William Friedkin Discusses His Career at American Cinematheque

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.

The Severe Impatience of a Child on Christmas Morning

Photo by Tammy Kenber.

It was Christmas morning in 2013, and I was sleeping in the loft of my parents’ home in Northern California. While everyone else had a comfortable bed to sleep on, I was the odd man out as I was forced to sleep on an air mattress in the loft which is as spacious as it sounds (which is to say, not really). This shit happens when all the bedrooms are occupied.

Even after I woke up, and at a time which was far too early for my aging body and mind to tolerate, I kept my eyes shut in the hopes that maybe I could get just a few more minutes of sleep. But alas, I had no such luck because eventually felt a foot tapping on my air mattress, and looked up to see my niece who told me, with a very stern look in her eyes:

“Wake up Uncle Ben, we’ve got to open presents!”

It took me a few more minutes to haul my ass out of bed after her statement of purpose, but even though I was waking up far too early, I had to admit I knew exactly how she felt. Her impatience in waiting for Christmas Day to arrive brought back a lot of memories for me. I still vividly remember waiting for Santa Claus to arrive at whatever house me and my family was staying at to leave us presents, but I also remember getting little to no sleep on Christmas Eve which made the wait to open presents all the more agonizing.

The rule for me and my older brother was we couldn’t open up any presents until 7:00 a.m. but waiting for the clock to reach this early morning hour was simply pure torture. Back when you were a child, Christmas could never come soon enough. Time just dragged on and on as you waited to open the presents nestled comfortably under the tree. As we get older, time beings moving a lot faster, but back then those hands on the clock seemed to move at a snail’s pace.

When my niece finally did open the presents Santa left for her, her immense pleasure proved to be quite audible. Among the gifts she received was a trampoline which will be waiting for her back home. To this, she let out a very loud scream of joy which must have woken up the whole neighborhood. Then again, if my parents watching “Skyfall” on their HD television with the soundtrack blasting out of the speakers doesn’t wake the neighbors up, what will?

But then there were the rest of the presents under the tree for the whole family to unwrap, and my niece had to wait even longer to open those meant for her. Us adults had to get up, take a shower, get dressed and have breakfast. While children might be content to skip meals to get at those presents, we older people have long since developed a level of patience which never comes easily. Nevertheless, we all couldn’t help but tease my niece as she shifted anxiously in her chair. Just when she thought we were done with breakfast, we informed her we needed to go on a 5-mile walk to burn all these calories off. All the same, she didn’t quite get the joke, and her impatience in waiting to unwrap her presents became all the more palpable.

Seriously, she came up to each of us, prepared to take our plates, and said, “Are you done?” Her parents told her she needed to ask us nicely. As a result, she once again asked if we were done, but this time she asked us the same question with a big smile. Somehow the message didn’t get through as her actions and facial expressions shows a child shamelessly seeking to manipulate our emotions to her advantage.

Following this, my niece rushed up the stairs to the Christmas tree and awaited our appearance. When we didn’t show up, she began writhing on the floor like she was Linda Blair furiously bouncing up and down on her bed in “The Exorcist,” possessed by a demomic force which needed to be banished from her body forever. She really couldn’t wait for much longer and, in her mind, we couldn’t make it up the stairs fast enough

Just as when I was a child, my niece had the job of handing out presents to everybody. But, of course, the first one she picked out was for herself (I used to do the exact same thing). She also insisted we open our presents individually and not all at once. For a moment, I thought she was doing this to get back at us for making her wait to unwrap her gifts, but her mother pointed out how much fun it is to watch the expressions on everyone’s faces when they opened theirs.

It was worth it just to see my niece get super excited about her gifts. She didn’t even try to hide her glee, and it got to where she spoke so fast that we couldn’t understand what the hell she was saying.

Among her gifts was a doll which was tied up ever so securely in its box, and she asked for our help in getting the doll out as it seemed not just child proof, but adult proof as well. Seriously, I thought we were going to have to use the table saw in the garage to get this doll free.

I got her a Target gift card worth $15, and I have never seen a child get so exhilarated over receiving one before. I hope she wasn’t putting on some sort of act to hide any disappointment over the amount not being larger. Then again, if it were a $10 dollar gift card, she probably still would have gone apeshit over it.

Watching my niece opening her presents proved to be a reminder of how wonderful a holiday Christmas can be. I have been kind of blasé about it for the past few years because of all the commercialization surrounding it, and this has resulted in “Bad Santa” becoming my holiday movie of choice as it serves as a gleefully vicious rebuttal over this over-commercialized occasion. When it comes to my family however. there is no beating Christmas. It also reminds me of how precious time is because it keeps going by faster and faster as we get older and older. It almost makes me feel kind of envious of my niece because she has yet to discover how quickly time can fly by. Moreover, it reminds of how we need to treasure these precious moments as they will vanish before we know it.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good set of presents you put on your wish list. As for the stockings, any complaints need to be sent to Mrs. Claus.

The Ultimate Rabbit’s Top Ten Horror Movies for Halloween

Halloween head tilt

So, without further ado, I present to you my list of my top ten movies to watch on Halloween night, and they are presented here in no particular order:

halloween-1978-poster

“John Carpenter’s Halloween”

Despite the many imitators and endless sequels, not to mention the two movies directed by Rob Zombie (which was actually pretty good), there’s no beating the granddaddy of them all. Carpenter’s film is a true horror classic with a music theme I never get sick of listening to. All these years later, the original “Halloween” has lost none of its power to creep you out as it offers audiences a truly terrifying experience.

