Twenty-fifth year

1249.) Vintage: To honor the memory of the recently departed Shelley Berman, I re-air (in its new, spiffy, digitized form) my interview with Mr. Berman from 2002. The first of two episodes finds Shelley talking about his early experiences on stage as an actor and sketch comedian, in particular his work with The Compass (the Chicago group that also included Nichols and May and Barbara Harris). We discuss his standup comedy (which made him a strong precursor to every neurotic comic out there), and some of his acting work, in particular his starring role on a memorable Twilight Zone and his appearance as a peeved dentist on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In the process he shares his opinions on voicemail (anti) and the work of Kafka (pro).

1250.) Vintage: Our guest gets cranky and very funny in the now-digitized, second (and last) part of my interview with the late Shelley Berman from 2002. We start out talking about him being bothered by other drivers and then segue into a discussion of his great (and very touching) “father and son” routine. Mr. Berman then takes some very funny swipes at public access and we end up discussing the merits and non-merits of NYC. All in all, it was a lovely talk with a lovely gentleman who just pretended to be a cranky old man – well, some of that was true, but like the gent whose father he played in his last terrific role, Larry David, he got out all his crankiness in his comedy. One of the nicest interviews I’ve done.

1251.) Movies “disappear” for different reasons. In the case of the movie I’m discussing and showing excerpts from this week it is most likely because the film’s true “auteur” was not pleased with the result. Well, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., might’ve disliked Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971), but I love some aspects of it and the rest is perfectly in tune with our perennial discussion in the Funhouse about the Sixties being “the gift that keeps on giving and giving and giving….” It’s essentially a filmed play, with a very simple set-up: a previously missing Great White Hunter type (Rod Steiger) returns to his Manhattan family apartment and finds that his wife has moved on from him, as she’s dating not one but two “weak sister” characters. His son (Steven Paul, who later made the *stunningly bad* Vonnegut adaptation Slapstick of Another Kind) is curious about his dad’s adventures but doesn’t seem to cotton to his dog-eat-dog (or, more appropriately, hunter-shoots-prey) philosophy of life. Besides the joy of seeing Steiger thoroughly devour his role, two things distinguish the film: a number of fantasy sequences, in which we see what people do for fun in Heaven (clue: it’s a cruise-ship specialty), and a scene-stealing performance by William Hickey as Steiger’s thin, confused sidekick (who actually conveys the film’s message about American violence in one stirring, unexpected dialogue exchange).

1252.) Following the trail of my favorite filmmakers takes us down some interesting alleys on the show. This week I review and show excerpts from a comedy by Takeshi Kitano (aka Beat Takeshi) that hasn’t been shown in America at all, Ryuzo and His Seven Henchmen (2015). The film is a yakuza farce about old gangsters who are bored with being treated “old farts” (the single most-used phrase in the movie), so they band together as a new criminal gang. The situation is somewhat familiar to American viewers, but Kitano’s take on the scenario is that the old-fart yakuzas face off with the new criminal generation: crooks in suits who do their thieving and conniving in corporate boardrooms. Beat has played a yakuza numerous times over the past few years, so here he cast himself in a supporting role as a cop who has a soft spot for the old gangsters (as one suspects the real Kitano does). I’m happy to share scenes from this film, which has never been seen on these shores.

1253.) Part one of my interview with cinematographer Caroline Champetier, who has done brilliant work with a host of the greatest filmmakers working in France over the past 35 years. This part of our chat begins with her discussing the somewhat recent films she was doing Q&As for at the Alliance Francaise. The first is Anne Fontaine’s fact-based WWII drama Les Innocentes (2016) and the second is Leos Carax’s triumphantly imaginative and strange Holy Motors (2012). We talk about one of the most flawlessly shot scenes in the latter and she discusses her high-def camera of choice. From there we move backward to the beginning of her career, when she was an assistant to the great d.p. William Lubtchansky (a great collaborator of Rivette). We talk about her work on Chantal Akerman’s 1982 film Toute Une Nuit (like Holy Motors, it’s a journey through one evening; although in this case it’s taken by many different characters) and Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s ultra-deadpan adaptation of Kafka, Class Relations (1984).

