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

Monday, November 22, 2021

"I believe you; thousands wouldn't."

A preface: The following essay will be detailing almost every major plot revelation in LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, as well as that from another well-known Italian thriller by  a name 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, 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...

It lay buried here, it lay deep inside me
It's so deep I don't think that I can speak about it
It could take me all of my life
But it would only take a moment to
Tell you what I'm feeling
But I don't know if I'm ready yet
You come walking into this room
Like you're walking into my arms

Longtime readers of this blog know from previous writings that I am openly and unashamedly in the tank (or should that be in the boot?) for Edgar Wright. There is the surface appeal, which is his genial cinemania, both on display in his films via creatively repurposed homage, and in his public profile, refusing to engage in cultural gatekeeping by politely observing that those who have never seen any of the canonized classics have the unique gift of seeing them with fresh eyes. But always beneath the playful visualizations, there has been serious reflection on the difficult moments faced in a life, usually involving taking responsibility for bad choices amidst increasingly calamitous circumstances. In a sense, he is the current master of delivering potent medicine inside the most delicious candy coatings.

Yet even by that metric, LAST NIGHT IN SOHO is a striking variation on the Wright template. There is still virtuoso composition at work, but with much more discipline than the comical quick cuts in his comedies. For that matter, while hardly bereft of levity, there's little comedy at all in this production, with those being Laugh Quietly To Myself rather than Laugh Out Loud incidents. There is allusion to influential works of the past, but most are not so direct as to be pointed to by Rick Dalton watching himself on TV. Notably, it is his first film with a female lead, who also happens to be his youngest as well. And for once, the protagonist is not faced with having to change and adapt, it is the environment around her that is shown to be mired in stasis.

Ellie Taylor (Thomasin McKenzie), in the tradition of several Wright heroes, is living with the loss of her mother, made particularly painful in that the parent took her own life, as opposed to dying in accidents as Baby Miles' in BABY DRIVER or Danny Butterman's in HOT FUZZ, or being dispatched after zombie infection as Shaun's in SHAUN OF THE DEAD. However, the girl regularly senses her presence in mirrors, a mixed gift which alternately gives the comfort of feeling the absent parent is witnessing her still but leaves her worrying if she too will succumb to the same emotional turmoil that drove that end-of-life decision. When she moves to Soho, and embarks on a path of dream-state journeys with her Swinging Sixties avatar Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), Ellie receives physical sensations of the experiences, driving her to investigate if they're based in real events. And after an initial run of piquant encounters, the increasingly bleak and violent turns of Sandie's circumstance bleeds into Ellie's waking consciousness too, making her sense threats around her even she's in no outwardly perceivable danger. Effectively, her concerns about subsuming her mother's psychosis have now been replaced by inheriting the mounting paranoia of a kindred spirit and fearing that she too will be consumed by that darkness. To paraphrase an otherwise tired cliche, once you've been struck down like a nail, everything that comes at you looks like a hammer.

In short, if there were a giallo-appropriate alternate title for this tale, it should be The Girl Who Felt Too Much. The same internal chemistry that buoys her when she listens to '60s Britpop is what inspires embarrassment when her mother's energy is present, making her lie to her grandmother about how recently she's had the sensations. When initially thrust into a a clique of Mean Girls, she can't just blow off their catty insults or ignore the noise they make; it's directly injurious. Yet in the deceptively quiet confines of the quaint bed-sit she moves to, in the absence of people and cacophony, she ingests the energy of lingering memories that only near the end, she realizes were indeed based in reality; the life of her outwardly taciturn landlady...Alexandra Collins (Diana Rigg). Like Ellie, she too had pendulum swings of elation and paralyzing fear, but somehow Ellie never realized that Sandie resolved that problem by killing everyone who threatened her...because that's when Sandie stopped feeling anything anymore.

If you can't tell your sister
If you can't tell a priest
'Cause it's so deep you don't think that you can speak about it
To anyone
And you tell it to your heart?
Can you find it in your heart
To let go of these feelings
Like a bell to a Southerly wind?
We could be like two strings beating
Speaking in sympathy

