Saturday, January 20, 2007

Into The Sub-Conchis

The new issue of SIGHT AND SOUND features my review of THE MAGUS, now on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment -- go to your local newsstand and buy a copy, or read my review online here. When I was writing the piece, I didn't recollect the one thing people seem to remember the movie version of THE MAGUS for: namely, Woody Allen's quote that, if he had his whole life to live over, he wouldn't change a thing... except maybe, the second time around, he'd skip seeing THE MAGUS. I understand why he said that, but, to tell you the truth, I could say the same thing about MATCH POINT. No doubt about it, THE MAGUS is a failure... but some failures are interesting. Some failures are damned interesting -- not that THE MAGUS is one of those. Actually, a surprising number of my heroes could be considered failures from some perspectives.

But let's not go there.

Earlier this evening, I happened to catch Stuart Gordon's take on "The Black Cat," this week's installment of Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR, and was very impressed. The episode, scripted by Gordon and his frequent collaborator Dennis Paoli (like last year's "Dreams in the Witch-House"), necessarily covers some ground that's all too familiar from earlier adaptations of this oft-filmed story -- including the obscure 1966 Harold Hoffman version -- but it goes at the material with unusual vigor and sympathy, wrenching fresh emotion and agony from it. As a sometimes writer of dark fiction, I can also attest that it says some regrettably, embarassingly, incontestably true things about the drawbacks of being a writer and darkly imaginative that I've never seen dramatized before, at least not with such knowledge and sympathy. A nearly unrecognizable Jeffrey Combs contributes an outstanding performance as Edgar Allan Poe that may be the series' most impressive to date, and the shot of Poe walking by night down a city street, followed by the enormous shadow of a stalking cat, strikes me as an instant classic. Don't miss it.

This is the first time I've commented on MASTERS OF HORROR in awhile. I've been recording them and watching them when I can. I haven't seen Mick Garris's "Valerie On the Stairs" yet, but I've heard it's an improvement on his first season episode ("Chocolate," which I thought was decent). Rob Schmidt's "Right To Die," scripted by John Esposito, had its moments -- including a truly shuddery bandaged horror also shown voluptuously and gruesomely undraped -- but the surprise ending struck me as dramatically dishonest, rendering everything that came before it a deception... and not in a good way. Tom Holland's "We All Scream for Ice Cream" (adapted from a John Farris story by our friend, the wild wild David J. Schow) I found surprisingly involving, considering that the story seemed a Mr. Softee redo of Stephen King's IT. (For all I know, the Farris story could have preceded the King novel; somebody will clue me in. David, probably.) To DJS's credit, while the premise of voodoo dollops of vanilla was a bit off the Richter scale of believability, he kept me hooked by grounding the nonsense with canny adult dialogue and a steely view of childhood that was impressive and unusual in its determination to remain clear-eyed and unsentimental. The episode's success is that it dealt with the subjects of guilt and nostalgia without letting nostalgia get the upper hand.

Speaking of nostalgia, I couldn't decide what to watch tonight, so I drifted back to something semi-familiar. I picked Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes' ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL, which I wrote about on this blog some weeks ago with enthusiasm. Perhaps it was my mood, or the amontillado aftertaste of "The Black Cat," but most everything about it struck me on this viewing as wrong, miscast, or miscalculated. I remembered it as brighter, funnier, more energetic, but this time it moved awkwardly and I laughed only once (when Prof. Okamura says "Another day, another dollar" -- not when John Malkovich says "I was one of the first," as would have been my guess). Perhaps it's because I watched the film alone this time; perhaps this time my heart went out to the characters a bit more, but something brought out the stifling darkness of the piece, which I can't imagine how I sublimated the first time around. It now seems to me as dark a film as BAD SANTA, though that eureka probably qualifies for a "duh." Even the closing shot, which I found so eloquent before, felt a bit too much on the nose. I almost feel as though I've lost a friend.

This is why Pauline Kael saw movies only once. She liked knowing where she stood.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The One That Achieves Madness

Mick Jagger reminisces about Hemlock Row in the "Memo from Turner" sequence of PERFORMANCE.

