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I learned all the rules of a modern day drifter
Don’t you hold on to nothin’ too long
My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys
Written by Sharon Vaughn
(Recorded by Willie Nelson for The Electric Horseman sound track)

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The Van Nuys Drive-In Theatre opened in 1948 and was demolished in the 1990s—but it found a new life in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. It’s where Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) lives in an Airstream trailer with his pit bull.

Actress Jane Russell began working in theater at Van Nuys High School on her way to becoming a Hollywood star working along side Marilyn Monroe, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, and Clark Gable. Natalie Wood (Rebel Without a Cause) graduated from Van Nuys High School in 1956.

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Jane Russell in “The Outlaw” (1943)

Another Van Nuys High School student who was more interested in sports than theater also went on to become a Hollywood star. Actor/director Robert Redford graduated in 1954 while Russell was still in her prime. Six years later Redford began his rise in the western Maverick— a show where Once Upon a Time’s Rick Dalton could have been a guest star.

Redford teamed up with Paul Newman on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), had an incredible run throughout the 70s, won an Oscar for directing Ordinary People (1980), started the Sundance Institute in 1981,  and got to use his athletic skills in The Natural (1984).

It’s near impossible to see Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood circa 1969—in Aviator sunglasses and a denim jacket no less— and not think of Redford circa 1970.

 

Redford directed Pitt in A River Runs Through It (1992) and they co-starred in Spy Game (2001).

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I did watch Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood for a seventh time today and it still holds up. It’s turning into the ultimate hangout movie for me as the two hour and 41 minutes flew by as I admired the craftsmanship on so many levels. And each time I see it I pull back a few more layers. Today was actually the first time I noticed that the movie rating at the Van Nuys rating was GP which was a pre-1972 PG and meant the film was intended for general audiences but parental guidance was suggested.

And since Redford came up in this post, one of his films I’d consider a spiritual cousin to Once Upon a Time… is The Electric Horseman. Redford plays a Rick Dalton/Easy Breezy-like character who is a past his prime rodeo star who drinks too much and—to pull a line from Tarantino’s movie— is “coming to terms with what it means to be slightly more useless each day.”

 

P.S. New Beverly Cinema double feature suggestion:

The Natural starring a 47-year-old Robert Redford and Moneyball starring a 48-year-old Brad Pitt. Two of my favorite films.

P.P.S. Van Nuys, California also had a small part in the classic Casablanca as the Van Nuys Airport doubled for an airport in Morocco. 

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Scott W. Smith

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Yesterday I went to see Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood for the sixth time.

That’s more than twice the number of times I’ve ever seen any movie while it’s still in theaters. But I must put an asterisk by it. In August I signed up for the new Regal Unlimited Movie Pass Subscription allowing me unlimited viewing of movies at specific Regal cinemas for just $22 a month.

While I think Once Upon a Time ... is an extremely well made and enjoyable film, I’m not sure it would have broken my personal record without the unlimited card.  I never signed up for MoviePass as it looked like one of those too good to be true offers (and it was), but they did start the “Netflix for theaters” concept back in 2012 and paved the way for a new price structure for going to movie theaters.

On this sixth (and probably not my final viewing) of Once Upon a Time … I really took in the roles of the supporting cast. (Because I’ve mentioned Julia Butters,  Bruce Dern, Margaret Qualley in pervious posts I won’t repeat myself.)

Nicholas Hammond as the director Sam Wanamaker could be the center of a whole  Tarantino film. His credits are as a varied as General Hospital,  Eight is Enough, The Love Boat, and back to the classic The Sound of Music. I’m sure Hammond has many personal stories of the changes in Hollywood he’s seen over the years. Partly because I was not familiar with his face, he’s the one person in the entire film who truly felt like he was transported from 1969 to be in this film.

Dakota Fanning plays Squeaky Fromme so effectively in her Spahn Ranch sequence with Brad Pitt that even if you didn’t know that real life character’s background, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she would  one day try to kill the president of the United States.

