Here is an interview I did with Ira Ingber, about working with BOB DYLAN in the 1980s. This interview is featured in my book BOB DYLAN IN THE 1980s, as well as my larger anthology of Dylan related writing, BOB DYLAN THROUGH TIME. They are both on Amazon...
Ira is a seasoned LA musician, who has played and worked with such varied artists as Canned Heat, Captain Beefheart, and of course, Bob Dylan. He rehearsed with Bob for a month before frequenting sessions for Empire Burlesque, and also appears on Knocked Out Loaded, and the legendary Brownsville Girl. From up north in the UK, I rang Ira for a chin wag on all things Dylan.
I enjoyed your interviews on the Dylan documentary, Both Ends of the Rainbow.
Well, if you've seen the DVD, they have a whole bunch of people on it, mostly English guys, but some Americans too. They were talking about Bob's music in a very scholarly way.
Yeah I thought there were maybe too many rock critics on it to be honest...
Yeah maybe too many critics, and a little too heady. Not sort of musical enough. As an aside, when we were doing - I can't tell you which one it was - something on Empire Burlesque, but someone from Rolling Stone was covering the session, one of the big guys at the time. I remember they were there for a few days, but I remember reading the interview which was done at the exact same session I was at, I was wondering if he was even at the same session. Because it bore very little resemblance to what I was seeing. But that's they way it is I suppose. Everybody's touching the elephant... But the guys in that documentary though, were guys who were talking about Bob and I was thinking, Gees is this the same guy I know?
Exactly. So I was wondering how you first met Bob and got involved with the making of Empire Burlesque...
What happened was, first of all... to dispel any confusion, those two albums, Knocked Out Loaded and Empire Burlesque, are really one album, from my perspective. They were recorded over the space of two and a half years, there was a lot of overlap. For instance, Brownsville Girl was called New Danville Girl originally, and it evolved, or devolved depending on your perspective, over the course of those couple of years. The beginnings of the recordings was... his manager at the time Gary Shafner was an old school mate of mine. We are still friends. I think his title was Bob's personal manager. He was working with others, but Gary had been travelling with Bob a lot, doing personal stuff. So he called me up and said Bob was recording and he asked if I wanted to put a band together. So I said 'twist my arm enough and I might be able to do it!'
A no brainer really...
Oh yeah. So I called in some buds of mine. The bass player was Carl Sealove, and the keyboard player was Vince Melamed. There was a drummer already on the scene, Charlie Quintana, and Charlie was a friend of Bob's. He was a really good drummer, and they were very familiar with each other. But after a while he had to go off, I guess he had to go on tour or something. So he was replaced by Don Heffington, who I knew. I didn't bring him in, but we all knew each other. So the four us, with Bob that made five... we rehearsed for about a month at Bob's house here in LA, in Malibu where he lived. It was not clear at the time what we were doing, what the goal was. Was he just wanting to play? Was it for gigs? Were we gonna record? We didn't know, because every day was different.
Do you remember the first day well?
Well the first day was just me. I went up there and met with him. Of course, it was intimidating. I mean, come on, it was Bob Dylan!
Yeah, just a bit!
But I had a few things going for me. I mean, we are both from Minnesota. We are both Jewish and from Minnesota for that matter. As it turns out my aunt through marriage is his mother's second or third cousin. When I told him about that later on, his response was, in typical Bob fashion, 'everybody's related to my mother." That was his answer. I though it'd be like, 'Hey, we're related' kind of thing.
(Laughter) Like you'd have some camaraderie...
Yeah. What also helped though, besides the fact I was a personal recommendation from Gary, my brother was produced by Tom Wilson, who of course had produced some of Bob's records. He also produced the Mothers' first album Freak Out, which my brother was on. So there was a lot of familiarity. So Bob saw that I was kind of safe. It wasn't like 'Who is this guy?' I was already an insider. So it helped me. I realised as a musician I had to very quickly forget about who this guy was. He was just a musician I was working with, but if I let the aura of the fame and the Dylan thing that he is and was, if I let it get to me, it wouldn't have served me well. So we got through that very quickly. The first day I was there he showed me a bunch of songs. He had all these song titles printed on this sheet and he asked me if I knew any of them. I said 'Yeah!' So we started playing his songs. It was OK, he could see I knew them. The next day the rest of the guys came up and we started playing. Sometimes we played his stuff, sometimes like weird things. He would play a cassette and ask us what we thought. What was happening was people were sending cassettes of songs, their songs, not his, to record, for him to sing. We thought that was odd, as he wasn't known as a guy who really did covers. He'd say 'What do you think of this?' So we would end up learning whatever Warner Brothers sent him on cassette. But then once in a while he would break into one of his chestnuts. So suddenly we're playing Highway 61 and we are in heaven, you know.
Wow! Must have been amazing.
Oh yeah it was pretty great! Then we would go back to this other stuff, fragments of songs, one of which turned out to be Brownsville Girl, though we didn't know that at the time. We were just playing chords. Even though there was a PA set up, in this compound home place, he had the set up for band rehearsal, but he never sang into the microphone, he sang straight into the boom box recorder, so we never heard him sing. Sometime he would sing right at me, literally about a foot away, but never on a mike. I never understood that. But one very funny incident happened. He started playing Ballad of a Thin Man. Talk about a red cape to a bull, we were all over the thing. He just figured we would know it. So we get to the bridge, and we start playing it. And he stops us and says 'No it doesn't go like that.' (Note: Iga's Dylan impression is uncanny.) I knew how the song went, so we do it again. So we got it to it and he wasn't having any of it. This happened again! He was insistent that this was wrong. We were like 'Honestly Bob, this is how it goes!' He kept saying 'No you guys are playing it wrong.' We tried, but he was not going for it! And that was it, we never got past the bridge. I play it now in my new band, and when we do it in concert I say 'Finally I get to play it all the way through without the interference of the songwriter.' But Bob just would not accept the fact that we were playing it correctly.
What a surreal memory to have!
It was totally out there! We kept saying 'Bob, we're on your side, we're fighting for you, we're rooting for you.' But he wasn't having any of it. But when I look back on it, it could be possible that he had just decided he was gonna do it differently now and say, 'Well, this is how it is!' It's very possible that was what was happening.
Yeah I think so too.
It's hard to know though. One of the maxims we learnt to really guide our time with him was that you never know with Bob. You just never know. You could come in expecting him to turn left and he would turn right. You just never know. But that first stage of rehearsing, maybe longer than a month, that was it. I was so impressed with his work ethic. He showed up at exactly at 1. He was there. No breaks. We would say 'should we have one?' and he would forget about them all together. Everyday it was like 'Can you guys come tomorrow?' Everyday was the like the first day with him. That's a kind of novel way of looking at life.
It's definitely an interesting way isn't it?
Yeah! It was always fresh and new. So we obviously said we would come back. And it got very friendly. No wait a minute, friendly is the wrong word to use. It got very comfortable. It started to sound really good. We rehearsed every day. I mean, you're a musician yourself, so you know. You play, you start to learn the stuff. These guys and I all played together. It became a pretty well oiled machine. And then that was it! We didn't hear anything for a while. Then one day I got a call from Gary and he said 'Can you be at Cherokee recording studio for a session for Bob?' It was like 'Oh, great, OK.'
So how did the recording start?
Well we had no idea what we were gonna record. We just knew we were gonna record. We get in and there's Bob. 'Hi how are you? Nice to see you.' And he produces these cassettes of the rehearsals which he had recorded. 'You remember when we did this?' 'We're gonna record that one now.' We did not know what the songs were, but he went through them, and he decided that he had enough to at least start recording. So we did a bunch of tunes. One of them was Brownsville Girl but I cannot even count the other ones. A lot of stuff that didn't get finished, outtake things. A lot of stuff was just done. Of course it was all analogue. The tape was always running. Something was always running. So there are mountains of recorded material on Bob. When it comes his time there will be 200 years of stuff to dig out. Just an amazing amount of stuff. I mean, a lot of it is just people tuning up.
Yeah, but Bob collectors will even save that stuff, lap it up in fact.
Oh yeah absolutely. In those days, because of the piracy and the leaking on him was famous, I remember that Gary would take the tapes home every night. They are pretty heavy. If you get 10 or 15 of these old tapes, they're gonna make the trunk... or should I say the boot of your car sink pretty low right? So he would carry them out everyday and every night. Yet still some of it got bootlegged. I don't know how it could have happened. I know it did not come from Gary, but somehow - maybe there was a tie line into another room where it was being recorded - but somehow they got bootlegged. Anyway, those sessions were very fruitful. We had some moments, he and I, where we were really starting to see more eye to eye. There was an early one... There was no producer of course, just us, Bob and an engineer. I happened to walk into the studio. We had recorded and Bob was gonna put some vocal on. So I walked in when he was recording. I sat down and I'm listening to him sing and, of course, he's magnificent; he's Bob! And at the very end I heard that he kind of blew a line, I forgot what it was, but something went wrong. So he looks in with his famous squint... which is because he is extremely near sighted. I don't know if you know that about him.
Oh yeah, his glasses are like coke bottles, extremely thick. So that squint, that famous leer... he can't see.
It does work in his favour though, it's pretty cool.
Yeah. John Lennon did it too. He couldn't see a damn thing. So he looks in and says 'How was that?' So I looked at the engineer and I said, 'Well, are you gonna tell him?' He said 'Oh no, I'm not gonna tell him!' And I am the only one in there. I realise in that moment that if I don't tell him that something wasn't right, I'm not really worth my salt. If I do tell him I am gonna lose the gig right now, if he's not happy about it. So I landed on the side of honesty. I said something like, 'Bob it sounded really good, but you probably have a better end line in you.' Silence. Nothing. I thought 'OK, I'll just quietly pack up my stuff and get out of here.' Then I hear him say 'OK, let's do it again.' And I wiped my brow, he does it again, fixes it and asks 'Well how was that?' I say 'It was great! Why don't you come and listen to it?' From that moment, he would ask me what I thought. Nobody... I do not care who you are, you need feedback. So he started to trust me with stuff like that, asking me what we could do. It built up to where we had a pretty good relationship. He would often call me at home on the phone. But he would start a conversation with me as if he had already been having it for ten minutes before he made the call, so whatever I heard was already a ten minute old conversation that I would have to catch up to.
(Lauhgter) That's surreal.
Yeah. So I would have to figure it out. 'Oh that's what he means!' So we would talk about it. Again, very pleasant. I think our commonality of Minnesota helped me and helped him. There is something familiar enough, something very peculiar about the Mid West. Where he was from, Northern Minnesota... it is cold, a lot more bleak, but it's the north of a country.
Sometimes I like that bleakness though, strangely enough.
