Automatic Vaudeville presents Toronto's Hi-Class Picture Show as part of the Drake's Notes From The Underground series, with tap dance/keyboard sensations Big Gold Hoops & Kosher Dill Spears , Drake Hotel (1150 Queen West), Tuesday (November 30), 8 pm. $5. www.thedrakehotel.ca. Rating: NNNNN
Montreal - Automatic Vaudeville's Mark Slutsky, Seth W Owen and Daniel Perlmutter are sipping hot toddies in the parlour of the Automatic Vaudeville Studios complex in Montreal's Plateau.
It's a relaxation ritual following a day of reviewing footage from their latest projects. These include things like a camp war movie set in Nazi-occupied Budapest but shot in Old Montreal, a 65-minute mock video diary about Owen's apartment building and a purposefully awkward adaptation of The Prisoner Of Zenda.
Automatic Vaudeville Studios started out six years ago as little more than a dumping ground for strange notions about cinema's failed promise and the rallying point for a small band of celluloid-lovers resisting the trend toward sterile and dehumanizing cinema. Over 50 films later, they make their Toronto debut next Tuesday (November 30) in the Drake's Notes From The Underground series.
"We felt that we had to revolutionize not just what was on the screen, but the whole mode of production - to fetishize the process and make it fun again," says Slutsky, who's "head of talent. "
You could romanticize the AVS studio heads as the modern-day Marx Brothers and the entire AutoVaud filmography as some grand Monkey Business/Horsefeathers/Duck Soup. It's not a bad comparison - Owen as the glibly suave Groucho, Slutsky as the loquacious Chico and Perlmutter as a quieter, fast-witted Harpo, all three riffing and climbing over each other with slapstick affability.
Behind their huckster charm, camp hyperbole and hammy Keystone antics is a rebellious, almost earnest urge to disrupt the placidity of cinema, to liberate independent film from its Sundance ghetto and to reinvest it with the playfulness of the silver screen's teething years. It's hard to say whether the Vaudevillians are an inspired troupe of jokers or an enclave of genuinely misunderstood cinematic innovators.
Of course, the "studio" they built is more a shared state of mind than an actual business, and its tone anything but serious. Or more accurately, AVS is serious about their lack of seriousness.
"Well, we get laughs pretty much throughout anything we do," says "head of development" Owen of the trio's Hi-Class Picture Shows. "Early on, we realized if we were going to sneak some art film bits in, we weren't going to get too dear about it."
From the beginning, the trio set out to create a studio modelled on their fantasy of the 1930s Hollywood studio system.
"We wanted to bring it all to life: the moguls, the stars, the stuntmen, people tap-dancing, sets being built, posters being designed and even the picture show experience," Perlmutter says as head of production. "So we built a movie studio with various departments and a development process that could take a film from concept to presentation for less than it would cost to see Celine Dion."
The Recommendations, which screens at the Toronto Hi-Class Picture Show, is Vaudeville's most ambitious film to date, a feature-length mockumentary that tears into the underbelly of Montreal's literary scene. Technically and thematically, they've never been better.
"We had this idea of a story about plagiarism and betrayal," says Perlmutter, "but only when we saw what the actors were bringing to the table did it start to come together. People were coming up with such gold."
With Perlmutter, Slutsky and Owen at its head and no operating budget, Automatic Vaudeville started making films in the purist spirit of DIY, on their own sweat and that of their friends.
Fortunately, their friends were many, talented and willing. Soon they were reeling out a film a week, screening them monthly as the first instalments of Automatic Vaudeville's Hi-Class Picture Shows.
"When you're making a movie a week, production values sometimes fall by the wayside, but that wasn't the point," Owen admits with a cocked eyebrow. "It was about getting a film from the idea to the screen as quickly as possible. And we were still editing on two VCRs. Everything was in its infancy."
In this first golden age of Automatic Vaudeville Studios, the earliest efforts, called The Century Project, were a doting homage to classic film styles.
