Saturday, December 03, 2005

Server Woes

I may or may not post something else today, but now -- before breakfast -- I want to post something here about our server -- HostOnce.com. Remember that name, because you will want to forget it.

I don't know how many hours our website, this blog, our e-mail AND our internet telephone service were unavailable to us yesterday, but everything was down for 7 or 8 hours by the time we finally went to bed. HostOnce.com promises a 24-hour help line, which we've found this must refer to the length of time you can expect to stay on hold with muzak before an actual person answers to help. At any rate, we are leaving HostOnce.com later today for, we hope, sunnier shores at another internet server.

If you've tried writing to Donna or me in the last few days and had your mail bounced back to you, please resend it now, as things appear to be working -- for the moment. If anything else gets bounced back to you, please understand it's the fault of our server and should be cleared up soon.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Another "Homecoming" and Hitch-ing Post

JUST A REMINDER that tonight is the night Joe Dante's "Homecoming" premieres on Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR, at 10:00 p.m. eastern. In addition to my own enthusiastic blogging about this show (see "Masters of War," November 14), the episode has received glowing advance notices from a lot of heavy hitters:

"Dante has created a political parable with genuine emotional force as well as glinting moral clarity. It is, one fervently hopes, a film whose time has come... [Of the MOH episodes to date] only 'Homecoming' has gone beyond the series' mandate. Joe Dante hasn't simply seized the opportunity to offer a bit more sex and violence than the system generally allows. He's opened a door and walked through it, with the contagious joy of a suddenly free man." -- Dave Kehr, davekehr.com

"The dizzying high point of Showtime's new Masters of Horror series... At once galvanic and cathartic, Dante's film uncorks the rage that despondent progressives promptly suppressed after last year's election and that has only recently been allowed to color mainstream coverage of presidential untruths and debacles. For all its broad, bludgeoning satire, 'Homecoming' is deadly accurate in skewering the callousness and hypocrisy of the Bush White House and the spin industry in its orbit." -- Dennis Lim, The Village Voice

"Six weeks in, [MASTERS OF HORROR has] been a mixed bag — [Tobe] Hooper’s stank, and Don Coscarelli’s was amusing if not exactly scary — but this Friday the series unveils a real doozy: Joe Dante’s wry and uncompromising zombie satire 'Homecoming'." -- The LA Weekly

"The way in which Dante and [screenwriter Sam] Hamm keep the story twists coming, never losing steam or running in place thematically or dramatically, is kind of breathtaking... For the second year in a row, a satirical zombie project stacks up as the year’s best horror production; here’s hoping someone in Hollywood notices, and gives Dante a shot at a feature which will show off the skills that, on this evidence, are only becoming sharper with time." -- Michael Gingold, Fangoria.com (4-skull review)

If these blurbs (and my past blogs on the series) haven't persuaded you to sign up for Showtime yet, I understand that Showtime is conveniently hosting a Free Preview weekend in some, if not all, areas, so now you have no excuse not to check it out. (As long as you're living in the United States, that is.) I've already seen "Homecoming" once, on an advance disc that Joe kindly sent to me, but I'm psyched to see it tonight in hi-def.

Incidentally, Steve Bissette's Myrant blog today concludes a two-part article about "Homecoming" and its precedents in film, well worth reading.

BRAD STEVENS, OCCASIONAL VW contributor and the author of Monte Hellman - His Life and Films, has written to Video WatchBlog: "Re. your comments about the French disc of Hitchcock's THE RING running 85m 35s. I feel it's worth pointing out that the version of this film released in the UK by BFI Video in 1999 clocked in at 109m 22s!"

Brad feels that the additional length is due to variable projection speeds but adds that the BFI Video release is "absolutely gorgeous."

This reminds me of the one-and-only time to date I've ever seen Hitchcock's THE LODGER, as an early videocassette release from a company called, I think, Video Yesteryear. They slowed the film's projection speed to such an extent that the movie actually looked like a dream unfolding... and consequently, very nearly put me to sleep. It's put me off ever seeing THE LODGER again, though I realize I need to get over it and give the movie a proper chance.

