David F. Walker

BadAzz MoFo’s Film Review Archive – ACE IN THE HOLE

By the time he made 1951’s Ace in the Hole director Billy Wilder had already earned his reputation as a cynical filmmaker. Three of Wilder’s earlier films—Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard—had already firmly established the director as someone who was interested in showing the darker side of humanity. And while those films certainly were dark explorations of desire, greed and excess, all were merely test-runs for what was to be considered Wilder’s most cynical film, as well as one of the most pessimistic motion pictures of all time.

Kirk Douglas stars as Chuck Tatum, a newspaper reporter whose problems with alcohol have sent him on a downward spiral of working for major publications in Boston and New York to hustling a job in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tatum views his new gig in Albuquerque as an opportunity to reestablish his reputation, but after a year at the small paper, he holds everything and everyone around him with contempt. Things take a dramatic turn when Tatum lucks into the story of a lifetime. It seems that a cave-in at an ancient Indian burial ground has left local treasure hunter Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) trapped and fighting for his life. Tatum sees the potential for a great story in Leo’s plight. As word of Leo’s predicament begins to spread, other reporters and curious onlookers descend on the scene, as the rescue operation quickly transforms into a crass media circus, complete with carnival rides and souvenirs. But Tatum is the one calling the shots, manipulating everyone around him so that he gets the biggest story possible—he even manages to convince rescue workers to take an alternate, longer route, which will allow his story to drag on longer. Tatum, however, is not alone in his opportunism. He is joined by Leo’s uncaring wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling), who hopes to cash in on the tragedy, and the corrupt Sheriff Kretzer (Ray Teal) eager for re-election. But as the rescue operation drags on for days and days, it soon becomes clear that Leo is not likely to survive, and that realization begins to tear Tatum apart, as he wrestles with the fact that he will be responsible for the man’s death.

Billy Wilder has long been considered one of the best filmmakers of all time, with a long list of credits that includes such classic films as Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, The Spirit of St. Louis and Sunset Boulevard. Ace in the Hole solidifies that already well-deserved reputation if for no other reason than it may actually be the director’s best work. Everything that makes Wilder’s films so memorable—an incredible sense of visual storytelling married with superb writing—is found here. And while there are many that would argue over where Ace in the Hole stands with Wilder’s other films, there is no denying the overall purity of the work. Simply put: Ace in the Hole is uncompromising in both its cinematic vision and its condemnation of the media.

Like all of Wilder’s films, Ace in the Hole is brimming with symbolism. Part of the magic of Wilder’s filmmaking was the way he would layer a scene with information and ideas, some subtle and some incredibly obvious. Either way, everything has a purpose and meaning, from the way a shadow falls across a face to the eye movement of an actor. As Tatum first descends into the cave, Wilder is offering a symbolic foreshadowing of the fate that awaits his morally ambiguous anti-hero.

Prior to its initial release, and without Wilder’s consent, Paramount changed the title of the film to  The Big Carnival. At the time of its original release, it was not well-received by critics, who saw it as being too cynical and too bitter. The film did poorly in the United States, making it the first of Wilder’s films to be a commercial and critical failure, and eventually becoming something of a forgotten entry in Wilder’s filmography. With no initial release on home video, and only the occasional broadcast on channels like American Movie Classics, Ace in the Hole became more of a cult film, finding an audience primarily among diehard film fans, students, and filmmakers who were lucky enough to see it. It wasn’t until 2007, when the film was released as part of the Criterion Collection, that Ace in the Hole began to grow beyond its status as something of an obscure cult film.

Though it was considered cynical and an unfair depiction of the media when it was released in 1951, Ace in the Hole proved to be prophetic, with many of the film’s concepts and themes later going on to inform such films as Network. The world in which the line between journalism and entertainment blurs to the point they become one and the same has arrived. And while a character like Chuck Tatum may have seemed outrageous in 1951, he is what many contemporary “journalists”have become. To go one step further, Ace in the Hole offers an eerie glimpse at how the media and the public would react to the real-life tragic such as the events of September 11, fifty years after Wilder’s movie was released.

