Sunday, February 21, 2010

So Long, Jamie Gillis

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

Hard Days for Septuagenarians

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

Blue Man Pix Set to Nix Nazi Flix?

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:

Best Picture
The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglorious Basterds
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

Best Director
James Cameron, 'Avatar'
Kathryn Bigelow, 'The Hurt Locker'
Quentin Tarantino, 'Inglourious Basterds'
Lee Daniels, 'Precious'
Jason Reitman, 'Up in the Air'

Best Actor
Jeff Bridges, 'Crazy Heart'
George Clooney, 'Up in the Air'
Colin Firth, 'A Single Man'
Morgan Freeman, 'Invictus'
Jeremy Renner, 'The Hurt Locker'

Best Actress
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'
Mo'nique, 'Precious'

Best Animated Feature Film
'Fantastic Mr. Fox'
'The Princess and the Frog'
The Secret of Kells'

Best Original Screenplay
'The Hurt Locker'
'Inglourious Basterds'
'The Messenger'
'A Serious Man'

Best Adapted Screenplay
'District 9'
''An Education'
'In the Loop'
'Up in the Air'