September 21, 2017

Anthony Desiato’s My Comic Shop Country

Poster for the upcoming film My Comic Shop Country by Anthony Desiato
Back in 2011, I covered my hometown St. Louis International Film Festival for the now-defunct Sound on Sight and also published the reviews on this blog. One of the surprises was My Comic Shop DocumentARy, an up-close look at the Alternate Realities store in Scarsdale, New York. What made the documentary charming was the close perspective on both customers and employees of this comic shop. It was directed by Anthony Desiato, who worked at Alternate Realities for more than 10 years. His personal experience with the shop and owner Steve Oto made the film more engaging than I expected. Desiato did a Q&A at the festival, and it was clear how much the store meant to him.

Since that time, Desiato has directed several other documentaries on the interesting people that he’s met along the way. By Spoon! The Jay Meisel Story focused on the eccentric guy we first met in My Comic Shop DocumentARy, and Wacky Man: The Rise of the Puppeteer covered an idealistic puppeteer. Desiato also created the podcast My Comic History to chronicle the sad closing of Alternate Realities. In the third season of that show, he traveled to comic shops around the country to uncover the business side of running a store. I’m not a comics expert, but it’s still intriguing to learn more about what happens behind the scenes.

Desiato’s next project is a feature film called My Comic Shop Country, which will continue the work from the podcast. He’ll visit comic shops around the nation to explore how local stores function and the communities around them. Desiato has set up a Kickstarter campaign to help fund this new film. Judging by his other work, this documentary should have plenty to offer for anyone interested in the industry or even how small businesses thrive. To give a better idea of Desiato’s style, I caught up with other films that he’s created in recent years.

The poster from By Spoon! The Jay Meisel Story, a documentary from 2014

By Spoon! The Jay Meisel Story (2014)

The first line of By Spoon! The Jay Meisel Story is the title guy saying “fuck technology!” into the camera. It’s a sad time for parts of the industry that have been forced to change to survive. Meisel isn’t exactly a technologically advanced guy, so moving to the digital realm is unlikely. The big character spends his life in a tight spot among the comic books in the Empire State Flea Market. He’s a fiery, old-school New York guy that grumbles at customers. Of course, this doc shows how his gruff demeanor hides an endearing soul beneath the surface.

It’s the small touches of Meisel’s personality that make him engaging. He buys movie posters that aren’t particularly memorable and rarely sells them. He’s doesn’t seem that forward-thinking when it comes to other cultures, though he’s hardly that simple. The sad cloud hanging over the film is the impending closure of the flea market. It’s not like Meisel has done anything else for decades. He refuses to go on eBay and instead uses his garage. The whole thing is unfortunate.

Desiato clearly likes Meisel, and the loss of his shop feels tragic. Watching him trying to sell products out of the garage is sad. His former spot is empty and won’t be the same even when new tenants buy the space. A montage of happy interactions between Meisel and various customers pinpoint what’s now missing. It was more about the human connections than the individual comic books. This sweet film shows how many people a guy like Meisel charmed during the numerous years in his shop. Like My Comic Shop DocumentARy, it reveals wonderful characters that we often don’t see on our screens.

The poster from Wacky Man: Rise of the Puppeteer, a film by Anthony Desiato.

Wacky Man: The Rise of a Puppeteer (2016)

How does a person become a puppeteer? Zach Woliner has that dream and created the character Wally Wackiman to make that happen. Jim Henson set the standard with The Muppets and related projects, but there are still limited professional roles for puppeteers. Can Zach do it? That quest is the subject of Wacky Man: The Rise of a Puppeteer. Recording videos at home with his wife Veronica, Woliner is idealistic but recognizes that challenges he faces with this dream. Balancing it with a full-time office job makes his goals even harder to fulfill.

Woliner’s brother and parents give some background on the life that inspired him. It’s clear that this passion for puppetry has been central since an early age. You don’t get the sense that anyone pressured him to give up the dream, and that’s important. The chances of success are slim, but Woliner makes an impression at a puppeteers’ workshop. There’s something inside him that might click with others if luck goes in Woliner’s favor.

