Monday, August 13, 2007

The Ultimate Bava Book Auction is Here!

Actually, it's on eBay -- but, believe me, it's worth the trip. Click right here and check out the wealth of production materials and rarities Donna and I have assembled for the 10 lucky winners -- in addition to the first 10 signed and only numbered copies of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK!

What could we possible offer in an "Ultimate Bava Book Auction"? Well, let me put it this way...

You've been pining to hear my never-released KILL, BABY... KILL! commentary? Here's your chance!

You've always wanted to eavesdrop on interviews with the likes of Vincent Price and Cameron Mitchell? Here's your chance!

You've thought of how nice it might be to have some actual manuscript pages from this historic effort? To see how I changed things before they went to press? Here's your chance!

You think 12 pounds and 1128 pages is awfully unwieldy and wish you could own a second copy that could be conveniently slipped into your laptop or jeans pocket? Here's your chance!

And you know what? That's still not even the half of it.

Go to the auction page now (why are you still here?) and check out the full details. Donna and I have worked very hard to make this auction as attractive and exciting and generous as possible. Our goal is to honor this once-in-a-lifetime publishing event by knocking your socks off not once, but twice -- first with the auction, and then with the book itself, which should start shipping shortly after the auction ends!

And remember... If you've already pre-ordered the Bava book, no problem -- you can still participate in the bidding. If you win the auction and have already pre-ordered, we'll gladly refund the price you paid for the book on request! (Some people may want to keep that second copy anyway, since they got it for less than half the cover price, so you'll have to speak up.)

Enjoy!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Orson Bean's New Book

I've written here in the past about my admiration for this gentleman to my left. Actor, author, raconteur, cutting-edge educator (he and his second wife once founded an arts-oriented school where kids were graded for self-expression), stand-up comedian and game show panelist, Orson Bean -- I feel -- has lived an exemplary life. His two works of autobiography, ME AND THE ORGONE and TOO MUCH IS NOT ENOUGH, are amazingly brave and candid works of self-exploration that encompass such matters as his experience in Reichian therapy, the founding of his school, an LSD trip, being stalked by a Satanic cult in Australia, and the failure of his second marriage following a visit to Sandstone (a free sex community) and later experimentation in open matrimony. I should note that the failure of Bean's second marriage was not a failure of the bond between husband and wife; I'm told that Carolyn Bean is still very much a part of Orson's current life with third wife, actress Ally Mills. They all spent last Thanksgiving together.

While visiting Mark Evanier's blog last night, I was surprised and pleased to learn that Orson has written a novel -- his first -- a novella, actually, as the whole thing amounts to less than 125 pages. Originally called MIKEY, it's apparently about spirituality as experienced by people outside of, or alienated by, the Church. Initially, Orson's agent couldn't place the book because Christian publishers found the book too candid (it reportedly includes some profanity and allusions to sexual activity or human sexuality) and mainstream publishers found it too... spiritual. With great largesse, Orson opted to give the book away free online for a short time... until Barricade Press, a publisher in Fort Lee, New Jersey, came forward to express interest in publishing a more polished draft. Now retitled MAIL FOR MIKEY, the book is set to be published in early October 2008.

I haven't read it yet, but I'm betting it's as interesting and as embracing of life and its mysteries as anything else Orson Bean has written.

Scorsese on Antonioni

Just linking to a terrific NEW YORK TIMES memoir by Martin Scorsese of how the films of Michelangelo Antonioni impacted his life.

Friday, August 10, 2007

New Books from Bryan Senn and Steve Bissette

Now available from McFarland and Company is A YEAR OF FEAR: A DAY-BY-DAY GUIDE TO 366 HORROR FILMS by Bryan Senn ($35 softcover, 560 pp), a hefty trade paperback generously illustrated with 218 B&W photos and ad mats. It's formatted around a very clever idea: go through the calendar year, find historical events for each day and then find a horror film relatable to each event.

For example, the movie for May 21 is THE MAZE (1953), because it was on that day in 1977 that the longest leap by a frog (33 feet, 5 ½ inches) was recorded. On November 11, the date of the first fatal train wreck in the US (in 1833) is DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965). September 16's selection is WHITE ZOMBIE (1932), because on that day in 1915 Haiti became a US protectorate. And the movie for November 5, Guy Fawkes Day? No, not V FOR VENDETTA (2006); it's Antonio Margheriti's THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (1964), which itself features the burning of an effigy. It's a rare movie fan who could resist at least thumbing through this book looking for the movie assigned to their birthday. (Lucky me: I get MARS NEEDS WOMEN for my birthday viewing.)

What would have likely become an instant White Elephant item if produced as an actual calendar (I know -- I've published a horror film calendar!) becomes a compellingly browsable book (and not limited to use over a single year, either). Best-known for his excellent 1930s horror reference GOLDEN HORRORS, Senn's entries for each film are smart, literate and interesting, and often leavened with quotes from various published sources related to the films. In case you have any doubt that Tom Weaver is the most valuable researcher classic horror films have ever had, just flip through this book at random; Tom's name appears on so many pages, crediting the sources for quotes and background information, he probably deserved co-author credit. Not all the data came from Weaver; there are also citations for works by David J. Skal, Mark A. Miller, Richard Bojarski, Robert Tinnell, David Del Valle, Dennis Fischer, Alan Upchurch, Bob Madison, Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio, as well as other articles from the pages of FANGORIA, FILMFAX and SCARY MONSTERS. (Me, I'm not so fortunate -- a few Mario Bava films are included herein, and the entries for BLACK SUNDAY [December 29, Barbara Steele's birthday] and BLACK SABBATH [March 7, the day the telephone was patented by Alexander Graham Bell] -- tap into my reseach and use at least one quote I obtained from Lamberto Bava, but other scribes are cited as the go-to people for Bava info. Oh, well.)

Senn's YEAR OF FEAR isn't exclusively horror, incidentally. There are several entries for science fiction films (WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE) and the odd marginal title like RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS. I could find only one silent film included: 1923's THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, an odd inclusion when you realize that NOSFERATU and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA aren't represented and a later version of HUNCHBACK (Charles Laughton's) is. Nevertheless, A YEAR IN FEAR is commendable for providing a welcome structured curriculum for studying a well-considered cross-section of genre fare ranging from the early sound classics (like DRACULA, 1931) to contemporary releases (like DOG SOLDIERS, 2002). And you just might learn some fun things about history in the process.


In other book news, Black Coat Press will soon begin publishing in book form the collected video review columns of VW's own (occasional) Stephen R. Bissette. BLUR is the umbrella title for these volumes, and because our man Steve is nothing if not loquacious, the first volume will cover June 1999 through March 2000. Literate, informative, well worth reading, and well worth having. The very cool front-back cover design, seen above (and incorporating Steve's inimitable graphic stylings), is the work of Jon-Mikel Gates.

Read more about BLUR over on the official SRB blog MYRANT.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Lucas on Lanza on Russell

Donna and I recently had the pleasure of meeting Jason Gargano, the entertainment editor of Cincinnati's popular free paper CITY BEAT. During our conversation, Jason asked me if I'd be interested in reviewing something for him, and proceeded to produce from somewhere in his car a copy of Joseph Lanza's new book PHALLIC FRENZY: KEN RUSSELL AND HIS FILMS. I pride myself on having read every book about Russell's work, so I agreed... and now that review (my first for CITY BEAT) is in print. For those of you who don't live locally and can't pick up the paper around town, here's a link to my review.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Dysfunction Cured!

