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Category Archives: Film
New hd restoration completed–
Autographed blu-ray available now!
LOVE LETTER TO EDIE is the story of Edith Massey. Edith was one of the most popular underground movie stars of the 1960s-1980s. She appeared in many John Waters films, including MULTIPLE MANIACS, PINK FLAMINGOS, FEMALE TROUBLE, and DESPERATE LIVING.
Expert film restorers, Debenham Media Group recently produced a careful digital restoration of LOVE LETTER TO EDIE using the original 16mm film. The 2K HD video transfer required substantial color correction, scratch and dust removal, and image stabilization, because the original color film had aged substantially. Image Design Productions producer, Brian Scott, did the digital re-assembly of the transferred cuts, and performed additional color corrections and audio enhancement.
AND it looks gorgeous!
Order copies from the right column, and you will receive an autographed copy.
Thank-you for your interest.
The film’s first release in 1975 was on 16mm film, when it only played in movie theaters and film festivals.
Around 1985, VHS cassettes were in wide enough usage that small films like Love Letter could be distributed to individual collectors. They were duplicated in real-time in banks of VHS recorders.
The first 16mm to tape transfer was done at a small video production house in Owings Mills, MD by a company that produced professional wrestling programs and happened to have a film to 1″ tape transfer machine. The company’s owner happened to be a former math teacher at my high school and gave me a good deal.
From that master, I made a 3/4″ industrial grade video copy, which was the dub master for the hundred or so VHS copies I made at Quality Films and Video in Baltimore, which was also the lab for all John Waters’ 16mm films (through Desperate Living). I advertised these VHS mainly with a classified ad in Rolling Stone, and sold a few at Edith’s Shopping Bag store in Fells Point. Edith had died in California in 1985, but her old partner still kept the store going, specializing in Dreamland collectables.
The number of videos sold didn’t quite pay for all the duplication and advertising costs, so it went out of print for about 8 years. At that time a company called “Hit’nRun” films, which specialized in underground films re-transfered it and designed a colorful new cover. They made about 1,500 copies, but I never received payment. In the mid 90s, I made yet another transfer to digital Betacam video tape with Roland House Video in Arlington, VA, re-designed the cover for DVD, and added 15 minutes of personal memoirs to the program. I made 1,000 DVDs, which sold out in about 5 years.
Since then I still sell about 75 copies a year, and make them 50 at a time with the DVD-R process. I still have the 16mm original from 1975 and could make a HD transfer, then sell Blu-Ray HD copies. That could cost about $2,500. Maybe it would be a good Kickstarter project.
It’s Easter, when eggs become an important subject across the country, and references to Edith Massey abound.
Even a noted conservative pundit who regularly writes for such un-Edith right-wing publications like The American Conservative, The National Review, Weekly Standard, The Dallas Morning News, The Wall Street Journal and Beliefnet penned a little piece this week in The American Conservative. Rod Dreher relates that in an afternoon dream his backyard flock of hens had laid 13 eggs, and that when he woke up, he saw that a real hen had laid two eggs on the grass!
Thinking this must be a mystical event, he asks that “Edith Massey come back from the dead and interpret this occurrence!” The article even includes a clip from Pink Flamingos.
My, aren’t conservatives lightening up (or lighting up)! I don’t follow Rod Dreher, except he refers to himself as a “crunchy conservative” (which explains the backyard chicken thing), but maybe he lives in Colorado where weed is so easy and legal. If so, Edith would be so proud. (Actually he lives in Louisiana, not known much for clear thinking, so not much difference).
The day I saw “Searching for Sugar Man,” I received my first-ever royalty check from MGM/United Artists for a union film I worked on back in the 80s. “Sugarman” won the 2012 Academy Award for best documentary. The movie is a mind-bending story from the 1970s that goes against the grain of typical show business success stories. It’s about how success can be achieved by someone no one ever heard of, in a place that doesn’t count, then be forgotten and re-discovered in a series of weird coincidences. It is a common story in show business.
“Searching for Sugar Man” tells the story of singer-songwriter, Sixto Rodriguez, who played bars and coffee shops around Detroit. Rodriguez came up in the wake of Bob Dylan. A former executive at Motown Records agreed to a record deal after Rodriguez was discovered by two respected Detroit record producers who agreed there was money to be made in the world of protest singers and folk music. Sounds like the big break every artist dreams of, but the public disagreed, and like so many other singer-songwriters of the time, his records didn’t sell, and he vanished.
If Rodriguez had moved to Greenwich Village, like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul, and Mary and others, to be a part of the hyped-up singer-songwriter scene there, it may have been a different story. But Rodriguez was not interested in offering himself up to the hype machine of New York record labels.
