Saturday, November 19, 2005

Love Means Never Having to Say "You Ate WHAT?"

There are a few moments in Dario Argento's MASTERS OF HORROR episode "Jenifer" when you know, without a doubt, that the madman responsible for FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, DEEP RED, and SUSPIRIA is behind the camera. Ironically, one of them occurs when he's in front of the camera, his beady eyes peering through the window of a padded cell in a mental hospital. The other moments involve cats (cats must cross the street when they see Argento approaching) and his real bête noir, the female sex, which is herein portrayed as dominant and utterly enslaving to the male of the species.

Based on a comics story written by Bruce Jones and illustrated by Bernie Wrightson, "Jenifer" was adapted by actor Steven Weber, who also stars as the protagonist Frank -- a policeman who, while on a stake-out, witnesses the attempted murder of a manacled woman and prevents it by firing his pistol at the heart of her assailant. The woman, Jenifer -- who has a very alluring body and a head of curly golden hair -- turns out to be not only monstrously disfigured of face but incapable of communicating with anything other than the most basic animal gestures. Her licking and nuzzling demonstrate how appreciative she is of her savior. Frank shrugs off official advice to seek counselling in the wake of the shooting and finds himself haunted by images from the encounter, of the woman bent over a metal drum in a soiled slip, which prompt him to attempt rough anal intercourse with his wife -- which isn't to her liking. When Frank learns that no provisions exist for Jenifer's safekeeping, he introduces her into his own home, just for a night or two... with disastrous results. We're not talking about a clash of personalities or the usual breaches of etiquette; Jenifer behaves in ways that simply cannot be overlooked or excused. Yet Frank does. Jenifer bewitches him.

What we have here is a contemporary update of that ancient monster known as the Succubus, and an enactment of the idea that love is blind -- or, to be more precise, that as long as a woman is good in bed, the rest is negotiable. I haven't read the original story, so I can't attest to the nature or quality of the adaptation, but I can tell you that this is the best English dialogue Argento has had to work with... maybe ever. I'm not saying that "Jenifer" is on the same level as his best feature films, which have more complex storylines, but however good his features have been, they are always written or co-written by Argento, who is a masterful stylist, a bold conceptualist, an innovative technician, and let's face it, a mediocre writer at best. I love most of his movies, but those I love, I tend to love in spite of their writing. Or at least in spite of their dialogue.

Whether it's "Mata Hari filing her report" in SUSPIRIA, the guy in TENEBRAE noting in a loopy Scots accent that a moping girl "looks like a turkey at Christmas time," or the hilarious confusion of The Three Sisters in INFERNO with "those black singers," Argento's consistently risible dialogue has become a perverse point of lovability among his devotées. But in "Jenifer," one senses that nothing is funny unless it was meant to be. Here, even the minor characters are interesting and believable, none of them made to stand out like sore thumbs by their alien behavior and manic conversation. The performances are spot-on too, with Weber coming across as believably possessed by the sexual vigor of this subhuman creature, superbly played by Carrie Fleming as a conundrum that is part-needy child, part-nourishing nymphomaniac, and part hell-spawn. Weber has a particularly great moment when a gruesome discovery leaves him momentarily unsure of whether to laugh or scream or vomit. Argento's direction is relaxed and confident, steering with true expertise from the mundane to the hallucinatory. He turns out to be a superb interpreter of outside material, and may he pursue more of it.

As with Stuart Gordon's "Dreams in the Witch-House" a couple of weeks ago, "Jenifer" takes some surprisingly pitch-black turns that would never have been allowed to stand in a commercial feature, and the sex is as graphic and animalistic as the violence. (Reportedly, the content actually went slightly overboard as far as Showtime was concerned, and a shot involving violence being dealt to a character's penis had to be excised for broadcast -- but it will be included in the DVD box set of the series coming from Anchor Bay next year.) Despite this unflinching quality, facets of humor and homage are accomodated as well, the latter manifesting in a rather audacious quotation of James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN (1931). In short, I liked "Jenifer" better than anything Argento has done since THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (1996), and of the two works, "Jenifer" is probably the more consistent and watchable. Yes, its circular structure is predictable -- hence, so is its ending -- nevertheless, it feels right and inevitable. If Frank had supported Jenifer's strange appetites any longer, who would have been the greater monster?

