On Anthony Burgess and Inspiration: The Me in The Metropolis Movie

Metropolis Movie

Artists can absorb influences so deeply, it can be renewing — if not startling — when we discover traces of them in our later, “mature” work. By traces, I don’t mean George Harrison-style cryptomnesia when you suddenly have to lawyer-up thanks to a couple of misappropriated “doo langs.” No, I mean the subtle nods or oblique homages to the works that inspired us and the whose who made it. We may have forgotten some of these instances of inspiration then trip over like psychic land mines when looking over one’s own oeuvre.

I credit my newfound awareness of this potentiality to Anthony Burgess, whose previously unpublished essay, A Movie That Changed My Life by Anthony Burgess, recently appeared in the Guardian. It got me thinking about the quiet DNA of influence. Spoiler alert — for Burgess, it was Fritz Lang’s expressionistic and dystopian Metropolis that prefigured ideas that later became the author’s A Clockwork Orange and a quasi-sequel to an Orwell classic cheekily titled 1985. The essay brought to mind my own transformative relationship with the expressionistic genius of Fritz Lang.

The first images of Metropolis I laid eyes on were in what I’m assuming was 1979’s The Art of Star Wars by Carol Titleman, which I poured over as a seven-year-old. There was a poster-worthy image of Metropolisrobot revealed as the spiritual ancestor of the nebbishy C-3P0 as conceptualized by artist Ralph McQuarrie.

Metropolis
Ralph McQuarrie’s concept art for C-3PO is a nod to Fritz Lang’s activist robot.

I wouldn’t see the film until five years later when it came to the Plaza Theatre in Petaluma, California. The Plaza was a revival house in the heart of town, responsible for birthing many a local cineaste (and the inspiration for the Lumiere in The Late Projectionist). But this was 1984, so the version of the film making the rounds wasn’t the original silent, black and white, Fritz Lang original but rather a sort of extended found-footage, color-tinted, music video version tailor-made for the MTV generation.

We can thank or blame Giorgio Moroder for this particular cut. 

For context, Moroder is “the founder of disco and an electronic music trailblazer” (according to his bio). An Italian-born producer and film composer, Moroder is responsible for scores for films including Scarface and Midnight Express, and soundtrack singles like Top Gun‘s “Take My Breath Away” and Blondie’s “Call Me” in American Gigolo. This is just conjecture but it seems Moroder had the notion to build a soundtrack and needed a movie upon which to pin it. In fact, Moroder outbid David Bowie for the rights for Metropolis (we can cry about that later). He then reduced the film’s running time (or butchered depending on your sense of authorial sanctity) and added this New Wave-ish soundtrack:

Admittedly, I remember being quite taken by Bonnie Tyler’s “Here She Comes,” with all its chordal echoes of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover” and heavy rotation on MTV as a video culled from Moroder’s cut.

So, yeah, I didn’t (at least first) see the version of Metropolis that so inspired Burgess but I was inspired nonetheless. Perhaps the dilution of the film’s potency has resulted in the comparatively weaker sauce that is my own oeuvre. But, hey, Tony’s dead, so I have time to catch up. You do too — you can start with Moroder’s edition on YouTube:

Film is a visual medium, and, if the task of literature is to stud the brain with quotations, cinema’s job is to cram it with images which transcend storyline and feed the need for myth. — Anthony Burgess

Consider it fed, Mr. Burgess.

Art House Films for the Compleat Idiot

art house films

art house filmsBefore we discuss art house films, we must take a stroll: Long before the “Dummies” guides, there was How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual Of Step By Step Procedures For the Compleat Idiot. For a time in the early 80s, our family vehicle was a Volkswagen microbus and my father kept an edition of the manual in the den. As a nine-year-old, newly-minted Monty Python fan (thanks PBS), the punchy title — with its archaic British spelling of “complete” and R. Crumb-style cover art — appealed to the subversive spirit then awakening in me.  I knew nothing of Volkswagens or auto repair but the book sparked in me a lifelong love for guides of all stripes. Later, in the 80s, I discovered the Bluffer’s Guides, which helped stoke my budding cinematic and literary pretensions. Fake it ’til you make it (or make it up).

