Monday, October 29, 2007

Worth Signing

New regulations drafted by Time-Warner (boo!) and passed by the Postal Regulatory Commission (double boo!) reduce mailing rates for mass-circulation magazines like Time and People while raising the rates for smaller, independent, free-thinking periodicals like Video Watchdog. Please take a moment to sign this petition as a personal favor to all your favorite limited circulation print publications.

My thanks to Sam Hamm for bringing this petition to my attention. The people who drafted it are hoping to collect 100,000 signatures and they're nearly there. Put them over the top and treat yourself to a good magazine!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

WHITE CHALK by PJ Harvey

I first discovered Polly Jean Harvey with the release of her second album RID OF ME, which makes me a fan since 1993. That said, I sensed a redundancy on her previous album UH HUH HER that suggested she was running out of variations of swampy, venereal vamps to play on her electric guitar -- and new things worth saying in that well-worn musical mode. More than a mere surprise, her new album WHITE CHALK comes as a legitimate shock; though the lyrical concerns are familiar, it's musically extremely different to anything she has recorded before and thus bound to disappoint anyone who comes to this artist expecting to hear something specific and familiar.

An album that sounds more torn from the artist's brain and heart than her loins, WHITE CHALK is a collection of misty, mournful, pastoral, and often hypnotic piano-based songs offered with minimal instrumentation and uncharacteristically vulnerable, insistently feminine vocals. As suggested by the cover photo -- which one might imagine to be inspired by Jane Campion's film THE PIANO (the namesake of a song included on the album), or perhaps by a photo found in an antiques store -- WHITE CHALK tempts one to imagine that this is how a turn-of-the-20th-century PJ Harvey album might sound.
Lyrically, there is nothing on the album to root its songs in a more contemporary setting. Its title, shared with one of its songs, refers specifically to the white cliffs of Dover, which provide the setting for the elliptic story, and perhaps also to the white chalk outline drawn around a dead (and absent) body. As I understand from the lyrics, WHITE CHALK tells the tragic story of a young working-class woman who falls in love with a young man, discovers that she is with child after he has been summoned to war. When she learns that he has been killed in battle, she submits to an abortion, a traumatic experience that eventually robs her of her own will to live. It is a story that might unfold in the early 1900s or the early 2000s. WHITE CHALK hasn't been packaged as a "rock opera" or "song cycle," but like BLUEFINGER (the new album by Harvey's friend Black Francis -- and my favorite album of the year so far), that's effectively what it is.
On a musical level, which is how one experiences it most immediately, WHITE CHALK stands out immediately as one of those perverse, outré experiments that creep into the careers of most serious artists who, facing redundancy, want to know how far their talents really extend beyond the boundaries of the pigeonhole they've made for themselves. (I would include John Cale's masterpiece MUSIC FOR A NEW SOCIETY and Bob Dylan's NASHVILLE SKYLINE in this category, but also Neil Young's TRANS and James Brown's lounge record GETTING DOWN TO IT.)
Harvey's musical experimentations lead her to some surprising places. The album's opener, "The Devil", has a pronounced Morricone/Eurocult vibe that knocked me out of my chair from its opening seconds -- and her whispered soprano vocal came as yet another great surprise. A song like "White Chalk," too, could easily merge with the soundscape of a movie like WHO SAW HER DIE?, while the album's closer, "The Mountain," has all the swirling allure of an absorbing mystery, or perhaps a small human drama as viewed by a circling vulture. The latter is one of Harvey's great recordings and one that might only have been reached via this unusual route.
Though WHITE CHALK is a captivating listen, as its shock has worn off, I have doubts that it's as much of a growth spurt as it first seemed to be, or perhaps proposes to be. To go through the album, track by track, is akin to listening to a series of Chinese boxes: "Dear Darkness" is like the song inside "The Devil," and "Grow Grow Grow" is like the song inside "Dear Darkness." Things change with "When Under Ether," but repeated listenings forced the realization that it's essentially a piano reprise of TO BRING YOU MY LOVE's "Down By the Water." Indeed, the swampy mythos of that earlier album is somehow deeply entwined with the pastoral mythos explored here. Harvey achieves some beautiful moments on the album, usually etched with terror or regret, but its overall impact is weakened by having too many songs played in the same key and tentative cadence. The album lacks variety, as well as broadness and body; when it does branch out, it branches back to roads we understand (perhaps wrongly) the artist is striving to avoid. What's most important about it, finally, is that its musical contrariness has forced Harvey to find new ways to sing and instrumentalize, so it can't help but push her (and her listeners) into new realms of experience. This is an ambitious record without question, but less a destination than a means of reaching a destination, of making what PJ Harvey does best sound refreshed.
If I were Robert Christgau (whom I imagine will see this as "Harvey's Kate Bush or Tori Amos album"), I'd probably give WHITE CHALK a B + -- more for its bravery than its actual invention. I might rate it somewhat less favorably had it come from an artist who more frequently trawled in this métier. A B + is "very good," of course, but remember: this is an artist with at least three A or A- albums to her credit.
Thanks to Jeremy Richey, whose Moon in the Gutter notes on WHITE CHALK prompted these thoughts in response, which ran a bit longer than I'm willing to leave in anyone's Comments box. I've got a blog to feed, too.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Slumming with Karloff on VOODOO ISLAND

It may be hard for some of my younger readers to believe (especially if they have seen THE CRIMSON CULT or THE SNAKE PEOPLE), but, in the 1950s and '60s, the participation of Boris Karloff participation in a new horror picture was the closest thing to a guarantee of greatness. As an editor, he had chosen the finest horror stories to appear in various hardcover and paperback collections, always demonstrating excellent taste; even moreso as an actor, he was able to pick and choose from the best horror scripts in circulation -- we knew this because he so seldom let us down. Consequently, when a new Karloff film somehow failed to deliver everything promised -- see THE CLIMAX, THE STRANGE DOOR or THE BLACK CASTLE -- it seemed far worse than it actually was.

VOODOO ISLAND (1957) is a case in point, if not a classic one. Even the film's one-sheet poster (pictured above) presents us with a haggard, unhappy-looking Karloff who appears to have been bullied into the artwork with a cattle prod. A new blog by Arbogast on the subject of VOODOO ISLAND prompted me to sit down last night and actually watch that legendarily turgid film for the first time since I turned it off, about halfway through, in my discerning childhood. I've always had a special liking for scenes involving women in the clutches of man-eating plants (see KONGA, THE LAND UNKNOWN, and the AIP Karloff film DIE, MONSTER, DIE! for far juicier examples), and Arbogast promised a good one, so I was there. I didn't feel the scene was quite the highlight that he believed, but I'm grateful for his powers of persuasion anyway. You see, I had grabbed TCM's recent broadcast with my Dish Network DVR, and that's the copy I watched -- having completely forgotten that I already owned the film as part of a Midnite Movies "double feature" DVD paired with THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE! Had I not decided to blog about this screening and done a little preliminary online Googling, I would have surely burned a copy of the movie I didn't need.

But to get to the point of VOODOO ISLAND itself... like THE CLIMAX, THE STRANGE DOOR and THE BLACK CASTLE, it's really not as bad as people claim. It's certainly not very good, at least not in the dry manner it was executed by director Reginald LeBorg, but it seems to me that the script by Richard H. Landau hoped for better and the performances (including the always reliable Elisha Cook, Jr.) are decent, though Karloff suffers from miscasting and perhaps also from the rigors of location shooting. Karloff is also clean-shaven here, revealing quite a long upper lip, and the look seems to take more away from him than just a mustache.

Landau's script deserves special credit on two counts, specifically. The first is that the role of Claire Winter, played by Jean Engstrom, is surely the most pronouncedly lesbian character to figure in a horror film of the 1950s; considering how oblique the matter of lesbianism is in movies like DRACULA'S DAUGHTER (1935) and VOODOO ISLAND's near contemporary BLOOD OF DRACULA (1958), Claire is possibly the first undisguisedly lesbian character to appear in a horror film, or in any kind of fantastic film since the tuxedoed women in Fritz Lang's DR. MABUSE THE GAMBLER (1922). The other point of interest, and it's a related one, is how the script attempts to parallel the character of Karloff's assistant Sarah Adams (Beverly Tyler), a young woman who is all about work, with that of Mitchell (Glenn Dixon) -- a man who has fallen victim to a zombie curse and spends his entire time onscreen in a kind of "living death." The dialogue ventures several comments, some of them in the form of seductive comments from Claire, about how "Adams" (as she's called) shouldn't be so intent on work twenty-four hours a day, how she should let her hair down and live a little. To put it bluntly, her work drone ethic is delineated as another form of living death.

