Friday, June 23, 2006

A Friday Ramble Through Truth and Beauty


The July 2006 issue of SIGHT & SOUND is on newsstands this week, with Gael Garcia Bernál on the cover. In this month's issue, my "NoZone" column is devoted to the Zeitgeist Films DVD release, WRITER OF O, Pola Rapaport's extraordinary docudrama about Pauline Réàge, the pseudonymous author of the novel THE STORY OF O.

Speaking as a novelist, I find it very rare that any film accurately conveys the passion and interpersonal politics involved in writing fiction, but Ms. Rapaport's grasp of these was so knowing that I found her film an unexpectedly moving experience. Never before in the years I've been writing this column have I ever been motivated to seek out a filmmaker to express my feelings directly, but in this case I did, and I found Pola to be an appreciative and equally generous correspondent. In fact, I was so pleased by the response I got from Pola that I subsequently followed my emotions once again and wrote directly to Jonathan Weiss, the filmmaker responsible for the movie I'm reviewing in the August 2006 S&S, THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION.

I found both of these pictures to be fairly astonishing experiences, and especially in today's world, films made in a spirit of acute honesty and audacity and non-conformity need to be encouraged. Reviews alone would have done the trick, at least the usual trick, but something about the feelings these films awoke (or disturbed) in me encouraged me, for once (well, for twice) to step outside my usual professional boundaries and speak even more directly of their importance and impact to the people who made them.

I wish I had done this with Krzysztof Kieslowski when I first saw THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE, but a film like that (and all the ones that followed) struck me then and still strikes me as the work of a God. I am still astounded whenever I see archival footage of Kieslowski working or being interviewed and see evidence that he was like any number of other people I've known -- rumpled, underslept, carelessly dressed, smoking too much. It also astounds me that all of the amazing women who starred in his greatest films are a decade younger than I am, more or less -- not because I dupe myself into thinking I'm younger than I am, but because these films speak to me with the voice of eternity. They have a power and an inevitability and a perfection that seems to somehow pre-exist not only me, but everything.

Perfection in art has always had that effect on me, as has perfection in design. As a child, I had a terrible time absorbing beauty; I flinched from moments of beauty in movies as much as I hid my eyes during moments of horror. I actually hid my eyes during PINOCCHIO -- not when Lampwick was turning into the donkey (a scene I still find terrifying today), but whenever the Blue Fairy was on the screen, because she was so (too) radiantly beautiful. In the first grade, I can remember a time when the teacher rearranged our desks from the usual parallel queues into clusters of four -- two sets of desks facing one another. To my dismay, I was seated opposite the prettiest little girl in the class (I still remember her name, but I'm not telling you) and started spending all my time either looking down at my desktop or just past her head. If I looked up, I actually began to feel dizzy -- and this is first grade, mind you; it wasn't sexual, it was aesthetic, it was the frigging Stendhal Syndrome. I'm sure I must have feigned illness to skip school a few times just to spare myself those hours of emotional distress. It's a good thing I got over such aversions, but I still carry some emotional residue of them -- like this distance I've tended to impose on myself in regard to filmmakers I admire... or at least those whom I worship, as the case may be.

Perhaps my intense youthful reaction to beauty was the reason why Mario Bava's work spoke to me so directly, with its uncanny knack for tapping the beauty of horror and the ominous power of great beauty. One of my duties this week has been to give my Bava book a final read-through -- my first-ever read-through of an actual-size, illustrated print-out, so this is my first inkling of the power the book is going to have in its final presentation. The pages are in black-and-white at this point, but as I've been making my way through the pages, I have been revisited at times by that old PINOCCHIO feeling -- moved to deep and grateful emotion by the beauty of Bava's aesthetics, and by Donna's confident and potent presentation of my text and the other materials. To my surprise and gratification, I'm finding that reading this book conveys a feeling I never expected: the uncanny sensation of watching a movie.

