Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Twists of Fete


Donna and I pose with the kid at the 2007 Ohioana reception at the Cincinnati Public Library, November 11. Photo by Scott Belmer.

It's a busy time with not much time available for blogging. The promotional demands attending the release of the Bava book continue, and now we're busily preparing two issues of VW back-to-back, with another looming just after Thanksgiving.

Last Sunday, Donna and I attended the Ohioana reception at the downtown Cincinnati Public Library, where a few dozen local writers with books out this year (including me) were fêted in a slide show presentation, summoned before the audience, and presented with certificates of achievement. I was a bit nervous until the program was well underway because I assumed that we writers would be called upon to speak (as we were when I attended one of these after the publication of THROAT SPROCKETS back in 1994); I hadn't had time to prepare any notes, but fortunately no public speaking was required. Lilias Folan, the pioneering yoga broadcaster, was there looking my age (she was a grown-up on television when I was still a tyke), but I missed my chance to meet her. The great pleasure of the morning was meeting fellow writer Scott "Belmo" Belmer, who's based in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. Belmo and his wife Terri were there in recognition of books he had published this year about, respectively, Buddhist monks in exile and Beatles tribute/parody albums. We traded contact information and seemed to have things in common. After Ohioana, we came back home to do our first webcam interview, about which I'll say more once it's available for viewing online.

This coming Friday morning, we'll be doing our second webcam interview, which is tremendously exciting. For this one, Donna and I will be interviewed about the Bava book on a large projection screen in an auditorium at the Trieste Science Fiction Film Festival, and I understand that Lamberto Bava, critics Lorenzo Codelli and Alan Jones, and possibly Joe Dante will be present to speak to us and add to the discussion. I've known Lamberto and Lorenzo for more than 30 years, entirely by correspondence and telephone -- we've never met -- and it makes me tremble a bit to knowing that I'll soon be speaking to them face-to-face. Fortunately I know Joe and Alan pretty well, so having them there should help to keep me emotionally anchored for the hour.

I just finished writing my "Barks" editorial for VW 135, so -- except for my final read-through -- my work on it is done. Then it's on to 136, which I'm hopeful of at least editing by Friday. Thursday, actually. Is it possible? We'll see.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Why Cinema Is Sublime #1

From the main titles of FRANKENSTEIN'S CASTLE OF FREAKS (1974).

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Guess Who's Day It Is?

That's right: The cutiful and charmbling publisher of VIDEO WATCHDOG, gifted designer of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, that friendly voice on the telephone, sworn enemy of all Big Business weasels, the hardest working woman in film fandom, computer genius, quilter extraordinaire, Monkees connoisseur, Oz collector, Hoops and Yoyo fan, Titanic devotée, den mother of the Old Dark Clubhouse at Wonderfest, mother to three cats, enabler of all my dreams, dedicatee of my two novels and THE VIDEO WATCHDOG BOOK, the best friend anyone could ever have (many will support me in this) and my beloved wif (no, I didn't forget the "e") -- Donna Marie Goldschmidt Lucas -- was born on this day [cough, cough] years ago!

As Bobby wrote and Ricky sang, "Bow down to her on Sunday, salute her when her birthday comes..."

And that seems just about the right thing to do.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Tomorrow TCM Becomes Channel D

David McCallum and Robert Vaughn as Illya Kuryakin and Napoleon Solo, the Men from U.N.C.L.E.


At the risk of making you think this is TCM Week here at Video WatchBlog, I feel it's my responsibility to report that Turner Classic Movies is devoting tomorrow morning and afternoon to a complete retrospective of MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. movies. Yes, it's true that the entire series is coming out later this month on DVD, but there are reasons why you should watch/record at least some of these, because the "whole enchilada" box set isn't quite as whole as you might think.

Here's a breakdown of the features TCM is showing, complete with eastern time zone showtimes, with some helpful annotations. I've asterisked (*) the ones of particular import.

* 6:00 TO TRAP A SPY - This is a color feature-length expansion of the series' first episode, "The Vulcan Affair," which was telecast in black-and-white. And the episode included in the series box set will likewise be cut down from this longer version and in black-and-white. Featuring William Marshall, Pat Crowley, and Fritz Weaver. Directed by Don Medford, who helmed "The Judgment," the history-making final two-parter of THE FUGITIVE.

