Monday, July 31, 2006

A Look at the Criterion Rohmer Transfers

Last Thursday, I had no idea what I'd be writing about for my next SIGHT & SOUND column (due tomorrow). On Friday, I received an advance copy of Criterion's forthcoming ERIC ROHMER'S SIX MORAL TALES box set and, suddenly, I knew that my course was set. In my house, Rohmer waits for no one.

In two days, I devoured the entire box -- features, interviews, books and extras; I had to, because of my deadline and other pressing duties. I suppose this was a bit like gulping down a particularly fine bottle of wine, over the tongue and into the belly, but the retrospective was no less intoxicating for it. These films were previously issued on DVD by Fox Lorber in scratchy, stale-looking presentations, so I'm happy to report that Criterion's new high-definition transfers of his establishing works (supervised by Rohmer himself) are exquisite. Have a look for yourself:

THE BAKERY GIRL OF MONCEAU (1962) was shot in 16mm, and looks surprisingly crisp and sensual in this presentation.

SUZANNE'S CAREER (1963): Also shot in 16mm, this film has the grainiest-looking transfer, but much of the film was shot in low-light interiors and it actually looks quite good, so all is forgiven.

MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S (1969): How many black-and-white DVD transfers have you viewed that can compare to savoring a rich dessert? This may be the most ravishing black-and-white DVD transfer I've ever experienced. In shots like these, of Françoise Fabian, you can actually sense how warm her skin is and can almost read her thoughts.

LA COLLECTIONEUSE (1967): This film was shot third but always intended as the series' fourth segment, as Rohmer wanted the stories split between three black-and-white and three color. Fox Lorber's DVD of this title was ugly trash. Criterion makes the colors and textures of leap off the screen with remarkable sharpness and clarity. Of all the films in the Rohmer set, this is the most surprising transfer and the most gorgeous of the color films. The young lady seen here, Haydée Politoff, later co-starred in Paul Naschy's COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE and can be seen reading a paperback of DRACULA in this movie.

CLAIRE'S KNEE (1970): This probably isn't the best frame for showing off the transfer's vibrant colors and amazing sense of depth, but I love this shot of Laurence de Monaghan, so that's what you get. A wonderful presentation of a delightful film.

LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (aka CHLOE IN THE AFTERNOON, 1972): The colors and textures in this film really pop, and when Zouzou strips down to her black chemise, for the first time on video, you can actually see through the sheer fabric. Based on my viewings of this film in 16mm and on Fox Lorber DVD, it was never a favorite of mine, but now I find it the second best of the Moral Tales, after MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S.

As you may have noticed, all six of the films are presented in the standard 1.33:1 ratio. In an accompanying interview, Rohmer explains why this is his favored ratio and the films included amount to a veritable celebration of the format. The last two films in the set, CLAIRE'S KNEE and LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON, were composed so they could also be projected at 1.66:1, if necessary. I zoomed both of them up on my widescreen set and, while the images became more enveloping as a result, they also felt incomplete. I quickly returned to the 1.33:1, and I think you will, too.

That's as much as I'm going to say for now. Criterion will be releasing ERIC ROHMER'S SIX MORAL TALES on August 15, and I'll be writing at greater length about the set in next month's issue of SIGHT & SOUND.

But, in closing, let me be the first to tell you this much: If you get the set, be sure to empty the box of all the discs and books, at least once, to look inside. You'll be glad you did.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Bava Book Milestone

As I've reported on the Bava Book Update Blog, last night Donna completed her work on the main section of the book -- everything but the front and back matter, which we start laying-out today. Minus those prefaces, appendices, and the index, the page count already stands at 1,012 pages. This is an important milestone, which we celebrated last night with a bottle of Bolla Valpolicella -- and now it's back to work. All that remains to be done are the layouts of the front and back sections, which we hope to finish by early next week, and my proofreading of the final layout and Donna's implementing of my final corrections, which should take an additional week.

Also, tune into the Bava blog tomorrow for an important surprise.

Friday, July 28, 2006

The War with Stuff

We're now reaching a point with the Bava book that Donna and I have long awaited. Donna plans to finish her work on the bulk of the interior by this weekend, and we're going to spend Saturday and Sunday finally laying out the front and back matter. Next week, I have a few deadlines and am also scheduled to be proofreading the last 700 or so pages of the Bava book one last time, so for the immediate future, I'm barred from doing what my heart yearns for me to be doing: finishing my novel-in-progress, on which I made substantial progress last week. While my unborn book weeps inside me from the latest in a series of shows of neglect, I've had to decide how I'm going to spend this waiting period, knowing that, whatever I do, I may be pulled away for Bava consultation at any time. The answer was unavoidable, especially with a wife who always has such suggestions at the ready: My office has been a hell-hole for too long. I really should use this time to get my environment in order.

I know in my heart-of-hearts that I respond well to orderliness; a neat and attractive environment is more welcoming and uplifting. However, my mind is usually juggling a number of things at once: the book, my novel, our current issue, the next couple of issues, my extracurricular deadlines, this blog, etc. I have a habit of writing notes to myself, as well as epigrams, DVD info for reviews, on little index cards are leaving them all over the house. (I just noticed the other night that the "Winsor Concerto" from THE WHIP AND THE BODY is briefly heard in Paul Naschy's THE MUMMY'S REVENGE, a film evidently scored with CAM library tracks, so I made a note of that.) I leave these cards wherever I happen to write them, with the idea of taking them with me on my next trip upstairs, where I intend to log them into my computer, where they can add to whatever I'm working on. Somehow, this seldom happens and each card ends up joining many others in a stack that I tuck just north of my keyboard until the fabled day when they'll get processed. Some might say this is procrastination, but it's more like "I need a secretary." But, as Donna says, if we had a secretary, I couldn't work in my bathrobe.

Organizing my office has been my ongoing project for the last three days, and it still looks like a cross between a train wreck and a yard sale. In a stack of papers and magazines, I actually found a homemade birthday card which Donna had printed for me on a dot-matrix printer, welcoming me to "the elite group of people who are now 35," an incriminating illustration of how lax I've been about filing things away. (I'm a bit older now.) An important preliminary task was cataloguing all my uncatalogued CD-R and DVD-R binders, which is a task I can only stand to perform five hours at a time, so it took a couple of days. With those binders finally off my floor, and placed on shelves (recently cleared of laserdiscs) in our living room, the next major task was weeding out my office bookshelves, which cover two walls from floor to ceiling. Though toiling in an air-conditioned room and dressed for comfort, I worked up quite a sweat deciding which of the books could be boxed up and which could be dispensed with. At this stage of my life, I figure that if I'm putting books into boxes, I might as well lower them into the ground as well. There are always going to be so many books in front of me that I'll almost certainly never have need to seek my old file-aways out. The process of removing books from these shelves, adding books finally taken off the floor, and reorganizing everything alphabetically took a good five to six hours. At the end of the work, I had two shortish stacks of books to be taken to the attic and three stacks of discarded books that rose as high as my thigh.

My bookshelves looked infinitely tidier to me, so I called Donna in to admire my progress. I showed her where to stand to get the best vantage point (as if my cluttered floor offered her many options). She looked at the shelves and said, "You know, the sad thing about this is that, already, you have no room to grow -- so, if one more book comes into this room, it's going on to the floor and the whole nightmare starts over again."

That's the last thing I wanted to hear, partly because I knew at once she had a point. As they now are, the books are pretty tightly packed and there are a few books resting on top of other books. A section of one shelf is filled with smaller paperbacks that should be somewhere else, and another section of another shelf is stacked with books incoming for review. These need to be shipped out to reviewers. One entire shelf is occupied by music-related books, which Donna thinks should be moved somewhere else (preferably boxed away), but these are what I reach for most commonly, when I need a break from movie-related writing. Actually, when I'm editing VW full-time, I read so much movie-related writing that I sometimes wonder why I keep any of these books at all. After a full day of reading/editing film reviews and features, I'm going to kick back and relax with more film reviews and analysis? I have days when I'd like to box all these movie books away and bring my novel collection down from the attic, where they've been gathering dust for more than a decade. Dipping into other writers' fiction might be just the tonic I need; I shouldn't have to worry about reading them from cover to cover, if I haven't the time for it. After all this time, I've sincerely forgotten which novels I own, as they've mostly flowed together down the rivers of forgetfulness with the ones I've sold or merely borrowed from the library.

