Burning Down the Art House, Part 3: Nostalgia, The Good Disease

This is Part Three of three part series on my exploration of the elusive Art Film. (Check out Part One and Part Two, or listen to the podcast on Soundcloud.)

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve typed “Fade In:” followed by INT. CAFE – NIGHT and hoped that some alchemical magic would arise from the mix of caffeine and community college film classes, and hubris –  and presto! – I’m Tarantino. Or Scorsese. Or Coppola. Or someone else with an Italian name. Like Fellini.  Oh, Fellini. We’ll get to you, Fellini.

Right now, however, I’m surrounded by screenwriters at the Intelligensia coffee house in the Sunset Junction in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood. I came here breath. And vacation with Karen Hell. But also to breath –  to take a deep breath and hopefully catch some the stardust amongst the particulate matter in the LA air.

But, after a coughing fit, I remember that the screenplay I’ve written is intentionally uncommercial. It’s not a Hollywood picture. It’s an art flick, so stardust, like so much sugar, would just be too damn sweet. Or – or more likely – bitter.

I have a think on this, on stardust, and the notion that Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories and Fellini’s 8 ½ are essentially the same film comes to mind again.

A director ruminates on life, women, and cinema. And in chunky-framed glasses. And in black in white. And, and, and… We’ll go into the similarities more deeply in another episode of my adult night school of the mind.

What’s germane here is that both films are loaded with nostalgia. In fact, many of Fellini’s films — but seldom more vividly and ripe for parody than in 8 ½. It’s no wonder that Saturday Night Live satirist Tom Schiller chose it as his point of departure for a Fellini-sque sketch starring Gilda Radner.

Like all parody, it concentrates the ticks of its inspiration. He called it La Dolce Gilda but don’t let the title fool you into thinking it riffs on Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. It may start that way with all the paparazzo bullshit but all the heart, warmth and snickering at sentimentality while being entirely sentimental is pure 8 ½. Dan Aykroyd even makes a convincing stand-in for Marcello Mastroianni.

With lines like “Leave me my dreams. Dreams are like paper, they tear so easily” and a slow pan to a pantomime waiter who has a balloon by the string, which he let’s sail into the seaside breeze, I can’t help but feel nostalgia.

The term comes from Swiss physician Johannes Hofer’s 17th century medical dissertation for which he coined the term to describe a disease that afflicts sufferers with a melancholic longing for a time and place.

I’m not sure if I’m responding to the cues in Tom Schiller’s film or if I’m simply nostalgic for that time in my life when I first saw it as part of an SNL retrospective. Whatever the case, it kindled in me a desire to make grainy, black and white tone poems with accordion music soundtracks. And like the other parody films in this three part series, La Dolce Gilda served to turn me on to its inspiration. To wit, I’ve been a Fellini-fan since.

I eventually did make a nostalgia-driven project — about 7 years ago. It’s not Fellini-esque – it was  a music video for one of my brother’s bands. What’s weird is that I began this project as an 8-year-old in 1980 using a Super 8 camera and a cast of neighborhood kids. I returned to the footage 30 years later and finished the film as The Sandfighter — Falcon’s best track. So, now, I’m 44 and starting another project, Pill Head. Given my previous timeline, maybe check back in when I’m 74 and we’ll see how it’s doing.

Burning Down the Art House, Part Two: Death Becomes Him

This is Part Two of three part series on my exploration of the elusive Art Film. (Check out Part One and Part Three, or listen to the podcast on Soundcloud.)

Puberty. I remember it as a kind of simultaneous metaphysical death and rebirth. I was 12 with a burgeoning awareness of counter culture that dovetailed nicely with my nascent arty pretensions. That year, the Amadeus soundtrack crowded out Van Halen’s 1984 in my cassette carrier and I had the word “Person” printed in black across the chest of a yellow T-shirt because we were all generic products in the consumerist 80s. Or something like that. In real life, everyone thought my conceptual fashion art was just a  misspelling of Pierson but that didn’t matter — I was making a statement. And that statement was “I’m an emerging creative force with whom you must reckon.” And someday, that might come true.

That summer, when I wasn’t plotting the purchase of my first trenchcoat, I was doing marathon binges of HBO. I have no idea what I watched back then other than a lot of short films because the cable channel used them as interstitials between features that ran long or short against the hour.

This is how I first saw De Düva, which led me to Ingmar Bergman, which led me to writing my first novel, The Late Projectionist, which is the first permutation of the story world that, nearly 20 years later, I’ve set the art film I’m calling Pill Head.


