Saturday, December 18, 2010
Amblin' (1968): What Filmmaking Is All About
Rumor has it that when Howard Hawks returned to the director’s chair in 1959 for Rio Bravo, the thought of directing another film was so frightening to him that he ran off the set one day, escaped behind some props and then vomited. That’s exactly what was happening to 22-year old Steven Spielberg during the making of Amblin’ in 1968. One morning, he fled into the bathroom and threw up. Then he headed off to the set.
Here was a kid whose last attempt at a short film, Slipstream, had fallen through. Here was a kid who hadn’t even gone to film school. Why was Steven Spielberg being entrusted with so much power? The story goes that Spielberg's father, Arnold, knew somebody who knew Universal Studios producer Chuck Silvers, who had had taken such a liking to the young man that he listened to his pitches, gave him his own office and waited to see where he’d go with his ideas. Silvers probably didn’t expect to hear from Spielberg ever again. That all changed when Spielberg returned from post-production with a twenty-six minute cut of Amblin’ and screened it for his mentor. In Silvers’ own words, “I looked at what I still feel is the perfect motion picture.”
Steven Spielberg began making Amblin’ at a time when his fellow “Movie Brats” had, unlike him, just recently graduated from film school and were already developing their own projects. 1968 was a big year for all of them. Francis Ford Coppola was directing Fred Astaire in Finian’s Rainbow. Brian De Palma was making Greetings and Murder a la Mod. George Lucas had just completed his student film TXH 1138: 4HB at USC. Martin Scorsese had just made The Big Shave and was putting the finishing touches on his own first feature film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, to be released the following year. For Steven Spielberg, however, Amblin’ was particularly noteworthy as the first installment in what would be his unofficial "road movie trilogy," a trilogy that would continue with Duel (1971) and conclude with The Sugarland Express (1974). When he couldn’t get the aesthetic he was looking for within the walls of studio backlots, Spielberg followed Dennis Hopper’s example—and began turning to inspiration on U.S. highways.
Amblin’ follows two primary characters: a boy and a girl, both products of the counterculture generation. Their apparent lack of survival instincts in the face of the angry political feelings of the times has driven them both out into the desert, seeking sanctuary and love. The boy (Richard Levin) is a shy, insecure fellow with a strong attachment to an unopened guitar case he carries around the majority of the picture. Unable to get a ride, he catches sight of a sexy redhead (Pamela McMyler) across the street, wearing a hat similar to his. They smile at each other, and she accompanies him on his trek to the coast.
The first shot of the film looks out at a small moon in the night sky, inevitably foreshadowing the moon silhouette of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. A later shot of a rising sun foreshadows the famous sun shots of The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. But there are more traces of Spielberg’s auteur-like characteristics in the film than just the simple matter of glowing orbs in the sky. A shot of the boy and the girl walking out in the distance across a wide landscape foreshadows the shot in Saving Private Ryan of Captain Miller and his unit trekking the green fields of Europe during a storm. A passionate sex scene in the light of an evening campfire recalls the opening moments of Jaws. The unseen faces of the menacing hippies grabbing at the boy’s guitar case foreshadow the unseen face of the hostile truck driver in Duel. Repetitive scenes of the boy and the girl trying, unsuccessfully, to hitch a ride from passing cars formulate a device which Spielberg briefly recycled a decade later during a scene with Treat Williams and Wendie Jo Sperber in 1941.
The hitchhiker scenes are actually an homage to Capra’s It Happened One Night (1935), one of three classic movies that Spielberg pays tribute to in Amblin'. Another such homage involves the final scene of the boy running excitedly towards the sea shores, a scene which reeks of the influence of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959). And then there is the matter of the boy’s guitar case, which is kept closed right up until the end of the film. What’s inside the case? Is it really all that important? This is the film’s Rosebud.
Amblin' is basically a collection of vignettes involving the boy and girl engaging in a series of activities during their journey to the coast. They eat olives out of a can and face off in a pit-spitting contest. They smoke marijuana in a dark tunnel as shadows cover their entire figures. They make several unsuccessful attempts to hitch rides to shorten the journey. At night, when the girl, longing for his affection, undresses in front of him (the first known instance of explicit sexuality in Spielberg’s cinema), it is her indication that she has developed feelings for him—whether he shares her feelings or not. All of this is done without a single line of dialogue. Indeed, the entire film is wordless; Amblin’ was the first and only silent film Spielberg ever made.
