Monday, January 30, 2012

A Moon in the Gutter Q&A with Celia Rowlson-Hall

Today I am absolutely delighted to present this new Q&A with Celia Rowlson-Hall, a filmmaker whose startling work I just recently discovered. I have become completely enchanted by Celia's work and am thrilled that she agreed to stop by and discuss her career. After reading the Q&A, please stop by Celia's Tumblr, Vimeo and official page for more information on her career and to watch more of her incredible films.

-Celia Rowlson-Hall in her mind-bending PROM NIGHT-

Hi Celia, first of all thank you so much for agreeing to participate in this Q&A. I just recently discovered your work and I must say that your short-films are some of the most exquisite and haunting pieces I have seen in some time, so it’s a thrill to have you stop by here.
To start off, can you tell us where you are from originally and what sparked your initial interest in the arts?

I'm from a very small town called Urbanna, Virginia. My parents definitely caused that spark. They put me into ballet, piano and art classes at a very young age and immediately I was drawn to dance.

Who were some of your early influences were growing up?

The poet Shel Silverstein, I wanted to be him. I signed my papers at school Celia Silverstein.
My babysitter, Christine Williams, was (and still is) simply the most loving person ever.

Before we talk about your films can you tell us a bit about your life as a choreographer and a dancer?

I went to college, University of North Carolina School of the Arts, for modern dance and choreography. After graduation I moved to New York and danced with two incredible choreographers- Monica Bill Barnes and Faye Driscoll. During that time I also choreographed my own work and presented it in various theaters and venues. I then began choreographing for film and music video, which opened me up to that world.

I know you won the prestigious Bessie Award in 2010. Can you talk a bit about that and what you were specifically awarded for?

Yes, I was a performer in a show called 837 Venice Blvd which was directed/choreographed by Faye Driscoll. All collaborators in the show, from the performers to the set designer, were awarded Bessie's for their contribution to the work. So I was awarded for my performance. I did a lot of singing, kicking, crying, punching, screaming and dancing in that piece so it felt really nice to be acknowledged!

One thing that really impresses me about your films, specifically Prom Night, is the remarkable way you incorporate your work as a choreographer, dancer and model into them. How important is your background in dance to your work as a filmmaker?

-Celia in her dazzling A STUDY IN COLOR-

It's essential. You don't see me speaking in my films for a reason! I best know how to communicate with my body and movement- so yes, it's very important! I also feel that the more I put "me" into my work, the clearer I can be with my story and intention.

Speaking of choreography and film, I loved the work you did with one of my favorite modern-bands Sleigh Bells. How did that come about and how were they to work with?

Sleigh Bells "Infinity Guitars" from Phil Pinto on Vimeo.

The casting director for that video, Zan Ludlum, is a friend of mine and got me that job. Since I was choreographing on the models, I didn't work with the band. I also enjoyed working with the director, Phil Pinto, he's very fun and laid back.

Moving to your work in front of and behind the camera, tell us about your early filmmaking ventures and perhaps mention a few favorites.

A still from Celia's mesmerizing PINATA-

Goodness, I feel like I am still in my early filmmaking ventures. I'm not working on any different "level" (budgets, collaborators etc.) than I was a few years ago when I started, so I feel like I'm still in the first phase.
Although it's easier to be out of the work for me to properly direct it, I must say I love being in the work- it's an additional challenge I really enjoy.

Are there any particular filmmakers that influence your work behind the camera? Also I sense a real love for both fashion and music in your films and I was hoping you might discuss that a bit as well.

When I got into filmmaking I didn't know a thing- but the past couple years I've been voraciously watching movies. I really love the work of Andrea Arnold, Roy Andersson, Lynne Ramsay, and Giorgos Lanthimos.
They influence me by reminding me to push myself to BE SPECIFIC, and keep going past your comfort zone- get deeper, get uglier, get weirder, get dangerous.

Okay, onto the amazing Prom Night. I was recently introduced to this startling film by a friend at Facebook and I have to give you big congratulations on it. Outside of how technically great it is, there is something about it that is both extremely moving and quite unsettling. How did the film come about and can you discuss some of the aspects that went into making it?

