Sunday, April 30, 2006
Saturday, April 29, 2006
As a happily married man, wedded young, whose significant other is not only his wife but his business partner, someone on whom I rely each and every day, I can't imagine much worse than this. I don't know Matt except through his blog, and also through his fine independent film HOME (which Jennifer co-produced), and I feel shaken to know that someone for whom I have such respect and feel such kinship -- we even use the same blogging system -- must now live through this reality. If any of you know Matt or visit his blog irregularly, you can use the link above to read more about Jennifer, the family's preferred way of making a donation in her memory, and also leave a note of sympathy and support.
As for me, I want to spend more time off this computer and in the company of my wife this weekend. The last copies of the new issue are being shipped out today, we are having dinner with Donna's mother tonight, and we resume work on the Mario Bava book on Monday -- with a renewed sense of purpose and a renewed appreciation of the preciousness of time.
Friday, April 28, 2006
Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (real name: Pierre Robert Ayraud) began writing separately and were admirers of each other's books, in which they recognized common interests and diverse approaches. They joined forces in 1951, proposing a new form of mystery fiction that attended not the killer (as in the whodunit), nor the investigator (as in police procedurals), but the victim. Once they began to collaborate, Boileau-Narcejac became one of the great phenomenons of European mystery fiction. Their prose was lean and dialogue-driven, which made it naturally adaptable to the screen. Indeed, their work seeded and brought to bloom some of the finest thrillers ever to grace the screen: Henri-Georges Clouzot's LES DIABOLIQUES (based on their novel CELLE QUI N'ÉTAIT PLUS, translated into English as THE WOMAN WHO WAS NO MORE), Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO (based on their novel D'ENTRES LES MORTS, translated as THE LIVING AND THE DEAD), and two directed by Georges Franju, LES YEUX SANS VISAGE (aka EYES WITHOUT A FACE, which they adapted from a novel by Jean Redon) and the original PLEINS FEUX SUR L'ASSASSIN. One of their 1960s novels, translated as CHOICE CUTS, was later the basis for the 1991 thriller BODY PARTS. All told, Boileau-Narcejac receive screen credit on some 40 different films.
In addition to writing thrillers for adults, they also published many mysteries for youngsters and were also responsible for the continuation of two famous "orphaned" characters, Maurice Leblanc's "gentleman burglar" Arsène Lupin and Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret. In this sense, the Boileau-Narcejac partnership was also post-modernist -- professional mystery fiction written by fans of the genre capable of impersonating earlier literary voices to perfection. Boileau died in 1989, some nine years before his partner. The Criterion DVD of EYES WITHOUT A FACE includes a most enjoyable interview with the two gentlemen, filmed for French television in the 1970s.
English-speaking bibliophiles who aspire to read and/or collect Boileau-Narcejac have a tough row to hoe, and I speak from experience. Dozens of their books remain in print... alas, nearly all of it in French and German. Only a portion of their output has been translated into English at all, and some of that portion appeared only in Great Britain; consequently, what exists is highly collectable. THE LIVING AND THE DEAD was reprinted under the title VERTIGO by the British Film Institute some years ago, but if it should whet your appetite for more, Heaven help you. ABE Books shows that used first editions of their most famous novels in translation are priced in the hundreds, even the thousands.
In VIDEO WATCHDOG #40, I published an article based on my long-overdue reading of THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, in which I compared Boileau-Narcejac's now-obscure novel to the Hitchcock film prized by many as the Master's best. If I had to pick a list of my 10 favorite articles I've written for VW, I might well include it; it's one of the VW pieces I'm proudest of writing, if only because articles comparing novels to films are so much less common than articles comparing different versions of films, and also because there is so little information available in English about this great literary partnership. This issue is still in print, for those of you who missed it -- and now you can even read the novel yourself, which wasn't so easy at the time the article was first published.
Maîtres de mystère, je bois à votre mémoire!
Thursday, April 27, 2006
I am so proud of our contributors. They really outdid themselves, providing Donna and me with enough reviews to fill the greater part of not one, not two, but three issues. God bless them every one: As I sat down to edit their material, I found that their submissions collectively pooled into 104 single-spaced pages of criticism... but editing the work turned out to be pure pleasure because the time off had energized everyone; everyone was writing at the top of their form. As I read through the submissions, I noticed that some reviews mysteriously dovetailed with other, unrelated reviews, either topically or thematically, which made it fairly easy to organize everything into three distinct issues. But, for this first issue of the three (as I mention in my "Watchdog Barks" editorial), my goal was specific. I wanted to start out by picking "the biggest, reddest apples in the orchard."
Beyond the blockbuster titles listed on the front cover, VW 125 also reviews such releases as KING KONG - PETER JACKSON'S PRODUCTION DIARIES, THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN - THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON, SON OF KONG, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, ALONE IN THE DARK (1982), HOUSE OF WAX (2005), KONGA, FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON, Bruce Campbell's MAN WITH THE SCREAMING BRAIN, Jess Franco's NIGHT OF THE SKULL, and much else of interest. Furthermore, our LAND OF THE DEAD Round Table Discussion (14 pages!) is complemented with a review of the direct-to-video DAY OF THE DEAD 2: CONTAGION; we've got Ramsey Campbell on The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society's THE CALL OF CTHULHU; and "Biblio Watchdog" features an expanded, more detailed draft of my WatchBlog review of THE FAMOUS MONSTER MOVIE ART OF BASIL GOGOS. Even Doug Winter's "Audio Watchdog" covers only monster-related soundtracks, this time around.
For a free sampling of the issue, visit our website at the link near the top of this page, click on "Coming Soon" and click on the KONG cover. This will bring up pdfs of two different page spreads from the issue -- four pages you're free to enlarge and peruse to your heart's content. The issue can also be ordered from that page.
All in all, I think it's one of our best issues, and I hope you will all add it to your collections. And for you KING KONG buffs, the KONG saga will continue in VIDEO WATCHDOG 126, with two major contributions by Yours Truly -- a "DVD Spotlight" review of the Peter Jackson film, and a feature article about Edgar Wallace and his oft-overlooked role in the genesis of the 1933 classic. I'm especially pleased with the latter, which I believe adds something conspicuously new to the annals of KONG research. You may never look at Kong in quite the same way again.
In the meantime... First Class subscribers should find VIDEO WATCHDOG 125 in their mailboxes sometime next week. Enjoy!
PS: Please note that my review of DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE of a few days ago has been amended to include a postscript with US release information shared by reader Tom Schumaker. Danke schoen!
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Le conseguenze dell'amore
2004, Articifial Eye (UK, Region 2) and Medusa (Italy, Region 2), 100 minutes
It has been a very long time since I've seen an Italian film, a purely Italian film, that didn't look like it was produced for television. This is the initial gratification of writer-director Paolo Sorrentino's THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE -- there is an immediate sense of confidence and craft and style, and an attention to minutiae, that warrants a big screen presentation -- but its gratifications are continuous and diverse.
Though it's an Italian film about Italian characters, it takes place in an unnamed city in Switzerland (we presume Geneva) where a 50 year-old gentleman of apparently Northern Italian origin (placid, unemotional) has occupied the same seat in a hotel bar for the last eight years. This enigmatic fellow with the poker face, we learn through his interior monologue narration, is named Titta Di Girolamo (Toni Servillo), but we quickly learn more about him through our own observations than from his confessions -- looking through a hotel window, he sees a man distracted by a beautiful woman walk straight into a lamppost, and doesn't laugh; while riding an escalator, he passes a beautiful woman going up while he is going down, and he doesn't turn to answer her gaze. Nor does he respond when Sofia (Olivia Magnani), the attractive 20ish hotel barmaid, bids him goodnight at the end of the days they silently share. Instead, he sits in his customary seat, day after day, and jots a memo to himself in a pad that he carries: "Things to remember in the future: The Consequences of Love." (A telephone call reveals that Titta is an estranged husband and father of three children, none of whom care for him... but these aren't the consequences alluded to in his note-to-self.) Another clue is dealt when Titta notes that, every Wednesday morning at precisely 10:00 a.m. for the last 24 years, he has injected himself with heroin -- and only then. Thus we understand that this is a man who has taught himself to live in absolute mastery of his feelings, his emotions and weaknesses -- and become detached from all human feeling and ties in the process.
