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FATHER GEEK's look at a week of film viewing including MATRIX, MOD SQUAD, Seijun Suzuki, Cartoons, and some real discoveries

Father Geek here with a report on the motion pictures that were viewed by the Geek Headquarters crew this last week (March 29th - April 4th, 1999). This was really a quite typical non-film festival week here in Austin, Texas for us. We caught some new releases, some revivals, some special presentations, viewed a couple of videos, and previewed some upcoming DVD’s. What follows is a diary of sorts of my observations for the last seven days.

On Monday we exercised some of our Free passes to MOD SQUAD and Tom Joad, Quint, Copernicus, Harry and I ventured forth to General Cinema’s Great Hills 8 to catch the film none of us wanted to pay for. Well, our expectations were met, unfortunately. This is not only the most un-mod thing to attempt to pass itself off as mod that I have ever seen grace the big screen, but it is universally baaaad to boot. We were simply bored shitless, except for Copernicus who vacated the theater twice to visit the john, to wretch in agony no doubt. It seems that Robo, Hooper, Sister Satan, Lobo, Roro, Glen and the other AICN regulars who turned down our offer of free passes were the better off for it. A supposed action flick that fails to impress, even a little bit, a group of males in the 17 to 50 age group can only be branded a total failure as a piece of entertainment. This chunk of celluloid crapola is to be avoided at all costs. It failed to interest any of our bunch at any level, and our comments to each other on leaving centered mainly around the notion of how to get our money back since we got in SCOT-FREE.

Harry and I left for home, a sour taste in our mouths. On arriving at Geek Headquarters we needed something to rinse away the memory of the last 2 hours. It lay on a stack of scripts next to our living room coffee table, a spanking new sealed VHS print of that great documentry, FRANK AND OLLIE. For those of you who never saw this film when it was in the theaters Father Geek cannot recommend it highly enough. It is a wonderful, heartwarming document of the lives and friendship of Disney’s masterful animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson. These guys were some of the geniuses, the creative force, the uber talent behind Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, Lady and the Tramp, Jungle Book, Sword in the Stone and many, many other feature length animation masterpieces. Their life-long friendship and creative partnership (they’re next door neighbors) is not only informative, it is incredibly entertaining, witty and wise. It was an 89 minute cleansing of our souls, with tons of original vintage Disney Studio art thrown in for good measure. Keep in mind that we didn’t even put this tape on till well after midnight and it held us spellbound. It is money well spent!

Tuesday we were going to go to The Austin Film Society’s 35cent screening of THE WOMEN, the 1939 classic with Crawford, Goddard, Fontaine, Shearer, Butterfly McQueen, etc... that is part of their series on vintage films that were written by women being hosted by the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema for 1930’s admission prices. However, Harry and I opted for a trip to San Antonio to visit my parents (ages 79 and 74) and my brother who has been in Turkey the pass 2 years working for the US Navy and NATO. We got in a good long visit with them as well as my sister, niece, and grand niece. My brother, the Commander, presented his Austin relatives with a bottle of Romanian Blood Vodka purchased in a small village near Bucharest. The box stated “500 years of eternal life” and had Vlad the Impaler’s likeness embossed on it. The red vodka (a natural color) was bottled on his former estate and has a folk-style wooden cap carved in the shape of his head. Just toooooooo cooool!!! But, that wasn’t all. While in Turkey he had artisans carve 2 large Meersham pipes into 3-D portraits of each of us. They are perfect. Amazing. Now Harry and I can suck on ourselves until we are too hot to handle.

Well, we returned to the house about 11pm and being the media junkies that we are immediately plugged into our DVD surround sound system. We had picked up several new DVD’s (11 at an average price of $ 7.50) at the Austin Record Convention over the weekend so we wanted to check some of them out. First up was SHORT CINEMA JOURNAL a great little collection of wonderful films you never get to see except at film festivals and in college film classes. My favorites out of this collection were OS CAMARADAS from Brazil and the AFI’s CHAPTER. The former is a fantastic Kafka-esque journey down the dark road into bureaucratic insanity. Bruno de Andre’s camera is perfectly positioned to milk the most from each angst filled shot. Bizarre. The latter effort bombarded me with a montage of imagery aimed at explaining the nature of Hollywood’s star system in the 30’s and 40’s when that modus operandi was firmly entrenched. I adore this type of short film, machinegun editing to flood the mind with pictures, words, and ideas testing the power of one’s brain to file and sort the information into some meaningful essay on the nature of the human condition. It harkens back to the days when I made my living performing psychedelic lightshows for rock groups like Grand Funk, Spirit, Mountain, and an embryonic ZZ Top.

