Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Death of a Clown: Deceased Artiste Pierre Etaix

The death of the very gifted French physical comic and gagsmith Pierre Etaix last week at the age of 87 was not as sad an event as it could've been. That's because this wonderful comedian and fine filmmaker got his just due back in 2012 when his films were freed from a legal tangle and played around the world in beautifully restored prints, for the first time in several decades.

I wrote a review for the Disc Dish website of the comprehensive three-disc Criterion box that came out in 2013, after the films had played theatrically. The review presented the central details of Etaix's life and career, so I wanted to post it here (in slightly altered form) as a tribute to this fine artist.

Etaix was a multi-talented individual who at various times worked as a cartoonist, a cabaret entertainer, a character actor, and a circus clown. (He returned to the last-mentioned profession after his last self-directed film flopped in 1971.) His cartoons and clowning — plus his deep love for the American comedians of the silent and early talkie eras — led him to work with the legendary Jacques Tati as an assistant director and gag-designer on Mon Oncle (1958).

An Etaix cartoon depicting his heroes.
After his stint with Tati, Etaix began crafting his own comedy vehicles with the help of the great screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere (The Return of Martin Guerre, Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie). The five movies and three shorts he directed over the period of a decade are indeed a revelation for fans of classic film comedy, as Etaix and Carriere did a superb job of finding situations for Etaix’s schlemiel-like character to struggle with.

Although he praises a number of American comedians in a 2011 documentary included in the Criterion set as a supplement — Pierre Etaix, un destine animé, directed by his wife Odile — his onscreen character is most like Buster Keaton’s, as he is often financially comfortable, but never at ease with his surroundings. Carriere notes in the documentary that the situations they devised together found Etaix “confronting a hostile world.”

Using deft camerawork, careful framing, and precise editing, Etaix succeeded admirably in creating his own comic universe. A frequently used setup involves a succession of characters or objects interlocking to form the perfect live-action equivalent of a Rube Goldberg contraption, with the clueless Etaix moving on after having initiated the chaos.

Etaix’s first two shorts, “Rupture” and “Happy Anniversary” (which won an Oscar for Best Short Subject in 1963) are letter-perfect evocations of the classic two-reel comedies of Hollywood’s Golden Age. He followed those two gems (co-directed with Carriere) with his debut feature, The Suitor (1963). Here Etaix plays an empty-headed millionaire searching around Paris for a wife. Like all of Etaix’s features, the film is episodic and crammed with smaller gags that are just as funny as the major set-pieces.

“Happy Anniversary” and The Suitor are indeed the best introductions to Etaix, but his most ambitious and most touching feature followed. In Yoyo (1965) he plays another lonely rich man, who in this case runs away with the circus. In the present-day video introductions included in the box set, Etaix declares this to be his favorite film, and it certainly is his most layered creation. The first 35 minutes function as a self-contained silent movie, then the movie turns into a valentine to circus life — and, oddly enough, the price of TV fame.

Etaix talks about the failure of Yoyo in his video introduction. It was so poorly received that he made certain his next film was a very basic comedy. As Long as You’ve Got Your Health (1966), as it was re-edited by Etaix in 1971, is simply four well-crafted short films shown end to end. The standout is the second, a strange journey through a crowded movie theater then into an apartment where everyone speaks in TV commercial taglines.

When a retrospective of these eight films was held in October 2012 at the Film Forum in New York City, much was said about the fourth feature, Le Grand Amour (1969), being Etaix’s best work. The film is very accomplished, but its extremely linear plotline marks it as a comedown of sorts from the raucous nature of the preceding three features — although a bravura dream sequence in which the characters travel the back roads of France on moving beds is perhaps the finest (and weirdest) single set-piece he ever dreamt up.

Etaix's last film as a director is a fascinating anomaly — so much so that it merited only a single screening in the Film Forum retro and was the only Etaix feature not shown on TCM when the movies had their American TV debut in 2013. Land of Milk and Honey (1971) is a documentary Etaix made about the French on vacation in the period after May 1968 (when political riots paralyzed the city of Paris).

The film is indeed a comedy, but a crueler creation than any of Etaix’s other work — it doesn’t openly mock the vacationers shown, but it surely does depict them at their most ridiculous, ignorant, and self-satisfied. The film was disliked so intensely by both critics and the public that it killed his filmmaking career.

