Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Bava Book to Receive Special Achievement Saturn Award

Excerpted from a letter received today from Robert Holguin, president of the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films:

Dear Tim:

The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films was founded in 1972 to honor, recognize and promote genre entertainment. The organization was an extension of another group, The Count Dracula Society, which was founded by Dr. Donald A. Reed. Dr. Reed’s passion was bringing recognition to the people who were often overlooked because they dealt in the fields of filmmaking which were considered, in certain circles, juvenile entertainment. Through Dr. Reed’s efforts, we have seen the genre film become a major force at the box office. It’s the genre film which keeps the studios alive and well. Dr. Reed felt strongly in honoring and recognizing extraordinary work and the people who create it. I try to follow in his footsteps.

With your recent publication,
Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark
, you have completely awed us in your efforts to chronicle the life and work of filmmaker Mario Bava. The book is simply astounding. I am completely blown away by your accomplishments in publishing this monster of a book. The devotion you show to your subject matter is inspiring to the point of obsession. And we are humbled that you had this passion to work on a book which took many years of your life to complete. It’s one of the most incredible achievements we have seen in our lifetime.

The Academy has chosen you to receive a Saturn Award,
The Special Achievement Award, for your hard work in seeing this project come to fruition. If Dr. Reed were with us today, I know he would be the first to congratulate you on this monumental labor of love and wish to honor you for it.
We would like to present this award to you at the upcoming 34th Annual Saturn Awards. The show will take place on Tuesday, June 24, at the Universal Hilton in Universal City, California (right on the hill where Universal Studios sits). If you and Donna are able to attend, I can assure you that you will be surrounded by many admirers and peers who feel the same as I do about your work. I know this would be a memorable occasion for both of you. I hope you will be able to fit this into your schedule. It would be our great honor to see you receive earned accolades at the 34th Annual Saturn Awards.
Thanks so much, Tim, for your years of hard work and devotion. It is greatly appreciated by those who work within the fields of genre entertainment.

Sincerely,
Robert Holguin
President – The Saturn Awards
Naturally, Donna and I are delighted by the news and we hope to attend the Saturn Awards ceremony in June to accept this honor in person.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Alain Robbe-Grillet Exits the Labyrinth

Novelist and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet has passed away at the age of 85. This news saddens me, because he has been prominent on my short list of personal heroes for most of my life; but it also excites me because a great deal of his recent work -- including the second two volumes of imaginative autobiography begun with GHOSTS IN THE MIRROR -- has yet to be translated into English and the lack of new product, as well as the perspective his death will bring to his existing oeuvre, will doubtless compel this long-overdue work to be done.

I was introduced to Robbe-Grillet by my friend Robert Uth when I was still in my teens, with the famous Grove Press double of JEALOUSY and IN THE LABYRINTH, which pictured the author himself peering through the slats of a jalousie shade or venetian blind. This gesture was, in itself, instructive as it encouraged me, as a young reader and writer, to imagine the author as protagonist; he vigorously denied any such association, but as time has shown, he delighted in tweaking and provoking his audience. The two novellas, two of his greatest, were preceded by analytic essays by Bruce Morrissette and others, which helped me to contextualize these revolutionary, ambigous, objectivist works of fiction -- examples of the so-called "Nouveau Roman" ("New Novel"). I discovered them ten years or more after they were "new," but they remained absolutely unlike anything else I had read. They taught me, before I discovered Nabokov, about the value of scientific detail in description and word selection, yet they also went extraordinarily afield of the Flaubertian search for the mot juste ("right word"). It was Robbe-Grillet's example that taught me, more than either Burroughs or Ballard, that a novel can be a psychological playground where the narrative possibilities are limited only by the author's own imagination and capacity for candor. Robbe-Grillet delighted in slowing down time, collapsing it, having it swallow its own tail, and having key episodes repeat like a hiccup, subtly altering them with each repetition. He was similarly fearless in allowing aspects of the fantastic to encroach upon settings constructed with meticulous realism.

His first published novel, THE ERASERS, was a detective novel based on the Oedipus myth (its basic idea was later echoed by Lucio Fulci's film THE PSYCHIC), and his second, the award-winning THE VOYEUR (Polanski should have filmed this long ago), was an oblique investigation into the death of a young woman told from the perspective of her murderer. (Two ropes looped into figure-eights are found at the scene of the crime, and the novel's first printing by Editions Gallimard arranged to have the murder scene -- a blank page gap in the narrative -- printed on page 88.) JEALOUSY upped the ante by implying the murder of a woman by her jealous husband while leaving the reader absolutely unsure of whether or not the crime had been committed or merely contemplated; if the English translation by Richard Howard is any indication, it contains some of Robbe-Grillet's most beautiful writing. With LA MAISON DE RENDEZVOUS (which appeared in the UK as THE HOUSE OF ASSIGNATION), Robbe-Grillet began to more frankly explore his own erotic nature -- which he admitted in interviews inclined toward the sadomasochistic -- and, I believe, his personal interest in pulp fictional tropes and forms. (Brad Stevens' book on Monte Hellman reveals that LA MAISON DE RENDEZVOUS has long been an unfulfilled dream project of Hellman's.) My own personal favorite of Robbe-Grillet's novels is PROJECT FOR A REVOLUTION IN NEW YORK, a febrile dreamscape that occupies a nightmare version of the great city, which Douglas E. Winter and I believe is one of the great unheralded horror novels of the late 20th century. When David Bowie sang on his DIAMOND DOGS album of Hunger City, where shops sold "bulletproof faces of Charlie Manson, Cassius Clay," that's pure PROJECT FOR A REVOLUTION IN NEW YORK -- a novel whose malignant atmosphere I've only seen approximated on film by Dario Argento's INFERNO.
Robbe-Grillet's later novels, like REFLECTIONS OF THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE and TOPOGRAPHY OF A PHANTOM CITY, tended to be reworkings of texts originally written for limited editions and art installations; they're fascinating, but somewhat less than full-strength Robbe-Grillet. His last novel to be translated into English was REPETITION, which I haven't yet read, but which was praised by musician John Cale as offering perfection in every paragraph.

And then there is Robbe-Grillet's work as a screenwriter, director and actor -- which I suppose also diffused the energies he once applied solely to his fiction. His maiden effort at screenwriting, LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, was directed by Alain Resnais (whom AR-G grew to resent because he received great acclaim for "simply" following his script to the letter) and was received with great controversy, yet feted internationally. Robbe-Grillet proceeded to direct his own scripts; they are conspicuously more the work of LAST YEAR's auteur than anything Resnais directed subsequently, yet it was Resnais who gave that film its essential measure of quality, in terms of its casting, direction, and production value. All of Robbe-Grillet's dozen-or-so films were modestly budgeted, often cast with actors perceived as having the right look rather than adequate acting range (which made them more apparent as mere chesspieces in his various games), and lacking in the glorious style that Resnais and cameraman Sascha Vierny brought to their great collaboration, and which was always present on the pages he wrote. The highlights of Robbe-Grillet's film work are his earliest, the underrated L'IMMORTELLE (1963, starring Françoise Brion) and TRANS EUROP EXPRESS (1966), the most approachable of all his works, in which he stars as himself, accompanied by his wife Catherine, an actress/dominatrix who wrote the S&M novel THE IMAGE with Robbe-Grillet under the nom de plume "Jean De Berg"). The movie finds him improvising a mystery story while travelling by train with his wife and editor, after spotting actor Jean-Louis Trintignant (who becomes the de facto protagonist) also aboard. Trintignant enjoyed the experience and worked with Robbe-Grillet again in other pictures like the extraordinary THE MAN WHO LIES (1968, which, like LAST YEAR, utilized an unreliable protagonist whose insistence on providing possible backstories generates the self-mythifying storyline) and PLAYING WITH FIRE (1975). The author himself occasionally appeared in small roles in other director's films, the most recent example being TIME REGAINED (1999), Raoul Ruiz's elegant distillation of Marcel Proust's seven-volume roman fleuve REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST -- a work whose unmoored handling of time and tendrilous sentence structure must have been influential to him. Only last year did the first of Robbe-Grillet's films arrive on DVD: LA BELLE CAPTIVE (1983) -- not one of his best, and an unworthy transfer in any case. One hopes that, with Robbe-Grillet's death, a stubborn wall will topple to make this body of work more accessible.
The emphasis placed by Robbe-Grillet's films on nudity, sadomasochism, fetishism, ghosts and vampires have led them to be included in written overviews of Eurohorror such as Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs' IMMORAL TALES -- an identification that the filmmaker resented and resisted. By the same token, throughout his career, he would consent to collaborate only with historians capable of discussing his work on the theoretical planes he approved, resisting any published form of popular appraisal. He also insisted throughout his career that there was no psychological content in his objectivist fiction, stories that were allegedly about places and things rather than people. But, as his fan Vladimir Nabokov happily brayed in response, "Robbe-Grillet's claims are preposterous!" -- their entire substance is psychological, in the best possible tradition.
My own first experiments in fiction, written in the mid-1970s, were highly imitative of him; I can remember embarking on a novel that was to be set entirely on a sparsely furnished street corner, its perspective rotating between a man passing a department store's display window and that of the mannequin inside. It hurt a little at the time, but Bob Uth did me the great favor of weaning me from those raw tendencies with some valuably blunt, constructive criticism. The funny thing is that everything I was going to use in that untitled project, except the imitative way in which I had approached the material, has come into play in my, shall we say, mature fiction. There are places in both of my published novels where time seems to liquify and the tense becomes delirious, and this is at least partly the influence of Robbe-Grillet, tenpered by my own voice and my own experience.