1254.) Part two of my interview with the great French cinematographer Caroline Champetier. In this section of our talk, I asked her about two of my all-time Funhouse favorites. First up is a discussion of her work on films and videos with the inimitable Uncle Jean (aka Jean-Luc Godard). I asked her to talk about the comedic “Uncle Jean” character he has played in several films (including two that she shot). She also addressed his reputation as “a master of lighting” (she had a very interesting answer to that). We talk about his indoor and outdoor shoots, as well as the time that she was utilized as an (unbilled) actresss in one of his fiction films. From there we move on to her work with Godard’s “new wave” comrade, Jacques Rivette; Champetier was one of the two cinematographers on Rivette’s great “comeback” film Le Pont du Nord (1980). She talks about that shoot, which was a truly minimalist, extremely “new wave” affair. We close out on a discussion of her work shooting Rivette’s The Gang of Four (1989) on her own – the film is a combination of genres (character study, thriller, political drama), in the classic Rivette fashion.

1255.) Vintage: Back in the British comedy department, I have an update on the career of that most deadpan and sarcastic of comics, Mr. Stewart Lee. This week’s episode includes commentary on, and clips from, the very recently aired second season of his “Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle.” This year the show had less of a budget (thus, only one short sketch per show, at the close) but contained a “devil’s advocate” in the form of producer Armando Iannucci (“I’m Alan Partridge,” “The Thick of It”). Iannucci persecutes Lee in every episode (“will there be any jokes this week, Stew?”), and the show is all the better for it. I am happy to put the spotlight on one of the more bizarre episodes, in which Stew renders onto us a Tristram Shandy-like discussion of charity that winds up being about crisps, his grandfather’s racism, and the King of Monsters.

1256.) The first of three episodes devoted to the great work of the brilliantly subversive filmmaker Robert Aldrich. These shows came out of watching (and being annoyed by) the overwrought miniseries “Feud,” which dragged Aldrich’s reputation through the mud and ignored his many accomplishments making independent films with and without studio backing. In this episode I focus entirely on the Fifties and the string of genre pictures he made that overturn the genres in question. The films included in the show range from his first adventure/noir film World for Ransom to his mid-Fifties slew of splendid genre movies, including two great Westerns (both with Burt Lancaster), a “woman’s picture” (with Joan Crawford), a why-Hollywood-is-evil melodrama, and two of the greatest subversive films ever, his anti-war war movie Attack! (1956) and one of the best (and arguably the “last”) noirs ever, Kiss Me Deadly (1955).

1257.) Part two of my ongoing tribute to Robert Aldrich moves into the 1960s, the decade that saw his two biggest box office hits. I start out with a discussion of the joys and motifs of his work and with one leftover from the Fifties, the vastly underrated Ten Seconds to Hell (1959) with Jack Palance and Jeff Chandler as demolition experts who make a very grim wager. From that point on it’s all Sixties (“the gift that keeps on giving and giving and…”) with Aldrich’s extremely popular (and truly iconic) horror thriller/show-biz deconstruction What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and its better-than-you-think follow-up Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). From that one-two punch of old haunted ladies I move on to his other giant hit, The Dirty Dozen (1967), a seminal “guy movie” as well as an anarchic action pic that paved the way for The Wild Bunch and M*A*S*H. And, because Aldrich was indeed a trailblazing independent filmmaker, I close out with the two films in which he invested his “Dirty” money. Both are about actresses ground down and destroyed by show-biz – the first is the truly dark and arch The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) and the second is the groundbreaking lesbian drama The Killing of Sister George (also ’68), which was given an “X” rating when it came out. George is indeed dated but is still another fascinating Aldrich portrait of a character whose life is out of her control.

