Saturday, August 20, 2016

In Search of Lost Chords

This picture shows the kind of transistor radio I owned between 1963 and 1965, when popular music (IMO) was at its zenith. It was a gift from my mother and it became my Siamese twin; I carried it with me everywhere in a cheap black leatherette carrying case, and I often fell asleep listening to it - in the dark of my room, where music seemed to gather extra dimensions it never had in broad daylight.

Sometimes I was able to put it down for awhile, to go to the movies or whatever, but when I first heard (for example) The Zombies' "She's Not There" or "Tell Her No," or "You Really Got Me" by The Kinks, I was so thunderstruck by a new musical world suddenly defined but as yet unmemorized, that I would stay tuned not only to listen but to stand guard till the next time those songs cycled around. One day, when I was walking around my West Norwood neighborhood with my radio at my side, I was momentarily careless and dropped it - and that was all she sang.

I can't remember what I did for music from 1966 through maybe 1968, other than overhear it on other people's radios or to play something on the occasional juke box. I've sometimes thought of trying to find one of these, to fill a certain nostalgic void, but I couldn't bear to hear today's music coming out of it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Every Car Needs A Jack

Here's a thing or two you may not know about Richard Harbinger's hot rod quickie T-BIRD GANG, starring Ed Nelson, Pat George and a young Vic Tayback, which was released by The Filmgroup back in 1959. You can probably guess the first bit of trivia from its means of distribution, or perhaps from the presence of Nelson and Beach Dickerson in the cast: the film was secretly produced by an uncredited Roger Corman. But even more interesting than the film itself, in retrospect, are its promotional materials.

Evidently the film was so quickly and cheaply made (or poorly photographed) that very few promotional shots were taken during the filming. What Corman did to jazz-up the film's public appearance was to have some friends he'd met at Jeff Corey's acting class to participate in an afternoon of modelling shots that would show what the public generally demanded from such a picture - some cars, some babes, and some guys with haircuts. None of them was in the actual movie. A close look at these materials shows none other than a young Jack Nicholson among the participants, posing around a brand new white Thunderbird on a Hollywood Ford car lot! (That's him in all these shots, second from the left.) At this time, Jack had already starred in another Corman-produced JD picture, 1958's THE CRY BABY KILLER (written by Leo Gordon, no less), but his acting career was still a decade away from its ultimate take-off with 1969's EASY RIDER. 

One of the few ways you can actually see T-BIRD GANG these days is in a box set of public domain hot rod titles called BORN TO BE WILD - 4 HIGH-OCTANE MOVIES, which happens to also include THE WILD RIDE (1960), another early Nicholson starring role, and prominently pictures him on the packaging!

Monday, August 08, 2016

The Sale You've Been Waiting For

Mark Maddox's original "Carmilla" cover art for VIDEO WATCHDOG 183 - available now!
We're already a week into the month, so it's high time that I mentioned here - as has already been done on our website - that another of our delightful "'DoG Days of August" sales in presently in effect! We haven't had one of these since our 100th issue was published, but it's a great way to help you acquire more of our coveted back issues, to better familiarize yourself with our digital issues, and support your favorite film magazine.

Here's the deal: For the remainder of this month, each back issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG can be yours for only $5 USA — hey, that's $7 off the usual going price — and we'll up the ante by adding the digital counterpart of that issue ABSOLUTELY FREE! When you compare the print edition to all the bells and whistles added to the digital experience, we're betting that you'll want to experience our entire back catalogue that way! (It is a glorious thing, if we do say so ourselves.)

Just head over here, select the issues you want, check out (no coupon code needed!) and we'll deliver links to your free digital editions via email the minute we process your order (usually within minutes, but no later than 24 hours), and of course, we'll mail your print issues out the very next day.

While you're at it, be sure to snag the free digital version of VW 183 before it disappears!

Friday, August 05, 2016

Welcome To The Architecture of Ruins

Imagine a derelict movie theater - not just one, but dozens of them, all eroding from a virus no more virulent than a village of eyes pointed some other way, arranged in a deluxe catalogue of cultural and architectural decadence. Some of these places are still active but struggling; others groan under a weight of accumulating neglect; most seem to belong to a bizarre ghost town of the imagination. What were once, not so long ago, dream palaces have become bare-boned barns, the harsh juxtapositions of reality and its escape harmonizing in a lament that no one, that no thing, lasts forever.