In all the years since I first discovered this author with the beautiful name, his alphabetically named characters, and his exotic ports of imagination, I doubt there have been many days when I haven't thought of Robbe-Grillet in passing, or reproached myself for not getting around to reading this or that unread book, or observed something through the perspective his work specifically shared with me. He left a brand, much more than a mark, on my own imagination. He shaped me -- not just the writer I am -- as much as any other teacher or life example I've had, and unlike the living agent of that influence, whom I never knew, these gifts are too deeply assimilated to ever be missed.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

A Big Rondo for the Little Lady?

Donna burning the midnight oil as she designs the discography layout for the Bava book, with lil' Pip riding shotgun, on March 10, 2007.
I filled out my Rondo Classic Horror Awards ballot a couple of nights ago and sent it in, but last night I received an e-mail from a friendly reader and customer that jolted my thinking about a particular category.
Tim Hammell of Calgary, Alberta wrote: "Just did my Rondo voting with MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK as Best Book, yourself as Best Writer for said book, and wrote in Donna as Best Artist for book design of said book."
This friendly note was gratifying to read, but especially for the part that had nothing to do with me. I'm on the ballot for the Bava book, but to be perfectly honest, I had not considered Donna for the Best Artist category and had cast my vote for someone else, someone who paints and draws. But as soon as I read Tim's note, I knew immediately that Donna was not only worthy of the award, but -- as I had witnessed at first hand -- had done more to earn it this year than anyone else. The wording of the category guidelines only served to further solidify my conviction:
25. ARTIST OF THE YEAR (for 2007)
Not your favorite all-time artist (although they might be the same), but which painter, illustrator, model-maker or designer did the best published (or online), work in 2007?
The key word here is "designer." Most everyone who received the Bava book has written or called to tell us how overwhelming it is visually, and I know myself that it actually satisfies the reader on purely visual and visceral levels before they read a word of my text. What Donna achieved with her design of the book is extraordinary, and if you agree, I ask that you consider Donna Lucas as your choice for Best Artist of 2007. Or -- if you've already voted, like me -- there is still the option of writing to Rondomeister David Colton at taraco@aol.com and reconsidering your previous vote.
Donna is the first to remind people who compliment her efforts on the book that she was assisted in her labors by people who are more deserving of being called artists -- Charlie Largent, Simonida Perica-Uth, and Matt Bradshaw -- but I can personally testify that it was Donna's vision of the book that guided them all, and that she and her computer were the final filters through which all of her assistants' digital work had to be passed, processed, and finally applied to page.
I think it's wonderful that the Rondo rules are flexible enough to allow for the recognition for the superhuman work she did. If you were impressed by the book, I would naturally appreciate your vote in the appropriate category or categories, but I would particularly love to see Donna win a Rondo all her own for what she contributed to MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Recorded at the Real Tombs of Horror!

2007 was an outstanding year for movie soundtrack discs; indeed, the market has become so vast yet specialized that it's easy for some very worthy small label releases to be overlooked. A good case in point is Elysee Productions' 1000-unit limited pressing of Tito Arevalo's soundtrack for the Hemisphere drive-in classic MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND (1969). This is the kind of "impossible dream" release that should be causing all horror fans of my generation to froth joyously green at the mouth, but I haven't found much discussion about it online. It didn't make the ballot for the 2007 Rondo Awards either, so I was obliged to cast my vote on its behalf as a write-in -- and was proud to do so.

True, the score -- played by a smallish Filipino orchestra with choir and recorded in mono -- isn't particularly tuneful, but it is original, distinctive, and played with a lot of sweat, saliva and brio. I don't think any other soundtrack CD in my collection quite as effectively conjures up memories of my own grindhouse experience. Listening to this deliriously woozy music, equal parts voodoo exotica and barroom brawl, one is sorely tempted to shake the images in the illustrated booklet violently in front of one's face to fully recreate the experience of the zoom-crazed picture. Tracks 11 and 18 in particular will make fans of Hemisphere and Independent-International's movies squirm in delight because they seem like the theme music for something like 90% of their horror trailers.

The disc has a total running time of 50:43, the main sequence consisting of 20 cues with an additional 14 bonus tracks, including a few with bilingual studio chatter -- which adds greatly to the atmosphere and documentary value of the release and is at least as wondrous a thing to own as the music itself. ("It's incredible! It's unbelieeeeeevable!" as Brother Theodore famously opined.) But the finest additional value brought to these previously unissued recordings is the eight-page full-color annotated booklet written by disc producer Tim Ferrante, who presents a forensically detailed account of how this music came to be recorded, used, reused (in the movie BRAIN OF BLOOD and the trailers for CHILLER CARNIVAL OF BLOOD and BLOOD-O-RAMA SHOCK FESTIVAL), and even re-recorded (the same music was later rerecorded with a smaller orchestra to provide score for BEAST OF BLOOD). A useful bio of Tito Arevalo, who died in 2000, is also included, along with photos of the original session reels and a rare MAD DOCTOR giveaway doll (only a few of these are known to still exist).

The MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND soundtrack is available from Xploited Cinema here for $19.95 -- admittedly a trifle steep for a domestic single-disc release, but reasonable when one considers the rarity of its limited pressing and the scholarship that went into its liner notes. It can also be obtained directly from the Elysee Productions website, where you can read more about the disc and actually sample some of its ineffable sounds in Real Audio or mp3 format. Here's a link to an interview with Tim Ferrante about the production. I encourage you to support this release, which can only encourage Mr. Ferrante and Company to undertake others in the same vein in the months and years ahead.

Speaking of the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards, a few weeks still remain for casting your votes. Voting ends at 12:00am midnight (eastern time) on March 8, so use the link above to support your favorite nominees and write-in candidates while you still can!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

What Some DVD Distributors Find Unthinkable

Dietrich Kerky is tempted by hitchhiker Ingeborg Steinbach in an especially exuberant episode of SCHOOLGIRL REPORT 3.

On the Mobius Home Video Forum, Don May, Jr. of Synapse Films has announced that Xploited Cinema has agreed to assume all distribution duties for Impulse Pictures' new DVD release of SCHOOLGIRL REPORT #3: WHAT PARENTS FIND UNTHINKABLE. Impulse -- a sub-label marketed by Synapse -- took special precautions to ensure that this 1972 sequel (co-directed by Walter Boos and Ernst Hofbauer) was uncut, in response to earlier complaints about a missing segment from their supposedly complete release of Hofbauer's SCHOOLGIRL REPORT #1 (1970). Evidently, the uncut content of this particular film was too much for Synapse's usual distributor to bear; after examining a preview disc, they refused to issue it.

Admittedly, SCHOOLGIRL REPORT #3 is one of the darker and bolder films in the series, featuring a few vignettes involving teenage rape at the hands of school officials, peers and pedophiles. However, the bothersome segment in question is undoubtedly one that features some fleeting prepubescent male nudity in a story about a teenage girl who volunteers to satisfy her younger cousin's curiosity about the ways in which their bodies differ. Granted, the boy's nudity can be a bit startling to American sensibilities, but let's be realistic: there is no erotic contact between the girl and boy (which one couldn't say, for example, of a similar scene between Laura Dern and Lukas Haas in RAMBLING ROSE) nor does the scene show anything couldn't be seen on a nude beach.

The film also has its share of more lighthearted, comic vignettes, two of which feature the respectively aged and twitchy series regulars Rosyl Mayr and Michael Schreiner, and there's a remarkably zesty romp -- one of the most erotic in the entire series -- involving doctor/father Dietrich Kerky and experience-seeking student Ingeborg Steinbach in which both performers appear to be enjoying the hell out of themselves... and each other. Jess Franco veteran Erik Falk is also featured in the final episode.

