Sunday, June 30, 2013


More than a month has passed since three young women were rescued after being held captive in a Cleveland man's basement for a decade. The news was harrowing, but not entirely unusual. Just a few years earlier, an Austrian man was arrested and charged with holding his daughter captive in a basement for 24 years. In 2006 a Pennsylvania woman was reunited with her parents after being held captive in a neighbor's home for a decade. In 2011, a husband and wife from California were sentenced to 43 and 36 years respectively for  holding a woman prisoner for 18 years.
William Wyler's The Collector was about this very subject, although Wyler insisted  the tale was "a story about love if not a love story."

 Freddie Clegg (Terence Stamp) is a shy bank clerk, who secretly loves Miranda (Samantha Eggar), an art student from a wealthy family. Freddie  knows he could never have Miranda because she she's constantly surrounded by her rich friends and her snooty art school professors. When Freddie comes into some money after winning a lottery, he buys a mansion in the country with a perfect basement for holding someone captive.  
Freddie's plan is to hold Samantha prisoner so she can get to know him.  He's furnished the basement with books and albums and art supplies; he's even bought clothes she might like.  He feels that in time she will grow to like him, or even love him. He doesn't understand why she keeps screaming to be released. Eventually she barters with him, until they reach an agreement: she will stay four weeks, and then he must let her go. He agrees, but anyone whose tunnel vision is such that he can't understand why a woman wouldn't want to be chained up in a basement is not likely to be rational.  

Before it was a movie, The Collector was a novel by John Fowles, the first part told from Freddie's point of the view, the second from Miranda's. Producer John Kohn and screenwriter Stanley Mann (with an uncredited assist from Terry Southern)  had the task of taking a largely internalized story and giving it dramatic shape.  Somehow, The Collector works beautifully. When the film received its first flush of attention, Wyler's general statement to the press was, "I'm proud that we stayed loyal to the story."
The film was a hit at Cannes.  Stamp and Eggar won the festival's awards for best actor and actress. Eggar became a star overnight, also winning a Golden Globe and receiving an Oscar nomination.  The film's release in America, though, was given mixed reviews.  It was too bleak for some, and Stamp was too odd. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called Stamp a "blob." Associated Press critic Bob Thomas dismissed The Collector as "a macabre stunt," and wondered why Wyler would direct such a depressing thing in the first place.

The tale itself is as old as the proverbial hills. Women have been held captive by males probably ever since homes were built with a basement or an attic to hold them in. We've read about it in fairy tales, where princesses are held in castles by ogres, so this is obviously a very old and nasty habit on the part of certain males. As Wyler said upon the film's release,  holding a woman captive was "a common fantasy among adolescents. Even adults occasionally daydream of being alone on a desert island with someone they desire....Many people want to own someone else completely. What is abnormal is trying to achieve it in this way."
A three time Oscar winner as Best Director, Wyler wasn't known  for suspense films. True, he'd directed The Desperate Hours (1955), a conventional 'family held hostage by criminals' feature, but he'd earned his status in Hollywood by directing some of  Bette Davis' best films of the 1930s and '40s, and later epics such as Ben Hur, and The Big Country. Alfred Hitchcock might have seemed like a better bet for The Collector, but even those who found the film too downbeat admitted that Wyler had created  a Hitchcockian atmosphere. Wyler's career is sometimes overlooked because he didn't have a signature style, or belong to an identifiable genre, as if being versatile was a sin. But he was a master craftsman and could tighten the screws as well as any director. He also showed a great understanding of the subject matter.

"When I was about 14 years old," Wyler said in an  interview with the North American Newspaper Alliance, "there was a little girl in the neighborhood I should love to have abducted. Of course I didn't. That's the difference between most people and Freddie Clegg, the character played by Terence Stamp." 

Wyler said of Freddie, "He comes from a background which is not so much poor as terribly petty and ultra respectable, where a child is taught that sex is dirty and grows up repressed and out of touch with reality. He resents her background, her interest in books and art. He knows she would never give him a second thought if she met him under normal conditions."
One of Wyler's strategies during filming was to have Stamp ignore  Eggar unless they were performing a scene together. This created tension on the set, and kept Eggar guessing where she stood with Stamp. Rumors flew that the actors didn't get along, and Eggar even quit the production at one point, only to come back and finish filming. This, of course, added to the atmosphere.

With just a few voice overs and a flashback, Freddie's life is made clear to us: he had a domineering mother, and a dull job where co-workers picked on him about his butterfly collection. Miranda, too, is as full-bodied as she is in the novel, a privileged girl who would appear to be spoiled but is actually a fighter. Despite Freddie having the upper hand, she's more than a match for him.
Stamp and Eggar had a third star to work with, and by that I mean the basement lair. Art director John Stoll, set director Frank Tuttle, and interior cinematographer Robert Surtees create an atmosphere that recalls Hannibal Lecter's cell in Silence of the Lambs, all formidable stone and coldness. The walls are like the inside of a cave, but the colors used give the barren room a kind of muted life. The room is a bit like Freddie; cold, but with a hint of warmth.

Stamp was born to play offbeat characters. His wide set eyes and large forehead give him a sad, sinister look.  In his career he has played everything from killers to drag queens, and many of his characters are outsiders, prone to either sadness or violence. Freddie is isn't quite driven by adult desires. When Miranda, out of desperation, tries to seduce him, his reaction is one of disappointment. He's more of a disturbed child who simply wants someone to talk to.

I could see other actors as Freddie - Roddy McDowall, perhaps, or Anthony Perkins, or Malcolm McDowell - but it's impossible to imagine another actor being as quietly strange as Stamp.  Stamp is quoted on the IMDB as saying, "As a boy I believed I could make myself invisible. I'm not sure I ever could, but I certainly had the ability to pass unnoticed." As Freddie, he nearly dissolves into the cracks of his home. That is, except for when he loses his temper. Freddie turns steely when he rails at Miranda, saying that she and her  friends would never understand a fellow like him. This was only Stamp's third film. At  27 he was already a confident, savvy actor.

