Saturday, December 17, 2005

KONG - The Lost Sequel

aka "Beauty and the Butch"? Amazing stuff: inverted sexual role-playing, occultism, bestiality... somehow, the George Reeves TV series missed adapting this one!

Ah, the '50s! As Lou Reed says, "Those were different times..."

Add Another Yuletide Blog to the Fire

I feel I must apologize for this blog's erratic appearances this week. Clearly, my originally stated plan to post something daily isn't going to work out, because I find myself applying more time and energy to this blog than I can reasonably sustain on a daily basis. I thought I could use this blog to file short reports, popcorn items, and that sort of stuff, but instead, I've been writing fairly polished essays of considerable (or, as some might say, not inconsiderable) length. It seems I take this blog as seriously as any other writing commitment -- perhaps even more seriously because it's a daily concern -- but if it's going to continue, I'll need to keep it more in perspective. It must come second or third on my list of writing duties, following writing professionally and writing toward my future, both of which take time and energy and focus.

I mentioned some blogs ago that I have gone back to polish an unfinished novel. This effort worked out fine for the first 300 pages or so, then I hit a sort of wall. It seems to me that what might best serve the novel is to scrap the last 80 pages, at least most of them, and write a new third act that follows the same basic synopsis. It's too hard to look at what's there and try to rearrange it all into something that works; it might be easier to recreate it from scratch. All of this takes immense concentration and it's sometimes hard to concentrate knowing that people out there are awaiting a new blog that hasn't been written yet.

No one's complaining about the irregularities of this blog but me, but the site meter shows me how many people are visiting daily, and just as it's gratifying to please those numbers with a flow of new material, it's even more disappointing to disappoint them. Friends, including other bloggers, tell me to forget the numbers and only post when I'm able and have something to say. This isn't a paying gig and I should be free to blog by my own rules. So if you should come here and not find something new to read, you can assume that it's because my concentration is fully engaged elsewhere. You can also assume I won't be away for long.

Oh my, only eight days till Christmas. Fortunately, all my holiday shopping is done, our cards are sent, the new issue has been mailed to our subscribers and distributors. (Please write and let us know what you think of it.) For the second year in a row, Donna and I have opted not to put up a tree. We have a young cat in the family (named Elvis for the way he shakes his hips when he's excited, but variously called Pipsqueak or Pippy or Elvy) who would only try to climb it and thus knock it over or break precious heirloom ornaments. Besides, neither of us has the time to want to put it up and decorate it, or take the bloody thing apart and down. We find a mantlepiece covered with Christmas cards from well-wishers, and a couple of stockings hung by the chimney with care, are enough to Christmasize our house. We get enough tree when we spent Christmas Eve with Donna's family, but I must admit one does miss something by not having a tree of one's own. What I miss most about Christmas is being able to think of it as a day to look forward to, rather than a day one must start preparing for at least a month in advance.

Despite the unusual number of orders I've been placing at Amazon.com, I haven't quite caught the Christmas spirit yet. I think it's time to start putting some Christmas music in heavy rotation and maybe quaff some egg blog... er, nog.

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Other Gollum

Ladies and gentlemen, you must forgive the shamelessly commercial title of today's blog, come Rimsky or Korsakov. For today I pay hommage, homage and just plain kudos to the late Brother Theodore, née Theodore Gottlieb, a self-described philosopher, metaphysician, and podiatrist who took hideous glee in being the gloomiest light on the TV talk show circuit.

For perhaps thirty years of his life, I was his fan; for perhaps two hours of his life, he was my friend.

I first encountered Theodore as a bizarre and genuinely frightening guest on THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW and THE DAVID SUSSKIND SHOW; I was a mere seedling at the time, and the sardonic literary humor of his rants soared more or less over my branch, but he certainly made an impression. So it was with great welcoming pleasure that I noticed his resurfacing in the early 1980s as a frequent and somewhat more approachable guest on LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN, where he made a total of 16 appearances. For those rubberneckers among you who are murmuring politely amongst yourselves, "What in the bloody hell has this got to do with Gollum?", well, Theodore provided the voice of Gollum in two animated films, THE HOBBIT and THE RETURN OF THE KING. Theodore's career in films was short but nonetheless astonishing; he played an uncredited role in Orson Welles' THE STRANGER; he played all the roles in a little-seen tour de force short called THE MIDNIGHT CAFE; he played a deranged sailor in the porno JAWS rip-off GUMS; and his last screen appearance was in Joe Dante's THE 'BURBS. He was also a survivor of Dachau, the son of a wealthy publishing magnate who lost everything after the rise of Nazism -- a sobering fact that I add for the benefit of those who took his Hitleresque rants too seriously.

