Friday, May 26, 2006

Ritual Echo Goes Live

You may remember reading at some point on VW's Kennel page that Audio Watchdog Douglas E. Winter (above, right) has started a band called Ritual Echo with friends Leslie Combemale (center) and Michael Barry (left). Doug just sent me this link to the band's new website, where you can listen to and download various songs that he, Leslie and Michael recorded together -- or click on their names to go to personal pages where other music, created individually, can be heard and accessed. Last Christmas, Doug sent me a limited CD with some holiday-themed tracks by the band (including a cover of The BeeGees' "Holiday"), which was pretty good. The originals archived on their site are more compelling and powerful and boast a distinctive group identity. Check it out.

A Jolly Birthday Q & A


This past week -- on May 24th (Bob Dylan's 65th birthday, as a matter of fact) -- my second novel, THE BOOK OF RENFIELD: A GOSPEL OF DRACULA, quietly celebrated its first birthday, or anniversary of publication. The year has gone by very quickly. Like my first novel THROAT SPROCKETS, THE BOOK OF RENFIELD received some truly wonderful reviews (if too few overall for my liking) and didn't sell terribly well as hoped. It takes a similar approach to the Dracula legend as did Elizabeth Kostova's #1 blockbuster THE HISTORIAN, a coincidence that allowed my book to freeload on the front-of-house theme tables her book was given in various bookstore chains, but I suppose that one 700-page Dracula-related novel per year is all that most readers can handle.

When my novel came out, a week or so before HISTORIAN fever hit, I was approached by a couple of different websites with requests for interviews. Neither of them followed through, but as I was waiting, I undertook a personal exercise to become more conscious of what I had achieved with the book: I conducted a pre-interview with myself. I've long planned to complete this text and post it on the www.bookofrenfield.com website, but what with everything else that's going on, I haven't had the time. And now a whole year has gone by. But this blog needs material and I thought, given the fact of its anniversary this past week, that this partial interview might suffice. May it inform the book's earliest readers and inspire a few to hop aboard the next wave.

PS: Don't you worry. We'll get back to discussing movies one of these days.

________

THE BOOK OF RENFIELD is your second published novel, and your first in eleven years. Why did it take so long?

There's more than one answer to this. I earn my living as the publisher and editor of Video Watchdog, a monthly magazine, and these duties claim most of the hours in my day. At any one time, my wife Donna and I might be sending out one issue, working on another, and planning the next. Therefore, any time that I spend writing fiction has to be stolen from this work or other writing projects. I think anybody who's done the time will tell you there are few tasks less attractive than writing at night after you've spent all day writing. It doesn't matter that it's two different kinds of writing; that particular shifting of gears I find to be part of the problem. Also, I've spent a big chunk of the past decade finishing the manuscript of my non-fiction book, MARIO BAVA - ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, a critical biography of the Italian film director which I started researching back in 1975.

Despite these other demands on my time, I did write some other fiction between the two published novels. One of the projects was a novel that I'm currently back to working on, called THE ONLY CRIMINAL. I had the idea for this novel in 1977 and, over the years, it's been a short story, a novella, and more than one stillborn novel. I'm still in love with the concept, and after a very long and difficult gestation, the current draft is now singing... at least through about the first quarter of the third act. The other project was a novella called THE ART WORLD that, on the advice of a former agent, I expanded into a novel called THE COLOR OF TEARS. I'm fond of this one, in both its forms; I suppose you could call it progressive science fiction, because it's a human story that's only incidentally science fiction. It's not in print yet because my agent at the time, Lori Perkins, counseled me that it should be saved as the centerpiece of a collection of short fiction. Unfortunately, I don't seem to write short fiction. So I was actually fairly industrious during this seemingly fallow period between novels.

What made you decide to write a novel based on Bram Stoker's DRACULA?

THE BOOK OF RENFIELD was conceived for purely commercial reasons, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. A year or two after THROAT SPROCKETS was published, I was talking to Lori Perkins about what I might write next. We had both noticed that a lot ofpeople reviewing my book had compared it, sometimes favorably, to another novel called FLICKER by Theodore Roszak. Lori told me that Mr. Roszak had received a handsome advance for his new book, THE MEMOIRS OF ELIZABETH FRANKENSTEIN, and I suppose MARY REILLY was happening around this time also. Anyway, Lori suggested I think about something like that for my next book. As it happened, I had just finished reading DRACULA for the first time since high school (in Leonard Wolf's annotated edition), so the notion of a retelling of Dracula from Renfield's perspective came to me quickly. Renfield is one of the greatest and most identifiable characters in horror fiction, but he had never been the subject of his own novel before. Lori became very excited by the idea and told me to work upan outline and a fifty-page sample. This I did, writing the entire Seward foreword -- pretty much as it still reads in the novel -- in a couple of inspired sittings. The clincher was that I could deliver THE BOOK OF RENFIELD in time for it to coincide with the Dracula centenary in 1997... but, as it happened, Lori couldn't find a publisher interested in doing anything to coincide with the Dracula centenary. So the sample chapter and outline went into the proverbial drawer. For the next eight years.

Once Lori commits herself to something, she doesn't stop, and she continued to pitch the novel to anyone willing to listen. It was after discussing the book with Marcela Andres, an editor at Simon & Schuster, that Lori was advised to pitch it to another young editor at the company, Allyson E. Peltier, who had a liking for dark subjects. Ally read the sample and, after discussing it with me, decided she was interested in acquiring it... but I hadn't written a word of it in eight years... Could I deliver? Like the actor who insists he knows how to ride a horse, then does his best to learn, I said "Of course" and signed the contract... which meantthat I had to deliver it. With VW and the Bava book being written at the same time, of course.

I fought with the book a great deal, especially in its early stages, but my difficulties weren't about not knowing what to do. They were about coming to terms with certain autobiographic matters that I had chosen to share with Renfield. There were things in my past I knew that Renfield would also have to experience, but I wasn't too keen about living through those episodes again.

For example?

It's difficult to answer that question without invading the privacy of others, but I can point to the part of my dedication that specifies "my dead father and absent mother." Therein lies the personal genesis of the novel.

I was born in May 1956, six months after the death of my father. He died during reconstructive heart surgery on November 14, 1955 -- exactly one week after the birth of my wife, in the same city. Because I have never known a time when my father was not dead, this made him what you might call an "active absence" in my life; the only way I could know him was to imagine him. My mother -- widowed in her 20s, while pregnant with a son her husband didn't know was coming, went back to work (as I understand it) after I turned three, and I was subsequently placed in the homes of different families during the week. My mother would pick me up on weekends, take me to movies, buy me toys, and so forth. So, like Renfield, I was raised in strangers' homes, sleeping in rooms that weren't mine, which gave me plenty of time in which to daydream about both my absent parents, and to look forward to the weekends, when one of them would come for me.

As I describe in the novel, whenever I was placed in homes with other little boys of my own age, my introduction into the family was always seen as an invasion of their turf. Consequently, these boys would lie about me to get me into trouble, or if they were slightly older or bigger, physically beat me -- which made those times when my mother returned for me all the more important. Friday brought the joy of rescue, and Sunday night always brought the dread of going back. I didn't return to live with my own mother until the age of eight, when I was yanked out of my foster home after one of these boys (older than me by about four years) actually made an attempt on my life, succeeding in stabbing me through the foot with a butcher knife. He threatened me not to reveal my injury or risk another beating, but my limping gave it away... My mother took me to a doctor as soon as she was told, but too much time had passed for the wound to be sealed with stitches. I still have the scar, of course.

I remember reading somewhere that children do all their most important bonding with parents between the ages of three and eight, which is the exact time frame in which I was living in these cold (and sometimes dangerous) family situations as an outsider and victim. By the time I returned to live with my mother full-time, she had remarried, moved into another apartment, and was expecting another child. In fact, she and her second husband had already separated; one day, he had a yard sale without her knowledge, selling all my toys and belongings for liquor money. So when I finally got to live at home, after getting stabbed, I found that my mother wasn't the same, our home wasn't the same, and every thing I had ever owned was gone. As a child, Renfield loses everything that he owns, too -- and he voluntarily walks away from it all at another point, which I also did.

Did you have any trepidations about following THROAT SPROCKETS with another vampire-themed novel?

Of course. I don't want to be stereotyped as a vampire novelist, or even as a horror novelist. Actually, neither of my novels is much about vampirism; "oral horror" might be a more accurate description. THROAT SPROCKETS is about neck fetishism, with the puncturing of the skin by the teeth representing thebreaking of a taboo. And THE BOOK OF RENFIELD is about zoöphagy: the eating of live things.

You've never been to England, yet THE BOOK OF RENFIELD is set there, pretty much in its entirety -- and Victorian London and pre-Victorian rural England, at that. How did you make the book's geographic descriptions so believable?

