Coming of Age with the Zero Boys

◆ by John P. Strohm

[Editor’s note: In May, 32 years after their debut LP, Indianapolis’ Zero Boys went on tour and released a new album, Monkey, which we will review in an upcoming issue. In 2009, their debut 1982 full length album Vicious Circle, as well as the legendary lost second album, History Of, were reissued by Secretly Canadian. We thought this would be a good time to reprint John P. Strohm’s appreciation of  the Zero Boys, originally published in 2009.]

The Zero Boys changed my life. My discovery of the 1980s Indianapolis punk band as a teenager helped set the course for my adult life. More importantly, however, the Zero Boys kicked major ass.

I first saw the band in the summer of 1981 at a free outdoor show in Bloomington. I was a lonely, long-haired 14-year-old totally obsessed with rock  n’ roll. I played the drums and I dreamed of being in a band. On summer afternoons and early evenings I would follow the thump thump of distant music to live concerts by local hands. Bands seemed to play all the time in those days—on the rickety stage outside the student union, at fraternity ice cream socials, even at random front yard parties. I saw mellow, bearded students playing Eagles covers, freaky “new wave” bands with wraparound shades and bright-colored jumpsuits, and meandering post-hippie jazz-rock weirdos. I didn’t discriminate. I loved it all.

The Zero Boys show was a street dance, sponsored by a local cable-only freak radio station. The term “street dance” must have been a holdover from a bygone era, because nobody ever seemed to actually dance. Nevertheless, I never missed a street dance if I could help it, because the bills were strange and unpredictable. All the local freaks came out. That evening I’d already witnessed an arty band of mopey chain-smokers dressed in all black, and a band of high-schoolers, friends of my older brother, playing punk covers. I left happy at that point, but I wasn’t about to miss the band I’d really come to see. Someone told me the headliner was a “real” punk band from Indianapolis.

[Image at the top of this post: the Zero Boys today, (l to r) Paul Mahern, Dave Lawson, Scott Kellogg, and Mark Cutsinger.]

I knew a little bit about punk rock. I read Creem magazine religiously, which extensively covered the London and New York punk scenes. My best friend Harry had spent the prior year in England, and he brought back a bunch of punk and ska records that we devoured. Despite my growing interest in punk, however, I enjoyed nothing more than going to the arena concerts to check out the big rock acts. I saw ELO, Van Halen, Styx, Cheap Trick, The Police, ZZ Top, Black Sabbath, and many others. I’d beg my parents to take me to see anything that came through nearby Indianapolis that wasn’t completely wussy, and then I’d proudly wear my concert T-shirt to school the next day. As far as I knew, the Police were a punk band, as were the B-52s and Talking Heads.  I had a sense that the culture was in transition, but all I really cared about was whether or not the music rocked.

Although I didn’t discriminate among the bands I saw at free shows, I drew a clear distinction between local music and the bands that toured and played at arenas. That’s why street dances were free while concerts cost ten bucks, right? The arena bands just played better music. If the local bands were that good, they’d be playing arenas. I clung to this attitude as I watched these four lanky guys from Indianapolis in sleeveless T-shirts and canvas sneakers set up their gear. I hoped they’d play some good rock n’ roll, even some Ramones covers. I hoped to be entertained, but I didn’t expect all that much. My parents regarded Indianapolis as a cultural backwater; the popular bands from there that I heard on Indianapolis radio seemed to be run-of-the-mill, blue collar bands in the mode of REO Speedwagon, or Bob Seger. As I’d learned from Creem, real punk rock came from faraway, exotic places.

Zero Boys launched into their set with awesome precision and ferocity,  leaving me dazed and disoriented. I’d never heard a band play songs at such fast tempos, or with so much energy. I had no context for the music; it wasn’t heavy metal, and it didn’t sound like the punk records I’d heard. I guessed it was something new. The singer, a scrappy kid who appeared to be only a few years older than me, commanded the makeshift stage as he launched into one melodic song after another. I couldn’t even process what I was hearing but in that moment I abandoned all of my notions about rock music.  I was seeing the future — a future I wanted desperately to be a part of.

The next couple of years, inspired by that fateful summer I diligently filled in my knowledge gaps regarding punk music. I read every fanzine I could find. I snapped up everything I could get my hands on: The Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, Fear, X,  The Misfits, Bad Brains, The Germs. I loved it all, but nothing really compared to my memory of the Zero Boys show. I met other punk kids. I adopted the style of the day of cropped hair, a leather jacket, and army boots, plus buttons and stickers and advertising my favorite bands. I finally started my own band. I told everyone who would listen about the Zero Boys, but few had heard of them and nobody had seen them play.

In the fall of 1982 a few copies of  a lurid, bright yellow album depicting grotesque drawing of a severed head arrived at local stores: Zero Boys’ Vicious Circle LP. More than a year had passed since I’d seen the Zero Boys, so my memory was dim. I now realize that the show I saw in ’81 occurred around the time they recorded the album. By that time, a couple years into their existence, they’d gelled  into a fierce unit. Vicious Circle is practically unique among hardcore punk albums  since it was professionally recorded and performed by seasoned rock n’ roll musicians. The material is as strong as any album of its time with accessible, sing-along choruses;  the execution is far  more assured and realized than many of the hardcore standard bearers. I literally wore out my copy. I learned every word, beat, lick and nuance of the album. To me, at the time, it was perfect.

Vicious Circle lineup consisted of three seasoned instrumentalists in  their twenties (ancient by hardcore stands): Terry “Hollywood” Howe (guitar), David “Tufty” Clough (bass), and Mark Cutsinger (drums). Each had played in pre-punk bands, playing glam, hard rock, even funk. Teenage singer Paul “Z” Mahern completed the lineup. Howe and Cutsinger had scouted Mahern after hearing his high school band play at party. A short-lived original lineup, consisting of Howe, Cutsinger, Mahern and bassist John Mitchell, started out playing covers, eventually composing a set of original material heavily influenced by first-generation punk acts such as The Ramones and the The Sex Pistols.

So how did the Zero Boys evolve from a transparently derivative reasonably competent local punk act into the incredible band that recorded Vicious Circle in the course of year? It’s apparent that the addition of Tufty Clough helped. As represented on Vicious Circle, the Aero Boys’ rhythm section actually swings, which is rare if not unique in early hardcore. Cutsinger demonstrates a subtle touch on the drums, often adding intricate accents on the cymbals to embellish his thundering back-beat. Clough played the bass with his fingers rather than the typical punk pick style, adding dazzling speed runs and arpeggios to the simple bass lines. The ultra-tight, rather clean rhythm section provides a strong foundation for the dirtier guitar and vocal. Howe plays actual solos — anathema to hardcore — and they work. His signature pick drags and controlled feedback bursts color the spare the spare tracks. Mahern’s assured voice serves the songs perfectly; it’s at once melodic and abrasive, snotty and sincere. Every piece fits together, every sound is essential.

The Zero Boys were my true entrée into the punk scene, and I didn’t look back. I saw them perform several times, and each set proved better than the last. My friends and I listened to and discussed Vicious Circle constantly. We talked about the lyrics, some of which were brilliant while others seemed downright goofy. But it all sounded cool, so we gave it the benefit of the doubt. We drove to Indianapolis regularly from the winter of 1983 through late 1984 to see them perform with numerous lesser acts, both local and national. I lived for the adrenaline rush of sweat, crashing bodies, clenched teeth, screaming the lyrics at the top of my voice with a cluster of kids as Paul held the mic to crowd. Once I returned home from a show at 3:00 am with a slam dancing injury: a gash on my chin that required a late night emergency room visit and seven stitches. I lied to my mother and told her I’d hurt myself skateboarding. I didn’t mind being forbidden to skateboard, but I wasn’t about to give up going to Zero Boys shows.

Rumors circulated about a Zero Boys album, but eventually the band just stopped playing altogether. Tufty left to join the more established Toxic Reasons, a popular, workmanlike band from Ohio. I’m sure it was the sensible thing to do at the time.  Paul formed a psychedelic band called the Dandelion Abortion and started playing more frequently. My interest in hardcore gradually waned; I started playing guitar, writing songs. After high school, I packed my crate of LPs including Vicious Circle and moved to Boston for college. I didn’t listen to Vicious Circle much; I didn’t really have to. I’d memorized every second of the record; it had become part of my musical vocabulary. Despite my own love for Vicious Circle, it didn’t really occur to me that the Zero Boys were anything but a local band. Then one day a year or so after I’d moved to Boston I was listening to college radio.

I’d started my first real band at that point, and things were coming together very slowly. Every Sunday evening, both for entertainment and for research, I listened to a show on the Emerson College station that featured a live set by a local underground band.
On the Sunday in question, the show featured a new band called the Lemonheads, a trio of local recent high school graduates. I liked their sound, which was sort of a scrappy pop/punk stew with short, melodic songs. The two singers switched between guitar and drums on every other song. Suddenly they launched into a familiar riff, a distorted two-chord boogie. Then the singer came in: “I have no heeeeroes, I’m just havin’ a gooooood tiiiiiimmee.” My heart lept in my chest; it was the Zero Boys’ Livin’ in the 80s.

Eventually I met the Lemonheads; later I joined the band. The first time I spoke with them, we discussed the Zero Boys. They’d learned about the band from the Harvard College radio station WHRB. Vicious Circle was considered by aesthetes and record collectors to be a classic in the genre. The album had, apparently, found its way into the right hands and the right ears. The music prevailed.

Once my own career as a musician hit its stride, I sought out Paul Mahern. After the Zero Boys split, he had become a skilled and sought-after audio engineer. He fronted an excellent psychedelic rock band called the Datura Seeds. I found him to be approachable and gracious; he even tolerated my constant raving about the Zero Boys. Paul and I became good friends, and we made several albums together. We even shared a house for a year or so in Bloomington. But I never stopped being slightly in awe of him. In fact, I’m still slightly in awe of him.

The Zero boys eventually re-formed. A young, talented local devotee named Vess Ruhtenberg stepped in on guitar. The re-formed band made a couple of albums in the early 90s, which were released overseas. Various indie labels re-issued Vicious Circle, as interest in the album continued to grow. The most recent re-issue of the album on Secretly Canadian Records, along with the re-issue of the odds and ends compilation History of the Zero Boys (featuring an early EP along with tracks recorded for the shelved second album), represents a high-water mark, over 25 years after its initial release.

Album Cover

The Zero Boys’ 2014 Release, Monkey

After listening to Vicious Circle for the first time in at least a decade, I completely understand why I connected so strongly with the album as a teenager. The songs and performances have aged well; despite some dated lyrics, they sound as fresh and relevant as ever. One can’t help wonder how things would have been different if the album had been released at a different moment. They could have — should have — been superstars. But it doesn’t really matter now, because they inspired me and others like me at the time, and they will likely inspire future generations of disenfranchised kids as well. Rock n’ roll this great transcends time and context.

[John P. Strohm is a native of Bloomington and currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama. John performed and composed music professionally in bands including the Blake Babies, the Lemonheads and Antenna. He has released three solo albums: California, Vestavia and Everyday Life.  John is now an entertainment attorney, an adjunct law professor and the father of three children. He still writes, plays and records music when time permits.]

The Ryder ◆ June 2014

After All These Years: Gaga for the Gizmos

Bloomington’s legendary proto-punk band will perform live for the first time in 38 years ◆ by John Barge

Not everybody makes a gold record, but the Gizmos did. Oh sure, it took them more than 30 years to get their 500,000 sales but that makes it even cooler. How punk rock is that?

Now maybe you’ve heard of the Gizmos, maybe you haven’t. But here’s what you need to know: They were over the top, they rocked it out, and they were the first punk rock band to put out a record in Indiana.

It’s been almost four decades since they left their mark — or at least a stain — on the musical world but on Thursday, June 12th, at the Bishop the original Gizmos will reunite. Or perhaps more accurately, a reasonable facsimile will assemble — after all, the Gizmos made their first record with an eight person line up and naturally not everyone can make it.

But the mainstays of the group will be there, starting with the duo front men of Ken Highland and Ted Niemac, and the spiritual mentor Eddie Flowers, along with whiz-kid guitarist Ken Coffee, all four playing together for the first time since their infamous recording session way back in May, 1976. As for the elusive, reclusive others lurking in the background, who knows? But a Bloomington All Star music crew has been recruited for the rhythm section, consisting of local legends Ian Brewer and the Mad Monk known as JT, along with newbie Max Demata (more on him later).

The nitty gritty details are all in their CD liner notes about how a motley crew of fanzine writers (kids, it was kind of like writing a blog but using Xerox machines; ask your grandparents) converged on Bloomington in the mid-seventies, united in their love of rock’n’roll. This would be Ken and future Gulcher label owner Bob Richert, with occasional visits by Eddie Flowers.

