Saturday, January 27, 2007

More Words on PERFORMANCE

Warner Home Video's forthcoming DVD of PERFORMANCE is the most beautiful, comprehensive, and comprehensible presentation of the film I've ever seen... but.

Truly, the quality of image and sound is a revelation, and the disc provides a most welcome subtitling option (like the audio, in English only) that clarifies all that the ear cannot easily interpret. The subtitles aren't always perfect, though: when Chas (James Fox) calls his nephew "good boy" on the telephone, the subtitle reads "goodbye," even though they continue talking; there are other faux pas as well, yet somehow "Orbis Tertius" is spelled correctly. Unfortunately, as often happens with DVD subtitles, the song lyrics are not transcribed; they may, however, be present in the closed captioning.

The audio is given a particular boon by the clear digital separation of the dialogue and music/effects tracks, which allow the music in the film to stand out and sparkle (I'm now much more aware of music cues in the film that were not included on the album), and the dialogue to be heard separately from the sounds that have heretofore bled into it, making it more easily understood even without the subtitles. Never before have I followed the details of the plot so well. Never before did I catch the reference to "Mick" before Chas shoots the man who beat him in his apartment, the one time Chas calls Turner "Nick," or Pherber's suggestion that they call "Dr. Burroughs." (Isn't he "the man who works the Soft Machine"?)

The tragic "but" to which I referred in my opener is a very irritating and needless one. During the "Memo from Turner" sequence, when Turner (Mick Jagger) raises a glass in a toast and cries "Here's to Old England!" (reprising an earlier line of Harry Flowers, played by Johnny Shannon), his lips move... but... no sound comes out! Other dialogue heard during the song is intact, so why not this? Boo, hiss.

This mistake aside, I had the feeling while watching this disc that it might be the first time I have ever seen PERFORMANCE at the correct projection speed. Everything about the picture seemed a semi-tone lower in register, more comprehensively paced. As I noted yesterday, there's a difference in running time over the previous Warner PAL VHS and NTSC laserdisc releases that amounts to an additional 6 seconds. At present, I can't be sure of where all those seconds occur, but the main titles seemed more revealing than I remembered them, so I took the time to write out a cutting continuity of the title sequence, as it appears on the new disc, and compared it to the shots that open the British tape. I found two brief shots omitted from that earlier continuity; there is an additional shot of Ann Sidney naked between the legs of James Fox and a followup cutaway to the Rolls-Royce, placed immediately prior to a similar shot that shows Fox rocking Sidney from side to side between his legs -- to be blunt, the shot of her giving him head prior to the shot of his orgasm. (The Rolls was removed only to maintain the editing rhythm established by the sequence, so that one Rolls shot wouldn't directly cut to another -- thus tipping the audience off that something had been removed.) Also, one of the shots included in the earlier continuity, also between Fox and Sidney, goes on some frames longer here, permitting a brief glimpse of Sidney's pubic hair. Also, this sex scene was darkened considerably in all earlier presentations, but is brighter here, permitting more obvious glimpses of full frontal and rear nudity, by Fox as well as Sidney. Likewise, later in the film, when Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) is filming Turner as he sleeps nude and covers his genetalia with his hands, a single frame is intact showing Jagger's testicles.

The featurettes are very good. The longer one is about a good deal more than just the film's censor problems; in fact, it hardly touches on them. It's more of an overview of the film's development and production, and an appreciation of its current status. The interviewees include star Anita Pallenberg, producer Sanford Lieberman, associate producer David Cammell, Jack Nietsche Jr. (son of the film's late music supervisor), and author Colin McCabe. The "Memo from Turner" piece does attend to the behind-the-scenes of filming that sequence, and features some neat footage of Cammell directing Jagger, as well as shots not in the final assembly. The trailer is in mint condition.

How the producers of this disc could have been sharp enough to track down millimeters of never-before-seen footage to include in this gorgeous assembly, making it the most complete and brilliant-looking version of PERFORMANCE ever, yet so careless as to mute an important (at least resonant) line of dialogue, I can't explain. I hate to rain on this release over something so minor, especially when it accomplishes so much else, but the error is minor only in length; anyone who already knows this movie is going to miss that line, and wince in pain when they discover it for themselves.

I'd still recommend this disc very highly. If you haven't seen PERFORMANCE, you must; if you're already among the converted, you know you'll have to get this -- just resign yourself to the fact that this won't be the last time we line up to buy this title.

PERFORMANCE streets on February 13.

Friday, January 26, 2007

A Quick Word on Warner's PERFORMANCE

I received my advance copy of PERFORMANCE today and, though it's a busy time here, I wanted to post a quick report.

I was a bit unnerved to see that the packaging carries an R rating -- THAT'S a first! -- but the picture quality looks extraordinary and, best news of all, the disc runs 105m 18s by my time counter... which is a few seconds longer than either the Warner PAL VHS or Warner's previous domestic laserdisc version, both of which clocked in at 105m 12s, according to Rebecca and Sam Umland's DONALD CAMMELL: A LIFE ON THE WILD SIDE. With a movie like this, of course, even a couple of seconds could mean a world of difference. I'll post something more detailed once I've had a chance to properly absorb the disc and its featurettes.