Without leaving my house, without even loading a camera, I've made a movie too.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

A Call from Mr. Charles Kilgore


A couple of nights ago, I had occasion to enjoy a lengthy telephone conversation with Charles Kilgore, the erstwhile publisher-editor of the award-winning fanzine ECCO: THE WORLD OF BIZARRE VIDEO. We've been friends for more than sixteen years now, and Donna and I get together for dinner with Charles and the charming Mrs. Kilgore every other year when they visit family in Cincinnati over the holidays. As well as we get along, we speak irregularly -- I don't know why -- so we had a lot of catching up to do. It was good catching up, comparing notes on films and music, and also on matters of life and death. This particular talk was prompted a mutual wish to commiserate in the wake of Audrey Campbell's death, because it was Charles who put her and me in touch initially.

Charles also broke the news to me about the death of another friend we had in common, Sam Stetson, an adult film scholar and researcher who passed away last December 27 as the result of a brain tumor. Sam entered my life many years ago, after VW published a news story about a domestic video release called THE SEDUCTION OF AMY, which turned out to be a retitling of one of Jean Rollin's hardcore films, PHANTASMES (1975). Sam provided me with a copy and he and I swapped tapes for awhile; Sam had also built his own 16mm to video chain set-up, and it was he who provided us with the rare "Captain Howdy" images from the EXORCIST TV spots that we published way back in our 6th issue. In the days before Something Weird and Retro-Seduction Cinema, I got most of my Joe Sarno titles from Sam's collection. He also put me in touch with Joe, with whom I continue to stay in touch by phone... and I, in turn, introduced Sam to the Kilgores, who lived near him. Sam came to Fanex in 1992 to meet EUROPEAN TRASH CINEMA's Craig Ledbetter and me, and I have a lasting memory of his story about working as a taxi driver in Los Angeles in the early 1940s and picking up a hooded fare at a remote house one evening who turned out to be Peter Lorre! As my own interest in adult films is limited, Sam and I gradually fell out of touch, but his friendship with the Kilgores, however, turned out to be lifelong and fortuitous; they were of great assistance to him in his last years, and Charles and his wife were astonished to discover, after Sam's death, that he had willed them his house. Charles and I hadn't spoken since last December, before this happened, and I was sorry to hear about Sam's passing.

Whenever people learn of my friendship with Charles (which is a pseudonym, by the way), they often ask if there's ever going to be another issue of ECCO. Considering that the most recent issue (#22) was published eight years ago, this is quite a compliment -- and a well-deserved one. In a nutshell, ECCO was a literate, intelligent, well-written exploration of the films no one else wanted to write about -- K. Gordon Murray movies, X-rated Westerns, swamp movies, hillbillies in the cinema. It also appeared at a time when these movies were harder to find on video, which made its scholarship all the more remarkable. Over the past eight years, Charles has been promising to do at least one more issue, but when I asked him about ECCO's status this time, I found his intentions somewhat revised.

Now in his 50s, Charles tells me that his retirement is coming up in two years and, rather than try to squeeze out another issue in his spare time at this point in his life, he'd rather wait until he can devote his full time to reviving ECCO. He also said that, if and when ECCO returns, it is likely to reincarnate as an online magazine or blog -- and it won't be returning with the subtitle "THE WORLD OF BIZARRE VIDEO." Since ECCO last appeared, the word "bizarre" has been co-opted by the the rubber and latex fetish communities, and Charles doesn't wish to encourage any misunderstandings -- "You wouldn't believe some of the catalogues and things I get in the mail," he chuckled. He also confessed to having lost a good deal of his interest in exploitation films in the past few years, and said that any reincarnation of ECCO would have to reflect his growing interest in international art cinema to be worth his while.

Whatever ECCO becomes, it will be worth reading... and certainly worth the wait.

Tonight's the Night

For those of you who were intrigued by my earlier posting about it, Flix is re-running Louis Malle's BLACK MOON tonight at 3:45 am, Eastern time.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Remo D. Hits One Hundred


Congratulations are also due to another VW contributor!

Shane M. Dallmann joined our Kennel in 1995 as an eloquent and insightful Godzilla commentator in VIDEO WATCHDOG SPECIAL EDITION #2, and he joined VW properly with issue #46, in 1998. But since January 2002, Shane has been moonlighting as "Remo D.," the debonair horror host of the Monterey, California-based public access telecast REMO D.'S MANOR OF MAYHEM. This coming weekend, Remo D. (pictured) will be serving up his... 100th feature film presentation!

