Saturday, July 15, 2006

Some Notes on Recent Viewings

Last night I realized that it's been a full week since I'd watched an entire feature film; it's been a week spent working on the next novel, being available to Donna for feedback on the Bava book layout, and listening to music rather than watching stuff to review.

What I have been watching is a lot of boxed set classic TV: third season episodes of Warner Home Video's THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN and first season episodes of MPI Home Video's THE RIFLEMAN. The color and crispness of the SUPERMAN episodes is pretty extraordinary, marred only by those long takes that precede or follow opticals like special effects or dissolves. If they had known back then how long takes tied to opticals were going to degrade the picture quality of such shots in the digital medium, I'm sure they would have done shorter takes whether it slowed things down or not. The color episodes are generally regarded as the point where the series turned addle-pated, but there's still some good stuff to be enjoyed here -- like John Hamilton's work in the episode "Great Caesar's Ghost." Noel Neill's Lois Lane is also a sweeter, less bipolar character here than in Season 2, which helps.

I'm only three episodes into THE RIFLEMAN, two of which were written by Sam Peckinpah, and these have been absolute revelations. First of all, they look great and, secondly, ever since this show came to the Hallmark Channel, they've been cut to ribbons; it's a treat to see them with all their atmosphere and dramatic gravity intact. The second episode has a bit where Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors) improvises an Old West retelling of the Biblical story of Job to teach a lesson to his son Mark (Johnny Crawford), and the scene left me in awe. Connors not only had remarkable presence and was built for action -- find me one 21st century bad-ass who could stare him down in that opening credits shot -- but he could be one hell of an actor when the material allowed. MPI has six of these sets out presently, 20 episodes per set, and I'm going to enjoy what is already sizing up to be a cherished reacquaintence.

All this is prologue to the fact that I decided last night it was high time I watched another movie before I forgot how. I picked out Blue Underground's forthcoming disc of Jess Franco's SUCCUBUS, which streets on July 25th. Before watching the feature, I went straight to the extras -- a 22-minute interview with Franco, and a 7-minute visit with actor Jack Taylor -- and found them both very invigorating. Turner Classic Movies recently showed an hour-long special called EDGE OF OUTSIDE, about the history of independent filmmaking -- with commentary by Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, John Sayles, David Thomson, Peter Biskind and others -- and I swear I learned more about independent filmmaking, and obtained more food for thought on the subject, by watching Jess reminisce about his experiences and agonize about the filmmaking system as it exists today.

After I got finished with SUCCUBUS itself, I immediately sought out Blue Underground's companion "Red Lips Double Feature" release of Franco's TWO UNDERCOVER ANGELS (aka SADISTEROTICA) and KISS ME MONSTER, starring Janine Reynaud and Rosanna Yanni. This set includes two interviews with Jess -- 14 minutes and 22 minutes, respectively. The second, longer one in particular, called "Jess' Tangents," seems to be composed entirely of off-topic material that director David Gregory felt needed to be out there. Bless you, David. "Jess' Tangents" was the cherry on top of my whole evening. Franco talks here about LSD and Porn, Spain under Generalissimo Franco, working with Orson Welles on CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT and TREASURE ISLAND (some real revelations here), and cinema in general.

I know there are some people who love cinema who don't get Franco's work, but I believe that even they would be fascinated by his observations and the lively, frank stories he tells about working on these three pictures. At one point, he makes a compelling argument on behalf of the idea that people expect a good story from the movies they see, but never take away a good story from these movies and seldom actually grasp more than a sequence of compelling images or edits. He reminisces about critics at the time not understanding SUCCUBUS and admits, chuckling, that he doesn't quite understand it himself. (I don't quite buy this; surely Jess realizes that his succubus Lorna is an attempt to contemporize the Lllorona, the unearthly femme fatale who haunts the pages of Spanish fantasy lore.) He also remembers SUCCUBUS, touchingly, as the first film he made with absolute freedom, and speaks with regret that he was so accustomed to working with his hands tied by producers that it was not until halfway through the production that he truly began to appreciate the creative freedom available to him. I could listen to the man talk forever, and sincerely wish there was some kind of interactive DVD that would allow you to pick any title in Franco's filmography, where any title could be selected to trigger every story he could remember about the filming of that particular title, or its stars, or whatever else came to his mind.

The Jack Taylor profile is interesting too; in slightly more than 7 minutes, we get to revisit SUCCUBUS shooting locations in Berlin with him, and learn that he was paid exactly half of the salary he was promised. But he seems a philosophic man rather than a bitter one, and he's aged wonderfully well. If Welles could see him today, he'd want him for his Don Quixote.

A word, too, about the production of these Franco discs, which represent producer-director David Gregory's final work for Blue Underground. (He has since moved on to produce supplements for other companies, like Dark Sky Films, and started his own company, Severin Films, which is going to bring some 1980s Franco titles to disc.) Knowing what a marginal director Franco is, we must applaud Blue Underground -- David certainly, and BU founder and executive producer Bill Lustig above all -- for indulging him and us, his audience, with such exemplary treatments of his best work: SUCCUBUS, EUGENIE - THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION, VENUS IN FURS, MARQUIS DE SADE'S JUSTINE, and others. The menu design on these new releases is brilliant and actually looks more lavishly produced than some of Franco's recent features. These releases may carry the aura of the end of an era, but perhaps another era is just beginning. So circle July 25th on your calendars and pounce on these discs right away.

On a closing note, I'd like to steer my fellow Franco fans to Robert Monell's new blog I'm In A Jess Franco State of Mind, which promises to become a key resource for English language insights and information about his work.

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