I suppose the various Englands of the novel are concoctions of scenery I've retained from a lifetime of seeing movies set in suchplaces. It was easy for me to envision the dirt roads, the vicarage, the field of cat tails, the ocean crashing beyond the ledge of land. But whatever veracity the novel's geography has, is due in large part to the input of my friend and fellow novelist Kim Newman, who was kind enough to look over an early draft of the book and tell me what I'd got wrong. He was even able to tell me where Renfield's childhood took place, and the process by which Jack Seward would have travelled from Carfax to the Harkers' home for dinner. These were tremendous gifts.

What would you say to the reader who loved THROAT SPROCKETS as a progressive work of horror fiction, who might think a novel in a traditional horror mode such as THE BOOK OF RENFIELD might be a backward step for you?

The two novels have more in common than may meet the eye. Or than may meet my own eye, for that matter, since it took one of my readers -- my friend Steve Bissette, actually -- to point out to me that THE BOOK OF RENFIELD's method of bolding excerpts from the Stoker novel suggests that I am giving my readers a privileged view of pages censored from the published text of Stoker's DRACULA. It's obvious now that it's been pointed out to me, but it never consciously occurred to me asI was writing the book. Stoker's novel is public domain now, so I wasn't obliged to bold the passages which the two books share in common, but on the one hand, I felt duty-bound to give full credit to Stoker where it was due, and I also wanted my editors to know how much of my novel was written by another hand as they read it. (I should mention that the editing of the book was taken over, mid-stream, by Brett Valley after Ally Peltier resigned her post to return to school.) Hence the bolding -- it was in the manuscript, but I left it up to Brett whether to keep it or standardize the typeface for publication. It was Brett's decision to keep it, and I'm glad he did because it gives the novel a similar textual resonance to THROAT SPROCKETS that happened, as you can see, almost in spite of myself. Some readers found the fluctuating emphases of type distracting. I find it innovative, if unintentionally so; it adds another level of depth to the prose, and perhaps a unique one.

THROAT SPROCKETS was also a composite work made up of first person accounts, third person accounts, newspaper articles, television transcripts and so forth, just as THE BOOK OF RENFIELD is composed of wax cylinder recordings, diary entries, and correspondence. Because I did write THROAT SPROCKETS, I think itwould be hard, if not impossible, for me to write a book that had none of the earlier work's perspective in it, even if the story is set in a different era. Perhaps the Stoker novel interested me so, initially, because of the way it cut-and-pasted its narrative, using different fictional sources, to suggest a more plausibly realistic world. This approach dates all the way back to Daniel Defoe and his A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR, but there's something anticipatory of William S. Burroughs in it too, at least as I practice it.

Furthermore, I see a lot of the nameless THROAT SPROCKETS protagonist in Jack Seward, who is essentially witnessing a horrific subject, trying to piece together a whole (or at least a whole diagnosis) from the pieces of the story he is given by Renfield, and abusing himself in the process, missing out on life as it passes him by. One of the curses of being a critic as well as a novelist is that you can't help analyzing your own work, to a degree.

THE BOOK OF RENFIELD ends with a modern day chapter which surprises the reader by invoking the events of September 11. Some reviewers have criticized the novel for "going there." Any rebuttal? Any regrets?

First, let me correct you/me on two important points. First, it's the penultimate chapter; the book doesn't end there. That's an important distinction, because I felt it was essential that the novel end in the Victorian era where most of it took place. (The final chapter is one of my favorite things about the book and one of my favorite pieces of my own writing.) Secondly, the very first thing that follows the dedication page and opening epigraph is an "Editor's Note" by Martin Seward, dated 2005. This, as well as the 1939 Foreword by Dr. John L. Seward (written on the eve of World War II) should make the reader more aware and accepting, fromthe very beginning, of a time frame extended beyond the years covered by the core story.

Part of my mission in writing this book was to bring to people's attention that Stoker's novel is still wonderfully modern and still thematically relevant. A friend of mine, Richard Harland Smith, also a VIDEO WATCHDOG contributor, was a New Yorker at the time of the 9/11 attacks and he posted on the Mobius Home Video Forum a marvelous essay about reading DRACULA with his girlfriend in the wake of that nightmare and discovering how much the novel reflected the feelings and fears he was witnessing among his fellow NewYorkers by day. I reproduced that essay in my novel, in full, with Richard's kind permission. I suppose the nature of the novel tempts some people to think I made him up, and his essay too, but both are real. (You can't find it online anymore because Mobius was hacked shortly before the book came out, losing its entire history of postings. But I assure you I am not making this up.)

So that chapter isn't an instance of me being facile and unfeeling about the price America paid that day, and cyncially capitalizing on it by putting it into a vampire novel. On the contrary, it's me quoting a sincere response felt at the time by someone who was actually living in the heart of all that horror and loss and trying to make sense of it. Richard's essay actually gave my novel a point of compass, a place to go, a reason to exist. As a storyteller, I can easily see a parallel between the wrecking of the Demeter against the rocks on the coast of Whitby, which unleashed a devastating evil against a cast of sympathetic characters, and the crashing of those jets into the World Trade Center... That's what novelists do, good ones anyway: They draw parallels; they ponder life and death and God; they interpret their times. If a reader feels I'm being presumptuous by doing this, then they aren't taking the threat posed in my novel seriously enough, which is part of the point which that chapter seeks to make. Our culture has made a friend of Dracula. Some people want to read my book to share vicariously in his bloodlust, and they are disappointed.

So, to answer your/my question... No, I have no regrets about this. On the contrary, I think it's the only direction in which the novel could have gone and become something more than a literary sport based on DRACULA. And why on earth should I want to write something as unnecessary as that?

I'm still flummoxed by the PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY review that got so hung up on how well I mimicked Stoker's writing style that the reviewer found the book's overall accomplishment "dubious." THE BOOK OF RENFIELD isn't about how well I mastered the Victorian vocabulary; it's a modern story about interpreting vintage materials. It's about the importance of learning from history, and a caution against admiring and making a friend or god of evil. It also shows how the practice of evil is often tied-up with the best of intentions, like religious zeal or the hunger for love.

There's a character in this book by the name of Jolly. Why Jolly?

Because "Brown Jenkin" was taken. Seriously, I chose the name Jolly because it was the name that came to mind as the narrative took that particular turn. The name was so dead-on, it made me laugh and I was never tempted to change it. The pet mouse episode also actually happened, I regret to say, though not exactly as it occurs in the book. Mine didn't come back to life. But, then again, it didn't occur to me until years later to conduct a Moonlight Experiment...

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

What Are You Doing Here

... when you could be visiting If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There'd Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats (Cultural and Personal Observations by Tom Sutpen and Stephen Cooke) and downloading mp3s of the original interview tapes that composed the classic reference HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT?

HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT was the first book on film I ever bought, incidentally, at age 11 or 12 or thereabouts. I've always loved it, and Mr. Sutpen reports that the tapes are even better and more revealing. My thanks to him for sharing with the world.

The sixth installment (of a total projected 12 hours out of the complete 50) was posted on May 21; use the blog's search engine to locate the previous five. Make sure your computer knows where to send the sound files, right click, and you're in business.

Thanks to David Hudson of GreenCine Daily (one of my daily stops) for bringing this to my attention.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

I'm Telling You Now

I will admit that Freddie and the Dreamers weren't one of the best groups to emerge from the 1964 British Invasion, but while the other English bands of the time were more exciting to listen to, or to see on television, none were funnier to watch. The Manchester-based group wasn't particularly musically inventive -- in fact, their few hits ("I'm Telling You Now", "You Were Made For Me") were all written in waltz-time or something close to it -- but they won my heart, and many others, by wearing their winky, eye-batting, high-kicking, merry-making charm on their sleeves. Chubby Checker may have topped the charts with "The Twist," but Freddie and the Dreamers topped the charts by acting like twits -- years before Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Freddie Garrity (right), the group's zany, gravity-defying frontman, was also one of the very first pop stars to have his own name and unique style of dancing commemorated in a hit song:

Kick your feet up
Swing your arms up too
Move your head both ways like you see me do
Then just repeat to the swinging beat
Do the Freddie!

Silly twaddle, to be sure. But "Do the Freddie," written by Dennis Lambert and Lou Courtney, was very catchy and it was a dance that kids could easily do without feeling self-conscious. I remember seeing it performed on school playgrounds and even at dances for years after the Top 20 song had vanished from the radio.

On a more pretentious level, you could say that this song (along with Ricky Nelson's earlier "Teenage Idol" -- a hit that Ricky personally hated to sing) marked the beginning of rock's self-mythification. Without lyrics like these to blaze the trail, could Jim Morrison's Lizard King have been able to do "anything"?