1258.) Vintage: Roy Andersson is an enigma: a Swedish filmmaker who crafts brilliant deadpan comedies out of a series of sequences (each one of which is a single, often dazzling, long shot); an artist who reinvented himself, coming up with a new style nearly 25 years after his start in the business (and then making only three subsequent features in the next 20 years); and an admitted fan of certain filmmakers (Bunuel in particular – and Laurel and Hardy!) who credits certain painters as being the biggest influences on his filmmaking. I was very proud to interview Mr. Andersson on the NYC debut of his new film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. In the first part of the interview we discuss how Pigeon differs from the preceding films, his fine-art obsessions (as well as the comics he read as a kid), plus his favorite movie comedians. Also: a discussion of his storyboarding process and his opinions on religious superstition.

1259.) No show aired, thanks to fuck-up at Access HQ.

1260.) Vintage: Part two of my interview with the brilliant Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson delves deeper into his career and his superbly stylized visuals. In this segment of our chat we talk about the introduction of scenes set in other eras in his new film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, as well as his use of dream scenarios in his episodic features. We discuss his first film, A Swedish Love Story (1970), and how it winds up veering away from its central characters (a pair of lovestruck teens, played by actual teenage performers). He also talks about the ways in which his direction of literally hundreds of wonderfully deadpan TV commercials helped him forge his trademark visual style. We finish off this portion of the interview with a discussion of his transitional short “World of Glory” (1990), which presented the “new” Andersson style to moviegoers.

1261.) I return to the Consumer Guide department this week with reviews of three UK performance videos from the Welsh DVD company Go Faster Stripe (which now, like everyone, offers their wares as all-region downloads). The first is a round-up of comedy videos and sketches by radio DJ Adam Buxton, including a wonderful guide to bald American celebrities. Next up is Richard Herring, whose show Happy Now? is about the concept of happiness – what leads to it, how can we reach that state, and the most significant question, can we keep it? In the process of pondering this existential quandary, Rich also touches on deranged nursery rhymes, obscene t-shirts, and how he could possibly, accidentally kill his baby (no sappy family fare here). I close out with a review of Mark Thomas’ The Red Shed, a lively monologue about the importance of a small socialist club to the small town of Wakefield and, more importantly, how some of our fondest memories might just be delusions that sound better the more we tell them to others.

1262.) The third and final part of my interview with the great French cinematographer Caroline Champetier covers a lot of ground and still doesn’t put a dent in her amazing filmography. First off we talk about her frequent work with a performer, namely the legendary Jeanne Moreau. From that we move to one of the directors she’s worked with numerous times, Benoit Jacquot, and the film of his that is her favorite, A Single Girl (an experiment in telling a story in “real time”). From that we move on to her work with filmmakers Jacques Doillon and Margarethe von Trotta. The last filmmaker we discuss is Champetier herself, who has directed and shot a handful of features, including a telefilm biopic about the Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. I’m glad to have discussed a broad range of Champetier’s work with her – she’s done cinematography for some of the greatest films of the last few decades.

1263.) Vintage [digitized and updated with titles]: A bit of a different Funhouse episode this week, as movies, classic TV, and indelible pop music aren’t even mentioned (gasp), but I am happy to be interviewing a comedian’s comedian, a stand-up who has been toiling at his trade for over 35 years now and is currently developing a one-man show that weaves together all the threads of his work to date, from obsessive television-viewing to quantum physics. My guest is Chris Rush, whose name may not be a household word, but who was hailed as a uniquely funny individual by George Carlin and Jay Leno, and has kept at it since the Nixon era, honing his comic radar and perfecting his wonderfully fast, absurdist, and very, very New York view of the universe. The topics I cover with Chris range indeed from the primacy of laughter, the National Lampoon, Lenny Bruce, and the history of the dreaded Catholic Church, to what he calls quantum “oh wow” physics and how reality is really, really non-local.

