Monday, April 10, 2006
Fans of, shall we say, audacious rock music will be excited to learn about two new releases coming out later this week from Music Video Distributors and Sexy Intellectual. The first two DVDs in a new series called "Under Review," these feature length programs focus on two 1960s bands whose legacy was supremely influential on the cutting edge music of subsequent decades: Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground. They street on 4/15 and retail for $19.98 apiece.
Fans of these cult groups will find it almost wondrous to see their histories discussed so seriously and eloquently, not only by well-credentialed critics but by former members of the bands in question. VELVET UNDERGROUND: UNDER REVIEW (85 minutes) interviews VILLAGE VOICE music editor Robert Christgau; Clinton Heylin, author of essential books on punk rock, Bob Dylan, bootleg albums and Public Image Limited; Total Rock DJ, author and journalist, Malcolm Dome, and Luna mainman Dean Wareham, as well as Velvets members Maureen "Moe" Tucker and Doug Yule, and Andy Warhol Factory photographer/Velvets album cover designer Billy Name.
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: UNDER REVIEW (115 minutes) interviews Beefheart biographer Mike Barnes; author/critic Alan Clayson; UNCUT magazine contributing editor Nigel Williamson, and a vast assortment of Beefheart Magic Band alumni, including John "Drumbo" French, Mark "Rockette Morton" Boston, Jeff Moris Tepper, Elliott "Winged Eel Fingerling" Ingber, ira Ingber, Jerry Handley, Doug Moon, Gary Marker, Eric Drew Feldman and Gary Lucas. Both discs contain many clips of rare performances, archival interview footage, and are supplemented with interview outtakes and interactive quizzes. It's also great to hear the music of these bands remixed in stereo surround. I want a whole album of how "Ella Guru" sounds on the BEEFHEART DVD.
Both programs approach their subjects chronologically, single by single and album by album. As someone intimately acquainted with the discographies of both bands, I found it actually cathartic to watch these documentaries, to see the work of these often overlooked units so fulfillingly appreciated. Of course I have my own feelings about their recorded output, so I was somewhat disappointed that Beefheart's ultimate statement TROUT MASK REPLICA was not addressed with the same gravity as, say, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO on the corresponding release. (There is some disagreement among the Beefheart authorities assembled here, but LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY and CLEAR SPOT seem to vie for their #1 choice, with TROUT MASK being... well, singular. And for a double album, it IS pretty singular. I wish Matt Groening had been invited to balance the books.) My own favorite Velvets album is their third, self-titled album, which I feel is given its due her, but the VELVET UNDERGROUND program actually reminded me of the importance of the AND NICO album, their first, which was actually recorded in 1966 and not issued until 1967. It is not the better album, but it is unquestionably the more important group statement. Likewise, Beefheart's CLEAR SPOT track "Big Eyed Beans from Venus," his most beloved track by fans and arguably his best-realized studio performance, is rather surprisingly dismissed by Mike Barnes as popular on account of its accessibility. Accessibility doesn't explain why I am nearly moved to the point of tears every time I hear it; it has much more to do with the alchemy of its clean production and the sound of every member of the band mining dissonance until they tap an almost exorcismal sublimity and sweetness. Again, the Velvets disc excels in this area with its extended appreciation of "Venus in Furs" from THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO, which the critics identify -- to a man -- as the moment where that album becomes timeless and transcendent. To hear Robert Christgau, echoing Lester Bangs, cite this track as the moment "where modern music begins" is incredibly satisfying and insightful.
Watching these documentaries, one realizes that Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground had far more in common than their very different music makes apparent. Both groups were dominated by a single personality: Beefheart himself, Don Van Vliet (who abandoned music in 1981 to pursue a successful career in painting), and Lou Reed of The Velvets (who left the band in 1970 to pursue a still successful if increasingly literary solo career). Both groups had members in their early lineups who left after creative clashes with the "alpha male" -- John Cale in The Velvets, Ry Cooder in The Magic Band -- their departures radically changing the nature of the groups' music. Both groups were also "sponsored", in a sense, by iconographic art figures: Andy Warhol (VU) and Frank Zappa (CB). Furthermore, as the two figureheads of these bands have become more remote and inaccessible -- Van Vliet, reportedly suffering from multiple sclerosis, has not been photographed in decades, while Reed prefers to focus on his solo work -- the contributions of their fellow band members have been given the space to come into much stronger relief. It's refreshing to see the Velvets documentary pay so much respectful attention to Moe Tucker, founding member/guitarist Sterling Morrison, and especially Doug Yule, who replaced Cale in the band, which he joined in time to play on their third album. The first VU album is almost certainly their greatest and most important, and their second album WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT is just as grand in a darker way, but the greater balance of the group's classic core of material was written and recorded after Cale's departure. It was only after Yule's joining, and the loss of Cale's abrasive signature viola, that The Velvets became a classic rock-and-roll band.
An interesting result of Van Vliet's silence in recent years, and one about which I have very mixed feelings, is that much of his original projected persona has been revealed as, for lack of a better word, "show biz." His amazing voice, once self-described as encompassing six or more octaves, has since been professionally charted as somewhat narrower. His stories about never attending school and having never indulged in drugs have been proved various shades of hooey, and his former band members have portrayed him as a ruthless task master, almost a cult leader, not to mention a sometimes wrongful appropriator of song credit. And then there is the 1973-76 "Tragic Band" period when Beefheart turned his back on his muse to attempt more commercial music, only to discover that his watered-down brand of funk-pop attracted no new listeners and turned away those he already had. The stories presented on the BEEFHEART disc by his fellow band members are generally very respectful, sometimes acknowledging that Van Vliet was absolutely and unerringly aware of the impact his music would have over time. (John French recalls Van Vliet telling him, some 35 years ago, "Someday you'll hear a knock on your door and it will be someone who has travelled halfway around the world to record your recollections of what we are doing right now!") But the program pays rightful attention to the musical skills of Beefheart's associates, all of whom continue to do good work but clearly miss the "north star" visionary who led them in younger days to vistas previously unexplored in music. Some of them are working today in tribute bands to keep Beefheart's extraordinary blues-avant-art-swamp-rock fusion alive and available to fresh discovery.
These discs mark an impressive starting point for what I hope will be a successful, ongoing series. I'd love to see similar discs address the music of, say, King Crimson, Can, Nick Drake, Brian Eno, Laura Nyro, Amon Duul I and II -- and that's just for starters. Based on the choices shown here, I suspect the producers of these discs are thinking along much the same lines.
Postscript: Music Video Distributors and Sexy Intellectual have now announced the third and fourth releases in the "Under Review" series. June 6 will see the release on a profile of KATE BUSH, and following on June 27 will be THE SMITHS.
Saturday, April 08, 2006
Congratulations to VW contributor Kim Newman and his partner Stephen Jones are in order. Their softcover anthology HORROR: ANOTHER 100 BEST BOOKS survived the final cut of the preliminary ballot to be nominated this week in the Best Non-Fiction category of the Horror Writers Association's Bram Stoker Awards. The book's forerunner, HORROR: 100 BEST BOOKS, won this category in 1989 in a tie with HARLAN ELLISON'S WATCHING by Harlan Ellison.
I contributed to Steve and Kim's outstanding genre survey an essay about Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain's 1911 novel FANTOMAS. As Kim kindly notified me by e-mail, I can therefore "claim 1/100th of the nod." That's very kind... but for me, the real award was receiving the book and discovering that my first novel THROAT SPROCKETS had been chosen as one of the second 100 by Tananarive Due, a fellow novelist whose work I respect and whose enthusiasm I appreciate. It was an honor to be published in the company of so many talented colleagues, but to see my own work considered as part of a continuum that also included THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, ROSEMARY'S BABY and FROM HELL (to name a few) was one of the great thrills of my 30+ year career.
Here's hoping that Kim and Steve will be adding another Stoker to their trophy cases in the months ahead.
Friday, April 07, 2006
It's been a wonderful week here, celebrating Roger Corman's 80th birthday and seeing so many other, like-minded people attending the party and throwing parties of their own. Those who backtrack will notice that I announced the Blog-A-Thon the day after I posted a complaint about being too busy -- and yes, conceiving the Blog-A-Thon committed me to additional daily postings. But I met all my deadlines, the last of them being my SIGHT AND SOUND deadline early this morning. For my 37th "No Zone" column, I decided to stick with my current diet and review Retromedia Entertainment's THE ROGER CORMAN PUERTO RICO TRILOGY.
I won't pre-empt my column by going into a lot of detail here, but Retromedia has taken a fair amount of online heat for this release, which I found rather admirable. I know from talking to disc producer Fred Olen Ray that great pains were taken to digitally reframe LAST WOMAN ON EARTH shot-by-shot, because just slapping soft mattes over the picture (as was done theatrically in projection) tended to crop actors off at the eyes or forehead. Fred and partner Steve Latshaw also did wonderful things to digitally refresh the color and, I think, the movie (scripted by Robert Towne, who co-stars as "Edward Wain") is made stronger by all this restorative attention. LAST WOMAN is now more noticeable than ever as one of the most important works of Corman's first decade -- it can even be viewed as the second film in an apocalypse trilogy with DAY THE WORLD ENDED and GAS-S-S-S-S!.