ANOTHER CORRESPONDENT, DAN Gosse, wrote to inquire how I had arrived at the total of 53 Hitchcock features. The laziest way imaginable, actually -- by remembering an old promotional still released at the time of FAMILY PLOT, which showed Hitch posing paternally with a row of numbered film cans, ending with #53, FAMILY PLOT. Of course, since then, other works have come to light (notably several wartime shorts), but it's on that photo I based my number. I assumed it was accurate, but Mr. Gosse submitted a filmography that lists 59 films (including shorts), asking which six titles I may have omitted from my number.

In looking over his list, I can see some tempting candidates for omission at the time that photo was taken: ALWAYS TELL YOUR WIFE (1923, direction credited to Hugh Croise), MARY (SIR JOHN GREIFT EIN!; 1930, the German version of MURDER); ELSTREE CALLING (parts only, also 1930), and certainly a number of shorts, including another 1930 title, AN ELASTIC AFFAIR. Hitchcock's lost film, THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE, may also have been scratched from the list, and Hitch himself may well have disowned one or two others -- who knows? Then again, it may simply have been a matter of Universal being careless at their abacus. At any rate, excluding the shorts and the shared directorial credits, Dan's filmography shapes up to be 54 Hitchcock features by my own count... with the missing title likely being the German version of MURDER. My thanks to Dan for bringing this discrepancy to my attention.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Vintage Hitch - Bright and Bubbly

Some weeks ago, while visiting Dave Kehr's blog, I discovered the existence of three new French import box sets (from Studio Canal) cataloguing reportedly superb prints of Alfred Hitchcock's 1927-32 work. Though I had copies of most, if not all, this material in cheapo Brentwood box sets -- like THE ESSENTIAL ALFRED HITCHCOCK COLLECTION, which offers nine features and a documentary for only $19.98 (I found it at Best Buy for $14.98) -- and at least one of the titles (BLACKMAIL) as an exquisite Criterion Collection laserdisc with an audio commentary by screenwriter Charles Bennett, I decided to order the sets anyway, if only to provide some guidance for you, my devoted readers. I ordered them from Amazon.fr -- somewhat blindly, as their listings itemized the contents of each set only in French. Here is a handy translation:

LES PREMIERES OEUVRES 1927 - 28
Disc 1: Le Masque de Cuir (THE RING, 1927) #6
A l'Americaine (CHAMPAGNE, 1928) #8
Disc 2: Laquelle des Trois? (THE FARMER'S WIFE, 1927) #7
Manxman (THE MANXMAN, 1928) #9

LES PREMIERES OEUVRES 1929 - 31
Disc 1: Chantage (BLACKMAIL, 1929) #10
The Skin Game (THE SKIN GAME, 1931) #13
Disc 2: Meurtre (MURDER, 1930) #12

LES PREMIERES OEUVRES 1932 - 40
Disc 1: A L'est de Shanghai (RICH AND STRANGE, 1932) #15
Numero 17 (NUMBER SEVENTEEN, 1932) #14
Disc 2: Correspondant 17 (FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, 1940) #25

As you probably noticed, the sets aren't really a definitive overview of Hitchcock's "first works" (none of his first five films is included), nor are they arranged in correct chronological order. (I've added numbers after each title above to show where the movies fall in the sequence of Hitchcock's 53 features.) The three sets are packaged in moss-green colored clamshell boxes with a printed contents sheet affixed to the back, which can be removed after cracking the shrinkwrap and tucked inside for future reference. Every online description of these releases I've seen lists them as offering the films in French and English -- which is true, but the French subtitles are non-removable. They are also non-disruptive, but it would be nice to have the option of not being distracted by them.