Different viewers have been gleaning different themes from the film, mostly about the dangers of the big city, or of romanticizing the past. But these readings seem facile. Yes, London may be an overwhelming place for a sensitive "country mouse" as Ellie, but as Gary King might attest, small towns are just as capable of callous behavior since they tend to be the kind of place where everyone knows your business and has an unsolicited opinion about it, regardless of whether or not they have been absorbed into a giant alien consciousness. While the nightmare sequences well demonstrate how the surface image of smashing birds cavorting on Carnaby St. disguised how many women's throats were under the heels of Beatle boots, the present day sequences involving a creepy cabbie, space invading male students, and indifferent police, make it clear that not only has the misogyny not gone away, it's even more blatantly out in the open. Even when retired vice squad punter Lindsay (Terence Stamp) is revealed to be roughly benign, he is hardly a model of chivalry: telling Sandie in the midst of her sex work that "you're better than this," without offering any sort of direct route to that mythical better opportunity, is not the compliment he thinks it is, and the condescending tone he takes in conversation with Ellie suggests his attitude toward women may not be malicious, but it's not nuanced either. And for a vulnerable girl in any incarnation of the city, getting people to take them seriously when they claim powerful men have abused them is often met with as much resistance and ridicule as, well, claiming to possess paranormal capabilities.

However, people suggesting that Wright has made an opportunistic "#metoo" story are neglecting that in all his major works, the comedy may have the appearance of "lads being lads," but there's always been criticism of that mindset. Baby Miles Driver is often too clever for his own good, his impulses to show off in the face of threatening parties puts those he ostensibly cares about further in harm's way; even with all the people who vouch for his integrity, he's still going to have to do that prison sentence to get some perspective. When Scott Pilgrim meets Nega-Scott, and his antithesis offers to buy breakfast, it's pretty clear that the doppelganger was the "good" Scott all this time. Shaun may be easily distracted and Ed an enabler, but it is jealous jockeying by Liz's flatmate and unrequited lover David that brings the most cataclysmic battle of their zombie exodus. Danny Butterman ultimately stands up to the martinet classism, racism, and outsider demonization of his police chief father, but he and Nick employ the same militarized tactics to eliminate the Neighborhood Watch Alliance, and its hinted that much like the meme of a bomber plane painted with a rainbow flag, Sanford is going to have a more virtuous but not less violent police force. And Gary has found sobriety and consideration for others and asserted the worth of the individual (even alien clones), but he's forced the rest of mankind to return to hunter-gathering in the process. You could love all these men if you knew them in real life, but you would confess privately to those friends of yours whom they don't know that they're a handful.

In contrast, Ellie stands out not just by her youth and gender, but her willful reserves. She is still raw about losing her mother, but is secure in the knowledge she did not take her presence for granted like Shaun did, and unlike Danny, who has cocooned in childish police cosplay after his mom's passing, or Baby, whose tinnitus from a car accident may as well be mentally obscuring the memory of his mother's death throes, she presses onward with her goals. She must sometime retreat to herself when the world is hostile, but she has activated her self-respect a lot sooner than Scott Pilgrim has. Despite the mounting phalanx of horrors in her head, she soldiers through researching the forgotten crimes of the past, confronts the enigmatic Lindsay, and saves herself.

Thus, Wright and his co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns demonstrate that in many circumstances, women cannot and do not take the luxury of stewing in their sorrows like his other arrested adolescent characters. This is echoed in the grim descent of Sandie, in the cautions of Ellie's world-weary pub boss, even in the glint of sympathy and strength accorded to Ellie's outward nemesis Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen): admitting to a parental loss herself, her one-upmanship and over-it-all manner among her peers may well be projection of a personal pain she fears she should not admit to lest she be thought too weak and emotional too. It could be said that Jocasta is on the precipice of becoming a future Alexandra Collins, repressing her legitimate heartbreak in favor of callous bravado to survive, endangering her humanity. There's also an interesting parallel to Wilson-Cairns' previous screenplay credit of 1917 with Sam Mendes, where that film's two lance corporals are continuously attacked and injured, yet they must literally continue going forward or else they and thousands more will die. The bitter difference being that after two World Wars, the battle between the English and the Germans mostly ended, but the battle between the sexes has gotten more lethal.

Take away the love and the anger
And a little piece of hope holding us together
Looking for a moment that'll never happen
Living in the gap between past and future
Take away the stone and the timber
And a little piece of rope won't hold it together
We're building a house of the future together

But let us not allow the deep concepts being discussed here to overshadow that above all else, LAST NIGHT is a feast of luminous performers, gorgeous visuals, compelling set-pieces, and thoughtful connotations to a diverse body of songs and films that may not be readily familiar to its audience, raising awareness while remixing them to new effect. In a sense, it is the fulfillment of the possibilities offered in his exuberant fake trailer DON'T! from GRINDHOUSE in 2007. In fact, here there is a tip of the hat sent back to that ambitious Rodriguez/Tarantino project, in that deep cut pop band Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, whose 1968 single provides the title of this film, was a passionate subject of debate for Sydney Tamiia Poitier's ill-fated D.J. Jungle Julia in DEATH PROOF, and Ellie's ghoulish dark-eyed Halloween party makeup recalls the haunting visage of Marley Shelton as Dr. Dakota Block in PLANET TERROR.

