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SLIFF: 'Visual Acoustics,' 'Empire State Building Murder,' 'First Impersonator,' 'Carny'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 21, 2008 - I just resisted suggesting that “Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman” is “recommended for anyone who’s interested in architecture or modernism” because it is commendable for so much more of us than the modernist fans.

“Visual Acoustics” is, above all, a dedicated character study developed on a modernist stage. Shulman and his camera are in the spotlight, and many of the movement’s most celebrated characters make appearances great and small. But Shulman, along with his critical eye, his irascibility, his confidence, his artistic ability and, yes, his authenticity, is the star.

There are interesting St. Louis connections to Shulman. He lavished attention on Charles and Ray Eames’ Case Study house in Pacific Palisades, because, as I read Shulman, it was more in line with his idea of what a Case Study house should be, and that was modest and available to a buyer who wasn’t necessarily rich. Eames was born in St. Louis.

The Eameses’ house was built of rather “common” standard industrial materials, but it proved to be as influential as it is comfortable and stylish. There is a direct connection between the Eames House and Frank Gehry’s provocative reconstruction of his little pink house on a street corner in Santa Monica.

Another St. Louisism explored in the movie is the Grace Lewis Miller house in Palm Springs, designed by Richard Neutra. Shulman photographed the house over three years, 1936-39. A House Beautiful magazine article, illustrated with Shulman’s pictures, described Miller’s residence as the best desert house in North America.

Bricker’s movie looks at the Miller House as it was originally and returns to look at it in recent times. Once in danger of being torn down, it was rescued and rehabilitated and survives. Shulman’s photographs of it are very much part of its legacy and of modernism as well. Bricker, a native son, received a warm reception at the Film Festival Saturday -- and so did his picture, which was viewed by a capacity audience at the Tivoli. --Robert W. Duffy

The Empire State Building Murders

Imagine the intensity of 20 or so of the most celebrated films noir reduced to their most striking moments and whipped into one concentrated, convoluted story (with a few non-noir selections like "King Kong," "Footlight Parade," "Singin' in the Rain" and "Young Man With a Horn" thrown in).

That's what French journalist-documentarian William Karel and American mystery writer Jerome Charyn have concocted in "The Empire State Building Murders," a feverish reconstruction of Hollywood crime films in which the familiar images of Bogart, Bacall, Cagney and others are remixed into a complicated story of mob bosses and dangerous dames, set in and around New York's most famous skyscraper.

Moving the story along are a handful of Hollywood legends (Kirk Douglas, Ben Gazzara, Cyd Charisse, Mickey Rooney and authentic noir icons Anna Jeffery, Richard Erdman and Marsha Hunt) appearing in faux-documentary footage.

At face value, "The Empire State Building Murders" may sound like a rehash of "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid ,” the 1982 comedy in which Steve Martin interacted with footage from films of the 1940s and ‘50s, but there's something curiously satisfying about seeing familiar footage from "Kiss of Death" or "To Have and Have Not" recycled into a new, complex plot. You may recognize the actors and the footage, but Karel's re-appropriation of them forces the viewer to look at them from a new perspective, to piece together new connections with the glue of familiar faces. Karel and Charyn have created a noir pastiche, a story that borrows from dozens of earlier films but heightens their emotional strength. The line between movie memories and the authentic past becomes a satisfying blur. - Reviewed by Robert Hunt | Special to the Beacon

First Impersonator

Some people achieve fame through hard work and long struggle, while others are gifted with overnight success. But a small few gain overnight success simply by virtue of looking like someone in one of those first two groups. "First Impersonator" looks at that strange tributary of quasi-celebrity, the world of the celebrity impersonator. And not just any celebrity, but the president of the United States.

Roughly half of Chad Friedrichs' highly entertaining film follows the career pats of Brent Mendenhall, a man who looked in a mirror one day in 2000 and realized that he bore a strong resemblance to George W. Bush. Though he wasn't a professional entertainer or an actor - and evidently has no interest in being either - Mendenhall assumed that there must be plenty of people who would pay to be seen with a man who looked like the president. Friedrichs' catches up with him as well as look-alikes of Bill and Hillary Clinton and Saddam Hussein) during the election season of 2004, his professional future resting in the hands of the American electorate.

