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Love and the cult of monsters

Times Staff Writer

Two film programs that kick off tonight veer from the sublime to the giddily subversive, keenly illustrating the rich diversity of cinema and of the retrospective format.

“A Kind of Loving: The Personal Films of John Schlesinger,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, highlights some of the late Oscar-winning director’s best films. Schlesinger, who died last summer at 77, directed 25 films, TV projects and plays during a 40-plus-year career. Along with Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson, Schlesinger came to fame during British cinema’s “kitchen sink” era of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, making realistic black-and-white films that examined the world of the British working class: 1962’s “A Kind of Loving,” featuring Alan Bates in his first pivotal movie role; the offbeat 1963 comedy “Billy Liar,” starring Tom Courtenay and a very young Julie Christie; and 1965’s evocative “Darling,” which earned Christie an Oscar.

Schlesinger is best known, though, for 1969’s “Midnight Cowboy,” his first American film and the only X-rated movie to have won the best picture Oscar.

For the next 30 years, Schlesinger wove back and forth between big-budget Hollywood films and smaller, more independent films and TV movies.

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The retrospective includes his early British films, his underrated version of Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd,” his HBO version of Terence Rattigan’s “Separate Tables” and the unsettling Hollywood tale “The Day of the Locust.”

Photographer Michael Childers, who was Schlesinger’s life partner for 36 years and worked on several of his films in various capacities, says the director loved actors and wanted to protect them. “It was like a cocoon of love and creativity, so they could fly and takes chances,” Childers says.

“I never saw him scream at an actor, but [at] some of the crew people he most certainly would” if they made mistakes, he says.

Schlesinger worked with strong screenwriters, including Frederic Raphael, Waldo Salt and Penelope Gilliatt. “He always had the writer on the set,” Childers says. “And if they couldn’t be there and they were having problems, he would bring in another writer. Frederic Raphael wasn’t always available on ‘Darling’ because he was doing something else, so John brought in someone else to help with some of the dialogue. The same thing happened on ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday.’ Of course, the original writers got furious, but that is how John worked.”

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The director, Childers adds, worked during two important film eras.

“One was the ‘kitchen sink,’ the free cinema of Great Britain. That was really an important period. And then with ‘Cowboy,’ John happened to be at the right place at the right time for the breakthrough of personal filmmaking in Hollywood, which only lasted seven or eight years. Personal daring films would never be made now. They would never do ‘Midnight Cowboy’ now.

“But that one year of ‘Midnight Cowboy’ and ‘Easy Rider,’ it blew the lid off the system,” Childers says. “The old guard didn’t know what happened to them.”

Hollywood was a foreign land to Schlesinger. “He loved England. He loved making small films over there,” Childers says. “But the English film industry kept collapsing.”

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During the 1990s, Schlesinger’s output slowed to a trickle. His last good film was 1995’s shaggy dog of a comedy, “Cold Comfort Farm,” which was made for TV in England but released theatrically in America. “I think in the 1990s he realized his type of filmmaking was no longer in vogue. It was all in the hands of studio development people and committees .... He saw the writing on the wall. That’s why he wanted to leave America and go back to England.”

His final feature film was the poorly received Madonna-Rupert Everett comedy drama “The Next Best Thing” in 2000. “Rupert Everett sort of talked him into it,” Childers says. “I think John felt that it was his last chance of doing something young and hip [to] prove to the major studio, Paramount, that he could still do it. And that’s not good logic for making a film. The script was appalling, and Madonna is just one of the worst nonactors.... It was a nightmare for John.”

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Now this is scary

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UCLA Film & Television Archive’s “Going to Hell: Horror From the 1970s and ‘80s,” at the university’s James Bridges Theater, explores a different kind of personal filmmaking. The films in this retrospective aren’t as well known as Schlesinger’s -- most saw only limited release -- but have developed strong cult followings.

UCLA programmer David Pendleton, a huge fan of ‘70s horror films, says the UCLA archive has a rich collection of 35-millimeter prints of these movies, so he decided to “dig up some of the films that have cult followings and make them available.”