I have always wanted to be someone other than me and thought it was time to explore that. Somehow exploring it in the context of prom seemed right to me so I developed the dance solo first and then figured out the women I wanted to be and then worked with my amazing collaborators- Jae Song and Lindsey Hornyak. We spent many hours rehearsing, questioning, costuming, set dressing.

One of the major things that I loved about Prom Night is how open-ended it is as far as interpretations go. There was a comment over at Vimeo that echoed my thoughts on it in that it was a Ghost-story focusing on a young girl who plays out these particular prom-night fantasies on an endless loop for all eternity. I also had the thought that it could just be commenting on the different roles and stereotypes women are often forced to play…of course, both interpretations could be wrong, which is something I really appreciated about the film! Are there any thoughts on the meaning of the film you would like to share or are you happy with the ambiguity?

I'm really happy with the ambiguity and rather not say. It's very clear in my mind what I am communicating but it's neat to see all the interpretations!

You are clearly a very gifted young artist. Can we perhaps look for a feature-length project at some point in the future and what are some of your upcoming career plans in general?

Thank you so much, I really appreciate your words and interest in the work. That means a lot to me.
Yes you can expect a feature length from me soon. There's that tricky thing called "funding" to deal with first. Ha! But I'll figure out a way.

-Celia in her lovely ONE SUNDAY-

Thanks so much Celia for this! I hope it leads some more folks to your work and I can’t wait to see more of it. I wish you the best for 2012 and thanks again!

Thank you Jeremy!


Friday, January 27, 2012

Radley Metzger's Naked Came the Stranger (1975)

For a brief period in 1969, a Long Island housewife named Penelope Ashe was one of the most popular novelists in America. Her face was everywhere and her first book, Naked Came the Stranger, was a smash and eventually landed on The New York Times bestseller list. While there was nothing strange about a first-time writer having a hit out of the gate, the thing that made Mrs. Penelope Ashe unique was that she was as fictional as the book her name had graced. Penelope Ashe and Naked Came the Stranger were an elaborate, and quite brilliant, literary hoax put-on by a frustrated Newsday columnist named Mike McGrady, and a number of his colleagues, who set out to prove that by 1969 it was trash that was selling and not great literature. To make an odd story even odder, when the truth was revealed about Penelope Ashe, Naked Came the Stranger became an even bigger phenomenon spawning copycat books and even sequels of sorts by McGrady himself, all of which is detailed extraordinarily well by Benson Hurst in his great liner-notes to the just released special edition of the 1975 film based on the literary prank.

While the novel of Naked Came the Stranger was deliberate trash, the cinematic version written and directed by Radley Metzger (under his Henry Paris guise) was great-art and Distribpix's tremendous new special-edition of the film finally grants its proper-placing as one of the defining films of the mid-seventies. Erotic, funny, and very smart, Radley Metzger's Naked Came the Stranger is among his greatest and most provocative works and one of the best adult-films ever made.

Radley Metzger mentions on the terrific audio-commentary for Naked Came the Stranger that by 1975 he felt, in a way, that he could do no wrong and that thought is more than accurate as he had been creatively on fire throughout the early and mid-seventies. Within just five-years Metzger had unleashed a series of erotic masterworks including The Lickerish Quartet (1970), Little Mother (1973), Score (1974), The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann (1974) The Image (1975) and Naked Came the Stranger. This unbelievable winning-streak would crescendo in 1976 with the dazzling The Opening of Misty Beethoven, a work rightly considered as the best adult-film ever made (and the next definitive edition Distribpix are working on).

While many are content writing a film like Naked Came the Stranger out of film history books, the film is a truly exceptional and special work. Lawrence Cohen writes in his wonderfully crafted analysis of the film, featured in the Distribpix liner notes, that, "if one simply dismisses Naked Came the Stranger as just another hard-core offering from the mid-seventies that is not worthy of critical attention, one utterly fails to do justice to the film's undeniable sophistication and polish." Cohen (who summons up the ghosts of Diogenes, Fitzgerald and Valentino in his notes) later writes, that Naked Came the Stranger is, "vintage Metzger" and I think it is just as good, if not better, than his first superlative effort as Henry Paris, The Private Afternoons as Pamela Mann.

