Monday, December 25, 2023

2023 and me

Sometimes at this point of the year, I get super-introspective. But this time out I'm tabling the philosophising for a different day. I reckon you can find plenty of deep thoughts elsewhere on the internet machine right now - too many at this moment it seems - thus if you came here, you really wanted only to immerse deeply in cultural arcana.

Call it shop talk, call it inside baseball, call it compulsive wonkery, but this is what I do better than.

All year long, I've been asked what I'm up to. And there have been two projects that I've thrown the bulk of my time and energy on. I was already hip deep in these two projects last year as well. I'm sure everyone has heard of how the business of the show is a "Hurry up and wait" process, and yes, I've had several instances of scrambling to get a task done, and then waiting seemingly months for the results. All the while, there's factors beyond that keep slowing things down. And after you've told your parents the same "to be determined" story for the fourth time, yeah, it's confounding.

Thankfully, at least one of these is out of my hands, and within a few months, can be in yours.

Over 20 years after she passed away in the shadows, 18 years after I first saw her sole feature film, and 8 years after I became her de facto tubthumper, I am extremely proud and pleased to say that the late Christina Hornisher will finally receive some flowers, as her long-hard-to-see artsploitation drama HOLLYWOOD 90028 will come to BluRay, its first official U.S. physical media release. And that I will have my contributions all over it, including a painstakingly revised essay on her career and my journey retracing it. The trust, counseling, support, and respect I've received from Bob Murawski and David Szulkin at Grindhouse Releasing, Heidi Honeycutt and Etheria Film Festival, the surviving cast who spoke on the record, and the people who loved Tina, has been rewarding. And seeing the film itself, in advance of this BluRay edition, get screened over the last year and a half to a sell-out house at New Beverly, and to charged reception in international festival settings, tells me that betting on this longshot was the right choice. There's no street date yet, but my Impulse tells me you'll be able to have it in your hands by Spring.

Meanwhile, I cannot as yet disclose what I am specifically working on for Jonathan Hertzberg and his terrific Fun City Editions label. I can say that after years of correspondence that began from our mutual movie blogging, where we geeked out on the same minutiae of movie presentation most take for granted, it's been a thrill to engage with him in the elevated and significant manner that I have since he first launched the brand. I've been combing libraries, archives, collectors, and other less-visited venues, all in the name of creating a singular cinemanic experience in the home theater, and maybe beyond there as well. When you ultimately see what I've helped produce, I suspect when I ask you "how'm I doin'," you'll reply in the affirmative. Meanwhile, buy all the FCE BluRays. Especially Michael Ritchie's SMILE.

For the first time in ages, I am in the position to offer all the adjacent movie pick perks that became sadly sporadic in recent years. That's always a plus for me.

Not just a standard Jury Prize, but also, in a sense, a Justice Deferred Now Achieved Prize, goes to Jason Rutherford's epic sprawling chronicle of exploitation filmmaking MASTERS OF THE GRIND. I was involved as a talking head and filmed my material a decade and a half before, and at least one interview subject I brought to the project (who, unfortunately, did not make the cut) has since gone to the celestial green room. Indeed several of the people you hear from in this film have left us, filmmakers and actors that, even in the geek revolution of zines and DVD commentaries, never got the chance to expound at length as they received in this documentary, and having their testimony captured for posterity is important. Four hours may seem excessive to devote to the rise, decline, and extended wake for grindhouse auteurs, but ya know what, you could say the same thing for Ken Burns devoting 18 hours to baseball; if you're into the subject, the time commitment will be worth it.

And the covertly-coveted Runaway Jury Prize I gleefully confer upon Timothy Scott Bogart's biopic of his father Neil Bogart, SPINNING GOLD. Maybe a better filmmaker with a bigger budget could have made a more dignified and well-rounded history of the maverick producer who shepherded three record labels and several iconic singers. But when you've got a a master of chutzpah and self-promotion as your topic, is that what you really want? Or do you want to get a high octane taste of how he would tell his own life's story? No money for needle-drops? Fuck it! Actors who look nothing like the legendary artists they're portraying? Fuck it! Green screen work that looks cheaper than yr mom? Fuck it! SPINNING GOLD is the Bogart children giving their dad a victory lap, and as Bobby Heenan said, bragging isn't bragging when you can do it. And harp on its many flaws, with good reason, but I had way more fun watching this than I did with BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY or ROCKETMAN. 