Seats where audiences once gathered to thrill to colorful adventures now huddle in orgiastic collapse, their bare wooden backs scarred with the fan-traceries of furtive spiders. Rusting projectors stand sentry above over a fading fantasy of better days. In a more fortunate example, an auditorium of still erect seats are cloaked in individual white coverings, summoning what appears to be an audience of ghosts. Elsewhere, a marquee extends the full length of a city block but only five or six letters remain to identify the last film ever to play there, in Cinerama no less, and the lettering is Thai. 

"Welcome to the Architecture of Ruins," reads the back cover of ONCE UPON A CELLULOID PLANET: WHERE CINEMA RULES HEARTS AND HOUSES OF FILMS IN THAILAND (FilmVirus, 1500 THB), a 516-page volume by Sonthaya Subyen and Morimart Raden-Ahmad, to heroic historians who decided to photograph the modern-day remnants of Thailand's dying movie palace culture while its peeling but still-evocative fa├žades were yet standing. In addition to the impressive photo-documentation, the book includes a number of guest essays by such international luminaries as Apichatpong Weerasethakul (UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES), Fred Kelemen (THE MAN FROM LONDON, THE TURIN HORSE) and Prabda Yoon (MOTEL MIST), and the award-winning writers Daenaran-Saengthong (SEA Write Award, Officiers de l’ordre des arts et des lettres in 2008), Suchart Sawasdsria (Thai National Artist of Literature, 2011), and Uthis Haemamool (SEA Write Writer Award 2009), all reminiscing about their formative experiences as young movie-goers. ONCE UPON A CELLULOID PLANET also includes sidebars documenting Thailand's approaches to advertising film, via billboards, advertisements on wheels and bus ads.

While nostalgia obviously had a great deal to do with what motivated Subyen, Raden-Ahmad and their guest authors, it plays a more abstract role in how the book is absorbed by someone outside Thai culture. The accompanying texts are rich with descriptions of what it was like to inhabit these derelict structures when they were still vital, including reminiscences of the films that played there. However, one's first impulse upon opening this book is to page through it, cover to cover, an experience which for me conveyed an eerily Ballardian charge with its peeling parade of long-vacated sensoriums. The text, which carefully and affectionately places the images in context, is all that prevents ONCE UPON A CELLULOID PLANET from seeming like an advanced, poetical work of post-apocalyptic science fiction. And its images carry a bitter punchline, appropriate to such science fiction, in that many of the abandoned structures profiled herein were built in the 1980s.

I was grateful to receive a gift copy of this remarkable book some months ago from Sonthaya Subyen, and I would have reviewed it promptly had there been any point to doing so. He informed me in separate correspondence that it had been published in a limited edition of fewer than 1,000 copies, of which only a few copies then remained. But I'm happy to report that this bilingual book - ONCE UPON A CELLULOID PLANET - a bilingual book, in Thai and English - is now available in a new slipcased "Black Box" edition. (I should mention that the images accompanying this report were photographed from the book on my iPad and imported to the blog; the originals are much brighter, sharper and more colorful in the book.)

This is a unique book and one you will be proud to own. The retail price of the Black Box edition is at 95 $US, and some copies yet remain of the standard white cover edition (without any box) at 85 $US (included shipping and handling anywhere in the world). For further information, send email inquiries to, or message them on their Facebook page ONCE UPON A CELLULOID PLANET.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Hitchcock's SABOTAGE: Beloved Faces in the Crowd've been enjoying myself the last couple of days, exploring the extensive supplementary contents of Criterion's recent CLASSIC HITCHCOCK box set, and I believe I've just spotted something that may qualify as an important historical eureka. The disc for 1935's THE 39 STEPS includes a half-hour documentary entitled HITCHCOCK: THE EARLY YEARS, which is of particular value for including on-screen reminiscences of several gentleman who worked as Hitch's editors and assistants during his formative British period. Still more important, however, was the surprise I got during former 3rd assistant Teddy Joseph's reminisce about a practical joke played on him during the filming of SABOTAGE (1936). This story was illustrated by a clip from the picture, detailing a scene which the documentary describes as the film's most famous: it shows a boy named Stevie (Desmond Tester) running an errand, unknowingly transporting film cans that contain a high explosive. To ramp up the suspense, Hitchcock has the young messenger caught up in a crowd assembled to see the Lord Mayor's Show procession. I've seen the film several times before, but not until now did I happen to notice a couple of familiar faces in the crowd.

