The Canals in Film

I don’t know where you were in 1972, but I was in college in North Carolina, drinking 3.2 "near beer," trying to get laid, and spending a lot of time in darkened movie theatres, watching a myriad of great films. ‘Play Misty for Me,’ ‘Strawdogs,’ ‘Clockwork Orange,’ ‘200 Motels,’ ‘Putney Swope,’ ‘The Devils,’ ‘Diary of a Mad Housewife,’ ‘Sometimes A Great Notion,’ ‘Vanishing Point,’ ‘Drive, He Said’ were just a random sampling of the 45 movies I watched that year, before videos, in wonder. But the one that really stuck with me was ‘Cisco Pike.’

That’s the film where I first fell in love with the Venice canals, and the whole ambiance, of Venice California. My personal conduit to this amazing town.

For those of you unfamiliar with ‘Cisco Pike,’ it seems to me one of the quintessential films featuring the canals, the famous boardwalk and the environs of Venice of that era. Written and directed by Bill Norton, it opens with a montage of Kris Kristofferson, in his debut film appearance, walking through the then-still-funky canals, on his way to his pad on Ocean Front Walk, guitar case in hand, with Kris’ own country-tinged song "Loving Her Was Easier" playing in the background.

As Cisco Pike, a recovering drug dealer and semi pro musician who can’t quite decide which direction his life is going to take, Kris is approached by crooked cop Gene Hackman with the chance to clear his criminal record by selling Gene's purloined stash of primo dope for $10,000, in just 59 hours. So he’s off on a weekend where we see Kris do the following... almost get busted by the cops for selling 10 kilos of the killer weed to Woodstock icon Wavy Gravy, drag a drugged-up Harry Dean Stanton around who has been up for days and is impotent, receive oral favors from underground film star Viva, get naked with a 1960s porn star with the hysterical name of Joy Bang, dropping into the studio with Doug Sahm and the Sir Douglas Quartet, eat a diner meal with a pimped-up Antonio Vargas, and share a topless nude scene with Karen Black. All this adds up to an off-beat classic that hardly anyone knows about.

It’s great to see both the canal and boardwalk scenes from back then, and realize that his pad is now located in the "Bicycles Sales o Service o Rentals" shop, just north of the ‘On the Waterfront’ restaurant, itself used as a location in last year’s popular ‘Million Dollar Baby.’ What a trip to see the ‘Venice in the Snow’ mural before it disappeared, or to view the old P.O.P. pier, in all its distressed glory. Or the final scene, a great shoot-out at the corner of Rose and OFW, with Gene Hackman dying on the beach at the playground off of the parking lot. What an amazing time capsule of that time in local Venice history before the boardwalk became the zoo it is we know today.

What a cool place to live in, I remember feeling at the time, yet little did I realize I’d be exploring those same environs later that very summer, envisioning myself as some rock & roll star strolling down Windward, and inevitably living on Westminster just off the beach within a year and a half.

Film critic Roger Westcombe wrote that the world weary visage Kristofferson gives to a down-on-his-luck pop star - but gifted dope dealer – Cisco, reveals a character whose sense of self is sufficiently strong to shrug off the shit he momentarily finds himself mired in. That this strength derives from his (probably) doomed dream of a musical comeback is reflected in Cisco’s persistent return to music whenever he needs a recharge. Kristofferson conveys the myopic exhilaration of a string of minor scores with the tensile, empty conviction of a man only just holding desperation at bay.

Cisco Pike is not a thriller but a character study and a snapshot of a Venetian time now past. Pauline Kael’s review is the best assessment, seeing the film as a romantic quest for meaning and identity when the old realities have crumbled away. The underground drug economy is the core of the film. Vincent Canby in the New York Times said that whenever a movie starts with long-shots of its hero walking down city streets, which are photographed through zoom lenses, accompanied by soft rock music on the soundtrack, the fiction in the foreground is no match for the realism of the found objects in the background.

He continues, that he hoped the movie were good, but found it wasn’t to his liking. Screw him, I say. Leonard Maltin, however, wrote, "Spiked with terrific music by Kristofferson and naturalistic powerful performances, Cisco Pike is a revealing look at the L.A. music scene of the early '70s, off-beat, unique and surprisingly good."