The rumors about the films' quality are true. They look beautiful -- crisp, silvery and full of detail simply not available in domestic PD prints. Many are preceded by their original British Board of Film Censorship certificates. The only detailed comparison I've done so far concerns CHAMPAGNE, included in the first set, which is available domestically as part of Brentwood's THE ESSENTIAL ALFRED HITCHCOCK COLLECTION. Like its companion feature in the Studio Canal set, THE RING, this 1928 silent is not in the true Hitchcock vein, being essentially a maudlin romance rather than a thriller. Hitchcock himself described it to François Truffaut as "probably the lowest ebb in my output."

CHAMPAGNE is the flimsy story of "The Girl" (Betty Balfour, pictured below), a flighty young heiress whose romance with a slick-haired young man, "The Boy" (Jean Bradin), comes to a halt after she uses her fortune to arrange a flight to his transatlantic ship, leaving her to the more suspect intentions of a sinister, older admirer, "The Man" (Theo Von Alten, pictured above). Our heroine's father, "The Father" (Harker), aiming to teach his willful child the value of money, and to test whose romantic interest is most sincere, pretends he has lost the family fortune in the stock market, leaving he and his daughter without a sou -- the stuff of comedy in 1928, destined to become the stuff of tragedy only a year later. (One can easily imagine CHAMPAGNE being remade starring Sandra Bullock or Meg Ryan, if it hasn't been done already.)


Like its disc companion THE RING, CHAMPAGNE shows Hitchcock compensating for a milquetoast story by revelling in audacious (one might even say "effervescent") camera technique, montage, and opportunities for droll humor. He takes particular delight in staging a banquet hall sequence on an ocean liner suffering rocky seas, where the cast (presumably prompted by cues barked off-camera) go stumbling left or right in remarkable concert with one another. Though not Hitchcock at his best (or even half-best) by any means, CHAMPAGNE is worth watching by anyone interested in eavesdropping on people intoxicated by the untapped possibilities of cinema.

The film, which Studio Canal's info sheet lists at a mere 72 minutes, actually runs a startling 85m 11s in PAL -- which translates to 88m 49s in NTSC -- and that's without including the British Board of Film Censors certificate at the beginning. In contrast, Brentwood's CHAMPAGNE (included in THE ESSENTIAL ALFRED HITCHCOCK COLLECTION) runs 84m 56s -- and has no BBFC certificate. The Studio Canal presentation is exquisite, making the 1928 film look surprisingly fresh, with a wealth of fine detail. The piano accompaniment by Xavier Berthelot adds to the film's enjoyment, being attentive to its spirit and variety of moods, even accenting little gestures like Gordon Harker's feigned facial tic. The classical orchestra accompaniment on the Brentwood version actually scores this lighthearted, bubbly film as though it were something far more grave, like the story of a sinking ship with all hands lost. The Brentwood picture quality has no fine detail (Theo Von Alten loses all the little wrinkles around his eyes, which not only gives him a face-lift of sorts, but erases nuances of his performance) and looks pasty and smudgy by comparison.

There is a 4-minute difference between the two versions, but I didn't notice anything missing in its entirety; instead, little bits and the odd intertitle were missing from individual scenes and shots. The omissions are damaging to the two scenes which I consider the film's comic and dramatic highlights.

The comic highlight occurs when "The Boy" (Bradin) visits "The Girl" (Balfour) in her humble apartment, where she is trying to learn how to bake. She is overjoyed to see him and embraces him. They argue when the Boy offers the Girl and her father his charity, and the Boy leaves with the parting shot, "You'll make a mess of it, the way you do everything you lay your hands on" -- then he turns his back to the camera to exit, revealing the Girl's flour-covered handprints all over the back of his suit jacket. This scene is present on the Brentwood disc, but an intertitle is edited into the wrong place, so that the parting shot is followed by the Boy's earlier intertitle, "You can't live on pride!" -- ruining the continuity of the joke, and the scene!

The film's most intriguing dramatic moment occurs when the Girl, reduced to selling boutonnieres in a nightclub, is spotted by the Man, who invites her to dinner. Learning of her predicament, he pledges his eternal friendship and guides her from their table to one in a series of private nooks in the club where men and hired women can enjoy their privacy. He begins kissing his way up her arm, then takes even fresher advantage of her mouth, and she fights her way free as he tries to force himself upon her even more... In context, the scene is nearly as disturbing as the rape scene in FRENZY, but as the action settles on a close shot of the Girl, the camera dollies back to reveal her still seated at the restaurant table across from the Man, imagining all this -- just as the Boy happens along to save her from this presumed fate.

