Friday, March 03, 2006
FOUR FLIES (or 4 Mosche di velluti grigio) was Argento's third feature film -- following THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970, released by UMC Pictures) and THE CAT O' NINE TAILS (Il gatto a nove code, 1971, released by National General Pictures) -- and his first to receive US distribution from an actual major, Paramount Pictures. There may well be other exceptions to the rule out there in the world somewhere, but I'm aware of only one official release: a French VHS tape from Atlantic Home Video called 4 Mouches de Velours Gris; it's dubbed in French, of course, and sort of incompletely letterboxed with the sides of the main titles noticeably cropped.
Given the situation with the film, Argentophiles have had to resort to what is euphemistically called "the grey market," probably in tribute to this very film. Over the years, I've been able to find three different copies in addition to my French pre-record. I'm not fanatical about it, and I haven't looked recently, so there may well be other options on the grey market today, but what I've been able to find are: 1) a complex dupe utilizing the French tape visual track, with English dialogue slotted in; 2) a squeezed copy of a 16mm print of the English language version that is so squeezed, I can't fully unsqueeze it on my widescreen set; and 3) an excellent looking copy that opens with perfectly letterboxed main titles and then adjusts -- "Goddammit!" the viewer wails, striking the arm of his chair -- to pan&scan. Of these three, surprisingly enough, I found the pan&scan version most pleasing, if only because it alone summoned a hint of the beauty that must reside in a perfect print. The colors are bold and the image is consistently clear; it's like watching the film on television in the 1980s, but without commercial interruption. This version, in case anyone is wondering, hails from Video Search of Miami. (It also includes the padded cell scene missing from some prints, including the French tape.) I have no idea if VSoM have upgraded their copy since then, but this pan&scan version is/was one of their best-looking tapes, at least in my experience.
Watching FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET again for the first time in maybe ten years, I have to say I didn't care much for it... but, then again, I chose the French/English synch source for my first viewing. I suspect I was distracted by how the ambient sound of the tape kept shifting as the compiler shifted from the French and English sound sources. I was aware that it wasn't an optimal presentation, but there was a great deal about the film itself that annoyed me. Given its final resolution/explanation, the story -- or rather the situation -- makes no sense, and Argento spends so much time gagging around with his semi-comic supporting characters, it seems evident that even he was aware of how flimsy it was. I was so disappointed, in fact, that I turned to Maitland McDonagh's chapter in BROKEN MIRRORS, BROKEN MINDS and Kim Newman's chapter on the film in THE ART OF DARKNESS (all of two pages!) for illumination. Kim's piece may have been written to the order of finding something nice to say about it, and he struggles valiantly toward that end, settling on faint/forced praise like calling it one of Argento's "most cynical and cruel" movies. Maitland also gives it short shrift, just half a chapter, but in those few pages, she probes its psychological underpinnings with some success. Her insights primed me to give the film a second viewing, this time with the pan&scan print. (After watching the picture, which involves a woman driven mad by being raised as a boy, I couldn't help but smile at the irony that two of the film's chief commentators are a man named Kim and a woman named Maitland.)
Watching the film a second time, with sharper focus and sweeter colors and a smoothly consistent soundtrack, as well as armed with leads as to what to look for in terms of theme, I found FOUR FLIES somewhat more enjoyable... and I also came up with some ideas of my own. Argento's next picture, Le cinque giornate, an historical comedy, broke from the giallo mold that brought him fame, and I believe he was already showing signs of restlnessness here. FOUR FLIES is a kind of anti-giallo: the prog-rock musician hero (Michael Brandon), who lives on Via Fritz Lang (!), believes himself to be a murderer, which causes him to keep his distance from the authorities. Consequently, this is that rare giallo without any kind of ongoing police investigation; instead, Brandon finds his answers internally, by probing his dreams and by talking with God -- his friend Godfrey, that is, played by Bud Spencer. The mystery is ultimately solved and the film's title are explained in a single, far-fetched stroke, as the Italian police remove the eye of a murder victim, hook it up to some sort of nonexistent machine, and read the last image imprinted on its retina by death. At the time of the film's release, Argento insisted that such a machine was being used by some progressive police departments, but he surely stole the idea from the old Universal sci-fi/horror film, THE INVISIBLE RAY (1936).
Because of his essential passivity (not to mention his inability as a rock drummer to maintain any kind of beat or rhythm), Brandon is easily the least interesting of Argento's heroes; the movie comes to life most enjoyably when it redirects its attention to gay private detective Gianni Arrioso (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who defends his ability to solve the case by citing his formidable track record of having never solved a case before -- 84 unsolved cases, ergo he's due to solve one imminently! Arrioso's flitty, touchy-feely investigation is dated and stereotypical but also affectionate, and the scene in which he runs afowl of a hypodermic loaded with some kind of luminous blue poison that exists only in the Argento apothecary (found in the same outré universe as the Argento library and Argento airport) is surprisingly poignant. Mimsy Farmer plays Brandon's wife with the brand of porcelain calm and bared electric wiring that is her trademark; when she is revealed as the puppet-master behind her husband's carefully engineered torment (I'm not revealing anything here that wasn't revealed in the movie's stills set), she's as convincing a psychopath as Argento ever showcased. McDonagh's book reveals that FOUR FLIES was the only one of Argento's films in which the director did not stand in for his killer; she surmises that this is because Brandon's resemblance to the director satisfied his narcissistic needs, but I can well imagine the white-coiffed Ms. Farmer flashing her clenched teeth at Argento the moment he got too near her black gloves and sending him cowering to the nearest corner.
So why don't we have FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET on DVD yet? Is Argento suppressing it? Is Paramount unaware that they have it? Does Paramount still have it? I don't have the answers to these questions, but though I've already watched it twice in the past week, I'd eagerly give a definitive presentation a go if such a disc was released tomorrow. Until that day comes, those of us who wait are all hapless Argento heroes, straining toward the perfect recollection of an image just beyond our grasp.
Thursday, March 02, 2006
The cover art is both handsome and peculiar. What looks like the thin white outlining of Kieslowski's name on the accompanying illustration is actually transparent; the letters are glossy and stand out against the matte finish of the packaging. As you can see, Irène Jacob looks surprisingly unlike herself in the cover photo (which I've never seen before); she looks rather like Nastassja Kinski. The set is elegantly packaged in a slip case, from which a wallet-like insert slides out, which opens to reveal a menu enclosure and the two discs, one featuring the film and the other consisting of extras. As you slip the wallet out (a tight fit), the first thing you see is a handsome sheet of dark card stock resting on top of it; the card has a tall window cut out of it, which exposes a strip of 35mm film -- six frames worth -- a piece of the film itself. The card is numbered, one in a limited edition of 20,000.
My card bears the richly-doubled number of 4488 and I recognized the scene immediately as I held the film strip up to light. I was initially disappointed to find that it wasn't an image of the luminous Ms. Jacob, but then I realized it was something even more precious. It was my luck of the draw to receive the shot from Weronika's (Véronique's Polish doppelgänger) point of view as she suffers her heart attack onstage, moments into her first and only professional vocal performance, as she sees the conductor (Aleksander Bardini) giving her cue. It's the moment when her zenith of achievement is touched by the moment of her death. I feel like whomever ordered THE STANLEY KUBRICK ARCHIVES book and got the section of 2001 film strip that showed the femur turning into the spaceship.
So I count my lucky stars. After all, I could have received six frames of the pedestrian who opens his overcoat and flashes her.
Wednesday, March 01, 2006
FOR THE 20TH ANNIVERSARY HIGH-DEF RESTORATION
OF THE HORROR CLASSIC “FROM BEYOND”
World Premiere of restored “Director’s Cut”
to air June 10 at 8pm on Monsters HD
in advance of DVD debut.
New York, NY (March 1, 2006) – TIME Magazine called it a “Bloody good entertainment” while Roger Ebert said that it “establishes [Stuart Gordon] in the tradition of Hollywood horror directors who really try – directors including James Whale, Tod Browning and Roger Corman.” Released in the fall of 1986, Stuart Gordon’s FROM BEYOND, H.P. Lovecraft’s tale of an ambitious scientist’s experiments to discover a sixth sense, shocked and delighted horror fans and critics everywhere much in the same way that his previous Lovecraft adaptation, RE-ANIMATOR, did in the fall of 1985. But beyond the film’s monstrous creatures and scientific mutations there lurked an even more dreaded entity, one that almost destroyed the film, its makers, and its audience: the MPAA.