Thanks to the folks at Impulse, Synapse and Xploited for going the extra mile with this important Euro-exploitation series. Here's a link to the SCHOOLGIRL REPORT #3 ordering page at Xploited Cinema. They also have the first two releases in the series, as well as a highly collectable, full-color, 82-page souvenir magazine featuring dozens of poster and stills reproductions, as well as articles and bios pertaining to each film in the series and their key cast and crew members.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Steve Gerber: Gone from a World He Never Made

I am feeling very saddened by the news of comics creator Steve Gerber's passing from pulmonary fibrosis at the too-young age of 60. I stopped reading comics when I discovered higher forms of literature in my mid-teens, and it took Gerber's HOWARD THE DUCK to bring me back to them in my twenties.

I can remember with great clarity the day I discovered the book on the racks, when it was in its third issue, and it quickly became a passion that left me seeking out the back issues and Howard's back history; it also got me started drawing cigar-smoking ducks which adorned our refrigerator and were also left scattered about our apartment to convey messages to my wife. I bought duck posters like "The Duccaneer" and another one that depicted a Howard-like duck wielding a tommy gun in a scene out of THE UNTOUCHABLES. It was a sweet time of life. I got so deeply into Gerber's brand of comic book existentialism -- that's exactly what HOWARD was, a populist form of Sartre mixed with Groucho Marx -- that I also wrote my first and only letter to Marvel Comics in a lifetime of devoted reading, which appeared in HOWARD THE DUCK #10.

I never met or communicated with Steve Gerber directly, but somehow -- I don't recall how it came together -- I learned that the inspiration for the Duck lived in my hometown of Cincinnati and I tracked him down. Howard Tockman, apparently a college buddy of Gerber's and an aspiring writer, came to our apartment on Dixmyth Avenue with his wife and consented to an interview for CINCINNATI Magazine -- as the first in a series of projected interviews with so-called "Cincinnati Dreamers" -- which they never used. I must still have the article somewhere in my attic files, but I do have a comics newspaper with Howard the Duck on the cover that Howard himself cordially signed. A nice souvenir of those heady times.

Steve Gerber left behind him a good deal more accomplishment than many do, but his death remains a bitter pill -- not just because he was comparatively young, but because we know that he spent much of his prime fighting with his employers over issues like character rights, which ultimately prevented him from leaving behind as much as he might have. It seemed that the initial run of HOWARD THE DUCK ended almost as soon as it hit its stride, and its second incarnation under Gerber was forced by the looming shadow of Disney to evolve into a bizarre mutant strain of its original self, with Howard becoming a rather ratty-looking mouse. But the worst insult of all was the atrocious 1986 Lucasfilm movie adaptation, which eclipsed the actual character in the consciousness of most people and gave the whole franchise -- which included a daily newspaper strip -- the bouquet of stinky cheese.

A couple of years ago, a surge of nostalgia and the right price on eBay inspired me to plunk down for a complete set of HOWARD THE DUCK -- the original comic, the black-and-white magazines, the reboot, the specials, the early appearance books, everything. It held up splendidly, and while it certainly took me back to a specific time and place in my life and heart, I also found it possessed of a certain timeless quality that comes only with art that earnestly speaks the truth. The satiric humor of the book was undeniable, as was its warmth and wit, but what stood out most for me was the pride and passion of Howard's war cry: "Waugh!" Times like ours need that cry, and heroes like Howard the Duck. That's why our world tried to crush and conform him.

I did not know until reading about his death that Steve Gerber had a blog. It is now being handled by his friend Mark Evanier, who hopes to keep it online in an effort to preserve the writing that Gerber did for it and also to give fans a place to vent their feelings of loss over this and coming weeks. Evanier also wrote a moving piece about Gerber on his own blog, News From ME, which you can find by scrolling down here. If Steve Gerber's work meant something to you, you might want to click on these links to read more of and about him. I must plead guilty to unfamiliarity with the greater breadth and depth of his work, but I knew enough of it for his loss to mark a difference in my life. His work will be cherished as he will be missed.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Introducing Ann Carter... and Two Watchdogs

Our next issue is now at the printer, which means it's time for all the teasing to come to an end and for your curiosity to be rewarded.

The much-anticipated main feature in VW 137 is the first career-length interview ever granted by 1940s child actress Ann Carter, best known for her performance as little Amy Reed in Val Lewton's classic THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944) — conducted by award-winning film historian Tom Weaver. The photo above, showing Ann with two dogs that appear to have padded out of a stage production of PETER PAN, is a rare promotional shot taken on the set of the film... and just the beginning of a bounty of rare images soon to be unveiled in VIDEO WATCHDOG.

Ann talked to Tom quite a bit about her signature role, and about working with the film's two directors, but did you also know that she also worked with the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Edgar G. Ulmer, Lillian Gish, Paul Muni, Veronica Lake, John Farrow, Fred Zinnemann, and Joseph Losey, just to name a few? Hers is an amazing story, not just because she happened to appear in so many classics of the 1940s, but because of the unusual details of her personal life, including the reason why she had to abandon her acting career in 1951. She also responds to the long-circulating rumor that she was killed in an automobile accident in 1978!
We've gone all out with this issue, one of the very best we've done in our 18-year history. Our coverage includes not only Tom's interview, but a total assortment of more than 40 rare (and many never-before-published) photos from Ann's personal collection, and an appreciative introductory essay by Yours Truly. Plus all of our usual features — the reviews, the columns by Ramsey Campbell and Douglas E. Winter, the Letterbox, and more.
The photo above is my way of announcing that there are two Ann Carter issues of VIDEO WATCHDOG coming your way: the regular edition that will be sent to our subscribers and newsstands, and also a VW SIGNATURE EDITION, with unique outside and inside covers, each copy of which will be personally autographed by Ann herself on the front in silver pen — the first fan autographs she has signed in half a century! The VW SIGNATURE EDITION (#2, following our Donnie Dunagan SE #1 of 2004) goes on advance sale today. It will be strictly limited to only 200 copies, so if you count yourself as one of Amy's friends... claim your copy now, while supplies last!
I know you're eager to see the breathtaking covers that Charlie Largent has designed for these two editions (and I mean that; he's outdone himself), and also to see what else is set for the issue, so here's what you've been waiting for — a direct link to our website's "Coming Soon" page, where you'll find both covers, a clickable preview of the interior, and an FAQ about the VW SIGNATURE EDITION #2.
And yes, copies of the VW SIGNATURE EDITION #1 -- personally signed by SON OF FRANKENSTEIN's Donnie Dunagan (also the voice of Bambi) -- are still available!

Friday, February 08, 2008

More Eddie Constantine... from Criterion!

I was taken by surprise last night, while watching Agnes Varda's CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 (1961) for the first time, to find Eddie Constantine and some other luminaries of the French New Wave making cameo appearances in a charming little film-within-the-film. Criterion's new disc of CLEO, included in their quietly wondrous box set 4 BY AGNES VARDA, includes the entire short film -- Les Fiancés du Pont Macdonald -- as one of the supplements, along with commentary by the director.

In the film, shot in the style of a silent comedy, two young lovers have a sentimental parting on the Macdonald bridge -- a place, we're told, that's no longer extant. The lovers, seen here, are played by none other than Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina. Varda recalls that she was inspired to make this little film because she resented Godard's habit of always wearing sunglasses because she thought his eyes were beautiful. In her film, after the lovers part, Godard dons his "lunettes noirs" and watches his beloved skip away... but everything that was white about her a moment ago -- her dress, her shoes, her hair, even her skin -- has turned black, when seen through his dusky lenses. (David Cronenberg told me, during the filming of VIDEODROME, that he couldn't remember an earlier example of a film that contrasted subjective realities, but here it is -- twenty years earlier -- in a comic context.)

Anna skips merrily down to the quay where she trips on a hose, attracting the attention of Eddie Constantine, who is rinsing off the stonework of the landing. Eddie's in blackface and charmed by "meeting cute" with this temporarily ebony goddess. He raises his hose into frame for a double entendre.

Godard witnesses this from afar and removes his glasses to dash to Anna's rescue. Everything is white again (except Eddie), and an ambulance driven by Jean-Claude Brialy arrives to assist the fallen girl.

I don't think Anna Karina has ever been more beautiful than when she sits up from her pratfall, batting her eyelashes. Godard intervenes before the handsome doctors, stealing peeks up her dress, can spirit her away, and the short concludes with the two lovers returning atop the bridge and kissing in celebration after the repentant Godard throws his "damned sun-glasses" into the Seine.

