CMBA profiles one or two of our classic movie bloggers every month. This week, we're featuring Hal Astell, from Apocalypse Later!
Apocalypse Later is a site with a lot going on. In addition to posting reviews, some quite in-depth, Hal covers a variety of events and festivals, often making appearances or running "mini-festivals" within established Cons, and even runs an Apocalypse Later Film Festival of his own. Under the imprint of "Apocalypse Later Press," he's published books on a variety of film related subjects: everything from Chaplin's years at Keystone to the work of buxom bombshell Tura Satana. Hal is nothing if not surprising, and also dedicated - the sheer volume of his work is overwhelming.
Hal would like you to take a look at his review of "It Always Rains on Sunday," sometimes called one of the most overlooked British movies of the 1940s. Hal says that writing it "taught me more about the actress for whom I was reviewing it, Googie Withers, but it also taught me about a time and a place that my family, a few generations back, knew very well. I learned more about who my grandparents were because of that film and, as they helped shape who I am, I learned more about me too."
We can't think of a better outcome to a writing project than that! Here's how Hal answered our questions:
I've been a fan of film as long as I can remember and, even as a child, I never found myself subjected to the peer pressure that often restricts us to whatever is current. My family didn't go to the cinema a lot, usually just a sci-fi blockbuster for my birthday, so most of what I saw was at home on television, entirely guilt free. This was in England, so much of the material was British.
As I grew up, I spent a lot of late nights glued to my sister's tiny TV watching Hammer horrors. Even back then, I'd look for the different. I remember film critic Barry Norman celebrating a hundred years of film by selecting one for broadcast from each year (or something like that) and I found a taste for the thirties. I've mostly forgotten which films, but there was Morocco, an early Busby Berkeley and some gangster flick or other. I adored the variety.
Later, I became hooked on Alex Cox's BBC2 series, Moviedrome, in which he introduced a cult classic or two every week. He delved deep and wide and really opened my eyes to what film could do. One week, it would be Electra Glide in Blue, the next F for Fake, then Carny. He introduced me to Kurosawa, Fuller and Peckinpah. Many of my favourite movies, from Manhunter to Wise Blood, I first saw on Moviedrome.
What really set me on a journey into classic film, though, was moving to the States in 2004. I had to wait six months for permission to work, so I sat back in my new home and soaked in the glory of Turner Classic Movies, which added a layer or two of depth to the knowledge I'd already built. That led to me blogging on film, which led to me writing books about film, which led to me running a film festival. Who knows where it'll lead me next!
What makes a film a "classic" in your opinion?
"Classic" has a lot of meanings. To many, it's something that's old. To others, it's something that's good. To some, it's something that's both. To me, the crucial element to a classic film is that we can experience it again and again just as if we'd never seen it before. However, I should emphasize that not all experiences are the same.
There are films like The Passion of Joan of Arc or M that awe me every time I see them. I see new things in The Big Sleep or Yojimbo each time through. I revisit They Live every few years because it's always about the world I'm living in now, however much it has changed since the last time.
Now, all those would qualify as "classic" to most, but I could also watch Sh! The Octopus every year for the rest of my life and I'd be laughing and groaning on my death bed and wondering at how well they did the transformation scene in a 1937 B-movie, even though I now know how it was done. That's probably not going to fit on most classic film lists, but it qualifies for me.
That really depends on the person, because I've learned that it's often not the films you'd think. I did well with my youngest stepson in music (now he introduces me to bands) but not in film. Nothing I thought up connected with him, even when I was sure something would be perfect. Yet he couldn't take his eyes off "Father Goose" and "Hope and Glory." Why those two films resonated with him, I have precisely no idea.
I talk up pre-codes a lot, because they really surprise people, whatever the genre. There's a collective understanding among those who don't see classic movies about what they must be like: black and white, 4:3 ratio, polite and romantic. This is a gross simplification of production code features, where the criminals always got caught and happy couples always slept in separate beds. When I show them "Freaks" or "Kongo," "Baby Face" or "42nd Street" or any pre-code starring Warren William, they're absolutely shocked because they had no idea that such films existed or even could have existed in the classic era. Such titles may not convert them into classic film fans on the spot (or at all) but they do destroy that general assumption about what old movies are.
Why should people care about classic film?
We should care about classic film because art isn't created in a vacuum. Everything is influenced by something else: every story, every technique and every acting performance and I love tracing those backwards to find the originators who forked the family tree of film in whole new directions.
I especially like discovery when I'm not expecting it. For instance, I saw Blazing Saddles years ago and immediately knew how revolutionary it was. I watched it over and over again to the point where I know most of it by heart and I've seen its influence in so many other films over the decades. Then I watched Hellzapoppin' for Martha Raye's centennial and it blew me away. This was Blazing Saddles a third of a century earlier! Had I not cared about classic film, I'd never have seen it.