My review of Bret Wood's PSYCHOPATHIA SEXUALIS (Kino on Video) for the August SIGHT & SOUND is now up and functional over at their website.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

More Bava in Time for Halloween

It's being announced elsewhere, so I might as well join the bandwagon and report that Anchor Bay's MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUME 2 will be released on October 23. The titles included in this set are: BARON BLOOD, LISA AND THE DEVIL and HOUSE OF EXORCISM, ROY COLT & WINCHESTER JACK, FOUR TIMES THAT NIGHT, BAY OF BLOOD, and 5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON. The audio commentaries I recorded are for LISA AND THE DEVIL, BAY OF BLOOD, and BARON BLOOD -- and I recorded them in that order, for those who may be interested in auditing them sequentially and hearing my voice disintegrate in slow motion. The Alfredo Leone/Elke Sommer commentary recorded for Image Entertainment's HOUSE OF EXORCISM release will be ported over for that title.

ERIK THE CONQUEROR (which will be the complete original export version, not the AIP reduction) will be released separately at the same time, also with a commentary by me, which I'll be recording before the end of this week. The closing shot and end card of the film (curiously missing from the German DVD release) has been restored, which should make this gorgeous-looking release of even greater interest to collectors.

Finally, I mentioned here recently that I managed to record the first three commentaries in a single marathon session last Thursday night. Someone on one of the horror discussion boards has suggested that my expeditious work somehow speaks poorly of me and makes the set's extras as a whole seem less attractive, because -- they presume -- the commentaries have got to be a reckless mess. I resent this because, first of all, I don't do careless work and certainly wouldn't boast about doing careless work; I only mentioned the marathon session because I felt so pleased to have succeeded in my aims against the odds and the clock. It was an achievement. Secondly, I didn't set the deadlines for these commentaries, but as a professional, I agreed to live up to them. I refused to let the quality of my work suffer due to time constraints and, if it somehow did suffer despite my best efforts, I wouldn't have released it. As I write this, it remains for those three recordings to be edited and synched to the movies, so I don't know yet myself how everything is going to turn out -- but I think even the raw tracks were on par with other commentaries I've done.

PS: I wanted very much to record an audio commentary for 5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON but time simply didn't allow it.

Calling All Bloggers

Lee Marvin in his classic role as Slob in Edward Dein's SHACK OUT ON 101.


Over at Movie Morlocks, VW's own Richard Harland Smith is calling for an August 29 Blog-A-Thon for Lee Marvin to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the actor's death.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Ladislas Starewitch at 125

I don't know that any festivals or retrospectives have been organized anywhere around the world to commemorate this anniversary, but the great Polish-born animator Ladislas Starewitch was born 125 years ago today.
A worsening problem with any commemoration of Starewitch is the correct spelling of his name, as there are several. I am using, not altogether comfortably, the spelling used on and in a book about the great man recently published in France. His IMDb page spells his name "Wladyslaw Starewicz," which is how the surname has always looked correct to me, though the given name looks a little wonky. I've seen "Wladislas" too. It's a terrible problem for an artist to have, given how difficult it already is simply to see his work.
Starewitch was born in Poland and made his first short film (LUCANUS CERVUS, about stag beetles) in Lithuania in 1910. It was meant to be a naturalistic study, but Starewitch discovered that the heat of his lighting equipment made the beetles sluggish and resistant to action, so he incorporated what were then known as trick-photographic techniques (read: stop-motion) to get them to do what he wanted. When his family relocated to Russia in 1912, he continued along this line. Over the next eight years, he continued to make animated shorts but he also made some live action shorts as well, all of a fantastic nature. Included in the Ruscico DVD of the wonderful Russian horror film THE VIY (1967), for example, is a Starewitch short called THE PORTRAIT, which remains superbly frightening and is the earliest known film to pull the proscenium trick that later made THE RING so hair-raising. Among the several Starewitch films I'd love to see, I'm most curious about a few other live action pictures he made: RUSLAN AND LUDMILLA (1915), ON THE WARSAW HIGHWAY (1916), and CAGLIOSTRO (1920). In 1920, he and his clan fled Russia to Paris, France, where he picked up his work without dropping a stitch.


LA ROMAN DE RENARD (1930).

In the current issue of SIGHT & SOUND, various contributors from around the world were asked to name and write a bit about an obscure film they felt deserved to be better-known. I chose Starewitch's only feature-length achievement, LA ROMAN DE RENARD (1930), known in some territories as THE TALE OF THE FOX. If not for some unforeseen technical delays and distribution problems, it would have become what it was intended to be (and, I think, really is): the world's first stop-motion animated feature with sound. Based on a fable by Goethe, it tells the story of a crafty fox, always up to mischief and talking his way out of trouble, who dares to thwart the ruling of the King that animals should not prey on one another because Love must rule the land. Not only is the script clever and the character design impeccable (in S&S I said that it looked only a step or two away from taxidermy), but the animation -- executed by Starewitch and his daughter Irena over an 18-month period -- remains the most believably fluid and antic until the introduction of CGI, especially in its incredible interpolations of blurred movement.

Starewitch serenaded by the canine hero of his beloved 1934 short, "The Mascot."

Unfortunately, very little of Starewitch's mind-boggling work is available on DVD. LA ROMAN DE RENARD and a collection of short films were issued a couple of years ago as Region 2 discs in France, and these are already hard to find. While watching one of the shorts in one of these collections, LE RAT DE VILLE ET LE RAT DES CHAMPS ("The Town Rat and the Country Rat," 1927), I was amazed to discover listed in the credits as a backgrounds artist Josef Natanson, who went on to become an important matte painter in Italian films during the 1960s. The earliest screen credit for Natanson I had been able to find was for the backgrounds he painted for the classic dance sequence in Powell and Pressburger's THE RED SHOES (1948), but this one credit elucidates a 20-year gap in this important career about which we know nothing.

Here in America, Starewitch fans have had to make due with Milestone/Image Entertainment's compilation THE CAMERAMAN'S REVENGE AND OTHER FANTASTIC TALES, which includes his best-known short, "The Mascot," a 1934 short originally titled "Fétiche." (It's also available as a $2.99 video download here.) This remarkable story of a puppy who struggles against natural and supernatural odds to fetch an orange to bring to a sick little girl is also known to some people as "The Devil's Ball," mostly due to a lengthy and untitled excerpt that used to run frequently on the USA Network show NIGHT FLIGHT back in the 1980s. That's where I first discovered the work of Starewitch and, all these years later, I'm still eager to find more.

A few of his animated shorts can be found at YouTube, and here's a link to a fine website that will serve as a more in-depth introduction to this brilliant filmmaker and his great works. Happy birthday, Maestro!

Stepping Out with Stephen Forsyth

In case you've ever wondered what became of Stephen Forsyth, the star of Mario Bava's HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON ("My name is John Harrington -- I'm a paranoiac"), he decided he didn't like the roles he was being offered and quit acting circa 1970. Then he returned to his native Canada, where he dedicated himself to a new career in music. I knew about this because he told me so when I interviewed him for the Bava book, but I could never get him to tell me anything too specific about his last 30 years in music. He said that he composed music mostly to accompany performance art, but that was about it.

