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...