Like Stamp, Eggar wasn't particularly experienced, but was able to find different shadings for Miranda. Some of the best scenes in the film are not when she's screaming hysterically, but when she barters with Freddie, trying to negotiate her release, or later, when she realizes  the hopelessness of her situation. 

What I remember from the movie are not necessarily Miranda's attempts to escape, although those scenes are quite dramatic, but the way she speaks to Freddie, as if she's trying to talk him down from a ledge. She understands that he's as much a captive as she is; he's captive to her beauty, and captive to his own insecurities.

 Wyler, who received an Oscar nomination for directing The Collector,   said in 1965 that the film couldn't have been made in the 1950s, and that audiences were finally ready for something like it. He'd be surprised that The Collector couldn't be made in 2013, either.  No current director would dare present such a bland character as Freddie. The abductor would be remade into a Batman villain, or a Human Centipede type of psychopath.  Miranda,too, would be different in a contemporary film, karate kicking her way to freedom, maybe stomping Freddie to death, ala Stuntman Mike in Deathproof. At one time movie audiences were challenged to examine a character; now they are simply asked to cheer as he's executed.

But even in 1965, there were those who thought a character like Freddie Clegg shouldn't go unpunished, even in a movie. The film was banned in Egypt for that very reason. "Apparently Colonel Nasser thinks villains should always get their just deserts," Wyler said at the time. "I asked an Egyptian official if all criminals were punished in Egypt and he admitted they weren't. But, he insisted, in the movies they must be punished."
Wyler  creates a film that is suspenseful but isn't about the good guys killing the bad guys. In a way, we want Freddie to get what he wants, to be understood and appreciated. When Miranda takes tentative steps to communicate with him, we feel hopeful that Freddie can step out of his darkness and be rational. But as much as we may want Freddie to get what he wants, we also want Miranda to escape.When she sees Freddie's extensive butterfly collection and realizes she's just another of his prizes, we see the heart go out of her.

It's not revealing too much to say that Miranda's fate is tragic. Freddie's reaction to it shows there's much less to him than we'd imagined. He's every bit as cold-hearted as we'd innitially thought.

Fowles claimed his novel was not written as a potboiler, but actually inspired by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who put forth the idea that society is broken into two sides, the elite and the masses, represented in the book by Miranda and Freddie respectively. The idea Fowles wanted to convey was that the masses had to be educated, rather than be left to their own morbid self-pity and feelings of inferiority. Otherwise, Fowles feared, we'll get more Freddie Cleggs.

I wonder if Fowles knew his book and Wyler's movie were favorites of depraved men not particularly interested in social theories. While watching The Collector recently I recalled Leonard Lake and Charles Ng, a hideous pair in California who wanted to kidnap women and hold them as sex slaves. They called their plot "operation Miranda," in sick tribute to this movie, which was a favorite of Lake's. Together they allegedly killed 25 people. I also recalled a real life character named Gary Heidnick, a Philadelphia man who held six women in his basement and tortured them for years. He used electrodes and other nasty devices.

Compared to some, Freddie Clegg was downright chivalrous.

Saturday, June 29, 2013


A Film by Woody Allen
Review by Don L. Stradley

A scene from Stardust Memories
You knew something was up when you saw Sandy Bates' apartment. One entire wall was taken up with Eddie Adams' famous A.P. photograph of a Vietcong prisoner being shot in the head, an early tip that Woody Allen was upping the ante here.

Throughout the early scenes of Allen's Stardust Memories, the photo of police chief General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing Nguyen Van Lem  on a Saigon street hovers over everything like a thought balloon in a comic strip. As an expression of mental anguish the photograph was brilliant, but why would a man decorate his apartment with such a thing? As one of the annoying critics portrayed in the film might say, the photograph seems to parallel the stress and anxiety felt by Bates,  a film director who,  like Allen at the time, was struggling to switch from comedy to a more serious style.

Bates is also haunted by the death of a close friend; inept studio executives have butchered the ending of his latest film;  and he's trying to get over a recent relationship with Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling), a pill-popping neurotic. Worse, Bates has been invited to the Stardust Hotel in New Jersey for a retrospective of his films. He dreads meeting his fans, for he knows they will grill him about why he no longer makes funny movies.

Stardust Memories was so different from Allen's usual work. It had plots within plots, movies within movies.   Richard Freeman of the Newhouse News Service complained of the constant flashbacks as "so cryptic that much of the film's plot is unduly fragmented and confusing." But I liked it. It was as if Allen was setting the pace and daring us to follow.

In the months before Stardust Memories was released, I'd become familiar with Allen's older movies. They'd become staples of late night television, and I liked the way he weaved the sophisticated with the silly. I'd heard rumours that his recent films weren't funny, but I was simply excited to see a new Woody Allen film on a big screen.

The conventional history is that Stardust Memories was Allen's revenge against the audience for not buying tickets for Interiors (1978).  The film's most memorable set piece, and the subject of controversy when the film was released, is when Bates arrives at the hotel in Ocean Grove and is greeted by a small mob of fans. He walks past them, his face hidden by sunglasses, their faces coming toward him like characters in a nightmare.

