Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: In search of the elusive (insert title here)

Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: In search of the elusive (insert title here)-attachment0

I suppose it happens less often these days, but I imagine it still does happen that most people with a serious interest in movies have—or have had—some title or other they’ve read about or heard about that they’ve never been able to see. This used to be common back in the pre-video days. Now, it sometimes seems that nearly everything your little viewing heart could desire is but a trip to the video store, a browse on Amazon, or even a mouse or remote control click away. That’s not really true, of course, but it’s certainly more the case now that it ever was. I sometimes wonder if this is necessarily a good thing.

Now, some of my hesitance to completely embrace the easy access afforded to so many extant motion pictures can perhaps be attributed to a certain nostalgia factor. I don’t deny it. It may even be said to stem—to some degree—from Old Folks’ Syndrome. You know—“Ah, you kids don’t know how good you have it. Back in my day, we had to walk 20 miles through the snow—uphill both ways—to see a movie and we paid for the ticket with the 50 cents we earned from mowing lawns.” (All right, so you don’t mow lawns when it’s snowing, it doesn’t snow much in Florida, and uphill doesn’t mean a lot there.) That sort of thing. I don’t deny that there’s something of both at least clinging to the edges of that hesitancy. But it’s not all of it.

Only this afternoon, I got a call from a young friend who has decided to explore to oeuvre of Ken Russell (a wise decision in my book). It began with, “Yesterday, I didn’t have any Ken Russell movies. Now, I have seven and I don’t know where to start.” This meant he’d received the “Ken Russell at the BBC” box set and Savage Messiah (1972) was faced with Elgar (1962), The Debussy Film (1965), Always on Sunday (1965), Isadora (1966), Dante’s Inferno (1967),  and Song of Summer (1968). He appeared to have decided to go with them chronologically, which makes sense even if Elgar wouldn’t be my first suggestion for a starting point. (Nothing against Elgar, but it’s a lot more constrained than the other films in the set.) But since he’d already seen The Music Lovers (1970), Savage Messiah, and Tommy (1975)—and maybe a few others—I figured he didn’t need to be turned on to Russell, so the fireworks in the set could wait.

It was that “I don’t know where to start” that caught my interest—and played into what I’d already started writing about this week. It’s the fact that easy availability means—among other things—easy sensory overload. It also, I’m bound to say, leads to a certain complacency that you can “always” get a copy, which is something of a false assumption. Just ask those folks who shelled out $100-plus for the out-of-print DVD of Russell’s Salome’s Last Dance (1988). I’m as guilty of this attitude as anyone—even well before home video. Back in the days of bootleg 16mm prints of movies, the best bootlegger I ever had always had reduction prints (16mm copies made from 35mm originals) of Duck Soup (1933) and Swing Time (1936) and some others I’ve forgotten available on his mailing list. As a result, I never bought them. They were something I’d get around to someday—until someday was eclipsed by rising silver prices that sent the cost of 16mm prints into the stratosphere.

But more than that what seems to missing—or maybe just what I’m missing—is the sense of excitement that’s, I guess, inevitably lost with easy access. Back in the olden days, the burgeoning cineaste’s big events were the arrival of the TV Guide and the entertainment section of the Friday newspaper. How eagerly we pored over these important publications. The prospect that something you’d long wanted to see turning up was tantalizing. Maybe that’s why I can clearly remember what my first Greta Garbo (Grand Hotel [1932]) and Jean Harlow (Red Dust [1932]) movies were. Now you have your pick of any number of their films whenever you like.

The Friday papers with their listings of midnight movies and special screenings at art houses and universities were another—even more exciting—prospect, and since these were usually that very night or the next, these required you to be ready to drop everything and go on very little notice. It was never hard to find someone who wanted to go. That and the fact that the Asheville Film Society is showing Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah on Tuesday, May 17, at 8 p.m. conspired to make me think of this topic in the first place.

Back in the summer of 1975, I had my first dose of Ken Russell when Tommy came out—and it had quite an impact, as many readers know and as is attested to by the fact that I managed to see it 16 times during its original release. That’s the kind of impact that leads the dedicated cineaste to become obsessed with the idea of seeing as much of a filmmaker’s other work as possible, and that’s what I set out to do—once I found out what that other work was. As strange as it may seem now, this wasn’t the sort of information that was at your fingertips. I knew about The Devils (1971) and The Boy Friend (1971)—in fact, I’d seen TV trailers for the latter—and I’d read a particularly virulent John Simon review for Mahler (1974). Otherwise? Well, I pieced together a kind of filmography from a Stephen Farber article in the “Emerging Cinema” issue of Film Comment and then found a better one in a little Monarch Film Studies paperback I had to order that was simply called Ken Russell.