Forced to cut his film by the MPAA in order to get an “R” rating, Gordon has waited two decades for his vision of FROM BEYOND to escape the darkness and now, to commemorate the film’s 20th anniversary, Monsters HD and Stuart Gordon have teamed up to finally bring the “Director’s Cut” of FROM BEYOND to terrifying light.
In 1986, Gordon, who also founded Chicago’s famed Organic Theater, had just come off of RE-ANIMATOR, which screened at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival and quickly became a worldwide hit with critics and audiences – all without a rating. As a result, Gordon says, “They were very upset and, I think, trying to get revenge for the unrated RE-ANIMATOR. So we had to submit the film at least a dozen times, maybe more.” According to Gordon, meeting with the ratings board “was like going to the principal’s office to get scolded. They sat me down and the woman I was meeting with said, ‘This is disgusting. Instead of pulling away, you keep pushing in and pushing in and pushing in!’ and I was like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry!’ We ended up cutting out over a minute’s worth of material to finally get it released with an R-rating. They really took out some of the best stuff.” Gordon describes the experience as “a real ordeal, this process just went on and on, and the distribution people were screaming, ‘We’ve got a release date, you’ve got to make those cuts.’”
The director proudly discusses one scene in particular that really got him into trouble. “The scene that upset them the most (and as I describe it, it is truly disgusting) is when Jeffrey Combs’ character’s pineal gland has gone out of control and he’s hungry for brains. He attacks a psychiatrist, played by my wife [Carolyn Purdy-Gordon], and he plants his mouth onto her eye socket and starts sucking. And the material that was cut out was when he actually sucks her eyeball out, spits it onto the floor and the eyeball lands looking back up at him and he continues to suck her brains through the eye socket and the camera pushes in. It’s really disturbing and it’s the longest restored piece, my guess is it’s about 30 seconds or so. I think it’s the most horrific moment in the whole movie.”
Upon its release in October of 1986, FROM BEYOND was a success with both critics and audiences and went on to cult classic status once it was released on video. But there was always something missing. “People started asking me if we would release a director’s cut. I went back looking for the material and even went looking through warehouses trying to find it and was told it had been thrown out. The movie moved from one company to another after [original distributor] Empire Pictures went under, so about five years after the release I gave up on it. So whenever people asked me about it I would tell them it was gone forever.”
But like a re-animated corpse, FROM BEYOND just wouldn’t stay dead. “A year ago last Christmas, I got a call from MGM saying ‘We’ve got a film can with this material and we don’t know what it is, could you come down and take a look at it?’ The can had been marked by my editor, Lee Percy, and it said ‘For the video release’, and inside were all the little trims that the MPAA had objected to. Everything was great until MGM was bought by Sony, and all the people I was dealing with were no longer there.” The resurrection of his original vision in jeopardy once again, Gordon luckily found an ally in Monsters HD president David Sehring. “He told me that they would be airing FROM BEYOND and knew about the discovery of the missing material. He said ‘How about if Monsters HD pays to have it done?,’ which I thought was great. Things began to move forward again.”
Debuting on the VOOM Satellite service in October 2003 (and now available on Dish Network’s HD package), Monsters HD is America’s only 24-hour horror movie network, broadcasting world premiere HD transfers of genre classics from every era. Having broadcast RE-ANIMATOR in the past, Monsters HD General Manager David Sehring was eager to show FROM BEYOND on the network.
“Being a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft and Stuart Gordon's work (they go hand-in-hand you know) I licensed the television rights to FROM BEYOND for MONSTERS HD. Having known about this holy grail of horror and the controversy surrounding it, I made it a mission for MONSTERS HD to restore FROM BEYOND's long-lost footage for all the world to see. Monsters HD makes every effort to preserve and present rare director's cuts and European versions of horror movies when the film elements are made available to us. I asked Stuart Gordon as well as MGM & Sony's technical services departments if they could work together to restore the legendary missing footage into a new high definition transfer for MONSTERS HD's broadcast. After some questions as to where the lost footage was, the work of transferring the material to High Definition and reconfiguring the cut material into the film was supervised by Stuart.”
According to Sehring, “The restoration of FROM BEYOND was truly a ‘search and rescue’ effort. The biggest challenge of doing the restoration was locking down the location of the lost materials. Having worked on AMC's Film Preservation Festival for over 10 years, I discovered that playing detective and reporter, while asking the right questions, is always valuable. Luckily, the folks at MGM and Sony came to Stuart's and MONSTERS HD's rescue by finding the material that was cut from the FROM BEYOND work print. MGM & Sony re-transferred the material for us to High Definition and had to do a little digital clean-up and color correction in addition to some sound work and design - again - all supervised by the one and only Stuart Gordon.”
Along with the restored footage, Monsters HD’s broadcast of FROM BEYOND will also feature a new 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. For this to happen, some new sound work was done in early 2006. “This material was cut before the movie was mixed, so all that exists for it is the sound that was recorded on stage, which was mono, so we have to mix it back into the film,” reports Gordon. “Plus I think we need some of those really truly disgusting sound effects for that brain-sucking scene,” while Serhing says he hopes to hear “some delicious slurping sounds in 5.1 stereo surround that will accentuate some ‘eye –popping’ visuals in High Definition!”
Monsters HD’s world premiere broadcast of FROM BEYOND coincides with a renewed interest in the renowned author H.P. Lovecraft, who died in 1937. In the last few years there have been over a dozen films based on Lovecraft’s writings which include Gordon’s recent episode of MASTERS OF HORROR, DREAMS IN THE WITCH-HOUSE, the best-selling videogame Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth from Bethesda Softworks, as well as Guillermo Del Toro’s upcoming adaptation of AT THE MOUNTIANS OF MADNESS. Monsters HD will also be celebrating the author’s legacy by airing such Lovecraft-related films as THE UNNAMABLE, DIE MONSTER DIE and Dan O’ Bannon’s THE RESURRECTED. But Lovecraft has had no better champion than Stuart Gordon, who has adapted the author’s works in five films: RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND, CASTLE FREAK (loosely based on Lovecraft’s “The Outsider”), DAGON, and DREAMS IN THE WITCH-HOUSE.
With the restored FROM BEYOND now set to air, Stuart Gordon is looking forward to seeing his maligned masterwork in its restored version in High Definition. He says, “The transfer is really stunning. Mac Ahlberg, the D.P., did a beautiful job and it’s got all these lurid colors. It was fun to see it again and to see it looking so good. I think it holds up pretty well. Everything that was trimmed by the MPAA is now back in the movie and it was great to see it restored. I had a wonderful feeling after it was done. An enormous sense of relief.” And David Sehring says of the restoration process, “As you know, Monsters HD's tagline is ‘It's Alive!’ We really take that to heart as we re-master films, like FROM BEYOND. Monsters HD hopes to bring forth more frights ‘from beyond’ and will continue to dig up long lost footage and film elements from the hallowed vaults of our favorite monster movie studios.”
Addendum from Tim: The frame grabs accompanying this Monsters HD press release (picturing Barbara Crampton, Ted Sorel, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon and Jeffrey Combs) are low-res jpg grabs from the HD version of FROM BEYOND currently being shown on Monsters HD, which runs about 85 minutes in length. Frankly, when I watched FROM BEYOND on Monsters HD, I got the misimpression that it was already longer than the version I knew from home video. This MGM master looks incredible as is, and the announcement of a more complete version forthcoming is exciting news I wanted to share.
Monday, February 27, 2006
Then I went over to Amazon.co.uk with the intention of ordering another Artificial Eye title, their new three-disc set of Louis Feuillade's FANTOMAS. I already have the three disc French set, which includes all five of Feuillade's Fantômas serials, but I'd naturally love to have these in English now that they're available. But Amazon.co.uk is saying that the title is "usually dispatched in 4 to 6 weeks"... in God's name, WHY? Artificial Eye can't be more than a taxi ride away from their shipping room. Anyway, I was discouraged; when I turn to Amazon of any stripe, it's because I want and expect something now, or at least within the coming week. If anyone knows of a venue offering more immediate gratification where the Lord of Terror is concerned, let me know.
Interesting thing about the Gaumont poster art pictured above: it's censored. I'd never noticed this before, but in the original book cover art by Gino Starace, Fantômas' right fist is clenched around a dagger that has been recently plunged into someone. It was a shattering image when it was unleashed upon the world in 1911 -- I'm certain it inspired F. W. Murnau's opening shot of FAUST (1926). If you'd like to learn more about FANTOMAS, you can check out my essay on the book series in HORROR: ANOTHER 100 BEST BOOKS, edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman.