The fans come off as pushy, and cloying, mentally sick, bordering on sociopathic. They're Day of the Locust crazy. One woman breaks into Bates' room and offers to have sex with him while her husband waits downstairs. Then, in an eerie scene foreshadowing the murder of John Lennon by only a few months, one of Bates' fans draws a gun and shoots him. Before the shooter fires, he tells Bates, "I'm your biggest fan." As Bates straddles the line between life and death, his spirit has an encounter with  aliens who tell him he should make more comedies. The gift of laughter, after all, is a big one. "We love your movies,"  an alien tells him, "especially your early funny ones." 
Allen has said that Stardust Memories is one of his favorites because the finished product was close to what he had envisioned when he began writing. Still, few have ever rushed to the defense of Stardust Memories. Allen's admirers don't embrace it, and his critics point to it as a cheap imitation of Federico Fellini's 8 1/2. It was one thing for Fellini to go through artistic angst, but Woody?
“Stardust Memories is a disappointment," wrote Roger Ebert in his Chicago Tribune review. "It needs some larger idea, some sort of organizing force, to pull together all these scenes of bitching and moaning, and make them lead somewhere."  Many critics and fans concurred. Fans, in particular, weren't sure what to make of what seemed like a full-on assault on them. Allen's fans had always felt a peculiar kinship with him. Like me, they felt smart for liking him. He spoke for every articulate schmuck who wanted and lost the beautiful WASP girl. When Annie Hall won the Oscar for Best Picture, it felt like a personal victory for his fans. So why was he calling them a bunch of ugly psychopaths?

Meanwhile, The New York Times' Vincent Canby gushed over Stardust Memories, calling it "a marvelous movie, sometimes breathtaking in its effects." As for Allen's borrowing from Fellini, Canby wasn't concerned. "He hasn't stolen from Fellini," Canby wrote, "without knowing what to do with the purloined material."

 If the film has a flaw, it's not that Allen is too bitchy about the pitfalls of fame, it's that he paid more attention to style than creating fully born characters. Still, Stardust Memories offered up a few touchstones:
  1. It was Allen's first movie to show his interest in magic. Bates, like Allen, loved magic as a child, and there are several scenes recalling this. Allen's future movies would frequently have magical themes in them, as would his 1980 play, The Floating Light Bulb.
  2. This was Allen's first overt Fellini homage. He'd ape Fellini again in the coming years, but he did it best here. In fact, he does it in two ways, first in the film Bates made that the studio execs are butchering, and from what we see of it, Sandy Bates was going for all of the heavy-handed Fellini images. Meanwhile, the film Allen is making of Bates at the film retrospective, uses the lighter side of Fellini. One half-expects the goonish fans and onlookers to form a parade line.  
  3. This was Allen's first time playing a filmmaker. He'd played comedians and writers before, but never a filmmaker.
  4. Cinematographer Gordon Willis shot it in the same gorgeous black and white as  Manhattan.  Like Manhattan, Stardust Memories feels modern and nostalgic at once.
  5. Stardust Memories has one of the most beautiful jazz sound tracks ever heard in an Allen movie, bursting with good cuts from Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller.
  6. The film marked the beginning of a lengthy break with Diane Keaton, who had been in several of Allen's most successful movies. Keaton's absence was felt. Allen would become one of the premiere "directors of women," up to and including his newest, Blue Jasmine. Many actresses who've worked with him have nailed down Oscars (or nominations), partly because he creates such interesting female characters. But none of this was apparent in Stardust Memories. Charlotte Rampling as Dorrie,  Marie Christine Barrault as Isobel, and Jessica Harper as Daisy, seem dull because Allen doesn't let them be funny. Unlike Keaton, they don't seem like equal partners in the movie. In fact, they seem dumb, easily swayed by compliments, but always seconds away from turning into bulging-eyed harpies. Rampling is very good as Dorrie, but she's such a raw nerve that it's difficult to like her.
  7. The scene where Bates remembers a quiet breakfast with Dorrie that reminded him how good life could be was a riff Allen would use many times, most famously in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), when he goes to a Marx Brothers movie and realizes life is worth living.                                          
 Ultimately, the film was not about Allen turning on his fans. It wasn't about a comic who wanted to be serious. It wasn't about women, either. 
"It was about a character," Allen told one of his biographers, "who is obviously having a sort of nervous breakdown and, in spite of success, has come to a point in his life where he is having a bad time." 

But what does Bates learn? The film ends with him alone in a theater. The audience files out, some complaining, some praising, some bewildered by what they've seen. The film within a film ends with Bates choosing the good-hearted Isobel over the neurotic Daisy. But the actresses who play Isobel and Daisy are then seen mocking Bates as they leave the theater, calling him a letch who wouldn't let them go during the love scenes. It's a puzzling moment; those who don't know Bates spend too much time analyzing him; those who were in close contact find him weird. Bates leaves, but he returns, having forgotten his sunglasses. He puts them on, a symbolic shield against the outside world, and exits. The empty theater is nearly as bittersweet as the empty street at the end of Annie Hall, but not quite, because we never loved the characters in Stardust Memories the way we loved Alvy Singer and Annie.
For me, the mystery of Stardust Memories is solved in a scene near the film's end, when Bates and Daisy take a walk to escape the crowd at the hotel. They come upon some people in a field waiting to see a UFO.  At the big moment, though, instead of a UFO, they see weather balloons. As  Moonlight Serenade plays dreamily in the background, the giant balloons swim through the air.  The UFO seem to have arranged it all in advance as  if to show Bates that we may not get what we desire in life, but if we pay attention, there are exquisite things right in front of us.  The scene is as beautiful as anything Woody Allen, or for that matter Federico Fellini, has ever put in a movie.

What Stardust Memories also did was mark the end of the 1970's for Woody Allen. It was a grand finale for a decade that saw him go from being a stand up comic who wanted to direct films, to an Oscar winner, to an artist trying on different styles. No, it wasn't Annie Hall, but I went home knowing I'd just seen something new and unusual. I also knew I would have to see it again. It may not have been perfect, but much of it was exquisite.

Monday, June 24, 2013


The Cowsills, circa 1968

During the sound check they played Beatles songs and jammed a little,  but once the show started they stuck to  basics: "The Rain, The Park, & Other Things," "Love American Style," "Hair," " Indian Lake."