Armed with this, I was able to realize that I needed to see Women in Love (1969), The Music Lovers, The Devils, The Boy Friend, Savage Messiah and Mahler to catch up. Esoterica like French Dressing (1964) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967) were only mentioned in passing, and the idea that it was likely I was going to see any of the TV films was extremely far-fetched. By the following summer, I’d managed to track down Women in Love, The Music Lovers, The Devils, and The Boy Friend—and for that matter I caught Billion Dollar Brain on late-night TV and saw Lisztomania when it came out. Savage Messiah and Mahler proved another matter altogether.

One morning in the summer of 1977, a friend called to tell me that Mahler was showing somewhere at the University of Florida in Gainesville that afternoon. So what if that was about 150 miles away? The real cineaste doesn’t balk at such trifles and three of us were soon on our way to see the elusive Mahler. It didn’t even bother us unduly that we only knew the time and the general location (a rather large university). After all, it seemed probable that almost anyone on the campus could tell us where this momentous event was taking place, right? Wrong. About a dozen students after we found the school, one girl told us where she thought it might be playing. Fortunately, she was right and we took our seats with a good five minutes to spare. One down.

Savage Messiah was far trickier. Valentino came and went in the fall of ‘77. Even the unexpected PBS showing of one of the TV films, Isadora (1966), happened my way. But Savage Messiah? No sign of it. Years passed as years are wont to do, and then one day in September of 1979 I went to see something—Let It Be (1970), I think—at the old Tampa Theatre in (of all places) Tampa. While there I scanned their posted list for coming movies—and, boy, did they plan ahead because there it was, slated for Aug. 31 of 1980. I didn’t need to make a note of it, since there was no way I was going to forget it. All I had to do was wait—almost another year. Was I there on the appointed day? What an absurd question. After a little over five years of searching, I saw the last remaining major piece of Russell’s theatrical filmography as it stood at the time. And, yes, it was worth the wait.

That’s not actually the longest gap between knowing of the existence of a movie and seeing it. That honor almost certainly goes to Frank Borzage’s Liliom (1930), which I first knew of when I saw a still from it in an old book on movies in the high school library. I was fascinated—enough that I sought out the source play to read it. It was 35 years later that I actually saw it. As I noted in an unused bit of footage for John Cork’s documentary Murnau, Borzage and Fox (2008), it was probably worth waiting 34 years to see, but not quite 35. But there’s a significant difference here, since I didn’t spend 35 years actively searching for it. In fact, I probably hadn’t even thought about it during most of those years.

It was the five-year search for Savage Messiah that started me musing on this topic and wondering what holds similar records for others. It’s also what prompted the line of thought that perhaps something has been lost with the extraordinary availability of so much these days. Maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t. But I can say that there was a happy outcome to my friend’s exploration of the Ken Russell box set. I got an e-mail late last night that was respectful enough about Elgar, but then went into much greater detail about his next choice, concluding with, “I loved The Debussy Film.” That’s what I like to hear—and what I’m hoping to hear on the 17th after Savage Messiah from folks who didn’t have to search for it for half a decade.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

46 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: In search of the elusive (insert title here)

  1. It took me 20 years to finally see EQUINOX, which I had seen stills of in a horror book back in the 70s.

    The kids today don’t understand how important circling listings in TV Guide really was.

    Believe it or not, there are still a handful of titles that are absolutely impossible to find, even using nefarious means.

  2. Rufus

    I recall one Saturday morning in the early 70′s my brother and I set the alarm for 4:30 AM to watch MY LITTLE CHICKADEE. Surely we appreciated it more then than if we only had to wait a couple of days for it to show up in the mail from Netflix (just an old man musing).

    Important note RE the Netflix comment: There is nothing like Orbit DVD where I live.

  3. Ken Hanke

    It took me 20 years to finally see EQUINOX, which I had seen stills of in a horror book back in the 70s.

    And was it worth the wait?

    The kids today don’t understand how important circling listings in TV Guide really was.

    I imagine the idea seems almost quaint now.

    Believe it or not, there are still a handful of titles that are absolutely impossible to find, even using nefarious means.