On a semi-personal note: One thing I've been noting from week to week on MASTERS OF HORROR is the name of Lee Wilson in the main titles. Lee, the series' visual effects supervisor, is an old friend with whom I've fallen out of touch. We met on the set of VIDEODROME in 1981, where he was working as part of Michael Lennick's video effects team. Lee went on to design/animate Brundle's computer screen displays in THE FLY, and he's the guy who made Jeremy Irons twins in DEAD RINGERS. He eventually left Toronto for Vancouver, where it became the busier of the two cities in terms of film production. What I remember best about Lee, besides his fondness for Van Morrison and Lene Lovich, was that he was one of the first bonafide Argento freaks I'd ever met. Before it ever came to home video, I taped a pay-per-view broadcast of UNSANE (the hacked-to-pieces US version of TENEBRAE) and shipped a copy to Lee post-haste. On one of my subsequent trips to Toronto, he repaid that kindness by making me a tape of his super-rare Japanese laserdisc of TENEBRAE, called SHADOW, and treating me to a preview of all the uncensored gore sequences. I also remember tapes of SUSPIRIA and OPERA being swapped back and forth, all of which helped to fuel my FANGORIA article "The Butchering of Dario Argento" (included in THE VIDEO WATCHDOG BOOK, still available from our website). Lee and I fell out of touch after his move, which coincided with VW making my life less leisurely, but he tried calling earlier this week -- for the first time in many years -- just as we were halfway out the door to a dinner engagement. Donna took the message, and he said he'd call back. Maybe he wanted to make sure that I caught this week's episode and was aware that he had finally got to work with his hero. I was very pleased to see Lee's name on an Argento film (and on such a good one) and I hope I get to hear some of the stories he must have to tell.

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Friday, November 18, 2005

Smashing the Glass Slipper

Some months back, a reader wrote us out of the blue -- knowing of our fondness for European and Russian fairy tale films -- to recommend one he had recently seen, THREE WISHES FOR CINDERELLA. We tracked the title down to Facets Video and sent them a request for a screener; their representative wrote back to say it would be sent as soon as they could replenish their supply. The film (originally released in 2003) had proved so unexpectedly popular, it was presently on back-order. Our disc arrived some weeks later, and we watched it last night.

THREE WISHES FOR CINDERELLA is actually a Czech film, Tri orísky pro Popelku (1973), whose title translates -- and appears onscreen -- as "Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella," which would certainly confuse American audiences. It's a delightfully unconventional retelling of the classic story that is remarkable for the degree to which it empowers its put-upon protagonist from the outset. Sweetly played by the winsome Libuse Safránková (pictured above), this Cinderella has a more limited number of adversaries, just her fat and stupid stepmother and a single, snooty step-sister named Dora (who may be mildly plain, but isn't the "ugly" step-sister of American tellings of this tale). And this Cinderella also has the affection and support of the household's other servants, including a doting coachman who promises the girl that he will bring her "the first thing that hits his nose" when he ventures next into town. It just so happens that the young Prince (Pavel Trávnicek), out hunting, notices that the coachman has fallen asleep in his coach and deftly aims an arrow at an empty bird's nest, which drops onto his face as he rides below the tree branch, waking him. Inside the nest is a cluster of three hazelnuts, the gift that subsequently provides Cinderella with the means to make her dreams come true -- rather than have the traditional fairy godmother grant them for her. Also, here Cinderella is able to cross the path of the Prince twice, in two different guises (one of them male), before their climactic meeting at the Royal Ball, which necessitates that she dance with the Prince while wearing a veil. In another delightful invention, she presents him with a riddle he must answer in order to find her, after she flees -- but there remains the convention of the slipper which must fit a foot "no larger than a doll's." There is no sudden transformation "back" into the poor little ash-sweeper; there is magic abounding, but it is left to the girl to prove her worthiness by putting the tools at her disposal to practical use.

