Monday, March 29, 2010

Cinefest Confidential

The truly appealing Colleen Moore in "Orchids and Ermine"

Since 1987, I’ve been making an annual trip (I know I missed a couple of years) to Syracuse NY for Cinefest, a festival of American, primarily, films from the teens to about 1950.

I just got back from this year’s festival, which was its 30th time and it seemed appropriate to think back especially during the four hour drive to and fro on my experiences with the show.

Now Cinefest is perhaps one of the most laid back and non-glamorous film festivals one could ever attend. First, one has to understand the films are from archives and collectors and sometimes are the only 16mm print of a particular movie in existence. The average age of the attendees has got to be about 60 and to keep it running for the future there has been a concerted effort to bring in young film students into the audience mix.

There are some well-known people who attend the show on a regular basis and there have been a number of special guests, but this is not a show for the paparazzi. This ain’t Sundance, folks.

Unlike many of the people I encountered at Sundance when I went in 2004 – never again! – The people who come to Cinefest are here to see movies. Yes, there are deals being made – collectors buying prints from one another – but that’s about it.

The show has dealers’ rooms that routinely have closed tables. You see, the dealers go to the movies as well. The dealers’ room is one of the best of any show or convention I’ve seen. Routinely I’ve found great stuff there.

This year, I walked away with DVDs of Kane Richmond’s Shadow movies from Monogram, some silent cartoons, a biography of W.C. Fields I didn’t have and a poster of one of Richard Gordon’s films I didn’t have.

The movies are always a crapshoot. You never quite know what you’re going to find.

The folks who run Cinefest don’t care much for horror or science fiction. Animation is something they must despise. They run plenty of shorts subjects, but never a cartoon. I once volunteered to do my Fleischer slideshow for them and was politely told the Cinefest audience wouldn’t care for it.

You’re not apt to see exploitation films, although I did see once a real corker of a film about how Mormons were hypnotizing English girls to be their wives!

Some years the movies are truly memorable and you walk out of the auditorium saying, “Damn! I want that movie.” Of course it’s unlikely you’ll ever see it again.

For instance, several years back I was able to see a print of a Conrad Veidt film called “The Last Performance.” It was an incredible film and it was probably one of the few prints in existence. Of course, it is highly unlikely it will ever be on home video.

The cast and crew of "The Last Performance."

That’s why I go to Cinefest – to see something that I can’t see anywhere else.

My first trip to Cinefest was a day trip. I was then a friend with a guy who corresponded with producer and archivist Alex Gordon. Alex was at Cinefest – he was a loyal attendee – and my then-buddy Ray wanted to see him. So Ray and I and two other guys drove the four hours. I was immediately mortified when one member of our party looked at Alex – who knew Bela Lugosi well and his brother Richard produced two films with Boris Karloff – and asked him who was the better actor. He was a Lugosi fan and thankfully Alex dodged his idiot fan boy question.

I remembered buying a ticket for the day and watching at least one film before we piled back into the car for another four-hour haul back to Springfield.

I was impressed with what I had seen and kept coming back.

The best thing, though, to come out of Cinefest has been my friendship with Richard Gordon, who has been an influential mentor to me, whether he knows it or not!

My wife has gone once and we had one of the best dinner parties of our lives there with Richard Gordon and two of the directors with whom he worked: Radley Metzger and Norman J. Warren. These guys were hilarious and treated my wife like a princess.

I was very happy when my pal Steve Bissette started going. I remember the first year he went simply raiding the dealer’s room for all sort of esoteric Japanese monster movie stuff. Then his wife Marge started going and she would watch for films than either of us!

While this year didn’t have one of those films that proved to be a revelation, I was happy to finally see a Joe E. Brown comedy – “Earthworm Tractor” – Colleen Moore’s delightful romantic comedy “Orchids and Ermine” and a genuine train wreck of a movie, “Peacock Alley,” starring Mae Murray in a failed effort to regain some of her popularity.

I also suffered through a hideous but rare comedy short starring Bert Wheeler of Wheeler and Woolsey fame. They’ll show this crap, but not a Fleischer cartoon?