1264.) Two British political comedians are the focus of this Consumer Guide episode centered around the output of the Welsh DVD company (which now does region-free downloads) Go Faster Stripe. First up is Andy Zaltzman, a “Satirist for hire” (his DVD title) who offers amusing insights into international economics, his own lapsed Judaism, and the colonial urge of the Brits. (In the DVD he offers some snappy remarks about his ex-comedy partner, some guy named John Oliver.) Up next is the work of Mark Thomas, a comedian whose shows are beautifully refined one-man performance pieces. The first one I’m reviewing is “Bravo Figaro,” about his working class carpenter father’s love of opera. The second is the beautiful character study “Cuckooed,” which tells the story of Thomas’s friendship with another political activist that ended when Thomas’s friend was revealed to be a corporate spy who had infiltrated the anti-arms movement in the UK. The show is both funny and insightful, but also offers a bracing portrait of the way that corporations infiltrate leftist movements and a sad reflection on how money can ultimately change (and end) a friendship.

1265.) A wonderfully bizarro film like no other, Themroc is a study in personal revolution. The adventuresome Michel Piccoli plays the lead character, a grunting, yelling worker (the whole film is in a made-up language that has a little – but not much – to do with French) who goes mad one day. He is fired from his job, so he goes home, sleeps with his sister, bricks up the door to his room, bashes a hole in the wall leading out to a courtyard, tosses furniture out the newfound hole, repels the cops (even roasting and eating one), and then has a mindblowing orgy (including the great Patrick Dewaere in one of his first “adult” roles), because, you know, that’s what you do. A product of the Sixties (although made in ’73, which is still the Sixties), Themroc is an amazingly brazen act of provocation that defies laws of logic, language, and linearity. It’s nuts and proud to be so.

1266.) A Deceased Artiste tribute to Joseph Bologna, a great comic actor whose comedy-writing partnership with his wife, writer-actress Renee Taylor, was the most unique aspect of his career. This week I discuss their partnership and show clips from three films they wrote. The first, Lovers and Other Strangers (1970), is a perfect little portrait of different couples attending a wedding – one couple discovering each other, one wanting a divorce, one that stays together but never stops arguing, another where the husband repeatedly cheats, and one where the couple simply tolerate each other (the last two are, naturally enough, the parents). The second film, Made for Each Other (1971), was written by and stars Taylor and Bologna as an utterly neurotic couple who both act out their emotions in public (a lot). The final film is Love Is All There Is (1996), a film written, directed by, and starring Taylor and Bologna that offers a modern farcical update on “Romeo and Juliet” with a cast of familiar faces (and the young “Juliet” character happened to be played by a very young Angelina Jolie).

1267.) Returning to a Funhouse favorite, this week I begin a small group of episodes devoted to the work of tele-playwright extraordinaire Dennis Potter. In this episode, I show scenes from two of his earlier works, starting with the 1968 play “A Beast With Two Backs.” Set in the 19th century in Potter’s home town of the Forest of Dean, it’s a grim and disturbing tale about a murder and the narrow-mindedness of small-town Christians. I then move back to one of Potter’s earliest surviving plays, “Where the Buffalo Roam” (1966). The show is a rough draft for the many stories of dreamers influenced by pop culture that Potter wrote in later years. In this instance, an illiterate young Welsh man loves Westerns so much he believes he lives in one. This upsets his teachers, friends, and relatives – especially when he acquires a gun and truly starts to live his fantasies.

1268.) This week a super-rarity on the show: A short fiction film made by the great documentarian/ethnographer Jean Rouch (a major influence on the New Wave filmmakers, due to his shooting handheld with low budgets on location). The film in question is called “Les Veuves de quinze ans” (the Widows of Fifteen Years), a 1964 character study of two teen girls who are in the “ye-ye” generation. They come from wealthy backgrounds but enjoy hanging out with their mildly flirtatious male friends at gigs by rockabilly sounding bands. The film precedes Godard’s Masculin-Feminin by two years and, although fictional, demonstrates Rouch’s way of exploring a milieu and letting his performers contribute to the storyline as it develops. It’s also another offering from the period of modern history that is a gift that keeps on giving and giving and giving…