Directed by the Czech fantasy specialist Václav Vorlícek, THREE WISHES FOR CINDERELLA is a charming little movie whose winning unpredictability succeeds in revitalizing an overly familiar story. There are some things about it which seem stylistically stilted or dated (like the freeze-framed main and end titles, and a couple of ABBA-like songs accompanying scenes of horse-riding) and Facets' standard ratio presentation is very basic, with unsteady still frames, no progressive scan flagging, and awkward (and unremovable) subtitles that tend to confuse "think" with "thing" and "of" with "have." The subtitles will be an obstacle for many children who might have enjoyed the film otherwise, and the DVD's labelling as one of "Facet's Family Classics" overlooks the fact that the film contains a rather graphic account of a fox hunt. I guess Czech kids are made of stronger stuff.

Fans of the great Russian fantasists Aleksandr Ptushko and Aleksandr Rou will find Vorlícek's approach less stylized and more earthbound (the first and second act scenes are deliberately drab in their coloring), yet appealing on its own terms, which are progressive but nonetheless sweet. For this select audience, and children who don't mind reading a movie if it will expand their horizons, THREE WISHES FOR CINDERELLA is worth seeking out. It's available from Facets Multimedia on DVD and VHS, both priced at $19.95.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Get Back, Monkey-Cat

I've just had the pleasure of seeing a piece of film that I haven't seen in close to twenty years, and which most of the rest of you have never seen. I'm speaking of the infamous and legendary "Monkey-Cat" scene from David Cronenberg's THE FLY (1986), which I was originally privileged to see at a special preview screening at Toronto's Uptown Theatre, in the company of director David Cronenberg, director of photography Mark Irwin, and composer Howard Shore (who was also seeing the picture for the first time, and sat next to me while scribbling notes toward the score he would later write).

In the scene, Brundle (Jeff Goldblum, who is seen for the only time in the picture in his Stage 2 makeup, pictured above, which was the personal favorite of Chris Walas/Stephan Dupuis' makeup team) seeks to reverse what has been done to him by teleporting a baboon and a cat from two separate telepods into a third while keeping their molecules separate; instead it fuses them into a pained and angry "mistake" of science that he is obliged to club to death to put it out of its agony. Then he scales the wall to the roof and falls to an awning where a crab-like leg bursts from the hernia-like bulge in his abdomen, which he chews from his own body in self-disgust. Everyone who read Cronenberg's original script recognized this amazing stretch of incident as the highlight of the film, but it encountered endless trouble.

On the day the "crab-leg" scene was shot, DP Mark Irwin suffered a family tragedy and had to leave the set, which left this critical scene in the hands of another member of the camera crew. The footage came back from the lab too dark to use. (It has been miraculously restored on the disc by digital means unavailable to the film at the time.) Though I saw the footage in dailies, I don't remember it being included in the screening assembly for this reason. Thus, I remember the scene ending at the screening with Brundle bludgeoning the monkey-cat to a squirting standstill.

I thought then that the "monkey-cat" scene was the horrific highlight of the picture, and after the screening I stood in the lobby and pleaded its case to Cronenberg and producer Stuart Cornfeld, telling them that they had made a horror picture and they would be crazy to cut it out. The test results came back. I guess the questionnaire asked leading questions like, "Did you enjoy the scene where Brundle hurts the monkey-cat?" and "Did you care less for Brundle after he killed the animal in his lab?" and the majority predictably replied that no, they did not enjoy graphic demonstrations of cruelty toward animals, however misshapen. So the test got the result it wanted and the scene was out -- by popular demand. Audiences did not understand the reason for the scene (how many people do read those computer screen read-outs and comprehend them?) or they simply did not take the dispassionate, scientific view.