Now up on YouTube are a pair of fascinating videos from the musical career of Stephen Forsyth. The first, dating from the 1980s, is a rock video called "Step Out of Love" and it actually features Stephen. The song (which he wrote and recorded) is catchy, the choreography is very impressive (I don't think I've ever seen Iggy Pop quite this animated in a video), and he remains very photogenic. By Googling around, I found out that this piece was part of a live Twyla Tharp dance retrospective held in New York in August 1990, reviewed by THE NEW YORK TIMES here.

"Step Out of Love": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThuU5lpqGSQ

And then for something completely different. The second video, dating from the 1990s, is an avant garde piece for piano and dance:

"Helios": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZHyuq5EK8l0

The work showcased in these two videos seems poles apart, representing opposite musical disciplines, yet both are very well accomplished. The second piece, "Helios," shows Stephen to be at home in atonal classicism, while "Step Out of Love" presents him as a fine pop tunesmith, vocalist, and (most surprising to me) dancer. And, unlike many other MTV acts of the period that look dated and silly now, Stephen's pop video remains convincing -- it looks like hard work played out with panache -- and the editing still feels contemporary.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Surprise Surprise

Many thanks to Kim August for alerting me to the fact that Amazon.com already has pages up for the paperback and hardcover editions of my VIDEODROME book, which is listed there as a November 2007 release.

A very spiffy cover, too. I can still vividly remember where I was standing in the room when this very scene was shot. I can even remember standing in the same approximate area when Michael Lennick and Lee Wilson got the idea to film a strip of television static in 16mm and project it onto this stretchy, veiny material from Rick Baker's EFX Inc. and dissolve it out to create one of the movie's most memorable images.

Seeing the format that Millipede Press' "Studies in the Horror Film" series is going to take also excites the imagination about what further entries in the series there might be. An exciting development in publishing, to be sure.

Last night, I joined the elite group of people (Roger Corman may be the only other person able to make this claim) who have recorded three full solo DVD audio commentaries in a single day -- a single night actually, as this took place roughly between midnight and 5:30 am. These commentaries are for the second round of Mario Bava releases coming later this year from Anchor Bay, and the recordings are now out the door and flying west. My voice was close to shot after the third one, but I can tell you this much: wine helps.

I promised to pamper myself today by goofing off and imbibing soothing liquids (to restore my throat, you understand), but it's turned into a work day, after all, though a pleasurable one. I started compiling my personal mailing list for the Bava book, which gave me the opportunity to call and e-mail a bunch of the book's interviewees in search of their current addresses. I got to speak on the phone with Brett Halsey and John Steiner, I left a message for Daliah Lavi, e-mailed other old acquaintences and got e-mailed back, but it seems I may have inadvertently lost touch with Richard Harrison. (If anyone within the reach of this blog knows where to find him, please let me know.) Everyone seems happy for me, excited to know the book is on the way. After all this time, it's really happening...

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Your Faithful Blogger on the VIDEODROME set

One of the many things we've been doing this week is getting some last minute additional images together for my "Studies in the Horror Film" book on David Cronenberg's VIDEODROME, which is being published by Millipede Press. I thought I would share a few of these shots with you, partly to stir up interest and partly because I'm not altogether certain these particular ones will make the cut; it's not a book about me, after all. If they do appear in the book, they'll look a lot better, because I didn't do anything much to restore these. I'll leaving that task to the many-handed team at Millipede.

Anyway, this was me twenty-five years ago. Dig those Italian frame eyeglasses. This particular Author's Photo, which finds me simultaneously posed by and broadcast on the fabled Flesh TV, was taken by the show's video effects supervisor Michael Lennick.

Here I am on the actual "Videodrome" set, interviewing assistant director John Board -- a wonderful fellow, knowledgeable, funny, authoritative, keeps a set on its toes. This is one of the few shots that finds me looking color-coordinated with my surroundings. It wasn't really in Pittsburgh, but in Toronto. Photo by Donna Lucas.

That's me with a chunk of Barry Convex's cancer in my hand. Polyvinylchloride, I think it was. Photo by my good friend Robert Uth, who asked me to look queasy.

And, last but not necessarily least, here I am in Rick Baker's EFX workshop holding a foam latex casting of Rick's own hand, which was later used to fill Barry Convex's right sleeve during his animatronic death scene. Another photo by Robert Uth.
My VIDEODROME book will be coming out sometime later this year or early next, I'm told. Needless to say, I'll be sure to let you know when it's available.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"The Passenger" Moves On

Michelangelo Antonioni has vanished from this island Earth at age 94. His disappearance took place the same day as that of Ingmar Bergman, whose death was noted by many a blogger with terms like "Endgame" and "Checkmate." Bergman once staged a memorable chess game with Death, of course, in THE SEVENTH SEAL -- one of the few films whose every image is invested with such power and inevitability that they seem to preexist the film itself, like carvings in ancient wood or stone -- but it was Antonioni who was truly the chessmaster, one of cinema's rare geometric thinkers, possibly its first and without question its most definitive.

This is a very busy week for me, a prelude to a very busy month in fact, and I can't spare the time to write about Antonioni and his glorious work as fully as I'd like. BLOW UP and L'AVVENTURA have always been personal favorites, and when Criterion released L'ECLISSE a few years ago, it immediately vaulted past them into my Top 10: I watched it three times in three days, and then began writing an infatuated short story about the spell it cast, which work and time (again) conspired to prevent me from finishing. Once this present pile of work is out of the way, I would like very much to go back to it and complete it in tribute to this outstanding artist. Last year, "THE PASSENGER" (another of those curious films with titles in quotes, like "DON'T LOOK NOW" and "THESE ARE THE DAMNED") was finally released on DVD, a magnificent film about life, identity, and mortality.

Antonioni's films were often criticized for being too nihilistic, but I don't see them as nihilistic as much as conscious and accepting of the human condition. Just because they are cerebral doesn't mean they are without spirit. "THE PASSENGER" is actually the ideal film to watch if you seek the comfort of knowing that only what Antonioni was, as a man, is dead. What he is and always was, as energy, survives -- I believe the film subtly expressive of this philosophy, that this world is no one's final destination, that we are all merely passengers, our present identity in quotation marks (as well as question marks). Needless to say, his films remain with us as his representatives.

Today, I send a loving genuflection halfway around the world today to one of my favorite filmmakers, Eric Rohmer -- who recently turned 87 -- in the hopes that he can keep his name out of the headlines for awhile.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Requiem for a Heavyweight Broadcaster

Tom Snyder as he appeared in a bit part in "A Friend in Need," a 1961 episode of THE RIFLEMAN. He had two lines.

I was very sorry to read about Tom Snyder's death yesterday at the age of 71, from leukemia. As a constant viewer of his NBC late-night talk show TOMORROW WITH TOM SNYDER (1975-81) and a frequent viewer of his post-Letterman series on CBS, THE LATE LATE SHOW WITH TOM SNYDER (1995-98), I feel as though I shared a big part of my life with him, but that's not exactly true. He shared a big part of his life with me and anyone else thoughtful enough to tune in. Few television hosts were as forthcoming about themselves as Tom Snyder. He would talk "Mother Snyder" when it was her birthday or if she wasn't feeling well, about the joys and woes of raising a teenage daughter, about his problems with the networks, and he would even make on-air references to his experiences with smoking pot or about the times when he tuned into SCREW editor Al Goldstein's public access porn show.
Talk about a box of chocolates. With TOMORROW and Tom Snyder, you never knew what you were going to get. The theme music he chose for the program was probably a clue to the real Tom: Barry White's "Love Theme" -- romantic schmaltzy disco music that was equal parts cheesy and classy. Tom could either be very cool, a complete jerk, and most winningly, he could often be seen vulnerably and forthcomingly trying to navigate a through-line between the two. On the evening that Barry White himself appeared on the show, it was like the Pope had deigned to give him audience. And Snyder gave him the serious attentive interview that I doubt ROLLING STONE ever did.

