WBEZ | Curtis Harrington http://www.wbez.org/tags/curtis-harrington Latest from WBEZ Chicago Public Radio en Summer reading: Books on film http://www.wbez.org/blogs/alison-cuddy/2013-07/summer-reading-books-film-107997 <p><p><img alt="" class="image-original_image" src="http://www.wbez.org/system/files/styles/original_image/llo/insert-images/4867695239_7691071fb7_z.jpg" style="height: 225px; width: 300px; float: right;" title="The best beach reading this summer is all about the movies. (Flickr/Simon Cocks)" />Summer, the most relaxing of the seasons, is also the time of year when many folks set themselves a major task: to catch up on their reading.</p><p>Count me in. When I was a kid, I&rsquo;d load up shopping bags with library books to keep me company on our annual trip to the cottage. These days I go for a book that can withstand my heat-addled attention span, not to mention liberal doses of sand and suntan lotion.</p><p>That doesn&rsquo;t always mean I&rsquo;m reaching for a trashy paperback. I&rsquo;ve just finished up three books that give serious props to some aspect of movie making. All of them provide great insight into the work of visionary artists. And all have a local tie or two, so I thought I&rsquo;d share them.</p><h2><strong>1. <em>The Best Film You&rsquo;ve Never Seen: 35 Directors Champion the Forgotten or Critically Savaged Movies they Love</em></strong></h2><p>Chicago writer Robert K. Elder has once again combined his amazing prolificness with his seemingly all-access pass to Hollywood to put out a book of interviews with film directors talking about their second-greatest love: Not their own, but other people&rsquo;s movies.</p><p>The films discussed fall on the obscure or not appropriately appreciated side of things, and their range is remarkable: from experimental (<em>WR: Mysteries of the Organism</em>) and high-art films (<em>Eureka</em>), to American independent (<em>Who&rsquo;ll Stop the Rain</em>), to rare oddities and outright head scratchers (<em>The Chase and Can&rsquo;t Stop the Music</em>, respectively).</p><p>The book&rsquo;s title to the contrary, many of the movies discussed will be familiar to film geeks, though Elder is quick to point out that&rsquo;s intentional, saying he didn&rsquo;t want to write a book that was &ldquo;inaccessible, about films you couldn&rsquo;t see.&rdquo;</p><p>For me that was part of the pleasure -- revisiting some old favorites by way of another person&rsquo;s passion. To read John McNaughton (<em>Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer</em>) on the underrated <em>Who&rsquo;ll Stop the Rain</em> by Karel Reisz, or Richard Linklater (<em>Before Midnight</em>) on Vincente Minnelli&rsquo;s <em>Some Came Running</em> (really the best Frank Sinatra film), only deepened my appreciation for films I already love. And while it makes sense that &ldquo;outsider&rdquo; director Todd Solondz (<em>Storytelling</em>) admires <em>The Honeymoon Killers</em>, a raw, campy late-&lsquo;60s outing from Leonard Kastle, there are surprises. For example, I wouldn&rsquo;t have guessed that Kevin Smith (<em>Clerks</em>) was deeply informed by the austere and mannered <em>A Man For All Seasons</em> (which you can chalk up to a combination of his childhood Catholicism and his love for good dialogue).</p><p>The biggest strength of Elder&rsquo;s book, however, is that by getting these directors to talk about something other than themselves, they actually reveal a lot about their own characters. It&rsquo;s funny to read along as the brothers Quay (<em>Duet</em>) work themselves into a snit over the &ldquo;abysmal judgments&rdquo; of critics who don&rsquo;t appreciate the strange and intense beauty of <em>L&rsquo;Ange</em>, a film they believe &ldquo;tends to separate the men from the boys.&rdquo; Neil LaBute (<em>In the Company of Men</em>) proves to have a deeply nostalgic streak in his love for Paul Mazurky&rsquo;s <em>Blume in Love</em> and other films of the &lsquo;70s (an interview that could be subtitled, &lsquo;They don&rsquo;t make &lsquo;em like they used to!&rsquo;). John Waters&#39; (<em>Hairspray</em>) take on Joseph Losey&rsquo;s <em>Boom!</em> -- &ldquo;It&rsquo;s, in a way, really, really good. But at the same time, it&rsquo;s so terrible. I&rsquo;m confused all the time,&rdquo; proves that the most transcendent film experiences may well be those that are equal parts heaven and hell.</p><h2><strong>2. <em>Nice Guys Don&rsquo;t Work in Hollywood: The Adventures of an Aesthete in the Movie Business</em></strong></h2><p>&nbsp;Curtis Harrington (1926-2007) is just the kind of director you&rsquo;d expect to discover in Elder&rsquo;s book - and in fact his 1971 camp thriller <em>What&rsquo;s the Matter with Helen?</em> is briefly invoked by John Waters. In many histories of American filmmaking, Harrington is more of a footnote than a recognized name. But he deserves better. As his memoir makes clear (published by local music label Drag City and edited by the Chicago writer/poet Lisa Janssen), Harrington worked both the outskirts and the epicenter of the Hollywood machine, and more or less lived to tell the tale (though he seems a bit ashamed by his association with some of the more sordid aspects of the business).