Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Save the Pleasant Hill Dome Theater! - a cautionary tale

Update, May 8th, 2013: The fuckfaces at SyWest Development tore down the Dome Theater this morning. Had we a few days more, we could have raised enough to take them to court. As it is, I'll make sure to never shop at their incoming Dick's Sporting Goods in Pleasant Hill ever. I'll add it to my list of businesses who move in and make the world a crappier place (Chick-fil-A in Walnut Creek—you're on that list too).

That's right: Pleasant Hill's gateway cinema, the one you see when driving on 680 that tells you, "Hey, guess what? You're in Pleasant Hill!" will now be a two-story, lit-up DICK'S sign. Just so you know where you're at.

Update, May 7th, 2013: Well, we didn't think we would win. After three hours of public comment that ended at 2 a.m., the appeal lost by a vote of 3-2. Mayor Michael G. Harris and Councilmember Ken Carlson sided with our appeal. The Mayor in particular cited the development plan as disappointing and not what the city originally signed off on ten years ago before the recession put it under a blanket stuffed with apathy, greed, and short-sightedness. What next? We'll see.

I just want to commend everyone who came to speak or submitted letters and speeches for others to read. The outpouring of encouragement and help has been a heartening experience. I've met some amazing people who have saved historic theaters across the land. They lost a few too. It's this whole thing: saving old movie theaters. It's a calling. It's, dare I say, almost spiritual. That's the power of film and architecture, my friends. Don't ever forget it, next time you find yourself sitting in an ancient film cathedral, feeling wonderfully overwhelmed by the experience.

Any little donations help at this point. You can do so at Save The Dome and we'll put the money to excellent use. People have been so generous. I'll never forget these thoughtful, giving people.

Oh my goodness. I've been so busy lately. I haven't had time for regular life at all. Our beloved Dome Theater, the one that was built in 1967, the one that I grew up, watching many a movie on its curved 70mm-capable screen, the one with the giant domed ceiling, like a wood-beamed spider-web: that one. It's going to be demolished to make way for a two-story 70,000 square-foot Dick's Sporting Goods store. It's a NIGHTMARE come true!

I'm working with an excellent group of movie crusaders: Save the Pleasant Hill Dome. We are working so hard on this crazy, crazy-making process. Our appeal goes before the city council on Monday, May 6th. If you're in town, be sure to STOP BY Pleasant Hill City Hall at 7 pm. Why would you be strolling down Pleasant Hill's outdoor-mall downtown area on a warm, Monday night, thinking about 60s-era sci-fi architecture? Why wouldn't you be?! You got something better to do?

What made the Dome even more special is that for the past six years or so, it's been showing independent and foreign films—you know—art films. And it wasn't suffering either. People love their art films around here. And they love their dome.

photo by Nick Bever
Don't be left out! Visit our functional Web site: savethedome.org. You can donate, you can marvel, you can be informed. This is one of the last functioning dome theaters. There's some in San Jose but it looks like they're about to become a shopping center as well. That leaves the Hollywood Cinerama Dome—that was a battle to save as well.


This is a no-brainer. How many cities have dome theaters? Almost zero now. This Dome was showing movies for 46 years, all the way up until April 21st when its owner, SyWest Development, shut it down. It has a big, beautiful screen, an excellent sound-system and acoustics and seating for 900 of your closest friends in a tiered roundabout that lets you know: movies are big and beautiful. I'm working on it. This is my cathedral.

Last night?

Monday, April 22, 2013

DeZurik Sisters - Lady Yodelers of Yore, plus bonus Wanda Jackson yodel

In his Oxford American article, "The DeZurik Sisters - Two Farm Girls Who Yodeled Their Way to the Grand Ole Opry," John Biguenet describes American yodeling during the period when the U.S. became an industrial nation, as "the perfect music to serve as threshold between a world that had already begun to disappear and the one that would replace it." He aptly describes the quavering yodel as "between" music—between word and sound, voice and instrument, man and woman, despair and exultation, adult and child, human and animal, civilization and nature. It's a perfect description of the almost indescribable.