For all its outward stillness (even the opening shot depicts a stationary hotel porter being brought into closeup by a moving sidewalk), Sorrentino's film is a thriller in the best sense. Here, it is the mysteries of character that hold us in thrall. It's also a mob picture, as Titta's reticence is explained eventually by the fact that he is affiliated with the Mafia, for whom he performs a regular task for which a poker face sometimes comes in handily. But Sofia is angered by the refusal of that poker face to acknowledge her, and one day, when Titta doesn't reply to her goodnight, she gives him a piece of her very Roman mind. The next morning, Titta sits at the bar and tells Sofia that his change of seat may well be the most dangerous thing he's ever done in his life. This seemingly melodramatic remark turns out to be a most realistic and knowing comment.
Marked with deliberate but always surprising and very dry humor, THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE is a skillful construction in all departments, but is a most obvious showcase for Toni Servillo's remarkable, absorbing performance, which makes Titta one of the most memorable screen characters of recent years. Given his general look and outward passivity, it's hard not to think of Peter Sellers in BEING THERE, but Titta's passivity is icy and vigilant, steeped in the calm of an ever present danger. He's not a cipher, he's trying to blend in with the wallpaper. Olivia Magnani's playful, sensual warmth makes her an excellent foil for him, her bright eyes jewelling from a tawny complexion, as does Adriano Giannini (the son of Giancarlo Giannini), who appears briefly as Titta's exuberant younger brother -- a surfing instructor, of all things, who manages to accomplish in a single day what Titta's self-control hasn't permitted him to do in eight increasingly desirous years.
It's become a cliché to refer to the 1970s as a time of unparalleled creativity and achievement in international cinema, but THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE would have fit in well as a product of that period. Yet it is unmistakably contemporary in its look (kudos to director of photography Luca Bigazzi), its tasteful and often exciting techno scoring, and the enjoyably rhythmic feel of Giorgio Franchini's editing. Born in 1970, Paolo Sorrentino is more than just a promising writer-director; he's already delivering the goods. This, his fourth feature, gives one encouragement to think that the Silver Age of Italian Cinema could happen again.
Artificial Eye's THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE (in Italian with optional English subtitles) gives the film an attractive 16:9 presentation with handsomely detailed Dolby 5.1 sound. A short "making of" documentary (9 minutes) and a somewhat longer "behind-the-scenes" visit (15 minutes) are also included, along with a theatrical trailer, all with optional English subtitles. It must be noted that an Italian release, LE CONSEGUENZE DELL'AMORE, is also available on the Medusa label. This disc offers the film with the same audio mix and a choice of English, Italian or French subtitles, and the same production supplements, though these are not subtitled on this release. What makes the Italian disc particularly desirable for fans of the film is a selection of alternate and deleted scenes, for some reason not imported to the Artificial Eye disc; it's also a bit cheaper. But one shouldn't underestimate the value of the English subtitles on Artifical Eye's production supplements, as Sorrentino offers some important insights as to the film's themes and origin.
Both discs are available domestically from Xploited Cinema.
Tonight on Game Show Network's WHAT'S MY LINE?, they showed a 1963 episode with mystery guest Jean Pierre Aumont and guest panelist Tony Randall. When it became known that the mystery guest starred in a new movie opening on Broadway that week, the blindfolded Randall asked, "According to the newspapers, the motion pictures opening on Broadway this week are DIARY OF A MADMAN, CORRIDORS OF BLOOD and WEREWOLF IN A GIRL'S DORMITORY... are you in one of those?"
Naturally, the answer was negative but the question got a big laugh. From me, especially.
After the guest's identity was made known, amused host John Daly asked Randall about the picture he had mentioned called "MADMAN IN A GIRL'S DORMITORY." Randall replied, "No, it's WEREWOLF IN A GIRL'S DORMITORY. Isn't that something? No, I'm not making it up! I'm going to see it!"
It's for moments like this that I love watching vintage TV.
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
"The Hound of Blackwood Castle"
aka THE MONSTER OF BLACKWOOD CASTLE (export title)
1967, Kinowelt and TOBIS/UFA Home Entertainment (Region 2), 89 minutes
After the scenically brilliant DER MÖNCH MIT DER PEITSCHE (US: THE COLLEGE GIRL MURDERS, 1967), Rialto Film's long-running Edgar Wallace series entered into what might be called its "Roger Moore phase." The films that followed were not exactly bad, but hereafter, the use of color began to noticeably cheapen what it had so brilliantly illuminated in earlier productions, the scripts began to poke self-conscious fun at the series overall, and the performances became more generally tongue-in-cheek. Also, more than ever, Edgar Wallace was left at the door. One searches in vain for a clue as to which Wallace novel provided the source for DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE, whose title seems cobbled together from Arthur Conan Doyle and Algernon Blackwood (not to mention Bryan Edgar Wallace's THE STRANGLER OF BLACKMOOR CASTLE), but it does offer a cellar full of snakes, so 1926's THE YELLOW SNAKE (the source of 1963's CCC-produced DER FLUCH DER GELBEN SCHLANGE, or THE CURSE OF THE YELLOW SNAKE) may be a reasonable bet.
Upon the death of her father, Jane Wilson (Karin Baal) returns to Blackwood Castle for the reading of the will, only to learn that the castle itself -- a brooding, derelict place full of skulls, suits of armor, and stuffed polar bears -- is her only inheritance. The family solicitor (Hans Söhnker) informs her that the place is worthless, that he might be able to get her $10,000 for it, but while freshing up in her father's old room, she overhears a visitor offer the solicitor twice that amount. Something strange is going on, and it's going on in all directions. The servant at Blackwood Castle (Grimsby, played by Artur Binder) tries to frighten Jane by placing a snake in her bed (one of many he cares for in the cellar); a neighboring inn begins to see unprecedented seasonal business from visitors (Horst Tappert as "Douglas Fairbanks," CARMEN, BABY's Uta Levka) showing unusual interest in Blackwood Castle... and each other; and the two seemingly harmless old fogies playing chess in the inn's tavern are using a tricked-out chesspiece to send messages to the snake-caring servant. Meanwhile, Sir John of Scotland Yard (Siegfried Schürenberg, flirting as usual with sexy secretary Miss Findlay, played by Ilsa Pagé) sends a man (likeable Heinz Drache as "Humphrey Connery"!) to the area to investigate a series of animal attacks committed by a hound with large, tusk-like teeth.
This particular series entry, the most emphatically static and stagebound of all the Wallace-krimis, is not unlike watching a filmed stage play; and since the director is Alfred Vohrer, the most visually dynamic of the series' specialists, one can only surmise that this approach was experimental, possibly expressive of a passing interest in the limitations Alfred Hitchcock had imposed upon himself in his ROPE and DIAL M FOR MURDER period. The film begins nicely with a hound attack on a misty moor, preceding marvelously psychedelic main titles accompanied by one of Peter Thomas's all-time-great Wallace film themes. Thomas's score, in fact, is largely responsible for keeping one interested through all this gothic silliness; the visuals suggest what the experience of one of Wallace's 1920s stage productions might have been like, but the score is aggressively modern and humorous, a kind of sprightly, big band funk with barely coherent Mantan Moreland-like vocals by Joe Quick ("It's COLD, man... lookit that MOON lookit that MOON!... I gotta get outta here it's COLD... at Blackwood... CASTLE!"). As the strangely danceable film wears on, Thomas begins to underline each new surprise with a weird-sounding fanfare that's weird-sounding because it was recorded backwards, with the air gasping back into the trumpets; it's inventive at first, but it soon exhausts its welcome and becomes irritating.
Pictured: Siegfried Schürenberg and Ilsa Pagé.
DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE was originally released on DVD by Kinowelt with some welcome extras (outtakes, photo gallery, interviews with Uta Levka and Ilsa Pagé) but, alas, no provisions for the English-speaking viewer. This version remains the official stand-alone release in Germany, but a new 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer of the film with optional English 2.0 audio and subtitling is available as part of TOBIS/UFA Home Entertainment's four-disc Region 2 box set EDGAR WALLACE EDITION 7 (1967-68), which also includes DER MÖNCH MIT DER PEITSCHE (an infinitely superior transfer of the film released here by Dark Sky Films as THE COLLEGE GIRL MURDERS), IM BANNE DES UNHEIMLICHEN (aka THE HAND OF POWER) and DER GORILLA VON SOHO (aka THE GORILLA GANG or THE APE CREATURE). Of the four films in this set, only IM BANNE DES UNHEIMLICHEN is not English-friendly -- a needless omission, considering that Sam Sherman's Independent-International owns an English-language negative of THE HAND OF POWER, which was released to TV as THE ZOMBIE WALKS.
