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Articles

Past Article

Eddie Muller, Cultural Archaeologist
By Jonathan Marlow
October 28, 2005 - 9:37 AM PDT


"I've always had great interest in the experiences of older people."

Eddie Muller is a consummate showman. Muller is also a writer, a filmmaker, an historian, an occasional orator on the secret (and sometimes forbidden) alleyways of cinema and a gentleman who will entertain conversations on obscure subjects into the early hours of the morning. He is also a scoundrel. This latter bit is not known to be a fact but, as an individual associated with the shadowy world of noir, one might expect a dark side waiting to be revealed. If so, that dark side remains relatively well hidden during the discussion that follows.

Eddie Muller, "cultural archaeologist." I like that phrase.

I see that you've been to the website. Actually, a future version of that banner is going to read, "word slinger."

That also has a nice ring to it.

Word slinger and cultural archaeologist.

We're going to talk about your latest book, but we're going to take a while getting there. Grindhouse, back in 1996.

You are going back.

I'm going back to the foundation, as it were.

The foundation of everything.

What were the conditions that led to your first book?

Being a cultural archaeologist - that's actually where that term originated. Some people would call them "dumpster divers." The first book was the result of finding a bunch of sexploitation material tossed in a dumpster down behind a theater on Market Street.

And what exactly did you find in that dumpster?

The stuff that you see in Grindhouse. Lobby cards, posters and photographs from the 1930s.

Print materials, but no films?

No films. That was what the detective story aspect of it was. I found these materials but I had no idea what these movies were. That was where the research came in. It took awhile.

You clearly had an interest in the subject matter before you came upon these materials.

I don't know if I would say that. I hadn't really thought about it. I had seen sexploitation movies. I knew what it meant when we were talking about Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS and films like that, but I had no idea whether such things existed in my father's generation. Then, when I found this material and realized what it was, I thought that these adults-only movies from an earlier generation would be absolutely impossible to find. That turned out not to be the case because there are a lot of other cultural archaeologists as well.

Eventually, I decided that this would make a really interesting book. My approach was not scholarly whatsoever; it was simply that these images were really great. How could I assemble them to show them to people? It's like show and tell - my approach to a lot of stuff has not graduated beyond the second grade! When I started to put the package together, I initially thought that it would be more like a picture book but during the research it all became really fascinating to me. I realized that there was a book in there that was half movie fan and half scholarship. That has fairly remained my approach ever since.

From there you wrote Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir. As implied by its very title, Lost World, you're again trying to dig up the parts of a genre that no one else had really tackled. There are a handful of films, obviously, that are part of the so-called "canon" but your book goes quite a bit deeper. Whereas your interest in sexploitation was not as pre-established as I'd imagined, you absolutely had an interest in noir prior to Grindhouse.

Yes, exactly. With my first published book, I had figured out how to do it. I'd designed the book, delivering finished pages, as well as doing all the research and the writing. However, I realized that I could pretty much fast-forward through these exploitation movies. You know, I'm as big a fan of sex as the next guy, but some of these movies were tough going. So I said, "Now that I've accomplished this and I'm in the game as a published author, how about doing one of these about movies that I actually like and that I would be actually eager to seek out?" That was the genesis of Dark City. It was an attempt to make sure that these obscure films were not forgotten. What's interesting is that when the book was done, there were no DVDs.

I remember that period well.

Back then, I made a comment - "Can you imagine a world before videotape?" That's kind of what Grindhouse was about. Grindhouse was all about the experience of having to go to a movie theater to see what was deemed off-limits subject matter. The only way that you could do it was by going out in public and sitting in a movie theater with other people. It was interesting to me while doing Dark City that there were all of these films that were not available on video. Now, looking back, I really see Dark City as one of the first books on film noir that consciously attempted to write about movies that were in danger of being forgotten. Not in any way anticipating that there would be this DVD revolution, an archaeology that would actually happen during this mad rush for content. I'm certainly pleased to think that my book had some small role in this renaissance leading people to seek out and restore these films.

This particular book was a formative experience, essentially establishing the path that your writing has taken ever since. And not just your writing, but the creation of the appropriately named Film Noir Foundation. You had no inkling while writing Dark City that your life was going to take this direction?

None whatsoever. I made the book as just a one-off. Then, the first thing that developed out of it was an invitation to program a film festival at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood. That was where this other world started to open up, when I started to actually meet the people who made the films. I started to understand the complexity of the business in terms of the licensing of films and what goes into the exhibition of them. And it became obvious that there was this whole hardcore fanbase who would come out to the theater to see these films the way they were originally meant to be seen.

