Saturday, February 23, 2008

Remembering Pere Ubu guitarist Jim Jones

Pere Ubu, with guitarist Jim Jones on the right.

I just learned that Jim Jones -- a prominent Cleveland-based musician who played with Pere Ubu, the Easter Monkeys and The Mirrors -- died last Monday night, February 18, at age 57. This obit article from the Cleveland PLAIN DEALER, which includes commentary from PSYCHOTRONIC editor Michael Weldon (another Mirrors alumnus) renders a sketch of someone I would have liked very much to know more than musically.

As I've mentioned here before, I once had the pleasure of seeing Pere Ubu live at Bogart's here in Cincinnati when the group reformed in the 1980s. Jones, a former roadie for the band, had replaced Red Crayola guitarist Mayo Thompson in the lineup at the time, and I remember him playing a hell of a lead on "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," the kind that should require a guitarist to wear a welder's mask as it sprays sparks all over the stage. The show attracted a small turnout but I was front and center for it with a huge smile plastered all over my face -- close enough for bassist Tom Maimone to return it more than once.

Fifty-seven is much too young a demise, but Jim was blessed to go the way we probably all of us want to go -- not seeing it coming, while happily engaged in conversation with a friend about stuff.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Video WatchBlog: Over One Million Hits Served

Pictured: Raquel Welch puts on the dog to attend the World Premiere of her own "1,000,000" hit: ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966).

What a week: it's been the best of times and the worst of times. Let's start with the worst. I hate snow and we're snowed in, with more freezing rain in the immediate forecast; I'm burned out from preparing two issues of VW faster than should be humanly possible; we're trying to adjust our cats to a new diet and they're hounding us for food all the time; and our widescreen TV has picked the week before the Oscars telecast as a peachy time to die. Fortunately, its replacement is already here, but it has been standing for days, in a box the size of a drive-in screen, in the middle of our living room floor, making the only room in our house suitable for waking relaxation no longer very fit for such, and we can't get anyone out here to unpack and mount it to our entertainment system for us until "maybe next Tuesday"... but, on the other hand, what a great week for accomplishments this has been.

First, there was the announcement of the Special Achievement Saturn Award for MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK; then the latest issue (#70) of Tom Betts' long-running fanzine WESTERNS ALL'ITALIANA was released, featuring Lee Broughton's review of the Bava book and his lengthy interview with me, both focusing on the book's Italian Western content (just click on the link to retrieve the pdf files); then I received contributor's copies of a book that represents my first publication in Portuguese; early today, a delivery truck arrived bearing beautiful copies of VIDEO WATCHDOG #137 and the VIDEO WATCHDOG SIGNATURE EDITION #2 (which must now be forwarded to Ann Carter for signing)... and later today, around 5:27pm, my visits counter logged in the 1,000,000th page view of Video WatchBlog. (The visitor was French and had a account, so "Merci beaucoup!" whoever you are!)

The number of individual blog visits logs somewhat behind at about 740,000, but for this blog to have attracted over 1,000,000 individual views (or "hits," as they call them) is a happy occasion and a milestone I've looked forward to reaching. The thought had crossed my mind to give up the blog after reaching 1,000,000 hits, but I'm not ready to do that. The demands of this blog haven't been very good for my creative writing output, but it's an addictively spontaneous outlet for my thoughts about film, music and books. I derive a good deal of satisfaction from it, especially when I hear from new readers who are just discovering it, or from readers who are exploring the backlog of posts and getting excited about things I posted here months or years ago, long since forgotten by me as I keep adding on new posts. Just today I received this delightful e-mail from a recent reader, John Linton, who writes:

"I never was much of a computer guy, and only discovered the blog when the Bava book was almost out. I've grown so addicted to it that I'm going back and reading the earlier blogs, one at a time, savoring each like a fine wine. I won't go into how many wonderful things I've discovered, how many amazing people I've grown to know, and how many awesome books and DVDs I've discovered through the blog. The main reason I read it, along with finding out which version of whatever DVD is best to get, is to get to know you personally in a way that I'll never be able to in real life. I just finished reading your fantastic blog on Sterling Hayden from 3/2006, and your 'About Friday's Blog' blog, which is hilarious. All I can say is, your blogs are a treasure... If you ever collect the blogs into a book, I'll be the first to order a copy."

