Tuesday, April 18, 2006
I didn't recognize any of the new version's panelists, or the host. I don't know what's most depressing -- that one of the secrets whispered into the host's ear was "I Can Break Pencils... In My Butt Cheeks"... that the panel actually guessed it... or that the home viewer had to be treated to an end credits demonstration of this noteworthy ability. Actually, I know which is most depressing, but the ramifications of the other two are perhaps more sobering.
The original show is no holy relic (Garry Moore always strikes me as brash and rude, unable to host the show without a cigarette in his hand and blowing smoke even in the faces of child guests) and its "secrets" are usually no more than lame pretexts to half-baked entertainment, but sweet Jesus, how far we have fallen.
Monday, April 17, 2006
I take a similarly "zen" approach to reviewing: I approach the task without consciousness or deliberation. I know the process is different for everyone; Richard Harland Smith once told me that he watches each film he reviews at least twice, and Pauline Kael notoriously boasted that she never saw any film more than once. I suppose I fall somewhere between those two disciplines, because I seldom watch anything more than once while I am in the process of reviewing it, though I will later watch those films I like as many times as curiosity and pleasure dictate.
When I was a staff reviewer for CINEFANTASTIQUE in the 1970s, publisher-editor Fred Clarke supplied me with a regular stack of pre-printed, postage-paid index cards, which I was to fill out and mail back after seeing new movies. These were formatted so I could jot down the name of a film, its director and distributor, running time, and a few sentences of critical comment. As a young writer, these cards were very helpful to me. They taught me how to compose my thoughts as I was watching something, and how to be certain of them -- because once I had written something down in marker, there was no erasing it... and crossing it out would limit my available space to file my report. Fred probably never thought of these cards as an educational tool for his staff, but speaking only for myself, I found they sharpened and organized my thinking.
I occasionally saw other reviewers in screening rooms jotting down notes in the dark, so I also adopted this habit in my early days, but I wouldn't fully embrace it till much later. If I was responding favorably or warmly to a picture, annotating the experience tore me away from it; I might miss something good, some important incidental, if I was trying to see what I was scribbling in the dark. And if I wasn't responding favorably or warmly to something, the scribbling became about itself; I became much more interested in creating a witty retort to something I hated, rather than giving it a fair chance to win me back. But, in the days before films were available to reviewers on tape or disc, those notes in the dark were critics' best guarantee of accuracy if they wanted to quote dialogue or venture comment on a cutting strategy.
Nowadays, much moreso than before, the process begins with notes. I keep a packet of unlined index cards on a small table next to my viewing spot, and I jot down thoughts that occur to me throughout my screenings. Sometimes I will stop the disc as I write, but usually not; it depends on the ambition of the thought. My note cards don't show complete or finished sentences. I use them to refresh my memory about important plot points, character names, dialogue, trivia. I try to review the films I annotate promptly, but it's not always possible. Consequently, there's usually a stack of unprocessed note cards resting in the recess just behind my computer keyboard. For example, here -- chosen at random -- are some (slightly dusty) notes written while screening GINGER (1971), that will eventually germinate into a "Things From the Attic" review... or not:
GINGER 100m 26s
Derio Oldsmobile 23 college "straight B average" cheerleader from Hampton NY parents killed plane crash 1 brother extensive travel Brighton NJ resort popu. multiplies 10 x 3 months of year Rex Halsey "people on vacation want what they can't get at home" boss hands her envelope "We call it 'The Halsey Report' - no pun intended" $50 grand to crack case Bondian vocabulary: "dossier," "attaché" handcuffs gun bullets tape recorder camera infra-red film "anything you don't know how to use, learn" etc...
I have no idea how useful this excerpt may be, but it offers the literal answer to the question posed on the title line. If you know the film, my notes should at least give you an index as to which details in the passing parade I'm inclined to pounce on. For instance, the Derio Oldsmobile notation seemed important to me because the producer of the "Ginger" films was named Ralph Desiderio, and seeing this reminded me of a BILLBOARD article I read in the early 1970s, which mentioned that the seed money for this series originated from a New Jersey car dealership. I may not use any of the information I write on these cards, but they bring back the experience of the movie, or at least my experience of the movie -- that time.
While the goal of these note cards is to make some of the more elusive details of a viewing more concrete, the most important aspect of the work is by definition intangible. I find it's essential that I review a film while my experience of it is still reasonably fresh in my senses. This GINGER card depresses me because, as I say, it's been sitting around awhile; when I finally clear the time and have the desire to review it, it may be necessary for me to watch it again, or at least a bit of it, to help me absorb some of its particular atmosphere and energy (or torpor, as the case may be). Yes -- if I wait too long, my note cards become impenetrable even to me.
Here's another note card, dating from the last time I watched the Universal B-picture HOUSE OF HORRORS (1946). I think VW has already reviewed the VHS release of this movie, which is all the release it's ever had on video, so there was no intention to review it again... but the card reflects that the movie was written by someone far more intelligent and world-weary and professional than what they had been hired to write. I jotted down three lines of dialogue with which I felt a particular shade of simpatia:
"Rush, rush, rush -- that's all you get around here."