"Got it. It's not a band, it's a company. It's not a concert, it's a gig." "Humour me..." "Not for long."

Cutting-edge guests didn't necessarily guarantee a cutting-edge interview; his legendary sit-down with John Lydon and Keith Levene of Public Image Limited is a classic example of "failure to communicate," and I can also well remember a joint appearance by James Brown and football great Jim Brown, who apparently showed up at the studio one evening unannounced, requesting airtime on TOMORROW to discuss solutions to the problems facing black youth... in which it quickly transpired that the two JBs really had nothing to offer except that more young black people should look up to role models like them. It turned out to be a fairly bare-faced, smug-assed ego stroke that left Tom so baffled that he spent the next on-air segment scratching his head over why the interview hadn't worked. Very candid, very brave -- and it momentarily turned galling television into great television.

I've written here before about what TOMORROW's great interviews with Sterling Hayden meant to me. But I can also remember seeing a round-table discussion between Snyder and various Russ Meyer stars, including Uschi Digart, to this day the only interview I've ever seen with her. She came across as very smart and business-savvy. I'll never forget Snyder's incredulous comment "So what you're actually saying is that, on a Meyer set, there's no actual..." (he fumbled for a word) "... balling?" His choice of word somehow rooted his question at once and forever in the 1970s. Tom often had trouble with finding the right word for that particular act on national television. On another occasion, he started a show by telling an off-color joke after warning viewers that he couldn't use the word that made that joke so funny. He proceeded to tell it, and to the audible amusement of the stagehands, he sat flustered at his inability to say what he wanted to say. Then he said, "You know, the irony is that I can't say the word, but I can spell it backwards as much as I want. KCUF! KCUF! KCUF!" I've often wondered if he got his wrist slapped over that, the next day. His lusty laugh had an appreciation of the ribald. Another case in point is Grace Slick's first appearance on THE LATE LATE SHOW, when she referred to the crux of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal with the phrase "polishing a knob." Snyder smiled at the former psychedelic rock goddess with an ever-widening Cheshire grin before saying, "You know... I like you."
Which brings us to another of Tom's great TOMORROW moments, and perhaps the one that most crystallizes his value as a broadcaster. There was a night when he interviewed actress Liv Ullmann, I believe on the occasion of the release of Ingmar Bergman's SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE. (Yes, I've heard about Bergman's passing, but that will have to be another topic for another time.) Throughout the interview, there blossomed something very strange in the communication between interviewer and interviewee that was as quizzical as it was compelling to watch. They seemed to be flirting with one another but, then again, they weren't. The next night, Tom opened the show by confessing that, during the previous night's interview with Ms. Ullmann, he had felt a powerful erotic pull that, he was convinced, was being reciprocated and teased on the air. The interview, from his perspective, had been great foreplay. After the show, a production associate alerted him that Ms. Ullmann and her entourage were going to the elevators to leave, and he literally ran after her. Catching the actress just as the doors were closing, he took her aside and explained that he was under the impression that they'd shared what is now known as "a moment." Ullmann then very politely and tactfully thanked him for his flattering interest but said that he must have misinterpreted something in her manner.
He certainly didn't have to discuss such a personal story on the air, but stories like this helped to turn both of Tom Snyder's shows into something conspicuously more than a nightly talk show; they were, in a sense, personality-driven serials in which the interviews were central yet also incidental. There's an element of that in LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN, but in that setting, it's show-biz served with an unhealthy dollop of irony. With Snyder, you always got the reality of Tom Snyder at that moment -- good, bad, smart, stupid, curious, clueless, but ceaselessly watchable -- and his passing drops a precious digit from the ranks of a most endangered species.
Tonight, let's all raise a Colortini in his honor and watch the happy memories as they fly through the air.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

New SIGHT & SOUND, More Dish on DishNet

The August 2007 issue of SIGHT & SOUND is now on newsstands (or should be), which means that a free selection of material therein is now available for your perusal on their website. Among the attractions is my NoZone column on Bret Wood's directorial debut PSYCHOPATHIA SEXUALIS (Kino on Video) -- at least it claims to be there. Perhaps I caught the page still under construction, but as I type this, the link isn't connecting to the review. Maybe it will work for you by the time you read this. If not, keep trying. Better yet, buy the magazine.

To update you on my continuing Dish Network saga: Yesterday we had a Dish technician and his apprentice come to the house for a look at the set-up. To make a long story short, it seems the most likely cure for our recording ailment would be to swap out the VIP 211 with their DVR 622. Not only does this unit offer 160 hours of hard drive storage for HD content (not quite recording for posterity, but close), but the rear panel offers video outputs in both MPEG-4 and MPEG-2. We can run the MPEG-4 to our monitor and the MPEG-2 to our recorder, which would be giving it the same input that we had when there were no problems. In theory, it should work and my fingers are crossed.

The more MPEG-4 programming I see, the more impressed I am. I was checking out the Family Room HD shows two nights ago, before turning in, and was knocked out by the sumptuous video quality of... of all things, FLIPPER. Not the Universal theatrical remake of some years ago, but the original 1964 teleseries; it was like looking through a well-cleaned window at 1964. I never cared for the show particularly, but I was so impressed with the presentation that I stuck with it through the remainder of the episode in progress and an entire second episode. It was reformatted to 16:9 of course, but the show was filmed in such a way that the cropping was never very apparent. It was followed by THUNDERBIRDS, which I've always enjoyed, and it looked beautiful too, though the cropping here was more obvious. Even programming I'm more familiar with, like Rudy Maxa's SMART TRAVELS, looks significantly improved in MPEG-4, with purer, deeper blacks and heightened textures. And a World Cinema HD promo for Kieslowski's BLUE was astonishing in its clarity.

It seems to me, after having made the leap to HD DVD and Blu-ray now for some months, that the companies responsible for cherry-picking titles for release haven't made much of a leap with me. I'm not losing interest in HD per se, but I do find my interest in the HD disc formats slowly eroding. With the exception of CASINO ROYALE and CORPSE BRIDE, easily my two favorite HD/Blu-ray experiences, it's all been about upgrading so far, as far as my own viewing is concerned. The difference is usually appreciable, but very often it isn't exciting -- and, by "exciting," I mean the feeling I got when I first saw STARSHIP TROOPERS in SuperBit.

As I say, it's a matter of poor selection; I'd rather have DRAGONSLAYER than REIGN OF FIRE. Right now, there are only 10-20 titles on the market that I would care to watch more than once -- everything else is the 21st century equivalent of that early videocassette eyesore, FLASHDANCE. Broadcast HD, on the other hand, is infinitely more far-ranging and adventurous than the current selection on HD and Blu-ray discs. I saw 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in HD on HDNET one year ago, and wrote about it here; we're still waiting for the HD disc. That's why I tend to suspect, at this stage anyway, that broadcast HD may well become the surprise victor in this latest "format war," rather than either of its high profile combatants. Of the three options, it's the one with the most obvious imagination, and therefore the one with the most probable future.