I am not aware that an English version of DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE ever received a US release, but the disc's English audio track is vintage and fairly well done, and English subtitles are included as optional accompaniment to the German audio track. The anamorphic transfer is occasionally grainy but nevertheless attractive and uber-colorful, and the German audio track is very full-bodied and the best choice for enjoying the musical accompaniment.
Both the Kinowelt release (search for "EDGAR WALLACE - DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE) and the EDGAR WALLACE EDITION 7 (1967-68) box set are available online from Sazuma Trading.
Reader Tom Schumaker of Parkton MD writes "I know of at least two playdates for DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE in US theaters. I saw an English-dubbed print of THE HORROR OF BLACKWOOD CASTLE (not “MONSTER” as referenced in your Blog review) at the Glen Drive-in in Richmond, VA, back in the late 1970’s. It was co-billed with the Peter Cushing/John Carradine potboiler SHOCK WAVES. It was also playing at a local urban Grind-house (the palatial Lowe’s) at the same time. As I recall, the print was marred with green scratches & a few jumps, but otherwise seemed OK. I still have an ad mat from the Lowe’s engagement , which I clipped from the local newspaper ('shows at 2:15, 5:15 & 8:15'). When THE STRANGLER OF BLACKMOOR CASTLE came out on DVD, I had to do some research to convince myself that these were, in fact, two different films."
Monday, April 24, 2006
Fortunately for the impatient and globally-connected, "Imprint" was shown on BRAVO (UK) a couple of weeks ago, on April 7... with commercial interruption (what brave sponsors!), but at least it was shown. It should trouble us that we Americans supposedly live in "the land of the free," but if we want to see Dario Argento's MOR episode "Jenifer" uncut, we're out of luck altogether; and if we want to see "Imprint" at all, we need to swap DVD-Rs with someone living in a country that is actually notorious for censoring theatrical and home video releases -- even if we've already paid Showtime for the privilege.
As you may remember, when "Imprint" -- the only MOH episode produced outside Vancouver, British Columbia -- was screened for Showtime, they made the decision not to air it. No official explanation was given, but MOH executive producer Mick Garris later told The Horror Channel that "Showtime felt it was something they didn't feel comfortable putting out on the airwaves." Consequently, "Imprint"'s position as the series' twelfth episode was inherited by "Haeckel's Tale," a Clive Barker story directed by John McNaughton, which was rushed into production to fill the vacated time slot. Originally to be directed by Roger Corman (who backed out for health reasons), "Haeckel's Tale" turned out to be one of the poorest episodes of the first dozen. For all its baleful warnings and talk of forbidden sights, the episode's "transgressive" imagery ultimately delivered nothing more taboo-breaking than a naked woman grinding her rounded hips atop a Romeroesque zombie in a misty graveyard. It was pathetic and laughable.
Which, after all, is what Americans really want horror to be. Statistics show that we won't support a horror film if it's promoted as being in the least comic, but what we really want from the genre, my experience as an observer shows, are scares we can either surf or ride like bulls. We love that feeling of victory as the shock waves swell beneath us, we love riding them out. But such cheap thrills were not the goal of Takeshi Miike (AUDITION, VISITOR Q), the most poetical of the new J-horror extremists. When speculating about the reasons behind Showtime's rejection of "Imprint," online pundits have often pointed to the episode's abortion-related imagery as a likely cause, but I always doubted this was so -- and now that I've seen the episode, I know that Right To Life sentiments weren't necessarily part of the problem. This episode has no shortage of ideas and imagery just as discomforting as having an unborn fetus pulled from your nether regions.
I believe Showtime's refusal of the episode has much more to do with the vast gulf between the American and Japanese concepts of horror. In America, everyone is raised on horror films; we want monsters, gore, laughs and titillation. In Japan, as in Europe, horror films have always been an adult genre. In Japan, perhaps most adult of all. Just look at a movie like HELL [Jigoku, 1960] and you know they're at least 40 years ahead of us in these matters, maybe 50. There, the genre has always been about the investigation, probing and rupturing of taboos; it's about transgression -- social, sexual, spiritual. The most frightening thing any Japanese horror film aspires to deliver is a new, irrational way of thinking or looking at the world. "Imprint" was not created to entertain, but to disturb, repulse and frighten. To those ends, it works admirably well.
Set in a heavily stylized 19th century, it stars Billy Drago (Frank Nitti in Brian De Palma's THE UNTOUCHABLES) as a self-confessed "strange man" from America who returns after a lengthy absence to an unnamed island off the coast of Japan in search of Komomo (Michie), a geisha who once won his heart -- because she reminded him so of his dead sister. The American follows his lead to a carnival-like sin capital where he is warned of lurking dangers, and for his own safety, he agrees to spend the night with another geisha (Youki Kudoh, pictured above), a friend of Komomo's whose face is partially disfigured. The American surprises the geisha by not being repulsed by her twisted features, indeed by finding her "very attractive." Tired and lovesick, the American wants rest more than sex and asks the geisha to tell him a story about herself as he drifts to sleep. She tells him about her childhood, as the unwanted daughter of a midwife who discarded unwanted fetuses in the river outside their rustic home, and proceeds to tell him the story of her friendship with Komomo. The story ends with Komomo's death. Upset and angry, the American feels that the geisha isn't telling him the full truth and demands to know more -- prompting a different and more upsetting story. But this version strikes the American as so horrible that still worse secrets about these events must be harbored by the storyteller. "Why is it that everyone always wants to know the truth?" the geisha ponders. "Sometimes the lie is better. It's prettier."
I don't want to spoil the experience of this episode by revealing too much before most of you have the opportunity to see it, so I'll stop my synopsis there. In fact, I will warn those who haven't seen the episode to avoid at all costs a promotional clip from the episode which is available for viewing online (I won't give the URL, but its Googlable) because it reveals a plot revelation no one should anticipate before they reach that point in the story.
My own interpretation of "Imprint" is that it's about the human reflex that Roman Polanski charted so well in that moment from REPULSION when Ian Hendry, repulsed by the sight of the dead man in the bathtub, suddenly leans in closer for an unflinching look. It's about our desire to know the worst without being touched by it. It's about the horror of our flesh-and-blood existence, steeped not only in repugnant imagery, but much that is beautiful within its repugnant imagery, if we have the courage to lean in closer for a more unflinching look. The American's desire to know the worst he can know is inextricably tied to any viewer's own quest for the capital Truth, and Miike suggests that absolute truth is absolute horror. Our polite refusal to experience horror, even intellectually, especially intellectually, banishes us from the Truth. He shows us some monstrous things about who we are, where we come from, and where we sit in relation to stories such as this. As such, "Imprint" would have been the perfect way to conclude MASTERS OF HORROR's first season, because it responds to the very idea of the show by throwing down a gauntlet no Western director is likely to approach -- not for another 50 years, anyway.
It's a curious East/West schism that Japanese horror somehow becomes more delicate, more epicurean, when it is most gruellingly sadistic, whereas Western horror almost always forfeits its sophistication when crossing these lines, too blunt to be effectively cruel. We're going through a big "torture" phase now in American horror cinema (SAW, SAW II, HOSTEL), and the sociologists among you can fill in the reason for that. But there is a bluntness about the violence in these films that resists intellectualization; not thinking too much about the violence, even enjoying it to a degree, is part of the Big Picture. No matter how gross or gruesome these scenes become, the films always shy away from identifying too much with the victim. (The sociologists among you can rhubarb about that one too amongst yourselves.) There is a protracted torture scene in "Imprint" that is exceedingly difficult to watch, because we never once side emotionally with the pain being so exquisitely inflicted by the torturer, but remain resolutely identified with the victim. However, Miike keeps the process as gratifying to the eye as it is otherwise repulsive -- with color, motion, composition and the occasional goose of surprise. His 19th century Japan is highly stylized, with exquisite décor, much Felliniesque detail (the American's guide is a dwarf with a cancer-eaten nose and a severed cock's head bobbing atop his headdress), and the geishas sport blue and flaming red hair, allowing this ancient past to be shot through with irrational flashes of modernity. During one of the tortures, we see Komomo suspended from the ground like an inverted objet d'art, and as hard as it was to endure this scene, on reflection, I had to admit it was preferable to seeing someone anonymously chainsawed in an American slasher film. Why? Because, as repellent as these tortures might be, seeing a thinking, feeling body reduced to an objet d'art is somehow preferable to seeing a piece of meat reduced to meat. Miike forces us to weigh the civility of violence, inspired violence meted out with black-toothed glee against brute violence... fine distinctions I'm not often called upon by the cinema to acknowledge or consider. These are upsetting things to weigh in one's heart and stomach, and therefore defiantly uncommercial. As my friend Charlie remarked when we discussed this: "Can you imagine Miike trying to make movies like this in the States? They'd probably arrest him. And then torture him!"