This sort of thing is fairly commonplace in today's movies and television (I've seen it often used in SIX FEET UNDER, for example), and I can remember seeing it used in some of Luís Buñuel's work of the 1970s and finding it quite radical then. There may be earlier examples of this sort of narrative trickery in silent movies, but I can't think of an earlier instance than this, nor can I name another as brilliantly deceptive. After seeing this scene in the Studio Canal presentation, which had great impact, it was disheartening to compare it to the Brentwood version, which was not only "scored" insensitively, but was missing snippets from the Man's attempted molestation of the Girl and ended up making her seem less vulnerable and invaded. And because the Brentwood version delivers a soundtrack dissociated from the original celluloid, it doesn't offer the usual pops and other telltale audio clues that usually tip us off when footage is missing or rearranged.

As for THE RING (a boxing story, not to be confused with the recent Japanese horror hit or its remake), I've given it only a cursory look; I watched my Brentwood copy (included in Brentwood's 10-movie set ALFRED HITCHCOCK - THE MASTER OF SUSPENSE) only a month or so ago, so it's not something I'm eager to view again so soon. But I did notice that the image on the Studio Canal disc is, again, delightfully vivid and the framing is far superior to what I had seen. I can remember some heads being lopped off in some of the Brentwood shots, from the nose up! I didn't make note of the Brentwood running time, but the Studio Canal version of THE RING runs 85m 35s in PAL (it carries no BBFC certificate) -- that's 89m 14s in NTSC -- so you can compare that to the running time of your copy, should you have one.

I know that many people who love Hitchcock can't get into his early films, finding them "too creaky," and that many of those who do "kind of" like them are perfectly satisfied with the PD versions so prevalent on DVD here in America. But if you take your Hitchcock seriously, I submit that these Studio Canal presentations just might make a difference in how well these films play for you. After watching CHAMPAGNE, I referred to some of my Hitchcock books and found it given fairly short shrift by pretty much everybody. (Donald Spoto's The Art of Alfred Hitchcock dismisses the "amusing trifle" in far fewer words that I've given you today.) Having now seen the film under refreshed conditions, I can't help thinking that a smudgy presentation may lead to smudgy thinking. When considered in relation to other films being made at the same time, Hitchcock's early silents are remarkable for the degree to which their images burst off the screen, even evoking the illusion of sound on occasion. CHAMPAGNE may tell a tedious story, but there are other valid reasons to watch a film -- especially a Hitchcock film -- than to be told a story. A Hitchcock scholar armed with these new transfers just might be able to write a more enticing defense of these early years.

Of course, the inclusion of FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT in the third set is baffling, especially when so many other, earlier Hitchcock titles would better fit the description of a "First Work." It's also a useless addition to those of us who own the recent, extras-laden Warner Home Video release, but you shouldn't let that prevent you from obtaining the best available copies of RICH AND STRANGE (one of Hitchcock's very best early works) and NUMBER SEVENTEEN (as close as Hitchcock ever got to filming a Monogram "old dark house" comedy).

The sets also include optional introductions by Noël Simsolo and various other treats. The 1927 - 28 set adds only a photo gallery, but the other two sets both contain a half-dozen glossy, postcard-sized still reproductions. Some of these I've seen in books before, but never so generously cropped. 1929 - 31 contains a stills gallery, an alternative ending for MURDER, something to do with BLACKMAIL star Anny Ondra, and a 52m documentary called HITCHCOCK - LES FILMS DE JEUNESSE (featuring Claude Chabrol and critic Bernard Eisenschitz) that is undoubtedly in French sans soutitre. The final volume contains a stills gallery and a 26m documentary featurette, JEUX AVEC L'INVISIBILE, featuring commentator Noël Simsolo.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

If You Have a Disc On Which You Think You Can Rely

In recent months, I've been converting some old tapes as well as some laserdiscs to DVD-R. I don't always watch them while I do this, but it can be an engrossing process, refreshing my memory about beloved films, good and not-so-good, which have not been part of my current consciousness because they haven't been released on DVD or shown recently on broadcast television. The process can also unearth some unhappy discoveries about the state of one's collection, and how it's deteriorated while we haven't been watching it.