Zoë Bell and Kurt Russell play a husband and wife team that are so dynamic together that if the story would have followed them for 10 or 15 minutes I would have been game for the ride.

Timothy Olyphant as James Stacy and Luke Perry  as Wayne Maunder bring their star persona to two brief cameo roles. Both understated performances that you appreciate on multiple viewings.

Mike Moh as Bruce Lee. Since this story is a fable I have one fantasy that I would like to see in this film and that is somehow Moh and his martial arts skills were utilized in the climatic ending. Moh is grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota and spent a decade in LA. pursing an acting career before moving to Madison, Wisconsin to open a martial arts school. It’s not a stretch to bet that someday he’ll star in a film about Bruce Lee.

Al Pacino has been such a great actor in so many fine movies it’s easy to overlook is role as the agent Marvin Schwartz. He really only has one key scene, and it’s a hard one to pull off. It’s a long exposition scene in which he has to explain to Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) that his career has been on a downward trajectory. There are so many layers to Once Upon a Time that I didn’t fully appreciate Pacino’s performance until the fourth or fifth viewing.

Quentin Tarantino? —There is a brief clip (just a second or two) of the film The 14 Fists of McCluskey that shows a person (solider?) is a beret that sure looks like it could be Tarantino. It’s a quick shot and I can’t be sure. But if so it would be a brilliant Alfred Hitchcock-style way of sneaking the writer/director into the film. He is uncredited as the voice of the director of Red Apples’ cigarette commercial in the end credits. So regardless, he did make the final cut.

The Dogs. Brad Pitt’s pit bull and the dogs wandering around Spahn Ranch add a dimension to the movie that looking back you can’t imagine the movie without them.

And even after writing over a month of posts about this film, I still have a week of posts to go. Look for Once Upon a Time … Film School and Once Upon a Time … Spahn Ranch next week.

P.S. If the New Beverly Cinema ever has a double-double feature with Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and Sunset Blvd. at night and La La Land and The Player in the afternoon matinee please let me know).

Scott W. Smith

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“To me, torture would be watching sports on television.”
Quentin Tarantino

How in the world can you tie in a college football game in Florida with Quentin Tarantino’s movie Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood? It’s really not that hard because in Tarantino’s world everything is connected.

Once upon a time the rivalry between the University of Miami and the University of Florida was the Ali-Frazier battle of college football. Though they’ve been competing against each since 1938 it was the 80s and 90s when it turned into a slugfest. Since 1984 Miami or Florida have won a total of 8 national championships.

When they played this weekend it made me think of how Florida was connected to Tarantino’s world and his film Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood via some personal recollections. (BTW—I did watch the Miami—Florida game on Tv and at 3 hours it was even longer than Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. I have the ability to enjoy both.)

  1. Jackie Brown is based on Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch which was set in Florida. Tarantino changed the location to the more familiar Los Angeles County where he was raised.
  2. Actor/director Sylvester Stallone attended the University of Miami long before he became Rocky and a Hollywood icon. Stallone has said in interviews that he turned down roles in both Jackie Brown and Death Proof.  In Tarantino’s ever involving list of favorite films you will sometimes see the original Rocky film listed.
  3. Burt Reynolds briefly played football at Florida State in Tallahassee before also becoming a Hollywood icon. (He first studied acting at Palm Beach Junior College.) Reynolds was the biggest box office actor in the 1970s and his films were a huge influence on Tarantino growing up. The Rick Dalton character played by Leonardo DeCaprio was partly inspired by Reynolds and Tarantino cast Reynolds to played George Spahn in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.   
  4. In 1978 I went to one of the best concerts of my life at the Tangerine Bowl (now known as Camping World Stadium) in Orlando (which is where the game was played last Saturday between Miami and Florida). The final act of that ’78 concert was Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. Seger’s 1969 song Rambin’ Gamblin Man is featured on the soundtrack of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

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    I was a concert rat back in the day and kept many of my ticket stubs. I think there were around 60,000 people in attendance.