(Some interesting things I learned at the All Music Guide: "Do The Freddie" was never issued on record in the UK, nor did any of the Dreamers play on the record. And the aforementioned Chubby Checker was the first to pay tribute to Freddie's moves, beating him to the punch by recording a different song, "Let's Do the Freddie," written by Doc Pomus and Dave Appell! Freddie, being the real deal, had the hit, though.)

All this cute trivia is my way of beating around the sad news that Freddie Garrity passed away two days ago, on May 19, at the age of 65. Apparently Freddie had suffered a heart attack in 2004, after completing a British Invasion tour here in America, and his health never recovered; he'd been wheelchair-bound for the last two years and finally succumbed to circulatory problems. (Original Dreamers drummer Bernie Dwyer died at the end of 2002.)

Freddie appeared with the Dreamers in one of my favorite "Beach Party" knock-offs, OUT OF SIGHT (1966, featuring the unjustly forgotten Jonathan Daly and Norman "Woo Woo" Grabowski), and he earned a place in the fantastique, as the star of a weird British kids show called LITTLE BIG TIME, which ran from 1971-73 and sounds like fun. You can read/see more about it here. A live Freddie performance from 2000, played with a new Dreamers line-up, can be enjoyed on Image Entertainment's DVD, THE BRITISH INVASION RETURNS.

The image of Freddie Garrity and the infectious joy he spread will always be fond memories of my childhood. But when all is said and done, what I treasure most about his legacy is that he once penned this single, adorable stanza:

You were made for me
Everybody tells me so
You were made for me
Don't pretend that you don't know.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

What's My Time Line?

I have probably spoken here before about my addiction to Game Show Network's nightly (3:30 a.m., eastern) reruns of the classic WHAT'S MY LINE? program, hosted by the impeccable John Charles Daly. While watching last night's installment, Donna and I noticed something strange at the end of the show as announcer Johnny Olson said the most unusual closing words, "This program was pre-recorded." We promptly rechecked the beginning of the show, when he usually announces, "Live from New York," and true enough, it wasn't there... and it was spoken at the beginning of the last four episodes we have presently archived on our hard drive. Donna had a theory, which I promptly checked out on the episode guide at the IMDb, and her theory was correct.

Apparently last night's episode was the first to be aired in the wake of the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The host and panel show no inkling of this important blow to American history, as it was one of the program's rare pre-recorded episodes, taped earlier -- on November 3, I understand -- as a means of giving the panel some time off over the coming Thanksgiving weekend. (Interestingly, the first guest was none other than Colonel Harland Sanders, whose identity as the living logo of Kentucky Fried Chicken not one of the panelists recognized... which shows you how much KFC has grown in the past 40 years!) However, according to what we've been able to find out, the episode running tonight will be the first one aired live in the wake of this national tragedy. It should make fascinating viewing for anyone interested in American history, sociology, and pop culture.

The original WHAT'S MY LINE? transcends its status as a game show for several reasons. Some of them have to do with the unfailing civility and wit of the participants, and the little through-lines that carry from one show to the next -- Bennett Cerf's weekly search for the pun that will most agonize host Daly, Daly's unflagging fondness for his Tilton School alma mater, the interesting choices of fill-in panelists (Woody Allen, Peter Cook, Tony Randall [who recently appeared with head shaved in the wake of filming THE 7 FACES OF DR. LAO], and Martin Gabel, the actor husband of regular Arlene Francis, to name a few), and certainly, the show's occasional encounters with tragedy and near-tragedy.

In 1956, the show's amusing regular panelist, droll radio comedian Fred Allen, died of a heart attack, and his loss was strongly felt for awhile. Recently, the GSN episodes came to a point in the run when regular Dorothy Kilgallen suddenly began to suffer from facial spasms, evidently a side effect of alcohol and pill abuse, and disappeared from the show for the duration of her rehabilitation, during which time she was replaced by Phyllis Newman.

Then, about a week ago, the GSN reruns featured a series of episodes that coincided with Arlene Francis' 1963 automobile accident, in which her car collided with another, resulting in the death of the other driver. The consequences of the accident were never mentioned, but the show in which John Daly announced the accident, which had just happened, with Francis' fellow panelists looking shaken, was compelling television -- not least of all to everyone's valiant determination to give their viewers a game show worth watching. The episodes that followed found Francis replaced by various fill-ins, including Phyllis Newman, and she eventually returned with her right arm in a sling. A few shows later, a Sunday night live broadcast happened to coincide with Francis' 56th birthday and everyone (audience included) joined together to sing a very loving "Happy Birthday."

None of us who saw it will forget the most tragic of all the WML episodes, the one in which John Daly and company had to announce, and carry on in the wake of, Dorothy Kilgallen's untimely death at age 52. Her passing is commonly viewed an accident brought about by mixing alcohol and seconol, but in later years, the theory has been proposed that she was deliberately silenced after announcing she had obtained evidence that would blow the lid off the Kennedy assassination story. This theory is made somewhat more compelling by two associated facts: the notebooks containing her findings were never found, and Kilgallen's closest friend, with whom she may have shared or entrusted this evidence, also died an early death around the same time. Therefore it could be said that the drama of this particular series through-line, almost two years in duration, commences with tonight's broadcast. But as anyone who lived through those days will tell you, America became a different place in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. Actually, it was Americans who changed, because the media involve us in this and still-coming tragedies in unprecedented depth and proximity.

It was on tragic occasions such as these that the WML cast showed themselves to be not merely glib and charming, but also heroic individuals who could rise to any challenge and perform with grace under pressure. They soldiered on through the worst of times, and one's heart went out to them all the more because of it.

POSTSCRIPT added 5/21, 5:21 a.m.: The episode aired earlier tonight, performed live on December 8, 1963 -- some two weeks after the assassination -- made absolutely no reference to the national tragedy, but the regulars did seem uncustomarily tense and a bit rattled. Lastly, here is a link to an incredible WHAT'S MY LINE? site that features complete details, descriptions, and even reviews of every episode!

Friday, May 19, 2006

Revolutionary Times Require Revolutionary Films

Eric Rohmer is one of my favorite directors, but I don't think I've written much, if anything, about his work or what it means to me. His good name first came to my attention as a cheap joke in Arthur Penn's NIGHT MOVES; "I saw a Rohmer film once," says Gene Hackman's Harry Moseby; "it was kind of like watching paint dry." Penn later told an interviewer that he regarded Rohmer as "a wonderful filmmaker," that the opinion expressed was not his own, but rather one that he included to help movie-literate audiences understand where Harry was coming from, as a character. To this day, I think more people in America have heard that Rohmer's films are like watching paint dry than have actually seen them -- or NIGHT MOVES, for that matter.

Rohmer is best-known for two film series, his "Six Moral Tales" (1963-72) and "Tales of Four Seasons"(1990-98), and a few of his uncollected features of the 1980's -- LE BEAU MARRIAGE, FULL MOON IN PARIS, SUMMER aka THE GREEN RAY, and BOYFRIENDS AND GIRLFRIENDS -- are unofficially bound by the commonality of protagonists discontented with the lives they have chosen for themselves. I saw my first two Rohmer films -- MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S (1969, which seems older than it is by at least a few years) and CHLOE IN THE AFTERNOON (1972) -- at the University of Cincinnati a year or so after I saw NIGHT MOVES, and was unexpectedly enchanted. I was especially taken with MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S, whose incidental uses of chance, theology, and coincidence resonated with a good deal of the French literature I was reading in translation at the time, the works of André Gide particularly. And without the delightful example of CLAIRE'S KNEE (1970), I might never have conceived of a throat fetish and written a certain novel.

For whatever reason, perhaps the largely collective nature of Rohmer's filmography, I have always been delinquent in keeping up with his stand-alone works. Sometimes these are truly minor (FOUR ADVENTURES OF REINETTE AND MIRABELLE, 1987), but they can also be transcendant (1978's PERCEVAL, the only Rohmer film I included in my Top Ten list for SIGHT AND SOUND, is one of these, though I have seen it only once and am frankly afraid to watch it again). Something I once said about Rohmer's films comes back to me: that, every time I saw a new one, I had the feeling of windows opening in my mind and letting a wonderful, warm breeze in, relaxing while also stimulating my gray matter -- and this is true to some extent of all the films I've mentioned thus far. The other night, I finally caught up with THE LADY AND THE DUKE, Rohmer's 2001 offering, and it's the first one I've seen that didn't make me feel this way. On the contrary, it gave the impression of windows that were locked, with heavy velvet curtains drawn, as the people huddled within spoke urgently of life-and-death matters they could not possibly anticipate and over which they had no control.

