Thursday, August 24, 2006

What Am I Reading?

Last night, while listening to Bill Evans cut loose with Scott La Faro and Paul Motian on one of their classic Riverside label recordings, I decided to open my copy of THE PENGUIN GUIDE TO JAZZ ON CD and read all the entries on Evans, and then several other entries chosen at random. As someone who loves jazz but hasn't ventured too far afield of the great pillars of the music (Satchmo, Duke, Basie, Miles, Coltrane, Monk, Ornette), I must say that having the knowledge and experience of tasteful and articulate jazz scholars like Richard Cook and Brian Morton at one's disposal is a priceless gift. This hefty book has never steered me wrong, and it has steered me toward some of my most fulfilling adventures in my life as a listener. Furthermore, it collects some of the best concise music criticism I've read in any genre; indeed, it's been a more useful model for my own critical writing, over the years, than any film criticism I've read.

In going over to Amazon to provide a shopping link for you, I discovered that my own Fifth Edition copy of this important tome is a few years out of date. There is now a Seventh, and an Eighth (tipping the scales at over 1700 pages!) is due on November 7. Whichever edition you choose, I recommend this book whole-heartedly to my fellow jazz buffs, and perhaps even moreso to my fellow film scribes. Amazon offers a "Search This Book" feature on the Seventh Edition, so go on over there and check it out.

Speaking of books, I've also had the pleasure recently of reading new books written by my friends and colleagues Alan Jones and Maitland McDonagh. They share the distinction of being two of the best-known authorities on the films of Dario Argento, but they both have new books on the market that extend their expertise into the wider range of world cinema.

Maitland's MOVIE LUST: RECOMMENDED VIEWING FOR EVERY MOOD, MOMENT, AND REASON (Sasquatch Books, 290 pp., $16.95) is a clever, personality-driven overview of all kinds of movies, bracketed according to theme or creator or raison d'etre. The idea is to know yourself, to isolate your yearnings or symptoms, and pick the movie that's just what the doctor ordered. Before you can say "popcorn," allow me to fine-tune that remark to "popcorn drenched in dark, decadent, velvety-smooth chocolate with a soupçon of pepper, a headiness of hashish, and an aftertaste of lipstick."

MOVIE LUST is a book as much for lovers of language as for film hipsters; most every paragraph is like a carefully-crafted bon-bon that can be quickly sucked down to a rich bon mot center. The book opens with a fascinating autobiographic sketch (I actually wished it was a good deal longer) detailing how Maitland became interested, engrossed, and finally obsessed with movies, nailing down a viewpoint that guides us through the observations to come like a steady compass. "If Pauline Kael lost it at the movies, I found it," she writes -- and maybe she did; much of this book channels the high-spirited candor and color one associates with the best of Kael's writing. And, truth be told, I agree with Maitland more often. Don't judge this book by its cover, which looks like a remote control ad designed by the agency that services Westinghouse appliances. This is a clever approach, a sophisticated piece of work, and an engaging testimonial to the author's omniverous appetite for anything moving at 24 frames per second. MOVIE LUST has a street date of August 28, but I'm told it's already available in some bookstores now.


Back in the 1960s and '70s, a number of hardcover histories of the horror film hit the market, usually distinguished by terrific color plate signatures and usually written by Englanders. These were predominantly picture books but, once you got around to reading the text, it turned out to be equally of interest. There's been a lot of water (and blood) under the bridge since those days, so you'd imagine it would be terribly hard, if not impossible, to write a manageable history of horror cinema today. And yet Alan Jones has almost done this with his softcover THE ROUGH GUIDE TO HORROR MOVIES (Rough Guides, 278 pp., $14.99). That cover photo, let me tell you, is so Alan.

One expects a book this concise to be slight in one respect or another, but Alan has done an admirable job of compressing a wealth of information and insight into these profusely-illustrated, dual-columned pages. The book opens with a history of the first hundred years of horror cinema, then follows through with an admirably balanced selection of 50 outstanding horror films (everything from THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI to HIGH TENSION); bios of the genre's leading actors and creators, each followed by a capsule review of a representative work (oddly, he follows the entry on Peter Cushing with one of his worst films, CORRUPTION); a look at "Horror Movies Around the World," documenting the different ways in which most world countries have contributed uniquely to the genre; and finally, a conclusive list of places on-line and off where you can learn more (such as VIDEO WATCHDOG, about which Alan is very complimentary). And scattered throughout the text are eye-catching sidebars about such related topics as Fog ("the quintessential horror movie weather condition"), Ballyhoo, and beloved horror movie locations like Hammer's Black Park.

