Thursday, November 3, 2011

“I See Mathematics!!!”—98 Minutes of AWESOME: Otto Preminger’s SKIDOO!

Skidoo (1968)
Produced and Directed by Otto Preminger
Written by Doran William Cannon (with, uncredited, Otto Preminger, Elliott Baker, Stanley Ralph Ross, and others, including Mel Brooks and Rob Reiner)
Original Music and Songs (Harry) Nilsson
Cinematography Leon Shamroy
Film Editing: George R. Rohrs
Art Direction: Robert Emmet Smith
Costumes: Rudi Gernreich (who also created the costumes for the first season of Space: 1999)

Starring: Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Alexandra Hay, John Phillip Law, Frankie Avalon, Cesar Romero, Groucho Marx, Austin Pendleton, Mickey Rooney, Arnold Stang, Michael Constantine, Frank Gorshin, Richard Kiel, Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, Fred Clark, George Raft, Doro Merande, Slim Pickens, Thomas Law, Roman Gabriel, Harry Nilsson, Donyale Luna.

Originally released in 1968 by Paramount Pictures, in July 2011 the film was finally made available in DVD and Blu-Ray formats by Olive Films

Released in 1968 to almost-universally scathing reviews, the film Skidoo was never released to VHS, and shown rarely in cinemas—
a screening at NYC’s Film Forum in the late-1990s used a work print of the movie because copies are so rare (although the MOMA had a beautiful print just a few years earlier)—
and TCM’s miserable pan & scan presentation (at 2am on a Sunday into Monday!) a few years ago was pathetic, a new low for an ill-treated film—TCM of all people should know that Preminger’s films, with their exquisite use of the widescreen Panavision frame demand letterboxing!

Now, Otto Preminger’s masterpiece and downfall, SKIDOO, is finally available on DVD from Olive Films.
Hooray for Olive Films! And Thanks!

“She has my ears!”

Yes, the widely and unfairly reviled Skidoo is one of my favorite films, right up there with 2001: A Space Odyssey (released the same year as Skidoo—something was in the air!)—another flick that still has too many detractors!

Kubrick has been a favorite filmmaker of mine since I was a kid seeing 2001 for the first time in a 1975 re-release.
And although I’ve loved Skidoo since first seeing it in the mid-1990s, lately, in search of cinematic kicks, I’ve been checking out more and more of Otto Preminger’s flicks

And I must say that I have been very pleasantly entertained by several of them
(sometimes for the wrong reasons, I’ll admit, like Michael Caine’s wonderfully ill-advised Southern accent in Hurry Sundown (1967)—as well as the brain-smashing awesomeness of seeing sexy Jane Fonda fellate a saxophone!),
disappointed by others (while recognizing their status as classics or sentimental/audience favorites,
like the used-to-be-always-shown-on-WOR-Channel-Nine-during-the-Jewish-holidays Exodus (1960)),
and others are just plain dopey, like 1949’s Whirlpool, where The Preming reunited with Laura star Gene Tierney—
and worse than the ridiculous script, he makes her unsexy! Sheesh!
If you’re a fan of Brooklyn’s own Gene Tierney, or think she’s hot—check out 1945’s Leave Her to Heaven: in it, she’s a fucking incredible Nietzchean goddess too willful to live in “our” world of busybodies and feebs. She even drowns a crippled boy to get closer to the man she loves: niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiice!

Don’t forget: As dated and lumbering as Preminger’s flicks may appear today (Does The Cardinal (1963) really NEED to be over three hours long?),
they were EVENT movies back in the day—just like Big Stanley K.’s flicks became since the mid-1960s.

But with the exception of his noir films (like the classic Laura), Preminger does not seem to be too well remembered these days—
Perhaps because his “style” was so…invisible, so quasi-documentarianistic—yet so completely “Hollywood.”
The obvious epic, perhaps?

“Skidoo! Skidoo! Between a one and three, there is a two!”

Honestly, it is kind of hard for me to explain how or why I love SKIDOO—but every time I watch the flick, I am amazed—almost stunned.
Perhaps even flabbergasted.
But so far every time I’ve screened the flick (and now thanks to The Missus, I own the legally-released DVD!),
I feel joy as well—the movie is a total and complete source of enjoyment for me.
(And I feel a bit of vindication: in the late-1990s, I found out via conversation with filmmaker/photographer and all around swell guy Richard Kern that
Skidoo was also one of artist/writer David Wojnarowicz’s favorite films.)

