On January 22 & 23, 2011 at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, American Cinematheque presented a tribute entitled “Strangle-Hold: The Gripping Films of William Friedkin.” Featured were four of the director’s most noted movies: “The French Connection,” “To Live and Die In LA,” “Sorcerer,” and “The Exorcist.” Mr. Friedkin was there both nights to talk about his work and filmmaking, and he was greeted by sold out audiences who gave him with a standing ovation.
It’s been a long road for Friedkin. Despite the many ups and downs of his long career, he still directs movies even though his work these days is constantly, and unfairly, stuck in the shadow of his greatest work. Back in the 1970’s, he gave us two of the greatest movies ever with “The French Connection” which has one of the greatest cinematic car chases ever, and “The Exorcist” which is as powerfully unnerving today as it was when it first came out. Since then, however, he was seen as stumbling both critically and commercially with movies like “Deal of The Century” and “The Guardian” to name a few.
But Friedkin has now rebounded with “Bug” starring Ashley Judd, and the re-release of “The Exorcist” which was a big hit despite it being readily available on video and DVD. Even his flops like “Sorcerer” and “Cruising” have been critically re-evaluated and gained strong cult followings in recent years. Today, he is directing Matthew McConaughey in “Killer Joe.”
Friedkin started off by remarking how the Aero Theatre’s marquee said “William Friedkin Live” and how glad he was to see that at his age. From there, he told a story about his friendship with the great writer/director Billy Wilder and how they had lunch together often at Johnny Rockets. At one point, Wilder said to him:
“You and I have something in common; we both want to make commercial films for a large audience. So don’t look for your films to get shown at the Cinematheque!”
It may have taken long enough, but American Cinematheque did come through for him!
When working with actors, Friedkin said he does not put his personal style on them, and that he always creates an atmosphere for actors to work in which allows their creativity to flow. If the actors come up with something better, he is more than willing to let them roll with it to see where it would take the movie. This aided tremendously in his job of deeply immersing the audience in the story as much as possible.
Some in the audience asked him if he had any advice to pass on to filmmakers. Friedkin was quick to the point:
“Don’t go to film school!”
Friedkin claimed he never had a single lesson in filmmaking, and he said everything he learned came from “the masters who broke the rules” like Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. In fact, he encouraged everyone to get out of the classroom and watch all of Hitchcock’s movies. While they may vary in quality, he said the master of suspense’s genius is present in every shot he took.
Friedkin also encouraged aspiring directors to not even bother with the preview process or audience testing. None of his movies have ever been altered by these processes, and he really doesn’t like them anyway. Had “The Exorcist” been previewed, he said, it would not have ever have been released!
In selecting movies to make, Friedkin says the movie comes to him more than he goes to it. But the one theme which runs through each and every motion picture he has helmed is ambiguity. The works he admires the most are the ones which ask questions but don’t provide answers. As he sees it, the quest is far more interesting than the end of the journey as there are no ultimate answers, only great questions.
Friedkin also loves playing with the thin line between good and evil. Case in point is “The French Connection” where Popeye Doyle, played by Gene Hackman, is a racist and a womanizer while the drug dealer is a gentleman with manners and who loves his wife dearly. There’s only so much that separates the good guys from the bad ones, and movies like this serve as a very strong reminder of that.
Though his glory days might be behind him, William Friedkin remains a director with an unwavering vision on each film he does. This proves to be the case even in his weakest movies as even they show how fully in control of the craft he is. I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.
Yes, this day was coming, but I did not think it would come this soon. Back in 2015, Amoeba Music sold its Hollywood location on the corner of Sunset and Cahuenga to developer GPI Companies for a reported $34 million, and it is set to be turned into yet another high-rise building in Los Angeles. I read the store would be open through the end of 2020. But then we were all hit by the global pandemic known as Coronavirus/COVID-19, and “non-essential” businesses like Amoeba were forced to close the doors temporarily. There was hope Amoeba’s Hollywood location would re-open again soon, but then co-owner Jim Henderson made the following statement:
“The massive impact from the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the closure of our iconic Hollywood location at 6400 Sunset Blvd. With no reasonably foreseeable opportunity to re-open in our current location, we are instead focusing on hopefully opening in the fall in our previously announced new home at 6200 Hollywood Blvd. This situation has been forced on all of us, and we feel this decision is the most responsible and practical one.