You see Rough Guides piled high on their own little tables in bookstore chains, and you might assume from the way they look that they're a bibliophilic variety of Christmas stocking stuffer. But, regardless of topic, these books are usually surprisingly substantial. (At the same time I picked up Alan's book, I bought THE ROUGH GUIDE TO CULT FICTION. Though I'm incredulous at its omission of cult figures like Anthony Burgess, Baron Corvo, and Alexander Theroux, I must say I enjoyed it, as well.) Like Maitland McDonagh, Alan Jones has taken advantage of his publisher's general mandate to deliver the kind of book he would enjoy reading himself -- something as useful for seasoned film buffs as it will be for the nephews and nieces they may have on their Halloween gift lists. As always, Alan writes with the ebullience and enthusiasm of a recent convert, and his stance throughout is commendably modernist and cosmopolitan, eschewing the Universal or Hammer biases found in many such books. I'm tempted to call it the best entry-level book on the subject written to date.

Keep these books handy for those nights when all the titles in your DVD collection look alike and you can't decide what to watch. They're sure to remind you why you've given yourself over to all this, body and soul.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Watch WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE

We watched both installments of Spike Lee's HBO documentary WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE: A REQUIEM IN FOUR ACTS last night. Predictably, given the man at the helm, it was a moving, righteously upsetting, heart-afire experience; in fact, I think HBO should be hosting a Free Preview when they re-run the two parts together on the evening of August 29 (8:00 to midnight), the first anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, if they're not planning to do so already. This is the kind of forthright public address that one feels should fall under some kind of Freedom of Information act, rather than being part of a subscription cable service, especially with House and Congressional elections looming in November.

Speaking for myself, I don't watch television news anymore. I used to watch it regularly, but had to stop A) because it's too upsetting, and B) because it's too painfully obvious that what it reports is selective and biased and non-confrontational. For this reason, I was not that aware of the full dimension of the Hurricane Katrina situation. In advance of seeing this film, I was wondering how Spike Lee was going to spend four hours on the subject, and I was still wondering about that as Act I drew to a close; but the fact is, it's really not a documentary about Hurricane Katrina. It's about what happened before, during, and -- most importantly -- after Katrina.

And, on that final score, it's scary as Hell. More than once, it occurred to me that the only filmmaker who had come anywhere close to touching the same nerves that are strummed by Lee's elegiac epic was George A. Romero. I don't mean to trivialize the grave events portrayed herein by comparing them to the events in Romero's zombie movies, but Romero is the only filmmaker who has, prior to this, so effectively and prophetically shown that, to paraphrase the man himself, "when the shit hits the fan, we're screwed."

Some may balk at seeing this film because they know that, it being a "Spike Lee Film" (not a "Spike Lee Joint"), it's going to have an in-your-face point-of-view, perhaps contrary to their own. Yes, WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE has a point-of-view, and it's sometimes guilty of making an emphatic truth even more emphatic by turning sound bytes into hammers, but it's a documentary, first and foremost... and a great one, a film that ranks with Lee's most humane and passionate work. The raw emotional response of the participants in this, the biggest natural disaster in US history, is naturally subjective, but the accumulation of response gives all sides a voice while immersing the viewer in an over-the-head state of chaos and bureaucratic inepititude. It asks some tough questions -- like "Were the levees deliberately sabotaged to protect the French Quarter at the expense of the impoverished sections of the city?" and "Why should New Orleans rebuild slums when the same land could be gentrified?" and "Is there going to be a place for poor people in a country ruled by Big Business?" But it doesn't let these looming shadows get in the way of reporting the facts. The most chilling information to emerge from these four engrossing hours is that the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the lives of those most devastated by it was nothing -- nothing -- compared to the scattering of traumatized, uprooted, predominantly black families imposed by governmental and military intercession (which awakened racial memories of slave trading), and the continuing neglect of the welfare of stubborn New Orleans residents by those same parties.