When I opened my disc of 20th Century Fox's special two-disc release of THE FLY, the "monkey cat" scene was the first thing I went to. Aside from the omission of an opening foot-to-head reveal of Brundle in his Stage 2 makeup, which opened the scene in the assembly I saw at the Uptown Theatre (and which can be seen separately in the very interesting "making of" documentary), the scene is everything I remember, only moreso -- with the addition of the restored "crab-leg" scene and Howard Shore's thrilling musical scoring. This scene transcends the biological horror of THE FLY as people know it by turning Brundle's teleportation lab into a witch's cauldron of hellish possibilities. Seeing the scene again, for the first time fully-fleshed with music, I felt my original views were completely vindicated. It is absolutely horrifying.

And yet THE FLY went on to become Cronenberg's biggest commercial hit -- which it probably would not have been, had this sequence been retained. It would have taken audiences to a place they wouldn't want to go, and which they wouldn't recommend to their friends. It doesn't matter that the movie tells the story of a woman who falls in love with a man who becomes a mutant who dissolves his food with corrosive vomit, or that it ends with the ultimate tragic fusion of man and animal mutely pleading with its former girlfriend to blow his brains out with a rifle, and getting his wish. All of that still works in the context of the love story the film somehow became in the editing room. In the "making of," even production designer Carol Spier remarks that she was surprised to discover that she had been working on a love story rather than a horror film.

So I came away from watching this new disc set, of a film I know intimately well, with a fresh understanding of its success. At some point while working with Ron Sanders on the editing of this film, Cronenberg saw in his material a way out of the horror ghetto and he went for it. The exit was already inherent in his script, of course, and it was fully realized by the calibre of the performances Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis gave to him. To have retained the "monkey cat" sequence may well have resulted in horror fans lionizing Cronenberg as a Master of Horror, but he already been there, done that. He was ready to move on to new plateaux. As a horror fan, it was difficult for me to reconcile these facts, but I am more appreciative now of the fact that it's sometimes necessary to make a creative sacrifice like this in order to evolve as an artist. To pull your punches is sometimes a matter not of cowardice or regression, but of creative modulation.

If either Cronenberg or Stuart Cornfeld had explained this process to me then in those (or similar) terms, I might have better understood why it was important to eliminate the sequence, but they didn't -- and perhaps, at that time, they were not all that aware of what they were doing, and why, themselves.

I spent two weeks on the set of THE FLY -- you can catch a glimpse of me at 2:58 into the David Cronenberg profile segment of the Electronic Press Kit, standing behind the director and star as they check a video playback:

It's hard to believe the film is now almost twenty years old; when the end credits roll, I can still put a face to almost every crew member's name -- a swell bunch of people. On my last day on the set, I swiped a copy of the crew picture that was taped to a wall in the makeup corridor -- because a lot of them had come to feel like family. (A couple of high-ranking people on the picture witnessed the act, smiled, and pretended to look the other way.) I later wrote two articles about the making of the picture, focusing on Mark Irwin's and Chris Walas' respective units, which appeared in Cinefex and American Cinematographer (who unbelievably put HOWARD THE DUCK on the cover). Both of these articles have been long out-of-print, but they are included as bonus content on Disc 2 in a new interactive form.

I'm happy to be on there. It makes me feel like I'm still part of the family.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Kindred Spirits

Two nights ago, I permitted myself the luxury of spending an evening with a book I didn't have to read "for work": Orson Bean's 1988 autobiography TOO MUCH IS NOT ENOUGH. Constant readers of this blog will know that Orson Bean has been on my mind of late, and when I saw the title of this, his second book after 1971's ME AND THE ORGONE, I recognized yet another sign of kindred spirit. This one was allied to my thoughts of last Saturday, when I ranted here about my impatient "hungry wish" to make the most of my time and energy and potential.