THE LADY AND THE DUKE stars Lucy Russell (pictured above) and Jean-Claude Dreyfus in an intimate drama situated during the French Revolution, based on Grace Elliott's JOURNAL OF MY LIFE DURING THE FRENCH REVOLUTION. It's a far cry from Rohmer's usual material -- which is typically about the problems of contemporary young people and the difficulties of finding and holding onto love -- being about a Scot aristocrat, Grace Elliott, whose social status in her beloved adopted France endangers her on the outbreak of revolution, and whose ongoing friendly relationship with a former lover, the Duke of Orleans (Dreyfus), becomes even more compromising as they find themselves on opposite sides in the question of whether or not the King should be executed. Through performance alone, the film potently conveys the unpredictable, seismic quality of a country whose government has been violently overthrown -- and the sickening futility of attempting to navigate safe passage through volatile times of rhetoric and paranoia on a rudder of logic or common sense. The key to survival, it argues, is not by bending whichever way the wind blows, but by remaining true to one's own beliefs -- and, if necessary for the survival of something larger than oneself, dying by them.

THE LADY AND THE DUKE is reminiscent of PERCEVAL to the extent of its willfully artificial presentation. PERCEVAL's greatness lies in its ability to conjure all the necessary details of its 12th century story by engaging the viewer's imagination; the world actually given us on screen are no more realistic than the set flats you would see in a stage play. In THE LADY AND THE DUKE, Rohmer uses CGI to recreate 18th century France in a series of mural-like tableaux. The effect is to amplify the story's human element, which would have been crushed if set against a more believably three-dimensional social tumult.

THE LADY AND THE DUKE isn't my favorite Rohmer film, but days after viewing it, I find myself still thinking about it, chewing it over, feeling haunted, moved, and also frightened by parts of it. I've seen I don't know how many decapitations in the movies, both badly done and more realistically than I care to see, but Grace Elliott's encounter with the severed head of a beloved friend chills me more than any I've seen since Polanski's MACBETH. But the greatest horror of this film isn't graphic, but rather its unsettling air of premonition. There is more of pre-Revolution France in present-day America than many of us may want to admit -- the widening gulf between the poor and the wealthy, the prejudices inherent in our government's handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the favor being shown for big business over the rights and best interests of the common man, all these things surfaced in my thoughts even while watching the film. I don't know how THE LADY AND THE DUKE plays to the French, but as an American, I found it food for thought -- bitter perhaps, but also nutritious.

Sony Pictures' release of the film is overpriced at $29.95, but I was able to score it from DVD Deep Discount during one of their sales at a very reasonable price (which may have actually been "free"). The transfer is a bit tight, indicating a 1.66:1 ratio given a 1.78:1 reformatting, but hardly unwatchable, and the Dolby 5.1 track is rich in grace notes and dramatic incident.

PS: Welcomely coinciding with my viewing of THE LADY AND THE DUKE, our friends at Criterion today announced their August DVD release titles, which include the following sure-fire contender for the most important box set of the year:

SIX MORAL TALES

The multifaceted, deeply personal dramatic universe of Eric Rohmer has had an effect on cinema unlike any other. Gently existential, hyperarticulate character studies set against vivid seasonal landscapes, Rohmer’s audacious and wildly influential series defined a genre. A succession of jousts between fragile men and the women who tempt them, the Six Moral Tales unleashed onto the film world a new voice, one that was at once sexy, philosophical, modern, daring, nonjudgmental, and liberating.

Six-disc box set includes the films THE BAKERY GIRL OF MONCEAU, SUZANNE'S CAREER, MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S, LA COLLECTIONEUSE, CLAIRE'S KNEE, and LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (aka CHLOE IN THE AFTERNOON).

SPECIAL FEATURES: New, restored high-definition digital transfers, supervised and approved by director Eric Rohmer; exclusive new video conversation with Eric Rohmer and Barbet Schroeder; the short films "Nadja in Paris", "Charlotte and Her Steak", "Une étudiante d’aujourd’hui", "The Camber", and "Véronique and Her Dunce"; archival interviews with Rohmer, actors Jean-Claude Brialy, Béatrice Romand, Laurence de Monaghan, and Jean-Louis Trintignant, film critic Jean Douchet, and producer Pierre Cottrell; a video Afterword with filmmaker and writer Neil LaBute; and original theatrical trailers.

PLUS: A book featuring the original stories by Eric Rohmer, and a booklet featuring “For a Talking Cinema” by Eric Rohmer, a memoir from cinematographer Nestor Almendros, and six new essays.

CAT: CC1640D. UPC: 7-15515-01912-5. ISBN: 1-55940-989-4. SRP: $99.95. Street date: 8/15/06

Fox Lorber's VHS and DVD issues of the "Six Moral Tales" films have always been stale-looking and sorely lacking in extras, so this release carries the clarion call of a godsend, and the book containing the original stories by Rohmer is a magnificent addition.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Postcard from Tim

Greetings from Cincinnati! Am feeling much happier and more focused since I stopped compulsively posting on movie message boards. Donna says the Bava book is now moving ahead by giant leaps -- the whole book is now indexed and she's moved on to the illustration insert phase. I'm joining her later today to page through the total layout and decide if any pictures need replacing or to be moved to different pages to better complement the text. My novel-in-progress feels alive again for the first time this year, and probably longer; I've been working on it almost full-time for over a week, which is why I haven't much time for reviewing or blogging. The work is going well; a chapter that has always given me trouble now sings. After working as much as I could on the third act, I've gone back to the beginning to re-read and re-write and work my way toward the portions that remain to be written. It's bringing me great joy. I wrote the first draft of this novel in 1978, and it's gone through various drafts since, but now it's finally gelling into the funny, bizarre and meaningful book I always knew it could be. So I find myself in the odd position of preparing not one, but two books which have been in the works, or in my head, for thirty years! Of course, novel-writing is as sedentary as any other writing, probably moreso, so my earlier stated plans to better organize my life (and unclutter the attic) have temporarily fallen by the wayside. I, we, will get back to that when these books are done. I wish it was easier to structure each day, or even each week, with more variety -- work (writing, viewing, reading), house work, exercise, and the all-too-easily-overlooked fun -- but work is where my days tend to start and end. Anyway, this is how I want to spend the last days of my forties: bringing this novel closer to completion. It's probably unlikely that I'll finish by my birthday, but I plan to keep going as if it is possible, at least perfecting what's already written and laying the groundwork for the rest. Sorry I can't recommend any new movies, but any day I spend reviewing something for this blog takes too much wind out of my other sails, so the only thing I'm watching at the moment with any regularity is Season 2 of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER.

Cheers,
Tim

Monday, May 15, 2006

Val Guest, 1911-2006

The writer-director of several of the most important science fiction films to emerge prior to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), Val Guest died last week on May 10 at the age of 94. As any cinematic Anglophile will tell you, Guest was also a bit more than just that, having written more than 80 different pictures and directed a somewhat lesser number of well-tuned, high-toned thrillers, adventures, comedies, dramas, and musicals. But those of us who were reared on fantasy films in the 1950s remember him as the fellow who was inspired by such American films as THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) to evolve a genre mostly about rayguns and spaceships into a realm of exciting, speculative, yet often sobering ideas. Crackling with theory and argument, and also conscious of human frailty, his films had a steely intelligence and an air of pregnant possibility which the genre often promised but had seldom known.

A director since 1943, Guest's first step into the fantastic was a film I've still never seen, 1951's MR. DRAKE'S DUCK, which the IMDb describes as a British, science fiction variation on GREEN ACRES. (I obviously have to see it.) But his name began to mean something to devotées of the genre with the arrival of Hammer's THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955, initially known in America as THE CREEPING UNKNOWN). Based on the BBC teleplay by Nigel Kneale. Guest's script compressed the six-part serial into a tight 82 minutes and made the most of a low budget by having Brian Donlevy (as Professor Bernard Quatermass) and a crew of supportive British talent fire speculative dialogue back and forth at one another. Here Guest also guided actor Richard Wordsworth through a memorable performance as Victor Caroon, a returning experimental space pilot who physically absorbs his fellow crewmen, along with part of a cactus, attacks a pre-teen Jane Asher, and morphs into a gelid nightmare that hides out inside Westminster Abbey. Wordsworth's performance is truly eerie and poignant, on a level that few actors achieved in the genre after the heydays of Karloff and Lugosi.

Guest was subsequently retained by Hammer to adapt and direct QUATERMASS 2 (1957, aka ENEMY FROM SPACE), which upped the ante of quality and speculation despite having a less explicit monster to show. It was the first British science fiction film to use the genre to venture criticism of government and, thus, became a sort of English parallel to Don Siegel's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Guest effectively kept the "monsters" almost entirely offscreen in THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN OF THE HIMALAYAS (also '57), starring Peter Cushing and Forrest Tucker, based on Kneale's teleplay "The Creature." In 1958, Hammer hired Guest to film THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND, a gritty Japanese Prisoner of War drama that proved successful enough to launch its own short-lived franchise.

