Monday, September 25, 2006

Letters! I Get Letters!

I've received some interesting blog-related correspondence of late, and since I don't want to open this blog to comments and have to play moderator, it might be a good idea to post selected comments when I feel they're worth sharing.

For example, here's some interesting background on STONE COLD DEAD from reader Robert Richardson:

"Having only ever seen STONE COLD DEAD in standard pan & scan prints both on broadcast television and cable movie channels (and neither were would you could call pristine) news of a clean, clear, widescreen copy circulating perks my interest. I'm hardly a fan of the film but I've seen it more than once already and would give it another go if the presentation was up to snuff.

"A couple weeks back I found an old copy of the source novel in a thrift shop for 70 cents. THE SIN SNIPER was originally published in 1970, and a tie-in re-dubbed with the movie's title was issued by Paper Jacks in 1978. It includes eight pages of b/w stills from the film, including a three-still recreation of the initial sniping and one behind-the-scenes shot of director George Mendeluk blocking a scene.

"The author of the book is Hugh Garner, a war veteran who turned to writing as the 1940s waned. His book CABBAGETOWN is perhaps his best known, but he won the Governor General's Award in 1963 for a short story collection he penned. I can tell you that the movie and the original novel are substantially different. Toronto was Garner's home and it served as the background to virtually all of his writing, including THE SIN SNIPER. The characters present in the novel differ radically from those in the film. In fact, the identity of the killer is completely different as is the resolution. Why Mendeluk chose to detour so far from the novel is beyond me, and I do not believe that the changes were for the better.

"Mendeluk's next film, THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT, was also adapted from a source novel. It too would benefit from a proper widescreen presentation. After some juvenile comedies he seemed to drift into episodic television and these days mostly works on television movies.

"The cast of STONE COLD DEAD also includes Cronenberg vet Chuck Shamata (SCANNERS as well as the Ivan Reitman produced DEATH WEEKEND); Paul Bradley (ever so briefly), who years earlier had costarred effectively in both GOIN' DOWN THE ROAD and WEDDING IN WHITE; professional boxer George Chuvalo (who fought Ali in the 1960s); Alberta Watson (from THE KEEP, THE SWEET HEREAFTER, SPANKING THE MONKEY and more recently 24); and lovely Jennifer Dale, making her debut as initial victim Claudia Grissom. Dale was the love interest of Alliance Atlantis honcho Robert Lantos. He produced several of her films though arguably she has found wider recognition (at least here in Canada) on television."

I thank Robert for the information.

Readers Mike Schlesinger and C. Jerry Kutner commented on the good timing on my Russell Metty centenary acknowlegement, which happened to coincide with a 3D screening of TAZA, SON OF COCHISE in Los Angeles. Mr. Kutner writes:

"Living in L.A., I was lucky enough to catch the screening two weeks ago of TAZA, SON OF COCHISE at the 2nd World 3D Expo. It was extraordinarily beautiful to see the vast open spaces of Monument Valley in 3D with those incredible natural formations in the distant background. (For an approximation of what this looked like, check out Ford’s CHEYENNE AUTUMN, which in 70mm achieves something close to a 3-dimensional effect.) As in most of Metty’s work with Sirk, there are foreground objects in almost every shot, but unlike most other Sirk films, this one was shot almost entirely on location outdoors, and the 3D combined with unobtrusive camera movement (mostly panning – to follow the characters) results in a lovely flowing dance of foreground, middle ground, and background. And those arrows shot into the audience are cool!"

But the most eye-opening blog response I received last week was from a PBS employee whose correspondence was labelled "not for publication." Naturally, I'll respect this reader's wishes, but I think it's important to paraphrase some of the behind-the-scenes reasons therein provided why Ric Burns' ANDY WARHOL: A DOCUMENTARY FILM had to be broadcast in censored form.

Evidently, PBS stations are now being suffocated by increased restrictions from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), whose fines have become so steep that even a single fine could be enough to put a smaller PBS affiliate out of business. (When a public complaint results in the issuing of a fine, these fines are issued not only to PBS as a network, but to the individual affiliate in the area where the complaint originated.) A California affiliate was fined earlier this year for broadcasting Martin Scorsese's THE BLUES with utterances of "fuck" and "shit" intact, these used more for seasoning and exclamation rather than in literal terms; the matter of context was immaterial, and the station was slapped with heavy fines for repeated utterances.

Thus far, PBS has been unsuccessful in obtaining even the vaguest guidelines from the FCC, so affiliates have no idea in advance of what the FCC may find objectionable, until the killing fine is thrown down. This effectively has Public Television existing in a state of uncertainty bordering on terror. PBS stations have become so gunshy that, in some cases, they are going to the additional trouble and expense of digitally blurring the lip movements of documentary interviewees, rather than incur possible penalties for broadcasting too-emphatically-mouthed obscenities. Imagery that might be deemed controversial, like some rear nudity in one of the Warhol films, is also being blurred for the same reason. The letter I received suggested that future PBS programming, such as their upcoming WWII documentary, will likely be offered to affiliates in uncut or pre-censored form -- but in this event, it's all but certain that most if not all affiliates would choose the sanitized version rather than face the consequences of Freedom of Speech.

This was an enlightening but tragic letter to receive because it essentially confirmed, from the inside, that PBS is being stripped of the special qualities and privileges that its members continue to believe they are paying for. Programs that could have aired uncut one year ago are now being aired with more bleeps than are heard at the average Stereolab concert. There are programs that aired uncut on PBS thirty years ago that would no longer be permitted in any shape or form. But public funding is more important than ever, as government funding has become so reduced that long-running PBS series like MYSTERY! and MASTERPIECE THEATER can no longer afford hosts.

In its heyday, PBS was the only alternative to commercial network television; it was educational, progressive, and it had the freedom to be outspoken. Today, with its mouth gagged and blinders keeping its eyes trained on the straight and narrow, it's become another government detainee -- forbidden to use even PG-level language in serious discussions of art and construction, and relying more and more on the "good business" of presenting sanitized documentaries about war and destruction.

Of course, it's commendable that some individuals within the PBS power structure are still quixotic enough to try, to present something like Ric Burns' Warhol epic as a two-parter in the context of AMERICAN MASTERS. Even in bastardized form, it communicates an idea of its quality and gives the viewer enough information to seek out the uncut original on DVD, or to explore Warhol's legacy further in books and museums. But it's a shame that the ideal of Public Television has so quietly become a thing of the past, and that its hallmarks of free speech have been inherited by premium cable and satellite television, luxuries -- like so much else, from vitamins and health care to gasoline -- that cannot be afforded by all men created equally.

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