"How many of these are you really going to refer to?" Donna asks, nodding at the formidable barriers of bound print I have amassed between myself and Death. Probably not many. I now use www.dictionary.com for my dictionary and thesaurus needs, but having an actual three-dimensional Webster's gives one the power to browse and actually add words to one's vocabulary. "How often do you do that?" Well, I once had a life of relative leisure in which I could do things like that, and though I don't do it much (okay, at all) nowadays, I am not prepared to admit that those days are gone and will not be returning. Yes, I admit that the need I feel to hold on to some of these books is rooted in the self-delusion that, someday, time might decide to move backwards.

Some of the books on my walls are important reference tools; some are classic references past their prime (emphasis on "classic," so they stay within reach); some were written by friends and are warmly inscribed; some I wrote myself or contributed to; some I am unlikely to read but are just cool to have and admire; and others I've read and loved, so I feel the need to keep them visible in my daily life, both as memento and source of invigorating inspiration. If I sincerely had to make a hard and realistic decision based on how often I might actually open and use these books, surely many more could be taken down... but they'd have to go somewhere else in our Incredible Shrinking House, and there simply isn't anywhere else for them to go. Certainly not downstairs, and upstairs (the attic) is crowded enough. And, as an author of books, I have to insist on the right to display what I've done in my own house, though there is little need for me to read them again after publication.

Books are hard things to throw away and, trouble is, they are even harder to sell. You can't get even half of what they're worth in second-hand stores; the last time I tried, I ended up leaving two entire boxes of turned-down books at the store rather than lug them back home to my attic. (I think the book dealer was banking on me doing this, and I felt so cheated by this ordeal, I've never returned to that once-favorite book store.) Until I can decide what to do with them, it looks like they'll continue to take up residence on my office floor, but perhaps I can clear a corner where they can gather dust until new homes can be found for them.

Increasingly, my life can be described as a war with stuff: the old stuff, the incoming stuff, the stuff that needs to be processed, the stuff that needs to be shipped out to contributors, the stuff I love, the stuff I've outgrown, the cool but otherwise unfunctional stuff, the sentimental stuff, the stuff that's cute, the heirloom stuff, the broken stuff that needs to get fixed or replaced -- all of it demanding a place in my life and regular dustings and refusing to be thrown away. With each new thing I acquire, I have the feeling of adding soldiers and rations and ammunition to the enemy, but my refusal to stop is as steadfast as my refusal to surrender.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

CYCLOPS Addenda from Joe Dante

"Actually THE CYCLOPS, filmed in 1955, was, like X THE UNKNOWN and RUN OF THE ARROW and several others, originally to be released by the then-struggling RKO. Many stills exist from these with RKO trademarks. But by 1957 RKO was on the ropes and many of the pics went to other distributors. Obviously some had already made RKO release negatives, if not prints. So the credits of the Monsters HD CYCLOPS are original. Whether that cut of the already quite short picture is too, is anybody's guess."

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Cut Scenes from THE CYCLOPS

Today, I have some additional notes to offer on the subject of Bert I. Gordon's THE CYCLOPS. Those of you who are under the age of 40 may not realize this, but when many B-horror pictures originally distributed by Allied Artists Pictures Corporation were first shown on television, they were newly padded with opening narrative scrolls to fill 90-minute timeslots. Among the titles featuring such scrolls were ATTACK OF THE FIFTY FOOT WOMAN, THE DISEMBODIED, DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL, BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE (which was further padded with additional footage), and -- unless I'm mistaken (and I might be) -- THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE.

Not all Allied Artists titles were so altered; neither FRANKENSTEIN 1970, THE HYPNOTIC EYE, nor CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER were so retailored for TV. But for anyone who saw these films between their theatrical playdates and, roughly, 1984 -- when these TV syndication prints abruptly disappeared as local stations sought to compete with cable television, this is the only way they could be seen... and those of us who loved these films expected they would remain changed in this way forever.

However, since the arrival of the home video age, film companies have been going back to original camera negatives and 35mm positive elements to obtain the best-looking masters possible for DVD and cable television release -- and this has left those "narrative scroll" versions forgotten on old 16mm reels. Naturally, I'm a purist and I prefer to have these films as they looked in theaters... but I'm also a nostalgist and miss these absurdly ponderous scrolls, which were incidentally the work of HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER director Herbert L. Strock. They are hard-wired into my memory of these pictures, because they were part of them the first time (in some cases, the first several times) I saw them.

To illustrate this little history lesson, here is the opening scroll originally seen in TV prints of THE CYCLOPS, probably never to be seen again except on the old Beta and VHS tapes of those of us who recorded them off the air, twenty-some years ago. You can click on any of the images in this posting to enlarge them:







Pretty cool, eh? There was no narrator's voice, just some very hoary library music playing underneath the ssssssllllllllooooooowwwwwwwwlllllllllyyyyyy scrolling text -- all of which helped to set the mood on those Saturday and Late Night spook shows of yesteryear.

All of this is prologue to some unfortunate and more timely news about Monsters HD's print of THE CYCLOPS, about which I posted with enthusiasm the other day. It was a long time since I'd seen the picture, however, and it took the alerting of Dennis Rood and Steve Pickard to make me aware that the climactic moment in the picture -- the blinding of the Cyclops -- is actually cut in its high-definition version.

As this scene appears on Monsters HD, James Craig fashions a flaming javelin out of a stick and some vegetation, climbs up a hillside to gain height, and hurls it at the Cyclops -- CUT to a shot of the giant's superimposed hand trembling with pain over a shot of Craig on the hillside. The Cyclops falls prone on the ground and Craig makes his escape. The Cyclops then rises with the javelin still in his covered eye, protruding between his fingers... CUT to the spinning propellers of our heroes' getaway plane, followed by a process shot of the giant staggering toward it.

Here is the sequence as it appears uncut (which is not only the way it appeared in theatrical prints, but in the Allied TV prints, as well):


The flaming javelin approaches the eye of actor Duncan (Dean) Parkin...

OW! THAT'S GOTTA HURT! Then he covers the wound with his hand, and collapses.

After Craig escapes, the Cyclops revives from his swoon and sets about extracting the javelin. This shot is in the Monsters HD print, but it cuts away just short of this...

The Cyclops extracting the bloody (and evidently deeply penetrating!) weapon and...

... exposing a grisly view of the bleeding, punctured orb! (Ironically, it was the censored version of this scene that Monsters HD used in their on-air promotions for the picture, promising viewers that they would "See All the Good Parts.")

Another curious point of variation about the Monsters HD print is that it lacks the opening "Allied Artists Pictures Corporation Presents" card which opened the theatrical prints, and replaces the plain "The End" card of that print and the "Distributed by Allied Artists Pictures Corporation" end card of the TV prints with a new closing card that reads "The End - Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures." As far as I (and the IMDb) know, THE CYCLOPS was never released by RKO Radio Pictures, at least not in this country. Perhaps this is the clue that will help to identify the source and cause of this missing footage.

Here's hoping that David Sehring and Team Monsters HD can do something to recover this missing footage (which was in the previous Thriller Video VHS release) and remaster THE CYCLOPS for future broadcast, as they've already done with FROM BEYOND, THE FLESH EATERS, and other important films.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

No Zone Goes Public

It feels like it was less than a year ago that I was invited by the editors of SIGHT & SOUND to write a monthly import DVD column, but earlier this month, I turned in my 40th "No Zone." My editor, James Bell, told me yesterday that "No Zone" is now going online as part of the S&S website, to attract web surfers to the magazine, where it will also continue to appear. My current column, about Jonathan Weiss's extraordinary film of J.G. Ballard's novel THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION, can be found here -- and I hope it inspires you to buy the magazine as well, which is consistently thoughtful, progressive, and well-written. (VW scribes Kim Newman, Mark Kermode, and Brad Stevens are also frequent contributors.)