Ace in the Hole is nothing short of brilliant. It deserves its place as one of the best films by one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

T-Shirt Confidential #5

Some people believe you can tell a lot about a person by the shoes they wear. I believe you can tell more about a person by the t-shirts they have worn. This is the story of my life, as told by the t-shirts I have worn.

People think I’m exaggerating when I tell them that I have so many t-shirts that if I were to wear a different one each day of the week I could go for over a year without wearing the same t-shirt twice. In fact, the entire idea for T-Shirt Confidential (originally T-Shirt of the Week) started as I was trying to clean out my closet and get rid of old t-shirts. It seemed like every t-shirt had a story attached, and thereby some kind of weird sentimental value. Back in 2007, I couldn’t get rid of any of these t-shirts, but since then, I’ve unloaded well over one hundred (and I still have hundreds more).

This particular shirt is an example of what I mean by there being “weird sentimental value” attached to many of my shirts. It also speaks of my odd “addiction” to t-shirts (that’s a story for another time).

I got this Malcolm X shirt in Los Angeles back in 1997. I was living in LA at the time, working on my blaxploitation documentary, Macked, Hammered, Slaughtered, & Shafted. Even though I was working on my film, by and large it was a very unpleasant time in my life. I was really broke at the time, almost all of my money went to food or gas for the car, and as a consequence I almost never went out.

At that time I had gotten to know Leon Mobley, who was the original percussionist for Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals. We met when he played in Portland, and was looking to score some herb. This was back when no one but his mama knew who Ben Harper was, and you could see him and the band in smaller venues without a bunch of smelly hippies doing their stupid Grateful Dead dance.

The back of the shirt. For the most part, I don’t like designs on the back of a shirt.

Leon was also on the PBS series Zoom back in the 1970s when he was a kid. For a while I was talking to Leon about doing music for the documentary. He had invited me out to some of the only cultural events I attended while in LA, including the Malcolm X Festival where I bought this shirt. I don’t remember where the festival was, I just remember it was on a Saturday, it was hot, and I was hungry and broke. For the most part I was living off credit cards in those days (a BIG mistake) and I seldom had cash on me. I remember that I got to the festival, and I was really hungry. I only had a little bit of cash—just enough to get this t-shirt or get some food, but not both. Obviously, I bought the shirt.

This is one of several Malcolm X t-shirts in my collection, and at some point I’ll post stories about those. But of all the Malcolm X shirts, this is the one with the most interesting story.What is funny—and by “funny” I mean pathetic—is that I had never worn this shirt. I’ve had the thing in my collection for over twenty—TWENTY YEARS!!!—and I have never worn it! How do I know this? Well, I have a really big head, so big in fact that it stretches out the neck of every t-shirt I have ever worn. The neck on this t-shirt has never been stretched out—it is still a virgin. And knowing that it has never been worn, somehow makes the story more interesting…at least to me. Someday I may wear it – though I need to lose at least fifty pounds. But even if I don’t wear it, it will forever be a part of the story of my life.

BAMF’s Movie Poster Hall of Fame – FLASH GORDON

Here we have the first Movie Poster of the Week from one of my favorite poster artists, Richard Amsel. From covers of TV Guide to posters for some of my favorite movies, Amsel’s work always sticks out in my mind as the best of the best when it comes to painted movie posters. This poster for Flash Gordon was the first time I ever noticed Amsel’s name on something, which kicked off a life-long obsession. Above we have the classic American Flash Gordon design by Amsel. Below is the international version with art by Renato Casaro. And finally, we also have a Thai version of the Casaro poster, though I don’t know for sure if this is Casaro’s art, or just an imitation.