After a few songs were written by aspiring rockers Ken and Eddie, Rich Coffee’s band Cerberus provided the bulk of the instrumentalists, but there was one more piece of the puzzle left to be added. Let Ken Highland fill us in: “Bob Richert worked at WIUS where he had met Ted Niemac, and they had free tickets to the Tubes. After the concert they came over to the apartment and we jammed to Kiss songs. But when Ted opened his mouth and sang, he sounded just like Lou Reed, only singing Deuce! Bob said, “I think you guys just formed a band. Let’s call it the Gizmos!”

A single ten hour recording session was hastily put together at Rich Fish’s aptly named Homegrown Studios, with a smattering of chaotic rehearsals happening beforehand. Guitars were plugged straight into the board instead of miking amps, and a direct live stereo mix was created for the master tapes, mostly because nobody in the band had any studio experience or knew any alternatives.

Kirk Ross (now with the Carolina Mercury Dispatch) was the engineer for that session. “It was a very strange session. We were all packed into a back bedroom of a duplex on Smith Road. I had to sit on the floor to engineer. The session started slowly. I remember John Mellencamp — he was Johnny Cougar then — coming by and showing them a song. The session built as it went on and had some pretty good energy by the end. They got quite goofy at times, mostly sugar highs. I was a pretty wild kid then, but they were a whole different level of wild. They made me feel normal.”

Putting out a fanzine was one thing, but putting out a record in 1976 was another, and it took a determined mind to make it happen. Bob Richert had that mind, starting Gulcher Records for the express purpose of pressing, releasing, and promoting the Gizmos’ recordings. After a lengthy break, it’s going strong today and while it’s a stretch to say it was the start of the DIY punk movement, it was the first example of the DIY punk movement, at least in Indiana, and thus an idea ahead of its time.

Gulcher Flyer

A Long, Long Time Ago….

Recordings are great, but of course it’s the music and the songs that matter, and here the Gizmos had an awful lot of inspiration going for them. The first extended player (or EP — it was the size of a 45 single but with four songs) featured a sensational, smutty pop punk classic Muff Diving (In The Wilkie South), that lyrically was not only entertaining, but educational too, with a whale of a guitar riff to propel it into the stratosphere.

That’s Cool (I Respect You More) has many tough-but-tender fans as well. “I was a pen pal with a girl in Jersey,” Ken explains “and she invited me down for a visit. I’m sixteen, you know how it is. We were listening to Grand Funk Railroad and making out, when I asked if she wanted to go all the way. She said no, and my mom always told me, “Ken, you must respect the ladies,” so I said, “That’s cool, I respect you more,” because I did. Later I wrote the song when I was working at my high school as a janitor. Like Kurt Cobain did.”

Rounding out the vinyl was a nifty tribute to Dick Clark and American Bandstand delivered in Mean Screen delivered by the irrespirable Eddie Flowers. The fourth song, Chicken Queen, is really beyond description. That’s on you to listen to. God help you.

So they pressed a thousand copies of the first “modern,” post-Stooges, Indiana punk rock record, and sent them out, and guess what — it was a hit. An underground sensation, as it were. It got rave reviews, hit #8 on the UK Alternative Chart, the cards and letters poured in, and the original pressing sold out. Another thousand were pressed (only 498,000 to go). “We felt that our music was entertaining and necessary. However we didn’t know that anybody else was ready for it and were a little surprised to see how enthusiastically it was received,” remembers Ted.

There was a clamor to see this strange and naughty group of guys, who actually had never played a live show, and they obliged, doing a set at the Monroe County Municipal Library in 1977 that was many years later released on the Gulcher label. Ken Highland had to endure the nascent punk rock explosion while wearing a US Marine uniform (“A big mistake,” is how he calls his enlistment today), but made it back to Bloomington for the show and a quick return to the recording studio for the second EP.

A young Johnny Cougar Mellencamp introduced them that night, and in a slightly bizarre turn of events, had even written a song for them called Boring Part 1. The Gizmos recorded it, with the Coug sitting in on guitar and singing background vocals, but they didn’t release it until many, many moons later. Ted says, “The track would’ve come out better, if we had spent more time going through it before the record button was pressed.”

Two more records were pressed, but sales didn’t match the first one, although there was strong material in those grooves. By 1978 the band would start to morph into the uber-talented Dale Lawrence era, which highlighted a more efficient and less chaotic approach to making this punk rock thing happen.

Gulcher Records expanded as well, releasing a chockful of records and samplers by local bands. But by 1982 it was all over. The Gizmos left for New York and changed their name. Gulcher Records moved on as well.

But they cast a long shadow that has allowed much marvelous original, hardcore, and experimental music to flourish right here in our hometown. This writer first saw them in that evolutionary year of 1978, which provided quite the adrenaline rush, and started my own band within the year. I quickly bought, or at least obtained, copies of all four eps and enthusiastically studied their self-referential lyrical style (Ballad of the Gizmos) and their muscular guitar riffing, and even dug their tongue-in-cheek advertising.

Their initiative in writing, recording and releasing their own material set a powerful example that many followed throughout the eighties and today’s local music scene owes much, both directly and indirectly, to those eight musical nabobs and the record label that grew in their wake.

And so the Gizmo’s legacy never really died. The interest continued through the years, and the first Gizmos EP remained a strong collector’s item. And lo and behold the internet mushroom clouded into existence. Collector interest surged, eBay sales were impressive, phone calls and emails were made, and in 2000 Gulcher Records revived, debuting with (what else?) a Gizmos compilation, 1976/1977: The Studio Recordings, which featured the first three EPs, unreleased tracks, and alternate takes. This is the material that the group will play at the Bishop.

Album Cover

Several Gulcher releases were licensed to an obscure Italian punk rock label that had a name that rhymed — Vulture Records. And an Italian luminary named Max Demata, who is good friends with the owner of Vulture Records, ended up at IU in Bloomington this year. It is through his efforts, his coercion, and his bass playing, that the Gizmos have been cajoled into doing the Bishop gig, which you can rest assured will be an out and out blast and, to quote the godfather of punk rock, Iggy Pop, a real cool time.

And 38 years later, when all the vinyl, discs and downloads are counted, the first Gizmos release is an official gold record and recognition for their music is due. “It fills a unique spot. Maybe a G-spot. That’s G for Gizmo!” is how Ted sums it up. “It’s the first time I’ve gone on tour!” adds Ken. So congratulations are in order. And I know just the time and place to give them.

[Longtime Bloomington resident John Barge is a musician with the Panics and Walking Ruins. He proudly wears his original “Gizmos Need Publicity” T shirt.]

The Ryder ◆ June 2014

The Sound Opinions of Jim Jarmusch

Photos – use only one featuring Tom Waits (probably the Coffee and Cigarettes but its your call)

◆ by Craig J. Clark

A needle is dropped onto a 45. As Wanda Jackson’s recording of Funnel of Love plays, we cut back and forth between spinning overhead views of Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as two vampires half a world away from each other. Hiddleston, a former classical music composer living off the grid in a blighted Detroit neighborhood, is surrounded by his vintage musical instruments and analog recording equipment. Meanwhile, Swinton lies amongst her vast collection of books in her apartment in Tangier. Even if they’re not in direct contact, this sequence — which opens Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, Only Lovers Left Alive — links them together and, along with their shared affinity for classic Motown and Stax records, connects them to many of Jarmusch’s other music-loving protagonists.

[Image at the top of this post from Only Lovers Left Alive.]

That trend dates back to his 1980 debut, Permanent Vacation, in which the main character is a drifter played by Chris Parker who’s driven by his fixation on his namesake, jazz man Charlie Parker, and little else. The proverbial stranger in a strange land, Parker spends much of the film walking through neighborhoods that look bombed-out, as many areas of New York City did at the time. (Jarmusch felt compelled to invent a war with the Chinese to explain the destruction.) The moment that stands out, though, comes early on when Parker puts on a record (of Up There in Orbit by Earl Bostic) and enthusiastically dances to it in a single, unbroken take. Sure, civilization may be on the brink of breaking down, but one must still take time out for music appreciation.

When Jarmusch came to make his follow-up, 1984’s Stranger Than Paradise, he not only gave the lead role to saxophonist John Lurie (who had briefly appeared as a street musician in Permanent Vacation), but also allowed him to compose the spare score. In fact, if one could only use a single adjective to describe Stranger Than Paradise, “spare” would be a good choice. The film’s minimal plot is set in motion when Lurie’s Hungarian cousin, Eszter Balint, who is fixated on the song I Put a Spell on You by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, arrives in New York and has to stay with him for ten days before moving on to Cleveland to live with their elderly aunt. When the ten days are up Balint leaves, but not before she makes an impression on Lurie’s best friend, Richard Edson (and on Lurie himself). One year later the two of them spontaneously decide to drive to Cleveland to check up on her and, flush with money, the trio makes for the warmer climes of Florida, but thanks to the black-and-white photography it looks just as bleak as anywhere else they’ve been.

Stranger Than Paradise

Scene From Stranger Than Paradise

Jarmusch went way out of his comfort zone to make his third feature, 1986’s Down by Law. Sure, he may have sent a few of his characters to Cleveland and Florida in Stranger Than Paradise, but New York City was still their home base. Down by Law, on the other hand, was shot entirely on location in Louisiana, even venturing out into the swamps, which is about as far away from city streets as you can get. It was also his first time working with director of photography Robby Müller, who would go on to shoot three more features for Jarmusch, plus one of his Coffee and Cigarettes shorts, so it’s a fair bet they got on well together. That’s not always a given, but filmmaking is hard enough as it is without throwing your lot in with people you don’t get along with.

That applies to the film as well since Down by Law is a stark, funny portrait of three men thrown together by pure chance who have to band together to overcome the lousy hand life has dealt them. Singer Tom Waits stars as a radio DJ whose girlfriend (Ellen Barkin) tearfully throws him — and most of his possessions — out after he loses yet another gig. John Lurie (who also scored the film) returns from Stranger Than Paradise as a pimp who gets dressed down by one of his girls and falls for a set-up that lands him in jail. The same thing happens to Waits and they wind up sharing a cell in Orleans Parish Prison, where they’re joined by outgoing Italian tourist Roberto Benigni. At first Benigni’s little more than an irritant to Waits and Lurie, who spend most of their time together being openly hostile to each other, but then he figures out how they can escape, which raises his stock with them significantly.

Down By Law

Tom Waits (r) In Down By Law

John Lurie doesn’t appear onscreen in Jarmusch’s next film, 1989’s Mystery Train, but he did compose its score (his last for Jarmusch to date). The same goes for Tom Waits, who is the voice of a late-night DJ whose between-record patter is heard by all three sets of protagonists in the three-part omnibus film set in Memphis, Tennessee. Each story winds up at the same moderately seedy hotel, the Arcade, which is staffed by sharp-dressed desk clerk Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and bellboy Cinqué Lee. The first, “Far from Yokohama,” is about a young Japanese couple (Masatoshi Nagase and Yûki Kudô) on a rock ‘n’ roll pilgrimage — she’s an Elvis girl, he’s into Carl Perkins — who couldn’t be more of a study in contrasts if they tried. In addition to their differing musical tastes — he wants Sun Studios to be their first priority, she’s intent on seeing Graceland — she’s outwardly thrilled by everything, while he’s much more blasé. He also takes pictures of their hotel room (which comes complete with a framed picture of Elvis) since it’s precisely the sort of thing he’ll forget about their trip.

Elvis also factors into the Mystery Train‘s other two stories. In “A Ghost,” Nicoletta Braschi plays an Italian widow traveling to Rome with her husband’s body who has an unplanned stopover in Memphis. She winds up sharing her room at the Arcade with motormouthed Jersey girl Elizabeth Bracco, who has just broken up with her man, but that’s not the reason why she doesn’t get much sleep. Rather, it’s because Elvis’s ghost appears to her, which would go down as the strangest occurrence of the night if not for the events of “Lost in Space,” in which we meet Bracco’s ex, a British expatriate played by rocker Joe Strummer, who’s weary of the nickname his black co-workers have given him (“Elvis,” naturally) and is drowning his sorrows in cheap bourbon. That would be all well and good, but when he starts waving a loaded gun around, his friend (Rick Aviles) and brother-in-law (Steve Buscemi) are summoned to retrieve him, leading to a long night for all of them. Since the previous segments both ended with the characters hearing a gunshot (“Was that a gun?” Kudô asks. “Probably. This is America,” Nagase laconically replies), we know it’s only a matter of time before Strummer shoots off something other than his mouth, and after he wings a liquor store clerk the three of them spend half the night driving around before holing up at the Arcade, where the mystery of the gunshot is solved. Suffice it to say, by the time they’re ready to check out, everybody is more than happy to be on their way.

Music and musicians aren’t as integral to Jarmusch’s next feature, 1991’s Night on Earth (there’s no scene in it like the one in Mystery Train where the Japanese tourists plays Rock Paper Scissors to determine who gets to pick the next tape to put in their Walkman), but Tom Waits did provide its soundtrack. He also acted in Jarmusch’s third Coffee and Cigarettes short in 1995 alongside Iggy Pop, with both of them as themselves having an awkward first encounter. Pop also appeared in a supporting role (as a cross-dressing frontier “wife”) in the same year’s Dead Man, which for our purposes is most notable for being scored by Neil Young. (Jarmusch even slips in a contemporary musical reference by naming one of the characters Benmont Tench after the keyboard player for Tom Petty’s band, the Heartbreakers.) That led to Jarmusch making the 1997 Neil Young and Crazy Horse tour film Year of the Horse, which to date is his only completed documentary (his untitled Stooges doc is currently in post-production).