  5. At the old Orlando arena I once saw Neil Diamond in concert and his work is also featured on the Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood soundtrack. He performs Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.
  6. Back in the 90s I was editing a video project a Greg Rike Productions in Altamonte Springs and was told that Deep Purple was regularly coming into the studio at night.  Apparently they liked to winter in the Orlando area where they could play soccer and rehearse. Deep Purple has two songs on the Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood soundtrack—Hush and Kentucky Woman (which was actually written by Neil Diamond).
  7. Another time when I was editing at that same facility I met one of the band members for Flock of Seagulls. In Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction Jules (John Travolta) calls one of the people he’s going to kill “Flock of Seagulls” because of the guy’s haircut.
  8. One of my high school football coaches was Sammy Weir who played one season with the New York Jets in 1966. The quarterback of the Jets in ’66? Joe Namath.
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    Here I am (#42) standing next to Coach Weir my senior year at Lake Howell. Weir was a Little All American at Arkansas St.

    When Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) walks into the Bruin movie theater to watch the movie The Wrecking Crew the movie trailer playing is for C. C. and Company and features Joe Namath. At the 35mm showing of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood I saw in Jacksonville they actually showed the original trailer of biker film featuring Broadway Joe (as Namath was known in his heyday).

  9. In the trailer for C.C. and Company (and in the movie) are clips of musician Wayne Cochrane with his pompadour in full glory. Cochran was known as The White Knight of Soul and he is said to be the inspiration behind Elvis in his jumpsuit era. Cochran spent his last years in Miami where he was an evangelist.
  10. Jim Morrison of The Doors is mentioned in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and he was born in Melbourne, Florida, was a student a Florida State University, and cut his singing chops playing in bars in Tallahassee. Another musician on the edge of the story was Graham Parsons who was raised in Winter Haven, Florida on his way to being a part of The Byrds. The Byrds road manger Phil Kaufman knew Charles Manson while in prison at the Terminal Island Prison and encouraged Manson to pursue a music career. (That prison is not far from Torrance, California where Tarantino grew up.)  Manson eventually met Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and that leads Manson to meeting record producer Terry Melcher in hopes of getting a record contract. Melcher once lived at  10050 Cielo Drive. Some speculate that when Manson’s cult members went to Cielo Drive it was an effort to payback or scare Melcher for not following through with a record deal for Manson.
  11. When Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) pulls into the Van Nuys Drive In theater one of the movies on the marquee is Pretty Poison which stars Anthony Perkins. Perkins went to Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida (an Orlando suburb). Fred Rogers—better known as Mr. Rogers—also went to Rollins. At one of the viewings I went to there was a trailer for the new Mr. Rogers movie starring Tom Hanks.
  12. I’ve often joked that I had the shortest career of any football player who ever put on a University of Miami football uniform. I was a walk-on player (non-scholarship) who dressed out for exactly one JV game, and that happened to be a game against Florida. I played exactly zero downs which was the only time that ever happened in 10 years of playing organized football. I dislocated my shoulder the week after that game and had it operated on. Though I was a good high school player I was a athletic version of Rick Dalton by the time I was 20. One thing sports teaches you at every level is there is a pyramid of talent and that pyramid is always rotating. Jerry Rice was one of the top players to ever play NFL football. (A top of the pyramid wide receiver.) But at the end of his career when in was with the Denver Broncos he retired after learning that he would no longer be a starter. The head coach when I was at Miami was Howard Schnellenbeger who as an assistant at the University of Alabama in the early ‘60s is the one who recruited Joe Namath to play for the Crimson Tide.
  13. I made my first 8mm film while at the University of Miami with my arm in a sling after surgery on my shoulder. The rock star in the film program then was David Nutter who went on to win an Emmy for directing an episode of Game of Thrones. I heard (though don’t know if he’s still attached) that he was directing some episodes of TV version of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff—that is being produced by Appian Way Productions which is Leonardo F-ing DiCaprio’s company.  (Tampa Bay Times article on The Right Stuff shooting in area.) I did see photos that they had set up shop at Universal Studios Orlando which is just a couple miles from when I’m typing this post.
  14. And while Scarface has nothing to do with Once Upon a Time … Hollywood (that I know of), it was shot in Miami and directed by one of Tarantino’s favorite directors Brian DePalma. 
  15. Toward the end Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood Brad Pitt says “And awaaay we go” which is a famous tagline of Jackie Gleason who from 1966-1970 hosted The Jackie Gleason Show “live from Miami Beach.” Gleason played Burt Reynolds nemesis in Smokey and the Bandit—a movie that Tarantino says warrants repeat viewings.

