Monday, December 10, 2007

VW's Favorite DVDs of 2007: The Umlands

This week, Video WatchBlog begins its week-long accounting of our contributors' favorite DVD releases of the past year. We'll wrap up at the end of the week with my own Editor's Choice selections and the naming of VIDEO WATCHDOG's annual selection for DVD of the Year (the release that appeared most frequently and placed most highly in our collected lists). We begin with...

Rebecca and Sam Umland

Our list last year was heavily weighted toward classics of the Italian cinema, but this year our choices are slightly more heterogeneous, although our selection includes several classics of the British cinema. Our choices are not ranked.

1. PERFORMANCE (Warner Home Video)
Despite the unfortunate soundtrack gaffe (the omission of Turner’s line, “Here’s to old England!”) this legendary film looks splendid on home video. Unless Warner commissions a restoration of the roughly 3m cut shortly before the film’s U.S. premiere, this is as a complete a version as we’re ever likely to get of this masterpiece. At the very least, a second pressing -- with the soundtrack corrected -- would be welcome.

With all the hoopla surrounding Warner’s DVD release of PERFORMANCE, this unaccountably neglected British classic from 1962 starring Tom Courtenay (knighted in 2001) and directed by Tony Richardson (with a small supporting role by James Fox), released the same week as the PERFORMANCE DVD, was overlooked.

3. and 4. IF…. (Criterion) and O LUCKY MAN! (Warner Home Video)
In a remarkable serendipity, the first two films of the unofficial trilogy starring Malcolm McDowell as Mick Travis were released on DVD in the same year, about four months apart. These British classics were long overdue on DVD, the latter another one of the year’s welcome releases from the Warner film archives. Criterion’s two-disc set is outstanding (with the supplements primarily devoted to the second disc), and while we were delighted finally to have O LUCKY MAN! on DVD, too bad Warner didn’t issue it on HD DVD or Blu-ray so as to avoid spreading the film over two SD DVDs.

We list here the title of the box set featuring the SD DVD Two-Disc Special Editions, but each of the five feature films included in this box set—2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, EYES WIDE SHUT (Unrated Edition), THE SHINING, and FULL METAL JACKET, are all available in high definition (both HD DVD and Blu-ray); we have the HD DVD versions, which look and sound tremendous. Warner’s box set also includes the Jan Harlan documentary titled STANLEY KUBRICK-A LIFE IN PICTURES.

We’re cheating on this one, as our Five-Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition [HD DVD version] hasn’t yet arrived in the mail, but this is most certainly one of 2007’s major home video releases as far as we’re concerned. We’re including it among this year’s choices because it wouldn’t qualify for a 2008 release. There are actually seven different versions being issued: in addition to the HD DVD version, it is also available as a Five-Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition on Blu-ray Disc, and of course there’s a five-disc SD DVD edition. The Ultimate Collector’s Edition is packaged in a limited edition, numbered, Deckard briefcase (which in the film contained the Voight-Kampff Empathy Test apparatus) and is to feature collectable memorabilia such as a Spinner car replica, Unicorn figurine, illustration and photo cards, and a lenticular motion film clip in Lucite. Moreover, the “Blade Runner Trilogy—25th Anniversary” three-CD box set featuring Vangelis’ remastered score (from 1994) and additional, unreleased tracks is available as an exclusive. 2007 is clearly a big year for BLADE RUNNER enthusiasts.

7. THE JAZZ SINGER (Warner Home Video)
Warner Home Video has given one of the most famous and historic films in its extensive library the deluxe treatment with this three-disc DVD package. It goes without saying that the early sound film has been beautifully restored, but Warner has also included many rarities, including a reproduction of the original souvenir program, behind-the-scenes stills, photographs, and other reproductions. A 90-minute documentary provides an engaging and lucid account of the development of the sound film and how Warner’s Vitaphone system worked, but it’s the supplemental short films of the early sound era that are of immense historic value: Al Jolson shorts, radio show adaptations, theatrical trailers, and there’s even a Tex Avery cartoon, “I Love to Singa” (1936), that’s a wonderful spoof of THE JAZZ SINGER starring a bird named Owl Jolson. The package also includes an entire disc (running close to four hours) devoted to early Vitagraph shorts that in fact is an amazing historical document memorializing late vaudeville performers.

This package has it all—the pilot, the European theatrical version, and every one of the 29 episodes including the Log Lady introductions, and collectable memorabilia. All in all a wonderful box set if you’re a TWIN PEAKS enthusiast. Please note that it doesn’t contain all of the supplements found on the previous First Season and Second Season box sets, but the series’ devoted fans will already have these sets anyway.

Byron Haskin’s delightful fantasy remains undiminished after more than forty years. One of our favorite films that we watch once a year (the old Criterion LD got a workout), we weren’t disappointed by Criterion’s crisp, colorful anamorphic DVD transfer. While Criterion has given the film only a one-disc treatment, the supplements, including the audio commentaries, are excellent.

10. THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID (Universal Studios Home Entertainment)
Written and directed by Philip Kaufman, with a great cast of ruffians including Cliff Robertson, Robert Duvall, R. G. Armstrong, Luke Askew, Matt Clark, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Royal Dano, this highly singular film is a Western made with a New Wave sensibility, including digressions, non-sequiturs, and, yes—jump cuts. Although arguably influenced by the work of Robert Altman (M*A*S*H* but also McCABE AND MRS. MILLER), its more distant precursor would seem to be Anthony Mann’s MAN OF THE WEST (1958), a defamiliarized Western landscape populated not by character “types” but by eccentrics, lunatics, and religious zealots. This is another one of those titles that were long overdue on DVD.

OUR HONORABLE MENTIONS: THE FILMS OF KENNETH ANGER VOLUMES 1 & 2 (Fantoma); Jean-Pierre Melville’s ARMY OF SHADOWS and LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES (Criterion); Andrei Tarkovsky’s IVAN'S CHILDHOOD (Criterion); Ingmar Bergman’s SAWDUST AND TINSEL (Criterion); UNIVERSAL HORROR CLASSIC MOVIE ARCHIVE (five films; Universal Studios Home Entertainment/Best Buy exclusive); STAR TREK -- SEASON ONE (The Original Series; Paramount, HD DVD/SD combo set derived from original negatives); CHARLIE CHAN COLLECTION VOLUME 3 (Fox); THE FILMS OF ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY (FANDO Y LIS, EL TOPO, THE HOLY MOUNTAIN, plus a documentary; Anchor Bay).
Our Choice for Distributor of the year: Warner Home Video.
Tomorrow: The top picks of VW Associate Editor John Charles.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

All the Sights and Sounds of the Dark

The January 2008 issue of SIGHT & SOUND is a major one -- not least of all as it concerns me personally. It contains my monthly "NoZone" column (this month devoted to Lindsay Anderson's O LUCKY MAN!, a personal favorite) of course, but also a welcome and instructive letter pertaining to my earlier review of Charles Crichton's excellent THE THIRD SECRET, two different advertisements for my MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, and also D.K. Holm's much-appreciated review of same. I'm pleased by the fact that this issue contains SIGHT & SOUND's coverage of my favorite film of the year, I'M NOT THERE, as well as their annual survey of the year's best films. The latter has been posted in advance at their website and you can find what I and many other critics have to say about our five picks in a special PDF file downloadable here.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Best Are Still to Come

It's been quiet here of late, but rest assured I've been busily blogging -- it's just that the end results aren't ready for posting yet. I'm using my spare time these days, of which there's little, to organize Video WatchBlog's year-end lists of VW's Favorite DVDs of 2007, which I'll begin posting next week.

I already have some guest lists in hand -- from associate editor John Charles and contributors Richard Harland Smith and David Kalat, and others should be forthcoming -- and I'm finalizing a few lists of my own. I think the fairest way to approach my own lists is to organize them into at least three groupings: Stand Alone Titles, Box Sets, and a separate list of Notable Restorations. These will be mostly domestic releases but there will also be some Imports mixed in. If HD/Blu-ray releases ever get up to what I consider speed (and they did make an advance this year, particularly with the Kubrick Collection and Anchor Bay's recent rash of horror titles), I'll have to start herding them into an exclusive list as well. Naturally, all of my lists are predicated on what might be termed "natural selection," because there's a vast number of discs there simply wasn't time or the ready desire to see. So bias is not only built into the list, but into the nomination process -- I can only write about the best of what I wanted to see in the first place... hence, "Favorite DVDs of 2007," because none of us can promise that our choices are any better than the releases we didn't see.

Monday, December 03, 2007

VW 136 Nearly There

It's been a long week and an even longer weekend here at Chez Watchdog as we've scrambled to finish VIDEO WATCHDOG #136, our special GRINDHOUSE issue, on schedule. John Charles had to proofread this issue before it was illustrated and, as you can see on our website's Coming Soon page, we have the cover (oh mama) and a partial list of contents up now, but the preview pages aren't quite ready to be previewed yet. But does that matter when Charlie Largent presents us with a cover image this striking, this sensuous, this three-dimensional, this rip-roaring? Go ahead: click on it, make it bigger.

Pardon my paternal pride, but this has turned out to be another killer issue. Knowing that our GRINDHOUSE Round Table Discussion was going to be the core of #136, I thought it might be a good idea to complement it as well as possible by using reviews only of those movies that actually played in grindhouses, or which I could easily imagine playing in such places. There are a couple of exceptions, like Ramsey Campbell writing about KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE but, on the whole, it's very consistent -- 80 pages of fun, feverish, high-falutin' talk and thought about international trash cinema, every page dense with color images and maniacal, movie-addicted information.

And it's coming your way in January.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Fantômas Strikes Again

For several years now, I've had the pleasure of playing intermittent but unusually thoughtful e-mail tag with David White, a VW reader who -- like more than a few of our readers, I'm proud to say -- makes a living in the creative arts. David, who is a playwright affiliated with the Passage Theater Company of Trenton, New Jersey, shares with me a special passion for French crime fantasy of the early 20th century -- the books about such characters as Arsène Lupin, Belfagor, Les Vampires, and of course, Fantômas -- and the films made about them and others by the likes of Louis Feuillade and Georges Franju.