"The hungry maw of the cinema is always ready to devour new beauty."
"I have to dig up material for a Sunday column... and I haven't the slightest idea where I'm going to find it!"
These were clearly preserved as candidates for VW's Table of Contents page epigram -- where we present relevant quotations pertaining to art, the fantastic, the creative process, or wherever Donna and I feel ourselves to be at that particular moment in time. The last quote particularly reminds me of the "NoZone" column I write for SIGHT AND SOUND, which, until recently, had a Monday morning deadline that always kept me working on Sundays. My schedule being what it is, I tend to decide what I'll be reviewing for S&S one day before the piece needs to be turned in (which is now the first Friday of every month), writing through the night and turning in the finished piece a few hours before the S&S editors reach their desks on the morning of the deadline. It's my experience that necessity is the mother of invention, and that deadlines are probably its father. Things get done when they have to get done and, as the old saying goes, if you want to get something done, ask a busy person.
The present tense of my work looks forward, not back. People are surprised when I tell them I have only partial recollection of all the films I've reviewed for VIDEO WATCHDOG over the years, but it's absolutely true. A friend once sent me a trade list of DVD-Rs and I asked him to send me a certain title, which I'd heard was interesting; he wrote back, in effect, "Well, you seemed to think so when you reviewed it in VW issue-whatever." I had no recollection of ever seeing the film, and when I went back to my review to recharge my memory, not only did my review not remind me of the film I had seen, I couldn't remember writing the review. (At the moment, I must admit to a shiver of worry because I can sense that I have written about this anecdote once before... but I can't remember if it was for this blog, or in a past editorial, or in private correspondence, so please forgive me if I've repeated myself. If your life becomes a roman fleuve, you run the risk of drowning -- and I stock more than one river.)
Charlie Largent cleverly summarized this phenomenon as "the Mashed Potato factor." He says I've seen and reviewed so many movies, over such a long period, they must repose in my head like a lot of mashed potatoes, and trying to pick out one movie in memory from all the others must be like trying to distinguish one plate of mashed potatoes I've eaten from another. It's actually a very apt simile. It's not to say that everything I've seen has been equal; it has more to do with what these movies become, once they have been chewed and discarded only once. Just as we hold important events or moments in memory by reflecting on them again and again, either as memories or with the aid of photographs and home movies, I think important movies demand to be re-experienced. I imagine Pauline Kael carried around a lot of mashed potatoes.
Donna, John and I finished VIDEO WATCHDOG #125 over the weekend, with Donna and I passing over what must have been a nice Easter Sunday with her family to stay at home and get the work done that much sooner. All the details, including previews of Charlie Largent's cover art and four interior pages, can now be found on the "Coming Soon" page of our website. Today we start prepping VW #126, for which all the text is written... except for my editorial and my "DVD Spotlight" review of Peter Jackson's KING KONG. I have no idea how I'm going to do it, but I know that both will be in hand within the next couple of days. After all, a couple of hours ago, this essay you're reading didn't exist. Not even the title. Just the need for a Monday blog.
So, how do you review movies? As another Lucas might say, by doing it until the Force is with you.
Now where's that card?
KING KONG 187:05
opens w/ apes zoo, images of captivity Depression Jolson "Sittin' Top of World" no green anywhere The Lyric Vaudeville Revue all of Ann's backstory looped into uncle's mouth offscreen - written in post? CHANG insert framed outside screening room etc.
Thursday, April 13, 2006
Why did none of us remember that today marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Beckett? Doesn't that make you feel a little ashamed, as one of the surviving torch-bearers for what we laughingly call civilization, to have missed commemorating such an occasion? It does me.
Let's boil this stew down to its basest aroma. It's because of Sam Beckett that the phrase "Waiting for Godot" has entered the popular lexicon, as a way of referring to anticipating something that isn't going to happen, a hope that isn't going to be fulfilled, a prayer that won't be answered -- much like "Catch-22" refers to things that can't happen because their very possibility is inextricable from their unlikelihood. The phrase is known and understood by multitudes for whom the play itself would be well above and beyond comprehension.
On a personal note, the name Godot carries a special personal meaning for Donna and me. We spent many happy, loving years with a beautiful black-and-white longhaired cat named Godot, so named because we had to wait three months to take possession of her and because she never came when anyone called her. I read my share of Beckett in those days, when a novelist is all that I worked at being and hoped to be, and I spent much time coveting the Grove Press hardcover collected works that used to reside near the basement cash register at Cincinnati's long-gone Kidd's Bookstore, priced at a then-astronomical $100.
When was the last time I saw something as substantial as Beckett's collected works given such pride of place in a bookstore? Ouch. How far we have fallen.
I ask myself. I ask you. Which is the more tragic -- that I had to be reminded that today was the first centenery of Samuel Beckett's birth by the IMDb? Or that every link I could find relating to Beckett centenary celebrations (all in his native Ireland) led to "This Page is Unavailable" notices?