In 1961, working with another talented writer (Wolf Mankowitz, of THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED), Guest co-wrote and directed THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE, a still-powerful account of the global nervous breakdown that occurs after nuclear tests of two global powers knocks the planet off its orbit and hurtling toward the sun. As with Guest's earlier films, urgent dialogue led to potent performances -- in this case from Leo McKern, Edward Judd, and Janet Munro -- and an adult complexity all too rare at the time to fantasy cinema. Guest would work with Mankowitz again on 1965's WHERE THE SPIES ARE, starring David Niven and Françoise Dorleac, one of the best of the early Bond knock-offs.

Guest's work with Niven aided his selection as one of the five directors (and, it's said, ultimately the principal one) of 1967's gonzophrenic Bond-for-all CASINO ROYALE, also co-scripted by Wolf Mankowitz. After decades of being critically maligned, the uneven film has started to evolve into less of a guilty pleasure in recent years, which may say something about its post-modern qualities, its jam-packed MAD Magazine-spoof patina, or simply how far we have fallen. Guest followed it with another, more serious spy effort, ASSIGNMENT K (1968, starring Stephen Boyd, which reunited Guest and Leo McKern), and a wholly original project, a sci-fi musical called TOOMORROW (1970), starring Olivia Newton-John and featuring Harrison Marks model Margaret Nolan.

After directing WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1970), which received one of Hammer's few Oscar nominations (for Jim Danforth's stop-motion animation effects), Guest suffered some of the slings and arrows of a backsliding British film industry, succumbing to campy skinflick comedies (AU PAIR GIRLS, CONFESSIONS OF A WINDOW CLEANER) and television assignments. Guest directed his last film, THE BOYS IN BLUE, in 1982. Since then, he and his wife of more than 50 years, Yolande Donlan (an actress who appeared in several of his films), have personally endeared themselves to film fans by lending their charm and wit to numerous retrospectives, festivals and conventions.

Any career in which the likes of HELL IS A CITY, EXPRESSO BONGO and THE FULL TREATMENT (aka STOP ME BEFORE I KILL!) are reduced to also-rans must be counted an extraordinary success. But as long as science fiction remains a cinema of ideas, conscience and consequence, the spirit of Val Guest will always occupy an honored place at the table.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Sus obsesiones son mis obsesiones


Video WatchBlog is now well into its sixth month of activity, but until today, I don't think the name of Jess Franco has ever arisen here. This is strange because, as everyone knows, Franco is a central figure to VIDEO WATCHDOG; he was the subject of VW's first in-depth feature article ("How To Read a Franco Film") and VW has always striven to stay on top of his mercurial filmography, which amounts to more than 180 titles as a director, not counting numerous variants.

Today I must invoke Franco's name because (bring out the trombones!) it's the great man's 76th birthday, according to most references. He claims to be somewhat younger, but Franco revels in self-mythification and knows full well that most of his claims are preposterous. He's not just full of it; his claim that several of his films were based on novels he published under the name of David Khune, none of which have ever surfaced, has been reasoned as a tip of the hat to one of his favorite authors, H.P. Lovecraft, himself fond of window-dressing his horror stories with citations of various faux- and meta-fiction. It's this sort of delicious, costs-nothing patina that Franco and his knowing fans see as production value.

I was once one of many American critics who disregarded Franco's work at first glance, but somehow his work clicked with me when I first saw THE LOVES OF IRINA (now known as FEMALE VAMPIRE on domestic DVD) , VENUS IN FURS, and VAMPYROS LESBOS. I subsequently became the first American critic to write extensively and seriously about Franco's work, and one of the co-authors of OBSESSION: THE FILMS OF JESS FRANCO, the long-out-of-print and most-hotly-collectable book on the subject. Certainly my own search for elusive and definitive cuts of Franco's work helped to fuel my imagination in the direction of THROAT SPROCKETS, and I think most people-in-the-know can see that Sadilsa was my fictional projection of Franco, while that novel's Dark Lady was a similar projection of Soledad Miranda.

Most people have difficulty "getting into" Franco, as I did, and I'm not altogether sure why this barrier exists. I suspect it has something to do with challenging traditional precepts of how films "should" be made, but I know that watching a Franco film properly requires more from a viewer than receptive passivity. This is why I admittedly go through periods when I find myself absolutely obsessed with Franco's work and times when I don't feel up to the task of meeting it head-on. But there is no time when I am not an ardent Franco collector. In defense of this claim, here's a silly little impulse poem I wrote last December, after adding some new Franco titles to my collection, and posted at the Latarnia: Fantastique International forums:

I LOVE MY FRANCO DVD'S

When I count my blessings at Christmas time

I reflect on many things sublime

I'm a lucky sort of son of a gun

But when it comes to passions, I have one...

I've gotta lotta stuff, as much as you please

I've got my bread, my wine, my cheese

I've got my health, got no disease

All the horror fanzines I could seize

I've got CD shelves as tall as some trees

My widescreen set is the bee's knees

I'm having too much fun to catch any Z's

The books I've collected make me cry "Jeez!"

I like 'em all as much as you please

But I LOVE my Franco DVDs.

I was organizing to save some space

Wanted to have all my Francos in one place

But I couldn't fit 'em all in the same banker's box

It took two or three, stacked up like blocks

My collection is nothing at which to sneeze

There's close to a hundred, stacked twos and threes

They come from here and overseas

I've got Spanish and German and Japanese

I've written about 'em with expertise

I could hug 'em all till we turned Siamese

When I get a new one, my smile wants to freeze

My friends wanna be my estate's trustees

How those "Newstand Only" titles tease...

'Cause I LOVE my Franco DVDs.

One of these Mondays, I'm going to surprise you all by announcing an all-Jess Franco week here at Video WatchBlog. I can't do it this week or next, or the one after, because I'm busy with book projects at least through the end of the month, but someday. That's a promise.

In the meantime -- Happy Birthday, Tio Jess, wherever you are! Sus obsesiones son mis obsesiones... and I can't imagine my life or the world of film without them. I wish you long life and an even longer filmography!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Quoth Meiko Kaji: Nevermore

Few movie directors have ever loved a woman's face with the intensity that Shunya Ito loved the face of actress Meiko Kaji. His fascination with the fire of reproach in her bottomlessly black eyes is potently communicated in the three "Female Prisoner #701" films he directed: FEMALE PRISONER #701 SCORPION (1972, available on Tokyo Shock DVD), followed by two others released in 1973, FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION JAILHOUSE 41 (alas, Image Entertainment's essential DVD is now out of print and commanding big bucks) and FEMALE PRISONER #701 SCORPION: BEAST STABLE. Those of us who saw the first two have been on tenterhooks while waiting for the rest of the series to show up, and now Tokyo Shock -- a subsidiary of Media Blasters -- has finally released BEAST STABLE on DVD for the first time, along with the series' fourth and final entry, FEMALE PRISONER #701 SCORPION: GRUDGE SONG (likewise 1973), directed by series one-timer Yasyharu Hasebe.

Let's see that face again.

Somehow the passive beauty of Meiko Kaji's face comes to fuller life when her character, Nami Matsushima (also known as Sasori, or "Scorpion"), is holding something sharp or standing victoriously in a pool of blood. But it comes to fullest life when she's looking over her shoulder, her dark eyes burning with hateful promise.

Sasori is part of the cinema's great lineage of avenging angels, like Myrna Loy in THIRTEEN WOMEN (1932), Jeanne Moreau in THE BRIDE WORE BLACK (1968), the ghostly little girl in Mario Bava's KILL, BABY... KILL! (1966), and of course, Uma Thurman's Beatrix Kiddo in KILL BILL, VOLUMES 1 and 2 (2003-04) -- a diptych clearly inspired by the "Female Prisoner Scorpion" films and Meiko Kaji's other vengeful showcase, LADY SNOWBLOOD (1973). Sasori is also the most poignantly, assertively, and positively feministic of these characters, though it helps her status that not a single man inhabiting her universe is anything but the lowest scum imaginable, regardless of social or official position. Like most of those other characters, Sasori stays mostly mute as she sets about evening a progressively cosmic scorecard (Beatrix Kiddo, being a creation of Quentin Tarantino, has much to say), so one never gets a proper sense of Meiko Kaji's abilities as an actress. But as screen presences go, she has a star quality that gets deeply under one's skin -- not least of all because, no matter how sordid the material, she never loses her dignity or her positive charge.

