Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Posthaste and Posthumous

There is something irresistable about the notion of finding and viewing a "lost" film, though nowadays the label gets bandied about so often as to carry no heft. What constitutes "lost" anymore? To some, it means that the film has always been around, just ignored upon it's first release. To others, it implies an unavailability that has been rectified. And really, you could say if you've never heard of it, it's "lost" to you. Nonetheless, part of the reason for this circumstance is because that damned adjective always gets your attention. And when it is properly applied to the category of a film that has never had any public screening previously, it works every single time, beckoning both casual viewer and hardcore cinemaniac alike. It's been the basis of novels like Tim Lucas' excellent THROAT SPROCKETS, and movies both acclaimed like BROKEN EMBRACES or infamous like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. There's inherent drama in the reality even if the finished product itself disappoints: a troubled production, a stolen negative, a warehouse fire, a worldwide hard target search - it's like getting two narratives for the price of one. And while we wait still for Peter Bogdonavich's promised reconstruction of Orson Welles' THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, and as Jerry Lewis will likely have the footage from THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED buried with him in Forest Lawn, I and other Los Angeles film fanatics have recently been able to finally view two productions that had been on the proverbial milk carton of Hollywood for decades, and with the help of progressive film bookers, they could appear in your city as well. While they couldn't be more different in terms of subject matter or target audience, they are united in their auteur's singular focus and devotion. And, sadly, the fact that neither of them are with us to enjoy their emergence.

Duke Mitchell would have already merited a decent-sized paragraph in Hollywood history solely through his short-lived teaming with comic Sammy Petrillo, which resulted in the infamous B&W quickie BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA and the apparently lifelong ire of Jerry Lewis, and for providing the singing voice for Fred Flintstone in multiple episodes of "THE FLINTSTONES" (one which initally featured the fingers-drawing-a-square gag repeated by Uma Thurman in PULP FICTION). But after seeing Francis Coppola's THE GODFATHER, and influenced by years of performing in nightclubs with criminal influence behind them, he decided to one-up the presiding Italian-American filmmaking hyphenate and single-handedly produce, write, direct, and star in a cheaper, shorter, punchier, and bloodier epic: MASSACRE MAFIA STYLE. In 1975, despite the fact that his first film had not yet received theatrical distribution, Duke and his friends set about making a followup with bigger ambitions.

Perhaps motivated by the changes and heated discussions emerging from Vatican II, or perhaps just surreptitiously stealing from espionage novelist Robert Ludlum's then-just-published comic caper book THE ROAD TO GANDOLFO, Mitchell again multitasked himself to tell a story of Three Wise Guys embarking on a most impossible kidnapping attempt. Shot under the title KISS THE RING, using short ends and borrowed locations, with no complete or organized script, it would gather dust and legend under the title GONE WITH THE POPE. Mitchell shot all that he could afford to shoot, and assembled some rough scenes together, but died in 1981 leaving it unfinished. Almost 15 years later, longtime Sam Raimi house editor (and partner in revival company Grindhouse Releasing with Sage Stallone) Bob Murawski sought out Mitchell's son Jeffrey after becoming a fast fan of MASSACRE MAFIA STYLE, and Jeffrey gave him all the elements for the otherwise-abandoned film. Stealing time away from high-profile jobs like editing the SPIDER-MAN trilogy, and working from notes scribbled on art pads and cocktail napkins, Murawski took another 15 years painstakingly contructing Mitchell's wild vision. And on Friday, March 12th, days after he and his wife won an Academy Award for editing the Best Picture winner THE HURT LOCKER, Bob Murawski, Jeffrey Mitchell, and assorted friends and family came to Hollywood Boulevard and presented the finished product to an excited house of exploitation lovers.
GONE WITH THE POPE is a strange and fascinating film that suggests Abel Ferrara and Martin Scorsese had a distaff uncle not quite ready to drop lounge music for punk rock. Playing like a geriatric predecessor to BOTTLE ROCKET, Mitchell is a contract killer who after a large whacking helps spring his longtime jailbird friends to join him on a deceptively leisurely boat trip to Italy. Once in international waters, he tells them the truth: using one of them as a double, they will abduct the Pope, and demand ransom of $1 from every living Catholic in the world. Naturally, the peaceful Pontiff patiently and politely humors his captors, as the bibically-named henchmen try to keep him comfortable, and Mitchell lets loose with a tirade on all the abuses and crimes of the Catholic Church that have angered him - no doubt inspired by his real-life years in show business among Jewish entertainers who lost family in the Holocaust and among influential Catholic mobsters who could kill their rivals and still go to Sunday services with no sense of guilt. It's a borderline shaggy-dog tale that is held together by the single-minded moxie of its creator, transcending camp and becoming a sincere cri de coeur. Anything this unique and personal is worth the wait to glimpse for oneself, and you have never seen another film like it, I assure you. (Trailer below is Not Safe For Work)