It's also a bit of a curatorial thing. Before any of this, I created the San Francisco Historical Boxing Museum. I entirely understand the mentality of trying to make the story complete. You do get a bit obsessive about it. For example, you want to show all these great Robert Ryan movies and it becomes an obsession when you can't get one.

As I saw how popular these festivals would be, first in Los Angeles and now the one I do in San Francisco, and the response was enormous. To not only write this book pointing out these movies but to be in a position where you actually bring the film to an audience, that is pretty special. One of the movies that I wrote about in Dark City that I didn't think people knew of at all was Try and Get Me and to bring Martin Scorsese's personal print of the film last year to San Francisco was really a high point of the whole thing. Some guy came up to me after the screening and said, "I saw this movie when I was six years old and I had been waiting to see it again ever since." It really makes it worthwhile when you get a reaction like that.

Were you aware at this point of Greg Olson's long-running noir series at the Seattle Art Museum?

I met Greg the following year. I honestly knew nothing about this series in Seattle which is, I'm sure you know, the longest running film noir series anywhere [Muller and Marlow first met at a book signing in Seattle in the late 1990s].

So you met some of the directors, some of the actors and, out of the latter, you put together a book called Dark City Dames. Coleen Gray and a number of other screen sirens...

Six of them.

How did you assemble these dark ladies for your 2001 book?

That book completely grew out of the festival at the Cinematheque. When we started to put the program together, one of the things that the American Cinematheque loves to do is to program with one eye on who can you actually get to come out as a guest. Newsflash! Women outlive men. So there were a lot of these actresses still around and, oddly enough, still living in and around Hollywood. It's hard to get away. What was really fascinating was that many of these actresses had left Hollywood, had moved away but now, in their 70s and early 80s, they had gravitated back to Hollywood. I guess, in the later years, they like to be around their own kind. When you are at that stage in your life when you're reminiscing, it's good to have people who know what you're talking about.

So that was how they all came to be in one place at one time, which is what allowed me to do the book. It was great. I was just like a big fan, calling up this guy Marvin Paige, who was something like a casting director to the stars. We'd say, "Marvin, is Evelyn Keyes still around?" He'd go, "Oh yeah." From that, we'd make decisions about which film to play and that's how I met all of the actresses that are in the book.

They all appeared in 1999, the first year of the festival. We showed Detour with Ann Savage, Nightmare Alley with Coleen Gray, The Killer That Stalked New York with Evelyn Keyes, Tension with Audrey Totter. We showed The Narrow Margin, our very first show, with Marie Windsor. The only one that we did not get to come out was Jane Greer. She was incredibly shy and panic stricken at the idea of public speaking.

Really?

It was unfortunate, but there you go. In the process of promoting the festival, I contacted Los Angeles Magazine and said, "Wouldn't it be great take these femme fatales who all are still here - they're all still living, they all look great - and photograph them for a feature in the magazine." They agreed and got Matthew Rolston, a really hotshot fashion photographer, to do it. I wrote these little essays on each of the actresses and a general piece about women and film noir. That article basically became the basis of the book. That's sort of what I used to sell the book in New York to Judith Regan. I can't say enough how much I appreciate Judith's contribution to that book.

Dark City Dames is a cornerstone of noir research. Afterwards, you became known as the so-called Czar of Noir [thanks to a chance comment by Laura Shepard of the Mechanics' Institute] and, so anointed, begat the Art of Noir. It's a collection of images, again, not so far in framework from Grindhouse.

You're absolutely right. That's exactly what it is. At that point, with those two books done - and what was fun is that they're different. I don't want to have to do that again. With Dark City Dames, what makes that book really special is that it was not just a coffee table book of photographs of these women. You know, I could see somebody doing something like Noir Femmes Fatale, a really glossy, sexy coffee table kind of book. I didn't want to do that because the most interesting thing about it to me was who these women became in their later life, not just what they were when they all played somewhat interchangeable sexy dames in the movies. That's why I give Judith Regan so much credit for Dark City Dames because she allowed it to be the book that we wanted when a lot of other publishers were saying, "Nobody wants to look at old people. Nobody wants to read about old people." Judith said, "No, that's what the book is about. It's about beautiful women and Hollywood icons, and what happens to them when that's over." That's why, as much as I appreciate your saying that it's a "cornerstone of noir research," I also think that there's a whole other side to the book that sort of transcends the whole noir thing. It really is about the hardships of being a woman in this society with an obsession with how women look.