Speaking of the featurettes, "Influence and Controversy" (a new featurette about the film's censor problems) runs about 25m, and "Memo from Turner" (a look at the filming of the song with behind-the-scenes material) runs close to 5m. There is also a 2m 44s trailer.

It looks like a terrific disc.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

VROOM! Forward... Into the Past!

What we have here, to the left, is a typically superior example of Italian poster art for a comparatively obscure Roger Corman film entitled THE YOUNG RACERS (1963). In Italy they called it "The Devils of the Grand Prix." It was filmed in Monte Carlo during Grand Prix season and starred Luana Anders, William Campbell, and Patrick Magee (all of whom would subsequently follow soundman Francis Coppola to Ireland to film DEMENTIA 13), as well as Mark Damon (who would pass up DEMENTIA 13 to make BLACK SABBATH with Mario Bava, and whose performance here was dubbed by William Shatner), Béatrice Altariba of EYES WITHOUT A FACE, and even the obscure actress who later played the mysterious Julia in Antonio Margheriti's CASTLE OF BLOOD, Margarete Robsahm. That's my idea of an outstanding cast.

No, THE YOUNG RACERS isn't due to arrive on DVD, more's the pity. I was motivated to write about it today because it happened to be on a VHS tape I pulled down from my attic to convert to DVD-R. I had assumed that the movie came from American Movie Classics' much-missed, pre-commercial "American Pop" days, but after popping it into my VCR, I discovered that it was actually something even more precious: a relic of Bruce Dern's days as the host of LOST DRIVE-IN, a weekly Saturday night procession of car-related movies that used to run on the Speedvision Channel. I immediately kicked myself for not realizing at the time what a precious gift to movie fans this program was; I should have taped it every week. I didn't, of course, not having a lot of interest in car movies, but I should have learned by then that the real reason to hit the "Record" button for LOST DRIVE-IN was Bruce Dern himself.

Taped in the waning daylight at some abandoned drive-in theater, Dern would sit in the front seat of an old-fashioned roadster or pad around the gravel while reminiscing about the old days of entertainment under the stars, and sometimes about the people in the films he was presenting, when he had memories of working with them. No attempt was made by the producers to glamorize him, and his comments didn't seem to be pre-scripted in any way -- all you got was the straight, undiluted juice from Bruce.

I can't swear to this, but I think all the LOST DRIVE-IN I managed to preserve on tape was THE YOUNG RACERS and a 1967 movie called HELL ON WHEELS, starring Marty Robbins and John Ashley. I had never heard of the latter movie before, but it captured that single summer of my youth when I was into car culture so well (and not in an entirely pleasant way) that I had to snag it when Speedvision re-ran the movie later that same evening. At least I had the good sense not to trim out the host footage. The IMDb tells me that LOST DRIVE-IN ran from 1996 to 2001, so I guess I missed out on some good times.

Speaking of "American Pop" (as I did a few paragraphs ago), I recently had occasion to dub another tape from the attic to DVD-R, which I had recorded from those short-lived golden days when AMC was regularly previewing that Sixties-themed channel that never happened. The movie, a hugely entertaining spy/beach spoof called OUT OF SIGHT, was incidentally produced by Bart Patton, who had previously acted in DEMENTIA 13, probably in the role Mark Damon would have been played, had he tagged along to Ireland with the rest of the YOUNG RACERS cast. (Small world.) Again, I was delighted to discover that my tape not only caught AMC's one-time-only letterboxed presentation of OUT OF SIGHT -- starring Jonathan Daly, Carole Shelyne as "Marvin," and Norman "Woo Woo" Grabowski as "Huh" (I ask you, what more could anyone possibly WANT?) -- but also 30 minutes or so of spy-themed filler, including Scopitones, toy commercials, a Johnny Rivers video of "Secret Agent Man", and other inspired silliness. Silliness, yes, but it takes smarts to compile such ephemera, and that kind of smarts is what's in embarrassingly short supply on television today. It would have made such a great channel, "American Pop." But who needs it when people will pay for 300 channels of after-midnight "Paid Programming" about Vitamin B-12, male enhancement, and how to strike it rich on eBay?

In closing, a little study in interpretation. As I was watching the beginning of THE YOUNG RACERS and making sure the tape was tracking properly, I was struck by the main titles. In addition to offering the usual animation graphics for which AIP films were famous in those days, the titles feature still photos of a boy playing with a toy race car; after a series of shots that show the boy's hand on the miniature racer, and another that finds him making roaring engine sounds with his mouth, he's suddenly joined in frame by a second boy with a toy racer of his own, and the two boys place them side by side to stage a competition in the dirt. Then Roger Corman's credit appears and we're off to the real Grand Prix races.