I must admit to having gained distance from Beckett myself in this video age of ours, but I cherish the impact he had on me -- as a reader, moreso than as a writer. His early works like MURPHY were novels of acute and comic Irish absurdity and caricature, but as time went on, his titles became more and more about themselves, and reflected such reductive powers of concentration as could be compared to the pressure that transforms coal, over thousands of years, into diamond.
One of my favorite of all literary epigrams comes from the closing lines of THE UNNAMEABLE, the conclusion of a trilogy-of-sorts beginning with MOLLOY and MALONE DIES; in just a few words, Beckett succeeded in summarizing a feeling about life and work that I wouldn't fully appreciate till I reached my 40s, when it became a veritable motto: "I can't go on. I'll go on." I can't think of seven other words that more richly evoke what it is like to live and work in today's world, and that's why we should be raising one to this man's memory today.
To Samuel Beckett. One of the few winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature who was actually worth a damn.
May I humbly suggest that we all adjourn with our pints to the nearest roadside curb, where we can sit and wait for the parade in Sam's name that isn't going to come?
It's hard to put this mysterious kinship into words, but I've always felt that my first intimations of the spirit to which I gravitate, not just in music but in all the arts, began around 1961-62, when songs like "Town Without Pity" and "Telstar" by The Tornados first seared through the sameness of Top 40 radio. I was only five or six years old, not a sophisticated listener, but whenever these songs came on the radio, I became very still. I became an active listener. They attuned me to something deep inside myself that naturally inclined toward the dark and the fantastical.
I would not realize for several years still to come that "Town Without Pity" was the theme song of a movie, a West German-US co-production starring Kirk Douglas and Christine Kaufmann, about the gang rape of a young German girl by four US soldiers (two of them GOMER PYLE U.S.M.C.'s Frank Sutton and Robert Blake in a performance that points forward to his later work in IN COLD BLOOD) and how the ensuing trial "rapes" her in a different way, more decisively ruining her life and driving her to suicide. But it's appropriate that the vibe in that song for which I felt such affinity would turn out to have ties to what we now call Eurocult.
TOWN WITHOUT PITY is an affecting movie, though not a particularly good one, and when I finally got to see it for the first time in the late 1960s, it didn't eclipse the feelings I already had for the song. I think the song fits the story and the mood of the movie very well, but I also feel that it stands for a great deal more than the concrete situation about which it was written. (It was written, incidentally, by the great Dimitri Tiomkin and lyricist Ned Washington.) For example, I have gay friends who relate to "Town Without Pity" because it speaks to a relationship whose existence must be whispered between its two intimates, because society -- lyrically reduced to a "town" -- doesn't understand or condone their love. (This reading may have had something to do with why John Waters selected it for use in his HAIRSPRAY soundtrack.) At the time, it doubtless spoke just as directly to interracial lovers. There is also something about Tiomkin's music, its slinky 6/4 piano PERRY MASON atmosphere, that speaks even to innocent ears about corruption and despair, about a world of vice and law whose sheer opposing weight is geared to crush out what is best in the human heart through sheer oppression. So I guess you could say that my attraction to "Town Without Pity" was that it offered Top 40 listeners substantially more truth about the world at large ("it isn't very pretty...") than the average pop song.
Of course, it was Pitney's tortured vocal that brought the song so committedly to life. One of the most distinctive interpreters pop music has ever known, Pitney was a superior stylist, a tuneful enunciator who seemed to look past the lyric to each song's underlying meaning -- the soul of each word, and the spirit that strung them together. To hear such an unmistakable voice, one might expect it to be limited or unlikely to be flexible in terms of milieu, but Pitney was much more than just a maestro of octave-swooping melodrama. He could be twee in some song settings, but he could also sing convincingly from the stances of cowboys ("The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"), truck drivers ("Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa" and "Last Chance to Turn Around" -- a song whose chorus incidentally inspired the title of Hubert Selby Jr.'s hard-hitting novel LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN), and even gondoliers. Pitney was one of the first pop vocalists to record foreign language export versions of his hits, and he recorded entire albums of material for the Italian market, which was especially receptive to his near-operatic delivery. He was also one of the pop song's technical pioneers: almost a full ten years before Paul McCartney recorded his 16-track one-man-band solo album McCARTNEY, Gene Pitney provided his own musical accompaniment on his first hit single, "(I Wanna) Love My Life Away," though recording technology was limited at the time to only two or three tracks.
