Saturday, January 14, 2023

It Was Just Out of Reach

In a sense, Patricia Russell was well-suited to a creative life because her early years were already chronicled in public. She and her sister Susan Hudson Russell were ersatz Akron, Ohio celebrities, granddaughters of M.M. Kindig, a lifelong president of the Burger Iron Company, whose parents John & Ruth were frequently in the society pages until their untimely deaths in 1966 and 1968, respectively. Their births, notable public appearances, and the loss of their parents were reported in the local papers. Susan became both a collector of art and a consultant to others investing in purchasing it, working during the '70s at the NEA. Patricia in turn obtained a B.S. in psychology and dramatic arts from University of Wisconsin, and was seeking acting roles for a decade until switching to directing, receiving a Master's degree from NYU in 1973. Both sisters had entered marriages in their early adulthood that proved short-lived, and even their activities post-divorce were given column space.

During her time at NYU, Russell made a short film geared for the educational market, SALLY, about a 13-year-old facing the vagaries of puberty: getting taunted by older girls (including her sister), uncomfortable health classes, and learning about her own body. Film historian and Trailers From Hell contributor Glenn Erickson described it in 2003 as, "This is the keeper...[starring] a phenomenally sympathetic actress named Irene Arranga....[this very] effective film would surely reach girls in the right way." Arranga would later touch TV viewers in the last season of the sitcom "WELCOME BACK KOTTER" as Arnold Horshack's girlfriend Mary, whom he would wed in the series finale. SALLY took an unsually long time to reach the market, being serviced to schools in 1979, and according to chroniclers of educational films, was little screened to the very audience it was geared for, due to teachers and other authorities displeased with the ambiguous and non-judgmental tone of the story. 

(If SALLY does not play already cued upon your click, go to 1:57:23 in this YouTube file)

Russell's vivid feelings about her brief marriage provided the foundation for her sole feature film, REACHING OUT. It is a loosely autobiographical story of a young wife with ambitions beyond homemaking that are treated condescendingly, who grows discontent with being regarded as a trophy for her social climbing husband, especially after she catches him cheating on her. She leaves him to move to Greenwich Village, where she must navigate the satisfaction of following her acting dream with the dangers of being a single women, including an attempted rape. Mixing funds raised from supportive investors with the remains of an inheritance from her grandfather, she amassed $500,000 and began shooting the film in 1974 over the span of two and half years. Then after completion, she spent another two years trying to get it shown. She was able to enter it into the first Utah/U.S. Film Festival in Salt Lake City, later to be known as Sundance, in September 1978, where it was in competition with Claudia Weill's GIRLFRIENDS, Penny Allen's PROPERTY, Mark Rappaport's LOCAL COLOR. George A. Romero's MARTIN, Martha Coolidge's NOT A PRETTY PICTURE, and Paul Mazursky's NEXT STOP GREENWICH VILLAGE.

Most fatefully, it also put her in the orbit of Austin, Texas filmmaker Eagle Pennell.

"Eagle Pennell was politely called a regional filmmaker by those unaccustomed to his kind, and like many in his native Texas, he had an outsized impression of his own identity that ultimately destroyed him. In 1978, when A-list Hollywood was made up of veterans of Roger Corman’s shoestring epics, and everyone else in America with dreams to burn now worked for Corman to replace them, the first inklings of what we now think of as independent film came courtesy of people who were too clueless or inept to follow that simple protocol. One of them was Eagle, whose shaggy dog buddy comedy THE WHOLE SHOOTIN' MATCH pioneered that Austin-specific sort of epic underachieverdom that SLACKER later turned into an anthropological treatise. But Eagle’s laconic dreamers, drunk as a lord and impossibly balanced on the thin line that separates ambition from nostalgia, were more than just literary conceits. They were Eagle in a nutshell."  - Paul Cullum, "A Tribute to Eagle Pennell", Arthur Magazine, October 2002 

Pennell had conceived THE WHOLE SHOOTIN' MATCH from reworked elements of a previous short film, HELL OF A NOTE, and with collaboration from neophyte writer/producer Lin Sutherland, shot it for approximately $30,000 with friends and favors through 1977. It drew enough positive attention from its play at the USA Film Festival in Dallas that it was acquired by New Line Cinema, then known more for foreign and arthouse films than for the horror classics that made them world-famous in the '80s. But its most significant elevation came when the film drew the attention of Robert Redford, who as the primary muscle behind the nascent Sundance festival, felt Pennell was the kind of under-the-radar talent whom such an event could nurture and promote. THE WHOLE SHOOTIN' MATCH would be touted in 1981 by Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert on their original "SNEAK PREVIEWS" review show on PBS as an independent to watch, in an episode that also featured John Sayles' RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN, Richard Pearce's HEARTLAND, Anna Thomas' THE HAUNTING OF M, and Victor Nunez' GAL YOUNG 'UN.