Because Skidoo is one of the greatest movies ever made.
Perhaps it’s an insane mess, but it’s an insane mess I LOVE.

Why do I love Skidoo? One man’s meat is another man’s poison: all I can say is that the combination of ingredients that comprise Skidoo all synergistically connect with those influences that create my sense of taste (or lack thereof, some may say) and we find ourselves in cinematic nirvanarmaggedon: a joyous meltdown.

(Another more sinister theory as to my Skidoo-love is that since I have no love for the hippies, that specific era or Baby-Boomers in general, the film isn’t a “violation” of anything that I hold sacred.)
If I may quote Christian Devine, world’s greatest Skidoo fan—a man with whom I agree on Skidoo:
Skidoo is always entertaining, never boring, with some terrific performances, an infectious Harry Nilsson soundtrack
“The tonal shifts are positively kinetic as each scene manages the impossible feat of being more bizarre than the previous one. Just when you think Skidoo can't get any stranger, it does, all the way until the transcendent final shot, one of the greatest in Hollywood history.”

Yes, in 1968, it was an almost revolutionary act to end a film with Groucho Marx, a Legend of the Old Square Hollywood, wearing monk’s robes and smoking a joint, sailing away in a psychedelic sailboat—scene co-star Austin Pendleton’s joy at getting stoned with Groucho is OBVS—especially when that expensive movie is financed by Paramount Pictures, which was, at the time, a unit of scary mega-corp Gulf & Western.

“While AIP movies like THE TRIP had to show Peter Fonda's head crack open in the final freeze frame and run disclaimers to appease nervous producers, SKIDOO sets sail with God on a candy-colored sailboat tab on tongue... pro-LSD down to its prison-striped socks,”
wrote Erich K. of Acidemic, and I agree!

Is a synopsis of Skidoo even necessary? A detailed one is pointless, but the film is “about” Tough Tony Banks and his family—he’s an ex-mobster, his wife’s an ex-whore and his daughter’s a teeny-bopper dating a hippie.

The Mob wants him to rub out Mickey Rooney (in a brilliant cameo) because Tony is his best friend, and the only one who could get close to him. But Mickey’s in prison—

To force Tony to do it, they (The Joker and Annette Funicello’s boyfriend) shoot Top Cat’s Voice in the face.

An opera singer confuses the guards, and Tony sneaks onto Alcatraz where the Riddler speaks but doesn’t move his lips and Richard Kiel looks like he’s still serving man.

Introducing righteous & groovy Austin Pendleton as a hippie—he’s smuggled a bunch of LSD into prison because that’s what you do.
The Principal from Room 222 wants to rape you.
Jackie Onassis Minnesota Fats Domino takes a trrrrrrrrrrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiipppppppppp.
And y’know what? I think it gets it more “right” than a lot of “hipper” and “cooler” flicks do—
—The extreme close-ups of Jackie’s face when the acid is kicking in are perfect!

—Watch Preminger-regular Burgess Meredith’s hands when he’s tripping: They add so much to the performance!

—The mindfuck of a gangster playing a god named Groucho! (Uhhhh…)—and if interpreted in a religious manner, nearly ever mention of “God” is blasphemous!

—And the flick is certainly disrespectful towards then-Governor Reagan of California!

And synopsis-synapse overload-wise, I haven’t even gotten into Carol Channing’s Whorey McWhoring around;
Preminger’s patented-long-take scenes of hippies that spill into documentary territory;
optical printer overload with massive solarizations;
Harry Nilsson’s songs;
Harry Nilsson’s cameo (put that tongue away, boy!);
the kitchen sink (literally!)—and MORE.

A perfect candy-colored freak-out triple feature?
Skidoo, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
With a midnight screening of Timothy Carey's The World’s Greatest Sinner!

(For more intellectually-existentially inclined viewers, we have the Wednesday-Thursday triple feature of Skidoo, The Holy Mountain and Last Year at Marienbad.)

"Gimme a flower!"

A lot of the hatred Skidoo had heaped on it on its initial release, and by snooty snobs since then, stems from, I think, the film’s pedigree—that it’s a grand Hollywood production of the Old School taking a look at what should be the sole province of the young.

“A very expensive major studio version of a three-dollar AIP beach blanket Psych-Out Easy Rider money train,” is what Acidemic has called it, and from a description like that, you can see why both young and old avoided Skidoo.