Ah well, that’s the nature of Cinefest.

© 2010 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Here's the second installment of my report on the New Media Seminar

Monday, March 22, 2010

First installment of my coverage of the 2010 New Media Seminar

Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers Magazine – a man ahead of his time

Former CNN anchor and now syndicated talk host Lou Dobbs, who delivered the annual First Amendment speech and urged people not to succumb to political correctness and not to tone down their remarks. Would he have approved then of my telling him I think he's full of crap?

Hosts from my 'hood – Bax and O'Brien of WAQY Rock 102

During the talk host rumble, Steve Malzberg of WOR (appropriately on the right) and syndicated host and actor Phil Hendrie frequently found themselves shouting over and at one another. Malzberg repeatedly called the president a "communist."

I really think liberal talk show shots liberal Randi Rhodes and Bill Preiss were genuinely appalled at times at what they heard from the conservatives on the panel.

Once again at the invitation of Michael Harrison I got to be the only local reporter, perhaps the only print reporter who attended his New Media Seminar, his 13th convention for the talk radio industry.

I love the medium and look back on my five years as a talk host – 1982- 1987 – very fondly, despite the low pay – $5 an hour and $1.75 per endorsed live spot. I was the house liberal and as it was during the Reagan years, I received the best hate mail.

My favorite endorsed commercial was for "Cold Stick," a plastic tube that you kept in the freezer filled with anti-freeze. When you had an attack of hemorrhoids you lubed it up and placed it for all natural drug-free relief. Really. I ain't making this up.

When done right local talk is a powerful and entertainment medium. The problem is the large corporations that have bought talk stations over the past 20 years jettisoned local talk for far less expensive syndicated programming. It was great to hear that stations with local talk are making money.

I'm putting together a video of the annual talk rumble, but now here is what I wrote for our newspapers:

NEW YORK, N.Y. – At the 13th annual New Media Seminar, conducted March 19 and 20, radio show hosts and programming executives debated whether or not the local talk show host was a dying breed.

According to William Handel, the talk host who dominates the ratings in the Los Angeles, Calif. market, the era of local radio personalities discussing the local issues that affects audiences is at an end.

Every speaker didn’t embrace Handel’s assertions, though, as many of the attendees believe the survival of the medium is embracing locally originated programming.

Talkers Magazine, the trade magazine for the talk show industry, which is published by Longmeadow resident Michael Harrison in Springfield, presented the two-day convention.

In the greater Springfield area, the stations follow a national model of having local morning host followed by syndicated programming. Bill Dwight at WHMP has the only area weekday standalone talk show from 9 to 10 a.m.

Handel said, “It’s sort of rough to see an exciting medium disappear before our eyes.”

Handel said it is too expensive to operate a station with all local programming.

“To have all local programs is simply an impossibility,” he added.

The practice of stations accepting paid infomercials – something many speakers said was becoming more and more common – marks the “death knell” of radio, Handel said. Handel called the doctors, lawyers and others who buy a half-hour or hour of time to tout their businesses as “egomaniacs” who leave radio when they find the lengthy commercials are not making money for them.

Part of the problem is that radio stations no longer have local or regional ownership as they once did, he explained.
“The mom and pops chose good radio as long as they were making a good living,” he said.

“When done right local radio works,” Handel added.

Handel’s conclusions were refuted by a panel of local talk show hosts from around the country in a spirited discussion led by former Springfield talk radio host Dan Yorke, now a fixture at WPRO in Providence, R.I.

Yorke went down the line of hosts quizzing them about the effectiveness as “revenue agents” who actively work to bring revenue into their stations.

“You should not get before the radio [microphone] if you can’t sell,” Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angels and a long-time New York City talk show host, said. Sliwa is currently heard over WNYM.

Michelle Jerson, who has a relationship advice show on WKXW in Trenton, N.J., spoke of not only meeting with sponsors to help close ad deals but also arranging for special events such as cruises that bring money into the station.

