The Cult Movie Club: All The Vermeers In New York (1990)

A major trope of ’80s or ’80s-set films, books, plays and – dammit – life itself (plus ça change) was the bonkers – or, at the very least, morally unsound – banker, broker or trader. ‘Wall Street’, ‘American Psycho’, ‘9 1/2 Weeks’, ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’, ‘Bonfire Of The Vanities’, ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’. You get the picture.

But in Jon Jost’s movie ‘All The Vermeers In New York’, actor Stephen Lack, best known for his unique performance in David Cronenberg’s cult classic ‘Scanners’, delivered a nuanced, highly original take on the character.

His middle-aged broker Mark is lonely, strange, poetic, neurotic and in possession of a serious death wish. He’s kind of a Zen Patrick Bateman, without the mass murder. So it’s just his bad luck when he becomes obsessed with French acting student Anna (Emmanuelle Chalet), whom he believes looks just like the woman in Vermeer’s painting ‘Study Of A Young Girl’.

Stephen Lack in ‘All The Vermeers In New York’

The film – which I managed to record onto VHS during its one and only showing on Channel Four in the mid-1990s – is kind of ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ meets Mike Leigh, a classic New York art-house movie with its quiet bars, art galleries (Mark finds Anna in the Met, in a scene reminiscent of Brian De Palma’s ‘Dressed To Kill’) and plush interiors, but one that also relies on ‘naturalistic’ performances and mostly improvised dialogue. Jon English’s avant-jazz score is also superb, with more than a hint of Charles Mingus about it.

‘All The Vermeers In New York’ is also weirdly au courant, about the commodification of art and sex, and the all-powerful money-mind. We only see fragments of the characters’ troubled, conflicted lives – the teenager who worries about the unethical companies her rich daddy is putting her name to, the heroin-addicted artist refused money by his gallery-owning friend, Mark wearily intoning about his lonely apartment looking out on a building that could be ‘street-level Europe’.

Roger Ebert gave ‘All The Vermeers In New York’ a decent review on its release. To some, the film will seem like pretentious twaddle, to others a refreshing voyage into a dream world à la ‘Blow Up’, ‘Dead Ringers’, ‘The Music Of Chance’. All I know is that I revisit it about every three years and take something new from it each time.

Director Jost seems to have a very sketchy rep, described online variously as an indie movie pioneer and pretentious waste of space. Yes, ‘All The Vermeers In New York’ probably belongs in an art gallery rather than a movie theatre, but it’s still a fascinating ride.

 

Advertisements

The Cult Movie Club: Modern Romance (1981)

It might seem a bit churlish to say about a guy who’s co-written/directed seven movies and received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (for ‘Broadcast News’) that it never quite happened for Albert Brooks the way it did for some of his contemporaries.

But somehow he has always seemed too niche for widespread popularity. His always-intelligent, nervy schtick is like a West Coast version of Woody Allen’s, but his comic bedfellows are probably Garry Shandling and Larry David rather than Allen and Diane Keaton.

‘Modern Romance’ was Brooks’ superb second film as co-writer/director, and it’s kind of an extended, darker episode of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’. I caught it completely by chance on Channel Four in the mid-’90s and am grateful I captured it on VHS because it seems almost impossible to find these days.

Watching it again, the movie it most reminded me of is ‘Groundhog Day’. Brooks plays Robert Cole, an amiable if somewhat self-serving film editor stuck in a kind of romantic ‘loop’, endlessly playing out his on/off relationship with talented, gorgeous but hard-to-know Mary, portrayed by the excellent Kathryn Harrold.

Kathryn Harrold and Albert Brooks in ‘Modern Romance’

So Robert dumps Mary (yet again) at the beginning of the movie and tries (yet again?) to embrace the new romantic ‘rules’ of the Me Decade, taking up jogging, health supplements and blind dates. But nothing works. He just can’t seem to get comfortable. Why? Is he really meant to be with Mary? Or is it that he just can’t assuage his loneliness and modern ennui? The movie explores the options with amusing, thought-provoking results.

‘Modern Romance’ is full of great secondary characters: Brooks’ brother Bob Einstein (best known as Marty Funkhouser in ‘Curb’) plays a pushy shop assistant, Bruno Kirby is his loyal co-editor, George Kennedy of ‘Naked Gun’ fame is a self-important B-movie actor and there’s a droll, jittery turn by James L Brooks as a suspiciously George Lucas-like director.

James L Brooks, Albert Brooks and Bruno Kirby

Modern Romance’ also makes for a pithy Hollywood pastiche. Robert’s day job consists of editing a cheapo ‘Star Wars’ rip-off, pitting him against bored techies, unpredictable directors and egotistical character actors. The irony, of course, is that we know Robert is capable of much more, but he seems to have some kind of tragic flaw. He’s an ’80s version of Bobby Dupea, Jack Nicholson’s character in ‘Five Easy Pieces’.