HD is also at its best when it can take you by surprise. When you buy a film on HD or Blu-Ray disc, especially with the current crop of pickings, you sort of know in advance what you'll be getting. Broadcast HD offers you the opportunity to browse/surf through unexpected possibilities and have your breath unexpectedly taken away. Maybe even by FLIPPER.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

An Artful Penetration of THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS

Akira (Tamijo Kawaji) checks the beating heart of Yuki (Yuko Chishiro) after assaulting her in THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS.

KYONETSU NO KISETSU (1960), originally released in America under the exploitative title THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS, was the directorial debut of the Malaysia-born Koreyoshi Kurahara (1927-2002). I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting; this Nikkatsu production was distributed here in the States by Radley Metzger's Audubon Productions, usually an avatar of good taste though their ad campaigns could be sensationalistically exploitative, but it's certainly more than I was expecting.

Shown on the Dish Network/VOOM channel World Cinema HD with its Japanese title subtitled as THE WARPED ONES (which, to my senses, suggests a comedy), the film turns out to be an important rediscovery on many fronts. It is directed by Kurahara with a freewheeling, gleefully hedonistic verve that reminded me of nothing less than Joseph H. Lewis' GUN CRAZY, with Yoshio Mamiya's B&W scope cinematography alternating between the carefully composed and the recklessly hand-held. It's also a story of young adult delinquency that has some conscious ties to earlier Western works like GUN CRAZY, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and Godard's BREATHLESS but these pale in contrast to how much the film anticipates Stanley Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Scored by Toshiro Mayuzumi (STREET OF SHAME, WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS, THE INSECT WOMAN), it is also -- perhaps above all -- one of the great jazz films, and possibly the best illustration the cinema has ever given us of the jazz buff. It's the only film I've ever seen that makes jazz seem scarier than the darkest heavy metal, that makes jazz seem dangerous.

Akira, Masaru and Fumiko make plans for their stolen car.

It's the story of two petty thieves, jazz-loving Akira (Tamio Kawaji) and Masaru (Eiji Go), who use their hooker friend Fumiko (Noriko Matsumoto) to separate various horny tourists from their wallets. Caught in the act and arrested at a Tokyo jazz bar, Akira and Masuru find an opportunity for revenge soon after their release from jail, assaulting the arresting officer and abducting his girlfriend Yuki (Yuko Chishiro). They take her to a secluded nearby beach, where Akira rapes Yuki within an inch of her life while Masuru and Fumiko become better acquainted in the surf. As the episodic story continues, the three principals are shown living together, with Masaru determining to join a local yakuza gang, against Akira's leering advice. Akira is also tracked down by Yuki, who informs him that she is pregnant with his child.

Akira disrupts a contemporary art exhibition.

Akira, played by Kawaji with the face-rubbing mannerisms of Brando and the tortured swagger of James Dean, is a more extreme character than was seen in most Western cinema up to this time. He steals cars and motorbikes without shame, eats like a pig, drinks incessantly, and greets every woman he meets with "Wanna get laid?" He's not at all likeable, but he is fascinating -- especially when he's in the grip of something he understands, like a cathartic jazz solo. The film seems to acknowledge and ponder this dichotomy with a pair of complementary scenes; in one, a drunken Akira disrupts an art gallery exhibition, smearing his hands over valuable paintings, turning displayed abstract works upside down, and replacing the phony, lite jazz being played on a jukebox with the Real Thing.

Akira is treated like an art exhibition.


In a later scene, Akira goes to taunt Yuki at her cottage, where he finds her entertaining a group of local artists. Akira does everything he can to alienate these people, whom he regards as the flesh-and-blood equivalent of contemptible lite jazz, but they turn the tables on him and treat him as a remarkable art object in his own right, analyzing and approving his contempt for society to his face, and bidding against one another to obtain him as a model. Much as the exhibit sequence looks forward to Alex's (Malcolm McDowell's) invasive assaults on various Pop and Op Art domiciles in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, this sequence of artists deconstructing Akira seems to anticipate Alex's deconstruction by his admiring, cynical government. It should be noted that Akira sleeps next to... no, not an engaving of Beethoven's stony face... a framed copy of Ornette Coleman's THE SHAPE OF JAZZ TO COME. Even the jazz club where Akira broods between petty crimes foreshadows the Korova Milk Bar: the walls painted black and festishized with portraits of the great jazz masters, their names painted in delirious white strokes like the Milk Bar's adverts of Vellocet and Drencrom. Kubrick simply had to have seen it.

Yuki awaits the humiliation of her boyfriend at the hands of Fumiko.

In an unexpected turn of events, the pregnant Yuki prevails upon Fumiko for her help. Since her pregnancy became known to her boyfriend, their relationship has not been the same; he acts superior to her and treats her as someone tainted. So she pleads with Fumiko to seduce him, to destroy his pride as hers has been destroyed, so that they might rediscover their love for one another on levelled ground.

I won't go into the ironic finale, but the 75m film certainly builds to an evil boil and sustains its mood extremely well. I don't know if Quentin Tarantino is familiar with this movie -- which is apparently available in some form from Something Weird Video, probably the dubbed Audubon version (World Cinema HD showed the film in Japanese with subtitles that pulled no punches in the strong language department) -- but these characters seemed to me very much like antecedents of his most hellbent characters, and the whole feel of the film a convincing annex of his universe.

Under whatever title, Kurahara's film is much too important to be so obscure. The same goes for another Audubon import, Tinto Brass's NEROSUBIANCO, which Radley Metzger retitled THE ARTFUL PENETRATION OF BARBARA. (Yes, Virginia -- theaters actually used to show movies with titles like THE ARTFUL PENETRATION OF BARBARA and THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS, though they won't admit to this in your History class.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Retitlings on World Cinema HD

The World Cinema HD airing of THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS, which I mentioned yesterday, came off with some interesting variations. Dish Network listed the film on their menu under this highly exploitative title, but all of World Cinema HD's on-air promos gave the title in Japanese -- KYONETSU NO KISETSU -- in a bid to make it sound more respectable, I suppose. When the film began and its title appeared onscreen, it was subtitled as "THE WARPED ONES." It was preceded by a Janus Films logo, so it seems there is every chance that a Criterion DVD may someday be in the offing. (Ah, but under which title?)

Follow-up to my Dish Network woes: I was able to record an acceptable (1.78:1) copy of THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS this evening because it was shown in 2.35:1. It's still cropped, but a fast zoom-through didn't show any cropped subtitles or horribly damaged compositions. But most of what is being shown on Dish's HD channels is 1.78 or 1.85:1 to begin with, which my DVD-Recorder is receiving as a cropped 1.33:1 picture.

Donna and I have been troubleshooting today, and it seems that the real problem is inherent in my Panasonic DVD-Recorder, which -- like any other DVD-R currently on the market, that I know of -- is equipped to record MPEG-2 signals, not MPEG-4. It records MPEG-4, but it can't receive a full-blown widescreen signal; it crops the picture. If I use my TV controls to widen the picture, it only widens the cropped portion of the picture. My recorder also can't differentiate between an MPEG-4 picture that is squeezed or letterboxed or zoomed-in; it reads all of this incoming source as the same thing.