Bean addresses this question right away, by saying that he somehow grew to maturity with the idea that "it would not satisfy me to be less than the happiest son of a bitch who ever lived." He then goes on to explain how he learned to stop worrying and love life, essentially, by taking his ego (the classic Freudian ego) out of his driver's seat and letting the universe surrounding him take care of itself and him. The rest of the book, after covering the story of his early life and career as young Dallas Burrows (Bean's real name), is actually the story of his second marriage, to the lovely Carolyn Maxwell, with whom he forged a model of open-minded and spontaneous living that somehow (he doesn't go into reasons) fell short of "till death do us part." He notes that he once had a fabulous golden lighter that he was afraid of showing around too much for fear it would get swiped, and after three years, it finally did. By the time he wrote this book, he had gotten to the point of moving past the loss to boast, "I had a great lighter for three years" -- and also that he had a great wife once, for fourteen years. There is a sense of lament about it, and about living on his own, but also of a man unburdening himself onto paper so that he can press on with the next chapters of his life.

There is an enormous amount of serendipity in the story he tells, which is surely a sign of an attentive and appreciative fellow. One story concerns the Bean family returning to America after a retreat to Australia and buying the first suitable vehicle they saw, a used Volkswagen bus, which cost only $500 but served them well for years, eventually dying -- where else? -- in front of a VW dealership. This and other anecdotes are illustrative of the book's commencing wisdom that "things will take care of themselves." There are also chapters devoted to Orson and Carolyn Bean's experimentation with LSD (a happy trip under controlled circumstances) and open marriage, even a shy visit to the Sandstone sex commune in California, and a chilling moment near the end of the Australian section that touches on the likelihood of a local Satanic cult reaching out for their baby and culminates in a real life encounter with some spectral form of Evil that invaded their home. Here, Bean acknowledges that it's not always enough to leave Life to its own devices; that we can sometimes surround ourselves with negative energy born of our own frustrations and worries and we must find our own ways out of these quandaries with positive and decisive action. By the same token, there are also certain contracts that exist in Nature where we cannot intrude, as a fascinating story about a drama between a mouse and the family cat attests.

Sidebar to my pal Steve Bissette, who would be especially interested in the chapter that relates Bean's weird experiences as the Guest of Honor at 1976 Bicentennial festivities in his hometown of Burlington, Vermont. An excerpt might make a worthwhile feature in a future issue of Green Mountain Cinema.

TOO MUCH IS NOT ENOUGH is a good deal more than your usual celebrity bio, and covers much more ground and human experience in slightly more than 200 pages than might be expected. I was able to get through it in a single evening, and felt richer for it. I hope Mr. Bean writes another book about his subsequent experiences. In today's mail, I received my recent purchase of a signed used hardcover of ME AND THE ORGONE and I'll likely be sitting down with it soon -- though not too soon, as we're presently assembling two issues of VW back-to-back before the end of the year.

Something I've observed over the course of my own life is that, if you find yourself inexplicably drawn to someone else's work, chances are there may be personal similarities involved as well. The more I researched the career and life of Mario Bava, the more things I discovered that we had in common personally, and the same goes for my interest in the novels of Anthony Burgess; I always assumed from his erudition and vast vocabulary that he had impressive academic credentials, but when he got around to writing his autobiography, I discovered that his childhood and schooling were not all that different to my own. He too was largely self-taught. Reading Andrew Biskind's recent biography brought to light even more curious parallels. And, while reading TOO MUCH IS NOT ENOUGH, I discovered not only that Orson Bean was a "monster kid" like me -- there are several passing references to FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, KING KONG and collecting comics -- but that he and I sort of had the same mother.

Orson's mother, never a nurturing or steady presence in his life, committed suicide when he was sixteen, after he had already left home. My father died before I was born, but my history with my mother has always been the greater tragedy. A couple of years ago, she willfully absented herself from my life (not for the first or even the second time), and today she is marking her 77th birthday, with none of her children by her side.

Once while visiting a friend in Los Angeles, the subject of conversation at a small gathering of "monster kids" turned to our mothers. To our amazement and horror, each of us could recognize our own mother in the maternal reminiscences shared by the others. Strong melodramatic mothers, absent fathers. There's a university press book in this, I tell you.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Second "Homecoming"

For excellent further commentary on Joe Dante's MASTERS OF HORROR episode "Homecoming," see Dave Kehr's blog.

