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Daily Reads: ‘Rocky Horror’ and the End of the Midnight Movie, David Lynch’s Elusive Language, and More

Daily Reads: 'Rocky Horror' and the End of the Midnight Movie, David Lynch's Elusive Language, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. Nighthawks at the Cinema: How Misfits Lost the Midnight Movie.
If anyone has had the pleasure of attending a midnight screening of any film, you know it attracts a certain kind of audience, usually a night owl or a die hard. If anyone has had the pleasure of attending a midnight screening of, say, “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” they know it attracts misfits of all shapes, sizes, colors, and creeds. But in recent years, the midnight screening has fallen out of favor along with the film underground. At The Verge, veteran critic Keith Phipps explores the history of midnight movies and a screening of “Rocky Horror” in Hobart, Indiana.

If the ranks of “Rocky Horror” fandom are thinner than at their height in the ’70s and ’80s, they still remain a self-replenishing resource, and “Rocky Horror” continues as an important rite of passage for misfits of all stripes, in Hobart and elsewhere. But the larger midnight movie tradition from which it emerged is changing, and facing an uncertain future. Prior to the ’70s, midnight shows were the realm of the occasional horror release and exploitation distributors who used the slot to attract night owls to seedy fare. But the midnight movie as we know it — as a Friday- and Saturday-night staple featuring cult films — came into its own as the ’60s turned into the ’70s. The ’60s saw a flurry of activity in underground film as Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, and others made movies way outside the Hollywood system, films that took avant-garde forms and featured content too extreme for the mainstream. That didn’t mean there wasn’t an audience for them, though. Warhol’s 1966 film “Chelsea Girls” played New York for months, for instance, and in the latter part of that year, Mike Getz of Los Angeles’ Cinema Theatre — after having success in Los Angeles playing experimental films at midnight — hit upon the notion of sending a package of films on the road under the name “Psychedelic Film Trips #1.” They played at midnight across the country in theaters owned by Getz’s uncle Louis Sher, and they did well, making Getz something like the Johnny Appleseed of the midnight movie. As Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman put it in their invaluable 1983 book “Midnight Movies”: “In thus popularizing the underground, Getz provided the spadework for the midnight-movie explosion of the 1970s.…[T]he underground invented a grass-roots alternative to ‘straight’ movies, television, and theater. The underground demonstrated that, in America anyway, anyone could make some sort of movie and get it shown somewhere. Accordingly, all manner of long-repressed sexual content burst scandalously upon the screen. There was even money to be made doing it.” The moment had arrived, in other words, for the underground to go overground, and a few key titles pushed it there. George Romero’s groundbreaking zombie film “Night of the Living Dead” found a second life, appropriately enough, at midnight. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s violent western fantasia “El Topo” played for appreciative, often stoned crowds. So did early John Waters outrages like “Pink Flamingos” and “Female Trouble.” Tod Browning’s 1932 film “Freaks” found new life in midnight revival screenings, and 1973’s “The Harder They Come” helped popularize reggae outside Jamaica. In some respects, the films had little in common. The blackly comic sensibility at the heart of Waters’ films shares little with the outré stylishness of “El Topo.” Yet an anti-authoritarian streak runs through all of them, one that resonated with counterculture audiences as one decade gave way to the next.

2. David Lynch’s Elusive Language.
Two days ago, Criterion released David Lynch’s celebrated modern masterpiece “Mulholland Dr.,” a stunning film about dreams and nightmares coming together on the streets of Tinseltown. But despite prodding from many writers, critics, and fans, David Lynch never likes to explain or describe his work, fighting against interpretation at every step of the way. In an essay adapted from his forthcoming biography, “The Man From Another Place,” the New Yorker’s Dennis Lim examines Lynch’s elusive speech patterns and how it’s less what he says than how he says it.