On the basis of a single viewing, I'm not certain how successful "Imprint" is -- either as a film, or as a chapter in the Takeshi Miike canon. It is unquestionably as creepy as hell. This man can deliver visual horror like it's never been done. I also found myself chuckling a good deal late in the episode, but I can't be certain yet whether this was a correct or unintended response. Certainly some of my laughs were prompted by shock and surprise. Drago's performance is way over-the-top, in the best Jack Palance/Christopher Walken tradition, but it will take additional viewings before I know if this was a creative error, a thespic weakness, or exactly the spice needed by the stew. On the other hand, it was immediately evident that "Imprint" is the most ravishingly photographed (Toyomichi Kurita), designed (Hisashi Sasaki, Takashi Sasaki), and scored (Kôji Endô) of all the MASTERS OF HORROR episodes.
It's my understanding that Anchor Bay Entertainment will be issuing "Imprint" on DVD sometime this fall. I can't speak for the general horror audience, but no courageous student of the genre should miss it.
Friday, April 21, 2006
Thursday, April 20, 2006
In the Cold War days, don't you know,
We turned a man into Earth's common foe.
Surgeons reworked his face
Into a visage from space;
But ABC took one look and said "No."
THE SIXTH FINGER
There was a Welsh miner named Gwyllm
Who could just look at people and kill 'em.
In the end it was solved
That his head had evolved;
If you had some big hats, he could fill 'em.
THE ZANTI MISFITS
A consignment of misfits from Zanti
Were banished as socially anti.
In my favorite clip
They arrive in their ship
And one crawls down an Earthwoman's panty.
To the planet Annex One Reese did glide
Giving him eyes that looked kind of fried.
He didn't sleep much
And he could kill just by touch
But he always looked on the sunny side.
IT CRAWLED OUT OF THE WOODWORK
At NORCO, the movers and shakers
All wear new-fangled pacemakers.
They get frightened to death
But then they get back their breath.
On pay day, only zombies are takers.
As it happens, these shakers and movers
Are a legion of energy groovers
Who were bred in a pit
By a dustball called "It"
That got sucked up into a Hoover.
Two Martians, Earth students, did plot
To determine how a human got shot.
To a hotel they went
And with Diemos' assent
Phobos drank cups of joe by the pot.
Behind a plant in the lobby they spied
A spectacle logic defied:
A woman stood with a frown
As the lift came down
And she left a man Colt forty-fived.
Phobos smoked as he pondered this act
And examined the couple sans tact.
He wound time south to north
And played the crime back and forth
With a Martian machine quite exact.
They decided to let the man live
But Mars said it would never forgive
Them, if he fathered a son
And the son of a gun
Turned Earth to a vast bleeding sieve.
A compromise, in the end, was so set
That he'd survive -- with his pants a bit wet.
And so the two Martian buggers
Let him marry his plugger
And kiss her every chance that he'd get.
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
I didn't recognize any of the new version's panelists, or the host. I don't know what's most depressing -- that one of the secrets whispered into the host's ear was "I Can Break Pencils... In My Butt Cheeks"... that the panel actually guessed it... or that the home viewer had to be treated to an end credits demonstration of this noteworthy ability. Actually, I know which is most depressing, but the ramifications of the other two are perhaps more sobering.
The original show is no holy relic (Garry Moore always strikes me as brash and rude, unable to host the show without a cigarette in his hand and blowing smoke even in the faces of child guests) and its "secrets" are usually no more than lame pretexts to half-baked entertainment, but sweet Jesus, how far we have fallen.
Monday, April 17, 2006
I take a similarly "zen" approach to reviewing: I approach the task without consciousness or deliberation. I know the process is different for everyone; Richard Harland Smith once told me that he watches each film he reviews at least twice, and Pauline Kael notoriously boasted that she never saw any film more than once. I suppose I fall somewhere between those two disciplines, because I seldom watch anything more than once while I am in the process of reviewing it, though I will later watch those films I like as many times as curiosity and pleasure dictate.
When I was a staff reviewer for CINEFANTASTIQUE in the 1970s, publisher-editor Fred Clarke supplied me with a regular stack of pre-printed, postage-paid index cards, which I was to fill out and mail back after seeing new movies. These were formatted so I could jot down the name of a film, its director and distributor, running time, and a few sentences of critical comment. As a young writer, these cards were very helpful to me. They taught me how to compose my thoughts as I was watching something, and how to be certain of them -- because once I had written something down in marker, there was no erasing it... and crossing it out would limit my available space to file my report. Fred probably never thought of these cards as an educational tool for his staff, but speaking only for myself, I found they sharpened and organized my thinking.
I occasionally saw other reviewers in screening rooms jotting down notes in the dark, so I also adopted this habit in my early days, but I wouldn't fully embrace it till much later. If I was responding favorably or warmly to a picture, annotating the experience tore me away from it; I might miss something good, some important incidental, if I was trying to see what I was scribbling in the dark. And if I wasn't responding favorably or warmly to something, the scribbling became about itself; I became much more interested in creating a witty retort to something I hated, rather than giving it a fair chance to win me back. But, in the days before films were available to reviewers on tape or disc, those notes in the dark were critics' best guarantee of accuracy if they wanted to quote dialogue or venture comment on a cutting strategy.
Nowadays, much moreso than before, the process begins with notes. I keep a packet of unlined index cards on a small table next to my viewing spot, and I jot down thoughts that occur to me throughout my screenings. Sometimes I will stop the disc as I write, but usually not; it depends on the ambition of the thought. My note cards don't show complete or finished sentences. I use them to refresh my memory about important plot points, character names, dialogue, trivia. I try to review the films I annotate promptly, but it's not always possible. Consequently, there's usually a stack of unprocessed note cards resting in the recess just behind my computer keyboard. For example, here -- chosen at random -- are some (slightly dusty) notes written while screening GINGER (1971), that will eventually germinate into a "Things From the Attic" review... or not:
GINGER 100m 26s
Derio Oldsmobile 23 college "straight B average" cheerleader from Hampton NY parents killed plane crash 1 brother extensive travel Brighton NJ resort popu. multiplies 10 x 3 months of year Rex Halsey "people on vacation want what they can't get at home" boss hands her envelope "We call it 'The Halsey Report' - no pun intended" $50 grand to crack case Bondian vocabulary: "dossier," "attaché" handcuffs gun bullets tape recorder camera infra-red film "anything you don't know how to use, learn" etc...
I have no idea how useful this excerpt may be, but it offers the literal answer to the question posed on the title line. If you know the film, my notes should at least give you an index as to which details in the passing parade I'm inclined to pounce on. For instance, the Derio Oldsmobile notation seemed important to me because the producer of the "Ginger" films was named Ralph Desiderio, and seeing this reminded me of a BILLBOARD article I read in the early 1970s, which mentioned that the seed money for this series originated from a New Jersey car dealership. I may not use any of the information I write on these cards, but they bring back the experience of the movie, or at least my experience of the movie -- that time.
While the goal of these note cards is to make some of the more elusive details of a viewing more concrete, the most important aspect of the work is by definition intangible. I find it's essential that I review a film while my experience of it is still reasonably fresh in my senses. This GINGER card depresses me because, as I say, it's been sitting around awhile; when I finally clear the time and have the desire to review it, it may be necessary for me to watch it again, or at least a bit of it, to help me absorb some of its particular atmosphere and energy (or torpor, as the case may be). Yes -- if I wait too long, my note cards become impenetrable even to me.
Here's another note card, dating from the last time I watched the Universal B-picture HOUSE OF HORRORS (1946). I think VW has already reviewed the VHS release of this movie, which is all the release it's ever had on video, so there was no intention to review it again... but the card reflects that the movie was written by someone far more intelligent and world-weary and professional than what they had been hired to write. I jotted down three lines of dialogue with which I felt a particular shade of simpatia:
"Rush, rush, rush -- that's all you get around here."
"The hungry maw of the cinema is always ready to devour new beauty."
"I have to dig up material for a Sunday column... and I haven't the slightest idea where I'm going to find it!"