As a director, Spielberg makes the most of his camera in the scenes where he carefully tracks the boy and girl from behind fences and from behind windows of abandoned barns. As an editor, his cutting during the spitting contest scene is a testament to his own acquired talent for filmmaking at such a young age. But Spielberg is also given a boost by the considerable technical quality that accompanied his work on the film. The cinematography by Allen Daviau, who went on to collaborate with Spielberg several more times (on E.T., The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun), beautifully captures shots of the deserts of southern California and the beaches of Malibu. And while there is no dialogue in Amblin’ (apart from the girl’s brief laughing fits during the pot-smoking scene), the film does have a music soundtrack composed by October Country, a counterculture band which producer Denis Hoffman had been managing at the time.
Last November, when I began searching for October Country’s music on the YouTube databases, I was pleasantly surprised when I was led to the official channel of the group’s lead singer, Caryle Camacho (who sings the title song of Amblin’ in the opening credits). Ms. Camacho currently runs both the carylecamacho channel and the 1stOctober Country channel. Many of October Country's songs, notably "End of the Line" and "My Girlfriend is A Witch", are also available on YouTube.
Curious to speak with somebody who had actually worked on Amblin', I began corresponding with Ms. Camacho to see if she could answer any lingering questions I had over the film’s production stories and post-production legal stories. What follows is my complete interview with Ms. Camacho, which I am proud to include in this piece on Amblin’ for the Spielberg Blogathon:
AZ: According to Joseph McBride's 1997 biography of Steven Spielberg, your band’s manager, Denis Hoffman, was "looking for a film project that could feature [your] music." How did you and the rest of the band members react to this proposal?
CC: In 1966 we were a cover band that backed up some name acts such as the Drifters, the Coasters and the Isley Brothers. Our guitar player had invited a friend to one of our shows at Cal State Fullerton. That friend was named Denis Hoffman.
Denis was a co-owner of a company called Cinefx. They had access to film equipment. Denis decided he wanted to make a short film about what a band has to do to try and get a record deal. So, he followed us around to various shows and shot impromptu looking footage. It was decided we had to find original tunes to record and include in a film.
Michael Lloyd was an 18-year old musician living in Beverly Hills who had sound equipment he would rent. When renting this stuff from him, we discovered he wrote original music. He had written a song called “October Country”. His inspiration was the inside piece of prose at the beginning of the book October Country written by Ray Bradbury.
The piece of prose talked about the mysterious nature of a place called October Country. Very Halloween-ish in nature. Denis decided that if we would let him be our manager and backer he would pay for a professional recording of “October Country”. At that time the band had a different name, so we changed it.
Denis hired studio "A" at Columbia Records in Hollywood, where Denis, Michael Lloyd, and a very talented man named Roy Hallee produced a single called “October Country”. Denis flew to New York with the single and saw Len Levy, then President of Epic Records New York, and his vice president David Kaprolick. They both flew back with Denis to Hollywood where we were performing at Gazzarri's on the Sunset Strip. They then decided to offer us a record deal.
At the same time someone [Julie Raymond] had introduced Denis to Steven Spielberg. I think Spielberg was about 2 years older than me, which would have made him 20 years old at the time. Spielberg had had an idea for a short film that he entitled Amblin'. It was to be shot without sound.
Denis said, "I will pay for this film if you put the music from the group I am managing into the film". Spielberg agreed. Denis went to Michael Lloyd and asked him to write a song entitled "Amblin’". Then Denis told Michael, "I want Caryle to sing this". He insisted that I sing the theme; at the time, I think Michael wanted to sing it himself. Denis vetoed that idea, and since he was the money man I came to sing the title theme.
So, I recorded the title theme to Amblin' at SideWalk Productions Recording Studio on Hollywood Blvd. And then our band got the “Music Performed by October Country” credit onscreen.