The other half of the film is the mostly tragic story of Vaughn Meader, who died, coincidentally, just days before the 2004 election. Meader was a struggling musician in the New York club scene of the early '60s who began doing impressions of political figures, most notably the just-elected John Kennedy. In 1962, Meader was hired to take part in a comedy album about the extremely popular President. (It was recorded on the same day as the Cuban missile crisis, though the studio audience was kept unaware of the drama going on at the real White House.) "The First Family" became the fastest selling record album in history, and Meader became, for 10 months and three weeks in 1963, one of the most popular men in America.

Meader, a troubled man who had been a victim of child abuse, was shattered by the simultaneous deaths of JFK and his career. Problems with drugs and alcohol followed, as did a period in which he learned - via LSD - that he was Jesus Christ. (Curiously, the film doesn't mention his minor success with a 1971 comedy album called "The Second Coming" in which he played Jesus. Friedrichs shows the album cover but leaves it unexplained.) He continued to dabble in various parts of show business but, as the film notes, never moved out from under the shadow of Kennedy's assassination.

Today's presidential impersonators, as the film shows, take themselves far more seriously. Mendenhall has no real act, doesn't try to sound like the president and - perhaps a fatal misstep for any impersonator - seems to feel obligated to serve as a surrogate for the man he resembles, defending his policies and nervously steering clear of any remark that might be deemed controversial.

Meader presented an image of Kennedy as a comic figure, capable of laughing at himself. Mendenhall embodies a Bush so vapidly that he's better off just showing up and waving with his mouth shut. Somewhere between these two portraits, I suspect there's a message about how American politics have changed in the past 48 years. - Reviewed by Robert Hunt | Special to the Beacon


It's been years since I last saw a carnival, but I still have a soft spot for them. Not your average cotton-candy-and-ferris-wheel school carnival - I mean the seamy, noisy, con-game, freak show, house-of-mirrors kind of traveling entertainment rarely seen these days, the kind celebrated (though perhaps that's not the right word) in "Nightmare Alley," "The Circus ofDr. Lao" and Tod Browning's "Freaks."

A few such carnivals still travel the country, as exotic as ever, and filmmaker Alison Murray captures their ambiance in rich detail in the fascinating documentary "Carny" (not to be confused with the Jodie Foster-Gary Busey film of the same name). Using a variety of formats from digital video to super-8 film, Murray and photographer Virginia Lee Hunter (whose earlier book of carny photographs inspired the film) get straight to the heart of carny life, taking a close look at five residents of a North Carolina-based outfit, from the people who set up the rides to the clown who works the dunking booth.

Popular culture (see above) has painted the carny world as a seedy subculture of crime, sleaze and alcohol, of rootless drifters facing a bleak future or trying to shake an equally bleak past. Some viewers may even see Murray's film as a confirmation of that image; The principals include a young lesbian who was abused as a child and a tattoo-covered ex-con living with two carny girlfriends. For all the rough edges, however, Murray doesn't judge or degrade her subjects. If anything, the point of the film appears to be their very ordinariness.

On one hand, "Carny" captures the glamour and energy of the boardwalk with an almost childlike joy; on the other, it reveals that the men and women who travel with a carny have the same concerns and problems as people anywhere else in America. They raise families, pay bills and worry about money just like anyone else - only they do it on the road and sometime in clown make-up. - Reviewed by Robert Hunt | Special to the Beacon

Short takes (from programs):

Summer Sun, Winter Moon

A symphony inspired by the Lewis and Clark expedition brings together Rob Kapilow, a composer trying to breathe new life into classical music, and Darrell Robes Kipp, a Blackfeet Indian poet fighting to save his language from extinction. (The workwas co-commissioned by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and its Powell Hall premiere is prominently featured.)

More Than Just a Game 

This docudrama recounts a little-known chapter inthe story of South Africa's notorious Robben Island prison. UMSLsports-history professor Chuck Korr unearthed a cache of documents thatchronicled a soccer league that the prisoners had formed andmeticulously run.