Special times call for special pictures, and this weekend's honored cinematic spectacle will be the 1932 classic THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, starring Fay Wray, Leslie Banks, and Joel McCrea. Shane promises that the show will be "filled with surprises from both the past and the future!" This milestone broadcast also happens to be coinciding with this weekend's Monster Bash, so if you're attending with a laptop, why not entice some friends up to your room for a MANOR OF MAYHEM viewing party?

Air times are Friday, June 23rd through Sunday, June 25th... Friday and Saturday at 10:00PM Pacific, and Saturday and Sunday at 5:00AM Pacific, and it can be found in the Monterey area on Cable Channel 24 (AMP) or online at http://www.ampmedia.org/ -- choose "Programs" and then "Live Stream" for Channel 24.

Our most frightful felicitations to Shane (a host with a hook, if ever there was one) and all of his crepuscular compatriots in the Manor of Mayhem!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

CONGRATULATIONS


... to Stephen Jones and VW contributor Kim Newman, whose anthology HORROR: ANOTHER 100 BEST BOOKS has won the Horror Writers Association's coveted Bram Stoker Award for the Best Non-Fiction Book of 2005!

Other Bram Stoker Award winners include:

Novel: CREEPERS by David Morrell and DREAD IN THE BEAST by Charlee Jacob (tie)


First Novel: SCARECROW GODS by Weston Ochse

Long Fiction: "Best New Horror" by Joe Hill

Short Fiction: "We Now Pause for Station Identification" by Gary Braunbeck

Fiction Collection: TWENTIETH CENTURY GHOSTS by Joe Hill

Anthology: DARK DELICACIES edited by Jeff Gelb and Del Howison

Poetry Collection: FREAKCIDENTS by Michael A. Arnzen and SINEATER by Charlee Jacob (tie)

Speciality Press Award: Necessary Evil Press

Richard Laymon / President's Award: Lisa Morton

Lifetime Achievement Award: Peter Straub

VW's Stephen R. Bissette and I were among the contributors to HORROR: ANOTHER 100 BEST BOOKS and we're proud of the book and this victory. It's also presently a nominee for Best Non-Fiction Book on the International Horror Guild Awards ballot (as is Kim's "long fiction" piece for SciFi.com, "The Serial Murders"), and we certainly wish it and him well.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Carburetors, Man. That's What Life is All About.

Swan (Paul Williams) advises new contractee Winslow Leach (William Finley).

PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE 1974, Gaumont/Hollywood Classics Limited, DD-2.0 or 5.1/DTS 5.1/MA/LB/16:9/ST/+, $31.95, 87m 48s, PAL DVD-0
About five years ago, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment finally got around to issuing Brian DePalma's PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE on DVD and kind of botched the job. The packaging was neither colorful or alluring, the transfer was dullish and flecked with grit, the audio was limited to 2.0, and the programming was completely without frills. Now there is an alternative release from Hollywood Classics Limited, a French company working "on behalf" of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, that has exercised conspicuously greater care in delivering this very special cult film to disc. The French have always recognized PHANTOM as a modern classic; as the packaging reminds us, it won the Grand Prize at the Festival du Film Fantastique at Avoriaz in 1975.
In case you're not fortunate enough to have seen the film, it's the story of a naïve young composer, Winslow Leach (William Finley), who hopes to interest the reclusive rock impresario Swan (Paul Williams) in his rock cantata-in-progress, FAUST. Swan proceeds to steal the music, which Winslow discovers by happening upon a female chorus audition where he meets Phoenix (Jessica Harper), whose voice suits his music perfectly. Winslow is framed for arrest and sentenced to prison -- at Sing Sing, no less -- but escapes in a mad frenzy when he learns that Swan's retro group The Juicy Fruits will be debuting FAUST at the opening of a new rock palace, the Paradise. Winslow is hideously disfigured in a record press while trashing the first pressing of FAUST, and he haunts the Paradise until Swan gives Phoenix the chance at stardom her talent warrants -- his murderous rampage inadvertently turning the opening night into an unparallelled success.
Upon its release in December 1974, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE played well in Los Angeles... but flopped nearly everywhere else in America, particularly in New York City. As the picture flailed about in search of an audience, 20th Century Fox financed two different ad campaigns, neither of which did the trick. Finally, Pressman Williams (the film's production company) shelled out for a spectacular last-ditch campaign by renowned HEAVY METAL artist Richard Corben... but by the time it was ready, the film had had its day.
There are many different theories as to why it didn't attract a large audience. Some cast members feel it was because the film dealt with the craven nature of the music business, which young people still trusted. Or could it have been the title's reference to the Paradise, which wasn't a real place and didn't mean anything to anyone? Personally, as someone who was working as a young music critic at the time, I remember that middle-of-the-road composer Paul Williams' prominence on the film posters didn't do any favors to the film's credibility as a rock movie -- the battle lines (read: prejudices) in music were more clearly defined in those days. But anyone who actually saw the film needed no further convincing that Williams was absolutely the right man for the jobs of composer and actor; indeed, his two-fisted contribution has ripened with time to become PHANTOM's greatest bid for immortality. True enough, the movie's enduring quality has continued to attact new generations of initiates; in fact, last April in Winnepeg, a wonderful-sounding event called the Phantompalooza had the idea to screen the film at a convention-like setting where the film's fans could meet with its surviving cast and crew. It didn't have a big opening weekend, but PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE bids to have one hell of a shelf life.
Watching it on this French import disc for the first time in several years, I was struck by how long PHANTOM sustains its high notes of perfection on so many different levels -- casting, performance, cinematography, editing, choreography, set and wardrobe design, the writing and direction by DePalma, and -- as I say, most significantly -- the words and music of Paul Williams, whose inspired libretto manages to simultaneously honor the past of rock 'n' roll while also satirizing it and venturing fresh and meaningful dimensions of wisdom and poignancy. No fantasy film buff can fail to marvel at the sheer breadth of the visual references DePalma and Company cull from the genre's past; the "Somebody Super Like You" sequence alone manages to fuse German Expressionism and Universal horror (not to mention the playful severed head tossing from Roger Corman's TALES OF TERROR) with the macabre stage antics of Alice Cooper into a dazzling synthesis of horror's past, present, and future.

Swan's house band The Juicy Fruits reinvented as Goth act The Undead:
Jeffrey Comanor, Harold Oblong (Peter Elbling) and Archie Hahn.

I mentioned performance, but merely mentioning it downplays the fact that everyone here was inspired to give their very best work, and performances such as those given by Jessica Harper, Paul Williams, Gerrit Graham and William Finley (so magnificently unlike his sinister menace in SISTERS) only seem sweeter with the passing of time. Harper, of course, had the talent and charisma to become a major star, not to mention a uniquely smoky gamine quality, but her audacious career choices (INSERTS, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, SHOCK TREATMENT and, of course, SUSPIRIA) and self-confessed independent streak worked against this, but she's played her career her way and undoubtedly derived great satisfaction from it. Also delightful is MEAN STREETS star George Memmoli as Philbin ("She was more than just a piece to me -- she was the light of my life!"). Had he lived, he would have surely gone on to become a SOPRANOS cast member.

I would love for someone to persuade me otherwise, but I've always found PHANTOM loses its momentum after its climactic rooftop sequence where the Phantom (William Finley) attempts suicide after witnessing a tryst between the evil Swan (Paul Williams) and his beloved interpreter Phoenix (Jessica Harper) and discovers himself and Swan both signed to contracts with the Devil. The remainder of the picture too abruptly switches gears from sprightly dark comedy to outright cynicism and tragedy, and the grand Dionysian finale at the Paradise is too shapeless and uncontrolled a conclusion to a story that is otherwise so well-constructed and resilient in the face of darkness. Had the film ended there, it would have been seriously compromised but, somehow, the end credits montage -- set to an extended take of Williams' rollicking "The Hell of It" -- succeeds in rescuing everything at the last minute. The Nino Rota-like music accompanies a montage of all the casting and performance coups, which is enough to refresh our emotional memory as to how wittily and wonderfully we've just been entertained, and send us out of the viewing experience on a cloud.