7:45 ONE OF OUR SPIES IS MISSING - Adapted from the Season Two two-parter, "The Bridge of Lions Affair," guest-starring Vera Miles and Maurice Evans. Directed by E. Darrell Hallenbeck, a veteran of TV's THE TWILIGHT ZONE.

* 9:30 ONE SPY TOO MANY - Don't miss this feature-length edit of Season Two's two-part opener "The Alexander the Great Affair," featuring Rip Torn. Many fans regard this "affair" as the series' highpoint; it's certainly one of them, and Gerald Fried's score is the most infectiously rocking the program ever had. Directed by Joseph (COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT) Sargent.

* 11:15 THE SPY WITH MY FACE - Color expansion of Season 1, Episode 8: "The Double Affair," featuring Senta Berger, another episode telecast only in black-and-white. Directed by John (ONE STEP BEYOND) Newland.

12:45 THE KARATE KILLERS - Composite of the Season Three two-parter "The Five Daughters Affair," which sports one of the finest casts the show ever assembled: Joan Crawford, Telly Salavas, Herbert Lom, Curd Jurgens, Terry-Thomas, Kim Darby and Diane McBain. Directed by Barry (WILD IN THE STREETS) Shear.

2:30 THE SPY IN THE GREEN HAT - Feature-length composite of the Season Three two-parter "The Concrete Overcoat Affair," starring Janet Leigh and THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH star Leticia Roman. Also directed by Joseph Sargent.

4:15 The HELICOPTER SPIES - Consolidation of Season Four's "The Prince of Darkness Affair" two-parter, featuring Carol Lynley, Bradford Dillmann, and Lola Albright. Directed by Boris (THE OMEGA MAN) Sagal.

6:00 HOW TO STEAL THE WORLD - Feature version of the two-parter that closed the series, "The Seven Wonders of the World Affair," guest-starring Barry Sullivan, Leslie Nielsen, and Eleanor Parker. Directed by Sutton (CHOSEN SURVIVORS) Roley.