Justly recognized as a talented songwriter ("He's A Rebel", "Hello, Mary Lou"), Pitney spent most of his recording career covering the work of other composers. He was arguably the most notable male interpreter of the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David ("True Love Never Runs Smooth" being a particularly good example). For the past few years, a British label called Sequel has been reissuing most of Pitney's 1960s albums as two-fers, and to know Pitney properly, it's important to move away from the hits and see what he accomplished on his albums, uneven as they often are. A particularly fascinating index to his talents is the album GOLDEN GREATS, which Musicor paired with THIS IS GENE PITNEY. GOLDEN GREATS is Pitney-as-one-man-jukebox, finding him accepting the challenge of either improving upon songs already placed in the Top 40 (if not the Top 10) by other artists, or failing miserably. An awkwardly reworded rendition of The Supremes' "Stop in the Name of Love" frankly kicks his ass, but Pitney manages to score well or better with most of his choices, which include The Hollies' "Bus Stop" and Gary Lewis and The Playboys' "Count Me In." He shows the expected affinity for Roy Orbison's exquisitely melodramatic "Crying," the countrified shadings of Tom Jones' "The Green, Green Grass of Home," and the inspirational doo-wop of The Platters' "The Great Pretender," but it's Pitney's incredible cover of Jay and the Americans' "Cara Mia" that brings the listener to his knees. Here, we realize that it wasn't enough for Pitney to be a sensitive stylist and interpreter; a song had to meet him halfway, to be available to an instrument of Pitney's unique range and ability, for the alchemy to fully ignite. "Cara Mia" offers him opportunities to drag lyrics across the gravel of his lower register and also to soar above one's highest expectations. This track, vastly superior to the hit rendition it covers, deserves to be remembered as one of Pitney's greatest moments on record.
Still, when we note that GOLDEN GREATS was released in 1967 -- the year of SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND -- it's easy to see how out-of-step the album was with its times, regardless of its achievement of moments that now seem absolutely timeless. It also had the misfortune to carry a title which, at a glance, portended yet another of the "greatest hits" albums that were epidemic in Pitney's output. There were exceptions to the rule, but apart from the album he later cut with George Jones (which not only prophesied the 1970s country-rock-crossover but the 1980s "duets" craze as well), Pitney's albums never really took the necessary quantum leap of vision and creativity to maintain his dominance in the field. His popularity may have also suffered by someone's decision to photograph him in the company of an attractive model who would change from one album cover to the next; after all, there was a commercial reason why the Beatles management wanted to keep John Lennon's marital status under wraps in those days. Despite these professional missteps, Pitney seems to have had an unusually solid grip on reality and his place in the world; he resolutely did what he was good at doing, without conceding to trends. He also put his real life first, with his wife and three sons, always making his home in his native state of Connecticut. America forgot him, at least to the extent of making it unfeasible for him to tour the States in later years, but he remained a beloved figure abroad. The only time I saw Pitney on American television in the 1970s was when he appeared on THE DON LANE SHOW, an Australian talk show briefly syndicated here.
When I first came online in 1995, I discovered that AOL hosted some music newsgroups and I spent some time lurking in several of them, among them one devoted to Gene Pitney. I was amazed to discover that Pitney himself was a frequent participant (his screen name was "ThePits") who took pleasure in answering people's questions, at least the ones he hadn't been asked a million times before. It was my first exposure to how the Internet could bring previously distant or unapproachable celebrities within one's virtual reach; in other AOL news forums at that time, it was not uncommon to find the likes of Bobby Vee, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby holding court. My standout memory of "ThePits" is that there came a time when he announced that he would be absenting himself from the forum because he felt a now-or-never need to throw himself into some new songwriting. I don't know what, if anything, came of that woodshedding, but I suspect the yield wasn't anything like he must have hoped for, like a new record deal. However, thereafter, he did more earnestly pursue a return to live performance abroad.
A few years ago, Gene Pitney appeared on PBS television stations across the country in a live performance recorded in, I think, Hartford, Connecticut -- not far from home. The performance, which was also issued as a live album, proved that little about this consummate craftsman had diminished over time. Though they were by then over 40 years old, his most familiar hits were sung as though their sentiments were still coming directly from his heart rather than from the teleprompter of memory. In the midst of this parade of request fulfillments, I was particularly struck by his performance of a Robbie Williams song, "Angels," which seemed tailor-made for the Pitney treatment and proved him a still-heroically-vital interpreter of modern-day songwriting. Unfortunately, I don't think Pitney ever recorded a studio version; it might well have been the adult contemporary hit he was hoping to record.
Yes, 65 is much too young to die... but, on the other hand, Pitney ended his life asleep -- without misadventure, without pain, without infirmity, without disease, without knowing the end was coming, and without the heartbreak of conscious goodbyes -- after a triumphal performance to an appreciative audience, knowing that many more such evenings were still to come. I honestly can't think of a more blessed exit.
And his songs stand every chance of living on forever, or at least as long as hearts can be broken or swell with pride or love or aspiration to the point of breaking. Feeling these things and listening to Gene Pitney, we know that we are not alone.
Monday, April 10, 2006
Fans of, shall we say, audacious rock music will be excited to learn about two new releases coming out later this week from Music Video Distributors and Sexy Intellectual. The first two DVDs in a new series called "Under Review," these feature length programs focus on two 1960s bands whose legacy was supremely influential on the cutting edge music of subsequent decades: Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground. They street on 4/15 and retail for $19.98 apiece.