There has been some discussion over on the Classic Horror Film Boards ringing the death knell of print magazines, in the wake of Michael J. Weldon's announcement that he was discontinuing PSYCHOTRONIC. I don't get out to bookstores as often as I'd like, but I was in a Barnes & Noble earlier this week and, I must say, I saw more print magazines displayed there than I've ever seen on a single newsstand. This is not what you hear online, but it is apparently what you see when you venture away from your computer. What most struck me was the astounding degree of specialization on display: magazines for screenwriters, piercing advocates, gay & lesbian readers, bikers, Heavy Metalers, stock car racers, lefties, right-wingers, tattoo mavens, adults, children, surfers, chocolate lovers -- and there seemed to be an equally healthy diversity of magazines devoted to horror and fantasy films. I saw FANGORIA, RUE MORGUE, STARLOG, CFQ, CINEFEX and VW -- plus, both FILM COMMENT and SIGHT & SOUND have covers devoted to A SCANNER DARKLY this month -- and even more magazines built around DVD reviews.

So, contrary to internet rumor, print magazines do not appear to be becoming extinct. Sales are down, true; to be sure, distribution is strangling off the small press publisher, specifically the fanzines that broke the newsstand barrier at the dawn of the desktop publishing revolution. Michael Weldon is blame rising costs of paper, postage and gas for PSYCHOTRONIC going under, but surely irregularity of publication was also a factor; after his first issue was published in 1989, he produced only 40 more after nearly 18 years in business. That's an average of slightly more than two issues per year, which is a good rate for a fanzine, but hardly a frequency that can sustain a business or a living. (Donna and I found out a few years ago that it's difficult to make a living by publishing a bimonthly, and we don't live in a particularly expensive city.)

Another factor, of course, is that the very audience that once supported the fan press at newsstands in solid numbers is increasingly staying indoors and reading whatever they can scope out for free -- as they have learned to do with music and movie downloads. The desktop publishing revolution has moved online.

Blogs are the fanzines of today, as I said here some time ago, and I believe this is the nature of the displacement we're witnessing. Not the survival of the fittest, necessarily; rather, the survival of the glossiest. The desktop publishing revolution has reached its saturation point, and newsstands are returning more and more to the way they were, pre-1985, but with far more high-scale specialization on display as the legacy of that revolution.

I love the instantaneous effect of publishing Video WatchBlog, and I frankly feel closer to this blog than I do to my print magazine sometimes, because it's all mine -- I write it, I edit and proofread it, I design and illustrate it, I post it. I try to update it as often as possible because, even in cyberspace, that is what keeps people coming back. In the year or so I've been paying attention to blogs, I've scrapped a number of otherwise promising blogs from my Favorite Places because it grates to click on a good site and find nothing new day after day after day. That blogs cost nothing may be their great incentive, but it also makes them that much easier to dispose of. Click "delete" and they're gone, making those snap judgments all the snappier.

Gavin Smith offers his own thoughts on the subject of print vs. the internet in his editorial for the new FILM COMMENT, where he theorizes that "blogs are more important to people who want to write than they are to people who like to read." Blogging has certainly made me more attentive to what other bloggers are doing and the Blog-A-Thons that sometimes occur are a testimonial to the proposal that, to some extent, bloggers are writing for each other -- not unlike the days when people would start a fanzine for the sole purpose of trading with another fanzine publishers. I love that culture, because I came from that, and I count myself as fortunate that I'm able to have my writing reach people both online and in print, because these are separate worlds seemingly growing more separate.

I invest more thought and energy into this blog than I should, and Donna sometimes has to remind me that the number of people frequenting this blog on a daily basis is approximately 1/10th of the number who actually purchase VW at the newsstand or by subscription. Seeing all those new magazines arrayed at Barnes & Noble was a bit of a wake-up call, for me, to VW's place in the real world, and I'm looking forward to putting our next monthly issue together in September and getting another one out there.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

You Won't Believe Your Eyes and Ears

It's always big news in my house when Monsters HD premieres a new title, and today, the little parade in my heart was held in honor of the HD debut of Bert I. Gordon's THE CYCLOPS (1957), starring Gloria Talbott, James Craig, Lon Chaney, Dean Parkin and the grunts and growls of the inimitable Paul Frees. Last available on VHS as one of those "Elvira Presents" titles on the Thriller Video label, THE CYCLOPS is being shown by Monsters HD in a windowboxed presentation that is prettier than this B&W cheapie has ever looked.

To my incredulity, Monsters HD followed THE CYCLOPS with Sid Pink's REPTILICUS... which I frankly wasn't too excited about because it's already been released on DVD as part of MGM's "Midnite Movies" series. I'm not even certain if this was another premiere or not, which goes to show how casual I was about this, but... wow. I thought I had seen REPTILICUS looking good, but this windowboxed presentation truly earns the epithet "staggering." If a film this miserable can look this good, anything's possible -- and it lends new meaning to the old saying "You ain't seen nothing yet." A presentation like this makes you feel like you have to start your movie-watching life all over again from scratch. And as long as we're feeling that way, Monsters HD has three good places to start: they're premiering the original KING KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG in HD on July 29th, and JAWS on July 31. Visit their website for more information, clips, and exclusives.

On another subject, I discovered a phenomenal music blog today called 7 Black Notes. The specialty here is horror and fantasy soundtrack music downloads, and wait till you see what the anonymous blogger from La La Land has assembled: THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (Fred Katz), CIRCUS OF HORRORS (with the original "Look for a Star"), Cinemation Industries' Clay Pitts rescoring of Mac Ahlberg's FANNY HILL, SCREAMERS, GRIZZLY, THE BOOGEY MAN (a soundtrack originally released in a limited edition of 1000 vinyl pressings), YOR THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE, PRIVILEGE, DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE GIRL BOMBS (not much music actually in the movie here!), WUTHERING HEIGHTS (one of Michel Legrand's most haunting scores), and best of all, Les Baxter's 53-minute score for PIT AND THE PENDULUM, taken from the previously unreleased music-and-effects track!

You just left-click on the titles and you're taken to a downloadable zip file in Rapidshare. You can either pay $12 for a month of unlimited downloads, or go for the freebie version and download a single file every 80 minutes. With all the great music blogs that are popping up (7 Black Notes' links column will lead you to some other good ones), I've found that the 12 bucks repays itself within the first half-hour. Bookmark it, Danno.

A Scanner Freely

Simulacra of Keanu Reeves and Winona Rider star
in Richard Linklater's A SCANNER DARKLY.

For those of you who don't know, IGM.com is offering a free preview of the first 24 minutes (well, 23:55, actually) of Richard Linklater's new film of Philip K. Dick's A SCANNER DARKLY. I read the novel a good many years ago and liked it very much, and have been looking forward to this movie. I just finished watching the generous clip -- which has outstanding picture quality in high-res -- and had an unexpected reaction to it. What I saw captures the flavor of the novel I remember reading extremely well, and it may well be (as at least one critic has said) "the most faithful PKD adaptation ever," which is why I find it all the more curious that viewing the clip pretty much killed any interest I had in seeking the film out in a theater.

There's a lot going on in this clip visually; it's very imaginately filmed; the electronic music is edgy and refreshing; the characters of course are a mite oblique but the performances seem to be on-the-ball, with the Rory Cochrane character capturing an essence of Dick himself (odd, since it's the Bob Arctor character with whom he identifies in the novel); but -- and this is a peculiar thing to say about a movie that looks like it was directed by Earl Scheib -- but I felt bombarded, even more than by color, by language. The essence of the clip is of images in the service of conveying dialogue, and thus, despite all the time and energy and artistry that was poured into making it a cutting edge cartoon, this sample struck me as having failed in its mission to work as cinema.

