We’re back! A full program of cinema for the return to The Astor Theatre – #longlivetheastor
After long term Astor staffers Steve and Jock finished up their intro, George said a few words. For anyone who missed the event, here’s a transcript of what George said and some pics of the great night, too.
Thank you Steve and Jock – without your fine efforts we could not have run The Astor, Thanks also to Tara and Andy for your invaluable services.
We think The Astor is the most amazing cinema in the world, and part of what makes it that is having the most amazing staff in the world.
Thank you to all past and present staff- you have been wonderful.
Also thank you to all our suppliers: Shimon from Tel Aviv – who has made our cakes since 1984, the same delicious cakes for all that time, and to Chandra the Bliss Ball lady, Dairy Bell who supply the key ingredient to our Choc-Ice and many others we have been trading with since 1982.
Thank you to all the film companies who have supported our somewhat unique programming style and have facilitated the many special events, including Q&A’s, new print and digital restoration re-releases.
Most importantly thank you to our audience, without you our mission would not be fulfilled.
We are asked many times “What makes the Astor Experience?”
Recall a scene in Jacques Tati’s wondrous Mon Oncle – a man is in a barren field with a rickety old oven making pastries with flair and relish. Groups of kids repeatedly go back to the man – a memory that will stay with them forever, not because they like pastries, but because that man made them with Soul. Soul is the essence, the same soul that Toto and Alfredo put into Cinema Paradiso’s projection room, its patrons never forgetting that experience either.
Soul is the essence; it is what you take away as part of the memory of your experience here.
We are pleased to announce that Palace Cinemas have acquired our business and they have undertaken to maintain The Astor Experience.
Please give Palace your support, after they begin operations in this hallowed space in June.
Thank you for your attendance, loyalty and support over the last 32 years.
Now, as I start projecting my favourite movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey for the last time, I bid you all a fond farewell.
The End – George Florence.
Every now and again, a film will come along that changes the way I look at cinema. When I was still in my teens, I attended a cinema on Bourke Street late one evening to see a motion picture I had long been curious about: Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), adapted from the 1962 Anthony Burgess novel. It had been parodied in Mad magazine, it wasn’t available at my local video store, and it didn’t screen on television. The film had been around for nearly a quarter-century by that stage, but as someone who has always been fortunate enough never to have that terrible aversion to old films, I didn’t care. I had to see it.
In short, I was flabbergasted. It was around about the time that I started going to see films by myself, and it was the first revival screening of a classic film that I can vividly recall attending. Okay, so I may have attended some Disney screenings as a wee child, I can’t recall, but if I did, those don’t count because (a) as a small child, I thought all films at the cinema were new films, and (b) they were suggested by my parents, and as such weren’t “entertainment electives”. After experiencing A Clockwork Orange for the first time…well, I was shocked, horrified.
So much so that I ended up returning to the cinema on Bourke Street twice the next week for another couple of go-arounds. For many years, it was my favourite film. The only reason it’s no longer my clear-cut favourite is because I’ve been exposed to so many cinematic masterpieces, I couldn’t possibly choose one film to stand alone as my most beloved.
Pauline Kael was not so pleased with A Clockwork Orange. She had the following to say about Stanley Kubrick’s nightmarish science fiction classic:
At the movies, we are gradually being conditioned to accept violence as a sensual pleasure. The directors used to say they were showing us its real face and how ugly it was in order to sensitize us to its horrors. You don’t have to be very keen to see that they are now in fact de-sensitizing us.
With that comment, I disagree entirely. A Clockwork Orange, if anything, re-sensitised me to violence on celluloid. I grew up watching action flicks like so many others in the 1980s and 1990s. I didn’t think I could be disturbed by any act of simulated violence on the silver screen, because they’re just movies…right? Stanley Kubrick changed that.
There are very few films on my list of favourites that I wouldn’t recommend wholeheartedly to anybody, but A Clockwork Orange is an exception. Recommend to most, absolutely, recommend to all, no. The infamous home invasion scene shall be deeply disturbing to the first-time viewer, especially if you’re a fan of Gene Kelly. And it’s not exactly the world’s greatest first-date movie (I know this from personal experience). Having said all that, if you’re up for some challenging cinema, attend the movies by yourself, and don’t mind having your rose-coloured memories of Singin’ in the Rain (1951) spoiled for life, then by all means, please do see Clockwork on the big screen.