Yeah, well I think it forces one to see things in a less distracted way. Up there where he was from, Hibbing, there were probably like three street lights when he was up there. There is nothing there. And it's a place you leave; you do not go there, you leave Hibbing. But I think overall, the Minnesota experience really did create a familiar bond. Bond is too strong a word. there was a familiarity which helped us. So those sessions went on for a while. That was it. We figured we did our work, and ended up with a whole bunch of recorded stuff. Then he went off and did a tour with Mick Taylor, Greg Sutton... I assumed we would be going on the road with him. But he wanted a Rolling Stone guitar player and for whatever reason he kept those two worlds separate. Those guys didn't want record with him and we didn't tour with him.
Weird isn't it?
It was weird at the time. I thought it was weird. It was like, 'hey you got yourself a really good band here.' But in retrospect I can see why he did it. Bob has a real.. well, I can't speak for him now, because I haven't spoken to him in years., But he was conscious of what his peers were doing. He would always talk about like, 'Jagger's doing this so I can't do it.' Very conscious of it. It was kind of weird. He would talk about them in a very kind of 'Keeping up with the Joneses way'. There was another weird thing, though everything is weird with Bob as you surely know... One of the songs we were rehearsing, he came in and said 'I wanna do this in a kind of Lou Reed style.' And we all looked at each other and said 'Lou Reed copied you! What are you talking about? He mimics everything you do!' But Bob never saw that. There were parts of him that were kind of Laurel and Hardy-ish. Stan Laurel had this kind of befuddled thing... an amazing man, he played it wonderfully. He was just like 'how did I get here?', that kind of thing. That's kinda like Bob. He's a sort of Mr Magoo character, stumbling through life in a way. Then you realise that everything is actually very contrived and very controlled. It looks a lot more random than it really is.
So you really think it's all calculated a lot more than it seems to be?
Yeah. But in retrospect I certainly didn't know that at the time, but it seems that there were times when he appeared to be just drifting. I think he was and still very much is someone who is restless. And in search of the next thing. He's doing these American songbook things now, which I do not really understand, but for him it's this gold standard. Like if you are a real singer this is what you sing. Like if you go see him live and you want him to do one of the greats, take your pick, and you hear it and think 'Is that the same song?' I mean, that's how he keeps it fresh and I applaud him for that. It's like for the first time, as I was saying earlier, like coming in everyday and saying 'Today's a new day!'
He frustrates his fans but at the same time I think that if he played it safe and ceased to be the enigma that he is, they, and I include myself in this, would be very disappointed too.
Yeah I think he made his mind up pretty early on that he wasn't going to please anybody but himself. Screw it, I'll do what I wanna do.
So anyway, after all that, he hooked up with Tom Petty and his band. Like changing his clothes, he changed bands. What are you gonna say? I had my run. But I was then at a party about a year later after the first sessions, and there's Bob. I hadn't seen him. 'Hey how you doing? I'm gonna be at the studio on Tuesday, why don't you come down?' Had I not run into him though... He said, 'I was hoping I was gonna see you,' which was just not true, but that's fine. He said 'What are you doing Tuesday?'... that's it. I said, 'I dunno Bob, what are you doing?' So he asked me to come down. I went down and it was a whole new crew of people. I was the only guy left from our little group. Al Kooper was there, a big bunch of people. I thought what am I supposed to do here? He said 'Just play.' So I played. I did not hit it off with Al so well, because I think he wanted to come back and be the main Dylan guy. But I mean, come on, look at Al, look what he has done.
I do think you did some great work with him in this time, despite what people say about the mid 80s. My dad always used to play this stuff equally with the classics. I never understood a lot of the harsh criticisms of the 80s stuff. People were always comparing it to the sixties material too much I felt. I like the 80s stuff.
Really? Well, to me it doesn't hold up well, mostly because of the production.
Maybe it's a nostalgia thing, because I heard a lot of it growing up.
Well you're in your early thirties now, so that stuff was quite new. It wasn't like you had to rediscover it, you were introduced to it and it was on an equal footing with, say, Mr Tambourine Man. It was all one big picture. But I can't see it like that. For a lot of people the 80s were his worst period, and I think it's being reassessed as time goes on. So maybe it was not so bad after all. But I had done a lot of touring in the 70s, and by the 80s I wanted to do more studio work and recording. The 80s were a time when analogue was being pushed to its limit. You couldn't do much more with it. There were a lot of excesses and most of them were technology driven. Reverb, overuse of synths obviously. Bob unfortunately feel into it. Those albums sound of a time rather than timeless. Because Brownsville Girl is a perfect example of it. I did a mix of it, and there is no resemblance to what the world later heard. It was more pristine. There's the acoustic, no reverb. We played it for him, all 11 minutes of it. I saw sat at one side of him. I remember thinking it sounded so good. It stopped. He said, 'Hey it sounds too clean, I can hear everything. Sounds like a Lionel Richie record.' And I thought, which I still stand by all these years later, that he liked the idea of things being obscured and muddied. To me he has one of the great voices, period, end of story. But when you hear how it got mixed in that era, it was almost like anything he could do to mess with it, the more he liked it. I get it. I do not think Bob hated the sound of his voice, but he was looking for something new. He has no technological skill, none whosoever. He cannot communicate what he is looking for at all, so he relies on other people. Which is fine, but I do not mind disparaging Arthur Baker, because I do not think he did a good service to those records. They are hard to listen to for me.
I think Knocked Out Loaded is probably a better album than Empire Burlesque, but that's maybe just for Brownsville Girl. Without that one I am not sure how that album would feel.
Hard to say. Hard to say... But I know that when I got the albums, first time I heard them, I was very disappointed that his thing we had worked very hard on just sounded like a bunch of mush. But look, a lot of people liked it, so it wasn't a complete failure.
This essay is from my new book on Dustin Hoffman's classic film performances, available to buy from my website: http://wisdomtwinsbooks.weebly.com/books.html
"What was the Baby Picture?"
Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo
If you take you average actor, the kind who's been yearning for big screen success for years, perhaps close to a decade, then the success of a film like The Graduate would understandably affect and boost the ego. The fame garnered by such a role might be infectious, giving you a certain power, but also facing you with a dilemma, as both an actor trying to keep his integrity, and more importantly, as a human being trying to hang on to who he is. Many actors would have fallen into the predictable trap, taken roles just like The Graduate's Benjamin Braddock in order to milk the fame for all it was worth, playing variations on the same character in order to stay in the headlines for another year or so, before fading back into obscurity, more than likely, uttering the words "It was good while it lasted..."
Of course, Hoffman being Hoffman, he did not go the predictable yet so tempting route. Dustin was offered boat loads of roles after the smash of The Graduate, but he found them too easy, safe and predictable; too Braddock-esque, and mere caricatures portraying the so called lost generation, at odds with their predecessors and looking for a truth of their own. Hoffman wanted to prove he was still the same character actor who'd tread the boards for minimum wage throughout the sixties, a man who took on each part as if it were an extra layer of skin, who lived the character and also wanted to challenge himself. When he accepted and agreed to play Rico "Ratso" Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, many people thought he was making the first big mistake of his professional career. This was it, they thought, he's blown it. He had started his filmography off with a perfect, appealing and quickly iconic role, redefining the rules of what a leading man could be and bringing in a wave of unconventional actors influenced by his awkward yet appealing performance. But here he was, taking an odd ball supporting role that most new stars wouldn't give the time of day.
Mike Nichols was one of the people who told Hoffman he was crazy. "I've given you this chance," he said, rather arrogantly, "and you're blowing it." As Hoffman later said though, the film might have made him a star, but it didn't make him an actor. Indeed, he'd been one of them for a decade, long before The Graduate.
Despite the warnings, Dustin took the second banana to Jon Voight's Midnight Cowboy, illustrating that fame had not gone to his head and he was in this for the work, wanting to be an equal member of the team contributing to a great work of art. And that is what Midnight Cowboy is, a truly great work of art.
"I was getting all these offers and they were all replicas," Dustin recalled. "I went back to the theatre for a bit. Then Midnight Cowboy came along and people tried to talk me out of doing that." Even if Nichols thought he was "undoing" the work he did on The Graduate to become a star, Hoffman was intent on playing Ratso and proving he was no one trick pony.
The plot concerns Joe Buck (a staggeringly good Voight), a naive Texan who heads to New York City to make it as a hustler, a "stud", and rake in the cash as a gigolo to rich New Yorkers. A few days in however, Joe realises New York isn't all he hoped it would be, and his hustling skills aren't quite up to snuff. He meets Ratso, a sleazy con man who hoodwinks Joe for twenty bucks and leaves him out to dry. Later, when Joe loses his apartment and runs out of cash, he begins to drift the streets, homeless, penniless and armed only with his portable radio, which he listens to throughout the film. When he bumps into Ratso again, the latter appears more pathetic, less a seedy hustler and more a sad figure of pity. Ratso convinces Joe to stay at his run down flat in a building which is due to be demolished. Though a crumbling, roach infested dump, it's better, and indeed warmer, than the streets. But Ratso has his sights on Florida, a healthy new life of sunshine and coconut milk, and when he begins to manage Joe's hustling activities, hopes to raise enough money for them both to flee the grimy streets of New York for fresh beginnings. As the two men get closer and their situation becomes more desperate, the dream of a new life together in Florida not only seems more appealing, but sadly, also less likely.
British director John Schlesinger had just come off the huge production of Far from the Madding Crowd and desired a smaller, more intimate project with less complications. Schlesinger certainly got that with Midnight Cowboy, and with his inventive direction gave the film its individual style. He looked at Midnight Cowboy with an outsider's eye, heightening our own sense of fear, dread and awe at this strange, vast city and the many assorted people who inhabit it. While Schlesinger presents us the many sides of New York from an unbiased if often slightly exotic perspective, Voight and Hoffman take us inside the kind of world we have seen in cities countless times, but only rush past rather than take in. They represent the drifters and outsiders existing on the fringes, the kind of people many avoid eye contact with. But in Midnight Cowboy we are plunged into that world, and convinced, quite easily in fact, into seeing them as human beings, complex souls with feelings and yearnings of their own.