I had never seen the Corman-produced BATTLE OF BLOOD ISLAND before, and had no idea that it was based on a novella by Philip Roth. Corman should start dropping Roth's name in his list of celebrity discoveries, as this movie was made a few years before Roth's first novel was published. It's an engrossing, compact little movie, effectively plain-spoken in its drama and direction (by Joel M. Rapp, whom the IMDb incorrectly declares dead since 1972). There's a live toucan in this film as a supporting player, and a dead toucan turns up in LAST WOMAN... I hope they weren't one and the same.
CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA looks worst of the three, but that just means it's a bit greyish with soft contrasts; I didn't find it nearly as bad as others seem to think, and it's certainly not the worst I've seen. Retromedia had to use an original element, without the added TV scenes, so their pickings must have been severely limited. (The TV clips included in the supplements look clearer, but had they used a TV print for all the footage, it might have disrupted the continuity of the music tracks.) I get a big kick out of this movie; it fails to deliver to the monster audience, and it's too beatnik-sophisticated for kids and straights, but as I say in my S&S column, it's probably the closest thing to a Thomas Pynchon novel ever committed to celluloid.
The audio commentaries (one by Joel Rapp, the other two by Betsy Jones-Moreland and Anthony Carbone) are all fun, interesting, and well-moderated by Ray and Latshaw. (I love Tony Carbone's story about how Corman made LAST WOMAN ON EARTH in color because he was offered an experimental color film stock for free!) The additional TV scenes, directed by Rapp and Monte Hellman, are presented separately and are more interesting and successful in this context. A bunch of Corman trailers are added as a bonus. None of the films are given anamorphic transfers, but they all zoom up on a widescreen fairly well. But the best thing about this set is that it gives us a new way of looking at these three extremely different films -- as a "trilogy" -- and it packages them in a manner that makes the story of how they were made as important as the features themselves.
An undeservedly controversial release. I recommend it.
Thursday, April 06, 2006
But seriously, folks... wow. According to our current count, Video WatchBlog had 31 fellow participants in yesterday's "Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon." When I first posted my own Corman Birthday blog -- at precisely 01:02:03 on 04/05/06, natch -- I was only able to list 4 other companions in my cause. I was a little worried that the short notice might have backfired. But you good people kept me adding new blog links to the page right up to the time I went to bed last night. When we were only up to 16, Green Cine Daily commented about the response to my Monday request, "You wouldn't believe the turn-out." But together, we managed to effectively double that number. I'm proud of us.
Furthermore, yesterday's celebration resulted in Video WatchBlog's highest daily attendance of the year, and possibly since its inception: 1,983 hits between 01:02:03 and the following Midnight. That's not even a full 24-hour period.
I'm especially delighted by the fact that, in visiting and reading the various blogs generated about Roger, that everyone seems to have instinctively gravitated to a different period of his work, or at least different films. Everything from ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS to MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH to HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD rated in-depth discussion. There was very little, if any, repetition -- and it was all very interesting and heartfelt, even though some of it was critical.
I haven't informed Roger of the Blog-A-Thon; it's my intention to print-off copies of everyone's blog and send them to him as a big package next week. But Joe Dante told me that he phoned Roger and "mentioned the explosion of affection on the blogosphere." When Joe surmised that bloggers were observing the day as a milestone, Roger cheerfully answered, "Well, it is a milestone... for me!"
I'm sure you all join me in wishing him many more.
Wednesday, April 05, 2006
ROGER CORMAN SWINGS (at 80)
Lyrics by Tim Lucas
(with apologies to Roger Miller)
Roger Corman swings like a pendulum do,
Vincent Price, Bruce Dern -- Shatner too!
Mobsters in Chicago, Richtofen and Brown,
Stock footage of a warehouse burning down.
Now, if you huff and puff and you finally shoot enough
You can make a whole movie in just two days, believe you me.
But here's a tip: before you take a trip, go up to Big Sur,
It's so pretty thur, oh...
Roger Corman swings like a pendulum do,
Dick Miller, Susan Cabot -- Dinocroc too!
See the Wild Angels go to Rock and Roll High,
Ray Milland rippin' out his X-ray eyes.
Now get your cameras ready, everybody go dutch,
Hang onto your wallet, we don't letting you spend too much
Add a social message, some boob shots, mind expenses
And no novocaine -- because it dulls the senses.
(OWWWWWW! Don't stop NOW!!!!!)
Roger Corman swings like a pendulum do,
They buried Babs alive and it's True! True! True!
Charles Dexter Ward and a sub-machine gun,
The rosy red cheeks of Angie Dickinson.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ROGER!_______________
I should have thought of this myself, but Dennis Cozzalio kindly used his blog to ask any bloggers complying with my "Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon" request to contact me with their URLs. I appreciate that gesture very much. I have no idea how many other bloggers might also be commemorating Roger's octogenarian phase, but if you are one of them -- or if you know of one or found one in your travels -- send me the information and I will gladly post a link here. In the meantime, here are the authors, names, and links of some blogs who have already confirmed with me their intention to participate. These guys knocked themselves out meeting this absurd deadline, so please give them the benefit of your attendance today:
1. Ray Young, Flickhead: http://flickhead.blogspot.com/
2. John McElwee, Greenbriar Picture Shows: http://greenbriarpictureshows.blogspot.com/
3. Dennis Cozzalio, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule: http://sergioleoneifr.blogspot.com/
4. Robert Cashill, Between Productions: http://robertcashill.blogspot.com/
5. Aaron Graham, More Than Meets the Mogwai: http://awcgfilmlog.blogspot.com/
6. Peter Nellhaus, Coffee Coffee and More Coffee: http://www.coffeecoffeeandmorecoffee.com
7. Dave Bohnert, filmZoneX: http://filmzonex.blogspot.com/
8. Marty McKee, Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot: http://pimannix.tripod.com/craneshot/
9. Lance Tooks, Lance Tooks' Journal: http://lancetooksjournal.blogspot.com/
10. Robert J. Lewis, Nadaland: http://nadalander.blogspot.com/2006/04/happy-80th-to-roger-corman.html
11. Steven Wintle, House of Irony: http://houseofirony.com/2006/04/05/roger-corman-is-everywhere/
12. Neil Sarver, The Bleeding Tree: http://bleeding-tree.blogspot.com/
13. Drew McWeeny, Moriarty's DVD Shelf: http://moriartylabs.typepad.com/moriartys_dvd_shelf/
14. Marty Langford, VertiBlog: http://martylangford.blogspot.com/
15. "Dr. Gangrene," Tales From the Lab: talesfromthelab.blogspot.com/
16. Karl Bauer, KGB Productions, Inc: http://kgbfilms.blogspot.com/
17. Brian O., Giant Monster Blog: http://giantmonsters.blogspot.com/
18. Christopher Stangl, The Exploding Kinetoscope: http://explodingkinetoscope.blogspot.com/
19. Jerry Lentz, Jerry Lentz Radio: http://www.jerrylentz.com/Beverlygray.mp3 (a radio interview with Roger Corman biographer, Beverly Gray)
20. Aleck Bennett, The Squeaky Reel: http://squeakyreel.blogspot.com/
21. Steve Monaco, Couch Pundit: http://blogs.citypages.com/amadzine/2006/04/happy_80th_birt.asp
22. Anonymous, Given to Hyperbole: http://giventohyperbole.blogspot.com/
23. El Thomazzo, Olhar Elétrico: http://eletriceye.blogspot.com/
24. Although not technically a blog, David Hudson's Green Cine Daily gave the "Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon" a very nice mention: http://daily.greencine.com/
25. Rod Barnett: http://blog.myspace.com/47619990
26. Mr. Ghoul: http://blog.myspace.com/mrghoul
27. Rhatfink: http://blog.myspace.com/rhatfink
28. Matt Zoller Seitz, The House Next Door: http://www.mattzollerseitz.blogspot.com/
29. Rod Barnett, Bloody Pit of Rod: http://pitofrod.blogspot.com/
30. Pete Roberts, Cult Clash: http://cultclash.iblogs.com/
31. Anonymous, That Little Round-Headed Boy: http://roundheadedboy.blogspot.com/2006/04/roger-corman-movie-poster.html
For those of you reading this entry after April 5, 2006, that's the date you'll need to look up to find the Corman Blog-A-Thon postings at each of the above addresses. Thanks to everyone who participated for making today's Blog-A-Thon a tremendous success!
"Look at it! It grows like a cold sore from the lip!" -- THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960)
Tuesday, April 04, 2006
And it won't happen again for another hundred years. (01:02:03 in the afternoon is technically 13:02:03.)