These were clearly preserved as candidates for VW's Table of Contents page epigram -- where we present relevant quotations pertaining to art, the fantastic, the creative process, or wherever Donna and I feel ourselves to be at that particular moment in time. The last quote particularly reminds me of the "NoZone" column I write for SIGHT AND SOUND, which, until recently, had a Monday morning deadline that always kept me working on Sundays. My schedule being what it is, I tend to decide what I'll be reviewing for S&S one day before the piece needs to be turned in (which is now the first Friday of every month), writing through the night and turning in the finished piece a few hours before the S&S editors reach their desks on the morning of the deadline. It's my experience that necessity is the mother of invention, and that deadlines are probably its father. Things get done when they have to get done and, as the old saying goes, if you want to get something done, ask a busy person.
The present tense of my work looks forward, not back. People are surprised when I tell them I have only partial recollection of all the films I've reviewed for VIDEO WATCHDOG over the years, but it's absolutely true. A friend once sent me a trade list of DVD-Rs and I asked him to send me a certain title, which I'd heard was interesting; he wrote back, in effect, "Well, you seemed to think so when you reviewed it in VW issue-whatever." I had no recollection of ever seeing the film, and when I went back to my review to recharge my memory, not only did my review not remind me of the film I had seen, I couldn't remember writing the review. (At the moment, I must admit to a shiver of worry because I can sense that I have written about this anecdote once before... but I can't remember if it was for this blog, or in a past editorial, or in private correspondence, so please forgive me if I've repeated myself. If your life becomes a roman fleuve, you run the risk of drowning -- and I stock more than one river.)
Charlie Largent cleverly summarized this phenomenon as "the Mashed Potato factor." He says I've seen and reviewed so many movies, over such a long period, they must repose in my head like a lot of mashed potatoes, and trying to pick out one movie in memory from all the others must be like trying to distinguish one plate of mashed potatoes I've eaten from another. It's actually a very apt simile. It's not to say that everything I've seen has been equal; it has more to do with what these movies become, once they have been chewed and discarded only once. Just as we hold important events or moments in memory by reflecting on them again and again, either as memories or with the aid of photographs and home movies, I think important movies demand to be re-experienced. I imagine Pauline Kael carried around a lot of mashed potatoes.
Donna, John and I finished VIDEO WATCHDOG #125 over the weekend, with Donna and I passing over what must have been a nice Easter Sunday with her family to stay at home and get the work done that much sooner. All the details, including previews of Charlie Largent's cover art and four interior pages, can now be found on the "Coming Soon" page of our website. Today we start prepping VW #126, for which all the text is written... except for my editorial and my "DVD Spotlight" review of Peter Jackson's KING KONG. I have no idea how I'm going to do it, but I know that both will be in hand within the next couple of days. After all, a couple of hours ago, this essay you're reading didn't exist. Not even the title. Just the need for a Monday blog.
So, how do you review movies? As another Lucas might say, by doing it until the Force is with you.
Now where's that card?
KING KONG 187:05
opens w/ apes zoo, images of captivity Depression Jolson "Sittin' Top of World" no green anywhere The Lyric Vaudeville Revue all of Ann's backstory looped into uncle's mouth offscreen - written in post? CHANG insert framed outside screening room etc.
Thursday, April 13, 2006
Why did none of us remember that today marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Beckett? Doesn't that make you feel a little ashamed, as one of the surviving torch-bearers for what we laughingly call civilization, to have missed commemorating such an occasion? It does me.
Let's boil this stew down to its basest aroma. It's because of Sam Beckett that the phrase "Waiting for Godot" has entered the popular lexicon, as a way of referring to anticipating something that isn't going to happen, a hope that isn't going to be fulfilled, a prayer that won't be answered -- much like "Catch-22" refers to things that can't happen because their very possibility is inextricable from their unlikelihood. The phrase is known and understood by multitudes for whom the play itself would be well above and beyond comprehension.
On a personal note, the name Godot carries a special personal meaning for Donna and me. We spent many happy, loving years with a beautiful black-and-white longhaired cat named Godot, so named because we had to wait three months to take possession of her and because she never came when anyone called her. I read my share of Beckett in those days, when a novelist is all that I worked at being and hoped to be, and I spent much time coveting the Grove Press hardcover collected works that used to reside near the basement cash register at Cincinnati's long-gone Kidd's Bookstore, priced at a then-astronomical $100.
When was the last time I saw something as substantial as Beckett's collected works given such pride of place in a bookstore? Ouch. How far we have fallen.
I ask myself. I ask you. Which is the more tragic -- that I had to be reminded that today was the first centenery of Samuel Beckett's birth by the IMDb? Or that every link I could find relating to Beckett centenary celebrations (all in his native Ireland) led to "This Page is Unavailable" notices?
I must admit to having gained distance from Beckett myself in this video age of ours, but I cherish the impact he had on me -- as a reader, moreso than as a writer. His early works like MURPHY were novels of acute and comic Irish absurdity and caricature, but as time went on, his titles became more and more about themselves, and reflected such reductive powers of concentration as could be compared to the pressure that transforms coal, over thousands of years, into diamond.
One of my favorite of all literary epigrams comes from the closing lines of THE UNNAMEABLE, the conclusion of a trilogy-of-sorts beginning with MOLLOY and MALONE DIES; in just a few words, Beckett succeeded in summarizing a feeling about life and work that I wouldn't fully appreciate till I reached my 40s, when it became a veritable motto: "I can't go on. I'll go on." I can't think of seven other words that more richly evoke what it is like to live and work in today's world, and that's why we should be raising one to this man's memory today.
To Samuel Beckett. One of the few winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature who was actually worth a damn.
May I humbly suggest that we all adjourn with our pints to the nearest roadside curb, where we can sit and wait for the parade in Sam's name that isn't going to come?
It's hard to put this mysterious kinship into words, but I've always felt that my first intimations of the spirit to which I gravitate, not just in music but in all the arts, began around 1961-62, when songs like "Town Without Pity" and "Telstar" by The Tornados first seared through the sameness of Top 40 radio. I was only five or six years old, not a sophisticated listener, but whenever these songs came on the radio, I became very still. I became an active listener. They attuned me to something deep inside myself that naturally inclined toward the dark and the fantastical.
I would not realize for several years still to come that "Town Without Pity" was the theme song of a movie, a West German-US co-production starring Kirk Douglas and Christine Kaufmann, about the gang rape of a young German girl by four US soldiers (two of them GOMER PYLE U.S.M.C.'s Frank Sutton and Robert Blake in a performance that points forward to his later work in IN COLD BLOOD) and how the ensuing trial "rapes" her in a different way, more decisively ruining her life and driving her to suicide. But it's appropriate that the vibe in that song for which I felt such affinity would turn out to have ties to what we now call Eurocult.
TOWN WITHOUT PITY is an affecting movie, though not a particularly good one, and when I finally got to see it for the first time in the late 1960s, it didn't eclipse the feelings I already had for the song. I think the song fits the story and the mood of the movie very well, but I also feel that it stands for a great deal more than the concrete situation about which it was written. (It was written, incidentally, by the great Dimitri Tiomkin and lyricist Ned Washington.) For example, I have gay friends who relate to "Town Without Pity" because it speaks to a relationship whose existence must be whispered between its two intimates, because society -- lyrically reduced to a "town" -- doesn't understand or condone their love. (This reading may have had something to do with why John Waters selected it for use in his HAIRSPRAY soundtrack.) At the time, it doubtless spoke just as directly to interracial lovers. There is also something about Tiomkin's music, its slinky 6/4 piano PERRY MASON atmosphere, that speaks even to innocent ears about corruption and despair, about a world of vice and law whose sheer opposing weight is geared to crush out what is best in the human heart through sheer oppression. So I guess you could say that my attraction to "Town Without Pity" was that it offered Top 40 listeners substantially more truth about the world at large ("it isn't very pretty...") than the average pop song.
Of course, it was Pitney's tortured vocal that brought the song so committedly to life. One of the most distinctive interpreters pop music has ever known, Pitney was a superior stylist, a tuneful enunciator who seemed to look past the lyric to each song's underlying meaning -- the soul of each word, and the spirit that strung them together. To hear such an unmistakable voice, one might expect it to be limited or unlikely to be flexible in terms of milieu, but Pitney was much more than just a maestro of octave-swooping melodrama. He could be twee in some song settings, but he could also sing convincingly from the stances of cowboys ("The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"), truck drivers ("Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa" and "Last Chance to Turn Around" -- a song whose chorus incidentally inspired the title of Hubert Selby Jr.'s hard-hitting novel LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN), and even gondoliers. Pitney was one of the first pop vocalists to record foreign language export versions of his hits, and he recorded entire albums of material for the Italian market, which was especially receptive to his near-operatic delivery. He was also one of the pop song's technical pioneers: almost a full ten years before Paul McCartney recorded his 16-track one-man-band solo album McCARTNEY, Gene Pitney provided his own musical accompaniment on his first hit single, "(I Wanna) Love My Life Away," though recording technology was limited at the time to only two or three tracks.