It was The Cowsills. Remember them?

There seemed to be a dozen Cowsills back in their heyday,  back when their bright harmonies helped them battle the likes of The Monkees for the heavyweight championship of lightweight pop. They appeared on all of the major television programs of the era, and in '68 starred in their own NBC TV special. They starred in their own comic book, and inspired The Partridge Family TV series.  They appeared in milk commercials, teen mags, and played Las Vegas, billed as "The First Family of Pop." The roster included a stage full of tall boys with toothy smiles, one beautiful little girl, and the most unlikely pop star of the '60s, their grey haired mother Barbara.

On this particular night in late Sept. of 2012, Bob, Paul, and Susan Cowsill, three of the original seven, are in Gloucester, MA to help promote Family Band: The Cowsills Story, a fascinating documentary that has been in the making for several years. The film has many dark revelations, most involving family patriarch  Bud Cowsill,  a sadistic alcoholic who ruled the family with violence. Susan says in the movie that she'd been sexually molested by her father "probably since I was born." 

Family Band: The Cowsills Story is difficult to watch, but it's also a typical rock documentary, with triumphs and tragedies, casualties and survivors. One of the film's delights is that we see Bill and Barry Cowsill as they were just before their deaths. Barry died in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina; Bill died of various health problems. Both were drug addicts on the mend.  Their stories were sad, but in the movie they seem  funny, smart, and talented. Brother John, now part of The Beach Boys, hails Bill Cowsill as "the Brian Wilson of the Cowsill family."

Bill had wanted the Cowsills to rock like The Beatles.  But father Bud, as we learn in the film, wanted the group to be a "cross between the Bee Gees and the Von Trapp family."

Bud's version won out. The kids had talent, but Bud had a way of winning arguments.

Snatching a moment of calm before going onstage, Susan Cowsill wanders the street outside the Cape Ann Community Cinema, peeking in the windows of neighborhood bakeries and antique shops. Gloucester's West End is quiet on this night, which suits her. She wears a baseball cap pulled down over her eyes. She could easily pass for a local biker mama or barfly. She's in her mid 50s, battle-tested, but still adorable.

"My brothers are lucky," she says. "They look good with grey hair. I'm not sure if I like what's going on underneath my cap."

If brother Bill was the family's Brian Wilson, Susan was the group's Michael Jackson, a precocious entertainer at an early age. She could steal the show with a giggle or a Davey Jones dance move. It was mind blowing that these kids from Newport, RI had the balls to tackle "Folsom Prison Blues," but the clips are there to prove it. One marvels at Susan, a little girl walloping the bass like she'd been born to it.  When the Cowsills appeared on a variety show, it was Susan who inevitably performed a duet with the host, or at the very least, ended up sitting on his lap. There are clips of her on YouTube tugging at Mel Torme's mustache, tap dancing with Buddy Ebsen.

She continued in music after the group's implosion in the early 1970s, becoming the most accomplished recording artist in the family. Now she divides her time between solo projects and Cowsills reunions.  She lives in New Orleans, married with children. She's done a better job of growing up than most.

This junket up the East Coast with her two brothers is a change from her usual gigs with her husband, Russ Broussard, and their band. It could be called 'The Family Secrets Tour.'  She talks a lot about family togetherness, and how the Cowsills may be an odd bunch, but are actually  closer than most families. "Going through hell will do that," she says, though she's concerned about the movie's tone, wondering if it will ever find the right balance between light and dark.

"We saw a test screening a few years ago," Susan says of the documentary. "They'd created a trailer that made it look like a horror movie. 'You thought they were the family next door, but there was horror you couldn't imagine!' They totally overdid it. We thought, 'This isn't what we want.' The story is disturbing, but it doesn't need to be sold like Friday the 13th."

A small gathering of fans linger outside the theater, talking about how strange it is to be seeing the Cowsills in 2012. Some of them are wearing old hippie gear:  shiny blue mini-dresses; knee high boots;  the spangly stuff Susan Cowsill might have worn 40 years ago.  A middle aged man wearing sunglasses appears on the sidewalk. He's asked if he's in the band. It's a fair question, since no one really knows what a Cowsill looks like these days. It turns out he was given a free ticket by the promoter. As the little crowd surrounds the faux Cowsill, Susan walks into the theater unnoticed, her cap pulled down over her eyes.

The short set goes well. The trio's singing brightens the room.  Then the movie streaks by like an unexpected fire. It is 89 minutes of psychic torture with a bubblegum soundtrack.  It is inspiring, bittersweet, beautiful, and weird, all words the Cowsills might use to describe their life.

The Q&A after the movie is a dud. The Gloucester audience is too stunned by the film.  

"I just want to know why I wasn't in it," Paul Cowsill says, breaking the tension. "I'm on the road promoting it and I'm barely in it."

A woman in the audience finally crows, "Thank God for you, thank you for the incredible music and joy you've given us." 

More silence.

Since the audience is slow to ask questions, the three Cowsills resort to old family shtick: corny jokes; snatches of songs; rambling stories. It's here that the Cowsills seem  most like former child stars. Something happens to children who hit a peak at age 12. A part of them remains 12 forever. They are always "on," always seeking attention. 

But the banter feels like more than just showbiz patter; it sounds like a defense mechanism left over from childhood. Music had helped create a protective wall for them. When the music stops, the Cowsills talk, and talk, and talk. Sound is their fortress.  One can imagine the Cowsills someday in a nursing home for aging rockers, babbling away, driving the attendants crazy.

Someone asks Susan about her days with Dwight Twilley, a power pop outfit of the mid '70s.  She doesn't know how to answer. 

"That's a very salacious and sassy question for my sister," Paul says.