“This is heartbreaking for us. We never envisioned not being able to give the store the send-off it deserves, to give you all a chance to say goodbye. We had so many events planned to celebrate our history at 6400 Sunset, but we are facing too many mitigating circumstances that simply won’t allow for it.”
Having read this, I understand and respect Amoeba’s decision not to re-open its Hollywood location. All the same, this is a real heart breaker for me as I looked forward to visiting this store again at least a few times before it closed, but now this will not happen. Like the Second City theatre, Amoeba Music was like a second home to me in Los Angeles which I visited frequently. Walking out of there empty-handed could feel criminal, but I could always find a certain CD, DVD, Blu-ray, cassette tape or vinyl record worth adding to my terrifyingly enormous collection (my dad says I have more CDs and DVDs than God).
Having grown up in in Northern California, I often visited the Amoeba stores in Berkeley and San Francisco quite often, and this was back in a time where downloading music digitally was far from ever becoming a reality. Upon learning they were going to being opening a store in Hollywood, I became infinitely excited at what it would have to offer. Anyone familiar with the average Amoeba Music store knows they are far bigger than the normal record store. In fact, they are like warehouses which look to contain anything and everything you could ever hope to find. I was lucky enough to attend this store’s opening night back in November of 2001 and was in awe of just how big it was. If you were unable to find what you were looking for there, you had to wonder what was wrong with the world.
One of my biggest thrills in recent years was introducing my parents to this particular Amoeba Music store when they visited me in Los Angeles. They were flabbergasted at just how big this particular store was, and they were quick to grab their hands-on stuff like a Monterey Blues Festival t-shirt. This was also around the time of my birthday, and they got me Shout Factory’s special edition of “Creepshow” on Blu-ray, and that’s even though my dad was horrified at the price on it, and the soundtrack to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” While I was unable to introduce my parents to New Beverly Cinema during their recent trip, I am ever so glad they got to check out this particular Amoeba store while it was still operating.
The following are some of my most memorable purchases I made at this particular Amoeba Music store.
I was lucky enough to visit this store on the day it opened back in 2001, and the DVD to “Killing Zoe” was the first thing I ever purchased there. Written and directed by Roger Avary, it stars Eric Stoltz as a safecracker named Zed who joins up with his longtime friend Eric (Jean-Hugues Anglade) in Paris to rob a bank on Bastille Day. I had just discovered this movie on IFC and was absolutely enthralled by it. The acting all around was terrific, and Anglade in particular was phenomenal as a man fully determined to go out with a bang. I also really dug the film score composed and performed by Tomandandy which proved to be as hypnotic as it was propulsive, and I have since become a big fan of their work.
But yes, “Killing Zoe” is especially worth watching for the gorgeous and beguiling Julie Delpy who wows us fright rom her first appearance as Zoe. Whether she is in bed with Stoltz or wielding a heavy-duty machine gun, you cannot take your eyes off of her for a second.
Because this was the first thing I ever bought at this particular store, I assure you I will never get rid of it.
The Best of Siouxsie and the Banshees
One time while I shopped here, this compilation album was playing on the store’s speaker system. I was already aware of Siouxsie and the Banshees thanks to their wonderfully bizarre song “Peek-a-Boo” which has an equally bizarre music video, and also “Face to Face” which proved to be a fantastic addition to the “Batman Returns” soundtrack. As this album played, I started to wonder why I didn’t give this British rock band more of my attention years ago as I suddenly became entranced by their songs “Cities in Dust,” “Dizzy” and “Kiss Them for Me.” to where I soon went over to the front counter to see what specific album was being played. I walked out with several items that day, but “The Best of Siouxsie and the Banshees” is the one I find myself still playing quite often.
“We Are Night Sky” by Deadboy & the Elephantmen
As with any other Amoeba Music store, the Sunset Boulevard location played host to many singers and bands who performed there in support of their latest releases. I was fortunate enough to be at the store when Deadboy & the Elephantmen performed in support of their second album, “We Are Night Sky.” Led by singer and guitarist Dax Riggs who was accompanied on bass and drums by Tess Brunet, the band was often compared to The White Stripes, but they really stood out on their own. As they played songs like “Stop, I’m Already Dead” and “Blood Music” with sheer abandon, I quickly became a fan and bought the CD. Other great tracks on this album are “How Long the Night Was” and “Misadventures of Dope.”
