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COMMENTARY

Jeff Simon: Two Buffalo institutions collaborate on bang-up movie book

Jeff Simon

I cannot tell you how much I first wanted to like "Off Beat Cinema" when John DiSciullo first told me it was coming to Channel 7 in 1993. Yes, James Gillan's whole original idea came from an ad agency and not a conclave of hungry movie freaks determined to preserve cinematic eccentricity for eternity.

As a result, it didn't seem to have any animating notion at all, whether it would be showing Grade-Z horror junk, obscure art films or cinematic specialties from TV's Jurassic Era. "Off Beat" was as much of a description as you could find -- in other words, not the sort of thing you'd find at your favorite teeming megaplex. Its calling seemed to be to show TV watchers a "big bucket of movie stuff that called itself movies."

Well, OK, I pledged to watch it when it first went on the air. In any general accounting of "stuff" you can put on TV to take the place of infomercials, "stuff" that calls itself movies is better than a sharp stick in the eye.

Then came the accompanying original amateur hour skits starring the original threesome as people who purported to be "beatniks" in a supposed '50's style coffeehouse. My reaction was somewhere midway between "Oy" and "OMG." It was an inept TV parody of an older-form of TV parody of something that never existed in the first place (but which gummed up a lot of awful movies and TV shows). If, like me, you actually knew some people who'd hobnobbed with some of the actual members of the Beat movement, your reaction to the Buffalo TV parody was likely to be acute depression.

The Beats were no joke. They were serious. One of them -- somewhat remarkably -- is not only still alive at the age of 100, but has just published a remarkable steam-of-consciousness novel/memoir called "Little Boy" (New Directions, 179 pages, $24). The author is the great Lawrence Ferlinghetti, probably the most underrated of the Beat poets and the onetime publisher of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," which made the movement's Primal Noise.

That wasn't the heedless worst of "Off Beat Cinema." The music used to introduce the parody of the show's movie intros was an early recorded masterpiece called "Pithecanthropus Erectus" by the great volcanic jazz composer and bassist Charles Mingus. In context, we were supposed to find Mingus' music hilarious.

Its current "Beatnik" threesome is played by show veterans Constance McEwen Caldwell, Anthony Billoni and relative newcomer Jeffrey Roberts. Since its inception the show -- now on WBBZ -- has been something of a hit with its own TV syndicate, of now, around 80 stations. Its fictional "Hungry Ear Coffeehouse" is, as the show's website says, "a mad pad, Dad ... and the kind of place where Boris Karloff could sit with Ed Wood and discuss the transcendence of the ego and how that applies to Moe getting a cream pie in the face."

In other words, that part of the imagination that is a distant suburb of Nowheresville, but the intention was certainly jolly whatever the result. The films -- so often garbageous beyond belief -- are enough to bring, yes, a little bit of happiness into a stuffy world.

I've since come to know one of the show's current trio -- Connie McEwen Caldwell, who, after 20 years on the show, is married to Buffalo jazz pianist and professor George Caldwell, a fellow who knows well how serious a subject in jazz is the music of Charles Mingus. Music for the show now is specifically contributed by local jazz group David Kane's Them Jazzbeards. McEwen Caldwell has, in the intervening years, become a cultural fixture who has performed publicity gigs for the Studio Arena Theater and the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. Billoni is almost as ubiquitously known as she.

And now, if you don't mind my saying so, the show's finest moment by far has arrived: It forged common cause with one of the city's most delightful and creative people, Greg Sterlace, the feverishly bookish former impresario of Buffalo cable access TV, filmmaker and author of authoritative guidebooks to the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Donald Trump.

When Sterlace suggested at a party he team up with the folks of "Off Beat Cinema," DiSciullo, to his credit. thought it was a dandy idea. The result is a Sterlace book, typically smart, cheeky, informative and hugely entertaining, presented by "Off Beat Cinema." "Movies 365: A Good Movie for Every Day of the Year," foreward by Caldwell (Adequate Life Publishing, 696 pages, $27, for the time available only from Lulu.com).

After spending a couple delighted hours browsing through almost 700 pages, I realized I originally reviewed more than half the movies in Sterlace's list. I know how long he's been reading me, so I had the enormous personal pleasure of -- at long last -- hearing the other side of a movie discussion with a funny, irreverent and altogether brilliant friend.

I would submit you don't have to be a movie critic or an actual friend of Sterlace's to get the same feeling from "Movies 365." Everyone who reads it will find themselves in one of the merriest and most valuable film discussions you can have in a book.

"All of Greg's books are knockouts, rife with humor, smarty pants irreverence and gritty humanity," says McEwen Caldwell, who knows whereof she speaks about a man who has spent his entire working life either in libraries or bookstores. Movie commentary as impudent and cinematically incorrect as this is almost never this smart. Try this on Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard": "This is the first movie to be narrated by a dead guy in a pool. William Holden is a hack screen writer, who is so down on his luck that he's willing to prostitute himself in a dreary old house with a dreary old lady and a dreary old butler. I'm not saying that Holden deserves to die but come on, take a little responsibility for your own life. Does everything have to go your way before you stand up strong and proud and dictate the course of your existence instead of wallowing in your own mediocrity?"

A scholarly answer to James Agee's original review it's not. But, so help me, I can picture Agee in a bar, drinking draft beers and chain smoking and giving serious thought to the question Sterlace asks.

At the same time, he can write about movies almost completely unknown -- Robert Siegel's "Big Fan," starring Patton Oswalt -- in a way that is personal and heartrending.

With characteristic openness, he opens his book's lists at the end to lists by like-minded people and the cast and crew of "Off Beat Cinema." Wait until you read Billoni's "Movies to Play While Having Sex." (No. 1 is Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner.")

If only Sterlace had been available to "Off Beat Cinema" when it first went on the air in 1993.

In the meantime, two Buffalo institutions have just united with totally delightful results.

As an introduction to movies for the innocent, it's a beauty. It's just as good as a brilliant and superbly argumentative movie companion.

No Buffalo movie-loving home should be without it, it seems to me.

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