As recounted by author Alison Macor in her book CHAINSAWS, SLACKERS, AND SPY KIDS: THIRTY YEARS OF FILMMAKING IN AUSTIN, TEXAS, Pennell's film had won a "special second prize" from the Utah judges (First Prize went to Claudia Weill's GIRLFRIENDS), and at a post-ceremony after-party, amidst engaging in the kind of braggadocious antics that would become his trademark, Pennell and Russell became more than friends that evening. Russell spent the following year of 1979 attending more festivals and one-off screenings with REACHING OUT, plus four-walling an April test release in Austin, with a goal to secure it a distribution deal. At least once, she traveled in tandem with Pennell and SHOOTIN' MATCH: they were both programmed at the first Independent Feature Film Market in September 1979, along with their previous U.S. Festival rivals PROPERTY and NOT A PRETTY PICTURE. While never mentioning his name in subsequent interviews of the time, she acknowledged that she had recently become an unexpected mother, and was planning to write her next script about that experience. Meanwhile, Pennell, to the best of available research, never mentioned her name in any documented fashion, but did sit for a photo in 1980, taken by his photographer friend Ard Hesselink in Venice Beach, in the company of Russell and their son. As Hesselink observed when he posted the photo to his website and Flickr accounts after Pennell's death, he described their child having been conceived "more or less by accident," and after moving out of America, maintained contact with Pennell, but learned no further information about Russell or their son. It is likely the parents ceased any pretense of being a couple shortly after this photograph was taken.

image courtesy of Ard Hesselink

Despite collecting good reviews from both Hollywood royalty as Robert Wise and respected indie pioneers as Robert M. Young, along with praise from Stephen Farber and Roger Ebert, by the '80s,  Russell still had not found a willing distributor, and ultimately paid out of pocket to open REACHING OUT in New York City in May 1983. It was not received well. An absurdly hateful review in the New York Daily News called it "shameless Me Generation indulgence." And the ostensibly polite Janet Maslin of The New York Times seemed personally offended, as she dismissed it as a "lifeless, amateurish chronicle" and described her character as a "not very sympathetic young woman" and "a whiny, self-pitying victim." Talking to the White Plains Journal News a year later, Russell remarked, "The morning the review came out was like a funeral at my ad agency. They all knew it was the kiss of death to an independent film. I kept hoping the audience would still come, but a week later, I was given a four-day notice by the theater owner, breaking our contract." Aside from some initial cable TV airings after the NYC run, a placement as the only American film at the 1985 San Sebastian International Film Festival in Spain, and a revival presentation at the 1993 IFFM which put it in concert with newer independents as diverse as Haile Gerima's SANKOFA and Kevin Smith's CLERKS, REACHING OUT would not play commercially in any further cities, enter TV syndication, or be issued on any physical media. And while she made some later attempts, she would not direct another feature film after.

Pennell's trajectory after his interlude with Russell delivered a more prolific body of work, but also delivered more difficulties and tragic results that, as even his closest friends would admit, were caused by his own hand. He had earned a development deal with Universal that brought him to Hollywood for two years, but he reportedly did nothing under their aegis but fuck around and find out, He returned to Austin and made another film on a shoestring budget, LAST NIGHT AT THE ALAMO, that was also greeted with critical acclaim - Janet Maslin called it "a ribald and faintly mournful chronicle" and glowingly described how all its characters "all join in cursing, drinking, carousing and otherwise preparing themselves for imminent disaster." Though it also got a substantial expansion from respected distributor Cinecom, it didn't propel him much further than SHOOTIN' MATCH had. After a poor experience directing ICE HOUSE, a vanity project for actor Bo Brinkman and his then-wife Melissa Gilbert, he made two more micro-budgeted films, HEART FULL OF SOUL and DOC'S FULL SERVICE, that did not win the praise or attention of his previous influential features, nor any sort of constructive theatrical play. Amidst this slump, he was descending further into alcoholism and erratic behavior. He became frequently homeless and itinerant, attempting sobriety to little progress, and getting assistance from a dwindling body of enablers. Pennell died in Houston, Texas, a week before what would have been his 50th birthday, on July 21, 2002.

Patricia Russell significantly altered the priority of her life from being an artist (though she was still writing scripts and attending screenings in Los Angeles) to being an advocate for enlightened and humane treatment of mental health in society. Her motivation came from observing her son by Pennell - who, though regularly publicly named in newspaper interviews and on her Facebook posts, will not be identified here to respect his privacy - struggling with the similar troubles of mood swings and substance abuse that his father was notorious for. In a 2007 website profile she wrote for the Ventura County branch of NAMI, she elaborated:

I don’t know what my life would be like today if I had not found out about NAMI in 2001. A friend of mine, who knew the roller coaster in hell I had been on dealing with my son’s co-occurring disorders of addiction and Bipolar disorder, told me that I should take NAMI’s Family to Family class. I took his advice and was transformed by the experience! 