While The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann seemed obsessed with the idea of vision, then it is sound (and during one sequence the lack of) that is at the forefront of Naked Came the Stranger. From the talk radio-show that stars Darby Lloyd Rains and Levi Richards host in the film, to the incredibly humorous and sexy sequence featuring Darby listening at the door as Levi has a romantic encounter with Mary Stuart, to the astonishing silent-film section, Naked Came the Stranger is a film pushed by the importance of sound in cinema and the way that characters listen (but often don't hear) one another. Like all of Metzger's great works, it is a film fuelled by his enduring love for cinema and the fact that it embraces old Hollywood in the midst of a cultural revolution that all but ended the classic-period makes it a quite profound and moving work. With Naked Came the Stranger, Metzger is indeed paying a sweet-farewell to the old while totally embracing the new.

Like all of his other Henry Paris productions, Metzger was blessed with an extraordinary cast for Naked Came the Stranger. As the frustrated housewife Gilly, who attempts to get her philandering hunsband's attention by having her own string of affairs, Darby Lloyd Rains is an absolute revelation and her work here is quite astonishing, as she mixes humor, grace and sexiness to absolutely devastating effect. Hurst's notes on Rains fascinating, and often frustrating, career are particularly poignant and he writes that today, "Darby lives quietly" and "remembers Radley well." Extremely handsome Levi Richards is on hand as Gilly's husband Billy and the charming Mary Stuart makes a big-splash as Billy's assistant and mistress Phyllis. Keep a look out for a hilarious cameo by iconic Marc Stevens during a party-sequence as well.

Hurst, Cohen and Ian Culmell do such an exhaustive job discussing the film in Distribpix's notes that it feels a bit awkward to go over much of it here. A few facts are worth repeating though. Metzger shot the film, just before Christmas in 1974, less than six months after The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann had its premiere. Once again Metzger would use New York as an additional character for the film and the many shots of the city remain some of the most arresting and captivating ever captured on film. Upon release Naked Came the Stranger would be a hit with both mainstream and adult critics as well as audiences, who flocked to the film. A particularly telling portion of the disc's 'ephemera gallery' is a vintage article stating that Naked Came the Stranger was the highest grossing film in New York for a stretch in 1975, ahead of such films as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Day of the Locust and The French Connection 2! It's a jarring reminder as to just how disturbingly conservative film goers and theater-owners have become since the artistic golden-age of the seventies.

While Naked Came the Stranger is a wonderful film throughout its running-time it is at its most extraordinary and daring when Metzger brilliantly recreate a classic black and white silent-film at the Hotel St. George. The scene is visually jaw-dropping, beautifully-shot and stands as one of the great tour-de-force moments of Metzger's career. Watching it, in the lovely new transfer from Distribpix, I teared up several times due to the fact that you would hard-pressed to find such ingenuity, passion and skill in too many American films after the seventies.

Like their exemplary releases of Metzger's The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann and Maraschino Cherry, Naked Came the Strange has been beautifully restored from the original negative and comes armed with a slew of valuable extra-features. These include the aformentioned booklet and audio-commentary as well as deleted and alternate scenes, a look at the film's locations (then and now), trailers, radio-spots and a film-facts subtitle track. It's another beautiful and lovingly put-together package from Distribpix that again solidifies their place as some of the best film-archivists on the planet. They are currently working on The Opening of Misty Beethoven and many of us already have our glasses raised with the words, "Here's to the big-one" at our lips.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Her Ghost: Celia Rowlson-Hall's Prom Night (2010)

I wanted to take a moment and give an enthusiastic endorsement to a startling short-film I was recently introduced to, by a friend over at Facebook, entitled Prom Night. Directed by and starring a young actress, choreographer and filmmaker named Celia Rowlson-Hall, Prom Night is one of the most hypnotic and poetic short-films I have seen in some time and I must admit that I haven't been able to shake images from it since I first watched it a couple of days back. It's a refreshing and haunting film, made by a clearly talented young artist, and I highly recommend you visit Rowlson Hall's Vimeo, Tumblr and official page for more examples of her work. First though, watch the remarkable Prom Night and I hope you find it as moving and powerful as I did.