For 1999’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jarmusch entrusted the music to Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, who also gets a cameo as a samurai in camouflage. This paved the way for RZA to act alongside his cousin (and fellow Wu-Tanger) The GZA in the feature version of Coffee and Cigarettes, which was released in 2003 and augmented the first three standalone shorts (which were made over a ten-year period) with eight more. In “Delirium,” the segment featuring RZA and The GZA, the two of them can’t believe their eyes when they find Bill Murray working in a greasy spoon. And in “Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil,” Jack White shows his partner in The White Stripes, Meg White, his Tesla coil. (I guess that one’s pretty self-explanatory, actually.) In addition to bringing more musicians into the acting fold, Coffee and Cigarettes found Jim Jarmusch incorporating classic rock and roll sides into the soundtrack once again, with two versions of Louie Louie (one by composer Richard Berry and his group The Pharoahs, the other by Iggy Pop) and Crimson and Clover by Tommy James and Shondells.

Active music listening returns to the fore in Jarmusch’s 2005 film Broken Flowers, in which a reclusive bachelor played by Bill Murray is compelled to visit his old flames when he received an anonymous letter telling him he has fathered a child by one of them. This involves hitting the road with an itinerary planned out by his helpful next-door neighbor (Jeffrey Wright), who also gives him a mix tape to listen to that is heavy on the works of Ethiopian composer/performer Mulatu Astatke. Murray’s character may resist it at first, but the more he listens to it, the more he wants to listen to it.

Four years after Broken Flowers, Jarmusch came out with 2009’s The Limits of Control, in which a laconic man with no name (Isaach De Bankolé, who has been a mainstay of his films since Night on Earth) is sent to Spain to complete a mysterious mission. He meets his contacts in various cafés where they exchange matchboxes — his contain instructions for where he should go next – and have mostly one-sided conversations. (De Bankolé isn’t much for small talk — or talk of any size, really.) One of them is with a curious character played by John Hurt (previously seen in 1995’s Dead Man) who delivers a guitar to him and bends his ear about bohemians. As it turns out, this prefigures an early scene in Only Lovers Left Alive where Tom Hiddleston receives delivery of a number of guitars from dealer Anton Yelchin, who would be his Renfield if only he knew his rock-star client was a vampire.


Jim Jarmusch

In addition to listening to his well-curated vinyl collection, Hiddleston has taken up recording brooding instrumental rock and has even started releasing it. When he grows despondent enough about his lot in unlife to order a .38 caliber wooden bullet from Yelchin, though, Swinton books a night flight from Tangier (where she gets to hang out with Christopher Marlowe, played by John Hurt) to Detroit in the hopes of keeping him from doing anything drastic. The two of them share some pleasant night drives (including a visit to the house where Jack White grew up), but alas, their happy reunion is spoiled when they’re joined by Swinton’s reckless “sister” Mia Wasikowska, who drops in unannounced (save for some portentous dreams) and, as far as Hiddleston is concerned, unwelcome. With Wasikowska stirring the pot, the question isn’t if things are going to go south, but when.

One thing Only Lovers Left Alive does exceedingly well is evoke the creeping boredom that is the bane of undying beings that have an eternity to fill. And since neck-biting is considered passé, something as basic as the acquisition of blood has taken on the air of routine, although Hiddleston does vary his schedule to keep his supplier (a doctor played by Jeffrey Wright) on his toes. Wright, incidentally, is the source of some of the film’s wryer humor, which is most welcome considering how dour Hiddleston can be sometimes. To (mis-)quote the Rolling Stones, what a drag it is not getting old.

[Only Lovers Left Alive will be screening at the IU Cinema as part of its International Arthouse Series,Thursday-Saturday, June 26-28.]

The Ryder ◆ June 2014

Thinking with Kisses: Hannah Arendt

◆ by Thomas Prasch

In Hannah Arendt, Margarethe von Trotta’s film about the crisis and controversy provoked by Hannah Arendt’s New Yorker articles in 1961 on the Adolph Eichmann trial, in which Arendt notoriously framed her argument about the “banality of evil,” two framed photographs stand on her desk: one of Martin Heidegger, the existentialist philosopher who mentored her in Germany, and one of Heinrich Blücher, her husband. They stand as the two poles in her engaged involvement with the world, of mind and heart, of Arendt’s passionate commitment to the realm of thought, which Arendt fashions as the central bulwark by which mankind can avoid the grip of totalitarian conditions, and of equally passionate (with lots of hugs and kisses) commitment to social engagement, lovers and friends, on whom Arendt depends to maintain her philosophical work (as when, later in the film, Heinrich tries to leave the house without kissing her goodbye and excuses the action by saying “Never disturb a great philosopher when they’re thinking,” Arendt insists: “But they can’t think without kisses”). Both traits define our humanity, and it is above all else the abandonment of that humanity, Arendt argues in her analysis of Eichmann, that totalitarianism triumphs.

[Image at the top of this post: Hannah Arendt.]

The film’s nearly-opening two scenes (after the brief initial scene in which Eichmann is seized by Israeli forces) reinforce the message of the two framed portraits. In the first, we see Hannah Arendt thinking. It is a striking start to a film above all else for its sheer duration: she paces, smokes a cigarette, lies down on a couch, but above all thinks, silently, no speaking, no voiceover, for a long time, over a minute and a half of screen time, something unimaginable in, say, Hollywood cinema. Immediately following, von Trotta catches a discussion between Arendt and her close friend, novelist Mary McCarthy. The conversation, picked up in medes res, opens with an interesting bit of misdirection: “But Hannah, how can you defend him?” McCarthy is asking, however, not about Eichmann, but about McCarthy’s straying husband, and in the course of a discussion about whether you can trust men, Arendt draws two key conclusions: first, that “I do not throw my friends away so easily” (so the husband’s affair will not lead to a shunning), and second: “Either you are willing to take men as they are or you must live alone.” That lonely alternative to human engagement will become a leitmotif in the film.

The dichotomy is, of course, imperfect; as Arendt’s response to Heinrich suggests, no person can be all thought, or presumably all kisses. In Germany, Heidegger had been Arendt’s lover as well as teacher: the movie, in one of several flashbacks to her student years, imagines the beginning of the affair precisely in the breakdown of the dichotomy, when Hannah, in Heidegger’s office, tells him: “We are so used to thinking of reason and passion as opposites that the idea of passionate thinking, where thinking and being alive are one and the same, is terrifying to me.” And, on the other side, Heinrich is not just a kisser (although an aside by McCarthy during that party scene notes: “They are the happiest married couple in the world”); he is also a passionate participant in the debates among the German expatriate community in New York that explode in Hannah and Heinrich’s living room (and tend, especially for the stray English speakers in the crowd, rather to ruin her parties) immediately after Eichmann’s arrest and removal to Jerusalem. Heinrich ferociously contends, for example, that the arrest and trial have no basis in international law, against those who equally angrily contend that any court would do for such a man. And, of course, the dichotomy is muddled somewhat by Heidegger’s own trajectory: his embrace of the Nazi party as rector of the university in Freiburg. Indeed, Hans Jonas, identified in that early party scene as Arendt’s “oldest friend,” going back to when they were both (Jewish) students of Heidegger, cannot bear to hear the philosopher’s name mentioned (although here, too, the dichotomy also tends to collapse: Heinrich late in the film suggests to Hannah that Hans “hates Heidegger more for stealing your heart than for joining the [Nazi] Party”). In another flashback, the only postwar one, Arendt confronts her old tutor on his abandonment of the principles of independent thought in his adherence to Nazism, to which charge he has in the film, as he had in life, no answer but awkward, evasive silence.

Still, the dichotomy — of hand and heart — is a useful frame for understanding the ways in which von Trotta constructs Arendt’s course through the controversy (a constant alternation, echoing those first scenes, between life of mind and social life). The film’s insistence on Hannah’s need for others as much as her need for thought provides a defense against some of Arendt’s most aggressive contemporary critics (like the New School foe who, in the midst of trying to remove her from the school’s classrooms, harumphs: “That’s Hannah Arendt, all arrogance and no feeling”). The dichotomy will simultaneously provide Arendt herself with an understanding of the operation of totalitarian systems, which begins with the abandonment of thought, which, Arendt asserts, undermines the very humanity of the Nazi—“In refusing to be a person,” by not thinking of his actions, by making himself nothing but a bureaucratic cog, “Eichmann surrendered that single most defining human quality, that of being able to think,” which produces the bureaucratic process made manifest in the operation of the Final Solution, which in turn dehumanizes the victims. As she explains to her students, “the camp is a place where every activity and human impulse is senseless,” and where, it follows, there is no humanity, which makes it that much easier to kill). And, finally, the dichotomy will provide the complex dialectic of triumphant and tragic outcomes that define the film’s conclusion. Thus, on the one hand, at the level of thought, the film gives Arendt her intellectual triumph: she gets the last word, in the extended lecture she presents at the New School at the height of the controversy, in which she will take on and effectively demolish the attacks of her fiercest critics. At the same time, the tragic dimension is that her intellectual triumph coincides with her increasing social isolation: Heinrich dies (no cause-effect here, just coincident timing); Hans, that “oldest friend,” abandons her; so does Kurt Blumenfeld, her old Zionist friend in Jerusalem. When they had argued during the Eichmann trial — as, indeed, Arendt used their arguments to begin to flesh out her ideas about the “banality of evil” — Hannah and Kurt reassured his listening daughter: Hannah telling her “But after finishing our bloody duels,” and Kurt finishing her sentence: “We always find a way to make up.” But, on his deathbed, he turns his back on her. Earlier in the film, in one of the flashbacks, a line of Heidegger’s anticipates this tragic dimension: “Thinking is a lonely business.” Arendt’s thinking will make her lonelier.
Arendt’s book unleashed a firestorm of criticism. The movie about that firestorm has, in striking ways, reignited it. The new attacks have been remarkable perhaps most of all in the level to which they have misrepresented both Arendt and von Trotta’s film. In The New Republic, Saul Austerlitz denounced the film because it “perpetuates the pernicious myth” of “Arendt as fearless truth-teller” by dismissing her critics as “bullies, shrill ideologues” and ignoring their “valid criticisms” of her “shoddy history,” while proffering much shoddy history himself (that Arendt thought Eichmann was “unaware” of the atrocities, for instance, a claim Arendt never made). Similarly, in the New York Times, Fred Kaplan insisted that newer evidence undermines Arendt’s : “Her ‘banality of evil’ thesis rests on the premise that Eichmann committed his deeds with no awareness of their evil, not even with virulent anti-Semitism,” but this misunderstands Arendt’s premise and misstates the evidence she had at hand. Stanley Kauffman in The New Republic insists: “Today at least we can see that there is small point in separating emotions from facts, as Arendt did,” when in fact she did not such thing.

At this level, the new attacks largely reprise the debates Arendt’s original publication provoked. They have also gone significantly further, however, in terms of mischaracterizations of Arendt, personalized attacks on von Trotta, and false claims about the film. Kauffman, for example, falsely claims that Arendt’s love affair with Heidegger was renewed after the war, “presumably more a matter of Venus than politics,” and that the controversy over her book led to her “discharge from her teaching position.” Wrong on both counts. David Rieff, writing in The Nation, says of the Americans in the film: “those roles as written are a little too close for comfort to seeming like a road show for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the classic anti-Semitic screed, a charge that is both hyperbolically overloaded and absurdly unfitted to the film. Mark Lilla, in the New York Review of Books, both dismissively derides von Trotta, as someone whose “specialty is didactic feminist buddy movies,” and misrepresents the film. He writes, for example: “In one shot we are watching Eichmannn testify … in the next her husband is patting her behind as they cook dinner.” Although both moments occur in Hannah Arendt, they are separated by over half an hour of screen time. Lilla also insists, of Arendt’s arrival at her conclusions, that “we are left with the impression that she … had a vision,” ignoring the role of thinking, of discussing and debating and writing and revising, that are central to the movie. Lilla needs the visionary angle, however, to stake his own conclusion, that this is “a stilted, and very German, morality play about conformism and independence” which exposes Germans’ “unwillingness … to think for themselves,” a bizarre claim to make about a philosopher committed to the priority of thought and a film that makes thinking so central.

Critics of Arendt’s position, then and now, have focused above all on two points, and have misunderstood Arendt’s position on both. First, they have argued that her case for the “banality of evil” amounts to an excusing of Eichmann for his crimes, as if Arendt was asserting his functional innocence. But Arendt did no such thing. He had no “motive,” his crimes were “without intention,” he “only obeyed orders.” But that does not excuse his actions (it does not even make them less evil, in fact; “banal,” note, but still “evil”); indeed, it makes them worse. By abandoning thought, Eichmann and Nazis like him abandoned their very humanity, and this made them capable of crimes which, Arendt repeatedly insists, could not be imagined in earlier history.