The bond formed between Ratso and Joe, at the heart of the picture, is one of the most moving friendships in film history. It begins as a con for Ratso, a survivor cunningly aware that this wide eyed Southern gentleman will be easy to swindle. Joe's initial reaction when he encounters Ratso after the incident (Ratso sends Joe to O' Daniel, a supposed pimp who may be able to get him work, but actually turns out to be a religious nut) is pure rage. He roughs him up and demands his money back. Predictably, Ratso doesn't have it. After this the relationship takes an unexpected turn. When Ratso invites him to his hovel, in a fit of desperation, Joe is initially mistrustful. "You don't look like a fag," he says, wondering why this strange odd ball would think of holding out the hand of friendship. We soon learn however that Ratso is a tragic figure, hopelessly lonely and craving intimacy. Perhaps seeing that Joe is a kind hearted man, he reveals his softer side. Ratso makes him as comfortable as he can, settling him down on a bed and offering coffee, even removing his boots for him while he sleeps. He has been alone in these rough streets for a long time, but he finds his desired connection with Joe, who himself is searching for a relationship of meaning after a bad start in life (alluded to in flashbacks throughout the film). Even his hustling is a masked attempt to connect, to be seen, felt and touched. With Ratso, Joe finds the first deep and fulfilling relationship of his life. Many have raised the issue that there is a veiled homosexual subtext here, but I don't think it's as simple as that.
Homosexuality however, is a constant in the film, which seems appropriate, seeing as Schlesinger himself was a gay man just about to spread his wings and publicly embrace his sexuality. Schlesinger clearly inserted his own fears, insecurities and thoughts about homosexuality, and people's one dimensional perceptions of it, to come to conclusions of some kind with his characters and their predicaments. To use an example, Joe mostly makes his money from paid sex with gay men, most of whom are either repressed or full of shame, in acts which repulse Joe no end. But with Ratso there is a bond on a deeper level, and there's no question of it passing over into the physical. Sex for Joe Buck is a sleazy act, very separate from love and feelings, while primarily being the arena where he thinks he can prove his old fashioned manliness. Ironically, Buck actually struggles in these scenarios. Tellingly perhaps, during his sex with Brenda Vaccaro's character towards the end of the film, he fails to achieve an erection all together. Only when she mocks him, playfully that is, for his inability to rise to the occasion does he become over taken with passion, but it's done more to prove a point than being genuinely out of sexual arousal. The theory that Buck might be gay beneath his Southern machismo is at its most believable here, though it ultimately seems irrelevant to the core of the story.
More vital to Buck, and the whole film for that matter, is the importance of Ratso in his life. When they were making the movie, Hoffman told a journalist rather simplistically that Midnight Cowboy was about two men who love each other but do not engage in a homosexual relationship. Though they are unlikely chums to start with, Ratso's friendship gives him an intimacy that will stay with him long after the film is over and he begins his new life, albeit alone, in Florida.
But Ratso and Joe's relationship is not one dimensional, it's multi layered. At times Ratso comes across as a wife-like figure, even making meals for Joe and then dishing out the food out with the kind of fussiness often evident in a woman feeling unappreciated by her man. At other times, it's simply brotherly, but the kindness is from both sides. One of the most touching scenes comes before Joe and Ratso enter the freak out Warhol-esque party. Ratso, feeling ill, is sweating profusely on the staircase. With genuine gentle care, Joe takes his own shirt and wipes the sweat from Ratso's head, who clings on to Joe like a boy. In a heartbreaking moment, Ratso leans his head off his torso. The relationship has crossed a border; they are now more deeply bonded than it had seemed possible, thrust together in the mean streets of New York, firmly conjoined together against all odds.
Though one must credit Schlesinger's sensitive direction, Waldo Salt's fabulous screenplay and of course James Leo Herlihy for his original book, it's the strength of the acting, making these words and situations seem genuine and spontaneous, which elevates Midnight Cowboy into an immortal tale. Voight is so fresh and vital here that it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. During casting of the film, Hoffman did screen tests with Voight and other Joe Buck hopefuls. When asked who he thought was the best, Hoffman declined to use such a word to describe a fellow performer, but did admit that when he watched the screen tests back of the other actors, he was still watching himself in the scenes. When they rolled the Voight screen test, Hoffman could not keep his eyes off him. And that pretty much sums it up; Voight is contagiously watchable as Buck and one follows his tale with intense interest. He might easily have been a shallow, simple man who we did not care much for, but Voight lends him a sweetness, despite his often unsavoury acts, that ensures we genuinely care to the last frame and beyond.
Hoffman is spellbinding, not just for the obvious reasons, but for the way he shifts our pre-judgements into genuine feelings. Ratso is at first cinema's oiliest, grubbiest con man. Cleverly though, Dustin sheds several layers away to reveal the inner being, and he does it so subtly that we fail to pin point the moment when we began caring for rather than reviling him. The first moment we see there is more to this trickster is in the cafe scene when he removes his shoes to prove he has no change hidden in them, and we see his holey socks, revealing dirty toes. When he takes Buck back to his lair, it's gut wrenchingly sad the way he tries to make him at home, even pulling down the torn, dirty brown curtain to block out the light so Joe can get to sleep. It's in these little moments that Dustin makes Ratso a well rounded creation.
As Ratso becomes more ill, Hoffman the man disappears and only Ratso remains. It's a complete tour de force, from the thick accent and the dodgy mannerisms to the painful cough and quirky limp. Ratso could have easily turned out a mere cartoon, a broad caricature, but Hoffman makes him a human, a sympathetic character we not only grow fond of, but start to genuinely like and understand. When Ratso talks about his childhood and his late father, a shoe shiner whose hands were so dirty he had to be buried with gloves on, we are utterly heartbroken, yet we also grasp that Ratso's fate was forever set in stone. The finale, as heart breaking as it is, is inevitable. In order for Joe Buck the cowboy hustler to fade into the past as the new Joe Buck arrives, fresh faced and positive, Ratso has to die; indeed, with his death is a rebirth.
Hoffman once said an interesting thing in an interview with Charlie Rose. He said that when walking in the street he often gazes at a homeless person or a derelict and wonders "What's the baby picture?" He wonders what happened to make them that way, what changed in their lives to derail them so harshly? Hoffman was clearly thinking the same thing when he played Ratso. Looking at the part as if he was a real man, Dustin could construct a past for him. Why was he on the streets? What happened in his life to make him forever known as Ratso? What could Rico have been?
I believe Midnight Cowboy is not only one of the five best films of Hoffman's career, but one of the finest movies of the past fifty years. It won Best Picture at the Oscars, the first X rated film to do so, and I have to say no film has deserved the plaudit more than this. It made a huge sum at the box office; unexpectedly, given the subject matter and also considering the people behind this film made it for the art, not commercial gain. Today, of course, it's a sad fact that Midnight Cowboy would be put out in a few art house theatres and quickly disappear out of sight.
Notices were strong, but not all reviews were glowing. Some saw the film as a mere series of set ups, with Hoffman and Voight shining despite what they saw as the flaws. Roger Ebert for one was not totally bowled over, though I do believe he got it wrong for once. "Midnight Cowboy comes heartbreakingly close to being the movie we want it to be," he wrote, adding, "The performances have a flat, painful accuracy. The world of Times Square, a world of people without hope and esteem, seems terribly real. Here is America's underbelly and it even smells that way. And seeing these things and reaching to them, we are ready to praise the movie where we found them. And cannot. There has been a failure somewhere in the director's faith in his materials. John Schlesinger has not been brave enough to tell his story and draw his characters with the simplicity they require. He has taken these magnificent performances, and his own careful perception of American society, and dropped them into an offensively trendy, gimmick-ridden, tarted-up, vulgar exercise in fashionable cinema. Trying to get the good out of Midnight Cowboy is like looking at a great painting through six inches of Jell-O. It is there -- the greatness is there -- but unworthy hands have meddled with it almost beyond repair."
Many critics hailed it however, and everybody agreed that the acting was superb. Hoffman earned Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, plus critical acclaim. He proved, as one reviewer observed, that he was no Mike Nichols invention. Hoffman, at this stage, was capable of anything, and his Ratso is a real showcase, a transformative role that may have been influenced by his own theatrical performances, but quickly overtook any comparisons to his past, or anyone else's for that matter, and became a truly original piece of work. There never was, and has never been again, a performance quite like it.
Though some of the themes may be old fashioned now (the Warhol party is so swinging it's virtually stuck in that era, and views towards homosexuality have thankfully moved on since) the central friendship between Joe and Ratso, two outsiders against the world, fighting for their place, is as moving and powerful as ever.
This article is from my book, THE MUSIC OF LOU REED, available on Amazon...
Coney Island Baby is one of my all time favourite Lou Reed albums, for it features well balanced doses of sleaze, attitude, rock outs and charm, all of the things we came to love in Lou's best music. Written at the time Lou was with his transgender partner Rachel, he sounds happy and content throughout, although he is never resting, remaining edgy every step of the way. It's a miracle that RCA were willing to even release a Lou album after the horrors of Metal Machine Music, but he had the label on his side. It also helped that the album was a proper LP full of fine songs, all of which contained hooks, choruses and nicely played rock and roll. Under the often laid back vibe though was a darker element, a vampiric fang behind the smile.
You are lured into Crazy Feeling, the album's appealing opener, as chunky drums clatter, acoustics jangle and slide guitars suggest it's your standard mid seventies singer-songwriter album. Lou's vocals come in nice and clear, describing someone he feels a special connection with. His vocals are very present, suggesting he wasn't just propped up in the corner as he was on Sally Can't Dance. Here he sounds refreshed, charismatic and full of life. It's a superb song and one of his best openers.
Charley's Girl could almost be the seedier cousin to Walk on the Wild Side... with added cowbell obviously. Lou tells us, in his usual laid back drawl, that you better watch out for Charley's Girl, who's been snitching to the cops about their harmless but still very much illegal activities. It's based on truth of course, when this girlfriend of a chum informed the cops of a drug related party on new year's eve. The music bops along nicely, with an almost ironic "na na na" sing along from the band (perhaps spoofing Wild Side one thinks), loose guitars and a feel good atmosphere. The added bit of edge though comes near the end, when Lou promises that if he ever sees her again, he's gonna punch her face in. Priceless.
She's My Best Friend had been recorded by the Velvets in the late 1960s, only it wasn't a patch on this version, which is slower, moodier and gives more room for Lou to express himself. It's still quite unremarkable in some ways, but it definitely has a cool vibe about it and Lou is enjoying himself reciting the lyrics, which had probably taken on a new meaning for him since meeting Rachel.
The darkest song on the record is Kicks, which has a sleazy Velvet Underground feel about it. On top of a funky rhythm section with battling, dagger-like guitars, Reed recites a monologue about a man who gets his adrenaline flowing by cutting people up. It's like Hubert Selby and Raymond Chandler in song, with the party ambience in the background adding believable bar room dialogue to this urban encounter. Although there's some nice musical improvisation going on, the centre piece of the song is Lou's up front, clear, no frills vocal track. When he went off on his wild vocal riffing, there was no one who could match Lou Reed.
A Gift is hilarious, starting with Lou's declaration that he's God's gift to the female kind. The music is, again, really nicely played, very loose, cool and content. Reed's vocal is effortlessly dazzling too and the backing vocals, whispered in true sex god style, are extremely funny. A great over looked song in Reed's catalogue.