Wally Wackiman is a self-aware puppet, which opens up a new realm of comedy for Woliner. It’s sometimes tricky to separate Woliner’s persona from the puppet. The segment on that separation is one of the most interesting parts of the movie. We also see the possible limits of this character in YouTube videos. Woliner is a talented guy, but there are so many entertainers competing for our time. Observing the DIY approach of the videos shows the hard work that’s involved with online production. Parties are no easy feat either.

What rings true in the ups and downs of Wacky Man is Woliner’s heart. This isn’t a callous guy with an obsessive dream. The strong relationships with Veronica and his brother keep Woliner grounded in a challenging field. Sesame Street is the dream job, and the moment when Wally hits the stage with Oscar the Grouch is charming. But can he break through and reach that level? The commitment is there in spades, though it may take a lot more to achieve his dream.


Interview with Anthony Desiato

Desiato was kind enough to answer some questions about My Comic Shop Country, the Kickstarter campaign, and why he’s so interested in making this project happen.

1. What initially attracted you to comics and working at a comic shop when you were younger?
The character of Superman drew me in initially when I was five, but as I got older and my reading selections expanded, I came to appreciate everything the medium can do. Comics invite the reader to engage with the material like prose books, but they also offer the visual dimension like films and television (albeit with unlimited budgets). As a medium, you really get the best of both worlds. As far as working at a comic shop, if you're a comic fan looking for an after-school job, there's really nothing better.

2. You’ve visited stores across the country for the My Comic History podcast. What inspires you to dig further and produce the documentary?
The styles of storytelling in a podcast vs. a documentary film are distinct enough that each project will stand on its own. For example, if there's a story that takes five minutes to recount, that's perfect podcast fodder, but it would be an eternity on film. At the same time, podcasts are an auditory medium, so I'm tremendously excited to SHOW these stores in the documentary. I've discovered some terrific stores with eye-catching layouts, merchandise, and displays, and I can’t wait for viewers to see them.

A poster from the podcast My Comic History from Anthony Desiato

3. Your podcast often delves into the business side of running a comic shop. What interests you about exploring that aspect of running a store?
Maybe I secretly wish I had gotten my MBA instead of my law degree? It's funny — I'm not entirely sure why the business of comics retail appeals to me the way it does. I think it has to do with the fact that most retailers (it seems) start as fans and collectors first who decide to pursue comics as a career. The process of turning your passion into a business can be a tricky proposition, and I’m always curious to hear how people navigate that. I’m also keenly aware of the challenges retailers face on multiple fronts. However, rather than take a doom-and-gloom approach, I love to hear HOW retailers are responding to these challenges.

4. In both the feature My Comic Shop DocumentARy and your short film By Spoon!, we see the ways the industry has changed and even left some people behind. Why have some comic shops been able to thrive in this evolving world?
There are a lot of ways to answer that, but I think your question gets at a critical point. The industry has changed and continues to change, and the stores that recognize that and are willing to innovate are the ones that may just make it.

5. What continues to interest you about comic shops today?
Well, for the longest time I thought it was only MY comic shop that interested me, but when Alternate Realities closed, I re-examined that proposition and realized that the local comic shop as an institution held great appeal to me. I had captured the community of AR on film and in podcast form, and I wanted to try to capture the larger comic shop community as well.

A look at the comic shop Alternate Realities, which closed a few years ago.

6. How did you choose the comic shops to be featured on the podcast and the upcoming documentary?
It was a combination of factors both creative and practical. I knew I wanted a cross-section of stores in terms of geography and history. There were stores I already knew; I solicited recommendations; and I looked at trips I was already taking (for work, weddings, etc.) to see where I could tie in shop visits.

7. You’ll basically travel the country as a one-man crew for this film. How challenging with the production be for you to shoot all the footage?
These days, I have my wife traveling with me, which has been a huge help. I’d also think about bringing in a crew person if possible.  But as far as shooting everything myself, it's all I know! That's how I've made all three of my previous docs.

8. How long do you anticipate it will take to shoot and complete the film?
The plan is to shoot and edit next spring and summer, with an eye toward completing the film in Fall 2018.

9. One of the highlights of My Comic Shop DocumentARy was spending time with all the unique figures that inhabit the world of Alternate Realities. Do you hope to connect with similar characters around the country in your new film?
Absolutely. With everything I’ve done, it's always about the people above all else. Comic shops are perhaps the best place to find colorful personalities — on both sides of the counter.