Ten Worthwhile Films Nobody Saw But Me
The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster
Cobweb (the Samuel Bodin one, not the Kim Jee-woon one...yet)
Earth Mama
Of An Age
The Outwaters
Polite Society
Rye Lane
Saturn Bowling
The Unknown Country
When Evil Lurks

And seeing as you sat through all the self-promotion and the hot takes (and thank you for that), it's time to deliver the goods: the Top 13 of 2023:


12. MUTT












This year's requiem goes not to a person, instead to a place. One of several places that, while valued solely as a patch of land by speculators, were treasured points of convergence for families, lovers, and loners, all of whom owned a set of wheels, a lot of free time after sunset, and a love of watching dreams flicker in the moonlight.

“[There are] people that come from outside of the city to see the drive-in theater. They don’t come to see warehouses…There should be families smiling and making memories on that property.¨
- Robert Wilkiewicz, Pomona resident, to Montclair High School student

- Mission Tiki Drive-In, May 28, 1956 - January 22, 2023

Thursday, November 9, 2023

“They’re the Same Picture”: Patronization, Prosopagnosia, and THE PHOTOGRAPHER

In 2009, a pseudonymous author and private investigator using the moniker Phaedra Starling first coined a now ubiquitous and often contentious term: “Schroedinger’s Rapist.” Modeled on the now familiar thought experiment of how, if presented with a cat inside a windowless box, until that box is opened, the cat may be considered simultaneously both alive and dead, the essay asserted that in the present day, in the dominant patriarchal structure of society, a woman dealing with a man, be he a stranger or a longtime presence in their life, they are always left with that question, and “The only way we know for sure-the only way the box can be opened, as it were-is if the man proves himself a rapist by committing a rape, either against us or against someone else.”

William Byron Hillman had likely never thought deeply about any concepts tied to Erwin Schroedinger or what we now call “toxic masculinity” when he wrote, produced, and directed his second feature film, THE PHOTOGRAPHER, in 1974. but he got a decent head start on how to depict it. Though in modern interviews Hillman has retconned his film to be read as an intentional dark comedy, and some of the choices its leading star makes in his portrayal would probably arouse astounded snorts in modern audiences, there are still points made about men’s perception of women that are no laughing matter.

THE PHOTOGRAPHER initially unfolds with a familiar structure drawn from Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM: Adrian Wilde (Michael Callan), an outwardly avuncular photographer claiming to specialize in animal portraits and layouts for mystery magazines, is consistently murdering the models he hires, many times in the actual manner of the crimes he’s ostensibly re-enacting. He lives in disillusioned bitterness with his alcoholic mother (Barbara Nichols), whom he still blames for a childhood incident where a one-night-stand she slept with attempted to choke him, a somewhat stronger scenario than the lazy Freudianism of most serial killer movies of the ‘70s pithily summed up by comedian Robert Holmes: “Anything that is longer than it is a penis. And anything that is not a penis, is your mother.” Even in settings when he’s not intending to kill, such as photographing a rare schnauzer, his mania kicks in when the dog’s owner asks him to shoot glamour photos of her, and all he can see is the pathetic visage of his parent. Like the Andy Summers lyric, every woman he meets up with becomes his mother in the end. He has enough self-awareness to attempt reaching out to a friend to confess his crimes, and to rant at God for allowing him to live. Cosmically, it will be an almost contrived act of God that will finally end his killing spree.

All of this kind of grim material seems like an odd 180 turn from a writer/producer/director whose career has leaned more often to family-friendly comedy (though wildly, THE PHOTOGRAPHER still carries an unaccompanied-minors-friendly PG rating). The former actor, stuntman, and animal trainer made his trifecta debut with THE MAN FROM CLOVER GROVE, shot in 1972, a slapstick fantasy about a rural toymaker (Ron Masak) whose creations spark confrontations with local police and corporate intrigue. As he described in a blog post from February 2018, “Back in the 70's when young filmmakers made motorcycle, horror and T&A flicks, I did the opposite and made a G rated goofy comedy...It's corny fun the kids loved then and still love today.” And after making THE PHOTOGRAPHER and such detours as writing the 1984 teen sex comedy LOVELINES and collaborating with David Heavener on the 1990 revenge-o-matic drama RAGIN’ CAJUN, along with other unproduced projects alluded to on the history page at his website, since 1998, Hillman has stuck almost entirely to kid-friendly fare as THE ADVENTURES OF RAGTIME and QUIGLEY, though he does carry a producer-only credit on an upcoming “psychological thriller” by Chuck Borden, PURGATORIUM. Reflecting on his career in October 2013, he remarked, “While I have produced and directed R rated projects that did exceedingly well at the box office and later on home video, all have disappeared from distribution after a few years and you can’t find a copy to rent anywhere...The G rated films I have produced and directed are still in distribution, and all of them have returned more in residuals than all the other projects I have done combined.”