Second, and most controversially, Arendt focused for a dozen pages of her account on the complicity of Jewish leaders in the mechanics of the Holocaust. As she wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem, “To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.” For her critics this was utter heresy; as one of them puts it here, “You blame the Jewish people for their own destruction.” But this was not Arendt’s point. As she responds to that critic: “I never blamed the Jewish people. Resistance was impossible. But perhaps there is something between resistance and cooperation, and only in that sense do I say that maybe some of the Jewish leaders might have behaved differently.” In this, Arendt drew heavily on the work of Raul Hilfberg, whose then-recent Destruction of the European Jews (1961) fully documented the involvement of Judenrat in the mechanics of the extermination process: in the selection of victims, in the control of information, in the mechanics of ghettoization (bottom line here: Hilfberg’s ample documentation demonstrates that Arendt was right). But beyond that, accusing her of blaming the Jews, as Arendt notes, misses the point. Jewish complicity is for her part of the bigger picture of Nazi totalitarianism’s dehumanization, part of what she calls in the film “the totality of the moral collapse that the Nazis caused.” In no way does she ever suggest, as her critics claimed and claim, that Eichmann could be exonerated and the Jewish leadership held guilty in the process.

In the course of the film, the priority of thought (or its reverse, the abandonment of thought) is a recurrent trope. The thought scene at the outset gets reinforced by a lecture by Heidegger in one of the early flashbacks: “Thinking does not bring knowledge, as do the sciences. Thinking does not produce usable, practical wisdom. Thinking does not solve the riddles of the universe. Thinking does not endow us with the power to act. We live because we are alive. And we think because we are thinking beings.”  And Arendt at work — in discussion, while lecturing, while writing—is always Arendt in thought.

And then, her thought focuses on the inverse, the unthinking totalitarian mind. This figures first of all in Eichmann’s own testimony, provided in the film by archival clips of his actual court testimony, where he speaks the bureaucratese that is the enemy of thought: “I received the matter for its continued processing and dealt with it in an intermediate capacity. As I was ordered to do, I had to follow orders…. Whether people were killed or not, orders had to be executed. In line with administrative procedures.” From that unthinking leadership follows the enforcement of unthought throughout the system, as at the camps (as she explains to her students, recalling her own camp experience in Gurs, where the logic of the system had “nothing to do with selfishness or any such understandable … motives. Instead it is based on the following phenomenon: making human beings superfluous as human beings,” who are, recall from Heidegger, thinking beings), or with the Jewish councils, or anywhere else within the system. As she articulates it in her final lecture: “The trouble with a Nazi criminal like Eichmann was that he insisted on renouncing all personal qualities, as if there was nobody left to be punished or forgiven. He protested time and again … that he had done nothing out of his own initiative. That he had no intentions, good or bad. That he had only obeyed orders. This typical Nazi claim makes it clear that the greatest evil in the world is the evil committed by nobodies, evil committed by men without motive, without convictions… by human beings who refuse to be persons. And it is this phenomenon that I have called the banality of evil.” Depersonalization here coincides with thoughtlessness (although, of course, heartlessness accompanies it as well).

Arendt concludes her final lecture with a reaffirmation of the role of thought as a counterforce to the darkness, in terms that interestingly (and ironically, given his trajectory) echo Heidegger’s: “Since Socrates and Plato, we usually call thinking being engaged in that intent dialogue between me and myself. In refusing to be a person, Eichmann utterly surrendered that single most defining human quality, that of being able to think. And consequently he was no longer capable of making moral judgments. This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale the likes of which one had never seen before. It is true I have considered these questions in a philosophical way. The manifestation of … thought is not knowledge, but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in those moments when the chips are down.” Her project — and von Trotta’s affirmation of that project — is less about eliminating the category of evil or exonerating its practitioners, but in demystifying it (“He is not Mephistopheles,” Arendt insists to Kurt), and to accomplish this by subjecting totalitarianism, as the enemy of thought, to the process of thinking.

But that process of thought must be balanced for Arendt in the other passion, the social connection. This is made clear early in the film, when she recalls for Heinrich her experience of and escape from the camp. As camp life continued, as the women in the camp were dragged down by “the waiting,” Arendt recalls, “More and more women let themselves go, stopped combing their hair, stopped washing themselves. Just lay on straw mats.” Arendt herself reached a point where “I suddenly lost my courage. I was so tired, so tired, that I wanted to leave this world that I so loved. And in that instant I saw you in front of me. [I thought about] how you’d look for me and not find me.” And so she persevered. But note: it is love that saves her, not thought. It is in the balance between the two that Arendt, and von Trotta, rest our hopes.

The Ryder ◆ June 2014

Imprinted Cinema

IU Grad Student’s Film, Acetate Diary, screened at the Tribeca Film Festival ◆ by Brandon Walsh

Avant-garde cinema is uniquely equipped to engage with unspoken personal realities. Such is the case with Russell Sheaffer’s short experimental film Acetate Diary, an attempt to bridge the gap between individual trauma and a publically displayed medium.

[The image of Sheaffer at the top of this post is a promotional shot from the Tribeca Film Festival.]

The film is an impressionistic scroll of abstract handmade patterns and shapes, indecipherable scrolling text, and broad strokes of color. The film is a visually impulsive exercise, modeling the diary films of Jonas Mekas and Sadie Benning as well as the nonrepresentational films of Stan Brakhage. An abstract expression, it requires the audience to tune their gaze to the film’s own visual logic.

Sheaffer acknowledges that the film is better experienced than discussed with language, which effectively alludes to the thesis of Acetate Diary. He says, “It’s tricky, because you’re articulating something that can’t be articulated.”

Acetate Diary

Selected Frames From Acetate Diary

Sheaffer injured his jaw in a horrific accident involving multiple cars while driving on a San Diego freeway in November of 2012. Though surviving, the accident left him deeply affected. It wasn’t until a year later that he began to emotionally recover. “I just assumed I would get better … trauma happens, and you deal with that for a really long time,” says Sheaffer.

Not long after his recovery, Sheaffer’s world was upended once again. Given a troubling medical diagnosis related to the accident, he reverted to the same state of fear and disembodiment that he experienced following the accident. The night of his diagnosis, he ran into Susanne Schwibs, documentary filmmaker and faculty member of the Communication and Culture department. She says, “When Russell came to me with his idea for a handmade film, I was elated.  It is a time-consuming process and so few people choose that technique.  It is difficult, too, because what you see when you paint is not what you will see and hear when it is projected.” After discussing the leading events, Schwibs gave Sheaffer a spare developed 100-foot roll of 16mm film, which would become Acetate Diary.

While informed by the preceding year, the film itself documents the two week period of its production, manipulated in the analog edit bays in both the Communication and Culture department’s production lab and the lab made in Sheaffer’s basement. Schaeffer treated each day as a chapter in the diary, using different techniques and patterns, though the film was not produced sequentially. One day was devoted to laying his fingerprint on the film, others to sketching phrases and geometric patterns. The optical audio track aside the film was similarly modified. Sheaffer scratched the surface with a pushpin.

Acetate Diary

Still From Acetate Diary

The result is a sculptural representation of cognitive emptying, a personal imprint on a physical medium. Schaeffer cites Orphans Midwest as a spiritual influence, a conference hosted by the IU Cinema consisting of handmade, “orphaned” films, of which he helped curate. Enrolled in Schwibs’ experimental film class, Schaffer was also exposed to the nonrepresentational films of Norman McLaren.

Sheaffer shipped the 16mm print to the FotoKem film lab for 35mm conversion, which screened at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. Jon Vickers, director of the IU Cinema, assisted with the film’s conversion to film, “The long-term plight of digital preservation is still unknown. Russell now has a known, stable archival element that will surely last hundreds of years,” says Vickers. Acetate Diary screened in the festival as part of “Digital Dillema,” a series of 8 short films that explored the both endearing and fleeting qualities of celluloid film. “With so much going to digital, there’s a resurgence of films that are handmade that are one of a kind,” Schwibs says. It was also one of 9 student films shown in the festival.

The story of the film’s making is as equally captivating as the 16mm roll itself, and Schaeffer is aware of how the background will likely inform the experience of viewing the film. In either instance, he feels the message of discomfort comes across. “It should be a threatening encounter. It makes the work alive,” says Schaeffer. In essence, the value taken from Acetate Diary is as much dictated by the viewer’s own projection to the screen as the filmmaker’s.

The Ryder ◆ June 2014

Roger Corman In The ‘Sixties

The King of the Bs Gets Serious ● by Craig J. Clark

[He was fast. He was cheap. He was looking for thrills. Long before the DIY culture became fashionable, Roger Corman was doing it himself, making feature length movies with little money but lots of ingenuity. He is the patron saint of independent cinema and he will be visiting Bloomington on April 18 and 19.]

For some, the Honorary Academy Award producer/director Roger Corman received in 2009 “for his rich engendering of film and filmmakers” was a moment of long-overdue recognition from an industry that seemed loath to acknowledge the impact he’d had on it over the course of his six-decade career. For others, who only know his name from the handful of his ’50s B movies that made their way onto cable’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the ’90s, it must have come as something of a surprise that the Academy would give him an award at the same time as acting legend Lauren Bacall and influential cinematographer Gordon Willis. Even putting aside all the filmmakers who got their start at Corman’s production company New World Pictures in the ’70s and beyond, though, the amazing run of films he made in the ’60s would be worth celebrating.

As a director, Corman tried his hand at just about every genre, beginning his career in 1955 with the westerns Five Guns West and Apache Woman, the crime drama Swamp Women, and the sci-fi parable Day the World Ended. For the rest of the decade he cycled between those subjects and other drive-in friendly fare about juvenile delinquents, rock and roll, Viking women, gangsters, and teenage cavemen. He didn’t tackle a war film, though, until 1960’s Ski Troop Attack, which Corman filmed in tandem with Monte Hellman’s debut Beast from Haunted Cave, which he executive produced.

Shot on location in South Dakota, Ski Troop follows a five-man recon patrol scouting the German countryside in the winter of 1944 in advance of General Eisenhower’s final push. The patrol is led by lieutenant Michael Forest, who likes to do things by the book and is constantly being dogged by sarcastic sergeant Frank Wolff, who’s eager to fight and resents Forest’s officer training. In order to differentiate between the three privates under them, screenwriter Charles B. Griffith makes one a Yankee, one a Southerner, and one a radio operator who gets killed early on. The only other major character is the hausfrau whose cabin gets raided for supplies when their rations run out, and to further save money Corman himself plays the distractingly dubbed commander of the German ski patrol in pursuit of our heroes when they set about destroying a strategic bridge. The battle scene that follows clearly illustrates how much he was stretching his budget, but you’ve got to admire the guy for trying to make a war film for pocket change.

Thankfully, Corman had a bit more money to work with when he made 1960’s House of Usher, the first of seven Edgar Allan Poe adaptations he made for American-International Pictures. The film also represents Corman’s first collaborations with screenwriter Richard Matheson and star Vincent Price, who would become a fixture of the Poe cycle as well as a few other films Corman made during the same period. Price plays Roderick Usher, a sinister, white-haired recluse who believes his family line is doomed and tries to stonewall Bostonian Mark Damon when he arrives at the titular residence and announces his plan to take Usher’s sister Madeline (Myrna Fahey) away with him. The only other living character in play is Usher’s faithful servant (Harry Ellerbe), but in a lot of ways the most important character is the house itself, which shudders from time to time and appears to be ready to collapse at any moment. No matter how annoyed he gets at Price’s insistence that he leave, Damon can’t deny that his life is in danger as long as he stays.

Corman may have been known for his ability to churn out movies quick and on the cheap, but House of Usher and the others in the series show what he was capable of given a little more time and money. It also benefits greatly from having been shot in CinemaScope (which cinematographer Floyd Crosby uses to enhance the atmosphere) and Daniel Haller’s sumptuous production design really stands out thanks to the decision to spring for Technicolor. It’s no surprise that the National Film Preservation Board chose to add House of Usher to the National Film Registry in 2005. It’s definitely one that has stood the test of time and laid the groundwork for more compelling films to come.

Another Corman film that has had remarkable staying power is 1960’s The Little Shop of Horrors, which became a cult favorite long before it inspired an off-Broadway musical and big-budget remake. Today, it’s probably most well-known for the three-minute cameo by Jack Nicholson as a masochistic dental patient, but his character is barely an afterthought. The actual star is Jonathan Haze as the hapless Seymour Krelboin, creator of hybrid plant Audrey Jr., which turns out to have unusual tastes, with Jackie Joseph as the ever-sunny Audrey, Mel Welles as the Skid Row florist who lets his greed get the better of him, and Corman regular Dick Miller (who had previously starred in 1959’s A Bucket of Blood as a wannabe beatnik artist who turns his murder victims into art) as a flower connoisseur who prefers eating in “out-of-the-way places” and is “crazy about kosher flowers.” For a film Corman reportedly shot in two days on a bet, Little Shop is a real winner.