Without his glasses, Godard looks remarkably like the later British actor Robert Powell and the sequence indeed plays like one of the stylistic vignettes from Ken Russell's MAHLER (which starred Powell) or LISZTOMANIA, made in the mid-1970s. It is a treat to see how wonderfully well all of the participants adapted to this antiquated manner of filmmaking, with Godard especially evoking comparisons to the likes of Buster Keaton (no small compliment, of course), and Agnes Varda also conforming to filmmaking techniques quite unlike her own with such studied success. I had assumed, while watching CLEO FROM 5 TO 7, that Varda must have filmed this short while Godard, Karina and Constantine were working together on ALPHAVILLE, but no... both CLEO and this short date from 1961, so this was in fact the first collaboration of Team Alphaville.
CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 chronicles, in real time (actually closer to "from 5 to 6:30"), roughly two hours in the life of a pampered, alienated yé-yé singer (Corinne Marchand) awaiting test results from a cancer exam. Dreading the worst, she embarks on a walk through Paris and we discover, with her, just how much a person and their outlook on life can change in such a short time. Criterion's disc includes a wonderful 35m documentary by Varda that reunites her with the film's cast and crew, and it's a wonderful chaser to a lovely and surprisingly profound experience.
The disc also includes Varda's early experimental short L'opera mouffe (1956), which reminded me of work in the short form that David Lynch would only achieve after a passing of twenty years or more. It also rewrites all the film history books I have ever read, moving back the advent of full frontal female nudity on the screen by approximately a decade. It's powerful, sensual, deeply felt work.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

On Reading Sax Rohmer's YELLOW SHADOWS

As a boy, I collected Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu novels in paperback yet never read them; I liked them for their association value, and for their evocative cover art. Much later, about ten years ago, I became interested in Rohmer's work anew and read a few titles. I started with BAT-WING -- not one of his better titles, but it was enough to make me want to read another, and the next ones were good enough to dedicate me to his work wholly: I began haunting eBay and didn't stop until I had acquired all his work in hardcover.

I read a dozen or so his novels and story collections -- finding his black magic novels BROOD OF THE WITCH-QUEEN and GREY FACE superior to the rest, and delighting at discovering the roots of Chandu and Dr. Strange in THE DREAM DETECTIVE -- before deciding that I needed a change, but the books have remained on display in my attic, where the limited space of my downstairs floors dictates I must hoard my fiction. While paying a visit to the attic the other night, a title on my Rohmer shelf jumped out at me and I simply had to read it, there and then. It was his 1925 novel YELLOW SHADOWS.

It turned out to be a Limehouse (Chinatown) variation on a locked room mystery, in which a playwright enamored of a young actress finds himself embroiled in the murder of a London Tong leader, who is discovered dead -- but still breathing, a macabre side-effect of the exotic poison used on him -- in a sealed room of his Limehouse mansion. The story wears its melodramatic stripes proudly, but there is enough of striking atmospheric value herein to make me think this might still be adapted into an entertaining film. There is an exotic femme fatale named Suzee Lo Chee who is described in ways that recalled to me the Myrna Loy of THIRTEEN WOMEN, which wasn't made until 1932 -- seven years later. To my surprise, the big scare of the book involves a character who, feeling increasingly nervous in his cottage rooms on a stormy night, suddenly throws open the curtains of the room to view the extent of the bad weather and discovers the huge, pock-marked face of a Chinese stalker mashed hideously against the outer glass, looking in. This was almost 40 years before Richard Matheson wrote the same scare into his classic TWILIGHT ZONE episode, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." (I wonder -- did Matheson read YELLOW SHADOWS?)

After much accumulation of romance and incident, YELLOW SHADOWS ends -- abruptly, I felt, as does much of Rohmer's work that was originally written on tight deadlines for pulp magazine and newspaper serialization -- with one of the primary characters receiving an anonymous package, whose enclosure of a single jade earring identifies the sender as Suzee Lo Chee. The note invites the British lawman to return to China someday, confirming that he now has friends there. I find this ending hopeful and significant.

Whenever anyone bothers to write about Rohmer today, it's rare to find anyone able to look sufficiently past their own smug, "politically correct" times to consider him as anything other than a racist -- a writer who sensationalized the Chinese immigrant influx of his day as a malevolent, subhuman force intruding upon the purity and tradition of Great Britain in the early 20th century. While Rohmer certainly did exploit the phrase "Yellow Peril" in his earliest Fu Manchu stories, he did not originate it -- and though he described the arch-enemy of Sir Dennis Nayland Smith as an obscene caricature of every dogface's worst nightmare about the Far East, Rohmer was anything but a white supremacist. Even the most demonizing of his yarns offer tantalizing descriptions that present us with a man torn by Orientalia, a little concerned about its rising presence in his country's midst but also rapturously tempted to succumb to it.

In YELLOW SHADOWS (whose title incidentally refers to the yellowish hue of the heavy night fogs in Limehouse -- the author apologizes in advance for any other interpretation in a brief foreword), he uses the telling phrase "attractive yet repellent" in reference to the Chinese. Mind you, this is 1925: Rohmer is not using the word "repellent" as a synonym for "loathsome," but to indicate their resistance to his interest, their inscrutability. He finds them fascinating but alienating. His characters reach out to them at times, but often find that, however one may be drawn to their beauties and mysteries, they carry with them a persistent and unemotive reminder that the Western ways do not exist for them. Rohmer respects them and their right to their own cultures and traditions, which makes me to see him as more of an anti-Imperialist than a racist. Racism works from a position of power to denigrate and disempower, and this is not at all what is at work in his novels. Rohmer's Asian characters are formidable, knowing and sophisticated. They often are in possession of answers to eternal questions that the English have yet to learn to ask of themselves. Rohmer's stance in relation to them is not that of a racist, but that of a fetishist.

It's important for readers to remember that China and Great Britain were great and geographically opposed empires, meeting for the first time on Britain's home turf. Chinese immigrants were a fairly new element in Britain during Rohmer's day, often forced by poverty to dwell in the less respectable areas of town, and this lowly social standing, and the language barrier, fostered mutual feelings of distrust and secrecy. Even at their most open and communicative, the two peoples were only beginning to interact with, to conform to one another. Rohmer's writing and personal habits show him to have been actually progressive -- in contrast to the xenophobia otherwise common among the native classes -- in terms of being sincerely interested in the exoticism and strangeness of the Asian people. Cay Van Ash's biography MASTER OF VILLAINY tells stories of how Rohmer would sometimes disappear from home for days to live among Chinese immigrants in boarding houses, observing them, coming to a better understanding of them. Fu Manchu himself becomes a more recognizably human character over the course of the 14 different books Rohmer wrote about him, which is perhaps why some readers find the later books in the series lacking.

The primary Chinese characters in YELLOW SHADOWS are wealthy, fascinating, and more sophisticated and at ease with the ways of the world than their authoritative but sometimes fumbling English counterparts. Much of the book's subtext concerns establishing a trust -- not between nations (that's still impossible!), but between people of different nations -- each respecting the other's right to its own traditions, beliefs and sacred secrets. Rohmer's interest was clearly as sexual as it was aesthetical. His British and Asian characters not only work together toward common goals, while mutually respecting the laws and codes of their respective empires, they also kiss.

Rohmer was a superior stylist to, say, Edgar Wallace -- a more cinematic storyteller, too -- but it's true that his work doesn't have the subtlety that the open-minded now demand from such subject matter. Our world is a lot smaller today, and we take international relations so much for granted that they have lost their former charge of magic and exoticism. For Sax Rohmer, when Western man met Eastern woman, the air crackled with electricity as surely as it did when Adam first encountered Eve. Without early thinkers and dramatists as dedicated as Rohmer to seeking common ground between East and West -- and for a grass roots readership, no less -- it might have taken our world a good deal longer to find an in-between. It's important to read him, and to read past the early Fu Manchu novels, to get at the true heart of his infatuated, mystified, and outreaching body of work.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Carlos Aured (1937-2008)

The website European Film Review is reporting the death of Spanish filmmaker Carlos Aured (Alonso), who evidently succumbed to a heart attack on February 3.

