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.