I've never had the problems other laserdisc collectors have reported with "laser rot" and so forth, but I did discover a different kind of problem recently while attempting to convert a disc. In the past year, I had placed a winning eBay bid on a Japanese import laserdisc of the Sex Pistols last concert at Winterland in 1978. I watched it when it arrived and the disc played perfectly. Would that I had converted it then! A few weeks ago, while recording it to my hard drive, I discovered that somehow, in the meantime, it had developed a crack and no longer played past a certain song. Considering what I paid, I don't think I got my money's worth out of this one, so I was miffed. I was hoping to burn the Pistols' Long Horn Ballroom and Winterland shows to the same disc, and now I have the Long Horn Ballroom show on my hard drive, which I'll probably end up burning to disc separately. It makes me wonder what other sad stories might be awaiting me in the deadweight of my laserdisc closet.

Ah, but there are joys to be rediscovered there, too. Last night I decided to convert my Warner Home Video laserdisc of Lindsay Anderson's O LUCKY MAN! (1973), my thoughts having been turned in that direction by a recent letter asking me if Warner had any plans to release it on DVD. (Of course, I have no way of knowing what any company plans to do until they do it. I'm in Ohio.) I didn't intend to watch it, but once Alan Price's infectious score kicked in, I couldn't pull myself away.

That's Lindsay Anderson on set, directing Alan Price (who appears with his band throughout the film as a sort of Greek chorus commenting on the narrative).

Based on an original idea by star Malcolm McDowell and scripted by David Sherwin, O LUCKY MAN! attends the CANDIDE-like misadventures of an ambitious young coffee salesman that educate him in the dark, labyrinthine and oft-interconnected ways of sex and politics, big business and government, crime and punishment. It's one of those works of art, like John Lennon's ballad "Working Class Hero," that I think should be required experience for everybody when they reach a certain age, not only for the sake of their artistic education, but their education in life. Knowing this film, I believe, will make you a better person -- at least if you like it.

Though a stand-alone film, O LUCKY MAN! is also a vague sequel-of-sorts to an earlier Anderson film, IF... (1968), which starred McDowell as a character with the same name, Mick Travis. Whether McDowell's two characters are, or are not, the same person in terms of continuity, O LUCKY MAN! makes a number of references to IF... in terms of content and shared casting, and it makes similar references to McDowell's more recent success in Stanley Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) -- again, in terms of shared casting (Warren Clarke, ACO's "Dim") and other references (Ralph Richardson plays a "Mr. Burgess," McDowell sports an Alex-like derby at one point, and the films touch on similar subjects of good and evil, as well as prison and reformation). I'm making it sound overly intellectual and dull, but it's actually lively, spirited and funny, moving from one big surprise after another -- part of the fun is noticing how the actors recur in different roles, and determining what those different roles have to do with or say about one another. Seeing it again, I was not only surprised but deeply impressed that it managed to communicate itself in an adult fashion without the use of profanities and also that it's as erotic as sometimes is without nakedness. (The only sexual nudity in the film is, as they say, "non-diegetic" -- glimpsed in a stag movie and stage performance that are meant to look ridiculous.)