Later that year, Corman traveled to Puerto Rico to make a trio of movies. (Actually, he only planned on making two, but the script for a third was hastily thrown together to make the most of the location shoot.) First out of the gate was Last Woman on Earth, a post-apocalyptic adventure story which Corman had enough faith in that he put up the extra money to shoot it in color. Written by first-time scripter Robert Towne (who would later write Chinatown), it stars Betsy Jones-Moreland as the neglected wife of unscrupulous businessman Antony Carbone, who is vacationing in Puerto Rico (and gambling on everything in sight, including the cockfights) while the U.S. government is investigating him. He’s also accompanied by his lawyer (played by Towne under the pseudonym Edward Wain), who wants to talk business but gets roped into a scuba diving expedition. It’s a good thing he is, too, because it’s while the three of them are underwater that the world goes kablooey. After they surface and discover that they’re the only humans left, our three heroes make for shore and begin building a new life – one that is immediately beset by conflict as the last two men on Earth aren’t interested in sharing the last woman.

Carbone, Jones-Moreland, and Towne also show up in 1961’s Creature from the Haunted Sea, the aforementioned hastily-thrown-together film which was written by Corman’s frequent scribe Charles B. Griffith. It’s one that Corman highlights a number of times in his 1990 autobiography How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, so it must have been one of his favorite movies. It’s certainly one of his more offbeat efforts. In it, Carbone plays a crook who agrees to help Cuban nationalists smuggle the nation’s treasury out of the country on his boat in the wake of Castro’s revolution. Aiding him are his moll (Jones-Moreland), her dim-witted brother (Robert Bean), and his henchman (Beach Dickerson), who inexplicably communicates mostly in animal sounds. Also along for the ride are an inept government agent (Towne, again using the pseudonym Edward Wain) and a brace of Cuban soldiers brought along to guard the treasury. Carbone plans to double-cross the Cubans, killing them off one by one and blaming the deaths on a made-up sea creature, but when the creature turns out to be real, he realizes he’s out of his depth.

During his two decades in the director’s chair, Corman only ever made one sword-and-sandal epic – 1961’s Atlas – and it’s easy to see why. Filmed on location in Greece, which he presumably figured would give him all the production values he could ever want, Atlas stars Michael Forest as the title character, an Olympic wrestler/philosophy student recruited by the evil Praximedes, Tyrant of Seronikos (Frank Wolff), to fight the champion of neighboring kingdom Thenis, which is ruled by wise old Telektos (Andreas Filippides, helping to fill the quota of Green actors in the film). Atlas takes some convincing, though, which is why Praximedes throws his ex-lover, high priestess Candia (Barboura Morris), at him. When the film gets to the battle scenes, they’re staged very poorly and edited most chaotically to cover for the shortage of extras. Corman even put on a tunic himself and entered the fray alongside mainstay Dick Miller and screenwriter Charles B. Griffith, but their efforts are largely for naught.

Returning to America and AIP with his sword between his legs, Corman embarked upon the second entry in his Poe series, 1961’s Pit and the Pendulum, which also boasted a screenplay by Richard Matheson. It stars Vincent Price as Nicholas Medina, the haunted son of one of the Spanish Inquisition’s most notorious torture enthusiasts, who is in mourning after the sudden death of his wife Elizabeth. John Kerr is Elizabeth’s brother Francis, who travels to Nicholas’s desolate castle to find out how she died (and is fairly blunt about it). Barbara Steele (fresh off starring in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday) is the lovely Elizabeth, glimpsed in distorted flashbacks and supposedly returned from the grave to torment Nicholas for entombing her prematurely (apparently one of Poe’s biggest fears since it features in so many of his works).

PitPendulum Poster

It takes a while for the film to actually reach the scene with the pit and the pendulum, but it’s a corker of a finale and Corman and Matheson effectively build the sense of the dread in the 70 minutes leading up to it. The scenes in the torture chamber are especially well-done, with Corman able to evoke the evil of the Spanish Inquisition without actually showing anyone being tortured. If I have one complaint about the film, it is that Barbara Steele’s part is so small, but that’s what you get when you play a character everybody believes is dead.

Vincent Price wasn’t available when it came time for Corman to make his next Poe film, 1962’s Premature Burial, so he hired Ray Milland to play his tortured lead instead. The tone of the film is set in the opening scene in which Milland is present at the exhuming of a grave where it turns out the occupant was buried alive. This awakens his gravest fear since he has long believed that his father was entombed prematurely, so Milland attempts to break his engagement to fiancée Hazel Court, but she talks him into going through with the wedding. Instead of going away on their honeymoon, though, Milland insists on staying at home so he can design and build a tricked-out mausoleum to make sure he doesn’t fall victim to the same fate. (The scene where he proudly demonstrates its features is one of the highlights of the film.)

Court tries to get help for her husband, but this is pre-psychoanalysis, so her doctor friend Richard Ney can only diagnose that he is disturbed, a suspicion echoed by Milland’s sister Heather Angel, who insists that their father wasn’t buried alive. Then there are the two gravediggers, played by John Dierkes and Dick Miller, who keep popping up and scaring the wits out of him. It’s no wonder Milland starts getting rude and ill-tempered. Milland the actor must have enjoyed working with Corman, though, since he returned the following year to play the lead in X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes.

Before that, Corman took time out to make 1962’s The Intruder, a hard-hitting social drama starring William Shatner as a representative of the Patrick Henry Society who arrives in a small southern town to fight racial integration of the local high school. Following an unbroken string of financial successes, this was the first film Corman made that didn’t immediately reap a profit, which is why he retreated to the exploitation films he was known for and didn’t look back. The major studios could afford to make the occasional prestige film for the sake of posterity; Corman needed each film to make money so he could go on and make the next one.

Long before he became known for his hammy acting, Shatner puts in a credible performance as the anti-integrationist (who’s also rabidly anti-commie and anti-Semitic to boot) who talks a good talk, but can’t control the situation once he’s stirred up the hornet’s nest. He’s ably assisted by Frank Maxwell as a newspaper editor who’s against integration, but finds Shatner’s methods even more distasteful, Beverly Lunsford as Maxwell’s daughter, who goes to the high school that’s being integrated, Robert Emhardt as a rich southern gentleman who gives Shatner crucial backing, Leo Gordon as a traveling salesman staying just down the hall who unwisely leaves his wife Jeanne Cooper on her own, and Charles Barnes as one of the black students reluctantly going to the white school, much to the majority population’s consternation. To illustrate this, Charles Beaumont’s screenplay (based on his novel) is peppered with racial slurs (I counted 21 uses of the n-word alone), some of which were voiced by local nonprofessionals who were probably all too comfortable using them. While the film may lack subtlety, one can’t deny its power.

Following the Vincent Price-less Premature Burial, Corman made it up to him by giving him not one, but three choice roles in his next Poe film, the 1962 anthology Tales of Terror. In the first part, based on “Morella,” he plays the boozing Locke, whose decrepit house is visited by his estranged daughter, who he has always held responsible for the death of his wife. The house is in such disuse that even the cobwebs have dust on them. The second part, which combines elements of “The Black Cat” and “A Cask of Amontillado,” pits Price against Peter Lorre, who plays a disreputable drunk who hasn’t worked in years, but has a knack for identifying wines. Price plays Fortunato, an effete wine expert who takes up Lorre’s challenge at a wine tasting and then takes up with his wife, spurring Lorre on to his revenge. The last and best segment, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” casts Price as the dying Valdemar, who employs mesmerist Basil Rathbone to relieve his pain and strikes a bargain on his deathbed that he comes to regret.

That same year, Corman took time out from his Poe cycle to make Tower of London, a Shakespearean pastiche that takes the basic plot of Richard III and grafts elements of Hamlet and Macbeth onto it. In it, Vincent Price plays the deformed Richard of Gloucester, who will do whatever is necessary to ascend the throne, including literally stabbing his own brother Clarence in the back. Egged on by his wife Anne, doing her best Lady Macbeth impression, delivering soliloquies of self-doubt and seeing ghosts like a certain Prince of Denmark, and generally hamming it up, Price’s Richard is far from a model of restraint. Still, he must have relished the opportunity to essay the role, having played Clarence to Basil Rathbone’s Richard in one of his first films, 1939’s Tower of London.

Corman kicked off 1963 with The Young Racers, a melodrama about the lives of race car drivers on and off the track. It stars Mark Damon as a writer who sets out to do an exposé on philandering champion William Campbell, especially when Campbell sets his sights on Damon’s secretary (and fiancée) Luana Anders. And he’s not the only one has an axe to grind – there’s also Campbell’s sourpuss brother Bob, played by his actual brother (and the movie’s screenwriter) R. Wright Campbell, and self-proclaimed “critic of life” Patrick Magee, who has waited a long time to get his revenge (just as we have to wait a long time for him to even show up in the picture).

The Young Racers was a major international production by Corman’s standards, with extensive location shooting and plenty of actual race footage. As a result he had plenty of help on hand, including Charles B. Griffith as assistant director, Robert Towne as second assistant director, a young Menahem Golan as production manager and assistant director, and an even younger Francis Ford Coppola as sound man and second unit director. Incidentally, it was during this production that Coppola convinced Corman to give him the money and three of his stars to shoot Dementia 13, the calling card he used to move on to bigger and better things. Sometimes the ones who learned the most from the Roger Corman School of Filmmaking were the ones who graduated the quickest.

Made somewhat late in Corman’s Poe cycle, 1963’s The Raven was the last one to be written by Richard Matheson, who had a free hand to develop the story however he saw fit and chose to play it for comedy. He was also able to tailor the parts for the film’s stars, namely Vincent Price (as a retiring magician who has been in mourning since the death of his wife Lenore), Peter Lorre (as a belligerent and frequently drunk magic-user who arrives on Price’s windowsill in the form of the titular bird) and Boris Karloff (as an evil sorcerer keen to learn Price’s secrets).

 Raven Poster

The cast also includes Hazel Court as Lenore, who’s not quite as dead as Price thinks she is, Olive Sturgess as his beautiful daughter Estelle, and Jack Nicholson as Lorre’s bumbling son Rexford, the kind of prototypical gawky goofball usually played by Jonathan Haze. On the whole, the film is a great deal of fun, with a certain amount of physical comedy (as in the scene where Lorre has only partially been restored to his human form) and actors who are clearly enjoying themselves very much. And it was at the end of this film’s shoot that Corman initiated The Terror, which was started purely because he had the standing sets and wanted to get more use out of them.

Released in 1963, The Terror is a bit of hodgepodge in that it features scenes shot by Corman, associate producer Francis Ford Coppola, location director Monte Hellman, writer Jack Hill (who gets a screenplay credit along with Leo Gordon) and even star Jack Nicholson, who plays a French soldier during the Napoleanic wars who gets separated from his regiment and comes upon the beautiful Sandra Knight (Nicholson’s wife at the time) when he’s searching for water. She shows it to him, which proves that if you lead a Napoleanic soldier who was been separated from his regiment to water, you can make him drink.

Top-billed, though, is Boris Karloff, who plays the Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe, which is quite a mouthful for any actor. For 20 years, since the death of his wife Ilsa, the baron has kept himself locked away in his castle, attended only by his faithful servant Stefan (Dick Miller), the bearer of the bulk of the exposition. Also on the baron’s property, for reasons of their own, are a witch (Dorothy Neumann) and her supposedly mute servant (Jonathan Haze). At various points, nearly everyone tries to convince Nicholson that he is mistaken when he claims to have seen Knight, but they also bristle at the mere mention of the name Eric. Eventually it comes out who Eric is, but before we reach that point there are a lot of scenes of Nicholson wandering around the castle, occasionally bumping into Karloff or Miller and demanding that they explain what’s going on. As the audience’s surrogate, he’s only doing his job, but there are times when his behavior borders on Ugly Americanism – and he’s supposed to be French!

Corman returned to the present day with 1963’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, which is one of his most ambitious and, in many ways, most successful films. Ray Milland stars as a scientist working to expand the range of human sight who experiments on himself and finds that his formula works all too well, with Diana Van der Vlis as a representative of the foundation that is funding his work – and which chooses not to continue funding it despite his breakthrough. His grant terminated, Milland is forced to scrape by as pierside attraction Mr. Mentallo, with Don Rickles as his barker. Rickles quickly catches on that he’s no ordinary mentalist and sets him up as a healer, but Milland has no illusions about what his powers mean.

As time goes on and Milland keeps applying his eye drops, his visions get more and more disturbing until he can no longer control what and how far he sees. (At one point he’s driving a car, but it’s hard to keep your eyes on the road when you can’t even see the road to begin with.) Eventually he winds up at a revival tent where the preacher informs him what the Bible says to do if your eye offends you, leading to a shocking freeze-frame.

