Kanopy is a public library video streaming service, available for free to cardholders of participating libraries, including the Ames Public Library among other Iowa systems. It is one of the best-curated streaming sites I’ve used. This is not where you’d go to find recent blockbusters or celebrity reality show cash-grabs. The selection is more geared toward discovery and education, with sections dedicated to international cinema, under-the-radar documentaries and the Criterion Collection. Users are allotted six views each month, but hundreds of videos are marked as “credit-free viewing” that don’t count toward the monthly total, including the whole Kanopy Kids section, the Great Courses, and dozens of films from around the world.
Here is a John-Wayne-free list of recommended titles on Kanopy right now starring or made by artists with connections to Iowa, from the silent era to 2018.
Fiddlesticks — 1927, starring Harry Langdon
Harry Langdon was born in Council Bluffs and began his show business career in vaudeville before joining Mack Sennett Studios, the early home of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle, and W. C. Fields. In his essay Comedy’s Greatest Era, James Agee described Langdon as one of the four best silent film comedians, along with Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd. He “looked like an elderly baby and, at times, a baby dope fiend; he could do more with less than any other comedian.“ With his eyebrows raised in innocent passivity, he sometimes resembles Stan Laurel. He usually has a couple nice slapstick moments in each film, although he’s not speedy like the other three silent legends — his comedy tends to come more from being blissfully out of it, dragged along for the ride.
Kanopy is streaming a few Langdon shorts as part of the Mack Sennett Collection Volume One including Saturday Afternoon and His Marriage Wow. I’d recommend starting with Fiddlesticks, in which Langdon is a talentless musician shunned by his family because he earns no money. He tries joining a street band but he’s too tone deaf to keep up. When he plays solos on the street (I was painfully reminded of my own days as a clueless busker in Campustown) his neighbors throw objects out of their windows at him. A passing junk peddler realizes this is a great opportunity to acquire some free junk and invites Langdon to be his partner. He nonsensically runs over a piano with a construction vehicle which, through a misunderstanding, ends up making his fortune and endearing him to his family once more.
The short was scripted by Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), a frequent collaborator through the Mack Sennett years who also directed the 1926 feature The Strong Man, Langdon’s best-remembered film.
Five Day Lover — 1961, starring Jean Seberg
Jean Seberg is one of the most exceptional film artists from Iowa ever. She grew up in Marshalltown and attended the University of Iowa. She became an international sensation as the star of Jean-Luc Godard’s landmark 1960 French New Wave hit Breathless (which is also on Kanopy), where she is unforgettable as the girlfriend of no-conscience murderer Jean-Paul Belmondo. Could any other actress have made selling the New York Herald Tribune sexy? My favorite of her performances is in Otto Preminger’s 1958 sunny-day melancholia classic Bonjour Tristesse, which is on the Criterion Channel right now. The 2019 film Seberg, starring Kristin Stewart, detailed Seberg’s involvement with the Black Panther Party, which resulted in her being targeted by the FBI COINTELPRO project.
In Five Day Lover, Seberg plays a married British woman living in Paris who begins a passionate affair with a man she meets at a fashion show and finds herself in a love triangle with her best friend, who happens to having an affair with the same man. They fall in love over clogging lessons in giant wooden shoes, architectural observations beside romantic fountains, and mandatory night-time window views of Paris from above. There are some good comic moments from Seberg’s husband Georges (François Périer), an archivist and aspiring glossary writer, as he enthusiastically details minor historical scenes at various city locations and regales party guests with tidbits about their namesakes.
Seberg is at the very peak of her beauty here and director Philippe de Broca is wise to capture her delightful smile and shining eyes in close-up, especially in a scene toward the end when she tells Georges how she meets new lovers and — in sharp contrast to what American films of this period would be likely to do — her husband embraces her sexual freedom and encourages her to go out and do as she pleases. With a lilting score by Georges Delerue and gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by Jean Penzer this film is a testament to Seberg’s romance with cinema itself.
Kanopy is also streaming a biopic called From the Journals of Jean Seberg starring actress Mary Beth Hurt, a fellow Marshalltown native whom Seberg babysat as a teenager.