Entertainment industry news clippings of the time tell of a long process of bringing THE PHOTOGRAPHER to the screen. It was first announced in July 1972 as the second project of Intro-Media Productions, the company created by Hillman with career camera operator William E. Hines, following CLOVER GROVE, and was initially planned to reunite the stars of that film, Ron Masak and Cheryl Miller, with a script credited to Hines, to begin shooting in November of that year. In January 1973, Hillman was announced as director, with an intention to begin shooting in February, with announcements that GROVE actors Spencer Milligan and Jed Allan would be in the cast. Almost no news followed on the project the rest of the year, likely due to Intro-Media focusing on the sale of CLOVER GROVE to new distributor American Cinema, who would later release the Chuck Norris films GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK and THE OCTAGON, and promoting it in regional markets. When Michael Callan and Barbara Nichols were announced as the new leads in January 1974, and that shooting would begin in San Francisco on the 11th of that month, Hillman was now listed as writer and director with Hines’ name no longer mentioned, suggesting a significant change in the script from what had originally been conceived. Production wrapped on April 27th. On October 21st, it was announced that Avco Embassy had picked up distribution rights, and it first opened in a quiet test engagement in Spokane, Washington, on December 6th.

image courtesy of William Byron Hillman

From piecing together snatches from various interviews, once underway, the shoot offered some challenges. In a 2017 BluRay commentary interview with Joe Rubin of the Vinegar Syndrome label, he stated, “When we made THE PHOTOGRAPHER we had a [pending] deal with Avco Embassy, and Avco Embassy didn’t want us to do something outlandish. They didn’t want nudity, they didn’t want real slasher kind of violence...Originally we had some more outlandish scenes planned, and they were all pulled. And we made it kind of a mellow version [of] a thriller...a lighthearted version of [a serial killer’s story].” In a pair of summer 2014 Facebook posts, he said, “Directing Michael Callan was a bit strange. He was taking the role seriously, thinking about killing Barbara Nichols...Calming him down was like offering a virtual Xanax...Directing them was like trying to keep up with who could tell the best story, remember their lines and when ‘ACTION’ was shouted - go right back into character. One minute we were laughing hysterically and then next talking about murder.” In Richard Koper’s biography THAT KIND OF WOMAN: THE LIFE AND CAREER OF BARBARA NICHOLS, he recounted, “She was starting to slide into bad habits...She snuck drinks onto the set after promising not to...[But she] promised she would never miss a line or be late and she wasn’t...Bottom line, I loved working with her.”

Callan’s opening scenes as Wilde would not initially seem 100% sinister to audiences in the mid-70s, though they unfold like a parade of red flags to a present-day viewer. His demeanor and gravelly voice comes across, as Conchata Ferrell would say in NETWORK, “crusty but benign,” and until the moments when he inevitably snaps, he seems no different than any other jaded professional. Only in the presence of his mother, imminent victims, and with God, does he openly display his full-strength rage. The actor had established himself as a versatile song-and-dance man, playing Riff in the original Broadway cast of WEST SIDE STORY. During his years as a contract player at Columbia Pictures, while occasionally playing a bad boy in films as THE VICTORS, was mostly cast as likeable handsome types, serving as man candy for Deborah Walley in GIDGET GOES HAWAIIAN and Jane Fonda in CAT BALLOU, culminating in a one-season sitcom, “OCCASIONAL WIFE,” playing a bachelor faking marriage to a co-worker so that both may advance in their company. This was his first headlining film role as an all-out heel, shot before the name Ted Bundy became famous, so while it is now a cliché for serial killer tales to have almost all female victims be attracted to their predator, it doesn’t play implausibly here. If anything, it carries the comic veneer that Hillman suggests was in effect, especially since in most occasions, he actively resists the overtures of his victims, tentatively parodying the cliché before it became one.