The following is a press release from Cataldi Public Relations that arrived in the WatchBlog's mailbox. I've altered the original text slightly to incorporate a few informative amendments and asides:
HDTV-owning horror fans will definitely want to mark their calendars (perhaps, in blood?) for Wednesday, April 5. Monsters HD, the 24-hour high-definition, all-monster movie channel from VOOM HD, will be marking the 80th birthday of the master of the low-budget flicks with a round-the-clock marathon of some of Corman’s classiest and kookiest celluloid. Monsters HD actually tackled all the remastering on this bevy of gore, 13 films in all including THE BRAIN EATERS, THE UNDEAD, THE SAGA OF THE VIKING WOMEN, DAY THE WORLD ENDED (in SuperScope!), HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (1980 and 1996 versions!), PIRANHA (Joe Dante's classic, even better-looking than it is on DVD), TALES OF TERROR, and TEENAGE CAVEMAN (with a young, but not exactly teenage Robert “Man from U.N.C.L.E” Vaughn). Monsters HD is one of 15 high-def channels available on VOOM HD to Dish Network subscribers nationwide. For more fun, check out the network’s website – www.monstershd.com
Monsters HD also seems to have booked HOUSE (1986) and HOUSE II: THE SECOND STORY (1987) as part of Roger's B-Day schedule. These were New World pictures and the IMDb says that Corman was an uncredited executive producer on them. Anyway, I've seen almost all of these pictures on Monsters HD at one time or another and can recommend all of these. THE SAGA OF THE VIKING WOMEN looks amazing, and not only when June Kenney is strutting around in her Old Norse miniskirt and go-go boots. It's far, far superior-looking than the Region 2 DVD.
And you bloggers, don't forget to join in the Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon tomorrow! I know this is short notice, but that's what's so Roger about it. Post an essay, a review, a tribute, a Top 10, a haiku, a fitful epigraph from the pages of Poe, a relevant still you've right-clicked off someone else's blog -- anything! Just do it and get it up on the screen. Don't worry about money. ("There is no money, Montresor. You haven't worked in seventeen years.") Monsters, social commentary, and breast nudity are all the currency you need. Now get clicking because we're opening on more than 500 screens Wednesday -- and I'm talking hardtops! Impressive, huh? And think of the points you'll score when you tell everybody you wrote your great Corman blog in a single day... or an hour... or less than five minutes. If you're reading this, you're already at your machine. You're already in the saddle, man. No hassles...
"We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! And we wanna get loaded! And we wanna have a good time! And that's what we are gonna do! We're gonna have a good time... We're gonna have a party!" -- THE WILD ANGELS (1966)
Monday, April 03, 2006
This Wednesday, April 5, Roger Corman will celebrate his 80th birthday. One of the strange customs I discovered upon entering the world of blogdom is that, occasionally, the International Brotherhood of Bloggers (if there is such a thing) will suggest that everybody blog on the same topic on a given day. For instance, Dennis Cozzalio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule is currently requesting that all bloggers participate in an Angie Dickinson "Blog-A-Thon" on April 19.
With this in mind... and, hey, I realize this is short notice... but I'd like to see a Roger Corman "Blog-A-Thon" this Wednesday. That gives you about as much time as Roger had to make THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. It doesn't have to be ambitious, just post a rough-and-ready blog in the true Corman spirit. It's the least we can all do for a man who has given us 50 years of entertainment... the man who infused exploitation with social commentary... the man who kept Vincent Price and Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre working when no one else would... the man who discovered everybody from Jack Nicholson to James Cameron to Jennifer Love Hewitt... the man who made Dick Miller a star... the man who sent Angie Dickinson the script for BIG BAD MAMA... the man, when all is said and done, who changed the face of Hollywood.
Every post I make here at Video WatchBlog this week is going to be on the subject of Roger William Corman. I feel it's the least I can do.
Anyway, fellow bloggers, there's the gauntlet. Consider it thrown down. I've got my eye on all of you. Don't make me pluck it out.
Sunday, April 02, 2006
I've also promised to deliver tomorrow some liner notes and graphics to Digitmovies for their upcoming Bava Anthology soundtrack CD of I VAMPIRI (Roman Vlad) and CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER (Roman Vlad and Roberto Nicolosi), which I think will be another two-disc set, and another two-disc set of Enzo Masetti's dazzling music for HERCULES and HERCULES UNCHAINED. I'm told we can all toss out those old vinyl and CD boots of the Masetti scores; Digitmovies has received original studio tapes from CAM that unearth at least 75 minutes of music per film!
In addition to all this, my next "No Zone" column for SIGHT AND SOUND is due next Friday... I have no idea what I'll be reviewing yet. It seems I don't have time to watch anything in the evenings, except that blessed half-hour of old WHAT'S MY LINE? reruns on Game Show Network at 3:30 a.m. eastern. That's our decompression time.
All of this work needs to be done and out of the way within the next two weeks, at which time it's back to work on the Bava book.
Fool that I am, with my plate already piled so high, I started working on a new screenplay last week. I had received some promising news from my screenwriting agent, and that encouraging word was enough to spark me in that direction. I've had the idea for this film for awhile now; it was just the vaguest outline, really, but once I started putting it "on paper" (so to speak), I found that my ideas were more developed than I realized; the characters sprang readily to life, themes were becoming pronounced, and I was able to knock out a pretty solid opening 10 pages in half a day. Just to sit down and produce some fiction made me feel like a complete human being for this first time this year. But this was the same sort of energy that propelled Charlie Largent and me through our initial draft of THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES (then called SUNSHINE BLVD.) in less than two weeks; I know how rare that level of energy and inspiration is and I have the greatest respect for it. It's the rush I live for, as a writer. I'd love to press on with this script, because it's best to get these ideas down while they are young and vital and flowing, but I don't know where I'm going to find the time.
But I will.
Thursday, March 30, 2006
And you thought Criterion just "put stuff out on disc"!
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
FAMOUS MONSTER MOVIE ART OF BASIL GOGOS
Compiled and edited by Kerry Gammill and J. David Spurlock
Vanguard Productions (390 Campus Drive, Somerset NJ 08873, firstname.lastname@example.org), 160 pages (softcover, hardcover), 176 pages (deluxe hardcover), $24.95 (sc), $34.95 (hc) or $59.95 (dx hc) plus $6.95 shipping
THIS BEAUTIFULLY DESIGNED art book by Kerry Gammill and J. David Spurlock is the first to pay tribute to Basil Gogos, the Michelangelo of the Macabre. The basic edition, available in soft and hardcover, collects more than 150 color illustrations from Gogos' 40+ year career in book and magazine illustration (many reproduced from the original art) and more than 50 in B&W, while a deluxe edition limited to 600 slipcased copies, signed by the artist, adds an additional 16 page portfolio in color. Some may quibble that the portfolio contains a repeated image from the main pages, but it is substantially enlarged, further enhancing one's appreciation of what went into it. According to publisher J. David Spurlock, the deluxe edition was an instant sell-out with retailers and is now available only from Vanguard,while supply lasts. Those able to afford (and find) the limited edition are advised to shoot for the moon.
Despite the specificity of its title, FAMOUS MONSTER MOVIE ART OF BASIL GOGOS devotes about 40 of its pages to Gogos' paperback, Western, and men's magazine art, some of which is quite good, but none of which strikes the profound chords of his monster portraiture. Paging through the monster cover portraits collected here, one is continually struck by their amazing powers of reference.
The HOUSE OF USHER painting that started it all on the cover of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND #9 is a classic case in point: in its coarse caulky outlines, bleachy tonalities, and uncanny flecks of irrational color, it seems to define in visual terms the relationship between Roderick Usher's (Vincent Price's) disintegrating mind and family hearth. One of Gogos' greatest works, his rendering of Fredric March's Mr. Hyde for the cover of FAMOUS MONSTERS #62, facets the distorted, bedraggled features of Dr. Jekyll's alter ego with so many daubs of fantasmagorical color (lavenders, lime greens, sunny yellows) that we can imagine how Rouben Mamoulian's B&W film might have looked under the painterly direction of Mario Bava.
There is something about the way Gogos paints the cold blue light striking the combed hair of Christopher Lee's Count Dracula (MONSTERSCENE #3) that summons the entire flavor of the experience that is HORROR OF DRACULA. Gogos' uncommonly impressionistic, almost sketchy painting of Ingrid Pitt for the cover of MONSTERSCENE #8 captures the vivacity of its subject in an unexpected cocktail of colors. It's so alive that one's impression of the painting is one of startling brightness, though the work itself is more than half-based in dark hues. When tackling a subject as seemingly soulless as the prehistoric GORGO (FAMOUS MONSTERS #11 and 50), Gogos somehow imbues the image with a sense of gigantism and primordial power that one would imagine beyond the province of a page dimension usually reserved for characters of human proportion. Even something as rudimentary as a charcoal sketch of Henry Hull in WERE-WOLF OF LONDON miraculously captures the whole truth of the actor's body language and threatens to leap snarling off the page.
