by Allan Fish
This post was originally published in late 2010. Although Allan was convinced I wouldn’t pay him a return visit, we all did three years later in the summer of 2013. Our snow shovels have long since been removed from our renovated first floor bathroom as well, though there is a bittersweet aspect to that update as per Allan’s fond testament here. -S.J.
There are three DVDs of Mizoguchi Sansho Dayu in the picture above – well, durgh! Question: which of the three do I treasure most? In the middle we have the Criterion DVD, a lovely package as one might expect. Nope, not that one. On the right we have the Masters of Cinema Region 2 DVD set with the additional bonus of his underrated Gion Bayashi. Again no, I’m afraid. Yet let’s illustrate further. Imagine there was a fourth Sansho there, a yet to be released Blu Ray looking sharper than a katana from Hattori Hanzo, and still my answer would be the one on the left.
There’s nothing special about it. It was a purchase I needn’t have made. I had Sansho on tape from Film Four, a nice enough print of it, but being a pedant, I just wanted a boxed DVD copy. It wasn’t a genuine release, merely a tape to DVDR copy of the old US Home Vision VHS. The quality – certainly compared to the other two in the photo – was rather poor to say the least. So why on earth would I prefer it? There have been cases where I have kept old VHS copies of films – imported copies of the once banned in the UK A Clockwork Orange and The Exorcist and an old pre-certification copy of Straw Dogs. They were just for nostalgia’s sake. Sansho was something else, a memento of something altogether more important.
In his book The Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson makes two entries that will leave the average reader thinking “who?” They were for Kieran Hickey and Tom Luddy, valedictions for friends, the former taken way before his time, and without whom the whole rigmarole of the movies would not have been the same. Let us imagine that I wake up tomorrow and a miracle has occurred – namely that I had become an erudite, witty writer capable of writing his own equivalent book – there would be one such person who would get into the book in the same capacity. His name, as if you needed telling, is Sam Juliano.
It all came about from trawling on ebay one afternoon in 2005. I’d seen this copy of Sansho on the site. I bid on it and won the auction. In his trademark manner Sam didn’t just say “thanks for your payment, your goods will be sent out tomorrow, don’t’ forget to leave feedback.” That would never do. He instead wrote a paragraph about how much Sansho moved him and how much I would love the film. So there went back a reply, telling how I knew the film well, wished there were more Mizoguchis out there on DVD, how it was one of Mizoguchi’s best works – The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums, Ugetsu Monogatari, The Life of Oharu, all got a mention – and from there emails kept coming back and forth. I’d met and become friends with numerous people on the internet who I had never met, and yet from the outset this was a little different. There was something incorrigible about Sam that was beyond infectious even to my cynical carcass. The next day he asked me to vote on a poll he was orchestrating on his email network to list the best films of the 1960s. In reply it was the first time I heard those wonderful hyperbolean statements – “overwhelmed”, “stunning” and his copyrighted catchphrase “staggering masterpiece.” There were films on the list he hadn’t seen; “why have I not heard of this film?” I remember him writing as if a king at a court who has only just been told that an invading army had crossed the border. It was the beginning of an education for both of us. For him in hearing about and watching films he never even knew existed, and for me in humility and a sense of what true madness really was. He was mentioning me to friends, this guy from Great Britain. The typical questions arose; “how far are you from London?” “Around 250 miles”, I replied. To him, Great Britain was a mythical place, existing of only two cities – London and Liverpool (he knew of that place, the Beatles were from there) and acres of wasteland like the setting for Brontë novels. His views were borne out of classic 19th century literature and the cinema of Merchant Ivory. I had yet to introduce him to Ken Loach, Bill Douglas, Terence Davies, Alan Clarke and the TV of Peter Flannery and Alan Bleasdale. One of his friends Jason Giampetro just asked Sam “where did you find this guy?”, and echoed my thoughts, in contemporary Blighty-speak, to friends about Sam.
On the spot he was trying to get me to visit, encouraging, cajoling – bribery was considered, even abduction would have been considered had he known anyone outside of New Jersey. Eventually, two years later, I would make it to Juliano Towers and become first acquainted with the brood. A friendlier, warmer, more hospitable bunch you could never hope to meet, and yet there was something wonderfully surreal about the whole thing that Luis Buñuel would have appreciated. I slept in a bed folded up out of a corner sofa unit which the dogs had made their own, my sleep constantly interrupted by the incessant noises from crickets that were squatting in the basement. The bathroom had a busted bath, tarpaulins and snow shovels in it and had a light which could only be turned on by twisting the bulb. The stairs to the top floor where the kids slept were like the North Face of the Eiger and there was a back garden which looked like the sort of wasteland where T.H.Eliot might have got inspiration. Yet it’s a home, and in many ways I hope it never changes. I was there for 17 days, during which time I spent much of my time in the basement and the kids regarded me rather like an ogre that had smuggled across the Atlantic in freight and was hiding out from the Feds in the basement. In a strange way, however, they’re the nearest I’ll probably get to my own kids, extensions to my own family all. I couldn’t wait to get back to see them a year later, and I did, and was there for the Christmas and New Year jamboree, a time so joyous that I almost traded in my Jacob Marley Appreciation Society T-shirt for a red felt hat with a white bauble. It was a one-off, I knew I could and would never be there at that time again. Yet the sadness stretched further, knowing the imminence of my going to University would prevent further trips till after I had gained my degree. Even now, two years after my last visit, it’s painful to think it’ll be at least another four years before I see them again.