Finally, I should mention that the 124th issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG (with beauteous, mushroom-munching Kumi Misuno on the cover) was mailed to subscribers and our distributors last week. First class subscribers may already have it in hand. If you're not already one of the VW elite, check our website's "Current Issue" option for more details and be sure to click on the cover for a free sample preview.
Saturday, February 25, 2006
Thursday, February 23, 2006
Earlier this week, Donna and I learned that VIDEO WATCHDOG had won the "Best Magazine" Rondo Award for the fourth year running. I had more than half talked myself out of imagining that a fourth win was possible. I had made public statements about how it was time for some other magazine to win, to "spread the wealth" and so forth, but as the voting deadline approached, I realized that I wanted this win very much. Especially now. This latest Rondo comes as a reassuring show of support at this particular time, when we're publishing at half our usual frequency and pulling in half our usual income. As it is, our win was a close call, with Jim Clatterbaugh's MONSTERS FROM THE VAULT only 16 votes shy of taking Rondo home. I believe Jim published only a single issue of MFTV last year, so that's a huge show of enthusiasm for his work, well-deserved of course, and I hope he's appreciative. In the meantime, we're looking forward to adding a fourth Rondo to our living room mantel... and our third, which we're told is being mailed to us soon. Come what may, Donna and I will always be proud of this winning streak.
It's one of those weird quirks of the voting process that the people's choice for Best Magazine somehow failed to win any of the magazine-related categories, like Best Article or Best Cover (sort of like when a movie wins Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor and Actress but not Best Director), but what are you gonna do? Nevertheless, I was happy to see that Bill Cooke placed second in the Best Article competition with his "Universal's Other Monsters" in VW #118. I'm disappointed that Charlie Largent, who produces as many or more wonderful monster-themed magazine covers per year as anybody, has yet to win a Rondo... but, hey, Vladimir Nabokov never won a Nobel Prize for Literature, either.
There's another category in which I've personally had a four-year streak, and that's coming in Second Place to Tom Weaver in the Best Writer category. Tom appreciates the irony of this, knowing full well that he's principally a researcher/interviewer; he asks questions and transcribes tapes. My feelings about losing four times in a row to Tom are softened by the fact that he is a first-rate writer and scholar, as his books UNIVERSAL HORRORS and POVERTY ROW HORRORS ably prove... and because Tom says that he voted for me, which I suppose makes me the Best Writer's Best Writer. Oh, well... there's always next year, as Susan Lucci says.
In another bit of voter turn-out weirdness, while Tom appropriately shared the Best Article Rondo with Bob Burns for an "as told to" piece appearing in STARLOG, my sole nominated article "Renfield: 10 Buzzing Performances" (probably one of my best pieces in VW's 15 year history, and one that I felt was sure to satisfy those folks who bellyache that there isn't enough classic horror in VW) failed to make the list of runners-up at all, nor did Video WatchBlog show in the Best Website category. To have earned my high ranking in the Best Writer competition, I can only surmise that people must think I am one heck of a letter writer.
All of these inconsistencies go to show one thing: it's a mistake to take awards -- any award -- too seriously. David Colton, who founded the Rondo Awards, did so as a means of celebrating all the good works that are done each year in the service of classic horror fandom. That's why the ballot sometimes shows as many as 26 nominees in a single category; it doesn't set a critical standard so much as leave it to public opinion. If you point out the sometimes indiscriminatory nature of the Rondo ballot to David, he's likely to say, "I just want it to be fun" -- and he has a good point, or at least the right attitude. With 26 nominees in a single category, it's almost a miracle that anybody wins with more than a handful of votes... This aspect does need some fine-tuning, I think. But occasionally something happens that reminds us of why the Rondos are such a good idea, after all.
This year, Stephen D. Youngkin won the Best Book Rondo for THE LOST ONE: A LIFE OF PETER LORRE -- and this, in a year when KING KONG was sweeping the Rondos and when many tie-in KONG books were released. This is the sort of result that makes me proud to have voted. Also, the wonderful MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES won in the Best Independent DVD category, and its producer Joe Busam won the coveted Monster Kid of the Year Award.
Joe happens to live in my hometown and we and our wives had a nice Rondo celebration dinner last night. (Sushi! Martinis! Saké! Fried shrimp heads! Shared reminiscences of Channel 12's 12 TALL TALES!) Joe, a professional animator, is the very essence of a Monster Kid, much like category winners Bob Burns and Larry Blamire before him. He brought into the world a product that serves as a common bond between all of us who grew up in the Monster Boom years, and our Significant Others, who may not understand the appeal of monsters but are nevertheless captivated right away by the sense of make-believe celebrated by MKHM. Without the Rondo Award, how could something this special and this specialized be acknowledged and celebrated?
It should also be noted that MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES is just the sort of project that might never have existed without the example of community evident at the Classic Horror Film Boards, an outgrowth of Kerry Gammill's cyberzine MONSTER KID. (Kerry and Tim Lindsey are responsible for designing, sculpting, and manufacturing the actual Rondo Award busts themselves.) So, whichever way you look at it, the Rondo Awards are not only rewarding works of excellence, they are now inspiring them.
Let me wrap this up by sending out my congratulations to all my fellow Rondo winners, my fellow runners-up, my fellow nominees -- and, most of all, to everyone who has contributed articles, reviews, or artwork to VIDEO WATCHDOG over the past year. You've all helped VW to become and remain the award-winning magazine that it is.
You can find all of the final Rondo voting results here.
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
I can see their point. I take a great deal of satisfaction from seeing my work "published" immediately online, and I derive much pleasure from receiving immediate response from it, but blogging isn't really publishing; it's ethereal lithography. Work such as I posted about THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN - THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON should have been reserved for VIDEO WATCHDOG. I realized this after finding that someone had posted on the Classic Horror Film Boards, saying that they had enjoyed my SuperBlog and were wondering if they could look forward to even more indulgent coverage in the pages of VW. To which my answer was, basically, No -- you got 18 paragraphs; that's everything I had to say about it. I'd feel I was cheating the readers of both blog and magazine if I reprinted that material. We have a long-standing policy against publishing previously printed material, except in the case of Joe Dante's "Fleapit Flashbacks," which almost nobody interested in his work ever had a chance to read. (Someone once tried to sell me an interview that was already freely available online, and we found out about it literally on the day of our copy deadline, meaning that I literally had to pull a feature article out of thin air at the last minute.)
As successful as Video WatchBlog has been, I need to keep that success in perspective. This blog is not nearly in the same league with VW in terms of readership, so it could be construed that I am cheating the products I cover here, rather than in the magazine, of greater exposure -- and cheating VW's readers by not reviewing for them certain high-profile releases like the SUPERMAN sets. Furthermore, this blog has not proved successful in attracting additional review discs from companies that do not already supply VW. (Shout Factory, whom I approached last week for review copies of their DICK CAVETT programming -- reminding them that I had already covered the ROCK ICONS set for SIGHT AND SOUND, a review that Cavett himself briefly referenced in a recent VH-1 interview -- replied with an unsigned note that simply declared, "We don't service blogs or publications outside the U.S.") So, not only is there no financial compensation for doing this blog, it's not helping me to save any money either.
I'm also very much aware that I have done little to no creative writing since launching this blog, which has demanded much of the enterprise I should have been directing toward another novel or script, or more reviews for the ever-thirsting pages of VW.
I don't want to surrender this blog, but I need to figure out what it needs to be in order to continue to exist.
Bear with me.
Monday, February 20, 2006
These episodes, it should be mentioned, were filmed in 1952 -- two years after the first season. Only John Hamilton's Perry White is noticeably unchanged. George Reeves has a beefier look and his hair is more threaded with gray. As Jimmy Olsen, Jack Larson looks less like a young adult and more like a slumming adult actor playing dumb; although identified as a "cub reporter," Jimmy now seems to be more of a staff photographer, lugging around a huge camera and (though no one notices but us) grinning beamishly as all the best photo opportunities pass him by. (In "Around the World with Superman," he doesn't snap a single shot of Superman cradling the little girl he flies around the world as the winner of a Daily Planet contest!) The original Lois Lane, Noel Neill -- who starred opposite Kirk Alyn in the Columbia serials SUPERMAN (1948) and ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN (1950), has her fans and Superman fandom is divided by those who favor her "sweet" approach to the no-nonsense ways of the first season's Phyllis Coates.