A short while after midnight a dust covered Tom Joad appeared on our door step. We invited him in and slipped SPHERE into our wunderbox, turned out all the lights save our Dragonfly Tiffany-style stained-glass lamb that rests amongst the ruins of my vintage Marx tin-litho Alamo that is painstakingly arraigned upon the livingroom coffee table, and sat back to take a journey 1000 feet below the Pacific’s blue waves. This was the special edition DVD with all the extra goodies included, love that Sam Jackson commentary. We all liked this film when it hit the theaters and had read both the novel by Crichton and Hauser’s script, but the extras, the documentary, the trailers, etc... made this well worth the 5 bucks we had paid for it at the record show a couple of days before and the sound on our system here at Geek Headquarters was far better than I remembered it being in the cinema.

Suddenly Johnny Wad poked his head pass the steamed up psycho nude Anne Heche that is our front door. “What’s up?” he queried. He entered and we put our new $10 copy of TROMEO & JULIET in the trusty DVD player. Now this is one we had missed at our local cinema, so it was a total surprise. A real treat based on the immortal Shakespeare play. Father Geek has seen dozens of treatments of this, from high school and college stage productions to the Thalberg/Cukor lush effort to Zeffrelli’s exceptional version to Baz Luhmann’s stylized update to this year’s Academy Award honored best film, but none of them can match Troma Film’s kinky fun filled underground farce. Don’t get me wrong this is not Shakespeare and I still prefer the 1968 vision, but director Kaufman has woven a violent, sexy, irreverent look at the great bard’s most well known work and it is gigantic enterainment. Loads of fun. We all loved it. I’ll tell you something else, Troma knows what DVD is all about. This copy was packed with tons of extras, everything you could want in a home issue.

Wednesday arrived at 1:30pm. Harry and I leaped into the Kirby inspired Silver Surfer that is the Aint-It-Cool-mobile and busted ass for General Cinema’s Highland 10 and it’s 2pm screening of MATRIX. We had read the script months ago and had high expectations for this film even though they had cast one of our least favorite actors in the lead. Well fellow geeks to get right to the point, this motion picture rocks! It is the best of the computer conspiracy films that I have seen. It is near the top of the heap of American made martial arts movies. As science fiction its the finest I’ve seen since Dark City and as pure entertainment excitement I feel its the year’s best, so far. Sure, there’s nothing really new or innovative about the plot, there were no earth shattering new special effects invented to bring the tale to the big screen, the actors are all 2nd or 3rd tier in my opinion, buuuut, they reached beyond their norm and gave us solid, interesting performances, the art direction is cool, the story and effects while nothing new work great here and I left the theater excited, happy, and full of energy.

We had free passes to a preview of Never Been Kissed at 7:30, or we could go to the Alamo’s Kubrick tribute at 10, but we decided to instead host an intimate gathering in our backyard to view our new 16mm print of Rankin & Bass’ 1977 THE HOBBIT , Disney’s PINOCCHIO from 1940, and 5 BETTY BOOP cartoons made in ‘32 and ‘33. Harry, Tom Joad and I were joined by the always stunning Dawn, the adventurous Lori, and the spicy Ginger for an evening of animation delights. We started the night off with Minnie the Moocher and Cab Calloway followed by Mothergooseland, Betty’s Halloween Party, Betty Boop’s Museum, and finished up with Cab and Snow White. None of our guests had seen any of these other than the first one and none had seen it projected except Joad, so ol’ Father Geek loved catching their reactions to Betty’s zany world.

Next I treaded up our 35mm reduction print of Walt’s 2nd feature length cartoon. Its rich colors filled our 8 foot screen and sucked us all into its storybook kingdom. I still think, all things considered, that this is the best hand animated motion picture ever made. Its a timeless tale, flawlessly drawn, painted, and transferred to film. I’ve seen nothing using modern techniques that captures the charm, the miracle of this movie. None have surpassed the look of the Blue Fairy, the complexity of the old wood carver’s room, the social commentary of Pleasure Island, or the flagitious danger represented by the baneful puppeteer and the vicious Monstro. It is complete, total enjoyment.

Now we come to the reason for the night’s get-together, a film new to the Knowles collection, one none of us had ever seen thrown upon the silver screen, one for which we had the LP, the story book, and the deluxe coffee table book, but one we had never seen larger than 27 inches. Well, what we have is an original 16mm library print struck by Xerox. Absolutely beautiful, a flawless, crystal-clear, perfectly colored film. Its an immortal fantasy, its J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic odyssey through Middle Earth with the help of the voice talents of John Huston, Richard Boone, and Orsen Bean among others. Johnny Wad appears out of the shadows in the darkness under the still leafless trees and joins our group of merry adventurers. “The greatest adventure is the one yet to come...” echoes through the chilled night air, and we are transported to another world. Our small campfire flickers tongues of orange light against the blackness of bedtime. Trolls, goblins, and other things that go bump in the night parade before our eyes. “There are moments which can change a person for all time,” Bilbo muses and we suddenly wondered if we would ever see our snug hobbit-holes again. We wondered if we actually wanted to. After 3000 feet of animated wonder we were jarred back to our earth, our time. “String up the Boops again,” someone shouted. We would stretch-out the magic a little longer.