One of my ambitions at the moment is to write a monograph for Continuum Books' impressive "33 1/3" series. Introduced in 2003, the numbered sequence now consists of more than 40 paperbacks, each devoting 25-40,000 words to the in-depth exploration of a single album. (Click on those orange letters for a list.) I personally enjoy reading music criticism more than film criticism and have read twenty or so of these books to date, with the ones devoted to Dusty Springfield's DUSTY IN MEMPHIS, Love's FOREVER CHANGES, The Kinks' THE VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY, James Brown's LIVE AT THE APOLLO VOLUME 1, and Bob Dylan's HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED being some of my favorites. Though I finally proposed to Continuum's editor a book on a different album, one of the others I was seriously considering was the soundtrack to Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's PERFORMANCE (1970).

I've seen PERFORMANCE now countless times, but the album takes me back to a time when I was 14 years old, still too young to see X-rated films, and could only experience "the wild electric dream" promised in the film's newspaper ads through the annex of its music. Anyone of any age could buy the album, though I confess I did so somewhat self-consciously, feeling more than a twinge of transgression as I meekly handed my shrink-wrapped copy over to the salesgirl. Warner Bros. Records had wisely placed Mick Jagger's lippy puss front and center, wanting the maximum return on the closest thing to a Rolling Stones album they had yet marketed, though the Stones would soon sign with sister company Atlantic Records and get their own label in the bargain. Not knowing what the music contained therein might say, exclaim or scream, I listened to the album for the first time under headphones -- and my prudence was, to an extent, well advised.

Assembled under the musical direction of principal composer Jack Nietsche, the PERFORMANCE soundtrack is not your usual soundtrack album, and this was even truer at the time of its release. Much of the album is devoted to byzantine instrumentals featuring (in all their variety) vocals by "Gimme Shelter" soloist Merry Clayton, Moog synthesizing by Paul Beaver, mouth-bow solos by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Mrs. Nietsche at the time), and bluesy electric bottleneck guitar miniatures played by six-string maestro Ry Cooder. The opening section of one of the Cooder showcases, "Get Away," is blatantly patterned on Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band's "Sure 'Nuff 'n' Yes I Do," on which Cooder played but which neither he nor Nietsche had a role in composing. Which brings us to the meat and drink of the album, provided by three vocal tracks: Randy Newman's "Gone Dead Train", The Last Poets' "Wake Up Niggers", and of course, Mick Jagger's "Memo from Turner."

All three of these songs are fairly frightening -- "Gone Dead Train" for Newman's suffering, yelping vocal, "Wake Up Niggers" for its confrontational militant fury, and "Memo from Turner" for its Burroughsian cut-up lyrics, which seem at times to point recursively to imagistic content of the film as well as other lyrical content on the album. ("I was eatin' eggs in Sammy's when the black man there drew his knife...") With its great slide guitar work by Little Feat's Lowell George, it remains, I think inarguably, one of the finest things Jagger has ever recorded; it's as apocalyptic in tenor as "Gimme Shelter" but sports hermaphroditic colors, autobiographic shadings ("the baby's dead, my lady said" reportedly refers to a lost child with Marianne Faithfull), and even a sneering sense of humor. As its music heats up, the blood of its lyrics run cold.

The album's title track and closing track "Turner's Murder," with their ominously sustained low end synthesizer notes, put me very much in the mind of another soundtrack of which I was already aware: Quincy Jones' IN COLD BLOOD. I had seen Richard Brooks' film on my 12th birthday and its cold realism left a powerful impression on me; I hid my eyes during the murder scenes on that first pass, which left my senses entirely in the hands of its music, no less violent in its insinuations. So to hear similar music on the PERFORMANCE album promised an equally overpowering experience, and I listened to it repeatedly to conquer my feelings of dread.

I was especially taken by Side 1's closing "Harry Flowers," in which a sweepingly romantic orchestral piece is gradually infected by a phasing synthesizer effect that blooms into receding white noise. It probably prepared me for The Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)", now that I think about it.