Casting choices for the supporting players are particularly astute, not just for their iconic status from the bygone era, but for the specific archetypes they represented therein. Rita Tushingham is most perfect to play Ellie's supporting grandmother, because in the same manner of Ellie's travails in the city, Tushingham's film roles included an interracial relationship in A TASTE OF HONEY, growing too enmeshed with a serial killer in STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING, and coping with sexual distress brought through miscommunication in THE KNACK...AND HOW TO GET IT. She even starred in an Italian murder film (albeit comedic) called BLACK JOURNAL about female serial killer Leonarda Cianciulli. And after achieving immortality for playing a sexy heroine named homophonically for her M(ale) Appeal, Diana Rigg not only presents an elegant coda to her career by playing a Darkest Timeline version of what her life could have become, as the elderly, hardened Ms. Collins, but also a sly tribute to other past characters of hers from THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU and THEATRE OF BLOOD, that on the outside seemed harmless but harbored deadly secrets within.

For all the British kitchen sink dramas and European thrillers that Wright has declared as influences on SOHO in interviews and promotional videos, a title I have not yet seen discussed that feels like a very direct inspiration is Lucio Fulci's 1977 mystery SEVEN NOTES IN BLACK, released in America as THE PSYCHIC. In that film's screenplay, written by Roberto Gianviti and Dardano Sacchetti, the protagonist, Virginia, is first seen as an English teenager in an Italian boarding school, who visualizes and feels the pains of her mother's suicide in Dover as it happens in real time, and then, as an adult (Jennifer O'Neill) in an otherwise pleasant marriage, is haunted by recurring visions - a deconstructed wall, a smashed mirror, a dead body - that suggest a killing has taken place in a mansion purchased by her wealthy husband Francesco (Gianni Garko). Against the disbelief of others, she investigates on her own, and the revelations initially contradict her claims - a dead body is found, but not the one she saw, a magazine was not yet published when the murder took place, etc - but soon she realizes she has not seen a past event, but a future one. What she does not figure out until too late is that the event is her own murder. Fulci had envisioned the film as a story about challenging fate, and whether it is even possible.

Ellie too is challenging fate throughout her entire odyssey. On a superficial level, the fate of being a small-town dreamer who can't hack it in the competitive field she aspires to join. On a personal level, the fate of being the daughter of a fatally depressed parent and potentially repeating the same fragility; a trajectory predicted by Jocasta within hours of meeting her. On a visceral level, the fate of being driven to madness by another woman's trauma. And then of course, the primary level of coming face to face with a murderer that wants Ellie to take her secrets to the grave.

The difference between Fulci and Wright's heroines is that unlike poor Virginia (her musical watch notwithstanding), Ellie succeeds in changing what would have been seen as inevitable. Not just that she survives the nightmare. She finds a balance for her sensitivity. London doesn't break her. Her artistic pursuits continue. Threats don't make her cower. And in a most poignant turn, she even changes the fate of Alexandra Collins: rather than watch her commit suicide in a state of self-loathing, Ellie intervenes and demonstrates that she has born witness to the promise and ache of young Sandie, she is that one person that understood her and what was lost so many years ago to a band of predators. Ms. Collins will have to face a fiery, lacerating death for the lives she ended, but she knows now, in her final moments, in the memory of one girl, she will not die as a monster.

In years to come, Ellie Turner may not become a popular cosplay subject like other Edgar Wright heroes, but her instincts for empathy, adventure, discovery, justice, and trusting in even the aspects of herself that others would mock, may well make her something better for the random distressed soul who sits down to watch LAST NIGHT IN SOHO for a little distraction: an understanding surrogate. Someone Sandie never had. Someone too many sweet souls of the past never had. 

Well, if it's so deep you don't think that you can speak about it
Just remember to reach out and touch the past and the future
Well, if it's so deep you don't think you can speak about it
Don't ever think that you can't change the past and the future

You might not, not think so now
But just you wait and see, someone will come to help you

- Kate Bush, "Love and Anger"

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Once Upon a the Hot Summer

A preface: before I even mention the name of the person whose life experience will be discussed in this essay, I can hear an army of reply guys assembling, ready to volley several “Well, actually...” disputations to the details herein. As a historian, one should be capable of sussing out the messy nuances that binary thinking cannot accommodate, thus I’ve determined which testimonies in the public record can be taken as trustworthy, and which need to be dismissed. As the late Robert Evans pithily said, “There are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth. And nobody is lying.”