What is the most rewarding thing about blogging?
We're back to discovery again, both for me and for my readers.
Most of what I write about is rooted in discovery. I realised many years ago that I don't need to write about new blockbusters, even if I choose to watch them, because everyone and their dog are writing about them too. If there's a review in the local paper, why would anyone care about what I have to say? A little later, I realised that the same thinking goes for classic films too because there's a vibrant community that's documenting the subject and the same titles come up over and over.
So I dig deep, not only to silent movies and foreign films, but shorts, local films and microbudget pictures. My fourth book, in which I covered every film, short and feature, that had screened at a local festival over a three year period, grew out of the realisation that Apocalypse Later Reviews had become the only place at which some films, even award-winning ones that I'd adored, lived on. The festival sites rolled over to the next year, jettisoning everything. The film's domains lapsed. If they didn't make it to IMDb or to YouTube or Vimeo, it was reviews that kept these films alive and I was often the only review anywhere in the world. I felt a sort of responsibility to document these pictures.
Even when I'm writing my centennial reviews to remember important people to film who were born a hundred years ago, I aim to avoid the obvious choices, especially for the most famous names. For instance, last month I remembered William Holden, but not with Sunset Boulevard or Stalag 17 or Network. I chose Golden Boy instead, partly because I hadn't seen it but mostly because nobody else was looking at that one and I wanted to see where his career began.
I've found some fascinating movies by taking this approach. I chose Lady in a Cage for Olivia de Havilland, Behold a Pale Horse for Gregory Peck and It Always Rains on Sunday for Googie Withers. I chose Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly for Freddie Francis, because it was his favourite of all the films he'd made, and it blew my mind. I probably wouldn't have found any of these films outside these projects.
And, while I have far from the most feedback of CMBA bloggers, I do get some really interesting ones. For instance, this month, I was told that my thoughts on Pink Angels, a transvestite biker movie from the early seventies, and my later experiences talking with Dan Haggerty about it, are going to be cited in a thesis. Last month, a young lady in Denmark wrote to me about a horror short I'd reviewed because she was writing an analysis of it for school, loved my review and wanted to talk about the meaning behind it. Things like this make the work absolutely worth it.
What challenges do you face with your blog, and how do you overcome them?
Time, first and foremost!
My sweet spot for Apocalypse Later Reviews is a little over two thousand words per film and a review of that length takes a lot of time to craft. Finding that time is tough, especially given that I keep busy on far too many other things.
I own and run an annual film festival. I run or work a dozen conventions a year across the southwest. I co-run a local fandom group. I'm a board member and secretary for a local non-profit. I maintain a few archives for different communities. I have a wife, three kids and five grandkids. And I still have a full time job to pay the bills, though I'm lucky enough to be able to work from home. In my spare time, I sleep.
One way I solved this time crunch is to set myself small deadlines. I suck at large deadlines; if I want a new book on my table at Phoenix Comic Fest, I'm likely to fail every time, unless I structure the project around small deadlines. My Charlie Chaplin book was focused on his films at Keystone in 1914, his first year in film. I reviewed each of the 36 on the 100th anniversary of its original release, so I could experience his growth at the same pace as his audience at the time. I knew in advance when every post needed to be written so I could plan specifically for that. And at the end of the year I had a book. I just needed to review it to ensure consistency and format it for publication.
What advice would you give to a new blogger?
Find your own voice. It's the easiest thing in the world to start up a blog, but it's really hard to keep writing unless it's who you are.
I've always felt deep inside that I'm a writer; it's what defines me. So I wrote, following Jerry Pournelle's advice to start things, finish them and write a million words. Once you reach that point, he said, you're a writer. You can throw them out because most of them will be crap but, at that point, you're a writer.
However, I never planned to write about film. I didn't even expect to write non-fiction! I wanted to be a novelist and I did write some short stories and poetry but they primarily worked as language experiments. Becoming a film critic surprised me as much as anyone else but it felt right and that's why Apocalypse Later Reviews is over a decade old and my early attempts at blogs vanished almost as quickly as they began.
So, if you want to write, write and find your voice. When you find it, you'll know it and your blog will grow.
Oh, and one other thing! I recommend that you read your posts aloud to someone else before you post them. Reading aloud uses a different part of your brain to writing, so it helps you find the technical mistakes you might have made, like punctuation errors or overuse of words. I read my posts to my better half, who then catches my other mistakes, like some character being a cousin not a nephew. My work is so much better because of both of those checks. It may well help yours too.