Pendleton says horror films have always been a “gauge for dealing with social pressure and social upheaval. I think all the rapid social change of the 1960s, especially the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, is what really produced these films.

“If you look at the whole cycle of 1950s monster films and alien-from-space-movies, it clearly revolves around Cold War fears,” he adds.

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“And in the 1970s, you have films that are about fears about social change, fears about rapidly changing sexual and gender roles and fears about authority that may be corrupt or may be dishonest.”

“Deathdream,” which opens the retrospective, is a 1972 chiller about a Vietnam vet who returns home under mysterious circumstances. Bob Clark of “Porky’s” and “A Christmas Story” fame directed the film.

The second feature is 1981’s “Night Warning,” a “Psycho"-inspired tale directed by William Asher, known for the TV series “Gidget” and “Bewitched.”

And 1973’s “Messiah of Evil,” screening Feb. 25, was written and directed by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who shared writing credit on “American Graffiti” (with George Lucas) and “Howard the Duck.”

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Among filmmakers who will appear at the screenings is Richard Blackburn, the co-star, writer and director of 1972’s “Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural” (Feb. 20). The Southern gothic vampire thriller set in the 1930s focuses on a young girl who leaves the safety of the church where she lives with the preacher to find her gangster father. Along the way, she is attacked by zombies and finds solace in the home of a beautiful lesbian vampire.

Blackburn says he wasn’t aware of the underground fan base for his film until he started to attend horror film festivals.

“I think the movie for all its deficiencies does have this equally lurid and childlike kind of tone to it that is sort of unique,” Blackburn says.

Blackburn was a recent graduate of UCLA’s film school when he made the movie. Huyck and Katz were also UCLA film school graduates when they made “Messiah of Evil,” an atmospheric, almost poetic zombie film, in 1971.

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“Our first agent wanted to become a producer, and he said he could raise $100,000 in cash to make a movie but it had to be a horror movie,” Katz says.

“About three-fourths of the way through the movie, the money stopped. We later learned the investors took some of the money to re-roof their house.”

Though the money ran out before they shot two pivotal scenes, they edited the film and tried to sell it.

“We finally gave it back to the investors. The next thing we heard, two years later, someone released it. I think it had the title ‘The Revenge of the Screaming Dead,’ ” Huyck says.

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When they attend the screening at UCLA, it will be the first time they will see the movie. “It has developed a cult following,” says Katz.

“Sight and Sound, the British publication, picked it as one of the great undiscovered works of cinema, and then it has Internet fanatics who discuss it in terms of changing their lives,” she says.

“And we were making a little horror film,” Huyck says. “That is what you did after film school.”

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‘A Kind of Loving: The Personal Films of John Schlesinger’

Where: Leo S. Bing Theater, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.

When: Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.

Ends: Feb. 28

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Price: $8 for general admission; $6 for Museum and AFI members, seniors 62 and older and students with a valid I.D.

Contact: (323) 857-6010

Schedule:

Tonight: “Darling” and “A Kind of Loving.”

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Saturday: “Midnight Cowboy” and “Billy Liar”

Feb. 20: “Far From the Madding Crowd.”

Feb. 21: “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Separate Tables.”

Feb. 27: “Yanks.”

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Feb. 28: “The Day of the Locust” and “Cold Comfort Farm.”

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‘Going to Hell: Horror From the 1970s and ‘80s’

Where: James Bridges Theater, UCLA

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Schedule:

Tonight at 7:30: “Deathdream” and “Night Warning.”

Saturday at 7:30 p.m.: “The Velvet Vampire” and “Daughters of Darkness.”

Sunday at 7 p.m.: “Deadly Spawn,” a.k.a. “Return of the Aliens: The Deadly Spawn,” and “Return of the Living Dead.”

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Feb. 20 at 7:30 p.m.: “Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural” and “The Vampire Lovers.”

Feb. 25 at 7:30 p.m.: “Messiah of Evil” and “Sinners of Hell.”

Price: $7 general; $5 students, seniors and UCLA Alumni Assn. members

Contact: (310) 206-8013 or go to www.cinema.ucla.edu

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