I'm in the process of converting to DVD-R as many Brother Theodore/Letterman appearances as I had the wisdom to record on Beta in my misspent youth. Last night, I watched about eight different segments in a row, an unparalleled display of sour comic effervescence that had my goosebumps doing the goose step. As for my usually loving wife, she stormed out of the living room in disgust after Letterman introduced Theodore for the third time, uttering the apt epithet "Oh, brother!" as she suddenly stood and took her beauty elsewhere. I was left alone to anoint my wounded vanity with the bitter butter of Theodore's gravelly voice. (Too bad for her, my dubbing resumes tonight!)

I know how envious you must be, so to share some of this divine grace with all of you -- in the spirit of Christmas, if you will -- I herewith present a Top Ten of Brother Theodore's most memorable quotes from LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN (at least the ones I've dubbed over so far):

10. "It's dynamite. It's dynamite. Ladies and gentlemen, it's dynamite."

9. "You can train a rat. Yes, if you work for hours and days and months and years, you can train a rat. But when you're done, all you'll have is a trained rat!"

8. "I am sitting here sweating like a chunk of rancid pork."

7. "I am a pig with butterfly wings, a madman who thinks he is Brother Theodore. I am also the reincarnation of Lala Bargavann Shree Moogagoopaya -- a real swell joe."

6. "I see my dead aunt Marie swimming in the chicken soup."

5. "The female rat is a mess. She is a nudist and inordinately fond of companionship. She goes steady in no uncertain terms with anyone and everyone, without benefit of clergy."

4. "You were gracious enough to invite me here, and I was gracious enough to accept your invitation. I came here with an open heart and full of love... and then... all of a suddenly... without rhyme or reason... like a bolt from the blue... you pounce on me! You say "Bullshit!" And now I'll tell you something... I will not take it mamby-pambily. I will not take it wishy-washily. I will hit back, and I will. Hit. Back. Hard."

3. "As long as there is death, there is hope. All of our great spiritual leaders are dead. Moses is dead, Mohammed is dead, Buddha is dead, the Reverend Jim Jones is dead... and I'm not feeling too good myself!"

2. "Miss America makes Bella Abzug look like an airline hostess. My ideal woman is a rich widow of 13, like my Lolita... with her tiny, bouncing breasts... and her frenzied little behind... 90 pounds of submissive, quivering flesh!"

1. "In the nightmare of the dark, the hounds of madness bark! 'Woof'!"

I had the good fortune to contact Theodore on a couple of occasions, ostensibly for business but ultimately on a genuinely philosophic level. I obtained his home number from the Letterman offices because I wanted him to narrate a documentary I was hoping to direct for MPI Home Video. It was going to be an overview of eroticism in horror movies called HORROTICA. Nothing ever came of the project because I was inexperienced and didn't have the sense to work exclusively with clips MPI already owned, but the scholar in me prevailed and insisted on being true to my subject by trying to license clips from other companies. I called a lot of companies, majors and independents. When I budgeted the production, I took the figure to the company and its owners basically laughed in my face -- at least I think it was laughter I heard on the other side of that slammed door. But for all my folly, that project gave me an excuse to call Theodore and express my admiration... and my desire to employ him.

I told Theodore that I had long been an admirer of his talk show appearances, but it had been his voiceovers for various Hemisphere and Independent-International trailers that convinced me he was the right man for the job. He was initially wary of my subject matter, though, and gave me the one quote from our conversations that will always ring most indelibly in my ears (imagine him saying this in his voice, and you'll know just how it sounded): "I don't want to have to say those words, you see. I don't like them. I don't want to have to say FUCK and PISS and SHIT!" I almost died laughing, which pleased him, but he was also serious... and I assured him that he would be given a script that would aspire to be clever and intelligent and which would also welcome his input. I let him know that I took the genre seriously, not as some Golden Turkey venue, and that my documentary would be an appreciation of the art of horror and eroticism, as an outgrowth of these themes in literature.

With this, we began to talk as kindred spirits. I explained that I saw his contribution to the film as the element of sardonic humor that would make it less stuffy, and more of an amusing and outrageous viewing experience. Theodore confided to me some of his professional disappointments, which had made him wary of approaches like mine, adding "but you seem to be a good fellow." He invited me to come to New York and see one of his performances, which took place every weekend; I wish I had been able to do so. He had recently injured his leg and warned me that travelling to Chicago (where MPI was/is based) might be a problem, and that a traveling companion would have to accompany him if travel was essential. I believe we discussed his financial terms for two days of work, but I don't remember them.