</p><p>Harrington&rsquo;s career is a mass of contradictions. It&rsquo;s hard to come up with another filmmaker of the time who made avant-garde movies alongside other queer filmmakers like Kenneth Anger (<em>The Wormwood Star</em>) <em>and</em> made movies within the Hollywood studio system <em>and </em>directed episodes of American television (<em>Charlie&#39;s Angels, Hotel</em>). Harrington was more or less a nobody, an outsider. But he was a rapt student of old Hollywood, and he parlayed that knowledge into a remarkable set of connections that furthered his appreciation for great filmmaking and helped to advance his own career.</p><p>Was there anyone Harrington <em>didn&rsquo;t</em> know? He hung out with Maya Deren and Anaïs Nin at parties. The famed critic André Bazin introduced him to the legendary filmmaker Robert Bresson. Roger Corman, godfather of B movies and American independents, bankrolled some of his early filmmaking efforts. In turn, Harrington worked his own growing influence. He cast Dennis Hopper in his 1961 thriller <em>Night Tide</em>. He claims to have helped Katharine Ross win her role in<em> The Graduate</em> (she&rsquo;d appeared previously in Harrington&rsquo;s <em>Games</em>). And he helped to revive the reputation of James Whale, a director who had fallen far too soon into obscurity.</p><p>At times the name dropping is tedious. Though the insider gossip is delicious, it doesn&rsquo;t leave much room for reflection on how Harrington actually went about making his films, whose casts, costumes and set designs were thought out in painstaking and fascinating detail (I&rsquo;d love to inventory the art on display in <em>Games</em>, for example). But there are incredible moments as well. Harrington used his studio jobs to access as many old films as possible. His description of watching Josef von Sternberg&rsquo;s last silent film, <em>The Case of Lena Smith</em>, is haunting, especially when Harrington reveals the film was destroyed not long after his viewing.</p><p>In fact, the memoir ends with some of Harrington&rsquo;s best work: his index of von Sternberg&rsquo;s films. It proves, as if that&rsquo;s required, what great taste Harrington had. Unfortunately his aesthetic was precisely his undoing, the quality that made his inevitable move into directing TV movies and shows feel less like a chance for reinvention and more like a descent into commercial hell, what he describes as a &ldquo;slippery slope.&rdquo; In our current moment, when some of the best directors are finding new cinematic terrain within the confines of television, it&rsquo;s hard not to lament the loss (or at least the timing) of a talent like Harrington.</p><h2><strong>3. <em>Sun Ra + Ayé Atom: Space, Interiors, and Exteriors, 1972</em></strong></h2><p>Somehow I think Curtis Harrington and Sun Ra, though from very different times and places, might have felt an affinity for each other&rsquo;s work or style. Or at least that&rsquo;s my cursory conclusion after pouring through this beautiful new art book from local gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey.</p><p>Though mainly devoted to the Sun Ra-inspired murals of Ayé Atom (thanks to the rediscovery of a collection of photos documenting Atom&rsquo;s work in homes around the South Side of Chicago), the book begins with a wordless plunge into a series of stills from <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NwNtxFH6IjU" target="_blank"><em>Space is the Place</em></a>, the 1974 science fiction film featuring both musical and theatrical performances by Sun Ra and his Arkestra.</p><p>Shot on location in Oakland, Calif., the storyline (by John Coney, who - get this! -&nbsp; was then a producer/director at the public television station KQED) involves Ra&rsquo;s efforts to create a black space colony, a new eden that would provide an escape from time and &ldquo;the sounds of anger, guns and frustration&rdquo; that fill the air down on planet Earth.</p><p>The stills are an interesting mix of the fantastical and banal. Clad in what one reviewer has called &ldquo;<a href="http://366weirdmovies.com/space-is-the-place-1974/" target="_blank">goodwill Pharaoh garb</a>&rdquo;, Ra stands, solemn-faced and poised, in a parking lot. His tie-dyed robe swirls in the wind, his Egyptian-style headdress, complete with a giant translucent orb, reaches toward the heavens. Off in the distance, you can see a school bus and other cars (a white Chevy Nova?) behind him. In other images, Ra waits quietly on his &ldquo;planet,&rdquo; a lush jungle landscape, home to floating jellyfish-type creatures, and long horn-like instruments that appear to have tongues.</p><p>In my favorite image, Ra can be found stage right, slightly out of focus, looking as if he&rsquo;s about to glide right out of the frame. It speaks to the way Ra, who did so much with and about the moment he lived in, wasn&rsquo;t quite in step with the times, but always one or two extraterrestrial strides ahead of the game.</p><p>So that&rsquo;s my list, now what about you - what are you reading this summer? Share your picks in the comments section.</p><p><em>Alison Cuddy is WBEZ&rsquo;s Arts and Culture reporter and co-host of <a href="https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/wbezs-changing-channels/id669715774?mt=2" target="_blank">Changing Channels,</a> a podcast about the future of television. Follow her on&nbsp;<a href="https://twitter.com/wbezacuddy" target="_blank">Twitter</a>,<a href="https://www.facebook.com/cuddyalison?ref=tn_tnmn" target="_blank"> Facebook</a> and<a href="http://instagram.com/cuddyreport" target="_blank"> Instagram</a>.</em></p></p> Tue, 09 Jul 2013 11:49:00 -0500 http://www.wbez.org/blogs/alison-cuddy/2013-07/summer-reading-books-film-107997