For much of our correspondence, David has expressed a desire to add a book of his own to this bat-wing of world fiction, and I'm happy to announce that his first novel, FANTOMAS IN AMERICA, has just been published by Black Coat Press (imprint of Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier, authors of the indispensible McFarland reference work FRENCH SCIENCE FICTION FANTASY, HORROR AND PULP FICTION). It was added to today.

FANTOMAS IN AMERICA has the distinction of being the first new Fantômas novel to appear since the last of the Marcel Allain novels, FANTOMAS JOUE ET GAGNES ("Fantômas Gambles and Wins"), was serialized in French newspapers in 1938. Allain originally conceived the character with collaborator Pierre Souvestre, with whom he wrote no less than 32 lengthy adventures between February 1911 and September 1913. (And I think VW has a punishing schedule!) Souvestre was killed in the first World War, and Allain (who subsequently married Souvestre's widow) resumed the adventures of the "Genius of Crime" in 1925, writing only eight more novels between then and 1938 -- that, David tells me, lack the verve and imagination of the original classic 32.

David's novel picks up in 1917, four years after Fantômas disappeared during the fateful cruise of the mega-ship Gigantic in the last Souvestre/Allain novel, LE FIN DU FANTOMAS? ("The End of Fantômas?")... and is partly based on FANTOMAS, a now-lost Fox Corporation film serial of 20 episodes directed by Edward Sedgwick, originally released in 1921. Some sources credit Boris Karloff among the production's supporting players, but this may be a mistake based on the resemblance of lead actor Edward Rosenman (who plays Fantômas) to Karloff in the print ads. David was able to learn about the obscure American serial by winning a rare pressbook on eBay, which provided chapter synopses for only a limited number of the film's chapters; thereafter, he was free to imagine the rest, which he managed to do by introducing as characters not only Sedgwick and Rosenman, but other characters from the silent screen such as D.W. Griffith's scrappy street gang of 1912, the Musketeers of Pig Alley. There are many other secreted pop cultural references too, including some more recent ones, but I'll leave the pleasure of discovering them to you.

The book contains approximately 50 illustrations culled from the rare Fox Corp. pressbook, making FANTOMAS IN AMERICA as pertinent a non-fiction purchase for devotées of silent film fantasy as it surely is as a bold continuation of a wonderful literary tradition.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Coming Soon in VW #135

VIDEO WATCHDOG has been on hold for the past couple of months while we attended to other business, but we're on the way back in a big way. We've just posted some contents info about VW 135 on the "Coming Soon" page of our website, which you can find here. I think it's a dandy, one of those rare issues where a lot of the material covered seemed to magically dovetail together in shared themes. If the list of titles under review in this issue seems a little light, that's because I've decided not to reveal everything about what's inside... so, this time, when we say "and much, much more!", we really mean "and much, much more!" When you follow the link, be sure to click on the cover to access a free preview of a selection of interior pages!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Elvira and the Manglers of Heedra

I've often said that what this world needs is a really good video representation of Mel Welles' LA ISLA DE LA MUERTE. Theatrically released by Allied Artists in 1967 as ISLAND OF THE DOOMED, the Spanish-Italian co-production is one of those all-too-common stories about a tourist bus that breaks down, forcing its varied and sometimes bickering passengers to knock on the door of an isolated villa -- isolated because the locals have all been frightened away by a "vampire legend." In this case, the villa is owned by the Baron von Weser (Cameron Mitchell), a crazed experimental botanist who -- in the course of breeding vegetables that taste like meat -- develops a carnivorous strain of Venus flytrap that requires a steady diet of human blood. Some viewers, remembering Welles' acting stint as Gravis Mushnik in Roger Corman's THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1959), find the plant angle of interest; I, on the other hand, see this film as a little gem of the European co-production period of the 1960s, and one of the few titles that hasn't been available for viewing in its correct aspect ratio in 40 years.