One of my personal favourites is the hard rocking and bluesy Ooh Baby, which has a fantastic Lou vocal alongside groovy piano and scratchy guitars. Lou is really loose here, clearly relishing the feel of the song he's in the middle of (he breaks up into a mini laugh at one point). Nobody's Business is a slight country tinged rock n' roller with a very laid back Lou vocal, rising cymbals and neat guitar work.
The finale is one of Lou's finest and most beautiful ballads, Coney Island Baby itself. With a title taken from the old Excellents' doo wop classic, Lou recites a sweet monologue about wanting to impress the coach, while the band keep it understated and subtle, backing him up and never invading his poetic space. With the straight, calm backing vocals, the music's passionate drive and Lou's heartfelt voice, it's clear that Coney Island Baby is free of ironies or cynicism. It's a sincere ode to the "glory of love" and a chance for Lou to channel his soulful side. It's simply beautiful and one of the man's finest moments. "I wanna send this one out to Lou and Rachael" he says in true clarity.
"From the very end of the bench comes Old Number Nada, the Babylon Zombie, the Bionic Metal Machine, that Coney Island Baby himself — Lou Reed," wrote Rolling Stone, apparently stunned by Lou's return from the dead, his big comeback as a serious contender. "The result is a career-capping touchdown scored so honestly and directly that almost no one can believe it. Coney Island Baby (the song) is the album's masterpiece, an anthem about courage, loss and the high price an outsider pays for his way of living. When Lou Reed talks about "wanting to play football for the coach" and "giving the whole thing up for you," he is expressing the profound dream of the damned - and his loss is given greater intensity because both he and we know that such wishes were impossible from the very beginning. So we reaccept it. And it hurts all over again. You can play on my team any day, Lou."
When you look at music around the time he made Coney Island Baby, Lou was in good company with this so called return to form. But his casual masterpiece differed greatly from the work of his so called contemporaries. Dylan had released Blood on the Tracks not long before Coney Island Baby surfaced, his venomous return from obscurity and self imposed exile. It was a savage affair about the break up of his marriage; unpleasant to listen to but impossible to turn off. Neil Young, another sixties icon, was stunning his audience with the belated release of his dark Tonight's the Night album, all about the deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and a roadie named Bruce Berry. Lou Reed, the man who should already have died ten times over, who had seemingly destroyed his own career with an album of feedback, was now on top of the world, putting out a positive, happy, contented record jammed full of crackers. It's as successful as a sincere love album as Berlin was as a tragic-rock opera. Surely, it showed us all what Lou was capable of, the sheer range he had as a songwriter and the control he had over his own music. The message is clear on Coney Island Baby; he's happy, he's feeling good, but his world is still a jungle, full of drugs, shady characters and the unavoidable risks of his chosen lifestyle on the fringes of society. It's a valentine's card with a pill taped to the inside of it. What could have been more honest?
ARCHIVE HOUND DAWG ISSUE: NO. 22, AUG 2016 - MADONNA, NIGEL PLANER, MIKE HERON, NICK FLYNN AND MORE...
Below is a link to the PDF for issue 26 of Hound Dawg. It features interviews with NIGEL PLANER, filmmaker PHILIPPE MORA and MIKE HERON of the INCREDIBLE STRING BAND. There is also a piece on MADONNA in Desperately Seeking Susan and a Q and A with the film's writer. Also, there is a chat with ex ZAPPA bass player SCOTT THUNES and a spotlight on the De Niro film Being Flynn, including a Q and A with the writer NICK FLYNN himself. There's quite a lot to get through, but if you get the chance, do have a browse...
Here is a sample from my new 90 page essay book on Chaplin's Keystone films of 1914. This past focuses on Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle's short comedy "The Rounders"...
Released a week after His New Profession was The Rounders (in September of 1914), which featured two silent comedy giants together, Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle. True, Chaplin and Arbuckle appeared aside each other in other films but this was the only one where they were truly "together" and interacting with one another on a notable level. From the word go they display their own respective skills, Chaplin especially, who seems to have defined his Tramp to a whole new level by September 1914.
The Rounders was a chance for Chaplin to mess around with the more drunken side of the Tramp character, a man far away from the lovably ragged form he would take in later, more seminal films as The Kid. Some have also seen the film as a round up of all Charlie's drunken tricks, as Chaplin biographer David Robinson called it, his "gallery of inebriates". The plot, if one can call it that, involves Chaplin and Arbuckle, drunk as skunks, going home to their wives for a telling off before returning to the streets to see what mischief awaits them. They brew up some bother in a cafe, flee the wives who come looking for them and end up on a boat, which inevitably begins to leak.
I have to say The Rounders is a splendid comedy and it's wonderful to get the opportunity to see Charlie and Roscoe working so well together. Chaplin admired Arbuckle, and Roscoe clearly felt the same, especially if this quote is anything to go by: "I have always regretted having not been his partner in a longer film than these one reelers we made so rapidly. He is a complete comic genius, undoubtedly the only one of our time and he will be the only one who will still be talked about a century from now." Arbuckle's comments are not only touching, they were also rather prophetic. Indeed, Buster Keaton and a small handful aside, Chaplin is the only man from pre-1920s comedy we are still interested in. Sadly, Arbuckle himself is all but forgotten, little more than a side note in film history and usually mentioned in relation to the murder he was wrongly accused of. But Chaplin and Arbuckle make a fine duo, and it's regretful that there aren't more Charlie/Roscoe team ups in the Keystone filmography. There's a certain poetic beauty to this double act, and one wonders whether they could have struck up a Laurel and Hardy type shtick had they stuck together; perhaps, but Chaplin's vision was too singular for that. Still, the final image of the two men asleep, as the water engulfs them, is one of the best from Chaplin's early years (note the way he corpses as the water over takes his face) and I for one would have loved to have seen more in this vein.
As far as directing goes, Chaplin is clearly learning more and more by every film. The framing is tidy, the action is clear and nothing is obscured. He is particularly good with Arbuckle's finer moments, and Charlie doesn't mind sharing the spotlight with his friend. The Rounders is definitely a cut above other Keystone films, being visually more assured and structurally tidier, and could be seen more as a Chaplin movie in its own right as opposed to a Keystone movie that just happens to be directed by Chaplin. Indeed, it feels like a Chaplin film, more so than any of the other Keystone productions that came before it. It also feels like a step forward.
First off, let me say I admire Henry Jaglom so much. For those not in the know, he's a legendary independent filmmaker who's been following his own cinematic path for nearly fifty years. I have spoken to him a few times over the years, we have emailed a lot and he's helped me out on book projects and given me advice on filmmaking. This interview was the first time we spoke, back in 2016, for my book on Dennis Hopper. The film we focused on was TRACKS, the second film Jaglom made, and he spoke at length about working with a manic Hopper in his drug crazed years. This interview is also featured in my mini book on TRACKS, available in my Classic Film Series of titles.
The first time you worked with Dennis was on Easy Rider, when you edited the film. How do you look back on that experience?
How do I look back on Easy Rider? The experience on Easy Rider was sensational. The one in Peru on The Last Movie was a horrible one. I didn't know we were going to talk about that, but Easy Rider was wonderful. That was mainly because Bert Schneider (producer) was so open and had all of our different views to deal with. Jack Nicholson and I were in opposite editing rooms. All he asked me was that he refused to edit his own stuff, so I got to edit Jack's scenes, which for me were some of the best things in the movie. And we had a great time. That's a perfectly happy memory. But Peru was one of the most dreadful memories of my life.
Well the film I am most interested in talking about is your own Tracks. It's one of my favourite films.
Oh! Okay. Tracks was hell on earth because of Dennis. He was so brilliant and so rich, full and collaborative and wonderful, before about 12:30 or 1 in the afternoon. And then by 1 in the afternoon he was not only furious and angry, but loaded and unusable. Couldn't remember a line, just wanted to fight about everything. He was a pain in the ass. Yet in the morning, before he had consumed whatever vast quantities of liquid and the smoking of various things he was doing, he was so open. I thought I got a great performance out of him. But I couldn't push it into even early afternoon. I just let him go for the rest of the day.
So you just had to film the other actors in the afternoon?
Yeah, I had a lot of other stuff to do. So it came to a point where we had 4 or 5 terrific hours every single day. But he would get mean and angry, which was his way of being tired and overloaded, so I said 'just go home and we'll do this other stuff.' So if we got him early enough, he was just spectacular. It was great working with him. There are so many stories. At the beginning of the film he was supposed to be co-starring with a friend of mine, a Canadian girl, very hip, very articulate, charming. Her name was Cayle Chernin. And Dennis decided to break her. Two weeks before the shoot, she went to where he lived and he got her so loaded on whatever he consumed. She had never done any of that before. And then they got into this whole sadomasochistic relationship where she showed up with bruises all the time.
And mentally she was just gone. She had been such a bright, hip young woman. I asked what happened and she said 'I have to prove to him that he's more important to me than this movie, and anything else.' There is one scene with her that is left in the movie, a very early scene. Among the girls who were playing extra parts I found Taryn Power, who was the daughter of Tyrone Power, a very innocent girl who had been brought up in Switzerland in a very protective way. She was just the opposite of the kind of feminist that Chernin had been. Yet she understood at the most basic level of how to deal with Dennis, to lock her door and just say no. And she did that. And he fumed and screamed, and I got a really interesting performance, I think, out of the two of them.
Oh yeah, There is a great dynamic between them both, a weird tension too.
Yeah. Well his remorse every morning helped. Very interesting. Things happen on films that if you are alive to the circumstances and not stuck with the idea you had coming in, terrific things can happen based upon what the characters bring you. She brought an innocence. Dennis had this devilish desire to dominate and actually destroy women, and she wouldn't go for it. It became a lovely sort of dance. The first poor girl was just destroyed by it. She went back to Toronto and never pursued her acting career.
Very dark. This stuff about Dennis, inevitably I suppose, always ends up overshadowing the work he did. The books on Dennis usually seem more interested in his behaviour than the great work he did on the screen.
Yeah, but his work came out from the dark side beautifully, if it wasn't clouded by booze and drugs. So you had to get it right. The trick was very simple. You had to get him early in the morning, way earlier than you yourself liked to get up, let him go at the latest by 1 o'clock, and then do the rest of your work. He was brilliant, alive, spontaneous and I think he gave a brilliant performance in Tracks. I don't know if you know about that last scene when he jumps into the grave...
Yeah, my favourite scene of the film!