In Lynch’s own speech and in the speech patterns of his films, the impression is of language used less for meaning than for sound. To savor the thingness of words is to move away from their imprisoning nature. Lynch has said, more than once, that he had to “learn to talk,” and his very particular, somewhat limited vocabulary seems in many ways an outgrowth of his aesthetic. In keeping with his interest in the intangible, he has a curious, syntactically awkward fondness for abstract nouns: “When you do something that works, you have a happiness.” “It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone.” If his films swing between extreme moods, so, too, does the tenor of his conversation, especially when he’s discussing his work. Great ideas are “beautiful” and “thrilling” and make you “fall in love”; when the creative process is impeded, it’s a “terrible thing” that can feel “like death.” (What Lynch, a prodigious coffee drinker, lacks in eloquence, he generally makes up for in caffeinated enthusiasm.) It is not uncommon for artists to believe that their art should speak for itself. But Lynch’s aphasia is born of a protectiveness that verges on superstition. Words for him are not just reductive; they are anathema to his view of art as fundamentally enigmatic. He says often that his films should leave “room to dream.” To decode a film, to proffer interpretations, to divulge the source of an idea — all these simply mean less room and fewer possible dreams. Called upon to describe his films, Lynch typically gives the most minimal one-liners: “Mulholland Drive” is “a love story in the city of dreams”; “Inland Empire” is the story of “a woman in trouble.” From as far back as “Eraserhead,” he was careful to seed his burgeoning legend with mysteries: he has never revealed what he used to create the movie’s mutant baby (the most popular rumor holds that it was a calf fetus). He has also claimed that “Eraserhead” came together in his head when he chanced upon a sentence in the Bible, while pointedly refusing to specify which one. Lynch has not exactly been mute on the subject of his art and creative process. He has repeatedly advanced an almost mystical notion of ideas having a life of their own, independent of the artist and waiting to be plucked from the ether. Sometimes he likens himself to a radio, tuning in inspiration on odd frequencies. More often he compares ideas to fish, swimming in an ocean of possibilities. The fullest illustration of these concepts can be found in his 2006 book “Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity,” which combines scattered autobiographical anecdotes, creativity-boosting tips, and quotes from the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. Somewhere between self-help propaganda and Lynch’s own teen-age Bible, the realist painter Robert Henri’s “The Art Spirit,” the book consists of many extremely short chapters in which Lynch typically describes a problem he has faced — anger, stress, writer’s block — and in every case recommends meditation as a solution. There are a few resonant bits of wisdom (“There’s a safety in thinking in a diner”) and some instances of accidental poetry (“every single thing that is a thing”), but mostly the writing is robotically declarative (“I love the French,” “I love dream logic”) and so repetitive that it all but induces a trance-like stupor. Reading “Catching the Big Fish,” you’re reminded that Pauline Kael once called Lynch a genius naïf, and that David Foster Wallace, reporting from the set of “Lost Highway,” noted, “It’s hard to tell if he’s a genius or an idiot.” All of which is in line with the Lynch persona as we have come to know it: the primitive artist of our most modern art.

3. Connected To The Soil: Charles Burnett on “To Sleep With Anger.”
Legendary director Charles Burnett has made wide range of films over the past few decades, including shorts, documentaries, features, and TV films, most of which have been critically acclaimed. His first film “Killer of Sheep” was one of the first 50 films to be selected for the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for its historical import. One notable title in his filmography is “To Sleep With Anger,” a 1990 drama that was little seen by audiences at the time but that was screened at the Venice Film Festival for its 25th anniversary. RogerEbert.com’s Sergio Mims interviews Burnett about the film and changes in the filmmaking process.

Q: “To Sleep with Anger” still plays today with an audience. It’s a genuine audience movie, and everyone can find something in it to relate to. I’m glad that after 26 years it looks like it may finally find its audience at last. But when it first came out in 1989, it not was seen by most people; it wasn’t distributed well at all.

A: It was a lack of publicity, in a limited number of theaters. It only opened in 17 theaters nationwide. They didn’t do their job.

Q: But now, theatrical distribution is not the only thing anybody is relying on. There are other venues such as Video On Demand. Which reminds me of something you said last night after the screening of “To Sleep with Anger” at the Chicago International Film Festival, that this new digital technology is making filmmaking more democratic by allowing anyone to be able to make movies. But also lot of stuff that’s coming out now is awful. Believe me I know, I program a film festival and you should see the dreck that gets made now because of all-digital technology.