X uses a range of photographic effects to depict the progression of Milland’s second sight, but sometimes the simplest effects are the most effective. And while the film plays things straight for the most part, there’s definitely something amusing about watching Milland half-heartedly dancing the twist at a swinging party where he can’t help but see everybody naked. (This being 1963, though, we only see people from the shoulders up or the knees down. It’s also six years before M*A*S*H, so at one point we get to see a virtually bloodless operation.) One can only imagine what Corman could have done with this material just a decade later.

Since he’s so closely associated with his Poe films, it’s less well-known that Corman was the first director to bring H.P. Lovecraft to the big screen, probably because AIP gave 1963’s The Haunted Palace the title of an Edgar Allan Poe poem instead of the Lovecraft story “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” that it’s actually based on. No matter what it’s called, though, it does an admirable job of conveying the creeping dread that pervades Lovecraft’s work, even if its depiction of the dark forces is somewhat lacking.

Vincent Price plays Ward, who journeys to Arkham with his wife Debra Paget to claim his family’s estate, 110 years and one Poe stanza after his great-great-grandfather was tied to a tree and burned as a warlock. Upon their arrival in the perpetually fog-enshrouded town they ask for directions at the Burning Man Tavern, where they get a decidedly chilly reception from the townsfolk, led by Leo Gordon (in a scene that surely inspired the one at the Slaughtered Lamb in An American Werewolf in London). Finally, helpful doctor Frank Maxwell points them in the right direction and they show up at the house, which has been prepared for them by creepy caretaker Lon Chaney, Jr., thus setting the stage for history of repeat itself.

Corman’s penultimate Poe picture was 1964’s The Masque of the Red Death, easily the most sumptuous film he ever made. Written by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, it also gave Vincent Price one of his meatiest roles as the decadent Prince Prospero, an avowed Satanist who locks himself away in his castle with dozens of equally loathsome courtiers while the Red Death ravages the countryside. Joining him in the service of Satan is Hazel Court, who seems all too eager to give herself over to the Prince of Darkness, and fighting against Price’s corrupting influence is innocent believer Jane Asher, who pleads with him to spare the lives of her lover (David Weston) and father (Nigel Green), who are intended to fight each other to the death for the amusement of Price’s guests. In terms of depravity, though, Price may be matched by the leering nobleman played by Patrick Magee with all the malevolence he can muster.

Corman & Price

Corman Directs Price (r.)

All of the films in Corman’s Poe cycle are known for their lavish visuals and this one benefited greatly from the work of cinematographer Nicolas Roeg and production designer Daniel Haller. The most striking image in the film, though, is one of its simplest: the faceless personification of the Red Death sitting leaning against a tree dealing out tarot cards. Not only does it bring to mind Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (an admitted influence), but it’s an eerie depiction of the implacability and inevitability of death. Not even Prince Prospero, with all his wealth and power and influence, can escape that forever.

Leaving AIP once again, Roger Corman struck out on his own in 1964 and traveled to Croatia and Yugoslavia to film the World War II adventure yarn The Secret Invasion. Written by R. Wright Campbell, The Secret Invasion plays like The Dirty Dozen with half the cast and a fraction of the budget – only Corman actually beat that film to the punch by a few years (a practice he would come to perfect when he turned independent producer a few years later). In this case, the officer leading the mission behind enemy lines is played by Stewart Granger and the criminals he handpicks for the assignment are Italian thief Raf Vallone, IRA bomb-maker Mickey Rooney (complete with Irish accent!), brash young forger Edd Byrnes, emotionless killer Henry Silva, and pretty boy William Campbell. There’s even a love interest of sorts for Silva in the form of Slovenian actress Spela Rozin. This being a war film, though, they have little time to declare their feelings for each other, though.

Five years and seven films after he started it, Corman completed his Poe cycle with 1964’s The Tomb of Ligeia, which he shot in England from a screenplay by Robert Towne. This time out, Vincent Price plays Verden Fell, a man so obsessed with his departed wife, the Lady Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd), that he refuses to believe she is really dead. He even winds up marrying her double, the Lady Rowena (Shepherd again), after symbolically carrying her over the threshold of the abbey he calls home. After a globe-trotting honeymoon, during which they visit Stonehenge among other exotic locales and he comes out of his shell somewhat, they return to the abbey where he falls under its spell once again and she is menaced by a malevolent cat. (For once, the cat scares in a horror film are due to the cat itself.) Not a bad ending for the series, but the film does take its sweet time coming to a conclusion.

After taking a year off (something almost unheard for the workaholic), Corman kicked off his biker-movie boom with his 1966 film The Wild Angels. Written by Charles B. Griffith, it stars Peter Fonda as Heavenly Blues, the president of the San Pedro chapter of the Hell’s Angels, which was for the most part portrayed by actual Hell’s Angels. As the film opens, Fonda goes to see his buddy Loser (Bruce Dern) at the oil rig where he works. Rigger Dick Miller, a World War II veteran, takes exception to the Nazi paraphernalia Fonda wears and after an altercation Dern gets fired by the foreman. When Fonda announces that they’re heading south to Mecca to recover Dern’s stolen chopper, the whole gang goes along, always under the watchful eye of the police. Also along for the ride are Nancy Sinatra as Fonda’s old lady, Diane Ladd as Dern’s, and Michael J. Pollard as one of the gang.

Wild Angels Set

Corman, Fonda & Bogdanovich (l. to r.)

While attempting to get Dern’s bike back the gang runs afoul of the Mecca police and Dern is shot while trying to escape. Fonda manages to bust Dern out of the hospital, but he’s in no condition to be moved and dies in Ladd’s arms. All that’s left to do at that point is ship the body back up north to Dern’s hometown of Sequoia Grove for a quiet funeral and respectful burial. (Yeah, right.) The church service turns into a drunken party and the locals turn out to watch the funeral procession and start a brawl at the cemetery. (Peter Bogdanovich, who was Corman’s assistant on the film, plays one of the curious locals who gets the crap kicked out of him.) The whole film is shot in a striking cinéma vérité style, which was imitated (usually very poorly) by the hordes of biker films that followed in the wake of its massive success. One thing is certain: the last thing the film does is make the life of a biker look glamorous.

In 1967, after operating independently or for AIP for his whole career, Roger Corman got to make his first film for a major studio, namely 20th Century-Fox, which produced The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, a fact-based account of the events leading up to that fateful February 14th. Written by Howard Browne, the film stars Jason Robards as a cigar-chomping Al Capone, who’s eager to shut down “Bugs” Moran (Ralph Meeker), the upstart head of Chicago’s North Side mob and a major thorn in his side. Throughout the film (and with the help of the voice-over narration), we’re introduced to the other major players, including George Segal as one of Moran’s enforcers, Jean Hale as Segal’s trampy wife, Clint Ritchie as the architect of the massacre, and Bruce Dern as a mechanic for Moran’s organization who picks the wrong day to do some auto repairs. And since the events depicted in the film are a matter of record, in lieu of suspense Corman and Browne use the narrator to reinforce the inevitability of what will happen when seven of the characters reach “the last morning of his life.”

With a major studio’s resources at his disposal, Corman was able to successfully evoke the period setting on a scale he hadn’t been able to previously, with lots of classic cars and clothing helping to bring late-’20s Chicago to life. He was even able to get realistic-looking snowfall for the day of the titular event, which must have seemed like pure extravagance to someone accustomed to filmmaking on the cheap. As well-mounted as the end result is, though, Corman chose to return to the world of the independents.

People generally don’t think “experimental filmmaker” when they think of Roger Corman, but when he made The Trip in 1967 he was pushing the bounds of what was expected not only of a Corman picture, but commercial cinema in general. The photographic effects that were used in X were like a dry run for some of visuals Corman and his crew conjured up to depict what it’s like to be high on LSD, and the kaleidoscopic editing techniques put it squarely in Point Blank territory. Written by Jack Nicholson, the film stars Peter Fonda as a commercial director at an impasse in his life who decides the way to find some insight is to drop some acid. All goes well at first, with his friend (a heavily-bearded Bruce Dern) acting as his guide and telling him he’s “into some beautiful stuff, man,” but then the trip takes a scary turn and Fonda gets spooked.

The film also features Susan Strasberg as Fonda’s soon-to-be ex-wife, who figures into some of his visions, Dick Miller as the bartender at the psychedelic club where Fonda meets Dern, and Dennis Hopper as the dealer they buy the acid from. One of the images the film keeps coming back to is a pair of hooded figures on horseback who give chase to a Fonda in vaguely Renaissance-y garb. There’s also not one, but two dwarves, and a torture chamber set seemingly left over from one of Corman’s Poe films. The strangest scene, however, has to be the one where Fonda is put on trial by his own psyche. This is the place where he’s forced to come to certain realizations about himself, so it’s no wonder he isn’t eager to go back there once he’s out.

By this point in his career, Corman was growing disenchanted with AIP, which was starting to meddle with his films in a way they hadn’t previously. For one thing, The Trip is preceded by a bummer of a roller caption, with a stentorian announcer to drive home the message that this is not the sort of thing you should do at home. For another, they changed the ending, shattering the closing image as a way of showing that Fonda’s one trip on LSD had irrevocably damaged his life. Sure enough, it was only a matter of time – and the formation of New World Pictures – before Corman started calling his own shots for real.

[The 2011 documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel will be screened at the IU Cinema on Thursday, April 17, and Saturday, April 19. In between, Corman is scheduled to be present for a Jorgenson Guest Filmmaker Lecture on Friday and introduce screenings of 1966’s The Wild Angels, 1967’s The Trip, 1962’s The Intruder, and 1964’s The Tomb of Ligeia on Friday and Saturday.]

The Ryder ● March 2014

Trashion Refashion 2014

Or, How I Found Myself Designing Couture Clothes from Materials Found in Dumpsters ● by David Ebbinghouse

[The annual Trashion Refashion Show is a community fashion event that promotes sustainable design. Compulsively creative conceptual artist David Ebbinghouse is one such designer and he discusses his work in the essay that follows. Reading about sustainable fashion design is all well and good but attending the show is even better — April 27th at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater.

I didn’t start out to be a fashion designer. I have been involved in the use of discarded materials in my art projects since the early seventies. Most people would call me a conceptual artist or a performance artist. I don’t think in terms of categories, so I am open to problem solving of all different types. I don’t define art in the way most people would. In fact, I usually don’t define it at all. I just do things and usually you can call whatever comes of my explorations “art.”

I guess it all started with T-shirts. I have an artist friend who screens prints his own T-shirt designs as his way to support himself. Whenever I would visit his loft in New York City in the late seventies and early eighties, I would go through his box of test shirts. These were randomly printed tests, printed on the inside and out, and some of these were the best juxtapositions and accidental masterpieces I had ever seen; those were the ones I wanted. He would sell them to me for two bucks a shirt! In this way, I got some of the hippest shirts imaginable. They were William Burroughs “Cut Up” methodology in wearable form. I wore them and wore them and wore them out. I tried to save them by grafting them onto T-shirts found in the dumpsters. I would sew them together at the neck and arm openings and tack down some of the larger rips. The look was punk. It left me with an excess of dumpster T-shirts to work with. That’s when I started slashing them. By the nineties, the slashed punk look was long over. So the question was how to do it without it being cliché and passé. The answer lay in using the structural possibilities of the knit and being very precise in cutting.

So now I’m going to tell you some of my secrets. Here’s how you can duplicate the looks I put together for the 2012 Trashion Refashion Show, starting with “Foxy Lady.”

Ebbinghouse & Models

Designer David Ebbinghouse with Hayley Plageman (Foxy Lady) and Sarah Nadolski (Party Girl)

Photo/JoAnn Latvaitis

You need a piece of “peg board.” It is basically a piece of Masonite with a grid of holes drilled into it. Pull the T-shirt over it so the shirt is stretched tightly. Then take a piece of chalk and find each hole and push the chalk into it and rotate. Do this for every hole (back side as well) and you will have a very precise grid of dots laid out on the shirt. Now, with a very sharp knife ( I use Xacto), connect two of the dots with a slash. It you do a row of diagonals across the front and then do the next row with the diagonals going the opposite direction, you will get a herringbone pattern. This drapes nicely on the body. You do it all over and you have a very “body-con” nineties look. Different patterns produce different effects. You might start with a diamond in the middle of the front. All the cuts to the left go left and to the right go to the right and on up.. Below the center it is the same but the diagonals are reversed. You can leave some areas open and some closed for a peek a boo effect. You can both conceal and reveal. This does not look “Punk” if you do it carefully and precisely. I took the look one step further with my “The Dark Ryder” outfit in 2013, but we’ll get to that presently.

Another way I got a very nice tight fitted look out of cotton knits was by ruched slits. Here’s how you can get the effects I used in my “Party Girl” outfit: Make a series of horizontal slits that go down the length of the shirt about four inches wide. Pull the top band down and reach through it to get the next one– pull it through the loop and then do the same with the next band pulling it from behind through the loop you have pulled down. Go all the way down the front and sew down the last band. This makes an open crocheted band down the front and also pulls in the fabric making the shirt narrower. An XXL shirt can be made into a sexy little dress. You can make two more vertical bands that start just below the breasts and that will pull in the fabric even more at the waist. You can fit it in this way for whoever is going to be wearing it. The “look” isn’t just the dress, its shoes, accessories, jewelry; and for jewelry, I love using pop tops.