Notice that I haven’t raved at length about Malcolm McDowell’s charismatic central performance as Alexander DeLarge, the unforgettable electronic musical soundtrack by Wendy Carlos, John Alcott’s stunning cinematography and all the rest of it. I haven’t even delved into the film’s storyline. A Clockwork Orange is a film that can speak for itself.
Written by Mark Vanselow for The Astor Theatre.
Whenever I learn that a Hollywood remake of a classic film is about to reach the big screen, I think to myself “Hollywood has run out of ideas” (but it’s not just Hollywood). With very few exceptions, remakes are passable at best, horrendously offensive at worst. However, every now and again (not often enough, for my liking) there comes a remake that is not only a superb piece of cinema on its own terms, but can also be compared favourably to its predecessor. Such can be said of Scarface (1983), the epic crime drama directed by Brian De Palma; the film where Al Pacino portrays his most over-the-top character a Cuban refugee and notorious underworld figure Tony Montana.
Perhaps there are readers who have visited the Astor Theatre numerous times to see Brian De Palma’s Scarface yet haven’t seen the original film version, released in 1932, or, until now, have been totally unaware of its existence. If you are one such reader, then you would be correct in guessing that the Depression Era edition is nowhere nearly as graphic as its 1983 counterpart. That said, for its time, the original Scarface was extremely controversial, a product of what is known as the Pre-Code Era.
The Great Depression swept across the United States, causing severe financial hardships for countless Americans. The joyful ritual of visiting the cinema suddenly became a luxury for working class Americans and, in times of economic disarray, such luxuries are often sacrificed in favour of necessities. Desperate to lure audiences back to the cinemas, Hollywood took advantage of the relatively lax censorship guidelines (prior to rigid enforcement of the Hays Code in 1934) to present films with taboo subject matter. Numerous films about organised crime, Scarface among them, exhibited levels of simulated violence previously unseen on the big screen, as millions of Americans who had only read and heard about the criminal exploits of real-life gangsters, such as Bonnie and Clyde and the real “Scarface”, Al Capone, flocked to cinemas to see hard-boiled fictional gangsters played by Hollywood actors. Directed by Howard Hawks, the original film (Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, based on the novel by Armitage Trail) is one of the most celebrated of these Pre-Code crime films.
It is worth noting that in the 1960s, the Code was revised, then abandoned in favour of a ratings system—with the rapidly burgeoning popularity of televised entertainment in loungerooms across the United States, Hollywood again changed tack to lure audiences back to the cinemas, picking up where the Pre-Code period left off several decades earlier. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was one of the first films to take full advantage of Hollywood’s increased liberalism—and how fitting this was, as the real Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, legendary outlaws of the Great Depression, were at their most active in the early 1930s, the Pre-Code period, before their demise in 1934. An especially graphic film in terms of its depiction of violence, Bonnie and Clyde started the modern trend of ultra-violent crime cinema that would reach new extremes with the release of the Scarface remake in 1983.
Readers who have seen the 1932 version as well as its 1983 successor will note, despite the obvious stylistic differences between the two, numerous similarities that link them together, a few of which are mentioned below. Most obviously, both films feature a dangerously ambitious protagonist named Tony (Tony Camonte, as played by Paul Muni, in the 1932 original, Tony Montana in the 1983 remake) who is determined the become a major player in the criminal underworld. Tony Camonte seems obsessive about protecting the sexual purity of his younger sister Francesca (Ann Dvorak), as is Tony Montana in regards to his junior sibling Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). In both cases, it is suggested that Tony’s motivation for steering his sister away from potential suitors is less about protecting her virtue and more about his own taboo desires (those readers who have seen Alexander Mackendrick’s 1957 classic Sweet Swell of Success, and recall Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker character and his possessiveness regarding his teenage sister Susan, will understand what is being implied). Even the scene in the 1983 remake where Tony Montana gazes at a Pan-Am blimp, with its advertising slogan “The World Is Yours”, is a direct hommage to its 1932 predecessor, as illustrated below.