This means that -- if you have the same DVD-Recorder as me (a Panasonic DMR-E85H) -- this could well become your problem too, should you upgrade to MPEG-4. These MPEG-4 receivers are the new kid on the block, HD-wise, but it seems they're incompatible with current DVD-R technology, at least as I know it. Now I'm wondering if Radio Shack carries some kind of conduit that can dumb-down MPEG-4 to MPEG-2 purely for recording purposes. What are the chances that such a thing exists?

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back with Dish Network

Last week, we made an appointment for Dish Network to come out to the house and hook us up with a new receiver so that we could have an additional 15 or so HD channels. The Dish guy came to the house within the agreed-upon PM hours, announced that he didn't have a 40-foot ladder (necessary to reach the roof of our house), so he set up another appointment for our upgrade on the following Monday -- today.

Today, another Dish guy arrives... well before the 12-5:00 agreed-upon time. "You're early," I tell him, sleepily. "Yes, I am early," he replies sullenly, obviously refusing to take any guff from the customer. He's got a ladder on the truck but he says he has no intention of using it; I have everything I need for the upgrade already up there, and there's nothing to add on or take down. He doesn't know what the previous installer was thinking. He also can't figure out how he was able to arrange a follow-up visit with a phone call. After replacing my old Dish receiver (an MPEG-2 receiver installed in 2005) with a VIP 211 receiver (MPEG-4), he checks out the picture, tunes to an SD channel and tells me that I should never watch my TV with the gray bars displayed -- I should always watch the picture on these standard channels stretched like Silly Putty. When I begin to object, he cuts me off and says, "You can watch it any way you want, I'm just tellin' ya." Fine. Fine.

After the installer drives away to his next early appearance, Donna and I begin checking all the connections. To make a long and unhappy story short: The MPEG-4 receiver gives us a noticeably more beautiful HD picture... but.

I have always been able to record from my Dish Network receiver to my Panasonic DVD-Recorder. It didn't give me HD recordings, of course, but it recorded the programming shown on HD channels in a handsomely letterboxed format that I could then zoom-up to a most acceptable simulacra of HD. With my hours, time-shifting is often essential, and we use the DVD-Recorder a lot for that reason in particular. However... when hooked up identically to the MPEG-4 receiver, I don't get letterboxing. Even when I dumb the picture down to 480 or 720 and reconfigure the framing to 4:3x2 and get a letterboxed image on my monitor, the signal that the receiver is sending into my recorder is fully uncompressed with the left and side of the frame blocked by my gray bars. I can sit there pumping the Format button on my Dish remote, changing the screen configuration from Zoom to Partial Zoom to Gray Bars to Normal, and the onscreen image being sent into my DVD-Recorder is as unchanging as the expression on the Lincoln Memorial.

We've tried everything and don't know what to do. To make matters worse, Dish's World Cinema HD channel is showing THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS tomorrow evening, something I would dearly love to record. (I've been fascinated by this 1960s Japanese import since I first saw its trailer as part of Something Weird's first TWISTED SEX compilation.) If we keep the MPEG-4 connected, we'll get a recording, but it will be cropped. If we hook-up our MPEG-2 receiver, which we haven't sent back yet, we won't get the World Cinema channel at all, because it's accessible only to subscribers of what they call "the HD3 package."

So now we have to figure out what we're going to do. We still have an MPEG-2 HD hook-up in our basement, but I really don't want to turn the basement into the headquarters of my DVD-R recording. Part of me suspects that the MPEG-4 was created to be used solely with Dish Network's DVR, which can store quite a bit of HD broadcast information on its hard drive but, if you ask me, isn't quite the same as burning that information to a disc. I don't need to record in HD at the moment, but I do need to continue recording my HD programming in SD. Dish Network is sending someone to the house on Wednesday, supposedly between 12:00 and 5:00, to assess the situation. I fully expect the visit to be for nothing, though I would like very much to be able to report otherwise here on Thursday.

I know that this blog is read by many different kinds of film buffs. If there's anyone out there with insight into this particular problem, and perhaps a solution, I'd love to hear from you.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A Preview of VIDEO WATCHDOG #133


Our next issue is now at the printer. To whet your appetite, our customary four-page preview is now posted in the "Coming Soon" department of www.videowatchdog.com -- absolutely free! -- along with a near-complete list of contents. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

WHAT'S MY LINE? Alert

For those interested in witnessing important moments in television history unfold in real time, tonight's broadcast of WHAT'S MY LINE? on Game Show Network (3:00 am eastern) should be the first episode shown in the wake of panelist Dorothy Killgallen's death. Last weekend, GSN showed Killgallen's final WML broadcast, with mystery guest Joey Heatherton. Let's hope GSN handles tonight's broadcast more responsibly than last week's, which was ruined by a misplaced commercial interruption that omitted the majority of the second guest's appearance.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

In Case You Don't Check Over There Daily...

Three VERY important announcements were posted today on the Bava Book Update blog.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Dylan's Buried Treasure: "I'm Not There (1956)"

Those of you who have seen the trailer for Todd Haynes' forthcoming experimental biopic about Bob Dylan, I'M NOT THERE, on YouTube may have been struck -- as I was -- by its musical accompaniment. Though I've been reading a lot about Dylan these past months, and immersing myself in his albums as I read, I was unfamiliar with the fragment, which I found immediately absorbing and haunting. I took lyrics from the song to BobDylan.com's lyric search and drew a blank. The reason for this is simple: the song, which is called "I'm Not There (1956)", has never been commercially released.

It belongs to that mysterious group of 1967 recordings known as "The Basement Tapes," and it was not included among the songs found in Columbia's legitimate release of the alleged cream of the crop. The trailer includes only a 1:58 snippet of the entire piece, which runs 5:08; it's been rerecorded by Sonic Youth for the movie but, as the trailer seems to insist, the original version must be heard.

It's been awhile since a song got its hooks so deeply into me. I heard "I'm Not There (1956)" for the first time in its entirety yesterday -- I was able to find an mp3 here (scroll down 13 short paragraphs) -- and must have listened to it at least twenty times throughout the day, amazed that a song could communicate its emotion so palpably even though the lyrics (mostly improvised on the spot) hovered between incompletion and incoherence, even taking the time to learn the comparatively simple piece on my bass to try to come to terms with it musically. Here is some of what I found written in various sources about this amazing piece...

From THE OLD, WEIRD AMERICA by Greil Marcus:

"There is nothing like 'I'm Not There' -- called 'I'm Not There, I'm Gone' when Garth Hudson wrote down basement titles, later retitled 'I'm Not There (1956)' -- in the basement recordings, or anywhere else in Bob Dylan's career. It was only recorded once; unlike others of the new basement songs, which Dylan rerecorded or continued to feature on stage thirty years later, it was never sung again.

She fell into conversation with the first fat man she saw.
"What do you do?," he said, fitting two potato chips into his mouth.
I go to parties and only talk to the fat guys, she thought.
Owen was home writing. She thought of it as an act of fidelity to talk only to the unattractive guys.
She started to tell him about her jobs. She was talking on automatic pilot, hardly listening to what she was saying -- instead, she was listening to Dylan. Going through the host's record collection, she'd found a bootleg album that included "I'm Not There," a legendary, never-released, never-completed song from the Basement Tapes sessions -- a song that she'd heard just once, the summer after high school, and that she'd been searching for ever since. It came on while she was talking; it was even more haunting than she remembered.
She touched the fat guy's wrist. "This," she said, "may be the greatest song ever written."

