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.