Land of a thousand balconies Review and Opinion


Land Of A Thousand Balconies
Jack Stevenson
Critical Vision paperback £14.99 / $19.95

review by Richard Bowden

Featuring "a drag below cinema's otherwise clean and perfect surface," in which "things, inventions, technologies, ideas, obsessions and styles from another time" appear, Stevenson's entertaining book inevitably echoes his own eclectic career. Alternating between being a film show organiser, tour arranger, festival jury member and 16mm projectionist for hire, the author's range of experiences and encounters are reflected in disparate pieces, presumably written at different times, polished and assembled for publication here.
   The result is a little uneven, as the author leaps from one loosely associated theme to another, but is never less than entertaining. The first part of the book, 'Genre and History', consist of portraits of legendary B-movie figures such as William Castle and Sidney Pink, as well as tributes to gimmick and cult movies. Another part, 'Tales of the Cities' documents firsthand explorations into an idiosyncratic realm of low budget cinema, and Stevenson's involvement with 'underground' film in America and Europe. A third section, 'Haunted Houses and Illuminated Cellars' is the longest, devoted to considering movie theatres and renegade exhibition places, and the "atmosphere that is such an integral part of the movie going experience." Here Stevenson takes us on a personal tour of the notorious grind houses of San Francisco, onto home made store front cinemas in Seattle and New York, as well as the more outrí film clubs of Europe. A final section, 'Journey to the Centre of Camp and Trash', attempts to place in context the two concepts that are central to the author's sensibilities.
   The author is at his best when he is relating an account of the legendary B-movie creator Sidney Pink and his production of Reptilicus (1961) in Denmark. It is a fascinating account of Pink's tenacity and resilience in the face of daunting production problems (tiny budget, multi-language cast and crew, post-production meddling etc) and then of his following project, the equally beset Journey To The Seventh Planet (1962). His history of the gimmick-master William Castle that follows is less fresh, perhaps because much of the ground has been covered before, and he has nothing new to add. Similarly, the discussion of 3-D films bears the hallmark of a fan magazine run through, although well enough informed. Stevenson's fascinating history of Scopitone on the other hand - a short-lived predecessor of today's video juke box - and the films it engendered, is another collection highlight. It is clear that he shares a genuine enthusiasm for this garish contraption and its children, all but forgotten today, even though it reached an astonishing boom in mid-1960s America with thousands installed around the country.
   Excellent, too, is Stevenson's account of the career and films of the independent filmmaker Jon Moritsugu, whose personal vision in such short films as Der Elvis (1987) and the longer My Degeneration (1989) has been adventurous and controversial. This was most notably the case in 1993, when the director was given a larger than usual budget by the Independent Television Service for a film on "American TV families." As completed, his "comically depraved family soap-opera" was rejected outright by the ITS but has since played festivals worldwide. Stevenson's reclamation of Mortsugu's often obscure career path, and familiarity with a peculiar, often hard to see oeuvre is invaluable. His book also covers other z-grade auteurs that have either since made the big league, like John Waters, or have achieved posthumous cult acclaim, like Ed Wood.
   Stevenson's main concern is with 'guerrilla cinema', the various experiences of film gained from a diversity of often-disreputable venues. Always alert to the 'sense of place' which such renegade exhibition places can bring, he discusses in detail the experiences of showing and watching cult films in such places as San Francisco's Embassy cinema and The Strand, Copenhagen's Grand, Germany's Kino 3001, Brighton's Cinematheque, and places in Boston, in Moscow etc. As well as this, there is what might be termed 'projection on the run': the simple pleasure of improvising a show and watching a favourite title on a perfect white surface outdoors. While much of the pleasure surrounding these venues and events are personal, Stevenson's enthusiasm is infectious and, by the end, one agrees with his view that real cinema is "a place without fixed borders or... location... (but) that exists more in a spiritual dimension."
   This personal engagement with the essence of film is given its fullest exposition in a final section: 'Uncensored Confessions of an Film Collector'. Here Stevenson discusses the peculiarly tactile nature of owning film prints, an aesthetic entirely unavailable to those with videos or DVDs. Whether or not one agrees with his implied assertion that the mere owning of 'real' film is better than enjoying a digital copy of one is debatable, but his chapter communicates a collector's obsession well, and provides a suitable close. An interesting book, if uneven, Land Of A Thousand Balconies provides nuggets of cinematic lore throughout, and it at least makes one re-examine the nature of the viewing experience, no bad thing. Smartly printed in large paperback format with black and white illustrations throughout, this is a book that is worth investigating.

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