Aured is best-known to readers of this blog as the director of several significant Paul Naschy titles, all made in his most important year, 1973. They were HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB (El Espanto surge de la tomba, 1973; recently released on DVD by BFI Eclipse), CURSE OF THE DEVIL (El Retorno de Walpurgis, available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment), THE BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL aka HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN (Los Ojos azules de la muñeca rota, coming from BCI Eclipse on March 25) and THE MUMMY'S REVENGE (La Venganza de la Momia).
After this, as Naschy notes with regret in his autobiography MEMOIRS OF A WOLFMAN, something happened to destroy their working relationship. Under contract to Profilmes, Naschy was told that he would be making another picture with Aured and to call him for more details. When Naschy phoned, Aured "coldly and categorically" informed him that there was no role in the picture suitable for him. "I was absolutely stunned," Naschy writes, "and quickly phoned up the producer... but there was nothing he could do about it: Carlos Aured had already signed the contracts and had the upper hand." (p. 121) Perhaps Aured had sound reasons, perhaps he was wary of limiting himself by being branded "a Naschy director," but the Spanish genre cinema didn't offer many options. When Naschy took over the direction of his own projects, the Spanish horror cinema fell on even tighter times and Aured -- like Jess Franco and others -- retreated into soft- and hardcore sex programming, the best-known of which is 1982's Apocalipsis sexual, starring Lina Romay and transexual actress Ajita Wilson.
Aured (who got his start as an assistant to director Leon Klimovsky) was perhaps not as important a collaborator to Naschy as, say, Javier Aguirre; however, all of his horror films reflect a mastery of gothic atmosphere and contain some compelling set-pieces. HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB, particularly, is remembered as one of Naschy's best outings and is cited by Naschy himself as a "really emblematic title." It was Aured's first feature and, aside from some naked overreliance on the zoom, it's an effective fusion of horror and eroticism that manages to straddle the different centuries of its storyline with more grace than some other, higher profile horror pictures. The filmmakers had studied Mario Bava's La maschera del demonio well, and the picture gave Helga Liné one of her most popular genre roles. THE BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL was hailed by many fans for offering Naschy one of his more offbeat roles, and there's nary a character in the picture who isn't offbeat (the most memorable is Diana Lorys as the sister with the metal hand). THE MUMMY'S REVENGE (reviewed here on September 6, 2006) was an arrestingly brutal twist on the Mummy legends with impressive atmosphere, and CURSE OF THE DEVIL is one of Naschy's best "Waldemar Daninsky" films, slickly produced and boasting one of the actor's best werewolf makeups.
BCI Eclipse's DVD of HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB features an audio commentary that reunites the long-alienated Aured and Naschy. Despite its rough edges, it was an important document for that reason alone, and now it seems doubly important to anyone with a love for Spanish horror.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

VIDEODROME Turns 25

Notebook in hand, your friendly blogger observes Steve Johnson as he applies gore to the body of Barry Convex. From my first day on the VIDEODROME set, December 1981.
Photo (c) Donna Lucas


Going to the Mobius Home Video Forum today, I was surprised to find a thread in progress noting that David Cronenberg's VIDEODROME made its bow in 600 North American theaters 25 years ago, yesterday. People were being asked for their recollections, with a "cough, cough" aimed in my particular direction. Having taken the time to post a lengthy reply, I feel I should post it here as well, for the benefit of my daily visitors and also to help me keep track of it in the future:

I'm amazed to see this thread because, just last night (on the anniversary, as it were), I finished proofreading my book on VIDEODROME for Millipede Press. Today I have to attend to some photo captions and then I should be done, except for signing off on the changes to the text once they've been made.

I'm very pleased with the way the book is turning out, and I feel grateful toward my younger self for the extent and vigor of his curiosity. Piers Handling of the Academy of Canadian Cinema read an early draft of this material and said it was the best production history of a Canadian film he'd ever read; I don't think there's any question that it's better now, with one foot in 1981, 82 and 83 and the other in 2008.

I have a lot of memories connected to this film, including being present for James Woods' first bullet squib shot -- he was scared at first, but jubilant afterwards and cheerfully showed us the red mark caused by its concussion on his chest -- and laughing a lot at his on-set humor and antics.

I saw Les Carlson in his long underwear while his bullet squibs were being removed. He kept putting off our interview all day, then finally agreed to talk with me as he was having the squibs taken off at the end of a long day. The next morning, the production manager got in my face because Les had billed her overtime because of my interview! In fact, the production manager came close to throwing me off the set the very first day because, although I arrived with Cronenberg's approval, he had failed to get the production's permission for me to be there, and everything was top, top secret.

I remember Rick Baker talking on the set about the difficulties of having to be a business manager for EFX as well as an artist. He spoke to me more than once about wanting to retire, when he had enough money, and spend his life sculpting animals. I always heard reggae playing in his workshop, but in our last interview, he confided to me that he didn't really care for reggae, that it was his concession to the guys in EFX, whose average age was 20. I remember standing next to Rick one day, seeing that he was about a head shorter than me, and realizing that this was the guy who had played King Kong opposite Jessica Lange. Kong's hotel room was in the penthouse of the tallest building in Toronto and I stood with him on the balcony overlooking the city.

I remember being under the stage, pulling the cable that tore Barry Convex's upper lip as he had his memorable death scene. We were all wearing garbage bags to protect our clothes from the overrun of Karo blood and it was like being in a submarine. A pretty crew member sitting next to me began to strip and stopped when she got down to a T-shirt that said "Courage, My Love." Needless to say, I've never forgotten her and she's in the book.

I remember telling Cronenberg at the wrap party in March, as Elvis Costello sang in the background (on tape), that Philip K. Dick had just died.

I remember feeling a visceral reaction to my first viewing of the movie, partly engendered by the lower frequencies of Howard Shore's amazing score, and going to Cronenberg's house for dinner after my screening. David seemed nervous at first -- but relieved when I shook his hand and called him "Maestro." I was elated and, I'm sure, cursed more than was appropriate over dinner. I was young and in rarified air.

The movie itself is a miracle. It was shot by the seat of everyone's pants, without a firm middle or end, had a series of disastrous previews as it was being cut together, and somehow came together as what it is in the editing room. It bears little resemblance to any script I read. I love the movie but don't feel it is the perfect expression of what Cronenberg was going after; the time and money simply weren't there. VIDEODROME succeeds on the strength and vision of its ideas rather than how they coalesce into a story. As always, always happened on Cronenberg's films, some of the best scripted stuff got left out for some reason or other.

I later visited the sets of DEAD ZONE and THE FLY but with their escalating budgets and higher profile prima donna stars and various related/unrelated tensions, some of which were my own fault, they were not on the whole as pleasurable to visit. Overlooking the film's failure at the boxoffice, and the failure of my work to surface in any faithful version till sometime later this year, I regard VIDEODROME as one of my life's happiest adventures.

Millipede Press will be publishing my book on VIDEODROME in the spring.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Cet YouTube est dangereux...

Anna et Eddie dans le jardin d'IBM: Jean-Luc Godard's ALPHAVILLE (1965).

Here's my Sunday menu to a fistful of Eddie Constantine fun over at YouTube:

A link to a 7:32 Eddie Constantine tribute that features a good deal of wonderful poster art and a soundtrack of 2 & 1/2 of Eddie's songs. He sings well... in fact, now I understand why he was never a member of the Rat Pack: he would have shown the others up as a bunch of poseurs.

A cool trailer for the 1959 actioner HOT MONEY GIRL, which pitted Eddie against Christopher Lee and even more closely against Dawn Addams. I want to see it!

A clip from S.O.S. PACIFIC (also 1959) that shows Eddie conferring with CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF's Clifford Evans before showing the gumption that may lead mankind to survival. I want to see it too!

More fun from correspondent Torsten Dewi, who writes: "I have just uploaded a clip of what must be Eddie Constantine's weirdest appearance as Lemmy Caution. He guest starred in two episodes of the positively avantgarde Austrian crime comedy KOTTAN ERMITTELT in the early 80's. He's not dubbed - but it's obvious that his German dialog comes from cue cards." Now I want to see the rest!

And here's the best quality ALPHAVILLE trailer you'll find on YouTube. It's been too long since I last saw this film, and our reunion is imminent. After watching this trailer again, I realized how much more to my liking this world would be if there was no story of Adam & Eve, if everything had begun with Anna & Eddie.

Ciao for now, bébé!

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Get Ready for Eddie

For the 32 years I spent researching and writing MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, Italian cinema stood immoveably at the very core of my being; I thought about Italy and Italian art and culture incessantly. When I finished writing the book, I felt a surprisingly sudden shift of that internal, emotional center toward French cinema and pop culture. Actually, France was always a part of my inner landscape; I've always been a devotée of Fantomas and Judex and Arsene Lupin, Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute, Truffaut and Godard, Franju and Rollin, with a special place in my heart reserved for Eric Rohmer's films, but it was only within the past two or three years that I fell unexpectedly and violently in love with the music of Serge Gainsbourg (I'm listening to COULEUR CAFE as I write this) and, more recently, with the films of someone who promises to become another of my grand obsessions, Eddie Constantine.