The weather here in Cincinnati has been miserable of late. It's too warm for November, and there's been a lot of rain and wind and general atmospheric pressure of the sort that predisposes me to dull but miserable headaches. This is something like my third or fourth straight headache day. Aspirin isn't helping much; acetaminophen isn't helping either. Plus I am presently in the midst of that stage of VW production called "frame-grabbing hell" and, between these two inconveniences, I'm feeling too bogged to blog today.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Masters of War

Got an e-mail from Joe Dante yesterday, telling me that his MASTERS OF HORROR episode "Homecoming" received a three-minute standing ovation this past weekend at the Turin Film Festival!

Joe sent me a preview disc of the ep, which I happened to watch a couple of nights ago. "Homecoming" (written by Sam Hamm of BATMAN/BATMAN RETURNS fame, and based on Dale Bailey's short story "Death and Suffrage") is about dead war soldiers who are shipped back home to America from overseas, and who return to life for the purpose of performing one last act (which I won't spoil for you). These aren't your mama's zombies, either; while it's in the tradition of J'ACCUSE and DEATH DREAM, "Homecoming" turns a new page in how the living dead are represented on film and uses the genre to truly heroic, satirical, and even patriotic ends.

To Joe and Sam: I salute you.

The news of the episode's enthusiastic reception in Turin is heartening, because I suspect a fair portion of the MASTERS OF HORROR audience won't appreciate it; it's fairly sophisticated and not really scary in the overt sense, except in the way it reflects with only slight exaggeration and caricature how scary the world in which we live already is. It contains some instances of graphic horror, but it's mostly a thoughtful and pointed piece, comic and tragic, that treats its audience like it treats its zombies -- as real people. Anyway, prepare yourselves for an innovative show, replete with some of the name-dropping for which Joe's work is famous, and similar in tone to his underrated THE SECOND CIVIL WAR (which was recently sneaked out on DVD).

"Homecoming" is going to air on Showtime, I believe, the weekend of December 2.

As for this past weekend's episode, Tobe Hooper's "Dance of the Dead," I dunno... I don't find myself particularly inspired to write about it. That's not to say I found it unwatchable or even uninteresting; but what is there to be said about that kind of glorying in nihilism? It was well-cast (Robert Englund, pictured above, slimier than usual) and certainly... er, dark. But strip away all that fashionable speed-thrash frame toggling and teenage hellbounding, and what's left is a very thin story about a sheltered 16 year-old girl who sells out her entire future because her mother lied to her... once. Stories this sensitive, I suspect, are not well-served by such a hard and sticky veneer and require more editorializing than Hooper was interesting in mustering, at least if they're aiming higher than making dissolution look cool. I'm still not entirely sure what happened -- another of Richard Matheson's "mists"?

Sunday, November 13, 2005

This Monkey's Gone to Macaroni Grill

Last night we had dinner at a Romano's Macaroni Grill across the river in Northern Kentucky with two out-of-town friends, Linda Franz and her fella Russell Bays. Donna and Linda met on the Internet, Linda being the author of a series of quilt books tied into the writings of Jane Austen and Donna being her #1 fan. They've become like sisters and Donna really blossoms in her company; it's a pleasure to see her come out from under the 400 lb. book and to know that the smiles I fell in love with are still there. I like Russ and Linda too; they're creative, convivial and fun-loving people, and they travel with Linda's professional mascot, Monkey, who is always a miraculously present personality in the room. We see them twice a year as they drive back-and-forth between their regular home near Toronto and their winter home in Naples, Florida. For you note-takers, I had a campari-and-soda aperitif, followed by a half portion of the insalada blu and, finally, the veal saltimbocca and two glasses of the house chianti. At Macaroni Grill, they leave a bottle of the house wine on your table and operate on the honor system. They have paper tablecloths and leave crayons so you can amuse yourself while awaiting your meal, and you're expected to mark your tablecloth for every glass of wine you have. I wrote two marks and made sure our earringed waiter knew that "II" meant two and not eleven. Anyway, a nice, relaxing, head-clearing visit -- and if you read yesterday's blog, you know I needed it.