Yes, indeed! The child whose view of the parade is blocked by Stevie is unmistakable as the young Patricia Hitchcock, daughter of the esteemed director, who went on to become one of the outstanding character actresses of her time. According to the IMDb, Ms. Hitchcock's first appearance in a theatrical feature was her father's STAGE FRIGHT (1950), preceded only by a TV movie in 1949. I can't recall this cameo ever being mentioned in any of the many books about Alfred Hitchcock that I've read.

But what makes this clip still more valuable is that Alma Reville - who contributed to the screenplay and was also the esteemed Mrs. Hitchcock - is also on view to play the child's mother, fussing over her little girl and finally hoisting her up to see the Mayor as he passes on horseback. Mrs. Hitchcock's only other known appearance in a Hitchcock film was in THE LODGER (1927), in which she briefly appears as a woman listening to a wireless.

Monday, August 01, 2016

Enid At the Crossroads: Surviving GHOST WORLD

Enid leaves town in GHOST WORLD.

Last week I revisited - as I occasionally do - Terry Zwigoff's GHOST WORLD (2001). I consider this adaptation of Daniel Clowes' 1997 graphic novel one of the finest films of our fledgling century and, not insignificantly, also one of its most comforting - an odd assertion to make, considering that its general complexity leans to the bizarre, the negative, and the unhappy. This was a pivotal viewing for me, as it compelled me - for the first time - to extend my viewing experience by seeking out the original graphic novel, an impressive achievement in its own right - however, also disappointing to me, in that few of the themes I've always valued most about the film were in original evidence.

Of course, what I take as the film's message may differ from anyone else's experience of the film, because each of us brings our own experience and moral requirements to any movie we see; every film is, in effect, co-authored by its audience. I was reminded of this fact when I posted some thoughts about this recent viewing on Facebook, which prompted one of my friends there (Darren Bullerwell) to ask a surprising question:

"Did Enid die at the end of the movie? I ask this because they pass by the man waiting for the bus. He has sat there for weeks. When the bus finally arrives, the man is gone - presumably died. This happens to Enid at the end. The bus that no longer runs comes for her. I have asked other friends if this interpretation is correct. They think I am wrong."

Rebecca and Enid talk with Norman.

I told Darren that this was not my own interpretation of the ending, though I couldn't dispute its fairness given the information that the film presents. It should be noted that Daniel's memory of events was slightly inaccurate. What actually happens in the film is that Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) notice an older man named Norman (Charles C. Stevenson, Jr.) seated hopefully on a bus bench that has been stencilled "Not In Service." In striking up a conversation with him as one of her hometown's curiosities, Enid learns that Norman's late wife used to catch the bus here, and he is now waiting for it to happen along and take him. Given Norman's relation to the bus stop, there is reason to interpret it as some kind of death wish, if not a literal spectral ghost carriage. Daniel was incorrect, however, in remembering that Norman is gone when the bus finally arrives; instead, Enid witnesses the bus' arrival and sees Norman climb dutifully aboard. The bus does run. At least it reappears, in apparent response to Norman's hopes.

Speaking for myself, I've always cherished a somewhat different interpretation of the ending of the picture. The original Daniel Clowes graphic novel chronicles the slow disintegration of the bond between two girls who were best friends in high school, who move in different directions in response to life after graduating. In both, Rebecca ends up succumbing to the status quo of their home town, while Enid ends up leaving. The Terry Zwigoff film tells the same general story in an appreciably different, less negative way - by introducing the character of Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a thirtysomething misanthrope who has found and cultivated for himself a meaningful niche in life by collecting old 78s of blues and ragtime recordings. The two girls first encounter Seymour in the midst of a practical joke, but Enid later meets him again at a garage sale, where he's selling old records. Having previously found something of unexpected value in the Bollywood film GUMNAAM (whose now-famous production number "Jaan Peechaan Ho" by Mohammed Rafi opens the film), she inquires if he has any old Indian rock-and-roll records, which leads him to recommend a collection of old blues recordings, which she buys for a pittance and later puts on in a dire moment when all her more familiar records trigger feelings of despair. In a moment that may have no equivalent elsewhere in cinema, Enid is playing the record as background while washing the punk green out of her hair when she happens to overhear Skip James' 1931 recording of "Devil Got My Woman" and becomes caught up in it. Instead of being something to blast out in hostility at the rest of the world, Enid discovers that music can also be let in.