The other thing about ‘Modern Romance’ is that it’s very quiet. Compared to modern comedies, it’s positively moribund. Brooks spends a lot of time alone, talking to himself. He makes stoned phone calls, goes jogging, drives around drab, deserted LA locations (but of course they look pretty glamorous to me, very Sanborn’s Hideaway and Steely’s ‘Glamour Profession’). There’s very little incidental music but there is a funny segue of heartbreak songs heard on a car radio.

It works as a quirky, neurotic, droll comedy, but ‘Modern Romance’ also lingers in the brain, revealing far more serious concepts. Why can’t Robert leave Mary alone and get on with his life? Or, as the trailer tagline so aptly puts it: if this is not love, what is it?

Halloween Special: 11 Memorable VHS Covers

Back in those early days of VHS fever at the beginning of the ’80s, my parents would occasionally invite friends round to watch a scary movie. I remember tip-toeing out of my bedroom very late at night, creeping along the corridor and trying to snatch a peek at ‘Halloween II’ or ‘Straw Dogs’.

No, I wasn’t allowed to watch those kind of movies, though later was granted a bit of license with regards to ‘The Fog’, ‘Creepshow’, ‘The Island’ and ‘American Werewolf In London’ (for some reason).

But I could dream. The Video Masheen shop on Sheen Lane was a treasure trove of interesting VHS covers, a weird showroom advertising movies I’d never get to see. What kind of deranged mind could conceive of these images? The mind boggled. Some surely qualify as genuinely surreal pieces of art, though the #MeToo movement would probably put pay to a few more these days.

Of course I’ve seen many of these films now, though a few I still haven’t. And don’t really want to. But here are some VHS covers of the era that stuck in the mind. Straight from the shelf of Video Masheen. Happy Halloween…

11. ‘An American Werewolf In London’ (1981)

10. ‘Halloween II’ (1981)

9. ‘Creepshow’ (1982)

8. ‘The Island’ (1980)

7. ‘The Howling’ (1980)

6. ‘The Fog’ (1980)

5. ‘Southern Comfort’ (1981)

4. ‘The Exterminator’ (1980)

3. ‘Scanners’ (1980)

2. ‘Christine’ (1983)

1. ‘The Thing’ (1982)

The Cult Movie Club: Fourteen Days In May (1987)

It doesn’t happen very often, but occasionally a documentary comes along that makes you question everything, puts a new slant on life and death, the whole shebang. Or just gives you a damn good scare. Paul Hamann’s ‘Fourteen Days In May’ definitely fits the bill.

Shot over two weeks during the summer of 1987 at the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary – AKA Parchman Farm – ‘Fourteen Days In May’ follows a young black man Edward Johnson as he prepares for – and, with the help of his lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, tries to evade – the gas chamber.

First shown on the BBC over 30 years ago, it has become a landmark film. Similar areas have recently been explored by Werner Herzog, Louis Theroux and Nick Broomfield, but arguably ‘Fourteen Days In May’ trumps all of them for sheer emotional impact.

It explores the inner workings of a prison geared up for taking human life. Astonishing shots shed light on a kind of modern slavery, with policemen on horseback brandishing shotguns, calling out loud reprimands and instructions to large groups of (almost exclusively) young black detainees as they dig ditches or clear roadside vegetation.

Elsewhere we are witness to the last few minutes of another (white) inmate’s life as he is strapped into the electric chair, though thankfully we don’t see the moment of truth. The gallows humour of both the killers and killed will linger long in the memory.

As ‘Fourteen Days In May’ moves painfully and inexorably on, it becomes increasingly clear that Johnson is innocent. But no-one can do anything about it. Various (black and white) prison officers bravely profess their doubts as to his guilt, while Johnson’s family rally around the quiet, unfailingly polite young man, singing him songs to keep his spirits up.

Hamann breaks the fourth wall to says his goodbyes to Johnson in a memorable scene. But shorn of a voiceover or title cards, ‘Fourteen Days In May’ offers no explicit critique of capital punishment. It doesn’t need to. The facts do that for themselves.

It would seem churlish and pointless not to reveal the ‘ending’ of the film here – Edward Johnson meets his maker. The crushing coda reveals that a young black woman came forward after the execution to verify that she saw him in a pool hall during the time of the alleged crime, but when reporting this to a white police officer soon after was threateningly advised to mind her own business.

What do we take away from ‘Fourteen Days In May’? The only correct response would seem to be rage. And fear. But after that, there’s a helplessness and a slow-burning disgust. The only slight light at the end of the tunnel is the knowledge that it was in direct response to this documentary that the Lifelines organisation was set up, arranging pen pals for death row prisoners. Stafford Smith has also founded Reprieve.

Is America still like this? Over to you. The suspicion would have to be that it is.

