Category Archives: Film

Film Projects, Comments, Reviews

Outtakes of Jean-Michel Basquait in “New York Beat”-“Downtown 81”

Jean-Michel Basquait tagging in Alphabet City during a shoot for the movie “New York Beat/Downtown 81”

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.

 http://www.americansuburbx.com/2013/02/asx-tv-jean-michel-basquiat-graffiti-wall-at-work-in-the-street.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Americansuburb+%28ASX+%7C+AMERICAN+SUBURB+X+%7C+Photography+%26+Culture%29

Herzog Enters the Abyss, Again—Review of “Into the Abyss”

Werner Herzog outside the prison where much of the filming was done.

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.

A murderer who proclaims his innocence prepares to meet his Yahweh.

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.

“Prometheus” Reviewed – A Hunk of Baloney

This laughable poster is of a scene that never appears in the movie and has nothing to do with the plot. It’s an  amazing example of the level of contempt the filmmakers have for their audience.

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:

  1. It discards all known laws of physics, biology, and chemistry just like a Porky Pig cartoon.
  2. 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.
  3. The slightest noise triggers a sonic boom from the sub-woofers, and each sounds exactly the same—shooooooooopBOOOOM!  Ludicrous, predictable, and tiresome.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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” on Netflix a Real Chiller


“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.

Liz Renay: The Star Who Would Replace Divine

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.

A typical Liz Renay painting-- two dimensions, eye-popping colors, and sexual innuendo, they sold for a very respectable $5,000 in the 1950s-60s.

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.

To the 1970s generation, Liz was most famous for her "streak" down Hollywood Boulevard.

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.

The official cast and crew portrait for Desperate Living. John and Liz are in the center.

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.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Underground Artist and Six Million Dollar Man

Jean-Michel Basquiat portrait by Andy Warhol

I lived and worked in downtown New York City in the early 1980s when the arts  were going through big changes.  Andy Warhol was rich, but at a dip in his career.  Hanging out with jet set celebrities at Studio 54 and doing their portraits based on Polaroid snapshots for $50,000, he had become a sell-out to many.  I bought several of his books on a remainder table in a Soho bookstore for a buck each.  They were signed, which John Waters said made them so cheap—Andy signed so many things that his unsigned stuff was worth more than the signed.

I worked with Chris Stein and Debbie Harry—and many others– on the movie, “Downtown 81,” which was mostly a documentary about the downtown underground “no wave,” music scene which sprouted from the angry, apocalyptic near-bankrupt NYC where 3-card Monty dealers and window-washing bums ruled the dirty streets, and the burned out and abandoned South Bronx appeared to be the vision of the future.

Graffiti was the hot new art form, so had to be in the artiest movie of the time.  I didn’t pay much attention to it.  I wasn’t an art collector.  I had bought a few things from Baltimore artists in the Waters crowd, not as an art investor, but because they were close to starving, and I had a steady job.

Jean-Michel Basquiat was the star of Downtown 81, because he was a tireless tagger of the New York landscape with his notorious “SAMO” which was sprayed in white on countless downtown structures and vehicles.  It was cheap publicity, and gained him notoriety, that  held some promise of publicity for the no-budget no-wave movie producers.

I was in the art world, and it was interesting to see how it worked—and still does work.  I bought a painting from Basquiat after his nearly continual hounding me to be a customer.  He thought I was a rich man because I had a loft in Soho (small and rented cheap through a friend), and owned expensive movie equipment.  He wasn’t dumb.  He knew that rich people were the ones who bought art, and should be cultivated.  His art was primitive, nearly on a kindergarten level if you were unkind.  Several on the movie crew had bought paintings, not from love of his talent, but to get him off their backs.  To me, Jean-Michel was a greater piece of work than his paintings, and promised that if he would just get off my back, when the movie was over, I’d bring my wife up to his place and buy something.

Chris Stein and Debbie Harry fervently promoted Basquiat.  They had bought many of his works, but a successful artist needs more than one patron, and at the time they were not big, rich stars like Mick Jagger and John Lennon.  They encouraged me to add to my meager collection, if only for an investment.  They confided they were working on big uptown names, because the key to an artist’s success was simply to get rich and famous people to buy their work.  Nothing else mattered.  You could have the crappiest gallery and the worst reviews, but if Halston or Elizabeth Taylor bought one of your works, you were platinum.  Those were the kinds of people Chris and Debbie were working on.  It was a different level from me, but in the meantime, a couple hundred bucks would help keep Jean-Michel off the streets, and his fire burning.

When the movie finished, my wife and I visited Basquiat’s tiny, cluttered apartment off Houston Street.  I only wanted the painting which was in the movie.  He was reluctant to sell, but I was spending 100 hard-earned dollars, which would probably be $1,000 today, and I had little hope of ever seeing a return.  Carrying it home, I was embarrassed that someone might think I had painted it, not to mention what they’d think knowing I’d paid the equivalent of $1,000 for it.

Soon after, Jean-Michel was scooped up by Andy Warhol as a young prodigy, and through Andy’s uptown connections he skyrocketed.  At his first Soho show, I was astounded to see that Jean-Michel’s paintings sold for $2,500, less than six months after I had paid $100 for mine.  I’d never made such a smart investment, and vowed to hold onto it forever.

