Friday, May 18, 2018

Shills Protecting Thrills


Don't tell me most of America’s mass-murdering shooters would simply have switched over to bombs, or poison, if they couldn't have gotten a hold of their favorite tools. Those killers craved the raw thrill of shooting rapid-fire weapons at living people so much they finally did it.

Killers they were, but they weren't bombers or poisoners. They weren't sword-wielders or stranglers. They were shooters.

While Wayne LaPierre, Oliver North and the rest of the shills for the firearms industry talk about protecting constitutional rights, the angle they don't want to discuss is protecting thrills. Owners of assault rifles love the thrill of shooting those weapons of war. As we've seen, for the most evil of rapid-fire gun owners, the thrill of shooting at terrified school children is irresistible.  

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Origin of the Zism

In the spring of 1983 the Biograph Theatre's owners, based in Georgetown, could see the bad trends from a hundred miles away. The growing impact cable television was having on repertory cinemas, nationally, was depressing. Baby boomers in their 30s were moving out of the Fan District. Plus, the general deterioration of the commercial neighborhood surrounding the theater was not helping, either. 

In mid-May the owners almost sold the Biograph to a chain. When the potential buyer refused to accept responsibility for all of the Richmond Biograph's debts, the deal fell apart. While it only seemed for a few days that what I'd been dedicated to for nearly 12 years was disappearing, let's just say during that time I flinched.

As I remember it, I told no one about my anxiety attack. Instead, I acted like all was fine. Nonetheless, while the owners were my friends, I knew they could also see that I had lost a step, because I had. In the past, I'd been able to come up with a festival, a midnight show, or some sort of gimmick, to turn slumps around. That spring my well of creativity was dry.

After the scare ended, I stewed in my juices for a couple of weeks. Then I lurched to the decision that continuing to be terrified of losing my job was intolerable. For the first time, just walking away from the Biograph began to seem to be my best option. My divorce had just become final and my then-girlfriend, Tana, thought I had gotten stale keeping the same job too long.

In spite of how crazy it seems now, having no plan for how to make a living scared me less than staying on. Thus, for reasons good and bad I took the plunge and resigned. The two principle owners, Alan Rubin and Lenny Poryles, tried to talk me out of it, but by then my mind was made up.

Sitting at my drawing board in my downtown apartment on Franklin Street I created a three-page, hand-lettered resume, with cartoons for illustrations. Cartoons! Then I mailed off a batch of them to apply for jobs that looked attractive to me. In some cases they just went to organizations I admired, without applying for a particular opening.

Awaiting all the new opportunities, I seriously set about making some new art -- stuff that would have nothing to do with selling double features or midnight shows. Deciding that dreams were a classic resource for any artist looking for inspiration, I began working on depicting what a couple of recurring dreams in my childhood looked like.

At this time I was acting as the art director for Throttle (a local counterculture tabloid) and I hosted a weekly show on Color Radio (an offshore-like radio station) Neither of those time-eating responsibilities paid a nickel. However, I also sold and produced advertisements for both entities, which did bring in a little money.

Very little. Thus began the process of shrinking my lifestyle: the selling off old collectible stuff, cool objects I had acquired in fatter times.

Naturally, it was disappointing when the offers I was sure would come my way from sending out those goofy resumes never happened. As the summer passed I drew some comic strips, made a series of paintings and put together a couple of collages. In the doing of all that I designed a logo-looking doodle to depict movement through time and dimensions. I thought it suggested both spontaneity and structure. The zism's look was inspired by the 1920s constructivist movement in the USSR and 1930s American cartoons, especially those created  by Max Fleischer -- Popeye, Betty Boop, etc.

Still, as I then considered doodles to be my most natural way of drawing that meant the zism was also about truth. At happy hours I told people it was the symbol of the inevitable final system of beliefs that would assimilate all the previous isms in history. After all, what my zism just as chock-full of mysterious hokum as any of them? 

The first published zism, along with some gesture drawings of little dancing pairs, appeared on the cover of Throttle's December 1984 issue. Eventually, I had to draw zisms on handbills and put them up on utility poles, just to see what would happen. In the spring of 1985 I posted a series of “Zism” handbills. They featured cartoons, photos, off-the-wall questions and sayings … and zisms. I liked drawing them. The handbill pictured below was No. 2.

Maybe that little project was just more proof of how unhinged I was in this period. And, speaking of unhinged, a dislocated ankle put me on crutches and ended the handbill series. It also made me concentrate on writing during the weeks that followed the injury. So I designed the first issue of SLANT, a 16-pager. I also made four large collages on plywood panels. The largest of them was installed in the 3rd Street Diner (I wish I knew what happened to it). 

Then, in the spring of 1986, I started stapling issues of SLANT -- this time front-and-back, two-page handbills -- to selected utility poles twice a week.

In part, that was done to protest the City of Richmond’s renewed crackdown on fliers. I also wanted to establish that a periodical’s legitimacy could be in the eyes of the beholder. In the course of that oblique mission I fell in love with publishing. Then SLANT came down off the poles to go through several changes in format over the next eight years, or so.

The doodle-like drawings of couples dancing made a comeback in 1986. By then I had named them Dancing Doodles. They were used to fill the variable small space that remained open at the end of the pasting up of an issue of SLANT. The space to be filled was usually about an inch or an inch-and-a-half tall. In printer's parlance the Dancing Doodles were used as dingbats.

Drawing them was the fun part of the paste-up chore I always saved for last. They were done quickly without a plan; each mark was simply a reaction to the last. After a year or so, I stopped putting the Dancing Doodles in SLANT, as the 'zine matured and got tighter in its layout. I was surprised when people told me they missed seeing them.