There are also many, many instances in which Gogos' oils and acrylics provide his subjects with atmospheric settings far in excess of any they ever received onscreen. Jonathan Frid makes his greatest bid for immortality as Barnabas Collins not on the videotape of DARK SHADOWS or in its theatrical spin-off, but in the oils of Gogos on the cover of FAMOUS MONSTERS #59. One aches to see the Technicolor Wolf Man movie starring Lon Chaney sampled on p. 156. Looking at King Kong on p. 153, his face looming with godly majesty and ungodly delight, we experience the same awe and revulsion and terror we imagine Ann Darrow must have felt when lashed to those sacrificial posts on Skull Island. For dyed-in-the-wool monster fans, almost every page of this book offers that kind of rich, emotional experience.
Despite a blandish accompanying text that doesn't fully succeed in revealing the man behind the art or the reasons for his singular affinity for these subjects, FAMOUS MONSTER MOVIE ART OF BASIL GOGOS keeps its promise of collecting and paying tribute to Gogos' work superbly. It covers his diversity as an artist both reasonably and fairly, while accentuating the monster paintings where he found his most lasting success. The art reproductions alone are worth the cost of the book in any edition. A fair amount of digital restoration was likely involved in refreshing these works for print, and it is to the designers' credit that such work is absolutely invisible.
Of course, Gogos is still living his story and his growing legacy may well inspire other books in time. Future volumes on the subject may cut deeper, but they will need to go to superhuman lengths to be more beautiful or more loving than this one.
Note: A longer and more detailed draft of this review will appear in VIDEO WATCHDOG #125.
Monday, March 27, 2006
Unfortunately, another passing to report. Correspondent Darren Gross has written to inform me that writer-producer-director Dan Curtis -- the formidable producer best known for the groundbreaking Gothic soap opera DARK SHADOWS and its spin-off feature films, and also the ratings-shattering made-for-TV movie THE NIGHT STALKER -- died this morning at 6:15 a.m. PST of brain cancer, diagnosed only four months ago. His wife of 54 years, Norma, succumbed to heart failure only two weeks earlier.
Curtis also produced the memorable adaptation of THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE starring Jack Palance, a later adaptation of DRACULA (also starring Palance) that greatly influenced Francis Coppola's later film version, and the well-remembered feature BURNT OFFERING starring Bette Davis and Oliver Reed.
A man whose name was once as synonymous with American trends in horror as that of Stephen King, Curtis' death occurs only a few months after the November cancellation of an attempted NIGHT STALKER series revival on ABC (which lasted only two months) and one month after the death of original series star Darren McGavin. For some years, DARK SHADOWS scholar Darren Gross has been working with Dan Curtis Productions to recover and restore uncut elements of the two DS features, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS and NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS. We hope that work will continue.
Correspondent Samuel Bréan has written to notify me of the death of Spanish writer-director Eloy de la Iglesia (GLASS CEILING, CANNIBAL MAN, NO ONE HEARD THE SCREAM, CLOCKWORK TERROR) last Thursday, at the age of 66. (The IMDb lists an apparently erroneous birth year of 1944.) Here is a link to some Spanish language reports.
It's amazing the degree to which one can put the noses of strangers out of joint just by writing candidly about something personal that doesn't even concern them. For people who admitted they hadn't read VW in years, or only thumbed through it at Borders on occasion, these milling souls felt fully authorized to broadcast some rather fresh opinions about me. One of them, with only five or six postings on the entire site to his credit, had devoted more than half of them to taking me down a few pegs. (I just paused in my typing to see if anything else worth reporting had happened in the thread, and it appears the administrator has locked it because things were starting to turn nasty!)
Let's drink to being a so-called public figure.
To correct an unfortunately common misunderstanding, I'm not "bitter." I've been somewhat depressed of late, but not about this. As I clearly stated, I was disappointed that my articles were not acknowledged in the Criterion's pocket-sized history of MR. ARKADIN annotation. No more, no less. I think they deserved a mention. That thought was on my mind when it was time for me to write a blog, so the blog turned out to be about that. As I hope my friends at Criterion know, I'm very enthusiastic about the set and looking forward to watching it and reviewing it. (Of course, I won't be mentioning my lack of mention in my review; that would be impertinent, but I don't believe it was an unreasonable passing subject for a personal soapbox like this.) As I also mentioned, it's possible someone mentioned my articles in a commentary track or somewhere else on the disc. If not... oh, well. At least I know, and you know -- right?
Also, I may feel worn-out at times, but as Glenn Erickson and my wife will tell you, I am the polar opposite of "worn-down." In the last 30 days, I've probably written 30 reviews, columns, blogs and essays, as well as parts of a couple of articles still in-progress, not counting God knows how many e-mails and message board postings. I knocked off yesterday's Sterling Hayden blog, a biggie, before breakfast. Before coffee. Of course, I have no right to be proud of any of this, even though self-satisfaction is all that most of it pays.
One of the e-mails I received this weekend offered the following counsel: "I have not read your initial essay that ran in VIDEO WATCHDOG, but from how you describe it in your blog, it sounds like the type of piece that runs often in the mag, an essay that's more of a shopping list of differences than a text exploring the films themes and ideas. It seems sort of weird that you would want your article to be included or mentioned in the box set. What's the point? Watching the films, any viewer can see what's missing or been added compared to the others. Hardly sounds like an 'important' text... You seem to do this a lot, especially in the blog - blow your own horn, congratulating yourself. It's a little unnerving at times. Let us, your fans, do that. Sorry if this sounds like a mean note, it's just that I read the blog religiously, and that last entry just sounded so weirdly indignant, it left a bad taste in my mouth."
Hey, pass the Listerine. Twenty-two double-columned pages which annotated, in full detail for the first time, the minute differences between three distinct versions of a classic Orson Welles film, and it "hardly sounds like an 'important' text." Ladies and gentlemen... my fan.
In the hope of clearing up any and all remaining misunderstandings, the purpose of Friday's MR. ARKADIN blog was three-fold. I wanted to 1) help generate anticipatory interest in the Criterion set, which I count as a very exciting release; 2) to do what I could to re-stake my 14 year-old claim in ARKADIN matters (which, sorry, I consider an important personal achievement), and 3) to let people know that these Welles issues of VW were still available, because the release of the Criterion set makes them relevant and timely once again. Since Friday, we've sold more than a dozen sets of the magazines, so some people got the idea. Without the blog, they'd still be sitting in inventory... so it was a good idea.
Oh yes, about the "self-aggrandizing." The participants on this shall-be-nameless message board somehow overlooked the fact that everybody blows their own horn, from the guy who finds a quarter on the sidewalk to every television channel on the dial. True, some people hire publicists to make it appear that other people are talking them up, but I can't afford that phony luxury. I do, however, have the advantage of publishing a magazine -- and our Kennel page exists to further compensate our contributors (of whom I am one) with a little personal publicity about their outside activities. Even though VW doesn't cover fiction, per se, we donated full page ad space to my novel THE BOOK OF RENFIELD -- Lord knows Simon and Schuster didn't have an advertising budget for it. The ad featured some enthusiastic critical blurbs, which is obligatory. I also used VW to announce when the novel and my Roger Corman bio script were optioned. It's called sharing good news. I think friendly readers accept such things in that spirit.
Perhaps when one publishes a monthly magazine, one's byline and constantly updated list of activities begins to look like "me, me, me" to the surly, the teeth-grinding, and the unoccupied. But there's a big difference between saying "This is what I've done" and "Look how great I am." I don't think I qualify for greatness, but I do think I write my butt off. My work is the better part of me and, through discipline and diligence, it stacks up. I take a natural, parental pride in what I produce. I'd like my work ethic, the quality of my work, and the good notices paid to my efforts to pay off in better opportunities, and this desire occasionally leads me to the indignity of self-promotion. An indignity, by the way, not exactly alien to Pablo Picasso, Alfred Hitchcock, Norman Mailer, William Castle, Andy Warhol, Muhammad Ali, John and Yoko, David Bowie, or Forrest J Ackerman -- to name only a few of the thousands of shameless self-promoters beloved by history, and possibly by you. Not that I'm saying I'm in their same league, only that I'm entitled to the same rights as they. And I think I avail myself of those rights with relative restraint. What, me Morrissey?
Anyway, enough about me. "I couldn't agree more," some of you good people are likely murmuring. For those of you who don't care for the occasional toot of my horn, I recommend that you employ common sense and avoid those of my outlets which are "first person" by nature and design, like my blog and my VW editorial.
Like it or not, I'm the only "first person" I have.
Sunday, March 26, 2006
You may have read elsewhere online about the death of veteran director Richard Fleischer over the weekend, at age 89. The son of animation kingpin Max Fleischer, he was an adept genre specialist and consequently a woefully underrated filmmaker. He was responsible for such films as THE NARROW MARGIN, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, THE VIKINGS, COMPULSION, BARABBAS, FANTASTIC VOYAGE, THE BOSTON STRANGLER, SEE NO EVIL, 10 RILLINGTON PLACE, SOYLENT GREEN, CONAN THE DESTROYER and RED SONJA. Even this far-from-complete list constitutes an impressive body of work.
