FIVE FROM THE FIRE #6
john cribbs & christopher funderburg
Monday. 12:45p.m. A day like any other, or so it would seem. You settle into your booth at Pizza Hut, thoughtlessly picking your teeth with a matchbook cover and dreamily contemplating the strange storage facility just next door, visible through the window. They say that warehouse holds the collected works fo five specific directors, but that can't be right, can it? It's besides the point, anyway - you've got bigger things on your mind. Things that come with pepperoni and spicy Italian sausage - or, in the best of all worlds, grilled chicken and a crust stuffed with cheese. But still, what if that warehouse really does contain the complete fimographies of...
Orson Welles George Romero Alain Corneau
Byron Chudnow George Cukor
It's a big place and pretty suspect - somebody should call the fire marshall: if there was a fire, if one of those ill-maintained power lines leading into that rusty generator on the roof went on the fritz and starting spewing sparks, you wouldn't have enough to save more than four prints, five at the most. And, jeepers cripes, it looks like it wouldn't take more than a stiff wind to wreak havoc with those fraying, decrepit bundles of live wire. Anyway, it's not your problem and here comes your order...
So there I am at Pizza Hut, ready to sample the new Spicy Sicilian pie, when an intrusive new odor overwhelms the delicious clash of melted cheese and bubbling tomato sauce on my plate. Jumpin Jehosaphat – the storage house containing every print and copy of every movie ever made by five specific directors next door! It must be on fire! I finish the rest of the pizza as quickly as possible and then immediately wash my hands in the bathroom real quick and then make my way to the exit.
"You gonna pay for that, tinhorn?" demands the burly cashier. I forgot to mention this Pizza Hut is in Texas.
"Oh jeez – sorry. I was just rushing outside to see if I could save some movies from total annihilation."
"You can watch yer little movin' pictures later," the impatient clerk informs me. "Right now you pay for the meal you just scarfed down, city boy."
I rustle the cash out of my wallet begrudgingly. I didn't mind paying, but I don't live in the city. I was born in Savannah, Georgia, I'm a country boy at heart! What the hell am I doing in Texas anyway?
"Sorry the tip's so small. I was expecting to have the lunch buffet. I didn't realize this particular 'hut didn't offer it." I thought that was enough justification for the $1.25 I had left over to have one pizza carried ten feet to my table and my Wild Cherry Pepsi refilled once, but the guy still gives me a look full of daggers.
"I... really liked the pizza." I offer as consolation. The dude doesn't blink.
"Guess I'll be on my way then." I start to move sheepishly towards the door but the man grabs my arm with his own beefy, hairy appendage. It's the size of my infant daughter Odile, and she's a big baby.
"Partner," he says under his breath with a menacing hint of condescension. "Just so you know. If the world's only prints of Citizen Kane are in that warehouse and you fail to save one of them... we'll be comin' for you."
I look into his eyes. They're steel grey and deadly serious. I try to lighten the situation by grinning, but he anticipates my dodge and tightens the grip on my arm.
"I'm serious. You don't save that film from the fire and we'll get you."
My mouth is so tense I can only manage a single syllable. "...We?"
"That's right. Me and some guys."
"You and which guys?"
"Kenneth Turan. Leon Cakoff. Tony Macklin. David Thomson. Scott Rosenberg. Camille Paglia. David Denby. Donald Richie. Alex Proyas. Sam Mendes. Gillian Armstrong. Theos Angelopoulos."
I think about it. "Honestly that's not the most threatening list of people."
"Oh, right. You're scary."
"Not to mention William Friedkin."
"I'd be worried if it was early 70's/coked out of his mind 'Hurricane' Billy, but I think I could take old, doughy, tinted-glasses, too-small-leather-jacket-wearing college professor William Friedkin."
"Don't be so sure. He just killed somebody."
"Guy named Eric Pfriender, torched his movie Sorcerer."
I nod. "The punishment should fit the crime."
He leans uncomfortably close to me. I smell the hatred, mixed with garlic and a cherry cough drop, on his breath. "Exactly. Even the great Joe Dante would join the posse to hunt you down and dish out a Xanadu-sized beatdown if you let The Greatest Film Ever Made burn. Because that's what it is. The Greatest Film Ever Made. Anyone who disagrees is a moron whose opinions on all things cinematic should be roundly ridiculed and ultimately discarded."
I can't help but chuckle in spite of my situation. It was funny hearing all that come out in a deep Texas draw. "Not everyone thinks it's the Greatest Film Ever Made."
"Even Donald Richie placed it higher on his All-Time Best Film list than Seven Samurai."
That's strange. Isn't Donald Richie's whole career Kurosawa-based? He of all people should be somebody who acknowledges that Citizen Kane isn't worth much beyond that great "Kids in the Hall" sketch. But I was starting to understand what this guy was saying. Seven Samurai is a movie I would insist be in the top 2 or 3 movies that every person on earth should inherently know must be preserved at all costs. If anyone refuted that, I'd think they were an idiot. If they failed to save the last print of it on earth from being incinerated, I might murder them the way Friedkin killed Pfriender (later on I learned it was a particularly gory and uncomfortable death.) So even though I don't agree with most people as to Kane's overall merits, I'm not blind to its historial importance and the thousands of people it's influenced over the years.
