Well, here we are at the start of another year. I spent the first day of 2011 hanging out with John Karyus, who's in town for a couple of weeks; we recorded a commentary track for Saberfrog, then went to an encore showing of the locally made feature film The Beast Pageant, which I blogged about some weeks ago.
So now it's back to the ol' grind at work, but before we get too caught up in business as usual, I'd like to pause to mention some people who we lost in 2010. This isn't everyone famous or noteworthy who passed away last year, just the ones that had some impact on me at some point.
As an independent filmmaker, I should probably start with DENNIS HOPPER. It's easy to get sick of hearing about the hippie generation's past glories, and yet I still have admiration for the artists of that time. My own generation is so timid, so insulated behind irony and sarcasm and knee-jerk hatred, so imprisoned by junky childhood nostalgia, that I think it's important to remember a time when filmmakers had balls and ambitions, and were willing to go and lose their minds in the jungle or the desert and then come home with an amazing film. I should therefore also mention documentary filmmaker GEORGE HICKENLOOPER, who immortalized that time in his film Hearts of Darkness, which showed both Hopper and Marlon Brando losing their minds during the making of Apocalypse Now.
Hopper eventually went straight, of course, and reinvented himself as a crazed villain in films like Blue Velvet and Speed, and his career invention is matched only by that of LESLIE NIELSEN, an earnest, square-jawed veteran of film and TV whose ironic casting in the parody Airplane! gave him an entirely new career as a comedy villain. This was a tough year for Airplane! fans, as we also lost PETER GRAVES and BARBARA “I speak jive” BILLINGSLEY.
Nielsen wasn't the only 50s actor to be ironically cast in 80s comedies; KEVIN McCARTHY is best known to genre fans as the star of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but was better known to me for his roles in Joe Dante films such as Twilight Zone: The Movie and the underrated Innerspace, one of my favorite sci-fi comedies from a decade full of them. 80s fans also had to say goodbye to Poltergeist's ZELDA RUBINSTEIN; Beetlejuice's GLENN SHADIX; Dune producer DINO DI LAURENTIIS; and MAURY CHAYKIN, who had a long and distinguished acting career but who I still remember best as the guy in WarGames who said “Mr. Potato Head! Back doors are not secrets!”
From the world of TV, we lost STEVE LANDSBERG, one of my first nerd heroes as the deadpan Sgt. Dietrich from Barney Miller, and GARY COLEMAN, who spent his life as a human punchline but made the most of his precocious comedy talents as a child actor on Diff'rent Strokes.
French director CLAUDE CHABROL was the father of the French New Wave, and thus of indie filmmaking in general. A less celebrated, but equally prolific, director was ROY WARD BAKER, whose credits included the film Quatermass and the Pit and several episodes of The Avengers.
Standing halfway between these two in terms of combining critical and fan acclaim is IRVIN KERSHNER, who was in his late 50s when one of his former USC students, George Lucas, chose him to direct The Empire Strikes Back. Reading online obituaries of Kershner made me realize how little clue people have of what a director actually does; fans praise Kershner for making Empire “dark”, even though all the examples they refer to are things that would have been in Lucas' storyline or Lawrence Kasdan's screenplay. What Kershner did bring to that film was to inspire good performances from the cast (the famous “I love you” / “I know” occurred when Kershner encouraged Harrison Ford to adlib) and to create visual atmosphere. Another Star Wars alumnus who passed away this past year was ALAN HUME, the cinematographer of Return of the Jedi.
Since I'm a filmmaker, my list is dominated by film/TV artists, but I should also mention a few artists in other media: comic book artist HARVEY PEKAR, who I got to see in person at the George Eastman House when he presented the film version of American Splendor; MALCOLM McLAREN, the controversial former manager of the Sex Pistols; and fantasy artist FRANK FRAZETTA, whose work graced many a pulp novel and album cover.
Two other people who actually died in 2009, but who I'll mention anyway because it's my damn blog and because their work has meant a lot to me, were: BARRY LETTS, producer of Doctor Who during the early 1970s, whom I got to briefly meet at a convention a few years ago; and DAN O'BANNON, beloved by genre fans as the writer of Alien and the director of Return of the Living Dead but who will always be, for me, co-star and co-creator of one of my all-time favorite films, John Carpenter's Dark Star.
Writer HARLAN ELLISON is actually still alive as far as I know, but he announced this past year that he is dying and that he has attended his last convention. Since he has made his farewell to the world official, I will mention him here. I will also mention the late ROBERT CULP, who starred in Ellison's Outer Limits episode “Demon with a Glass Hand”.
All of these people are somewhat famous. But I will mention two other names who are probably not well-known outside of Rochester.
In 1999, fresh from college, I was searching for a suitable subject to tackle for my first attempt at a full-length movie. Digital video was brand-new then, and promised to make low-budget filmmaking simpler and easier. But I was still wary of being too ambitious, and thought I would be on safer ground by adapting an old public-domain book, rather than an overambitious script of my own making. Inspired by a film version of Orwell's 1984 that was actually made and released in the year 1984, I did some research to find out if there was an old sci-fi novel set in the once-distant year 2000. I discovered Edward Bellamy's 1888 novel Looking Backward and, though I didn't really like the novel or its politics, its small cast and emphasis on dialogue seemed to make it a good filmmaking challenge, just as the old studio directors had to learn to cope with material that was not their own.
Looking Backward is a film that I've kind of buried, though it was a tremendous learning experience. I mention it now only because two people who helped me to make it – over a decade ago – have recently died. DICK MULLANEY was one of the lead actors; he had appeared in many RIT student films, played George Eastman in a PBS documentary, and had been a radio performer earlier in his life. He had a mischievous sense of humor and was great fun to work with. I last saw him when he came to my father's funeral, over three years ago; before that, the last time I saw him was at his own adult son's funeral. Dick died last month, age 86, and will be missed.
One of the scenes in Looking Backward was a religious sermon being broadcast on TV. The lead actress, Meghan Haines, knew someone who might let me film the scene in his church. That person was REV. RAYMOND GRAVES, known to the Rochester community as a political activist, but to me he was just a guy that let me borrow his church for a few hours. Rev. Graves died last month, age 82.