Justly recognized as a talented songwriter ("He's A Rebel", "Hello, Mary Lou"), Pitney spent most of his recording career covering the work of other composers. He was arguably the most notable male interpreter of the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David ("True Love Never Runs Smooth" being a particularly good example). For the past few years, a British label called Sequel has been reissuing most of Pitney's 1960s albums as two-fers, and to know Pitney properly, it's important to move away from the hits and see what he accomplished on his albums, uneven as they often are. A particularly fascinating index to his talents is the album GOLDEN GREATS, which Musicor paired with THIS IS GENE PITNEY. GOLDEN GREATS is Pitney-as-one-man-jukebox, finding him accepting the challenge of either improving upon songs already placed in the Top 40 (if not the Top 10) by other artists, or failing miserably. An awkwardly reworded rendition of The Supremes' "Stop in the Name of Love" frankly kicks his ass, but Pitney manages to score well or better with most of his choices, which include The Hollies' "Bus Stop" and Gary Lewis and The Playboys' "Count Me In." He shows the expected affinity for Roy Orbison's exquisitely melodramatic "Crying," the countrified shadings of Tom Jones' "The Green, Green Grass of Home," and the inspirational doo-wop of The Platters' "The Great Pretender," but it's Pitney's incredible cover of Jay and the Americans' "Cara Mia" that brings the listener to his knees. Here, we realize that it wasn't enough for Pitney to be a sensitive stylist and interpreter; a song had to meet him halfway, to be available to an instrument of Pitney's unique range and ability, for the alchemy to fully ignite. "Cara Mia" offers him opportunities to drag lyrics across the gravel of his lower register and also to soar above one's highest expectations. This track, vastly superior to the hit rendition it covers, deserves to be remembered as one of Pitney's greatest moments on record.
Still, when we note that GOLDEN GREATS was released in 1967 -- the year of SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND -- it's easy to see how out-of-step the album was with its times, regardless of its achievement of moments that now seem absolutely timeless. It also had the misfortune to carry a title which, at a glance, portended yet another of the "greatest hits" albums that were epidemic in Pitney's output. There were exceptions to the rule, but apart from the album he later cut with George Jones (which not only prophesied the 1970s country-rock-crossover but the 1980s "duets" craze as well), Pitney's albums never really took the necessary quantum leap of vision and creativity to maintain his dominance in the field. His popularity may have also suffered by someone's decision to photograph him in the company of an attractive model who would change from one album cover to the next; after all, there was a commercial reason why the Beatles management wanted to keep John Lennon's marital status under wraps in those days. Despite these professional missteps, Pitney seems to have had an unusually solid grip on reality and his place in the world; he resolutely did what he was good at doing, without conceding to trends. He also put his real life first, with his wife and three sons, always making his home in his native state of Connecticut. America forgot him, at least to the extent of making it unfeasible for him to tour the States in later years, but he remained a beloved figure abroad. The only time I saw Pitney on American television in the 1970s was when he appeared on THE DON LANE SHOW, an Australian talk show briefly syndicated here.
When I first came online in 1995, I discovered that AOL hosted some music newsgroups and I spent some time lurking in several of them, among them one devoted to Gene Pitney. I was amazed to discover that Pitney himself was a frequent participant (his screen name was "ThePits") who took pleasure in answering people's questions, at least the ones he hadn't been asked a million times before. It was my first exposure to how the Internet could bring previously distant or unapproachable celebrities within one's virtual reach; in other AOL news forums at that time, it was not uncommon to find the likes of Bobby Vee, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby holding court. My standout memory of "ThePits" is that there came a time when he announced that he would be absenting himself from the forum because he felt a now-or-never need to throw himself into some new songwriting. I don't know what, if anything, came of that woodshedding, but I suspect the yield wasn't anything like he must have hoped for, like a new record deal. However, thereafter, he did more earnestly pursue a return to live performance abroad.
A few years ago, Gene Pitney appeared on PBS television stations across the country in a live performance recorded in, I think, Hartford, Connecticut -- not far from home. The performance, which was also issued as a live album, proved that little about this consummate craftsman had diminished over time. Though they were by then over 40 years old, his most familiar hits were sung as though their sentiments were still coming directly from his heart rather than from the teleprompter of memory. In the midst of this parade of request fulfillments, I was particularly struck by his performance of a Robbie Williams song, "Angels," which seemed tailor-made for the Pitney treatment and proved him a still-heroically-vital interpreter of modern-day songwriting. Unfortunately, I don't think Pitney ever recorded a studio version; it might well have been the adult contemporary hit he was hoping to record.
Yes, 65 is much too young to die... but, on the other hand, Pitney ended his life asleep -- without misadventure, without pain, without infirmity, without disease, without knowing the end was coming, and without the heartbreak of conscious goodbyes -- after a triumphal performance to an appreciative audience, knowing that many more such evenings were still to come. I honestly can't think of a more blessed exit.
And his songs stand every chance of living on forever, or at least as long as hearts can be broken or swell with pride or love or aspiration to the point of breaking. Feeling these things and listening to Gene Pitney, we know that we are not alone.
Monday, April 10, 2006
Fans of, shall we say, audacious rock music will be excited to learn about two new releases coming out later this week from Music Video Distributors and Sexy Intellectual. The first two DVDs in a new series called "Under Review," these feature length programs focus on two 1960s bands whose legacy was supremely influential on the cutting edge music of subsequent decades: Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground. They street on 4/15 and retail for $19.98 apiece.
Fans of these cult groups will find it almost wondrous to see their histories discussed so seriously and eloquently, not only by well-credentialed critics but by former members of the bands in question. VELVET UNDERGROUND: UNDER REVIEW (85 minutes) interviews VILLAGE VOICE music editor Robert Christgau; Clinton Heylin, author of essential books on punk rock, Bob Dylan, bootleg albums and Public Image Limited; Total Rock DJ, author and journalist, Malcolm Dome, and Luna mainman Dean Wareham, as well as Velvets members Maureen "Moe" Tucker and Doug Yule, and Andy Warhol Factory photographer/Velvets album cover designer Billy Name.
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: UNDER REVIEW (115 minutes) interviews Beefheart biographer Mike Barnes; author/critic Alan Clayson; UNCUT magazine contributing editor Nigel Williamson, and a vast assortment of Beefheart Magic Band alumni, including John "Drumbo" French, Mark "Rockette Morton" Boston, Jeff Moris Tepper, Elliott "Winged Eel Fingerling" Ingber, ira Ingber, Jerry Handley, Doug Moon, Gary Marker, Eric Drew Feldman and Gary Lucas. Both discs contain many clips of rare performances, archival interview footage, and are supplemented with interview outtakes and interactive quizzes. It's also great to hear the music of these bands remixed in stereo surround. I want a whole album of how "Ella Guru" sounds on the BEEFHEART DVD.
Both programs approach their subjects chronologically, single by single and album by album. As someone intimately acquainted with the discographies of both bands, I found it actually cathartic to watch these documentaries, to see the work of these often overlooked units so fulfillingly appreciated. Of course I have my own feelings about their recorded output, so I was somewhat disappointed that Beefheart's ultimate statement TROUT MASK REPLICA was not addressed with the same gravity as, say, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO on the corresponding release. (There is some disagreement among the Beefheart authorities assembled here, but LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY and CLEAR SPOT seem to vie for their #1 choice, with TROUT MASK being... well, singular. And for a double album, it IS pretty singular. I wish Matt Groening had been invited to balance the books.) My own favorite Velvets album is their third, self-titled album, which I feel is given its due her, but the VELVET UNDERGROUND program actually reminded me of the importance of the AND NICO album, their first, which was actually recorded in 1966 and not issued until 1967. It is not the better album, but it is unquestionably the more important group statement. Likewise, Beefheart's CLEAR SPOT track "Big Eyed Beans from Venus," his most beloved track by fans and arguably his best-realized studio performance, is rather surprisingly dismissed by Mike Barnes as popular on account of its accessibility. Accessibility doesn't explain why I am nearly moved to the point of tears every time I hear it; it has much more to do with the alchemy of its clean production and the sound of every member of the band mining dissonance until they tap an almost exorcismal sublimity and sweetness. Again, the Velvets disc excels in this area with its extended appreciation of "Venus in Furs" from THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO, which the critics identify -- to a man -- as the moment where that album becomes timeless and transcendent. To hear Robert Christgau, echoing Lester Bangs, cite this track as the moment "where modern music begins" is incredibly satisfying and insightful.
