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:


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.