Constantine -- a California native of vaguely reptilian complexion who talked like a Brooklyn native but found success as a singing protégé of Edith Piaf in Paris -- is best known to American viewers as the star of Jean-Luc Godard's ALPHAVILLE (1965), in which he plays a hard-boiled G-man with the unlikely name of Lemmy Caution. The transgressive irony of Constantine's being cast in an "art film", especially as Caution, was generally lost on Americans -- who generally didn't know that, before ALPHAVILLE, he had played the role in seven other pulp dramas (it would be wrong to call them "B-movies") primarily shown abroad. These films do exist in English dubbed versions -- POISON IVY (1953), DANGEROUS AGENT (1953), DAMES DON'T CARE (1954), DIAMOND MACHINE (1956), WOMEN ARE LIKE THAT (1960), LADIES MAN (1962) and YOUR TURN, DARLING (1963) -- but only because they filtered into circulation from 16mm prints struck for Canadian TV syndication. Most of them remain fairly hard to see in English.

Lemmy Caution was actually the creation of British thriller novelist Peter Cheyney, who featured him in more than a dozen novels and even more short stories (beginning with 1936's THIS MAN IS DANGEROUS), but Constantine laid claim to the name in much the same way that Dick Miller became Walter Paisley. He reprised the role in several projects after ALPHAVILLE and also starred in more than 100 other pictures, playing various shades of his two-fisted, whisky-chugging Caution persona, most of them going by the name "Eddie." He also played John R. Coryell's famous detective Nick Carter twice in the 1960s.
The first time I laid eyes on Eddie Constantine -- and this is when I was a kid -- I thought he would make a great Ben Grimm if they ever made a film of THE FANTASTIC FOUR. He had a granite look about him in middle age especially and, in ALPHAVILLE, he's fairly expressionless -- but in the earlier Lemmy Caution films, which are prototypical of the Bond films in many ways, he flashes one of the most ingratiating smile you'll ever see. French artists made the most of this happy-go-lucky, bon vivant smile when designing the posters for his movies, whether the art depicted him as leering at the ladies, hoisting a glass, or knocking a stooge for a loop in a billiards hall. I've been daydreaming of late about taking down all the posters currently on display in my house and replacing them with affiches showing Eddie revelling in the good life. They would probably impart a cheerier, healthier atmosphere than my current array of monster, severed head and drug delirium art.
I own only a few Eddie Constantine movies in English, and I've moved on from them into a couple of three-film DVD box sets that I ordered from Amazon.de: EDDIE CONSTANTINE COLLECTION VOLUME 1 - LEMMY CAUTION and EDDIE CONSTANTINE COLLECTION VOLUME 2 (in which two of the three films are Lemmies). These are German releases from Tobis, now notorious for withholding English subtitles or audio, but they do feature the original French audio tracks. French gives me only slightly less trouble than Italian, but I find I can navigate my way through the dialogue fairly well if I play the movies with the optional French subtitles activated. In the earliest of the Lemmy Caution films, LA MOME DE VERT-DE-GRIS (POISON IVY), I was pleased to find Eddie communicating with his FBI contacts in English, which made it that much easier to enjoy. Adding to the pleasure is the presence in the cast of Jess Franco stalwart Howard Vernon, looking younger than I've ever seen him as a white-tuxedoed baddie. And forget Veronica Lake and Gloria Grahame: the femme fatale of both this film and its follow-up LES FEMMES S'EN BALANCENT (DAMES DON'T CARE) -- Dominique Wilms -- scores a TKO against them both as "bad girl" pulp cover art incarnate. She's so impressive, she even knocked Eddie Constantine off his own movie poster for what I assume was the first and only time.
The films are low-budget but shot with economic style and imagination. LA MOME DE VERT-DE-GRIS features a remarkable scene that shows a pilot forced at gunpoint to land his plane on its belly in a desolate location, and the entire scene is pulled off entirely with camera set-ups and camera movement -- without the plane so much as moving. It also contains a scene where Lemmy is tied to a rope and dragged behind a moving yacht, which possibly inspired or influenced Ian Fleming's writing of such a scene in his novel LIVE AND LET DIE, published the year after the film's release. With only one exception, when he happened to be visiting a hospital, whenever Lemmy enters a new place, he either calls out for a whisky ("A big one!") or just helps himself -- even at FBI Headquarters, where he cuts past all the Miss Moneypenny horseshit in the reception area and makes like a masher with his superior's pretty receptionist. With all that Lemmy imbibes, he should be staggering through these movies like a Barrymore, but he never gets worse than happy, never oversteps his personal charm, and always comes out on top in every fight.
Five of the initial seven Lemmy Caution films were scripted and directed by Bernard Borderie, also known for his series of "Angélique" films starring Michele Mercier. With each new Borderie film that I see, the more convinced I am that his work should be better-known -- starting with Jess Franco fans, because much of the style found in Franco's early classical work (not to mention some of its casting choices) appears to have had its roots in the popular 1950s entertainments crafted by Borderie and contemporaries such as Henri Decoin.
I mention Decoin in particular because of his attachment to a movie called NATHALIE, AGENT SECRET (1959), which I first encountered -- and have only ever encountered -- as a trailer bearing the English title ATOMIC AGENT. I saw this trailer projected in 35mm at one of the countless kiddie matinees I attended, and I've never forgotten its quirky energy or the pride with which it listed the names of actors of whom I'd never heard: Martine Carol (who of course was Max Ophuls' LOLA MONTES), Howard Vernon, Dario Moreno (who I discovered only today, like Eddie Constantine, was also a recording star). Perhaps those names and faces resonated with me then because, on some level, I knew they would occupy an important place in my later life. If any of my readers happen to be in possession of NATHALIE, AGENT SECRET -- or better yet, ATOMIC AGENT -- would you please reward my efforts here by sending me a copy?
So what is it about Eddie Constantine that I find so compelling, so relevant, so fulfilling? Part of it is the way he projects a sense of comfort about his standing as a man of the world; he has no time for anything other than grabbing all the pleasure he can between Mission and Mission Accomplished. He may look like a thug but he carries himself with more than a measure of rugged grace. I also admire that he was an American who looks at home in Europe, which is the me I always aspired to be but haven't succeeded in becoming, except in the work I produce. I once saw someone on television who offered a valid definition of a writer: "A writer is someone who spends his entire life wondering why he isn't somewhere else." That, I suppose, is why, when I see Eddie Constantine on the screen, everything suddenly seems blessedly and uncomplicatedly right with the world.
Even though sometimes I can't understand a word he's saying.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Fieldsian Footnote

Mssrs. Mark Clark and Dan Craft -- two affably-disposed correspondents -- surprised me this morning with electronic epistles, both of them disclosing, with perfect independence of each other, that one of the features included in the R2 W.C. Fields box set -- SIX OF A KIND (1934), previously mentioned by me as exclusive to that set -- was also given an R1 release as part of a single-disc, three film Burns & Allen collection from Universal, which also includes HERE COMES COOKIE and LOVE IN BLOOM. The other two pictures were made in 1935.

How could I have failed to note this? I don't know... probably had too much to drink.

As it happens, I addressed my tawny peepers to the film in question last night and -- mother of pearl! -- I can't recall a drearier 59 minutes since I last had to drag my canoe single-handed through the brush to the banks of Lake Titicaca. Fields has only a supporting role in this one, which is more of a tepid Charlie Ruggles or Burns & Allen picture, tedious at half the length, but he manages to spank it to life for about five minutes in a graceful physical humor skit as "Honest John," a drunken no-account sheriff who tries with misleading alacrity to line up a billiards shot in the local pool hall. Thanks to the exigencies of YouTube, you can see this choice cut here and tell the rest to go to Philadelphia. Incidentally, Fields' co-star in this scene is Tammany Young, who played his stooge in a number of pictures before his early death in 1936.

Mr. Clark opines: "Fields is overdue for another comeback. It's true that Fields' occasional racial humor can sometimes be cringe-inducing (especially in something like MISSISSIPPI), [but] on balance I think our modern, touchy-feely, PC world could use a comedian who's willing to kick a baby in the ass."

To which I say, "Who could possibly disagree?"