The documentary in the Criterion box by Odile Etaix offers a fascinating portrait of Pierre in all his guises. Included is a segment in which Etaix reflects on his longtime friendship with Jerry Lewis (who loved Yoyo). Sadly, no mention is made of the one time they worked together. For, in addition to Etaix appearing as an actor in Kaurismaki’s Le Havre (2011) and other dramas and comedies, he costarred in Lewis’ notoriously unfinished The Day The Clown Cried....

Monday, October 3, 2016

“Any schmuck can aim a camera”: an interview with Deceased Artiste Herschell Gordon Lewis

It's rare that you can talk to a filmmaker who started his own damned subgenre. Herschell Gordon Lewis, who died a few days back at 87, did exactly that when he and his producer/friend David Friedman dreamed up the gore movie. I'm not a fan of gore at all, but there's something about Lewis' blood-drenched movies that makes some of them infinitely rewatchable — primarily because the gore effects are so incredibly phony and the acting and scripts are so campy (the latter intentionally so, the former not so intentionally).

There are two remarkable things about Lewis. The first is that he had another, far more prosperous career as a “direct-mail” expert. The other is that while he was a filmmaker he bounced around from genre to genre, making the gore pics, “nudie” movies, hillbilly sagas, delinquent “thrillers,” wife-swap sex dramas, even an “erotic” western. His attitude about it all was charmingly flippant – he reminded me during the interview we did that that the “surname” of show biz is indeed “business.” He specialized in making genres that the major studios (and even other independent moviemakers) would not make.

He thus carved out a very unique little niche in movie history for himself. When he died this week, I was reminded of the interview I did with him back in 2005. There were some audio problems on the tape, so I've only aired the full episode I made from the interview once on the Funhouse TV show. A second episode, which I will rerun, included some comments from HGL about his best-known film, Blood Feast (1963), along with my short but fun interviews with the film's stars, Mal Arnold and Connie Mason.

I had so much fun talking to Lewis, and he was so generous with his time, that I didn't want the talk to be “buried” – in fact, in the act of transcribing his answers I've noted that he spoke so articulately that I didn't need to do the usual “edits” one does for print interviews (to simply make the subject seem eloquent, even if they are speaking in incomplete sentences as we all do).

So I will skip over offering biographical details about HGL, since I know those are available everywhere else online. And if you're in the mood to read a very enjoyable book about his crazy movies, find a copy of the long out-of-print The Amazing Herschell Gordon Lewis and his World of Exploitation Films by Daniel Krogh. Krogh produced the ultimate HGL book, filled with pictures both amusing and disgusting from nearly all of HGL's many films.

I asked Mr. Lewis about the fact that his “nudies” weren't the standard nudist-camp opuses (of which only one, Doris Wishman's truly insane and wonderfully awful Nude on the Moon, is watchable). His very softcore movies, which included short scenes with undressed women, really are linear movies that move along a certain scenario. The most notable is probably Living Venus (1961), which is a riff on Hugh Hefner and Playboy, costarring Harvey Korman.

Said HGL, “In keeping with our reputation, I guess you'd call it, of making one move beyond what everyone else was doing, we started to add a strange word — plotline!

“I grant you people never went to see these things because of the plotline. They went to see them because they had pretty girls in them. After a certain amount of time in that particular industry it became quite obvious to me that that field was becoming too crowded. But worse than that it was taking a direction I didn't want to go — rougher and rougher and rougher. At the time I had small kids, and I didn't want them to be so embarrassed when someone asked them, 'what does your daddy do?'

That's when we began scouting around for another area of film that the major companies could not make or would not make, and that marvelous word leaped out at us, GORE! And the rest is history.”

I remarked that I thought it was interesting that he didn't want to do “rough” sex films, thinking he meant the “roughies” — the post-nudie softcore films that had plotlines in which men dominated, hit, or tied up women — but he did go on to make gore films, which were incredibly “violent” because they showed people being dismembered (albeit in a completely artificial way that was miles removed from the later gore features that looked very realistic).

To clarify, he noted that by “rough” sex films he meant not the “roughies” I was thinking of, but graphic hardcore sex pics, “moving beyond nudity into the sexual area.” (HGL was a very polite gentleman.)

On the subject of the critical reaction to his pictures of all genres, he declared, “I have never made a picture that was not attacked by critics. That's the way to assure yourself that your movie has some value to it. They weren't attacking it on any grounds other than the attack that we wanted, which was 'how dare they?'”

He was very honest about the threadbare quality of his productions. As for the acting? “Acting talent was not just secondary, it was tertiary.” After I noted I'd be interviewing some of his cast members later that day, he made the egalitarian statement (to include himself and producer David F. Friedman in the mix), “We’ll put the talent in quotation marks, that covers both parties....”