As I look back over the music I absorbed at an early age as I began to wean myself from Top 40 radio, I find that the PERFORMANCE soundtrack was as significant as any record I ever bought in terms of opening my ears and widening my musical boundaries. The album totals a mere 36:26, yet it encompasses alternative rock, Delta blues, electronica, atonal classical, Indian sitar, early rap, MOR and choral music. It's a marvelous record, an important thing considered separately from the film it scored. (It also warrants a digital remaster, as the flat sound of the current CD -- issued way back in 1991 -- suggests it may have been sourced from vinyl.) But, when push came to shove, I couldn't trust myself to write 25,000 words about it. If the proposal I've submitted to Continuum Books gets accepted, I'll tell you which album I decided to write about instead.

I finally saw PERFORMANCE a year or two later. I don't recall the name of the place, but the theater was in northern Kentucky and it was a small room above a regular theater. It was smaller than some home entertainment constructs are today, consisting of only two rows of maybe eight seats, wedged very close together. It looked like a place where an elite circle of powerful executives might congregate to watch porn or snuff movies. There was only one showing of the film, at 12:00 midnight, and the print was a 16mm rental. There was only one projector too, so there was an intermission. As I recall, Brad Balfour, Joel Zakem and Earl Whitson were there, all of whom had seen the movie before and spoken of it with enthusiasm, to say the least. As the movie unreeled, we quickly realized that something was seriously wrong with the sound, either a fault of the projection, the sound system, or the print itself -- which, considering the vaguely illicit setting, might well have been a dupe. So the first time I saw PERFORMANCE, it was an assault of imagery with not too much dialogue that could be sorted out. I remember "Shut your bleeding hole!" and "I'm normal!" being the only two lines that made themselves clear. We told the theater manager about the problem during the reel change and he kindly refunded our money, though we all insisted on sticking around for the rest of the garbled presentation. (Those were, after all, the days when we would apply aluminum foil to the rabbit ears on our television sets and stand with one leg up, flamingo-like, just to watch the snowy reception of some movie playing on a station in a neighboring city.) When I finally saw a proper 35mm revival of the film some years later, I found its Cockney accents so thick, I still couldn't make out a great deal of the dialogue! All this was vital experience in coming to terms with PERFORMANCE, a film I now understand and love a great deal -- which, by the way, will finally be released on DVD by Warner Home Video on February 13.

This random personal history is my way of plugging a beloved series of books, but also of building up to a plug for my friend David Del Valle's latest exhibit of motion picture stills at the Drkrm Gallery in Los Angeles. Following David's popular shows devoted to Mexican horror, Italian sword-and-sandal epics, and Roger Corman's Poe films, "PERFORMANCE: A Photographic Exhibition featuring the work of Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg" will have its opening reception this Saturday night, January 20, from 7:00 - 10:00pm.

VIDEO WATCHDOG's own Sam Umland will be in attendance to sign copies of his superb book DONALD CAMMELL: A LIFE ON THE WILD SIDE, and David tells us that THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH stars Buck Henry and Candy Clark will also be present. Among the items in the PERFORMANCE portion of the exhibit are eleven seldom-seen photos taken by the celebrated Cecil Beaton on the set, from Cammell's own collection.

For more information about the exhibit, which runs through February 24, visit the Drkrm Gallery website here.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

You Asked for It! More Dexter Riley!

Dexter Riley (Kurt Russell) has a scientific eureka after dropping his glasses into his new formula. He wears glasses at no other time in the picture.