Despite these and other similarities between the two films, Brian De Palma’s Scarface, like any great remake, refuses to be a carbon copy of its predecessor. Running more than one hour longer than the original, De Palma’s version has plenty of time to expand its storytelling boundaries and add ingredients not present in the 1932 Pre-Code classic. Instead of being a hoodlum of Italian descent and living in Chicago, as was the case when Hawks filmed the story, the protagonist in De Palma’s 1983 film (written by Oliver Stone) is a refugee from Cuba, one of the countless emigrants from the small nation who didn’t share in the spirit of President Fidel Castro’s revolution, and like so many others enters the United States by landing in Florida. Determined to never again go wanting for anything, having suffered enough under the statist-socialism of Castro’s Cuba, Montana and his closest friend Manolo (Steven Bauer) enter the criminal underworld as small-time hoods. Soon, Montana, his ruthless nature matched by extreme cunning, becomes a major player in the illegal narcotics trade, and rich beyond his wildest dreams, his palatial abode reminiscent of Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu in Citizen Kane (1941). However, the richer Tony Montana gets, the more dangerous he becomes. Consequently, Montana, not exactly the most stable personality when we meet him at the beginning of the film, becomes extremely paranoid, spending an inordinate amount of time watching the security monitors inside his home (video surveillance being a motif that appears in several of De Palma’s films.)
They say that money can’t buy happiness. This is definitely true in the case of Tony Montana. The more influential he becomes in the criminal underworld, the wealthier he gets, but of course it also means that he makes more enemies for himself, which then makes Tony even more distrusting of others. Almost nobody is safe from Tony Montana and, as we shall learn before the conclusion of this epic crime thriller, Tony Montana is safe from almost nobody else. The world might belong to Tony, but after a while, he questions, loudly and profanely, if it’s a world worth having, in a drunken restaurant monologue that is one of the highlights of the film.
While some will claim that Tony Montana is a self-made success – which is to say that his millions of dollars is all that matters – the reality is that Tony is a loser, a victim of his own insatiable avarice. It’s easy to fall under the spell of Tony’s larger-than-life personality, a testament to the charisma of Al Pacino (let’s face it, Pacino, who disappears into his role, is rather funny as Montana—I have a Tony Montana talking keychain somewhere, he’s one of the most quote-worthy characters in the history of cinema!) But despite being a psychotic killer and drug baron, Tony his own moral boundaries, refusing to commit to any assignment that may directly endanger the lives of women and children. Of course, Tony seems to forget that the men he either kills personally or has killed by his goons may be partnered with children of their own. There is no telling how many children Montana has left fatherless, no guessing how many widows he has made, and no way to count how many women and children have become addicted to the thousands of kilos of poisonous white crystals that he has sent flooding into the cities of the United States. But in the mixed-up mind of Tony Montana, he is a criminal with a conscience.
But going back to the restaurant scene, for those who have seen it, we must ask ourselves, is Tony Montana really “the bad guy”? This is to ask, is he really any worse than the countless “respectable” types typically adored by society, who screw and manipulate their way to the top legally, albeit no more ethically than the likes of Montana? Remember, this film was released in 1983. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and along with his wife, Nancy Reagan, declared the “war on drugs” which, unfortunately, was not accompanied by a “war on poverty” and a “war on greed”. The so-called “war on drugs”, much like the current “war on terror”, was merely an empty promise designed to draw favour from the more reactionary elements of American Society. Let us not covet Tony Montana’s tragic lifestyle, fuelled by a certain misguided desperation to escape the clutches of poverty, but at the same time, let’s remember that so many “self-made” success stories are anything but self-made, and an overwhelming percentage of the “respectable members of the social elite”, whether they be politicians, casino owners, world bankers, diamond barons, you name it, profit greatly from the misery of others. It’s just that unlike Tony Montana, they don’t get their hands dirty.
De Palma’s Scarface is a masterpiece of modern cinema. If you have not yet delved into the blood-soaked, drug-polluted, money-grubbing world of Tony Montana, you have the opportunity to do just that (at a safe distance that cinema affords, of course) at the Astor. And, if you ever have the chance, please do take a look at Scarface: The Shame of a Nation as directed by Howard Hawks, one of numerous classics available from the world of Pre-Code cinema.
Written by Mark Vanselow for The Astor Theatre.