Yeah, well I had written for him this most exquisite and articulate seven page speech about the war, the pointlessness and the horror and all of that. He was supposed to read that and then jump into the grave, open the coffin, put on the gear and turn on this town. So I said 'Action' and he had this thing in his hands - if you watch it he's holding the script in his hand, which was my speech. And very gleefully, he looked at me and he tore it up. And instead of all those words that I had written, he just said 'You motherfucker! You motherfucker! You wanna go to 'Nam? I'll take you to 'Nam. I'll take you to 'Nam. You motherfucker! You motherfucker!' It was not my style, but it was so much more correct for the solider he was playing; so much more articulate in his in-articulation, anger and fury. This guy who had been sent to Vietnam with this dream of the innocent America he had heard on all these old World War 2 songs on his tape recorder. He understood something so much fundamental than I did, that this was not a time for a speech. It was a time for rage. We did the scene once. He jumped into the coffin, said to me 'You motherfucker' maybe twenty times, ripped off the American flag, pulled out the gear and turned his coffin into a fox hole. It was his aim of destroying this old town, which is where I froze the frame. I never would have had that with a normal actor, because he would have been reading this wonderfully articulate and impassioned speech about the hell of war, which of course was nonsense compared to what Dennis did. Dennis instinctively understood the pain of this soldier and what he had gone through so much more than my privileged life had ever allowed me to even get near.
So if you are open to the actors and what they can bring to the film...
That is the trick. Orson Welles, when he was watching the edit with me... I told him, 'I am gonna use that instead.' I used it instead of the script I had planned and he said 'but it ruins the whole structure.' I said 'I don't care, all I know is I need the reality for the film.' He was fascinated. He sat with me through a lot of the cutting of Tracks and he sat behind me smoking his cigars... you know, those Monte Cristo cigars, giving me comments and saying 'God this is nuts, look at him, he's crazy!' I said 'Yeah but if I cut him here, the craziness will seem to be about the whole Vietnam thing.' Throwing in the mix... what's his name? The other actor...
Yeah, Dean, who was Dennis's friend and equally mad. I don't mean mad as in angry, I mean nuts but more controlled. I got him to tell me stories about his childhood. He becomes the guy that betrays Dennis. By dealing with their psyches, you know, other than with their scripts, I found a way to deal with those two actors. They gave two of the greatest performances of their lives as some say.
Yeah, I think this is probably Hopper's greatest performance, or is at least up there with the finest work he did.
Yeah, many people now credit it for that and he would be amazed because, of course, I wasn't letting him do anything he wanted to. And then when he finally read that speech and tore it up at the end, stood over the empty grave, started shouting and jumped in, he ended the scene. I said 'Cut, god that was great Dennis.' He looked at me, smirked and walked away. If I wanted to shoot it again he wasn't going to let me. He just walked away, walked out of the movie, walked out of the place and I didn't hear from him for four weeks. If I had more shooting to do with him, which fortunately I had planned not to because I didn't know what was gonna happen, it would have been all gone because he walked off. He had shown me that he didn't need my pages. He had said this terribly moving thing to me once. 'You don't want me, you just want to use me for your political statement.' He was very insecure, terribly charming and brilliant for the first half of the day and totally wrecked the second half. That was every single day. I never met anyone like Dennis in my life, and I really came to love him. We became very close friends. But that didn't stop him from jumping on me with a bottle of ketchup and trying to smash my head because I had looked at his girlfriend at the wrong angle or something. He was very, very complex and seriously disturbed. But also rich and full of joyfulness.
There's this belief though, that after he cleaned up, he wasn't as interesting anymore as an actor. What is your view on that?
I think that is true. I don't wanna say that he was good because of all the drugs, but he had played himself out. Bert Schneider put him in a hospital finally and he was there for a few months. And when he came out he was a Republican. He was suddenly conservative. We'd all come out of the liberal, progressive sixties, so we were all left wing, feeling very strongly and passionate about Vietnam. He became a Bush voter. He was a Republican, explaining to me why I should vote for Bush. I have never forgotten that evening up at Jack Nicholson's house when he started explaining that we'd all been wrong and it was disturbing beyond belief. It was his way of staying sober.
Almost like he had to go completely the other way to stay away from all that stuff.
Apparently. And I don't know how he did it. But he was a completely sober, upstanding Republican citizen for the rest of his life. That scared the shit out of a lot of us! But I never could have got that performance out of him had that turn around happened earlier.
So is it true that Tracks was written for Jack Nicholson originally?
Yes I did. I wrote it for Jack. There's a scene in Five Easy Pieces. Do you know Five Easy Pieces?
There's a scene when Jack is in the cafe and he orders bacon and lettuce or something and the waitress won't give him it. That scene was originally written for him by me for Tracks. He was gonna be the solider in Tracks. He and I had been very close friends, and made a promise to be in each other's films. And he was in my first directorial film, and I was in his... what was that one called?
Drive, He Said.
Yeah! Well, we had similar beliefs and feelings, so we were going to do Tracks. By the time I got to do Tracks he had priced himself so far out from me that I could not make that movie with him. No way. By the time I was ready four years on, Jack was way too big a star to work my way. I mean, with Tracks, we got on the train - Dennis, I, the actors and the crew - and we didn't tell anyone we were making a movie because the insurance was much too expensive. So we hid the cameras and hid the equipment under the individual beds, we'd come out at night after the guys who were serving the food had gone to bed and then shoot the whole thing. We'd have one person on the edge of each train compartment, to warn us if some official came in. And they did. Sometimes they would come and ask for our documentation and shooting permits and insurance, which you needed but I could not afford at all, because the insurance was more than the cost of the whole movie... So, we sent an assistant down twelve cars to a theoretical place where we would say the papers were, in which time all of us, Dennis included and all of the equipment, would get off the train. That is how we managed to get that film made.
Oh my god! So what about the famous nude scene where he runs down the train with all his clothes off? What happened there?
What happened was, that Dennis was a person who liked to take off his clothes at this stage. He was an exhibitionist. So when we were on the train, remembering that - the way I work not totally sticking to the script and trying to create situations from the actors - I said to him, 'I want you to take your clothes off.' He said 'Why?' I said, 'I want you to run through the carriage naked.' He asked why. So I said, 'You're emotionally distressed, you're upset.' So he said 'OK' and so we did this, what I thought was a very interesting scene. And what I remember most of that is when he came back afterwards. All the other people on the train, including people who weren't actors - because he ran through three cars which had real passengers on them - all applauded him. He got applause! So he came back and asked if he should do it again. I said 'No, no, we got it.'
Well I think it's refreshing to see such a wild film, totally wild, and one that surprises you and even shocks you too.
Well I thought a film about the craziness of Vietnam, and what it did to America, the loss of innocence... oh, that's all another story. But I thought it was necessary to have a little bit of crazy fun, bizarre kind of abstract, meaninglessness. The county was falling apart and it felt like the end of the American empire. While we were shooting Tracks, the capital of Vietnam... what's the capital?
Saigon! Imagine that! At that time it was the most important thing in my life, now I can't even remember the name of it. So Saigon fell and we all celebrated. We were all very strongly involved in all of that, which made it all the more strange when Dennis came back years later as a right winger.
That must have been very strange.
It was very strange indeed. He maintained that for the rest of his life. Whenever he saw a flag he would salute it. He was very patriotic.
Jesus... So when Orson Welles eventually saw the final cut, did he like Tracks?
Orson said the best thing that has ever been said to me, and I still do not know if it was a compliment or an insult. He looked at the film, he sat through it all and he said, 'It couldn't be anybody's but yours.' I said 'Did you like it?' He said 'It's not about liking it. It's an experience. It's a true experience. You've made a true experience. But it couldn't be anybody else's but yours.'
I love that, how he said that it wasn't about liking it.
Yeah, well I tried to get him to tell me more, but that was all he would say. He sat behind me however for... Jesus, not everyday, but many days in his wheelchair while I was editing it. He gave me a lot of great advice, commenting. We had become close friends in that period.
You and Dennis had done some filming for Orson's great unreleased film, The Other Side of the Wind, hadn't you? That was before Tracks wasn't it?
Yeah Dennis and I did. My favourite acting scenes are in it. I don't know if it will be released. you'll have to ask Peter Bogdanovich.
Fingers crossed it might turn up!
I would love it. But I dunno why I am cynical about it.
Because you're in the movie business.
There's a good answer. Yeah, I don't need to go much farther than that. You're right.
NOTE: The Other Side of the Wind has since been released by Netflix.
You can read more about TRACKS, in my title, The Classic Film Series: Henry Jaglom's Tracks, available on Amazon...
A little piece of my childhood slipped away today, with the death of Joe Pilato, an actor most remembered for his blistering performance in George A Romero's DAY OF THE DEAD, released back in 1985. If I were to single out the best characters in horror, and especially in Romero's rich canon, Pilato's portrayal of Captain Rhodes in the third part of the original Dead trilogy would be up at the top. Pilato's Rhodes was nasty and arrogant, but he also had some of the best lines in horror history. His legendary face off with Bub the trained zombie will go down in horror history, as will many of his scenes in the often overlooked gem.
Unlike other horror stars - and Pilato was a firm horror icon - he was actually a very good actor and he gave Rhodes a depth and individuality few others could. From the first time I saw DAY OF THE DEAD in the 1990s as a kid, when I sneaked downstairs to tape it when it aired on the Horror Channel, Pilato was a firm favourite. I would endlessly quote his lines, mostly when my mum was out; such charming dialogue as "You puss fuck!" and "You want me to salute that walking pile of puss? Salute my ass!" To me, he was the ultimate film villain, shouting non stop over the other actors and giving the film a menace that was totally his own. Besides, his death at the end of the film was one of the best and goriest in film history.
In 2010 I had the pleasure of interviewing Pilato and we spoke all about DAY OF THE DEAD. His answers were in depth and thought provoking. For his many fans here is the interview in full as a tribute to Pilato, who passed away at the age of 70 yesterday...
25 years on do you think Day of the Dead is finally getting the credit it deserved?
Yes, I do. We were side blasted by Dawn of the Dead. Everybody wanted the shopping mall and we gave them the cave under some budgetary restrictions. George keeps saying it’s one of his favourite films. It had a very claustrophobic situation and you had characters coming from a complete point of view. So, it stands and it will always stand because not only is it horrific, not only does it make you ‘stay scared,’ it’s also intellectually complete and George took what he had – his budget was cut in half – and he chose to go into the world of isolation. What he couldn’t do visually he did “literally.” He had points of view in collision: Logan, the mad scientist; Sarah, the buffer; Rhodes, the military man whose job was just to exterminate. So, it was a sense of confinement and ideas. People were not stupid.
George took a sense of confinement, which was opposed to his original script. He took a sense of confinement and claustrophobia where it met mindlessness. I personally think we were originally dismissed by the press for not repeating the shopping mall scenario but instead we continued with the evolution of the story.
Why do you think it was not as well received when it was released?