The film first came to my attention circa 1970, when it was presented by Cincinnati's The Cool Ghoul on WXIX-TV's SCREAM-IN under the TV syndication title MANEATER OF HYDRA. Even then, I was impressed by its creepy atmosphere, its effective set pieces, its cast -- Mitchell, Kai Fischer (a striking redhead whom I'd seen in UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE), pretty Elisa Montés (providing a Mary Anne to Fischer's Ginger), and Riccardo Valle (Morpho in THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF) -- and a dubbing crew that prominently featured the recognizable voice of Anne Meara for the character of Myrtle. (The IMDb lists no screen credits for Meara between 1964 and 1970, making her a likely candidate for voice work.) I can also now recognize the voice of Rodd Dana issuing from the mouth of heroic lead Jorge Martín, if it's true -- as Welles told me himself -- that Dana provided the voice for Stephen Forsyth in HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON, a dubtrack that Welles directed in 1969. More impressive than the cast to my younger self was the movie's impressively gloopy special effects, which now look like a cheapish but plausible forerunner of some of the gloopy things Rob Bottin created for John Carpenter's THE THING (1982). The enticing music score, some of which sounds warbly here, if not faintly waterlogged, is by Antón García Abril, best-remembered today for scoring TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD.
This quickly disappearing year marks the 40th anniversary of ISLAND OF THE DOOMED. We should be enjoying a DVD presentation that gives us the Techniscope picture in its true 2.35:1 framing, with crisp clarity and eye-popping color (in case anyone at Warner Bros., the film's most probable true owner, is listening). Alas, the only offer on the table is Shout Factory's "Elvira's Movie Macabre Double Feature" release (one of several), pairing the Mistress of the Dark's respective presentations of MANEATER OF HYDRA and Narciso Ibanez Serrador's THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED [LA RESIDENCIA, 1971] -- on separate discs. Because I first saw MANEATER under the bat-like wing of a TV horror host, I like the option of being able to watch the movie without interruption or with the breaks featuring Elvira (Cassandra Peterson), every mention of whose name on the packaging is accompanied by a registered trademark (R). She must have great lawyers. If only the cinematic legacy of the late Mel Welles had fared so well in this Shout Factory venture.
Because the film is called MANEATER OF HYDRA, we know in advance that it's going to be pan&scanned, and it is... but that doesn't begin to prepare us for the truly wretched quality of the source element, which appears to be a dupey VHS tape of a complete 87m 48s rendering of the film, possibly chained from a 16mm print. Whites blush loudly, and heavy intermittent grain in the lower third of the screen reminds us of the tracking problems that bedevilled us in the videotape era. Objectively speaking, it looks a couple of generations south of the tape I obtained from European Trash Cinema about 20 years ago. Here are some frame grabs I took to prove my point (presented without any cropping, to better expose the videotape artifacting at the bottom of the screen):
The Elvira (pardon the expression) bumpers extend the overall running time to 99m 57s and are retained from a 1983 MOVIE MACABRE broadcast from KHJ-TV, when the "B-movie queen's" disposition was more that of a sour Valley Girl than the bubbly double entendriste we know and love today. What's most infuriating about the presentation is that, if one watches the Elvira (R) footage, we see shots from the movie -- incorporated for comic purposes -- that are of markedly superior quality! Still cropped, of course, but crisper and more colorful. Clearly, this was the version shown in tandem with the Elvira (R) footage, so why wasn't THAT source used?
I haven't as yet watched THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED -- a better picture than MANEATER OF HYDRA, frankly -- because I know I'm bound to be disappointed by the quality. The presentation of MANEATER OF HYDRA (which our "hostess with the mostest" repeatedly calls "Maneater of Heedra") is so crummy, in fact, it's the first time I've ever watched this film and wondered what I ever saw in it. Obviously, a quality that this presentation has literally reduced to nothing.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Achievements and Improvements

The most exciting news of the day comes from fellow publisher-editor Gary J. Svehla, who tells us that my MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK is featured in the current issue of PASTE, the music and pop culture magazine, on their list of the Best Books of 2007 -- right next to the new Harry Potter book! I don't know how it came to their attention, but I'm grateful.

The response to the Bava book in print is just beginning to get underway. MJ Simpson wrote an excellent review and author profile for the current issue of the British magazine DEATH RAY, and I know that feature articles and reviews are forthcoming in RUE MORGUE and FANGORIA. My fingers are already crossed for some kind of Bava book mention in THE NEW YORK TIMES' Best Books of 2007 issue -- even to receive mention as one of the Honorables would be wonderful.

On his MYRANT blog, Steve Bissette has announced that he recently finished reading "the truly massive, moving" Bava book and promises to write at length about the experience soon.

Also, all seven segments of Colin Reboy's interview with Donna and me -- the complete novel for television, as they used to say -- are now posted at the Studio Kaiju site.

And what of the reclusive fellow behind this blitzkrieg of publicity? I am presently running a VW gauntlet that's likely to keep me busy up till the last pre-holiday moment, which is why Video WatchBlog activity has been so irregular of late.

We've just completed work on VW #135 (one of our best, if I do say so myself); the principal features are my "DVD Spotlight" on PAN'S LABYRINTH and Mark F. Berry's fine interview with English actress Judi Bowker (CLASH OF THE TITANS, COUNT DRACULA), but fuller contents information will be posted on our website in the coming days. We are going right into VW #136, our GRINDHOUSE issue, which is pretty much complete and ready for editing and layout; and Donna is pressing for us to jump into VW #137 as soon as we finish the previous one. Of course, the first thing she's going to ask me when that time rolls around is "Where are your reviews for this issue?" -- but I've been working on two other issues of the magazine (including writing some emergency material for them), so when have I had time to watch movies, much less review any?

This sort of frenzied pace may suit Roger Corman, but it doesn't suit me. We've been doing this for seventeen years now; for once, I would like to take a more leisurely and receptive approach to the Christmas season. I want to send cards, telephone neglected friends, do some actual in-store shopping, and so forth -- but it doesn't seem too likely. It's just as well I find myself on a Ramones binge these days; I need the energy.

