Saturday, September 08, 2007

Thursday, September 06, 2007

"My Name is Victoria Winters..."

As those of you familiar with my recent routine will understand, I've lately found myself sorely in need of a nightcap come bedtime. MPI Home Video's newly issued DARK SHADOWS THE BEGINNING - DVD COLLECTION 1 has been just the ticket. This set collects the first 35 B&W episodes of the long-running ABC-TV program, the first "suspense soap opera," which originally aired roughly a year before the vampire Barnabas Collins was introduced to the storyline. What we have here is like a contemporary version of an Ann Radcliffe novel: the gothic story of an orphaned adult, Victoria Winters, and her search for identity at a forbidding mansion in Maine, where she discovers her paternity to be only one of many mysteries and by no means the darkest.

Like many other kids of my generation, I used to run home from school to catch DARK SHADOWS in its heyday, but I didn't stick with it through its entire run. I started when the show started, drifted away when I discovered greater attractions than the mild mysteries it proferred that first year, and came back when I heard that vampires were stalking the stately halls of Collinwood. I was about 11 or 12 at the time and found the miniskirts and shapely legs of Kathryn Leigh Scott compelling viewing, even when Jonathan Frid wasn't baring his fangs. I've since seen individual episodes of later episodes and not gotten hooked all over again, and have been generally mystified by the whole phenomenon of DARK SHADOWS fandom. Nevertheless, I've always been curious to revisit these earliest episodes to see if they were really dull or just over my 10 year old head at the time.

To my amazement, I'm getting hooked. I went through periods of addiction to the CBS-TV soaps GUIDING LIGHT and AS THE WORLD TURNS back in the 1970s, and I have to say that DARK SHADOWS works much like other soaps have worked in my experience. The storyline is not particularly captivating, however, over time, one begins to see through the characters to the people underneath; consequently, one becomes extraordinarily sympathetic to the actors, working under obvious stress (live on videotape), and it is the company of their struggle, the hope we share with them for their occasional triumph, that becomes irresistable. There is also a good deal of cleverness to how the show stretches the most minor of plot points over several episodes, if not several weeks, introducing new bait just before it grudgingly allows the old bait to slide off the hook.

Alexandra Moltke, who plays Victoria Winters, has an interesting dark Irish face poised between blandness and classical beauty, and the scrappy pluck she brings to her performance is winning. David Henesy, who plays a troubled nine-year-old in her charge, is a talented child actor who also has an often-uncorrected tendency to glower into the cameras until his good work becomes risible. Joan Bennett, the star of the show, is properly imperious and cold but, nearly 30 episodes in, I'm still looking for chinks in her armor that might make her at least moderately interesting. Her character is said to have never left Collinwood in over 18 years, but one episode opens with her entering the house from a trip outside. Bennett also has an amusing tendency, in her telephone scenes, to leave no ellipses in her lines to allow for what the person calling might have to say. Louis Edmonds, as the schizo arrogant/avuncular Roger Collins, is a hoot; he's probably the best actor in these early shows and, while it's usually easy to tell when he wanders off-script, he engineers the most graceful rescues for himself and his co-stars you can imagine. It's interesting for me, too, as a longtime admirer, to be reminded of how Kathryn Leigh Scott's Maggie Evans character was first introduced as a blonde-wigged, working class waitress at the hotel greasy spoon; she becomes a warmer, more interesting presence when she loses the wig in Episode 19. And, unapologetic fanboy that I can sometimes be, every time I see Mitchell Ryan, I find myself thinking what a great Nick Fury he might have been. Now-familiar faces I don't normally associate with the series have also been turning up in bit parts: Conrad Bain, Elizabeth Wilson, Barnard Hughes.

Each episode begins with a chalkboard shot that gives the dates of recording and broadcast (generally two weeks apart). In one of these, Nancy Barrett (who plays the cute, blonde, adventure-seeking daughter of Bennett's character) can be seen walking to her mark for the opening scene and vigorously scrubbing at her front teeth with a finger. It's moments such as this that distill the joy of watching DARK SHADOWS and keep me watching. It's really theater rather than television drama, a kind of rough sketch that gives us just enough material to complete in our heads, to fantasize about, to dream on. Perhaps that's why they keep remaking it. Word is going around that Johnny Depp is going to play Barnabas Collins in a blockbuster feature remake; if he gets it wrong, you can bet your sharpened dentures it won't be the last attempt.