I first saw O LUCKY MAN! at Cincinnati's long-gone Carousel Theater (a fantastic screen) in the summer of 1973 with my friends Ben and Cathy, and we all liked it so much we automatically and unanimously decided to sit through it a second time -- and it's a three-hour movie. Actually, it was just under three hours in its original US release, which cut a section of the "East End" portion where Mick Travis (McDowell) attempts to dissuade Mrs. Richards (Rachel Roberts), a Welsh housewife and mother, from her plan to commit suicide. This section, which was restored to the home video release, would prove unfortunately prophetic as actress Rachel Roberts later took her own life. (The complex and messy details of her demise can be found on her IMDb page under the heading of "trivia.") The film ends jubilantly, with a festive dance with all the cast members in costume that begs confusion with the movie's actual wrap party, and as time goes on, it becomes more bittersweet to see the still-living (McDowell, the delicious Helen Mirren, Mary MacLeod) commingling so joyously with the now-dead (Anderson, Arthur Lowe, Mona Washbourne). McDowell, Anderson, and Sherwin revisited Mick Travis in a third film, BRITANNIA HOSPITAL (1982), interesting but the least of the series and the only one of the bunch that's ever had a DVD release. It's still available from Anchor Bay.

There hasn't been a proper release of O LUCKY MAN! since Warner issued it on VHS and LD a decade ago, which means there's now an entire generation of people out there who haven't had the opportunity to be enriched by it. The soundtrack album is available on CD and highly recommended, though it's absurdly overpriced for a disc that barely runs 25 minutes.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Chocolate, Lite and Dark

The fifth episode of Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR series, "Chocolate," arrives with some added pressures attached and I've been looking forward to it with equal parts curiosity and trepidation. The added pressures have to do with the episode's writer and director, Mick Garris, also being the show's creator and executive producer. Of the 13 directors represented in the first season, Garris is (I'm betting admittedly) the ringer, the one not generally thought of as a "Master of Horror." He's got a track record as a director and screenwriter -- he's one of only two men who can be called "the director of THE SHINING" -- but most of his work has been produced for network and cable television, and therefore fairly tame. For him to step up to bat alongside the likes of Dario Argento, Joe Dante, John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper is a bit like Bob Geldof insisting that The Boomtown Rats (a terrific but non-A List band, which Geldof fronted) be included on the exclusive bill at Live Aid, which he organized in 1985: "It's my party and my band is damned well going to play." Like Geldof, Garris is well within his rights, but the pressure is on for him to deliver.

Garris's highest profile work to date has probably been his TV miniseries versions of two Stephen King properties, THE STAND (1994) and the aforementioned "King's way" remake of THE SHINING (1997). Both of these are technically well-made and faithful adaptations of very difficult-to-adapt novels, but lacking any kind of unique directorial vision or creative edge. They're good television, sometimes very good, but they are ultimately too moderate, too temperate, too careful to summon the balls-to-the-wall horror of Stephen King at his best.

Part of my anticipation for this particular episode was based on what Garris was demanding of himself by agreeing to play this particular venue. Based on the previous four shows, it seemed that MASTERS OF HORROR, by its own evolving definition, almost had to extend Garris's creative perimeters into areas of violence and sexuality that his work isn't exactly noted for exploring. The major exception: his 1990 made-for-cable prequel, PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING -- written by Joseph Stefano -- starred former E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL moppet Henry Thomas as the young Norman Bates, developing into the murderous adult he would become under the twisted tutelage of "Mother" (Olivia Hussey). In a review that I wrote nearly 15 years ago for VW #7, I described PSYCHO IV as "a low-voltage thriller" while praising the daring casting and uncanny performance of Thomas.

It makes good sense, then, that Garris would renew this working relationship for "Chocolate." Thomas (pictured above) stars as Jamie, a recently divorced chemist working at a company that develops artificial food flavoring, whose lonely readjustment to bachelorhood is suddenly besieged by strange phenomena. It begins when his mouth is unexpectedly flooded with the taste of gourmet chocolate. After being dragged to a rock concert by a co-worker (Matt Frewer) who's in the band, his sense of hearing temporarily swaps the hard rock being played with calmer classical music; on the drive home, he is momentarily stricken sightless. In time, Jamie realizes that he is experiencing subjective flashes from someone else's life, waking and sleeping -- a psychic link. In fits and starts he cannot predict, he becomes subject to extended habitations of this other person's body, which he discovers to be female after experiencing sexual intercourse and orgasm the way the other sex feels them. His empathy with this woman's inner life now complete, it turns to full-blown romantic obsession when he glimpses her face in a mirrored reflection, and his impulses turn protective when he experiences her commission of murder, when she stabs her artist boyfriend to death during an attempted rape. When the next of his visions reveals her to live in Vancouver (where MASTERS OF HORROR is actually shot), Jamie drives north there and makes the dangerous move of stepping into her life -- actually rather than literally.