Meanwhile, the other men orbiting around this situation offer little positive contrast, especially in regards to their view of women; the low bar what separates them from Wilde is that, well, they aren’t actively murdering anyone. Wilde’s best friend Clinton (Spencer Milligan) has been secretly sleeping with his pal’s hated mother, fences stolen goods through his pal’s photography studio, and at one point selfishly asks him for a hookup to the wealthy wife of a jeweler, unaware that Wilde killed her earlier on. Lt. Luther (Harold J. Stone) and Sgt. Sid (Edward Andrews), the homicide detectives who find some of his victims, at first dismiss them as suicides, runaways, and hookers, failing to connect the dots, and spending almost more time grousing about their own diets. Even the ostensible heroic coroner Joe (Jed Allan), who finds the pattern between the killings and alerts the detectives, is way more focused on his exotic cooking, which he conducts in the morgue itself, thus literally treating the human remains of violent crime like so much meat in his personal kitchen. While never approaching the bleak misanthropic nihilism of, say, Abel Ferrara’s MS. 45, the microcosm of men Hillman presents here are not an inspiring lot. Accepting Hillman’s framing of his story as a dark comedy, one of its rueful punchlines is how the cops’ discovery of Wilde’s souvenirs of his killings – the photographs – deliver more shock and emotional impact to them than the actual dead bodies of the women at the crime scene. But then, when they were shooting this film, Paul Simon was all over Top 40 radio proclaiming, “Everything looks worse in black and white.”

image courtesy of William Byron Hillman

The actors playing these supporting characters hew to the archetypes they’d previously established elsewhere. Milligan and Allan had both previously acted in CLOVER GROVE, and are essentially playing the same kinds of roles here, Milligan as a useless associate of the protagonist, Allan as a kooky but wise misfit who sees the bigger picture. The presentation of Stone and Andrews as the detectives is very much in line personality-wise with several types they had essayed before: Stone as grave, respected authority figures, and Andrews as petty bureaucrats. Notably, they both played such roles in episodes of “THE TWILIGHT ZONE;” Andrews as an unctuous colleague in “Third from the Sun” and Stone as an FAA inspector with a big unsolved case in “The Arrival.” Stone also played an otherwise competent detective unable to identify a unique murder weapon in an episode of “ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS” directed by Hitchcock himself, “Lamb to the Slaughter.”

What is particularly striking is the uncanny manner that Callan, Milligan, and Allan all...sort of look alike! When Clinton first shows up to have a nooner with Wilde’s mother, he can almost be mistaken for a blood relative, and when they are shown bowling together, you’d almost think they’re brothers, with Clinton having a wider face and a more slovenly demeanor. And while Joe the coroner easily stands out from the rest of the cops at the precinct by his youth and tight curly hair, he too has the same sort of face structure as Wilde. The result of Hillman’s casting, in tandem with the behavior of these three characters as respectively Chaotic Evil, Neutral, and Good, creates an environment where, if their mugshots were presented to a witness, they could end up second-guessing themselves, or, in the manner of the infamous meme from “THE OFFICE,” declare they’re all the same person.

And here, whether Hillman intended it or not (and if he intended it, was it for chuckles or for creeps), is where he unexpectedly lays out a “Schroedinger’s Rapist” scenario and becomes a soothsayer of women’s conundrums to come. Again, maybe a modern viewer calloused by decades of crimes, culture, and snark, may dismiss Wilde’s victims as the typical naive prey of a slasher flick, but for their realm of knowledge in the story’s setting, they cannot be immediately certain of his intentions until he acts on them, and they’ve been socialized to give him the benefit of the doubt, a deadly miscalculation. Concurrently, Clinton conducts himself like the sleazy opportunist that he is, and while he’s ultimately not a killer like Wilde, the winsome waitress at the bowling alley, Candy (Patty Bodeen) has seen enough of his antics to keep him at bay, making a judgment call that keeps her safe in the short run, though her repeated outreach to Wilde suggests she too is giving him more slack than is wise. It’s a Hobson’s choice she navigates every time she goes to work. It’s doubtful Hillman ever fancied himself some sort of sensitive new age guy – his first credit as a producer, ODDLY COUPLED aka BETTA BETTA, has a logline so offensive even he won’t describe it on his own website resume – but by creating a milleu where, as a woman, you’re marginally safer with a con artist than a real artist, and if you do lose your life to either of them, the police’s first instinct is to ask what you did to cause it, and the man in charge of diagnosing your demise is doing that job in between cooking lessons, he has lain out why all these years later, women can’t often safely distinguish which man is a threat and which is not.