Fans of these cult groups will find it almost wondrous to see their histories discussed so seriously and eloquently, not only by well-credentialed critics but by former members of the bands in question. VELVET UNDERGROUND: UNDER REVIEW (85 minutes) interviews VILLAGE VOICE music editor Robert Christgau; Clinton Heylin, author of essential books on punk rock, Bob Dylan, bootleg albums and Public Image Limited; Total Rock DJ, author and journalist, Malcolm Dome, and Luna mainman Dean Wareham, as well as Velvets members Maureen "Moe" Tucker and Doug Yule, and Andy Warhol Factory photographer/Velvets album cover designer Billy Name.
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: UNDER REVIEW (115 minutes) interviews Beefheart biographer Mike Barnes; author/critic Alan Clayson; UNCUT magazine contributing editor Nigel Williamson, and a vast assortment of Beefheart Magic Band alumni, including John "Drumbo" French, Mark "Rockette Morton" Boston, Jeff Moris Tepper, Elliott "Winged Eel Fingerling" Ingber, ira Ingber, Jerry Handley, Doug Moon, Gary Marker, Eric Drew Feldman and Gary Lucas. Both discs contain many clips of rare performances, archival interview footage, and are supplemented with interview outtakes and interactive quizzes. It's also great to hear the music of these bands remixed in stereo surround. I want a whole album of how "Ella Guru" sounds on the BEEFHEART DVD.
Both programs approach their subjects chronologically, single by single and album by album. As someone intimately acquainted with the discographies of both bands, I found it actually cathartic to watch these documentaries, to see the work of these often overlooked units so fulfillingly appreciated. Of course I have my own feelings about their recorded output, so I was somewhat disappointed that Beefheart's ultimate statement TROUT MASK REPLICA was not addressed with the same gravity as, say, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO on the corresponding release. (There is some disagreement among the Beefheart authorities assembled here, but LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY and CLEAR SPOT seem to vie for their #1 choice, with TROUT MASK being... well, singular. And for a double album, it IS pretty singular. I wish Matt Groening had been invited to balance the books.) My own favorite Velvets album is their third, self-titled album, which I feel is given its due her, but the VELVET UNDERGROUND program actually reminded me of the importance of the AND NICO album, their first, which was actually recorded in 1966 and not issued until 1967. It is not the better album, but it is unquestionably the more important group statement. Likewise, Beefheart's CLEAR SPOT track "Big Eyed Beans from Venus," his most beloved track by fans and arguably his best-realized studio performance, is rather surprisingly dismissed by Mike Barnes as popular on account of its accessibility. Accessibility doesn't explain why I am nearly moved to the point of tears every time I hear it; it has much more to do with the alchemy of its clean production and the sound of every member of the band mining dissonance until they tap an almost exorcismal sublimity and sweetness. Again, the Velvets disc excels in this area with its extended appreciation of "Venus in Furs" from THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO, which the critics identify -- to a man -- as the moment where that album becomes timeless and transcendent. To hear Robert Christgau, echoing Lester Bangs, cite this track as the moment "where modern music begins" is incredibly satisfying and insightful.
Watching these documentaries, one realizes that Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground had far more in common than their very different music makes apparent. Both groups were dominated by a single personality: Beefheart himself, Don Van Vliet (who abandoned music in 1981 to pursue a successful career in painting), and Lou Reed of The Velvets (who left the band in 1970 to pursue a still successful if increasingly literary solo career). Both groups had members in their early lineups who left after creative clashes with the "alpha male" -- John Cale in The Velvets, Ry Cooder in The Magic Band -- their departures radically changing the nature of the groups' music. Both groups were also "sponsored", in a sense, by iconographic art figures: Andy Warhol (VU) and Frank Zappa (CB). Furthermore, as the two figureheads of these bands have become more remote and inaccessible -- Van Vliet, reportedly suffering from multiple sclerosis, has not been photographed in decades, while Reed prefers to focus on his solo work -- the contributions of their fellow band members have been given the space to come into much stronger relief. It's refreshing to see the Velvets documentary pay so much respectful attention to Moe Tucker, founding member/guitarist Sterling Morrison, and especially Doug Yule, who replaced Cale in the band, which he joined in time to play on their third album. The first VU album is almost certainly their greatest and most important, and their second album WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT is just as grand in a darker way, but the greater balance of the group's classic core of material was written and recorded after Cale's departure. It was only after Yule's joining, and the loss of Cale's abrasive signature viola, that The Velvets became a classic rock-and-roll band.
An interesting result of Van Vliet's silence in recent years, and one about which I have very mixed feelings, is that much of his original projected persona has been revealed as, for lack of a better word, "show biz." His amazing voice, once self-described as encompassing six or more octaves, has since been professionally charted as somewhat narrower. His stories about never attending school and having never indulged in drugs have been proved various shades of hooey, and his former band members have portrayed him as a ruthless task master, almost a cult leader, not to mention a sometimes wrongful appropriator of song credit. And then there is the 1973-76 "Tragic Band" period when Beefheart turned his back on his muse to attempt more commercial music, only to discover that his watered-down brand of funk-pop attracted no new listeners and turned away those he already had. The stories presented on the BEEFHEART disc by his fellow band members are generally very respectful, sometimes acknowledging that Van Vliet was absolutely and unerringly aware of the impact his music would have over time. (John French recalls Van Vliet telling him, some 35 years ago, "Someday you'll hear a knock on your door and it will be someone who has travelled halfway around the world to record your recollections of what we are doing right now!") But the program pays rightful attention to the musical skills of Beefheart's associates, all of whom continue to do good work but clearly miss the "north star" visionary who led them in younger days to vistas previously unexplored in music. Some of them are working today in tribute bands to keep Beefheart's extraordinary blues-avant-art-swamp-rock fusion alive and available to fresh discovery.