After foiling one of her father's late night rape attempts, Susan went to live with Paul. He practically raised her, and is still protective of her, even when no protection is needed.

She makes light of the Twilley question, dances around it. The siblings go back to their banter. They keep things light.

Bob sits with the theater owner after the show. Bob is the deal maker. You want The Cowsills, you deal with Bob.

He went into the medical field after the band broke up, but he's still active in music, and has written some nice songs in recent years.  He takes this idea of being a former rock star with good cheer, but when it comes to getting paid he's a serious man. He's the one in the movie who talks about the Cowsills being broke at the end of their run. "I was paying taxes for 10 years," he says, "on money I'd never seen."

The theater owner hedges. He says the crowd wasn't as big as he'd hoped. Paul hovers around the scene, glowering.  Paul is a clownish character, but like many of the Cowsill boys, Paul inherited some of Bud's temper. We see him lose it a few times in the movie; it would be interesting to see him attack the theater owner.

A wad of bills is finally passed. Bob and Paul exchange glances. Paul nods. The tension evaporates. 

Bob had  been Bill's partner in forming the band back in 1964.  He still cries when he remembers the day Bill was "fired" after a run-in with daddy Bud. "It was the worst day of my life," he says. Susan was the band's mascot, but Bob was the backbone, the link to Bill's original vision.  He took over Bill's vocal parts, as Bill wandered into Canada where he seemed to disintegrate, slowly, until his death.

Bob was largely responsible for the documentary, and much of it is told from his perspective. He's the one who does the interviewing of the relatives, trying to get to the bottom of their father's dark personality, trying to understand how a bunch of "talented little kids" ended up on "such a shitty path."

The movie, though, seems like a work in progress. There are patches where it appears to need editing, or subtitles, or something. Though it has played a few festivals and is officially listed as a 2011 release, it is still being worked on.

Maybe the movie will never be finished. Maybe the Cowsill story is too complicated to tell, after all.

Ten months have passed. I'm sitting with Paul at a gig in Saugus. He's in a jolly mood, telling me how the Cowsill name originated in England, and that there's a popular chain of Cowsill laundromats in London.  He's all rubbery limbs and corny jokes.  Something about him reminds me of Chevy Chase; I half expect him to pratfall from the stage. Family Band: The Cowsills Story is making the rounds now on Showtime and various VOD services. It feels more polished than it did 10 months ago. "I think it's sadder," Paul says. "Less horrific, and just plain sadder."

The loose ends of the movie have been tightened. One needs to see the film more than once, though. There are so many Cowsills, so many stories, that it's hard to keep them all straight.

There's Richard, for instance, the brother deemed not good enough by Bud and sent to the Army. His story could be a film in itself. What was it like to be in Vietnam while his family was living the life of pop idols?

Then there's mother Barbara, who died  in the 1980s.  After seeing the movie again, you realize what a sport she was, appearing on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and even Hugh Hefner's Playboy After Dark, helping to sell the band. Not only was she pushed into the music business against her will, but she became the group's de facto spokesperson.

Bud, who died in 1992, remains a horrible figure, a power hungry megalomaniac who would rather see the group fail under his watch than succeed with someone else. As Bill says in the movie, the man was "sick." But Bill also gives Bud credit. "No one believed in the Cowsills," Bill says, "as much as our father."

But was it a mere coincidence that when TV turned the Cowsills into The Partridge Family,  the TV mother was a widow? Or did the show's producers see something dark in Bud that wasn't worth replicating?

The documentary, directed by  Louise Palanker and Bill Filipiak, is excellent, but   not enough time is spent on the music.  There's an explosive clip of the young Cowsills playing "Reach Out." They wail on it as if they'd invented Motown. The soundtrack is also peppered with many beautiful cuts, including tracks from Susan and Barry's solo albums. It's not enough, though. We could appreciate the claim that Bill Cowsill was a genius if we'd seen more of him in action.

The group sounds great in Saugus, even brighter and livelier than they'd sounded a year earlier, as if they, like the movie, were more polished and together. Something about families singing in harmony is magical, and the Cowsills will sound beautiful together until they die. Their expanded set is strangely powerful, highlighted by their signature hit, "The Rain, The Park, & Other Things". To see three of them performing what had surely seemed like a studio trick is breathtaking. One could argue that the song is up there with "Good Vibrations" as one of the oddest, loveliest sounds to ever hit Top 40 radio. You know it, don't you? It's the one about the flower girl, sitting in the rain, hello, hello.

It was The Cowsills. Remember them?

Sunday, June 16, 2013



Film by Jim Jarmusch
Review by Don L. Stradley
Richard Edson, Eszter Balint, John Lurie: Stranger than Paradise

My friend Sue Kingsbury caught up to me in Kenmore Square, wanting to tell me about a new movie at the Nickelodeon.

The term "indy film" wasn't in widespread use, but the Nickelodeon was where Bostonians could see "small market" films such as Repo Man or older movies like Bob le Flambeur.  Jim Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise was there now. Sue had seen it; she acted as if she'd just met some cool people and couldn't wait for me to meet them. She raved about their porkpie hats, the strange music on the soundtrack, the simplicity of the story, the droll, aimless characters. She'd been privy to a strange new world.
"There's a scene," she said, "where a guy explains why he loves TV dinners: 'I have my meat, my potatoes, my dessert. I don't even have to do the dishes.'  It makes me appreciate TV dinners."

Yes, I thought, TV dinners were cool.  Why did it take  Jarmusch's little black and white movie to make us realize the simple beauty of TV dinners?

It was 1984.  Stranger Than Paradise came freighted with  nearly every important film festival accolade, including the Camera d'Or award at Cannes (1984). It would also win the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1985, and the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Picture.  I distinctly remember one critic writing that the small, unknown cast of Stranger Than Paradise had invented a new kind of acting.  This movie, we were assured, was the wave of the future.