1269.) My ongoing tribute to the more obscure work of teleplaywright extraordinaire Dennis Potter continues with a very personal work and a more experimental oddity. I start out with “Lay Down Your Arms” (1970), Potter’s first treatment of his time in the British Intelligence office, translating Russian documents. This program was part of Potter’s ongoing “autobiography,” spread out over a series of fictionalized teleplays that told us more about his life and behavior than any conventional autobiography would’ve. The second is the VERY weird “Shaggy Dog” (1968), a play about a job interview undertaken by a very OCD gentleman (John Neville, Gilliam’s “Baron Munchausen”). True to its title, the play involves a very prolonged, very silly joke, but it also focuses in on the way that job interviews serve as psychological “experiments” that reveal quite a lot about the interviewer as well as the interviewee. One knows the joke our hero is telling is not going to be a corker, but what we don’t know is how (and where) he’s going to deliver the punchline…

1270.) Returning to the topic of films you ain’t seein’ on TV anytime soon, this week I discuss and show scenes from Messidor (1979). The film is Alain Tanner’s portrait of two young women who meet while hitchhiking and then wander across the Swiss countryside, having been classified as criminals. These days, the film strikes one as being the original version of Thelma and Louise, but Messidor is a lot less romantic and glamorous, and deals with the realities of life on the road – where does one sleep? Where do you go to the bathroom? Where do you find money, and more importantly, who can you trust? Tanner uses a “leisurely” style of filmmaking, in which long takes and long shots stand in for flashcuts and dramatic close-ups. The two leads (Clémentine Amouroux and Catherine Rétoré) are terrific, playing women of 18 and 19 who think of of their unplanned trip as a “game” of endurance.

1271.) A very fun vintage episode, for the holiday (aired originally when Passover and Easter were also on the same weekend): Easter time is upon us once more, and so it’s the season for religious kitsch. This year I’m upping the ante, and instead of just mocking the (bountiful) kitsch spawned by Christianity, I’m aiming for a trifecta. First we’ll be seeing some images from a Scientology book that casts L. Ron Hubbard I a familiar light – lovely oil paintings of one of “the most popular writers of the 1930s” before he spawned a self-help philosophy that his followers (and the I.R.S.) deem a religion; in these black-velvet-worthy paintings he is seen rebelling against spiritual leaders, offering help to the helpless, and “putting things right” in the manner of Moses and Jesus and those guys. Next we move on to the granddaddy of biblio-centric religions, Judaism, and sample a little bit of a children’s video series intended to teach kids how much fun it is to study the Torah — and, yes, since it is kid’s entertainment, there’s a guy hamming it up as a villain and some really cheesy humor. From that point on, it’s back to familiar territory, as I run through a panoply of crucifix and Christ-adorned crap for kids’ parties. And then we travel straight to hell—in a Nigerian shot-on-video cautionary tale (involving a devil baby and demonic gay men!), and as interpreted by the late, great Ron Ormond in his masterfully creepy and over-the-top Estus Pirkle epic The Burning Hell (1974).

1272.) Continuing my series of episodes about the work of Dennis Potter, this week I discuss and show scenes from one of the most fascinating of Potter’s teleplays, “Double Dare” (1976). Produced when Potter was having a bout of writer’s block, the play works on several levels: as an exploration of writer’s block and how it affects the writer; as a work constructed around the blurred lines between the writer’s life and that of his creation; as a meditation on reality and art; and as another suitably playful yet tense discussion about the relationships between men and women. A teleplaywright meets an actress in a restaurant inside a hotel. They discuss a play he wants to write about a hooker and her client, to star the actress. As they talk, the action of the play occurs across the room from them, and they get lost in the world of the writer’s imagination…