On the subject of the still very enjoyable to watch Blood Feast, he said, “We finished shooting Blood Feast, which was a strictly a hand-to-mouth movie.... It was as Spartan a crew as you'll ever find. And two words you never heard on our set – 'take two!'

“So here we had this movie which was as primitive as it could be because we weren't the least bit certain anyone would show it — that's another way of keeping score. I didn't want a movie that was moldering in somebody's basement. Certainly I didn't want to spend money on a movie that might molder. It was a pure crap game. Would anybody ever display this movie?

“We were looking at it as we cut it in my little cutting room in the Wrigley Building in Chicago. I thought maybe a midnight show on Halloween....”

I asked about the follow-ups to Blood Feast, the two films that are now considered part of HGL's “Gore Trilogy” — Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) and Color Me Blood Red (1965), which is a nastier update of Corman's Bucket of Blood.

“By this time we had a reputation of making the kind of films no one else was making. Gorehounds existed and their lust had not been satisfied until we showed up. So I said to Dave Friedman, 'What if we made a good one?' So we went to a little town in Florida, Saint Cloud [to shoot Two Thousand Maniacs!]. We were living in Chicago, and it was getting cold — inspiration comes from any number of sources, and weather is a marvelous inspiration.....”

The reason there was never another gore film at that particular time was purely legal (he waited until '67, with The Gruesome Twosome). HGL and Friedman took out a lawsuit against the original investor in Blood Feast, and that held up production on what could have been another gore pic — at that time, Friedman broke away to do his own series of softcore movies (A Smell of Honey, a Swallow of Brine, Trader Hornee), and HGL went back to making films “to order,” genre-jumping according to what his low-level producers were willing to finance.

HGL summed up his relation to these films, with the phrase, “The movie business — the surname is business!” He continued, “Any schmuck can aim a camera. Getting bodies in a seat is something else. My background is in advertising. Advertising and exploitation are Siamese twins joined at the rump. If there's any claim to fame I might enjoy in the film business, it might be that little byway that links to my other career.”

I didn't get to ask him to talk about one of his craziest films, and one of my all-time fave insane exploitation films, Just For the Hell of It (1968). It's a “delinquent” film of a higher order – the troublemaking delinquents aren't bikers, and their activities to “terrorize” members of their community seem more like dickish pranks than truly violent outbursts. Two of the best: they go into a doctor's office and tear up all the magazines (!), and take a baby away from his mother and place it in a garbage can (they don't proceed to do anything horrible to the kid or its mother then — they just laugh and move on).

I did, however, get him to talk about the other stunningly no-budget yet unforgettable “delinquent” movie he made around the same time, the immortal She-Devils on Wheels (1968), which has had many tributes, but perhaps the best being the cover of its theme song by the Cramps (one of the few times Poison Ivy sang a lead vocal).

HGL said that She-Devils was motivated by “the temper of the times.... Fred Sandy said, 'Let's make a motorcycle picture!'.... It occurred to me the way that [our] motorcycle film that could compete… instead of the gang being a bunch of guys with women sitting on the back, it's reversed. The women are dominant. It also could eliminate the accusation that all I did was chop up pretty girls!

“So down we went to Miami, and the auditions for She-Devils were something to be believed. You cannot imagine. I decided, and I think it was the right decision, instead of trying to make a motorcycle rider out of an actress, we would use these gals who could ride the big Nortons and Harleys and hogs and BMWs and so on, and let them be the actresses. And that worked out very, very well.”

The awesome ending is here (replete with a neat little poem from the biker girls):

I spoke to him about the very bizarre The Wizard of Gore (1970), but his anecdotes about his last film The Gore Gore Girls (1972) — until the “comeback” picture, Blood Feast 2 (2002) – were more interesting.

His later gore films were far nastier than the early Sixties “trilogy,” and Gore Gore Girls is perhaps the most extreme, in terms of its pitch-black humor and extreme tackiness. The effects were still so cheap they looked patently artificial, but within those limitations, HGL and his crew came up with some creepy images, including a woman getting her face “French fried” and a rather stunning scene where scissors cut a woman's nipples (which are on patently fake breasts, probably a mannequin's) and milk spurts out of one, while chocolate milk comes out of another (the crazed murder's gloved hands have caught both kinds of milk in cheap-ass plastic champagne glasses and clinks the two glasses together).