I bracket "sweet" in quotes because that's not how I see Neill's Lois Lane at all, especially after watching these 26 episodes in sequence. In all fairness to Neill, she plays the role as it was written -- very inconsistently. On the one hand, Lois regularly scoops Clark Kent (because she's able to get and file the story while he's out making the news), yet the tone she most often takes with him is one of pointed resentment. This season, Lois has wised-up to Kent's double life and spends many episodes trying to expose his secret identity; of course, he outsmarts her every time. And yet, in a handful of episodes, Lois seems to forget all this and scoffs at any suggestion that someone like Clark, always running away at the first sign of danger, could possibly be Superman! She does have sweet moments, but they usually follow remarks or behavior so snide or so waspish they give one whiplash. A bit bipolar, this Lois Lane, and it's very hard to imagine how Phyllis Coates would have handled the part had it been written this way.
The series was produced to peddle Kellogg's breakfast cereal and producer Whitney Ellsworth bowed to sponsor pressure to make the program less violent in its second season. Therefore, the hardboiled stance of the first season shows is replaced here by a more wholesome, occasionally goofy approach that somewhat approximates the feel of what the DC Comics SUPERMAN had become. Stories like "The Dog Who Knew Superman" (a gang moll's dog learns Superman's true identity from a driving glove Clark Kent wears in no other episode), "The Machine That Could Plot Crimes" (an absent-minded professor invents a computer named Mr. Kelso, which is innocently put to the task of devising perfect crimes), "The Clown Who Cried" (a circus clown agrees to perform on a Daily Planet telethon, but is blackjacked and replaced by an ex-con friend when he learns the show stands to accept thousands in cash donations), "Perry White's Scoop" (editor White, fed up with his trouble-prone reporters, decides to show them how it was done back in the day... getting into trouble of his own), "The Golden Vulture" (Lois and Jimmy run afowl of a modern-day pirate) and many other episodes could have easily been adapted as DC stories.
But the season is best remembered (and rightly so) for a handful of episodes that play outside the pocket. The most celebrated of the bunch, "Panic in the Sky" chronicles Clark Kent's battle with amnesia after Superman vanquishes an asteroid threatening to slam into Earth. There's not a kid alive who didn't see this and scream with apprehension as Kent began to unbutton his shirt, revealing the S of his Superman costume, in the presence of Jimmy Olsen. Benefiting from a pensive, apocalyptic mood from the outset, the show gives the immediate impression of something unusual, its tenor turning most worrisome when a woozy Kent crashes through the glass door of his shower. It's in the aftermath of this scene that the show takes one of its most credibility-testing turns, as we see Kent in bed, without his glasses, being visited by his co-workers, who see his bare face and remark on the fact that he emerged from all that broken glass without a scratch, and can't put the facts together like two and two. Aside from this fault, the episode isn't quite so nerve-teasing or tension-stretching as it's remembered to be; Superman's memory is recovered fairly quickly, all told -- but nowhere else in the series is Superman quite so vulnerable.
(By the way, I now have a theory about why Lois and Jimmy, despite suspecting Clark of being Superman, can never recognize that the two are one and the same even when his glasses are off. In short, Kryptonians are smarter than Earth people -- and when we watch THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN or any other SUPERMAN dramatization, we do so with the intelligence of a Kryptonian. That's why Clark winks at us at the end of so many episodes; only he, of all the characters, knows that we're watching. Far-fetched? Well, so is the fact that no one recognizes Clark Kent as Superman when he's not wearing his glasses, as happens at least twice in Season 2.)
"Panic in the Sky" can be viewed on disc with an audio commentary by Jack Larson and Noel Neill, but it's a disappointment; Larson does almost all of the talking, but even his contribution is sporadic. After the two of them fall into a long silent patch, Larson chides Neill and himself, laughing "We're not commenting! We're not commenting!" It doesn't seem to occur to either of them that the buyers of this set might like to know more about George Reeves, or if they were aware that this episode was something special as they were filming it. These two sorely needed a moderator and it was a failure of the disc producer not to provide one.
A similar, equally commendable episode (which actually precedes "Panic in the Sky") is "Superman in Exile," which finds The Man of Steel physically contaminated by radiation after bravely placing himself between Metropolis and a pending atomic disaster. It's curious that this episode doesn't have the following of its successor, because the later episode basically reprises its tensions while putting Superman's secret identity more solidly on the line; even here, though, Lois and Jimmy show signs of getting wise as they notice that Superman's exile from Metropolis has coincided with Clark's disappearance. Similarly, "The Defeat of Superman" dramatizes his first series encounter with the element known as Kryptonite. When you stop to think about it, much of Season 2 is all about "mortal men" resenting Superman and wanting to take him down a notch or ten; the crooks want him dead or disabled, Lois and Jimmy want him unmasked, even his own acts of altruism conspire to deprive him of his effectiveness as a crime-fighter, robbing him of his powers, his memory, his ability to interact with others.
One of my own favorite episodes of Season 2 is the quirky "Lady in Black." A send-up of the mystery genre -- this episode is in the same spirit as Season 1's "The Haunted Lighthouse," with a wide-eyed Jimmy Olsen alert to some strange and inexplicable goings-on in his aunt's apartment building. These include the arrival of melodramatic characters that seem to have stepped out of the mystery novel ("The Lady in Black") Jimmy is reading, so his cries of "wolf" initially go unheeded. Virginia Christine (destined to play an Olsen of her own in future Folger's coffee commercials) plays a dual role of sorts, and the episode is adorned with a number of oddball touches, including a weird surrealist painting in Jimmy's aunt's apartment. It initially sports one staring eye... then it has two... and in the final shot, we see the second eye winking at the viewer! There's also a lingering shot of a clown painting at the end of Act 1, which I've never fully understood till now. In Act 2, we see Christine unloading a sack of groceries and the first thing she takes out is a box of Kellogg's Sugar Smacks -- with what looks like the same clown on the box! Evidently, the significance of the painting at the end of Act 1 was that it was a product-placement lead-in to a Kellogg's commercial!
Another Larson/Neill commentary (a better one) accompanies "Semi Private Eye," which happens to be Larson's favorite episode. It features a guest performance by THE MALTESE FALCON's Elisha Cook, Jr. as private detective Homer Garrity, but Larson favors the episode because it gave him a chance to do comedy. When Lois and Jimmy decide to hire a private detective to uncover Clark's possible dual identity, a gunman intrudes on their appointment. Lois and Homer are kidnapped, leaving Jimmy to indulge his fantasies of being a shamus and saving the day. Larson mugs his way through the episode shamelessly, doing what is probably one of the earliest Bogart impressions on record... and one of the few to incorporate James Cagney's teeth-baring, drawers-hitching mannerisms at the same time. Larson recounts later meeting Bogart, who seemed eager to meet him -- so perhaps Bogie saw this episode and appreciated the take-off; he also talks about "Cookie," who became a personal friend as a result of this appearance.
While not a particularly distinguished episode, "Semi Private Eye" gives Larson a chance to do something different... as does "The Face and the Voice" where George Reeves is concerned. Here he plays his usual roles, and also that of a meatball ex-boxer who undergoes plastic surgery and diction lessons to imitate The Man of Steel in a series of robberies that leave the real Superman questioning his sanity. Kids might suppose that Reeves was showing extraordinary range as an actor by playing a character so unlike the urbane Clark Kent and Superman, but his performance is embarrassingly broad -- but the series offered him no time to refine it. As Larson mentions in the "Semi Private Eye" commentary, nearly all the scenes that made it into the show were first takes.
The season closer, "Around the World with Superman", openly courts melodramatic sentiment with the story of a Daily Planet children's contest, whose winner will be flown around the world in the arms of Superman. The winner turns out to be a hardened but trusting little blind girl, who enters the contest in her mother's name, wanting to win the trip for her. It's a sweet and likeable episode, but it never answers the question of how the blind girl hand-wrote her winning entry, stamped and mailed it without her mother's knowledge. Furthermore, there is the trip itself, whose details fly in the face of earthly geography as we know it. Superman takes off from Metropolis (presumably on the East Coast and analogous to New York City), is immediately over the Atlantic Ocean, then London... Paris... Arabia... but then they are suddenly flying over New York -- and Superman tells the little contest winner that they aren't home yet, that there's still a big country to cross! Not only does this posit Metropolis on the West coast (as those who recognize the Daily Planet Building as Los Angeles City Hall always suspected), but it suggests that Superman either turned back before flying over Russia (!) or that the United States somehow got turned upside down while he was in flight (!!). The insanity is somewhat salvaged by a wonderful moment between George Reeves and Noel Neill, alluding to the otherwise unspoken "Lois Lane as Superman's Girlfriend" angle, that is the perfect capper for the season and this box set.