It was last year with my “The Dark Ryder” look that I elevated the slashed T shirt to the elegance and mystery of Haute Couture; it was the accessories that pushed it over the top. I started with a 50% cotton, 50% polyester black XL T-shirt that was printed with The Ryder logo. Since it was very thin with age and filmy and lent itself nicely to my herringbone pattern slashing, it made a flowing tunic. This was put on over pants that were made from black chiffon window drapes fabric. Here’s how they were made: Two rectangular pieces are laid down one on top of the other. In the middle of one long side, a “U” shaped piece is cut out of both overlaid pieces. The rounded part of the “U” extends towards the middle by the distance of the waist (the top edge) to the bottom of the crotch (the “U” part). These edges of the “U” are sewn together. When the piece is straddled with the legs on either sides of the “U”, then the two back pieces are wrapped around to the front and tied and the two front pieces are wrapped to the back and tied. These wrap pants are open legged but the two edges overlap around the outsides of the legs. Once again, there is a reveal/conceal aspect as the layers overlap in the sheer fabric, and the top is covered by the tunic. The effect is that of a sheer skirt. So far, so good, but the head piece/ hat is what totally made the outfit. I started with making a helmet of black leather (once again from a jacket from the dumpster) sort of like what the early aviators wore but minus the goggles. On the top I stitched a receiver piece of Velcro. Using black heavy duty cat-proof plastic window screening (left over from fixing the screens after my cat had fun with them), I cut a two foot circle. I attached this to a small “hula hoop” and sewed the other Velcro piece in the center. From the edges of the hoop I sewed skeins of human hair that I took from a wig found in the dumpster. This fringe hung down from the edge and when the disc was secured to the top of the helmet/hat (with the velcro), it gave the outfit a very Goth/Kabuki feel. Black over-the-elbow gloves completed “The Dark Ryder” outfit. “The Dark Ryder” definitely got the audience’s attention with Elizabeth Grooms modeling it with great sophistication.

Dark Ryder

Elizabeth Grooms as The Dark Ryder in the 2013 Trashion Refashion Show; Her Hat is Trimmed with Human Hair

Another outfit that used a simple wrap/ no-tailoring approach was made from two Indiana state flags also found in a dumpster. The two were sewn together one above the other with a yellow border around the outside edge of the whole piece. It could be hung on the wall as an art piece, as the two flags are the same but different in many small ways. One has faded to a different shade of blue, one is silk screened and one is appliquéd, the golden yellow colors are not the same shade, etc. To wear it as a dress, center the logo of the top flag on the model’s back and wrap the two sides around to the front overlapping them. The two corners go over the shoulders and tie to the top edge of the flag at the shoulder blades through grommets on the edge. The dress is longer than the model is tall, so it trails behind with a train. Sarah Nadolski (“Sarah, Queen of Indiana”) needed a crown. Fancy Feast Feline Food cans have anodized gold pop tops and lids. Starting with a metallic gold cone as a hat, a crown was built up by overlapping the gold lids and sewing them down in a kind of fish scale pattern. The booties (once again, from Plato’s) were given the same fish scale overlaps of gold lids which extended out past the heels like little wings. A stole was made by sewing together different sizes of small American flags that had been picked up out of the streets. Remember all the flags that were hung out of car windows after the gulf wars? I picked them up on my morning jogs after they came loose and ended up along side the roadways. I usually got a few after the 4th of July parades as well.

[Image at the top of this post: Sarah Nadolski (Sarah, Queen of Indiana) with her crown made of Fancy Feast cat food pop top lids.]

Now I am designing and building the pieces for this year’s show. I started thinking about it last year as soon as that show ended. The ideas started to accumulate. But like a leaky faucet you can’t quite get closed, I can’t just turn off the ideas when my requisite three outfits are done.  I actually have four complete outfits and now I am making accessories. I already have four hats and I’m working with some new ideas off in a new direction. Maybe you’ll see those next year. I’ve already started a pop tops mini skirt.

Ten Ideas About Designing Trashion Refashion

    1. All of my designs are based on responses to materials and objects. I don’t make sketches of “looks” and then interpret them. I am actually making sculptures out of materials and not so much designing from my imagination. I am being imaginative with my use of materials. “How can I use these two Indiana state flags I’ve found in the dumpsters?”
    2. I do have a muse in mind when I start working up a “look.” Then I have a direction to follow as I develop the materials into a concept. I want to amplify some quality I see in them, and I want them to feel that it is “them” so they can feel good wearing it. I also want to provide them with a fantasy of themselves that they can inhabit and embody on the runway. It can’t be faked.
    3. It has to be a real garment, not a stunt just for the show. It can’t be something glue-gunned together for one walk down the runway. It has to be more than just a costume. Fashion, not Halloween.
    4. It has to look good, and not just in the context of the reuse concept of the show. It has to be something that could be worn somewhere else and still is viable and attractive. It can’t just be shocking. It has to be convincing. It has to come from a definite point of view.
    5. I want it to be really wearable, maybe not totally comfortable (i.e. high heels), but manageable. If you can’t sit down in it, it has no business on the model. She will suffer standing in her high heels at rehearsals with no way to get off of her feet. She can’t even bend down to slip out of her shoes. Unless you provide her with a slant board to lean back on, you’re not a designer, you’re a sadist. I love the high heels, but I worry about them, too. They are dangerous.
    6. There should be some “statement.” Fashion is a communication system and it comments on both the past and the future. In that way, it references the culture at large. I hope I notice something in my designs that is also showing up in the fashion magazines. (This year it is the use of nylon mesh). I’m not trying to copy something I see, but noticing if I have tapped into something that other designer are seeing and doing. It should be synchronicity. I’m trying to “say something.” It is not random.
    7. About that glue gun in #3.  Nothing against glue guns. I’ll probably find myself using one at some point on a headpiece/hat. But there should be some craftsmanship involved. If you don’t know how to use a sewing machine, that’s a distinct disadvantage in making clothes. I’ve had to ask my wife Marilyn for help. Fortunately, she is patient with me. If I don’t like how it’s going, I seam rip it and re cut and repress and re pin. She knows how to use the sewing machine. I insist that details that won’t be seen when the model walks the runway are still important. (see #3).
    8. A fashion show is a theatrical event. Gestures and accessories have to be big enough to be read clear in the back of the theater. So there needs to be some drama. If the audience gasps when the model comes out, you’ve done it right.
    9. About the models: At first I wanted to use my wife, Marilyn. She said, “They only want young girls.” She meant the audience. So now I use young, beautiful girls, and I am lucky enough to get them and design specifically for them. Uh oh. I’m promoting and unrealistic view of women. I’m a sadist who wants to ruin their feet with those dangerous and unhealthy high heels. Can’t I see the beauty in ordinary women? No. That is not what you the audience wants to see. Fashion is fantasy. We have inherited a standard of beauty from the ancient Greek civilization in our Western culture. Statues of Greek gods and goddesses were depicted as being the ultimate of physical perfection as a metaphor for their divinity. Venus had to have the most perfect and physically beautiful body imaginable because she was a Goddess and Divine. I want my models to be goddesses and so do you. I want them to look and feel like goddesses and I want you to see them as such. This is the fantasy. It is art and artifice that create it.
    10. I want to have fun. I’m not designing a product line. I’m not trying to make a ton of money and become famous. I’m trying to be as creative as I can and make some kind of meaningful art. I’m trying to inspire you to have a different attitude towards all the material in our materialistic society. I want to have fun with it, respect its inherent possibilities and not just take it all for granted and needlessly waste it. I want to use my creativity in all aspects of my life and I want that to inspire you to do so as well. I hope you will enjoy what I do. I will enjoy it, that’s why I do it. I hope you will come and see what I and the other talented designers have for you to see at this year’s show!

The Ryder ● March 2014

Big Talk: Color Comics

Nate Powellʼs Drawings Bridge Divides ● by Michael G. Glab

[The Ryder and WFHB present Big Talk. This is the first in our new series of interviews with Bloomington people, conducted by Michael G. Glab. Hear Nate Powell speak with Glab on WFHBʼs Daily Local News. Send in your suggestions for future Big Talks to]

Big Talk

How many people are celebrated cartoonists and big sellers in the graphic novel field? How many of them have created a DIY comic book publishing empire and then gone on to found a DIY record company? And how many of them toured two continents in a punk-hip-hop band?

Nate Powell, who fits all the above criteria, lives right here in Bloomington. And now Powell has become a spokesperson for the Civil Rights generation. Add to that the irony that heʼs white. Very white. He has pale skin and light hair. His features are sharp. He was born and raised in suburban Little Rock, Arkansas. Why him?

“People ask me why I am interested in civil rights or in human rights,” he says, after pondering the question a long moment. “Iʼm a person so naturally Iʼm interested in human rights.”

Civil rights are central to two of cartoonist Nate Powellʼs recent books; human rights to all his titles. His books, Any Empire and Swallow Me Whole launched him into the top ranks of the comix-memoir-biography-narrative-fiction field. And now, Powell has hit bookshelves again as the illustrator of March: Book One, the first in a trilogy recounting the life of civil rights pioneer and current Georgia Congressman John Lewis.

This on the heels of his 2012 release, The Silence of Our Friends, based on real events, about a black family and a white family in 1967 Houston who work together to win freedom for five black teenagers wrongly accused of killing a cop.

Book Cover

“Thereʼs been a strong social lean in my comics since Iʼve been an adult,” Powell says. “But Iʼd say it wasnʼt until five or six years ago that I felt Iʼd really had enough time and distance and perspective after leaving the south and seeing how more racist and backwards the northern midwest in a lot of ways is than the traditional south, to understand the different dimensions of American racism. I finally felt like a lot of my anxiety in terms of wanting to have something to say about race, power, and identity in our society, fell away. I wrote and drew some short stories about it. The authors of the Silence of Their Friends approached me about bringing their story to life. My work on that book got a nice big feature in The New York Times. John Lewis and his co-writer Andrew Ayden secured a publishing deal with my publisher, Top Shelf, for the book, March, but with no artist. They saw the New York Times review and were like, ʻOh, we should see whatʼs going on with this guy.ʼ But Iʼd already been speaking with my publisher who strongly suggested that I try out personally for the job. We all happened to find each other at the same time.”

Powell began his cartooning career as a high school freshman. “I started by drawing a lot of guns ʻnʼ boobs style superhero comics, as did many a 13-year-old,” he says. “My best friend and I had been drawing comics for a couple of years and we decided to take the jump into printing the books ourselves. At my dadʼs office there was, essentially, an unused copy machine and we decided we were just going to run off copies of our book until the thing broke down. Which is exactly what happened. We wound up with exactly a hundred copies of our first comic. We had exactly one comic book store in town at the time and the owner, who Iʼm still very much in touch with to this day, was gracious enough to give us a little bit of shelf space.”

The two teen publishers sank some of their own money into that first issue. “We wanted to have a full color cover. So, instead of bootlegging this whole thing for free, we paid a dollar for each cover.” It sold out, at $1.75 a copy. “We made five cents profit for each issue once the store took its cut. So with that nickel times a hundred copies, we had five dollars profit to split between us.”

They hadnʼt become publishing moguls but they were hooked. They put out five 32-page issues every two months. Each issue sold out. They learned tricks along the way, including how to cut galley pages and even how to work the old Kinkoʼs copy center counting card system to their advantage. Theyʼd become classic do-it-yourself entrepreneurs.

Around the same time, Powell and some friends decided to start making music. He performed live and on CD with a series of bands throughout his teens and into adulthood. He even started up his own indie, DIY label, Harlan Records.

“Publishing my own comic books irrevocably changed the way I look at life and the way I navigate the world,” Powell says. “A lot of steps along the way, whether it was drawing comics or publishing them, or being in a band or running a record label, a lot of it was just problem solving. It was realizing I didnʼt know how to do something and figuring out the little steps along the way, or making friends who all of a sudden had some insight.”

He ran off tens of thousands of comics in the ʻ90s. “My band, Soophie Nun Squad, started touring across the US and I would sell my comics and zines at shows. I also would writes columns and do illustrations for a punk magazine called Heart Attack out of California. But I was spending too much time photocopying and assembling these books — I was printing maybe 1400 of each issue —  and could not save the money to step up and go to a real printer. So, I went to art school in New York in the late 90s, the School of Visual Arts, and I got a grant for a self-publishing project. I used that money to offset-print my first comic.”

Powell then set up a pro distribution deal. “That opened the door for me to get my books in comic book shops. That started in 2000.”