AZ: Michael Lloyd is credited as writing the music featured in the film, but it wasn’t until singer Shaun Cassidy recorded “Amblin’” for his own album that the song actually became a hit for the public. How did your music originate?
CC: The music on the album of October Country and on the film Amblin’ was written by Michael Lloyd with the exception of two tunes on the album, "Little Boy Smiling" and "I Just Don't Know"—which were both written by Bob Washburn, our keyboard player.
So there was no "our music" per se. We were performance artists and had a contract with the label for that. And we were paid for our performances on the October Country album, but the bulk of the money was made by whoever carried the publishing rights. That is why Shawn Cassidy has no say about whether "Amblin" can be preformed and released by anybody because he does not own the publishing or writing rights of the song. Michael Lloyd does.
AZ: Joseph McBride's Spielberg biography claims that everybody who worked on Amblin' worked for nothing but screen credit. Is that true?
CC: Yes, everybody on Amblin' worked for screen credit.
AZ: Did you ever get to meet the other notable crew members on the set, i.e. actors Pamela McMyler and Richard Levin, and cinematographer Allen Daviau?
CC: No, I never met any other members of the crew. Just Mr. Spielberg.
AZ: After Amblin’ appeared on a double-bill alongside Otto Preminger’s gangster comedy Skiddoo, there was speculation that it could be up for consideration come awards time. Did you think, as many did, that Amblin' had a surefire hit at being nominated for Best Live-Action Short at the Academy Awards that year? How did you react when it wasn't?
CC: I thought that the winning of the Atlantic Film Festival and The Cannes Film Festival awards were more that enough acknowledgement of such a young director's work. I believe it won awards for Best Director, Best Music and Best Cinematography. If you look up Denis C. Hoffman on Google you'll get the right info on that.
AZ: Why did Hoffman sue Spielberg in 1995?
CC: Why Denis and Mr. Spielberg fought when they did is a mystery to me. I remember Denis being offered producer credits as part of a return on investment, and at the time he was not interested in becoming a film producer. Maybe years later, when things had changed a lot for Denis, he decided to rethink his options. But I believe Spielberg had gone through correct legal channels and gotten Denis to sign something that stated he had turned down Spielberg's producer credit offer and had taken some kind of financial compensation and signed an agreement to that effect.
AZ: Amblin' has never gotten a VHS or DVD release. I've only been able to see it through streaming files on YouTube and Google Videos. How long do you think it will take before the film is allowed to be shown to the general public?
CC: Mr. Spielberg does not wish for people to see Amblin’. Although you can see some of his burgeoning styles in the work, I don't think he feels good about it. Just an observation on my part.
As far as Amblin' having a general release or DVD release, that pretty much can be filed under "never gonna happen". It is basically pirated on YouTube. If Spielberg's researchers find it, there is an immediate "Cease and Desist" sent out.
AZ: Describe the meeting you had with Steven Spielberg.
CC: After Spielberg had completed Amblin’, Denis wanted to have an opening for the film. So, he rented a large theater on Sunset BLVD near Crescent Heights—I don't recall the name—and invited about 500 people. Obviously our group was invited to the opening. People like Mike Curb, who was not yet Lt. Governor of California or founder of Mike Curb Records; Kim Fowley, a Sunset Strip regular; a group who would become the Hondells; and, of course, Spielberg, were all there.
We were all standing in the foyer waiting to go in, when a man walked up to me and said, "I think you did a great job singing the song in Amblin’.” As I looked at him and said, "thank you", I realized it was Steven. We had never met, so I did not know what he looked like. He had a very soft-spoken manner. Then somebody called his name and he stepped away.
I thought, "I wonder where this film will go". And I also had the thought, "this guy knows what he wants and where he wants to go".
AZ: Do you and the other surviving members of October Country hope to reunite with Spielberg on another film, or at the very least produce any more albums or get your music featured in any more films?
CC: There won't be any return visits between Mr. Spielberg and October Country on film projects.
