Thursday, August 8, 2013

Robert Bresson, stills - A Condemned Man Escapes, Mouchette, The Devil Probably

The first time I saw Robert Bresson's The Devil Probably was circa 1983, in a private screening at the Bleecker Street Cinema, where I worked. The Bleecker at that time was leased from Sid Geffen for a year by John Pierson, & John was considering a theatrical run of the film which had been at the NY Film Festival in 1977, which did not occur. I cannot remember if it was meant to "piggyback" as it were on the release of L'Argent, although that seems like it would have been part of the programming logic.

I will try not to put words in the mouths of John Pierson, or others present, but I recall that the utter dourness of the film, its constant focus on imminent ecological disaster in the world, coupled with the relative age of the film, six years or so after its making - the young people at that time appeared from an earlier decade, a hippie culture in total eclipse in a New York City hell-bent on gentrification and what was then called Reaganomics.

The one comment I recall is John Pierson saying to me in his glib, alpha-male way, "you want to see this don't you? you're a Bresson-person aren't you?" I hadn't thought about it until then but since then I have taken it as a truism. If I were forced to say something like this. (Mercifully I have not.)

The Bleecker was a strange but ultimately amazing place to work. John Pierson's year-long lease was a bit of stability in an otherwise mercurial if not absurdist organization. The Bleecker qualified as a "bad-first-job-for-your-media-of-choice" for young people, in this case those interested in film, the same way that the Strand Bookstore did for one-time English Majors. I was at the Bleecker 2 years, & in the first year, working for Sid Geffen there were something like 25 managers in the place. Days before John Pierson took over the Bleecker, I had been told by the then-manager, "Sid doesn't want you to think you're fired, but we're going to have to cut your hours to Zero." So it went. I was very young then and fairly pragmatic. In its favor I would say that except for a few (such as the manager who told me I wasn't being fired) there was a total lack of Fordist principles on site: One didn't have to pretend one was one's job. Given that the owner was a bit of nut, he was irrational, cruel, senseless, the place nevertheless functioned & functioned well (of course ultimately that benefited the owner) as a collective anarchy of sorts. The world of movie-going itself has changed so much. It was how you saw movies then & also how you saw others. I recall seeing Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh going to movies there, during the year they were tied together, & locals such as Kathy Acker, Sylvere Lotringer. One of my co-workers was friends with the musician Evan Lurie, another frequent visitor. Not to mention some spectacularly difficult characters - it was a space you could enter & use both the bathrooms & a payphone without buying a ticket so the theater had multiple roles to play, physically. New York City had taken long-term mental patients out of hospitals a few years before, many of whom ended up on the nearby streets, and the then easy access of Washington Square & its public restrooms. But that sort of porousness of spaces no longer exists in New York City.

fun fact: the band the Bush Tetras worked at the Bleecker just before my time there. Supposedly their song "Too Many Creeps" refers to working there.

All that seems like such a long ago world now, whereas the portent of the newscasts in The Devil Probably, the dead forests, the polluted water & air, are now with us constantly, we live day-to-day now in the caprices of ecological disaster.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

from "The Flower Thief", Directed by Ron Rice, with Taylor Mead (Film Culture no. 24, Spring 1962)

"You are entering the Twilight Zone"

Recently, at a reading at the Tompkins County Public Library in downtown Ithaca, I heard Anne Serling, the daughter of Rod Serling, discuss her late father, of whom she has published a memoir As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling. I knew next to nothing about Serling himself going into the reading, although the fact that he had an Ithaca - Finger Lakes connection had come to my attention in the past year.

Rod Serling was born in Syracuse, and raised in Binghamton, where according to his daughter, Serling had an "idyllic childhood." The idyllic childhood is important in Anne Serling's estimation, as a counterbalance to Serling's harsh experiences in the military in WWII, in establishing a duality that distinguishes the parable-like nature of Twilight Zone episodes.  The Serling family lived in Los Angeles, but they continued to spend their summers in Interlaken on the west shore of Cayuga Lake; and Serling also taught in the Roy Park School of Communication at Ithaca College, where his papers are now held.

This reminds me that along with Rod Serling, another bit of 20th century culture to emanate from Ithaca was the mass production of Duncan Hines cake mixes, which began in a cinderblock shed, still standing, on State Street, just east of Aurora, downtown. Duncan Hines cake mixes were an entrepreneurial project "cooked up" by  Roy Park, who owned radio stations in the Finger Lakes and in North Carolina, and they increased his fortune considerably. Ithaca is small enough that I have heard the women working in the Cornell campus post office talking about Mrs. Roy Park's jewels in reverent tones.

It's hard to imagine an idyllic childhood in Binghamton now, but in cursory research I have found that, as it was suggested in the talk, Binghamton had a relatively stable economy during the Depression with the presence of Endicott-Johnson Shoes and IBM. And childhood is not determined only by economy: happiness can occur anywhere, just like unhappiness. Serling sounds like he was always moving, always active, always working.

 In my adolescence The Twilight Zone was already in rerun, and it was in archaic black-&-white, & it was on late usually after the 11 o'clock news. In our current iteration of media 24/7, there is no early or late the way it existed when television stations would go off the air - young people have no idea of an actual beginning or end to TV. It's always on. & along with television, there is the internet, which is even vaster, an ocean of information, advertising and a marketplace.

Is there any sense of liminality in programming now, of busy versus quiet times? When I watched The Twilight Zone in reruns, seeing the same episodes again & again it seemed, it was in a time slot outside of family programming. It had a strange illicit freedom in terms of time. Any responsibility of the day was over, there were a few hours at most before the station went off the air. That sort of biological clock informed late night programming. The latent disturbances of our rational technological world erupted in programs such as The Twilight Zone, or on weekend nights with horror and thriller movie programs like "Scream Theater" or "Chiller Theater."

Rod Serling was a great narrator in a televisual after hours: those of us who were devoted to The Twilight Zone appreciated its morbidity, it's potential for weird, which touched our own general adolescent alienation. Hearing Serling discussed as a parent was curious. In retrospect it makes sense, in that Serling occupied a parental or teacher-like role as the host. Compared to the pablum of most television programming and its hideous eternal present-ness, its erasure of both past and future, these brief episodes, full of schadenfreude and irony, suggested a distinctly different cycle of fate.

Jack Smith, The Moldy Hell of Men and Women (Film Culture no. 35, Winter 1964-65)