PROM NIGHT from celia rowlson-hall on Vimeo.

"I Paint My Own Reality": Julie Taymor's Frida (2002)

***I wrote this look at Frida a few years back for the excellent and much-missed blog Film for the Soul. I have recently dusted it-off a bit and am now presenting it here.***

Few theatrical experiences have left me more incensed than the one I experienced in the winter of 2000 for Julie Taymor’s Titus. I still remember stumbling out of the Lexington, Ky. Theater, where I saw it with my equally pissed off friend David, into the winter night and thinking that a bitter cold fresh air had never felt quite so good.

It wasn’t that I disliked Taymor’s first film, it was more like I despised it. It’s a bit hard for me to articulate what it was about Titus that angered me so much, but I felt like my resentment towards the film was palatable that cold winter evening, as I made my way sleepily back to my home in Frankfort, Ky. Part of it was my love for Shakespeare’s original play, and my thought that if there was one of his works that needed a solid adaptation then Titus Andronicus was the one. Another aspect that was swelling the seething anger I was feeling was the near universal acclaim the film was receiving from both critics and the public. Had I seen another work entirely? Perhaps an ill conceived and particularly rough cut had made its way to certain theaters and I had been unlucky enough to catch it. I knew of course this wasn’t the case; a fact that made my feeling of disenchantment with the world around me even stronger. Finally though, what made me really angry was the fact that it was obvious Julie Taymor was extremely talented, and despite my hatred of what she did to Shakespeare’s most savage play, I had to admit that.

Flash back to a few years before to my first experience seeing Salma Hayek on the big screen. I had missed all of Salma’s early work including her first films with Robert Rodriguez, all of which I would catch up with later, so the first time I got a good look at her came in 1996 while watching the thrilling Rodriguez directed Tarantino scripted From Dusk Till Dawn. Despite the fact Salma only appears for what amounts to just a few minutes of screen time, she became a major film star in those few moments. Like some sort of God made cross between the doomed Soledad Miranda and Ave Gardner in her prime, Salma Hayek was undeniably special, but throughout the nineties her looks eclipsed her talent as she was all but wasted in one film after another. By the turn of the decade it looked as though Hayek would disappear into the long line of great could have beens…another actress buried by her looks despite the obvious talents she possessed.

I mention my first experiences with both Julie Taymor and Salma Hayek because I believe their one film together, 2002’s exquisite Frida, to be an absolute collaboration…a rare cinematic work where the person in front of the camera has as much claim to authorship as the person behind it. I would go so far as to argue that the true auteur behind Frida is Salma Hayek and not Julie Taymor, which isn’t to diminish Taymor’s direction and vision of the film. Instead I mean it as a tribute to Hayek, who was the one who worked her ass off for much of the late nineties and early part of this decade to get Frida off the page and into the theaters in the first place.

Few modern artists lives seem more fitting for a big screen movie than Frida Kahlo. After all, the Mexican born Kahlo really LIVED a life. Besides being one of the most astonishing talents of the twentieth century her circle of friends, lovers and collaborators included everyone from Diego Rivera to Josephine Baker to Leon Trotsky. Add her accomplishments and partners on to what was truly a difficult existence filled with enough pain and heartache to cover a dozen lives, and the story of Frida Kahlo is one that seemed to demand telling…so why did it take so long to get made?

The attempt to get Frida Kahol’s life to the big screen would itself make an interesting and compulsively entertaining movie. Everyone from Madonna to Meryl Streep were rumored to take her story on in front of the camera, with filmmakers ranging from Robert De Niro to Brian Gibson being attached at one point behind. The film almost got made in the late nineties with talented and sorely undervalued Laura San Giacomo in the title role, but that fell through like all of the other aborted projects had, and by the beginning of the decade it appeared the long awaited Frida Kahlo film would become one of Hollywood’s ultimate back burner projects…until a much determined Salma Hayek stepped in.