Rolling Stone recently wrote "This rough little gem from 1972 stars Kristofferson as Cisco Pike, a former country star who "majored in shit-kickin’." Out of jail after a drug rap, Cisco finds his former bandmate (Harry Dean Stanton) now a junkie, a crooked narc (Hackman) on his ass and the Sixties well and truly over. The small yet perfectly pitched character study is peppered with classic cameos, including Tex-Mex legend Doug Sahm as a rock & roller who just wants to score some good weed."

Luckily for us all, it’s arrival on DVD was just this past January 24th. Definitely check it out. They’ve got a copy at Vidiots.

Five years after Cisco Pike, the Venice canals were once again featured in another cult fave film. ‘Spawn of the Slithis’ opened in 1977, directed by Stephen Traxler. It’s a low-budget thriller, described as "the kind of crap you just don't see anymore," in which a scaly monster, created from radioactive organic mud, emerges from nuclear waste pollution to wreak havoc among his creators. Actually it’s a good, bloody movie in which the creature, a bad rubber suit monster, gets way more screen time than in most films of this ilk. It has that great old stand-by plot of radiation mutating sea life with deadly results. Slithis kills ‘em all, ladies, drunks, wanna be swinger guys. It just doesn’t matter. Where else are you gonna see all this monster stuff, along with turtle racing and a comical wino who poops his pants? Nowhere, I'm tellin’ ya.

The film opens on two young boys playing frisbee in slow motion beside one of the Venice canals. While running to intercept a particularly long toss, one of the boys discovers a pair of mangled dog carcasses, something which, if the recent radio news is to be believed, has been showing up a lot lately around town. That night, another dog is attacked and killed, this time in the backyard of a house, by what is obviously some sort of monster. The dog’s owners die, too, when they come in response to their pet’s frantic barking.

The police are proceeding at their usual snail’s pace according to the assumption that all the recent animal - and now human - mutilations are the work of a Mansonesque cult. Thus it will fall to a high school journalism teacher to find out what’s really going on. He begins by paying a visit to the home of the two recent victims, and manages to make off with something he finds very curious as well— a sample of the odd, slimy mud that the killer or killers tracked all over the house.

So he brings the peculiar substance from the dead couple’s living room to a biologist friend, and various types of analysis reveal that the slime is mildly radioactive, and that it is composed of a mix of organic and inorganic constituents that noone has ever encountered before. It does remind him of something he read about once, however. So far as the scientists could determine at the time, the irradiated mud absorbed the bacteria, algae, and other microorganisms growing within and upon it, and somehow merged with their cells, becoming something that had never existed on Earth before. The scientists therefore dubbed this living mud "Slithis."

Teacher: "Why?"
Scientist: "For the same reason your parents named you ‘Jeff’."

It is the scientist’s opinion that the stuff brought to him is probably Slithis, too, and with a nuclear power plant of their own only a few miles up the coast, it is at least within the realm of possibility. But if this Slithis thing has anything to do with the killings in Venice, it must have absorbed something far more advanced than a bunch of bacteria.

Meanwhile, the monster of Venice begins making a rather higher profile for itself, killing several more humans in addition to the animals that had previously accounted for the bulk of its diet.

Where ‘Spawn of the Slithis’ seems to go wrong is in devoting so much time to the teacher’s tedious detective work and so little to the monster. The short shrift given the monster in the first two thirds of the film is a miscalculation because, astonishingly enough, the monster suit is really, really good, and could easily have stood the heightened scrutiny that would come with more screen time. And then pad things out with a turtle racing at a local bar, and the question arises: Is the Slithis even in this movie?!

Slithis is sorrowfully, painfully slow, poorly composed, and lacking direction. The ending is pretty exciting and the Slithis monster is a trash-classic, but...

Well, in other words, a big bore.

Of course I found the best part about this movie the scenery, which consists of Venice and the surrounding areas. During the late ‘70s, Venice had picked up a reputation for superficiality. Natives of this area would probably disagree with this stereotype, but there was a certain air of desolation to that whole time and place. This film tries to capture part of that aspect. I wouldn't give it high ratings but I wouldn't throw it out either.

Especially since the bloody horrible attack on the people living on the canal, was filmed next door to the house I was living in at the time, on Sherman Canal. Neighbor Danielle Greco recently recalled the filming of the monster creeping up out of the canal, and entering through her front screen door. Not opening it, but literally crashing through the already dilapidated screen door. "It was weird because there I was, standing in the kitchen, watching them film the monster crashing through the door, then knocking over stuff, like the TV they had planted right next to the door."

"He roared around a bit, attacking ‘whatever’ and then in the movie they showed the gooey entrails on the carpet on the floor."