Guest of Cindy Sherman

In 1993, artist Paul H-O melded his two great loves - the art world and the video camera - into his public-access show,"GalleryBeat." One of his biggest fans proved to be reclusive artist Cindy Sherman. They fell in love and began a relationship, but Sherman's superstar status forced Paul to confront difficult issues of ego and identity.

The Trap (Klopka)

Faced with a costly operation to save hiscritically ill son, Mladen agrees to assassinate a wealthy man for cashafter he's assured the target deserves his fate.

As Slow As Possible

On his 18th birthday, Ryan Knighton was told hewould slowly go blind. Fifteen years later, as he prepares to lose hislast sliver of sight, Ryan sets out to Halberstadt, Germany, to hearthe first note change in a 639-year-long automated organ performance ofthe John Cage composition "As Slow As Possible."

Of Parents and Children (O rodicich a detech

An aging father and his middle-age son live vastlydifferent lives in this comic drama. The only thing they apparentlyhave in common is their monthly walk, a chance for each to explore hiscomplex and ambivalent feelings toward the other.

4:45 p.m. Matchmaker Mary 

Promised a puppy if she earns straight A's,12-year-old Mary Carver is rewarded with a visit to the animal shelter.Three Labrador puppies are waiting for a home, and Mary ultimatelychooses the adorable Tillie, but encounters with the man and woman whoadopt the other pups lead her to play matchmaker.

7:15 p.m. The Brothers Bloom

With their sexy associate, a pair of scam-artistbrothers concoct one final grand scheme, showing a beautiful andeccentric heiress the time of her life with a romantic adventure thattakes them around the world.

9:45 p.m. Used Parts (Partes Usadas)

Ivan and his Uncle Jaime, a dealer of used carparts, dream of immigrating illegally to Chicago. To accumulate enoughmoney, Jamie introduces his nephew to car-part theft, and Ivan recruitsbest friend Efrain to help.

Ben X

Afflicted with Asperger's syndrome, a mild form ofautism Ben finds himself the victim of bullies' relentless attacks.When their abuses finally push him over the edge, Ben's online dreamgirl helps him devise a perfect plan to confront his tormenters.

The Wedding Director (Il Regista di matrimoni)

Dissolute filmmaker Franco Elica flees to Sicily,where he meets a host of colorful characters, including a culturednobleman. The prince, a devoted fan of Franco's work, commissions thedirector to shoot the wedding of his tempestuous daughter, with whomFranco falls impulsively and dangerously in love.


After decades of timetables, newly retired trainengineer Odd Horten struggles with a lack of structure. A warm,absurdist tale, "O'Horten" proves that there is humor to be found inembracing life in all of its idiosyncratic splendor.

The Class (Entre les murs)

The docudrama follows Francois Begaudeau (who playshimself) and his fellow teachers as they embark at a high school in atough multicultural Paris neighborhood. Francois' students test him andchallenge his teaching methods.

Days and Clouds (Giorni e nuvole)

Affluent, sophisticated Elsa and Michele haveenough money for Elsa to quit work and study history. After shegraduates, Michele confesses he hasn't worked in two months. Thegrowing distance threatens their most precious possession: the lovethat binds them.

The Flyboys

12-year-olds Jason and Kyle sneak aboard a plane attheir small town's airport. The boys find themselves trapped andairborne over the open Arizona desert. Worse, they uncover a bomb inthe luggage compartment and then find no one flying the plan. But Jasonand Kyle's troubles are only beginning.

The Making of WALL-E

Jeremy Lasky, a director of photography on Pixar's"WALL-E," provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the makingof the animated hit, discussing the process by which Pixar films aremade and showing illustrative clips and unseen footage.

King of the Hill

Adapted from native son A.E. Hotchner's memoir, the film is set in 1933 St. Louis and chronicles the travails of 12-year-old Aaron Kurlander, a bright, affable boy coming of age during the heart of the Depression.