I even see this today, when hardcore fans of these things don't really realize how insensitive they're being when they're talking about an actress and they say, "I really don't like that movie because she wasn't as hot. She lost her looks in this film or that film." After I did Dark City Dames, I learned my lesson, I would never even think it. It's stupid. It's just... anyway, I'm off my soapbox now. With the Art of Noir, I sold that book based on a one page fax. I was in the bookstore one day and I saw that Overlook Press was putting out these Tony Normand poster books in Britain. I think it was the movie posters of Alfred Hitchcock or something like that. I said, "There should be one of these for noir." I went home and wrote a single page fax to Overlook Press. It was essentially two paragraphs and I just said, "Film noir, posters; somebody's going to do it, it might as well be me." That was it. They immediately faxed back and said, "Yeah, you're right. Let's do it."

It doesn't get much easier than that. Your thinking behind the construction of Dark City Dames - not just looking at the past but also exploring the present - seems very similar to the approach that you and Ted Bonnitt took with Mau Mau Sex Sex.

Though I will give Ted complete credit for realizing the value of fine-tuning the subject of focus on those two guys. I didn't know where we were going with Mau Mau originally. It was clear that most of it was based on stuff that was in Grindhouse. Dave Friedman was such an invaluable source of information to me for the book, I talked to him and hung out with him in Las Vegas while I was writing Grindhouse. He was my goldmine of information. I think that I became so close to Dave in writing that book that I didn't see him as being quite the character that Ted saw in him with a little distance. When I would tell Ted about Dave, he would say, "This guy is an amazing character." I think Ted always saw Mau Mau Sex Sex as being about Dave, whereas I was still sort of swimming in the totality of the subject.

Then Dave says, "If you think I'm a character, you've got to meet Dan [Sonney]." It was the interaction between those two guys that became the hook in telling that story. I've always had great interest in the experiences of older people. I think it is the subtext of everything that I write about and do. If there's one thing that I detest about this culture, it's the sense of disposability. The sense that it's got to be new-new-new and now-now-now. The dismissal of people as creators and contributors just because they're "past their prime," I think, is disgraceful.

This abominable behavior is one of the terrors of capitalism. To constantly appeal to the folks that are prepared to waste their disposable income on nonsense, in order to perpetuate the myth of popular culture, the marketing mavins insist on focusing on whatever is "new." That wasn't the case one hundred years ago and prior. We used to consider that people who actually lived a full life had important things to impart to us.

I completely agree and I understand that that's how the capitalist machine works. The idea is, you've had your chance, now get out of the way, get off the stage, get it off the shelf, drive it off the lot, it's out of here. You've got to make room for the new thing because that is what is essential to the engine that drives capitalism. It's somebody else's chance to make money now. In a sick kind of way, there's a certain fairness to that, if you buy into the capitalist idea to begin with. Here it is, everybody gets their chance to make dough, but there are so goddamn many people that they become expendable. It's like, "Dude, you're sixty. Get out of here."

I saw this with my dad. My dad was the preeminent boxing writer in the United States of America and he just got too old. Now, in any other culture, being old would make you great because, "Wow, this guy saw Jack Dempsey fight live!" He isn't looking at it in movies or guessing, he saw him fight live and he had all of his wits about him, but it didn't matter because nobody's going to believe him. He's seventy years old, what can he tell a 25-year-old kid? That's a tragedy. I think that the experience that my father went through, being dismissed from his job, is, underneath it all, what fuels my interests in finding value in what older people do. I don't care if they put you out to pasture, I'm going to come in here and do something to point out what contribution you made and believe me, they appreciate it.

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Index
"I've always had great interest in the experiences of older people."
"It's a big deal for him. It's quite a big deal."

back to past articles

 

Jonathan Marlow
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.

February 6, 2007. Mark Savage & the D.I.Y. Aesthetic by Jeffrey M. Anderson

February 3, 2007. Seeing the Humor in Sexual Identity by Michael Guillen

January 29, 2007. Smokin' Aces with Joe Carnahan and Jeremy Piven by Sean Axmaker

January 26, 2007. Include Me Out: Interview with Farley Granger by Jonathan Marlow

January 25, 2007. Grindhouse: Chapter Four - The 1960's by Eddie Muller

January 19, 2007. Charles Mudede: Zoo Story by Andy Spletzer

January 19, 2007. Mark Becker: Merging the Personal and the Political by Sara Schieron

January 19, 2007. Micha X. Peled: The Lives of the Sweatshop Youth by Hannah Eaves

January 16, 2007. Djinn: A Taxi Driver Dreams of Perth by Jeffrey M. Anderson

January 12, 2007. Clint Eastwood: Flags and Letters From the "Good War" by Jeff Shannon

view past articles

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