NOW YOU SEE HIM, NOW YOU DON'T
1972, Walt Disney Video, DD-2.0/16:9/LB/CC/ST, 88m 15s, $19.99, DVD-1

Perhaps the most one can say on behalf of Walt Disney's second "Dexter Riley" movie, NOW YOU SEE HIM, NOW YOU DON'T, is that it's an improvement on the first (THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES, reviewed here last September 23). Otherwise, returning screenwriter Joseph L. McEveety recycles the same template: ace Medfield College science student Riley (Kurt Russell) is working on a new and absurd-sounding project; a random storm facilitates his unexpected success; his invention attracts the attention of local crooked businessman A.J. Arno (Cesar Romero), to whom the college dean E.J. Higgins (Joe Flynn) is financially indebted; the smug Dean Higgins is still in competition with Dean Collingswood (Alan Hewitt), the smugger head of a larger college, this time for a $50,000 grant from local businessman Timothy Forsythe (Jim Backus); a scientifically augmented student (this time Richard Schuyler, played by Michael McGreevey) snoops into Arno's affairs to expose him, prompting him to take steps to embarrass Riley and Medfield College publicly; and it all builds to a finale with a wild-and-woolly road chase sequence and scholastic competition.

In this case, Riley's science project turns out to be an invisibility formula, which he's copped from the disregarded 200 year-old writings of a Russian scientist who died in an insane asylum. The invisibility agent is a water-soluble liquid, which allows for some humorous moments when Schuyler's invisibility is rendered partial (when he walks his invisible sneakers through a puddle, for instance) or altogether negated without his knowledge. Among the supporting players are Edward Andrews, Richard Bakalyan, Burt Mustin, Mike Evans (Lionel of TV's ALL IN THE FAMILY and THE JEFFERSONS, who recently died of throat cancer at age 57), and a very young, tousle-haired Ed Begley, Jr., who would do his own amusing invisible-but-not-really routine in "Son of the Invisible Man," a Carl Gottlieb-directed segment of the later AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON (1987).

Joyce Menges looks agog as a horrified Michael McGreevey realizes that Dexter's latest formula actually works.

As with the earlier film, NOW YOU SEE HIM... suffers from low energy editing by Cotton Walburton, showing none of the comedy-enhancing snap, crackle and pop he had brought to his cutting of THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR or MOON PILOT, and a vague yet action-intensive script that leaves us none the wiser about who Dexter Riley and his friends really are, or why we should care about them. The cover art suggests, if not a romantic relationship (à la Annette Funicello and Tommy Kirk in the Merlin Jones movies), at least a sense of equality between Kurt Russell and cute co-star Joyce Menges; but -- like Debbie Paine in THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES -- Menges is merely the token female character. She called her screen career quits after this.

If possible, this sequel is even cheaper-looking than its predecessor, the invisibility effects fraught with dirty-looking bluescreen traces of stepped-up grain and all-too-visible wires ambulating an invisible teen's all-too-visible gym shoes. A much-promoted photo depicting a student with eyeglasses and familiar facial wrappings turns out to have nothing to do with invisibility, but with an allergy to bee stings! Much as the previous film was remarkable for the array of facial flaws and blemishes on display, this one is a nearly non-stop parade of bad hair (aside from the ever-suave Cesar Romero) -- not because the hairstyles look unfashionable, but because the actors (William Windom as Prof. Lufkin particularly) were allowed to go before the camera looking poorly groomed, not to mention wearing clashing wardrobe that looks imported from home. The film's saving grace is an extended golfing sequence that finds gaudily-dressed golf amateur Dean Higgins effortlessly winning a game on the green with invisible help; it's here that Flynn's comic performance and the comedic timing of COMPUTER director Robert Butler momentarily spring to life. Someone in the casting department was also showing a sense of humor when they hired an actor named Jack Griffin (uncredited) to play one of the traffic cops.

Ed Begley, Jr. explains to William Windom and Joe Flynn why he won't be able to participate in Medfield College's science competition.

Whereas Disney's DVD of THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES was standard ratio, NOW YOU SEE HIM, NOW YOU DON'T (released in May 2004) is soft-matted from its standard camera ratio to its intended projection ratio of 1.85:1. I would imagine that a full frame rendering would only serve to expose some of the invisibility mattes and rigs moreso than they are exposed here. The picture quality is okay, and the only curiosity about the audio track is that the frankly miserable score has been so buried in the sound mix that it often sounds like it's emanating from another, semi-soundproofed room. The closed-captioned disc features subtitles in French and Spanish but no secondary audio tracks.