And here’s where the story gets good. The next morning, after filming was done and she’d gotten paid the location fee, there was a knock on her front door – minus the destroyed screen door. It was the Chief Detective from the LAPD, checking on the possibility of finding a dead body – for real – in her house. This was confusing to Danielle, who doubted that the detective was really a detective, since according to her, he "was the spitting image of the director. I thought somebody was pulling a prank, and I kept saying, "No, come on, you remember me from yesterday. And he kept saying "Look lady, I don’t know about yesterday, I’m here about a body." And he showed me his badge and everything, and after a few minutes, I realized this was really, I mean, really, a murder investigation. And I asked what he was looking for."

It seems there had been some super-bright production assistant who after the previous day’s filming had just taken the used carpet with all the bloody entrails and gooey shit on it used as a prop, rolled it up, and tossed it in the garbage cans out back in the alley. Somebody had come along, snooping through the garbage, found the bloody entrails, and freaked. And called the cops.

After explaining about the filming, everything calmed down and the police finally left. A bit later, at the opening of the film at the Fox Venice theater that November 13th, Danielle said she "felt like a big shot." She surely recounted the story of the mistaken identity of the cop/director, and proudly showed the souvenir photo she had taken on set with the latex-covered monster.

Now I know this isn’t a complete compilation or overview of all the films ever shot in the Venice canals. I do know one of the first started filming on October 21, 1907 – a Douglas Fairbanks production ‘Reaching For The Moon’ – which I’ve never seen, and would like to view asap. I can only imagine the lonesome grandeur visualized in those early canal scenes.

Another, Sylvester Stallone’s 1986 film ‘Cobra’ features a car chase scene over the bridges of Dell Avenue, with increasing height and momentum, each crunching leap over the next bridge expanding in slow motion, until they reach an untold height, crashing into a hanging and flashing "Do Not Enter – Wrong Way" sign, and blowing out the circuits, in a sparkling, sparky fury.

And while we’re on the subject of unseen Venice films from the 60s and 70s – we were? -how about Jacques Demy’s ‘The Model Shop’ from 1969? Anybody ever seen this one, about a restless young man with whom an older and defeated cafe entertainer cross paths? If so, let me know. The film, which takes place in less than 24 hours, begins on a Saturday morning in a Venice pad, in which this unemployed and disenchanted architect lives with his fed-up girlfriend. In essence, he begins a search for $100 for an overdue car payment and ends up finding himself. The model shop of the film’s title is a tawdry Santa Monica Boulevard pin-up studio. In this place of fantasy, Demy found the perfect metaphor with which to link the relationship between the young man and the older entertainer to its setting, Los Angeles, a gritty foil for Demy’s lyricism. What better background could there be for expressing the transitory nature of love? It’s also the first film from a major Hollywood company - Columbia Pictures - that depicts the effect of Vietnam on American young people.

Or what about the great cool, downbeat biker film from B-movie godfather Roger Corman. In 1966’s ‘The Wild Angels,’ a Venice-based motorcycle gang rescues one of their own from the hospital and uses the occasion to run rampant. When their friend dies on the way home, they stage a funeral service that soon becomes an orgiastic, drug-induced, drunken orgy.

Heavenly Blues, as played by Peter Fonda, is the black-leather-clad leader of this Hell’s Angels gang, laying it straight by saying "We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. We wanna be free to ride. We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! ... And we wanna get loaded. And we wanna have a good time. And that's what we are gonna do. We are gonna have a good time... We are gonna have a party!"

Actual Venice Hells Angels played themselves in this sort-of Western, capturing a semi-mournful stance as they portray - without judgment - the lifestyle of modern outlaws. The film even predicts the death of countercultural hedonism before many people even knew what that was. American social leaders were outraged when the film was chosen as the only U.S. entry for the 1966 Venice Film Festival, where it was considered an important cinematic statement. A record-breaking box-office success, it launched a whole genre: the 1960s biker film.

I don’t know, I’d like to see all these films revisited, reshown and reknown. Maybe we should all get together and petition Gerry Fialka to have yet another ‘Venice in Films’ night at 7 Dudley Cinema, actually Mark Kornfeld’s Sponto Gallery – he of fame from a Venice boardwalk scene in ‘Down And Out In Beverly Hills.’

Let’s have Gerry show all these films as an honorarium to our wonderful and amazingly historic Venice, and its famous canals on film. Whatta ya say?