Rodriguez would have sunk into eternal obscurity, except a bootleg of his record was smuggled into South Africa. His protest songs charmed the local white progressive population who suffered under the apartheid regime of white supremacist thugs, and yearned to join the world-wide counter-culture ushered in by artists like the Beatles and Dylan.
South Africa at the time was the world’s pariah, and Western artists avoided the country like the plague, starving the progressives of the music and culture they wanted so badly.
Rodriguez’s bootleg record filled a void, and his rebellious songs became underground anthems for millions— the South African equivalent of “Kumbaya” and “ Satisfaction” rolled into one. Rodriguez’s albums circulated by the hundreds of thousands, year after year in South Africa, in censored and uncensored and legal and bootleg versions. A myth grew around Rodriguez in South Africa that he had committed suicide on stage to protest a cold, unfeeling world. To the contrary, Rodriguez had remained in Detroit, worked as a laborer and quietly raised a family. His professional music career abruptly ended after his second non-selling album tanked and his recording contract was yanked.
A South African journalist tracked Rodriguez down in the late 90s, and brought him to South Africa where sold-out several concert tours—and he was revered for helping bring down the apartheid system.
My fresh $10.67 royalty check from MGM/UA on my desk, I was intrigued that South African record distributors claim they regularly sent royalty checks to A&M Records in the for the hundreds of thousands of Rodriguez albums sold. Some say more than a million records were sold. Rodriguez had no idea that more than a handful of his records had sold anywhere—he never received a royalty check either. Sussex Records, the original American label was sold several times, and Clarence Avant, its founder cannot trace Rodriguez’s contract after forty years.
So, here’s the classic Show Biz Question: “Where are my royalties?” The answer? “There are no royalties, or, hire an attorney and just try to get them.”
Anyone with the slightest involvement in royalties knows this dialogue. Of course, some stars do just fine collecting them. Though certainly not a star, I’m astounded that the Directors Guild of America tracked me down after many decades to pay me a measly $10.67. If it weren’t for a union contract, I’d never have received that. I wish the Waters’ films I had worked on had DGA contracts. I’m sure hundreds of others, who worked on low-budget-hell productions that eventually paid off, even decades later, would agree.
Wouldn’t it be nice if all unions had no/low budget agreements and welcomed all to share in the spoils—rare as they are? But how un-capitalist is that? And former low/no budget filmmakers love capitalism, especially when they finally have the wherewithal to hire good attorneys.
Stumbled across this video today on one of my favorite websites. I was on these shoots on a cold, windy December day in Alphabet City in 1981. The shots look like 3rd generation copies of the 16mm workprint.
No sound, because most of the sound was lost during the 15 year post-production odyssey when the whole film was stolen and recovered several times.
In this video’s last scene, Basquait interacts with the film’s production manager, Steve Sabato, whose most difficult task was to get Basquait to show up on time, in the right place, with the right wardrobe and props. The scene is the ultimate insider irony, because Steve was in charge of the money, which Basquait was constantly wasting by not showing up. That he gives Steve a suitcase full of money, and Steve bolts from the scene with a triumphal grin is hysterical and typical of the wit of the director Edo Bertolio and writer Glenn O’Brien.
It sort of sums up whole Downtown 80s NYC art scene where art, of any sort, was pure and money was corrupt. This might be why it took 20 years to complete the film.
German filmmaker Werner Herzog is my favorite filmmaker of all time. Thanks to Netflix, you can watch many of the dozens of films he has made since the 1970s. Usually his works are character studies of real humans on the edge, and they are on edges that most people never knew existed in this world. He’s not interested in big space ships or cartoonish rescuers of our wonderful capitalist Christian culture. His characters live in this world, but don’t occupy the same mental space as the average American.
Into the Abyss is a documentary about two men guilty of a grisly triple murder in Texas. One faces a life sentence; the other is scheduled to be executed at the end of the week. They and their associates, and friends seem to have ice water for blood, and seem to go through life in a trance of their own invention. Nothing they do in their lives seems to make sense, though they go through it with passion and a remarkable inability to deal with the realities of their terrible situations.
To describe the characters or events will be spoiling the story, because Herzog carefully crafts the documentary to reveal just little bits and pieces at a time, like the best mystery writers. When you discover what’s really going on, it’s like 110 volt jolt to your brain. It’s enough to say that every character seems quite normal in the beginning, but as they tell their stories, layers fall away and unspeakable inner tragedies are revealed. Out of the thousands of murders that are committed each year in the U.S., how Herzog picks this particular one to follow, with such complex levels of deeply hidden events and stricken personalities is amazing. Or you can come away with the idea that actually maybe everyone is insane, if you spend a little time looking at them, and allow them to reveal themselves.