Had the flick been made in, say, somewhere in Eastern Europe in a foreign language, I think it would have been much better received at the time (and more fondly remembered today). Think bourgeois middle-brow Dušan Makavejev.

Skidoo’s also part of a zeitgeist: the sympathetic—or at least curious—squares taking a gander at the counter-culture: The Love God? (another of my faves);
Ann-Margaret in The Swinger (imperfect but worth a peek—still on Nflix Streme, I believe), and
Riot on Sunset Strip (which I need to see again, but remember fondly).

Like I said: “zeitgeist”—a term Vienna-born Preminger would appreciate:
“1968 in fact was a big year for acid movies,” wrote Millie de Chirico for TCM. “Psych-Out, Wild in the Streets, Alice in Acidland, Mantis in Lace and others were released in the wake of Roger Corman's The Trip (1967)—
and Easy Rider (1969) was just around the corner.”

While Reverse Shot’s Leah Churner is a bit of a snob regarding the film, she does make some interesting points—
Skidoo, she writes, “may also be seen as a middle-aged, bummer-trip version of Bob Rafelson’s Head (1968)….”
—which I think sounds incredible, like this film is a bloodbrother with something like The Swimmer or Seconds
“…[and] the disturbing consequence of Otto Preminger left too much to his own devices.”

Annnnnnnnnnd maybe that’s a good thing!

Critics of Skidoo should compare it to the craptastic The Big Cube (1969), where Lana Turner is repeatedly dosed with LSD to drive her to suicide, for an inheritance.
The Big Cube uses LSD as a gimmick for a crime thriller, sort of like in John D. MacDonald’s Nightmare in Pink, but not near as smart or cool.
It’s too bad the script isn’t up to it, more fit for some third-rate overwrought telenovela.

However, I did like The Big Cube’s old school attempts at psychedelica via optical printer, and various location scenes and outdoor shoots showing off modern Mexico City.

For me, Skidoo works because it is sincere, especially in its treatment of hippies.
Preminger may not understand them, but he sympathizes.

Meanwhile, the gangsters are all clowns (many of whom were cartoonish villains on the Batman TV show—just like Preminger, who played Mr. Freeze).
But basically all the adults in the film are gangsters—thus clowns. What is Preminger saying?

Now, I’m not completely sure what Preminger is trying to do with this film—but Big Otto is trying to do something: he believes in this project, and it shows.
(“…the disturbing consequence of Otto Preminger left too much to his own devices...”)

He’s now a True Believer—like Jodowrosky or Coffin Joe or Timothy Carey or Brando when he made One-Eyed Jacks
He’s created a personal symbology—and Skidoo could only have been better if Otto himself played Jackie Gleason’s part—
Or Carol Channing’s—or even better, both.

The film is weird and inappropriate and “off” at times—but in its “failure,” Skidoo catches the LSD experience on a metatextual level—things appear “normal” but everything is “off”—a sense of giddy disquiet.
Christian Devine says: “To understand the LSD experience in the script, the 60-year-old German director took acid under the brief tutelage of Timothy Leary, who later appeared in the Skidoo trailer.
During his trip, Preminger had a vision that would be used for Gleason's. He recalled, ‘My wife appeared very, very small. I told her, “You are so little, so charming.” ' ”

(BTW, Sammy Davis Jr.—who had appeared in Preminger’s Porgy & Bess (a flick that will probably never get a proper release in any home format, thanks to the George Gershwin estate)—
also appeared in trailers for Skidoo, referring to the flick as a “the gassiest, grooviest, swingingest, trippiest movie you’ve ever seen!” And Sammy, God bless him, is right.)

And the whole movie is all “off” on a big budget—sets are tacky but elaborate.
Churner thinks she’s griping, but she’s really giving a compliment when she writes that
Preminger “recreates [Batman’s] singularly grotesque Pop Art camp.
Throughout, Skidoo has the dull gaudiness of so many LBJ-era sitcoms, with a ‘jazzy’ score of flutes, bongos, xylophones, and occasional sound effects from the Hanna-Barbera library. (Stang bumps into Gleason: “BA-WOING!”).”

(I don’t really see the problem…)

The film is also a collision (mélange?) of different cinematographic styles and tricks: split-screens; B&W herky-jerky silent movie style footage; TV channel visual salad courtesy of a War of the Remotes; I think the Trashcan Ballet could be a short film of its own…

I especially am taken with Mickey Rooney’s scenes, where he’s “speaking” with Tony through an electronic gizmo—and Mickey is staring right into the lens of the camera—speaking to Tony, but at us, with some particularly menacing dialog.