Night Tide — 1961, co-starring Marjorie Cameron
Marjorie Cameron is a Belle Plaine native with a fascinating history as an actress, painter, and occultist. She was a follower of Aleister Crowley’s Thelema movement and engaged in numerous mystical and magical practices. She is in Kenneth Anger’s 1954 film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (it’s on YouTube, I’d recommend it), which is inspired by Thelema philosophy and explores some of Cameron’s shared interests with stylized depictions of drug trips, sex rituals, and occult symbols. Here is a vision of 1950s America that destroys the image of post-war domesticity typified by fellow small-town Iowan Donna Reed on her television show.
Night Tide is a cult film directed by Curtis Harrington, restored in 2007 by the Academy Film Archive. Dennis Hopper plays a sailor on leave who visits a California seaside town where he meets a woman name Mora (Linda Lawson) who performs as a mermaid in a boardwalk attraction — and also believes that she is a real mermaid. Cameron plays a mysterious older woman who approaches Mora in the opening scene and delivers an apparently ominous message in a foreign language, which frightens Mora. She continues to appear at intervals through the film, which catches Hopper’s eye and draws him deeper into the mystery. It has some eerie moments and a nice little twist at the end.
It might make a good double feature with Robert Eggers’ 2019 film The Lighthouse, which similarly draws on and modernizes nautical mythology. One dream sequence from Night Tide is paralleled in a creepy scene from The Lighthouse and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was an influence.
Where the Wild Things Are — 1973, music and narration by Peter Schickele
Peter Schickele was born and raised in Ames and is best-known for his multiple Grammy Award-winning work under the name P.D.Q. Bach, a musical parody act comparable to a Weird Al or Spike Jones of baroque music. He composed the score for the 1972 sci-fi film Silent Running starring Bruce Dern as a man with two robot companions, which Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson has cited as one of the inspirations for that show.
Where the Wild Things Are is an animated short-film adaptation of the Maurice Sendak children’s classic, the story of a boy named Max who visits a dream world of monsters and becomes their king. It is available as part of the “credit-free” Kanopy Kids section. Schickele composed and conducted the musical score. He also performed the narration in a 1988 re-release. The music tracks the suddenly shifting moods of the story with restive pianos and woodwinds for Max’s ocean voyage that dramatically erupt into the jazzy cadenzas of the “wild rumpus” and then return to peacefulness as Max makes his way home again. And his playful narration shows an appreciation for the engaged characterizations that help children lose themselves in storytelling.
Hal — 2018, produced by Jonathan Lynch and Brian Morrow
The L.A. production company Shark Pig is run by Fairfield natives Jonathan Lynch and Brian Morrow, who have staffed it with other Iowan filmmakers, a number of whom have credits on Hal, which the company co-produced in 2018. The film, directed by Amy Scott, is an emotional and revelatory celebration of the career of legendary director Hal Ashby, who had a run of beloved movies in the ‘70s including Harold and Maude, Coming Home, and Being There.
It features fascinating interviews with Ashby’s collaborators and family members. The director Norman Jewison, who hired Ashby as an editor for In the Heat of the Night, chokes back tears talking about his friend: “He believed in love, equality; he believed in all of the things that I held dear to my heart. And so I just loved him.” Ashby won the 1967 Academy Award for Best Editing for this film.
Yusuf Islam reveals Ashby’s ingenious idea to use his demos as the music for Harold and Maude, which was not Yusuf’s original intention. “But the strange thing is,” he says, “everybody loves those songs because they’re so raw and so natural, kind of free and no self-consciousness about them. And that’s what made the songs kind of perfect for the film.” It remains one of the all-time great movie soundtracks.
In one of the most touching interviews, Ashby’s daughter Leigh McManus explains that Lookin’ to Get Out is her favorite of his films because of a message she feels Jon Voight’s character is channeling from her father to her. It all leads up to an exhilarating career-spanning montage — beautifully arranged in tribute to the master editor — that had me in tears. I was inspired to re-watch a bunch of Ashby’s films and seek out the ones I hadn’t seen before. Highly recommended.