Eventually, Powellʼs career as a music executive was eclipsed by his graphic novel success. He explains: “From the time I was 2, pretty much, the only thing I wanted to do with my life was draw comics. That was certain. Things definitely got very serious as far as creating music and recording and touring with my friends but in a lot of ways we took a personal and creative stance against trying to make a career out of it. And, really, our band was sort of too weird and full of too many people, full of too many conflicting ideas to ever be successful. Soophie Nun Squad was sort of a ten-piece punk, hip-hop,n Muppet Show band, with costumes and occasionally puppets.”

Music from Powellʼs bands as well as that of bands his label issued can be found online.

Now, Powell continues working on the March trilogy as well as some other big-time projects. Itʼs not all that easy as just dashing off pictures in the snap of a finger, especially when Powellʼs illustrating a book written by others. “There are a lot of different ways to write a comic book script,” Powell says. “When I write and draw my own books, I donʼt even use a script. Iʼll have the big idea that I want the book to be about. Then Iʼll have a series of events, little vignettes, that I spend a couple of years rearranging and building a relationship between characters and events. Then itʼs a longer process of waiting for characters to emerge, from inside, that you actually care about. I know how a storyʼs going to be paced. I know how long itʼs going to be, but in terms of dialogue and text, that really comes out while Iʼm pencilling.

Book Cover

“My own stories are much more fluid and intuitive. Andrew and Johnʼs script was a classic, finished, comic book movie script, divided into scenes, panels. Originally, March was going to be a single graphic novel about 160 pages long. Within a couple of pages I realized that we were dealing with a 500-page book, just based on wanting to take the reins with my own narrative sensibilities, pulling out different focuses.

“A lot of it had to do with John Lewisʼs internal landscape as a person, but also as a character within this book. A lot of it had to do with looking in between the lines of the script and seeing what wasnʼt evident in the text. In Book Two, we cover the Freedom Rides. When John Lewis and other Freedom Riders are pulling into the Montgomery, Alabama, Greyhound station, something appears very wrong because there are only two or three journalists standing around, itʼs very still and very quiet. They know things are about to go horribly wrong, but they donʼt know when, how, from what direction, or who these people will be. So there might be this five-second window where everyoneʼs quiet, everythingʼs still, and then everything goes to hell.

“From my narrative standpoint, that is the scene, that five seconds. So itʼs a matter of turning that from one panel into two and a half pages. A lot of the fun and power of comic book storytelling is this control of time.”

March: Book Two is due to hit bookshelves around Thanksgiving. March Book Three should come out in the summer of 2016. Meanwhile, Powellʼs also working on another, albeit different kind of book. Heʼs currently inking panels for a spin-off of the wildly popular Young Adult novelist Rick Riordanʼs Percy Jackson series, entitled Heroes of Olympus. That graphic novel is in production and will be released in 2014.

Powell squeezes in drawing during nap times for his and his wifeʼs two-year-old daughter. Heʼs lived here in South Central Indiana since 2004 after tiring of living along the East Coast. Heʼd fallen in love with Bloomington after visiting here several times while on tour with Soophie Nun Squad. Plus, a good friend had gone to school here and had settled in Bloomington. “Here I am,” he says. “I love this town a lot. I have no plans to go anywhere.”

The Ryder ● March 2014


The Bloomington Chamber Singers’ production of Annelies is neither a simplistic swing through the musical genres nor a stylistic romp like the Beatles’ White Album, but rather a representation of the whole musical culture of Anne Frank’s Europe.

Our news abounds with examples of ways we humans harm each other: a contractor murdered in his isolated house, drive-by shootings, trivial religious conflicts that would seem just silly if people were not killing each other over them, political ambitions that become world-wide massacres. But as appalling as these seem, there is something bizarrely comforting in the pure irrationality of most of this mayhem. All of us have at one time or other been angry or fearful, then lashed out. Certainly, most of us stop well short of murder, but ultimately we’re on the same scale.

By contrast, consider the Third Reich. The expansionist desire to recover territory, wealth, and influence lost in the aftermath of World War I and the disasters of the Weimar Republic are understandable (and currently visible with Vladimir Putin, determined to re-establish the Great Russian Empire, Cossacks and all).

But the coldly deliberate and systematic madness of the Third Reich is an enterprise of a far more chilling sort. The motivating force may have been the paranoid and narcissistic schizophrenic called Adolf Hitler, but the final cause was the fertile German oil in which he and his collaborators planted their ideas. As John Cornwell shows in his splendid Hitler’s Scientists: Science, War, and the Devil’s Pact (2004), the roots of Hitler’s racial “science” well precede Hitler’s rise to power. Yet this is the same culture that gave us Goethe and Kant, von Humboldt and Bethe, Bach and Brahms.

The mind—and more importantly, the heart–struggles to balance these wrenching contradictions and its obsessive thoroughness, detailed records included. Ghoulish or not, collecting gold-filled teeth is one thing, but seven tons of human hair?

It is this incomprehensible, contradictory world that swallowed Annelies Marie Frank. A fairly ordinary girl, turning into what may well have become a fairly ordinary woman, we are familiar with her in a casual way, but her ordinariness may keep us from confronting the conflicting horrors she and 11 million dead others suffered. If we have trouble getting our minds around the motivations leading to the vast expenditure of time and wealth dedicated so insanely to the Final Solution, how much more incomprehensible must it have been to those enduring it?

James Whitbourn’s Annelies is a profoundly moving meditation on the conundrum that Anne Frank’s final two years represents. The libretto by Melanie Challenger is based predominately on Anne’s famous diary entries, with a few appropriate additions from other sources, including the Psalms. Mostly they occur in their chronological order, so we see how Anne changes during her isolation as the war progresses. Whitbourn does not attempt to explicate these appalling circumstances; they may have to remain incomprehensible. Instead, his approach is phenomenological, as he lays them out much as young Anne experienced them, “in the blue sky, surrounded by black clouds.”

Annelies is a subtle and sophisticated work, yet it is marvelously accessible. A close analysis of Whitbourn’s compositional techniques would take many pages, yet those techniques never call attention to themselves. His musical approach is frankly comprehensive, showing us how deeply a part of European life Anne and the rest were. The material may be “Jewish,” but the emotional and moral force is deeply universal, presented in a variety of musical forms including folk song, chant (reflecting the traditions of both Christian plainsong and Jewish cantilation), popular entertainment, and militant marches. But this is neither a simplistic swing through the musical genres nor a stylistic romp like the Beatles’ White Album, but a representation of the whole musical culture of Anne’s Europe.

The work is fundamentally poetic, as he compresses time and concentrates emotion. A cheery music hall ditty relating how “one looks out of the window, and gazes at the endlessly amusing people” (29 September 1942) abruptly becomes “children … in thin shirts .. gnawing on a carrot to still their hunger” three months later, then in another three months, “One day … we’ll be people again, and not just Jews.”

His approach to the material is compassionate and thoughtful, but totally without rancor or stridency. In some true sense he does not take sides, since the enormity of the bare facts speak for themselves. Anne herself goes from telling her diary in the first entry “I hope that I can trust you … since memories mean more to me than dresses,” to the final, affirmative “when I look at the sky. I feel that everything will change for the better.”

The work is scored for chorus, soprano solo, clarinet, and piano trio. The Chamber Singers under Dr. Gerry Sousa need no introduction to Bloomington audiences, and they have never sounded better. The soprano soloist will be Elizabeth Toy, who also soloed with the BCS in Respighi’s Laud to the Nativity last December. Although still young, she has already amassed a impressive musical biography and is an ideal choice for the part, close enough in age to Anne herself to be comforting, yet with a mature and rich lyrical voice beautifully suited to the material.

[The performance will be given twice in Bloomington at The Warehouse, 1525 S. Rogers, on Saturday, April 12 (7:30) and Sunday, April 1 (3:00). Tickets are available at the Buskirk-Chumley box office and on line or from BCS members.]

The Ryder ● March2014

The Gadabout Film Festival

Instant Gratification and Goofing off for a Greater Good ● by Elisabeth Squires

A pair of young lovers are looking up at the sky. Their heads lean together and turn towards the sun. “See those stars?” the man says. “Well, I mean you can’t see the stars. But behind the clouds and far away there’s stars. I’m gonna name one of those stars after you.” She gazes at him adoringly, his words cutting to her very soul.

This is a scene from Eric Ayotte’s short film Crying Out Loud 4 — Official Trailer. Made for his monthly Instant Gratification Movie Challenge, it is a goof on self-serious indie films. Obligatory seriousness is a cardinal sin in Ayotte’s eyes. His two film projects, The Instant Gratification Movie Challenge and The Gadabout Film Festival, work to make the independent film world seem more inviting to would-be filmmakers.

The Instant Gratification Movie Challenge is open to anyone with Ayotte’s email address. Each month a theme is chosen, usually a cliched turn of phrase; Crying Out Loud 4 was made for the prompt “For Crying Out Loud.” People have one month to make a film, up to five minutes in length, based on the prompt. The goal is to get people making films regularly, without feeling pressured to make something exquisitely professional.

The Gadabout Film Festival is an annual program of short films curated by Ayotte. Anyone can submit to the festival. There is no submission fee, and no limit on the numbers of films submitted. Ayotte and his wife, Charlie Jones choose a program that will last 45 minutes to an hour; they tour the country with the films, bringing short films to people who wouldn’t necessarily be interested in a more traditional festival.

[Image at the top of this post: Charlie and Eric.]

“When people think of a short film program, maybe they have the expectation of the pretentious route of a bunch of art school sort of films, which have their own place and validity. But for some people that can be boring. Or maybe it’s not their thing. Or it is their thing, I don’t know. I don’t want to be too negative towards that.

This sort of sentiment is very typical of Ayotte. He is intensely focused on creating space for his style of short film, but at the same time leaving room for everyone else. Coming out of the punk and D.I.Y. (do-it-yourself) music scene, Ayotte sought to create the same culture of support and encouragement around film.

The Gadabout Film Festival was founded in 2002, “mainly as an excuse to travel,” says Ayotte. With only 14 screenings in two months, “it mostly was camping and traveling, and being a tourist at the same time. And eating beans in a can.”

Booking that first tour involved cold calling venues across the country. Ayotte said it was more difficult back then “because the internet wasn’t the internet yet.” He would google (or AltaVista as the case might have been) a town and the words “art council” or “film theater,” hope the phone number was online, then plead his case directly whoever happened to pick up. “Not a lot of people were doing something like [a traveling short film festival], so a lot of people were interested in taking a chance.”

As the years went on, the tour became more organized. “Each year we have more and more venues, and more and more stops and fewer beans from a can.” This year the festival will tour sixty cities in America and Europe. But the festival has yet to lose the sense of irreverence, of silliness, that Ayotte injects into everything he does. He describes first forays into film in high school as “goofing off.” He never thought of film as a potential career. As time went on, however, he found himself spending more and more time goofing off. Eventually he and a friend were accepted to The New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, an experience that left such a bad taste in his mouth it prompted Ayotte to start his own festival.


Film-goers at the 2010 Gadabout Festival in Chicago

“We were actually kinda turned off by the whole pretentiousness of the film fest world…There was no sense of community, there was no sense of support or anything. It was the kind of festival where you pay to submit your film, and they keep asking you for more money. Like ‘Hey do you want an image from your film on the cover?’ ‘Do you want a table at the opening gala?’ All these things. I realized how much of a business it was.”

Ayotte says that, even though there were no awards or rankings at that festival, the whole affair felt very competitive. “It was just people passing out their cards. ‘Come see my movie! Come see my movie!'” says Ayotte. It stood in stark contrast to the music scene Ayotte was getting into at the same time. “The other part of my life was being into the D.I.Y. music scene, playing in bands and just seeing that world of inspiration and support and feeling like oh, anyone can play music and go on tour and do these things. And so with film I started thinking of it more like that, like you could make your own films, and you can share them with people, and you can try to support other people that are trying to do the same thing.”

The Gadabout Film Festival has shifted from playing in cinemas and traditional film venues to more unconventional spaces. “We’ve done people’s backyards, we’ve done local parks, we’ve done people’s garages, We’ve done people’s basements. In Hannover, Germany there was this attic of an apartment building that spanned the entire building and was just completely empty. We’ve done screenings in abandoned buildings where people have had access to power outlets somewhere close by, and we were like ‘yeah we’ll do it, see what happens.’ The outside of a school in California — that was technically trespassing.”

Ayotte sees these unique venues as integral to the success of the festival. When they’ve played in cinemas in the past, “people are going to a film venue and they’re seeing films. It’s what they expect. When we set up our own projector and screen in a music venue, or in a garage, or in a field, people leave and you can tell that they’ve experienced something.”

“Oddly enough my favorite compliment that we ever get is ‘I wasn’t expecting it to be good.’ I take that as a large compliment.”

[The 12th Annual Gadabout Film Festival begins on Sunday, April 6th at 8:00 pm at Rhino’s All Ages Club. The theme this year is “Speechless,” movies with little to no dialogue. Submissions are open for the festival until March 23. Submissions for the Instant Gratification Movie Challenge, also titled “Speechless,” are open until April 6th.]

The Ryder ● March 2014

1 18 19 20 21 22 26