One thing that struck me, by virtue of its coincidence, is that, in two pivotal cases, the only force that could make anything positive happen was the wake-up call of a man cursing. In one instance, it was the Mayor of New Orleans (Ray Nagin) breaking down and showing his anger and despair verbally during a radio interview, which prompted a visit from George W. Bush and a complimentary shower aboard Air Force One. In another, it was an Army General whose foul mouth alone turned what was threatening to become a violent police state back into a neighborhood, albeit a ruined one. Later, a glimpse of similar, mobilizing belligerence was conveyed in a Fox News clip, and I had the insight that perhaps this is why a lot of people will swallow any polarizing crap that Fox News gives them -- because it also gives them the illusion, à la Howard Beale, of talking to them straight. The relevance of the cursing has to do with shaking up the spectre of Political Correctness, embodied by FEMA's imperative to calmly follow company lines and protocol, which may have played a role in why they have been so singularly non-responsive to this predicament and its aftermath. The importance of language in understanding where sides really stand is further explored by Lee's close attention the media's adoption of the term "refugees" for those US citizens divested of home, family and property by Katrina, who were taken care of with none-too-subtle one-way-tickets out of town. "Send us your poor, your huddled masses," indeed.

WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE is a long film, and carries more stress than some people will want to take on in one or two sittings; it is guaranteed to extend the range of your anger and despair beyond the US government to the Army Corps of Engineers, the media, insurance companies, and that rising monolithic Moloch we call Big Business. I found it absorbing almost in the same way I find Michael Wadleigh's WOODSTOCK absorbing (above and beyond its musical performances): both films study, from a variety of angles, a technical disaster and social phenomenon involving close to a million people, and document how people of different social backgrounds coped under these extraordinary circumstances. While WOODSTOCK accentuates the positive in its ersatz Garden of Eden, Lee's film chronicles how the best and worst in people are summoned in a pressure-cooker setting closer to martial law. It's a tribute to human resilience and a eulogy to those whose resilience could be bent only so far before it snapped and was left to rot in the streets or be set adrift in the Mississippi swells. Interest is sustained not only by the enormity of the story's tragedy and drama and conflict, but by the rich human tapestry provided by its interviewees, ranging from the sage and polished Winton Marsalis and Harry Belafonte, to the winning outspokenness of Phyllis Montana Leblanc (whose indomitable spirit puts a fine and sassy wind into this movie's sails), to the Army Corps of Engineers rep who promises the people of New Orleans, without the slightest irony, that their levees will be rebuilt to "pre-Katrina specifications."

On a purely technical note, kudos to Terence Blanchard (an active participant in the story of Katrina) for an eloquent and sometimes heart-rending score, which has been given a remarkable 5.1 sound mix.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Per Gance To Dream

Yvette Mimieux and Rod Taylor in George Pal's now uncomfortably prophetic THE TIME MACHINE (1960).

I was expecting a backlash of negative response after yesterday's internet cri de coeur, but every response I've received thus far has been sympathetic -- not in the sense of being comforting, but in the sense of expressing common accord.

The internet is hurting a lot of people, either by actively infringing on the livelihoods of professional craftspeople, or by making them increasingly passive. Donna and I were talking the other night and we mutually noted that it's rare anymore that anyone ever speaks to us with a genuine sense of curiosity. I can understand this where I'm concerned, since I seem to post my thoughts on this blog almost as soon as I have them, but Donna feels the same way. Even in the best of situations, don't you find that people nowadays tend to talk about themselves and it ends there? Unless, of course, they're people whose lives are so void of personal interest that they have utterly supplanted their sense of self by talking about nothing but the hapless misadventures of Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, Mel Gibson, et al that pass for Hollywood publicity these days. The art of conversation is mutating insidiously; people are bouncing monologues off each other rather than truly exchanging ideas (which requires being open to new ideas and points-of-view). I suspect this attitude is prompted by the degree to which e-mail has taken over so many of the former uses of the telephone and good old over-the-backyard-fence dialogue. I don't like sounding like a sign-waving, it's-the-end-of-the-world-crying fuddy-duddy, but we need to realize the extent of the very subtle damage that's being done to us, that we're doing to ourselves by embracing all this convenience. Remember the Eloi -- even they had curiosity! ("How did they wear their hair in your time?")