Today -- at my suggestion, actually (although this isn't going to sound like me) -- Donna and I decided to forego our usual Christmas gifts for one another and direct our holiday budget toward some needed home repairs and improvements. I guess that means we've finally grown up. We spent part of this evening in the home improvements department of a nearby Lowe's store, ogling things like storm doors, windows and floor lamps. You know, it's amazing what you can buy to dress up your home for the same amount of money I typically spend on Euro posters I look at once and file away...

Friday, November 23, 2007

Reg Park (1928-2007)

Reg Park, who passed away yesterday after a long struggle with cancer at the age of 79, was first and foremost a world champion bodybuilder, but his brief and all-but-accidental acting career in the 1960s brought to the screen the most fully realized portrayals of Hercules ever filmed.

He followed in the footsteps of Steve Reeves (the first man ever to hold all three major titles of accomplishment in bodybuilding: Mr. America, Mr. World and Mr. Universe), who made the role world-famous in the enormously successful HERCULES (1957) and HERCULES UNCHAINED (1958). When Galatea producer Lionello Santi sold the franchise to producer Achille Piazzi, Reeves -- out of loyalty to director Pietro Francisci, who had cast him -- abandoned the role, which was briefly taken up by Mark Forest (the screen name of Lou Degni). When Forest was lured away to take over the role of Maciste in a multi-picture deal, Piazzi offered Hercules to Reg Park. A former Mr. Britain and two-time winner of the Mr. Universe title, Park was British-born but based in South Africa, where he ran a successful health club.

Once Park was convinced that Piazzi's offer was sincere, he flew to Rome -- without any prior acting experience -- to star in HERCULES CONQUERS ATLANTIS (aka HERCULES AND THE CAPTIVE WOMEN, 1961), directed by Vittorio Cottafavi. Assisting Cottafavi on that picture was an uncredited Mario Bava, who devised some special effects sequences and contributed some second unit photography. Park had a great time being the center of attention and was well-liked by the crew -- not something that could always be said of Reeves -- and he was convinced to stick around and make a second picture that Mario Bava and some screenwriter friends had cooked up in the meantime. That project became HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (aka HERCULES IN THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, 1962).

Steve Reeves was the most convincingly godly of all the actors who took on the role of Hercules and, in a sense, he was an impossible act to follow, though his acting was often wooden. Reeves' experience was in posing; he looked great onscreen, knew how to stand so that the light caught his oiled physique in ways that would flatter him, but he was not an effective speaker. Reg Park, on the other hand, was more than a bodybuilder; he was also an entrepreneur, and his past experience in self-promotion and salesmanship brought to his acting jobs a sense of relaxed, good-humored ease that made him the most fully dimensional of all the actors ever to play the part.

Park also had the good fortune to work with Cottafavi and Bava, whose directorial abilities went well beyond the fanciful costumed fun that was Francisci's stock in trade. Cottafavi's Hercules, in particular -- lazy, self-absorbed, fun-loving, self-mocking, all too human until various challenges provoke him to rise to the occasion -- is the closest of all movie Hercules to the one that originated in the pages of Greek and Roman mythology. Bava, who preferred female leads, explored the character's vulnerability in his film, as he ventures into the depths of Hades in an effort to save a few loved ones who, by way of black magic, have either turned against him or oblivious to him. HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD is a masterful fusion of the epic and horror genres, just as Bava's PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES is an ideal fusion of horror and science fiction; it is also the most purely cinematic example of the sword-and-sandal genre, and the greatest showcase Bava ever found for his unique ability to conjure fabulous imaginary worlds with next to no means. HERCULES CONQUERS ATLANTIS, on the other hand, is held by many devotées to be the absolute finest of all the Italian sword-and-sandal films. These are also the films that Arnold Schwarzenegger credits with inspiring his own desire to pursue a career in bodybuilding. Reg Park was his hero.

Park made only three other, lesser films before returning to the business he had founded in Sandton, South Africa. One, and one of them (HERCULES THE AVENGER aka SFIDA DEI GIGANTI (1965) was cobbled together in large part from footage recycled from the films he had made with Bava and Cottafavi.

Some years ago, I exchanged a couple of e-mails with Reg Park. I had tracked down the website for his business and e-mailed him there, asking him to be interviewed for MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK. He responded kindly and warmly, but begged off, explaining that his work on those pictures was done so long ago, a lifetime ago, and he could no longer trust the validity of his own recollections, vague as they were. If he couldn't be certain of their veracity, he preferred not to entrust them to posterity -- but he wished me the very best of luck with my project. I admired the integrity of that response much as I had always admired the integrity of character so evident in his screen portrayals. If only all actors with hazy memories would admit to it, and not misinform history with their self-serving "entertainments" and "legends"! Fortunately, I found some quotes from earlier published interviews, so I was able to represent his view of things in the book somewhat, and I'm very glad about that. Especially now.