Of course, this wasn't so. Movies would grow bigger and dumber, not smaller and smarter. Hipster slackers would become a staple, and then a cliche, of independent cinema, but they would never seem as real as Willie and Eddie. Not even Jarmusch would stick to the formula he created. He's made several good movies since then, but only Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) came close to the deadpan minimalism of Stranger Than Paradise.  Still, Coffee and Cigarettes could never do what Stranger Than Paradise did, which was surprise us.


There was no plot, per se. Willie (John Lurie) lives alone in a barren New York apartment, somewhere in the Lower East Side. Keep in mind, this was the New York of the early1980s,  a dirtier,  more drugged-up and dangerous proposition than  exists now. Luc Sante described the city in his essay for the Criterion DVD as a place "inhabited principally  by slouchers and loungers...simultaneously the capital of the world and the armpit of civilization."   Willie doesn't do much. He watches TV and plays solitaire. He has a friend named Eddie (Richard Edson). Eddie looks and dresses like Willie, but he's smaller, as if whatever test tube Willie came out of had a little left over to create a friend for him.

Quite unexpectedly, Willie's Hungarian cousin Eva comes to visit.  She paces around Willie's cramped apartment listening to Screamin' Jay Hawkins on a cassette player. Her favorite American expression is "This bugs me." Then she leaves to stay with an aunt in Cleveland. Months go by. Willie and Eddie come into a little money so they decide to go to Cleveland and visit Eva. It's cold there, so the guys talk Eva into going to Florida. They bicker. And that's about it. No plot, per se.

The scenes, 67 of them, are short and pass  by quickly, like blackout sketches.  Jarmusch would say he wanted the  scenes to feel like photographs in an album. He was never too clear on what the film was about, but in the pressbook that accompanied the film's  release, he  described it as "a semi-neorealist black comedy in the style of an imaginary Eastern European film director obsessed with Ozu and familiar with the American television show, The Honeymooners."
There are very few things in the pop culture that can arouse our interest by simply feeling new. I'm thinking of the first few seasons of Saturday Night Live; Elvis Presley; Pulp Fiction; punk rock; Breathless; and the plays of Sam Shepard. Stranger Than Paradise was nearly as groundbreaking. The characters didn't seem to do anything or belong anywhere; they merely existed like barely perceptible specks seen from the corner of your eye.  Pauline Kael appreciated Jarmusch's style and tried to put it in perspective:

"The images are so emptied out that Jarmusch makes you notice every tiny, grungy detail," Kael wrote. "And those black-outs have something of the effect of Samuel Beckett's pauses: they make us look more intently, as Beckett makes us listen more intently."

Willie and Eddie are a bit like Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon, but they aren't waiting for Godot. They aren't waiting for anything.  If Godot showed up, Willie and Eddie would ask him if he had a good tip on a horse. That was the film's charm for me.  Many movies would have had Willie and Eddie get in trouble because of their gambling, or rob a bank. Jarmusch trusted that watching some average people go about their unexceptional life would be entertaining.

One of my favorite moments in Stranger Than Paradise comes when Eddie is reading a racing form. One of the horses is named Tokyo Story, which is not only a great name for a horse, but the title of a classic film by Ozu. The moment tickles me, because it flies by almost unnoticed. Tokyo Story was about a family visit that goes badly, and it also involves family members traveling. There is a tiny echo of Tokyo Story in Stranger Than Paradise. In the first segment, Willie seems exasperated by Eva, but he's sad when she leaves for Cleveland. Later, Eva's elderly aunt is left alone when the trio leaves for Florida.   Those two scenes are the closest the film comes to sentiment. 

The first section of the movie was originally a stand alone short. When people refer to the film's quietness and blankness, they're actually thinking of the first third, when Eva comes to visit. The trips to Cleveland and Florida are considerably more verbal and active, as if Jarmusch felt an audience needed more stimulation for a 90 minute feature. The second and third acts are also more conventionally dramatic, with the guys losing their money, and Willie losing his temper and trashing a hotel room.
Lurie is an incredible presence as Willie. J. Hoberman described him in his Village Voice review as "a morose, menacing galoot."  But watch the way he surprises Eddy with a pair of sunglasses at a roadside souvenir shop. Eddie is delighted, as Willie knew he would be. They have  one of the great friendships in cinema. And watch how Willie warms up to Eva after she shoplifts some cigarettes from him. Watching his guard occasionally come down is one of the joys of this movie.

But Willie also exemplifies an American conundrum.  He recoils when Eva calls him "Bela," and early in the film  tells his aunt, "I don't even consider myself part of this family." If you look past the gruff comedy of the film, there's something sad going on. Willie embraces the "Americana" of football, and road trips, but  he's distanced himself from his Hungarian roots, and has no one but Eddie to lean on. Jarmusch once described Stranger Than Paradise as being "about exile, from one's country and oneself." Willie is the exile.
Lurie has enjoyed a multi-faceted career as an actor and musician. He also produced, directed and starred in Fishing With John, a documentary series where he took celebrity guests fishing. He's been troubled by health problems since 2000, and a 2010 New Yorker article described Lurie leaving New York to avoid a stalker. The story  was refuted by most involved, including Lurie, but it sounded weird enough to be the basis of a new Jarmusch movie.

Jarmusch has created a body of work that is among the most distinct of any modern director. I am particularly fond of  Down By Law (1986), which feels like a minimalist reworking of Grand Illusion, and Mystery Train (1989), a neat trilogy of stories taking place in Memphis. I also liked Broken Flowers (2005), where Bill Murray played a man trying to reconnect with several of his old girlfriends. Each film has moments that remind me of  Stranger Than Paradise, but as Jarmusch became more acclaimed, he cast his films with his famous friends, which included rock stars and rappers. Few can match Jarmusch for recreating the mundane nuances of real life, but casting the White Stripes or Iggy Pop in a scene undermines everything. The scene becomes about famous people smirking at us in a Jarmusch movie. The only way Jarmusch can ever recreate the magic of Stranger Than Paradise is to cast unknowns again.