"Mister," I say, unable to resist giving it a little Southern twang. "If the last existing print of Citizen Kane is in that warehouse next door to the Pizza Hut, you can count on me to get it out of there."
He gives me a good ol' boy nod and lets me go. As he withdraws his hand I can see, under tufts of curly dark arm hair, a faded tattoo of a sled, the word "Rosebud" printed on top of it. I better not let this guy down, I think to myself. Otherwise I won't be able to eat at this Pizza Hut again.
Without further ado I jet across the street and into the smoking building like Kurt Russell. 'Jeez,' I think to myself, 'Which five movies would I save if it was only Kurt Russell films in there? Just the John Carpenter films? No, I'd have to go with Used Cars or Miracle over the Elvis TV movie. Would I save Captain Ron? Or Madeleine Stowe's nude scene in Unlawful Entry? Overboard fans would be pissed about that.'
Inside, explosions all around me. I rush to a security guard sitting down with his feet up on the desk.
"What are you doing, aren't you going to try and save some of these films??" I shout over the sounds of destruction.
He says something dismissive but I can't hear him. I forget about it and scream for some kind of directory. What prints are so discardable as to be kept in such a flammable structure? The guard takes his sweet time getting his feet down, yawning and searching the drawers for the inventory. He hands it over and promptly goes back to reading The Secret. I hope he dies.
Carumba! There it is on the first page: the complete filmography of one Orson Welles, every print, dvd, video and lobby card ever produced, is in this fucking building. You've got to be kidding. But there's good news: every movie from the Welles oeuvre is all situated right by the exit. They can stay where they are until I've made some other decisions.
Just to be safe, I shout at the guard "I'm going in! If I don't make it out, make sure Touch of Evil does! And The Magnificent Ambersons! And Lady from Shanghai: his Irish accent is unbearable but that ending line is beautiful! And F for Fake and Mr. Arkadin and The Trail! And Compulsion and The Third Man if this experiment counts all the movies the auteur APPEARED in as well! And, if you have time, Citizen Kane!"
The guard nods without looking up from his book. Asshole. At least I can set the Pizza Hut employee on this guy's trail if I'm not able to get the Welles stuff out.
I look back at the catalog. What else we got in this place? Let's see...
...the films of Byron Chudnow! My choice in this case is simple. I rush deep inside the storage facility and scoop up his entire collection: The Doberman Gang, The Daring Dobermans, The Amazing Dobermans, Alex and the Doberman Gang, and something called Kwaheri: Vanishing Africa (only later, recovering from smoke inhalation in my apartment, do I look it up to discover it’s one of those unwatchable “mondo” films with phony skull surgeries and queasily real scenes of animal mutilation.)
As I dump the cans of Chudnow to the grass outside I think of a funny coincidence, a 1959 film called Face of the Fire where James Whitmore saves a child from a fire but is so horribly disfigured the townspeople hate him. It was the second Stephen Crane adaptation directed by Albert Band, following his successful film version of The Red Badge of Courage. The script for Fire was co-written by Louis Garfinkle, who had penned I Bury the Living for Band the year before and would go on to co-write The Doberman Gang (with Frank Ray Perilli, who also wrote another of the greatest dog movies of all time: Zoltan, Hound of Dracula, aka Dracula’s Dog, which was directed by Albert Band!) Whew, all that name connection is making me dizzy or maybe it's just the smoke my lungs have involuntarily sucked in.
These are my choices, I tell myself. Thanks to my quick action, nobody's going to see The Doberman Gang and wonder "what happened next??" They'll be able to see for themselves in the next three parts of the series. I'm pretty proud of myself. And that guard will save the Welles movies, he has to - it's his job right? Yeah, everything is working out. Maybe though... just one little look at the directory to see what's going up in flames as I sit upon my proud Doberman pile.
Alain Corneau. Who?? He's one of those French directors I have very little knowledge of whatsoever. I always tend to group him with Maurice Pialat and Claude Sautet. I'm pretty sure the only movie of his I've seen is All the Mornings of the World, which I remember as a fairly generic period piece. I recall, when I worked at Blockbuster in high school, putting the video up as an "also recommended" title next to new release My Father the Hero, since they featured Gerard Depardieu and were both touching generational comedies with one hilarious waterskiing scene (well, at least one of them was.) And watching it out of curiosity. But other than that title the only one I know is The Choice of Arms, which I've never seen or heard much about beyond acknowledgments of its existence. So I decide to allow its existence to expire.
A bad decision? Maybe. But how do I even know if it's his best movie? I just don't have all the necessary facts. Or even the time to consider what few I have available to me.
The flames grow and I glance over at the Pizza Hut. The cashier is looking out the window at me with a grim expression. I shoot him a big smile, tap the cans under my ass and give him a thumbs up. His expression doesn't change, but I think he nods a little. Sucker.