In the meantime, DARK SHADOWS THE BEGINNING makes for compulsive, fun, and (I would argue) multi-layered viewing; I can go through three or four in a sitting and wonder where the time went. Full review forthcoming in a future VIDEO WATCHDOG.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A Week (Or So) Into the Mailing

As I hope you've figured out for yourselves, we've been quiet about the Bava book mailing because we've been overwhelmingly busy with the Bava book mailing -- and still are. I'm not sleepy enough to go to bed yet, so I thought I'd post... not an official update for the Bava Book blog, but some personal WatchBlog notes on how it's going. It's hard work, but it's going very well. Our first day paid off in lower numbers than we hoped, but we quickly adapted to increase our productivity and have been meeting daily goals after midnight that sounded unreasonable (at least to me) earlier in the day. This is new terrain for us, you understand -- a job this size may be new terrain for any married couple living in a modest suburban house. The only way to unpack, sign, repackage and ship, say, 100 twelve-pound books in a day is to go through the experience of unpacking, signing, repackaging and shipping 50 the previous day.

But, with Donna at the helm, it can be done. We've also been blessed to have friends and family members rally to our aid. Donna's mom Ellie Goldschmidt and our friend Jan Perry deserve special applause for being here through virtually every day of this process, cutting bubble paper, boxing the books for shipment, and keeping our spirits buoyant. Our pal Joe Busam, who some of you may remember as the producer of MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES and Rondo's Monster Kid of the Year 2005, has also generously stepped in on occasion to lend some additional manpower. Even on short notice. Even on Labor Day weekend. Donna's sister Barbara Harding, who hosted a wonderful and much-needed family gathering at her house on Sunday, came over to offer some assistance this afternoon. They've all played important roles in helping us get the books to you faster, and we're thankful.

Perhaps you are picturing me in a smoking jacket, sitting in a comfortable wing-backed chair, signing book after book with a flourish, and waving those who carry them to my station blithely away. Not so. According to Jan's calculations, I've been lifting somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 pounds per day. Needless to say, this is not my habit: I'm no stevedore; I'm a guy who sits on his duff and types his thoughts for a living. That's how I got into this predicament in the first place.

Here's my routine of the past week in a nutshell: I wake up around noon. Before coffee, Donna sits me down and tells me how many books she intends to have ready for pickup the next day. The figure is always conspicuously larger than the previous day's. After coffee and a quick breakfast, I set to work lifting and carrying 38-pound boxes from the towering stacks in our foyer and dining room to one of two "signing stations" (eg., card tables set up in our living room and dining room). The stacks are usually taller than me, so there is no way to observe the tradition wisdom "Lift with your legs, not with your back." Before sitting down, I cut each box open, dump the wrapped contents onto the table, tear off the brown shipping paper (or shrinkwrapping, if need be), sign the three books from each box, tip a postcard inside each one, and move the books aside until I run out of boxes. Then I carry the accumulated signed books in stacks of two, three or four (depending on how ambitious or energetic I'm feeling) to the nearest "shipping station" (eg., tables in the foyer and dining room). Generally, we've been starting around noon and carrying on, with a brief dinner break at a local restaurant (nobody's got the time or the will to cook), until 2:00 or even 4:00 in the morning.

Donna, Jan and I worked straight through the holiday weekend, taking only Sunday evening off, and got a huge number of boxes out the door today. Our goal is to get the remaining boxes of books out of the house in a couple of days, tops. It might be possible: the foyer is now completely clear of all but tomorrow's outgoing books (a hundred or so) and I was pleased, at the end of today, to see that we had made a noticeable dent in the boxes occupying the dining room. I'm seeing every possible variation of my signature all day long yet I've been feeling, from being so long away from my usual work, out of touch with who I am -- another reason I felt the need to blog; I haven't seen a movie in about ten days. This is not a good position to be in, especially when we're supposed to be prepping VIDEO WATCHDOG 135 as soon as the decks are cleared. Also, VW 134 (which we've been too busy to preview either here or on our website yet!) is due back from the printer any day now, and we need to be done with the book shipping to tend to that shipping. Thank goodness I don't have to sign copies of VW!

Yes, the work is punishing and makes us wish we were about 25 years younger to better cope with it. But when we receive e-mails from happy early recipients or discover message boards like this one where folks in Germany are sharing photos of their newly-arrived Bava books with such obvious and infectious joy, the extra effort we've put in makes the pleasure we feel that much more gratifying.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Ar-bo-gast

I don't know who's behind this anonymously written blog, but I've been reading it daily and enjoying it very much. Today's piece on the late actor-comedian Rick Aviles (and, at first indirectly and then very directly, the blogger) is impressive stuff -- so revealing that it's hard to tell whether it's the blogger or the reader who's trembling at the candor. Kudos, whoever you are.