The next and last time I spoke to Theodore was when I had to inform him that the project had fallen through. I didn't want to leave him hanging, as some others who had approached him and raised his hopes had done. He was pleased that I called him back, and to my surprise and gratification, he ended up consoling me... and we ended up talking about life and business and literature and philosophy for the better part of 90 minutes. I will always regret that I didn't record our conversations, especially this one, but I didn't anticipate how special they would be or that they would last so long. He loved to talk, and I loved talking with him. Unfortunately, this last call was predicated on the fact that we wouldn't be working together, and I had no other valid reason to call him; I imagined that I would only be wasting his time. In retrospect, I think he might have welcomed a friendship, but I was probably too much of a fan for that to work. It's difficult to be friends with someone whose work you admire to the point of being endlessly curious about it; most people get tired of talking about their work eventually. (I can remember David Cronenberg's wife Carolyn once chiding us because we seemed to have so little to say to one another outside of a Q&A. Strange, but true.)

Brother Theodore was one of the genuine lights of our world as he trod its crust in gloom. He died in 2001 at the incredible age of 94 -- which proves that he was exaggerating, but not by much, when he claimed on the Letterman show to be 83 or 86 years old. (As Letterman said, he could have passed for someone in his late 50s or early 60s.) I think Theodore would be amused by the fact that the IMDb reports his cause of death as "pneumoina," because he always stood in the avant garde of "sic" humor.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Of Annette and The Raincoats

As I sit here this afternoon, listening to the blissfully rough-hewn sounds of The Raincoats' debut album, I find myself musing on the pros and cons of flawed beauty and formalized perfection.

When The Raincoats' album was first released in late 1979, I can remember playing it with great enthusiasm for a friend and telling him that it was my "desert island" record of the moment. He couldn't understand what I saw (or heard) in it, and I told him, "But it sounds like it was made by real women!" It was my friend's contrary view that, as long as you were going to listen to women making music, you might as well be listening to Barbra Streisand. But it was my view that Barbra Streisand wouldn't remind me of real women on my desert island. If any monument is to be built to womankind, let's give them the honor of addressing who they are when they're sweating, when they're without makeup, when they're nagging, when they're "on the rag," and not whatever fantasy of womankind best conforms to the idealized coordinates of men. To which argument I can now add that The Raincoats still sound real and contemporary to me, while Barbra Streisand's music sounds to my ears either dated or not quite of this earth.

I am intrigued by my own inconsistency in favoring performers like The Raincoats while, over the past several nights, I have felt equal admiration for the interviews and audio commentaries that Annette Insdorf provided for the Miramax DVDs of Krzysztof Kieslowski's THREE COLORS TRILOGY (BLUE/WHITE/RED). Her contributions to these discs are models of precision, polish and perfection, rather the opposite of the aesthetic ideals embodied by The Raincoats.

An aside: Speaking of raincoats, in one of the serendipities I'm so fond of noting (as Kieslowski also would, I believe), I first saw the THREE COLORS TRILOGY at a local repertory theater on a rainy Sunday afternoon. As the three movies conjured their collective spell, I was always aware of the thunderstorm taking place outside the theater. When the last of the three movies ended in a fateful storm, I exited the auditorium into the rain and felt like... well, Steven Killian, the unseen seventh survivor of RED's climactic disaster at sea, as though I had crossed a proscenium into Kieslowski's world. It was the most magical day I had spent at the movies since I was taken by surprise by Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST at the age of twelve, and it was gratifying to find out that I could still fall in love with a cinematic experience at my age, and in such a different yet still violent way. But back to my main thesis...

Dr. Insdorf, who teaches film at Columbia University, first came to my attention when she hosted a retrospective of films by François Truffaut on BRAVO many years ago. To be perfectly honest -- and I am truly being only critical of myself when I say this -- there was something about her personal presentation that put me off at first; she seemed a bit too polished, too confident, too glamorous. She reminded me of those not-quite-real women who write self-help books and pitch them with consummate skill on TV talk shows and infomercials. I regarded her with the initial skepticism and jealousy that those of us with unhappy childhoods and informal educations instinctively feel for those luckier than we, who have met their full potential by virtue of having been well-loved, well-groomed, and well-schooled. (When I say this, I have no doubt that she also worked very hard, but the envious don't readily take such things into account.) Yet over a series of broadcasts, I found myself interested and enlightened enough by the things she had to say about Truffaut's work to buy François Truffaut, her book on the subject, which turned out to be very fine indeed. Not only perceptive but faithful to the spirit of the films themselves.