In related headlines... Bob Dylan says modern music is worthless..., TONY BENNETT: 'AMERICA IS CULTURALLY VOID'... and, in the words of the late great Brother Theodore, "I'm not feeling so good myself!"

Actually, I'm feeling a bit better. I took a friend's advice and spent some time last night sitting on my patio, on the first cool night Cincinnati has enjoyed in awhile, with a fine Montecristo cigar and an iPod loaded with some old time radio shows. (One of them was an ADVENTURES OF OZZIE & HARRIET show called "Have a Cigar.") For those of you who are automatically turned off by the phrase "old time radio," don't think of it as old: think of it as "classic." Or better yet, think of it as one of those Krell devices from FORBIDDEN PLANET that hook up to your head and boost your intelligence, because radio forces the mind to fill in the blanks. It's not an imposition; it's a pleasure. You create the actors' faces, their wardrobe, their props, their art direction... and, when the show's over, you're left with the pleasant afterglow of having used what today's entertainment typically denies you: your imagination.

But back to me. (I'm laughing, and I hope you are.) When I came back indoors, I rounded out my evening by watching a film I've long been wanting to see: Abel Gance's 1955 film of Alexandre Dumas pere's LA TOUR DE NESLE. Some background: Several months ago, I went to the attic and pulled down an old tape of a movie I hadn't seen in about 20 years, which was released here theatrically as TOWER OF SCREAMING VIRGINS in 1970-71. It's actually a 1968 film called DER TURM DER VERBOTENEN LIEBE ("The Tower of Forbidden Love"). Despite the lurid title, it's a 14th century historical swashbuckler in which the virgins are men who are lured to a tower with promises of sexual ecstasy, where the masked courtesans include the Queen of France, Marguerite de Bourgogne (a real historic personage, 1290-1315) and her two handmaidens, who indulge their nymphomania during the King's absence by having their way with strangers all night and having them slain at dawn.

I reviewed TOWER OF SCREAMING VIRGINS for a future "Things From the Attic," and in the course of researching it, I found out that it was actually based on a play (not a novel, as cited onscreen) by Dumas, which is widely regarded as the finest example of French melodrama ever written. Even more intriguing, it was not the first film adaptation of the play, which had been previously filmed as a silent serial, as a feature in 1937, and a few times in the 1950s -- the most important of which was Gance's version, which marked his return to the screen after a twelve-year absence.

I was fortunate to find a copy of the Rene Chateau French VHS release of Gance's LA TOUR DE NESLE as a "Buy It Now" item on eBay. There is apparently also a more recent DVD release, which is also out-of-print but sometimes turns up there. Old French tapes are usually the bottom-of-the-barrel, quality-wise, due to the inferior SECAM system, but I must say that this was an exception, the equal of some of the best PAL tapes I've seen.

It's to be expected that a movie titled TOWER OF SCREAMING VIRGINS will contain some female nudity, but it comes as a bit of a shock to American sensibilities to discover that the 1937 version did as well; you can see the proof by going here and scrolling down. Somehow, the Gance film is most startling in this department, as the women's bared breasts and the men's bared bottoms -- not to mention the devastatingly unleashed female libido portrayed -- are couched in an opulent production that marries the rustic fantasia of Cocteau's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST to a velvety color cinematography that recalls THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD or, better yet, one of the early Disney animated features.

Watching LA TOUR DE NESLE is not unlike seeing Disney's SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS with all the missing scenes documenting the evil Queen's orgiastic sex life put back in. And because Americans like myself are not accustomed to seeing sex dealt with so graphically in films of this vintage, it consequently carries a stronger erotic charge than 1968 version, which actually offers more skin. One gets the feeling of having stumbled onto a special print manufactured to satifsy a film producer's private predelictions and never meant to be seen by the general public. Silvana Pampanini, whose first close-up (in which she wears a lace mask) is guaranteed to draw gasps, uses a body double... but it doesn't matter. Probably owing to its erotic candor, LA TOUR DE NESLE was never released in America, so it is extremely difficult to see here -- but it's a classic of its kind and an essential addition to any self-respecting film buff's education. Criterion, are you listening?