There are moments which have stayed with me long after I saw “Halloween” for the first time. That moment where Michael Meyers kills the boyfriend and then tilts his head from side to side always gets to me. Plus, the ending leaves you with the unnerving truth of how evil never dies.

 

The Thing movie poster

“John Carpenter’s The Thing”

While his original “Halloween” remains a true classic, Carpenter’s remake of “The Thing” is his masterpiece. The film bombed back in 1982, but it has since gained a huge cult following and is now considered one of the best horror films ever made. The story of a group of scientists doing research in Antarctica, one of the most isolated places on Earth, who get copied almost perfectly by an alien is far more effective today than when it first came out. “The Thing” is a great example of how to keep escalating tension throughout a movie’s entire running time, and Rob Bottin’s incredible work on the makeup and effects still looks disgustingly brilliant to this very day.

 

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre poster

“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”

I finally got to see this movie all the way through for the first time a couple of years ago when I rented it from Netflix. What I thought would be a fun and hopelessly dated 1970’s movie turned out to be more horrifying than I ever could have imagined. Even while watching it on my 32″ television, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” proved to be a brutal cinematic experience which has lost none of its power to make you shrink in your seat. With a movie like this, it’s not what you see that gets to you; it’s what you don’t see which messes with your head, and that makes this classic of the most unnerving movie going experiences you will ever endure.

 

Suspiria 4K restoration poster

“Suspiria”

It was released 40 years ago, and it remains Dario Argento’s true masterpiece of horror. There are very few directors who can make a grisly death look like a beautiful work of art. The tale of an American female dancer who comes to a ballet school which turns out to be a witches’ coven doesn’t always make sense, but then again, a lot of Argento’s movies don’t. The movie is still scary as hell and beautifully horrific in a way most horror films can only dream of being today. A friend of mine once told me that if she were ever to be murdered (heaven forbid), she wants it to look like something out of a Dario Argento movie. I see what she means.

 

Alien movie poster

“Alien”

Be it the original version or the director’s cut, Ridley Scott’s “Alien” is still an overwhelmingly terrifying experience to sit through. When I rented this one on videotape years ago and watched it on my parents’ 13-inch television set in their bedroom (they robbed me of using the family room), I found myself hiding my eyes at key moments. The silence really got to me, and I impatiently waited for Jerry Goldsmith’s score to come back on. Keep in mind, I actually saw James Cameron’s “Aliens” before I saw this one, and it still scared the hell out of me!

 

The Exorcist movie poster

“The Exorcist”

I tell you, these horror movies from the 1970’s still have the same power to shock you today as they did when first released. When William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” was re-released in “the version you’ve never seen,” it still had a visceral power to unsettle us regardless of the passage of time. The story of a girl who becomes possessed by an ancient demon benefits greatly from a documentary feel which has that “you are there” feel, and it almost felt like I wasn’t watching a movie, but instead a real-life event which somehow all got caught on camera.

 

Evil Dead II poster

“Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn”

All the “Evil Dead” movies are great fun, but if you have to go with just one, then I recommend “Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn.” On a budget of $3 million dollars, maybe even less than that, director Sam Raimi gave us one of the most endlessly creative and hilarious horror movies you could ever hope to watch. After all this time, it remains as scary as is funny. Plus, you have Bruce “Groovy” Campbell in his most iconic role as Ash, the pussy whipped salesman from S-Mart who keeps getting chased by the demons he was dumb enough to awaken from their slumber. Campbell gives a fantastic performance even if he keeps telling us he’s not much of an actor. This is so far from the truth, but you do have to admire the sense of humor he has about himself, and you haven’t lived until you listen to one of his “Evil Dead” commentary tracks.

 

28 Days Later movie poster

“28 Days Later”

“Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle was said to have reinvigorated the zombie genre with this propulsive horror thriller where they are anything but slow. In this film, the zombies, or the infected as they are referred to are not the real enemy, we are. The virus the infected have been stricken with represents our inability to face the darkness inside of ourselves which sooner or later rises to the surface. There is no let up on the tension in this movie, and the thrills come fast and furious.

 

Dawn of the Dead original and remake posters

“Dawn of the Dead” (the original and the remake)

This one is a tie because both versions of this movie stand strongly on their own merits. George Romero’s brilliant sequel to his classic “Night of the Living Dead” is really a satire of the consumerist society we all live in. You know, the one which encourages us to buy all sorts of things which are said to make you happy, and yet all the money and objects you purchase end up making you feel empty inside. This is what Romero is saying with this film, and he does this while providing us with a great deal of blood, gore, beheadings, eviscerations, decapitations, and whatever else he could afford when he made “Dawn of the Dead.” All of you in the Fangoria crowd will be more than satisfied with this one, but you knew that already.

Zack Snyder, who later went on to direct “300,” “Watchmen” and “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice” helmed this remake which turned out to be the best of its kind since “John Carpenter’s The Thing.” This one is more of a straight forward horror action film with a surprising amount of emphasis on character development. It also features Canada’s greatest import in the lead role, Sarah Polley. The remake of “Dawn of the Dead” turned out to be a visceral thrill ride, and it allowed us to invest in the characters in ways most horror movies typically avoid.

 

Silence of the Lambs poster

“The Silence of the Lambs”

The specter of Hannibal Lecter, as portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, never fails to unnerve me like he did when I first saw this movie on the big screen. Jonathan Demme’s Oscar winning classic remains one of the definitive serial killer films ever made. Hopkins’ performance is like a perverse love letter to HAL from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” whose voice inspired his performance. We also get one of cinema’s greatest heroines with Clarice Starling, brilliantly played by Jodie Foster.

Have a happy Halloween everybody!