Still with me? Okay — so, all of this, of course, was long before Wikipedia and smartphones made the ultimate, if fictitious bluffer’s guide, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, something of a reality. Now that it is, I submit to you that its entry for “art house cinema” would go something like A Beginner’s Guide to Art House Cinema, a new video essay by a YouTuber with the auspicious handle “kubricklynch.” It’s a mere gloss along the surface but a handy toe-dip nonetheless.

I could’ve used this video during pre-production for our own art house cinema effort Pill Head  (now in post-production!) when I was trying — and often failing — to define what an art house film is (and why we were making one) to the cast and crew. I’m not the first to bump up against this issue. The jacket copy to David Andrews’ Theorizing Art Cinemas: Foreign, Cult, Avant-Garde, and Beyond succinctly underscores the difficulty of using the term “art cinema” as if it were a genre unto itself, which is a confusing habit of mine:

The term “art cinema” has been applied to many cinematic projects, including the film d’art movement, the postwar avant-gardes, various Asian new waves, the New Hollywood, and American indie films, but until now no one has actually defined what “art cinema” is. Turning the traditional, highbrow notion of art cinema on its head, Theorizing Art Cinema takes a flexible, inclusive approach that views art cinema as a predictable way of valuing movies as “art” movies—an activity that has occurred across film history and across film subcultures—rather than as a traditional genre in the sense of a distinct set of forms or a closed historical period or movement.

I think the “flexible inclusive approach” is where it’s at in this regard but it also makes creating — forgive the oxymoron — a comprehensive guide to art house cinema impossible. Depending on one’s flexibility and inclusivity, everything and nothing is art house cinema. It’s like some Fluxus thought experiment —  or better, a Fluxus film — a length of celluloid twisted into a Möbius Strip. I suppose it’s like Justice Potter Stewart’s observation on defining porn: “I know it when I see it.” But a guide can at least get you close enough to see it. So, kudos to kubricklynch and his video. Perhaps it will inspire someone to watch Kubrick and Lynch and maybe someday Howell (then they can create The Compleat Idiot’s Guide to Daedalus Howell and my ghost will finally rest).

The Beginning of the Film Industry

The film business is born in Paris with the Brothers Lumières’ first paid public film screening on this day, December 28 in 1895. Among other selections, on the bill was La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (literally, “the exit from the Lumière factory in Lyon”, or, under its more common English title, Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory.

At least one brother didn’t think the screening was that auspicious:

“My invention, (the motion picture camera), can be exploited… as a scientific curiosity, but apart from that it has no commercial value whatsoever.” — Auguste Lumiere

Haha. Thanks, boys!

On Location in Petaluma

On Location in Petaluma

When making films at my scale, which is to say “human scale,” shooting on location is the only affordable way to do it. And by “location” I mean as close to home as possible. My new #indiefilm mantra is: “My hometown is my backlot.” And, as it happens, my hometown, Petaluma, CA, is also everyone else’s backlot too.

As I crowed in our fundraising package, we intended to “…insert our movie into the auspicious timeline of Petaluma’s cinematic history… Consider how this partial list of locally-shot films have contributed to the culture at-large: The BirdsAmerican GraffitiPeggy Sue Got MarriedPhenomenonBasic InstinctScreamLolita (the remake), Inventing the AbbotsPleasantville, FlubberMumford…” You can add Netflix hit 13 Reasons Why now as well. 

Given the laundry list above, shooting Pill Head on location in Petaluma was essentially an act of reclamation, an attempt by a handful of locals to take back the town and the memories the movies threaten to supplant. But then, memories of Petaluma, at least for those of us townies who came of age in the late 80s and 90s, often are movie memories. Nine of the 10 films listed above were shot on the same streets we traversed in our teens and 20s, when production seemed ubiquitous and we were trapped in its stardust like the people of Pompeii.

Add to that the fact that Lucasfilm’s secret rebel base was once in rural Marin County (our backyard) and that Stranger Things mom Winona Ryder did hard time in our public school system, and — well, one can see how more than a few of us would be infected with cinemania. Being so close (like, downtown), yet so far away from the biz was galling. The sentiment bled over into my first novel, The Late Projectionist, in which a wannabe filmmaker laments:

“This is nothing short of hostile occupation…What gets me most is their tinkering with the tincture — shootin’ up the town in their motley. Technicolor twits. Lumaville is a black and white town, damn it.”