"We felt that, in the wreck-heap of the 20th century, there were all these genres that had been discarded too soon and that maybe still had some value audiences today could appreciate," Slutsky says.
In jury-rigged productions that would make B-movie creators wince, Automatic Vaudeville took on German expressionism (Bluebeard), the western (He Killed For Love), the 1930s Dead End Gang-style film (The Southside Five) and a comedic franchise built around the exploits of a group of ethnic clichés called the Tomato Boys (named Shirley, Jean-Pierre, Ernesto and Jackie).
The Boys became a popular staple of the monthly picture show events, and before long the studio had produced its first serial (Tomato Boys Name Names, Tomato Boys Get Lost and Viva Tomato!, etc.).
They attempted musicals, science fiction, horror and detective stories, too. And this period also saw the production house's first foray into mockumentary, the genre they bring to the Toronto Hi-Class Picture Show.
Last year they screened Here's Looking At Us Chapter One: The First 5 Years: Automatic Vaudeville 1998-2003: Our Story, a 52-minute documentary retrospective and behind-the-scenes look at the studio. It was a watershed event, proof of their manic efforts' legacy.
"We captured a lot of actual history along with the fabricated stuff," says Perlmutter. "It was great to be able to give that back to our stars and to the people who'd contributed over the years."
Owen admits, "So much of what we've done has been invented nostalgia. Suddenly it was genuine nostalgia."
"Some people who weren't as familiar with our work actually thought that it was made up and were genuinely surprised to learn otherwise," Slutsky notes. "Not that we've ever had an issue with blurring those lines."
But blurring the lines hasn't helped Canada's funding agencies warm to their farcical brand of art house filmmaking, and it's made it easier for people to misinterpret their work.
"We've always welcomed conflicting interpretations. And we've never tried too hard to guide people's reactions," Perlmutter explains.
"From day one, we've been incredibly groundbreaking," Owen says. "But it's been kind of a subtle groundbreaking. Often we've been dismissed as goofballs or chuckleheads, idiots, dumdums, what have you.
"But the one thing we're never going to do is stand up and yell, 'Stop laughing! We're serious intellectuals!'"
Automatic Vaudeville Spoiler
the Sophisticated Detectives (2001) with Choose-O-Rama technology When disastrously unsalvageable attempts at filming The Sophisticated Detectives - a duo loosely based on The Thin Man's Nick and Nora Charles - resulted in a confused story and a whodunit without a defined crime or resolution, Automatic Vaudeville invented Choose-O-Rama. The team handed out coloured popsicle sticks to the audience to be held up at key points during the screening to designate choices from a selection of plot developments. After a quick scan with the "patented laser technology" and a mugged tallying of votes by the AVS computers, the film would roll on. The entire thing was a sham, but the audience got to feel like they were directly responsible for the incomprehensible plot twists, and AVS made out like Teflon dons.
Spanked: The Ron Friendly Story (2002) One of AVS's earliest mock biopics, Spanked follows the performance antics and subsequent psychological meltdown of celebrated underground art phenom Ron Friendly. The story captures the artist's life, from his early days on the scene through his seminal hat-switching masterpiece Hat Magic to his ultimate psychotic break.
Krangor: Legend of the Galaxy (2003) This film about the doomed but beautiful love story between two interstellar vessels wandering the voids of space was tragically abandoned when the producers couldn't get the spaceships to fall in love - despite much liquor and cajoling. "You can never predict star chemistry," director Mark Slutsky noted at the time.
Schandfilm (Shamefilm) (2004) This shattering new piece of cinema scandal (screening as part of the Toronto Picture Show event) bends surrealist wankery around a fugue of dreamlike imagery and ponderous political commentary. Described as the "first shot fired" in the studio's controversial Schandcycle, the film is presented silent with live musical accompaniment. And because it's super-saturated with undecipherable meaning, they'll screen it a second time with explanations.