P.S. Updated bonus track: After a University of Miami football game in 1981 the Beach Boys played a concert at the Orange Bowl. (And were oddly paired that night with the Commodores.) That was two years before Dennis Wilson died and so I assume he was part of that gig. The Beach Boys were formed in 1961 in Hawthorne, California and a few years later a young Quentin Tarantino attended Hawthorne Christian School for part of his elementary years. (A school he’s said he wasn’t fond of attending.)

And two more Florida connections to Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is celebrity hairstylist and Sharon Tate buddy Thomas John Kummer went professionally by the name Jay Sebring, taking his last name from Sebring, Florida which is known for its international raceway. And lastly, Walt Disney gets a nice shout out in the movie when Julia Butters says Disney was a once in 50 years kind of genius. As someone who grew up in Central Florida I’ve always said Orlando basically only had indoor plumbing and air conditioning before Walt Disney’s vision of Disney World opened here in 1971. To go there that year as a ten year old was personally a transformative experience. Just riding the monorail at the start of the day was surreal to my senses. The Haunted Mansion, 2000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride were mind blowing fun.

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I still have some of my early Walt Disney World tickets.

The first Disney movie I remember seeing in theaters was The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes (1969) which stars Kurt Russell—who, of course, is in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. 

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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“When I’m doing a movie, I’m not doing anything else. It’s all about the movie. I don’t have a wife. I don’t have a kid. Nothing can get in my way.”
Quentin Tarantino in 2009
GQ article Triumph of His Will

It’s offical—Once Upon a Time …. in Hollywood became the first movie I’ve ever seen in theaters more than three times. I saw it for the fourth time yesterday, and if I’d had the time I would have watched it again right way.

For me it’s just been a rare movie going experience and one that I’m not sure will come again any time soon.

And this from someone who wouldn’t consider himself a Quentin Tarantino fanboy. I went to Hateful Eight in 70mm and left disappointed. I appreciate his talent for remixing influences, but don’t enjoy his casual use of violence. I didn’t see any of his prior films in the theater more than once, many of his movies I didn’t even go to while they were in theaters, and I skipped Death Proof all together.

Which makes me wonder why Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood resonated with me so much. I think part of it was being alive in 1969 (albeit I was 8 and 9 years old then),  having spent five years in LA on the fringes of the film industry, being aware of the Charles Manson cult, and having a lifelong love of movies.

After seeing Once Upon with an almost full audience on the opening night the first comment I heard was from a 20-something girl who “What did I just watch?” My guess is she had little or no idea who Charles Manson was or what he and his cult did back in 1969.

Tarantino doesn’t spoon feed you that information with any expositional dumps. If any thing he downplays things. What he does brilliantly is play on expectations. Somewhere early in my first viewing I remember thinking “How is he going to land this plane.”

It was like Hitchcock’s bomb under the table. Screenwriting 101. As long as the audience sees the bomb under the table you can have actors at the table discuss anything and it will be riveting. Some do that for a scene or two. But here Tarantino does it for almost entire film. All but the last scene of the two hour and 40 minute film is a ticking bomb.

Tarantino and cast and crew layer the film with character studies wonderfully acted, a zillion culture reference, beautiful cinematography, and spellbinding sound tack. In a world crowded with content, it stands out as exceptional and emotional storytelling. It’s also one that rewards audiences with repeat viewings. (Well, at least the ones that don’t hate this film.)

