By Charles Cassady Jr.
Cleveland Free Times
One of the early-autumn movie releases is the screen adaptation of Terry Ryan's memoir The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, the true story of 1950s Midwest housewife who keeps her Midwest household afloat financially (despite a drunken Midwest husband) by entering one jingle-writing contest after another. Yes, granted that it's not a lousy remake of a stale old TV show or a steroid-pumped adaptation of a banal superhero comic, this may be one of the underdog movies worth rooting for, after a ghastly summer du cinema.
Yet at the risk of seeming terribly provincial, maybe this picture would have more inherent worth had The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio actually been filmed, at least partially, in the vicinity of Defiance, Ohio. Instead, the DreamWorks production went the familiar route north to Canada, where actual lensing took place, in defiance of higher U.S. production costs, unions and perhaps the shortage of Scientology Centers in the Buckeye State heartland (aye, we're bitter).
Compare that to Nightowls of Coventry, opening this week at the Cedar Lee. Shot here in its entirety (on Super 16mm and not cut-rate digital video) for under $500,000 raised through private investors and grants, it's Cleveland Heights filmmaker Laura Paglin's comic-tragic homage to the Coventry Road community in the early 1970s, when the hippies were on their way out and the yuppies on their way in. The changing times are encapsulated in the faltering operation of Marv's, a greasy all-night deli (loosely inspired by the long-departed Irv's, which actually closed in 1989).
Marv (Seymour Horowitz), a seedy, gambling-addicted proprietor, runs the place on I.O.U.'s and trivial graft transactions with old cronies in the City Hall health department, and he's long carried on an extramarital affair with the short-tempered head waitress, Grace (Annie Kitral). To Marv's dubious credit, he's an equal-opportunity offender, opening his doors to teen runaways, biker gangs, pretentious artists, elderly Jews and young anarchists — as long as their money is good.
Into this mix comes Susan (Donna Casey), a naïve neighborhood newcomer answering a help-wanted placard after one of Marv's other waitresses bolts from his lecherous advances. Her plotline is one of several; there's also the downward spiral of juvenile scrounger Doug (Paddy Connor) and the efforts of a grassroots civic-improvement group to shut down Marv's in the name of gentrification.
Paglin's Altman-like approach to the ensemble cast leaves you wondering whose story this is supposed to be, really, and a clue is provided by the soundtrack music, which isn't post-Woodstock acid rock or the theme from Shaft but klezmer in flavor. That and the closing scene are major clues to the theme of a loss of community feeling that existed even in dives like Marv's, before the ascendance of Starbucks or Over Two Billion Served.
Nightowls of Coventry was shot in 1999; during the long road to post-production, Coventry Road's Co-op Grocery store has closed, as has the street's onetime indie-movie theater, the Centrum, and a succession of funky vegetarian/ethnic restaurants. The fabled street continually battles efforts to bring in the next Cheesecake Factory, Target or Olive Garden and make the place Legacy Village v.2.0. The relentless procession of the years also cost us journeyman production designer Jim Gelarden (Seabiscuit, Telling Lies in America), who left Cleveland for greener movie-production pastures in North Carolina, after endowing Nightowls with period-correct furnishings of bead-curtains, polyester fabric and analog clocks. But Paglin remains here (and has since embarked on two documentary projects), and she and assorted cast members will attend the opening-night screening at the Cedar Lee.
After shopping the film around at various festivals, Paglin struck a distribution deal with Vagrant Films of Canada — just kidding about that Scientology stuff; we love Canada. Even your wacko cults are nicer than the American ones. But will Nightowls Cleveland content translate well to other cities? Hopefully there are enough holdover Haight-Ashburys out there to remind audiences, even strangers to Record Revolution and High Tide/Rock Bottom, that development can wash away a neighborhood's character just as effectively as a hurricane.