Sunday, February 21, 2010
You won't find a New York Times obituary for Jamey Ira Gruman, later Jamie Gillis, but his passing on February 19th from melanoma at the age of 66 strikes hard into our black heart. Jamie was one of the faces in the New York City adult film scene, basically from its birth following the end of the nudie cutie era in the early 70s. Gillis, alongside John Leslie, Eric Edwards and Jack Wrangler represented the most talented male performers in the burgeoning industry, capable of delivering far more than the expected "physical" performances; they were all engaging, natural actors, professionally trained but finding no purchase in an unforgiving theater community. Gillis himself was, in fact, a Columbia graduate; he went into acting after college and decided to supplement his meager income by answering an advert for nude modeling – a well travelled road to the adult industry. Possessing a cultured intelligence that his subsequent career choice unfortunately overshadowed, he would imbue each role with his innate intelligence and elevate every project, whatever shape it took.
During the so-called "porno chic" era of the late 70s and early 80s, it was Gillis who first struck out as a performer with a memorable turn in The Opening of Misty Beethoven, director Radley Metzger's 1976 hardcore take on Pygmalion, with Jamie taking on the Henry Higgins role with a healthy dose of equestrian-class sexual decadence. Gillis' terrific performance served as a stark contrast to the flat, unenthusiastic readings of John Holmes, who helped ghettoize the adult film while Gillis elevated it.
Gillis enjoyed a well deserved reputation as a sexual extremist who not only frequented Plato's Retreat and its gay predecessor, Continental Baths, but was a highly in-demand live sex performer with his off-screen lover, Serena. This notoriety led Gillis to films that few other adult actors would touch, such as The Story of Johanna, where Gillis engaged in gay sex with Zebedy Colt, an act that was strictly verboten for a 'straight' adult film even in the ultra-permissive atmosphere of 1975 (and is even more taboo today). Colt himself was no stranger to the extremes of the industry, as he balanced a successful Broadway career with appearances in some of the more notorious adult films of the era, including The Devil Inside Her and The Farmer's Daughter (both of which he also directed and the latter of which he appeared alongside fellow struggling thespian Spalding Gray) and the disturbing Sex Wish.
But without question, the most controversial picture of Gillis' career is the absolutely mind-bending Water Power, from roughie pioneer Shaun Costello. Based on the truly alarming exploits of the Illinois "enema bandit", Michael Kenyon, Gillis portrayed a Travis Bickle-flavored loner who experiences a revelation while visiting a fetish/S&M club and witnessing a client receiving an enema. He becomes obsessed with the idea of "cleansing" women with the procedure – whether they want to or not. What follows are some of the adult industry's most disturbing sequences, almost all of which would be utterly un-filmable in the modern era. Gillis' anything goes attitude holds court, and damned if he doesn't retain his dignity in the midst of this apocalyptic display of debauchery (the Bernard Hermann music swiped from Sisters doesn't hurt either). Reportedly, the film even offended the organized crime entities responsible for its distribution, and many the more extreme moments were cut. Even today, the only uncut print we've managed to find comes via a scratchy Dutch video print with burned-in subtitles. Locate at your own risk.
In 1989, Jamie adapted to the changing industry with a series called On the Prowl, an inexpensive shot on video series where Gillis and a female companion drove around L.A. in a limo, picking up strangers for…well, you know what for (particularly if you saw Boogie Nights, which effectively riffed on this).
Gillis was at ease with his adult past, and never offered any regrets for his involvement. He was known to be very approachable when spotted strolling his beloved Manhattan, and always happy to share a few moments with fans (something which we can attest to). Although retired from the industry for several years now, it was always good to know that Jamie was still around – a constant reminder of the insane heights that adult films had reached once upon a time (and, conversely, a reminder of how cold and corporate it has become). He was an irrepressible, shameless satyr who allowed us to get in touch – however briefly – with our own dark side in a way that only someone with an artist's soul can do.
We miss ya, kid.
Saturday, February 20, 2010
Has it really come to this? Just days after Romero's 70th birthday I catch news from the good folks at Diabolik DVD that George A Romero's newest zombie film is headed direct to DVD?!?