For the dozen or so movies I’ve seen three times in theaters, I’ve found that three times is the maximum amount of viewings before I determine that the next time I see it will be on DVD or streaming. But what made this fourth viewing better that the others was I bought the movie sound track on CD (a first in the last decade or so) and listened to it repeatedly over the past week. It’s a joy all by itself. Then I also listened to Karina Longworth’s 12 part You Must Remember This podcast on “Charles Manson’s Hollywood.”

That podcast gave many wonderful insights into the times and people involved in the surrounding story. That podcast was released in 2015 and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was part of Tarantino’s inspiration with wanting wrap a story around that faithful hot August night in 1969.

On this fourth viewing I really appreciated the range of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance. On the first viewing of the film I really wanted to see Matt Dillion in that roll of an aging actor. An actor that is closer to Brad Pitt’s age, and one who had some great leading roles 15-20+ years ago. (And one who as the same namesake as the sheriff on Gunsmoke.) But on a $90 million budget I understand needing someone who attract a wide audience so I wanted to see Tom Cruise as the aging actor. On the third viewing I was good with DiCaprio, but still wished he was 10 years older—or at least looked a little more worn. On this viewing, I was good with DiCaprio as is.

Though this is Tarantino’s ninth film this is his first film to complete while married. Perhaps that altered his sensibilities for the better. There is something intellectual (even mystical learning toward spiritual) in this film that I did experience in his pervious films.

Perhaps after the fifth viewing in theater (which their no doubt will be) I will be able to articulate what it is about this movie that’s made be respond the way I have. But in the meantime here are a few dots that were connected and memory doors that the movie opened for me and warranted my record breaking viewing.

  1. When I was in film school in Los Angeles in the early 80s I briefly worked at Frank’s Camera in Highland Park (not far from Dodger Stadium) and I sold a camera to a fellow who worked in the film industry and I asked him if he had any advice for someone starting out. He looked at me dead serious and said “Don’t get married.” It was such unexpected advice that it hit me hard. In many ways working in film and television is like joining the circus and not exactly conducive to a normal family life. Tarantino has spoken openly about the sacrifices he made to become the great filmmaker he is. In my early 20s I met several people in L.A. who were in their 40s and 50s who had some success in Hollywood, yet were still waiting for their big break and I knew I didn’t want to be one of those people. I got married when I was 24-years-old and carved out a niche working in production and having a family life.  Tarantino says he didn’t even have a girlfriend until he was 25 (though he pointed out in a interview that he was “the king of first dates). He got married last year at age 56.
  2. When I moved to L.A. in 1981 I rented a studio apartment on Riverside Dr. in Burbank next to some horse stables connected to what is now called the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. I met my wife at that apartment complex. We once rented horses and went on a trail ride there. This week I read that’s where Tarantino’s parent met. In Once Upon a tourist from Tennessee named Connie goes on a horse back ride at Spahn Ranch. Tarantino’s mother is from Tennessee and named Connie.
  3. When Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) says “Okay Kato” to Bruce Lee it snaped a memory to me that The Green Hornet (1966-67) was a favorite TV show of mine as a kid. I couldn’t tell you what a single episode was about, but I remember wearing a Green Hornet ring. This was a very distant memory and one that I wasn’t even sure was a real memory. So last night I googled “Green Hornet ring” and sure enough that was a real thing and I even found a commercial for it.
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  5. When I saw that Tarantino married 35-year-old Daniella Pick I wondered if Tarantino wasn’t getting into position to start a family. Yesterday I read that Daniella is pregnant. Tarantino has said that he wanted to make 10 films and then retire from feature filmmaking at age 60. It’s possible that that could happen. But it’s also probable that he’ll be creating long form streaming content, writing plays and books. And like Steven Soderbergh and Michael Jordan it’s possible that he’ll un-retire down the road. I hope he doesn’t stop creating because I kinda dig this (relatively) kinder, gentler Tarantino.
  6. I grew up on Burt Reynold’s movies as did Tarantino and while I haven’t heard anyone make this connection, but I wonder if The 14 Fists of McClusky wasn’t a nod to Reynold’s character Gator McKlusky in White Lighting (1973) and Gator (1976). Reynold’s  was cast to play the George Spahn character in Once Upon but unfortunately died before his parts were shot. (But Tarantino points out he did do table reads and rehearsals so it was his last role). Back in 1969, Reynolds started in the western Sam Whiskey.  Actress Tracey Roberts has a part in that film and is who I studied acting with in the early 80s. Laura Dern also studied with Roberts, and her father Bruce Dern is the one who replaced Reynolds as George Spahn. Screen Shot 2019-07-30 at 3.08.59 AM
  7. Like a lot of kids I grew up watching old westerns on TV, but I had the benefit of having a Western theme park not far from where I grew up. Six Gun Territory was a place in Ocala, Florida that had an old west town, gun fights and can-can girls. I not only visited a couple of times as a kid but shot part of my first 16mm film there. One of the times I visited my father drove my sister and I up in his Karmann Ghia. The same car that Pitt’s character drives around in Once Upon. 
  8. When Smokey and the Bandit starring Burt Reynolds hit theaters I was 16 years old and I remember well how exhilarating it was after the movie was over and getting in my car to drive away. Tarantino has said that Smokey and the Bandit is a movie that holds up well with repeated viewings. Tarantino is a writer/director who thinks of the audience from the early idea stages through post production. It’s how this movie takes me back to film school when I rode a motorcycle up and down Hollywood Blvd. at night.
  9. Even though Once Upon is a centered on a bromance, Margot Robbie, Margaret Qualley, and Julia Butter shine in their scenes. I would have been fine with Tarantino expanding any of their roles, but it would have pushed the movie over the 3 hour mark.
  10. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is still a full sensory experience even if you weren’t alive in the 1960s, if you never visited Six Gun Territory, if your dad didn’t have a Karmann Ghia, and even if you never even visited Los Angeles —but you may not see it four+ times.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A graphic designer/web developer friend of mine asked me if I’d seen the Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood website and I said I hadn’t. It’s brilliant. It’s set up like a magazine published in 1969, complete with a letter from the editor—Quentin Tarantino.