Watching these documentaries, one realizes that Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground had far more in common than their very different music makes apparent. Both groups were dominated by a single personality: Beefheart himself, Don Van Vliet (who abandoned music in 1981 to pursue a successful career in painting), and Lou Reed of The Velvets (who left the band in 1970 to pursue a still successful if increasingly literary solo career). Both groups had members in their early lineups who left after creative clashes with the "alpha male" -- John Cale in The Velvets, Ry Cooder in The Magic Band -- their departures radically changing the nature of the groups' music. Both groups were also "sponsored", in a sense, by iconographic art figures: Andy Warhol (VU) and Frank Zappa (CB). Furthermore, as the two figureheads of these bands have become more remote and inaccessible -- Van Vliet, reportedly suffering from multiple sclerosis, has not been photographed in decades, while Reed prefers to focus on his solo work -- the contributions of their fellow band members have been given the space to come into much stronger relief. It's refreshing to see the Velvets documentary pay so much respectful attention to Moe Tucker, founding member/guitarist Sterling Morrison, and especially Doug Yule, who replaced Cale in the band, which he joined in time to play on their third album. The first VU album is almost certainly their greatest and most important, and their second album WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT is just as grand in a darker way, but the greater balance of the group's classic core of material was written and recorded after Cale's departure. It was only after Yule's joining, and the loss of Cale's abrasive signature viola, that The Velvets became a classic rock-and-roll band.
An interesting result of Van Vliet's silence in recent years, and one about which I have very mixed feelings, is that much of his original projected persona has been revealed as, for lack of a better word, "show biz." His amazing voice, once self-described as encompassing six or more octaves, has since been professionally charted as somewhat narrower. His stories about never attending school and having never indulged in drugs have been proved various shades of hooey, and his former band members have portrayed him as a ruthless task master, almost a cult leader, not to mention a sometimes wrongful appropriator of song credit. And then there is the 1973-76 "Tragic Band" period when Beefheart turned his back on his muse to attempt more commercial music, only to discover that his watered-down brand of funk-pop attracted no new listeners and turned away those he already had. The stories presented on the BEEFHEART disc by his fellow band members are generally very respectful, sometimes acknowledging that Van Vliet was absolutely and unerringly aware of the impact his music would have over time. (John French recalls Van Vliet telling him, some 35 years ago, "Someday you'll hear a knock on your door and it will be someone who has travelled halfway around the world to record your recollections of what we are doing right now!") But the program pays rightful attention to the musical skills of Beefheart's associates, all of whom continue to do good work but clearly miss the "north star" visionary who led them in younger days to vistas previously unexplored in music. Some of them are working today in tribute bands to keep Beefheart's extraordinary blues-avant-art-swamp-rock fusion alive and available to fresh discovery.
These discs mark an impressive starting point for what I hope will be a successful, ongoing series. I'd love to see similar discs address the music of, say, King Crimson, Can, Nick Drake, Brian Eno, Laura Nyro, Amon Duul I and II -- and that's just for starters. Based on the choices shown here, I suspect the producers of these discs are thinking along much the same lines.
Postscript: Music Video Distributors and Sexy Intellectual have now announced the third and fourth releases in the "Under Review" series. June 6 will see the release on a profile of KATE BUSH, and following on June 27 will be THE SMITHS.
Saturday, April 08, 2006
Congratulations to VW contributor Kim Newman and his partner Stephen Jones are in order. Their softcover anthology HORROR: ANOTHER 100 BEST BOOKS survived the final cut of the preliminary ballot to be nominated this week in the Best Non-Fiction category of the Horror Writers Association's Bram Stoker Awards. The book's forerunner, HORROR: 100 BEST BOOKS, won this category in 1989 in a tie with HARLAN ELLISON'S WATCHING by Harlan Ellison.
I contributed to Steve and Kim's outstanding genre survey an essay about Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain's 1911 novel FANTOMAS. As Kim kindly notified me by e-mail, I can therefore "claim 1/100th of the nod." That's very kind... but for me, the real award was receiving the book and discovering that my first novel THROAT SPROCKETS had been chosen as one of the second 100 by Tananarive Due, a fellow novelist whose work I respect and whose enthusiasm I appreciate. It was an honor to be published in the company of so many talented colleagues, but to see my own work considered as part of a continuum that also included THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, ROSEMARY'S BABY and FROM HELL (to name a few) was one of the great thrills of my 30+ year career.
Here's hoping that Kim and Steve will be adding another Stoker to their trophy cases in the months ahead.
Friday, April 07, 2006
It's been a wonderful week here, celebrating Roger Corman's 80th birthday and seeing so many other, like-minded people attending the party and throwing parties of their own. Those who backtrack will notice that I announced the Blog-A-Thon the day after I posted a complaint about being too busy -- and yes, conceiving the Blog-A-Thon committed me to additional daily postings. But I met all my deadlines, the last of them being my SIGHT AND SOUND deadline early this morning. For my 37th "No Zone" column, I decided to stick with my current diet and review Retromedia Entertainment's THE ROGER CORMAN PUERTO RICO TRILOGY.
I won't pre-empt my column by going into a lot of detail here, but Retromedia has taken a fair amount of online heat for this release, which I found rather admirable. I know from talking to disc producer Fred Olen Ray that great pains were taken to digitally reframe LAST WOMAN ON EARTH shot-by-shot, because just slapping soft mattes over the picture (as was done theatrically in projection) tended to crop actors off at the eyes or forehead. Fred and partner Steve Latshaw also did wonderful things to digitally refresh the color and, I think, the movie (scripted by Robert Towne, who co-stars as "Edward Wain") is made stronger by all this restorative attention. LAST WOMAN is now more noticeable than ever as one of the most important works of Corman's first decade -- it can even be viewed as the second film in an apocalypse trilogy with DAY THE WORLD ENDED and GAS-S-S-S-S!.
I had never seen the Corman-produced BATTLE OF BLOOD ISLAND before, and had no idea that it was based on a novella by Philip Roth. Corman should start dropping Roth's name in his list of celebrity discoveries, as this movie was made a few years before Roth's first novel was published. It's an engrossing, compact little movie, effectively plain-spoken in its drama and direction (by Joel M. Rapp, whom the IMDb incorrectly declares dead since 1972). There's a live toucan in this film as a supporting player, and a dead toucan turns up in LAST WOMAN... I hope they weren't one and the same.
CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA looks worst of the three, but that just means it's a bit greyish with soft contrasts; I didn't find it nearly as bad as others seem to think, and it's certainly not the worst I've seen. Retromedia had to use an original element, without the added TV scenes, so their pickings must have been severely limited. (The TV clips included in the supplements look clearer, but had they used a TV print for all the footage, it might have disrupted the continuity of the music tracks.) I get a big kick out of this movie; it fails to deliver to the monster audience, and it's too beatnik-sophisticated for kids and straights, but as I say in my S&S column, it's probably the closest thing to a Thomas Pynchon novel ever committed to celluloid.
The audio commentaries (one by Joel Rapp, the other two by Betsy Jones-Moreland and Anthony Carbone) are all fun, interesting, and well-moderated by Ray and Latshaw. (I love Tony Carbone's story about how Corman made LAST WOMAN ON EARTH in color because he was offered an experimental color film stock for free!) The additional TV scenes, directed by Rapp and Monte Hellman, are presented separately and are more interesting and successful in this context. A bunch of Corman trailers are added as a bonus. None of the films are given anamorphic transfers, but they all zoom up on a widescreen fairly well. But the best thing about this set is that it gives us a new way of looking at these three extremely different films -- as a "trilogy" -- and it packages them in a manner that makes the story of how they were made as important as the features themselves.
An undeservedly controversial release. I recommend it.
Thursday, April 06, 2006
But seriously, folks... wow. According to our current count, Video WatchBlog had 31 fellow participants in yesterday's "Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon." When I first posted my own Corman Birthday blog -- at precisely 01:02:03 on 04/05/06, natch -- I was only able to list 4 other companions in my cause. I was a little worried that the short notice might have backfired. But you good people kept me adding new blog links to the page right up to the time I went to bed last night. When we were only up to 16, Green Cine Daily commented about the response to my Monday request, "You wouldn't believe the turn-out." But together, we managed to effectively double that number. I'm proud of us.
Furthermore, yesterday's celebration resulted in Video WatchBlog's highest daily attendance of the year, and possibly since its inception: 1,983 hits between 01:02:03 and the following Midnight. That's not even a full 24-hour period.