I thought for sure that the opening 24 minutes of the film had to be dynamite for Warner to be giving them away free online. I didn't expect to have this reaction, and kind of resent having it. My feeling is that I can re-read the novel and don't need Richard Linklater to hand me a picture book version; I was hoping for his interpretation, his reflection, his translation of the novel into a different medium. Perhaps the film somehow delivers this in its entirety... I'll find out when it comes to DVD... but I can't imagine so literal a retelling taking many people back to Dick's novel, which should be an important function of this enterprise. Somehow I suspect that Charlie Kaufman's rejected screenplay would have done all of this, and probably more that I can't begin to imagine.

Anyway, if this movie interests you, do yourself a favor and read the novel first. Philip K. Dick can use his words to tell his stories and paint his particular universe better than any emulatory filmmaker. You can probably find a copy of A SCANNER DARKLY cheaper than a movie ticket, and those androids at your local Borders and Barnes & Noble stores will actually allow -- nay, encourage -- you sit in one of their comfy chairs and drink a latte or two while you read one of their copies for free.

At least weigh the first 24 pages of the novel against the film's first 24 minutes -- and, by all means, go on over to IGM.com and see how the free sample strikes you. I promise that the sudden cut-off will not be excruciating and drive you crazy if the film doesn't happen to be playing in your town. And once you finish with SCANNER, I recommend moving on to the very best of PKD: THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH (which John Lennon once thought of producing as a film) and UBIK.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Meeting The Umlands

L to R: Me, Donna, Sam and Rebecca Umland
crowd into frame in a sweaty auto garage. Photo by John Umland.

It may strike longtime VIDEO WATCHDOG readers as odd, or maybe not, but in 17 years of publishing, Donna and I have actually met very few of our most frequent contributors. For instance, we've never had the pleasure of shaking hands with John Charles, our Associate Editor, who joined us first as a letter writer in our single-digit issues; we came close once, but the only time were near his home base of Guelph, Ontario, in that timeframe unfortunately coincided with a weekend when he had to be away from home. The same goes for Ramsey Campbell, Bill Cooke, Shane M. Dallmann, Kim Newman, Brett Taylor -- we haven't met 'em, but we'd sure like to.

There have been quite a few happy exceptions to this twain, though. Over the years, we've had the pleasure of spending personal time with (in alphabetical order) Steve Bissette, Joe Dante, David Del Valle, G. Michael Dobbs, Paul M. Jensen, Alan Jones (a one-time contributor to VW #4), Craig Ledbetter, Greg Mank, Jeff Smith, Richard Harland Smith, Erik Sulev, Nathaniel Thompson, Alan Upchurch, Bill Warren, Tom Weaver, Doug Winter, and Bret Wood. And, last night, Becky and Sam Umland -- along with their 12 year-old son John -- joined our lengthening list of happy meetings. In fact, John is a past Kennel member himself (our youngest ever!), as he assisted his parents on their review of THUMBTANIC, THUMB WARS, THE GODTHUMB et al in VW #97 as "John Thumland."

Practically from the moment of our first meeting in their hotel lobby, the five of us were like old friends -- which, in a sense, we are. Speaking of "et al," each of us cleaned our plates last night at Brio Tuscan Grille, an elegant Italian ristorante in Newport, Kentucky's bustling "Newport on the Levee" area. Sam acquired an exquisite bottle of Italian wine for the table, and it fuelled wonderful conversation well into the evening.
One of the main topics of conversation was the Umlands' newly published book DONALD CAMMELL: A LIFE ON THE WILD SIDE, which was recently published in hardcover and softcover by FAB Press. They've been working on this biography of the notorious writer-director of PERFORMANCE, DEMON SEED, WHITE OF THE EYE and WILD SIDE for the better part of five years, and they both seemed relieved and pleased with the way the book turned out. FAB Press has done an outstanding and tasteful job in designing the book, which seems to stand a bit apart from the deluxe horror and exploitation retrospectives on which they've built their reputation. Indeed, the Umlands' CAMMELL book has already scored featured reviews in the pages of both SIGHT & SOUND (by Colin McCabe) and FILM COMMENT (by Chris Chang), which I believe is a first for a FAB Press title.

These reviews prompted us to talk a bit about the necessary evils of book reviewing. Both of the aforementioned reviews of the Umlands' book were assigned by those magazine's respective editors to known Cammell authorities -- McCabe wrote the BFI Film Classics book on PERFORMANCE and Chang wrote a feature article on Cammell for a 1996 issue of FILM COMMENT. While this shows alertness and sensitivity to the book's specific needs by the editors in question, it doesn't take into account the probability that authorities on a given topic are going to have their own agendas, consciously or not, and be prone to criticize a book within their realm of expertise as much for what it isn't -- that is to say, the book they would have written or attempted to write -- than for what it is. As in all things, there is good and bad in this.

Both of the aforementioned reviews, while commending the Umlands' journalistic standards and attention to detail, complain that their book is either overly academic, or not gossippy enough. The review by Colin McCabe (whose own research is pointedly corrected on some counts by the Umlands) bemoans the lack of juice while denying its meat; he claims not to have learned much from the Umlands, then proceeds to refer to information gleaned from their research throughout his review, so his call seems a bit disingenuous. Chris Chang (who admits the first thing he did with the book was to look for his own name in the index, where it did not appear) opens a full-page review by saying that DONALD CAMMELL: A LIFE ON THE WILD SIDE is (I'm paraphrasing, but this is close) "part biography and part mindfuck." Chang may have intended this description as a snipe, and an indelible one at that -- and the Umlands may have taken it that way, I don't know -- but my own reaction was that his comment would make an ideal blurb, because it demonstrates the extent to which the Umlands are in tune with their subject. (Cammell's films and film scripts are all half-autobiography and half-mindfuck, are they not?) Chang lets another plum blurb drop when he off-handedly calls A LIFE ON THE WILD SIDE "a delectable tome," so I don't consider his review a negative one, by any means, however aggressively he phrases his reservations.

Chang goes on to express annoyance over the bio's academic leanings, in particular picking on an observation from T. S. Eliot that opens its chapter on PERFORMANCE. It's true that a quote of Eliot is historically dissociated from PERFORMANCE, but that's not to say its use is pretentious or overreaching. It would be wrong to regard Eliot as any the less audacious than Cammell in his own time and realm, and equally wrong to assume that someone like Eliot has nothing to say to Cammell's admirers, or that his work would have been shunned by Cammell himself. In the particular case of the Eliot quote that opens the PERFORMANCE chapter, it's not used glibly but to give the chapter a point of origin -- it's a way into some very challenging material, no more, no less.

I must plead guilty to a measure of the reviewer's stance taken by Chang and McCabe myself. I'm fully aware of my own tendency as a reviewer to be harder on books whose subjects I know a good deal about, than I am toward books about subjects that cover more casual interests. Italian horror being one of my own pet points of expertise, I can remember being tough on Louis Paul's ITALIAN HORROR FILM DIRECTORS (McFarland) and also Stephen Thrower's BEYOND TERROR: THE FILMS OF LUCIO FULCI (FAB Press) -- not unfair or inaccurate, in my view, but tough. Paul's book showed a knowledgeable mind at work, but his material was so haphazardly presented, it worked against his best intentions. Steve Thrower's book, while a valuable academic analysis of Fulci's work, struck me as a bit of a castle in the sky. We still await the just-the-facts book on Fulci to lay the road that will take us there. MidMar's Luminary Press published a book on Italian horror last year, but I wasn't sent a review copy -- and you know what, perhaps rightfully so.