Hayek’s work on the film is quite astounding. She acquired the rights to Kahlo’s extraordinary paintings, as she knew that without them the film would fail, and she helped assemble the film’s supporting players, a key to getting the film the financing that finally came from Miramax in the early part of the decade. Big names like Edward Norton, Antonio Banderas, and Ashley Judd signed on for much less their usual fees because of their belief in the fiery Hayek In fact the entire production of Frida can be viewed as a tribute to not only Frida Kahlo but as well to Salma Hayek, an actress refusing to slip into oblivion before she played the role she felt was destined for her.

While it is just Julie Taymor’s second film as a director, the maturity and growth between it and her first film Titus is quite startling. Whereas Titus felt like a visual exercise without a sense of control or reason, Frida is a colorful intelligently designed feature that shows Taymor learning to reign in her particularly distinctive visions in order to satisfy, and not overwhelm, the production she is directing. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Frida, outside of Salma Hayek’s magically moving performance, is the fact that it finally plays out less as a film about the life of Frida Kahlo, and more like a part of one of her life’s works.

The pleasures of Frida are as easy to pinpoint as its faults. It’s a spectacularly beautiful film featuring some of the most distinctive and colorful photography of the decade courtesy of Oscar nominated Rodrigo Prieto. Prieto’s work here is just beyond belief and seeing the film on the big screen was so incredibly vivid that I don’t even know how to go about putting it into words. Another high point of the film is in the moving score by Oscar winner Elliot Goldenthal, which gives a musical life to Kahlo’s most unforgettable and stunning paintings. Oscar nominee Julie Weiss’ beautiful and imaginative costume designs also supply the film with many of its most eye popping moments, causing the picture from beginning to end to function as its own very specific piece of living art.

Despite the work of the incredibly talented cast in front of the camera, with special kudos going to Alfred Molina and Mia Maestro, the unnerving and bewitching Hayek totally controls the film. In one of the great performances of the decade Hayek delivers a brilliant, brave and blistering performance as the trailblazing Kahlo, and she never makes a wrong move from the unforgettable opening close-up of her face, to the final shot where she literally burns into one of the Frida’s paintings. Hayek is overwhelming in the film, and she probably deserved the Oscar in 2003 over the equally stunning Nicole Kidman, who won for her spectacular work in The Hours.

Frida isn’t perfect though and too often it feels like it is just scratching the surface of Frida Kahlo’s life. The biggest mistake the film (and probably mostly Miramax) makes is attempting to squeeze Kahlo’s life down to just two hours. If any film this decade was deserving of a truly epic length then it was Frida, and the work suffers because of the brevity of its running time. Also, while Taymor’s direction is much improved over Titus, there is still the feeling she hasn’t fully come into her own as a filmmaker yet. For all of the bravura set pieces and undeniably artistic brilliance Taymor shows, certain sequences just don’t feel resonate enough and, more often than not, the power behind Frida is in Hayek’s performance, and Kahlo’s art itself, and not in Taymor’s direction. Still, the film is an impressive achievement for Taymor, and she remains an interesting talent to watch.

Despite its faults, I find Frida to be one of the most resonate and beautiful works of the decade. Whether or not Salma Hayek ever gets another part quite suited to her considerable talents remains to be seen, but Frida is an invigorating and intoxicating tribute to her and I am thankful she got the film made. While the film divided critics back in 2002 when it came out, and it continues to do so, I feel that perhaps the biggest question to be asked in regards to its success is does a watching Frida serve as an invitation to explore more of Kahlo’s life and works? I honestly can’t imagine anyone saying no, a fact that alone make Frida a resounding and quite a moving success.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Moseby Confidential Files: Radley Metzger's Maraschino Cherry (1978)