This is the theme of many of Herzog’s films. He isn’t content with headlines. He wants to enter the abyss. He digs and digs until his fingernails are raw and bleeding, and freely admits that when he sees the entire story, it can be so emotionally scaring that he refuses to burden his audience with it. He’ll tell you about it, and give you tantalizing little hints, but the sensational is not the point. It’s how people deal emotionally with the sensational in life that is important. It is a unique viewpoint, and bless Werner Herzog for taking it.
Into the Abyss is 188 minutes long, twice that of your average movie, and it’s mostly talking heads. But it is a haunting, shocking journey about strangers in a land that we might think is familiar, but is not. Don’t miss this masterpiece.
I saw Prometheus recently in a large theater, something I rarely do anymore. It is such a crock, alternating between ridiculous to silly to patently unbelievable. First, this lame effort didn’t seem like it could be a Ridley Scott film. He is now at least 75 years old, and has about 12 films in “pre-production.” My guess is that Mr. Scott has lost the brilliant touch of Blade Runner and Alien, but is enjoying life immensely by selling his name to squads of Hollywood CGI animators and overpaid bean counters whose idea of a good movie is judged by how many explosions per second trigger the theatre’s sub-woofer—(that give me only the sensation of letting out a big fart). Some observations on why I dislike Prometheus so much:
- It discards all known laws of physics, biology, and chemistry just like a Porky Pig cartoon.
- It demands you ignore absurd plot element like a ship’s crew that doesn’t have a clue about even the most basic security measures; like characters who have hideous things happening to them but neglect to reveal them to anyone; like high-tech geographers who get lost in a cave; an incompetent and a collection of bland and uncurious characters who would never qualify for a trillion$ space mission. I didn’t believe one iota of the film was based in any sort of reality. If you believe in virgin births, turning water into wine, and re-incarnation, you are the target of this film.
- The slightest noise triggers a sonic boom from the sub-woofers, and each sounds exactly the same—shooooooooopBOOOOM! Ludicrous, predictable, and tiresome.
- There is no creative use of 3D at all—I mean why bother when most of the film is dialogue? It looked basically the same with or without the glasses.
- Geiger’s brilliant design influence is sadly minimal. His original stuff really makes you believe in the bonding of organic and inorganic. This design is 5th generation rip-off.
- The coincidences used in the story are so unlikely they are laughable—I don’t want to spoil anything here, but you’ll know them when your brain repeatedly says WTF?
Prometheus is an example of the Hollywood big budget EFX movie gone amok. To prep, the theater played endless trailers of astonishingly cookie-cutter-like Hollywood summer adventure films that all look and sound the same: spectacular car crashes, huge, improbable guns, and big explosions every ten seconds with that same shooooooopBOOOOOM! that Hollywood sound effect editors must all “secretly” share to add that real-expensive-Oscar-in-sound-design touch. It is used in everything from derringer shots, to car doors closing… I mean what world do these people inhabit where every little percussion has to shake the seats in the exact same way? Do they ever get out of their sub-woofer studios and into the real world?
From now on it’s Blu-Ray DVDs at home where I control the sound, and don’t bother me with 3D until you learn to use it for more than a gimmick to promote in the advertising. I’ll spend the $20 for the movie ticket and popcorn on a good bottle of wine and a genuinely engaging and believable little foreign film, courtesy of Netflix.
“In Darkness” was a Polish film nominated for an Oscar in 2011, but strangely rates only a 7.7 on IMdB. It is the true story of a group of Jews hiding from Nazis in the decrepit sewers of a large Polish city at the end of WWII. Many people complained because it’s (yawn) “just another” Holocaust rescue film like Schindler’s List. It only grossed $1 million in its U.S. run. Another shameful comment on American movie-goeers, as if you needed another.
To me it was on the level of “Das Boot.” It is a terrorizing 2.5 hours of relentless horrors and ugliness that won’t let you look away. It presents the bold sexuality of people who don’t know if they’ll live another minute– a generally undiscussed topic. Most of it takes place in a sewer so real that you can smell it when the characters puke. The director, Agnieszka Holland is a master at handling a wide range of actors, fascinating character development, narrative pacing, and gut-wrenching cinematography, not to mention a horror show of sets, make-up and wardrobe.
The editing sometimes has jump cuts that challenge you to fill in the gaps– like a dream, but genuinely reflects the chaos of running for your life in a dark confusing and terrible place. If you’re interested in the art of cinema that twists you around its little finger, this is it. It makes “Hugo” and all the other recent big Hollywood films look like Mr. Rogers’ pablum.
John Waters’ 1977 movie, Desperate Living, was the follow-up of his most successful films to date, “Pink Flamingos” and “Female Trouble.” It’s $65,000 budget provided a larger and more professional crew than the earlier films, and a “marquee star” budget line that was ten times more than the last.