The absence of gossippy material in the Umlands' book, by definition, I regard as a journalistic plus. Sam told me that he and Becky worked closely in researching the book with Cammell's editor/friend Frank Mazzola and also Cammell's brother David, the latter of whom did exercise a modest degree of veto power over some material deemed inessential to the book -- as one expects in cases of "authorized biography." The Umlands' book did not seek and doesn't carry that identification, but Sam feels that it would probably be fair to call A LIFE ON THE WILD SIDE an authorized biography. Certainly, no future authorized biography could offer more of value than has been collected between its covers. The value of working closely with one's subject's family is that one comes into possession of much valuable material (like Cammell's personal drawings and archival family photos) and intimate witness in exchange for the odd instance or two of editorial control. An unauthorized, independent biography has a much greater capacity of editorial freedom but also a far greater margin for overstatement, carelessness, and outright error. I think Becky and Sam chose the proper leaning, especially as they were writing the first biography of Cammell. Now others can follow in their footsteps and write the books they feel need to be written, with a wealth of reliable data in print to assist them. What, if anything, of serious value remains to be added to Cammell's story remains to be seen, and time will tell.

DONALD CAMMELL: A LIFE ON THE WILD SIDE has already been out in the UK for a month or so, and the US publication date looms on July 30. You can order it here now, or pre-order a copy now at substantial savings by going here. It's an achievement of which Becky and Sam are and should be rightfully proud, and I was pleased to be told by Sam that they are contemplating the films of Anthony Mann for their next book project.

After dinner, we spent some time walking around the Newport on the Levee area together, admiring the riverfront view of an almost completely inactive-looking Cincinnati as a lone riverboat cruised through our field of vision. Then it was time for the Umlands to return to their hotel, as St. Louis was on their U.S. tour schedule for today. (Sam says he's become a morning person and finds his retention of the movies he watches has actually improved since he's started watching them at the start of his day.) Donna and I greatly enjoyed meeting the three of them and we look forward to continuing our professional affiliation with fond faces newly attached to their bylines, hoping that we'll someday meet again.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Some Notes on Recent Viewings


Last night I realized that it's been a full week since I'd watched an entire feature film; it's been a week spent working on the next novel, being available to Donna for feedback on the Bava book layout, and listening to music rather than watching stuff to review.

What I have been watching is a lot of boxed set classic TV: third season episodes of Warner Home Video's THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN and first season episodes of MPI Home Video's THE RIFLEMAN. The color and crispness of the SUPERMAN episodes is pretty extraordinary, marred only by those long takes that precede or follow opticals like special effects or dissolves. If they had known back then how long takes tied to opticals were going to degrade the picture quality of such shots in the digital medium, I'm sure they would have done shorter takes whether it slowed things down or not. The color episodes are generally regarded as the point where the series turned addle-pated, but there's still some good stuff to be enjoyed here -- like John Hamilton's work in the episode "Great Caesar's Ghost." Noel Neill's Lois Lane is also a sweeter, less bipolar character here than in Season 2, which helps.

I'm only three episodes into THE RIFLEMAN, two of which were written by Sam Peckinpah, and these have been absolute revelations. First of all, they look great and, secondly, ever since this show came to the Hallmark Channel, they've been cut to ribbons; it's a treat to see them with all their atmosphere and dramatic gravity intact. The second episode has a bit where Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors) improvises an Old West retelling of the Biblical story of Job to teach a lesson to his son Mark (Johnny Crawford), and the scene left me in awe. Connors not only had remarkable presence and was built for action -- find me one 21st century bad-ass who could stare him down in that opening credits shot -- but he could be one hell of an actor when the material allowed. MPI has six of these sets out presently, 20 episodes per set, and I'm going to enjoy what is already sizing up to be a cherished reacquaintence.

All this is prologue to the fact that I decided last night it was high time I watched another movie before I forgot how. I picked out Blue Underground's forthcoming disc of Jess Franco's SUCCUBUS, which streets on July 25th. Before watching the feature, I went straight to the extras -- a 22-minute interview with Franco, and a 7-minute visit with actor Jack Taylor -- and found them both very invigorating. Turner Classic Movies recently showed an hour-long special called EDGE OF OUTSIDE, about the history of independent filmmaking -- with commentary by Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, John Sayles, David Thomson, Peter Biskind and others -- and I swear I learned more about independent filmmaking, and obtained more food for thought on the subject, by watching Jess reminisce about his experiences and agonize about the filmmaking system as it exists today.

After I got finished with SUCCUBUS itself, I immediately sought out Blue Underground's companion "Red Lips Double Feature" release of Franco's TWO UNDERCOVER ANGELS (aka SADISTEROTICA) and KISS ME MONSTER, starring Janine Reynaud and Rosanna Yanni. This set includes two interviews with Jess -- 14 minutes and 22 minutes, respectively. The second, longer one in particular, called "Jess' Tangents," seems to be composed entirely of off-topic material that director David Gregory felt needed to be out there. Bless you, David. "Jess' Tangents" was the cherry on top of my whole evening. Franco talks here about LSD and Porn, Spain under Generalissimo Franco, working with Orson Welles on CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT and TREASURE ISLAND (some real revelations here), and cinema in general.

I know there are some people who love cinema who don't get Franco's work, but I believe that even they would be fascinated by his observations and the lively, frank stories he tells about working on these three pictures. At one point, he makes a compelling argument on behalf of the idea that people expect a good story from the movies they see, but never take away a good story from these movies and seldom actually grasp more than a sequence of compelling images or edits. He reminisces about critics at the time not understanding SUCCUBUS and admits, chuckling, that he doesn't quite understand it himself. (I don't quite buy this; surely Jess realizes that his succubus Lorna is an attempt to contemporize the Lllorona, the unearthly femme fatale who haunts the pages of Spanish fantasy lore.) He also remembers SUCCUBUS, touchingly, as the first film he made with absolute freedom, and speaks with regret that he was so accustomed to working with his hands tied by producers that it was not until halfway through the production that he truly began to appreciate the creative freedom available to him. I could listen to the man talk forever, and sincerely wish there was some kind of interactive DVD that would allow you to pick any title in Franco's filmography, where any title could be selected to trigger every story he could remember about the filming of that particular title, or its stars, or whatever else came to his mind.

The Jack Taylor profile is interesting too; in slightly more than 7 minutes, we get to revisit SUCCUBUS shooting locations in Berlin with him, and learn that he was paid exactly half of the salary he was promised. But he seems a philosophic man rather than a bitter one, and he's aged wonderfully well. If Welles could see him today, he'd want him for his Don Quixote.

A word, too, about the production of these Franco discs, which represent producer-director David Gregory's final work for Blue Underground. (He has since moved on to produce supplements for other companies, like Dark Sky Films, and started his own company, Severin Films, which is going to bring some 1980s Franco titles to disc.) Knowing what a marginal director Franco is, we must applaud Blue Underground -- David certainly, and BU founder and executive producer Bill Lustig above all -- for indulging him and us, his audience, with such exemplary treatments of his best work: SUCCUBUS, EUGENIE - THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION, VENUS IN FURS, MARQUIS DE SADE'S JUSTINE, and others. The menu design on these new releases is brilliant and actually looks more lavishly produced than some of Franco's recent features. These releases may carry the aura of the end of an era, but perhaps another era is just beginning. So circle July 25th on your calendars and pounce on these discs right away.

On a closing note, I'd like to steer my fellow Franco fans to Robert Monell's new blog I'm In A Jess Franco State of Mind, which promises to become a key resource for English language insights and information about his work.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Twice the Might! Twice the Delight!

Now in stock here at Video Watchdog is Digitmovies' new double-disc release of Enzo Masetti's original soundtracks for LE FATICHE DI ERCOLE [US: HERCULES, 1957] and ERCOLE E LA REGINA DI LIDIA [US: HERCULES UNCHAINED, 1958]. I've been listening to these discs since they arrived a few days ago and, speaking purely on a musical basis, I think this set is probably the most deeply satisfying archival rescue/restoration Digitmovies has made to date from the CAM vaults. Considering that said list includes their phenomenal WHIP AND THE BODY/BLOOD AND BLACK LACE two-fer, which collected my two most-wanted scores of all time, I can't offer higher praise. This music is a well-rounded feast for the senses: romantic, proud, harkening, thrilling, heroic, tender, and tinged here and there with the most baroque, evocative sorcery.