AZ: One more question. Spielberg has dismissed Amblin' as "the slick by-product of a kid immersed up to his nose in film." He bought the rights from Hoffman in 1977, and admits he can't look at it today because it reminds him of the supposed apathy he had towards the political feelings of that time—when war in Vietnam was raging, cultural leaders were being gunned down, and even the cinema and the music industry were both heading in radical directions. Spielberg sees Amblin' as "a great Pepsi commercial" with "as much soul and content as a piece of driftwood." Do you agree with his assessment?
CC: Amblin’ was more then a student film. It was about two kids representative of teenagers in the 60's. The girl, I feel, was a true rebel. She was trying to find deeper meaning in life. The boy was an innocent, vulnerable idealist. Both these types were all around you in the mid to late 60's, as was shown in the Sunset Strip riots of 1967.
Also, I thought some of the shots were very different. Of course, now, some of those shots are considered classic Spielberg. I know some of the crew went on to become some of his stable crew. Through the years, I have discovered that Spielberg doesn't want people to see the film. In the time that all of this happened, it was difficult to recognize that we were involved in one of the great milestones of our time.
I worked with Jimi Hendrix at this time. He was still a very new act. Not the dynamic Legend he became—because it was all just beginning. The music industry was going through one of the greatest times in all modern musical history. It will never come again like that.
Meeting and having worked for Mr. Spielberg was like working with Hendrix: nobody knew how huge this would all become. I happened to be fortunate enough to be there and have the chance to perform during those seminal years.
Personally, I agree completely with Caryle Camacho's assessments of the film. I find Amblin’ to be a very profound statement on the more optimistic side of the 1960’s counterculture. And yet despite all of this, Spielberg himself has gone to great pains to erase the film from his memory.
In a 1978 interview, Spielberg made it clear of Amblin' that “I can’t look at it now. It really proved how apathetic I was during the sixties. When I look back at that film I can easily say, ‘No wonder I didn’t go to Kent State,’ or ‘No wonder I didn’t go to Vietnam or I wasn’t protesting when all my friends were carrying signs and getting clubbed in Century City.’” That Spielberg is embarrassed by the optimism in the film is certainly understandable, but if you ask me, he doesn’t give it enough credit.
To quote Spielberg’s biographer, Joseph McBride,
While not overtly politically conscious, Amblin’ is hardly the work of an ‘apathetic’ filmmaker, but that of a deeply FEELING filmmaker who captures the disaffected mood of his generation with both fidelity and artful understatement… compared to some of the better-known youth pictures of the sixties, which are so hysterically overstated as to be virtually unwatchable today, Amblin’ is an elegant and unpretentious miniature, a time capsule of the period that transcends cliché and requires no apology from its director.
What both McBride and Camacho are getting at with their assessments is that Amblin’ is not so much a work of 60’s apathy as much as it is an unspoken culture clash between two different kinds of youth from the decade. The girl is a hippie, the boy is a square. The girl is sexually active, the boy is sexually frank. The boy is fascinated by nature (the sea shores) the girl is fascinated by secrets (the contents of his guitar case). Is it any wonder when she does finally manage to open the guitar case and ends up finding, inside, a paperback of Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars?
The film ends with the girl leaving the boy to frolic in the waves while she returns to the political atmospheres of the times. She’ll probably continue to live life as a hippie, even after the counterculture movement comes to end. As for the boy, he might become a yuppie. Or maybe he’ll put his love of nature and science fiction to more tasteful use. Maybe he’ll grow up to be... well, like Steven Spielberg.
Nobody remembers Amblin’ today. Nobody talks about it. Nobody really even knows much about it, aside from the Amblin Entertainment logo that now appears at the tail-end of every Spielberg film. Spielberg himself is, of course, the reason why so few people have seen Amblin'. My hope is that he’ll realize just how essential of a work it is in his filmography, and that he will allow it to be shown to the public someday. The film illuminates on so many of the things that make Spielberg great: his fascination with nature, his understanding of American youth and, above all, his belief in celebrating the wonders of life through cinematic art. Perhaps the most flattering praise ever given to Amblin’ came from Jerry Lewis, who invited Spielberg to come and screen the film before a USC directing class. When the movie was over, Lewis pointed to the screen and said, “That’s what filmmaking is all about.”