The film buys back some of its bonus points by depicting Adams as someone who, in the course of dedicating herself to work and armoring herself against the temptations of a personal life involving men like our hero Rhodes Reason, might inadvertently fall into the clutches of a same-sex affair... but, nevertheless, I appreciate the time taken by Landau to layer his themes when the project didn't exactly call for it. One thing I wasn't expecting from VOODOO ISLAND was craftsmanship, so its thematic resonance came as a pleasant surprise.

POSTSCRIPT 6:31 pm. Robert Cashill writes: "VOODOO ISLAND was shown as part of TCM's Gay and Lesbian Fest in June. The co-host with Robert Osborne, Richard Barrios, has written a new book on gay and lesbian cinema that gives prominent attention to VOODOO ISLAND... a film that he said he hadn't heard of, much less seen, till a friend alerted him to a TCM telecast some years back."

Thursday, October 25, 2007

He Has Eyes Like Steve McQueen

... and he's looking more like Dabbs Greer all the time, but Malcolm McDowell remains one of the most electrifying screen presences of the last 40 years and he's having one hell of a 2007.

Though McDowell has continued to work steadily, this once prominent star of IF..., A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, O LUCKY MAN! and TIME AFTER TIME -- whose stardom (some have said) was derailed by his participation in the Bob Guccione XXX production of CALIGULA -- has only recently begun to recapture his former authority onscreen with captivating performances in GANGSTER NO. 1 (2000), RED ROSES AND PETROL (2003), EVILENKO (2004), and as the current incarnation of Dr. Loomis in Rob Zombie's remake of HALLOWEEN. Of course, he also killed off William Shatner's Captain Kirk in 1994's STAR TREK: GENERATIONS and, in one of his stranger castings of recent years, he was the second "Mr. Roarke" in an ill-fated 2002 TV relaunch of FANTASY ISLAND. (Can you imagine the kinds of fantasies Malcolm McDowell might stage for his visitors? The mind boggles.)

But 2007 has been the year of McDowell's advent into the realm of DVD audio commentary, which make the rest of us very rich indeed. They began earlier this year with Criterion's extraordinary release of Lindsay Anderson's IF... (which, as of this moment, still has the inside track as my favorite DVD release of the year), and they have continued this month in triplicate with Image Entertainment's CALIGULA and Warner Home Video's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (also available in HD and Blu-ray) and O LUCKY MAN! Furthermore, the two Warner titles both include O LUCKY MALCOLM!, Jan Harlan's highly entertaining and absorbing feature-length (86m) profile of the actor. Part of the pleasure of Harlan's film comes from McDowell's own participation in it (we get a clear sense of the man, not just his performances) and part comes from sharing in the fulfillment he must feel from his current wave of recognition. The film loves him for who he is, not just for what he's done, and we feel happy for the ornery devil.

McDowell's audio commentaries confirm a clear and excited memory about his participation in each of his early key works (and the film maudit), as well as his reputation as a masterly raconteur. A word to the wise filmmakers in my audience who may be in a position to hire him: put it in Malcolm's contract to participate in your movie's DVD commentary, turn him loose on it, and you're guaranteed better reviews.

To move only slightly off-topic in closing, Warner's Kubrick titles (which I've bought in the snazzy Blu-ray format) appear to be ideally mastered and assembled. Last night I went through all the supplements on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (the first film I ever reviewed, though that review remains unpublished * ) and it cheers me to no end to know that I have other British television documentaries to look forward to on the other Kubrick discs. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE offers an excellent Channel 4 documentary about the film's 28-year suppression in the UK, as well as a pretty good American "making of." (You can tell it's American because nearly every sound byte has its Mickey Mousey visual counterpart -- e.g., someone says Malcolm was exhausted during the filming and we cut to a clip of the beaten, rain-soaked Alex slumping to the floor of the writer's home.) The British TV doco, on the other hand, is content to be authoritative, informative, enlightening, and smart rather than merely witty -- and to spend an hour or so in its presence is to emerge sickened by what American television has become in contrast.

* Originally written in hopes of a sale to CINEFANTASTIQUE, this typewritten relic is now being saved for my next volume of collected writings -- which I hope to compile and publish within the next year or two.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Cover Story & Twitch

Now on Cincinnati newsstands and racks about town, the new issue of CITY BEAT (our local entertainment paper) profiles Donna and me and our 32 year struggle to produce MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK in a cover story called "Book of a Lifetime." Excellent work by Jason Gargano, which non-Cincinnatians can read online here.

And over at Twitch, Dave Canfield presents his own ATCOTD interview with yours truly.

Monday, October 22, 2007

GRADUATE Thoughts

I had a wonderful evening Saturday night going through MGM's new 40th Anniversay reissue of Mike Nichols' THE GRADUATE. It's a splendid two-disc set, with the best-looking transfer the film has ever had on home video, numerous supplementary trailers and featurettes (two of them ported over from the film's 10th and 25th anniversary home video releases) and, best of all, two compellingly listenable audio commentaries. The first is by stars Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross, and the other finds Nichols interviewed by fellow director Steven Soderbergh, making this disc a sequel of sorts to their superb commentary for CATCH-22 and hopefully a flag for a more detailed, eventual reissue of CARNAL KNOWLEDGE.

The Hoffman/Ross commentary is historic for its repairing of one of the most charismatic screen couples of the 1960s, as the two have never worked together again. Hoffman admits several times to having a huge crush on Ross during the filming, which makes sense for an actor who studied under Lee Strasberg, which elicits a silence from Ross whenever it's brought up that is impossible to read. Either it makes sense to her too, or she simply doesn't know what to do with such a confession, but she doesn't return it in kind. It makes one wonder what their onscreen chemistry might be like, were Hoffman's pet project of a GRADUATE sequel ever to be made. But the track's most valuable aspect is the appreciation shown by both actors for the phenomenal widescreen photography of Robert Surtees, which opened my eyes to what an amazing feat of cinematography this film represents.

Ross is still angry with herself for having been unable to cry, as she was supposed to do, in the close-shot where she, Elaine, discovers that Benjamin (Hoffman) has had an affair with her mother, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). She continues to see this instance as her own technical failure, though it led to the far greater triumph brought to the moment by Surtees, who gave us what may be the screen's most brilliant use of delayed focus:







"Oh my God..."

I've seen THE GRADUATE numerous times since my first time in 1969, and the Nichols/Soderbergh commentary likewise guided my latest viewing to notice aspects of the production's design and wardrobe, for example, that had previously escaped my notice. Though it was Nichols' first film in color, his insecurity about working in a full-on color palette led to a creative decision to make THE GRADUATE a very monochromatic color film -- it's the kind of thing you may have never noticed but, once you're told, you can't not see it everywhere in evidence.
Watching the film again, I came away with two observations that are not discussed on the disc, nor am I aware of them having been discussed anywhere else. First of all, about the music score: I've always felt that the Simon & Garfunkel songs work perfectly well, and Nichols explains that their use in the film resulted from a gift of their music from his brother and his own ensuing obsession with it. While I feel the film was wise to omit any reference to timely events, such as the Vietnam war, to maintain its fable-like universality, I think the music puts it into a bubble that is very much of its time and offers little thematic reinforcement.
It occurred to me that Nichols might have been better served for the long haul with selections from the Beach Boys album PET SOUNDS. Imagine the early scenes of Benjamin's homecoming depression accompanied by "That's Not Me" or "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," the manic driving scenes prior to the church finale accompanied by the instrumental title track, and the church scene itself accompanied by "God Only Knows." I think the film's ending works beautifully as is, but I'm now wondering if it might play even more ironically in concert with "Wouldn't It Be Nice." Of course, such a marriage of movie and music would have made PET SOUNDS a greater hit of its time and less available to rediscovery; we might think of it today as "music from THE GRADUATE" rather than the classic album it is, but PET SOUNDS remains ever fresh and relevant to new generations while the Simon and Garfunkel songs, obsessively played and replayed, seem overtly precious, hearkening back to a time of fragile romantic illusion, especially in tracks like "Scarborough Fair."