The Prowler

As part of a special program on the Hollywoodblacklist, SLIFF presents a newly restored print of "The Prowler," oneof the last films director Joseph Losey made in the U.S. before fleeingMcCarthy-fueled harassment and relocating to England.

"Dark Days" Panel: The Hollywood Blacklist and Film Noir

Panelists include Marsha Hunt, a victim of the blacklist; noir expert Eddie Muller; Francis M. Nevins, mystery novelist and biographer/literary executor of classic noir writer Cornell Woolrich; and moderator Scott Phillips, author of the contemporary noir novels"The Ice Harvest" and "The Walkaway."

Yesterday Was a Lie

This groundbreaking new noir is shot in luminous black-and-white. Hoyle, a girl with a sharp mind and a weakness for bourbon, finds herself on the trail of a reclusive genius.

Garrison Keillor - The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes

Garrison Keillor takes his skits, jokes, music and monologues across the country in his traveling radio show. This free-form, intimate look at the private man in the public spotlight travels with Keillor to towns both small and large.

The Power of the Game

The conflicts and opportunities as we transition toward a global community are shown through soccer. The film adroitly blends six storylines from teams and individuals in the U.S., Iran, Argentina, England, Senegal and South Africa.

The Wrestler

Former top wrester Randy "The Ram" Robinson (MickeyRourke) is reduced to grueling, untelevised matches as crowds scream for carnage. Outside the ring, all Randy has to show for his life is a painful relationship with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and a tentative romance with a stripper (Marisa Tomei).


It's hard to run for office - even in high school. But unlike presidential candidates, these candidates must also do homework, take the SATs and write college applications.

From Inside

An animated film based on the haunting 1994 graphic novel by director Bergin, "From Inside" is the tale of Cee, a young pregnant woman who finds herself on a damaged train slowly making its way across a bleak, apocalyptic landscape.

Mosquito Kingdom

This stylish contemporary film noir tells a complex, defiantly nonlinear story of betrayal. When Ash, a small-time crook, begins a reckless affair with the wife of a corrupt cop, he finds that he is in over his head.

Little Heroes (Giborim Ktanim)

Four children work to overcome differences and learn to face their fears. When Alicia, an immigrant from Russia with telepathic abilities, senses people screaming for help in a valley nearby, she recruits other children for a courageous journey.

Waltz With Bashir (Vals im Bashir)

In this ground-breaking animated documentary, director Folman excavates his and his comrades' buried memories of the Israeli Army mission in the first Lebanon War of the early '80s, illustrating them with bold, surreal imagery.

Strength and Honour

An Irish boxer, accidentally kills his friend in the ring and promises his wife he will never box again. Years later, however, he is forced to break his promise so he can raise the funds needed for a life-saving surgery.


In the final days of an Israeli army unit's tense, painful withdrawal in 2000 from a strategic bunker inside a 12th-century fortress near the Lebanese border, the soldiers prepare to explode the site, destroying everything their comrades have fought and died to defend.

The Flyboys

12-year-olds Jason and Kyle sneak aboard a plane at their small town's airport. The boys find themselves trapped and airborne over the open Arizona desert. Worse, they uncover a bomb in the luggage compartment and then find no one flying the plan. But Jason and Kyle's troubles are only beginning.

I've Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t'aime)

Two estranged sisters reunite when Juliette - who's murdered her 6-year-old son - is released from prison after 15 years.Over the objections of her family, younger sibling Lea invites her sister to live with her, and gradually a different Juliette emerges from the shadows of her terrible crime.

Louise Bourgeois - The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine

As a screen presence, Bourgeois is magnetic, mercurial and emotionally raw. There is no separation between her life as an artist and the memories and emotions that affect her every day. At the age of 71, in 1982, she became the first woman to be honoredwith a major retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art, and since, she has created her most powerful and persuasive work.

Burning the Future - Coal in America

Confronted by a coal-based U.S. energy policy, West Virginia activists watch the nation praise coal without regard to the devastation caused by its extraction. Faced with toxic groundwater and obliteration of 1.4 million acres of mountains, the protestors' fight to arouse the nation.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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