In several interviews given to coincide with the release of ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD in 2019, writer/director Quentin Tarantino frequently expounded on general topics that influenced the movie – actors, seminal movies, historical events – but also stressed his own personal relationship to its setting of Los Angeles in the summer of 1969, when he was six years old, and how that perspective would impact the production. In an extended chat with Kim Morgan, he stated the following:

[The] jumping-off point was going to be my memory – as a six-year old sitting in the passenger seat of my stepfather’s Karmann Ghia. And even that shot, that kind of looks up at Cliff as he drives by the Earl Scheib, and all those signs, that’s pretty much my perspective, being a little kid…as a little kid – and probably now too, but especially as a little kid – you see what you want to see. You throw the things you don’t care about out of focus and you throw sharp focus on the things you care about – so… I’m looking out the window and see Los Angeles out in front of me and I’m being more selective about what I’m looking at...And so, in doing a memory piece, I create that landscape.

Tarantino details to Morgan that the films that most shaped his vision were Paul Mazursky’s BOB AND CAROL AND TED AND ALICE, his follow-up ALEX IN WONDERLAND, and Frank Perry’s PLAY IT AS IT LAYS, and as such, these were what he showed the cast in preparation of shooting. Several other titles occasionally would be name checked for providing individual bits of color to the effort as well. However, there is another film, previously cited by the director in the past as a particular favorite of its genre, which has never been mentioned in conjunction with OUATIH, yet, in its own way, carries very striking parallels to the memory mandate lain out before, especially in how its crucial architect (if not its actual captain) chose to memorialize a place and a moment of history…

For roughly one week in late July, 1967, Detroit was engulfed in violence that began with what would have been an ordinary shakedown raid on a black-owned after-hours bar, which led to multiple instances of confrontations with protesters and looting, an excessive and militarized response by government authorities, a horrifying set of murders at the Algiers Hotel committed by police under questionable justification, along with a child killed in her family’s apartment by sniper fire, and federal troops occupying the city by orders of the Governor and the President. When it was declared over, 43 people were dead, 1,189 had been injured, police arrested 7,200 citizens, and more than 2,000 buildings were destroyed.

Gail Parmentier was 12 years old and safely ensconced an hour northeast in Port Huron, living in a conservative Catholic household with a father serving as the county’s superintendent of schools, and four stereotypical jock brothers, when these events were taking place in Detroit. According to the 2010 census, the city was still an 84.0% White population, and logic dictates it would have been even higher back then. But growing up in a city that, in its origin, had been Ojibwa territory until they were forcibly removed by the United States government, and the only site in Michigan where, in 1889, an African-American was lynched, she was not insulated from a legacy of racist brutality. And something about those events in Detroit heavily impacted the adolescent, staying in her consciousness as she otherwise went about joining the spirit squad and the student council in her teens.

As she recounted to AP writer Harry Atkins in 1976, Parmentier’s initially staid trajectory of high school to college to marriage veered off track significantly in 1974 when, during her freshman year at Western Michigan University, she made her first contact with the adult film world. “I had a girlfriend who was dating a guy who managed an adult theatre in Kalamazoo. He was supposed to have had [Cyndee Summers] on hand to sign autographs one day. Well, [she] didn’t show, and he asked us if we’d fill in and fake it – pretend we were the girls in the porn film. We really needed the money, so we said we’d do it.” The signing was a relative success, and it put her into the orbit of the theatre’s owner, Harry Mohney, the state’s most powerful provider of adult entertainment. 

Before he met Gail Parmentier, Harry Mohney had already been a teen runaway, spent a year in reform school after pleading guilty to breaking and entering, married, and kicked around several jobs before finding his niche in operating theatres, drive-ins, and bookstores devoted to erotic entertainment, beginning with one in Saginaw in 1966, to running over 100 locations in 10 states by 1973. Mohney was beginning to contemplate direct involvement in the films that would play his nationwide circuit; the first credit affirmatively tied to him as executive producer (under the alias “Harry Dracma”) was DEVIL’S ECSTASY, a Los Angeles-based project originally initiated as a straight horror film in 1972 under the title SABBAT, but reformatted into a porn film before its release in 1976. Ironically, it starred Cyndee Summers, the actress Parmentier was asked to impersonate in her first job for him. Upon meeting this co-ed pretender in 1974, Mohney was quickly smitten with the 18 year-old, and in short order, courted her, left his wife, made her his longtime companion, and coaxed her to transfer to Michigan State in Lansing, where she was installed as a manager at his Cinema X theatre, one of several he owned. Her whimsical impersonation of Summers would be the first of several instances where she would be providing a cover story for her new boyfriend. 