    Oh, I know. I could give you a substantial list — one that becomes even more substantial when you make that statement “impossible to find good copies of, even using nefarious means.”

  4. Ken Hanke

    There is nothing like Orbit DVD where I live.

    Having spent 28 years where you live, I can attest to the truthfulness of that statement.

  5. Chip Kaufmann

    1970 was a good year for elusive titles. Three that I have waited for years to see again are…

    1)WUSA, a Paul Newman flick about a right wing radio station in New Orleans (I understand it has just made it to DVD-R).

    2)THE KREMLIN LETTER, a complex John Huston spy thriller with a great cast (shown once on TCM and more on the Fox Movie Channel which I don’t have) and the most obscure title of all…

    3)THE TRAVELING EXECUTIONER about a man (Stacy Keach) travelling through the post-WWI South demonstrating his handy dandy electric chair. It has my favorite tagline of all time “In 30 seconds he’ll send you hurtling through the Fields of Ambrosia, sizzling like a piece of bacon”.

  6. Ken Hanke

    I remember the poster for The Traveling Executioner, but I’ve never seen the film. Is The Kremlin Letter the one with George Sanders in drag? If you’re still looking for it, I get FMC, but I don’t normally keep track of what’s on there.

  7. 1)WUSA, a Paul Newman flick about a right wing radio station in New Orleans (I understand it has just made it to DVD-R).

    I don’t know if you live around the area Chip, but I’m getting WUSA soon. It’s on Olive Films, which is licensing a slew of obscure Paramount titles. I finally got CRACK IN THE WORLD!

    And was it worth the wait?

    Yes, it was. Part of that was the condition I was in, but Jim Dansforth is a great stop-motion animator and it was fun. Most 20 year waits are disappointments.

    Important note RE the Netflix comment: There is nothing like Orbit DVD where I live.

    No need to explain yourself, and I’m glad I’m in a community that supports what we do. People don’t realize this, but we have thousands of titles Netflix doesn’t have and will never have. We see many customers using both us and them.

  8. lisi russell

    Love, love, love this column, needless to say. There’s a certain Mr Russell who feels the same way. Thank you for posting the still photos! Took a ticket-seller’s job at the Chapel Hill Varsity Cinema to fund my insatiable Russell habit. Like you, hitchhiked the 20 miles to Raleigh when that was the closest town to show WOMEN IN LOVE. . .then walked home on a midnight interstate on the energy of that visual and emotional revelation, getting in as dawn broke. Went to NY on a bus from NC to see TOMMY. Got lost in the big city (aurrgh); missed it; took me 25 years to find TOMMY again and make up for lost time by seeing it 30 times and counting. Searched for the Orange Book by Ken Hanke in NYC the same way you looked for the Monarch Film Studios Cliff Notes. Since then it’s been an ongoing Scavenger Hunt for Russell films, including from the Monitor years and South Bank Shows, and still haven’t seen In Search of the English Folk Song and Treasure Island. I went on a search for Jean Harlow, Great Garbo and Lionel Barrymore films for a long time,
    had an obsession with obscure Fassbinder and with repeat viewings of Von Trier’s Kingdom, which was not easy to find or to sit through (I took pillows). I had a private mission to scout out all Harvey Keitel films for a while because, in spite of his peculiar inability to play anything but himself, I thought he chose interesting films. Tracked down all Tuesday Weld films and Anthony Perkins films from a early age…I still searching for the so-bad-it’s-good VENOM anytime I can find it and Oliver Reed in WOLFMAN. Must see LILIOM. And EQUINOX, for that matter.

  9. Good news. I first thought that the version of THE KREMLIN LETTER was grey market, but looks legit. I’ll have to pick that one up as well.

  10. Ken Hanke

    I finally got CRACK IN THE WORLD!

    I feel certain I could do something rude with that remark, but I’m taking the high road.

  11. Ken Hanke

    I first thought that the version of THE KREMLIN LETTER was grey market, but looks legit

    See link in the post above. I see that Leo the Last and Larry Cohen’s The Ambulance are also available.

  12. Chip Kaufmann

    Thanks guys for the info on WUSA and KREMLIN LETTER (yes it’s the one w/Sanders in drag).

    I have a membership at Orbit so I’ll pick up WUSA sometime after it’s in and THE KREMLIN LETTER will be mine shortly.

    Now if only END OF THE GAME (1975) and FOXTROT (1976) were available.