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Scott W. Smith

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“Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming? And always the answer is: ‘Love. They must do it for love.’”
Wendell Berry
Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food

The Biggest Little Farm is an extraordinary film. The documentary directed by John Chester works on many levels but I encourage you to see it a movie theater for cinematography alone.

The photo I’ve had at the top of this blog for the past 11 years is a farm I shot in Iowa while in route to a short film where I was the director of photography. It’s an old barn and silo and one I’ve thought about replacing often, but for some reason I never have.

From 2003 to 2013 I lived in Cedar Falls, Iowa which is surrounded by farms. Soon after I arrived there I had the opportunity to see pigs being born while working on a production at a farm.  Farms are just flat out fascinating to me.

And Chester has tapped into something that will take me a while to process. Perhaps I write about it in more detail after I see it again and learn more about the production. For today, I’ll just relay that it’s an extraordinary film that you should see.

Scott W. Smith  

 

 

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“In the early ’80s Miami was not the place to be.”
Photographer Gary Monroe

Last week I watched the documentary The Last Resort on Netflix and I found it fascinating.  The focus of the documentary is on photographers Andy Sweet and Gary Monroe as Miami Beach transitions from a Jewish retirement haven, to home for Haitian and Cuba immigrants, to the trendy place it is known for today.

One of the reasons The Last Resort interested me is because I was in Miami in the early eighties. After I saw the doc I tracked down a photo I’d taken while I was in film school at the University of Miami that was my version of capturing that era for a photography class. This photo isn’t as good as the work Sweet and Monroe were doing, but hey, I was just 20 years old. (If I recall correctly, this shot was taken at the Hialeah Park Race Track in 1981 or 1982.)

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P.S. The video below on Gary Monroe was produced by Eric Breitenbach of Daytona State College. A talented photographer, filmmaker, and teacher who I met many years ago when I bought one of his photos to put on a set of a project I was directing.

Scott W. Smith

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