More in my forthcoming "Things from the Attic" review...

PS: Earlier today, Video WatchBlog counted its 300,000th hit. I thank you all for your continued... curiosity.

Monday, August 21, 2006

I'm So Bored With The Internet


Apologies to Joe Strummer, it's true. Working on the last stages of the Bava book has been mentally exhausting, and when I have felt up to writing something new, creative writing being the only reliable road back to my real self, I've been trying to stockpile reviews for the return of VW in October. Right now, I'm not feeling up to meeting the obligations of this blog, whatever they are, but I feel the need to keep my foot in the door -- if only to keep you somewhat engaged and entertained during this, my period of ambivalence.

It's not entirely due to this blown fuse in my brain; as my subject line suggests, there is also an element of disenchantment involved. When I started this blog last October, I quickly became familiar with the blogs that were happening at that time. It hasn't been a full year quite yet, but a number of the blogs I bookmarked at that time have since disappeared or become stuck in their own inability to progress. I made the decision a few months ago to delete any blog from my Favorite Places that didn't update itself in a two-week period; before jettisoning an old blog, though, I would explore their list of links and bookmark one or two that were to my liking. It occurred to me that I was like a polar bear, struggling to stay afloat on blogdom by stepping off one shrinking ice floe onto another.

There is also this Blog-A-Thon phenomenon, a means of unifying like-spirited blogs into a virtual magazine on a given theme for a day. Today is the 101st anniversary of Friz Freleng's birth and a Blog-A-Thon has been called. I think it's a good idea; Friz, the subtlest of the great Warners animators, is a worthy subject. Part of me has something to say about him and wants to participate, but the greater part of me doesn't, especially now, because I'm feeling overworked and come here to get away from assignments and deadlines.

I posted here some weeks ago about my excitement at discovering music blogs. Since then, most of the best music blogs have succumbed to some RapidShare-related problem, with alledged trouble-makers arranging to have music files blocked or taken down. Some outstanding music blogs are still active, like 7 Black Notes, but there was one week not so long ago when they were dropping like flies. Very sad, and a potent reminder to me of how ephemeral all this internet business really is. Online publication reminds me of Keats' epitaph about lines "writ on water."

It's hard for me to imagine that all this blogging is going to endure or amount to anything important, and I also worry about what all this virtual communication is doing to the world of book publishing -- where the real history of our life and times should be written. I've called blogs the fanzines of today, and there is certainly a place for these in our culture, but can we lay claim to a culture if fanzines become our major source of information, or just a pop culture? When Donna and I started publishing VIDEO WATCHDOG in 1990, there was a period of identity crisis at first because the miracle of desktop publishing had the sudden ability to make fanzines look pretty slick. VW was called a "semi-prozine" for awhile, even after it became our full-time job and sole means of support. Now I'm seeing a reversal of that confusion, with numerous professional writers, and the magazines and newspapers employing them, publishing their work on the internet to avail themselves of its instantaneous and potentially boundless audience. I've been writing a monthly column for SIGHT & SOUND for the past few years, which made its online debut last month. Though having "No Zone" online makes it easier for me to share tear sheets with DVD companies, I have mixed feelings about its free availability. It was a more meaningful and satisfying achievement for me as a print exclusive.

Over the weekend, I got into a little online joust with Paula Guran on her DarkEcho blogsite, which I certainly didn't intend. She was insisting that there was no difference in quality between print and internet writing, and invited responses. I responded that there were a great many reasons why print writing was inherently superior to internet writing -- not only the qualitative differences between professional and amateur sources of information, but others owing to the essence of the internet medium and the way readers interact with it. I sincerely believe that while people read books and magazines, they surf the internet. I'm no different; when I read material online, I find that I do so with greater impatience, which leads me to skim, rather than read, other people's online writing. I have a lot of bookmarked sites to visit, after all, and if one doesn't grab me, I'm off to the next; it's akin to channel surfing. But when I feel like reading print, I grab the one book or magazine I want to read; I don't grab an armful and then flip through them until I find something that holds my flighty attention, which I then drop after a minute or two's perusal. I don't remember what I read online; I don't quote articles to my friends, I send them links.