Around noon Thursday I hear a rustling on the front porch followed by the clang of our mailbox being closed. I stepped out onto the wet concrete, it had been raining all morning. Laying at my feet, soaking up the moisture, was a stuffed manila envelope. There was no return address. Harry’s name and our domicile’s location were scrawled across its face. The postmark read Los Angeles. I take it in to Harry who is busy mining the site’s E-mail and he rips it open. Three yet to be released DVDs fall on to the head geek’s bed, no letter, no insider note, no spy’s cryptic message, just 3 Criterion Collection films in digital form, 2 of which we had never heard of. Such is our life at Geek Headquarters, you never know what to expect next.

Nothing was on our calendar til the Alamo’s midnight flick so I scooped up the treasures and headed into the living room cum screening facility. I slid the 4 1/2 inch mirrored disc for TOKYO DRIFTER into our player, cranked up the sound, clicked out the lights, and settled back into my accustomed viewing spot beneath James Dean’s soulful blue gaze. I was not prepared for what was to follow. I’m embarrassed. I feel inadequate. My film literacy, my role as AICN historian is called to question. I am not worthy of the title “Father Geek”. Not only was I not familiar with this film, I had never even heard of its director Seijun Suzuki. Who? Doesn’t he make cars, or motorcycles, or something like that? After years of film school, after a life time of dealing film memorabilia, after 40 years of talking to fans, throwing and attending film festivals, watching hundreds of thousands of hours of motion pictures, big and small, American and foreign, films of all genre, sub-genre, even no-genre, in any viewing format - theatrical release, pirated 16mm, 8mm, super 8 sound, broadcast TV, one inch reel-to-reel video, beta, VHS, CED, laser disc, and finally DVD... I had not a clue to the fantastic film library produced by one of Japan’s most gifted director/auteurs Seijun Suzuki. But now, now I do know, and like a reformed drunk, a born-again christian, a child with a new toy I’m spreading the word, the gospel from the tallest soapbox a public speaker can use. This master filmmaker, this nihilistic philosopher will no longer slip through the cracks on the cutting room floor. He will not slide down that fireman’s pole to some Hell of film obscurity. He will not languish in cinema purgatory, living only in the memories of his hardcore Japanese fans. In case you can’t tell this lush, surreal gangster film blew me away. This maverick director of aestheticised violence, and wildly innovative motion pictures blew me away. This 1966 color movie is lightning fast crime drama that is simply mind-warping. It is part spaghetti western, part art-house cinema, part film noir, part Kabuki stage play and totally unique. It is an eye-popping fantasia, a stylistic potboiler about the struggle for individualism, a sort of “masochistic cartoon” to quote one of Japan’s top film critics. It will be on DVD sales lists soon. Watch for it. Do not fail to add it to your film athenaeum. You, your family, your friends will be far richer for it!

Harry stumbled out of his cyber-cave. I was viewing a collection of original Suzuki and Joe Shishido Japanese movie posters on another Criterion DVD. They sucked him in. He fell into his chair under our lifesize mounted Nipponese dragon head. His eyes never left the screen. “These are fantastic titles,” he exclaimed. “Why have I never heard of these? Who made them? Why haven’t I been told about him?” I explained how Suzuki was blacklisted by his country’s oldest film company, Nikkatsu Studio, after producing over 40 hits for them. How he witnessed atrocities we can only imagine during WW II. How he imbraced the French New Wave and blended it with Haikara and the Edo era comic literature to develop a surrealistic style all his own. You see, Father Geek had been industriously doing his homework. “Those who are not busy being born, are busy dying,” to quote a late 60’s anthem. We began to enter the world of 1967’s BRANDED TO KILL and we would be born again, anew. John Woo is obviously no stranger to this film. In fact, I am sure that he has seen it more than once, and I bet Chow Yun Fat has more than a passing interest in it’s star Shishido. “Branded” is a brutal action film, a bullet-riddled saga of Yakuza hit men, and women. It is a cinematic masterpiece of surreal innovation and stylistic incomprehensibility. It is 45 automatics, Mexican standoffs, and blazing fire fights. It is influential filmmaking at it’s finest. It is some of the best use of B&W widescreen cinematography that I have ever seen. It is seminal work by a true master who made some of Japan’s most original, disturbing, and unique motion pictures of the 1960’s, a man who was a major Japanese television star in the 50’s. Suzuki has said, “Making things is not what counts, the power that destroys them is.” See this film and spred the word!