A: Oh yes, I can. Everyone thinks they can make a film nowadays, or thinks that they don’t have to go to film school. When I was at UCLA’s film school, we wanted to jump right into the industry that didn’t exist. So you just stayed in school to make films, and worked and worked. UCLA finally had to kick me out. I mean, literally kicked me out. But a lot of the others did the same thing. We were always in some discussions about film; working on films. And remember back then it was only $25 to take a course at UCLA? It costs so much money now a student can’t afford to go there now. [Laughs] If [a student] gets in, by the time they’re out, they’ve got a $200,000 loan they’ve got to pay back. And USC you can forget about. Now the question is, “Is it worth going to film school?” But now, no matter how talented you are, that doesn’t mean anything. It’s a hit or miss kind of thing.

Q: There’s very much a nostalgic feel within “To Sleep with Anger.” It’s set in a place with a very strong sense of family and community, which was the norm back then, and now seems to have been lost everywhere.

A: Well, that’s one of things I tried to do with “To Sleep with Anger,” because I grew up in a rural sort of environment, but in the city that I missed. But I thought that was important for younger generations, even more so now. And because I grew up in a quasi farm-like situation with chickens, rabbits and turkeys in the backyard, and even saw baby chicks being hitched, I felt it was simply that you feel that people need to see that. They need to experience some kind of down-home, on-the-farm kind of experience. When I look at kids my today, I feel kind of sorry for them [laughs]. Part of that is my fault: trying to provide for them. But for a healthy generation, you need to somehow be connected to the soil.

4. The Hateful Life and Spiteful Death of the Man Who Was Vigo the Carpathian.
In “Ghostbusters II,” there’s a fictional portrait of a medieval sorcerer named Vigo the Carpathian that mysteriously comes to life, and it’s up to the Ghostbusters to stop him. But did you know that the person who posed for that portrait, Norbert Grupe, lived a noteworthy life of his own? Deadspin’s Shaun Raviv profiles Norbert Grupe and explains why so many other men wanted to paint him as well.

You’ve seen a painting of Norbert Grupe. A heavy, creased brow and shoulder-length hair framing a frightening scowl, the massive work hung in the fictional Manhattan Museum of Art in “Ghostbusters II.” When the medieval sorcerer pictured within the painting begins to physically manifest, it is on the Ghostbusters to rally the city’s positive emotions and trap him back in the painting forever. Most people will only ever know Norbert Grupe as Vigo the Carpathian. But Norbert Grupe — a Nazi soldier’s son, boxer, professional wrestler, failed actor, criminal, and miserable human being who was never so happy as when he could make someone hate him — was once a man so beautiful that other men wanted to paint him. One painting of Norbert was done by a brothel owner named Wolli Köhler, a friend from the days when they were young men living in the St. Pauli quarter of the city of Hamburg. Köhler painted Norbert Grupe as Jesus, with long flowing blonde hair below a gold crown. The painting shows “the devastated prince looking at his devastated world,” Köhler described it. “It is the broken prince. He is standing before his demise.” Norbert did not meet his own demise with nearly so much grace. In 2004, he went to Rona Weber’s office in Santa Monica, Calif., and sat outside on a concrete flowerbed. Around eight in the morning, Rona looked out the window and saw her much older half-brother sitting there. Sitting and sitting. This wasn’t the first time he’d done this, and Rona wondered what the hell was going on with Norbert this time. “I was afraid to go downstairs because I was afraid he was going to follow me up,” she told me. Rona never wanted to introduce Norbert to her co-workers because he might say something to embarrass her. He was the kind of guy who would say or do what he wanted to whomever he wanted. Years earlier, Rona said, she had been told she might not just be Norbert’s half-sister, but his daughter as well. Norbert had raped his father’s young wife, her father told her, and she could have been the result. Eventually, Rona walked downstairs. When he saw her Norbert told her, in German, their native language, to “Come here and sit for a few minutes.” Reluctantly, she did. He told her he had prostate cancer and he was going to die. One day in April 2004, Rona got a phone call from a friend of Norbert’s. He said that her brother was dead, and that before he died Norbert had instructed him to deliver her a message one month after his death. The message was, simply: “Touché.” Rona knew exactly what the message meant.