Monday, January 28, 2008

HDracula

Cinemax HD hosted the first high-definition broadcast of Terence Fisher's DRACULA aka HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) early this morning -- at 5:15am eastern time. It wasn't the recently restored version shown in the UK -- HORROR OF DRACULA is still the onscreen title -- and the source element didn't quite have that IB Technicolor quality I still cherish from a boyhood screening, when I was captivated by the bluish hue of the smoke wisping off the candle in Harker's room; the smoke was only grayish here, but the stained glass windows in the room burned brightly.

Nevertheless, it was a full aperture, non-widescreen broadcast, which meant that the top of Christopher Lee's head was in frame for his classic library close-up -- which will make even the DVD-R I burn from this telecast superior to the official Warner Home Video DVD release -- and it was also colorful and sharp as a tack. Valerie Gaunt's staking included the shot of the old woman in the coffin, and Carol Marsh's staking had one shot of blood burbling up as the stake was hammered in. Nothing was added back into the disintegration scene at the end, but I could see more detail in Dracula's ashen remains than ever before. I can also testify that this is one of those vintage films that benefits greatly from HD clarity -- when Donna passed through the room and saw a scene out of sequence, she guessed that I was watching something from 1971 or '72.

The best TV presentation of this title I've seen to date, this is going to join a select number of titles I can't bear not to have on HD and will keep protected on my hard drive -- until I can find some way of transferring HD quality to disc, or until something better comes along.

A Bigger Box o' Fields

As frequenters of this blog and readers of my magazine should be well aware by now, there are literally hundreds of good reasons why every DVD devotée ought to invest in a region-free player. Pictured here is one of the latest, a beautifully designed British import from Universal that collects no less than 17 films starring early sound era comedian W.C. Fields.

I suspect that Fields is not well-known to young people today, but when I was a young, rebellious longhair of the original Woodstock era, fond of playing my Blue Cheer and Electric Prunes albums so that the poor people without stereos in Indiana could hear them, Fields was a hero of mine -- even at a time when I had seen none of his films, even though he would have been the first grown-up on the block to tell me to turn that goddam racket down. I can't recall where or how I first became aware of Fields, but impressionists like Rich Little probably had something to do with it; twenty (and twenty-five) years after his death in 1946, Fields' distinctive carnival-barker speaking voice remained prime fodder for voice men. (Richard Dawson and Ed McMahon were also, and remain, devout Fields devotées.) But I do remember that one of my four bedroom walls was dominated by a poster of his likeness, from MY LITTLE CHICKADEE (1940 -- though I did not know its origin then), peering scurrilously over a tightly clutched fistful of playing cards. The phrase "close to the vest" incarnate. I don't know why this image spoke to me so directly at that age and that time, but it did -- and I was not alone.

My investigation into Fields properly began with a book by Richard J. Anobile (I think it was DRAT!) and an entertaining record album of sound bytes from Fields' movies, narrated by Gary Owens of LAUGH-IN fame. I listened to that album till I wore it out, at which point I no longer needed it because Fields' unabashedly baroque way of speaking had thoroughly infected my gray matter. I got my first-ever A+ on an English paper when my class was assigned to conduct an imaginary interview with someone from history. I chose Fields and not only wrote a longer paper than was needed (because the old so-and-so just wouldn't shut up), but I couldn't stop laughing as I wrote it.

Q: Mr. Fields, you have had a long career and now stand at the very pinnacle of your...
A: Pinochle, yes pinochle! A delightful game, I do not mind telling you, at which I have had the good fortune to be Tri-state Champion. Why, it's taken me all over the world! I'm reminded of a time when I was but a hardy towhead in a woolskin cap, romping through the hinterlands of Afghanistan. It was just me and Jake, my trusty yak. He could sniff out truffles in half a tick..

And so on and so forth (how easily it all comes back). Evidently my English teacher, Mrs. Rose, had taken my little paper so deeply into the cockles of her heart that she not only accorded it with the aforementioned nonpariel gradation, but she impressed its shining example upon her fellow instructors, several of whom sought me out that day in the groves of academe to tender their heartiest congratulations. I thank you.

There is a streak of the Rabelaisian in Fields' carny-speak and, in retrospect, I can see how my infection with it may have played a role in my becoming a writer. Fields was a writer himself and took a hand in most of his film scripts.

During those early months of my Fields obsession, my attentions were rewarded -- sort of -- by TV GUIDE's announcement that Channel 16 would be hosting a week of W.C. Fields movies in their late night slot. Unfortunately, I was in Cincinnati and Channel 16 was in Dayton, Ohio; close enough to have their listings in our TV GUIDE but not always close enough to receive. Even on the clearest nights, the picture could be faint and snowy, unless I wrapped my calves and forearms in aluminium foil and stood to the right of my little television in the attitude of a flamingo. Even though I often couldn't see what was going on, I tuned in to every single broadcast -- just to hear the soundtracks in their complete and uninterrupted form, which had been edited down on the Gary Owens album to just the bon mots, so to speak. My perseverance was rewarded: the clearest night's reception I had that week was for IT'S A GIFT (1934), commonly acknowledged as Fields' masterpiece, which allowed me to see not only the classic "Carl LaFong" routine -- a highlight of the album -- but the even greater build-up to it, as Fields (unable to sleep in the same room with yappy wife Kathleen Howard) absconds to the outdoor swing for the peaceful repose that never comes.

Within the same year, my local theater hosted AN EVENING WITH W.C. FIELDS, which turned out to be THE BANK DICK (1940) and a selection of his early short films. A friend, whom I had also managed to infect with my record album, and I were there for the first showing with sleighbells on. The highlight of the show, for me, was THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER, which I proceeded to quote thereafter for weeks on end. That year, for my last Halloween as an active participant, I went about dressed as Fields -- in a bathrobe and plastic bowler hat, twirling a cane and sporting a fake nose artfully contrived of Silly Putty. As people gave me candy, I looked in my bag with "Godfrey Daniels" recoil and asked them entreatingly, "Haven't you anything stronger?"

So my love of Fields runs deep, but I had fallen out of touch with it. After ordering the 17-film import set, I found out that Universal had previously released two five-picture box sets, which had somehow escaped my notice -- good thing, too. The pair of them will set you back over $120 at Amazon.com, which is the sort of bitter pill that would discourage even the most stout-hearted Fieldsian from setting out to bag the bigger game.

When I heard about this import set (less than £55 from Amazon.co.uk), I knew I had to have it because, even after all these years, I had never managed to see most of Fields' early Paramounts in anything like watchable quality. Culled from Fields' stints at Paramount and Universal, the import box arranges its contents in non-chronologic, even higglety-pigglety order, most of them doubled-up on single discs while IT'S A GIFT and another title are stand-alones. ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1933) and MRS. WIGGS OF THE CABBAGE PATCH (1934), which would have filled those gaps ideally, were for some reason not included -- though they are listed as part of the contents on the Amazon.co.uk sales page for the set. Perhaps those pictures were omitted because Fields appears only briefly in them, but that wouldn't explain how FOLLOW THE BOYS (1944), in which he also appears only briefly, got included. Should this set ever surface in the USA, Universal really should reconsider and include ALICE and MRS. WIGGS for the simple reason that they're part of Fields' Paramount story.

The complete contents of the import set are: THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 (1938), THE BANK DICK (1940), YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN (1939), MY LITTLE CHICKADEE (1940), MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE (1935), THE OLD FASHIONED WAY (1934), YOU'RE TELLING ME! (1934), SIX OF A KIND (1934), INTERNATIONAL HOUSE (1933), MILLION DOLLAR LEGS (1932), IF I HAD A MILLION (1932), MISSISSIPPI (1935), POPPY (1936), NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941), IT'S A GIFT (1934), TILLIE AND GUS (1933) and FOLLOW THE BOYS (1944). The titles in orange are included in Universal's R1 W.C. FIELDS COMEDY COLLECTION VOLUME 1, the titles in blue are included in VOLUME 2. (THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 was released domestically by Universal as half of a "Bob Hope Tribute Collection" disc, paired with COLLEGE SWING.)

I dove right into the middle of the set with IT'S A GIFT for starters, then went back to the beginning and continued with Disc 1: THE OLD FASHIONED WAY (1934) and POPPY (1936). While IT'S A GIFT retains its wonder as a necklace of all-time-great Fields bits, and for former opera singer Kathleen Howard's near operatic, non-stop nagging, I had more appreciation for THE OLD FASHIONED WAY as a film and was delighted by Fields' underplayed emotion at the end of the picture. I am supplementing my viewing with James Curtis' 2003 biography of Fields, which informed me of how ill the Great Man was during the filming of POPPY and impressed me all the more with how much he was still able to contribute to it. All the stories are basically the same Depression-era fantasy about people, surviving on little more than their sly wit, who achieve wealth or at least safe harbor through extreme trial and error by the final reel -- and Fields isn't always likeable. Watching YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN (1939) last night, I was startled to hear Fields' Larson E. Whipsnade refer to Eddie "Rochester" Anderson as a "pickaninny", to his black carnival workers as "Ubangis," and to a black-faced Charlie McCarthy as an "eggplant." When something goes wrong, he yells about there being "a Ubangi in the fuel supply" -- a sort of "Godfrey Daniels" twist on the old expression "a nigger in a woodpile." It erred one too many times on the wrong side of propriety for my liking... but the lady with the snake allergy nearly made up for it.