It was interesting and educational for me to catch up with her all these years later and find a more silvery but no less sleek Dr. Insdorf speaking with such eloquence and feline grace about Kieslowski. As someone now familiar with the invisible pressures and challenges of recording DVD audio commentaries, I can only look on with astonishment and admiration to see how clearly and impeccably Dr. Insdorf is able to express herself in this arena on her chosen subjects. She has the gift of extemporizing in perfectly formed, final draft sentences, and does so in a voice that is at once warm, caressing and crystalline. She can seque perfectly from English to French, referring to characters with the French pronunciations of their names in the context of an English lecture, without seeming in the least affected. I suppose it's possible that she might come across more stuffily if she were speaking about less generous directors, but she has chosen to specialize in the most open-hearted of filmmakers and this generosity shines through in her eagerness to share with us her unique way of looking at their work.

Dr. Insdorf's commentaries for BLUE, WHITE and RED are a fascinating hybrid of play-by-play and straightforward annotation; in essence, she describes the films for us as we watch, moment by moment and shot by shot. But instead of merely telling us what is going on in the narrative (as so many unskilled commentators do, including some important filmmakers like William Friedkin), she guides our eye to the invisible threads so skillfully woven throughout by the director, his actors, the scenarists, the directors of photography, and other creative principals. To listen to these commentaries is really akin to the gift of sight. I love these films and know them very well, but Dr. Insdorf's open eyes and friendly voice consistently guided me to new facets and layers of discovery. I was so pleased by her performance that it was all the more irritating when she made an occasional error of perception, such as repeatedly referring to Michel's borrowed coat (the red object on Valentine's bed in RED) as a blanket, or when she failed to comment on certain grace notes I've found in these films myself, such as Valentine's oblique comment "It's happening again" when she hangs up with her increasingly jealous boyfriend. (Not only does this off-hand remark underscore that Valentine's goodness has had trouble thriving in closed romantic relationships, leading to serial jealousies, but the line reflects the very nature of the film's structure, which is based on repetition.) Of course, had Dr. Insdorf succeeded in mentioning all these things, and getting everything right, I would probably be even more unhappy because I would be left with nothing to see and think for myself.

Last night, I continued my Kieslowski retrospective by viewing Kino on Video's excellent disc of BLIND CHANCE (1981), an early metaphysical work later ripped-off by the banal English film SLIDING DOORS. There is no audio commentary on this disc, but Dr. Insdorf does contribute a 10-minute lecture on the film, which she improvises at her desk in nearly faultless French -- for which she apologizes.

I should also mention that Annette Insdorf is the author of a book about Kieslowski, called Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski. I promptly placed an order at Amazon.com, but I made the mistake or ordering the hardcover -- not realizing at the time that the later trade paper edition added a new closing chapter about Kieslowski's influence on world cinema in the wake of his 1996 death at the age of 52. Oh well, Christmas is coming... right?

You can be sure that Dr. Insdorf is coming with me (and The Raincoats) to my desert island, in the form of her DVD commentaries and lectures -- if only because I'll need someone to run the place.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Deer John PS

For what it's worth, after posting my "Deer John" blog early this morning, I visited some sites and found a MASTERS OF HORROR thread at Shocklines Forum that startled me by being unanimous in its praise for this John Landis episode. Now the folks there weren't terribly articulate about why they loved it so much, so I didn't find anything there to change my mind. Then a correspondent wrote me earlier today, after reading my blog, to say that my opinions of previous MOH episodes had mirrored his exactly, but that "Deer Woman" was his favorite episode to date! He rattled off a list of highlights and argued that the abrupt ending actually made perfect sense, given Benben's conversation with the Native American casino worker. (I remembered that conversation, where the guy says that the Deer Woman myth never ends, but I don't think this makes her vanishing at the end dramatically sound, much less satisfying.) Even though this correspondent offered reasons why the episode worked for him, none of them changed my mind either. Alas.

On another note, here's a birthday roll call:

Happy 35th to Jennifer Connolly, the star of Dario Argento's PHENOMENA -- and Happy 51st to Eva Axén, the first murder victim in Argento's SUSPIRIA.

Happy 71st to Annette Vadim, the lovely star of BLOOD AND ROSES. Hey Paramount! When is this coming to DVD already???

Happy 75th to Gordon Hessler, the subject of our interview in Video Watchdog #98 (by David Del Valle), best remembered for such films as SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, THE OBLONG BOX and THE GIRL IN A SWING.

Happy 78th to Honor Blackman, THE AVENGERS' Cathy Gale and GOLDFINGER's Pussy Galore. One of the immortals.

Happy 79th to comic art great Joe Kubert, beloved for his work on SGT. ROCK and HAWKMAN.