Whatever your opinions on yodeling, you must admit that when expertly done, it's a form of vocal gymnastics that boggles the mind. And it's strangely soothing. Perhaps its origins, rooted in animal calls among farmers and herding folk, lie close to something deep inside that ties us to nature, as well as to the nature of language itself. I am in the mood for some yodeling now!

The DeZurik Sisters - Old Dan Tucker. The DeZuriks were sometimes billed as The Cackle Sisters, because they would integrate hen-clucking, among other animal sounds, in their music. That's how they did it down on the farm. According to Biguenet, they learned to sing at the family homestead in Minnesota by imitating the animals and birds therein.

Now that you've a taste of the DeZurik Sisters, you'll definitely want to hear their ode to yodeling, Arizona Yodeler.

A rare live-for-television performance of Hillbilly Bill on the "The Old American Barn Dance Show," 1953. (Only for the right speaker—pre-mono mono sound.)

Wanda Jackson - Cowboy Yodel. The cowboy in question has an annoying habit of yodeling while making love. By the 50s, yodeling is definitely not agrarian in scope anymore. And is there anything Wanda Jackson can't do?

Friday, April 12, 2013

Movies You May Have Missed - "Return to Oz" 1985

Everyone flocking to The Great and Powerful Oz this year may have caught some serious Oz fever. If that's the case, check out Return to Oz, the darkest children's film of all time. No, it doesn't star a questionable heartthrob like James Franco, but it does feature the more compelling acting chops of 9-year-old Fairuza Balk, as an innocent but game-for-anything Dorothy.

Marketed as a sequel to MGM's classic Wizard of Oz (46 years in the making!), this film tanked at the box office, but picked up followers when it was released on video. I myself avoided it for nearly three decades, thinking it looked creepy and morose. Also, I was not young enough when it was released to see it in theaters. Lucky me! An overly imaginative child, I would have been thoroughly scarred by the experience. Especially after having watched Judy Garland's Dorothy every year since I was conscious of doing so. I would have found this film too spooky to count as a true Oz experience.

But I have come to the conclusion that although I'll always love Garland's lovely performance and voice, Balk is the more credible Dorothy. Only an actual child, and not a teen made up as a child, could truly believe in the fantastic creatures and situations in this strange, twisted alternative universe. It's a fantasy world that continues to reflect fearful adult doings as well as mundane existence down on the farm. First and last-time director, Walter Murch, digs deep, creating a horror-fairytale hybrid that audiences weren't able to cope with in 1984. But like its obvious influence, The Night of the Hunter (from another one-shot director, Richard Laughton), it's going where no other children's film has gone.

Based on two Oz books ("The Marvelous Land of Oz, "Ozma of Oz"), there's enough rich visual Oz lore here for multiple viewings. I never read the series—as a library-addicted child, I was caught up in Middle Earth, Earthsea and Prydain. And in a way, MGM made Oz uncool, with all the singing, dancing, and pink-clad munchkins. But you don't need to read the books to watch this film—just know that it features multiple new characters and that the holy trio of Scarecrow, Tinman and Cowardly Lion are bumped down to cameos. It's for the best. The puppets of these former Oz stars are not very compelling, and in the case of the Scarecrow—nearly terrifying. This was due to budget constraints and it probably alienated a lot of fans who were looking for continuing characters. This includes Toto, who's replaced by Billina, a no-nonsense talking chicken with practical Midwestern values. I like Billina. She adds balance to the bad trip going on all around her.

Murch, an accomplished editor (Apocalypse Now, Godfather Part II, The English Patient), knows how to wow with scenery and tension. Much of Return to Oz is meant to be suspenseful. And much of it hinges on Balk's performance. Although this version makes Oz an actual place and not a dream, with its own reality, it's still very much an escape from Dorothy's lonely life of toil on the farm with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. Characters repeat themselves from her conscious life to her fantasy world, as in the MGM film, in frightening, genuinely threatening ways. She meets adversity with the wide-eyed openness of childhood, simply thinking of solutions in dream-logic fashion while comforting her flailing companions with a maternal, "It can't be helped!" philosophy. Pretty complex.