Experienced soundtrack collectors are probably aware that these scores have been previously released in different forms -- HERCULES first appeared in America as an album featuring narration by Conrad Nagel, dialogue from the English-dubbed version, and some Masetti music; many years later, CAM issued limited edition vinyl pressings on the Phoenix label. These were subsequently bootlegged in a rather professional-looking, two-CD package credited to Soundtrack Library. CD #1 amounted to 45:12, while CD #2 ran 42 minutes even (reproducing some material from CD #1 in the process). The Digitmovies release issues the complete orchestral sessions for the two films for the first time, not only correcting the erroneous sequencing of the earlier releases but adding a wealth of material never previously heard offscreen; the HERCULES disc runs 73:51 and HERCULES UNCHAINED clocks in at 53:51. A twelve-page, illustrated booklet contains liner notes by Yours Truly and Digitmovies producers Claudio Fuiano and Enrico Celsi, as well as many rare, behind-the-scenes stills and international poster art.

This HERCULES set is not part of Digitmovies' "Mario Bava Original Soundtrack Anthology" series, even though Mario Bava did photograph and also co-directed these films. (In fact, they contain the earliest horror sequences Bava photographed in color.) Instead, Digitmovies is using this set to launch a promising new series of archival CAM releases, "The Italian Peplum Original Soundtracks Anthology." Having listened to both discs, I can declare them a resounding success. I've had the Soundtrack Library bootleg for years and haven't often listened to it because the programming is so repetitive and the rendering so lo-fi. Listening to the new Digitmovies set proves, beyond a doubt, that Enzo Masetti brought as much muscle to these films as Steve Reeves did, and as much evocative tenderness as did Sylva Koscina.

You can order the Digitmovies HERCULES set, or the latest "Mario Bava Original Soundtracks Anthology" release of music from I VAMPIRI and CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER (especially recommended to those who love classic Universal Monsters-type music), by clicking here. While you're there, scroll down to check out the other Bava and Franco related soundtracks we have in stock.

On a related note, this weekend, VW contributor David Del Valle will follow the triumph of his recent "Haunted Hacienda" photo and poster art exhibition of Mexican horror memorabilia with "Beefcake Babylon," a truly Olympian tribute to "the iconography of Sword and Sandal epics from De Mille to Fellini." The exhibit -- which David is dedicating to the memory of our late friend (and proud peplumite) Christopher Sven Dietrich -- covers an arc of heroic film production that extends from Cecil B. De Mille's pre-code THE SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932) to Fellini's SATYRICON (1970), but the "beef" is largely contributed by the muscle men who made the Italian sword-and-sandal genre great: Steve Reeves, Gordon Scott, Reg Park, Mark Forest, Gordon Mitchell, "Alan Steel" (Sergio Ciani), Dan Vadis, Ed Fury, "Kirk Morris" (Adriano Bellini), "Rock Stevens" (that's MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE's Peter Lupus, of course), and all the rest.

Like "Haunted Hacienda" and "Until Dawn" (David's well-attended exhibit of silent horror era imagery), "Beefcake Babylon" is being hosted by the fashionable and forward-thinking Drkrm Gallery in Los Angeles, and will run from July 14 to September 23. We're told that Mickey Hargitay (THE LOVES OF HERCULES, BLOODY PIT OF HORROR) and Mark Forest (GOLIATH AND THE DRAGON) are among the celebrities expected to attend the opening night festivities, and the Digitmovies HERCULES set will be there as well, to provide the event with suitably celestial musical accompaniment.

Break a sweat, break those chains, pull down those marble columns, and read all about "Beefcake Babylon" here -- by the Gods!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Make Your Name Like a Ghost

It's both moving and a bit alienating to read the news today that Syd Barrett has died at age 60, from diabetes-related complications. Barrett's public self died, in a sense, more than thirty years ago when he recorded his last music; or perhaps more than twenty years ago, when his last album of unreleased material was issued; or perhaps more than ten years ago, when it was all collected on a box set.

The founding member of Pink Floyd, the author of their early singles "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play", the visionary responsible for taking their psychedelic noodlings into space ("Jupiter and Saturn / Oberon, Miranda and Titania / Neptune, Titan, stars can frighten..."), Barrett dropped out of the band as it finally stood on the brink of ascension above and beyond mere cult status. His closing (almost solo) song on the PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN album, the awkwardly pedal-toggling "Bike", showed the direction in which his songwriting craft was being lured by his acid-knurled imagination, which we're told initiated psychological problems. He withdrew from public life, abandoning music and sharing a Cambridge flat with his mother.

I have no idea who he was, or what he was like personally, but his songwriting and performing was an inspiration to later musicians like David Bowie and Robyn Hitchcock, and even to writers like me. As far as music goes, Syd Barrett was THE object lesson in the value of scrapping the traditional rules and making combinations of words and notes and tempi that suit you, because the more directly you are in touch with your own spirit, flaws and all, the more likely yours will touch others -- and, if the kiss is a bit raw, all the better. It's a lesson applicable to all the arts. I won't make the time-honored observation of the thin line dividing genius from madness, which would be lazy and presumptuous of me, but I think it's unquestionable that Barrett's three solo albums stand as some of the most original, completely unmoored, and sublimely playful and poetical music to be found in any category. His catalogue isn't dark and self-absorbed and deadly, or any of the things commonly associated with mental illness, but fractured and fanciful -- a fun place, prone to occasional wonderment and melancholy and longing, but essentially true to the emotional roller-coaster of life.

I first heard Pink Floyd after Barrett had left, with UMMAGUMMA, and I heard Syd Barrett for the first time when it was all over, basically -- when a local FM station played "Baby Lemonade" from his second solo album, BARRETT. The song's sleek but coltish feel and absurd lyrics encouraged me to seek it out, and I discovered there were far greater pleasures awaiting me on the album (which may have been the first import vinyl I ever bought): "Gigolo Aunt", the sweetly inebriated "Wined and Dined", "Maisie" (a heavy blues song sung to a cow). I'm listening to the album now, as I write this, and I find myself impressed anew by the song "Rats", which contains a wealth of inspired incantatory, impressionistic couplets, each one chanted twice ("I like the ball that brings me to / I like the cord around sinew.../ Love an empty son and guest / Dimples dangerous and blessed"). In fact, I got so deeply into BARRETT that I've never been able to take his debut solo album THE MADCAP LAUGHS into my heart on the same level, and most Barrett observers claim that it's the masterpiece and BARRETT that falls short. Perhaps the day will come when I can fully embrace THE MADCAP LAUGHS, but whenever I want to hear a nice stretch of Syd Barrett, I can't help it: I instinctively reach for BARRETT.

But when I crave the hardcore essence of this artist, it's the third album -- the odds-and-ends compilation OPEL -- that I reach for. And the opening title track is often all I really need because, somehow, this previously unreleased epic stands, for me, as Barrett's definitive musical statement. His two solo albums are sometimes described as "ragged," but they are actually very well produced and the musical ideas advanced and avant garde rather than sloppy. "Opel," however, is genuinely ragged -- no more than a demo, really -- but the album compilers had the wisdom to issue the rough-hewn song as it was, without production embellishment.

Guitar string searchings, almost tunings, arrive at the right chord, then give way to a chiming, striving rhythm as Barrett describes his own stance in a desolate yet also fantastic landscape:

On a distant shore, miles from land
Stands the ebony totem in ebony sand
A dream in a mist of gray
On a far distant shore

The pebble that stood alone
In driftwood lies half buried
Warm shallow waters sweep shells
So the cockles shine

A bare winding carcass, stark,
Shimmers as flies scoop up meat,
An empty way
Dry tears

Crisp flax squeaks tall reeds
Make a circle of gray
In a summer way (around man)
Stood on ground

At this point, the guitar makes an inspired turn toward an absolutely heartbreaking chord progression, its tonalities tragic and somehow innocently nostalgic while its cadence is almost that of a child happily skipping along. It's played only on a starkly recorded acoustic guitar, but somehow I can hear this passage (indeed the whole song) as though it were fully orchestrated and being played by orchestra, full steam ahead. As the voice returns, soaring with longing sung off-key and all the more vital for it, the chords turn bitter and brittle with an encroaching admission of yearning and struggle:

I'm trying
I'm trying to find you
To find you
I'm living
I'm giving
To find you
To find you

The entire arc of Syd Barrett's musical career is somehow encapsulated in this inspired demo. The presence of some obviously unfinished lyrics (i.e., "An empty way / Dry tears") does nothing to mar its perfection, but rather invites us more intimately into his creative process. It's this one piece of music that makes me most sad to hear that he's dead.