Let me get this straight, Romero can't even get domestic distribution for a flippin' zombie movie?!? Okay, Land of the Dead wasn't great, but it had some nice moments with engaging performances. And Diary of the Dead was pretty awful - actually, scratch that, it was really awful. But how can it be that George A God-Damn Romero can make a zombie movie and not have it see the inside of a US theater? I mean, how awful is this?
The last we heard about this, if memory serves, was a write-up on AICN while it was still in the script stage. In all honesty, we assumed that the project was languishing in one of the myriad development hells that indie films can fall into, but now it looks like the finished product is not only headed straight to video, it isn't even US video (Diabolik's offer is the PAL Region 2 disc). Now, we'll reserve further judgment until Diabolik gets its shipment sometime in March. We can personally attest that they're one of the most dependable DVD/Blu-Ray sellers, so your pre-order will ship along with ours next month. We'll see…
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
In the absence of any great (by conventional wisdom) films, this year's crop of Oscar nominees represents a far more interesting group of films that we can remember. Expanding the Best Picture nominee list to 10 all but guarantees that, but was anyone expecting District 9 to get a nod? A win is about as likely as an impromptu snow storm localized to the winner's podium, but it's nice to see that not everyone feels the need to ghettoize the horror/sci-fi genre. We're certainly rooting for District 9 over Avatar, which justly deserves every imaginable technical award in addition to a special honorary prize for Cameron for sheer innovation. But as a film, we felt Avatar was ungainly sized at almost 3hrs with occasionally poor pacing and some cringe-worthy dialog. Anyone coming out of that film pretending to be unimpressed should be barred from all professional or amateur film criticism, but the mammoth technical achievement isn't big enough for the weaknesses to totally hide behind – a win in either the Picture or Director categories would be a self-serving Hollywood joke.
The brothers Coen are probably as surprised to see A Serious Man on the list as we are, as it was clearly seen as a deeply personal project for the pair, reflecting as it does on a slice of Jewish life in 1960's suburban Minnesota. A Serious Man isn't an easy film to like (though we really, really did) and this has the faint whiff of a courtesy nomination (or "Mission"). Our major complaint – where is the Supporting nod for Fred Melamed's gloriously despicable Sy Ableman?!?
Haven't seen Precious, Up in the Air or An Education yet, but we've heard great things and look forward to both, though there isn't a power on earth that can get us to The Blind Side and we're frankly astonished to see it here.
Pixar's Up has a dead solid lock on the Best Animated Feature category and that's just where it belongs, as mixing animated films in with the best picture crowd seems to do a disservice to both. Up is a very good film that has moments of greatness, but it's not Pixar's best.
The Hurt Locker left us shaken and stunned; its director Kathryn Bigelow most mature, assured work and easily the best film about modern warfare since Black Hawk Down. Like that film, it wisely eschews politics and large-scale questions about our presence in Middle Eastern conflict and concentrates on characters etchings of the soldiers serving the country. The bomb defusing sequences are raw-nerve tense without any of the typical Hollywood action histrionics that accompany most studio-made war films (the explosions here, though smaller in scale than ones we might see in Transformers, have a ferocious verisimilitude that leaves you breathless). And though Renner is likely to lose out to Jeff Bridges, we were thrilled to see his name turn up on the nominee list. Watch his face in the cereal aisle of a supermarket – wordless, perfect screen acting.
Quentin's Inglorious Basterds really surprised us last fall; we had already gone on record as a Death Proof hater, carelessly spending all the good will that Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror had stored up in the first half of Grindhouse – and we weren't the only one to think that Quentin had lost the plot. But Basterds was a real return to form; beautifully operatic in structure with a fabulously carefree attitude towards historical accuracy and period music (by the time David Bowie appears on the soundtrack, you're either on the train or waiting back at the station) and the product of a filmmaker who still gets jazzed making movies. Waltz seems to be the one universally agreed upon lock in the Supporting Actor category and we will be properly thrilled to see him win.