Yorke and the panel noted their local shows actually sell more local ads for their stations than nationally syndicated programming such as superstar Rush Limbaugh.

The hosts also attested to the strength of local radio hosts. Larry Young of WOLB in Baltimore, Md. noted his station has the reputation of being the audience’s watchdog in city hall.

Heidi Harris of KDWN in Las Vegas, Nev. recounted how she effectively questioned claims made in ads for Sen. Harry Reid’s recent reelection bid. Harris, and other hosts at the seminar, said news sources come to local radio talk show hosts because of the decline in the reporting of local news by daily newspapers and television stations.

Throughout the two days, speakers urged seminar attendees to embrace the new technological tools the Internet offers them. Holland Cooke, an East Longmeadow, Mass., native and a radio consultant for McVay Media, presented a list of opportunities for radio hosts from podcasting to blogging to using services such as YouTube and creating products to sell from with no inventory to buy.

Vic Capone, a spokesperson for Apple, noted he doesn’t listen or watch anything in “real time.” He uses iTunes to download movies, music, television shows and radio podcasts and said the millions of iTunes downloads attest he is not the only person with this habit.

Other high tech services the broadcasters heard about included Paltalk that allows hosts to stream video from their studios and manage text and chat rooms with members of their audience for immediate feedback and the Tricaster, a mini-television control board, that radio hosts are using for the easy production of video.

With the opportunities offered by Web services, such as – where 10,000 people currently have their own talk radio program with only a computer, some kind of microphone and an Internet connection – the question is how to attract listeners to a show or host.

As many of the speakers said ultimately it all comes down to the broadcasting talent of the host, understanding his or her subject and more importantly, the needs of the audience.

Laurie Cantillo, the program director for WABC in New York, said for a station to succeed it “must be great all the day.”

© 2010 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I'm assembling as many of the celebrity interviews I've done since my first one in high school with Flash Gordon himself Buster Crabbe for a book titled "Fifteen Minutes With ..."

The gold standard for interviews is of course the intense and in-depth pieces that have graced Playboy's pages for decades. Most of us though are seldom given the days on which those interviews are conducted. Instead once an interview is confirmed, the next question is "How much time do I have?"

The simple fact is most celebs have something to sell and to sell it efficiently their publicists will set up interviews in 10 or 15 minute blocks. Two interviews that had no time limit, which was in a way frightening as I didn't want to over-stay my welcome, was with Bill Cosby – whose P.R. guy said, "You'll know when you're done." – and Ray Bradbury, whose PR guy said, "Call at noon eastern. That's when he likes to talk."

As a working journalist you have to make the most of your time. An interview with Alice Cooper was exactly 10 minutes. Cooper was on message, on time and I would have loved to have been able to speak with him longer, but he had to go to the next reporter.

I've a satisfying career when viewed from a fanboy perspective as I've been able to talk, although all too briefly, with many of the people whose work I've long admired. I think that will be the angle of the book.

In any case here is a piece that saw publication in 2003 in one of our now dead products, the hapless Journal/Bravo, a failed effort at creating a family friendly alternative entertainment bi-weekly. This was the cover story and I had to fight various people at work who had never heard of the Toxic Avenger and believed no one else had either.

Is Lloyd Kaufman feeding me a line? He tells me that if I hold the DVD of The Toxic Avenger IV: Citizen Toxie up to a light, I can see the image of Jesus on one disc of the two disc set and Satan on the other.

He must be smiling on the other end of this telephone interview.

The patter is typical Kaufman, who is a movie director who has taken lessons on promoting himself from masters such as William Castle and Alfred Hitchcock and racheted up the hype to meet these jaded times.

You haven't heard of Kaufman and his company Troma Entertainment? Well, the studio's flagship franchise, The Toxic Avenger, just made the top 50 cult films of all times list published recently by Entertainment Weekly. In fact, Toxic Avenger - or "Toxie" as he is affectionately known - has not only appeared in four films, but has been the star of an animated television show and several comic book series as well.