To see the supreme likes of Reg Park and Gordon Scott vanish from the earth in the space of a year makes me feel a sense of loss that goes beyond the personal; one feels that a certain kind of man, an irreplaceable kind, is disappearing from our midst. We used to call them heroes. Today we need heroes more than ever, but all that the movies give us anymore are actors who play heroes, usually of the conflicted or traumatized kind; they play them in costumes that lend their bodies phony musculature, they perform their heroic acts with the assistance of CGI, and they explore their "dark sides." Anyone can play Batman or Spider-man, but a role like Hercules cannot merely be played; it must first be earned -- by dedicating years of one's life to the attainment of a superior level of physical perfection and physical strength.

If someone like Reg Park climbed a colossal tree, or traversed a length of rope suspended over a lava pit in a matinee movie, it didn't matter that the scenes and deeds were staged because he, himself, was real. Put the real Reg Park in those same situations and he would have stood a better chance than most of pulling it off. His Hercules walked among us, not above us. You had to admire him... but he also made you like him.

I may have discovered the key to his likability one night while watching parts of HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD with the sound turned off. (This is something I occasionally do to gauge how much is being brought to a piece of filmmaking by its soundtrack.) Having grown somewhat adept at lip-reading, I noticed that, in all of the scenes where Hercules raised his massive arms to the sky and addressed his father Zeus, Reg Park -- on the set -- had addressed his lines to his own Heavenly Father: Jesus. Needless to say, the literary Hercules predated Christ by centuries so the chronology of Park's spoken words is laughable, but surely he knew that his dialogue was going to be looped by someone else later, and the line would be fixed. What mattered to him in that moment, it seems to me, was to make the moment believable and not dishonor the part. I wish I could have asked Reg Park about this, but I suppose the work stands as its own best explanation. When you look at these scenes, you believe them in a way that wholly transcends the way Steve Reeves used to bark "By the Gods!" at the arc lights off-camera.

A moment of silence, then, for the gentleman who brought Olympus down to earth.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

I Don't Wanna Go Down to the Basement

I stumbled onto this homemade cartoon at YouTube and had to share it with you, though it's more appropriate to Halloween than Thanksgiving. Never mind that; you'll be thankful for the link. The piece is uncredited but I think it's an absolutely wonderful idea and, remarkably, executed to nearly the point of perfection, though I'd be surprised if more than one person was involved in its creation. If it was more polished than this, it would likely lose some of its charm, just as the music would, had it incorporated more than a few chords. I'm telling you, if something like this was on one of the cartoon networks, in a program akin to the old Al Brodax-produced Beatles cartoons, I would watch it religiously every day -- and I bet at least half of young America would, too.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Online and Offline

Wonderfest Reunion 2007. Front L to R: Me, Donna, Chris & Lisa Herzog, Linda Wylie. Rear L to R: Jeffrey Nelson, Gary Prange, Randy Fox, Troy Guinn, Janet Conover, John Davis, Allie Conover, Carrie Galloway, Dave Conover, Tom Weaver (as himself), Tim Keegan, Harry Hatter, Ethan Black, Donnie Waddell. Photo by the incomparable Joe Busam.

Donna and I spent a terrific weekend with beloved and kindred spirits in Louisville, Kentucky, where we participated in the first-ever, under-the-radar WonderFest Reunion. Last May, it was expressed by several of us that it was going to be a long wait till we all saw one another at the next Wonderfest in July 2008, so Gary Prange and Donnie Waddell arranged for a sooner get-together to happen. No exhibits, no banquets, no guest stars, no Rondo Award ceremonies, and no karaoke... but the same hotel and, thanks to the management of the Executive West Hotel, Gary and Donnie were able to play host to us all in the very same suite where the Old Dark Clubhouse was held at the previous Wonderfest in late May. Lots of great up-till-the-wee-hours conversation, interesting screenings from both DVD-R and 16mm, a side trip to an antique toy mall, a trivia contest, etc.

Six of us broke away from the carnivorous majority on Saturday night to have what turned out to be the greatest sushi experience of our lives. I've eaten sushi in Cincinnati, Newport, Toronto, Los Angeles and San Francisco, but the very best I've ever had, bar none, was at Sapporo Japanese Grill and Sushi on Bardstown Road in Louisville, Kentucky. (I particularly recommend the VIP and Godzilla rolls.) I am now nursing a serious fantasy about moving to the Bardstown Road area now -- and not just for the sushi; it seemed like a great, vibrant, little community with lots of interesting shops, restaurants, and people.

My "No Zone" column review of Criterion's BREATHLESS [A bout de souffle, 1959] is now available for reading here at the SIGHT & SOUND website. It's also featured in the current issue.

There are now four more additions to the Studio Kaiju webcam interview with Donna and me, which can be found with the earlier two here. The Reboy family are now titling the segments so that interested viewers can preview the topics of discussion.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Operazione Webcam

Donna and I had an amazing morning as we were interviewed about the Bava book, via webcam, for attendees of the Trieste Science Fiction Film Festival. The event was organized by Martina Palaskov Begov and (Bava book research associate) Lorenzo Codelli with Lamberto Bava, Joe Dante (who's receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award this evening), and critics Kim Newman and Alan Jones in attendance. There were a few worrisome glitches in the connection at first, but in the end it came off very well, and there seemed to be a sizeable turnout for this legitimately science fictional event. (Joe said that the webcam hook-up made him feel like a character in PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES.) It was a moving occasion for Lamberto and for me, but there was also lots of laughter and some wonderful kudos from the folks on the dais. Our warm thanks to Martina and Lorenzo for realizing this important occasion for us.