Major Category Nominee List:
The Blind Side
The Hurt Locker
A Serious Man
Up in the Air
James Cameron, 'Avatar'
Kathryn Bigelow, 'The Hurt Locker'
Quentin Tarantino, 'Inglourious Basterds'
Lee Daniels, 'Precious'
Jason Reitman, 'Up in the Air'
Jeff Bridges, 'Crazy Heart'
George Clooney, 'Up in the Air'
Colin Firth, 'A Single Man'
Morgan Freeman, 'Invictus'
Jeremy Renner, 'The Hurt Locker'
Sandra Bullock, 'The Blind Side'
Helen Mirren, 'The Last Station'
Carey Mulligan, 'An Education'
Gabourey Sidibe, 'Precious'
Meryl Streep, 'Julie and Julia'
Best Supporting Actor
Matt Damon, 'Invictus'
Woody Harrelson, 'The Messenger'
Christopher Plummer, 'The Last Station'
Stanley Tucci, 'The Lovely Bones'
Christoph Waltz, 'Inglourious Basterds'
Best Supporting Actress
Penelope Cruz, 'Nine'
Vera Farmiga, 'Up in the Air'
Maggie Gyllenhaal, 'Crazy Heart'
Anna Kendrick, 'Up in the Air'
Best Animated Feature Film
'Fantastic Mr. Fox'
'The Princess and the Frog'
The Secret of Kells'
Best Original Screenplay
'The Hurt Locker'
'A Serious Man'
Best Adapted Screenplay
'In the Loop'
'Up in the Air'
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
As much a product of its age as a Haight-Ashbury time capsule buried in 1969, Billy Jack is a sequel of a sort to Tom Laughlin's 1969 biker picture The Born Losers, both of which he directed under the pseudonym T C Frank. Losers was straight-ahead exploitation and featured the first appearance of the ass kicking, ex-Green Beret half breed, Billy Jack (Laughlin, looking like Robert Blake's handsome older brother) protecting a small town from a biker gang, who were tough and ruthless in addition to rough and toothless. Laughlin next directed a pair of babysitter sexploitation films and a tepid horror picture, The Touch of Satan, under yet another pseudonym, Don Henderson, before crafting another Billy Jack adventure, this time the scope of the battle would widen to current hot-button social issues with the hero battling both a corrupt land baron and the racist town that he rules with an iron fist to protect the Native Americans on a nearby reservation and the students and staff at a 'progressive' school.
Sitting through the film from beginning to end for the first time in our adult life was an interesting experience. Of course we remembered the Freedom School, the hippie enclave threatened by a small minded racist town whose evil is embodied in Stuart Posner (Invaders from Mars' Bert Freed) whose family fortune seems to rest on killing wild stallions and selling the meat for dog food. We had forgotten how utterly loathsome Posner's son, Bernard (David Roya) was, though – presented sympathetically at first, as we see him refuse to take part in the horse slaughter (mercifully halted by Billy's arrival) and then goaded by his domineering father into all manner of foulness, including rape (both statutory and otherwise) and murder. We remembered that the town sheriff had a daughter, pregnant after running away to San Francisco and being "passed around" from one filthy hippie to another, who goes to live at the school under the protection of Billy and the school's founder, Jean Roberts (Laughlin's wife and frequent co-star Delores Taylor) even if we were disappointed to find the evil sheriff played by one of our heroes, Kenneth Tobey, who spent the 1950s saving the world from The Thing, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and The Vampire, to name but a few. It was genuinely depressing to see him smacking his pregnant teen daughter around, and we cheered his Norma Rae moment when he stood up and screamed at the hippies.
What we didn't remember were the long periods where Billy Jack disappears from the picture entirely, leaving us in the ill graces of the inhabitants of the Freedom School, many of which are played by the actual members of the SF-based improv group, The Committee, including an utterly filthy looking Howard Hesseman. Hesseman and friends are sure that they could bring the locals around and prevent them from passing an ordinance restricting the kids from the town with a display of authentic street theater. Now, for those lucky few out there who can't imagine the sheer moral terror of this so-called 'street theater', let me, as the kids say, spell it out for you. Imagine the worst standup artist that you've ever seen; now make him into the most hideously trite invocation of a 60s radical that you can think of. Add enough members to create a troupe and imagine them doing freeform political skits that will take 'the man' down a peg or two with biting parody steeped in social commentary. Finally, add the realization that they're really making fun of you; they look at you for a moment, size you up for the kill and then begin their impression by ruffling a pretend Wall Street Journal, puff on a pretend pipe and talking like Thurston Howell III. Just think of how much you'd want to punch the little creep right in the Jesus beard – now imagine being stuck in their company for a half dozen endless scenes in the middle of the karate action revenge pic you've just settled down with.