This is a flat-out lovely set and I'm having a ball with it. Every transfer is lovely and silvery. Fields' juggling routine in THE OLD FASHIONED WAY, the only record on film of the skill upon which he built his theatrical reputation, is still awe-inspiring; I can easily imagine some young person seeing it today (if not on this import set, then on YouTube) and being inspired to innovate some kind of 21st century reinvention of the forgotten art.

Suffice to say, my little plum, if you have the wherewithal and can afford to get into the game, by all means go to Amazon.co.uk and have their croupier deal you these 17 cards... er, discs. I promise you will hold each and every one of them very tightly to your vest.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

My Alibi: I Was Revisiting CLOVERFIELD

I went back to see CLOVERFIELD again this afternoon with a couple of friends. We got to talking about how long it had been since the last time we'd been to a monster movie matinee, and I traced my last back to the early 1970s, when I saw things like DRACULA A.D. 1972 and THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA at Cincinnati's RKO Albee Theater. After this second viewing, I'm still very impressed by the film's sense of vision, its technical achievements, and its commercial assimilation of the best ideas in CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, but this time I noticed Jason Cerbone (THE SOPRANOS) and Chris Mulkey (TWIN PEAKS) appear fleetingly onscreen; recognizing them, as they flashed by, served to mitigate some of the documentary-like tension and realism of the piece for me. All the other faces in the film were new to me, which is something I feel was as important to the film's particular impact as any of its deliberate contrivances. I still believe that CLOVERFIELD marks a whole new ballgame for the giant monster movie, but only time will tell if it's also the death knell for what monster movies used to be. I also feel that its brevity (72 minutes, minus the end titles), its urgency and confusion, and its almost complete lack of any sense of loss (those lead characters who perish do so offscreen) ultimately deprive it of the gravitas and sorrow that a true counterbalance to GOJIRA should have. This faux-realist "found footage" approach is pretty darned captivating, but when push comes to shove, drama still does it best.

Consequently, my second viewing of CLOVERFIELD felt less like the apocalyptic arrival I described in my previous column and more like a bracingly tense, disconcerting, out-of-control entertainment -- which, of course, is all it really needs to be. The end credits music, which is definitely worth staying seated for, may be partly responsible: it's a wonderful amalgam of Max Steiner- and Akira Ifukube-like themes that bring all our classic giant monster memories back home to roost, including everything from the Mothra twins to the Giant Claw. Delightful as it is, these associations help to dissipate the grim mood the film has worked so hard to achieve. Mind you, most people will want that before they step back out into the mall. Me, I'm different.

On another note: a free sampling of contents from the current February 2008 issue of SIGHT & SOUND is now posted at their website, including my review of Roland West's early talkie ALIBI (Kino on Video).

Thursday, January 24, 2008

"Run! Run! Run! Run!"

Seeing CLOVERFIELD has put me in an unusual position: I'm a little wary of saying anything about it. That's partly because I felt such unabashed enthusiasm and emotion for it -- it made me feel a monster movie again the way I felt them as a very young child (something uncommon in my adult experience, to say the least) -- and partly because I know the party stuff at the beginning is going to seem twice as long the next time I see it.

I know it has its faults, but they're fairly minor when one considers how well it reflects its time and America's post-9/11 mind-set of confusion and powerlessness. Time may well prove it to be, as Steve Bissette has already pronounced on his MYRANT blog, the American counterbalance to Japan's trauma-purging GOJIRA. The way the Japanese characters of GOJIRA regard its monster with almost reverent awe, and the noble ways in which they accept death, respect their dead, and band together for reconstruction, are not found in CLOVERFIELD, which is more of a disorienting whirl of action and chaos and military might, in which the characters -- already technologically distanced from reality -- haven't the social or spiritual reservoirs to cope with such a catastrophe.

I can't think of anything that the film borrows that it doesn't improve upon: the "found footage" origins and harrowing dropped camera realism of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, the grainy camcorded textures of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, every storytelling trick that Brian DePalma has called into service between SNAKE EYES and REDACTED. And it succeeds at reinventing the giant monster movie in ways that the American GODZILLA didn't (with the same tools at its disposal -- it's the movie that used the dropped camcorder view of the monster's attack as a throwaway shot!), as well as incorporating 9/11 imagery in more visceral ways than Spielberg's WAR OF THE WORLDS or indeed the pre-9/11 INDEPENDENCE DAY. It's like the great idea that all of these movies had but failed to fully grasp, so archetypally perfect that one can easily imagine all the parodies to come. All the more reason to see it now, before its impact can be diminished.

In my heart of hearts, I have a creeping suspicion that CLOVERFIELD may be the most important horror movie (or horrifying movie) I've seen in a long time, maybe since THE EXORCIST or TAXI DRIVER or CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, because it gave me the same apocalyptic feeling those films did when I first saw them -- a sense that movies, as I knew them, would never be the same again.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Resting Place for Vampira

I get a lot of e-mail from publicists and other people with various causes they would like this blog to promote and, generally, I turn a blind eye to all of them. But I feel that Gabrielle Geiselman's attempt to raise a memorial fund for her late friend (and ours) Maila "Vampira" Nurmi is such a worthy one, I've swiped it from the Classic Horror Film Boards to repost here. Click to enlarge and read the details, and please contribute whatever you can -- if her work or example has inspired you in any way.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Rondo VI: VW & Co. Receive 9 Nominations!

The final ballot for the Sixth Annual Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards has been posted, and I'm proud to announce that VIDEO WATCHDOG and its contributors have received a total of nine (9) nominations this year. In the order in which they appear on the ballot, our nominations are:

BEST DVD COMMENTARY
-- MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUMES 1 and 2 (Anchor Bay Entertainment), five new commentaries by Tim Lucas
(Furthermore, ABE's MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUMES 1 and 2 have been nominated for Best Classic DVD Collection.)

BEST BOOK OF 2007
-- MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK by Tim Lucas

BEST MAGAZINE OF 2007
-- VIDEO WATCHDOG, published by Tim & Donna Lucas

BEST MAGAZINE ARTICLE OF 2007 (Voters may pick two)
-- 'Edgar Wallace: Your Pocket Guide to the Rialto Krimi Series,' by Kim Newman, VIDEO WATCHDOG #134. A film-by-film, 30-page look at the German crime mysteries (krimi), from 1959-71.

-- 'In Remembrance of Freddie Francis,' by Ted Newsom, VIDEO WATCHDOG #130. A eulogy for the Hammer director.

-- 'THESE ARE THE DAMNED: The Restored Director's Cut Examined,' by Tim Lucas, VIDEO WATCHDOG #133. 'Old school' VW approach dissects ever excised scene, shows what was restored and makes a new case for this once-butchered film.

-- 'THE WILD WILD WEST: Second Season,' by David J. Schow, VIDEO WATCHDOG #132. Karloff and Victor Buono are among the guest stars in this episode by episode recap.

BEST MAGAZINE COVER
-- VIDEO WATCHDOG #134, cover (pictured) by Charlie Largent

BEST WEBSITE or BLOG OF 2007
-- Video WatchBlog by Tim Lucas (you're reading it!)

There are also four special "write-in" categories for WRITER OF THE YEAR, ARTIST OF THE YEAR, MONSTER KID OF THE YEAR, and THE MONSTER KID HALL OF FAME.

You can access the ballot and instructions for the very simple voting procedure by going to the Rondo page here. There are 27 categories in all and it's a fun, tighter, more comprehensive ballot this year. While it's not necessary to vote in every category, it is advisable to check the Rondo RULES page before casting your ballot to ensure that your selections are properly counted. If our work has pleased you this past year, we ask that you remember us with your vote. But the important thing is to participate, and to vote for those nominees whose work you feel is most deserving of recognition.

Donna joins me in sending our heartiest congratulations to VW contributors Kim Newman, Ted Newsom and David J. Schow for their Best Article nominations, and to charmin' Charlie Largent for his Best Cover nomination!