Enid at the crossroads, discovering the Blues.

To me, the primary difference between the two GHOST WORLD projects is that, through her serendipitous discovery of music, of something meaningful in an otherwise obscenely empty life, Zwigoff arms Enid with something she can love, which is what she needs to escape and survive the dead end life proposed by her home town - and this is why I personally find the notion of the bus as "suicide solution" impossible to accept.

What the bus represents to me, to use an old-fashioned word, is faith. The word faith doesn't have a religious significance for me, but rather a mystical one. Norman's belief that the bus will come, despite all other contrary outward signs, is a statement of faith, which is something that Enid can initially regard only with mockery. Norman is, along with Seymour, the only mockeries of the early part of the picture that Enid respects enough to examine more deeply, taking the trouble to interact with both men personally. In Norman, I would argue, she finds her faith, while in Seymour (whose name identifies him as a mentor) she finds a model for her own future survival. As Seymour describes himself, he's something of a caretaker for "the lost culture of the 20th century," so the "ghost world" of the title is actually his - though the phrase also invites our co-opting it as a criticism of the culturally empty real world we presently inhabit.

I love the film enough, and have seen it enough times now, to have discerned a thing or two that could have been pruned to make it even stronger. I feel that Norman's allusion to his late wife may force some viewers toward a more negative reading of the film, so I wish that Zwigoff and Clowes had left his backstory more ambiguous. I also feel that the film continues a few scenes past its actual stop, which I feel occurs when Enid unexpectedly witnesses the bus' arrival and sees Norman board it and ride away. This moment is followed by one of those rare shots in cinema that feel equal to the closing shot of Charlie Chaplin in CITY LIGHTS: we see Enid, suddenly beautiful, suddenly mature, suddenly invested (I believe) with a faith she has seen rewarded. Just before the fade-out, her expression turns sly and we know that she knows there is more happening here than what she has seen.

Enid's moment of epiphany.

I've long suspected that the film might play better if it had the courage to end here, on an ambiguous note. But the film plods on a bit longer, showing Enid walking around her town, her heavy footfalls so locked in time with David Kitay's BARRY LYNDON-like theme music that it seems a musical expression of her entrapment there - an entrapment so old as to encompass many earlier generations. And then, finally, one night, she ventures out to the disused bus stop with a single piece of luggage, where the bus arrives for her. Miracles can happen only once, so its arrival no longer surprises us; there may well be a mundane explanation now.

And now what?

GHOST WORLD imparts its most important message with Enid's moment of epiphany. The flickering of each expression across her face seems to correspond to her reaction shots at the graduation ceremony, the scene where we first see her engaging with the real world; in maybe 10 seconds, she gives us something to measure her growth since the time when everything she saw in life, even the tragic things, seemed there for her haughty amusement or recoil. If stories end when their game changes, this is the end of Enid as we have known her; what will become of Enid after this Edward Hopper moment belongs to another story.

To date, GHOST WORLD has only been released domestically on DVD by MGM Home Entertainment. However, a region-free Blu-ray of the film has been released in Germany, in English with optional subtitles.  

You can find some interesting "now and then" images of the GHOST WORLD bus stop at this Filmap page.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

A Horror of Numbers: Robert Siodmak's THE GREAT SINNER

Robert Siodmak's THE GREAT SINNER begins inauspiciously with a writer (played by Gregory Peck), traveling alone, aboard a train bound for Paris. Before the train departs, his lonely compartment is joined by a dour, older woman who is followed aboard by a very beautiful, younger woman (Ava Gardner) who spends the entire trip playing Solitaire and not speaking a word. When the train reaches her destination of Wiesbaden, she and the man stand together and she breaks their long silence, asking if this is his destination too. When he explains that he is bound for Paris, she offers, "What a shame!" and departs - in a manner that suggests great adventure were he to stay. On the spur of the moment, he changes his mind and the entire future course of his life.