I flip another page. George Cukor, huh? Another name that's never impressed me much. Sometimes I get him confused with George Stevens - I'd definitely save Gunga Din. But I have little use for fey Golden Age of Hollywood comedies with fluffy female protagonists. I'm not a fan of Tracy-and-Hepburn, Old School Hollywood literary adaptations or Judy Garland musicals, so I have to really stop and think if there's a single one of his movies I'd be interested in saving. Honestly, I have a hard time remembering anything about Cukor except that some guy played him in Gods and Monsters. I like Holiday, but it's not even my favorite Grant-and-Hepburn movie (neither is The Philadelphia Story, which I’ve never been a fan of and won't lose any sleep over letting burn.) Did he direct Born Yesterday? I like that one, but is that really the highlight of his 60+ movies?
Finally I remember one I enjoy: the superior remake of Gaslight starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotton and a very young Angela Lansbury. It's like a Hitchcock movie without Hitchcock there to ruin it; a true suspense masterpiece. Bergman is so beautiful in it, and when she turns on Boyer at the end it is absolutely brilliant. However I have to think about this: didn't I get on Paul Cooney for saving The Bounty when there are countless versions of the same movie out there for people to enjoy? There are at least three movies made from Patrick Hamilton's play - sure, the Cukor-helmed production is the best, but if it didn't exist anymore people would still have options. Hm...
No... I decide I really do like this one. It's worth going back for. But I'm going to need something to shield me from the fire. I pick up Kwaheri, since I have no idea what it is at this point and am therefore willing to risk it, and walk back to the entrance, feeling the shocked and angry reaction of the Pizza Hut guy on my back as I once again enter the curtain of flame wearing a helmet that, for all he knows, contains the nitrate celluloid on which the image of Charles Foster Kane is imprinted.
The Cukor section is on the other side of the warehouse but luckily there's still a clear path away from the debris. I locate Gaslight fairly easily, consult an attached invoice to reassure myself that this is indeed the Ingrid Bergman one and leave the other Cukors behind to become even more flaming than their celebrated auteur. My mom, I realize, is gonna be pissed I left My Fair Lady behind. But whatever, Audrey Hepburn's singing voice is dubbed, all the funny Rex Harrison speak-singing can still be heard on the soundtrack and we can all enjoy Jeremy Brett in his excellent "Sherlock Holmes" series – besides, I hear the non-football John Madden is remaking it.
I try to retrace my steps to the exit but my vision is obscured by smoke. I end up in another part of the warehouse and, squinting desperately, make out a sign I initially think says "Garbage Room." Garbage room? Does a place like this really need an entire room to store their trash?? Some of the smoke clears and my eyes almost pop out of my head. George Romero! His films are here too! Oh man, I definitely like Romero's stuff - what do I do? A voice in my head instantly commands: "Martin." Of course. The master's 1977 sociological vampire movie is not only my favorite of his work, it's probably one of my top five horror films of all time. If I left it behind, I'd be just like the vampire its protagonist images himself to be: unable to look at myself in the mirror.
I find the movie under the disposable Monkey Shines*, but do I have enough arm available carry it out? It's then that I realize that I left Kwaheri back at the Cukor section while I was searching for Gaslight. A fortuitous accident - I can carry these two by themselves. I scoop up Martin and, unable to even think from the enveloping inferno, rush blindly ahead, following the wall until I once again reach the door to the outside, to oxygen.
With Gaslight and Martin safely set aside on the curb (they'd make a good "delusional protagonist" double feature I decide), I greedily drink up the unpolluted air and clear my head the best I can. I think about Romero. I'm not anywhere near the crazed zombie fan as a lot of folks, but I do have a fondness the original Dead trilogy. I always say I like the third one best, but the original is such a pinnacle of the genre. On the other hand several of my horror-loving comrades would never speak to me again if I let Dawn of the Dead die forever (although again there's the remake principle - the Zack Snyder/James Gunn 2004 version is very entertaining, and Ken Foree saying the "When there's no more room in hell" line would even still exist.) Finally I decide I need to at least go back in and get the original, its remake being not particularly great despite its historic feat as the only movie to ever cast Tony Todd in the lead role (no, Candyman doesn't count.)
I'm heading back inside when an avalanche of smoldering wood pours down on the other side of the door. No way in! Almost without thinking, I grab one of the cans from the lawn and use it to break through the blazing barrier. I manage to clear enough space to get back inside, but upon examination the contents of the can have been completely destroyed in the effort. Sadly, I shake out the brutalized remnants of Alex and the Doberman Gang onto the pavement. I'm so upset I don't even notice the Pizza Hut guy start to scream at me mutely through the glass from across the street....
* Just recently I was having a conversation with somebody I didn't know. Randomly, he said "You seen that movie Monkey Shines?" I told him I had, but his girlfriend never heard of it. He informed her: "That movie will make you NOT want to get a monkey!"
(continued on PAGE 2)
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