Also on Fleischer's resumé was AMITYVILLE 3-D -- his only horror picture -- the making of which is the subject of an excellent production article by filmmaker Paul Talbot in the current issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG, VW #124. Paul's article was built around an interview with Richard Fleischer that was possibly the last he ever granted.
Every magazine aspires to be timely, and this sort of timeliness is always double-edged, but VW is proud to be representing the work and thoughts of this filmmaker on newsstands as a subject of active interest at the time of his passing.
Thank you, Mr. Fleischer, for speaking with us -- and for your films, which will continue to thrill and entertain audiences for as long as there are movies.
Hayden is best remembered as the star of such films as JOHNNY GUITAR, TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN, THE KILLING, DR. STRANGELOVE (pictured above), THE GODFATHER and 1900. When he was a young and rising star at Paramount, their publicity mills called him "The Most Beautiful Man in the Movies" and "The Beautiful Blond Viking God" -- but when Sterling Hayden first arose in my consciousness, he was a different kind of beautiful. He was a formidable looking man in his 60s with an aura of the Old Testament, or maybe Captain Ahab; he stood 6' 5" and his craggy, wasted features were wreathed by a long, straggling mariner's beard that hung down over his chest like greyed seaweed. When he spoke, he seemed to be summoning his voice from the bottom of the sea, and in the years of his final illness (he died of lung cancer in 1986), he seemed to be dragging his life's breath up from just as deep.
Hayden got to me. I had seen him in the movies, of course, but he didn't really get under my skin until I first saw him for who he really was, in the first of a series of late night television interviews with Tom Snyder on NBC's TOMORROW, circa 1977. I was a habitual viewer of the show and would watch even if the guests didn't interest me; the unexpected often happened. During the first of Hayden's three TOMORROW show interviews, I seem to remember him not wanting to talk about old Hollywood, calling it "no way to live." This sort of mutiny didn't usually go over so well with Snyder, but in this case, the guest's preference to discuss real life matters led them to discover a wealth of interests in common. It was like watching two best friends meeting for the first time. The show particularly caught fire as they explored their mutual fascination with trains; Snyder spoke of his obsession with collecting Lionel model trains, then Hayden trumped him with the story of an actual railcar that he owned. A second guest had been announced, a promise hovering over the first half of the interview like an unwelcome intruder, but was happily bumped. When it was all over, I felt invigorated. It was 90 minutes of some of the best conversation I'd seen on television.
Some time after the broadcast, I happened to find a copy of Hayden's autobiography WANDERER at a downtown used bookstore. I eagerly snapped it up, looking forward to spending many hours in the company of this interesting character. Reading the book, I discovered that our early lives were somewhat alike, but that his disposition was far more rugged than mine. Hayden ran away from an unhappy home to sea at the age of 17 and rose in ranks as he sailed around the world, time and time again, finally becoming the skipper of his own ship. When he signed to Paramount as an actor in 1941, mostly to finance his aquatic life, he was promoted as a handsome, bare-chested, barefoot, nature boy -- a sort of prototypical Robert Mitchum. When he acted opposite THE 39 STEPS' Madeleine Carroll, the posters cried, "The two most gorgeous humans you've ever beheld - caressed by soft tropic winds - tossed by the tides of love!" Hayden and Carroll married after that film, but they were soon separated by his stint with the US Marines during World War II; they divorced in 1946.
As it did with many men, Hayden's wartime experience changed his life in unforeseen ways. As a wartime gun-runner, he formed many friendships with the people of Yugoslavia and became sympathetic to the form of Communism they embraced. He attended some meetings after returning home, which flagged him for the special attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Hayden was was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee for investigation and, to his everlasting shame, he cooperated -- naming names. Here his life, as he knew it, begins to disintegrate.
After giving his testimony, Hayden found it impossible to forgive himself, just as many of his colleagues in the film business found it impossible to forgive him. He sought escape from his inner demons at sea, throwing himself into sailing to the extent of becoming the skipper of his own tugboat, and occasionally amassing crews with whom he could sail out into the most challenging tests of the open sea. In order to maintain this increasingly essential lifestyle, he had to continue to work in films, which contradictorily inflated and ballyhooed a self-importance in which he no longer believed. He let his beard grow whenever he wasn't working in Hollywood, and he wrote of detesting the work because it obliged him to strip his beard away and come face-to-face once again with the mirror reflection -- the "rat" -- he held in such dread contempt.
After 1958, Hayden's film work became much more infrequent. The roles that wooed him back to the screen intermittently thereafter seem to share a common theme of corrupt power. It's there in DR. STRANGELOVE's Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper, in THE GODFATHER's Captain McCluskey (the last of his bare-faced roles, he started growing his beard back immediately once he wrapped), and even in silly one-day jobs like his walk-ons in Robert Fuest's THE FINAL PROGRAMME (as peacetime arms dealer Major Wrongway Lindbergh) and William Reichert's WINTER KILLS.
Hayden remarried several times (even the same woman a few times) and fathered families, but escape from himself -- escape into women, into the sea, into writing -- seems to have remained a priority. Then, in the 1960s, he discovered marijuana and began escaping into himself. He described it as a means of survival, of maintaining his inner peace, when landlocked. His co-workers have said that he would load his meerschauum pipe with it anywhere and everywhere, smoking it freely without regard to its illegality, and apparently had no problems with the law about it. He spoke about pot as if it were the great illumination of his life, and he was writing a book about the role it had come to play in his life at the time his final illness was diagnosed. Unfortunately, that second volume of autobiography never surfaced.
As a young writer, I was very taken with WANDERER, which had tremendous literary value for a Hollywood autobiography. It helped me to see that the greatest adventure upon which anyone can embark is the dark and by no means secure journey into themselves. It inspired me to write a poem I no longer have, called "Daddy Jim (Back in the Shadows)," Daddy Jim being Sterling's name for his stepfather. It's been so long since I've read the book, I no longer remember the precise nature of their relationship, but it resonated with me at the time. Magically, my reading of WANDERER and my writing of this poem happened to coincide with Tom Snyder announcing at the end of a TOMORROW broadcast that Sterling Hayden was going to be his only guest on the next night's program. Hayden was coming in to promote his new novel, VOYAGE. Another book!
I tuned in and watched, of course. Both men spoke at length about how viewers far and wide had complimented them on what a special program the first interview had been. (I believe, to this day, Snyder recalls Sterling Hayden as his favorite TOMORROW show guest.) The second interview was interesting, above-average conversation about life and films and literature, but not quite as captivating as the first. At the end of the show, there was a promo for the hotel that provided lodgings for TOMORROW's guests, and I resolved to take that information and try to get in touch with Sterling Hayden.
The next morning, I called the hotel switchboard in New York and, to my surprise, was put straight through. I think I woke the Haydens. Sterling's wife Catherine answered, and I could hear her whisper discouragingly to her sleepy husband that it was a TOMORROW show viewer calling. Then I heard the familiar voice roused in the background, booming cheerily, "No no no! I'll talk, let me talk to him, give it here -- HELLO!"
As I was introducing myself, Sterling interruped by exclaiming "'Tim Lucas' -- now there's a good, strong name!" A fateful exclamation. My father had died before I was born, and I grew up having no ties to my father's side of the family, so I never felt any particular attachment to my own name. At that time of my life, I was toying with the idea of changing my name, if only on my manuscript cover pages. But when Sterling Hayden -- my idea of a good, strong name -- responded so favorably to mine, I took the endorsement to heart and decided to stay Tim Lucas.
Our conversation lasted for no longer than five minutes, but, in that short time, I told Sterling how the first Snyder interview had inspired me to read WANDERER and how deeply it had impressed me. I told him about the poem I'd written in response to the book and that I would like to share it with him. He gave me an address in (I think) Hartford, Connecticut, where I sent the poem along with a chapbook I had written and self-published about Amelia Earhart -- which I thought might interest him, being about another kind of voyager. "You can write me there," he said in his King Neptune's voice, "and I will respond to you!" He thanked me warmly for reading him, and for tracking him down.
I never heard back from Sterling Hayden, but that wasn't the point. We made contact -- a contact I still look back upon happily and with privilege. I proceeded to buy and read VOYAGE in hardcover , which remains one of the most criminally, critically overlooked novels of the late 20th century. A proud accomplishment. He never wrote another.
When Sterling Hayden appeared on TOMORROW some years later, for the third and last time, he was clearly ill, a more diminished Biblical figure. He was dressed like a hippie, in a form-fitting T-shirt (possibly tie-dyed) and a headband, and he made horrendous deep-breathing noises as he fought to dredge oxygen from his lungs between drags of his chain-smoked cigarettes. He talked about the marijuana manifesto he was trying to write, and about the difficulty of writing. I thought about trying to approach him again through the mail, but time had passed since our previous contact, and I didn't.