Remembering that readers had liked them, in the mid-1990s I made a few paintings of dancing couples. Maybe a half-dozen.  These pieces were larger and more involved than what had come before. A few prints of them actually sold, then, needing to make more money I put them on the back burner again.

Dancing Doodle No. 3 (approximately 8" by 10"), seen below, was part of that series. Maybe I should have kept doing them, but I didn't ... and so it goes.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Birth of the Blockbuster: Or How Margot Kidder Made My Day

The movie business changed during the summer of 1975, which was my fourth summertime serving as manager of the Biograph Theatre in Richmond. As it happened a new style of creating, promoting and exhibiting feature films was minted when “Jaws” opened on June 20 on 465 screens and became a box office smash.

In those days major releases typically opened in the most popular movie houses in a handful of large cities. It was simply the way it always been done. That meant the advertising buys were all local. 

So the unprecedented marketing strategy for “Jaws” required enormous confidence in the new scheme. Its distributor, Universal, not only had to spend millions on national advertising, it also had to strike enough prints of the film to serve all of the theaters playing the film in simultaneous runs. Before the summer was over "Jaws” had already broken some all-time Hollywood box office records. 

Washington D.C. was a regional hub for film distribution. Part of the strategy for releasing “Jaws” was that Universal chose not to screen the film for bookers and exhibitors in the usual way.

Ordinarily, a feature about to be released would be shown a couple of times in a small screening room downtown. Run by the National Association of Theater Owners, it seated about 50 people. Bookers for theater chains would see the new films to help them weigh how much money should be bid for the rights to exhibit the picture in a given market. But security on admission wasn't all that tight, so any industry insider, entertainment writer, etc. might have been in the audience on a given day.

My bosses were located in Georgetown and I saw several movies in the D.C. screening room over the nearly-12 years I worked for the guys who oversaw the Biograph on "M" Street.

The prior-to-premiere screenings of “Jaws” took place a few weeks before it was to open. It was shown to theater owners and their guests in selected cinemas in maybe a dozen cities. As I remember it, the screenings were all on the same night. 

As a treat my bosses gave me four of their allotment of tickets to the special screening of “Jaws” at the old Ontario in DC. My ex, Valerie, and I were part of a full house; the show itself went over like gangbusters. The audience shrieked at appropriate times and applauded as the movie’s closing credits were lighting up the screen.

Not only was I knocked out by the presentation, I came back to Richmond convinced “Jaws” would be a gold mine. It was the slickest monster movie I’d even seen. The next day, still caught up in that mania, I tried to talk my bosses into borrowing a lot of money to support a bid on “Jaws” that would include a substantial cash advance.

That summer I wanted to bet everything we could borrow to out-bid Neighborhood Theatres for the Richmond market. I even convinced a neighborhood branch bank manager to try to help us borrow the dough. 

Well, we didn’t get the money, but it was privately satisfying seeing “Jaws” went on to set new records for its box office grosses. Its unprecedented success put its director, Steven Spielberg, on the map.

After “Jaws” Hollywood hustlers aplenty rushed out to try to duplicate the formula its producers and distributors had used. Thus, in 1975, the age of summer blockbusters with massive ad campaigns and widespread releases began.

Another thing “Jaws” did was make young men who were sometimes too self-absorbed, like me, feel intimidated by Spielberg’s outrageous success at such a tender age. I can still remember reading that he was younger than me.

Although I had a great job for a 27-year-old movie-lover who liked to work without a lot of supervision, it offered no direct connection to filmmaking. At this time I had one nine-minute film and one animated sequence in a 30-second television commercial, both shot in 16mm, to my credit. 1975’s Boy Wonder, Steven Spielberg, made me feel like I was on the wrong track. That might have been the first time I gave much thought to how and when to leave the Biograph. 

Fast-forward 34 years to when I watched a BBC-produced documentary, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood,” about filmmaking in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Directors and other players from that time were interviewed. Made in 2003, it was thoroughly entertaining. I saw it on Turner Movie Classics in 2009.

Among those who made comments in the documentary were Tony Bill, Karen Black, Peter Bogdanovich, Roger Corman, Richard Dreyfuss, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, László Kovács, Kris Kristofferson, Arthur Penn and Cybill Shepherd.

Dreyfuss, who was one of the stars of "Jaws," spoke of attending one of those pre-release screenings. He said he got caught up in the experience of seeing it for the first time in a crowded theater; he totally forgot himself as the actor on the screen. 

Actress Margot Kidder (best known for her Lois Lane portrayals in the Superman series of movies and who died today) appeared on camera several times. She made a joke out of how Spielberg had begun to fib about his age, once he became famous. She had known him before his sudden notoriety, so she noticed it when he went from being older than her to being younger. Kidder claimed Spielberg was fudging his birth date by a couple of years. 

Well, flashing back on my absurd jealousy to do with Spielberg’s rise to stardom, when he was supposedly younger than me, I had to laugh out loud. Then I looked up Spielberg’s age; he’s older than both Margot and me.

So, I searched for more on the age-change and found some old articles about “Jaws” and Spielberg. Yes, it looks like Kidder was right. Back in the ‘70s, perhaps to play up the Boy Wonder aspect of the story, Spielberg’s birth date was being massaged. Somewhere along the line, since then, it looks like it got straightened out.

Laughing at one’s own foolishness is usually a healthy exercise. Yes, and when the laugh had been waiting over three decades to be realized, it was all the sweeter.

After all, nothing has ever been more integral to Hollywood’s special way of doing business -- before or after “Jaws” -- than making up fibs, especially about one’s age.

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