Richard Edson, who has stayed busy as a character actor, made a sublime film debut as Eddie.  At one point Eddie says, "Does Cleveland look a little like Budapest?" It doesn't seem funny when you read it, but it's funny coming from Eddie. Watch the way he plays cards with Eva's  aunt Lotte - he never patronizes the old woman, and seems genuinely interested in her.   Edson also looks enough like Lurie that they could've been playing brothers, which makes Willie, Eddie, and Eva look like a tiny family unit.
Eszter Balint, the young actress playing Eva, has appeared in only a few movies. Like Lurie, she's a musician and songwriter. I love her in Stranger Than Paradise. She's our eye into the world of Willie and Eddie, and she helps us see America through the eyes of a newcomer: this is a country of hot dog stands and TV dinners, frozen lakes, and palm trees, comic books and kung fu movies; there is incredible boredom as well as excitement; there are the idiosyncrasies of our language, and the ugliness of our clothing.  Willie buys Eva a dress as a going away present, advising her to dress like an American; she throws it in the garbage, which was something my friend Sue Kingsbury might have done. To survive in America, travel light.

 I also think the film's title might be associated with Eva. What's America like? Is it paradise? No, Eva might say, it's stranger.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


Film by Terry Zwigoff
Review by Don L. Stradley

Thora Birch in Ghost World
Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World was an unexpected arthouse hit during the summer of 2001. Stars Steve Buscemi, Thora Birch, and Scarlett Johansson, along with Zwigoff and his collaborator Daniel Clowes, scored many awards and nominations; more than one critic,  hailed Ghost World as the best film of the year. At the very least, it seemed to break a spell cast by two decades of shrill teen comedies.

The good cheer  wasn't unanimous, though.  Ghost World barely broke even at the box office, and for every viewer who loved this story about Enid, a foul-mouthed teenager attempting to postpone adulthood, there was someone who didn't get it.  Andrew Sarris at The New York Observer hated Ghost World. He admitted the film had "panache," but disliked Enid's rudeness. He went so far as to say he hated - hated - Zwigoff and Clowes, particularly for a scene that takes place in a porno shop.  Sarris, the man who introduced filmdom to the "auteur theory," wondered for the first time "whether a film can be too personal an expression for its own good." But it was the film's unique tone and refusal to play by the usual Hollywood formula that won the film many loyal followers, and made Roger Ebert say, "I wanted to hug this movie."

Ghost World still plays remarkably well a dozen years later.  In between the mean dialogue and the misanthropic characters are two timeless questions:  how does one make the adjustment between youth and maturity, and how does one remain an individual without being isolated. It's also a marvel of cinema shorthand. Example: Enid (Birch) is presiding over a table of her old junk at a yard sale. Her friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) picks up an antique hat. "I remember this," Rebecca says. "It's from your little old lady phase." What sort of kid goes through such a phase? Well, the kid in this movie does.

Clowes, who had created the Ghost World characters in his excellent comic book Eightball, has enjoyed a career as an underground comics icon, complete with a cameo in The Simpsons.  Like the characters in Ghost World, he's rarely impressed with anything new or trendy. "I don't read much of anything online," he said once. "It's not an enjoyable experience for me to read something with light projected through it."

Zwigoff's dislike of most things modern is well-known,  rivaled only by his distaste for Hollywood. Zwigoff struggled for five years to get Ghost World made. He'd already directed two excellent documentaries (Louie Bluie, 1985, and Crumb, 1994), but that didn't impress the Hollywood power brokers. The success of Ghost World should have vindicated Zwigoff, but he's so anti-Hollywood that he'll never work regularly in that brain-dead town. His lament that Hollywood is not interested in small, smart films seems more true now than a dozen years ago. If we get nothing more from Zwigoff, we should be pleased to have had Ghost World. In its own way, it does for me what Catcher in the Rye, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were supposed to do.

From the opening credits we know we're in for something unusual. While "Jaan Pehechan Ho," a raucous Bollywood rock song from 1965, blares at us, Zwigoff's camera sneaks up a dark street, peeking in the windows of apartments. The tenants are blank-faced, inert.  Are they the ghosts of Ghost World? Then we see Enid, dancing with abandon in her red graduation gown. She's mimicking the dancers in the Bollywood video, not to mock, but to see how it feels to dance this way. Enid tries on different looks throughout the film, hoping something eventually sticks.

The nameless, cluttered city Enid lives in has been identified by some as Los Angeles, but while some location shots took place in LA, there are no such references in the film. It's a generic, dull city that seems made up of malls, retro diners, and drab apartment complexes. Enid fights the boredom by wearing vintage dresses and regarding the world with cheerful disdain. Her classmates are dim, but filled with self-importance. When Enid learns of a new couple in school, her reaction is blunt: "He'd better be careful," she says, "or he'll get AIDS when he date rapes her." 


Enid finds a distraction in Seymour (Buscemi), a middle-aged loner who lives in the neighborhood. He's a reclusive record collector whose only friends are other reclusive record collectors.  Enid meets Seymour after she and Rebecca play a cruel prank on him through the newspaper personals.  It sounds ugly, and it is, but Enid later befriends Seymour and decides to help him find a girlfriend.  "I don't want to live in a world where a guy like you can't get a date," she says.

As far as girls in movies go, Enid's a rare coin. She's aware of males, but finds them vapid. She has a small crush on a friend named Josh (Brad Renfro) but doesn't act on it because Rebecca likes him, too. In a lesser movie, that would've been the plot. Ghost World, though, has more on its mind. 