For Dawn, the concept of the shopping mall at that point in time was so ingenious. But nobody concentrated on the shopping mall. They concentrated on the characters. The concept of the shopping mall was brand new at the time and a sociological statement. When you look at Land of the Dead, it’s about time shares. And, I don’t think George starts with these concepts. You look at Dawn and it’s the shopping mall and if you look at Land it’s either about assisted living or timeshares. I don’t think any great writer or director starts with a concept. I think George had a story to tell and the zombies had to evolve. If you create a species like George did, and you want to continue the story, there’s an evolution. Look at Dawn of the Dead then look at Land of the Dead and you traverse between the shopping mall and you see the journey to timeshare. With Day, I think at the time the claustrophobic concept was lost on audience’s expectations for another Dawn.
How does it feel to be part of horror history?
It really feels great. Not because of any sort of infatuation of always being accessible on DVD and other formats. The thing is the genre fans. I have never met a genre fan I didn’t like. Genre fans ask great questions. In so many ways, a family has developed, and without that family, I’m just a piece of celluloid. I have the great fortune, as well as many of my colleagues do, of having an astute and knowledgeable film family. Because of the film, I’ll be around for a longtime. But, it’s the genre fans that have been a big part of the experience. They are the people that make this thing tick, and I love them to death. With them, we are an ongoing experience and I sincerely believe that.
Do you ever see any of the rest of Day of the Dead's cast?
Yes, absolutely. I stay in contact with all of them. I’m really close with everyone. We meet up at conventions. It’s always a great celebration. Geographically, we live in very different locations. Gary, Lori, Tim and Jarlath are on the East coast, I’m on the West coast so we meet at conventions and when we do it’s a wonderful thing. I speak with them by phone at least once or twice a month. It’s funny because not until – let’s see the movie was made in 1984... until Fangoria did a reunion years later, I hadn’t seen Gary or Lori since we made the movie but have stayed in touch with them ever since. They have been a great resource in my life and I believe I’ve been a great resource in their lives and that doesn’t happen very often in film. We spent a lot of time underground and got close. And we’re still close.
So it’s silly to ask if you ever get tired of being tied to Romero's films?
Absolutely not. I had the opportunity to work with one of the greatest directors whose work is in the archives of the New York Museum of Modern Art.
You have been doing a lot of fan fairs and festivals lately. Do you enjoy meeting fans and does it put a real perspective on your craft?
The conventions are a chance to meet my extended family. Everybody that comes to my table I consider to be a member of my extended family.
When do we expect the release of Night of the Living Dead Origins? Also, what are fans of horror to expect from this project?
The release date is supposedly around March. This whole CG world is very new to me. I was honoured to play Mr. Cooper – I knew Carl and I know his daughter. I know the Director’s vision is epic and expect we’ll be seeing something on a grand scale.
So who is the best director you have worked with? Who else aside Romero was fun to work with?
George, Quentin, and a guy named Charlie Peters. I did a picture with Charlie and Jude Law called, ‘Music From Another room.’ I think Charlie is probably the most underrated American director and storyteller. Under George’s direction, I had major characters to play. And, working under Quentin’s direction was a wonderful experience.
Who would you love to work with. Alive or dead?
I would have loved to work with Elia Kazan and Jerzy Growtowski. I would love to work with Quentin Tarantino and Charlie Peters again. Also Robert Rodirguez.
You have some varied projects coming up. Which ones are you most excited about?
I’m certainly excited about the remake of Night of the Living Dead since I’m still attached to the post production and it’s foremost on my mind now.
What are your favourite horror movies of all time?
I’m an old animal. It’s the Universal classic horror films. Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein with Basil Rathbone, Dracula, the Wolfman, and films such as the original Howard Hawk’s The Thing and The Day the Earth Stood still with Michael Rennie. I’m a black and white kind of guy. I love shadows and gothic imagery. There’s a real difference between being scared and being terrorized. If we scare people, we’ve done 80% of our job and that’s what’s mostly out there. But, to terrorize that is the goal. And the movies that I like are old, but they terrorize me.
Finally, what is your view on Rhodes as a character and do you really think he was such a bad guy?
Rhodes was not a bad guy. You go to the airport today you either get put in a chamber or strip searched or hand searched. This is the beauty of George. Rhodes is the military point of view. Sarah and Logan were the medical point of view. It’s a tough choice, we live in a tough time. I think Rhodes was like, ‘shoot ‘em in the head,’ and that’s always going to be the military point of view. Unfortunately, Major Cooper died, Rhodes would have been second in command but when Cooper died, Rhodes had to take over and it was ‘Alright. Kill ‘em. Don’t domesticate them.’ In the small circle of isolation, we had the scientific point of view, voodoo point of view – which came from Terry’s character, and of course the military point of view. And, that was the job I was given. I’m not so sure I believe it today AND I’m not so sure I don’t believe it today. Strip search me at the airport - I’d rather do that than go through the box because of the radiation - but protect me. George was always a visionary.
RIP JOE PILATO....
Day of the Dead has been my favourite horror film since I was about 12. Granted, I should not have been watching it, but thanks to the Horror Channel showing it one night, and the uncreaky floorboards of our family home, I managed to sneak downstairs one night and record it. I was hooked on its vile gore, constant bickering between the scientists and military folk and its general unpleasantness.
This article is from my book GEORGE A ROMERO ON SCREEN, published about four years ago. You can get the book on Amazon....
Romero described Day of the Dead upon its release as “a tragedy about how a lack of human communication causes chaos and collapse even in this small little pie slice of society.” This mental meltdown of communication just happened to be going on in the most claustrophobic, dark and depressing of settings. Whereas Dawn of the Dead provided viewers with the varied and colourful scope of the shopping mall, Day of the Dead had its characters, depressed and drained, bickering in a smelly, darkly lit underground mine. Any humour that had been present in Dawn of the Dead (the pie fight for instance) was totally absent in Romero’s next feature. The only laughs in the 1985 follow up are to be had are in watching Dr Logan (Richard Liberty) training the domesticated zombie Bub (played by Howard Sherman) how to enjoy human pleasures. The film is foul mouthed, at times sickeningly gory and absolutely brilliant. For me, a true tour de force of intelligent horror.
Romero has said that while Night of the Living Dead appeals to the zombie purists, and Dawn of the Dead has become the “party” zombie movie, Day of the Dead is adored by “the trolls”. By that of course he means the real gore nuts, the folk who crawl out from under their rocks to delight in some unforgiving zombie violence. Not to say Day of the Dead is not brilliant, it is just way more down beat, grim and in-your-face than its predecessors. It's my personal favourite of all six Dead films.
The plot focuses on a group of survivors living underground in a mine shaft, well away from the masses of zombies that roam free outside in the real world. On one side of the camp are the more sympathetic characters, the supposedly humane and scientific department who have a view to tame the creatures rather than destroy them. Lori Cardille plays Sarah, our guide through the chaos of the picture, who is in the middle of some advanced scientific research which can hopefully one day reverse the zombie process. At the other end we have the military point of view, which is a more primal stance against the zombie invasion; in basic terms, the army want the beasts dead, to do “nothing but drop over”. The military merely put up with the eccentric Dr Logan’s experiments because they believe, for some time at least, that they have to. They are led by Joe Pilato’s wonderful creation, Captain Rhodes, who is never short of an unpleasant expletive or put down. After tensions flare and build to an uncontrollable level, the conflict between the two camps eventually takes over and the battle of morals ultimately ruins their alleged safe haven. The film climaxes in one of the bloodiest and most powerful ways a horror film could ever end.
Romero went way down with Day of the Dead to a very small scale, especially when comparing it to the vast canvas of Dawn of the Dead. But once again it was circumstance and not mere artistic vision that orchestrated the changes. Initially, Romero had been given a 7 million dollar budget and the original screenplay shows a much bigger and more extravagant movie than the one that eventually hit the big screen. When the budget was halved, Romero found himself forced to downscale the production. What he couldn’t have, he made up for in other smarter ways. Action scenes in the script, including one at the harbour involving a huge gun fight with the zombies, had to be cut and replaced with more realistic sequences that fit the budget. For instance there was supposed to be an above ground camp site for the characters, but this was also scrapped due to a shortage of funds. As a result of such cuts, many of the people involved in the film remain disappointed with the results to a certain degree, bearing in mind what the end film could have been, had the original screenplay been used. But in retrospect the limitations probably made this a better film. As George has said, more money would have meant more supervision from the big wigs funding it. In exchange for less cash he was ultimately given more freedom, the opportunity to push the gore and not worry about an X rating (they were less liable to put up more money for an X rated picture back then). “I simplified it,” Romero said. “I brought it down to what its essentials were.” Producer Cletus Anderson said Romero put real anger into the script, anger was perhaps a result of having his large ambitions swept out from underneath him.
Romero had planned this to be “The Gone with the Wind of zombie movies” (Special effects man Tom Savini called the original script “Ben Hur with zombies!”) but the results are far from epic, which is all for the better in my opinion. Whereas Dawn of the Dead had gone BIG, its follow up returned to the “trapped” atmosphere of Night of the Living Dead, by far scarier and more impressive when looking back some 25 years on. But the script went under big changes and most of the original characters were written out and replaced before the finished product saw the light of day. Romero though, once again, focused his attention, at least symbolically, on the things of the era that bugged him. He was giving up on the government, could see a real downward spiral in morals, and once again he reflected a breakdown of civil communication.
Shooting mostly took place in an underground mine shaft in Pennsylvania, the humidity of the location making the process very difficult for cast and crew. The facility was used to store important documents, but also had caves and a few lakes within its depths. Crew found the place creepy and also said it stunk of mould. Rather fittingly too, the logo for the mine used a picture of the Greek mythological figure Medusa, with wild snakes hissing out of her hair.
Filming began in October and ended in December of 1984 at Beaver Falls, with an additional two months shooting at Fort Myers. The special effects team, led once again by the charismatic and gifted Tom Savini, had prepared the numerous gore effects between the months of July and October in Savini’s home basement. Effects man Greg Nicotero said that they worked on assembling props and sets that fit with the first draft for over two months, until the screenplay was altered and their attention was put into the new plot.
Of the first three Romero zombie movies, Day of the Dead received the most negative critical response and was seen as something of a let down in general. Money wise also, it came nowhere near to the success of Dawn of the Dead. Fans of Romero’s work and the horror genre in general however loved the film and it soon entered the canon of classic zombie flicks. Critics though were cruel and claimed the film was sexist and according to The New York Times it was full of “windy argument”. Criticism pointing out that the film was demeaning to women was denied by its lead actress Lori Cardille, who openly claimed her character was strong and intelligent. It is true that in most horror movies, women are either scared bimbos fleeing the creature as their clothes drop off or depicted as gun wielding tom boys. In comparison to the usual trends, Lori’s performance is strong and assured, and she is the one sole character we understand the most in this dark journey.