"No, I never watch films on TV…. They always cut them to pieces.”

As New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby wrote about Preminger’s style in his review of Skidoo (published March 6, 1969),
“Whenever possible, he shoots his films on location; yet his films, despite their often marvelous mise en scène, are as unmistakably Hollywood as anything ever turned out by Monogram Pictures.”

(Dude, that’s a good thing! Sheesh!)

The director became famous for widescreen frames—there are hardly ever any close-ups in his flicks from the 1950s and 1960s—Skidoo is a notable exception—
And loooooooooong takes—two minutes without a cut is amazing—especially these days—
and Preminger was doing this routinely in his “Epic” flicks, staging frighteningly complicated scenarios, with big chunks of dialog, pushing his big Panaviz Kamz alongside—stuff that’s brobdingnagianly complex!

That’s why huge stretches of his films feel so much like a documentary to me—Preminger has planned this to the nth degree—and then sets the camera back, somewhat distant—and lets it roll.
I’m referring especially to how Preminger shoots in Exodus, The Cardinal, Hurry Sundown, In Harm’s Way (an underrated flick) and somewhat in Advise & Consent.

The very long takes and semi-elaborate camera moves are also there in The Man With the Golden Arm (a film I actually don’t like), Bunny Lake Is Missing (also underrated—it’s Preminger’s William Castle movie: beautiful B&W cinematography accents a super-creepy paranoia-thriller only spoiled by a conclusion that needed a rewrite from Robert Bloch to spice it up), Anatomy of a Murder (a classic, nuff said) and Angel Face.

[BTW: Angel Face (1952) is an insane noir with Robert Mitchum being given the Big Headache by jailbait sweetie Jean Simmons—fans of 1940-1950s melodrama or noir need to see it.
Angel Face is also a flick Destructible Man simply MUST do a posting on—sometime in the next decade, if possible—there are TWO wonderfully nasty car-over-the-cliff crashes in this movie, and in both, the dummies/victims splay about in such obvious—but brutally horrific—manners that the scenes required multiple rewindings. Chillingly brilliant!]

Preminger gave a LOT of work to Saul Bass, too.
Gotta love that.
(The director gave Bass his first Hollywood gig, hiring the designer to create the poster for his Carmen Jones (1954), but, according to The Title Design Project, “an initial commission to produce a poster design for the film developed into a title commission after Preminger was impressed by Bass’ initial work.”)

Suffice to say, I’ve been enjoying discovering Preminger’s body of work—once you realize that he makes MASSIVE soap operas, you’ll be fine—his films are melodramas through and through, unrepentantly so—and why not?

For YEARS, he was the tits as far as Hollywood was concerned: his flicks came in on time and under budget; they garnered press; they were prestigious productions, aimed at BIG, IMPORTANT THEMES—and most importantly:
They reaped boffo box.

Until Skidoo.

“It's a great, big, beautiful blob of nothing!”
Skidoo was also the first film that Preminger had made in a long time that wasn’t from an already established source, like a best seller or a hit play--
Is this where he went “wrong”/“right”?

I think Dave Kehr hits on something, even when it’s for a review of Such Good Friends, Preminger’s 1971 follow-up to Skidoo:
“Preminger is drawn to the new freedoms but also unsettled by them: they create clutter, not clarity, a circle of endless possibility in which there is no satisfaction and from which there is no escape.”

And I think this schizophrenia was there during the making of Skidoo—as open-minded as Otto was to the youth culture, old men tend to be reactionary, although it might be only subconsciously so…
(“…the disturbing consequence of Otto Preminger left too much to his own devices...”)

[A Kubrickian aside since we’re on the subject of Youth Culture Movies and zeitgeists—
While Stanley’s
2001 in 1968 may have been the apex of the “ACID” movie, while solidly being the creation of another genre, his follow-up was born out of the fallout of Youth Culture flix.
According to John Baxter’s Kubrick bio (and as memory serves), Warner Bros.’ deal with SK was heavily reliant on his tackling a more commercially viable product, preferably in the Youth Culture genre/market—or one that could be marketed that way.
Big Stan the K. subsequently delivered
A Clockwork Orange.]