I learned about his disorders, possible medications, treatment, etc. but most importantly I learned how to become an advocate for my son. I became a fighter to get my son the services he needed to literally survive! I attended the care and share meetings and gained strength and hope from the acceptance and understanding I received. If it wasn’t for our group’s leader, who was there for my son and me during many life-endangering crises, I honestly believe that the outcome would have been different. There are miracles that occur when like-minded loving people come together to be of service. This is what NAMI does.

Last year I became a NAMI Board member because I want to give back. My life work has been in the film industry as an independent filmmaker. I believe in telling stories that inspire the audience. I have been fortunate to be involved with incredibly talented people as a producer. I also have made my own films, including a feature film called REACHING OUT. I taught myself digital filmmaking and editing because I believe that this gives us the opportunity to tell these stories. I produced a 17-minute video of the first NAMI Walk in 2006, and I’m editing NAMI Walk 2007.

My son, after seven years of crisis after crisis, has been stable for nine months, holds a job, takes classes, has a sponsor, is part of a spiritual community and is pursuing his dreams. I can’t say enough about NAMI!

Her NAMI activities yielded her an award for "Family Mental Health Advocate of the Year" by the Los Angeles Mental Health Commission, and served under former Los Angeles D.A. Jackie Lacey on her Criminal Justice Project workgroup for three years, leading to the creation of diversion programs being made available for people who have committed low-level crimes in lieu of incarceration. The sole occasion where REACHING OUT was publicly screened in the noughts was presented by the DMH Service Area Two for "May is Mental Health Awareness Month," held at the Harmony Gold screening room on June 15, 2018.

The only readily available public comment Russell made about Pennell after their breakup was posted on June 12, 2012, as a comment on the Arthur Magazine website reprise of Paul Cullum's elegy for the artist. She wrote:

"This piece on Eagle really captures him. I’m feeling many emotions. This is brilliant writing. I met Eagle at the US Film Festival in 1978. Eagle is the father of my 33 year old son...My son has so much of Eagle in him. Currently he is in the Hospital. The last time my son and I saw him was in 1987. He came to visit [and] gave him a basketball. I took a photo of them." 


In a 180° switch from having her birth and childhood reported by the local press, Patricia Russell died on December 2, 2021 in mostly quiet anonymity; while there were Facebook posts from her friends about the passing, no published obituary or registered resting place has been found in my research. In the ten years that she maintained a Facebook account, she never mentioned Pennell in any fashion, but constantly wrote loving and positive updates about their son, posting photos of him looking content and the spitting image of his father. He does not use social media, so his current whereabouts are not known: fates willing, he is healing and healthy and adjusting to living life without his devoted mother.

Facebook photo, posted December 25, 2020

While Russell's lack of acknowledgement of Pennell can be understood and accepted as personal reticence, the near-silence about Russell from the community of friends and film writers who have kept Pennell's life and career in discussion disturbingly feels like wholesale erasure. She was never mentioned in Paul Cullum's essay. She was never mentioned by The Austin Chronicle in any of the testimonies gathered when the publication eulogized him. For a particularly stark example, the 2008 documentary THE KING OF TEXAS, directed by Pennell's nephew René Pinnell, provides an ostensibly thorough warts-and-all portrait of the filmmaker, talking to family members, actors, writers, and others about his life. Several examples of his cartoonishly cavalier antics are brought up, including one particularly icky incident at his 1983 wedding involving his new sister-in-law. It makes a laudable effort to not engage in easy hagiography about its subject. However, neither Patricia Russell, or the son Eagle fathered with her, are ever mentioned. 

I could understand that perhaps in the matter of Patricia, since their relationship was brief and he probably never talked it up much, many of the interviewees hadn't any good anecdotes or insights about her to share - maybe some didn't know about her at all. However, according to the aforementioned historian Alison Macor, Russell did keep in contact with the rest of the Pinnell family, so they would have known about her, and, importantly, the child of his she raised. And I'll go a step further and be willing to consider that Eagle's relatives maybe wanted to not bring too much unwanted attention to a private individual who had little contact with his father. But not even acknowledging that he had a son to begin put it in Texas parlance, that's an omission as serious as the business end of a .45. Since this documentary ultimately exists to pitch the artistic worth of Eagle Pennell to new generations, an impression is left that its producers felt the unfamiliar viewer could sit still for a man bent on self-destruction with a pattern of treating women and collaborators shabbily, but not cotton to a deadbeat dad. 

For what it's worth, though not identified, Patricia can be seen briefly in the film, in this photograph shown during the segment on the production of THE WHOLE SHOOTIN' MATCH.