BadAzz MoFo’s Film Review Archive – WHITE DOG

If there was ever a film I thought would never see the light of day on home video, it would have to be director Sam Fuller’s White Dog. Regarded by many as one of the most controversial films of all time—unwarranted hyperbolic exaggeration if there ever was any—White Dog languished, practically unreleased since its production in 1982. Since that time it had a relatively insignificant theatrical release overseas, while never enjoying a legitimate home video release in the United States until 2008, when it was released as part of the Criterion Collection. For more than two decades it had become something of an urban myth, creating around it a sense of cinematic taboo usually reserved for films like Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust or Michael and Roberta Findlay’s Snuff.

Kristy McNichol co-stars as Julie Sawyer, a struggling actress who accidentally hits a white German shepherd with her car. Rather than leaving the dog to die on the side of the road, Julie takes him to a veterinarian, who gives the dog a clean bill of health and sends him home with the actress. Julie posts signs all over, hoping it will help her locate the dog’s owner, but the more time she spends with the dog, the more attached she becomes. By the time a rapist breaks into her apartment and the dog saves her life, it’s pretty much a given that he is there to stay. But when the dog viciously attacks Julie’s actress friend (Lynne Moody), who happens to be black, she suspects that there may be something wrong with the animal. Unbeknownst to her is that the dog has already attacked (and killed) a black person. Roland (Jameson Parker), Julie’s boyfriend, convinces her that the dog must be some sort of attack animal, and therefore dangerous. But rather than send the dog to the pound, Julie decides to try and have him retrained, so he won’t have the killer instinct.

Julie believes that there’s nothing wrong with the dog that can’t be fixed, and takes him to trainer Carruthers (Burl Ives), who warns her that an attack dog is a four-legged time bomb waiting to explode. But when the dog viciously attacks fellow trainer Joe (Bob Minor), who happens to be black, Caruthers realizes there is more to this dog than meets the eyes. This dog is a white dog—a dog trained by a white person to attack and kill black people. Enter Carruthers’ business partner, Keys (Paul Winfield), a super badass animal trainer who wrestles lions like it ain’t no thing. Keys becomes obsessed with the white dog, and is determined to break it of its racism, diligently training it to see past its deadly hatred for people with black skin. But when the dog manages to escape from its cage, and kills another black person, it is up in the air if he can be rehabilitated. With the guilt of the death hanging over him, Keys becomes even more determined to cure the dog.

At the time of its release, because of the nature of the film, White Dog was mistaken by some for being a pro-racism story, and as a result people reacted to the film as if it were preaching hate. The very notion that White Dog is a racist film is, however, completely ridiculous, especially given Fuller’s earlier films like Shock Corridor and Crimson Kimono, which aggressively attacked racist thinking. White Dog is as much of a condemnation of racism as anything else Fuller has done, but it suffered from being misunderstood during its initial release, and as a result languished in obscurity.

An accomplished journalist and outspoken director whose films often sparked controversy and debate, Fuller was never afraid to push the envelope with his movies. Already an established writer, Fuller’s directorial debut with 1949’s I Shot Jesse James established him as a talented force to reckoned with, a reputation that continued through to 1964’s The Naked Kiss. Fuller’s direction became more sporadic and less frequent between the mid 1960s through the 1970s, with 1980’s The Big Red One marking an artistic return to form. Fuller followed up with White Dog, based on a nonfiction book by Romain Gary.

As originally envisioned by Paramount, White Dog was to be little more than an exploitation horror film—a sort of canine version of Jaws. Fuller was brought on to the film after several other directors had already been attached, most notably, Roman Polanski. Under the direction of Fuller, however, with a script co-written by Curtis Hanson, White Dog evolved into something more than a cheap exploitation film. True to the style of his past work, Fuller used the film as a vehicle to explore subject matter other filmmakers were often afraid to approach, in a way that was as hard hitting as it was unflinching. In doing so, Fuller created a film that was a bold examination of racism, and the brutality that it manifests.