On Location
I love how they spelled my name almost as much as the wifi password being “Baywatch.

I too believe Petaluma/Lumaville is a black and white town. Hence, Pill Head is black and white. And for a fleeting, daft, moment, I thought it could also be shot on a back lot. I have no idea why I thought this was remotely feasible. Perhaps I was still in the honeymoon period of rewriting the script and overly dreamy about its prospects I suppose. Or maybe it was just a bout of Hollywooditis, a recurring viral infection I contracted when I lived there at the beginning of the century. Whatever it was it, led me to score a drive-on at Paramount just to A) prove I still could, and B) scout, ahem, locations. 

On Location
Ceci n’est pas American Alley.

Producer Karen Hess and I entered the Gower Street gate and were directed to the New York City set. There, we were met by a wonderful location manager who led us on private tour of the back lot’s back alleys from the driver’s seat of a golf cart. Near the “writer’s building” featured in Sunset Boulevard, we spotted an alley that was the twin-separated-at-birth of American Alley back home. But clean and with no graffiti or street art. Or people. It was like seeing a photo of a tattoo junky pre-needle.

Alice indoors.
Come play with us forever. Courtesy of Garlington and Bertotti.

The resemblance was uncanny, down to the loading bay doors that local artists Bertotti/Garlington laminated with a pair of post-Wonderland Alices a la The Shining. We got a rate and did the math — we could shoot a day on the lot (and th-th-th-that’s all, folks) or produce our entire movie in Petaluma. (Naturally, once we saw The Disaster Artist, the comic conundrum of shooting an alley set that looks like our hometown alley was put in high relief, per this glorious moment).

After about a millisecond of soul searching, I doubled down on the notion of shooting in my hometown. The reasons to do so were aplenty and obvious (we live there; ditto our lead actors; Karen is smarter than me, etc.). But even if I had the dough, I’d’ve shot on location in Petaluma anyway. After all, this is where the memories are, and if I’m going to make movie memories, I’d better make them here and insert our movie into the “auspicious timeline of my personal cinematic history.” Besides, it’s a black and white town, damn it — and everything else is just a  technicolor trance when you remember there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.

We’re On the Spectrum Between Ed Wood and Orson Welles

Ed Wood

Great piece by Andrew Bloom at Consequence of Sound that expresses  a notion I’ve been mulling since I first saw Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Bloom drills down into the scene between Johnny Depp’s titular character and Vincent D’Onofrio as Orson Welles as the filmmakers discuss keeping to one’s artistic vision:

Burton and his collaborators sketch an unexpected parallel between the two unlikely “visionaries” here. The scene suggests that there’s a beauty in artistic purity, whether it comes from one of cinema’s most venerated artists or from its most deluded-if-earnest creators of crap. The film posits that all art contains a piece of the author’s soul, from cinema’s highest highs to its lowest lows, and that fact connects everyone with the foolhardy impulse to try to make good on the impulse to create.

Source: Ed Wood and Who Art Really Belongs To | Consequence of Sound

This kinship in creation, the idea that “everyone with the foolhardy impulse to try to make good on the impulse to create” are connected in a community of creativity is a marvelous notion. Especially for those of us making art who like to believe we’re on the spectrum somewhere between Welles and Wood, as with our art film project Pill Head. In the end, we’re part of a community, perhaps even a tradition and the esprit de corps this engenders is the fuel one needs when launching over such Quixotic humps like, you know, reality.

Though it’s technically easier than ever to make a movie, it’s still an act of outrageous will that gets them done. Moreover, per Bloom, when making work that contains “a piece of the author’s soul,”  you need to A) have a soul and B) believe you’re carrying a torch lit by a common flame. The connectivity of which Bloom writes is that flame — whether it’s (spoiler alert) Rosebud heaped into the fireplace  or the crackpot fire burning in Wood’s eyes — that connection, in spirit, is what ultimately helps our work connect with its audience and them to each other.