HD Notes on FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN

Terence Fisher's FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967) had its HD premiere last night on Monsters HD. I've seen the movie countless times over the years, as I have all of the Hammer Frankenstein films starring Peter Cushing. I've always liked it, but have always harbored an odd ambivalence about the place it occupies in the series; sometimes it's up, sometimes it's down in my estimation. I tend to agree with David Pirie's assessment (in A HERITAGE OF HORROR) that it's the most poetical and successfully metaphysical of the series, and it contains arguably the most understated finale anyone will ever find in the genre, but there is a lingering feeling that it is ill-served by some rough edges and narrative obliqueness.
Seeing the film in HD certainly raised it in my estimation, as also happened when I saw Hammer's EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964) in high definition a couple of years ago on Universal HD. Seen in HD, FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN becomes a far slyer, more tactile film and not without purpose. For example, all of the wine poured in the movie (apart from the Baron's celebratory champagne) is a very thin, transparent red -- unconvincing, like cherry Kool-Aid. I made a note to myself every time it appeared onscreen: "Looks fake, I shouldn't be noticing that." However, when Karl (KISS OF THE VAMPIRE's Barry Norman) -- the second of the young pre-A CLOCKWORK ORANGE thugs -- is sitting in the tavern, rattled by the murder of his friend, he hears the ghostly voice of Hans (Robert Morris, for whose guillotine death he was partly responsible) and nervously knocks over a glass of the same pale red wine positioned in front of him... and there's a change of camera angle as the wine flows out of the glass over the white tablecloth and looks unmistakably as thick and red as blood, the Kool-Aid having been replaced with what looks like real wine, perhaps mixed with a bit of Kensington Gore! I don't think it was Fisher's intention that I be distracted by the unconvincing wine earlier in the film, but by making those earlier glasses and decanters of wine look so watery, this shock cut more pointedly communicates the idea that blood will soon be spilled. And consequently, we no longer have to see that blood spilled when it is. The image has been planted; we can supply the rest.
The killing of Karl -- which shows Christina (Susan Denberg) emerging from the backroom of the tavern with a cleaver, Karl falling to the floor, and the downswing of the cleaver cutting to Christina chopping wood -- has always looked in deteriorated quality compared to the surrounding footage, and it's like that in the HD presentation as well. What I don't know is whether the original negative of this footage was somehow lost and so had to be recreated from a coarser element, or if the change in quality was done for more, shall we say, Brechtian purposes -- to add to our sense of disturbance about the scene by altering the look of the image in unexpected fashion.
There are also scenes early on, when Hans first visits Christina's bedroom, for example, where the pinecone-shaped spears of her bedposts occupy a compositional focus. Hans actually caresses one of these and scratches at it absent-mindedly while talking to the girl he loves, subtly drawing our attention to it. The camera dwells on these ornamental spears again when Anton, the leader of the thugs, is led there by the remade/remodeled Christina. And it wasn't until seeing this HD version that I ever noticed this thread, or that one of the movie's key shocks -- the revelation that Christina has stolen Hans' severed head from its burial place and mounted it on a similar spear-like protrusion atop a decorative mirror, in order to converse with it -- was, in effect, its pay-off.
It's this sort of delicate mastery, this ability to lead the eye by the nose (so to speak) that is the essence of Terence Fisher's genius; this, and also his profound interest in people. Seeing the film again, I was struck with admiration for the way the film delved into the lives of its characters, not only into their superficial relationships but also into their social classes, their aspirations, the causes for their inclinations toward good and evil, and also their psychological motivations. And, also for the first time, I understood the essence of that dumbfoundingly abrupt ending, which is dumbfounding precisely because it is true to the essence of the main surviving character: Baron Frankenstein himself (Peter Cushing). What engages us about this film and its story is precisely its human element, and it is this element for which Frankenstein has neither time nor appreciation.
When Christina requests a mirror following her miraculous restorative surgery, the Baron refuses it, having no concept of the young woman's starvation for any kind of vanity; he tells her that she doesn't need the mirror because she has his word that the scar tissue has healed perfectly and goes back to the work that separates him from all human contact and understanding. It is left to his "muddle-head" assistant Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters) to bring her the mirror, to dote on her, to kiss her like a grandfather -- to do all the things essential to a child's well-being that Frankenstein himself has been blinded to by his work. He's a great man, as Dr. Hertz takes care to tell her, but, as he fails to say, he's also a miserable human being.
When the film ends with his work once again in failure, it fails this time because there is something in the shattered, duplex, human element of Christina (who contains her own soul as well as that of her dead lover) that cannot permit it to succeed. The finale has no resonance because Frankenstein cannot understand what has happened and is unwilling/unable to bend to that human understanding; all he can do is shrug his shoulders and return to his drawing board. This is the first premonition the series gives us of the character's final downfall in FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1974). His projects are doomed to failure because he is, himself, only the shell of a man without the soul.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Monday is WHISTLER Day on TCM

Attention, Turner Classic Movies subscribers! Tomorrow -- Monday, November 5 -- TCM will be running five movies in Columbia's classic B-movie mystery series "The Whistler" between 6:00am and 1:30pm eastern time. If you've never seen them, you don't want to miss them; if you have seen them, you'll want to get your video recorders up and running, because there's no indication yet that these gripping noir confections are destined for an official release.

The films in question are THE WHISTLER (1944, directed by William Castle) at 6:00am; THE POWER OF THE WHISTLER (1945, directed by Lew Landers and based on Cornell Woolrich's novel THE BLACK CURTAIN) at 7:15am; THE VOICE OF THE WHISTLER (1945, directed by Castle) at 8:30am; THE MYSTERIOUS INTRUDER (1946, also directed by Castle) at 9:45am; THE SECRET OF THE WHISTLER (1946, directed by George THE RETURN OF DR. X Sherman) at 11:00am; and THE RETURN OF THE WHISTLER (1948, directed by Ross Lederman) at 12:15. All but the final title star Richard Dix, who plays a different role in each, sometimes delivering work on par with his excellent portrayal of Captain Will Stone in Val Lewton's THE GHOST SHIP (1943).

Missing from the lineup are one of the series' highlights, THE MARK OF THE WHISTLER (1944, directed by Castle and based on Woolrich's story "Dormant Account"), and THE THIRTEENTH HOUR (1947, directed by William Clemens), Dix's final appearance in the franchise. A victim of serial heart ailments, he died in 1949 at the age of 56.

Some of us have been looking forward to this day since TCM started running pictures from their newly acquired Columbia film package back in January. For newcomers to the subject, there's a nice Wikipedia entry on "The Whistler" that you can read here. I also once posted some notes on the series here at Video WatchBlog.