Divine would have been the logical star choice. He had been his star on at least three of his earliest black and white movies, but the history of his not doing Desperate Living is murky. Some say Divine was busy performing live on tour. Others say that he and Waters were on the outs over money, and Waters wanted to prove he could do a successful movie without Divine.
In either case, Waters went on a star search to replace Divine. He found Liz Renay, who was a minor celebrity in the 1940s and 50s, and a counter-intuitive choice for a late 1970s cutting-edge underground movie.
Liz was a real trooper in John Waters’ Desperate Living. As a 51 year-old seeming has-been from the 1950s, in many ways, she was about as disconnected from the average Baltimore-bred Dreamlander as you could imagine. In others, she was spookily appropriate and progressive. Liz was a classic high-class broad who hung out with gangsters and gamblers who blew big money on champagne cocktails, mink coats, diamond necklaces, and only rode in limos.
When she was just twenty her stunningly beautiful face, big blonde hair and voluptuous figure, brought her immediate success as a model and stripper in New York City’s WWII era. She found it easy to earn money, especially after winning a Marilyn Monroe look-alike contest in Hollywood, and began to attract wealthy men who were happy to spend big on big-busted blonde trophy girlfriends.
Liz was no dumb blonde though. She knew the skin game and used it, but also authored several popular books (the irresistible “My First 2000 Men” was her first). She was a prolific painter whose work sold well, though they were unremarkable in their flatness that recalls Elvis-on-black velvet paintings sold in abandoned corner gas stations throughout the South. That most of her work featured nude, nubile blondes stretched out on silk sheets certainly were part of the appeal.
Liz’s most notorious bo was Mickey Cohen, a flamboyant gangster and ex-boxer who helped create the post-war Las Vegas gambling boom. Cohen’s penchant for violence (he once unloaded .45 caliber pistols into a hotel lobby ceiling) and sleazy associations with movie stars, liquor scams, and sexual extortion rings made him a popular subject of the press.
Liz’s closeness to such genuine and notorious sleaze attracted Waters to Liz. But wait, that’s not all. Lying in court to protect Cohen in one of his numerous trials, Liz actually spent three months in Terminal Island Prison near Los Angeles. This was the home of 1960s icons, Charlie Manson, his acolyte and attempted Gerald Ford assassin Squeaky Fromme, and Timothy Leary. To John, that was real cred.
Desperate Living’s extreme low-budget shooting conditions were the exact opposite of Liz’s earlier diamond-studded life, in some ways even worse than prison—cold, muddy, rainy, hideously long hours, terrible food, etc. It was quite different from what she expected a movie would be, especially with her experience in Hollywood.
John always dressed her in the skimpiest outfits to show off her curvy 1950s body, and extreme boob job. But in the forty-degree weather, she shivered like a young puppy, and was always wrapped in blankets, between scenes, even on the indoor sets. She lost a lot of her glamour there.
Liz confided to me that she had never worked on such a shockingly low-budget movie, and didn’t know it was possible to make a movie in such dingy and lousy shooting conditions—no heat, no green room, no dressing room, no caterer or crafts services, and she thought of walking out in the beginning. But she would have felt like such a heel by stiffing this earnest, bedraggled, hopeful crew, and its pathetic movie sets made of junk from the streets– so she stayed. One very cold and rainy day on the exterior Mortville set, she told me she couldn’t remember ever seeing her breath before, and was quite amazed by it. I didn’t know whether to laugh or be mortified.
The money was good– for her, about $10,000 for two weeks, plus John saw that she had a nice hotel. She was very kind, and never wanted to tie up a PA to take her to the set. When I tried to reimburse her for the cab fare she paid to get to the Fells Point “studio, “she refused. No one on the young movie crew had heard of her, and couldn’t understand how this hopelessly out-of-fashion 50’s sex bomb could replace Divine as John’s major draw.
That is, except John, for whom Liz was the ideal star—huge bust, plastic surgery-young, a real, published writer, and fine arts painter, with strong ties to the underworld, and even an honest-to-god jailbird. Couldn’t do better than that.
Liz got into the Low Budget Hell swing of things pretty quickly. A bitchy, complaining celebrity she was not. Her sweetness won everyone over quickly, and they treated this blonde bombshell granny with kindness and respect. At the end of the day, we got to know that in her heart she was a rebel and progressive who was a tough cookie and leveraged her sex appeal into one of the earliest examples of women’s liberation. Liz Renay did not join a movement; she was a movement.
Liz was born in 1926 and died in 2007, at the age of 80.
Read about Robert Maier’s fifteen years working with John Waters in the new book “Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters.” Available on Amazon.com and booksellers around the world.