After dinner (Linda, Russ and Monkey took the tablecloth and are threatening to reproduce it on her website), Donna was easily persuaded to drive over to the Best Buy neighboring the Hampton Inn where we'd dropped off our friends. (They are continuing on to Florida and, as I write this, Linda and Donna are already on the phone chatting and laughing, from Linda and Russ's intermediate stop in Atlanta.) This past week, I got a nice little windfall by selling off a chunk of my vinyl collection, so as Donna likes to say, it was burning a hole in my pocket. I knew nothing about this, but I was surprised to find that all of the Rolling Stones' releases between STICKY FINGERS and DIRTY WORK have been reissued by Virgin Records as part of something called "The USA Collection" in newly remastered pressings. (These aren't listed on, for some reason, so I have no idea how long they've been out.) As a big fan of the Stones' remastered SACD catalogue, I've been awaiting remasters of these later albums for some time, so I picked up my three favorites right away: STICKY FINGERS, EXILE ON MAIN ST. and SOME GIRLS. (I'm putting the rest on my Xmas list.) I bought a lot of other stuff -- including a copy of David Cronenberg's THE FLY, which Fox didn't send to me even though I contributed to the disc -- but be that as it may.

When I got home, I decided to listen to EXILE first and popped it on. I was disappointed when I loaded the disc and didn't see the little "SACD" sign light up on my player display. The earlier albums had been released as "CD/SACD Compatible," so I was hoping for the same here. Nevertheless, the disc sounded fantastic and vivid. As I read the booklet, I discovered it was mastered with a new SACD process, copyrighted by Virgin, that reproduces the complete sound of the original analogue tapes on standard equipment! Traditionally noted as a "murky" sounding album, EXILE burst through my speakers with robust clarity -- and as seems to work with SACD, the louder you play it, the more realistic the sound gets. A track I've never paid too much heed before, "Casino Boogie," riveted my attention to Charlie Watts' drumming, which is surely some of his best and most inspired on record. And comparitively, it became very obvious that Watts wasn't drumming on "Happy" (album producer Jimmy Miller took over here, without much elegance). Can't wait to load up STICKY FINGERS later today and hear "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'" this way.

I followed EXILES by watching a new concert DVD I didn't know was out: Rhino Video's PIXIES SELL OUT, compiled from various performances on the Pixies' 2004 reunion tour. I've been able to download over a dozen Pixies shows from this tour, and they're all wonderful, but the effect of the music is greatly enhanced by seeing it performed. This isn't a particularly visual band, either; they don't exactly "put on a show," they just stand there (or sit, in the case of drummer David Lovering) and belt it out. But Frank Black is one of the best songwriters of the past 20 years, and it's sheer joy to see what was once a cult music being played to sea after sea of people, crowds of 100,000 and more, many of them singing along with the songs -- even when the lyrics are in Spanish. In addition to the concert, there's a menu of bonus performances that can be watched with or without interviews by the Pixies management about the tour, which is almost as generous as the main concert and includes some songs not presented in the other program. At one point, their manager mentions that he sometimes stood in the wings and could see audience members literally in tears to be in the presence of this music. I know it's true, because it happened unexpectedly to me during "Tame." This isn't a tender song; it's the kind of song that gives you goosebumps and makes them explode, which is much rarer. There's a moment in the middle eight, I guess, where all the instruments but the bass drum drop out and Frank Black and bassist Kim Deal keep the song going simply by breathing in a call-and-answer, mock-tantric fashion, and their voices are so primally complimentary, so evocative of roughness and softness, that they seem to fleetingly represent in sound all men and women... until the song resumes its former fury with the most open-throated roaring Frank manages all night long. The song becomes a cyclone. It's the Pixies at the height of their power -- the sort of moment that makes audiences jump and, evidently, strong men weep. If you like the Pixies' music, I think you need to pick this up; it's like finally reaching the main course after the appetizer of the Pixies DVD from last year, which included a 1988 concert and a documentary.