May you dream of the devil
And wake in fright
With these ominous words from an ancient curse, so begins the nightmarish outback odyssey that is Wake In Fright (1971). Based upon the 1961 novel by Kenneth Cook, Wake In Fright tells the sorry tale of school teacher John Grant (Gary Bond), who eagerly awaits his end-of-year vacation from the single classroom school where he is contracted. The school is located in Tiboonda, an outback dustbowl so small that to call it a town would be most charitable. For his summer holidays, John plans to travel to Sydney by way of Bundanyabba. The Yabba, as it is more commonly known, is somewhat larger than Tiboonda (which isn’t saying much), where the main activities seem to be drinking, gambling, more drinking, and more gambling. John, a well-mannered, prim and proper sort, belongs in The Yabba about as much as a hamster in a lion’s den. But no matter, John’s trip to The Yabba is merely an overnight stop en route to the salubrious beaches of Sydney – or is it? No, for if it were, this would be a very short story – and a much happier one. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong for John Grant as he finds himself staying in The Yabba longer than expected, confronted by the unsettling “hospitality” (read: passive aggression) of the locals, and very much done in by his own foolishness. But maybe John will get to Sydney after all… if the waking nightmare that is The Yabba doesn’t get him first.
Forget about your picture postcard portrayals of Australia, because Wake In Fright is possibly the most unflattering depiction of life in this country ever committed to film. Under its entry in Leonard Maltin’s annual film guide, it is said that Wake In Fright is not likely to be endorsed by the Australian tourist commission. So one can know if the folks in the Oz tourist trade were relieved when Wake In Fright disappeared from cinemas for many years (until a restoration from a 16mm print courtesy of Jamie and Aspa at Mu-Meson, brought it back to the big screen in 2009), because if the misadventures of John Grant were viewed as widely as the adventures of Mick ‘Crocodile’ Dundee, potential travellers Down Under would be staying away in droves. That said, if I had a short list of Australian films to recommend, particularly to visitors from overseas, Wake In Fright would be on the list.
The character John Grant is clearly an outsider looking in, so it’s only fitting that he is portrayed by a foreigner (Gary Bond was English, as is his Grant), and even more appropriate that the film was directed by another outsider, Ted Kotcheff, who is Canadian. Following on from Wake In Fright (released with the title Outback in the United States), Kotcheff stood at the helm of the American football classic North Dallas Forty (1979) and the celluloid debut for the John Rambo character, First Blood (1981). He is no stranger to crafting brutal, disturbing cinema.
It is only fair to warn potential first-time viewers that this film contains an extremely harrowing kangaroo hunt sequence (as a long-time vegan myself, I found this especially disturbing). So I can only imagine how grotesque the experience must have been for Ted Kotcheff, himself a vegetarian at the time, now a vegan, as his cameras followed one of the regular night-time kangaroo hunts through the Australian outback. Much of the footage acquired was deemed by Kotcheff himself as being far too graphic to show an audience (I shudder to think how that must look).
Even with the film as it is, Australian audiences raised on a television diet of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1967-69) must have been mortified when Wake In Fright first hit cinemas in 1971. And as somebody who has read Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel upon which the film was based, yes, I can tell you the kangaroo hunt figures in the literary version, too, and it’s even more graphic than what is depicted in the film, if you can imagine (the day after reading the book, I was in a health food store and noticed tins of pet food made from slaughtered kangaroo, disturbing me to the point where I had to immediately leave the store, and I don’t disturb easily. Kenneth Cook sure could write.)
So long as you can withstand the sheer brutality of the infamous kangaroo hunt sequence, Wake In Fright is a most rewarding exercise in existentialist cinema, one that rivals Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) for the title of grimiest, sweatiest film of all time – you can see the dust and perspiration settling on the screen. Gary Bond is superb as John Grant; with flawless verisimilitude, he portrays a man who, due to his unfavourable surroundings and circumstances, regresses from his civilised self into something more closely resembling a borderline savage.
Wake In Fright also boasts a memorable performance from Donald Pleasance as the dodgy town doctor, in addition to appearances from Chips Rafferty (his final role in a feature film) and Jack Thompson (one of his earliest). The film takes place in a “bloke’s world” – it’s one of the blokiest films you could imagine, full of fistfights, gambling, shooting and boozing. There are few females in the film, and Janette (Sylvia Kay) is portrayed with derision. This opens the door for the aforementioned aggressive male bonding rituals shown in graphic detail. There is also intimate male bonding that is only ever implied, though no less bewildering, given the circumstances.