Chuck Pinnell, Eagle Pennell, Patricia Russell, and Lin Sutherland
(image from René Pinnell's THE KING OF TEXAS)

I am not here to call out Eagle Pennell, pass some moral judgment on him, or devalue his body of work. There are plenty of artists with regrettable life choices in their personal ledger whose creations I find vital and worth preserving and sharing. I have never seen any of Pennell's films. And I have never seen Patricia Russell's REACHING OUT. As such, divorced from any truthful way of arguing whether any of these movies achieve or fail at their intended message, let us simply contemplate the following. Pennell, as memorialized by the very people who loved him and preserve his legacy, wasted several opportunities, burned bridges, and yet still was able to rustle up the means to create several films to be remembered by. Whereas Russell, who did start out with some more advantages that Pennell (and probably better people skills), and for a short interval stood on an equal footing with him as an independent filmmaker to watch, only got one grasp at the Big Brass Ring. And that opportunity was cut short by bad reviews for her film...from one engagement in one city. And despite her best efforts, could not rally the kind of interest her former partner commanded to mount another production. All the while, having the additional burden of taking care of the largest mess that he, as a lifelong mess-maker, left behind. We will never know if Russell could have been the Camille Claudel to Pennell's Auguste Rodin. What we do know is he got multiple second chances, and she barely got a first.

The ideal adjustment to balance this particular inequity would be to pull REACHING OUT from the limbo it sits in, and for an innovative film programmer, physical media label, or streaming platform (or hey, why not all of the above) to assist in getting it back into circulation, so it can be appraised by a larger and more thoughtful body of viewers than it found on its previous too-brief release. I am hoping either her son or extended family, as part of her estate, have seen fit to keep the elements safe. Perhaps it will be better received. Or maybe it will still be met with a shrug, Either way, Pennell's CV will still have the higher profile, but maybe those films he made after his time with Russell could be analyzed with a new and interesting context. 

Writing at length about a woman you never met, who directed a movie you never saw, to elevate her to an audience you don't know even exists, well, that's kind of a fool's errand. But then, this is the story of a woman who found herself effectively bound for life with someone who, in the parlance of Neil Diamond, was a fool who dreamt of being a king, and after an ignominious death, became one. Why shouldn't she have another fool like myself acting on her behalf?

Facebook photo, posted July 28, 2019

Patricia Ann Russell

June 10, 1943 – December 2, 2021

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Qui êtes-vous, 2022?

Ostensibly, 2022 presented me to the world as a man of leisure, if not yet of influence. I am in the happy position of not having to do a damned thing that I don't care to, at least not in anyone else's service. There are things I would have just as soon rather not done, such as the surprises left dormant by the previous occupant of my childhood home that I had to reckon with. But today, I can shrug, settle the matter, and move on comfortably. That is a luxury I did not have not so long ago, and I am a lucky man to be in this state of being, especially when far too many are not.

I would love to tell you about what particularly made 2022 a special year for me, but...'ll just have to trust me, it was really awesome.

I can talk about a smaller but respectively awesome event: after lobbying what seemed in vain for over a decade, I was able to witness my valued friend Philippe Mora saw his wonderfully eccentric and earnest 1983 film THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN INVINCIBLE - a film I've gone to the mat for going two decades - get the bells-and-whistles Blu-Ray edition it's deserved. And I had the honor of conducting a long-form, full-career interview with him that is among the bonus features on this release. I relish any opportunity to speak for posterity on physical media, and I've long wanted to contribute to the legacy of tremendous presentations that the Severin label is known for.

But in the immortally mangled words of the otherwise forgotten Jane & Goodman Ace, you have to take the bitter with the batter. And one of the harsh millstones of living past 50 is the rise in obits that affect you directly. There was way too much loss in my life. A high school crush died. Several artists I revered died. And two important friends in my regular life died.

Clu Gulager was one of the first people I grew up watching on TV who, when I made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles, I had the outstanding fortune to befriend. If you ever found yourself driving around Hollywood, or having a late snack at Canter's or Astro Burger, or catching a midnight movie, you likely crossed paths with him.

Native American
Gallant cowboy
Generous actor
Genial raconteur
Fearless artist
Innovative teacher
L.A. legend

In a properly spiritual world, every cinema should keep a front row seat empty for Clu Gulager, like having a seat for Elijah at the Passover seder.

When it often seemed like every physical media label had their own in-house version of me already to work on their special features, Bill Olsen gave me opportunity when nobody else wanted me, and I owe him. I've had a long, wild history with him and his Code Red Blu/DVD label, involving a lot of loud late night phone calls, effectively begging for his cinematic scraps to build my exposure, and having to helplessly watch him try to burn every bridge in the home video business. But as Harlan Ellison once observed, when you've been made an outcast, you are always angry. And Bill was, well, mostly known for his outbursts, living his life like a spite house. We would yell at each other, and a minute later be laughing at old inside jokes. He didn't have a lot of friends, so the fact that I kept his trust and he mostly had my back was important to us both. And as I got what precious few insights I could into his background, I think the only reciprocated love he ever had in his life was with the movies. 