Whereas Warner Home Video's COMPLETE FIRST SEASON set reflected great attention paid to its digital restoration, the COMPLETE SECOND SEASON evinces less blood, sweat and tears. A noticeable splice in "Around the World with Superman" pinpoints the omission of a fondly-remembered moment where Superman uses his X-ray vision to determine the cause of the little girl's blindness. It wasn't the only such splice I noticed in the set, and one episode (sorry, I failed to note the specifics) recounts important plot points that were not shown. The picture and sound quality is very good, though not exceptional. On the plus side, "The Face and the Voice" -- last seen on a Warner/Image Entertainment laserdisc where the voice-training scene ("I look like Superman, why don't I talk like Superman? I look like...") was presented in absolutely horrible quality -- happily looks every bit as good as the other episodes.
Rounding out the COMPLETE SECOND SEASON are a nice sidebar on Noel Neill (with sound bytes from Neill, Larson, and SUPERMAN scholar Gary Grossman) and the aforementioned "Stamp Day for Superman," a US Defense Bonds promotion filmed in the form of an ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN episode. The episode carries no screen credits, but it's pretty good, with some unusual dramatic choices (check the scene of Superman conferring with the jewel thief who reconsiders his crime) and some fairly witty dialogue (check Clark and Lois' window-shopping banter). Pay no attention to the internet talk about the episode's poor quality; compared to the other examples in this set, true, it's not as bright or as sharp, but this is the best-looking copy of this PD eyesore I've seen in 25 years of video viewing. In fact, I wouldn't call it an "eyesore" at all.
Another random thought or two... On DVD, it becomes fairly obvious in "The Clown That Cried" that William Wayne is playing both clown roles most of the time, doubling for actor Peter Brocco, who is supposedly disguised as him. Also, I don't know if "My Friend Superman" was the last episode shot for this season, but the food fight that ends the show would have been a great stress-relieving way to conclude the stretch. The scene has the air of a wrap party. I should also mention that Warner's screen menus are a delight. They actually tell an archetypal Superman story in a nutshell.
Season 2 marked the end of Superman's television adventures in black-and-white. The third season, only 12 episodes long, saw a transition to color and -- for the most part -- a significant brain-drop. We're talking "The Bully of Dry Gulch" and "Flight to the North," the episode where Chuck Connors plays backwoods clodhopper Sylvester J. Superman. Nevertheless, THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN would always retain its charm, which was specifically the charm of its cast -- particularly George Reeves, who remains for many the definitive Superman -- and its increasingly wacky sense of fantasy.
Although I find myself bringing a stronger critical standard to bear on these episodes on DVD than I've ever done in a lifetime of enjoying them on television, I know exactly how to remind myself of what a wonderment this set really is. All I need to do is think back to a certain Christmas in my childhood when one of my gifts from Santa was a Kenner Give-A-Show Projector. One of the little films that came with the set was a reel of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN; I think it was a condensed version of the final episode, "All That Glitters." I can remember projecting that film, over and over, all Christmas Day, on the wall inside my bedroom closet (the darkest place I could find in the daytime) -- incredulous that something had been invented that allowed me to watch Superman fly, forwards and even backwards, as much as I wanted to.
It may be my job to be critical, but owning this entire season of ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN episodes on DVD beats that childhood memory all hollow -- and don't I know it.
Saturday, February 18, 2006
Poster art is on my mind today. Let me explain why.
To backtrack... As I mentioned yesterday, we're presently working on standarizing what we call the "credits blocks" of the Bava book's main chapters -- you can see what I mean by this by visiting the Bava book site and checking out the second spread of the DANGER: DIABOLIK spread we have posted there as a sample. I originally compiled all the credits off the screen, and added other credits when and if I could find them, so we have decided to standardize the order of the credits to make them easier to read for reference. In doing this, I noticed that I had the distributors listed for some foreign release titles, but not all.
So it fell to me late yesterday afternoon to pull out all of my Bava poster/pressbooks/lobby cards, items hailing from around the world, and open them, one by one, making a record of the full name of each distributor (when possible -- would you believe that some Italian posters list NO distributor?); the correct foreign release title (thus ensuring the title was, say, 5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON rather than FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON in, say, the UK or Australia); cast anomalies (did you know that the star of HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON is credited as "Steve Forsyth" on the Italian posters, but as "Stephen Forsyth" on the posters from every other country?); the brand of color and scope ratio specified (these actually differ on the same titles from country to country, a tip-off to some countries that cheaped out on the color processing); and, when possible, the name of the poster artist for specifying in the captions.
And people ask, "Why is the book taking so long?"
To Donna's surprise, and my own, I finished this task around 4:00 a.m. She expected it would take me at least a couple of days, but I threw my back into it and was determined to put the task behind me, stopping only briefly to have some soup. It was equal parts pleasure and pain to open each of the posters (some of them quite large) on the dining room table; pleasure because it was nice to see them again, and because there is a definite tactile satisfaction that comes from handling and smelling old posters, especially old French stone lithographs; and pain because I was reminded or made aware of little tears in some of them -- a stunning Italian due-foglia (two-sheet) poster for Gli invasori [US: ERIK THE CONQUEROR, or THE INVADERS] actually separated and fell into pieces as it was being photographed for the book, and I handled its tattered pieces especially lovingly. There is also the pain of regret where these posters are concerned; I'd need a whole second houseful of wall space to show off even a portion of them properly. But all I can offer most of them is a protective sleeve and repose in a Tupperware coffin. Donna asked if I'll be selling the posters once the book is published, and I really don't know; I'd like to use the collection, which encompasses all of popular Italian horror and fantasy cinema, to create or illustrate more books... but this one has been such a killer, neither of us is feeling too eager to rush into another project like this.
My job today is to organize the seven pages of legal pad scribblings that resulted from yesterday's labors on my computer, and then drop the information into the layout for Donna to insert. So I'd better get to it.
Friday, February 17, 2006
One last thing: Don't forget to vote in the Rondo awards! I believe today is "Rondo Eve," so time is running out. Don't worry about voting in every category, and if your favorites aren't on the ballot, write 'em in! Pop on over to www.rondoaward.com and cast your ballot now!
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
This shot was taken at a dinner that Donna and I were pleased to share with Kevin, Joe Dante, Tom Weaver, Frank Dietz, and others at Wonderfest a few years ago. I hope you're having a great one, Kevin, and may the Grey Goose smile generously on your olives!
T: I dreamed we had to go to the dentist. We couldn't go at the same time for some reason, so they had to send a driver for me. When the driver came, it turned out to be Harvey Keitel.
D: I see. It's what he does during the off-season.
T: Right. Anyway, he turns out to be a quiet guy, not a chatterbox like he is in the movies. Stoic. We get to the dentist and it turns out to be a new location. The parking lot looks like the one between Sebastian's and Blockbuster, but the stores are all different. Harvey and I stay in the parking lot, like that's the waiting area... and you know how dreams are, the waiting area is in the parking lot and inside the dentist's office at the same time. I'm sitting there, and suddenly I can hear our car. I look out the window, which is the window of the office and the window of the car, and I can see you outside at the traffic light.
D: Oh, my.
T: And I think, "Boy, I hope she doesn't get lost trying to find this new place and drives right past it!" The light changes and off you go. Maybe it was my anxiety about you getting lost, but I turn to Harvey, who's still behind his steering wheel with his back turned to me, there in the waiting room, and I say, "You know, I'd kind of like to find a restroom before I have to go in to my appointment. Where's the restroom in this place?" Harvey says to me, irritably, that there isn't one.
T: "What?" I say. "My dentist moves from his perfectly okay former office to a new place and he didn't even check out beforehand if it had a restroom for his patients?" Harvey shrugs. He's reading a paper now. "If you gotta go," he says, "take your problem across the street over there to the orphanage." I look across the street and, sure enough, there's an orphanage over there. But I tell Harvey, "Look, I'm not 'taking my problem' over there. Hey, I like my dentist and everything, but I'm sorry -- this is a deal-breaker!" Harvey shrugs.
D: He's stoic.
T: Right, not like he is in the movies. Anyway, then suddenly you were there, you found it to the new office allright, and... and that's all I can remember. I can't remember where the dream went from there. I forgot while I was telling it. Hell... (buries head in pillow)
D: So, are you gonna get up and make me some coffee before I have to go to the store?
T: (groans, not ready to get up)
D: Okie-doke, I'll make some instant.
T: (emerging) No no no. I can't have you drinking instant. I'll get up! (I get up and throw on a robe. Donna is already in her shoes and skipping downstairs. I call after her.) I know how much you like the gourmet, expensive stuff. When you drink your coffee, you like to taste it. No instant for you! I'll make you coffee that's so good, even Harvey would taste it and do a double-take!