A year later, tiring of grueling negotiations over booking terms with outside producers, Mohney was ready to proceed with making his own film. He had already optioned a 1972 pulp novel, BLACK ABDUCTOR, by pseudonymous author Harrison James (later revealed to be science fiction writer James Rusk Jr.), a lurid potboiler about an heiress kidnapped by Black radicals that so uncannily predicted several details of the Patty Hearst/SLA affair in 1974 (beginning with the main character being named Patricia), the FBI tracked down and interrogated the author thinking he’d been involved in the case. However, Mohney did not particularly care for the story, and recruited an acquaintance using the alias “T. James Write” to concoct a new screenplay using the same premise of a girl abducted by a gang without the plot points of the novel. There would ultimately be an official film adaptation of BLACK ABDUCTOR made around the same time, under the title ABDUCTION, directed by Joseph Zito, who would later make FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER and INVASION U.S.A., and shot by João Fernandes, who had previously operated camera on two of the most famous adult films of all time, DEEP THROAT and THE DEVIL IN MISS JONES.

Parmentier, now using the professional name Gail Palmer, had been present for all of Mohney’s activity, and when his project was assembled, she reached back into her teenage experience to make a narrative contribution that would significantly distance it from the Patty Hearst allusions, and construct it into something much more personal. “I wrote HOT SUMMER [IN THE CITY] when I was in high school. It was a real heavy story which I was impelled to write after the Detroit race riots. That was in 1967. I added the sex later, much later,” she told Charles Faber in an interview for The Advocate on March 22, 1979. After adding her material to the existing T. James Write screenplay, Palmer then made his plan viable by using her MSU student status to borrow the school’s 16mm equipment for shooting, and by recruiting amateur striptease performers from live shows she supervised at Cinema X for the cast, along with non-professionals from her college who were also interested in acting. “The students thought I was kidding, but I convinced them they could make $200 a day. They changed their names, every one of them, so their parents wouldn’t find out. My girlfriend, who was my roommate, was the star; she used the name Lisa Baker. The student body was liberal, and most came to see the film. And they were curious to see if they knew any of the actors. HOT SUMMER had to cause a lot of excitement; it was the first porno film made in Michigan.” Mohney supplied a holiday cottage he owned in Kalkaska as the primary location, and the project was shot over the summer of 1975.

HOT SUMMER IN THE CITY depicts the odyssey of Debbie, a suburban girl about to marry, over two unspecified days in July 1967, before the Detroit riots commence. Upon returning from an engagement party (and refusing to have premarital sex with her betrothed), she is horrified to find her mother in a three-way with her fiancée’s father and another male friend. And shortly after fleeing her home, she is abducted by Duke, an ostensible Black agitator, and his three friends. After an initial violation in their car, she is taken to an isolated cabin, where the men are awaiting a meeting with “The Man,” and is subjected to more humiliations, though Duke frequently attempts to intervene in his gang’s desire to take advantage of her. When the white criminal fixer arrives the following day, with Duke’s previous girlfriend Jody in tow, he pays the gang $20,000 to create a distraction that is intended to draw police and fire departments to the scene, who in turn will be fired upon by hired snipers, with the ensuing escalation of chaos intended to allow local merchants to commit insurance fraud under pretense of riot damage. In the hours before the gang is to initiate the uprising, the tensions fostered by Debbie’s presence will divide the gang, leading to personal violence before the political violence can take place.

When their production was ready for release in the Bicentennial summer of 1976, not only did Mohney create false details for the onscreen credits, he also crafted one huge one for the press. In an article in Macleans published in May that year, Mohney had been nicknamed as one of “The Shy Pornographers” because of his constant avoidance of the limelight, as police trying to shut down adult entertainment desperately wanted to connect him to the product but never could. However, he was already being prosecuted in other cities: he was held liable by a Kentucky court for playing DEEP THROAT at his Covington Cinema X location at the time. So it was certainly in his best interests to stay in the shadows. Thus, a charm offensive was launched where he elevated Palmer, a likeable female, as the overall author of merit, on this film and more to follow, though some industry-savvy people surely saw the directorial credit for “The Hare” and deduced it was Harry Mohney’s alias, since “Hare” was short for Harry, and he owned the shadow production company, Imperial Films. For several personal appearances, print and TV interviews, and cross-promotions, she was presented as the woman behind The Hare, which certainly carries ironic truth. Longtime adult director Bob Chinn, who was on the camera crew of the subsequent films credited to Palmer, described the arrangement in his memoir THE OTHER SIDE OF PARADISE, VOL. 2:

Their front person for company was Harry’s girlfriend at the time, an attractive and bright young lady named Gail Palmer, who had been credited as the director of a film they had made in Michigan [as] well as two of their subsequent features THE EROTIC ADVENTURES OF CANDY and CANDY GOES TO HOLLYWOOD. But the true credit for the direction of these films should probably go to Harry...the powers-that-be [firmly] believed that a sexy, attractive female filmmaker and producer would [bring] in a larger audience to their films and I found that I couldn’t fault their reasoning one bit so I cheerfully decided to go along with it...Our deal stipulated that Gail Palmer would be credited as the producer and, if they chose, as the director on all of the films that I did for [them]. It was an arrangement that sounded fine since credits on these films really didn’t mean all that much to me.