What a shame it was that this band came to a permanent end just one year later.
“Send Your Love to Me” – a P.J. Harvey live bootleg CD
The lady at the register warned me the sound quality on this disc was not great and that it sounded like someone recorded this show from the audience. I appreciated the warning as it prepared me for a recording which was clearly not done on a professional level. Still, I found it interesting to hear Harvey’s music from this vantage point, and at one point you can even hear one audience member tell another how she is going to be playing herself in the next “Batman” movie (I’m guessing he meant “Batman Forever”). Having seen Harvey perform live years ago at The Wiltern, listening to this bootleg made me feel like I was right back there again as songs like “Meet Ze Monsta” and “Down by the Water” are so invigorating to take in with an audience of fellow fans.
“Sorcerer” soundtrack by Tangerine Dream
At my previous day job, a friend of mine named Richard shared my love of film scores and movie soundtracks. One his big favorites was Tangerine Dream’s score to William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer,” and he complained about how he could never find it at any record store in Los Angeles or any other city. Sure enough, I did find a copy of it at Amoeba on Sunset. Surprisingly, it was not in the soundtrack section, but instead in the New Age section where all the other Tangerine Dream CDs could be found. You should have seen Richard’s face when I showed him the CD. Seriously, he looked like Donald Sutherland at the end of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as he was completely stunned to be holding any copy of this particular soundtrack. I also agree with him about how this is one of the most unique film scores ever composed, and it opened up doors for Tangerine Dream in Hollywood as they went on to create more unforgettable scores for films like “Risky Business,” “Firestarter,” “Near Dark” and “Thief.”
“Heartland” by Client
While searching in the electronic music section for the latest CD by Hybrid or Juno Reactor, I came across a sign which said, “If you like Goldfrapp, then check this band out!” The band this sign was referring to was called Client, an English electronic music group from London which had just released its latest CD, “Heartland.” Would I have bought this CD in any other store? Well, it seems a bit unlikely as other places may not have been as quick to promote a band or artist Americans were not the least bit familiar with. Thanks to this sign, I got to check out this album which contains such terrific songs like “Lights Go Out,” “Zerox Machine” and “Someone to Hurt,” and these are songs I still never get sick of listening to.
“Adventures in Babysitting” t-shirt
As soon as I saw this t-shirt which featured Elisabeth Shue’s famous line of dialogue from the 1987 teen comedy film, I knew I had to have it. However, there was one slight problem: where could I possibly where it? Any shirt which says “don’t fuck with the babysitter” is not exactly the kind you can wear it if you live near an elementary school. But with all the social distancing currently going on, perhaps I can get away with wearing it as it can be hard to make out certain words when others are six feet away from you. At the very least, it will give some a reason to laugh during a time where it feels like the world is bordering on Armageddon.
Goodbye Amoeba Music on Sunset Boulevard. While I look forward to the opening of its newest location, to see this one shut down sooner rather than later really breaks my heart. So much of my money was spent here, and I have long since lost track of all the CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays I managed to trade in there for store credit.
Hopefully the new store will have a bigger parking lot.
The founders of Amoeba Music, Dave Prinz and Marc Weinstein, have since created a fundraising page on Go Fund Me to help offset the costs associated with the COVID-19 shutdown. With all Amoeba’s locations currently closed, they are struggling to survive and are doing what they can to pay their bills and take care of their employees’ health insurance. Their fundraising goal is $400,000, and to date they have raised over $230,000.
This is the movie that almost completely destroyed filmmaker William Friedkin. “Sorcerer” came into theaters with a high level of anticipation, which was understandable as it was made by the same man who gave us “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection.” Lines were wrapped around the block when it opened at Mann’s Chinese back in 1977, but by the second week the theater was practically empty. “Sorcerer” was considered to be a critical and commercial failure, and Friedkin’s career has never been the same since. Of course, it opened around the same time as a small independent feature which blew away the competition. You may have heard of it, “Star Wars?”