What immediately struck me about this mostly still photo sequence -- besides its seeming debt to Chris Marker (whose LA JETÉE Corman possibly saw in its first year of release), and allusions to the competitive relationship that Corman was raised to have with his brother Gene -- is that it prefigures the memorable way Corman introduces the motorcycles in THE WILD ANGELS, with a boy pedalling his tricycle down the street until Peter Fonda's thundering hog cuts into frame. In both cases, Corman seems to suggest that the roads of motor racing and cycling run both ways. Children fantasize about the power, velocity, and victory that comes with belonging to those worlds; and, at the same time, the adults who pursue those lifestyles are living out fantasies conceived in childhood and run the risk of never moving beyond them.

My trouble, on the other hand, is that I did move beyond certain interests of my younger days -- like paying more attention to things like LOST DRIVE-IN and "American Pop" -- and now I find myself regretting it. It was only yesterday, it seems, and yet so long ago.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Woo-Hoo! TCM's New Columbia Crime Package


Beginning this month, Turner Classic Movies began premiering a whole new set of additions to their library "from the Hollywood studios of Columbia Pictures." Last week, the delightful and rarely-seen Gainsborough mermaid fantasy MIRANDA turned up on their schedule, the first time I've ever known it to appear on television (now bring on HELTER SKELTER and MAD ABOUT MEN, which also featured Glynis Johns as Miranda!), as well as the Jacques Tourneur classic CURSE OF THE DEMON. A reader called to notify us that TCM inadvertently ran the shorter American version of DEMON, even though the full length cut is available on domestic DVD, and asked me in a voice full of concern if I thought TCM "might be losing it."

To which I must answer "No chance!" -- especially after seeing the lineup they have prepared for us this coming Tuesday. In addition to an early morning broadcast of Howard Hawks' THE CRIMINAL CODE (1931, the film that brought Boris Karloff to the attention of FRANKENSTEIN director James Whale), TCM gets down to the nitty-gritty with their first showcasing of one of Columbia's classic B-mystery series, based on Jack Boyle's pulp fiction character "Boston Blackie."

Rather like Arsène Lupin, the French pulp hero of Maurice Leblanc, Boston Blackie (played by Chester Morris of THE BAT WHISPERS) is a former master criminal who -- with his accomplice-turned-valet The Runt (George E. Stone) -- goes straight, but is somehow never able to convince the law (usually personified by the gruff Richard Lane) of the sincerity of his intentions. Unlike the noirish quality of Columbia's "The Whistler" series, or the sometimes weird extremes of their "Crime Doctor" films, the "Boston Blackie" films are a snappy combination of B-mystery conventions and occasional screwball situation comedy that never outstays their welcome. It was Columbia's longest running B-mystery series, lasting for fourteen films over a period of nine years.

On Tuesday, January 23, between the hours of 1:30 and 6:30 pm eastern time, TCM will be showing the series' first four entries, described thusly on their website:

MEET BOSTON BLACKIE (1941)
A reformed thief uncovers a spy ring while investigating a murder at sea. Cast: Chester Morris, Rochelle Hudson, Richard Lane. Dir: Robert Florey. BW-58 mins

CONFESSIONS OF BOSTON BLACKIE (1941)
A reformed thief cracks a ring of art thieves to clear himself of murder charges. Cast: Chester Morris, Harriet Hilliard, Richard Lane. Dir: Edward Dmytryk. C-65 mins

ALIAS BOSTON BLACKIE (1942)
A reformed thief tracks down an escaped convict so he can prove the man is innocent. Cast: Chester Morris, Adele Mara, Richard Lane. Dir: Lew Landers. C-67 mins

BOSTON BLACKIE GOES HOLLYWOOD (1942)
When he's framed for robbery, a reformed thief takes off to find the real culprit. Cast: Chester Morris, George E. Stone, Constance Worth. Dir: Michael Gordon. BW-68 mins

I was a little disappointed to see that TCM hasn't booked "Boston Blackie" for daily appearances, but I can understand why they wouldn't want to show the whole bunch right away. I haven't seen their February schedule yet, but my fingers are crossed for more. In the meantime, by all means, grab these while you can -- I believe you'll find them habit-forming -- and join me in an eager wait for other Columbia B-mystery series to emerge from the Turner vaults.

The remaining titles, by the way: AFTER MIDNIGHT WITH BOSTON BLACKIE (1943), THE CHANCE OF A LIFETIME (1943), ONE MYSTERIOUS NIGHT (1944), BOSTON BLACKIE BOOKED ON SUSPICION (1945), BOSTON BLACKIE'S RENDEZVOUS (1945), A CLOSE CALL FOR BOSTON BLACKIE (1945), THE PHANTOM THIEF (1946), BOSTON BLACKIE AND THE LAW (1946), TRAPPED BY BOSTON BLACKIE (1948), and BOSTON BLACKIE'S CHINESE VENTURE (1949).

The titles without "Boston Blackie" in them are trickier than the others to find, but hopefully TCM will do what they can to make the search easy for us.