While Perry Henzell would certainly have been appalled at the violence and vinegar of Duke Mitchell's work, he was very much a kindred spirit united with him in their goal of self-expression. A white European born, raised, and ultimately buried in Jamaica, he was fiercely proud of his home country and its people, and looked upon filmmaking as an opportunity to counter what he felt was the inaccurate and patronizing portrayal in mainstream movies of his environment. His debut film THE HARDER THEY COME was the first film made in Jamaica by Jamaicans, introduced Jimmy Cliff and reggae music to an eager world, spawned one of the greatest soundtrack albums ever released, and is noted by critics/historians J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum in their book (and later documentary film) MIDNIGHT MOVIES as one of the six most influential cult films of all time. Its final images of a movie theatre audience watching the conclusion of the protagonist's story sent an important message to the world: We do not need your second-hand heroes and myths, we will make our own now.

While his debut was an insider's portrait of Jamaica, Henzell's follow-up NO PLACE LIKE HOME introduced outsiders into his ongoing narrative. Taking advantage of a U.S. commercial assignment, he integrated the participants (including P.J. Soles in one of her earliest film appearances) along with alumni from THE HARDER THEY COME into a half-scripted, half-improvised snapshot of the country in transition, as an American representative of the ad agency filming the (semi-)fake commercial takes a long trip through the cities, accompanied by a wily driver/small businessman and a politically-minded poet. The three of them witness vacationers from all over have just begun to discover the beauty of the country, and the natives are happy to cater to them and earn some money. However, it is clear that the natives are being muscled out by rich hoteliers, corrupt politicians, and heavy-handed militias and gangsters, and that soon the already large divide between the haves and have-nots is going to get even larger.
The production had to shut down and relaunch multiple times due to money troubles. When the East Coast warehouse where the footage was stored went bankrupt, the elements were seized and feared lost until a fan located most of it in the early half of the noughties and notified the family. By this time, Henzell had been diagnosed with cancer, and with the help of David Garonzik, they set about quickly reassembling the film, filling gaps in the surviving negative with dupe workprint material, newly shot cutaways, and some video material, to render it complete. Henzell was able to premiere it at the Toronto Film Festival in summer 2006, before succumbing to his cancer the following November, just before it was set to premiere at a festival in the original location of Negril.
Where POPE was lucky to have a team determined to finish on film and tweak all elements to make the presentation as clean as possible, HOME lacked the time and budget to do the same; the final film is only viewable in the digital realm, and visibly shows many flaws. But while most films' effectiveness can suffer from such technical problems like mismatched footage, bad sound, and print damage, in this film it practically enhances its raw beauty; there is a shot of a Pepsi truck that is clearly from the modern day that should not mesh with the '70's setting, but thematically, it makes perfect sense, because the message is the same, if not more obvious through the time leap, that big business is coming to stay. The lack of polish is overcome through the confidence and depth of the story within.

Grindhouse Releasing is aggressively promoting GONE WITH THE POPE, lining up midnight shows in many markets before its eventual DVD release with MASSACRE MAFIA STYLE. NO PLACE LIKE HOME is in a more difficult situation: its digital-only availability has limited the number of venues that can play it, and ongoing music clearance issues have interfered with any kind of home video release. But if there is a theatre or film society in your town with a sense of adventure, let them know these iconoclastic gems are waiting to light up their screen - and your consciousness.


  1. Excellent treatment of these two "lost" movies, Marc. I'm eager to see both.

    Speaking of Jamaica, a film whose DVD I worked on, Alan Greenberg's THE LAND OF LOOK BEHIND, that focused on the beginnings of reggae in Jamaica (and shot in Jamaica), recently returned to obscurity because of music rights issues.

  2. I was lucky enough to work on that DVD too. It was a real challenge to write a bio for Bob Marley that didn't sound like a rehash of material already published.

    I always wondered why that title became so instantly collectible while other Subversive releases seemed to still be plentiful. Makes perfect sense. Glad I snagged my copy. I don't know if anyone will have the patience or the deep pockets to make releasing it again viable.