I asked him about the extremely dark comedy in the film. He responded: “I wanted the audience to understand that the whole thing was fantasy. To my astonishment, or lack thereof, they didn't take it that way. The fact that one [breast produced] chocolate milk.... see, that's the generation gap!”

The single oddest thing about Gore Gore Girls is that it has a “name” performer in certain scenes, the immortal (and wonderfully oblivious) Henny Youngman. Lewis said that Youngman appeared in the film because he was a friend of the screenwriter's father.

“We had him for one day, a Sunday, and [mimicking Henny's lightning-fast delivery] hetalkedsofast. I told him, 'Henny, unless you want English subtitles under your lines, speak slower!' So he did, and we had a wonderful time that day. But the funny part of that is, later on somebody interviewed him and he denied being in the movie. How do you deny being in a movie when you're on-camera for about 20 minutes?”

Lewis was very flippant about his movies, but I discovered one thing related to them that he was indeed very serious about, and proud of. He wrote the themes songs for a number of the pictures and also did the full musical soundtrack for Blood Feast. Here is the most memorable theme song, his country-fied song “The South's Gonna Rise Again” (remember, Herschell was from Chicago) from 2000 Maniacs:

I didn't realize that he was very proud of the soundtrack for Blood Feast when I interviewed him, but he proved it by not only answering my question about it with heavy sincerity, but also by returning to that subject after the next question I asked him. The soundtrack itself can't be forgotten because it is so spare and makes heavy of kettledrums for “suspenseful” moments. The most interesting thing here is that HGL predated by a full decade John Carpenter as a horror filmmaker who wrote his own musical scores (yes, Halloween is a better movie and Carpenter's score is much more intricate, and well... better, but go with me on this one!).

Since he had been so very flippant about his movies, I hazarded calling the BF soundtrack kinda “insane.” He responded in a more serious fashion that “the composer Hector Berlioz was insane, Beethoven was mildly insane....”

He then proceeded to tell me about the preparation of the score in some detail. I still find this fascinating because I feel it reflects a side of Herschell Gordon Lewis that we rarely ever heard about — the fact that he did care about what he was doing (despite the obvious primary monetary interest) and certain aspects of filmmaking did really enchant him.

“So I knew what I wanted. I wanted weird sounds. I wanted a trombone, I wanted a cello, I wanted background with an organ, and I wanted kettledrums. I was getting estimates to score the picture which were greater than the cost of the picture.... So what to do?

“There was no possible stock music that I could afford that began to mirror what I wanted. So okay, I had some background in music. Down I sat with a sheet of music paper to score this picture, which took far, far, far longer than it took to shoot the picture.” When I asked how long it took to shoot BF he answered, “Less than a week. I don't want to qualify it beyond that, because we're still selling DVDs....” (He did readily admit that full scripts only existed after the film was shot and edited.)

Back to his passion for the music: “There is nothing, really nothing, that makes one more satisfied than having a musical composition come to life. I hired a cello player, he was quite good. I hired a trombonist, and my old friend Larry Wellington, who had scored Lucky Pierre for me, on the organ. And I rented some kettle drums at a place called Frank's Drum Shop.
“We get ready to record it and I go, 'Oh my gosh, I didn't get a kettle drummer!' But that's a remarkably easy instrument to play. In fact, the composer Leopold Stokowski played no instrument and, to get into the musician's union, he played the kettledrums. So I can say I have much in common with Stokowski, because I played the kettledrums [on the film's soundtrack].”

I asked him why he used the pseudonym “Sheldon Seymour” for the score. He replied that his films were “made to order. There was no ego in any of these [movies]. I didn't want these movies where somebody's an auteur — 'script by Eddie Murphy, directed by Eddie Murphy, edited by Eddie Murphy...'”

As for the particular name he chose, he said, “I came to the conclusion that every exhibitor I knew was named either Sheldon or Seymour, so I put the two names together, so they would identify with it. Ego was not splattered all over these movies....”

He closed out this section of the interview with a little mini-discourse on his process that I think serves as a fitting epitaph to the man and his truly “incredibly strange” movies (have I forgotten to mention that he had a rock band musical and a kiddie movie in amongst the gore flicks, the nudie movies, the hillbilly moonshine comedies, and the delinquent dramas?).

“I was trying to ride the crest of temporary trends because I could make a movie fast, I could get it released fast — pardon me, I could get it 'excreted' fast. I had the means, I had this ancient Mitchell camera... but it was a beautiful camera. I had a cutting room and I could cut the film. There were no terrors left for me in the production of movies.

“[The effects were] done out of budget. Budget can be a tremendous spur to ingenuity.”