His name is not as well known here in America as those of Seijun Suzuki, Kinji Fukasaku, or even Nobuo Nakagawa, but I daresay that Shunya Ito was, or is, the most consistently powerful Japanese stylist of the bunch. The Japanese industry was clearly aware of his talent, too; the Toei trailer for the first "Female Prisoner Scorpion" film mentions him by name while stressing the importance of his debut, and the trailer for BEAST STABLE, made only one year later, hails it as the "masterpiece of his career." (Yes, already.) Perhaps his star burned too brightly, and perhaps it's a fault of research, but the IMDb shows BEAST STABLE followed by a nearly ten-year gap in his filmography.

I have not yet watched GRUDGE SONG, but for anyone wanting my recommendation for one or two handy, single-disc definitions of dazzling and audacious low-budget film technique, I would point to Mario Bava's BLACK SABBATH (or BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, take your pick) and, now, FEMALE PRISONER #701 SCORPION: BEAST STABLE. I would gladly assign credit to the cameraman, but the film itself doesn't appear to do so. From beginning to end, the visual invention is ceaseless though, miraculously, it never upstages the emotions of the story, which is functionally more of a multi-faceted character study than either of the previous two films. In fact, it's probably because this film is more intimately pitched that its technique is more compelling than in either of the earlier films, which are just as riveting in their own right.

The scene above is a classic example. Sasori, an escaped convict, is wanted by the law and is the particular quarry of a detective (Mikio Narita) who lost his arm while foolishly attempting to apprehend her on a subway train. Here, Sasori's presence is conveyed by a wall of almost preposterously sexy "Wanted" posters while her silhouette deals pointedly with the latest in a series of would-be captors. Later in her plight, she takes to hiding out in the sewers of Tokyo, where a friend (a hooker who sells glimpses of her sex, illuminated by however many matches she's paid to light) summons her by dropping matches through the grating of a manhole cover. The image of these matches plummeting through the darkness as she calls "Sasori... Sasori..." is so poignant and haunting that the director cannot resist increasing the speed and number of the matches falling, until the image becomes absolutely hallucinatory, a literal torch song. A throwaway scene in a nightclub is almost frighteningly hopped-up by frame-dropping, and even the dullest dialogue scene sticks in the memory due to a lamp that's allowed to swing in the foreground.

And then there are the other characters -- all tragic, some hateful. The aforementioned hooker, Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe), lives with an older brother reduced by a work-related accident to a sex-crazed vegetable. Incestuous rape has seasoned into numb, incestuous submission and unwanted pregnancy. Yuki meets Sasori in a cemetary; lying on the ground after sex-for-cash, a grating sound draws her attention to a nearby headstone, where she sees the fugitive glowering at her from afar, ferally holding in clenched teeth a man's severed arm, to which she is handcuffed, viciously filing the chain against the edge of the grave marker! (That's another thing about Shunya Ito's films: the story content is seldom less delirious than the technique.) There is another pregnant prostitute, too, and the most difficult sequence to endure counterpoints the two women's abortions -- one voluntary, the other not. It's not a graphic sequence, but the screams of the woman who wants to keep her baby are as bone-piercing as an arctic wind. Then there is the evil prostitution ringleader Katsu (Reisen Lee), an ugly, cackling, cross-eyed woman garbed in raven's feathers -- in each of the films, Sasori's beauty is contrasted with the ugliness of some opposing female -- who keeps a cage of ravens as a place of punishment. She is thrilled when Sasori (whom she knew in prison) falls into her clutches, but Sasori has her revenge... largely because she gets deeply under Katsu's skin, too.


The final act is gripping in the fever pitch of its delirium, but also irritating to the extent that it introduces minor details that compromise the film's otherwise perfect design. It involves Sasori being arrested for arson (we never learn the circumstances) and enacting two final acts of vengeance from behind bars. What is great about this section is that her presence in the prison may be a delusion of one of the inmates, driven crazy, and her persecution may not actually occur other than on the abstract planes of symbolism or madness. But a needless, penultimate voice-over suggests that Sasori really was there, an assertion that plays hob with the episode's delicious ambiguity and screams "studio interference." (Was this why Shunya Ito walked away from the series?) Despite this, the director follows the voice-over with one last tour de force -- a wholly visual, decorous moment that exists outside reality and even outside filmic reality -- that reasserts his artistic control and ties just the right bow around the overall package.

To the very end, FEMALE PRISONER SCORPION: BEAST STABLE holds one spellbound, enamored, disgusted, amused, and constantly on edge. It's an astonishing piece of work.

Monday, May 08, 2006

A New Chapter

I haven't written here in a few days and I don't really feel like posting today either, but I wanted people to know what's going on with me.

Last Friday, a good friend of ours, Wayne Perry, died in his sleep at the age of 54. That link will lead you to a spendid memorial article that appeared in THE CINCINNATI POST, for which he worked as a features editor, and it will tell you how loved and respected he was as a man and as a newspaperman. Donna and I met Wayne through his wife Jan, a POST columnist whom we've known for about twelve years, ever since she worked the late shift at a local service bureau we used to employ. Though Donna and I are both native Cincinnatians, we know fairly few local people and socialize with even fewer. Wayne and Jan were one of only two couples whom we regularly see; they would occasionally invite us to join them for dinner when they were assigned to do restaurant reviews for the paper. Consequently, nearly every single one of our favorite restaurants in town was first experienced in their warm and chatty company.

When Jan called to tell us that Wayne had died -- according to the coroner, of an advanced yet undiagnosed heart disease -- we felt shaken... then grieving and very, very sorrowful for Jan... and then we became very fatigued and very scared. As the mental shock faded on Saturday, we began to feel bodily injured by the news. Donna said she felt like she had been punched in the stomach; I felt like I had been punched in the chest. We found it hard to do much else other than to sit and stare, reminisce, or nap to recharge our batteries.

Counting up all the times we'd actually met and spent time with Wayne, we were surprised to realize it was maybe only ten or twelve times at most, but all of our get-togethers had been undertaken in the spirit of enjoying good food, good company, and good conversation. But above all, the impact of Wayne's death had most to do with the fact that he and Jan reminded us very much of ourselves. They were writers and collectors who lived in a big, rambling old turn-of-the-century house, who worked together, who had a great many friends but not much time to share with them, who worked too hard. Wayne was an easy-going guy with a wonderfully dour sense of humor, but he often seemed frazzled by the responsibilities of his job.

Our emotions exhausted us, but as Saturday wore on, we felt the need to take some kind of action. Donna realized that she hadn't put anything in place to help me make sense of her duties and our financial obligations, if she were to predecease me, so she embarked on writing a computer program that would answer any questions I might have. We also talked about material possessions and what burdens they can be to survivors in events such as this, so I took to the attic and embraced the physical therapy of clearing out some of my unnecessary videotape accumulation -- the duplicates and redundancies and the no-longer-relevant-or-interesting detritus of my collection. I only went through a portion of my VHS tapes, but by Sunday at dusk, I had discarded something in the neighborhood of 400 tapes. I just put them on the curb and the garbage truck took them away this morning.

This pro-active therapy was good for us and Donna and I are starting to rebound from the shock. It's now Monday and time to continue working on the Bava book. Donna will need to consult me about this, so I have to remain "on call" to answer questions and offer suggestions, but I also want to use my time more valuably, which means spending less time in this chair. I've decided to withdraw as an active participant from the online boards it's been my habit to frequent over the last 10 or 11 years. I value the friendships I've made through these boards, but there has also been a fair amount to stress attached. All told, there have been too many days when I've spent hours responding to other people's passing curiosity, wasting time creatively, and even defending my own honor. None of these things seems a valid priority at present. Meanwhile, my office has been a wreck since January and it's about time I did something to make my work environment more welcoming; that I could endure this clutter for so long, I think, says something about the degree to which I have been inhabiting my own reality. I need to embrace life for awhile, even in its drudgery. I've also discovered that I enjoy writing fiction in longhand while sitting on the swing in our backyard, and something may come out of that.