1273.) Vintage: To commemorate the passing of actor/kiddie host/voice talent/nostalgia buff Chuck McCann, this week I re-air an episode created upon the death of a very different kind of celebrity, Linda Lovelace. Chuck was one of the many familiar TV faces who costarred in the very threadbare comedy Linda Lovelace for President (1975). The movie is Linda’s only “acting” appearance in a “legitimate” film. (There aren’t enough quotation marks to cover that sentence properly.) What is interesting for fans of McCann’s other work is that he plays an Italian-accented character he originated on his NYC kiddie show in the Sixties (escape artist “Bombo Dump” on the show) and later did in Harry Hurwitz’s “missing” indie comedy The Comeback Trail (shot from ’71-’79, released in ’82; see my blog entry about the film on the Funhouse blog) He is credited under two pseudonyms in the Lovelace film (which was, of course, R-rated), because he was simultaneously working on various kiddie shows and cartoons. The gents who did take onscreen credit include Vaughn Meader, Art Metrano, Joe E. Ross, Joey Forman, Scatman Crothers, and Micky Dolenz (!). As a bonus (and this is not a happy bonus), I briefly discuss Deep Throat, part II (1974), another R-rated film (which may or may not have had a more “adult” cut), this time a broad comedy directed by the “Bergman of softcore,” Joseph W. Sarno.

1274.) To salute the release of the first film by Alan Rudolph in 15 years (Ray Meets Helen, opening May 4), this week I discuss and shows scenes from one of Rudolph’s most underrated and underseen films, Remember My Name (1978). The film has never been released on DVD or VHS and has only been accessible via late-night cable showings. It’s a curious precursor to Fatal Attraction that is not a thriller nor a psychodrama – it starts out seeming like a suspense thriller but is actually a character study, and another of Rudolph’s quiet, moving statements on loneliness. The film stars two of the most tightly-wound actors in all of cinema (and the thinnest), Geraldine Chaplin and Anthony Perkins. Chaplin is stalking and taunting Perkins and his wife (played by Perkins’ real-life wife, Berry Berenson) while she works in a five-and-ten (with fellow cashier Alfre Woodard and under boss Jeff Goldblum). About two-thirds in Chaplin and Perkins have a dialogue scene that explains her behavior and completely, beautifully changes the way we feel about the characters. The film was produced by Rudolph’s mentor Robert Altman, but it shows the younger filmmaker forging his own style and moving away from imitating his friend/producer.

1275.) Vintage: In the third and last part of my interview with Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson, we talk about his primary cinematic influence (a certain Don Luis B.), his contemporaries (Kaurismaki, von Trier), and Ingmar Bergman, who was his instructor at film school (and not a nice one at that, according to Andersson). He also talks about his working methods on his features – how each film takes several years to complete. We go on to discuss Benny Andersson (no relation) from ABBA, who wrote the score for Roy’s first “new style” film in 2000, and close out with an informal, amusing exchange about (what else?) death.

1276.) Films made from the works of the great noir writers rarely capture their style and tone. One important exception, and a person fave of mine, is Serie Noire, the 1979 adaptation of the Jim Thompson novel Hell of a Woman by director Alain Corneau. The film beautifully captures Thompson’s semi-psychotic but also very straightforward tone by offering an extremely quiet character study that is punctuated by acts of violence (pop songs on AM radio provide the musical backing). Playing our con-artist, door-to-door-salesman hero is the amazing Patrick Dewaere, an actor who was perhaps the single best choice to play a Thompson lead (Bruce Dern runs a close second). Dewaere is nothing short of brilliant in his low-key work here, as a man who is capable of criminal acts but whose planning is most certainly going to blow up in his face. This is the first of two episodes I’m devoting to this film because it is so underseen and is indeed a heavy personal fave.

1277.) The second and final part of my tribute to the single best Jim Thompson film adaptation ever, Alain Corneau’s Serie Noire (1979). It’s a brilliantly quiet crime film/character study that features a knockout performance by the late, much-missed Patrick Dewaere. He plays a con-man, door-to-door salesman who decides to kill an old woman hiding plenty of cash in her house – and then run away with her niece, a quiet girl who has fallen for him. In this episode, I’ll be talking about the film, and then we go from the crime itself to the beautifully understated finale. (In which Corneau wonderfully solves the narrative problems posed by Thompson’s “paperback original” novel, A Hell of a Woman.)