White Dog is not Fuller’s best work, and it is uneven at times. Jameson Parker as Julie’s boyfriend disappears at one point in the movie, never to return, and even Julie goes from being a central character to a throwaway supporting personality that has little to offer the second and third acts of the film. The central flaw of the film’s shifting main characters is not as problematic as it could be in any other movie, simply because Paul Winfield’s animal trainer is far more compelling than McNichol’s struggling actress. Winfield is cast as a strange mix of mad scientist and Captain Ahab, out to destroy a terrible monster. But what makes the character interesting, is that Keys views the dog as more of a victim, with the racist training that turned it into a killer as the monster. Although handled at times with ham-fisted dialog and direction, this train of thought is what makes White Dog brilliant. Under the subversive guidance of Fuller, the movie becomes less about a dog trained to kill black people, and instead becomes an exploration of the societal ill of racism; which is a disease that infects everything, even something as innocent as a dog.

There are other problems that surface throughout White Dog, including a script that at times is just plain silly and overwrought. And Fuller’s direction at times makes it difficult to tell exactly what he’s going for. There are sequences that have the feel of the sort of horror thriller Paramount originally wanted, and these scenes throw a bit of a wrench into the rest of Fuller’s artistic vision. And while all of the problems to be found in White Dog are enough to diminish any other film, they can’t hold back Fuller or keep the film from being a great bit of cinema. With the exception of maybe Larry Cohen, there is probably no other director other than Sam Fuller with the balls, talent or ability to infuse profound social commentary where you least expect it, making this film work in the way that it works. Had the movie been made six or seven years earlier, during the blaxploitation era, it would have fit in perfectly with the seemingly radical race politics that was found in many films. But coming in the 1980s, when Hollywood had retreated back into a more conservative approach to dealing with race, it was pretty much doomed.

Despite its noticeable flaws, White Dog is a solid film that serves as a great showcase for a director who was not afraid to take chances. Fuller was 70 years-old when he made White Dog, and could hardly be considered in his prime. Yet he still made a film better and more provocative than most filmmakers before or since could have gotten away with. And for that reason alone, White Dog is worth watching and studying.

T-Shirt Confidential #4

Some people believe you can tell a lot about a person by the shoes they wear. I believe you can tell more about a person by the t-shirts they have worn. This is the story of my life, as told by the t-shirts I have worn.

As with most of the shirts featured in T-Shirt Confidential, it’s pretty obvious that I’m not actually wearing this shirt. In chronicling my life through the t-shirts I have worn, the one hard truth that I have to face is that I have put on a lot of weight over the years. Many of the shirts I own, no longer fit. Don’t get me wrong, I can still put this one on, but it is with the utmost shame and disgust that I must admit how portly I have become over the years, and to see me rocking this bad boy is nothing short of just plain sad.

I got a lot of wear out of this shirt over the years. It was given to me by two of my best friends—Ron and Kevin—back in the summer of 1986, after we all graduated high school. The Meat Puppets were playing in town with two local bands (I think the other two bands were the Hellcows and Napalm Beach) at the Pine Street Theater. I had never been to a punk show, and Kevin and Ron dragged me out for this event—a sort of going away party for me, as I was soon heading off to New Jersey for college. What’s funny is that I have no memories of any of the bands, which is sad because I was neither drunk nor stoned. I did catch some of the first two bands, but by the time the Meat Puppets took the stage I was in the parking lot trying to make time with some chick whose name I can’t remember. All I remember about her is she had a tattoo of a spider, so over the years she has simply become known as Spider Chick.  All of this went down more than thirty years ago. A few weeks after that show I was off to New Jersey.

Me back in 1986, much younger, and not nearly as fat.

I wore this shirt a lot in the summer of 1986. Maybe it was because it reminded me of my friends back home. People would walk up to me and say, “I love the Meat Puppets,” and I would respond, “Yeah, they’re great.” The truth is that not only did I not see the show that night; I don’t believe I’ve ever even heard a single song by them.

Movie Poster of the Week – FIVE FOR HELL

The poster for Italian director Gianfranco Parolini’s Five For Hell is the embodiment of what Movie Poster of the Week is all about.  This is a terrible movie. I mean craptacular to the ultimate depths of crapitude. But the poster is awesome (it is the Italian version). Great movie posters make you want to see garbage like Five For Hell, even though the poster is the only thing worth looking at.