Quentin Tarantino’s fandom of HSITC became public knowledge shortly after a semi-clandestine screening during his 6th programming block at the original Austin, Texas Alamo Drafthouse on September 15, 2005; due to local blue laws, the film title was not advertised, and for legal purposes, was presented as a four-walled event by the Austin Film Society and not the theatre itself. A pseudonymous audience member in attendance wrote, “In his intro, QT talked about how he really didn't like porn at all. He got a job at the Pussycat theater when he was 16 and was an usher there for some time, not to mention his years at a video store putting him in constant contact with the stuff...He said he was such a non-fan that he couldn't even remember the few he ever saw which he didn't think were bad, which is really saying something because over the course of the week we've heard him remember the name of pretty much every movie that's ever existed and become obscure. BUT, he says, the box art of HOT SUMMER IN THE CITY finally won him over one night and the movie quickly became his by-far favorite [adult film].” 

In an essay for the Literary Hub offshoot website CrimeReads, writer Olivia Rutigliano observed:

[In] ONCE UPON A TIME, “childhood” is a deliberate theme. The film begins with an evocation of an audience of children, featuring an early-60s interview on the Bounty Law ranch set, with Rick and Cliff explaining how stunts work...The film’s two scariest, most ominous moments, ultimately reveal that this era’s entertainment, and corresponding childhood innocence, is effectively gone. The counterculture movement—which, for this film’s purpose, has turned teenagers into monsters and murderers—has fully overtaken the culture. Cliff goes to Spahn Movie Ranch (brought there by a hippie who insists that she is not a minor and can therefore have sex with him, though he won’t listen—this alternate Hollywood will not harm a child). Spahn Ranch is the defunct set where he and Rick used to film Bounty Law, but Cliff discovers it’s been taken over by the Manson family commune—a horde of squalid, unwashed adolescents, bedraggled and pretending to be self-sufficient in this sinister desert Neverland that was once a dream-factory...When the Manson family members pull up in their rattling old car to Cielo Drive to commit murder at the behest of Charles Manson, they are stopped in their tracks by Rick Dalton, himself...Remembering how much they used to love his seems like they might climb out of their hypnotic detestation...But one of the young women doesn’t remember [his show], and she directs them back to the dark task at hand, with an anecdote about how they have been poisoned by this generation of television. “Let’s kill the people who taught us to kill,” she says...The conflict is a literalization of the culture war—with the counterculture actually turning against the mainstream. 

Thus, while Tarantino as an adult surely has a substantially nuanced understanding of the late ‘60s counterculture, it is easy to speculate how, as a child, witnessing this conflict without this context, while being presented the last vestiges of square-jawed heroism in the popular media, the battles of the Generation Gap looked frightening. After all, the cops, the cowboys, the Army men, they were the good guys, right? They look like all the dads I know. Why were all these people in the weird clothes angry at them?

In spiritual tandem, befitting an idea that was conceived in adolescence, and coming from someone who likely grew up not having any significant exposure to Black people in her formative years, while being raised by conservative Catholic parents who probably meant well but likely made disparaging remarks about minorities or told racist jokes or warned her not to go to certain parts of town where “dangerous” people congregated, Palmer’s emotional ingredients in the HSITC storyline help make the film feel appropriately like the kind of hyperbolic nightmare fantasy a sheltered young white girl living in a cultural bubble might conjure up after seeing the riots on TV or in the newspaper. At one point, during her captivity and abuse, she bleats, “I’ve tried to help...I marched and everything,” desperate to understand why these Black men seem to have a personal vendetta against her, as she believes has spent her formative years being a good, wholesome person. In further connectivity, Duke's gang exhibits the same sort of blind and almost listless groupthink of the Manson acolytes at the Spahn ranch, engaging in behavior explicitly forbidden when their leader Duke is around in the same way the Mansonites steal a look at television when Charlie is away.