The question of whether this indistinguishability was intentional or not grows curiouser upon watching Hillman & Callan’s 1982 return to the life of Adrian Wilde, DOUBLE EXPOSURE. In present day interviews, Hillman describes the film an an origin story or prequel to the events of THE PHOTOGRAPHER, though it more effectively serves as a retconning of the character, since there is little to no mention of Wilde’s despised mother or the incident from the previous film that scarred him, DOUBLE EXPOSURE takes away one family member, but provides Wilde with an actual brother, B.J. (James Stacy), a stuntman adapting to the loss of an arm and a leg, a role specifically written for the real-life double amputee actor. And while again, the movie presents a spate of model murders investigated by comically ill-equipped (but this time less condescending) detectives, in this tale there is reason to question whether or not Wilde is responsible for the killings. Overall, it is a more straightforward and less peculiar production than THE PHOTOGRAPHER, but by giving Wilde a direct blood relation that bears resemblance to him and with whom there’s mutual affection, Hillman still plays a “can you tell these men apart, really” game.

It’s also within reason to contemplate whether Hillman’s screenplay had been influenced in any way by one of the film’s executive producers, another actor-turned-filmmaker, John Hayes, a struggling playwright who took the occasional acting role in wholesome fare as Disney’s THE SHAGGY D.A., but created films that were anything but family friendly. Writer Stephen Thrower, in his deeply researched history book of exploitation filmmaking NIGHTMARE USA, wrote of Hayes, “What’s striking about [his] career trajectory is the way that he returns, time and time again, to the experiences of his childhood, revisiting familial traumas in a variety of settings, from melodrama to horror to hardcore.” And Adrian Wilde’s grudge with his mother lines up thematically with similar instances of horrid parenting in Hayes’ films MAMA’S DIRTY GIRLS, DREAM NO EVIL, and GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE. In his talk with Joe Rubin on the commentary track for DOUBLE EXPOSURE, Hillman suggests he does not need outside inspiration, saying “I don’t want to copy anybody. I hope I don’t ever do that. Everything I try to do is original...Everything is macabre [and] I have my own sick mind.” Still, his and Hayes’ collective antagonists could easily form their own bowling team.

THE PHOTOGRAPHER has been a difficult film to see from the moment it was released. It took nearly three years for it to make it’s journey to cinema audiences. After a brief release in upper northwest cities in December 1974 through early January 1975, Avco Embassy sat on the film for a long spell, then made another attempt with a new ad campaign in the Tri-State region of Ohio/Indiana/Kentucky from January to February 1977. Neither push drew good reception from the few critics that deigned to review it. During it’s pre-Christmas 1974 run in Spokane, Washington, Spokesman-Review critic Joan Applegate threw ridiculously cruel darts at Michael Callan’s entire career, sneering, “Callan thinks he is going to make a comeback to filmdom and takes his role all too seriously. For those who might remember the face or name, Callan has starred in such celluloid greats as THE INTERNS and BECAUSE THEY’RE YOUNG. Neither strained his talent, nor does his latest effort.” When it arrived in Cincinnati in late January 1977, Cincinnati Post critic Jerry Stein snarked, “Hillman’s idea of portraying a psychotic is having star Michael Callan grunt, growl, and clench his fists. Too bad ‘King Kong’ already has been cast.” Even with its PG rating, the subject matter must have proven too disturbing for television, as no network, cable, or syndicated airings can be readily found after it left cinemas. And aside from a quiet VHS release on Embassy’s Charter sub-label in 1987, it has been out of circulation since. By comparison, it’s “requel” DOUBLE EXPOSURE received a more muscular release from Crown International, its VHS release was promoted strongly by Vestron Video, and has received several DVD and BluRay releases to the present day.

Luckily, Grindhouse Releasing co-founder Sage Stallone saw the film, and became a long and vocal champion of it during his ascent as a trusted authority on exploitation films. He ultimately elevated his support to the strongest degree by acquiring the rights to it after Embassy Pictures’ initial deal with Hillman expired, planning an ambitious revival for it. Sadly, he had not yet achieved his hopes of giving it a significant reissue when he unexpectedly died in 2012. But his actions have made sure the elements are safe and preserved, and Grindhouse continues to have it on their slate of upcoming restorations.

It’s been nearly 50 years since the filming and release of THE PHOTOGRAPHER. What was surprising and transgressive to ‘70s audiences has significantly changed. The predatory threat of unhinged men violating women, and the prevalent dismissive attitudes of men on woman after violation, has not. It may not make Hillman a prophet or a feminist, but it demonstrates that the instincts he brought to his film were correct. As such, it’s also what makes it inherently watchable both as a time capsule and a time-released warning to the present day.

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