These discs mark an impressive starting point for what I hope will be a successful, ongoing series. I'd love to see similar discs address the music of, say, King Crimson, Can, Nick Drake, Brian Eno, Laura Nyro, Amon Duul I and II -- and that's just for starters. Based on the choices shown here, I suspect the producers of these discs are thinking along much the same lines.
Postscript: Music Video Distributors and Sexy Intellectual have now announced the third and fourth releases in the "Under Review" series. June 6 will see the release on a profile of KATE BUSH, and following on June 27 will be THE SMITHS.
Saturday, April 08, 2006
Congratulations to VW contributor Kim Newman and his partner Stephen Jones are in order. Their softcover anthology HORROR: ANOTHER 100 BEST BOOKS survived the final cut of the preliminary ballot to be nominated this week in the Best Non-Fiction category of the Horror Writers Association's Bram Stoker Awards. The book's forerunner, HORROR: 100 BEST BOOKS, won this category in 1989 in a tie with HARLAN ELLISON'S WATCHING by Harlan Ellison.
I contributed to Steve and Kim's outstanding genre survey an essay about Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain's 1911 novel FANTOMAS. As Kim kindly notified me by e-mail, I can therefore "claim 1/100th of the nod." That's very kind... but for me, the real award was receiving the book and discovering that my first novel THROAT SPROCKETS had been chosen as one of the second 100 by Tananarive Due, a fellow novelist whose work I respect and whose enthusiasm I appreciate. It was an honor to be published in the company of so many talented colleagues, but to see my own work considered as part of a continuum that also included THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, ROSEMARY'S BABY and FROM HELL (to name a few) was one of the great thrills of my 30+ year career.
Here's hoping that Kim and Steve will be adding another Stoker to their trophy cases in the months ahead.
Friday, April 07, 2006
It's been a wonderful week here, celebrating Roger Corman's 80th birthday and seeing so many other, like-minded people attending the party and throwing parties of their own. Those who backtrack will notice that I announced the Blog-A-Thon the day after I posted a complaint about being too busy -- and yes, conceiving the Blog-A-Thon committed me to additional daily postings. But I met all my deadlines, the last of them being my SIGHT AND SOUND deadline early this morning. For my 37th "No Zone" column, I decided to stick with my current diet and review Retromedia Entertainment's THE ROGER CORMAN PUERTO RICO TRILOGY.
I won't pre-empt my column by going into a lot of detail here, but Retromedia has taken a fair amount of online heat for this release, which I found rather admirable. I know from talking to disc producer Fred Olen Ray that great pains were taken to digitally reframe LAST WOMAN ON EARTH shot-by-shot, because just slapping soft mattes over the picture (as was done theatrically in projection) tended to crop actors off at the eyes or forehead. Fred and partner Steve Latshaw also did wonderful things to digitally refresh the color and, I think, the movie (scripted by Robert Towne, who co-stars as "Edward Wain") is made stronger by all this restorative attention. LAST WOMAN is now more noticeable than ever as one of the most important works of Corman's first decade -- it can even be viewed as the second film in an apocalypse trilogy with DAY THE WORLD ENDED and GAS-S-S-S-S!.
I had never seen the Corman-produced BATTLE OF BLOOD ISLAND before, and had no idea that it was based on a novella by Philip Roth. Corman should start dropping Roth's name in his list of celebrity discoveries, as this movie was made a few years before Roth's first novel was published. It's an engrossing, compact little movie, effectively plain-spoken in its drama and direction (by Joel M. Rapp, whom the IMDb incorrectly declares dead since 1972). There's a live toucan in this film as a supporting player, and a dead toucan turns up in LAST WOMAN... I hope they weren't one and the same.
CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA looks worst of the three, but that just means it's a bit greyish with soft contrasts; I didn't find it nearly as bad as others seem to think, and it's certainly not the worst I've seen. Retromedia had to use an original element, without the added TV scenes, so their pickings must have been severely limited. (The TV clips included in the supplements look clearer, but had they used a TV print for all the footage, it might have disrupted the continuity of the music tracks.) I get a big kick out of this movie; it fails to deliver to the monster audience, and it's too beatnik-sophisticated for kids and straights, but as I say in my S&S column, it's probably the closest thing to a Thomas Pynchon novel ever committed to celluloid.
