gritty black and white, Bushman has Schickele following an African student named Gabriel who matriculates into a San Francisco college and struggles to resolve personal and racial issues that have become central to his life after having uprooted himself. It is almost as if Bay Area filmmaker Marlon Riggs’s seminal documentary Black Is, Black Ain’t (1994) picks up where this film leaves off, especially in a scene in which Gabriel’s girlfriend instructs him on the finer points of the black-American street dialect, only to humorously fail. The San Francisco Film Society says it best when they write, “One is immediately struck by the juxtaposition of African outlooks and California urban life, especially in the sudden flashback to Gabriel’s Nigerian village, with its simplicities contrasted to the complex life-hustle of a Fillmore existence. For the first time in American cinema, an educated African elucidates in a no-nonsense manner, the bewildering ineptness of American society to live humanistically, with every opportunity to do this either ignored or thwarted. Because one begins to see black-American life through African eyes, certain revelations occur.” Bushman is an astounding, tragically obscure wonder that should be seen by a much wider audience. Schickele, who saw to editing duties for John Korty’s Funnyman (1967), Corr and Gessner’s Over-Under Sideways-Down (covered below), and Rob Nilsson’s Chalk (also covered below), also directed other deserving but unseen films like Give Me a Riddle (1966) and Tuscarora (1992). Bushman, though, seems his greatest personal contribution to the art, taking home the Chicago International Film Festival's award for Best First Feature.


4. Over-Under Sideways-Down (1977, Eugene Corr) I had the great pleasure of meeting filmmaker Gene Corr through Rob, and Gene was kind enough to procure me a DVD copy of the film a couple years ago. Produced by the Socialist film collective Cine Manifest (of which Rob and Eugene were members, and which also produced the award-winning Northern Lights), this is one of the best depictions of the working class that has ever been committed to screen, with an excellent lead performance by Robert Viharo, a seeming staple performer in San Francisco independent cinema. In terms of American cinema, I'd put it next to Paul Schrader's Blue Collar (1978). I wrote about this in 2013 here.


5. Riverrun (1970, John Korty) Next to Nilsson and Schickele, Korty is certainly my favorite Bay Area filmmaker and this is my favorite of his films. I could just as easily write about and include his films The Crazy-Quilt (1966) and Funnyman (1967) on this list, and in many ways this is more a John Korty entry on the list than it is one that is solely about Riverrun. Shot in Mill Valley, the latter is a simple three-character drama, and exemplifies what good, down and dirty independent filmmaking spirit is all about. And the kicker: this was financed by Columbia Pictures in the immediate aftermath of the success of their own Easy Rider (1969). At that time, they also had a multi-picture deal with BBS Productions (which produced the latter, as well as Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show and others), but gave Riverrun much less heft than those indie-esque enterprises, unceremoniously dumping this unapologetically arty picture. Drop-dead beautiful images play in concert with some interesting performances by three unknowns. The poster had the perspicacity to recognize how the movie considers how the characters assume archetypal roles in nature: “Air, Earth, Fire, Water. Mother, Son, Father, Daughter. All the elements are in Riverrun.” Korty once said in an interview that, “My first thought was, I want to make a film about salt water and grass and earth and wind and old wood, the texture of the farmhouse, and about animals and about flesh. To me, these are the building blocks.” This artistic intent is fulfilled as early as in the film’s opening, which focuses closely on these textures and surfaces, and in later sequences as in the one in which the young man and woman witness in amazement the birth of a new baby sheep. Even in the scene in which the young woman gives birth to her own child, there is a preoccupation with textures that one can feel with everything that surrounds her, because the audience has become so predisposed to noticing such things by that point in the picture. One might call such seeming digressions “still lifes,” but there is something about the way Korty frames all of this, stitches into the very fabric of the film, which makes all this about the environs somehow very much alive.