Madeline Kahn – DE DUVA (The Dove) | Directed… by BasiliaHumphreys

De Düva, or The Dove, isn’t a Bergman film, however. It’s an 11-minute parody-slash-homage to the director that a couple of wags made in 1968. They wanted to take the piss out of the Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal. In the eyes of this impressionable 12-year-old, they succeeded. Because, as Weird Al will tell you, you haven’t done parody unless some tween knowingly snickers.

It went like this (courtesy of Wikipedia):

Victor, a seventy-six-year-old physics professor traveling by chauffeured car to give a university lecture, decides to visit his boyhood home. In the outhouse, he finds a figurine of a dove which reminds him of a summer picnic from his youth. Later in the flashback, Victor and his beloved sister Inga run through the woods until they come across Death, who has come to claim Inga. Victor wagers that Death will not win a badminton competition with Inga – parodying The Seventh Seal, in which the competition is a game of chess. Death agrees, with the condition that if he wins he will take both Inga and Victor. After Inga wins the competition, thanks in whole or in part to the accidental contribution of the Dove, she and Victor happily run to the lake to go skinny-dipping.

Brilliant. In fact, it was nominated for an Oscar. And It personified – then parodied – Death in a manner that made sense to this budding existentialist. It took Death and rendered him idiotic,

down to his Fruit-of-the-Loom-worthy cowl. Death, I learned, could be bested, at least for a while, if not by badminton, then by banter.

I saw The Seventh Seal years later in college and had profound deja vu. Then I was stirred to my core. And I realize now that the parody primed me to understand the potency of Bergman’s unique genius. I was receptive rather than recalcitrant which was the default MO of my 20s.

De Düva was to Bergman what Monty Python’s French Subtitled Film was to my appreciation of Godard as discussed in Part One of this series.

A decade and half later, I made my own Date with Death short wherein I too used rhetorical finesse to escape the inevitable. My debt to De Düva and Bergman is  more than evident in the film, which is linked in the show notes and I hope to pay it back by paying it forward with a work that inspires its own parody. Such is the cycle of life, death and de düva.

Burning Down the Art House, Part One: Poseurs, Parodists and Pill Head, an Art Film

This is part one of three part series on my exploration of the elusive Art Film. (Read Part Two and Part Three, or listen to the podcast on Soundcloud)

What Makes an Art Film?

I’m with frieze Magazine editor Dan Fox when it comes to being showy with one’s creative pursuits. In his book, Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (a title that unleashes butterflies in my stomach), Fox suggests that pretentiousness, particularly that of aspiring artists, is a cornerstone of aesthetic development. As a woebegotten, trenchcoated teen, with a headful of arty ambitions curdling beneath my dyed-black locks, I can totally relate. It was only natural, then, that I would return to my memories of the era (late 80s – early 90s) when I committed (again and finally) to make a so-called “art film.”

But what is an art film? Independent scholar David Andrews spent several hundred pages in Theorizing Art Cinemas: Foreign, Cult, Avant-Garde, And Beyond trying to answer this question (which we’ll examine in a later blog).  So far as I can tell, Andrews argues that an art film is any flick that plays in a art house. This begs the question — what’s an art house? Those in Petaluma in the 80s like me would say, emphatically, the Plaza Theatre. Long gone by the 90s, the Plaza was a century-old repertory cinema that projected a different movie every night. The bill was curated by some cinema-savant we never knew but whose depth and breadth of movie mastery was rivaled only by their obvious affection for the form. On any given night, one would be treated to selections from the French New Wave, noir classics, animation tournees, softcore foreign films, and all manner of counter culture curios.

The first Plaza Theatre calendar. The first Plaza Theatre calendar.

I worked there during its gradual decline under new owners and later used it as the locus for much of my first novel, The Late Projectionist, which, itself was about pretentious wannabe filmmakers. Art films – or, or at least the affectations ascribed to them – are something I should know. And I do. I think. But even after I wrote the screenplay for Pill Head, my upcoming feature-length directorial debut, I felt quesy about humble-bragging about it on Instagram especially since I garnished the post with the hashtag #artfilm.

And so it begins. And only a week late. #artfilm #firstdraft #filmmaking #indiefilm #pillhead

A post shared by Daedalus Howell (@daedalushowell) on

Immediately after tapping “Share,” three notions occurred to me simultaneously, A) I sound like an idiot, B) I have no idea what I’m talking about, C) Best case scenario, people will think I’m trying to be funny. Had I used the slightly more pejorative tag “artflick” I could probably sneak by on C. But, nope, I wrote #artfilm and I meant it. After some reflection, however, I realized that humor was actually at the root of it all, that my entire understanding of what I think an art film is comes not from groundbreaking auteurs but from their satirists. It began, as so much of my adolescent understanding of the world, with Monty Python.