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
My wish is to serve. Unfortunately, most of what we are sent for review is contradictory to my Wife's pleasure, so it usually takes me a minimum of thirty minutes of humorous offstage crashes as I rifle through bankers' boxes before I can find some oddball release that at least halfway meets her criteria... and then she watches my prize catch while sewing, scrabbling noisily through a nearby drawer in search of a lost thimble, looking at a quilting magazine, or delighting at the antics of our cats as they tussle in front of the TV screen. In the meantime, I'm watching whatever it is 100 per cent. But I am, as they say, a man in love.
We recently had one of these "entertain me" evenings, my Spouse and I, and the luck of the draw -- something acceptably recent (1990), a "relationship movie," in color, no subtitles -- turned out to be a recent offering from Criterion, Whit Stillman's METROPOLITAN. I'd never heard of the film and didn't know what to expect from it, but, as I should have expected from the Criterion endorsement, it turned out to be a sheer, unalloyed delight. An independent, low-budget film shot in New York City, METROPOLITAN was a "first film" for nearly everyone involved, but through some curious means, the end result is remarkably close to perfection. It might best be compared to a Woody Allen movie without Woody Allen's grandstanding neuroses being channeled by the entire cast list, or an Eric Rohmer movie set outside France, or an F. Scott Fitzgerald story set in a Manhattan he never lived to see.
The story, in short, is about a middle-class leftist named Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) who is serendipitously falls into the company of a group of upper class while exiting New York's Plaza Hotel at the height of Christmas debutante season. Tom doesn't approve of debutante parties, or the class snobbery they encourage, but he finds his conversation with these people invigorating and is persuaded to invest in a used tuxedo and tail coat to continue as an escort to Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina). Audrey, who finds Tom more substantial than other guys she's met, finds herself falling for Tom -- but Tom's heart is still tied to the girl who broke it -- Serena Slocomb (Elizabeth Thompson), who re-emerges at one of these gatherings in the company of Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe), a young baron whose selfish, womanizing ways are rumored to have driven at least one lovesick admirer to suicide.
Cast entirely with talented unknowns, including some who had never considered acting before, METROPOLITAN is one of the most sublimely written, dryly humorous, and engagingly well-cast American movies I've seen in a long time. (Stillman's original screenplay was recognized with an Academy Award nomination.) It's easy to see how Tom is drawn to these people and "the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie" (the subject of a hilarious sidebar), against his own ideals, and comes to relax some of his personal, social, and even literary biases. Another of the film's engaging qualities is that it never reveals its time frame -- it takes place "not so long ago" -- so that, even if we can't personally relate to the characters' way of socializing, we can accept that these events took place in another recent era. Indeed, some young people watching the film might roll their eyes at the notion that anyone could call sitting around and debating politics, philosophy or books "a party," but these parties are like some great ones I can remember attending in the 1970s. Today's parties (at least the ones in the movies I see) are all about getting wasted; yesterday's parties were about stimulation -- the stimulation of new ideas and new friendships, possibly new romances. I presume the film's time frame is sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, as Stillman brought a few of the actors and their characters back for fleeting glimpses in his late '70s-situated THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO (1998) -- a film I now need to see again.
Criterion's high-definition transfer of the film is splendid, needless to say. The extras include an interesting an informative audio commentary by Stillman, editor Christopher Tellefsen, and actors Chris Eigeman (who plays Nick, the "abrasive" one) and Taylor Nichols (who plays Charlie, the bespectacled and anxious one -- my favorite of the film's characters); an outtakes montage; a memorial to a key crew member; and an illustrated booklet built around an essay by Luc Sante.
Discovering METROPOLITAN reminded me of one of home video's most enduring rules of thumb: When all else fails, trust Criterion. In fact, with their backlog of DVD titles now topping 300, one could easily devote oneself entirely to Criterion for the better part of a year and come out the other end a more experienced, more fully rounded connoisseur of film. In my line of work, it's all too easy to get side-tracked and bogged-down by other, frankly lesser movies and lose track of some of the things that are truly important. There are nights when I, too, tell myself I'm not "feeling up to subtitles" or coming to grips with unfamiliar world cultures -- but what I'm failing to remember when I think these things is how invigorating the discovery of a real masterpiece can be.
With this in mind, I'm entertaining the idea of setting aside one day per week to catch up with my Criterion viewing -- "a Criterion Sunday," perhaps. I usually have things to watch on Sunday evening (new SOPRANOS and HUFF episodes are just around the corner), but a Sunday afternoon... Now that might be perfect -- kind of like playing hooky and going to church at the same time!
If my "Criterion Sunday" idea sounds good to you, be sure to include METROPOLITAN as one of the titles you should visit along the way.
Monday, February 13, 2006
South Korean government drops screentime quota for domestic films
"Oldboy" director and star return Cultural Merit medals to Korean government in protest
LOS ANGELES — Feb. 1, 2006 — The Korean government is betting that homegrown cinema will continue to flourish without the safety of a screen quota system that has protected the Korean domestic film industry since 1966. Local actors, directors and moviegoers aren’t quite so optimistic and are protesting their displeasure with significant public gestures.
Established to help the Korean film market grow from its humble beginnings into the worldwide cinematic hotbed it is today, the quota requires Korean cinemas to show Korean films for 146 days of the year. Starting July 1st, that number will be reduced to 73. The reduction had been demanded for years by the US government as a key condition for free trade negotiations, but its implementation has not been well received by many, including some of the biggest filmmaking names in Korean cinema.
“The government's decision to cut the quotas is equivalent to giving up our culture,'' said Choi Min Sik, star of Crying Fist, Lady Vengeance and the immensely popular Korean film Oldboy.
Choi recently returned his Cultural Merit medal, a prestigious award which honors Korean artists, to protest the quota system. “The medal was personally my pride and honor,'' Choi told reporters in Seoul. “Now it is a symbol of the government's betrayal. I don't need a medal from a country that chooses to stamp on our own cultural rights.''
In addition to Choi, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance director Park Chanwook, currently preparing to promote his latest film Lady Vengeance at the Berlin Film Festival, also returned his medal and commented that he will voice his concerns further at the festival. Tae Guk Gi and The Coast Guard star Jang Dong-gun has also come forward to voice his opposition.
Korean Filmmakers and artists are not the only ones expressing their displeasure. A group of South Korean lawmakers are currently seeking legislation to maintain the country's current quota for the screening of domestic movies, claiming the government's compromise deal with the United States is humiliating.
Korean cinema has witnessed unheralded success the world over in recent years. A Tale of Two Sisters was one of the ten highest-grossing horror films worldwide in 2004. Oldboy received the Grand Prize of the Jury at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. Korean cinema has made giant crossroads into America on the success of the Asian horror genre as well as the unique style of its filmmakers.
"This is not a fight only for ourselves,” Choi told reporters. “We are fighting for living between the Korean and American movies and cultures. Oldboy would not have existed without the screening quota.”
Oldboy, A Tale of Two Sisters, The Coast Guard are available now on DVD from Tartan Asia Extreme. Tae Guk Gi is available now on DVD from Sony Home Entertainment.
Sunday, February 12, 2006
There is no denying that both films looked better than ever, even better than on DVD, as HD decompresses the visual information. But SON looked better than BRIDE... possibly because it was a richer-looking production, and possibly because the art of cinematography had advanced in that four-year difference. I could even see, for the first time in SON, the slender black wires supporting the weight of Bela Lugosi's Ygor as Boris Karloff's Monster carried him to the family crypt, but I can't say that I noticed anything new in terms of nuances of performance. As wonderful as these films are, they are played pretty broadly; you can "get" all their performances have to offer in low-def. BRIDE and SON were fun to watch in HD, but when all is said and done, neither presentation really knocked me out.
The K.O. came last night, when Monsters HD celebrated the 100th birthday of Lon Chaney, Jr. by premiering Universal's THE WOLF MAN (1941) and FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1942). I found the further advance represented by the look of these two films almost startling. They shared with the two Frankenstein films a heightened sense of detail, which brought all of the grace notes buried in the art direction and set decoration to the forefront, but what I found most impressive was their heightened sense of depth, emotion, and temperature.
I never realized it until now, but much of THE WOLF MAN is filmed on studio sets with vast floors, both interior and exterior; the whole look of the film is a celebration of image in depth. A shot of Evelyn Ankers running through the woods, which in a duller presentation one's senses easily reduce to the essential information of her action, is now like watching a beautiful woman who once lived and breathed running through the cinematic equivalent of a magnificent painting. We sense that it must have been a delightful moment for her to perform, as a professional. The fogbound studio sets are a marvel of depth with their receding trees, shafts of light, and rolling fog.