6. Good Neighbor Sam (David Swift, 1964) I’ll “go Hollywood” for this entry. The underrated and now obscure David Swift was the director of sixties screwball-ish comedies, specifically in the Hawks tradition, with more than a dash of Frank Tashlin…but all with a decidedly different set of vocal cords. How Sarris missed Swift in his otherwise comprehensive 1968 auteurist study, The American Cinema, is a head-scratcher. In this old-fashioned but incongruously irreverent 130-minute romp, adapted from a comic novel by the author of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Swift keenly satirizes the American preoccupation with conservative “wholesome family values” based in quasi-Puritanical morality, the loathsome deception beneath, and the standards and expectations within an obstinate society that holds such rooted things as paramount. Arching over all of this is a simultaneously caustic and zany view of corporate America, and the individual conformists and yes-men within it. The film, then, remarkably, remains relevant and perceptive even today, despite the period trappings themselves having dated -- and, specifically as a self-aware snapshot of sixties suburbia, it also manages to be quite discerning about the essential American delusion. Jack Lemmon plays a San Francisco ad agency man (and Marin suburbanite) whose career takes a turn towards upward mobility when he scores a major account, that of a dairy corporation run by a wholesome, pious family man (played by none other than Edward G. Robinson) who is a notorious and almost Fascistic self-appointed spokesperson for the aforementioned wholesome family values (Anita Bryant, anyone?). When Lemmon’s wife’s old college friend (Romy Schneider) moves next door, and announces that she stands to inherit $15 million from her grandfather’s estate, things look even rosier. However, according to a clause in her grandfather’s will, she must be happily married, and living according to the expectations of conventional western womanhood, before she can even lay her hands on a dime. When Lemmon and his wife agree that he should masquerade as her husband for a percentage of the take, hijinks ensue. The film’s sprawling third act, in which Lemmon goes on a rampage of defacing his company’s billboards, stacks the set pieces, and veers further into becoming a frenetic, high-impact farce. One must, as always, consider the time in which this film was made. America in 1964 was on the very doorstep of the cultural and political breakdown, and a revolution that, for the first time, would call into question the values roasted in this film.  The revolution would attempt to radically subvert these values, and this film does so satirically well before the culture took hold of itself. Apart from that, its use of San Francisco as a location is often unique and, for the time of its release, quite fresh. Corporate satires were, after all, far more prevalent in the New York milieu. And that cast! Lemmon, Robinson, Schneider, Dorothy Provine, and a host of recognizable character actors are all clearly having a good time.

Endnote: Someone should do a study of Swift’s career (not that it would gross any sizable audience, but he should be given a new look somewhere). He is perhaps most known for directing the Disney vehicles Polyanna (1960) and The Parent Trap (1961), but developed into more of an auteur when he broke free of the Disney machine. Other films include: The Interns (1962), Love is a Ball (1963), Under the Yum-Yum Tree (1963) and the big screen adaptation of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967).


7. Chalk (1996, Rob Nilsson) Another great Nilsson film, set in a murky world of pool hustlers and two-bit bikers and barroom denizens, and his longest at 139 minutes. It does feel ambitious and epic and it is, again, inspirational. And no film, with its candy-colored neon smoke and haze, looks like it.  As per standard procedure, Nilsson also directs the action so that we buy that what we are seeing is actually happening in reality, to an extent that even the most able and nimble of directors would flagellate themselves for a lack of.


8. Watched! (1974, John Parsons) An independently produced foray into pre-Watergate paranoia cinema, set in a then-future 1980, starring Stacy Keach as an ex-District Attorney busted on a 1969 drug charge who is now holed up in a rundown loft trying to make sense of his past via old home movies, reel-to-reel audio tapes, diaries, and black-and-white police surveillance footage. Through flashbacks, we as the audience piece everything together. Once Keach’s character gussies himself up as a Mafia kingpin in an effort to exact revenge on his old nemesis, played by Harris Yulin (Keach’s personal friend and co-star in 1970’s equally surreal End of the Road), things get batshit-crazy. A critic at the Atlanta Film Festival called the film “a fantastic cocaine nightmare.” One wonders what Keach was doing with this, slumming it in what appears to be a weird experimental, underground movie. This one, overall, in story and content, is a head-scratcher, but as I see it, a fascinating and worthwhile head-scratcher. Dig it…and dig for it.


9. Nocturnal Jake (2009, Deniz Demirer) I wrote about this film, directed by my good friend Deniz Demirer, in the early part of 2013. You can read that review here.