10. The Kickstarter rewards include some pretty cool incentives for backers, including a cooking class with you and your wife, a portfolio review, and a superhero photo shoot. How did you go about putting together the rewards?
When I turned my attention toward designing the reward structure, I wanted to make sure there was variety in both the prices as well as the rewards themselves. Whether you're looking to contribute $5 or $5,000 — or anywhere in between — there's something for you to choose. I thought about what might appeal to someone who's followed my past work (hence rewards like exclusive podcast episodes and the My Comic Shop DocumentARy Blu-ray), but I also considered the folks coming into this cold, who might be interested in the original art, custom toy, or portfolio review rewards. There are essentially five reward categories: digital, physical, one-of-a-kind, experiential, and sponsorships.


Learn More

Check out the My Comic Shop Country Kickstarter page to learn more about the film and the benefits of supporting the project. Stay updated through the My Comic Shop History page on Facebook.

August 25, 2017

Van Johnson Blogathon: The Caine Mutiny

Van Johnson stars with Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny.

It’s easy to look at The Caine Mutiny as an actors’ showcase. Humphrey Bogart chews up the scenery and gives an iconic courtroom speech that stands alongside Nicholson’s work in A Few Good Men. Fred MacMurray excels at playing a morally flexible soldier, and a quiet Van Johnson struggles with the burden of removing his superior. Even the bland Robert Francis gets a lot of time on screen as the idealistic young newbie. We recall these guys playing off each other, but that focus pushes aside the other predominant theme on the destructive power of war.

Adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Herman Wouk, this film doesn’t glamorize life at sea during World War II. The Caine is a beaten-down vessel that needs an extended stay at dry dock. Instead, it’s given a new captain and pushed to the front once again. We spend limited time in battle with this crew, but the impact of war stands out on the face of guys like Bogart’s Captain Queeg. His obsessive ticks help cope with the horrors that play constantly in his mind. He desires control over every detail yet has little ability to secure his own impulses.

A cynicism about institutions and authority permeates the story, even when it’s patriotic on the surface. It was directed by Edward Dmytryk, a member of the Hollywood 10 that eventually testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Dmytryk did not write the adaptation, but it’s fairly easy to connect his experiences to this tale. When the government prosecutors grill Francis’ Willie Keith and Johnson’s Steve Maryk about their involvement in the mutiny, it easily connects to the anti-communist investigations.

Maryk spends the final act with a pained look that reveals the turmoil beneath his choice to mutiny against Queeg. It’s like he’s carrying a giant weight on his shoulders, and even ultimate vindication won’t remove that burden. The real scar on Johnson’s face seems fitting given the emotional scars he’s carrying for this choice. The stoic Johnson is the right choice to play a well-meaning guy thrust into an unenviable position. He gets no joy out of removing the unfit leader from his position. Johnson remains in the background while we stick with Keith for the first half, but he’s a lot more interesting once the plot kicks into gear.

The mystifying part of The Caine Mutiny is how much time we spend with Keith and his story away from the ship. The conflict between his devotion to his mom (Katherine Warren) and love for singer May Wynn comes from a lesser story. Francis’ flat vocal delivery stands out next to pros like MacMurray and Bogart. He’s a young guy with the right look but is in over his head. That sense actually works for his time on the ship because Keith is new to war. The problems appear when he’s separated from the army. Wynn (who took the character’s name as her stage name) has charm but can’t do much with Keith and the predictable domestic material.

Disregarding the lesser parts, this story clicks as a tight drama. Queeg’s presence keeps everyone on edge, even a smooth guy like MacMurray’s Tom Keefer. Queeg disrupts the ecosystem of The Caine with more than just careless orders. The courtroom scenes are gripping, particularly due to a knowing performance from Jose Ferrer as defense attorney Barney Greenwald. The way he rips apart Queeg’s fa├žade is frighteningly precise. He takes no joy in it and knows it will destroy a man’s career. It’s eerily similar to the way Chuck disintegrated in Better Call Saul this year. Once the house of cards breaks, the fall is swift and destructive.