The Cult Movie Club: Yellow Submarine (1968)

No, ‘Yellow Submarine’ doesn’t really have anything to do with the ’80s (or does it? See below…), but this website wouldn’t exist without the Fabs. And whilst obviously not strictly a ‘cult’ movie, it does feel somewhat forgotten these days, showing only once on terrestrial TV during my lifetime and rarely seen in the cinema.

But watching it on the big screen last week during its short 50th anniversary re-release, it struck me as the ultimate psychedelic artefact, a feast of day-glo imagery, pop psychology, Scouse kidology and mind-blowing music. The tale of the evil Blue Meanies’ battle against John, Paul, George and Ringo was a total trip and has also aged well – my nieces loved it.

Most importantly, the music sounded fantastic: it was a treat to hear ‘It’s All Too Much’, ‘All Together Now’, ‘Hey Bulldog’ and ‘Only A Northern Song’ loud and proud. The other Beatles may not have particularly cared for George’s former and latter but they were revealed as true psych classics, with kickin’ bass and drums and disturbing/babbling string and horn cut-ups.

Ian MacDonald sums up ‘It’s All Too Much’ brilliantly in his classic book ‘Revolution In The Head’: ‘Lyrically very much the locus classicus of English psychedelia… The revolutionary spirit then abroad in America and Europe was never reciprocated in comfortable and sceptical Albion, where tradition, nature and the child’s-eye-view were the things which sprang most readily to the LSD-heightended Anglo-Saxon mind.’

I’m not a big cartoon fan but even I can tell that the animation in ‘Yellow Submarine’ is pretty special, a big influence on Monty Python, XTC (see the cover of Oranges And Lemons) and a myriad of ’80s video directors. The ‘Eleanor Rigby’ section is moving, unique, memorable. And then there’s the more-than-decent script: playwright Lee Minoff and screenwriter Erich Segal, later to hit big with ‘Love Story’, probably supply the spiritual oomph and ‘Odyssey’-like plot, while poet Roger McGough presumably added the authentic Scouse.

Of course, some object to the representation of the Fabs in ‘Yellow Submarine’. As Pauline Kael pointed out in her original New Yorker review, they were no longer rock stars but non-threatening family favourites, offering up an already nostalgic vision of ‘love’. Accordingly, the film was a reasonable hit in the UK but much bigger one in the States, released in the year of the Tet Offensive and deaths of Martin Luther King Jr./Robert Kennedy. Escapism was needed.

And maybe still is. But do see ‘Yellow Submarine’ on the big screen if you can. And if you’re like me, you may even shed a quiet, nostalgic tear during ‘When I’m 64’.

The Cult Movie Club: Seems Like Old Times (1980)

It seems a bit weird to describe ‘Seems Like Old Times’ as a cult movie when everything about it screams ‘Hollywood’: co-stars Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn, screenwriter Neil Simon, ‘Mary Tyler Moore’/’Cosby Show’ director Jay Sandrich, Columbia Pictures (this was one of the first movies they made after the David Begelman embezzlement scandal).

But it’s a cult movie in that it now seems completely forgotten. I probably would never have come across it unless I’d happened upon it on TV one afternoon. I stuck it on a VHS and wish I still had it, because it’s one of Chevy’s funniest films and an interesting companion piece to ‘Caddyshack’. 1980 was a good year for Steely Dan’s first drummer.

‘Seems Like Old Times’ is clearly modelled on the great Hollywood screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s. Even the title comes from a popular song written in 1945 (sung by Diane Keaton in ‘Annie Hall’). Chase stars as a falsely-accused bankrobber who takes refuge at his ex-wife’s Beverly Hills ranch. There are ‘unresolved issues’ in their relationship, not to mention the suspicions of Hawn’s new husband Charles Grodin. The sparks fly and the one-liners come thick and fast.

Hawn, Chase and Grodin

Chase channels Cary Grant at his zaniest, Hawn is fairly adorable and has some great comic moments, and they have a decent chemistry. Grodin (who I was amazed to read was Razzie-nominated for this performance) excels in the role he always seems to play, a control freak seemingly on the edge of a nervous breakdown, while Robert Guillaume and Harold Gould lampoon the Reaganite elite almost as effectively as Ted Knight in ‘Caddyshack’.

Simon writes loads of memorable secondary characters too: TK Carter is funny as Chester (though the part wouldn’t win any ‘woke’ points these days) and Yvonne Wilder is great as Mexican maid Aurora (ditto). The locations are gorgeous, with a striking helicopter shot over the opening credits along the Southern California coast. I love Marvin Hamlisch’s theme tune too, sounding a bit like Herb Alpert jamming with Billy Joel. And the cheap, slushy, ridiculous last five minutes get me every time.

‘Seems Like Old Times’ is a film that you can just let wash over you – you’re in the hands of experts. Indeed it sometimes feels a bit too professional. It was a reasonable hit but proved a bit of a career dead end for Chase, who pretty much eschewed the ‘romantic lead’ pictures from here on in. A shame, in a way. His dead-eyed buffoonery and surprisingly subtle charm take him and the film a long way.