We successfully recorded the event by training our camcorder on a second computer screen -- the widescreen picture is strangely cropped at times, but it's all there. Once the footage is edited, probably sometime next week, we'll find a way of making it available to you online.

In the meantime, Part 2 of Colin Reboy's Studio Kaiju webcam interview with us (our first!) is now available for viewing on their "Ink" page. Follow the link to "Ink" by clicking here.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

I'M NOT THERE reviewed

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a preview screening of Todd Haynes' I'M NOT THERE, which has been broadly described as a movie about the many public faces of Bob Dylan. As I've mentioned on this blog before, having always admired Dylan in a sort of half-committed, half-hearing way, earlier this year I set myself the task of learning more about him, throwing myself into a mountain of extracurricular reading (Marcus, Williams, Heylin, et al) and a study of his collected recordings, released and unreleased. So I went into the screening with the feeling of moving toward a graduation, that much of my previous year had been a preparation for this occasion. Considering the profound pleasures I've come to know by opening my heart a little wider to Dylan's music, and my mind to the best writing currently in print about it, it would be hard for any film to live up to that kind of "opening act," but to get anywhere near a proper appreciation of I'M NOT THERE, some kind of preliminary immersion is helpful. Otherwise, "Ballad of a Thin Man" might just as well be aimed at you.
I'M NOT THERE is a rumination on the many public faces of Bob Dylan only on its rambling, rustic, picaresque, picturesque surface. It does indeed cast six different actors as shades of Dylan -- Marcus Carl Franklin as Woody, an African-American child who steals rides in boxcars while toting his guitar in a case marked "This Machine Kills Fascists"; Christian Bale as Jack Rollins, a brooding protest singer who eventually withdraws from the music business to become an actor and, later, to embrace Christianity as Brother Jack, the pastor of a pentacostal church in California; Ben Whishaw as Arthur Rimbaud, a poetically minded commentator on the stories; Cate Blanchett as Jude, whose band turns a battery of machine guns on the crowd at the Newport Folk Festival and vaults into the headier heights of pop celebrity; Heath Ledger as Robbie, an actor whose career and womanizing contribute to the breakdown of his marriage to Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a painter; and Richard Gere as Billy, a middle-aged recluse in a rustic town outside of nowhere, whose need for privacy is disrupted by political wrongdoing that cries out for someone to rally the opposition. These various facets of Dylan (or Dylanesque) blend in and out of one another as the film plays, and we feel like we're watching a river flow. To go into the movie expecting some kind of statement or portrayal of Dylan is to be misled, because there's quite a lot about all of these characters that isn't consistent with the real Dylan, so, we come to realize, the point must be something else.
More meaningfully, I'M NOT THERE uses Dylan as the focus of a lovely and sometimes despairing personal essay whose most pertinent underlying theme is the need for art to be progressive and to not look back. It's a valiant and perhaps quixotic theme to address in an age when Hollywood's raison d'etre is to hemorrhage unnecessary remakes, to (deliberately or not) rob our generation of its own stories and own voice, but key to its process is the telling of its "story" in a catalogue of cinematic techniques that recall specific films from the eras to which those facets are tied: FESTIVAL, 8½, A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, BOUND FOR GLORY, SAY AMEN SOMEBODY, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID, to name the most obvious -- even the opening shot of PETULIA is recreated at one point. One might say that it looks back in the course of making its contrary point, but it's a brazen stare into the gorgon's face that succeeds because this movie moves cinema forward. The various signature styles on parade are as European as often as they are American, but Dylan is so specifically an American artist -- perhaps the most significant American (no, make that significantly American) artist in our lifetime -- one feels that Haynes is speaking as directly about America as he is speaking indirectly about Bob Dylan, and using this film to bemoan its increasingly scattered and powerless people's desperate need for a folk music, a collective voice for its generation. (Say, what about the Dixie Chicks? Oh... right. Forgot. Sorry.)
I've liked all of Haynes' films but have come away from all of them, save SUPERSTAR, feeling that something was broken about them, something related to casting. I can't tell if Haynes is simply too distracted to bring focus to the task, or if (being an independent American filmmaker -- try counting all the production companies attached to this movie) he simply uses the biggest names he can attract, regardless of how right or wrong they may be for the part, and fills up the rest of the roles with whoever is good, available, or affordable. This problem (as I see it, anyway) is also present here, especially in the sections concerning Ledger and Gainsbourg. Both actors are very good, but wrong enough in the landscape to make its inviting haziness seem merely blurry and the most committed viewer feel confused and restless.