Passings weren't limited to the corporeal realm. My house boiler died. My garage plumbing had been long dead, I learned too late, which led to some crazy winter flooding, which almost killed the car sitting inside it. That car died later last summer of unrelated engine issues. But again, when confronted, I mutter, then I laugh, then I fix the problem. 'tis what grown-ups do.

And after a' that, I went to the movies. A lot. And from there, comes The Top 13 of 2022.

13. (tie) X + PEARL



10. BROS







3. TÁR

2. RRR


"We need to laugh, we need to be scared, we need to hug our girl in the theater. It lightens the load of this crummy life."

"Those with obsessions never learn. Those with a compulsion to make films are fucked in the beginning, fucked in the middle, and fucked in the end. You can call it madness, you can call it being an artist, or you can call it ruining your life. But we have not learned one God-damned thing."

- Clu Gulager. November 16, 1928 – August 5, 2022

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

"Stay tuned...and keep the calls coming!"

A preface: The following essay will be detailing almost every major plot revelation in THE BLACK PHONE, as well as that from other well-known films by the same director. I don't personally believe that knowing all the details will ever hurt a first-time viewing of a movie if the story is good and the direction well-executed, and this particular film is less about its surprise revelations and more about how it reaches conclusion, but there is definitely a specific pleasure to be obtained from going into discovering a previously unviewed film with a blank slate. So use that information as you will...

Can you hear what I've been thinking
Do you hear my words out loud
Cause there's an echo that's insisting
That this here phone should ring about now
But when it does, it rings, no questions
Then when it don't, I wonder why
Maybe I'm somewhere you can't reach me
On this dark and lonely night

- Terry Reid, "Faith to Arise"

Writer/director Scott Derrickson has maintained a singular presence in a crowded field of auteurs, by delivering a consistent flow of entertaining films in the horror and fantasy genres, and more importantly, imbuing them with significant themes on and questions about believing in forces other than what's knowable in the corporeal realm. In a business where its most visible talent either cautiously avoid discussing religious practice, or cravenly make it their entire brand at the expense of any nuance, he frequently expounds unvarnished on his life as a Christian, from his conversion to Evangelical fundamentalism in youth, expanding into larger ecumenism in adulthood, and his present of, as he told the National Catholic Register, being more of a general mystic, but carrying a rosary and a G.K. Chesterton book almost all the time. And in full disclosure, I have enjoyed congenial correspondence with the artist for several years, and had the privilege of securing him to introduce one of my series of "Cinema Tremens" screenings in 2014.

There have been two dominant collaborators in Derrickson's filmography, each assisting in getting across ideas that have mattered to him. His first writing partner, Paul Harris Boardman, can be associated with his most overtly Christian-driven narratives - HELLRAISER: INFERNO, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, DELIVER US FROM EVIL, while his current writing partner, C. Robert Cargill, has helped steer the more general supernatural tales  - SINISTER, DOCTOR STRANGE, and their current hit film, THE BLACK PHONE. Barring the disawowed Pinhead installment (as a certain "SCTV" sketch might say, "Was this box in fact, HELL???"), all these films have conveyed Derrickson's concepts of morality and the varying degrees of what happens when it is compromised. 

While he recently stated to writer Walter Chaw, "I haven't made any movies with happy endings. They're always really bleak," in the opinion of this writer, it's not so much that they're unhappy or bleak, but they don't neatly wrap everything in the kind of clean finish that most films...and indeed, some branches of Christianity...often promise; there's a mess to be reckoned with after the credits roll. In the Christian stories written with Boardman, God's glory is served as demon possessions are thwarted, but one priest is found guilty of negligent homicide, a detective causes the death of his partner while his wife and child are traumatized by abduction, and nobody comes back from the netherworld. In the first two outings with Cargill, both protagonists - played by actors made up to bear a striking resemblance to Derrickson - give in to hubris, believing themselves smarter than the unknown forces they're investigating, and while one is completely consumed while the other survives, they both have facilitated the continuation of chaos they thought could be tamed. Sadly, on occasion this conundrum has bled into his real life: as he elaborated to Chaw, two years after the life-changing success of DOCTOR STRANGE, "my house burned down in [the Woodley] wildfire and my wife and I of many years separated and divorced very shortly after that. It was really hard, so hard..."

"[I] thought one day when I was depressed, you know when you’re real depressed and you see everything comes to nothing, well, I thought, maybe I ought to take a different approach, and write [something] that, instead of directed at people, would somehow musically induce God into giving us all a break, cause I was getting a little fed up by this point. So...I’d like to [give this to] you in the hope that you’ll get a break.”

- Judee Sill, introduction to "The Donor" for the BBC, 1972

THE BLACK PHONE, Derrickson's newest release, again co-scripted with Robert Cargill from the 2004 short story by Joe Hill, in principle continues exploring his favorite topics - folklore, cruelty, and faith - but takes several new approaches on their depiction. It is his first film that, barring its lead villain, focuses almost entirely on child protagonists. It is his first set in the past, rather than the present tense of his previous stories. There is supernatural activity, but all violence visited upon its characters are acts of free will by humans. And while it is unflinching in its dramatization of family abuse, bullying, psychological torture, and catatonic fear, it is the first Derrickson film that does not leave a mess behind to linger on; God has finally granted the hero a break.