Besides heading the independent company with his partner Michael Herz, Kaufman has directed a number of the key Troma releases, and has written two books about the tribulations of the independent filmmaking. In the grand tradition of the classic Hollywood studios, Kaufman and Herz has established a highly recognizable style. Warner Brothers was known for its films "torn from the headlines," while Paramount's films boasted an European elegance and MGM had "more stars than there are in heaven."

Troma has brought gratuitous violence, gore and sex to levels that are almost surreal. In fact, Troma's films have captured the attention of mainstream critics because of their no-survivors satire that is in the tradition of Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal." In fact, some film writers have stated that without Troma paving the way, bad taste and mainstream comedies such as There's Something About Mary may never have existed.

Troma titles include films such as Class of Nuke Em High, Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid, Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD and Terror Firmer. Its latest film, which is now being produced, is Tales From The Crapper.

There's no doubt about it that Troma is not for everyone, but Troma fans are highly dedicated to the company. The studio's web site ( features a gallery of photos from fans who have pledged their loyalty with a tattoo of the Toxic Avenger. When was the last time you heard of someone putting Julia Roberts or Harrison Ford on their forearm?

The company's most recent film, Citizen Toxie - now out in a double disc DVD edition crammed with extras - boasts of scenes with such over-the-top material this writer barely can start describing them in a family publication. The plot revolves around our hero The Toxic Avenger, the hero of Tromaville, who finds himself transported into an evil dimension. The hero of that dimension, the Noxious Offender, is now in Tromaville killing at will and turning the town into his own criminal municipality.

Where else than in a Troma film could the hero be a former health club janitor who thanks to being dropped into a vat of toxic waste has been transformed into a superhero? In what other movie could porn star Ron Jeremy be cast as the mayor of a town or the late Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf play God?

And this DVD version is unrated. You've been warned.

If nothing else, the film takes the "what if" story formula so popular in many of today's mainstream films and shows it for the lazy storytelling device that it is.


Troma is celebrating its 30th year in business, something of which Kaufman is proud, especially considering that there are few other independent companies around with that kind of staying power.

It has been an interesting journey for the Yale student majoring in Chinese Studies, who decided after graduation to pursue a career in film. Kaufman told The Journal/Bravo that rather than going to film school, he decided to "attach" himself to a director and learn by doing.

As an aside, Kaufman said that the pleasure and pain of film making fit right into the Taoist philosophy he had studied.

In his case, kaufman's instructor was John G. Avildsen, the director of such films as Rocky, Joe and Slow Dancing in the Big City. Kaufman began work with Avildsen on Joe, a low budget politically charged film produced in 1970 that starred Peter Boyle. Boyle played a working class conservative who reacted violently to the social changes of the Vietnam War era.

Kaufman said that on his first day as a production assistant, he realized that "this guy [Avildsen] is talented. I worked for free on that movie in order to learn." The film was a surprise hit and Kaufman continued his association with Avildsen with his next film, Cry Uncle, a detective comedy which earned an X rating for its sexual content. Kaufman said, on that film, he "jumped a few rungs" up the career ladder from production assistant because he helped raised money for the production.

Kaufman and his Yale friend Michael Herz had formed a partnership that that slowly but surely began producing their own films while working on other productions. For instance, the Troma Team - as Kaufman calls his crew - shot the exteriors in Philadelphia for Rocky and he recalled zipping around the city in eight days making sure his non-union crew wasn't spotted by union representatives. At a Los Angeles screening of Rocky, Kaufman said, "union guys were trying to remember when they shot that footage."

Another acclaimed director used Kaufman's services, on the arthouse classic My Dinner With André. Actor André Gregory was so impressed with the economical shooting of a comedy titled Waitress! Kaufman and Herz made that the late Louis Malle hired Kaufman as his production manager for that shoot.