The movie shocked many people, most notably and memorably The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Office for Film and Broadcasting. Their appalled statement included the following damnation: “Romero’s third low budget zombie chiller provides a loathsome and unimaginative mix of violence, blood, gore and some sexual references to demeaning women.” Not big fans then presumably?
Robert Ebert, who had previously been very complimentary about George’s movies, had little good to say about the new instalment. “The zombies in Day of the Dead are marvels of special effects”, he wrote. “Truth to tell, they look a lot better than the zombies in Night of the Living Dead, which was director George Romero's original zombie film. His technology is improving. But the zombies have another problem in Day of the Dead: They're upstaged by the characters who are supposed to be real human beings. You might assume that it would be impossible to steal a scene from a zombie, especially one with blood dripping from his orifices, but you haven't seen the overacting in this movie. The characters shout their lines from beginning to end, their temples pound with anger, and they use distracting Jamaican and Irish accents, until we are so busy listening to their endless dialogue that we lose interest in the movie they occupy. Maybe there's a reason for that. Maybe Romero, whose original movie was a genuine inspiration, hasn't figured out anything new to do with his zombies. In his second zombie film, the brilliant Dawn of the Dead, he had them shuffling and moaning their way through a modern shopping mall. The effect was both frightening and satirical. This time, though, Romero has centred the action in a visually dreary location - an underground storage cavern, one of those abandoned salt mines where they store financial records and the master prints of old movies. In the earlier films, we really identified with the small cadre of surviving humans. They were seen as positive characters, and we cared about them. This time, the humans are mostly unpleasant, violent, insane or so noble that we can predict with utter certainty that they will survive. He (Romero) should quit while he's ahead.”
Ebert’s points are understandable, and he like many others was clearly disappointed by the film in comparison to the more upbeat and varied comic book delight of Dawn of the Dead. But the characters, as he points out, are not supposed to be likable. No one is going for points in this movie; theirs is a pitifully desperate situation and the constraints of the setting are causing them to behave like little more than animals. I thought Ebert might have understood such a realistic portrayal of human desperation.
While it had a somewhat muted response, especially in comparison to its predecessor, Day of the Dead still managed to make over ten times its budget at the box office upon release. There was still very much a healthy interest in Romero’s brand of horror it seemed, even if some of the reviews were far from complimentary.
On that note, I believe Rhodes is one of the truly great characters of horror, as unforgiving and brutal as any disfigured killing machine monster might have been. Joe Pilato brings a real energy to the role, spitting out the foul mouthed dialogue like he really means it. We sense true desperation in his Rhodes, and whenever he is on screen we feel on edge, not knowing what the enraged Captain might do next. Pilato is brilliant in his role, and one cannot understand why he didn’t go on to be a big star after this. When speaking of his audition, Pilato claimed he was thrilled to get the part and commented that he loved playing “a mean old son of a bitch!”
Lori Cardille is also fantastic in her role as one of the strongest female leads in horror history. As Sarah, she is attempting to keep her cool amidst the mayhem, the arguments and the violence. We, the viewer, are directly on her wave length, making the upset in the film all the more distressing.
Perhaps the most remembered and loved character in the film is the zombie Bub, played by Sherman Howard. As Bub is being trained to behave less primitively by the eccentric Dr Logan, his manner was set to be somewhat different to the other zombies. The only real direction Romero gave the actor for the role was to put in a bit of “infancy and innocence.” Howard, under this small amount of simple guidance, constructed a more rounded character as opposed to a mere beast with a dash of likeability, and immersed himself deeply into his role. He even went as far to assume that Bub was perhaps involved in the military before he was a zombie. At one point, when Captain Rhodes enters the room, Bub salutes him, perhaps revisiting a distant memory that had lodged itself in the back of his mind. Of course, Rhodes does not salute back, a decision which eventually costs him his life. But Bub has an increasingly noticeable air of humanity about him, which Howard has really captured brilliantly. When watching Day of the Dead, any small amount of sympathy we previously had for the creatures in previous installments is totally over shadowed. If anything, with most of the characters in Day of the Dead being close to detestable, we find ourselves routing with the zombies, clearly a telling example of how easily our moral values can be altered to suit our own emotional comfort.
The creature has reached an interesting point in the midst of Day of the Dead, in as much that it could perhaps, in given time, return to its former self. In Dawn of the Dead, it is noted that the creatures are not cannibals because they are no longer human and that they are driven by pure instinct. So while Logan’s practice was far from conventional, he was perhaps on to something, a long road that may have resulted in the reversal of the “zombie” state. It is unfortunately something that Logan never got to find out. But Bub has now reached an iconic status in zombie fandom. Even Romero himself commented that Bub had become “the quintessential, mainstream zombie.”
Another stand out performance for me comes from Gary Klar who plays Steel, the tough guy soldier built like a brick shit house. He is also given some of the best dialogue, in what is definitely Romero’s finest script. The words really reflect the panic and helplessness of the people in this hell. Theirs is an ugly existence, constantly on the brink of meltdown and this is reflected in the equally ugly dialogue; there is tension, jealousy, sexual frustration, machismo and greed. Few horror movies capture uncontrollable emotion in a truthful way as Day of the Dead does. While there are true elements here, regarding the lack of a proper understanding and communication, Romero really brings to life the feelings one might have if the zombies really did take over the world.
GEORGE A ROMERO ON SCREEN is on Amazon. It features reviews of all his films plus interviews with his key actors....
With news of the re-release on Blu Ray of Dennis Hopper's lost classic THE LAST MOVIE, here is an article from my book on Hopper, THE COMPLETE FILM GUIDE...
"The ego problem - this is the crux of Dennis Hopper, but what is it exactly? It's something to do with coming from nowhere - an alfalfa farm in Kansas - and having a huge ambition - nothing less than to be a genius," so wrote Lynn Barber in her Guardian interview with Hopper, a man she clearly had little fondness for. "His determination to be a genius was, perhaps still is, total, but he never quite decided what sort of genius he would be. Unfortunately he made the common mistake of studying the lifestyles of geniuses rather than the work - what one might call the If-I-cut-off-my-ear-I-will-paint-like-Van-Gogh delusion. He observed that great actors were often drunks, so he started drinking, and then he observed that some of them also took drugs, so he did that too."
Though Barber's waffling is often misguided and rude in that particular piece, you cannot disagree that Hopper lived the life of the hedonistic artist while living in Taos, his new home in the wake of the cultural explosion caused by Easy Rider. Hopper had become abandoned and careless. With every drink, line of coke and casual bit of sex, he felt more and more like a true creative spirit. But the truth is that he wasn't being fulfilled in his work at Taos, and he was the first to admit it. There were too many distractions, too many hangers on getting in the way of him editing The Last Movie and getting anything done. Hopper was a great photographer, no doubt about that, and he was still getting to take great images, as seen in the documentary The American Dreamer where he expresses satisfaction with the work as he lays it out on the floor. But he never really followed up the plate shifting Easy Rider with that definitive statement for the 1970s. Filmmaking was open to Hopper for a very short time as being his primary outlet of complete gratification. After all, Easy Rider had been acclaimed as the film of the year by many and had won him the prize at Cannes. He was on the cover of every major magazine, touted as the next big thing in Hollywood. He needed to follow up Easy Rider or he'd be written off quickly as the one hit wonder wild man. So he went back to an earlier project, one that he had already written and wanted to make before Easy Rider. Enter The Last Movie.
Hopper saw The Last Movie as, quite plainly, a movie about the making of a movie. Like Fellini's 8 1/2, it became a metaphor for the film making process, a meta-film if you like. In it he stars as Kansas, a stunt coordinator looking after the horses on a Western shoot in Peru. When an actor is killed on set in the village, Kansas hangs up his hat (well, he leaves his hat on actually, but he quits) and settles in Peru with a woman. However, when the villagers start making their own movie with home made primitive cameras, they begin to act out the violence they saw being filmed earlier, not realising of course that it was performance. Kansas finds himself in the centre of these harrowing re-enactments, resulting in one of the most bizarre closing chapters to any movie in history. The film is told through three narratives, all of which overlap at random points.
If The Last Movie in effect wanted to put an end to the mystifying illusion of cinema, it also put an end to Hopper's run as the director to watch at that moment in time. When it was finally finished after a highly chaotic shoot and elongated editing process, critics detested it, the film execs at Universal refused to distribute it and the fans that did see it were let down after the accessible beauty of Easy Rider. What had happened to their Dennis? What had he done? Well, in short, he'd stripped down the accepted conventions of cinema away and shown us the skeletal framework on which a filmmaker hangs his tools, all plot, character development and narrative. Putting in orchestrated punch ups, "Scene Missing" captions and baffling sequences that blur reality and fiction, it was much harder work than Easy Rider. Indeed, even today, with Hopper's vision for the film well known and established, it takes a few viewings to get into the flow. The Last Movie exposes the fantasy and assaults the viewer without mercy. Again, like Fellini's 8 1/2, it's about the technique and damaging consequences of film rather than being an actual film for entertainment value. Somehow though, it's still entertaining. "It is an art film," Hopper once insisted, as if we needed telling.
Hopper had written The Last Movie with Stewart Stern, the man who penned Rebel Without A Cause, and had run into difficulties getting it made since the early 1960s. After Easy Rider's monstrous success however, he could basically do what he wanted, and a million dollar budget was a sizeable amount (nearly three times the one he and Fonda got for Easy Rider) for the period. But Hopper made a party of it, spending a large chunk of 1970 shooting his masterpiece in Peru, with friends like Dean Stockwell, Henry Jaglom and Kris Kristofferson along for the mad ride.
If it was at all possible, the editing process proved to be even more of a challenge than the shoot, where Hopper was encouraged by acclaimed director Alejandro Jodorowsky to make the film more unconventional, and inevitably, barely decipherable to mainstream viewers. He agreed to do so, resulting in a purposely disjointed shedding of cinematic skin, three interweaving narratives, revealing the grit of the big screen. The film was not only rejected, it was despised and mocked. Hopper was devastated, and even though it won a prize at the Venice Film Festival, it sank and was removed from circulation. Hopper was hurt, and angrily rejected Hollywood for what it had done to his classic.
Reviews were vile, with Roger Ebert leading the onslaught when he gave the film a one star writing, "Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie is a wasteland of cinematic wreckage. There are all sorts of things you can say about it, using easy critical words to describe it as undisciplined, incoherent, a structural mess. But mostly it's just plain pitiful. Hopper hasn't even been able to cover his tracks; the failure of his intentions is nakedly obvious. Near the movie's end there's a pathetic scene in which he sits, half-stoned, dazed, confused, and says the hell with it. It feels like he means it. All of this - the fancy photography, the fragmented editing, the series of expensive performers and high-royalty songs - is just an elaborate rescue attempt. Hopper throws us off the scene by using title cards that say 'scene missing,' and if he leaves in clapboards and puts in a jolly hand-written 'The End!' when the movie's over, why, then, The Last Movie must exist on many levels, some of them droll, some significant, some intended as kind of an underground telegram to users. I dunno."