In a Denver suburb during 1978, shy tweener kid Finney Blake (Mason Thames) and his brasher younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) endure steady beatings from a trio of bullies at school and from their anguished alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies) at home. They have heard accounts of a rumored local child abductor called The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), and his threat looms harder over them when two of Finney's schoolmates go missing. Gwen, in recounting dreams she has had about the kidnappings to others, describes details not disclosed to the public, which leads desperate police to interrogate her while having misgivings about her claims. Finney himself ultimately gets taken by The Grabber, and is imprisoned in a barren, soundproof basement. Already feeling mostly cowed by antagonists, he now faces his ultimate enemy - one who cannot be hidden from, deferred to, bargained with, tricked, or moved - and is almost resigned to the worst. Until an old, otherwise disconnected wall phone, regularly rings just for him, with the voices of previous Grabber victims instructing him on various ways of making an escape. Concurrently, Gwen, unaware of Finney's incidents, senses more details about the crimes, at times almost overlapping visions with him, and sets out to determine if what she's seen is real. But after all Finney's attempts have failed, and he recognizes his captor is ready to finish this grim charade, he'll need to tap into his own spirit rather than the ones beyond him. And Gwen must find order in the chaos of her manifestations - or else. All of these events taking place in a decade where, even today, one of the biggest questions taking place within was whether the children were growing up too fast. 

 Help me find my proper place

Help me in my weakness
'Cos I'm falling out of grace

- The Velvet Underground, "Jesus"

Going against his previous films whose stories frequently involve long-forgotten arcana about secret societies and deities, there is a brilliant and ruthless simplicity to THE BLACK PHONE in its near-lack of back story. There are references to trauma The Grabber himself was subject to in his childhood, and the suicide of the Blake family's mother when her own powers of prophesy became overwhelming, but they ultimately do not come into play; no digging through dusty books or microfiche, no ancient relics once lost now found. When Finney and Gwen have their flashes to the past moments of the missing boys, witnessing lives they did not otherwise know intimate details about, they are not so much finding clues as they are placing themselves in the shoes of the fallen, building empathy. At the core, this is a straightforward scary tale of survival where each moment matters *right now*, and in many cases, will unexpectedly matter later on. And as all the victims testify to losing memory of their names first, retaining only details of their confinement or their ties to the siblings, it is their job to remember for them to the living world.

Personal memory permeates this film more than perhaps any other Derrickson film and screenplay. Upon first reading Hill's minimalist tale, it became a personal mission for him to adapt it, telling SlashFilm's Jacob Hall, "I had thought about Joe's story for a long time, over 15 years I was trying to do it. And I had given it to my writing partner Cargill, and he loved it too...toward the end of working on the sequel to DOCTOR STRANGE and then stepping off of it, I had been in therapy for three years dealing with the traumatic nature of my own childhood, and just the violence that I experienced, and violence in my home and my neighborhood, the bullying, just the kind of place that I grew up. And I felt that I could take all of that and merge it with Joe's story, and have something really powerful. [The] most terrifying difficult scene to watch in the movie is the whipping, and that happened to me all the time as a kid, and a lot of other kids in my neighborhood. That was pretty standard for that time, for the late '70s. And so the idea, ultimately, of making a movie about childhood trauma and the resilience of children became — it's a horror film and a coming-of-age film."

Lest these details make the film sound unbearably grim, there is a frequent and therapeutic amount of levity throughout the story. There is warm and funny banter between the siblings and their friends, discussing such solemn topics as toughest kid in school rankings, who's the best TV heartthrob, or the better "forbidden" adult action movie to sneak a look at. Totems of the 70s are used sparingly but smartly, with darkly humorous moments as Finney watching William Castle's THE TINGLER (specifically, the scene when a mute woman is attacked by the creature, telegraphing his own impending imprisonment of silence), or when Robin's abduction is followed by a TV screen broadcasting "EMERGENCY!" And most surprisingly, Gwen's relationship to religion provides the most laughs, as she has clearly not had any actual church upbringing and is cobbling together her own ritual to speak to Jesus; when she feels she's been left adrift by God, whilst not descending to the rage of, say, Harvey Keitel in BAD LIEUTENANT, she has no qualms about expressing herself to the Great Infinite with several expletives...though she quickly apologizes just in case. Our heroes are dealing with ordeals on par with Job himself, but never lose their capacity for rueful amusement.