A star is born: Jessica Harper as Phoenix.

As mentioned above, the domestic DVD issue of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE was a serious disappointment. The French disc looks cleaner and moderately sharper, but, for reasons unknown to me, never on home video -- not on Beta, VHS, laserdisc, or DVD -- has the film ever conveyed the sparkle or the vivid presence it had in 35mm. Though the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer here is a notable improvement, the source elements include individual shots that look noticeably paler than the surrounding material, as if some footage had to be recovered from secondary elements and heavily cleaned. The continuing dullish complexion of the image may have something to do with the extensive optical work imposed on the film in post-production (to replace the "Swan Song" logo with that of "Death Records," when Led Zeppelin's newly-named record label brought suit against the film's producers); in the accompanying documentary, both DePalma and editor Paul Hirsch mourn the loss of the film they originally made, a "sinuous beauty" beside which the known version would be no more than an ugly stepsister. But this can't be the entire explanation because the film had a more lustrous, ebullient look in its initial theatrical playdates. Incidentally, though the packaging specifies this as a Region 2 disc, it is PAL Region 0.

The French disc offers the English and French 2.0 stereo tracks found on the domestic release, as well as brand new DD 5.1 and DTS 5.1 audio remixes. All of the musical performances are post-synchronized, so, even at its best, the music has no "live" presence and the studio recordings have a studied execution that's somewhat at odds with the freewheeling performances. That criticism aside, the presentation of the songs is unfailingly exciting, and DePalma's imagination as a director of musical sequences, hereafter untapped, is one of the film's greatest strengths. All of the soundtrack options are a delight, but the 2.0 mix needs cranking up; once the volume is adjusted, it improves upon the strictly separated stereo channels of the theatrical prints with a still discrete, yet more organic, embracing stereo image. Of the two five-channel mixes, both are outstanding -- what they do with the background vocals is especially revelatory -- but the DTS has the more shapely bass signal to our ears. If only the soundtrack album was available in a 5.1 mix...

"No one but Phoenix can sing FAUST! Anyone who tries... dies!"

A second disc includes "Paradise Regained," a delightful 50m 14s documentary that interviews nearly all of the surviving principals, including producer Edward Pressman, cameraman Larry Pizer, and editor Paul Hirsch (who contributes some of the best anecdotes). One wishes it had been a bit longer, because mention of how the production was slapped with four different lawsuits after Fox acquired the film for $2,000,000 does not explain how these respective suits were satisfied or dropped. People who love the film will be gratified by the actors' acknowledgement of the film's importance to them, and amused by their accounts of encounters with fans over the years. There are two minor sources of frustration. First of all, the documentary was clearly produced with the French DVD in mind, and Gerrit Graham chooses to reply to some questions in unsubtitled French. It's very basic French, though, and not too hard to follow. (Graham also contributes a 50s introduction to the film in French.) Secondly, cast member Archie Hahn is present at the interview of fellow Juicy Fruits member Peter Elbling (who worked under the name "Harold Oblong") but isn't interviewed onscreen, instead popping into frame now and again as Elbling's faux make-up man. His input would have been more desirable than the joke. Other extras include a 10m monologue of reminiscence from costumer Rosanna Norton (welcome but too long by half, frankly), a fake commercial with William Finley pitching a Phantom action figure that was actually once marketed in Japan, two trailers, and a French music video by Bob Sinclar ("I Feel for You") inspired by the "singers audition" scene in PHANTOM.

In the "Paradise Regained" documentary, Jessica Harper observes: "In the film [DePalma] depicts the entertainment business as being sleazy and I think there's no question... it still is sleazy, and it always will be, with a few elements of truth and beauty." PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is surely one of those elements -- a film very much of its time whose pleasures, like its warnings, somehow never grow old.

The Gaumont disc of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is available here.