Old Blue Eyes (Frank Sinatra) would have been facing 90 candles... but I reserve my deepest bow of the day to the late Tony Williams, the finest and most adventurous jazz drummer of his generation, who would have been 60 today.

Deer John

This weekend's MASTERS OF HORROR offering was "Deer Woman," directed by John Landis from an original script co-written with his son Max. The first episode to be shot, it's obvious why this horror-comedy was not the first episode aired: it's a stinker of colossal proportions.

Brian Benben, a talented light comedian best remembered as the movie-mad, horndog protagonist of the Landis-produced HBO series DREAM ON, stars as a graying, grizzled cop, separated from his wife (one of many irrelevant plot points), who is investigating a series of trampling murders traced -- by sheer luck and accident -- to a Native American mythic figure, a femme fatale who is half woman (the lovely Cinthia Moura, pictured above) and half CGI deer, with a mule kick worthy of The Incredible Hulk. The episode can't even seem to stomach its own lazily delineated premise, stopping at one point to poke fun at itself (in triplicate, no less), even to the absurd extreme of staging a brief hommage to MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS as it might have played with antlers.

Benben does his best with a weak role, Moura contributes the weekly skin quotient, and Sonja Bennett deserves kudos for breathing some life and interest into the thinly-written character of Dana, a body-pierced morgue worker. There's a throwaway line of dialogue that connects the episode tenuously to AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, a Mick Garris cameo, and a well-played (but ill-advised) soliloquy by Benben in which his character goes on at length about the pain of living with the memory of being responsible for a coworker's accidental death. As if to prove there are even worse things awaiting man than self-loathing and bad taste, "Deer Woman" has the gall to end abruptly with a non-fatal car crash and the Deer Woman fading into thin air -- without the script bothering to resolve or explain anything that's taken place!

I've taken a little heat from friends who think I've been cutting this Showtime series too much slack, but I call them as I see them. There have been two or three outstanding episodes, in my view (Dante, Gordon, Argento); as far as the balance is concerned, they've all had their moments or standout performances to commend them, even if I thought they fell a bit short overall. I don't think anyone deliberately sets out to make anything bad, so I always try to look for what's good or real in whatever I review... but "Deer Woman" finally seems so indifferent to its opportunity, and contemptuous of its audience and itself, that it left me questioning the validity of that stance.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Sunday Sermon: Home Sweet Homicide

As I've been watching episodes from Universal's ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS - SEASON ONE, I've found myself responding warmly to an aspect of the show that we just don't have anymore in our entertainment, and it's stoked a rather perverse form of nostalgia in me.

I'm charmed by the way Mr. Hitchcock (as host) could discuss the premise of homicide -- even suicide -- with such exquisitely dry humor. I'm equally dazzled that he could take this approach to his weekly stories without having his tongue-in-cheek attitude contaminate the stories at hand. (You'll remember Hitchcock's wonderful trailers for PSYCHO and THE BIRDS, both delightfully funny, which is something no one ever accused those two films of being.) At the outset of "The Case of Mr. Pelham," a doppelgänger fantasy, he actually apologizes at the top of the program because viewers may be disappointed at not receiving their weekly dose of "mayhem" -- meaning murder.

What a sane society it must have been. The nature of Hitchcock's intros underscore how tied the concept of domestic murder was, in those days, to fantasy. Yes, murder was then a fact of life and we were only a decade away since a devastating World War, but somehow it could be dramatized and presented as a form of escapism. I can remember when some of the later seasons of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS were actually aired, and how the grown-ups around me always chuckled at them and treated them as stress-relieving, as a kind of tonic. In the 1980s, NBC colorized the Hitchcock intros and brought the show back, but it didn't last for more than a season -- the notion of murder was no longer so tongue-in-cheek, and the show played differently, quaint and out of its time, even with new actors in the parts and redone in color. Today, things are even worse; there is so much violence and abuse in our world, in the news, and its all so realistically and extremely treated in network crime series, it's impossible to think lightly of homicide anymore, in the way that was once so central to the enjoyment of mystery fiction and the celebrity of a director who is still, curiously, universally beloved by the common man.

Hitchcock spoke to his audience as if every man watching his program secretly wanted to kill his wife, and vice versa -- and they ate it up. People had a sense of humor about it in those days... because they could. The majority of people were then sane; they didn't imitate what they saw on television, at least not in epidemic numbers.

I think we lost something important, as a society, when we lost our ability to laugh at things like this. When we could no longer laugh at someone killing their spouse and failing to get away with it by some terrible last-second twist of ironic fate, it meant that we had started taking such notions too seriously -- and not necessarily out of social concern.