As this woman, Pauline Ostrovsky, later explains to the writer Fedya, she felt mystically bound to him throughout their silent shared journey because, for the first time in her life of playing cards, with him at her side, the right cards suddenly began falling invariably into place. She has gone to Wiesbaden to join her father General Ostrovsky (Walter Huston), who, like her, is addicted to gambling - a weakness that Fedya finds so morally reprehensible that he decides to reject the woman, while remaining in Wiesbaden to write a new book about the psychology of such lost souls. Despite his resolve, weakness begets weakness and Fedya soon enough falls in love with Pauline. When he discovers that the Ostrovskys have in effect sold themselves into eternal bondage to casino manager Armand de Glasse (Melvyn Douglas), in the form of two promissary notes amounting to some $200,000 and Pauline's hand in arranged marriage, Fedya determines to free them both by staking his own fortune on the gaming tables. It would not ruin the story to reveal that - in a thrilling sequence - he is both highly successful in his dare, and ruinously contaminated by his success.
Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck with director Robert Siodmak.
This film - produced by MGM as part of the studio's "Silver Anniversary" - was loosely based on Fyodor Dostoevsky's story "The Gambler," to which it bears only modest resemblance. Its screenwriters were an interesting pair: Ladislas Fodor (who, remarkably, wrote James Whale's THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR and George Pal's TOM THUMB before going on to write several Edgar Wallace krimis and Karl May westerns, as well as Jess Franco's THE DEVIL CAME FROM AKASAVA!) and noted author Christopher Isherwood (whose BERLIN STORIES were the basis of CABARET and whose other scripts include THE LOVED ONE and FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY). There have been a number of films about the dangerous allure of games of chance, and Dostoevsky's story also inspired James Toback's remarkable THE GAMBLER (1973) with James Caan, but for some reason THE GREAT SINNER's important place in this history tends to be overlooked. It was a box office disappointment in its time, perhaps partly due to the drab reception given it by critics like Bosley Crowther of THE NEW YORK TIMES ("a dreary picture"), but revisitation proves that - like any other Siodmak picture you might care to pull down off the shelf - it still has a great deal to offer.

Peck puts his entire life on the line to win his beloved's freedom from casino baron Melvyn Douglas.
The film's production values (including art direction by Cedric Gibbons) are impeccable, but the cast is truly flawless all down the line. Gregory Peck has never been a particular favorite of mine, but this film ranks high (near, say, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) among his most captivating performances. Ava Gardner is not only stunning but transcends initial expectations by playing a character who, through love, changes places with our lead protagonist and summons unsuspected depths of humanity. Melvyn Douglas inhabits his role with calm authority, so amiable in his wealth and privilege that the extent of his monstrousness comes as something of a shock when it's ultimately revealed. The principal supporting players - Walter Huston, Ethel Barrymore, Frank Morgan and Agnes Moorehead - give remarkable, vivid performances that rank with their very best work. Of these four, it would be wrong to pick out any one over the other, but Frank Morgan's character is particularly well written, and his final scene is unforgettably eerie. It finds him unexpectedly seated next to Fedya when he's in a suicidal state of mind, and Siodmak and cameraman George Folsey stage the scene with the brilliant technical stroke of having Morgan isolated within the frame by camera diffusion - which not only emphasizes Peck's extreme state of alienation from other living people but the fact that Morgan's character has already taken his own life in similar alienation and despair.

Frank Morgan and Gregory Peck in the film's eeriest sequence.
Director Robert Siodmak - the brother of screenwriter Curt Siodmak (1941's THE WOLF MAN) - is largely remembered nowadays as one of the great film noir specialists, on the strength of such films as PHANTOM LADY (1944), THE KILLERS (1946) and CRISS CROSS (1949). However, he was just as importantly a major - and somewhat overlooked - director of horror, as can be seen in his expert handling of Universal's SON OF DRACULA (1943), the astonishingly subversive serial killer thriller CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (1944), and the "Old Dark House" chiller THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945). Though a mainstream production in every sense of the term, THE GREAT SINNER plunges into areas of human experience so dark as to intermittently qualify as borderline horror. This becomes particularly clear during a later scene in which Fedya - deranged by hunger and a need for gambling money - revisits a pawn shop run by a wen-eyed crone played by Agnes Moorehead. Strictly through the use of jarring editing and unexpected imagery, Siodmak forces us to share Fedya's increasingly murderous state of mind, creating one of the most alarming 1940s terror sequences I've seen, and the film's one true debt to the moods cast by Dostoevsky himself in his writings. But the film achieves its real apogee of horror in a moment when the viewer, too, suddenly is made to feel infected by the secret geometries cast by numbers, as they stand alone or in combination, which compel people to bet everything on the red before consigning their souls to eternal black.

If you've never seen THE GREAT SINNER, what are you waiting for?

It's a good bet.