While the movie does not take the enormous liberties with the history of July 1967 that OUATIH employs with August 9th, 1969, it does engage in a certain amount of fancy with those events. When the gang arrive at the cabin, idle conversation conveys that it is a Wednesday night, and that their planned uprising is to take place on Friday, which would put it ahead of when it actually arose, in the morning hours of Sunday, July 23rd. Some viewers may be confused when characters talk about “last summer’s war,” which is referencing the lesser-remembered “Kercheval Incident” of August 11, 1966, when a group at the corner of Kercheval and Pennsylvania refused a police order to disperse, leading to three days of rioting. “The Man” that employs Duke and his gang describes for them how they are to create a distraction at the corner of Woodward and Clairmount. There’s no documentation that any agent provocateurs were involved with any incidents during the week of riots. A night spot called the Clair Wood Bar had stood at that intersection, but that was not the after-hours bar raided by the police, which was a block away at Clairmount and 12th St. Ultimately, Debbie's presence is not intended to alter any of the events that will take place during that intense week of clashes; instead it sets her up as a Cassandra to them, her blank demeanor at film’s end suggesting she knows that these men who snatched her in a fit of pique will not survive this incident, and her personal feeling of bleak revelation is going to be the reaction for thousands more as it unfolds in real history.

A particularly piercing feature of HSITC that has made it stand apart from other adult movies, and provides it uncanny kinship with OUATIH, is its prominent use of Top 40 hits of the 1960s, bracketed by what appear to be actual d.j. introductions and back-announcements by Steve Hunter, Mike Rivers, and other personalities from Detroit/Windsor radio station CKLW 800 AM, in its heyday referred to as "The blackest white station in America." Besides the expectedly jarring sensation of hearing recognizable songs underscoring sexually explicit material, there are some deep cut tracks in play – The Five Americans’ “Zip Code” and Martha and the Vandellas “Love Bug Leave Me Alone”- that were regional more than national favorites, and the diegetic placements are often used for mordant commentary - “Light My Fire” plays as Debbie rebuffs her fiancee’s advances, “Everlasting Love” is heard while she is experiencing the exact opposite of such a thing, and in a juxtaposition too grim to not be intentional, as she is being whipped with a belt, a d.j. declares, “The hits just keep on comin’!” When “The Man” appears in the second half and the radio stays off, the music shifts to non-diegetic instrumental cues, many of which appear to also be lifted from mainstream films – one of them is Quincy Jones’ main titles theme for the 1970 Peter Yates drama JOHN AND MARY. While this music supervision was never addressed in any press for HSITC, Tarantino offers a fair equivalent insight about how these choices can be made in his Kim Morgan interview for OUATIH, particularly apropos since both KHJ and CKLW used the “Boss Radio” format:

But one of the things that was interesting to me in listening to the KHJ recordings was the fact that KHJ had a sound, the way the 80s KROQ had a sound, and then other radio stations tried to buy that sound, they tried to take that format and do it in other cities...their Top 40 wasn’t just exactly based on Billboard. It was a mixture of Billboard, it was a mixture of what people called up and would request, it was a mixture of what the DJs liked, and just a mixture of what they thought was good for the KHJ sound...And I realized there’s a whole lot of songs [like] the Buchanan Brothers’ “Son of a Lovin’ Man” – it didn’t go national, but it did really well in Los Angeles and probably a few other markets...I wanted to play [The Box Tops’] “Sweet Cream Ladies” so much but the only place that I figured it could work – but it’s just too obvious – is when the Manson girls walk in front of their windshield. OK, but I might as well be playing “Baby Elephant Walk” at that point – I don’t like songs being on the money.

Adding one more bit of serendipity between the two films is that Mohney commissioned an expanded novelization of the final HSITC screenplay (again credited to “The Hare,” authorship currently unknown but probably “T. James Write” as well), which was “on sale at bookstores everywhere” concurrently with the film’s release, and Tarantino, spurred by his own love of the characters and by fan speculations during OUATIH’s first run, wrote an expanded novelization of his screenplay, just published in this summer of 2021. Granted, plenty of movies of all types have novelizations, but it is generally rare to have the actual creators of those films actively taking a role in the making of what would generally have been considered a mere supplementary marketing product.

There has not been any discussion or other overt indication by Tarantino in any of the press before or after the release of OUATIH that he included HSITC among the dozens of films and other cultural totems that influenced his writing of the screenplay or his execution of the finished feature. However, the surprising number of parallels between the two films -- their inspiration from childhood memory of sociopolitical turmoil, their extrapolation of that naiveté into their stories, their authors unusual early introduction to the adult entertainment business, the use of period music and radio airchecks as dramatic counterpoint, some rewriting of the past, and the controversial reception of those films after their release -- nonetheless makes for one of the unlikeliest and fascinating instances of innovative minds thinking alike.

