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!