  13. Ken Hanke

    took me 25 years to find TOMMY again and make up for lost time by seeing it 30 times and counting.

    You have a way to go to catch up with me, you know. Though I do suspect that you and I are among a very select minority who’ve watched the film with T’other Ken between us singing along with the whole movie.

    still haven’t seen In Search of the English Folk Song and Treasure Island.

    I’m sure I have the former and think I have the latter. Folk Song at least was commercially available at one point.

    I still searching for the so-bad-it’s-good VENOM anytime I can find it and Oliver Reed in WOLFMAN.

    I’m not sure about Venom, but if you mean Ollie in Curse of the Werewolf it’s available in a little set of Hammer horror movies from Universal. (The set also has him in Paranoiac and Captain Clegg, if memory serves.)

    Must see LILIOM.

    Easily arranged.

  14. Chip Kaufmann

    Blue Underground, of all people, released VENOM back in 2003. According to Amazon, it’s still available.

  15. Ken Hanke

    I’m trying to find a way to justify buying The Ambulance and I’m not having much luck.

  16. I’m trying to find a way to justify buying The Ambulance and I’m not having much luck.

    I had a couple of copies on vhs at TV Eye.

  17. Ken Hanke

    Well, if I’m going to have it, I want it in the best possible presentation.

  18. I sometimes wonder if this is necessarily a good thing.
    It is.

    I heard about TOMMY, got really excited when I went down to the local JB Hi-Fi and found it there on the DVD rack. I bought it, went home and watched immediately and loved it.

    The only difference if I’d had to wait another ten years or however long to see it would be my expectations would’ve been raised so high the film couldn’t possibly meet them.

    I consider myself very fortunate to have seen CITIZEN KANE when I was twelve and didn’t know it was CITIZEN KANE, merely that it starred the guy who played Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, who I was a big fan of. I can’t imagine what I would’ve made of it had I come in knowing I was to watch “THE GREATEST MOTION PICTURE OF ALL TIME” after years of reading about it but not being able to see it.

    I know you once drove hours in order to see TOMMY, but instead I walked ten minutes down the road and could spend more time watching it and other movies instead of trying to track them down.

    That said, I would probably go interstate for theatrical screening of the restored print.

  19. Chip Kaufmann

    I musn’t forget BLACK ZOO (1963) which I haven’t seen since the early 1970s. It contains one of Michael Gough’s most florid performances. Just ask the film’s producer Herman Cohen (courtesy imdb)…

    …”Sirs, you must understand, my script calls for the zoo keeper to be the maddest, most outlandish, least subtle character ever to grace the movie screen. We just don’t have an actor anywhere in the country who can do this. There is no one in the world who can out-mug Mr. Gough. I know, I’ve used him twice, and every time he gets bigger and badder.” Incidentally, the other two films were HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (1959) and the one and only KONGA (1961).

    There was even a BLACK ZOO comic book comprised of stills with captions. I wasn’t allowed to have such trash in my home but I had a friend who had a copy so I got to see it anyway.

    ——————————————————————————–

  20. Ken Hanke

    The only difference if I’d had to wait another ten years or however long to see it would be my expectations would’ve been raised so high the film couldn’t possibly meet them.

    Maybe yes, maybe no. I’m still not entirely sold on the ease of access as 100% good. But I’m from a very different generation, and you probably can’t even really fathom what it was like to be a film fan in those days. Nor can I imagine a youth of easy access.

  21. Ken Hanke

    I musn’t forget BLACK ZOO (1963) which I haven’t seen since the early 1970s.

    And I fritter away my time wanting things like The Devils, the early Chevalier musicals, Sternberg’s first talkie, and The Jungle Princess. OK, so that last is of debatable merit, but the climactic monkey stampede is …well…

  22. You probably can’t even really fathom what it was like to be a film fan in those days.

    I can imagine it, I just don’t envy it.

  23. Ken Hanke

    I can imagine it, I just don’t envy it.

    In one sense, you probably can, but you can’t really understand the attendant mindset. We didn’t have any clue what we were missing. Similarly, I can’t really understand what it feels like to have always lived with the array of choices you have.

  24. Son of Rufus

    I hope I don’t get battered by the old guard too bad as I’m probably closer in proximity to not knowing how good we have it then possessing said knowledge.

    I don’t know how people kept up back in the day. I have a huge backlog of movies I want to see and I bet a bunch are available to me instantly on Netflix.