Whatever Syd Barrett was seeking in music, he clearly found it -- seemingly at great cost to himself. As I say, the personal Syd is a cipher to me and to most people, and I can only hope that he found more happiness in his strange, enchanted life than is commonly known. Knowing his music certainly made my life richer, and I know this is true for thousands of people. No, we can't mourn him because his death means there will be no more music, because none was forthcoming; true, his death changes nothing where most of us are concerned. But we received the messages he sent into the void in intimate places most recording artists never touch, and that's why he mattered and always will.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Watch Out for These Books - They're Lulu's


The latest phenomenon in the world of Print-on-Demand is Lulu.com, a cyber publishing service that professional and amateur writers alike are turning to, as a means of packaging and sharing works of marginal interest.

I haven't investigated Lulu too thoroughly myself, but I'm told that the service can even be used to manufacture single copies of documents in book form, and writers also share more generously in the profits than they would when working with a major publisher. I'm sure there must be a downside to it -- no bookstore distribution, certainly, would fall under that heading -- but Lulu does make their books available to online outlets such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders.

A couple of my friends have been using Lulu to make some interesting rare items available to a wider readership. David White, a past VW contributor, recently published through Lulu a lost novel by Fantômas creator Marcel Allain. While shopping on eBay, David happened to score a series of old FLYNN DETECTIVE WEEKLY magazines from 1927, which featured the serialization of Allain's A WOMAN OF PREY, as translated by Lawrence Morris. The novel was never collected in English, making it a real eureka for Fantômas collectors like me. Taking a tip from Allain's novel THE YELLOW DOCUMENT, which was published in America with the commercial subtitle FANTOMAS OF BERLIN, David scanned the PD documents and retitled the British-based novel FANTOMAS OF LONDON (A WOMAN OF PREY). It's now available in an attractive trade softcover edition, complete with the pen-and-ink illustrations that accompanied the novel's original pulp presentation.

Fantômas collectors should also use Lulu to seek out a reprint edition of the hard-to-find THE LORD OF TERROR (an English translation of Allain's first solo Fantômas novel, FANTOMAS EST-IL RESSUSCITE?), hardcover copies of which now sell for hundreds of dollars when they can be found at all.

Lastly, fans of Italian horror and science-fiction will be interested to learn that screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi has published two of his unproduced film scripts in English at Lulu.com. THE KEY OF LUCK, a science-fiction comedy, is published in a bilingual English/Italian edition, and UNION SQUARE, a thriller comedy, is available in English only. I haven't read these yet, but the presentation is attractive and indistinguishable from store-bought paperbacks. (A third book by Ernesto, I QUARANTA BELANTI [THE ROARING FORTIES] is available in Italian only. it has a great cover collage of Ernesto and family, so I assume it's autobiographical.) Ernesto's books are also available for direct PDF downloads at less than half-price. Support the Maestri of Italian fantasy!

So many interesting film scripts are failing to be produced these days -- on second thought, this has always been the case -- that this manner of instant publishing may prove a viable alternative life for such works. Movies that you can cast and project inside your own skull -- why not?

Some other interesting titles I found while browsing Lulu.com include PROFESSOR CHALLENGER, a collection of all three novels (THE LOST WORLD, THE POISON BELT and THE LAND OF MIST) and additional stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring said hero; new editions of Sax Rohmer's extraordinary BROOD OF THE WITCH QUEEN, QUEST OF THE SACRED SLIPPER and an omnibus containing THE GREEN EYES OF BAST and BAT-WING; and even a new pulp fiction reprint zine called LOST SANCTUM.

Might Lulu also be a solution to the high cost and distribution woes of magazine publishing? The mind boggles...

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Two Dollars Short -- a poem (1997)

Two men of old age in a hospital lay:
Grumpy old Ralph and the grumpier Ray.
They'd both had long lives
They were both rich as kings
But Ralph felt deprived - like a bird without wings.

"I'm one dollar short of a million" (he said)
"And never a millionaire!
I've worked hard and I've saved...
Dear Lord, how I've slaved!
But that dollar, it just isn't there!"

If you think that's sad, I would have to agree,
But the other old geezer was much sadder than he.
Yes, Ray was well off
But he was worse off, as well
And here's what he said as he growled in his hell:

"I'm one dollar short of a billion" (he said)
"And never a billionaire!
I've worked hard and I've saved...
Oh God, how I've slaved!
But that dollar, it just isn't there!"

Then Ralph thought of a way to better their luck.
He sat up and exclaimed, "Ray! Lend me a buck!
I'll achieve my life's dream
And go out with a splash!
And put you in my Will - for two dollars cash!"

So Ray finally made his first billion
And Ralph died a millionaire
They'd worked hard and they'd saved
From their cribs to their graves...

It almost covered their hospital care.

-- Tim Lucas
10-19-97

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

For Love of a Seasick Sea Serpent

Cecil (who's, like, square -- dig?) meets Gogh Man Van Gogh, the "Wildman of Wildsville."


Since it was first released back in 2000, Image Entertainment "Special Edition" DVD of Bob Clampett's BEANY & CECIL has become a prized collector's item, with used copies nowadays selling on Amazon.com at a starting price of $122.00. It's an amazing disc, and one I recall with mixed agony and ecstasy because it was so jam-packed with data, it loaded up in some early DVD players like peanut butter. The memory of that wealth of material has become misleading with time, and it came to my attention only recently that the disc contained only a dozen actual B&C cartoons, along with a lot of very interesting and worthwhile supplements! Twelve cartoons is equal to only two of the original BEANY & CECIL VHS tapes that were released in the 1980s by RCA/Columbia Home Video, each of which collected the equivalent of two episodes -- three cartoons each, and occasional bumpers and other filler.

For the record, the twelve cartoons included in the Image Entertainment DVD (and the VHS volumes in which they were originally issued) were: “Beany Meets the Monstrous Monster” (VOL. 3), “So What and the Seven Whatnots” (VOL. 9), “Beany and the Boo Birds” (VOL. 4), “Super Cecil” (VOL. 1), “Wildman of Wildsville” (VOL. 1), “The Spots Off a Leopard” (VOL. 1), “Beanyland” (VOL. 11), “Cecil Meets the Singing Dinosor [sic]” (VOL. 1), “The Mad Isle of Madhattan” (VOL. 12), “Dirty Pool” (VOL. 10), “D.J. the D.J.” (VOL. 13), and “Snorky - There’s No Such Thing as a Sea Serpent” (VOL. 13).

Wot the heck! That means there's still a ton of BEANY & CECIL not yet available on DVD! The scorecard of available B&C toons on DVD amounts to this: VOL. 1 (three), VOL. 2 (none!), VOL. 3 (one), VOL. 4 (one), VOL. 5 (none!!), VOL. 6 (none!!!), VOL. 7 (none!!!!), VOL. 8 (none!!!!!), VOL. 9 (one), VOL. 10 (one), VOL. 11 (one), VOL. 12 (one), and VOL. 13 (two).