"The woman speaking is the heroine of a 1991 novel by Brian Morton called THE DYLANIST, and it's a wonderful thing she says -- because so many people have responded the same way, at the same time realizing that 'I'm Not There' is barely written at all.... The song is a trance, a waking dream, a whirlpool... Words are floated together in a dyslexia that is music itself -- a dyslexia that seems meant to prove the claims of music over words, to see just how little words can do... In the last lines of the song, the most plainly sung, the most painful, so bereft that after the song's five minutes, five minutes that seem like no measurable time, you no longer believe that anything so strong can be said in words."

From composer Michael Pisaro:
"It's almost as though he has discovered a language or, better, has heard of a language: heard about some of its vocabulary, its grammar and its sounds, and before he can comprehend it, starts using this set of unformed tools to narrate the most important event of his life... [Rick] Danko plays [bass] as if he knows that all his life this song has been waiting for him to complete it, and that he will be given only one chance."

From BOB DYLAN: PERFORMING ARTIST 1960-1973 by Paul Williams:
"What's astonishing here is that we can feel with great intensity and specificity what the singer is talking about, even though 80% of the lyrics have not been written yet!... It's as though when Dylan writes, the finished song is not constructed piece by piece as we might imagine, but tuned in; there is an entirety from the first but still out of focus, like the photograph of a fetus, a blur whose identifying characteristics are implicit but not yet visible -- not because they're obscured but because they haven't yet taken shape. 'I'm Not There' is a performance complete in feeling -- 'Dylan's saddest song,' says [THE TELEGRAPH editor John] Bauldie -- achieved without benefit of context or detail. It's like listening to the inspiration before the song is wrapped around it."

With this kind of press, I'm surprised that this forty year old piece isn't better known to the public at large. People talk about the Basement Tapes at length, but this particular song is surely, on its own, to Bob Dylan what SMILE was, for decades, to Brian Wilson. As much as I love what Wilson did when he resurrected SMILE as a solo recording, its availability has taken away from the almost sacred mystery that enveloped the original Beach Boys recordings so painstakingly produced by Wilson, which fans loved to collect, share, and arrange into their own personal visions of what the unfinished album might have been. "I'm Not There (1956)" -- whose attached date is only one of many unexplained mysteries about it -- is of such similar appeal that I'm surprised that Dylan fans aren't out there writing and sharing their own lyrics to complete the jigsaw... but, who knows, maybe they do.

One of the many uncanny things about this piece is that Dylan must have known what he had, but he had the awareness of his own craft to know, despite the incompletion of the piece, that this singular recording had somehow miraculously achieved everything that any completed version possibly could and was wise enough to leave it alone. Its rough-hewn quality also invests it with something that no finished song ever has. In its own way, "I'm Not There" is perfect and there's no need for Dylan to touch it again. It might tempt him to finish it.

It's interesting that Todd Haynes chose this obscure song as the title piece for his film, but it does represent in some ways Dylan's own mercurial, artfully dodging persona, which I take to be one of the film's primary concerns, as it supposedly casts seven different actors as Bob Dylan at different phases of his career. My feeling about Haynes' previous work is that it's always very enticing but somehow always falls short of satisfying me completely. The idea to cast different actors as Dylan is an inspired one, one that qualifies this film as fantastic cinema sight unseen, but I'm looking forward to I'M NOT THERE with equal parts eagerness and trepidation. There is a preview scene from the film on YouTube featuring Cate Blanchett as Dylan, who strikes me in this snippet as playing Patti Smith in Dylan drag. Even so, the casting is inspired and it looks like a film that has winks to offer as well as wisdom. If it only brings this song within reach of more appreciative ears, the effort will have been worth it.

I'm hoping it turns out to be the superhero film of the year.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Guess the Secret Moiderer and Win $1000

Do You DARE Sit In One of These Chairs???

Shout Factory's YOU BET YOUR LIFE - THE BEST EPISODES came out three years ago, almost to the day, but it was only recently that I obtained it. Thirty or so years have passed since I last saw Groucho Marx's classic game show, and it was wonderful to see it again: every single episode made me laugh myself sick. In answer to everyone's first question: No, the Tor Johnson episode isn't included, but you do get appearances by Harpo Marx, Chico Marx (not onstage, but visible applauding in the audience), Johnny Weissmuller, Phyllis Diller, Joe Louis, Edgar & Candice Bergen, Harry Ruby and VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS' own Joy Harmon. Not a bad bang for the buck.
After making my way through all 18 episodes, and feeling more than a bit sorry to have finished so fast, I turned to the Bonus Features: three "stag reels" of bits that didn't make it to air, some outtakes that can be reintegrated into the episodes from which they were taken, various commercials (one featuring the three Marx Brothers), and last but not least, three Groucho-related pilots. There remain two of these I haven't watched yet, but the first of the pilots -- THE PLOT THICKENS (1963) -- turned out to be a revelation.
Why? Well, check out these credits from the end of the 29m episode:




I expect a lot of things when I delve into Bonus Features on a DVD, but discovering an obscure, forgotten game show pilot that is the only known collaboration of William Castle, Robert Bloch, and Groucho Marx is not one of them. This was the first Castle-Bloch collaboration, prior to Bloch's scripts for STRAIT-JACKET and THE NIGHT WALKER (both 1964).

Bailiff Warrene Ott, mascot Lucifer and district attorney Jack Linkletter.
THE PLOT THICKENS is an experimental combination of murder mystery/courtroom drama à la PERRY MASON and game show. It's hosted by "district attorney" Jack Linkletter and sidekick "bailiff" Warrene Ott), whose uniform is a black danceskin replete with tail, which Groucho pinches at one point; Warrene (THE PHANTOM PLANET, THE UNDERTAKER AND HIS PALS) is there mostly to lend the show sex appeal, while dutifully stroking the show's unhappy-looking black cat mascot, Lucifer. There's also a panel of four celebrity "detectives," one of whom (Richard Halley) is a real-life detective; the others are actress Jan Sterling (ACE IN THE HOLE, 1984), writer Stanley Ralph Ross (later of TV's BATMAN), and of course, Groucho.

Panelists Richard Halley, Stanley Ralph Ross, Jan Sterling, and the one, the only... Groucho.

The panel are shown a 10m mystery film ("Mystery in the Crystal Ball," featuring Joe Maross as a detective named Penfield) that involves a murder and four possible suspects, then those "suspects" are assembled in four empty seats onstage, where the celebrity detectives "grill" them before a live audience. Each of the suspects must tell the truth... except for the murderer, who is given permission to lie to conceal their identity. Any celebrity who correctly guesses the identity of the murderer wins $500... and if the real detective fails where the celebrity detectives succeed, their prize amount is doubled to $1000.


Two scenes from "Murder in the Crystal Ball," featuring James Callahan, Arthur Batanides, and Linda Bennett.

I grant that it's very odd to see celebrities vying for money they intend to win for themselves, but maybe there wasn't much of a salary involved. Then again -- and this is probably the real explanation, given the show's patrimony -- maybe it's all show business. The mystery film is practically indistinguishable from the first reel of a PERRY MASON episode, and directed by a veteran of 21 episodes of that series, William D. Russell. I personally found the mystery fairly easy to solve, but the pilot was a delight anyway for Groucho's interjections of humor, his flirtatiousness with the bailiff and suspect Linda Bennett (whose IMDb page credits her with this pilot, a movie called NAKED FLAME which I do believe features her, and a couple of Sixties grindhouse pictures in which another woman of her name appeared), and the "grilling" sequences, which required four actors to act in character but without a script -- a rarely witnessed dramatic exercise with actors of this vintage.