Another idea I had puts an interesting twist on the essential drama and on Anne Bancroft's performance in particular. What if Mrs. Robinson's intense objection to Benjamin's courtship of her daughter was rooted in a better reason than her own vanity and her lame excuse that he isn't "good enough" for her daughter? What if, in her younger days, she and Benjamin's father -- her husband's business partner -- had an affair that resulted in her pregnancy with Elaine?
It's not uncommon for husbands to stray while their wives are pregnant, and it seems a reasonable possibility, especially given the way Murray Hamilton's character screams "cuckold" and the evasive mien Mrs. Robinson adopts in the hotel scene where Benjamin pumps her for details about how Elaine was conceived. The story of Elaine's conception which she offers to her young lover could as easily be illustrative of the mundane circumstances under which she lost her virginity. Everything in Anne Bancroft's performance is consistent with this reading of the material; I would go so far as to say that it is more consistent than the vague territorial explanations given. It would explain her attraction to Benjamin as a remnant or representative of a past affair, perhaps as an opportunity to do damage to the house of a man who once rejected her and gave her the child that necessitated her acceptance of another man's proposal.
In one of the interview supplements ported over from an earlier release of THE GRADUATE, Dustin Hoffman offers his interesting idea for a sequel: Benjamin and Elaine are still married, more through habit than happiness, but when their son returns home from college with a young woman he introduces as his fiancée, Benjamin embarks on an affair with his future daughter-in-law, in effect "becoming" Mrs. Robinson. It's a good idea, a movie I'd certainly pay to see, but imagine a sequel in which Benjamin and Elaine are still together, actually happily married, and discover after the death of Mrs. Robinson certain documents illuminating Mr. Robinson's impotence and her affair with Benjamin's father.
Now that could be dynamite.
Addenda 6:09 pm: The Hoffman/Ross commentary track also includes some interesting and amusing anecdotes about filming the scene in the stripclub, which Hoffman cheerfully recalls as being a much easier day's work for him than for Ross. He recalls asking the stripper (whose name he remembers as Elaine) at the end of the day how she felt after hours of keeping her tassles twirling in opposite directions. Her response: "My feet are killing me." What the track doesn't reveal, and what I did not discover until this very day, is that the stripper was played by an uncredited Lainie Miller, the wife of beloved character actor Dick Miller. Last Christmas, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

This Month's No Zone: THE THIRD SECRET

My "No Zone" review of Charles Crichton's gripping B&W psychological thriller THE THIRD SECRET appears in the November issue of SIGHT & SOUND, and it's also now posted on their website. Reading it over, I think this is among the best columns I've written for them to date.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Happy Birthday to Édith Scob

Today we send our warm regards to Édith Scob on the happy occasion of her 70th birthday. The mad woman with the holy voice in Georges Franju's HEAD AGAINST THE WALL, the masked Christiane in EYES WITHOUT A FACE, the angelic heroine Jacqueline of JUDEX, the Virgin Mary in Luís Buñuel's THE MILKY WAY, and also prominently featured in Pitof's VIDOCQ and Christophe Gans' BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF -- it is for no small reason that we at VIDEO WATCHDOG think of her as "Our Lady of the Fantastique."

Truth be told, Édith Scob is no less remarkable in her non-fantastic roles. I recently had the pleasure of seeing her splendid performance as Oriane de Guermantes in Raoul Ruiz's Marcel Proust adaptation TIME REGAINED, opposite Johnny Hallyday in Patrice Laconte's THE MAN ON A TRAIN, and in Andrzej Zulawski's epic-length FIDELITY, in which she embraced with great gusto the opportunity to act against type as an slutty and obnoxious alcoholic. She has also been busy as the recurring character of a Mother Superior in the successful French teleseries SOEURTHÉRESE.COM. It's wonderful to see this sublime actress continuing to be so visible in what we get to see of modern day French cinema over here. Her latest project -- Olivier Assayas' L'HEURE D'ETÉ ("Summertime") -- stars Juliette Binoche, so there's a very good chance that we'll be able to see it too.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Happy Birthday to Bela and Arlene

Today, October 20, marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of the incomparable Bela Lugosi (we couldn't very well call him "inimitable," could we?) and the centenary of WHAT'S MY LINE's "delightful star of stage and screen" panelist, Arlene Francis. While Lugosi has always seemed to me almost irretrievably Old World, except through the exegencies of the supernatural, of which his screen persona was so much a part, I find it nearly impossible to accept that Ms. Francis could have been born 100 years ago. As a weekly viewer of WHAT'S MY LINE's "Black and White Overnight" reruns on GSN every Sunday night at 3:00am, I can only think of Arlene Francis as a sharp, vivacious, and sexy lady full of life and laughter -- forever present tense, her warm-bloodedness immortal in a way to which the comparatively clammy Lugosi could only balefully aspire.

Memorably, Bela (born Béla Blasko in Lugoj, Romania) and Arlene (born Arline Kazanjian in Boston, Massachusetts) once shared the screen in Universal's MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, directed by Robert Florey and released in 1932. Arlene played a "woman of the streets" in her screen debut, lured by Lugosi's Dr. Mirakle into his coach and abducted to his secret laboratory where he seeks to make her "the bride of science" by mating her blood with that of his pet orangutan, Erik. The admixture doesn't take and, condemning her "rotten" (read syphillitic) blood, he consigns her to the murky depths of the River Seine. It's one of the most hard-hitting sequences to be found in the Universal horrors of the 1930s.

MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE has always been regarded as one of Universal's problem titles, suffering as it does from overly florid writing (though the script is co-credited to John Huston) and awkward pacing. Though the details were always somewhat vague, it became known through books like Gregory William Mank's KARLOFF AND LUGOSI that studio executive Carl Laemmle Jr., then 23, was responsible for ordering that changes be made to Florey's director's cut of MURDERS prior to its release. In VIDEO WATCHDOG #111, I published an article called "Re-arranging the RUE MORGUE," in which I proposed how the extant version might be recut to restore Florey's most probable original intentions. Having written that piece on a deadline, I wasn't able to take the time to actually cut together the version I was proposing, but it made sense to me by playing the scenes in my reordered sequence using my Search button. (I was delighted to discover that my attempted "reconstruction" merited mention in the recently published Second Edition of UNIVERSAL HORRORS, the classic reference by Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and John Brunas.) VW contributor/reader/horror film scholar Gary L. Prange did take the time, however, and, by doing so, he found that my article accounted for maybe 90% of Florey's intentions, while proposing a few additional, crucial tweaks in a letter that we published in VW #114.

Since that article and letter appeared in VIDEO WATCHDOG, I've seen bootleg discs of the recut for sale at film conventions and other copies freely circulated by fans. I was hopeful that someone at Universal might consider Gary's and my findings of sufficient interest to offer a recut version on DVD, either as a newsworthy stand-alone or as a fascinating supplement. Alas, it hasn't happened yet -- but I remain hopeful. I think a director's cut of MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE would attract as much popular interest as David Skal's recovery of the Spanish DRACULA did, a decade or more ago. This 60m re-edit makes for a more enticing, innovatively structured, and effectively scary movie -- moreso than the extant version, a far better tribute to the memory of Robert Florey and his two stars, born this day in October such a long time ago.

New Bava Discs Street Next Tuesday

Glenn Erickson reviews Anchor Bay Entertainment's MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUME 2, including three new commentaries by me, over at DVD Savant today.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

"A Staggering Achievement"

Stuart Galbraith IV recently conducted a lengthy interview with me for the website DVD TALK, which has just been posted; you can find it here. We discussed various aspects of the Bava book (which Stuart calls "the most detailed, probing, and complete examination of any single filmmaker, anywhere in the world, ever") in detail, but we also talked in a more expansive vein about the current state of home video, the future of DVD and video stores, and other interesting topics. Check it out.