As befitting its period setting, in the best ways possible, THE BLACK PHONE unfolds and plays like a tight, efficient ABC Movie of the Week that its 1978 characters would be at home watching tonight. If Derrickson & Cargill's script had somehow traveled back in time to Fred Silverman's desk, it would have easily become a World Television Premiere directed by Curtis Harrington, starring Alfred Lutter, Quinn Cummings, and Richard Thomas as The Grabber. The premise of isolation and escape with a ticking clock amidst an outwardly uncaring world calls to mind not just horror classics as Jack Smight's 1972 THE SCREAMING WOMAN with Olivia de Havilland and THE LONGEST NIGHT with James Farentino, but even non-horror fare as Daryl Duke's 1975 A CRY FOR HELP, written by future "MURDER SHE WROTE" co-creator Peter S. Fischer, where Robert Culp plays a morning "shock jock" talk radio star who, after initially ridiculing a suicidal caller, changes course and desperately appeals to all his listeners to help track her down before she gives in to her depression. (All films produced, appropriately enough, by the studio behind this one, Universal.) In one powerful moment, Culp's DJ could just as easily be speaking for Gwen after her brother's kidnapping:

"There's a guy down at the police station - you heard him - who said that the girl can't be found. The word was can't. Well, I'll tell you what I think. Maybe we better get cracking. Not just me, but all of us, because...I guess she's one of us...and maybe we oughta take some responsibility for her." 

Hey, now, who really cares?
Hey, won't somebody listen
Let me say what's been on my mind
Can I bring it out to you
I need someone to talk to
And no one else will spare me the time

- Linda Perhacs, "Hey, Who Really Cares"

Indeed, the notion of being the proverbial brother's keeper is the recurrent thread through Finney's interactions with the voices of The Grabber's previous victims, all of whom, in their own ways, are children on the margins. Bruce Yasmada is Asian, Robin Arellano is Latino, mingling amiably with white kids in a time where racial integration in the suburbs is still a relatively new phenomenon. Billy Showalter, who bristles at hearing his name and prefers being called by his occupation "Paperboy," suggests a child thrust into the work force to sustain the household. Griffin Staggs is a proverbial lonely invisible kid - Finney says to him, "I didn't know you," and he replies, "Nobody did." And Vance Hopper, by contrast, is one of the meanest, most feared people in the neighborhood, almost a rival to The Grabber in tall tales around the playground, the kind of person who would actively not be missed. They have little in common beyond any of them not being considered one of the average boys in town, but in cold Kubrickian calculus, whatever their previous quarrels, they are all equal now. And in turn, it is now Finney's task to try every strategy they offer him to escape and expose their killer. He has already demonstrated an ability to grasp the circumstances of others, it is time to augment that with action. Because, as Robin reminds him, he is capable of withstanding pain without compromising his morals: "You were always afraid to throw a punch, but you knew how to take one." When he was alive, he warned him that some day he would have to stand up for himself, and in his posthumous counsel he proclaims, "Someday is today...Use what we gave you." In saving himself, he will also make sure the other boys are not forgotten, and that no other child in their town will be claimed either.

This is a sentiment that is right at home in the tradition of Roman Catholicism what has fascinated Derrickson for some time. Though almost completely eliminated in the present day, for centuries during the Sacrament of Confirmation, when a teenager stands before an archbishop and speaks for themselves the vows that a godparent previously took for them at Baptism, the bishop would in turn softly touch their cheek with their hand, to symbolize the potential conflicts ahead from adhering to those vows. And while post-Vatican II church teachings have attempted to de-escalate the fetishization of suffering, many Catholics, including myself, appreciate the base concept that in life, doing the right thing is often going to hurt, emotionally and physically, and many times, it will be an unrewarding endeavor. Finney gets a taste of this harsh truth when, upon trying to thank Vance for his escape hint, he screams back, "IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU, FUCKHEAD!" In his literal quest for survival, he accepts a crucial lesson about allyship, that some of the pain of conscientious behavior will involve being castigated by the very souls he seeks to help. With apologies to Eddie Izzard, being good won't guarantee you any fucking cake; at best, maybe a cracker on Sunday.

You've been sitting on your ass
Trying to find some grace
But you better save yourself
If you wanna see his face

- Chris Bell, "Better Save Yourself"

Derrickson, in his thoughtful interview with Chaw, expounded on the acceptance of pain in a life of faith, as opposed to the excessive positivity of, say, Prosperity Gospel purveyors. He states, "man, in that culture, you gotta be happy. You gotta be happy and everything's positive because that's the result of loving Jesus. That's proof. You wanna hear the Good News? Everything's great. You know, He saved me. Never mind the horrible and obvious shit I have pressed down into my gut, my life is wonderful. Everything is great. The idea of delving into darkness is in the Catholic tradition, but boy, it sure as shit is not in the Evangelical one. That's not healthy. It has no relationship with reality. There's kind of a no darkness allowed rule when it comes to that brand of American Christianity."