The audio commentaries (one by Joel Rapp, the other two by Betsy Jones-Moreland and Anthony Carbone) are all fun, interesting, and well-moderated by Ray and Latshaw. (I love Tony Carbone's story about how Corman made LAST WOMAN ON EARTH in color because he was offered an experimental color film stock for free!) The additional TV scenes, directed by Rapp and Monte Hellman, are presented separately and are more interesting and successful in this context. A bunch of Corman trailers are added as a bonus. None of the films are given anamorphic transfers, but they all zoom up on a widescreen fairly well. But the best thing about this set is that it gives us a new way of looking at these three extremely different films -- as a "trilogy" -- and it packages them in a manner that makes the story of how they were made as important as the features themselves.
An undeservedly controversial release. I recommend it.
Thursday, April 06, 2006
But seriously, folks... wow. According to our current count, Video WatchBlog had 31 fellow participants in yesterday's "Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon." When I first posted my own Corman Birthday blog -- at precisely 01:02:03 on 04/05/06, natch -- I was only able to list 4 other companions in my cause. I was a little worried that the short notice might have backfired. But you good people kept me adding new blog links to the page right up to the time I went to bed last night. When we were only up to 16, Green Cine Daily commented about the response to my Monday request, "You wouldn't believe the turn-out." But together, we managed to effectively double that number. I'm proud of us.
Furthermore, yesterday's celebration resulted in Video WatchBlog's highest daily attendance of the year, and possibly since its inception: 1,983 hits between 01:02:03 and the following Midnight. That's not even a full 24-hour period.
I'm especially delighted by the fact that, in visiting and reading the various blogs generated about Roger, that everyone seems to have instinctively gravitated to a different period of his work, or at least different films. Everything from ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS to MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH to HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD rated in-depth discussion. There was very little, if any, repetition -- and it was all very interesting and heartfelt, even though some of it was critical.
I haven't informed Roger of the Blog-A-Thon; it's my intention to print-off copies of everyone's blog and send them to him as a big package next week. But Joe Dante told me that he phoned Roger and "mentioned the explosion of affection on the blogosphere." When Joe surmised that bloggers were observing the day as a milestone, Roger cheerfully answered, "Well, it is a milestone... for me!"
I'm sure you all join me in wishing him many more.
Wednesday, April 05, 2006
ROGER CORMAN SWINGS (at 80)
Lyrics by Tim Lucas
(with apologies to Roger Miller)
Roger Corman swings like a pendulum do,
Vincent Price, Bruce Dern -- Shatner too!
Mobsters in Chicago, Richtofen and Brown,
Stock footage of a warehouse burning down.
Now, if you huff and puff and you finally shoot enough
You can make a whole movie in just two days, believe you me.
But here's a tip: before you take a trip, go up to Big Sur,
It's so pretty thur, oh...
Roger Corman swings like a pendulum do,
Dick Miller, Susan Cabot -- Dinocroc too!
See the Wild Angels go to Rock and Roll High,
Ray Milland rippin' out his X-ray eyes.
Now get your cameras ready, everybody go dutch,
Hang onto your wallet, we don't letting you spend too much
Add a social message, some boob shots, mind expenses
And no novocaine -- because it dulls the senses.
(OWWWWWW! Don't stop NOW!!!!!)
Roger Corman swings like a pendulum do,
They buried Babs alive and it's True! True! True!
Charles Dexter Ward and a sub-machine gun,
The rosy red cheeks of Angie Dickinson.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ROGER!_______________
I should have thought of this myself, but Dennis Cozzalio kindly used his blog to ask any bloggers complying with my "Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon" request to contact me with their URLs. I appreciate that gesture very much. I have no idea how many other bloggers might also be commemorating Roger's octogenarian phase, but if you are one of them -- or if you know of one or found one in your travels -- send me the information and I will gladly post a link here. In the meantime, here are the authors, names, and links of some blogs who have already confirmed with me their intention to participate. These guys knocked themselves out meeting this absurd deadline, so please give them the benefit of your attendance today:
1. Ray Young, Flickhead: http://flickhead.blogspot.com/
2. John McElwee, Greenbriar Picture Shows: http://greenbriarpictureshows.blogspot.com/
3. Dennis Cozzalio, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule: http://sergioleoneifr.blogspot.com/
4. Robert Cashill, Between Productions: http://robertcashill.blogspot.com/
5. Aaron Graham, More Than Meets the Mogwai: http://awcgfilmlog.blogspot.com/
6. Peter Nellhaus, Coffee Coffee and More Coffee: http://www.coffeecoffeeandmorecoffee.com
7. Dave Bohnert, filmZoneX: http://filmzonex.blogspot.com/
8. Marty McKee, Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot: http://pimannix.tripod.com/craneshot/