Suspects Jay Adler, Linda Bennett, James Callahan and Kathryn Giveney have a laugh when the real killer is unmasked.

YOU BET YOUR LIFE - THE BEST EPISODES would be well worth having even without this pilot, but knowing that THE PLOT THICKENS was included, and its specifics, would have made the set absolutely irresistable to me -- and perhaps to you, too, which is why I thought I'd share the news. There remain two more pilots in this set that I haven't watched: WHAT DO YOU WANT? and TELL IT TO GROUCHO. For all I know, they might guest star Delphine Seyrig and Wild Man Fischer and be directed by Sergei Parajanov.

Apparently, with Groucho, anything is possible.

Monday, July 16, 2007

In Defense of Frank Dietz

Over at the Classic Horror Film Boards this past weekend, Frank Dietz (seen here with his much-deserved "Artist of the Year" Rondo Award) startled everyone by announcing his retirement as horror fandom's foremost artist and caricaturist.

"Unfortunately," he writes, "the selling of my work is apparently illegal, which I did not realize after 12 years of doing so, so I will no longer sell my monster art... Is this an overreaction? Perhaps, but the answer is simple. I have two beautiful daughters. I will not endanger my children's financial future by testing the wrath of studio lawyers, who could 'send a message' by wiping out my life savings. It's that simple."

Frank's announcement does not confirm that he has been approached by a studio legal representative and served with threatening "cease and desist" paperwork, but it would seem a strong possibility. Frank's portraits and caricatures do indeed feature copyrighted characters, trademarked faces or studio makeups, and he sells this work to private collectors.

As someone who owns a couple of Dietz originals (a painting and a charcoal portrait), I find the possibility of such bullying both galling and reprehensible. I say this as someone with intellectual property of my own, toward which I feel a sense of vigilance and responsibility. Certainly, I would object if someone announced their intention to film my novel THROAT SPROCKETS without my permission or involvement; on the other hand, I believe that my rights as creator begin to lose some of their grip, or should, when it comes to my work inspiring other forms of art. The link no longer works, but I once found online a painting by an artist named Léandre Borgia that was labelled as an hommage to THROAT SPROCKETS and, a couple of years ago, a writer approached me seeking my permission to write a novel in which my novel would play an active part in the narrative. I found both of these responses to my novel immensely flattering; it wasn't the same thing as finding my original TABOO story (illustrated by Mike Hoffman) bootlegged in a foreign comic book with the TS movie's title changed to DEEP THROAT. To that, I did object.

When any artist lets their work out into the world, either by printing a book or selling a movie ticket, it is absurd (to use one of the kinder characterizations) for them to presume that their creative rights extend to cover anything and everything that work might inspire. It has to do with the free exchange of ideas. It used to be the same way with movies -- would there be a Batman without Roland West's THE BAT, or a Joker without Paul Leni's THE MAN WHO LAUGHS? -- but no more. Why? Because Hollywood has no new ideas, only new technologies and new video formats. This places a terrible burden on the precious reserves of ideas these studios already have: a burden to make these old ideas continually profitable. If studios had an ounce of faith in a future based on new commercial ideas, they wouldn't need to worry so much about the past.

What if Frank Dietz creates an original portrait of the Frankenstein Monster, or Vincent Price, or E. E. Clive, and sells it at a convention? How does this differ from, say, Basil Gogos doing a painting of the same, selling it to Warren Publications as a cover of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, which is then sold coast-to-coast on newsstands? Is the latter more acceptable, even though it involves a much larger exchange of money all around (especially for Warren), because it is promotional in nature? But who is to say that the art of Frank Dietz isn't promotional? It's fan art like his that kept the appetite for classic monster movies alive all those years when Universal, Warners, Columbia and other studios couldn't be bothered to release those films on home video -- at conventions, in fanzines. But in today's paranoid and possessive climate, such loving action becomes litigable.

Who we must ultimately thank for ugly turns of event like this are, of course, the Studio Attorneys, who must account for their lavish annual salary and expense accounts by doing something/anything. And so Goliath turns viciously on David, bringing down his colossal foot on the banner David is carrying, which just happens to say "YAY, GOLIATH!"

While the expense would surely be dreadful, I would love to see a case like this honestly explored in a court of law. Frank's caricatures are certainly humorous and satire and parody are protected by the First Amendment. There is also the matter of precedent to be considered here. Universal's monster characters, to take a handy example, have not appeared exclusively in Universal films since their inception. You can also find them in shorts and cartoons made by other studios, in MAD magazine, in editorial cartoons, you name it. It comes with being part of the cultural landscape, and none of the artists who perpetuated these characters in these secondary media did so for free, nor were they required to tithe a portion of their salaries back to Universal. And, truth be told, Universal lost nothing by sharing these characters thusly with the world, while they gained a fabulous fortune in terms of fame and public goodwill. But in today's legal view, something like Bobby Pickett's "The Monster Mash" might be characterized as having siphoned unforgivable millions from the Universal till, even though everyone who bought that record loved Universal's horror movies all the more as a result of hearing it and hearing it again.

Sure, Frank profits from his drawings and paintings -- or did. But, as I said over at the CHFB, it's not really the subjects of Frank's work that sell it; it's what his eye and hand bring to those subjects. I have seen a dozen people crowded around his table at Wonderfest, looking at the artwork on display, and everyone zeroes in on something different, something that speaks to their own unique experience of that character, that actor, that scene. In fact, I would go so far as to contend that nothing tangibly existed of, say, Vincent Price and THE TINGLER that can be seen in Frank's caricature of same prior to his drawing it. Through his work, Frank was able to make some elusive quality of Price's performance in the film tangible, in a way that it isn't evident in stills or even necessarily in the movie itself (film viewing being such a subjective matter in itself) -- and that's what makes his art so special and so beloved by fans.

If a studio should want to harness such talent and put it to work for them, that's one thing. But to reach over and unceremoniously pull the plug on an artist's entire future of self-expression, because they are under the psychotic impression that they somehow own it, is something else entirely. Yet this is "studio thinking," wholly consistent with a system dedicated to making us pay over and over for the same movie-going experience, whether it's remakes or double- and triple-dipping DVDs, and obtaining ultimate control over all that we see and hear regarding its output. If such corporate characteristics were applied to an individual, they would qualify him or her as mentally ill.

If Frank Dietz's right to interpret the monsters we know and love in art can be intimidated out of existence, how long will it be before the interpretations of the written word -- film criticism, for example -- suffer the same fate? We must have freedom of the press, which is predicated on what I referenced earlier, the free exchange of ideas.

Mr. Studio Attorney might counter by asking, "What's so free about Frank Dietz charging for his artwork?" Actually, Frank's artwork is freely displayed -- he puts it in galleries and on convention tables to attract and amuse people. It's free to look all you want. When money does change hands, it's mostly to reimburse him for the time and materials that brought those works to life. The people that buy his art then display it on the walls of their homes, where it becomes a vehicle through which these actors, characters and scenes can be venerated and enjoyed on a daily basis -- because the original product, the film itself, has already been consumed. To create art for such a purpose is, in my view, a more honest and respectable living than making your product's biggest boosters feel like crooks.

Hang in there, Frank. Whatever the situation is, I hope it can be resolved.