"Chocolate" is based on an original story by Garris which was included in his 2000 short fiction anthology Life in the Cinema. I haven't read it, but the story is not the episode's strongest suit. The premise of psychic links has been explored in films before -- most meaningfully in Douglas Trumbull's BRAINSTORM (1983), but also in THE EYES OF LAURA MARS (1978) and other murder mysteries -- and Garris doesn't make any attempts to rationalize or suggest a cause for this unusual turn of events. This technically takes the story out of the realm of horror and posits it more in the arena of fantasy, not unlike a TWILIGHT ZONE episode (or an episode of AMAZING STORIES, on which Garris served as story editor), where things sometimes happen merely to satisfy an idle curiosity about "What if...?" Again, I haven't read his story, but if Garris's script for this episode had somehow introduced the problem in Jamie's marriage as being associated with his lack of empathy, the phenomena would have at least been given some thematic underpinning. The finale, with Jamie and the woman holding each other at bay with dangerous weapons, seems confused and rushed -- even with the end credits unusually scrolling over the final scene, the episode overstays the program's timeslot by a minute or two. I've heard that the teleplay was cut down from an earlier draft written at feature length, and there is a feeling of dramatic haste and incompleteness. Nevertheless, looking back over the hour, there are occasional sparkles that lend the episode its own distinct character and way of looking at the world. For instance, the vividly imagined or well-observed moment when Jamie spies a blotch on his ex-wife's chest as she's changing clothes in front of him and asks, dumbstruck, without thinking, "Is that a hickey?" A moment like that, and the silent reaction it gets, is worth 10 pages of a guy crying and soliloquizing into his beer.

The episode's greatest asset is... I was going to say "the performance of Henry Thomas" (who, as an actor, can summon the edge Garris's story needs), but in fact, after scanning through the show a second time, I have to say there is not a single instance of bad casting or uninteresting performance in it. Garris would seem to be an actor's director; it's in the performances that his work finds what character it has. And yet, between the good performances and the adequate story, there is a layer or gulf that doesn't feel quite lived-in. As expected, there is an unusual (for Garris) amount of requisite sex and graphic violence in the episode, but even the stuff that happens directly to Jamie feels somewhat vicarious, as if the story is merely referencing the emotions it deals with rather than sinking its teeth into them.

I know Mick only slightly (we both wrote for CINEFANTASTIQUE back in the '70s); I have no idea what sort of life he's had, but I suspect that his art comes from -- to fall back on a convenient and overused musical parallel -- a McCartney place rather than a Lennon place. "Chocolate" is a story about pain and longing, but it's theoretical or conceptual pain/longing rather than a pain/longing that the viewer instantly recognizes as coming from a real and hurting place. As Paul McCartney has said (and I paraphrase), "John had a terrible childhood; I didn't, and if that's what you need to be a great artist, I'd rather not be a great artist." Of course, McCartney is a great artist anyway, and he didn't become a conspicuously greater one after his songwriting partner was murdered, or after his wife died of the same cancer that claimed his mother when he was a young man. So it's not always necessary for pay one's dues as an artist with blood and tears; sometimes sweat alone (i.e., hard work) is enough to push the craft on to the highest plateau. But horror, of all genres, cries out for that "something extra" -- something we find in the work of David Cronenberg and George Romero and Tobe Hooper and other masters going all the way back to Tod Browning and F. W. Murnau. In the cases of all these men, one has no doubt that something very real and very close to them, at one time or another, scared them all shitless -- and they were so traumatized, they consecrated their lives to scaring it back, or at least to thoroughly exploring the emotion to better understand its impact on them. I've never really sensed that "something extra" in Mick's work; he may not have it in him, yet he clearly loves the fantastic and has given a lot of himself to it. "Chocolate" marks an advance in his filmography: while not an especially original or solid story, it feels more personal than much of his past work, and is noticeably more adult. What is most vital here are its characters, their human dimension and their relationships, rather than its horror content. It wouldn't surprise me if Mick eventually produced his best and most successful work in another genre, like drama or romantic comedy.