10. Shoot the Moon (1982, Alan Parker) This MGM-produced chamber drama, about a messy divorce between Albert Finney and Diane Keaton, features one of the most jaw-dropping domestic scenes I can recall. In it, the eldest of Finney and Keaton’s four daughters refuses the birthday gift that Finney has brought to the house after moving out and taking up with mistress Karen Allen. When Keaton also attempts to keep him out of the house, he forces his way in, literally throws Keaton outside on her ass, then charges up the steps to his daughter’s bedroom. When his daughter likewise shuts the door on him, he breaks that one down and proceeds to give her a whipping for disrespecting him and his love. A free-for-all develops between Finney, the victimized daughter and the rest of the girls. The thing of it is, that, up until that point in the movie, Finney’s character has been depicted as a non-violent and quite loving father. This bout of domestic abuse and violence is unusual for him and shocking to us. This flawed film, scripted by Bo Goldman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Melvin and Howard), is full of moments you would never expect from such a studio endeavor. Indeed, in scenes like these, the film almost feels like Cassavetes at his most frantic. Interestingly enough, I saw this at the age of fourteen on my first visit to the Bay Area, staying with longtime friend and documentarian Peter Nicks (The Waiting Room). Pete, do you remember watching this one with me and being equally shocked by the scene I describe? I’ll never forget what I felt when I saw that traumatic scene at that young, tender age.


Honorable Mentions:


The Laughing Policeman (1973, Stuart Rosenberg) Many homophobic slurs are let loose in this decidedly non-progressive detective story/cop thriller, which despite its title has nothing comedic whatsoever to justify its name, even Walter Matthau in the lead role. However, there are many things about it that make it more than just palatable. The descent into the “underworld” of porn theaters, strip clubs and the like of San Francisco that Matthau and his partner Bruce Dern take, makes for memorable detective cinema, as they attempt to find the gunman of a transit-bus massacre through learning as much as they can about the dead victims of it. The final chase sequence is one I’d stack against any other from a filmic era armed to the teeth with chase sequences.


A Christmas Without Snow (1980, John Korty) John Korty directed this made-for-television picture, more promising than its exhibitional fate would indicate, casting John Houseman in a classic Paper Chase-esque role, as a stern church choirmaster who attempts to whip a team of amateur vocalists in shape for a Christmas performance of Handel’s Messiah. It features a memorable monologue by Houseman, about the origin of the word “amateur”: "Mrs. Burns is right, of course; you are amateurs, unlike certain pseudo-professionals like myself who insist on slave wages. Your voluntary and steadfast attendance at these rehearsals fully qualifies you for any definition of the word "amateur". What Mrs. Burns and many others are wrong about is the meaning of the word, which has to do with motivation, not quality. Remember "amo, amat, amas", the Latin verb "to love". The meaning of "amateur" is "he or she who does a thing for the love of it". There is no higher reason for singing than the love of doing it. In that respect, you do qualify as amateurs. And I salute you for it."


Experiment in Terror (1963, Blake Edwards) Edwards took a radical turn away from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Days of Wine and Roses (1962) with this intriguing genre “experiment,” certainly a far cry from his other work. With scenes set all over the San Francisco area, including Twin Peaks and a finale in Candlestick Park, this is a good one to catch on a lonely night. It also features one of Henry Mancini’s greatest scores.


P.S. I don't "get" the love letters and homilies written to Richard Lester's San Francisco-set Petulia (1968) and I feel very alone on this front. I’ve heard the word “masterpiece” bandied about in regard to this film. Far from it, really. Very far from it. It’s interesting in many ways, and has its moments, but is alas incredibly flawed.  I respect Lester and understand his important place in the history of cinema, but I am rather personally immune to many of his charms.  A Hard Day's Night (1964), The Bed-Sitting Room (1969) and Juggernaut (1974) are actually the only films of his I can take seriously, though I grew up with the Superman films and think there is intellectually (yes, intellectually) more to Superman III than meets the eye, despite a considerably larger number of flaws.  If only Petulia had been directed by its cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, then it might have been something more.  Sorry, this is just my personal opinion.  It does use the city well, though.  I'll say that for it.

Update: Raise Your Kids on Seltzer, Coming in Summer 2015




 The official trailer for Raise Your Kids on Seltzer has been released.  Click the above video window or watch the trailer on Vimeo.  The poster art, courtesy of Philadelphia artist Juan Hurtado, has also been released and can be viewed below.  The film's release is slated for the summer of 2015, with a premiere in San Francisco.  Other updates coming soon!