LG Blu-ray Renders Spidey Powerless

Prospective buyers of Sony's Blu-ray release SPIDER-MAN - THE HIGH DEFINITION TRILOGY (or their individual packaging of SPIDER-MAN 3 in Blu-ray) should be aware -- as I wasn't -- that the LG BH100 Hybrid Blu-ray/HD player is not presently set up to accept these discs.

I was alerted to the problem last night, when I loaded SPIDER-MAN 3 into my LG BH100 only to discover that the animated menu screens looked sluggish and my remote control powerless to navigate the screen options or to access the movie. I reloaded the player with SPIDER-MAN 2 and experienced the same problem. Having accidentally ordered two copies of the set from Amazon.com, I decided to unwrap the set I plan to return, assuming that the first set was a defective pressing... but the discs in the second set wouldn't play either.
Online perusal has turned up this thread on the AV Science Forum, which explains that this is a firmware problem and that LG is working on a solution.
PS: Donna and I were able to use the link to download a firmware update which, burned to disc, was able to effect changes to our LG BH100 that allowed SPIDER-MAN 3 to play. Evidently these changes may also affect the unit's audio performance, but LG has promised an update to the update by the middle of the month that should correct this residual fault.

Sunday Sermon: The 2007 Weblog Awards

I received an e-mail today from an acquaintence informing me that his blog had been nominated in one of the categories of The 2007 Weblog Awards and asking for my vote. I had never heard of the Weblog Awards before, but, as a fellow blogger, the notion certainly caught my interest.

I followed the link to look over the nominees and categories and couldn't believe what I found. This award, which aspires at least by name to represent weblogs as a whole, has no Film category. Their Video category pertains only to blogs that show videos. They do offer a Culture category, under which I found only two film-related nominees: Kyle Smith Online (blog of the film critic for THE NEW YORK POST -- which, as often as not, exists to link to his reviews on the NYP site) and Self-Styled Siren (10 posts since August 20, one of them entitled "The Siren is a Finalist for the 2007 Weblog Awards").

There are also ten sub-categories nominating the "Best of the Rest" culling additional nominees from the "Top 8,751+ blogs." Video WatchBlog is not among them, and I honestly don't know which implication is more sobering: that Video WatchBlog literally isn't in the "Top 8,751+" blogs or that it's not generally considered among the best of those Top 8,751 plus.

Sour grapes? I'll admit to one or two, because I take my work on this blog as seriously as I take any work that I do, but what I'm mostly feeling is bemused... by this award's concept of excellence. I speak not only on behalf of Video WatchBlog; not one of the several blogs that constitute my own daily bread, not one of the three upon which I bestowed the Thoughtful Blogger Award, are represented on these polls either.

It's kind of like the Grammys, all over again.

"To God, there is no zero. I still exist." -- Scott Carey

Friday, November 02, 2007

An Open Letter to Steve Ditko on His 80th Birthday

Dear Mr. Ditko:
Forgive me for taking a personal communication public, but I don't know how to reach you privately. I know that today is your 80th birthday and I cannot let the day pass without somehow taking this opportunity to tell you how much your work has meant to me, ever since my own years were in single digits.

I know that I must have first become acquainted with your work as an artist on monster comics like Charlton's GORGO and KONGA, but I only became devoted to it, as so many others did, with your work on THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. I began collecting it with #13, the introduction of Mysterio -- who, in a Spider-Man novel (THE GATHERING OF THE SINISTER SIX) later written by Adam-Troy Castro, was revealed to be a reader of my magazine, VIDEO WATCHDOG.

There remains something about the covers you did for #13 and 14 (which introduced the Green Goblin) that exert a tremendous pull on my imagination. The Green Goblin was never a more frightening apparition than on the cover of his debut issue, his evil somehow all the more accentuated by the accompanying blurb "Do you think he's cute? Does he make you want to smile?" And Mysterio seems to me, of all your costumed villains, the perfect distillation of your talents into a single figure.

I've always suspected that you drew heavily on the horror and science fiction and fantasy films of the 1950s and early '60s for inspiration, and in the smoke-encircled aspect of Mysterio, I've always detected a hint of Mario Bava -- the cinema's master of smoke and mirrors. It made perfect sense to me that, in his later incarnations, after you left the book, Mysterio was identified or reinvented as a former special effects technician; it was consistent with your vision and with the Bava connection. Anyway, I am certain that meeting your work with that Mysterio cover played a part in defining me as Bava's biographer, years before I actually saw his work. Your art planted the seed of my response to movies like PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES and HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD.