Although Kaufman worked on a mainstream film such as Saturday Night Fever - he scouted the New York locations for the film - he is not a Hollywood type of guy, and has a lot to say about establishment filmmaking. Guerrilla movie making seems to be the basis for the Troma style. Kaufman said that Troma tries "to have total freedom" and that the company is "anti-elite." Kaufman believes in the idea that "the purpose of art is to reflect the spirit of the artist. "Troma has a loyal fan base. Some people may hate or love our films, but they never forget them," he added. Kaufman dismisses many mainstream Hollywood films as "baby food," and said that Troma's success shows that people want "half pepperoni on their cultural pizza."

The indifference expressed by corporate media conglomorates over Troma products hasn't helped the company. Kaufman explained that Blockbuster Video would not stock Troma movies, even in R-rated cuts. He charged that attitudes such as this one have "totally marginalized independents."

Kaufman believes there have been "a conscious effort to economically blacklist" that studio. He said that The New York Times refused to run a review of one of his books despite the advocacy of the Times' own film critic, Janet Maslin.

Kaufman's style is blatantly New York, and his promotion of Troma is definitely of the "in your face" variety.

Warner Brothers may have its signature water tower on its Hollywood lot, but Troma's 9th Avenue building in Manhattan has the Toxic Avenger painted on its exterior.


Kaufman's two books detail his adventures in filmmaking, and have encouraged people to become filmmakers themselves. In fact, the most recent book, Make Your Own Damn Movie, takes people step by step through the process from financing to distribution. In the book's press release, Kaufman said "I want to give young filmmakers takes people step by step through the process from financing to distribution.

In the book's press release, Kaufman said, "I want to give young filmmakers a step-by-step guide to making low-budget independent movies so that they can use what works for us and learn from our mistakes... although in Tromaville, we don't call them mistakes. They're impromptu script deviations." Troma films have relied on free labor provided by people who are seeking an education or simply a break into the industry. On the Troma website right now are notices calling for interns and volunteers to help further the Troma cause.

That's right, you may only be a mouse click away from schlepping coffee or holding a light for a Troma film crew or appearing at a comic book store as Toxie.

Although he is definitely a showman, Kaufman doesn't take himself very seriously. The second disc of the Citizen Toxie DVD has a feature-length "making of documentary which I found just as - if not more amusing - than the film itself. The documentary shows Kaufman directing the film and many of the cast and crew complaining about him.

Kaufman doesn't mind though. He said nice things about his crew on the movie's audio commentary and explains their criticism as "the truth as they see it."

For him the documentary is "a window into what it's really like to make an independent movie."

Like his movies or not, one has to give the devil his due. In this era of media giants, Kaufman and Troma Entertainment keep getting away with thumbing their nose at the big boys.

And, by the way, you can't see Jesus or Satan on the Citizen Toxie discs.

Kaufman made me look.

© 2010 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Here's an animation mystery – at least for me. My buddy Steve gave me a fist full of these odd pocket sized magazines from the 1950s, and one of them, the Sept. 24, 1955 edition of "Picture Week," had this spread about a cartoon short based on the Kinsey Report.

I've never heard of the studio that produced it, Kingsley-International Productions.

I was intrigued. When I did a little researching, I discovered there wasn't much info on it except for a notation on the BFI site stating it had a running time of a 13 minutes.

The artwork certainly has a UPA/ Jules Feiffer look to it, but again I ran up against a dead end.

Has anyone see this short?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

It's Dr. Seuss' birthday today – perhaps Springfield's most famous son. I had the pleasure of reading "McElligot's Pool" to a class at Trinity Methodist Nursery School today – in the same neighborhood as Seuss grew up in. The kids looked a little goggled-eyes when I told them Dr. Seuss was from Springfield. They were a class of four-year-olds and clearly it was difficult for them to understand that someone they had heard of came from the same city as they did.

Seuss should provide inspiration to any writer. His first children's book "And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street" – the real Mulberry Street is a ten minute walk from my house – was rejected dozens of times. He kept going, though.

I'd like to write an in-depth look at Seuss' career in animation. He worked with George Pall on two Puppetoon adaptations of his works and was one of the guys behind the great Private SNAFU series. He also created Gerald McBoing Boing and collaborated with Chuck Jones.

© 2010 by Gordon Michael Dobbs