In short, Wayne's death has been a wake-up call of sorts. I am going to be turning 50 at the end of this month, so perhaps this is my mid-life crisis, but I'm now more aware that there are things I have to do... things that Donna may have to do if I don't do them... things I want to do with my life... things I want to achieve... things that don't involve sitting here and filling my time at this keyboard... things I may not have the energy or the opportunity to do, if I keep putting them off. This isn't the end of Video WatchBlog, but I expect it is the end of what some might consider my online over-exposure.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Cinco de Mayo with Princess Asa

A couple of nights ago, I decided for no particular reason to treat myself to a spontaneous little "Barbara Steele on Television" film festival. Thanks to a couple of proverbial tapes from the attic, I was able to watch her early guest appearances in JAMES A. MICHENER'S ADVENTURES IN PARADISE ("Daughter of Illusion" -- Season 2, Episode 10, first aired December 10, 1960) and ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS ("Beta Delta Gamma" -- Season 7, Episode 6, first aired November 14, 1961).
While the HITCHCOCK appearance actually followed Steele's role in BLACK SUNDAY and coincided with her return to Los Angeles to appear in Roger Corman's PIT AND THE PENDULUM, the ADVENTURES IN PARADISE (a prophecy in that acronym: AIP) episode was the only thing ever released from her short-lived, "blonde" phase at 20th Century Fox. Here, she plays "the delectable Dolores," the daughter of a magician (Alan Napier) who is smuggling diamonds out of a South Pacific island sewn onto the costume of second assistant Sondi Sondsai in place of the customary rhinestones. I hadn't seen an episode of this show since childhood and had only vague recollections of it, but this one was charming, with fine work by all, and Steele -- speaking in her own voice, of course -- is quite natural, at ease, and good humored in it. I always found her blonde publicity poses ludicrous, the lighter hair color so ill-suited to her face, but onscreen, smiling and in motion, she's a fairly convincing blonde. But I still don't think I would have bought her in blue jeans opposite Elvis Presley in FLAMING STAR.

Barbara shares a laugh with ADVENTURES IN PARADISE co-star Alan Napier.

My memory of the HITCHCOCK episode, which I hadn't seen since I originally recorded it off of Nick at Nite (where it was much ballyhooed as being shown "uncut," but shown without the famous Hitchcock profile intermission card), was that Steele scarcely appeared in it, but it's actually a prominent supporting role with quite a bit of dialogue. She seems miscast as one of a group of California college kids -- maybe she was cast from one of those blonde Fox publicity pics. There is no explanation for her age, her accent, or her obvious sophistication, but she plays one of an ensemble who pull the prank of convincing a fellow party attendant (bombed on beer) that he committed a murder while intoxicated, only to have the joke backfire on them. What's odd about the episode is that it's the fresher-faced kids who hatch the plan, quietly goaded on by a bearded but otherwise baby-faced Severn Darden (with an unrecognizable Barbara Harris, future star of FAMILY PLOT, as his girlfriend -- buried under a wig and behind dark glasses), while Steele, introduced doing a slinky cha-cha to the music on a record player, is mostly a dissenting voice of conscience. I suppose that director Alan Crosland Jr. was playing against type, but it is she who ultimately places the "murder" weapon in the hand of the passed-out, hapless hero, top-lined Burt Brinckerhoff.

As a slinky college prankster in ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS' "Beta Delta Gamma."

This little mini-festival of mine tweaked my curiosity, so I turned to the IMDb to see what other early TV Steele might have done. I knew about the SECRET AGENT and I SPY gigs, but I was very surprised to find a listing for a 1961 BONANZA episode called "The Tin Badge." This has got to be one of those IMDb mix-ups; not just because I can't imagine Barbara Steele and Dan Blocker inhabiting the same cinematic universe, but because the IMDb cast list shows two actresses in the role of "Sylvia Ann" -- Barbara Steele and Karen Steele. That's too much Steele for a "Tin Badge." I vote for Karen as the Steele most likely to have visited the Ponderosa.

Speaking of Barbara's TV appearances, does anyone out there have a copy of THE SPACE-WATCH MURDERS, a made-for-television film from the 1970s that features a brief appearance by Barbara as a green-faced alien? That's something I'd love to find.

Rounding out this Cinco de Mayo look back at "Barbara Steele on Television": You may remember that, many blogs ago, I mentioned my surprise discovery of Barbara in a 1960s music video by an Italian artist named Gianni Pieretti. I couldn't provide grabs from the video at that time, but now, here at long last, are a few frame grabs from "Julie Julie." It's just a silly little time capsule, but whoever was responsible for hiring her that morning or afternoon, I think they just might have lucked out and caught The Queen of Horror on the day, hour, and moment when her unusual beauty was at its zenith. This fellow Pieretti just enters frame and flops down beside her on the couch, lip-synching. No wonder Barbara spends the next few minutes looking either cross, bored, or bemused. But regardless of how she's looking, she looks absolutely enchanting.

"You mean I'm just supposed to sit here? What if Federico calls?"

Adesso fingere lei è vampiro, Barbara! ! Molto brava!

Guardare la sua faccia... Lei mai ha visto che niente l'ami?

Ahhhh... semplicemente fantastico.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Add These to Your Datebook

TONIGHT: At 7:30 p.m. eastern time, Turner Classic Movies' Festival of Shorts offers a pair of rarely-seen two-reel shorts directed for MGM by Jacques Tourneur: "Killer-Dog" and "The Jonker Diamond." Both produced in 1936, these were among the first films Tourneur made in this country after leaving France; in fact, "The Jonker Diamond" was the first. Fans of Tourneur's work in the Val Lewton series and elsewhere won't want to miss these early demonstrations of his taste, skill and directorial economy. In case I am not giving you sufficient notice, TCM is running these again at 5:30 a.m. eastern, very early next Tuesday morning, May 9. (TCM's online schedule designates this as their last offering of the day on Monday, May 8, but everything after midnight is the next day, according to the way I was brought up.)

THIS WEEKEND: Those of you who live in the Los Angeles area and are looking for something to do this weekend should saunter over to Drkrm. Gallery (2121 North San Fernando Road, Suite 3, Los Angeles, 90065) for the opening of VW contributor David Del Valle's photographic exhibit, "Haunted Hacienda." No, David didn't go to Mexico with a camera... this exhibition -- in session from May 5 to June 3 -- celebrates the mise en scène of the Mexican horror cinema through rare stills from the Del Valle Archives. For more information, about the exhibit and about David himself, visit http://fanbase1.com/killgraphic/gallery/galleryindex.html

VIDEO WATCHDOG #125 should be reaching subscribers by now, and we look forward to hearing some feedback.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

What We Have In Mind is Breakfast in Bed for 200,000

Earlier today, Video WatchBlog topped 200,000 hits. It's a good excuse for me to thank you all, once again, for your regular attendance and giving me audience and reason to write some things out of my system that might not otherwise get written.

I spent today writing my next SIGHT AND SOUND "No Zone" column, which is about Pola Rapoport's WRITER OF O, a documentary about STORY OF O's pseudonymous author Pauline Réage, who after several decades revealed herself to be Dominique Aury, an editor at Editions Gallimard. Without previewing my column too much, this is one of the most extraordinary and moving films about writing and love of literature that I've seen. It streets next week, and I recommend it to all of you, hand on heart. It's not just a documentary; it also includes dramatic stagings of scenes from STORY OF O (superior, I feel, to the 1975 Just Jaeckin film) and the essay "A Girl in Love," and dramatic recreations of events that actually happened -- and it all flows together beautifully, without seeming in the least indecisive about what kind of film it wants to be.

WRITER OF O's depiction of Madame Réage's writing habits left me feeling as though I have disgraced my craft by not writing more often in longhand. Before the computer age, I used to write in longhand a great deal -- in a personal journal, and also fiction that I wrote on index cards that I subsequently stacked in order and held together with rubber bands. I got my first PC in 1985, and it was paid for with money I received for agreeing to write four volumes and edit all twelve of VIDEO TIMES' "Your Movie Guide" paperback series, which Signet Books later published. Since that time, except for signing books and the monthly checks I send to my debtors, I've basically stopped writing in longhand and do all my writing the way I am writing these words now.

There was one exception: a lone piece of fiction that I wrote in my attic on a legal pad in a sudden burst of inspiration. After watching WRITER OF O, I was inspired to search for it. I found it copied into my computer and dated exactly ten years and one week ago. As I read through its eight pages, the material felt exciting to me and I am thinking of returning to it, extending it into either a novella or novel, and writing the whole thing by hand -- organically. The way artists paint. The way musicians play their instruments.

Oddly enough, my second novel THE BOOK OF RENFIELD was written in a similar way, with the opening chapter written (if memory serves) eight years before the rest of the book. I've been thinking lately that the best way to write is to write fast, to give one's writing the benefit of absorbing one's subconscious, which naturally dissipates the more an author consciously thinks about what he/she is writing, over time. The screenplay I wrote with Charlie Largent, THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES, was written this way and, while some layerings of the material were constructed deliberately, the script also contains a wealth of subtext that entered into the project because it wasn't belabored and thus made too "conscious," and also because we knew our subject well enough that we didn't have to think too much before we wrote each new page. Vladimir Nabokov once wrote that LOLITA was his favorite novel, but that INVITATION TO A BEHEADING (one of my favorites) was the one for which he had the most respect because it came to him in an instant and was completed nearly as fast. Thanks to my collaboration with Charlie, I know how that feels.