Well, they say time heals all wounds, and “Sorcerer” has been critically re-evaluated to where it has received the critical acclaim it long deserved. The film is quite an accomplishment and a fascinating study in madness and redemption, and you will never look at truck driving the same way again after watching it. Depending on who you ask, it t is a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear” (Friedkin denies it is). The Oscar-winning director put his heart and soul into “Sorcerer,” and it pins you back into your seat and thoroughly exhausts you long before it ends. Like many great movies, it is one you experience more than watch.
“Sorcerer” takes its time getting started as we watch the back stories for its four main characters and of how they ended up at where they are. We meet hitman Nilo (Francisco Rabal) who takes down a target with a simple bullet, Kassem (Amidou) as he bombs a local church with the help of his friends, investment banker Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) who is about to be jailed for fraud, and then there’s Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) who is marked for execution after his gang robs a church and accidentally kills a priest.
After this protracted prologue, the action moves to an unnamed location in a Latin American country which these four people have escaped to and seek refuge in. The utter squalor these men are forced to live in is so vivid to where it feels like the flies and stench of the environment doesn’t stop at the silver screen. You know how some people look at a movie and say it really made them want to take a cold shower? One shower is not enough to get past the filth these characters are forced to live in from day to endless day. This place is hell on earth for anyone, but these men obviously prefer it to death. They managed to avoid prison, but they came to a different kind of prison they are now ever so desperate to escape.
The chance for escape comes when an oil refinery suddenly explodes into a fireball, and the firefighters are unable to put the fire out without the help of explosives. Company executives manage to find a surplus of nitroglycerin sticks which can do the job, but the only catch is these sticks have not been turned and, as a result, have become highly sensitive and to where the slightest vibration could make them explode. So when an offer comes to drive this unstable set of explosives to the burning oil field for a high reward, these four jump at the chance to do the job. The rest of the movie follows their treacherous journey in trucks to deliver the explosives and hopefully not lose their lives in the process.
One thing I really admired about “Sorcerer” is how Friedkin dared to give us characters who were not altogether sympathetic. They are criminals of one kind or another, and yet we follow them every step of the way through their treacherous trip. Friedkin saw their incredibly dangerous journey as their chance not to just escape the filthy poverty they were stuck in, but also as an opportunity to redeem themselves for whatever bad deeds they committed. But their entire journey is a lot like sailing down the river Styx as they have to travel to through hell in order to escape it.
Friedkin does a great job of sustaining the tension as these men drive the trucks over terrain which looks like it’s on the verge of collapsing, and who encounter unwanted guests that have no idea of the cargo they are carrying. But the movie’s big action centerpiece is when they are force to drive the trucks over a suspended bridge which looks more than ready to completely fall apart. Add to that some furious rainstorms, and you have yourself one hell of a sequence which leaves you wrung out by the end.
Of all the actors in the cast, the most recognizable is Scheider. As a man on the run from the mob, he gives a performance which is never less than compelling, and you can only imagine the hell Friedkin put him through to play this role. The journey these men go on is not just dangerous physically, but also psychologically. Scheider does great work here as he is constantly on the verge of losing his mind, and this is especially in the movie’s second half.
Francisco Rabal, Amidou and Bruno Cremer are equally as good as they show the exhaustion and determination their characters have to complete this mission, and they too are put through the wringer to where they never seem to be acting their roles, but instead living them. You feel every bead of sweat which drips from their faces, and it makes “Sorcerer” even more of a visceral cinematic experience.
The imagery Friedkin captures is incredible as he shows us the squalor and unhealthy environment these characters live in so well, you can’t help but feel as trapped in it as they are. Friedkin has gone on record to say this film was the toughest for him to make, and I don’t doubt that for a second.
One of the other big pluses of “Sorcerer” is the brilliant score composed and performed by Tangerine Dream. Interestingly enough, they never saw a frame of the movie’s footage while working on the music, and yet they capture the events and psychology of the characters ever so perfectly. Like many of Tangerine Dream’s movie scores from “Thief” to “Risky Business,” this one is highly original and hard to compare to others. The soundtrack is still available on compact disc if you look hard enough for it.
After all these years, “Sorcerer” can no longer be mistaken as one of Friedkin’s misfires as it is now seen as one of his greatest cinematic achievements. It has since gained a strong cult following and is truly one of the most underrated movies of the 1970’s. It is unlikely we will ever get to see a movie made the way this one was ever again, and this makes it a must see for every and any film buff out there.