9. Lance Tooks, Lance Tooks' Journal: http://lancetooksjournal.blogspot.com/
10. Robert J. Lewis, Nadaland: http://nadalander.blogspot.com/2006/04/happy-80th-to-roger-corman.html
11. Steven Wintle, House of Irony: http://houseofirony.com/2006/04/05/roger-corman-is-everywhere/
12. Neil Sarver, The Bleeding Tree: http://bleeding-tree.blogspot.com/
13. Drew McWeeny, Moriarty's DVD Shelf: http://moriartylabs.typepad.com/moriartys_dvd_shelf/
14. Marty Langford, VertiBlog: http://martylangford.blogspot.com/
15. "Dr. Gangrene," Tales From the Lab: talesfromthelab.blogspot.com/
16. Karl Bauer, KGB Productions, Inc: http://kgbfilms.blogspot.com/
17. Brian O., Giant Monster Blog: http://giantmonsters.blogspot.com/
18. Christopher Stangl, The Exploding Kinetoscope: http://explodingkinetoscope.blogspot.com/
19. Jerry Lentz, Jerry Lentz Radio: http://www.jerrylentz.com/Beverlygray.mp3 (a radio interview with Roger Corman biographer, Beverly Gray)
20. Aleck Bennett, The Squeaky Reel: http://squeakyreel.blogspot.com/
21. Steve Monaco, Couch Pundit: http://blogs.citypages.com/amadzine/2006/04/happy_80th_birt.asp
22. Anonymous, Given to Hyperbole: http://giventohyperbole.blogspot.com/
23. El Thomazzo, Olhar Elétrico: http://eletriceye.blogspot.com/
24. Although not technically a blog, David Hudson's Green Cine Daily gave the "Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon" a very nice mention: http://daily.greencine.com/
25. Rod Barnett: http://blog.myspace.com/47619990
26. Mr. Ghoul: http://blog.myspace.com/mrghoul
27. Rhatfink: http://blog.myspace.com/rhatfink
28. Matt Zoller Seitz, The House Next Door: http://www.mattzollerseitz.blogspot.com/
29. Rod Barnett, Bloody Pit of Rod: http://pitofrod.blogspot.com/
30. Pete Roberts, Cult Clash: http://cultclash.iblogs.com/
31. Anonymous, That Little Round-Headed Boy: http://roundheadedboy.blogspot.com/2006/04/roger-corman-movie-poster.html
For those of you reading this entry after April 5, 2006, that's the date you'll need to look up to find the Corman Blog-A-Thon postings at each of the above addresses. Thanks to everyone who participated for making today's Blog-A-Thon a tremendous success!
"Look at it! It grows like a cold sore from the lip!" -- THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960)
Tuesday, April 04, 2006
And it won't happen again for another hundred years. (01:02:03 in the afternoon is technically 13:02:03.)
The following is a press release from Cataldi Public Relations that arrived in the WatchBlog's mailbox. I've altered the original text slightly to incorporate a few informative amendments and asides:
HDTV-owning horror fans will definitely want to mark their calendars (perhaps, in blood?) for Wednesday, April 5. Monsters HD, the 24-hour high-definition, all-monster movie channel from VOOM HD, will be marking the 80th birthday of the master of the low-budget flicks with a round-the-clock marathon of some of Corman’s classiest and kookiest celluloid. Monsters HD actually tackled all the remastering on this bevy of gore, 13 films in all including THE BRAIN EATERS, THE UNDEAD, THE SAGA OF THE VIKING WOMEN, DAY THE WORLD ENDED (in SuperScope!), HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (1980 and 1996 versions!), PIRANHA (Joe Dante's classic, even better-looking than it is on DVD), TALES OF TERROR, and TEENAGE CAVEMAN (with a young, but not exactly teenage Robert “Man from U.N.C.L.E” Vaughn). Monsters HD is one of 15 high-def channels available on VOOM HD to Dish Network subscribers nationwide. For more fun, check out the network’s website – www.monstershd.com
Monsters HD also seems to have booked HOUSE (1986) and HOUSE II: THE SECOND STORY (1987) as part of Roger's B-Day schedule. These were New World pictures and the IMDb says that Corman was an uncredited executive producer on them. Anyway, I've seen almost all of these pictures on Monsters HD at one time or another and can recommend all of these. THE SAGA OF THE VIKING WOMEN looks amazing, and not only when June Kenney is strutting around in her Old Norse miniskirt and go-go boots. It's far, far superior-looking than the Region 2 DVD.
And you bloggers, don't forget to join in the Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon tomorrow! I know this is short notice, but that's what's so Roger about it. Post an essay, a review, a tribute, a Top 10, a haiku, a fitful epigraph from the pages of Poe, a relevant still you've right-clicked off someone else's blog -- anything! Just do it and get it up on the screen. Don't worry about money. ("There is no money, Montresor. You haven't worked in seventeen years.") Monsters, social commentary, and breast nudity are all the currency you need. Now get clicking because we're opening on more than 500 screens Wednesday -- and I'm talking hardtops! Impressive, huh? And think of the points you'll score when you tell everybody you wrote your great Corman blog in a single day... or an hour... or less than five minutes. If you're reading this, you're already at your machine. You're already in the saddle, man. No hassles...
"We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! And we wanna get loaded! And we wanna have a good time! And that's what we are gonna do! We're gonna have a good time... We're gonna have a party!" -- THE WILD ANGELS (1966)
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, email@example.com), 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.