To create something new and add it your shelf -- to your self as a broadening achievement -- is one of the best feelings in the world, and I really, really, really want to get back there.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Gidget Goes to Cinecittà

While taking advantage of a recent Deep Disc Discount "Buy So Many, Get One Free" sale, I decided to add Columbia's THE COMPLETE GIDGET COLLECTION to my shopping cart, even though none of the transfers were letterboxed or anamorphic. It was a matter of education for me; I know the BEACH PARTY movies very well, know the various knock-offs (BEACH BALL, THE GIRLS ON THE BEACH, OUT OF SIGHT, etc) pretty well, but I've always been a little weak on the GIDGET series -- GIDGET (1959), GIDGET GOES HAWAIIAN (1961) and GIDGET GOES TO ROME (1963). They started out of the gate a little before my theater-going time, and I didn't warm to the sequels as a kid.

Now, with my memory of all three films duly refreshed, I can see that the GIDGET series was somewhat weak on itself. For some reason, the lead role was one that aspiring young actresses apparently couldn't wait to get away from. A different girl plays Frances "Gidget" Lawrence in all three films, and (I guess appropriately) different actors play her parents in all three, as well. (The mother in the second film, the curiously named Jeff Donnell, plays the same role in the third, opposite a different husband, swapping out bossy Carl Reiner for mellow Don Porter, who would play Gidget's widowed father on the later ABC-TV series starring Sally Field.) Only James Darren as Jeffrey "Moondoggie" Matthews remains constant... on the cast list, anyway; his character's heart is all over the place, and he's seldom written to be much more than handsome, superficial and dedicated to playing the field. We never really learn what makes Moondoggie tick, or what bonds Gidget to him so readily and tenaciously. Darren tries to give the character a depth that isn't really there by smoking and brooding. He also sings the theme songs for all three films. The entire trilogy, if we can use that word for movies like this, were directed by Paul Wendkos, a director who worked predominantly in series television and is probably best remembered today for THE MEPHISTO WALTZ (1971).

GIDGET is by far the best of the three films. It's the ebullient story of a young girl's determination to become part of the beach/surf culture that attracts her -- but the movie also has interesting subtexts concerning the lingering aftermath of WWII on surviving soldiers and the burgeoning spirit of feminism. Sandra Dee gives an endearingly stubborn and spirited performance, but the movie is stolen by Cliff Robertson -- brown as a blue-eyed tobacco leaf -- giving a gritty portrayal as an enigmatic, self-described "beach bum" known as "The Big Kahuna." The nickname has become a cliché over the years, but Robertson's performance is not. Tom Laughlin and Doug McClure are recognizable among the surfers, and Yvonne Craig (not as formidably sexy as she would be in THE GENE KRUPA STORY, but always worth seeing in a bikini) and 13 GHOSTS' Jo Morrow are among Gidget's friends. Watching the movie actually stoked my interest in reading the book on which it's based, a memoir by Kathy Kohner Zuckerman (the real "Gidget," whose nickname was a contraction of "girl midget") and her screenwriter father Frederick Kohner (who wrote 1944's THE LADY AND THE MONSTER).

GIDGET GOES HAWAIIAN may have the most famous title of the three films, but it's the broadest, campiest, and (for me) least enjoyable of the series. Too bad, because I think Deborah Walley, of the three Gidget actresses showcased here, inhabits the role most comfortably; I always liked the shadings she brought to Les, her female drummer character in the Elvis vehicle SPINOUT, and it would have been nice to see what she could have done with Gidget story with more adult (or adult-ish) shadings, such as the first one had. When this sequel tries to get adult, it gets unpleasantly snarky or sappy; the primary "situation" of this "situation comedy" results when Gidget's overly romantic, overly dramatic nature gives another girl the impression that she's no longer a virgin, which leads to gossip and a spoiled reputation. As vacations go, this is a bad one, and it's made no more pleasant by Carl Reiner's loud and unlikeable Mr. Lawrence, a far cry from Arthur O'Connell in the original, who had his apoplectic moments but was kindly and a bit dithering even when he was laying down the law. It's easy to understand why the sequel's Mrs. Lawrence drinks a bit more than the first one did.

As a Eurocultist, I was especially interested to see GIDGET GOES TO ROME, which was made in the Eternal City at the very height of not only the Golden Age of Italian Fantasy, but of "la dolce vita" as well. Here, Cindy Carol (real name: Carol Sydes) -- the worst Gidget of all -- convinces her parents to grant her adult independence by allowing her to join a mixed group of friends on a trip to Rome. As would also occur in another Elvis vehicle, GIRL HAPPY, the following year, Gidget's father arranges for a "respectable" male acquaintence (Cesare Danova in this case) to look after his young daughter without her knowing she's under adult supervision, and the close attention results in an unintentional romantic bond. Meanwhile, Jeffrey falls for the party's Italian tour guide, Danielle De Metz -- who is actually French. The movie becomes a HERCULES UNCHAINED-style study in infidelities of the heart, and without a single scene that takes place at the beach, it seems to be a Gidget film in name only. The filmmakers are very aware of a certain side of Italian cinema, making self-conscious references to LA DOLCE VITA (a romp through the Trevi Fountain and a crazy party that verbally references the movie) and throwing in a Biblical peplum daydream sequence for good measure, and Cindy Carol's moony, swoony Gidget is a bit like the character played by Leticia Roman in Bava's THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH; her imagination is an ashtray that's collected the butts of all the foreign films she's read about in movie magazines but has never seen. Nevertheless, I was pleased and surprised to have the pain of an otherwise hard-to-endure movie eased by a veritable parade of beloved faces and locations from the annals of Italian genre fare. For instance (and feel free to CLICK on these images to enlarge them)...

Gidget's debonair hotel manager is played by Claudio Gori, later the police chief in DANGER: DIABOLIK.

Cesare Danova's wife (sorry, Gidge... he's married!) is played by the lovely Lisa Gastoni, who, under the name "Jane Fate," appeared in a couple of Antonio Margheriti space operas, including the legendary WILD, WILD PLANET.

The Maitre 'D at the restaurant where Cesare Danova introduces Gidget to the pleasures of Italian bitter aperitifs is played by Umberto Raho, who starred the same year in Riccardo Freda's THE GHOST. He would later be featured in Dario Argento's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE.

Later in the film, while snooping around backstage at a fashion show, Gidget is mistaken for a model, stripped and redressed by a flurry of dressers. To my astonishment, one of the model dressers (on the right) was none other than my dear, late and much-missed friend Harriet White Medin, familiar from her performances in PAISAN, LA DOLCE VITA, BLACK SABBATH, THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK, THE WHIP AND THE BODY and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. This appearance was completely unknown to me, and it's not included in her IMDb filmography!

As an added kick, James Darren is shown at the end of this sequence brooding and smoking on the lip of the runway, which was evidently the same interior location used for Christiane Haute Couture in Bava's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, filmed toward the end of the same year. (Albeit with red curtains, of course.)

Finally, when Gidget and Jeffrey (there's really no reason to call him "Moondoggie" in such a landlocked scenario) seek sanctuary at the American Embassy, there is an appearance by Jim Dolen -- an actor with close-cropped white hair whom you may remember as an undercover cop in THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBERG -- as an embassy spokesman. And the guard standing a couple of shoulders to his right is none other than Gustavo de Nardo, the actor with whom Mario Bava worked more than any other. He appears in THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, BLACK SABBATH (opposite Harriet Medin), THE WHIP AND THE BODY (ditto), BARON BLOOD and RABID DOGS, but almost never accepted screen credit. When Jim Dolen speaks in this movie, perhaps for the only time in his screen career with direct sound recording, I recognized a voice I've known all my life from dubbed movies filmed in Rome. (I've tried in vain to upload the frame grab I took from this sequence, but it refuses to cooperate, so please refer to your own disc or, failing that, your imagination.)

THE COMPLETE GIDGET COLLECTION turned out to be more worthwhile than I expected, transfer-wise, because, of the three films, only the first is really and truly "modified to fit your screen." It's a 2.35:1 film cropped and panned and scanned to give you only half of every single composition -- apart from the opening credits, of course. It deserves to be remastered in anamorphic widescreen. The other two films were shot open aperture and shown theatrically with a soft projection matte; both of these can be zoomed up on a widescreen monitor and look pretty nice.

So. When all is said and done, who was the best Gidget?

No contest, ladies and gentlemen: Sally Field. I don't know how well the series stands up as a whole, but the concept seemed to find its true footing once it became a half-hour situation comedy, and I remember Field's Gidget as likeable and endearing. She knew how to play all of the character's eccentricities in a way that made her seem interesting and upbeat and kooky rather than merely fanciful and meddling, and she was also a deft physical comedienne. I was on the point of asking "Where's the box set?" when I checked Amazon.com and found that one was actually released by Sony last month.

Surf's up, Watchdoggie!

Sunday, April 30, 2006

One Of My Favorite eBay Winnings

This treasure needs no annotation. Just enjoy.