What follows will spoil the movie for you if you've never seen it. So if you plan on it, turn away now! Otherwise, let's revisit the genuine freakishness that is Return to Oz.

Nothing opens a children's film like a visit to the insane asylum! After her bout with the tornado, Dorothy suffers from acute insomnia and she keeps going on about this Oz place. So Aunt Em, who's already dealing with PTSD-suffering Uncle Henry, and who could really use more help around the farm, brings Dorothy to a questionable hospital for a cure. Dr. Worley uses newfangled electricity to rid his patients of their delusions. He soothes Dorothy in a fatherly tone, assuring her that his magical machine won't hurt. Not at all.

Aunt Em is not entirely convinced.

Still, she leaves Dorothy for the night with the very cold Nurse Wilson, who advices Dorothy to "take a nap" in her cell-like room. Look at those bat-like sleeves.

Dorothy has found a key marked OZ and she's receiving visits, through reflective surfaces, from a sad girl with a British accent who wants to help her. But she is at the moment, abandoned by her family. Haunting.

"Would you like to go for a walk, Dorothy?" Yikes.

The dank hallways and fitzing overhead lights of a gurney-trip to the laboratory while strapped down aren't scary enough, so Murch makes sure we see Dorothy about to receive electroshock treatment. All kinds of wrong here.

I like Jean March's body language. Dorothy will travel by flash flood this time around.

A reference to Night of the Hunter, another horror-fairytale hybrid, now considered a favorite classic film among many.

Something is very wrong with Oz infrastructure. Just look at this yellow brick road. It gets worse.

Welcome to the Emerald City!

It's been pointed out by fans that Fairuza Balk's line readings are quite lyrical in nature, referencing Judy Garland's mellifluous tones. I like how she asks questions and wonders aloud throughout the film. She was and is a very sharp actress with a lot of presence who I wish worked more in the mainstream. What is a wheeler anyway?

Sorry I asked.

With the Emerald City seemingly overrun by crystal-meth addicts, Dorothy turns to Princess Mombi for answers. The wardrobe wing of Mombi's  new-money cokehead palace may surprise you.

Jesus Christ!

Thank God for my favorite new friend of Dorothy, Tik-Tok, voiced in a militaristic Belgium-like accent by Sean Barrett, and made mobile by a gymnast who was placed upside-down and backwards in the costume, walking on his hands with his feet curled overhead. I told you this was part horror film. Tik-Tok is very funny and endearing though, as the "army of Oz" who experiences paralysis and dementia without a proper winding-up.

Jack Pumpkinhead on the other hand, is terrifying to behold and keeps telling Dorothy he's not even supposed to be alive. Tall and skeletal, he doesn't look like anything that should be alive, so that's in keeping with the laws of physics. He's voiced very gently by Brian Henson. Otherwise, he would be too scary to be a friend. I admit that one of the reasons I stayed away from this film were the posters featuring Jack Pumpkinhead.

Nicol Williamson, last seen as Dr. Worley, returns to the scene as the Nome King. He's fatherly and threatening all at once. A great performance.

The Nome King is every insane, power-mad authority figure you've ever been up against. Dorothy quickly finds out there's no reasoning with him and no hope of fair treatment. Children will understand this situation very well.

All you can do is try not to make him mad, but ultimately, he always gets mad.

If your kid has managed to make it this far into the movie without a nervous breakdown, they're home free. Things quickly start coming together, due to the Nome King's insatiable covetous nature. A lesson for hoarders, with great animation too.

Balk passed out during the big ceremony scene, which was filmed on a soundstage with hundreds of extras in 100+-degree heat. She does look a little sweaty and peaked here. But check out the Scarecrow with his immobile expression—Mary, Mother of God. He moves like a floppy creature as well, just to make him even creepier. A missed opportunity, since Dorothy's entire quest is based on saving him.

Jean Marsh as Mombi, ladies and gentlemen...

Partings are once again sweet sorrow, even for Ozma, Queen of Oz. A melancholy and intensely dark adventure, but childhood can be like that sometimes.