In case you think we're exaggerating, take the 'town square' scene that begins at almost exactly the 1hr mark in the film. This particular bit of hysteria finds Hesseman & Co staging a mugging at a park bench; I won't even begin to go into the bit, but it suffices to say that even the town sheriff gets involved (the nice one, not the racist, child abusing one) and this non-starter goes on for 5 full minutes of screen time! That might not sound like a lot to you citizens reading this now, but 5 minutes passing on film is an eternity (imagine counting "one Mississippi" 300 times) and it became instantly clear why AIP and Fox both jumped ship at various times during the film's production history. That 5 minute sequence is much longer than the film's famous fight scene in which Billy squares off against nearly a dozen agitated rednecks and is far from the only scene of its kind in the picture (you can discover the hilariousness of the Cheech & Chong-inspired 'driving in a car while smoking week' sketch on your own). These scenes strike an indelible chord when paired with the discovery of the body of a brutally murdered Indian boy, or the protracted rape of Jean Roberts while tied nude to the ground.
Cleverly planted anticipation led us here, and the promise of more kept us tuned in – but all that ever comes is a single, lethal neck chop that triggers the film's final act. We'd really, really like to see more, as the scene is brutally kinetic and superbly choreographed by the great Hapkido master Han Bong-soo, who also stood in for Laughlin for some of the more complicated moves ("I'm going to put my right foot right in your ear, and there isn't a damn thing you can do about it"). Incidentally, dropping Han's name in martial arts circles will illicit well-deserved head nodding as the man could literally take you apart and reassemble you before you even knew the fight had started, but also had a sense of humor, owing to his memorable appearance as Dr. Klahn in the "Fistful of Yen" segment in the Kentucky Fried Movie ("Take him to Detroit!"). This action bait 'n switch continued through the film's sequels, 1974's The Trial of Billy Jack and 1977's Billy Jack Goes to Washington, with the hectoring political content increasing and ass kicking decreasing at a geometric rate. And if Billy Jack seems somewhat bloated with hippies and Indian welcoming ceremonies at 114min, Trial feels absolutely soul shattering at 170min (we've never actually made it through Trail in a single sittings, and feel that the even stranger Billy Jack Goes to Washington is an easier pill to swallow at 155min and featuring old pros E G Marshall and Pat O'Brien in supporting roles).
Interestingly, Billy Jack's one unassailable claim to fame comes in the manner of its release. After its initial release was bungled by Warner Bros Laughlin negotiated a deal with the studio wherein he would take the film around the country, territory by territory, and rent out the individual theaters (actually letting the theater keep 100% of concession sales) which were then up to him to fill – and Laughlin's clever ad campaign did just that, earning the $800,000 indie in the neighborhood of $50 million, making Billy Jack one of the most profitable films of all time. The Trial of Billy Jack went this release route one better; instead of regional advertising and releasing, Laughlin arranged to have the film released on well over a thousand screens at once backed by television ads on the national network news. The gambit paid off once again, raking in big capitalist bucks for the wildly overlong film. Billy Jack Goes to Washington, however, did not ever receive a general release and only had scattered screenings before its eventual release on home video in the 1990s. The Laughlins will be happy to give you their own set of reasons as to why the film was shelved, most of which have to do with Washington politicos getting wind of the plot and sabotaging the release rather than have their own thinly veiled dirty laundry aired in a feature film. We suspect that few would have the patience to sit through Laughlin's merciless stretching of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in order to shoehorn the unstable Billy Jack into congress (though Laughlin tried to head this particular issue off at the pass by bringing in Frank Capra Jr. as producer).