As one might expect, one does tend to see better all the individual yak hairs on Chaney's face, but also hidden recesses of performance. To watch Chaney's performance as Lawrence Talbot in HD is to see much of its seeming bluntness smoothed away. True, he wasn't the actor whom screenwriter Curt Siodmak envisioned when he wrote Talbot as the prodigal son of an old English family and had him using expressions like "chap," but Chaney had an expressive face, the necessary inner turmoil, and the talent needed to convey all the tragic dimensions of the character and story. And then there's the diminutive Maria Ouspenskaya as the gypsy woman Maleva. In my earliest acquaintence with these movies, I can remember thinking that Madame Ouspenskaya was not the most expressive actress in the world. No, she doesn't make a meal of the scenery like some of her co-stars, but seeing her performances in high-def, one can better understand her mastery of film acting technique. She was calibrating her performance to the sensitivity of the camera lens and trusting it to deliver the emotions she was projecting on a more intimate keel. Seen in HD, closer to the readability of a 35mm big screen viewing, Ouspenskaya's Maleva is pitch-perfect: tremulous, fearful, brave, and wearily wise to the mysteries of the world. Even the sound quality is improved, making her muttered dialogue more easily understood.
Another of the uncanny things one can pick up from THE WOLF MAN in HD is a hint of body heat. For example, the scene in THE WOLF MAN where Lawrence Talbot (Chaney), under the boughs of a tree, gifts Gwen Conliffe (Ankers) with the medallion given to him by Maleva; Gwen says she was taught never to accept presents without giving one in return and offers him a penny for it, and Larry says it's not enough -- moving in for a kiss. Their kiss is interrupted before it gets started, but the blossoming of detail in this scene awakens its intended, long-dormant sense of intimacy and makes it surprisingly hot to watch.
Monsters HD general manager David Sehring knows and loves these movies, and one can see his awareness of their chronology and content in the fact that THE WOLF MAN was booked to be shown in tandem with its direct sequel, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. The opening graveyard scene where Chaney is revived in his tomb by a couple of unsuspecting graverobbers, long a top favorite among Universal buffs, is beautifully revitalized in HD. The exterior crane shots come alive in vivid detail -- blowing leaves, twitching trees and a lone crow; when the wind picks up, as one of the graverobbers runs away, the shot conveys a similar thrill to the coming of the tornado in THE WIZARD OF OZ. Inside the Talbot family crypt, one can more clearly read the names on the surrounding name plates inside the Talbot crypt, including one for Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains' character from the earlier film) and another for Lawrence and Anne Talbot, presumably the Wolf Man's grandparents. Seeing the two films en suite like this, one can also better appreciate the ironic arc they represent, as Chaney's character is initially infected with lycanthropy by Bela Lugosi, then seeks the answer to deliverance from this curse from the Frankenstein Monster, whose makeup is worn in the second picture by none other than Lugosi.
In short, Monsters HD gave Lon Chaney, Jr. the best possible present for his centenary. They gave his body of work a new lease on life. And so let it be said:
"Even someone so impure in heart as to shun films in black-and-white may become a fan if they watch Monsters on VOOM, where the picture's so sharp and bright."
PS: Since we last remarked on Monsters HD's introduction of the onscreen station bug, they have further reduced its frequency to only once per hour, so it now appears only once in any film they are presently broadcasting. We thank them for being so responsive to the wishes of their viewers!
Friday, February 10, 2006
Dark Sky has labelled the release as "Lost Noir" -- but there's got to be a better name for it than that. For one thing, WET ASPHALT is a German picture.
Originally released as Nasser Asphalt in 1958, WET ASPHALT was distributed here in the United States by Walter Manley Enterprises, best-known for importing an especially kooky brand of science fiction film -- PRINCE OF SPACE and INVASION OF THE NEPTUNE MEN , to name a couple. Its release as a Dark Sky title hints at the phrase "contractual obligation" and it might well have been a contractual obligation for Manley too, as it's hard to imagine it ever selling many American tickets on its own. That is not to say that it's not good or not interesting; on the contrary, I was drawn to this release right away, without quite knowing why.
As one quickly surmises from the DVD's sketchbooky cover art, WET ASPHALT is not really a noir film at all -- it isn't a crime picture, per se, nor is it particularly stylized; it doesn't feature hardboiled male characters nor femmes fatale. So why did it continue to beckon to me, long after I had set it aside for later viewing? True, it has some cast and crew members with minor cult appeal, but I believe what most intrigued me is that it reminded me of other unclassifiable works from the same era and area. This led me to the consideration that there may well be a worthwhile kind of European film, largely forgotten now, that has been overlooked precisely because they are not allied to genre. Of course, these films could be said to fall under the basic generic heading of drama or love story, but I would argue that they are a certain kind of drama and love story in need of their own distinctive term. After all, because movie thrillers already existed, that didn't prevent the giallo from being pinned and labelled as something distinct, right?
What do I know about these strange, disenfranchised movies? They are European -- primarily German, French, Swiss, Czech or Yugoslavian; they are movies that, though well-made, didn't have the artistic gunpowder or pretension to make an international mark as art films; they are also mainstream pictures that, in every way other than story, seem to scream genre. They are not really atmospheric but they have mood in spades; they are neorealistic in terms of their look and their frankness about controversial subjects, yet they are decidedly more artificial, more movie-like, than, say, Italian neorealist pictures. Furthermore, they seem to be commonly steeped in post-war feelings of guilt, self-reproach, and sin by association. They make me think of the Gene Pitney song "Town Without Pity" -- written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington for the movie of the same name, which was set in the West Germany of 1961. I'm determined to find a generic handle for these movies, because if they become known as belonging to a specific genre, they stand a better chance of surviving, being re-released, and being discussed. There may also be a few buried masterpieces among their kind.
When I was a kid, I occasionally saw trailers for films like WET ASPHALT at the drive-in, or at a neighborhood indoor theater that hosted kiddie matinees on weekends and catered to the "art film" market on weeknights. They always mystified me because there was an air of otherness about them that I knew ought to interest me, but they didn't promise the monsters and mayhem that would have encouraged me to seek them out. There was also a palpable sense that these movies were for adults. Consequently, my main memory of them is that I saw the trailers, but the movies themselves never materialized. Sometimes these trailers turn up on Something Weird Video compilations; they feature actors like Curt (or Curd) Jurgens, Maximillian Schell, or the star of this particular film, Horst Buchholz. Some years before he made WET ASPHALT, Buchholz starred in another German picture called Die Halbstarken (1956), which was released in America under the title TEENAGE WOLFPACK. I wish I could remember the name of the Something Weird compilation that featured its trailer -- watching this compilation was like dreaming while wide-awake, because the names of the actors were familiar but the films were so obscure they all seemed imaginary! The trailer for TEENAGE WOLFPACK stood out because it humorously "introduced" Buchholz as "Henry Bookholt" -- a new sensation of the screen. TEENAGE WOLFPACK (whose title may well have helped inspire the "True Confessional" title for I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF in 1957) looked like it would belong to the same obscure, disenfranchised pack of Eurodramas as WET ASPHALT.
In hindsight, I suppose these films must have appealed to two basic groups of Americans in the 1950s and early 1960s: 1) immigrants to whom the European settings and actors were familiar, and 2) curiosity seekers who detected in these trailers a whiff of the unknown, the forbidden, the un-American. In other words, somebody might get naked.
Anyone hoping for a glimpse of forbidden fruit in WET ASPHALT will be disappointed, as it is actually a study of a young journalist and the conflicts that arise from his moral code. Buchholz plays Greg Bachmann, a young reporter who was sent to prison for six years for impersonating a French officer to infiltrate Spandau Prison and gain exclusive interviews with the most notorious of surviving Nazi war criminals. Upon his release, he is approached by Cesar Boyd (Martin Held), Germany's one-man news industry, who respects what Greg tried to do and needs an assistant; he offers him top dollar for his services. Narration carries us four years further down the road of their association. Boyd has maintained his stellar reputation and Greg is delighted to be working with him. Distracted by the arrival of Boyd's pretty niece Bettina (Perschy), the two journalists forget their obligation to file a strong weekend story with the leading Paris newspaper by 8:00 on Friday night and need to come up with something fast. Desperate, with the help of his chauffeur Joe (Gert Fröbe in the earliest of his screen appearances I've seen), Boyd concocts a far-fetched story about a group of Nazi soldiers and their prisoners being found alive in a Polish bunker, where they have spent the last six years -- and presents it to Greg as factual. Greg calls it the greatest news item he's ever heard, and to Boyd's astonishment, the world agrees. The story captures the world's imagination and the demand for further details pushes him to invent further updates.