"The new film," New York Times wrote, "which opened yesterday at the R.K.O. 59th Street Twin Theater, was judged the best feature at the 1971 Venice Film Festival by the International Committee for the Diffusion of the Arts and Letters of Cinema - and I can only think that someone must be kidding. I know nothing about the committee, or its perhaps awesome mission, but its name is certainly as ornate, and as immediately meaningful as the movie on which it bestowed its prize. To make his Last Movie, Hopper seems to have had the resources necessary to transport to Peru a huge Hollywood company that included, in unrecognizable bit roles, people like Peter Fonda, John Phillip Law, Severn Darden, Jim Mitchum and Dean Stockwell. They must have had a ball, photographing each other and the local color, and I have no doubt that fantasy and reality did become confused, at least to the extent that The Last Movie itself comes to look every bit as indulgent, cruel and thoughtless as the dream factory films it makes such ponderous fun of. As a result, The Last Movie has enough visual style to suggest that it really does have something on its mind. That, however, turns out to be just another fantasy."
On the Merv Griffin Show in 1971, a solemn, spaced Hopper is kindly referred to as a big filmmaker by the host. "I was a big filmmaker," Hopper corrects, looking sorry. "I hit the top. We're all out here selling something. We're all in trouble on this panel. I'm out here trying to sell my movie, and it's kind of pathetic I think. I got raped. I'm on a personal trip like we all are. I made a movie called The Last Movie. It's a really a difficult movie. I'd rather not talk about it. I won Best Movie at Venice which has been a dream of mine all my life. I was more affected by European directors than American ones, that's where it was at. I won that festival yet nobody wants to see my movie, even though it's a complicated film... I think it's also a simple film. But that's enough about The Last Movie..."
Watching the video footage shows a wounded Hopper, afraid of coming across as self absorbed and pretentious, but also oozing self pity in a very understandable way. After all, this was his baby, the one film he had wanted to make for nearly a decade. The Last Movie is clearly a powerful artistic statement, yet it was shelved so quickly, despite the fact that it might have made its money back in time at drive ins and art house screenings. Even now, despite Hopper's death and its critical reappraisal, it's not so easy to see in the UK. Most importantly, a lot of people seem more interested in the wild making of the film than the film itself. As is so often the case with Hopper, people want to know about the myth, the drugs, the drink, the violence, the bad behaviour. Yet you can learn so much more about Dennis when you watch or investigate his work. The Last Movie is autobiographical, at least in part. After all, he's called Kansas, the place he was born. The character also has enough of the film industry and withdraws, which Hopper indeed did after the film's negative reaction cut him deep, and ruined his career in Hollywood.
"I immediately wanted to make The Last Movie after Easy Rider was a success," Hopper said years later, clearly more able to speak of his abandoned masterpiece in time. "I got a deal at Universal. 'Make a movie for a million dollars' was the deal. Really good deal. I did The Last Movie, Fonda did The Hired Hand, Bogdanovich did Targets, Monte Hellman did Two Lane Blacktop. There was no successful film in this programme (laughs). While I was making The Last Movie, a lot of things had changed in my mind since writing it years before. I really wanted to make a film about film. I went further into it. As an abstract expressionist, they used paint as paint rather than trying to make it into something else. I use clapperboard, cameras out of sticks, Indians taking over the set when the film company leaves and they start acting out the American movie violence. That's basically what it's about. I saw it the other night again and it looked really good. I really enjoyed seeing it. It was a tough movie."
Hopper always said that he enjoyed establishing the story of the film, then snatching it away right from under the viewer, as if to say "this isn't real, it's only a movie," rewriting the rule book again. Marketed and hyped as a follow up to Easy Rider, it's little wonder people were so disappointed. Easy Rider had challenged conventions of cinema itself, putting in music instead of dialogue and featuring avant-garde techniques to shake up the understood format of film. The Last Movie though, went one further and practically turned the camera round to show you the crew. It ended up like an extended version of the Mardi Gras scenes in Easy Rider. Gone was the glossy illusion of the old Hollywood, the wooden stiltedness of the film world Hopper had started in. No make up, no real plot, no quotable dialogue and no "stars". The Last Movie was to cinema what Bob Dylan's stripped back John Wesley Harding album had been to the wave of psychedelia sweeping across the world in 1968. The veteran of many a Western was taking us inside the making of that classic Hollywood genre and exposing America's somewhat questionable love affair with movie violence and bloody shoot outs for that it was.
“There wasn’t a script," Dean Stockwell recalled to Uncut Magazine. "He’d outline it, and then we’d go do it. But he was absolutely in control. In his own inimitable way. At that time, he was a piece of work like nobody I’ve ever known. Dennis was all over the place, all constant energy, you just couldn’t shut him up for a second – he had more energy than 10 people. He was awesome to be around.”
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, being around Dennis Hopper on a film set in 1970 is an experience that most of us can only imagine. Instead, we can watch The Last Movie and take a trip inside his head. And boy, what a head!
THE LAST MOVIE is out on DVD and blu ray now....
My book DENNIS HOPPER THE COMPLETE FILM GUIDE is on amazon...
Here is a Q and A did a few years ago with STEPHEN METCALFE, writer of the play the film JACKNIFE was based on. In my view, JACKNIFE is one of Robert De Niro's most unfairly overlooked movies. This interview appears in my book on De Niro's films, Robert De Niro On Screen, which has just been re-released in a new edition, available now on Amazon.
What was the inspiration behind writing the original play?
The play was based on a true story told to me by a high school friend who served in Vietnam. It was the story of three soldiers – a fire fight took place, one man was wounded, one man died trying to save him and one man froze in fear. I found the voice for Megs in, of all places, a dive bar out on Long Island in the summer of 1979. There was a guy alone at a table, obviously a vet, now a truck driver, drunk and very loud, engaged in this frenzied monologue to no one in particular.
The voice and character became the basis for a one act play, Jacknife (you can get it from Samuel French). In the one act, Megs is visiting Bobby’s younger brother at college. He talks about Dave Flanagan, he talks about Bobby, he talks about what happened. The one act was very well received and one evening someone said to me in passing, you need to write a play about Megs and Flanagan’s sister. A light bulb sort of went off. The play, Strange Snow, began as a love story between opposites (merry and tragical, tedious and brief, that is hot ice and wondrous strange snow). The baggage that Megs and Dave were carrying came inevitably into the play later.
How did it come about to make a film of it?
By 1985 I had started doing some screenwriting work – rewrites. I decided if I was going to continue to do this, I needed to write an original screenplay. Strange Snow seemed like a likely place to begin. From a technical point of view it was a not a great screenplay. It was over written, at times it was far too static. And yet there was something there. It was put on that Hollywood list of “best unproduced screenplays.” It was subsequently optioned by producers who believed in it and set about trying to finance it and get it made.
How did De Niro get involved in Jacknife and what were your thoughts of him being cast?
The first actor who came aboard was Ed Harris who committed to doing Megs. I don’t know how the script got to De Niro but all of a sudden we had the news he wanted to do the role. (Unbelievably, Ed Harris said – hey, no problem, he wants Megs? I’ll do Dave). Frankly, I felt torn. There was the excitement of the moment – Robert De Niro wants to do the movie! It meant it was really happening and probably with a bigger budget. At the same time I felt that Ed Harris was more right for the role of Megs. If you read the play, you’ll see that there is a comedic as well as tragic quality to Megs. The first act especially plays funny between Megs and Martha – opposites clashing and attracting. Megs is a bit of a clown. When pressed, Martha calls him endearing. It is Dave who says you don’t know him – he’s crazy. I knew De Niro could play the intense side of Megs. I wasn’t sure he could play the clown.
What kind of research did De Niro do for the role?
I can tell you that in rehearsals I saw he had the entire script printed out in a bound six by eight inch booklet. Every time he turned a page you could see that each page was filled to over flowing with tiny hand written notes.
How did you think he grasped the Megs character from your original vision? How you do rate the performance?
I’ll be honest, but I’ll follow this up later. I was disappointed in the film when I saw it. I didn’t feel De Niro had grasped the comedic qualities inherent in the character. When he tried to, he came off as clumsy and uncomfortable. He wasn’t helped by the director, a very talented but stuffy Englishman, who also did not “get” the very American sense of humour and needless to say, had some problems communicating with De Niro on set. Having said that, other moments were breathtaking. I’ve always thought De Niro should have played Dave and Ed Harris should have played Megs. So it goes.
De Niro seems to be an actor who respects the writer of the material. Did you have up close involvement with him during filming and see him perform?
I was very much involved with the rehearsal process. The director, David Jones, came from the theatre and he was a proponent of staged rehearsal. He found a big space and had production people tape out the sets, locations, etc. and then for a week, he worked with the actors, staging scenes. I’m not sure De Niro was crazy about the idea but he played along without complaint. He was very quiet, very subdued, never committing to anything. It was more an internal than it was an external process for him. A number of times they need someone to play different characters and I was asked to step in. To this day, I can say I got to rehearse with the great Bob De Niro. One of the great disappointments of Jacknife was that it was shot during the WGA strike of 1988. Writers were not allowed to be on set. For all intents and purposes my involvement with Jacknife ended after the rehearsals.
Do you have any good stories about people's reactions to the film?
The TV producer, Norman Lear, saw the film, liked it very much and wanted to have lunch. Are you kidding? Yes! I armed myself with any number of pitches. Only he wasn’t interested in pitches, he was interested in lunch. Good conversation. Wine. Anecdotes. He had a turkey burger and insisted I have the house special sausages. When I said I liked them, he insisted on taking me back into the kitchen and getting me several pounds of them to take home with me. You sensed he did this with guests all the time.
How do you look back on Jacknife? Do people in general give you feedback about the film at all?
I saw the film when it came out and being unhappy with it, didn’t look at it again for a long time. I took solace in any number of good stage productions. Around ten years ago, perhaps when it was reissued on DVD, people started telling me how much they liked it. One day I sat down with it and put in the DVD player. With no expectations that it should be anything like the play I’d written so long ago, I watched it entirely on its own merits and I liked it very much. I saw subtleties I hadn’t seen before, I saw a story simply and honestly told. I was moved to tears. I find myself very proud of it now. My only regret is that I wasn’t part of the filming, wasn’t on set, wasn’t part of the production process. So it goes.
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