As you may remember, The Boomtown Rats ("I Don't Like Mondays") played a memorable set at Live Aid. In a similar vein, "Chocolate" finds Mick Garris entertaining at his own party and earning his place onstage. I know this because, although it's not the best MOH episode I've seen, it's not the worst either.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Where's Tim?

It might seem like I'm taking a long and lazy holiday weekend, but we've had a number of little household emergencies the past couple of days, in addition to me starting immediate work on editing the contents of VW #124 (even though it won't be out till February or March), all of which has conspired to keep me from blogging.

A number of our appliances have recently elected to give up the ghost or show signs thereof -- two living room lamps, the coffee maker, the washing machine, and last night, the vacuum cleaner. Our vacuum "up and died," as they say, last night, so we went out, grabbed a quick deli dinner at Izzy's (I recommend the Izzy's Mex sandwich -- corned beef, melted cheese, diced onion and jalapeño chips on rye toast), and went to Best Buy where we looked at washing machines and bought a fancy front-loader, along with one of these new Dyson contraptions. The washing machine will be delivered December 18, but the Dyson vacuum we brought home with us. The crazy thing works like a charm and sucked up a surprising amount of dirt from floors and rugs heretofore imagined clean. I took the occasion of the downstairs clean-up to change some of the framed objects on our living room wall, taking down a couple of Bava locandini and putting up some autographed album covers. The posters had been up for years, maybe four years, which is well beyond the time when one starts to see through them. The change was refreshing and gave me a new feeling of pride about my surroundings; maximum return for minimal effort. I really must try to remember what a healthful difference it makes to one's outlook simply to change the things on the walls now and then.

Donna and I have been watching the entire SIX FEET UNDER series again, for the first time on DVD with the audio commentaries. Some of the commentaries are quite good, certainly a cut above those on HBO's THE SOPRANOS sets. We finished Season Two and started Season Three last night, where the discs suddenly bloom into anamorphic widescreen -- a pleasing change. Before starting Season Three, we decided to watch AMERICAN BEAUTY for the first time in several years, and now that we have the SIX FEET UNDER experience behind us, it's certainly easy to see it was written by Alan Ball: the main protagonist is aware of his own impending death; the wife is uptight; the daughter is an alienated artist-type with a more "popular" best friend who at least pretends to be a teenage sexual predator; there's the pot smoker, the gay couple, the "uniform" character -- it's interesting in retrospect to find all the 6FU archetypes there, having their moments of campy effusion as well as their moments of epiphany about the beauty and brevity of life. I don't mean to sound critical or condescending; we loved the series (we habitually watched it twice each week in first run) and we liked the movie, so we're fond of Alan Ball and his characters. Annette Bening has a scene in AMERICAN BEAUTY with Peter Gallagher -- the scene where she's sloshed and confesses her admiration of him -- that has some of the most pitch-perfect acting I've ever seen.

Anecdote: Donna has been snacking of late on a Shur-Good product called "Cheese Flavored Crunchy," which features the additional word "Baked" in a starburst on the bag. I looked at her happily munching on this stuff and noted, reading the bag, "'Cheese Flavored Crunchy -- Baked'... That's weird; it's all adjectives and not a single noun. It's like they know what it's like, but not what it is..."

Worry: The Game Show Network has been showing something other than WHAT'S MY LINE? in the 3:30 a.m. slot the last couple of nights/mornings. I hope they haven't taken it off their schedule.

Promise: I watched Mick Garris's MASTERS OF HORROR episode "Chocolate" last night and will be posting something about it later today.

Or tomorrow.

Next, at any rate.