    If it wasn’t for Netflix then great stuff like the Marx Brothers would still be on my to do list.

    On the subject of hard to find stuff, I hate when something gets printed only in special edition collections (cough cough Criterion Collection) and they jack the price up about five times what it’s worth. Of course I guess the other side of that coin is that I never would have discovered “Fishing with John” if the Criterion Collection didn’t exist.

    Hey Rufus, what’s My Little Chickadee?

  25. Justin Souther

    Nor can I imagine a youth of easy access.

    What’s the proper smart-assed remark for this comment?

  26. Rufus

    Hey Rufus, what’s My Little Chickadee?

    It’s a W.C. Fields film. You and Christen watched another W.C. Fields movie with me (IT’S A GIFT) and I recall receiving comments like “I guess it’s good for us to experience things that old people appreciate”.

  27. Ken Hanke

    I don’t know how people kept up back in the day.

    In one sense, it was easier because there was less for us to deal with keeping up with (we were not threatened with the overload problem). In another, it’s because this accounted for just about all we did. We either went to movies, we went to each other’s houses to watch movies on TV, or we went to my place (or the Episcopal Church Parish Hall) to watch movies on 16mm. (Your father can back this up.) We were not exactly a wild crowd.

  28. Ken Hanke

    Nor can I imagine a youth of easy access.

    What’s the proper smart-assed remark for this comment?

    That kind of youth I can imagine…

  29. Ken Hanke

    “I guess it’s good for us to experience things that old people appreciate”.

    Oh, am I ever staying way from this.

  30. Me

    WUSA comes on cable from time to time, they’be even been showing Sometimes a Great Notion lately.

  31. Me

    “Wait a minute…what the hell is Fishing with John?”

    Yeah John Lurie, you never heard of Fishing With John?

  32. Son of Rufus

    Even with the interesting guests, I think I’ll pass.

    It’ll grow on you. The narrator really makes the show. The Willem Dafoe and Matt Dillon episodes are the best.

    “I guess it’s good for us to experience things that old people appreciate”.

    This must have been a long time ago because I don’t recall saying it. I also don’t recall watching “It’s a Gift” either.

  33. Rufus

    “LaFong. Capital L, small a, capital F, small o, small n, small g. Carl LaFong.”

    ‘Why don’t you tell the man we don’t HAVE any cumquats!”

    “I’ll be sober tomorrow, but you’ll be crazy for the rest of your life.”

    Surely you remember IT’S A GIFT.

  34. Chip Kaufmann

    “And I fritter away my time wanting things like The Devils, the early Chevalier musicals, Sternberg’s first talkie, and The Jungle Princess. OK, so that last is of debatable merit, but the climactic monkey stampede is …well”

    Yes, but you haven’t really lived until you see Michael Gough clad in a tiger skin playing the organ in his den surrounded by his wild animal friends. There are some movie images that just won’t go away.

  35. Ken Hanke

    you never heard of Fishing With John?

    No, I never have. I suppose this puts me beyond the pale cinematically…

  36. Ken Hanke

    “LaFong. Capital L, small a, capital F, small o, small n, small g. Carl LaFong.”

    That should certainly settle it.

  37. Ken Hanke

    Michael Gough clad in a tiger skin playing the organ in his den surrounded by his wild animal friends. There are some movie images that just won’t go away.

    Well, it’s no monkey stampede, but I see an inherent appeal.

  38. DrSerizawa

    There are some movie images that just won’t go away.

    That would be Marlon Brando playing a piano duet in the Island of Dr Moreau remake.

    “In 30 seconds he’ll send you hurtling through the Fields of Ambrosia, sizzling like a piece of bacon”.

    Possibly one of the greatest taglines of all time.

  39. Ken Hanke

    That would be Marlon Brando playing a piano duet in the Island of Dr Moreau remake

    I’d actually just about managed to forget that…

  40. Jim Donato

    You guys are pikers! Try collecting records!! The longest span I can think of off the top of my head was a Scot New Wave band, Berlin Blondes. I read about their only album in 1980 and looked for it for 19 years. I finally found it in 1997 and bought it, but didn’t listen to it until 2009! 29 years from wanting to hear it to finally hearing it. Any takers?

  41. Ken Hanke

    Any takers?

    I already beat you on Liliom, though it didn’t take me more than about 30 minutes to watch it once I got it.

    I’m still waiting for London After Midnight to surface — 47 years and counting. Granted, it’s ostensibly lost, so it may not count.

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