There’s a gripping 90-minute courtroom drama trying to break out of the two-hour film. On the other hand, it could work as a three-hour epic with more back stories for the other characters. Instead, The Caine Mutiny straddles the middle and provides great scenes and lost moments. Led by Bogart’s stunning performance, the actors keep us invested through all the ups and downs. Regardless of screen time, the cagey veterans rarely miss a beat.


This article is a contribution to the Van Johnson Blogathon hosted by Michaela at Love Letters to Old Hollywood. Check out all the great articles from this blogathon here.

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July 15, 2017

Nicholas Ray Retrospective: Johnny Guitar (1954)

Joan Crawford stars as Vienna in Johnny Guitar, directed by Nicholas Ray.

It’s rare to have a Western with a female lead, particularly in the 1950s. Joan Crawford’s Vienna is hardly just eye candy either. She owns the screen with a look and refuses to tread in the confines of her civilization. For that reason, Vienna is a threat to everyone in the local town. Accepting her claim to valuable real estate near the railroad makes Vienna an equal to the guys, and perhaps even superior to them. It’s a clever shift in gender dynamics, though Johnny Guitar doesn’t completely bypass those norms. The title reminds us that men still try to remain front and center. The love story must drive the plot, even if it’s the least interesting part of the story.

Sterling Hayden plays the title character, who exists mostly to protect Vienna from the blood-thirsty townspeople. In a similar fashion to Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) in this year’s Wonder Woman, Guitar (whose real name is Johnny Logan) clearly plays second fiddle to the main character. He’s a past love that once lived a life of crime, but now his attention is all on Vienna. There’s an odd conflict between romance and self-determination in Vienna’s heart, and that fight exists within the film’s themes. Crawford’s Vienna is so focused that she hardly blinks, but then she falls into Logan’s arms multiple times. The script from Ben Maddow indicts McCarthyism yet can’t help but give the characters something beyond the ideological fight.

The standout among the forces of civilization is Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), who hates Vienna with all of her being. She’s jealous of Vienna’s relationship with “The Dancin’ Kid” (Scott Brady), who’s hardly a kid and doesn’t dance. Brady was 30 when Johnny Guitar was released and looks even older. McCambridge and Crawford reportedly did not get along on the set, and that hatred emanates from the screen. It’s easy to believe that the characters want to kill each other, particularly Small. The look on McCambridge’s face when she burns down Vienna’s place is chilling. It’s a vision of evil from a villain technically on the side of the law.

Ward Bond’s John McIvers may believe he’s running the show, but it’s Small that’s driving the furor against Vienna and the Dancin’ Kid’s gang. It’s the crowd mentality that drives the push to not only drive them from the town, but to hang them. The dark middle act reveals how far bloodlust can take even normal people. It’s only after the first killing that it subsides, at least for most of them. It’s easy to draw parallels between the falsehoods that drive this mission and the evils of McCarthyism. Maddow had to use Phillip Yordan’s name on the script due to his past issues with the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The final showdown is the only place where Johnny Guitar slips a bit. The shootout has power yet seems too conventional given the earlier scenes. It does include a quick stop that reminds me of the brief cease fire during Children of Men. Bond’s haunted face shows how quickly a quest for justice can get out of control. On the other hand, the last shot indicates that the love story is the driving narrative. That feels like an over-simplification given what we’ve witnessed up to that point. Vienna has lost her home and livelihood, but at least she has love. This moment ends the story on a hollow note; we root for Vienna but not in this way.

It’s easy to view Johnny Guitar as a revisionist western, but there are still parts that are genre norms. Its primary conflict is between the forces of civilization and the wilderness, order and freedom. Vienna wants the chance to go her own way, but the crowd wants to stop her because she’s an outsider. Her bright red lipstick and colorful outfits aren’t the typical garb for a woman in the “civilized” world. Crawford’s intensity sells the idea that Vienna is a singular individual that won’t cater to any societal norms. She falls for gunslingers and refuses to indict them for the behavior. It’s an entertaining twist on the conventional structure, though the end result doesn’t completely upend the typical narrative.

Johnny Guitar is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Updated Nicholas Ray Rankings

1. In a Lonely Place
2. Johnny Guitar
3. They Live by Night
4. Rebel Without a Cause
5. On Dangerous Ground

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