Wow! Still hours to kill before we go to the Alamo. What to do? Well there’s the 3rd DVD that arrived anonymously today. We started the special feature packed disc of TIME BANDITS from that banner year 1981. Gilliam’s phantasmagorical trek through time is one of our favorite films. We decided to watch it this time with the audio commentary by Terry, Palin, Cleese, David Warner and others. It was a wise choice. These train-of-thought comments by filmmakers are one of the things I love about the DVD format. As it turned out watching these 3 films was the perfect warmup for the Alamo’s midnight movie madness. We slipped on our shoes and headed downtown marveling at the foresight of our phantom benefactor.

We arrived to a packed theater and were joined by Quint, Johnny Wad, and Tom Joad. The Dolomite trailer appeared on screen. Rudy Ray Moore will be appearing live at the Alamo April 30th and May 1st along with Dolomite and Disco Godfather. Joy!!! Suddenly the familar John Carpender theme music filled the hall, the crowd went crazy, and a beautiful widescreen print of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA began on “a dark and stormy night.” What can I say? “Well, you know what old Jack Burton says.” This is pure fun, comedy, horror, and action packed martial arts all furiously blended into a Homeric adventure like no other you’ve ever seen. Kurt Russell is a god in this motion picture. By the time it ended I was so pumped up I couldn’t even think of sleeping, as we walked to the car I had an uncontrollable bounce to my walk, I wanted to kick some supernatural ass, and I’ve seen this flick dozens of times. Seeing it again on a full-size theater screen sent me and everyone else there into ungovernable geekasms. The Alamo was sooooo full of cool vibes the ice in our drinks never melted. This is what going to movies is all about.

We slept till 3pm Friday, downloaded mail, and I wrote some on this story. At 5:30 we left for the Paramount Theater and their 7:30 showing of a beautiful print of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, DeMille’s 1956 epic production. We hit the salad bar at the Hickory St. Grill across the street, met up with Tom Joad and then entered the 1915 belle of Austin showplaces. The only place in town to view such a motion picture. While certain minor aspects of this film have not aged all that well its scope and power are totally intact. When it comes to its momentous grandeur not many films are in the same class and I can put up with a little hokey melodrama. That problem is completely overshadowed by the sets, the costumes, the lavish spectacle of it all. Click over to the Aint it Cool Museum and read about my thoughts on the film’s premiere in San Antonio 43 years ago. While the picture was not made in surround sound the Paramount’s new state of the art resonance did wonders with this print’s simple stereo sound track. The theater’s screen is huge so the rich Technicolor Cinemascope print offered up plenty of marvelous eye-candy for even the most jaded viewer. The movie ended at 11:40, and Harry and I rushed the 3 blocks to the Alamo to view BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA a second time. Quint was there for another look also and Director del Toro joined us along with his Mimic storyboard artist at 2nd row center. Like the night before the electricity running through the jampacked audience touched us all, infusing the crowd with jolts of excess energy.

Saturday is finally here. The day I’ve been waiting for the last 3 months. Today at 4pm we experience Douglas Fairbanks and his 1924 silent classic THIEF OF BAGDAD. Except it was not to be silent for us. Kamran Hooshmand and his 1001 Nights Orchestra would be using over 50 middle eastern musical instruments to bring life to the roguish pickpurse who won a kingdom and the love of his life. From the opening refrains of Miserlu (used in Pulp Fiction) to Kamran’s own Gypsy Nights the music was note perfect. When Ahmad sets forth on his dangerous quest to win the hand of the princess he loves the music blends a perfect theme from traditional Persian, Macedonian, and Turkish folk tunes. I cannot imagine a better musical accompanist for this motion picture. If this pairing of sight and sound were offered up to audiences in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or San Francisco and promoted properly I’m convinced it could run for weeks on end. A totally satisfying film experience. A fantastic marriage of celluloid and symphony. William Cameron Menzies’ sets are beyond words. They are gigantic, fanciful creations that put most of today’s CGI to shame, and these were actually built by craftsmen. One more thing, this presentation drew some fascinatingly beautiful Persian women to the Drafthouse. Two of them were constantly in my field of vision. Statuesque bodies, dark hypnotic eyes, perfect complexions, thick cascading hair, I knew why Ahmad went to the ends of the earth. I too would join the quest for the golden apple in an instant for such a princess. This series of the Alamo’s is pure genius. I will die if I miss a single installment. Next up is City Lights. I can’t wait!

And on the seventh day he rested, well...until 4pm anyway. Then it was off for Tobuly(?), Grilled Kabobs, Large dark olives, Brie, Red wine and Jack Daniels, delightful company, and ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL.

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