The French, Subtitles, and a Cabbage

Parody works, in part, because it distills the motifs and tics of its subject into a concentrated form. An analogy would be a celebrity impressions — think of all the William Shatner bits performed by comedians — breathy, staccato, manic. Sure, each quality recalls an element  of Shatner’s style but they seldom occur all at once. Film parodies do the same and art films can be equally breathy, staccato, and manic when condensed for humor’s sake. Hence, my appreciation for French Subtitled Film sketch from Python’s second season motion picture parody Scott of the Antarctic.

Here, the obvious targets are the French New Wave as a whole and presumably specific members of the Cahiers du Cinema gang from whom it spawned, with posterchild Jean-Luc Godard squarely taking one for the team.

French Subtitled Film finds a Belmondo-esque caricature (Terry Jones) and a Bardot-like blonde (the always game Carol Cleveland with an inexplicable cabbage in her lap) are engaged in trivial dialogue against the din of seagulls. At a dump. Sublimity that can only be topped by Jones uttering “I am a revolutionary.” And the perhaps a ticking time bomb head of lettuce that ends a reprise of the scene.

In an essay anonymously posted at Gaudy, On Rewatching “Monty Python” and Mocking the French, the author sums the effect up nicely:

“Feeding into the New Wave ideology, their dialogue, though seemingly absurd and pointless, does indeed expose a deeper level of existentialism, neither building upon itself nor entirely pointless; instead, it seems to embrace the total absurdity of human existence with such repeated lines as ‘It’s a nice day’ and ‘Do you come here often?’ Monty Python writers navigate the dual line between ridicule and homage here, as such dialogue is indeed possible in many of Jean-Luc Godard’s films.”

Ridicule vs. Homage

So, speaking of ridicule and homage, here are two of my own short films that I now realize owe some of their DNA to Python’s New Wave hat tip and, by extension, the films that inspired it.

Time Bomb

Then there’s this fun bit I did with my dearly departed pal and frequent collaborator Brodie Giles.

A challenge with Pill Head will be navigating the path through and beyond my influences and eventually inspire some ridicule and homage of my own, which, to bring it full circle, is totally pretensious.

Same Name Syndrome: Sergio Leone, Alan Berliner and Chris Ferguson

Whilst slumming at the People’s Cafe in Berkeley, a byline on the freebie library shelf caught my eye. The Monkey in the Rocket, a Mad Men-era tale of an American space chimp, credits its story to Jean Bethell and the pictures to Sergio Leone.

(The record needle scratch sound goes here.)

Wait, THE Sergio Leone? The filmmaker behind A Fist Full of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly? Did the father of the Spaghetti Western have a sideline illustrating jingoist Space Race propaganda for kids?

As much as I wanted to believe this could be true, I haven’t found enough evidence to support this rather awesome notion. That said, I can’t prove it untrue either. However, I suspect that some poor illustrator just happened to share the same famous name as the man who reinvented America’s favorite film genre. Given the relative disproportion of their fame, I’m sure Leone the children’s book illustrator (he of Hooray for Henry, The Littlest Angel fame) was more often confused for the director than the director was for him. The possible awkward moments pile quickly in the imagination.

Let’s envision the illustrator at a cocktail party when some well-wisher says,

“Mr. Leone, I just have to say, I loved Duck, You Sucker!” and Leone panics and calls his agent, furious about those New York bastards who apparently changed the title of Uncle Wiggily’s Adventures without so much as a damn phone call!

It’s a wonder Leone didn’t change his name when his doppelnamen, if you will, released his breakthrough sword and sandal epic, The Colossus of Rhodes, in ’61 – an entire year before The Monkey in the Rocket was published.

Filmmaker Alan Berliner is no stranger to this phenomenon, which he dubbed “the same-name syndrome” in his documentary The Sweetest Sound. In it, Berliner laments “being mistaken for the Belgian filmmaker, Alain Berliner, and often congratulated for having made his film, Ma Vie en Rose…” among other issues. Berliner eventually musters a guest list of 12 others with the name “Alan Berliner” has them over for a dinner party. The ensuing conversation is like My Dinner with Andre to the third power, which is more engaging that it might read.

I’ve managed to inoculate myself from same-name syndrome with a prophylactic visit to the Superior Court of Sonoma County. Having once been a “Chris Ferguson,” I’m glad to say that I got my byline in order before confusion between me and Chris Ferguson the professional poker player or Chris Ferguson the famous astronaut could mess with my sense of self (the sordid details of how I became “Daedalus Howell” have been dutifully – and mostly accurately – reported on Wikipedia).

Chris Ferguson
Chris Fergusons.

I suppose it could be worse for the Sergio Leones, Alan Berliners and Chris Fergusons of the world – they could be Uomo senza nome, a.k.a The Man with No Name.