Looking at Otto’s resume, you can chart topical subjects regarding civil rights, government, sexuality, race, religion, and so on.
With LSD in the news, and the counter-culture exploding—especially in well-off Hollywood/Los Angeles, no wonder the producer-director took an interest.

Originally, OP was going to adapt John Hersey’s anti-LSD novel, Too Far To Walk.
To do that would have meant OP was sticking to form: adapting from already-established source material with a built-in fan-base.

But the brother of actor John Phillip Law convinced the director that many more people had had positive LSD experience than negative.

Screenwriter Doran William Cannon (who had worked on pre-production for The Graduate) had initially been hired to adapt Too Far To Walk.
Preminger had already read Cannon’s spec script Skidoo, and after his “conversion,” he wanted to buy it.

Cannon had been inspired to write Skidoo after reading a newspaper article: “I saw an article about two prisoners who had escaped in a hot-air balloon. I thought, ‘Oh, that's so neat.’ That's how it got started,” Cannon said to Christian Devine in an interview.

Advised by Francis Ford Coppola, Cannon sold the screenplay for $75,000 (!).
At TCM, Cannon is quoted as saying his script “delivered an important message of peace and love at a time when America was engaged with the war in Vietnam.”

After buying the script, writes Christian Devine, “Preminger immersed himself in the world of the hippies with a paisley vengeance,” including taking LSD (as already mentioned), and “wearing Nehru jackets, too,” Cannon said.

Supposedly Preminger was drawn to Skidoo’s script because of its “irreverent vibe,” wrote TCM’s Millie de Chirico. However, “Cannon's script was, in fact, written in earnest.”


Although seeing it as a comedy, Preminger wanted to up the mayhem and violent quotient, but Cannon, a pacifist, refused and was shown the door.
Others, including Preminger and Elliott Baker (author of A Fine Madness, made into a film by Irvin Kershner), Mel Brooks (who quit after a day) and Rob Reiner (hired because he was a hippie), took stabs at the screenplay, and eventually songs were added.
About halfway through shooting, Preminger brought in Stanley Ralph Ross, former writer for Batman, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Monkees, to add jokes.

[The NYPL has some of Cannon’s original scripts and I’m trying to get ahold of them for further R&D. Cannon also scripted the Ivanlandia favorite Brewster McCloud. Directed by Robert Altman, that film has a similarly twisted screenplay history. Cannon and Brewster McCloud are subjects for a forthcoming Ivanlandia post, please be patient…]
Just as the LSD was probably opening up all sorts of strange emotional memories and feelings in the 63-year-old Otto Ludwig Preminger, he meets the 22-year-old son he never knew he had!

Churner writes,
“According to the screenwriter… Preminger revised the story to emphasize Tony’s paternity anxieties, arguing that the character needed more of a ‘realistic’ psychological motivation.”
Then throw in that grotesque cast! Really, such human abominations hadn’t been together on the screen like this since Tod Browning’s Freaks….

Cannon said: “I told Otto if he directed Skidoo the way he directed a serious drama like his In Harm’s Way (1964), that it would turn out to be very funny. He couldn't get that. Comedy is subtle; comedy is timing. Otto's Germanic persona just couldn't do it.”

Well, Big Otto rewrote most of the script as he went along—with further tinkering, I’m sure, in the editing room—and voila!

One of the greatest movies ever made: Skidoo.
It deserves our love.

(“…the disturbing consequence of Otto Preminger left too much to his own devices…”)

“I'm an angel! I'm a goddamn angel! Hallelujah!”

However, I will heap scorn on Olive Film’s art department for the awful cover art they’ve chosen for the DVD/Blu-Ray release—

It’s a mediocre photoshopped pic of Gleason looking haggard! Using that instead of the original poster? Ugh…
Or at least try something somewhat psychedelic!
Or how about at least colorful?
Are you trying to sabotage your own release?

Is this history repeating itself?
When a befuddled and confused Paramount released Skidoo in 1968, it had no faith in the movie, and put it on a double-bill with another flick the studio resented/despised, Jules Dassin’s incredible Up-Tight! (1968), a brilliant social commentary disguised in a quasi-blaxploitation crime thriller.

As you might have guessed, The National Film Board of Ivanlandia LOVES Up-Tight! and would have killed to see that double-feature back in the day—
Although Skidoo and Up-Tight? Whew, my joy would’ve caused my head to explode.

And YES, if you count, this is now officially the 200th post of The United Provinces of Ivanlandia!

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