5. Why Found-Footage Horror Deserves Your Respect.
It’s Horror Week over at The A.V. Club, and thus there’s been a whole host of articles about all that is horror in pop culture. Many essays this week have served to unpack certain genre trappings or underpinnings and explain how and why they work. Here’s one in particular: Randall Colburn analyzes found-footage horror films and why it deserves more respect.

This “found footage” concept wasn’t new, necessarily. Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 gorefest “Cannibal Holocaust” arguably introduced the gimmick in movies, while others, like Dean Alioto’s “UFO Abduction,” made ripples in its aftermath. But it was “Blair Witch” that breached the mainstream, and the surprise success of Oren Peli’s ultra low-budget “Paranormal Activity” in 2007 that piqued Hollywood’s interest. “Paranormal Activity” sequels followed, new found footage-based franchises formed (“[REC],” “V/H/S,” “Grave Encounters”), a sci-fi tentpole was erected (“Cloverfield”), and dozens of chaotic, shaky-cam standalones were launched and subsequently forgotten. Few have captured the zeitgeist, however, and none have lit a fire under the obsessives. At least, not in the way “Blair Witch” did. From here, “found footage” transitioned from a storytelling convention to a style of filmmaking defined by a first-person, semi-improvisational perspective. As such, core tenets of the concept became lost. The recovery of the footage, an integral part of the genre’s early adopters, became a moot point, as did the question of why the subjects would continue to film in the face of imminent danger. This has led to something of a backlash, both from horror hounds and critics. Countless reviews and articles have called for a moratorium on found footage horror, citing a lack of plausibility, nausea-inducing shaky cams, and a lack of visual flair. They’re not wrong, necessarily. But why place all the blame on the genre itself, especially after we’ve seen it work so well? Critics might say because it relies on such a specific, alienating style. Or that the conceit itself requires a certain amount of novelty to succeed, something that’s hard to come by in a saturated market. But to blame the boundaries of a genre for its shortcomings is to disregard the artists behind it. Working within limitations, in fact, is often what allows an creator’s true talent to distinguish itself from the rabble. Let’s not forget that John Sayles, Peter Bogdanovich, and Martin Scorsese first proved their worth within the budgetary constrictions of Roger Corman. The problem here isn’t found footage horror; it’s lazy filmmaking.

6. “The Flash” Recap: Second Chances.
The CW’s “The Flash” garnered critical acclaim in its first season for its quick pacing, its fun performances, and its delightful energy. It was everything the superhero genre needed after the overwhelming darkness the genre had adopted over the years. And yet, four episodes into its second season, the seams are starting to show. Vulture’s Angelia Jade Bastién reviews the latest episode and illustrates how the series is faltering.

While I understand the need for “The Flash” to set up the mid-season spinoff “Legends of Tomorrow,” I can’t ignore how it’s affected the show. This season thus far feels like it’s lurching forward, but we haven’t really gotten to the main story. This was painfully clear when it came to Earth-2 Harrison Wells. Last time we saw him, he crossed over through the portal in the basement of STAR Labs. This week, while we watch what amounts to the origin story of Firestorm 2.0, Wells somehow slinks through STAR Labs without anyone noticing. What’s he eating? Where is he sleeping? Is security really that bad there that no one has any inkling that there’s someone inside that shouldn’t be? I’m being harsh on “The Flash” mostly because I know most of what we’ve seen thus far isn’t sticking around. I don’t expect this dynamic to change for a few more episodes. But at least “The Fury of Firestorm” is a delightful take on the superhero origin story. This episode opens with a flashback during the joyous aftermath of a high-school football game where quarterback Jefferson “Jax” Jackson is feeling euphoric. His coach lets him know there were scouts in the audience who were taken by his performance. The world is seemingly at his fingertips. At least until he notices the explosion of STAR Labs’ particle accelerator approaching on the horizon. He makes time to warn everyone and help a friend in crutches. But those few seconds of heroism dramatically change his life. He’s unable to make it inside and close the door before the explosion hits, flying him against the wall and changing his genetics. It also means his hopes for a scholarship and a football career are gone. This background of hardship lets us know pretty quickly that the Firestorm 2.0 origin story is going to hit the major beats we’ve come to expect from these kind of narratives. It works, for the most part. Much of which is thanks to Professor Stein (always a welcome presence) and Jax’s chemistry with the rest of the cast.

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