And so, with these thoughts in mind -- Happy Birthday, Sterling Hayden. I would love to have the time to sit down and read your WANDERER and VOYAGE through once again; they're both big books, as befits their bigger-than-life author. It was such a strange way in which your life touched mine. Today, when I see you in DR. STRANGELOVE, your pupils dilating with terror at the prospect of your character's manifest destiny (and, legend has it, your inability to get through your lines), I marvel at the thought that this Mt. Rushmore figure of the cinema was the man to whom I spoke on the telephone, and who, with unexpected warmth and familiarity, gave me back my name.
PS: Another anniversary. Donna tells me that it was 23 years ago today that we turned our backs on apartment living and moved into "the old Minser place," which we proceeded to turn into the Video Doghouse. This old house, which was built 99 years ago, has been the base of all our good fortunes and we love it, though we're both perpetually distracted and don't care for it nearly as well as we should. I like the idea that Sterling Hayden's birthday is also House Day. We've lived here longer than we've lived anywhere else, together or apart, and be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.
Friday, March 24, 2006
In yesterday's mail, I received an advance review copy of a new DVD box set I have been eagerly awaiting: Criterion's THE COMPLETE MR. ARKADIN. As the author of two revelatory articles detailing the differences between various different versions of the film, I had hoped that my contribution to Orson Welles scholarship would be remembered on this occasion by Criterion -- especially since my articles could be said to have proposed a veritable floor map for this set, which includes three different versions of the feature, along with alternate scenes and outtakes from other versions.
But the accompanying booklet credits only an article by Jonathan Rosenbaum ("The Seven Arkadins," FILM COMMENT, January-February 1992) with having "explicated seven different texts and ur-texts" of MR. ARKADIN. Rosenbaum's seven included three different episodes of the radio series THE LIVES OF HARRY LIME, a 1953 screenplay draft titled MASQUERADE, and the MR. ARKADIN novel signed, but not truly written, by Welles. The radio shows and the novel are among the extras included with Criterion's lavish new set.
My articles "Will The Real MR. ARKADIN Please Stand Up?" (VIDEO WATCHDOG #10, pp. 42-59) and "MR. ARKADIN - The Research Continues" (VIDEO WATCHDOG #12, pp. 26-29) also appeared in 1992 -- the first in March, the second in July. Between them, they amass a total of 22 double-columned pages on the subject.
The first article painstakingly compared the version of MR. ARKADIN then extant on so many public domain video labels to the alternate version known as CONFIDENTIAL REPORT, which Criterion had just issued for the first time on laserdisc. It also included, possibly for the first time anywhere, photographic documentation of the alternate casting of Sophie in the Spanish version, where the role was played not by Katina Paxinou, but by Irène Lopez Herédia. My second article was prompted by a bargain bin discovery of a completely different, and more satisfying cut of the film, also under the MR. ARKADIN title, on the Corinth Video label. Collectively, these studies not only pointed out the points of variation between these versions, they explained that the ideal version of MR. ARKADIN could exist only in the viewer's collective experience of the three. (The most compelling facet of Criterion's definitive box set is a brand new "comprehensive" cut of MR. ARKADIN assembled from the other extant versions.)
I remember it coming as quite a shock, opening that issue of FILM COMMENT and seeing Jonathan's article, while my own initial ARKADIN piece was still at the printer. But our respective articles were actually quite complimentary; his article got the "scoop," so to speak, that the film existed in different versions, but my articles explained in great detail why they were different, how they differed from one another qualitatively, and they also told people where to find the alternate versions on video. The coincidence that we both happened to be mining this obscure ground at the same time was too striking to ignore, and I used my contacts at FILM COMMENT to get in touch with Jonathan, whose work as a critic and scholar I'd long admired. We spoke by phone several times. I told him about my article, sent it to him when it appeared, told him about the availability of the Corinth Video version once I discovered it (I also made him a copy), and arranged for him to receive my follow-up piece. (I'm interested to see that Jonathan, who wrote in his original liner notes to the Criterion laserdisc that "the superiority of CONFIDENTIAL REPORT... over the various public domain versions... really cannot be quarrelled with," now favors the Corinth version, as I did and do, in his essay for the Criterion DVD booklet.) Jonathan was very complimentary about my articles after receiving them, and kindly mentioned them on page 515 of his notes for the Peter Bogdanovich book THIS IS ORSON WELLES, which he edited.
Those two MR. ARKADIN articles of mine represented, for me, a major step outside my usual genre film perimeters into the arena of serious international cinema. They stretched me, and they also constituted a significant early stretch for VIDEO WATCHDOG. Having written what I believe remains the lengthiest, most detailed reportage extant (at least in English) on the minute differences between the variants of this film, and to have helped bring these differences to public attention in the first place, I regret that I wasn't approached to participate somehow in this Criterion set. But even moreso, I'm disappointed to find my thorough mapping of this terrain overlooked by the various international Welles scholars who contributed to Criterion's booklet.
Of course, Criterion's box set has only just arrived, and I'm in the midst of other duties. I haven't yet had a chance to watch its various cuts of the movie, or to delve into their audio commentaries, so it's possible my work is noted elsewhere. As a writer who feels a sense of personal investment in things Arkadian, I sincerely hope so; I would hate to be the little detail that makes THE COMPLETE MR. ARKADIN incomplete.
Incidentally, VIDEO WATCHDOG #s 10 and 12 are still available, though #10 is in very low supply. These can be ordered from the Back Issue department of our website (click on the VW link above) or by calling our offices toll-free at 1-800-275-8395. My ARKADIN articles may be 14 years old, but the release of this new Criterion set makes the ink on them seem fresh again, and their method of approaching Welles' baroque masterpiece seem absolutely prescient.
Thursday, March 23, 2006
While decompressing at different times of day, I've managed to pop up in a thread or three over at the Classic Horror Films Board and Mobius Home Video Forum. But whenever my thoughts have turned to this blog, my brain has felt like six inches of well-stacked cigar ash. At least there's not a SIGHT AND SOUND deadline this week!
Monday, March 20, 2006
I don't usually permit myself to watch television in the daytime, but my breakfast happened to coincide with the showing of REMEMBER LAST NIGHT?, so I watched it as it was being broadcast. It's the story of a group of rich-and-pretty folks, permanently tight in the giddy days following the repeal of prohibition, who awaken in a fancy mansion the morning after a gay (in the old sense of the world) party to find the host dead in his bed, shot through the heart. Everyone was so smashed the night before, they can't remember the party much less the murder, so the police (in the stout personage of Edward Arnold and a nutty sidekick) arrive to investigate... but the pieces must ultimately be put together by the likeable Robert Young and Constance Cummings, who manage to do so while out-drinking and out-wisecracking Nick and Nora Charles. Or trying to.
It's a cute movie, with some Cracker Jack prizes for the auteurists (Robert Young parading around in his wife's fluffy dressing gown, the idle rich being mocked by the snotty working class asides of the cops and even Arthur Treacher's snooty butler, dialogue references to Dracula's Daughter, The Black Cat and the Bride of Frankenstein, and a hypnotism gadget that is only slightly less spectacular than all the crackling Kenneth Strickfaden devices that brought corpses to life in Whale's Frankenstein pictures), and jaw-dropping sets by Charles D. Hall that make the actors look like ants running around through a limited edition book with Lynd Ward endpapers. There is an entire wall in one room made up of cubed glass, which looks as though it was actually left over from Edgar Ulmer's THE BLACK CAT, made the year before. The sets and the costumes actually dominate the film to such a degree that I found myself watching the backgrounds more than the foregrounds, and laughing especially hard when Young and Cummings exclaimed "What a beautiful room!" when they happened to find themselves in a dingy, ugly cellar lined wall-to-wall with untapped liquor bottles.
It's been awhile since TCM has shown some of these, and I'm grateful. Thanks to this morning's schedule, there are about five old Beta tapes in my attic that I can now throw out.
Sunday, March 19, 2006
On a related subject, Steno's Le avventure di Giacomo Casanova ("The Adventures of Giacomo Casanova," 1955) -- the first film photographed in color by Mario Bava -- was recently released on DVD in Italy by Ripley's Home Video, a label dedicated to resurrecting the Italian popular cinema of decades past. I don't know whether the disc has English subtitles (on the basis of previous Ripley releases, it's doubtful), but Casanova is a movie of incalculable importance to any study of Bava's developing aesthetics as a visual filmmaker -- and also a delightful entertainment.
It was Ursula Andress' screen debut (her hair's still dark, and she appears in the last scene of the movie as the last of many women to turn Casanova's head), but more importantly, it's a surprising film in terms of its sexual candor. There is absolutely no trace of the self-conscious, self-restricting neuroses that one would encounter in a similar film if made in the United States or Great Britain during the same period, and that's what's so refreshing about it. It treats sex as a normal human appetite, perhaps extraordinary in the case of Casanova (played by Gabriele Ferzetti -- "Mr. Choo-Choo" of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST), but his courage to pursue and quench his impulses makes him all the more likeable as a protagonist.