In the benefit of hindsight, since before the Cyndee Summers stunt and meeting Harry Mohney, as Gail Palmer told a Courier-Journal reporter in 1978, “I’d never had any sexual experiences or anything,” HSITC further functions as a metaphor for the disputed creator's complicated feelings about becoming intimate with this older, worldlier man with questionable ethics, with the shifting behavior of Duke from aggressor to protector standing in for her mentor and lover. Much like Debbie's shock and disgust at the hypocrisy of her upbringing, where her mother is practicing a “do as I say not as I do” stance about sexual behavior, Palmer was a metaphorical babe in the woods when she was swept up into his world, albeit more willingly than her onscreen surrogate. In Palmer’s early interviews, she expounds about her fascination with adult movies and recognition of what benefits others draw from them, while admitting to not enjoying the majority of them herself, and to an extent, Debbie’s frightening initiation into the rough and callous attitudes of her captors can be read as a creative reinterpretation of her real-life discoveries in Mohney's enterprise. And while they were happily bonded during filming and for several years after, her early screenplay eerily predicts the bleak end of that relationship: much like the end of the film, where Duke leaves Debbie behind to live an uncertain future, Palmer and Mohney acrimoniously split in 1984, with Palmer losing all career momentum, and at one point applying for welfare while her name was still being used in advertising as a sales point.

The Palmer/Mohney union was not only a mixed blessing on a personal level, but has forever complicated her legacy in the years since its dissolution, with the turning point being the moment when, as a witness for the IRS against her estranged partner in his trial for tax fraud (and a concurrent palimony case seeking half the revenue earned from the projects they did together), she testified under oath that she did not direct the movies that, for years in the press, she had been credited with, including HSITC. (Let the record show she was never asked about her writing contributions.) From this, many, including her would-be ghostwriter, have used this to dismiss her as nothing more than an empty vessel front for her rich boyfriend. A more nuanced assessment would be that during their relationship, Mohney wanted to make more films, Palmer came up with stories for them, and people such as Bob Chinn were brought in to do the actual blocking of actors and shot plotting. Mohney likely encouraged Palmer to call herself the director not just for promotional window dressing, but also to envelope his young and impressionable paramour into co-dependency, The subterfuge would not just help him keep a low profile, but by alternately financing her ventures and boosting her ego, while insuring that as she’d never actually done an according-to-Hoyle directing job, she’d be unprepared to work independent of him, the arrangement would also keep her bound to him. Palmer detailed for Gannett Newspapers in 1990 that, “Officially [Harry] was a non-person. He never wanted his name on anything – no credit cards, no bank accounts...That’s why I never thought seriously about getting paid for the movies. It would entail agreements, paperwork. I knew how he was about records.”   

In the specific circumstances of determining who did what on HSITC...Palmer talks in enough detail about the genesis of the movie on several occasions, in different ways, that one can reason that this is not data she was “coached” on by anyone. Moreover, “T. James White” and Palmer would collaborate on the screenplay for CANDY GOES TO HOLLYWOOD, thus it is a plausible scenario that the final shooting script for HSITC was a joint effort as well. In the 1990 Gannett interview, it is mentioned that a local TV cameraman was brought onto the production to handle the film stock, so the cinematographer hiding as “R. Leonard Hughes a.s.p.” is probably responsible for the staging. Palmer’s short-lived second career as a rock-n-roll performer, with documented performances with the band “Fourplay,” suggests that she is significantly responsible for the song choices and their placement in the film; Mohney had creative goals, but would have been more practical business-minded than to hijack major label pop songs, that kind of brazen moxie is akin to a younger person like his girlfriend. Again, rather than adhere to an all-or-nothing ethos in the matter of Gail Palmer, a “little of column A, little of column B” conclusion in determining how much can be rightfully assigned to her is the best resolution.

While both Gail Palmer and Harry Mohney, and possibly most of the anonymous individuals who participated in the making of HOT SUMMER IN THE CITY, are still alive, none of them have come forward to talk at length about the film since Mohney’s four year imprisonment for tax fraud, and Palmer’s abandoned attempts at publishing an autobiography. And unlike the Detroit riots of 1967 or the Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969, the true story may never be known for sure.

What is known and verifiable is that two children of the late ‘60s, each unable to fully grasp the magnitude of the events they witnessed in their youth, went on to work in adult theatres in the last years of their adolescence, wrote stories based on those experiences, integrated the songs and radio personalities of that time into those tales, played with the facts for dramatic effect, and saw them turned into impactful films (and books) that will continue to be hotly debated years after their release.

(Huge thanks to Joe Rubin, Martin Brooks, and Ashley West for providing valuable insider information on the production history and personal details of the talent involved with HOT SUMMER IN THE CITY.)