Wake In Fright is a powerful film not only because of what it shows, but also for what it suggests.
Recent years have seen a surge of popularity for the horror genre, but if you want to see a real horror story, forget about vampires, werewolves and zombies: Wake In Fright is the real deal, all the more disconcerting because this sort of thing could and does really happen. It is indeed a rare opportunity to catch the film on the big screen, in 35mm print format, an event that no ardent cinephile should miss. And if you haven’t already done so, do read Kenneth Cooks’ novel, a short if worthwhile read to be digested in one sitting. May you dream of the devil… and wake in fright.
Written by Astor regular Mark Vanselow.
Wake in Fright screens Sunday January 25 7pm. All tickets $14
Hollywood cartography is, like everything else in those buoyant hills, a version of something, that knows both truth and artifice. Tightly bound; entwined, to mask any division between the two; Hollywood relationships form a constellation. There are personal and professional personas in its midst but they all exist for us, mere mortals, to admire.
In David Cronenberg’s savage satire, Maps to the Stars (2014), he explores these lethal connections. It is not, however, from a distance that we see the fascinating, brightly shining stars of a vast universe. Rather, Cronenberg gives us extreme close-up, so that what we see is flames. Each of these stars can be reduced to burning gases, sucking up all of the available oxygen.
When Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) arrives in Hollywood, she jumps straight into a limo; it’s driver is Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattison). She has made friends with Carrie Fisher (Carrie Fisher) on twitter and is hoping to find work in Hollywood – perhaps as someone’s personal assistant. Her first stop is star gazing at the nothingness left behind. It is the site of the family home of child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird). We soon learn that he is her brother and that their home was burnt to the ground.
As the connections between this nothingness and Agatha’s past are slowly revealed, her story turns from ‘burn victim from a small town moves to Hollywood to find a job amongst the stars’ to ‘return of the repressed, and battle between multiple and incestuously formed mental illnesses in a troubling family home’. Agatha’s physical scars mirror the much deeper emotional ones that she has suffered through childhood. Her backstory greater resembles the reality of a reality tv show than the reality of real life.
Alongside this, and true to her twitter word, Carrie Fisher introduces Agatha to a big star: Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore). Agatha’s impish, pathetically plain nature is just what megalomaniac Havana is looking for in a new personal assistant. Though their relationship has several moments of faux sentimentality and the sugary sweetness that only a narcissist baiting prey is capable of producing, theirs is mostly sado-masochistic. There is some violence, and much humiliation.
If this sounds subdued for Cronenberg, I can assure you that it’s every bit as savage an attack on Hollywood as any of his earlier works are on conventional ideology and societal values.
Maps to the Stars follows Cronenberg’s trajectory of body horror well: still concerned with Freudian womb fantasies, only this time showing us the horror of what Hollywood has birthed, he makes us want the characters to return to an impossible state of regression. This is well explored through Havana’s obsession with her late mother, the beautiful movie star Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), whom Havana hopes to play in a brand new Hollywood remake of her fictitious famous film, Stolen Waters. To this end, Havana is in therapy with Dr Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a popular television quack whose methods include an intense physical therapy that seems to require dubious closeness. He is also Agatha’s estranged father.
The incestuous relationships between characters – chartered like a constellation out of control, one that can’t help but burn up every other shining star in its wake – are overt and covert. They involve generations, and are linked through an inability to escape the grotesque reaches of intense narcissism.
Cusack and Moore are admired but their fame masks hideously disfigured personalities. Agatha, our physically scarred and emotionally damaged protagonist, is their casualty and their biggest fan. She eventually charts her own way into the centre of their constellation. Inside, it is rotten. Somehow, it is still beautiful. It is true and it is false.
And it really should be seen with its David-Cronenberg-film-featuring-Robert-Pattinson-in-a-limousine companion film, Cosmopolis (2012). Screening in a double bill on Thursday January 15, 7.30pm. All tickets $13
Written by Tara Judah for The Astor Theatre.