Also now online, Chris Alexander's review of Anchor Bay's THE MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUME 2 at Fangoria.com.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

In the Presence of Don Quixote

Last night's Bob Dylan show at Cincinnati's Taft Theatre (where I saw electric Hot Tuna in 1972, Iggy Pop and David Bowie in 1977, and King Crimson's double trio in 1995) might be the finest concert I've seen in my admittedly spotty life as a concert-goer.

The Taft is a smaller auditorium with the look of a moderately scaled movie palace of old. The aisles flow down to the stage, so the likelihood of people standing wouldn't be so much of a problem as it was on the floor of Columbus' Value City Arena, and the seats were more comfortable without being plush. The ticket taker guided us to a pair of seats on the right center aisle, with a more or less dead-on view of the stage; they were slightly pricier tickets than the ones we'd had for the previous show, and they were better seats. We were happy. The crowd was all-ages, from children to geriatrics, but the prevailing mood was one of excitement -- a lot of people were smiling -- long before the lights went down.

Amos Lee's warm-up set was pitched at a more introspective, intimate level than the arena show, which gave me a fuller idea of what he and his band are capable of achieving musically. It was interesting to me, because I was seated and paying attention, but the group took the stage promptly and had to contend with a lot of late arrivals, flashlights in the dark leading people to their seats, incoming folks blocking the view of the stage -- so I had the sense that Amos and company were doing their best to win over a crowd that was often paying only half attention, even if they wanted to pay fuller attention. He left "Careless" -- Donna's favorite song from the previous show -- out of the set, but he added "Arms of a Woman" and saved "Black River," their ace in the deck, for a point when the room seemed most settled and receptive. He closed with an inspired choice, Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come," which Amos sang in a manner that revealed the extent of Cooke's influence on his own vocal mannerisms. Once again, I thought they were a talented, solid act.

As the lights went up between sets, one of the ushers asked to see my ticket and informed us that we were in the wrong seats. We were shown to our new seats, which were in a short aisle against the right wall of the auditorium, but it turned out that these were also excellent seats. It's a local legend that there is no such thing as a bad seat at the Taft, and it would seem to be true.

Donna brought binoculars, so our already good seats could be additionally enhanced with close views of Dylan and company. The band -- Tony Garnier (bass), George Recile (drums), Stu Kimball (rhythm guitar), the remarkable Denny Freeman (lead guitar), and multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron -- were wearing different suits this night, all of them light gray jackets and slacks and dark gray shirts, inverting the color scheme worn by Bob, which was the same silver-studded shades-of-gray outfit he'd worn in Columbus. The blue feather I thought I'd seen in his hat was apparently a lighting trompe l'oeil; the hat was actually a light gray with a slightly darker band with a few feathers in the band, one of them orange. He was no Doctor Phibes: the pencil-thin mustache worn since "LOVE AND THEFT" was gone and he looked like no one other than Bob Dylan. He attacked the set list with a taking-care-of-business poker face that smiled only briefly and occasionally to lend weight or inflection to his lyrics. Occupying a place of honor to Dylan's right was a gleaming golden object: his Oscar for "Things Have Changed," the song he wrote for the movie WONDER BOYS. (The Grammy he won for "Gotta Serve Somebody" was nowhere to be seen.)

As I suspected, the set list featured a number of songs not performed in Columbus, beginning with a rousing "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" and followed by an exquisite "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" accompanied by lap steel guitar and stand-up bass. Dylan once again retired his center-stage stance and electric guitar after "Watching The River Flow" and moved over to electric keyboard for "Love Sick," accompanied by Donnie Herron's electric mandolin. As the music slowed to a bluesy, reggae-spiked mood for this number, the standing crowd took their seats to drink the performance in. Dylan gave a gripping reading of it, and got everyone back onto their feet by the end of it. And they stayed there, for the most part, as they steamrolled into an exciting cover of Hambone Willie Newbern's "Rollin' And Tumblin'." This raucous blues standard (Canned Heat did a great version) has been standard for the current tour, but to witness the two performances I saw was an object lesson in the difference between playing it and meaning it. I could feel the sweatslipping off the notes, and it made me want to work with it, and I found myself clapping my hands through the whole number. "When The Deal Goes Down" allowed the band to catch their collective breath, and the audience response throughout the song showed many attendees were knowledgeable and appreciative of the song's lyrics.

Then came the evening's first "oh my God" moment with a sublime and heartfelt performance of "Blind Willie McTell," with Herron on banjo. After the show, I compared my memory of this performance to an earlier one from Melbourne last August, and -- again -- the difference I heard was the distinction between playing it (possibly even learning how to play it as a unit) and meaning it. Before the song was even over, I knew that this was the finest live musical performance I'd ever seen, of one of the most moving songs ever written. It was rewarded with one of the most enthusiastic ovations of the evening. And what better way to lift an audience from the depths of the heart than to follow through with something as wonderfully wise and whimsical as "Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again"? This selection clearly hit a few people in the front rows the way "Blind Willie McTell" hit me, because they stood and danced and waved their arms through the whole number -- and it only added to the show, not impeding anyone's view of the stage.

A righteously crunching "Workingman's Blues #2", followed by another great bluesman tribute "High Water (For Charlie Patton)", and a typically playful "Spirit On The Water" (a song in which I feel the musical spirit of Stéphane Grapelli looms large) followed, with Dylan using the lyric "You think I'm over the hill?" to milk loud audience denial. Then the pace of the show pressed the pedal to the metal with a thrilling "Highway 61 Revisited" that had a number of people thrusting their index fingers into the air and twirling them whenever Dylan got back to "Highway Sixty-One!"

Though a more deliberately paced number, "Ain't Talkin'" -- a song with an alternately poignant and lacerating lyric -- was developed by the band as an absorbing groove that was at once a Sisyphusian parallel to the lyric and also, as with all the best groove songs, seemed to cut deeper and sweeter with each repetition. I remember looking through the binoculars at Dylan during this performance, seeing one of the most famous profiles in contemporary history looming over his keyboard while half-singing/half-speaking the lines "All my loyal and much trusted companions / They approve of me and share my code / I practice a faith that's been long abandoned / Ain't no altars on this long and lonesome road." At that moment, I felt that I was looking at the Don Quixote of Rock & Roll, and then I got the even stronger feeling that he just might be the real Don Quixote, too -- or at least the living man Cervantes knew, the inspiration for his immortal creation -- determined to walk that road to the end of his days, telling the capital T truth to every cockeyed windmill town on the map. And when he sang the chorus "Ain't talkin', just walkin' / Eatin' hog eyed grease in a hog eyed town / Heart burnin', still yearnin' / Someday you'll be glad to have me around," I felt every heart in the theater pour open. I know mine did.

The Fifties-style sock-hopper "Summer Days" brought back the spirit of carefree fun before the lights intensified to a pregnant blue for a menacing yet magisterial performance of "Ballad Of A Thin Man," which ended the concert proper. A huge, stomping, howling ovation brought Dylan and his band back for "Thunder On The Mountain" and the evening's second "oh my God" performance, an unexpected band arrangement of "Blowin' In The Wind." No one in the audience seemed to know what was coming, as the band wended its way through the introductory passages, until Dylan leaned forward to sing the song's opening question -- and, at that moment, you could hear and feel the awe coming from the crowd, travelling from one person to the next in gooseflesh. Though Dylan has written countless songs, even countless masterpieces since this early anthem, it somehow remains the quintessence of his being in ways one can't fully appreciate until one sees it performed live by the author. This song carries so much baggage -- and the association of so many other voices from Peter, Paul and Mary to Pete Seeger to Dylan himself -- that it can be impossible to isolate and get at its core importance, but it stands there naked when Dylan is singing it to you, no matter what arrangement it's given.

It can't be topped. Show over. Onward, my Sancho Panzas, to the next town. Which happens to be Dayton, Ohio -- for Show #2000 on the Never Ending Tour.

It was either more than a concert, or my ideal of a concert, in that Dylan treated us to a evening full of energy and joy and sacred emotions, and one that left us standing in the presence of living history. We rose to the occasion, and so did he. The set was a song longer than the Columbus performance, but it was the power and sincerity of the performance -- not the number of songs -- that made the absence of Elvis Costello from the bill a complete and rather amazing irrelevance. Afterwards, I felt terribly guilty about some of the things I'd said in my previous blog, questioning whether Dylan might still have the ability or even the wish to channel greatness in concert. Why should this man have to channel what he already is? Whether he's performing at half power or full power, he's absolutely not to be missed.