I moved 5 or 6 times in that period, and always trucked the painting along, mainly as a souvenir of the time and place, and figuring it might be worth a couple thousand dollars too.   It was a painting/collage dotted with scraps of crayon-streaked paper stuck on while the original paint was drying.  Occasionally they’d fall off and I’d randomly paste them back on with Elmer’s glue.

When the work was, to my great surprise, appraised for $10,000, I insured it, but in the tough economic times of the late ‘80s, I felt it had reached its max value.  The downtown Manhattan art scene was being replaced by yuppies, and Jean-Michel was no longer the critics’ or upper Westsider’s darling.  I was also in financial hot water at the time, and decided to sell the painting through Sotheby’s in New York.  It sold for close to $10,000 and after commission I netted $7,500.  It got me out of debt, and my credit cards re-instated.  It was a pretty slick exit from Low Budget Hell.  Or so I thought.

A portion of Jean-Michel's painting that I bought and sold-- too early, alas.

A few weeks ago, the AP ran a story that a Basquiat similar to mine was valued at $6 million.  I choked on my oatmeal.  So un- fathomable, but it’s repeated in the art world every day.  I look at my old friend and colleague, John Waters’ simple doctored prints of photographs that sell for $11,000 each.  Is the value in the work, or in what a few wealthy (some say crazy) people and friends can afford to risk?  Will Waters’ work be worth millions in thirty years?  Probably.  Considering who his friends are, if I had 11 grand to spare, I’d buy one tomorrow.

“Farrah Fawcett” by John Waters (1 of 8 prints) asking price $11,000 from ArtBrokerage.com

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.

Video from “Love Letter to Edie, Director’s Cut DVD” – Robert Maier’s Additional Comments 25 Years Later

Love Letter to Edie was made in 1975 right after meeting John Waters and working on the crew of “Female Trouble.”  I added a fifteen minute bonus commentary in 2001.  This clip is an excerpt from that.  The DVD of the original “Love Letter to Edie” and the commentary is only available on e-Bay.

Click to view on YouTube.

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.

 

How I Nearly Burned Down Edgar Allan Poe’s House

In celebration of Halloween, here is a nice Low Budget Hell Story.

Front facade of the Baltimore home of Edgar Allan PoeFilm crews can be pretty careless about others’ personal property when working on location.  For them, it’s here today and gone tomorrow, and if they leave a place a little worse for the wear, well they paid a fee, and that’s how it goes.  But as experts in illusion, they can usually cover their whoopsies pretty well.

Around 1980, I worked on a film about Baltimore’s celebrated 18th century African-American astronomer, Benjamin Banneker.  One of the locations, in an old section of Baltimore, was the Poe House, where the hapless poet had lived for several years as he bounced between Richmond, Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore.  His grave was less than a mile away.

The curator was rightly very nervous about our using the historic and invaluable site, but they needed the hefty location fee to keep the doors open (the Poe house is in one of Baltimore’s bleakest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods, and people were afraid to go there).  He laid down specific ground rules of no food, no drinks, no smoking, which we absolutely swore we would follow.  Around noon the curator left to go to lunch, and said if we went to lunch, leave someone there to guard the place.

After finishing our shots, we went out to lunch, figuring we’d wrap up when we returned.  We forgot to leave a guard, but at least locked the door behind us.  A half-hour later, we returned, opened the door, and found the house full of smoke.  In a panic, we ran upstairs which was even thicker with smoke, and saw one of the hot movie lights had been left on under the lintel of a doorway.  It was smoking the paint off and charring the wood black.

No water was upstairs, but we had brought back bottles of soda.  We shook them up, and sprayed  about a gallon on the red-glowing, smoking wood, like fire extinguishers, soaking it and half the room creating billowing clouds of Pepsi steam to add to the smoke.

The art crew quickly started mopping up the mess, and brought a can of white paint to “dress” the still-steaming lintel.  Through the window, I saw the curator walking up the sidewalk.  I pulled out my pack of cigarettes, gave one to each crew member, then told them to sit at the bottom of the stairs, smoke up a storm, and sip their sodas— but whatever, don’t let the curator upstairs.

The curator opened the door and shrieked as the smoke hit him in the face.  Enraged, he pulled the lounging crew out of the house and dressed them down on the sidewalk.  Hadn’t he expressly told them no smoking and no drinking in the house?  Were they morons?  Idiots?  Had they no respect for anything?  Everyone apologized profusely, and we opened the windows to air the house out.  By the time the curator had calmed, the art department had finished their clean-up, including freshly painting the lintel, still quite warm to the touch.  We quickly packed and left.

We never ever heard back from the curator.  In the dim upstairs light, I guess he didn’t notice the damage, though at least an inch of the doorway had been charred or chipped away.  In the end, I suppose it looked like any other well-used 150 year-old Baltimore row house.  We had only added to Poe’s many mysteries.  Archeologists a hundred years from now, scratching away at the old house will perhaps wonder why a doorway, of all things, would suddenly catch fire.  Ghosts? Poe himself, in a moment of madness?  Perhaps.

In a sign of the economic times The Poe House was de-funded from the Baltimore City budget.  It may close, but people are working to save it.

Save The Poe House

Read more 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 other booksellers around the world.