The film was a French-Italian co-production, and long before this once-thought-to-be-lost picture was rediscovered, it was surmised that the French version might have included some alternate scenes disclosing female nudity. The Italian version of the film I saw contained a brief instance of breast nudity, but in the time that has passed, another print was found (alas, a black-and-white print) which included some additional nude footage. This bold pageantry has been included on the DVD, I am told.
A copy is on its way to me, so I should be able to share more details once it arrives.
Thursday, March 16, 2006
Without knowing this anniversary was due to turn up, thoughts of Jerry have been occupying the back of my mind over the last few days, without me knowing why. On impulse, I've been reaching for my long-untouched copy of Shawn Levy's well-written biography KING OF COMEDY: THE LIFE AND ART OF JERRY LEWIS several times a day, randomly re-reading different parts -- and it rests horizontally across the tops of some other books on the highest of my shelves, so it's not the most easily reached book in my library. I recommend this clear-headed and responsible book; it paints a complex and divisibly endearing/highly unlikable portrait of the man, while revering the humanitarian and cutting the artist more of a break than he's often received in English.
The night before last, I went up into my attic to re-read a novel I needed to refresh my memory of, for an article I'm writing. I turned on the upstairs radio for some soft classical music accompaniment and -- cue TWILIGHT ZONE music -- found myself listening to "I Left My Heart at the (HONK HONK) Drive-In Movie," a riotous song performed by Jerry in his 1964 movie, THE PATSY. When I saw this movie for the first time a year or two ago, I laughed so hard at the scene of the recording of this song (with Jerry singing, and three Jerries in drag as the background singers), I momentarily thought I was going to die laughing. I had to reel myself back from the edge of hilarity like I was fighting the most vigorous marlin you can imagine. I'm scared to look at the scene again. Anyway, as the song ended, the disc jockey explained what it was and continued with an interview, already in progress, with Jerry Lewis himself... who was speaking from his hotel room, here in Cincinnati! He had apparently made an appearance here at the Aronoff Center which was a big success, and it was the first night of an extended stay.
Disc jockey: We just played "I Left My Heart at the Drive-In Movie" by Jerry Lewis, from his movie THE PATSY.
Jerry: I heard it.
Disc jockey: Jerry, that's a pretty wild song. Where did you ever find that?
Jerry: It's from THE SOUND OF MUSIC. I got it from Rodgers and Hammerstein. They had written it for that picture but it got cut out. I made them an offer, and I was delighted to have it...
(Dead silence from the disc jockey, who's actually bought this story.)
Jerry (loudly): It's a JOKE, you little cocker!
I didn't open the book I had intended to read for another 15 minutes. Instead, I sat in my attic listening to Jerry Lewis being interviewed. He was quick and caustic, suave one minute and cutting the next, and he spoke warmly about his many previous trips to Cincinnati. Once in 1942, again in 1948, and in 1950, when he and Dean Martin played the RKO Albee Theater, where my parents dated, and where I met the charming cashier I am still smooching to this day. "That was the last time I was here," Jerry said... but I knew darn well that he'd been here another time, when he starred in DAMN YANKEES, circa 1996. My sister-in-law had worked as a stagehand on that show, and she said that Jerry loved to go out onstage each night with a big laugh -- so he offered a nightly reward for anyone who could break him up the best. One night, as he stood in the wings awaiting his cue, she showed him a wind-up cow that convulsed, a toy belonging to my father-in-law. It convulsed the man who played Professor Julius Kelp, and he inscribed a gift photo for my father-in-law ("To Don -- Thanks for the Cow! Jerry Lewis") after the show. He treasured it.
That's the exact same photo, but without the inscription. (I told you the inscription; use your imagination -- it's good for you.)
Anyway, I sat there listening, figuring that Jerry must have starred in DAMN YANKEES in a dozen cities and just lost track of the fact that he'd been back in Cincinnati. Then I started thinking... if he was going to be in town for awhile, might I approach his people and request an interview? It's one of those things I think I'd love to do, but know I'd be afraid to do. I don't know if I could cut it, sitting in a room with Jerry Lewis, one-on-one. Could you? I mean, I like many of his movies, and love a few (like THE LADIES MAN, from which the two screen grabs in today's blog were derived) ... Would I still love them after meeting him?
It's hard to tell. I once saw Jerry Lewis profiled in one of those HOLLYWOOD AFTER DARK programs that used to run on AMC (back in the days when I watched AMC, when it was watchable). He was maybe 40 at the time and holed up in his office with some brand spanking new editing equipment. He spoke with fresh enthusiasm about filmmaking and new technology, and he seemed like a fascinating, open guy with whom I had much in common. Him I would have loved to meet, especially in that milieu. The 46 year-old Jerry Lewis who is interviewed on Disc 2 of the new DICK CAVETT SHOW: COMIC LEGENDS box set is a bit more cutting, not quite as mellow, but still approachable -- not as formidable and forbidding as the critical, lecturing, hectoring Buddy Love I've occasionally glimpsed on television, who makes a chilling surprise appearance in the final chapter of Levy's book.
As I continued to fantasize and fret about this suddenly possible meeting, reprieve abruptly came when it became clear that I was actually listening to an archival interview recorded a decade or so ago, back when Jerry was in town doing DAMN YANKEES. Whew, that was close.... but not really. It was a long time ago, actually; longer ago than it seems. Jerry had not yet gotten ill and swollen with Cushing's Syndrome, and my father-in-law was still alive.
I've never met Jerry Lewis. Maybe I never will, but that's alright. That way, he can always be the Jerry Lewis I want him to be, and the Jerry Lewis he wants himself to be, which is the Jerry he presents through his art. If you think about it, we've all met Jerry whenever we've seen his movies and read his books, and he's met us (well, don't let me speak for you: he's met me) in a way whenever he's heard audiences laugh and applaud. He is the most naturally talented clown of his generation, an inspired and visionary filmmaker who also happened to be possibly the greatest visual joke-teller of the sound era, the maker of some of the most psychologically rich and confrontational comedies ever, and also a soulful fantasist capable of dreaming up sweet little moments like his encounters with the puppets in THE ERRAND BOY -- and selling them onscreen, too. He's made some crap, but what? You and I haven't? I put him on the cover of the 100th issue of my magazine, which is no meager love letter, let me tell you.
So let me wrap this up by simply saying, "Happy birthday, Jerry, you schweet, schweet schweety-face." And, if you ever read this... don't hit!
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Was birthed into this world one Stephen Bissette.
His four limbs they thrashed, his wee lungs did wail,
And when his eyes opened, all the nurses turned pale.
He spat up warm milk, wanted none of that caper,
Instead he demanded fresh crayons and paper.
Soon all the white walls in the maternity ward
Were covered in comics, obscene and untoward.
As a lad, he watched movies by the hundreds and thousands
He'd stay up past twelve for the Ray Harryhausens.
At school, his poor teachers were hostile and frantic;
They knew not what he drew -- just that it was Satanic.
His Mom and Dad fretted till blue in their faces
They threw out his ECs, but worse books took their places.
They tossed out the lot, horror comics their quarry,
Vowed young Stephen:
"Someday I'll write their history and THEN you'll be sorry!"
And so came the day, like the cat from the kitten,
That about his own comics histories were written.
There are books in the world that encompass Steve's art;
His Tyrant, Taboo, and his Tell-Tale Fart.
But today is the day that I'm rhyming about
When, all moist and gibbering, pink Stephen crept out.
So let us light all the candles and dim the lights too
And tell that big cake of his...
"We Are Going to Eat You!"
Monday, March 13, 2006
From Darren Gross:
I must say, I've just gone through all those questions myself and do regularly, as I just moved to a new apartment and the amount of stuff accumulated (mostly DVDs, VHS off-air tapes, film magazines, etc.) in 10+ years was impossible to fathom, and after 4 days of lugging back-breakingly heavy boxes across town, the idea of throwing them all in the dumpster and starting new was intoxicating and very tempting. It felt like each box, each magazine was a brick with which I was walling myself in...."I've had this tape for over 10 years and haven't watched it? So why is is here?" Once I watch some of these saved tapes they're going right in the trash. I don't want all this junk any more. Its a distraction from my daily enjoyments and kills spontaneity.
Conversely, I've always pondered the questions (especially since I spent years working in video stores until 2000, and my partner has worked at video and bookstores through to this day) is "Why do I want to turn my home into a video store or a book store? I hated being at work at those places, so why amI replicating that environment at home."
I have to feel part of it is the price and marketability of DVD. It's created a compulsion that CDs couldn't even touch, and I would like to free myself from it.
From Wayne Schmidt:
I really enjoyed this column. It's relevant to where I'm at . . . . after much initial anguish I've been selling off titles (admittedly only a few at a time) on Amazon and other places where I won't take a bath (unlike trading them in at record stores).