Your work on THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #33 ("The Final Chapter!") and the first SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL, with its splash pages for each of Spidey's encounters with the separate members of the Sinister Six, are rightly celebrated as highlights of your tenure at Marvel. Now I regard the DOCTOR STRANGE comics you drew as the apex of your achievement. As a child, those comics a bit over my head in terms of narrative, but I spent many hours perusing them and trying to make sense of the mind-boggling tableaux therein. As I've said before, I consider it one of the great losses to 20th century cinema that Mario Bava never adapted your DOCTOR STRANGE to the screen.
I was very disappointed when you left Marvel -- John Romita did a fine job, distinctive in its own right, but I've always had grave doubts that Spider-Man would have been able to survive that creative divorce without the ruthless hook of the dual unmasking of Spider-Man and the Green Goblin in #39 (possibly the most eventful single issue of a comic in history). When I next discovered your work, I seem to remember it was on the cover of a Charlton comic, probably your work on CAPTAIN ATOM or THE BLUE BEETLE. This discovery marked an important event in my development as an art lover: you were the first artist whose work I was able to identify by sight, by the personality of your art, rather than by signature.
I can remember buying comics featuring your cover art, assuming that you drew the inside stories as well, only to be disappointed when you drew nothing inside or perhaps only a four-page story -- but there was never any question of not buying those comics; I had to buy them, if only for the cover. I had the same joyous experience when I found the first issues of MYSTERIOUS SUSPENSE, BEWARE THE CREEPER, and THE HAWK AND THE DOVE on the newsstand at my local five-and-dime. Those covers continue to hold a high rank on my personal list of your favorite covers, which also include some of your earliest work for the covers of SPACE ADVENTURES and THE THING.

Suffice to say, anytime I came home with a new Ditko comic in the bag was cause for celebration, and my excitement would jolt even higher when I bought a new comic like T.H.U.N.D.E.R. AGENTS, brought it home, and found some new masterpiece by you buried inside.
After more than 40 years of pondering the question, I find myself no closer to an understanding of why I respond to your work so profoundly. I know that some art appeals to us by virtue of its technical mastery, its proximity to subject, while other art appeals to us through the emotion invested in it.
Frankly, and this is certainly no criticism, I can't say that either qualification applies to your work. However, I also believe that there is art that appeals to us because it comes to us from out of nowhere, without precedent, and stands before us as something perfect and individualized. We gawk at it because we cannot fathom its origin or manner of execution. It did not exist before, yet we cannot un-imagine it; it needs to exist and fills a suddenly obvious gap, not only in the place it occupies in the history of art, but in the uncharted terrain of our collective imagination.
This is ultimately the final explanation I can offer for your work's unique appeal. It is also my definition of genius.

I also want you to know that you've been an inspiration to me above and beyond what you have achieved in your art, and I say this as a great admirer of some of your most controversial work, such as THE AVENGING WORLD (a particular favorite). If the select group of men and women I have chosen as my personal heroes have anything in common, I've usually found out that the maverick stance of their art is a reflection of the maverick stance they have taken in life, and you are surely one of these. Like many other of my heroes, including Bava, you have pursued life as an artisan rather than as an artist, which has resulted in a life of work rather than what one might characterize as a "career." You have willfully chosen to take a more difficult and challenging path through your profession by shunning publicity and remaining true to your core ethics concerning life and business. Your brave and admirably stubborn example has helped me to see that there are more (and more rewarding) ways to spend our time in this world than placing ego before ability and becoming hellbent on success at any cost. Because I know nothing about your personal life, I can only hope that your dedication to your ethic and philosophy has not been entirely solitary and that you have known much personal happiness.
This is my birthday wish to you, because your work has brought me, and so many others, so much happiness over the years.
Sincerely yours,
Tim Lucas

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Product Placement

MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK is "Now Playing" in Gotham City!

Artist Kelley Jones inserts my new book into the most traumatic moment of his latest Dark Knightmare, "Batman Bloodlust" -- one of thirteen all-new terror tales in the premiere issue of DC Comics' INFINITE HALLOWEEN.

Get the whole story on the Bava book blog.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hey! It's Halloween!

So do what Trog does:

Be safe.

Look scary.

And enjoy consuming large quantities of things that are bad for you in jovial company.

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.