Greencine Daily Profiles Me

Could I really be "King of the Nerds"?

The Uncle Forry to a new mutant strain of film fanatic?

D.K. Holm thinks so, and he explains why in an extensive, thoughtful and humbling profile of Yours Truly over at Greencine Daily.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

My First Dylan Show

As a little summer's end treat to ourselves, Donna and I drove up to Columbus, Ohio yesterday (October 13) to see Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and opening act Aaron Lee, at the Schottenstein Center's Value City Arena.

I love collecting live concert recordings, but I've never been much of a concert-goer. I've seen a number of acts who have mattered to me -- I had a seventh row seat to see Iggy Pop on his IDIOT tour with David Bowie on keyboards, I was once one of maybe 75 people who saw Pere Ubu one rainy night in the 1980s, I saw the original lineup of the Ramones three times -- but I've generally refused to travel very far to see any performer, and it hasn't helped my frequency of attendance that I don't drive, and my wife and I have conflicting musical tastes much of the time.

This year I've spent a lot of time undertaking a thorough self-education in Dylan -- I carry all of his albums, as well as some key bootlegs, on my Creative Zen (think iPod); I've read more than a dozen books about him this year, and seen most of his movies and the Scorsese documentary; and reading Paul Williams' trilogy of books about Dylan as a performance artist has turned me into a compulsive downloader/collector of his live shows from the past four decades. (My present goal is to collect at least one representative show from each live period... but I'm basically grabbing whatever I can find.) So I've been immersed in Dylan for awhile, as Donna well knows, and it seemed the culmination of all this process to actually attend one of his concerts, to see him in the now and hear what he happened to be playing now.

Value City Arena is a big basketball or hockey arena that is converted into a concert hall with temporary flooring and pre-arranged rows of folding (but surprisingly comfortable) chairs, whose only problem is not allowing for much in the way of shoulder room. The sound quality was a bit boomy, given the huge hollows of the arena, but was relatively clear and not overly loud. Amos Lee played for about 40 minutes with his band and was warmly received. He was not the sort of opening act you tune out. Their sound might be filed somewhere between classic period The Band and Dave Matthews, but that's just to give you a point of compass, not a remark on their originality. The songwriting was both heartfelt and capable, and the band itself seemed rehearsed while the music itself remained open to interpretation; they seemed quite flexible in performance, allowing themselves to seize upon moments of inspiration to veer from the charts into undiscovered country. I liked them -- not least of all because they were serious, eager to please, and comported themselves as though still uncorrupted by the record business.

After a ten-minute break, Elvis Costello took the stage, his microphone surrounded by a brace of four acoustic guitars and a table with bottled water and a cup of some other beverage. I was a big fan of Costello in his early years with The Attractions but drifted away after BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE for no particular reason, as I still regard it as one of his finest albums. But as Elvis took the stage, I felt an unexpected flush of happy emotions that he proceeded to earn with a consistently and impressively energetic and passionate performance of songs ranging from the very early ("Radio Sweetheart", "Allison") to more recent songs with a pronounced anti-war theme ("Whip It Up", "The Scarlet Tide"). These songs -- with a few humorous, personable, but pointedly political asides tucked betweeen them -- were torch-bearers for the troubadour spirit of the 1960s Bob Dylan and proved Elvis an inspired choice to share the bill with the original. If only he had launched into "Tokyo Storm Warning," I thought to myself, the Dylanesque resonance would have been complete. On second thought, nothing he was lacking. Elvis Costello was great and fully worth the price of admission.

Bob Dylan and his band took the stage after a somewhat longer break. Donna and I had scored fairly good seats for the show -- the first row of the second group of center seats on the floor -- but, from the moment Dylan took the stage, any benefits of our positioning were queered by everyone rising to their feet -- and they remained that way for 90% of the show. Not because the music was rousing and demanded a steady surge of enthusiasm, because these people in the priciest seats remained standing even during all but one of the ballads, though they could just as well have effectively gawked at the living legend from a sitting position. This caused some inconvenience to me, because I don't enjoy standing in a stationary position for an hour at a time, but even moreso for Donna, who's short and couldn't see much of the show even when standing. So, after driving all the way to Columbus, and paying over a couple of hundred dollars for the tickets and our overnight accomodations, she spent most of the show sitting and listening.

Dylan was wearing a very sharp, dark grey suit with sequins and a broad-brimmed gray hat with a blue feather in the band. He looked like Doctor Phibes, as he would've looked if he had turned up in a later sequel as a riverboat gambler with a Spanish alias. As is his habit these days, Dylan played the first three songs on guitar, then moved over to an electric keyboard for the rest of the show. I didn't mind him playing keyboard, but I minded that he moved away from the forefront of the band to sing and play in the manner of one of his own sidemen. He was seen, from that point on, mostly in profile and it seemed a deliberate cutting-back on the powerful opening impact that he had on the audience. For my money, the concert was at its most effective during the first four numbers -- "Rainy Day Women 12 & 35", "It Ain't Me Babe" (beautifully reinvented and given, in my opinion, the evening's one transcendent performance), "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" (one of the irregular numbers from the current tour) and, after the move to keyboards, "Love Sick" (the potent opener from TIME OUT OF MIND that was only recently added to the current tour's playlist).

The rest of the show alternated between flat-out roadhouse rock 'n' roll ("Rollin' and Tumblin'", "Summer Days", "Highway 61 Revisited"), sweet whimsy ("Spirit on the Water"), and dark ballads, including "The Ballad of a Thin Man," which I was especially happy to see performed. That classic song from the HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED album closed the main performance, and an extended stomping/clapping/cheering from the crowd lured Dylan and Company back out for a perfunctory encore of "Thunder on the Mountain" and "All Along the Watchtower." I've heard many different renditions of this song as it has been explored in Dylan's live repertoire, and this performance was not particularly inspired. The lead guitar was Hendrix-like to the point of being overtly imitative and the vocals were so phonetically rendered that Dylan might have been trying to teach the song to a kindergarten class rather than tell a powerful tale of revelation. Despite an extended milking of audience applause, the lights came up -- there was no second encore.

It was strange: the audience seemed to be giving Dylan everything that an audience can give an artist, at least in terms of standing at rapt attention and applauding and whooping like crazy. This was the first concert Donna and I had attended since roughly 1999, and we were surprised by some of the changes made in audience comportment over the years. First of all, no wafting aroma of cannabis. Secondly, we were amused (and a bit horrified) to discover that the cigarette lighters once used to coax encores out of artists have now given way to cell phone screens being held on high. (Talk about scenes that should have been in THE INVASION!) There were hundreds of them -- any one of which could transmit photos or a live recording to a receiving line -- yet people all around me were getting caught with cameras or recorders and being told to turn them off and put them away. Nobody cried "Judas!" either, but Dylan hadn't really done anything to earn such rude treatment -- unless you compare his show to the one he was doing the last time that word was hurled at him. He actually played a very good and entertaining, if a bit by-the-numbers, show, and his band (most of them dressed to the nines as well) was hot, but I believe they left the auditorium a song or two short of satisfied. It was, however, needless to say, a thrill simply to be sharing the same very large space with him, to cheer him, to sing along with him, and to know that he was playing for the two of us and everyone else assembled there.

So there you have it, my first Dylan show. It was neither one of his legendary uninspired shows nor was it one of his legendary great ones, but parts of it could serve as an illustration of both extremes -- so, all in all, a good place to start. I had the sense that he was definitely enjoying it for awhile and giving the audience close to everything he had; his fire is not yet extinguished by any means. But I did sense from the second half of the show that he was deliberately sparing himself from investing his performances with too much pain and acuity or anger -- the very forces that Elvis Costello is still drawing upon to fuel his performances. But they were there in his reading of "Love Sick," which would be a damned hard song for even him to fake.

Reading Paul Williams on the subject has taught me that the show you see is not necessarily the one you hear -- so I'm eager to find a recording of the show and re-experience it more specifically through my ears, away from the smell of the hoagy being eaten by the stranger sitting next to me, removed from all the people standing or milling back and forth in front of us, apart from the raised cell phones -- just the pure, undistracted sound of the music and the receptivity of one for whom it was intended.