Oh there were promises from Sam to come over, but Sam’s promises are things to be taken lightly. He’d never purposefully lie to anyone, but in his eagerness to please and let people hear what they want to hear, he makes promises he can’t keep. Firstly, he can’t afford seven fares across the Atlantic without cutting back on his hectic film-going and eatery schedule. Secondly, he’s terrified of flying, so it’s rather lucky he lives in New York, where he sits and waits for the mountain to come to Mohammed, presiding over gatherings at Juliano Towers like a modern day Trimalchio mixed with the spirit of human kindness. A sort of dictatorship by generosity and fuelled by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that means when he gets interested in something there’s no holding him back. When the blog was starting up, you couldn’t get him away from the computer. Believe me, I tried; I couldn’t even do it when I was there. In my harder moments I nicknamed him the Sultan of Sycophancy, but there’s one crucial difference. A sycophant flatters to deceive, to ingratiate, to impress; it’s all part of a plan. With Sam I think he knows no other. He couldn’t say a bad word about anyone, unless they insult one of his children. By which I don’t mean Melanie, Sammy, Danny, Jillian or Jeremy, but a particular film seen by him as sacred. Slag off Far from Heaven, say, and he’ll go onto his haunches and start issuing forth verbal vitriol worthy of Malcolm Tucker in full bollocking mode.
In Horse Racing parlance, he’s a character out of Dickens by The Sopranos. My favourite vision of him is indelible as I write, sitting in his chair to the left of the old plasma TV in the basement, looking up at some opera DVD as if staring at the Horseshoe Nebula through Hubble, bursting into raptures, arm gesticulations, tears streaming down his face, miming to the words in Italian. He was like that fellow in Cinema Paradiso who was watching a film for the umpteenth time, holding a hankie to his face, crying enough to burst through the Hoover Dam, muttering “Mama…Mama” as if someone had kidnapped his child and tossed him on the back of a wagon like Jackie Coogan in The Kid. He’s a character to make you want to do anything. I tidied up his basement…twice; each time knowing it was like brushing leaves away in autumn. Sam is naturally the most disorganised, untidy person I have ever met, his basement like a troll’s cave in which, if you look hard enough, you may even find the original Holy Grail and Ark of the Covenant below the air hockey table, with the odd discarded dorito which has been on the floor so long it has created its own eco system. He carries DVDs around with him like security blankets, leaves books around for the dog to chew to shreds, leaves DVDs all over the place and wonders how they get lost. He has this filing system where he takes a DVD from the shelves, carries it to the plasma, watches it for a bit, then leaves it in the machine and waits for it to make its own way back to the shelf and when it doesn’t, mutters “unbelievable!” like he’s been shafted right royally. I have lost count of the stuff I have had to copy twice – in one case three times – after he’s lost it. I recall only a few weeks ago him sending me an email to ascertain whether he had a certain film, and I had to reply “yes, you do, it was in the parcel from me that you said you received only two hours ago.” Another time, a few months after my last visit, he emailed me with an URGENT sub-header to ask me where such a DVD was on his shelves, because he knows I probably could find things on his shelves from 2,000 miles away quicker than he could. Even now, typing, the response is one of laughter, because it’s impossible to get angry because for him it’s the norm; the real world is for other people, no Juliano would do something so conventional as to live there. Even with his recent quite literally ill-luck with his health, one almost expects it not to be something so confounded normal as flu or kidney stones that was afflicting him, but rather gout or the ague.
When questioned about the snow shovels in the bath, the response was “well, where the hell else am I supposed to put them?” The obvious thought of “a cupboard is traditional” just goes by the wayside. It’s a vision of endearing mayhem. One way or another, my film experience has been enriched a thousand-fold by knowing him, and the very word ‘film’ seems superfluous. My life will never be the same again, and arguments, quarrels, brickbats and ballistic bollockings aside, I’d have it no other way. As Sydney Greenstreet’s Peters said in The Mask of Dimitrios, “there’s not enough kindness in the world.”