I don't have all the individual B&C VHS volumes, but fortunately, I have the majority (including the swell gift box edition of VOLUME 8, which came with a nifty Cecil hand-puppet), so I've started burning these onto DVD-R for myself. The B&C cartoons are deeply hard-wired into my brain, as they came along at just the right time in my childhood; they gave me a love of puns that almost certainly pre-dated my discovery of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, and I had all the toys -- the Beany copter hat (I must have lost all those propellers on the roof the first day I had it -- programmed obsolescence at its finest), the Cecil jack-in-a-box, the hand puppets, the B&C ukelele, the Cecil Soaky bottle, the comics, the talking dolls. Watching these cartoons again, I am astonished by their enduring vitality and by how they invigorate me. Thirty minutes of cartoons is usually my limit -- certain classics aside, cartoon features are almost always too long for my liking -- but I find that I can burn three volumes of B&C (that's 18 cartoons, plus bumpers) to disc in a sitting and still be ready for more. They are smart, hip ("So What and the Seven Whatnots" is not just a Disney gag, but a Miles Davis reference!), silly, and brilliantly designed -- and the secret, I think, is as simple as that.

In the course of my dubbing project, I discovered that my attic collection harbors three episodes of the 1988 BEANY & CECIL Saturday morning revival series masterminded by John Kricfalusi. These I hadn't watched since I'd recorded them 18 years ago (!), and the picture quality was enough to remind me of how the cards were stacked against this program. I watched the first episode on the local Cincinnati network affiliate. Said affiliate dumped the show after that single broadcast, so I had to seek out the next two episodes on the Dayton network affiliate, which was thankfully part of our cable package at the time. But after those second and third episodes, the new BEANY & CECIL disappeared from the Ohio airwaves and went over the rainbow in toto. I've read online that five episodes were aired, but the truth is: five cartoons, but only three episodes. An equal number of shows were produced -- "Cecil Meets Clambo," "The Courtship of Cecilia," and "The Golden Menu" -- that never received their public unveiling.

There are things about the Kricfalusi B&C that don't quite work -- notably its updating of Beany into a more expressive, pro-active character, which I think misses the joke of the poker-faced Beany and reeks of network "advice." I also wish that the show had been as punny as it was funny. But, over the course of the three shows I have, it was clearly coming more fully into its own. At the time, when the show was cancelled, I paid an anonymous call to Bob Clampett Productions and left a message on their machine bemoaning the cancellation and congratulating them on their effort. I didn't know who Kricfalusi was at the time, but it wasn't terribly long after the cancellation that I saw in TV GUIDE a color picture of two new cartoon characters called Ren and Stimpy who were about to be unveiled on Nickelodeon. I didn't make the connection to the new BEANY & CECIL, or even the new MIGHTY MOUSE which I also enjoyed, but I instinctively knew that I was going to like these guys; I clipped the picture, posted it on our home bulletin board, and became quite the REN & STIMPY buff for the first couple of years it was on the air.

One of the reasons I'm writing about BEANY & CECIL today is in the hope that somebody out there has the unaired Kricfalusi episodes, and might entertain the idea of a swap of some sort. I don't usually do this but, as I say, Beany & Cecil are characters that touch a special nerve in the old Watchdog. For those of you who never saw Kricfalusi's B&C revival, You Tube is making available the amusing episode called "The Bad Guy Flu." Fun and disease are just a click away.

It seems that The Watchdog is on a cartoon binge
He's making puns and having fun out on the lunatic fringe
He's watching BEANY & CECIL morning, night and noon
And now he's hoping you'll help him find
Those John Kricfalusi tooooooOOOOOOOOONS!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

2001: A High Definition Odyssey

Last night I happened to discover Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY playing on HDNet Movies. I don't know whether or not it was the film's world high-definition premiere, but it was new to the channel and I was so impressed by what I saw, I happily strapped myself in for the remainder of the broadcast.

I first saw 2001 the way it should be met, if at all possible -- in 70mm Super Panavision and six-track stereo sound -- circa 1975, at Cincinnati's Valley Theater, which I believe was the city's only 70mm venue at that time. The screen was immense and curved and the seats were very comfortable. I had several of my most memorable theatrical experiences there, but 2001 was supreme. In the years since, I've seen the film in many formats, from standard 35mm prints to commercial television broadcasts and the various tape and disc releases, but it was truly made for viewing in 70mm -- it loses something significant when viewed in any other format, even standard 35. That something boils down to presence.

I joined the HDNet Movies presentation just as Heywood Floyd (always the accepted spelling of William Sylvester's character, or is it "Haywood Floyd," as his name is captioned on a telescreen?) was making his trip to the moon. One of the unique qualities of HD viewing is an increased awareness of composition in depth, but I've never seen that sense better explored, or exploited, than in the special effects shots from this sequence. The famous shot of the spinning parallel wheels of the space station conveyed, for the first time in my living room, an appreciable sense of its size, its dimension, and its weightlessness -- as did the later cutaway shot to the asteroids hurtling past, and the whole episode of Poole's (Gary Lockwood's) unhappy encounter with a psychotically puppeteered space pod. At its best, I find that HD also communicates a sense of temperature, and here -- in the pinpoint precision of the starry backgrounds and the razor-sharp details of the lunar surface from afar -- 2001 HD permits a sometimes frightening impression of the cold emptiness of space. Consequently, the story is heightened by being told against this subtly terrifying background of the void.

The labels on the space food trays were readable. The anti-grav toilet directions were, to some extent, readable. The detail evident in the spaceship models was astonishing. I could almost smell the fresh vinyl of the seat cushions. I noticed that misspelling of Heywood Floyd's name, and wondered, for the first time, why Bowman (Keir Dullea) left certain of HAL's memory banks connected while disconnecting him. And I was continually amazed that a film that looked this immediate, this present, could have been first released in 1968. Many of the actors in this film are now dead, but the film itself has not aged a day in nearly 40 years, and its special effects have dated least of all. It is antiquated only by a level of quality control that was unique to the eye of Stanley Kubrick, which forever closed in 1999.

In short, I found the image quality of 2001 HD to be generally as rich and as plush as it had been in 70mm, and I also found there were unexpected advantages to having the screen downsized -- in my case, to a mere 53 inches. True, one can't "inhabit" the film to the extent one can on an immense screen, but new layers of appreciation await those who can take a step back, or outside, the experience while still "feeling" it courtesy of the exquisite transfer. In my case, I found it allowed me to focus, in a way I never have before, on the calm, cool, exacting logic that guides the film from one composition to the next. Everything unfolds at an unusually pensive pace that, I realized, is perfectly analogous to a chess master inhabiting a problem, viewing it from different angles, and gradually arriving at the decision of which of these solutions is best and then advancing there. Each shot in a scene holds for as long as it takes that decision to be made, and each step forward does appear to be predicated on a logic that is there to be read in the preceding image. Granted, I've seen the film many times, but never before have I been so conscious of how many shots contain the next shot, or the idea propelling the viewer toward the next shot, or propelling the story to its next plateau.

Whether or not viewers are consciously aware of this logic, I believe they feel it and come to rely on it -- and this is why the "Jupiter and Beyond" segment remains so controversial. Because 2001 has been so unyieldingly logical and deliberate up to this point, the introduction of action and information beyond our ken is galling for many viewers. Even before I could appreciate some of the finer subtleties of this segment, I could appreciate the beauty and mystery of it -- and now that I think I have a better idea of what it's all about, my knowledge still boils down to being more receptive to that same beauty and mystery. Clearly, Bowman (Keir Dullea) undergoes an experience involving alien terrain and presence that is beyond his comprehension -- an odyssey through space and time and color that leaves him emotionally shattered. Would the film be better had Kubrick staged this segment in a manner that popcorn munchers everywhere would have easily grasped, or was he right to take us along on the same ride into the Infinite as Bowman? I think the answer is obvious, and if 2001's arrival at narrative opacity kills it as a movie for some people, that same opacity offers it endless levels available to interpretation, discussion, debate and revisitation -- the stuff of great art.

For those of you with HD service, HDNet Movies will be presenting 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY several more times during the month, usually in showings followed by 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT (which, needless to say, also looks a good deal better than the transfer currently available on DVD). It's heartening to know that this exemplary transfer exists, and it proves beyond question that Stanley Kubrick was truly ahead of his time -- the HD filmmaker par excellence.