Am I coming to Bob Dylan's concerts too late in the game to see a sustained show of greatness? I don't think so, and I hope not. I've got tickets for Monday night's show in Cincinnati -- which I understand to be Show #1999 of the Never-Ending Tour.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Close-Up Blog-a-Thon #5

The immediately in-your-face eponymous terror of Tex Avery's MGM cartoon "Screwball Squirrel" (1944).

Close-Up Blog-a-Thon #4

Charles Bronson stares one of the cinema's most affecting arias in Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1969), photographed by Tonino Delli Colli.

Close-Up Blog-a-Thon #3

Princess Asa unmasked in Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY (La maschera del demonio, 1960), photographed by Bava and Ubaldo Terzano.

Close-Up Blog-a-Thon #2

Claude Jade tells her husband that she knows in François Truffaut's BED & BOARD (Domicile conjugale, 1970), photographed by Nestor Almendros.

Friday, October 12, 2007

For the Close-up Blog-a-Thon


Two from Brian De Palma's PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974), photographed by Larry Pizer.
I've already got some great examples of "The Art of the Close-Up" on this page (scroll down if you don't believe me), but here's my conscious contribution to Matt Zoller Seitz's Close-Up Blog-a-Thon (see The House Next Door for more details and links). More to come...

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Get To Know Your Rabbit

Last night, finding myself with a little in-between time, I decided to give Universal's recent WOODY WOODPECKER AND FRIENDS CLASSIC CARTOON COLLECTION a whirl. What most attracted me on Disc 1 were the five vintage B&W cartoons featuring "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit," an invention of Walt Disney that he lost in the late 1920s when his distributor, Universal, decided to cut out the middle man and hire its own animation department. Disney took the basic template of Oswald, it appears to me, and used it to create the overnight sensation that was the star of 1928's talkie toon "Steamboat Willie" -- and the rest was history, a history that has largely forgotten Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
Speaking for myself, I believe I had seen only one Oswald cartoon before last night -- 1932's "Mechanical Man" -- and it's not included here, so I tucked into the set expecting to be educated rather than entertained. Boy, was I wrong. I sat down expecting to watch only the first of these Walter Lantz-directed cartoons but Oswald held my interest firmly through all five of his animated adventures. The first, "Hell's Heels" (1930), is comparatively crude with a surreal (indeed barely perceptible) storyline and lots of image cycling, but it has charm and points of surprise -- it's like a trip to Wackyland before Porky Pig ever got there.
Its even more macabre follow-up, "Spooks" (also from 1930), is remarkable for including an homage to Lon Chaney's five-year-old PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, which had been reissued a year before in a semi-sound version. (Chaney was still alive at the time of the cartoon's release; he succumbed to throat cancer a month after its premiere.) A character singing "How Dry I Am" taught me that the final line of that song is not the way it's usually heard when sung by drunks in the media -- the cartoon media, anyway; not "Nobody knows / How dry I am" but rather "Nobody seems / To give a damn." Today our American landscape is a veritable Beirut of F-bombs, but I can remember a time when even the word "Hell" was regarded as a word not to be spoken aloud outside the Sunday pulpit, so the very title of this cartoon is moderately risqué, but still more stupefying is a gag in which a black cat stiffens its tail erect and farts in the face of a skeleton.

Fred (later Tex) Avery was involved in animating a couple of these Oswald shorts, so we shouldn't be taken too offguard by things like this, but I was tickled when the third example "Grandma's Pet" (1932) incorporated not only Avery's trademark twists on beloved fairy tales -- in this case, "Little Red Riding Hood" -- but a hyperbolically surreal climax in which the Wolf (a perennial Avery character, of course) gains possession of a magic wand and uses it to transform Oswald's environment into a series of hilarious death traps. As if to further cement the cartoon's ties with Avery's later MGM masterpiece "Magical Maestro" (1952), Oswald gains control of the wand and turns the tables on his tormenter.

The last two Oswald cartoons, "Confidence" and "The Merry Old Soul"(both 1933), both find the Lucky Rabbit rallying to cheer audiences in the grip of the Great Depression. "Confidence" is the most amazing cartoon in this batch, opening with a dark spectral Depression arising from the steaming foment of a public dump and spreading its infectious gloom as it floats above a Fleischer-like, three-dimensional, turning globe. Oswald awakens one day to find his formerly happy farm animals "down in the dumps" and speeds off to fetch the doctor, who points to a posted image of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and says firmly, "HE'S the Doctor!" Oswald flies to Washington DC by ingenious means (I won't spoil it for you), where he cartwheels into the Oval Office (how else?) and is greeted by FDR, who stands tall (!) and comes out from behind his desk to swing his fists with gusto while delivering the pep talk of all pep talks. Duly energized, Oswald cartwheels back out and flies back home by even more ingenious means (that would be telling) to spread the miracle cure of "confidence," which he administers by syringe.



"Confidence" is a masterpiece, if a delusory one; one of those fascinating amalgams of animation and patriotism like Chuck Jones' Porky-Pig-meets-Uncle-Sam opus "Old Glory" (1939), but even more interesting because Oswald embodies such trusting, homegrown, corn-fed American optimism while confronting what we now know to be a false, propogandic image of a US President who had, in fact, been bound to a wheelchair since 1921 with paralysis from the waist down.

"The Merry Old Soul" tells the same story in essence, though in a more disguised manner, as Oswald is alarmed by a radio report that "Old King Cole's got the blues!" He scurries off to round up the country's greatest comedic masters -- including Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers (big-footed Greta Garbo sits this one out) -- and arrives with them at the castle, where Hollywood's assembled royalty seek to cheer the wan-faced King by any means possible, much to the conniving jealousy of his unfunny jester. When Oswald accidentally discovers that the secret to making the King laugh involves pie-throwing, the cartoon offers a valid historic explanation for the popularity of slapstick comedies in the 1930s and, in its hard-won wisdom about the need for comedy, anticipates to some extent the finale of Preston Sturges' SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS -- in which the laughs were generated, let us not forget, by none other than Walt Disney.

Speaking of Disney, one can't help but notice that there are a lot of little Mickey Mice running around and bouncing off of drumheads in these Universal cartoons. I don't know if Disney just wasn't big enough to be more litigious in those days, or if there existed in those times a greater brotherhood among different studios that made allowances for friendly jabs such as these. Disney's company reportedly recouped the rights to the Oswald character last year, but that doesn't explain how Universal is able to include a trademarked character here that people are now expressly verboten not to paint on their children's bedroom walls. Perhaps they're trading on Oswald's titular (but not always evident) luck?

I don't have the answer to this burning question, but one thing I do know: I want more Oswald cartoons! The list of "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" cartoons on the IMDb amounts to 152 titles, but it doesn't include most of the titles included in this first set, so there must be even more where these came from. Happily, Walt Disney Home Video plans to release their own two-disc "Walt Disney Treasures" set of Oswalds on December 11, and I'm eager to be further educated and entertained by what it has to offer.

Monday, October 08, 2007

PERSONA: Roots of Captain Howdy

Bibi Andersson and Liv Ulmann in PERSONA.


I recently made a retroactive purchase of MGM's INGMAR BERGMAN SPECIAL EDITION DVD COLLECTION box set. Last night, I decided to begin my viewing at its beginning, with PERSONA (1966), the earliest movie in the set. I had seen it once before but, for some reason, remembered only its most soft-edged imagery; I had completely forgotten what a wrenching acid trip of a movie it really is, but I'm unlikely to forget this now. One of the reasons I resolved to write about the movie today is to better remember its traumatic impact, but there is also a more pressing reason for why I'm writing about the movie here.

PERSONA opens with a remarkable sequence deconstructing its own conveyance of images, beginning with the ignition of the carbon arc rods inside a 35mm projector and the rattle of perforated celluloid travelling through its gate. We are shown some subliminal images right away (including, shockingly for a 1966 film, an erect penis) and also during the subsequent main titles (including barely registering glimpses of a Keystone Kops comedy, or perhaps its Swedish equivalent). For some reason, during this procession of images meant to do nothing more than tap on my consciousness, I had the feeling of being in the presence of the same demonic energy I felt the first time I saw William Friedkin's THE EXORCIST -- probably because it, too, made potent use of subliminal imagery, as Mark Kermode and I first explored way back in VIDEO WATCHDOG #6, one of our earliest issues and still one of our best.