Monday, April 08, 2013

Roger Ebert, Les Blank - Two of Cinema's Good Ones

We just lost two good souls of filmmaking, Roger Ebert and Les Blank. One, famous, one, not as much. Both were influential to film fans and filmmakers alike. Roger Ebert accomplished much in his 70 years. Critic, journalist, author, screenwriter, TV personality, and recently, after he lost his voice to the cancer that ravaged him, twitter-user extraordinaire.

Throughout the 70s, I watched him banter with and discuss movies with the late Gene Siskel on their popular TV show, Sneak Previews. Their passion for films, along with my Mom's old-movie-watching habit, most likely steered me toward filmmaking. Siskel and Ebert made it look easy—talking about film merits and flaws. But anyone who's discussed movies with friends knows it can get boring fast. They always kept it lively, engaging, and thoughtful. It was a show dedicated to their viewers. They wanted you to see good films. They wanted you to avoid the bad ones. That was thoughtful of them.

I didn't know much about Ebert personally from his TV career. His movie reviews were syndicated in our local newspaper on occasion, but his wacky past (he infamously wrote the screenplay for Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a seriously bad but cultish exploitation film) should have clued me in. Not until I read Charles Bukowski's novel, Hollywood—about the making of the movie, Barfly—did I get a window into the kind of person Ebert was.

Here's Bukowski, not known for his effusive praise when it came to characterizing humanity, describing his stand-in for Ebert, Rick Talbot, in Hollywood (Ebert's account of this meeting is well worth the read):

"I don't think I've ever had such a good time on a set," said Rick Talbot. ..."It's a feel in the air. Sometimes with low budget films you get that feel, that carnival feel. It's here. But I feel it more here than I ever have..." 

He meant it. His eyes sparkled, he smiled with real joy. 

...I loved Rick's lack of sophistication. That took guts, when you were on top, to say that you enjoyed what you did, that you were having fun while you did it. ...He was a wonderful and innocent man.

These simple, straightforward words stayed with me over the years. That a film critic could be a wonderful and innocent man—I didn't know such a thing was possible. When I started following Ebert on Twitter, I was so impressed with his passion for information, for human rights, for art and for writing, of course. Above all, for his kindness, which is impossible to fake over time. It bubbles out of a person again and again when it's real. He loved life, appreciated what he had, even through his terrible illness, which he faced with grace and spirit. I knew him through his generous writing and I'll miss him.

Les Blank is someone you should know about, if you don't already. He lived in Berkeley, so I got to see a lot of his documentaries over the years. He visited my film department at SFSU on a regular basis, especially to screen new work, and he always stayed afterwards for discussions. He was another generous, big-hearted person who was shy around strangers and dedicated to the joy of creation.

He's most famous for his collaborations with film maverick Werner Herzog, but you should check out his prolific documentary career covering his numerous obsessions, including American roots music, food, and gap-teethed women—the stuff that makes life great.

The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists, 1995 - Blank's tribute to Gerald Gaxiola, who lives to create art.

Innocents Abroad, 1991 - Travel to ten European countries with 40 American tourists in ten days. Blank is the ultimate tour guide.

Gap-Toothed Women, 1987 - Apparently Blank once had a crush on a gap-toothed neighbor. Then he made this delightful film.

Burden of Dreams
, 1982 - The documentary on the making of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. Here are some Herzog quotes to put in your memory hopper.

God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance - Hippies, dancing at the Love-in in 1967!

Dizzie Gillespie, 1965 - enjoy.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

I'm on vacation, writing poetry, and riding a monorail for good measure

Whilst traveling through the Northwest, I'm on a wee computer vacation as well. But I'm attempting to write a poem a day for National Poetry Month and something called NaPoWriMo, which is basically writing a poem a day, the Internet way.

If you're partial to poetry, and who isn't, link on over to my other blog, Your Daily Tree, and celebrate the beauty of words, images and whatever else comes along through my brain. Currently, I'm focusing on my Northwest trip, so Crater Lake, waterfalls, and Dorris, California have gotten mentions. AS IT SHOULD BE.

Happy Spring Break, all.