The location chosen for the bunker happens to coincide with a spot in Poland where secret rocket tests are being conducted by the Russian army, and the story excites unwelcome interest in the region, resulting in grave impact on other peoples' lives. The demand for additional news becomes so great, and so lucrative, that other unscrupulous professionals begin to heap their own facets of invention on Boyd's original lie, exciting the hopes of families who lost loved ones in the war that husbands and brothers and sons may be among the fictional survivors. One woman's excitement so overwhelms her that she suffers a fatal heart attack, and mobs eventually converge on Boyd's home, demanding the identities of the survivors be revealed. In time, Bachmann realizes that the story is a lie and he must make the difficult choice of either covering up the deception, or telling the truth and losing his career in the process. In either case, he suffers a rude awakening in regard to the journalist who had become his hero and role model. There is a romantic subplot, but it is fairly prudent apart from some allusions to Boyd's non-avuncular interest in his young niece.
Horst Buchholz and Maria Perschy both passed away fairly recently -- Bucholz in 2003 (pneumonia) and Perschy in 2004 (cancer). Neither of them lived to reach the age of 70, which makes it a bittersweet and sentimental pleasure to find them here looking so young and full of promise. Even Gert Fröbe looks fresher than usual; this was a couple of years before Fritz Lang cast him as Inspector Kraus in THE 1000 EYES OF DR. MABUSE [Die Tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse, 1960], thus setting his career on track toward the immortal role of Auric Goldfinger. The film is stolen, however, by Martin Wald as Cesar Boyd, a robust actor who wasn't destined to enjoy the same level of international recognition as his co-stars. The director of photography, Helmut Ashley, later became a director specializing in krimis -- notably the excellent Moerderspiel ("Murder Game," 1961) and the Edgar Wallace film Das Rätsel der roten Orchidee ("The Puzzle of the Red Orchid," 1962, starring Christopher Lee).
WET ASPHALT (the title refers to the aftermath of a street where the Police have turned firehoses on unlawful public assemblies) was directed by Frank Wisbar, an East Prussia-born director, best remembered for the classic dark fantasy Fährmann Maria (1936), who fled Nazi Germany and made a series of B-pictures at Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) -- including a notable remake of the aforementioned picture called STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP and THE DEVIL BAT'S DAUGHTER (both 1946). He returned to West Germany in the mid-1950s and added another eight titles to his filmography (most of which score high ratings on the IMDb) before his death in 1967. I would never have recognized WET ASPHALT as Wisbar's work in a million years. It's a good and interesting movie, with some commendable things to say about personal and professional responsibility, but not the buried Eurodrama masterpiece I alluded to earlier. ("Eurodrama" -- could it be that simple?)
Dark Sky's disc is correctly rendered in standard ratio and looks pretty good except for some early shots that evince some noise and shimmer as the camera casts a look down a cobblestone road. I wish the disc offered a German language option with English subtitles, to help one get closer to the performances; nevertheless, the quality of the dubbing is excellent. The voices and dialogue doesn't always fit the lip movements, but the voice actors give valid performances and the English track feels unusually wedded to the film.
If you're looking for something offbeat, an unusual evening's entertainment that gestures to a whole other world of filmmaking you're not likely to know much about, consider taking a midnight stroll down WET ASPHALT.
Here's hoping that Dark Sky unearths some more "Lost Noir"! There must be more where this came from.
Thursday, February 09, 2006
With his grim, churning yet magisterial score for Ishiro Honda's Gojira [US: GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS!] in 1954, Akira Ifukube opened the door to a highly individual orchestral sound that would define the so-called kaiju eiga ("monster movies") of Toho Studios for more than half a century. Ifukube would not score all of the Godzilla films produced during that time, but his spirit was always present and guiding in the works of his replacement composers, who knew all too well whose shoes they were being asked to fill. A Godzilla film would somehow be less than a Godzilla film if his appearances were not accompanied, at least once, by those musical passages familiar to all the series' followers -- the hulking main theme, the strident march accompanying scenes of mobilized military forces, and most of all, the music (proud, ascendant, yet rich in gravitas) that told us that Godzilla was, although bloodied, unbowed.
It is true that Maestro Ifukube was sometimes criticized for leaning too heavily on these standards he had set, but it is also important to note that he continued to add scores of conspicuous significance to his backlog throughout the entire length of his career. Though KING KONG VS. GODZILLA was largely rescored with library music for its US release, the original version Kingukongu tai Gojira (1962) features one of his most ravishing scores, one that was faithful to the urban/jungle orchestral fusions of Max Steiner's seminal KING KONG score, while further fusing it with the lyricism of melodies evocative of the Pacific islands. This score was paid the ultimate compliment of being included in original Japanese release prints in full stereo. One of the greatest glories of Ifukube's catalogue, the heartbreakingly plaintive "Song for Mothra" sung by Imi and Yûmi Ito ("The Peanuts") in GODZILLA VS. THE THING [Mosura tai Gojira, 1963], was showcased in a passage of unexpected poignancy in the midst of what its young audience assumed would be little more than a knock-down, drag-out monsterfest. It was Ifukube's role as composer to keep the series' juvenile aspects rooted in emotion, wisdom and soul -- he infused scenes of war with the awareness of loss.
Knowing his value to the series all too well, Toho acknowledged the 30th anniversary of the original film by producing a memorable home video exclusive in 1984: GODZILLA FANTASIA, a "greatest hits" compilation of series highlights accompanied by all-new stereo orchestrations conducted by Ifukube. In Japan, even in the laserdisc era, it was not uncommon for Ifukube's kaiju eiga to be released on disc with isolated music-and-effects channels. When Ifukube returned to the Godzilla series after a nearly 20 year absence in the 1990s, he added two more masterpieces to his canon with Gojira tai Mosura [GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA - THE BATTLE FOR EARTH, 1992] and his penultimate series score, Gojira tai Mekagojira [GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA II, 1993]. In addition to scoring these films, Ifukube was responsible for creating/recording the roars of the various Toho giants.
Of course, Ifukube was not just about Godzilla. In addition to being an accomplished classical composer and conductor, he used his vast knowledge of medieval and ethnic Japanese music and instrumentation to score the DAIMAJIN and ZATOICHI film series for Daiei Studios, and incorporated all manner of bizarre and modernistic instrumentation (saws, theramin, electric guitar, Hammond organ) when scoring some of Toho's most impressive science fiction films, such as Chikyu Boeigun [THE MYSTERIANS, 1957], Uchu daisenso [BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE (1959), and Kaitei gunkan [ATRAGON, 1965].
Akira Ifukube retired two years ago, on the eve of his 90th year, so his admirers are at least saved the grief of a career interrupted or cut short. We have all the music he planned to give us, and we can rest confident that it will survive us all. Which means that all we recognize of ourselves in Ifukube's music -- our sometimes primitive emotions, our will to survive and triumph, and not least of all, our responsiveness to beauty and tenderness -- will live on, too.
Photo: Godzilla presents Akira Ifukube with a tribute on the occasion of his retirement in 2004. (c) Toho Studios
Wednesday, February 08, 2006
At the time of Deke's passing, we were in the midst of a lengthy correspondence about, of all things, DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE GIRL BOMBS and AIP's early attempts to film a version of H. P. Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror" that would have starred Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee and been directed by Mario Bava. While awaiting Deke's reply to another set of questions, I happened to get online and go to the Classic Horror Film Boards, which was then a fairly obscure AOL folder, only to find Deke's name posted at the top of the "Gone But Not Forgotten" section. I felt it very personally.
Deke was a sweetheart and gave me tremendous quotes for the Bava book, and also loaned me his own leatherbound copy of the GIRL BOMBS screenplay (which I returned after xeroxing). The script was an amazing document of chaotic international co-production with several pages scribbled hurriedly in longhand. His revelations about the GIRL BOMBS filming is "must" reading, and you'll all finally get a crack at it sometime this summer.
It's interesting: all the time I was communicating with Deke, I had no idea that he was also running a website. So it was rather, shall we say, oltre tomba, to stumble across his old site and find it still active and soliciting questions from the curious. Particularly as I've had frequent experience of reading about the deaths of celebrities I already thought were dead. My memory of Deke's sudden death, and the sudden end it brought to our happy correspondence, was so specific in my memory that I would have to check myself into a funny farm if I used that e-mail address and actually got an answer back. Fortunately, the IMDb supports my recollection of events.
Deke, despite being always as sad-faced as Droopy Dog in pictures, was the very soul of humor and surely would have had a chuckle over this.