And then, about 46 minutes into this very involving but abstract "poem" about the mysterious bonding between a psychologically withdrawn actress (Liv Ullmann) and her attending nurse (Bibi Andersson), I was witness to something amazing. As some of you may recall, there is a pensive close shot of Andersson...

She is standing behind a sheer drape when, suddenly, the celluloid conveying Bergman's poem begins to disintegrate, along with the mind of the character. First, there is a scratch...

It follows the fluid form of the drape, but quickly is reassigned to other areas of the frame. Then portions of the frame disappear entirely...

And then even the anchored left side of the frame becomes unmoored and floats freely, the print seemingly destroyed and past the point of rethreading...


We fear the image has entirely disappeared, but it comes back just long enough to convey a penetrating glance from Andersson's eye that seems to burn from a place outside her performance.

The intensity of her gaze, her madness, seems to burn a hole into the celluloid, which grows like a cancer...


... until the nothingness of the burn engulfs the entire screen, turning it white.

The white lingers on the screen for several seconds. It is then followed by another sudden procession of intensive subliminal images, the first of which is this one:

It is there for no more than one or two frames, but I have a very good eye for subliminals. Many people would not have detected it, but I knew what I had seen. I had to stop the film at once and step back until I found the Devil in the details. My strange feeling, throughout PERSONA, from its opening subliminals and shock images of a hand being hammered to a crucifix, that I was somehow in the presence of THE EXORCIST was vividly explained.


For years, William Friedkin actively denied any knowledge of this subliminal image of Eileen Dietz as "Captain Howdy" in THE EXORCIST, but once the film came to home video and could be manipulated by those in the know, it became undeniable. (I should point out for the sake of interested historians that, even though Linda Blair's Regan refers to her inner voice/imaginary friend as "Captain Howdy" in an early scene of the movie, the epithet is never heard again in the movie and never mentioned in relation to her demonic possession. It was actually me who first identified this face as "Captain Howdy" in VW #6, and I note with some pride that the ID has caught on.) This is not the exact frame of the face as it flashes onscreen in THE EXORCIST, which you can see on the cover of the first edition of Mark Kermode's BFI Modern Classics book on the picture; the face in the movie bears much the same pallid, ogreish look as Bergman's Devil.

The brief appearance in PERSONA by a pasty-faced Devil is not the only instance I found of the Bergman film's influence on THE EXORCIST. Accompanying the flashing image of this Devil is a turmoil of sound effects, most particularly a chaos of tormented voices being played on tape in reverse. It sounds not unlike (in fact, quite like) the tape of Regan's nonsensical speech which is discovered to say "I am No-one!" when played in reverse.

Furthermore, as the culmination of an extended dialogue scene shown respectively as it plays on the face of the listener and then again as was communicated by the speaker, Bergman and his cameraman Sven Nykvist merge a disconcerting close-up of Bibi Andersson's face with an identically measured close-up of Liv Ulmann, combining their faces into one to accentuate their surprising likeness to one another -- indeed, their mutual "possession" of one another.

Here I gasped because, in this image, I recognized the seed of another dual image:

To the best of my knowledge, this relationship between PERSONA and THE EXORCIST has not been previously explored or detected. It certainly isn't noted by Bergman biographer Marc Gervais in his audio commentary for PERSONA. I would find it hard to accept that these shared images could have happened unconsciously on Friedkin's part; they are too studied. To me, this discovery does nothing to detract from Friedkin's brilliance as the mastermind behind the film of THE EXORCIST; any director could have taken William Peter Blatty's script and made a more straightforward film of it, but Friedkin had the sensitivity and the panache to recognize that PERSONA, too, in its own way, was a story of demonic possession. I not only accuse him of using this imagery knowingly, I also congratulate him for intuiting that PERSONA's extreme, nerve-flaying visual vocabulary was precisely what THE EXORCIST needed to rattle audiences -- a primary and wondrous instance of the commercial American cinema being secretly pollenated by the international art cinema.
BRAD STEVENS (VW contributor, author of MONTE HELLMAN HIS LIFE AND FILMS) writes on 10/9/07: "Enjoyed your blog comments on PERSONA. One thing you didn't make clear (or perhaps didn't realize) is that the devil who turns up in the subliminal image had already appeared in the film during the Keystone Kops-style sequence at the beginning. This sequence is actually Bergman's recreation of a (now-lost) silent film he recalls owning as a child: this recreation had already appeared, at much greater length, in Bergman's 1949 film PRISON."

Thursday, October 04, 2007

THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING reviewed

THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING (with CHOSEN SURVIVORS)
1964, 20th Century Fox, DD-2.0/MA/16:9/LB/ST/CC/+, $14.98, 62m 15s, DVD-1

Less eventful but generally preferable to its "Midnite Movies" companion feature CHOSEN SURVIVORS (reviewed 10/1) is Terence Fisher's barely feature-length THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING, made in B&W for producer Robert Lippert during Fisher's post-PHANTOM OF THE OPERA fall from favor at Hammer Films. Like CHOSEN SURVIVORS, it's a science fiction story of people thrust into a bizarre environmental situation they don't understand and must somehow overcome, but there is more than this thematic connection between the two films. In 1961, CHOSEN SURVIVORS screenwriter H.B. Cross wrote the title song for THE TEENAGE MILLIONAIRE, which was scripted by Harry Spaulding -- who later wrote (that's right) THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING.

In a set-up owed to VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED and DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS in equal parts, Spaulding's story takes place in a Northern English village where four independent couples come together to investigate (or take advantage of) why all the locals suddenly fell down dead or unconscious, and to determine why they themselves were unaffected by the phenomenon. Their sighting of stiff-legged, robotic soldiers patrolling in the area, with the capability of reanimating the dead, is all that de facto leader/pilot Willard Parker (TALES OFTHE TEXAS RANGERS) needs to suss out all the necessary answers on the first try, and Earth's invasion by aliens is put to rest rather easily, all told, between smokes and drinks in an up-for-grabs hotel and bar, all on an impressively small scale. (Though the three couples make camp in an abandoned hotel with presumably many empty rooms, everyone bunks in the downstairs lobby, for no apparent better reason than to consolidate action.) Parker's real life wife Virginia Field is the female lead.

Irresistably watchable actors like Dennis Price and Thorley Walters, Fisher's skilled direction, and especially a nearly non-stop, nerve-teasing score by Elizabeth Lutyens will be enough to keep most devotées of British fantasy watching, but this is truly an example of making a consummate craftsman making something passably good out of next to nothing. Shot in a 1.66:1 ratio, THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING's anamorphic presentation is handsome enough but looks moderately tight of frame, especially its Fox logo, though all the main titles and copyrights fit onscreen. Unlike CHOSEN SURVIVORS, the Fisher film contains an alternate Spanish audio track as well as the same subtitle options as the companion feature (English, French, Spanish). Also included is an amusingly hyperbolic trailer that exclaims the title at least a couple dozen times (2m 12s) and a photo gallery accompanied by a nicely isolated Lutyens music track that consists of an unbelievable 93 stills. A few behind-the-scenes shots excepted, that works out to 1½ shots for every minute of the picture -- virtually a flicker book!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Women of Buñuel

After a good deal of careful deliberation, in honor of Flickhead's Luís Buñuel Blog-a-thon (September 24-30), I have decided to make my own timely contribution to these laudations with a detailed discussion of Buñuel's actresses. It is obvious in his work from the very earliest examples, such as LAND WITHOUT BREAD, that Buñuel -- if nothing else -- certainly had an eye for glamourous women.

Buñuel was incorrigeable. Even in his most reverent religious works, L'AGE D'OR and MEXICAN BUS RIDE among them, matters of eroticism cannot help but intrude upon the Sacred. It occurred to me to address this particular level of Buñuel's works after a recent viewing of THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE. Rather like my own idea of Heaven, the Academy Award-winning film puts one in the company of Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier, and Stéphane Audran while a creature no less divine than Milena Vukotic waits on the tables. Enjoying once again the convivial interplay of these women onscreen, I was struck by that uncommon quality which they all shared in common, namely... alas, I have lost my train of thought.