I'm especially delighted by the fact that, in visiting and reading the various blogs generated about Roger, that everyone seems to have instinctively gravitated to a different period of his work, or at least different films. Everything from ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS to MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH to HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD rated in-depth discussion. There was very little, if any, repetition -- and it was all very interesting and heartfelt, even though some of it was critical.
I haven't informed Roger of the Blog-A-Thon; it's my intention to print-off copies of everyone's blog and send them to him as a big package next week. But Joe Dante told me that he phoned Roger and "mentioned the explosion of affection on the blogosphere." When Joe surmised that bloggers were observing the day as a milestone, Roger cheerfully answered, "Well, it is a milestone... for me!"
I'm sure you all join me in wishing him many more.
Wednesday, April 05, 2006
ROGER CORMAN SWINGS (at 80)
Lyrics by Tim Lucas
(with apologies to Roger Miller)
Roger Corman swings like a pendulum do,
Vincent Price, Bruce Dern -- Shatner too!
Mobsters in Chicago, Richtofen and Brown,
Stock footage of a warehouse burning down.
Now, if you huff and puff and you finally shoot enough
You can make a whole movie in just two days, believe you me.
But here's a tip: before you take a trip, go up to Big Sur,
It's so pretty thur, oh...
Roger Corman swings like a pendulum do,
Dick Miller, Susan Cabot -- Dinocroc too!
See the Wild Angels go to Rock and Roll High,
Ray Milland rippin' out his X-ray eyes.
Now get your cameras ready, everybody go dutch,
Hang onto your wallet, we don't letting you spend too much
Add a social message, some boob shots, mind expenses
And no novocaine -- because it dulls the senses.
(OWWWWWW! Don't stop NOW!!!!!)
Roger Corman swings like a pendulum do,
They buried Babs alive and it's True! True! True!
Charles Dexter Ward and a sub-machine gun,
The rosy red cheeks of Angie Dickinson.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ROGER!_______________
I should have thought of this myself, but Dennis Cozzalio kindly used his blog to ask any bloggers complying with my "Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon" request to contact me with their URLs. I appreciate that gesture very much. I have no idea how many other bloggers might also be commemorating Roger's octogenarian phase, but if you are one of them -- or if you know of one or found one in your travels -- send me the information and I will gladly post a link here. In the meantime, here are the authors, names, and links of some blogs who have already confirmed with me their intention to participate. These guys knocked themselves out meeting this absurd deadline, so please give them the benefit of your attendance today:
1. Ray Young, Flickhead: http://flickhead.blogspot.com/
2. John McElwee, Greenbriar Picture Shows: http://greenbriarpictureshows.blogspot.com/
3. Dennis Cozzalio, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule: http://sergioleoneifr.blogspot.com/
4. Robert Cashill, Between Productions: http://robertcashill.blogspot.com/
5. Aaron Graham, More Than Meets the Mogwai: http://awcgfilmlog.blogspot.com/
6. Peter Nellhaus, Coffee Coffee and More Coffee: http://www.coffeecoffeeandmorecoffee.com
7. Dave Bohnert, filmZoneX: http://filmzonex.blogspot.com/
8. Marty McKee, Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot: http://pimannix.tripod.com/craneshot/
9. Lance Tooks, Lance Tooks' Journal: http://lancetooksjournal.blogspot.com/
10. Robert J. Lewis, Nadaland: http://nadalander.blogspot.com/2006/04/happy-80th-to-roger-corman.html
11. Steven Wintle, House of Irony: http://houseofirony.com/2006/04/05/roger-corman-is-everywhere/
12. Neil Sarver, The Bleeding Tree: http://bleeding-tree.blogspot.com/
13. Drew McWeeny, Moriarty's DVD Shelf: http://moriartylabs.typepad.com/moriartys_dvd_shelf/
14. Marty Langford, VertiBlog: http://martylangford.blogspot.com/
15. "Dr. Gangrene," Tales From the Lab: talesfromthelab.blogspot.com/
16. Karl Bauer, KGB Productions, Inc: http://kgbfilms.blogspot.com/
17. Brian O., Giant Monster Blog: http://giantmonsters.blogspot.com/
18. Christopher Stangl, The Exploding Kinetoscope: http://explodingkinetoscope.blogspot.com/
19. Jerry Lentz, Jerry Lentz Radio: http://www.jerrylentz.com/Beverlygray.mp3 (a radio interview with Roger Corman biographer, Beverly Gray)
20. Aleck Bennett, The Squeaky Reel: http://squeakyreel.blogspot.com/
21. Steve Monaco, Couch Pundit: http://blogs.citypages.com/amadzine/2006/04/happy_80th_birt.asp
22. Anonymous, Given to Hyperbole: http://giventohyperbole.blogspot.com/
23. El Thomazzo, Olhar Elétrico: http://eletriceye.blogspot.com/
24. Although not technically a blog, David Hudson's Green Cine Daily gave the "Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon" a very nice mention: http://daily.greencine.com/
25. Rod Barnett: http://blog.myspace.com/47619990
26. Mr. Ghoul: http://blog.myspace.com/mrghoul
27. Rhatfink: http://blog.myspace.com/rhatfink
28. Matt Zoller Seitz, The House Next Door: http://www.mattzollerseitz.blogspot.com/
29. Rod Barnett, Bloody Pit of Rod: http://pitofrod.blogspot.com/
30. Pete Roberts, Cult Clash: http://cultclash.iblogs.com/
31. Anonymous, That Little Round-Headed Boy: http://roundheadedboy.blogspot.com/2006/04/roger-corman-movie-poster.html
For those of you reading this entry after April 5, 2006, that's the date you'll need to look up to find the Corman Blog-A-Thon postings at each of the above addresses. Thanks to everyone who participated for making today's Blog-A-Thon a tremendous success!
"Look at it! It grows like a cold sore from the lip!" -- THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960)
Tuesday, April 04, 2006
And it won't happen again for another hundred years. (01:02:03 in the afternoon is technically 13:02:03.)
The following is a press release from Cataldi Public Relations that arrived in the WatchBlog's mailbox. I've altered the original text slightly to incorporate a few informative amendments and asides:
HDTV-owning horror fans will definitely want to mark their calendars (perhaps, in blood?) for Wednesday, April 5. Monsters HD, the 24-hour high-definition, all-monster movie channel from VOOM HD, will be marking the 80th birthday of the master of the low-budget flicks with a round-the-clock marathon of some of Corman’s classiest and kookiest celluloid. Monsters HD actually tackled all the remastering on this bevy of gore, 13 films in all including THE BRAIN EATERS, THE UNDEAD, THE SAGA OF THE VIKING WOMEN, DAY THE WORLD ENDED (in SuperScope!), HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (1980 and 1996 versions!), PIRANHA (Joe Dante's classic, even better-looking than it is on DVD), TALES OF TERROR, and TEENAGE CAVEMAN (with a young, but not exactly teenage Robert “Man from U.N.C.L.E” Vaughn). Monsters HD is one of 15 high-def channels available on VOOM HD to Dish Network subscribers nationwide. For more fun, check out the network’s website – www.monstershd.com
Monsters HD also seems to have booked HOUSE (1986) and HOUSE II: THE SECOND STORY (1987) as part of Roger's B-Day schedule. These were New World pictures and the IMDb says that Corman was an uncredited executive producer on them. Anyway, I've seen almost all of these pictures on Monsters HD at one time or another and can recommend all of these. THE SAGA OF THE VIKING WOMEN looks amazing, and not only when June Kenney is strutting around in her Old Norse miniskirt and go-go boots. It's far, far superior-looking than the Region 2 DVD.
And you bloggers, don't forget to join in the Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon tomorrow! I know this is short notice, but that's what's so Roger about it. Post an essay, a review, a tribute, a Top 10, a haiku, a fitful epigraph from the pages of Poe, a relevant still you've right-clicked off someone else's blog -- anything! Just do it and get it up on the screen. Don't worry about money. ("There is no money, Montresor. You haven't worked in seventeen years.") Monsters, social commentary, and breast nudity are all the currency you need. Now get clicking because we're opening on more than 500 screens Wednesday -- and I'm talking hardtops! Impressive, huh? And think of the points you'll score when you tell everybody you wrote your great Corman blog in a single day... or an hour... or less than five minutes. If you're reading this, you're already at your machine. You're already in the saddle, man. No hassles...
"We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! And we wanna get loaded! And we wanna have a good time! And that's what we are gonna do! We're gonna have a good time... We're gonna have a party!" -- THE WILD ANGELS (1966)