Anyway, I posted my feelings on the subject, which I proceeded to regret, because somehow -- owing to another of the major inequalities between print and net -- there was, in Strother Martin's immortal words, "failure to communicate." I could not get Paula to see that I wasn't belittling her work or her arena personally with my stated beliefs, and I couldn't tell when her responses to me were being sincere or sarcastic. After some public ping-pong, she guided our exchange to private e-mail, where we still didn't solve anything and probably only served to make a happy acquaintence worse. I don't know Paula personally, but she's been a friend to me and my work over the years; I like her and respect her devotion to horror-related fiction and non-fiction, and hate to think that she might now regard me as some kind of high-horse snob because I proposed some considerations she didn't want to hear, and because of the noise-to-sense ratio inherent in internet communications. And perhaps, even probably, I got some garbled signals from her too. So that was another discouragement.

Online, an ordinary exchange of ideas -- the root of the symposium, upon which principle of open and equal discussion the concepts of democracy and civilization were based -- can escalate all too suddenly into battle lines drawn in imaginary sand. We absorb what we read online before we can properly digest it, which means that we absorb it in a coating of our own biases and preconceptions. Nowadays, no one has the time or patience to want to adequately explore or entertain new or different or opposing points of view. The internet has seen to that, with additional indoctrination from the folks at Fox News.

This is my 257th blog posting in less than a year and, as you know, my postings can go for 18 or more paragraphs some days. (Hell, look at today's -- I can do 13 paragraphs even when I have nothing to say!) I've amassed enough material here to fill a book, even if I was selective about what I included; I think most of it would be worthy of preserving between covers, given a tweak here and there. I'm proud of this accomplishment, but it's also an accomplishment that suggests thoughts to me of what else I might have accomplished, had I not been so faithful to this task. Like finishing my current novel-in-progress, something I used to wrestle with, which I have lately been watching wrestle with itself. And that's just not right.

Last week, Gary Svehla of MIDNIGHT MARQUEE (who was presented over the weekend with his Monster Kid Hall of Fame Rondo Award -- congratulations, Gary!) wrote me to say that he reads this blog much more religiously than he ever read VIDEO WATCHDOG. (Ouch! Thanks!) "Your blog reminds me of what fanzines used to be in the 1960s and 1970s," he wrote. I know that Gary meant well, and I do take his words as a sincere compliment, but I published my first fanzine, back in the '70s, when I was 14. I work very hard at this task, and Gary's words (along with my aforementioned exchange with Paula) helped me to see that, no matter how much time I lavish on this blog, it's unlikely to amount to anything more than what it is. The question is, Can I be content with that? And the answer, I feel, is that I am going to be very unhappy with myself, now or later, if I don't apply my energies, while I have them, to something more personally fulfilling and, perhaps, rewarding.

Don't misunderstand; I'm not preambling an end to this blog. Knowing me, as I try to do, I could be back here again tomorrow, suddenly re-energized and re-engaged. I'm just saying that, for the past week and today also, I've been feeling a bit burnt-out (you'll understand better when you see all the detail work that's gone into the book) and need to find something that might recharge my batteries. Everything I see online right now seems to be draining them, hemorrhaging me of time and energy and determination. I know in my heart-of-hearts that Video WatchBlog serves an important purpose, especially during this period when VIDEO WATCHDOG is being temporarily published at half-ration frequency, which is why I'm not yet prepared to retire it.

If you've followed my writing, or my online presence, for any period of time, you know that I go through phases -- phases when I feel the need to stop posting on film boards, when I yearn to get offline altogether, when I miss the camaraderie and come back, when I love movies, when I hate movies. My relationship with the internet has always been like a bad marriage: argumentative, unhappy, but nevertheless committed, always threatening but never quite carrying through with divorce. If I can't give you material, I can at least give you my honesty. At the moment, I'm neither hating or loving this blog -- it might be easier for me to love it if there were more hours in the day -- but, for the moment anyway, I'm not feeling the need to be here. Still, I'm a faithful husband. As Beckett wrote, I can't go on. I'll go on.

So, until tomorrow...