Most viewers are grabbing onto Cate Blanchett's Jude (a hot Oscar contender, they say) like a rock in a raging flood because it's the most recognizable Dylan persona in this celluloid carnivál, being as much an impression of the Dylan of DON'T LOOK BACK as a performance. She's a wonderful gender-bending addition to the movie, and a heroic casting feather for Haynes' cap, but she's a King (or Queen) in the deck rather than an Ace -- close enough to someone real for us to know how close she isn't. The reason for any actor to play any living character is to summon forth and concentrate an emotional truth about that person in one scene of drama that might not be present in many hours of documentary footage, which is why I feel Blanchett ultimately gives us caricature rather than character. At one point, she covers her face in fretful agony -- a studied lift of footage cut from EAT THE DOCUMENT in which Dylan, sitting in the back of a taxi with John Lennon, struggles to marshal the nausea brought on by narcotic indulgence. When I saw the original (which can be found on YouTube), I felt great empathy for Dylan, surrounded by sniggering idiots as he pleads with unwise circumstance to put him back on a safe road to home, but the more one knows about this stuff, the more Blanchett's gesture offers footnote in place of emotion.
My favorite of all the proto- or semi-Dylans herein is Marcus Carl Franklin's Woody, who does his own singing and playing and contributes to a wonderful porchfront performance of "Tombstone Blues" with Richie Havens. Somehow the triumph of a woman portraying a man doesn't seem all that transcendent when compared to what Franklin does, taking us back to the young Bobby Zimmerman who modelled himself on folk troubadour Woody Guthrie and left his home in Hibbing, Minnesota to seek his fortune. In what may be the movie's most wondrous moment, young Woody is knocked off a boxcar as it crosses a bridge and plummets into a river where he's swallowed whole by Monstro the Whale, or shall we say (in deference to Disney lawyers) his reasonable facsimile.
Haynes has said that he made this movie in response to his own exploration of Dylan's work, which in retrospect he realized was a subconscious preamble to making a needed change in his own life. As a fellow Dylan student, I award him only the highest marks for the choices he made in terms of song selection. Haynes managed to include almost all of my favorites (surely "Everything is Broken" belonged in here somewhere), but the sequence accompanied by "Blind Willie McTell" (one of Dylan's most magnificent yet obscure songs), which includes young Woody playing a song that rouses a comatose Woody Guthrie in his hospital bed, is almost unbearably poignant.
There's a two-disc soundtrack for this movie out now, consisting almost entirely of cover versions of Dylan songs, but a good deal of it isn't heard in the film, some of the covers heard in the movie (like "The Ballad of Hollis Brown" by Iggy and the Stooges) aren't on the soundtrack album, and some album covers (like Cat Power's fine "Stuck Outside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again") are replaced in the film by Dylan's originals. The mercurial nature of all this is only too appropriate, and the soundtrack -- Sufjan Stevens' absolutely horrible reading of "Ring Them Bells" notwithstanding -- is as fine a tribute album as one could reasonably wish. Included on the album is the first official release of "I'm Not There," a much-bootlegged song dating from the "Basement Tapes" recordings of 1967, which Dylan followers (you'd have to be one to have heard it before now) generally hold to be one of his most moving compositions and performances despite it being obviously only half-written or improvised on the spot. It's presented in a weird bifurcated stereo mix that consigns Dylan's woeful voice to the right channel, allowing Garth Hudson's organ to swell to equal volume on the left, making the performance more of a battle than it should be. (Stick to the bootleg mono version.) There is also a cover version by Sonic Youth that captures something of the original's shambolic quality while lacking its gripping air of trauma and tenderness.
Perhaps the best I can say about I'M NOT THERE is that I left the theater feeling deeply enriched by an uncommon experience, a technique one would not be wrong to call virtuosic, and a helpful message that I wasn't expecting; this, and that there isn't anything imperfect about it that cannot also honestly be said of Dylan's own body of work. Don't go expecting a clear-cut or even linear experience. Go with the flow and try to compare what you're seeing to a poem, an essay, or a dream; that'll get you there faster. But that's not really the best I can say -- which is that, even though I wasn't 100% satisfied by I'M NOT THERE, I have no doubt that it's a friend for life and the best film of the year because its depth, its beauty, its ambition, even its flaws stuck to my ribs, reassuring me that cinema isn't dead yet (it's only bleeding).
I'M NOT THERE opens around the USA on November 21, in Canada on November 28, and in Europe next month.

Our First Webcam Interview

Last Sunday, Donna and I were interviewed by Colin Reboy of through the modern miracle of webcam. Colin (a precocious 8th grader) and his parents, Judy and Joe Reboy, have just added a new department to their website, called "Ink," which will focus on interviewees who (as Joe aptly puts it) "work in non-volatile information formats such as books, magazines and canvas."

Our interview, which ran for about half an hour, is being used to inaugurate this new department. The Reboys plan to publish the interview in three or four 8-10-minute segments, the first of which is now available for viewing here. We talk about all kinds of things, mostly about VIDEO WATCHDOG and its editorial interests and policies, in passing about the Bava book, and also about movies in general and my viewing habits. I got a real kick out of watching this first segment; it looks like Colin is communicating with a couple of characters out of Pupi Avati's ZEDER.

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.