The title of the film intrigues me. In Clowes' comic book, the characters are often alone in their homes at night, bathed in a  blue light from the television. This creates a ghostly effect. There are other possible meanings: the ghosts in the old advertising art shown throughout the movie; the ghosts of our childhood; the ghosts in the things we don't want to give up. There's also a kind of ghost world between childhood and adulthood, a time that can be very empty and boring. The meaning of "Ghost World" lurks in all those things.

The film is as beautiful to look at as any created in the past 20 years. Cinematographer Affonso  Beato (The Big Easy, Great Balls of Fire, The Queen, and several films by Pedro Almodovar) wasn't nominated for any awards but he should've been. He makes Enid's daylight world as candy bright as a gumball machine, and the nights  as lonesome as a painting by Edward Hopper.  Along with some LA locations, Ghost World was filmed in Santa Clarita CA. It's as if Zwigoff chose the hardest looking locations possible, with nothing but harsh sunlight beating down on pavement. Zwigoff and Beatto finds ways to make even  graffiti covered benches and convenience stores look as dreamy as a Technicolor musical from the 1950s.

Zwigoff's framing gives the indoor scenes a kind of cozy claustrophobia. Enid and Seymour have similarly crowded rooms: hers with toys, and closets spilling over with vintage clothing; his with Mexican movie art, racks of old 78s, and photos of his favorite blues men. "One gets a sense of actually being in the room," wrote Mark Olsen in Film Comment, "feeling the emotional weight and sentimental heft of objects, pictures, and furniture."

Buscemi, who should be considered a national treasure by now, plays Seymour as a man who has slowly painted himself into a corner, compulsively collecting records at the expense of all outside connections.  He's quietly miserable, but his occasional bursts of road rage suggest something boiling in his core. Enid puts aside her own crankiness when she's with him. Around Seymour, Enid becomes sweet; she even brings him a cupcake on his birthday. 

There's a subplot about Enid going to summer school where she encounters a well-meaning art teacher (Illeana Douglas), and another about her failed efforts to find work, but the movie belongs to Enid and Seymour.  I like watching their friendship blossom, and I like their ease with each other. I like how she's shocked by his road rage, and he's shocked by her language. Few screen couples of the decade were this well-suited to each other.

When Seymour eventually meets a woman (Stacey Travis), Enid finds herself alone again. In a moment of loneliness, Enid gets drunk and spends the night with Seymour. Zwigoff, who isn't averse to foul language and porno shops, fades out  on their coupling, drawing the camera down to an antique rocking horse. The moment belongs to Enid and Seymour, not us. Unfortunately, Enid immediately regrets it.

Things don't end well. Enid skips town, and the last time we see Seymour is in the office of a female therapist whose walls are covered in Georgia O'Keeffe flower-vaginas. He also seems to have moved in with his nagging mother.  The price for sharing your bed with a 17-year-old is to be damned to a kind of all-female hell.

Zwigoff has made only two films since 2001: Bad Santa (2003) and Art School Confidential (2007). They are both challenging, complicated films laced with dark humor, rough language, and characters at odds with their surroundings. "He has a gift for connecting us to people who aren't obviously likable," wrote Manohla Dargis in the LA Weekly,  "then making us see the urgency of that connection." Zwigoff is 64 now; Clowes is 51. They've both been through serious health problems. It's tasty to imagine the sort of film they could make now, a cranky meditation on aging and mortality, a different sort of ghost world.  

Ghost World was a transition for Birch and Johansson. Both were veteran child actors with several roles on their resume, and here they seemed poised to enter the next phase in their careers. Johansson went on to star in, among other films, Lost in Translation (2003), and a trio of excellent Woody Allen films. Lately she does a lot of big budget action fare, and  her love life is fodder for the tabloids. 

Johansson is overshadowed by Birch in Ghost World, but her character is important.  She's exasperated by Enid's refusal to grow up, she seems jealous of Seymour, and unlike Enid, she's willing to take those first shuffling steps into adulthood, even if its detrimental. In one of the film's finest scenes, Enid visits the coffee shop where Rebecca works and sees that Rebecca has lost her ability to laugh at life.  The scene feels incidental, but its a sign that Enid and Rebecca's friendship will end just as surely as Enid and Seymour's;  the film's melancholy tone is as much from the end of friendships as it is the end of childhood.

 An Edward Hopper? No, a scene from Ghost World.

Birch had earned some acclaim in American Beauty (1999), but as Enid in Ghost World she showed herself to be a sophisticated actress, willing to take risks. Along with coloring her hair black, she gained weight, and played a character so rude and abrasive that she divided audiences. Your appreciation of her work in Ghost World is in relation to your ability to see beyond Enid's callousness. If you can, you'll see that Birch gave a touching, multi-layered performance.

The scenes where Enid grows increasingly lost and frustrated work because we feel her sadness. When Seymour suggests they not see each other anymore because of his new girlfriend, we can see Enid's heart breaking.  Birch has acted infrequently since Ghost World.  That's our loss.  

I still find myself thinking about Enid. At the film's conclusion she boards a mysterious bus and disappears, leaving everyone behind. How did she end up? Clowes wrote a comic book story years after Ghost World where he showed Enid and Rebecca as grown women. Rebecca became a writer; Enid didn't do much of anything. Enid went to one of Rebecca's book signings and they chatted a while. Enid made a crack about  Juno, a movie that owed a lot to Ghost World, but had a happy ending and made 20 times the money. Go figure. 

We've all known girls like Enid.  I knew one back in high school. I think she became a nurse. Such girls usually go into things like nursing, or social work, or they work with animals, for underneath their bluster they like to be helpful. I've thought about tracking my friend down through Facebook, but I know she'd despise Facebook, as would Enid.

If Enid were real, she'd be 30 now. She'd probably hate  social media. I'm almost positive she'd hate bloggers.