***Radley Metzger, one of Moon in the Gutter's heroes and favorite filmmakers is celebrating his birthday today, so I couldn't let the occasion go by without a tribute. Very soon I will be posting a long-look at the amazing special edition DVD Distribpix have recently released of Naked Came the Stranger, but today I am dusting off this old Harry Moseby Confidential Piece I wrote awhile back on an another Distribpix special edition, dedicated to Metzger's last major work Maraschino Cherry. Warm Birthday wishes to one of American cinema's great artists and mavericks!***

Few American filmmakers of the past fifty years have deserved critical and popular reconsideration more than New York born director Radley Metzger. Throughout the sixties and seventies, Metzger consistently proved himself as one of the most inspired, inventive, and original directors American cinema had ever seen with works such as Carmen Baby, Camille 2000 and The Lickerish Quartet standing as some of the great masterworks of the period. While Metzger’s reputation has grown in the years since he stopped making films in the mid eighties, his name still isn’t held in as high regard as it should, but time should solve that as his great films look better and better with each passing year.

Perhaps the most intriguing period of Radley Metzger’s career was a five-year span in the seventies when he worked under the gloriously stylish pseudonym of Henry Paris. As Paris, Metzger delivered a stirring collection of erotic films that are without peer in the industry, with his stunning The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976) rightly considered the greatest film of its kind ever made. While it isn’t his greatest work as Henry Paris, 1978’s Maraschino Cherry is one of the most important, as it the swansong for Metzger’s alter-ego.

Starring a dazzling cast made up of the best New York based actresses of the seventies, including Gloria Leonard, Leslie Bovee, Annette Haven, C.J. Laing, Jenny Baxter, Susan McBain and Constance Money, Maraschino Cherry is an extremely stylish spectacle that sends Henry Paris out in style.

Made up of new footage interspersed with some unused older scenes (including the ones including Money), Maraschino Cherry is, along with Barbara Broadcast (1977), the most episodic film Metzger created under the Paris pseudonym, but what it lacks in narrative consistency is made up for by the go for broke attitude of Radley and his extremely talented cast. Maraschino Cherry is a seriously cool film that run hot in its rather slim running time of 84 minutes, and it remains one of the most memorable films of the late seventies.

A visually dynamic production, thanks to Metzger’s always dazzling cinematic eye, Maraschino Cherry also benefits greatly from sharp editing (credited to a Harvey Katz but probably done by Metzger himself) that keeps the production flowing quickly and smoothly. Metzger’s directorial flourishes and great camera work is also apparent in every shot of the film as his great eye for composition, even though Maraschino Cherry finally plays out as one of the least defined great films of Radley’s career.

What will really put Seventies film enthusiasts in absolute heaven with Maraschino Cherry is its extraordinary cast. The always reliable Gloria Leonard was never better, or sexier, as the title character and she generates so much intelligence and wit for Metzger here. Scene-stealing Leslie Bouvee is particularly lovely here and drop-dead gorgeous Annette Haven is especially memorable in the film’s final section. The exquisite Constance Money also brings her oh so distinctive brand of beauty and Jenny Baxter is a real charmer as Maraschino’s sister Jenny, but the film ultimately belongs to the fearless C.J. Laing, who really blows the roof off the place in the show-stopping ‘dungeon’ set finale. Laing, as she did in Barbara Broadcast, proves herself to be one of the most searing and sexiest performers film world has ever seen and it is impossible to take your eyes off her when she appears.

Radley Metzger would all but retire from the film world after the release of Maraschino Cherry, as he only had a few relatively minor works on his resume after its release. His final Henry Paris production is marked by the same innovation, skill and style of all his great works and it is an absolute must see for Metzger enthusiasts and seventies film fanatics in general.

Thankfully Maraschino Cherry has been granted a full-blown special edition release thanks to DistribPix’s Platinum Elite Edition. This beautiful double disc collection, which comes with a booklet (with tremendous liner notes by Benson Hurst, which can be read at Distribpix's blog) and film negative, contains a very nicely remastered version from the uncut 35 mm negative as well several really nice extras, including a fascinating 30 minute recent interview with Leonard, bonus scenes, rare photos and trailers. Like their other collectors editions, the team at Distribpix put a lot of love into the release of Maraschino Cherry and it gives this important film a great home.