As Finney is the surrogate for Derrickson learning to transcend childhood trauma, Gwen is the surrogate for accepting mystery in the greater world. She is initially trepidatious at the prospect of psychic sight, having only a vague knowledge that her mother claimed to be able to "see things" before taking her own life, much like Ellie Taylor, the tender protagonist of Edgar Wright's equally scintillating 2021 thriller LAST NIGHT IN SOHO; to her, this gift has only yielded alternating bouts of abuse and angst from her father. But once her own brother goes missing, with practically all the adults around her proving to be nigh worthless for help, she's open to accept whatever God or her subconscious have to show her. She's wise enough to temper these mind flights within the reality of her environment, lest this become a Great Pumpkin-esque weight on her playground reputation, but as she bravely and alone follows the crumbs, she helps make a positive outcome possible; she's is willing to look where others have not thought to look, be it in that quiet house no is seen entering or leaving, or in her own self.

Reflecting back on Derrickson's assertion about his previous endings, any viewer will concur that this is the cleanest and happiest resolution of his films. In sober terms, it's not without some future ambiguities for its characters. Finney likely may find himself overcome by survivor's guilt as he grows older. His Big Man on Campus status will dissipate one day, and his old antagonists may feel bold enough to resume stirring his pot. He and Gwen may be in a honeymoon stage with their father now that they've emerged from this ordeal safe, but how long before a parental hand gets raised in a fit of pique again? But these matters will be dealt with later, if or when they happen. Today, *right now*, he has earned the right to express his wish to be called "Finn," and to be exempt from petty shit. He now has faith in his abilities to survive and assert himself. Gwen now has faith that the world has forces that will set things right. And these already loving siblings have blood proof they can rely on each other. Tonight, they're going to stay up past their bedtime, watch scary movies and eat ice cream, and enjoy childhood. 

Help your fellow man
Your cause is great and good
Your temple made of sand
No trace of where it stood
No, you can't be hurt
You're a golden child of God

- Emitt Rhodes, "Golden Child of God"

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Twenty-One Guns the Loot

It's a peculiar thing to be in my circumstance now, watching and shuddering over the pendulum swings that have affected peoples' lives in 2021, while I now exist on a comfortable keel. I spent so many years having to think three moves ahead while others could play in the moment; I'm still not 100% at ease with the turnabout. But while the world at large was not exactly conducive to engaging in large gambles, I want to think that in small degrees, I placed wagers on people who matter to me that will pay off later in the game, and I am grateful that I'm capable of that.

What I am most grateful and proud for, though, is the gamble someone took on me. B Peterson, before even reaching the age of 21, launched the ambitious The Screens Margins podcast network, creating shows for nurturing long, thorough discussions on the works of Wiseman, Fassbinder, and the offerings of, and within that mission, decided there was a place for me in the conversation. Together, we engaged on an exhaustive journey through the surviving works of Dorothy Arzner, culminating in a viewing marathon not seen since those Robbie Robertson and Martin Scorsese made famous, and even made a detour podcast to spend time kibitzing over flicks written by one of her friends, Zoe Akins. I had the gift of watching terrific hard-to-see gems, waxing thoughtfully on them, and most importantly, making a wonderful new friend. Oh yeah, and discovering Arzner's student Francis Ford Coppola has been brewing a rye in her honor. I'm eagerly awaiting more engagement with B and this bottle in the New Year.

For rash or for better, regular theatrical moviegoing, and a stream of features justifying the trip outside, returned to the fore, allowing me to allocate a Jury Prize this year. And this time, well, I have to declare a hung jury, in that there's a tie: 2 unique films that deserve a spotlight all their own, both tackling multiple ideas with aplomb. Nobuhiko Obayashi's 2019 LABYRINTH OF CINEMA, finally getting a stateside release this year, was a moving blend of hilarity, surreality, poignance, and righteous anger about art, Japan, war, propaganda, and the movies, the kind of final statement only the director of HOUSE and THE GIRL WHO LEAPT THROUGH TIME could pull off. And Kier-La Janisse's WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED was the mammoth documentary on the history and diversity of folk horror I didn't know I needed, and now cannot live without; not just a history of cool films, but of class, racism, upheaval, and hauntology. To again summon Scorsese's name, it stands alongside his A HISTORY OF AMERICAN MOVIES and MY VOYAGE TO ITALY as a one-stop epic primer for the self-educating cineaste. 

And while potent pandemics persist and performative politicians punt, we still find solace at the cinema. Thus The Top 13 of 2021.


12. ZOLA




8. PIG








It has been an unofficial and unfortunate trend to post a moving quote from a cultural figure I admired who passed away in the calendar year, both unexepectedly, and much too young. Seeing how this year had so many deaths brought about by an indifferent virus, that not only claimed titans, but who knows how many more nascent creators who never got their big break, I think this epigram from the past is an appropriate tribute:

"Nothing seems so tragic to one who is old as the death of one who is young, and this alone proves that life is a good thing." 

- Zoe Akins,  October 30, 1886 – October 29, 1958