Photos of Buñuel in later life, of course, are impossibly rare but I was able to find this one by Googling his name.

I am reminded of a dream I had recently. I was sitting on the swing in my backyard, enjoying the warmth of the day while enjoying a cool drink and reading a newspaper. I do not usually read the newspaper, but I was drinking the sort of thing I would usually drink until I suddenly became aware that the ice cubes in the glass had become loose, swirling bits of fruit: it had become a sangria. At the same moment I noticed this, I tried to resume my reading but my concentration was thwarted by the sound of castanets. I looked around for signs of Carmen Miranda, who had perhaps lost her hat in my drink, but she was nowhere to be found. My investigation led me to my garage, which was built only two years ago and still looks brand new. Expecting to see nothing inside but our car and the usual bales of hay, I was startled to find a man I had never seen before. He was watching two young boys who were taking turns riding a piebald horse in circles around the inside of my garage. The horse's clacking hooves were the castenet-like sound I had heard.

"What are you doing in my garage?" I demanded.

The man took an exception to my volume and turned toward me. His manner was cordial but firm. "You are not to shout at those boys like that," he told me.

"Look," I said, maintaining my rights, "I don't want my garage to be used for walking horses."

There was more to it, but this is going nowhere; and, as they say, there is a time and a place for such stories. Suffice to say that Luís Buñuel was splendid. Besides his many noteworthy professional accomplishments, he is said to have read DON QUIXOTE many times and would hold accidental acquaintences spellbound for hours at a time by recounting the details of his favorite chapters and improvising new ones that typically involved needlepoint, matadors, priests, footwear, terrorism, and even toilets.

In closing, I was able to locate (also by Googling) this obscure retitling of Buñuel's VIRIDIANA. I have read a great deal about the Argentina-born director over the years, and I have also seen the documentary THE LIFE AND TIMES OF DOM DE LUISE BUNUEL, but never before have I discovered any reference to him casting Catherine Deneuve and Claudette Colbert in the same film in the same role. Still, I wouldn't put such a thing past him.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Remembering Charles B. Griffith


Audrey II opens wide for her creator, Charles B. Griffith, in the original THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, colorized version.


"Life is an obscure hobo, bumming a ride on the omnibus of art."
-- Charles B. Griffith, A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959)

Roger Corman has always said, though in not these exact words, that the recipe for a Roger Corman film was a good, fast-moving story, rich in exploitation potential, with an added element of social commentary or satire. Even if audiences didn't consciously pick up on that last part, it was there and got under their skin. You don't find much of this secret ingredient in Corman's earliest works, like HIGHWAY DRAGNET (which he wrote) or SWAMP WOMEN, but from the time screenwriter Charles B. Griffith joined his posse on GUNSLINGER (1956), it was suddenly there in full force. GUNSLINGER starred Beverly Garland as a woman whose lawmaker husband is killed, motivating her to pick up his badge as the marshal of a small western town. Post-JOHNNY GUITAR (1954), of course, but still early enough to qualify as the frontline of feminist cinema.

Woe is us, as Howard Beale might say, because Chuck Griffith died of undisclosed causes on September 28th at the age of 77 -- and we are in a lot of trouble. With the possible exception of Charlie Kaufman, I don't see any other Chuck Griffiths climbing up the ranks of today's screenwriters and the movies need such voices -- irreverent, acerbic, edgy, well-read, flippant, disdainful of the hoi polloi yet also generous, transcendent. Griffith was an unpolished gem of a screenwriter, a beatnik/stoner/outsider who smuggled those crazed and (then) highly individual sensibilities into the mainstream via Corman's commercial cinema. He was the sort of writer who could answer cinema's cry of "Feed me!" by dashing off a non-conformist vampire script like NOT OF THIS EARTH and make room in it for Dick Miller to shine as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, or to introduce a character like Jack Nicholson's masochistic dental patient into the midst of the two-day mayhem of THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS; who could write a whole movie like ROCK ALL NIGHT that more or less took place in a single room; who had the audacity to write the dialogue for THE UNDEAD and ATLAS and A BUCKET OF BLOOD that ran the gamut from mock-Shakespearean to quasi-Homeric to Beat poetic. Chuck Griffith, man! Who else would have dared? Sometimes his quirky cantos got rewritten, but it was impossible to subvert their essentially subversive character. His zany script for Corman's Puerto Rican lark CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA is the reason why it's the closest thing to a Thomas Pynchon novel ever to appear on the screen... and Griffith pulled it off years before the first edition of V. hit bookstore shelves.

Griffith's credited screen work disappears between 1961 and 1966, a period of European self-exile after which he scripted Corman's still-shocking and iconographic THE WILD ANGELS. Yes, he was responsible for Peter Fonda's unforgettable tirade: "We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do! We wanna be free to ride! We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! And we wanna get loaded! And we wanna have a good time. And that's what we are gonna do. We are gonna have a good time... We are gonna have a party!"

One of Chuck's known activities during this blank period is tagging along with his pal Mel Welles to work as a script polisher on the Italian cheapie now known as THE SHE BEAST -- the directorial debut of Michael Reeves (WITCHFINDER GENERAL). It was apparently Griffith's idea to turn the horror film into a tongue-in-cheek essay on how the mythologies associated with Transylvania were corroding under 20th century communism. Chuck Griffith, man! Who else would have effing dared?? Mel Welles told me that it was his idea for the moment when the resurrected witch Vardella kills someone with a scythe, then throws it across a mallet to form the hammer-and-sickle symbol of Soviet power -- but I've always felt that Griffith must have had a hand in it. It was precisely his brand of crazy, a Third Man in a triumvirate with PAIN Magazine and the statue called "The Third Time Phyllis Saw Me, She Exploded."

When Roger Corman had the idea to make a film about LSD, Griffith was still his go-to guy for cutting edge counterculture and he asked him to write the script. The result was deemed "unfilmable" by Corman, because it was too long, too costly, too outré, whatever -- so the job of writing the film ultimately fell to Jack Nicholson. When Charlie Largent and I were writing THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES, our comic screenplay about the making of THE TRIP, the character of "Chuck" sprang to immediate life and got a lot of the script's best dialogue. Joe Dante (who has optioned the script) later told me that, when Quentin Tarantino read it, his first response was to say that he wanted to play Chuck. Well, you know and I know that Quentin says a lot of things, but I think his reaction shows what a standout character Chuck became in our scenario. I don't know how the casting cards will eventually play out, but Quentin went on to dedicate "DEATH PROOF" to Charles B. Griffith, and I'd be happy if our script played even a small part in putting that particular bee in his bonnet.

Consequently, I am feeling at the moment not only as though a hero has died, but that one of my characters has died -- one that Charlie and I loved so much, we worked extra hard to assign him a happy ending. I never got to meet the real Chuck Griffith. Joe tells me that Chuck never got to read the KALEIDOSCOPE script, which is a shame, but then again, he might have felt funny about it. I feel confident that the movie will be made someday and shine a spotlight once again on Griffith's particular maverick shade of genius.

Griffith also directed a half-dozen films over the years, the most commercial being EAT MY DUST! (1976) and the most interesting being DR. HECKYL and MR. HYPE (1980) with Oliver Reed, a contemporarily comic twist on the R. L. Stevenson story about man's dual nature -- but directing was not his strong suit. He was a writer through and through.

A lot of people get away with saying they did it their way, when they actually spent years if not decades paying their dues and kow-towing to lesser mortals, but as far as I know, Charles B. Griffith really did do it his way -- living in Hollywood (later, San Diego) but apart from Hollywood, living incognito on giant silver screens, directing enough movies to know it wasn't what he was best at, writing a number of genuine countercultural classics -- and he'll always be immortal to those who care as one of the primary colors, arguably the primary color, in Roger Corman's palette.

From his point of view, Chuck undoubtedly saw things differently and harbored some bitterness, as I know Mel Welles also did -- but I'm betting that, deep down, he knew moments of deep satisfaction in the crafting of his work, enough to matter, and that he understood he was living the life given him to live. Not as the celebrated Walter Paisley, sitting on his throne with a toilet plunger scepter, as he once parodied every artist's dreamed-of moment of success, but happier still as "an obscure hobo, bumming a ride on the omnibus of art."