My epiphany came when I moved from Los Angeles to Portland. You can't get away with the sloppy packing techniques used in moving inner city; everything has to be expertly boxed and cataloged. I'm a native Angelino and had never been through this traumatic experience before (and boy, was it ever). I now peruse my reconstituted vault which takes up one walk-in closet, making note of titles I hauled with me that are still shrinkwrapped after a number of years, titles that were "blind bought" that I didn't care for and most likely will never watch again, and the most difficult kind that you pegged perfectly with the example of CITIZEN KANE: acknowledged classics and great films that, alas, I've seen so many times probably won't revisit until Blu-ray or the next innovation on the technology ladder comes along. So why own it now?
From a collection of 800 store-boughts (not including DVD-Rs - they're cheap and don't take up much room) I could probably lose a quarter of that number and never seriously miss them. There are so many intriguing films I've never seen that revisiting these titles again seems regressive.
One of my closest friends is Glenn Erickson, whom you know. With the website reviews Glenn receives a lot of free DVDs and has a substantial library. When I lived a few miles away I'd avail myself of his "lending library" and found that quite satisfying, especially for fringe titles I wanted to see again from childhood but couldn't really remember their overall merits. Most of the time I saw no reason to buy a copy for myself after watching them. These days I use Netflix as a substitute and again, it quells the "must buy" urge quite nicely most of the time.
I've gone the "film print / VHS / Laserdisc/DVD" route, making huge investments in each. I never had any childhood traumas I could trace the collecting bug back to as you have. Lack of spending cash which forced me to pass on many mouth watering goodies is as close as it gets. But since the inception of your VW column-turned-magazine I do have you, Mr. Lucas, to blame for much of it! If you mentioned a rare or uncut variant of some title that sounded intriguing, off I'd go in search of the latest Holy grail. Many of those are the ones that won't get the chop as I prune the vault. Even so, it comforts me to know that Mr. Watchdog reflects on this obsession now and then!
I was the individual who put the announcement on DVD Maniacs about the Sony sale at DDD, but so far haven't actually ordered anything myself. Does that make me a reformed addict, now a pusher?
From Adrian Horrocks:
You hit the proverbial nail. And Disney doesn't help - deleting titles so quick it makes me paranoid. Have you seen the price of THE LITTLE MERMAID on eBay?? And film censorship here in the UK meant we spent years grabbing stuff before it was withdrawn, recut etc.
From Eric Yarber (who I think hits the proverbial nail with his closing sentence):
God knows both of us could probably use a 12-step program (DVDA?) when it comes to those maddeningly multiplying discs, but I think you should know that the very fact you're writing about the subject is probably a sign you're going to find a balance on the matter eventually.
One thing that affected my conditioning was that I was in the first wave of DVD buyers. I had just gotten my first job in Hollywood, and [a friend] tipped me off months in advance that this new format was going to wipe out all others. Once the discs began to trickle into stores, it seemed easy enough to keep up with everything as it was released. Sometimes I'd even pick up stuff I wasn't that keen on just to keep the momentum up. It wasn't long before such omnipresence became impossible, but the idea of keeping on top of the entire format was fixed by then. For me, ironically, it was the horrifying prospect of having to buy everything all over again in a new format that made me begin to taper off and begin wondering what I needed as opposed to what I wanted.
There's also some relief in the time you find to finally get around to those discs you bought out of mild interest and never cracked open, (not to mention all the unread books and albums I grabbed while the getting was good). There's an aspect of compulsive collecting that I think of as the "rainy day" notion, the idea that you're salting entertainment around in case you're not able to afford or find such things later. A lot of the "new" stuff that's fascinating me the most these days are discs I've had on my "to-watch" pile indefintiely. It feels like cashing in a time account that has grown to an impressive amount.
I still buy new stuff here and there, but in going over my receipts for tax purposes this weekend, I'm astonished on how much I used to spend only a year ago, and how diffuse my purchasing was. Maybe it's just a sense of beginning to realize how limited our time is in life, and how trying to hang on to everything for unlimited viewing may be a denial of that reality.
Further response is welcome, of course -- I know that some of you are just seeing yesterday's blog today.
By the way, there's a postscript to my Deep Discount DVD Sale misadventure of yesterday. I logged on this morning to find an e-mail from DDD awaiting me, saying that my orders hadn't gone through because of some CC information I'd typed in that didn't jibe. I went into my account information and found the typo that stopped the orders. I hesitated, looking over the 27 (!) titles I had ordered. ("But six of them were free!" a whiny inner voice protests.) This was exactly the opportunity my blog had been begging for, was it not? A chance to reconsider my purchase!
So reconsider I did, long and hard...
They should all be here within 5-10 days.
Sunday, March 12, 2006
Besides acknowledging in the back of my mind that I'm essentially paying through the nose (even at sale prices) for titles that weren't done definitively the first time around, I found myself wondering, "What am I buying all this for?" I'm already well over my head as regards things to watch, even in things that need to be watched within the next few weeks. So why do I spend so much money on titles that I know will be put into bankers' boxes to sit around unwatched for an indefinite period?
The title of a documentary about Martin Scorsese once asked the question, "All this filming -- is it healthy?" Maybe not, but at least filming is an activity and a potentially lucrative one. Certainly a lucrative one for Mr. Scorsese. So let me top that question with a more pertinent one: All this watching -- is it healthy? Unless you do your watching on a treadmill, or unless you already spend most of your waking hours on a real or figurative treadmill, probably not.
But what I'm really pondering here is not so much the watching (because who watches everything they buy on DVD?), but rather the compulsive collecting aspect. I have a lot of DVDs, and probably you do, too. And few of us have our collections because we work so hard that we have a loads of leisure time coming to us. I have a valid reason to be acquiring all these titles, because it's the business I'm in; as a video magazine publisher/editor, it's good to have an archive... but I know in my heart of hearts that's not what it's all about.
When I was six or seven years old, my mother married a man who, a week or two into their short-lived marriage, sold every toy and comic book I owned in a yard sale and used the money to get drunk. When I was sixteen years old, I made the decision to leave home and, for various reasons, I could take with me only what I could carry. Aside from clothes and other essentials I could fit into two suitcases, I had to leave all my belongings behind -- my FAMOUS MONSTERS collection, my movie posters, and some complete runs of numerous Marvel Comics titles, not to mention family photos. So, twice in my early life, I suffered the loss of everything I ever owned. Once it was taken from me, the other time I had to marshal the strength to walk away from it all voluntarily. I don't need a psychiatrist to tell me that therein lies a good deal of my compulsion to have and to hoard from this day forward.
I suspect that all of us who are compulsive DVD collectors are working through feelings we grew up with, and not necessarily ones allied to personal circumstances such as I've described. For example, there's this persistent worry that we need to grab these movies while they're available, because who knows when (or if) they'll turn up again? That worry goes all the way back to the 1950s for some of us. To a degree, it remains a reasonable argument because there are many foreign titles, for example, that turn up once on DVD and seldom if ever appear on cable and never on commercial television. Having them is a way of ensuring that these titles will be available when we, or someone close to us, needs to see them again. But considering that, say, CITIZEN KANE is now frequently shown on TCM and other stations completely uncut and commercial-free, that it's easily found on disc in video stores for rental, why do so many of us need to own it? If you stop to think about it, the only valid answer to this question is that, someday, at some ungodly late hour of the night or early hour of the morning, we might feel the need to see CITIZEN KANE right now. I guess that's the impulse that all DVD collecting boils down to: we want these titles in reserve for the time that might come when we'll need to see them right now.
And the sad truth is, no matter how many times we buy it, none of us really owns CITIZEN KANE -- or anything else we have on DVD. We'll all be buying it again on Blu-Ray, and whatever other newfangled format(s) should follow in our lifetimes. Because, no matter how many times we've bought CITIZEN KANE, technology will be forever dreaming up new ways in which we've never seen it.
Hey gang, it gets even more pathetic. If a miraculous new service were offered to all cable subscribers tomorrow, allowing us to watch any movie (and I mean any movie, in any language, in its correct OAR) by request for a reasonable fee, and if this service was secure and guaranteed to remain available for the rest of our lives, how many of us could bear to part with our collections? In fact, let's up the ante: since this is just a daydream, what if the service was free for the asking? How many of us could bear to "have" only what we could watch at a given time?
This, I think, is a profound question. Because the root of DVD addiction is that, through the act of regularly buying these discs, we have trained ourselves (or been trained) to feel that we must own everything we watch. If we don't own it as we watch it, we feel resentful -- don't we? -- as though we're not getting our full money's worth. I believe this is one of many reasons why theater attendance is falling off, and perhaps the only psychological one. Is there a soul alive that doesn't run a tape or burn a disc while watching the latest offering on Pay Per View?
I'm the last guy who would willingly surrender his DVD collection, but as I continue along this strange path of acquisitiveness in life, I do sometimes think of what's in my attic, still in shrink-wrap, and calculate how many trips to Europe, how many adventures, I might have had instead.
I've seen CITIZEN KANE at least 20 times.
I've never been to Europe.