Well, John, thank you, and we hope to do just that -- the problem is finding the time to do it. I've always resisted this because I'm a writer rather than a layout artist, but I may have to get Donna to teach me how to do what she does on PageMaker, so that I can start moving ahead with selecting material and pouring text into new page templates in my spare time (such as it is), while she's laying out the magazine. In addition to collecting the blog in book form, I also intend to start collecting my archival writings in book form, too. It remains to be seen how much of this we can actually manage, while also maintaining our monthly schedule and other tasks; after all, we had also hoped to organize some merchandising items to tie in with the Bava book, but again, not enough hours in the day, not enough man power, and we can't afford to hire (nor do we really want) employees to help out. I guess we value our privacy even more than our productivity.

What's that? I didn't previously mention the Portuguese publication? That's right, I didn't -- it's been a busy week, with work now already nearly done on VW #138. But to fill you in: some months ago, I was approached by Eugenio Puppo to contribute an essay to a book that was being published in conjunction with the Brazilian Ministerio da Cultura and the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil to celebrate the works of José Mojica Marins (Zé do Caixao). The resulting book, JOSE MOJICA MARINS: 50 ANOS DE CARREIRA, edited by Eugenio Puppo, is a handsome 176-page paperback composed of interviews, reviews, essays and various appendices, with rare stills on nearly every spread. My essay, which occupies two pages in print, is called "Zé do Caixao: O Pesadelo que deve Sobrevivier" ("Zé do Caixao: The Nightmare That Must Survive") and was translated into Portuguese by Ricardo Lisias. The book's ISBN number is 978-85-98404-02-8, but, beyond that information, I really couldn't tell you how to locate a copy. Since there has been no English publication of my essay, I'll post it here in the days ahead.

The issue-after-next of VIDEO WATCHDOG, incidentally, #138, will feature a wonderful Round Table Discussion of the AIP Edgar Allan Poe series by (get this line-up) Roger Corman, Daniel Haller (art director of the series), and Joe Dante, moderated by Lawrence French. Larry's new book, VISIONS OF DEATH, is out now from Gauntlet Press and collects Richard Matheson's original scripts for THE HOUSE OF USHER and PIT AND THE PENDULUM, along with outstanding production articles and a new interview with Matheson. Corman has told his Poe stories many times over the years, even in audio commentary form, but this RTD is remarkable in that the presence of Dante, and Haller in particular, spurs him on to tell numerous stories and go into candid details I've never heard or read before, and Haller has rarely been interviewed. I'm excited about presenting this issue... but before I can do that, I have to proofread it, so here I go.

But first, I want to thank you all for being there for Video WatchBlog -- every day, for a lot of you. Those seven digits are numbers you helped to accumulate, so this milestone is yours, as well as mine. In case I haven't said so before, the best part of writing Video WatchBlog is knowing there are Video WatchBlog readers.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Another Reason to Learn German

Fans of the Edgar Wallace krimis like me, who don't speak more than a few words of German, have been taught an exquisite form of agony by the Tobis/UFA box sets of Wallaciana that have been released, mit-out English audio or subtitles, over the past few years. (It's true that nearly all of the main Wallace sets include English audio or subtitles, but there is always at least one title per box that doesn't... and then they reached a point where they were withheld altogether.) But I learned years ago that, sometimes, you just have to jump into the deep end without knowing how to swim; it is cinema, after all, and dialogue should be secondary to a brilliant mise-en-scène, or whatever the German equivalent might be, and a stellar anamorphic transfer. Consequently, I've gone ahead and bought the German DVD sets -- not only of the Edgar Wallace and Bryan Edgar Wallace krimis, but also the Karl May Westerns, the Eddie Constantines, and the RAUMPATROILLE sci-fi series -- and, regardless of our "failure to communicate," I've derived a good deal of enjoyment from them.
I recently rolled the dice again with my purchase of another Wallace-krimi collectable, a three-CD set called EDGAR WALLACE FILMEDITION 1. I couldn't quite tell what it was from the listing on, but I understood the chances were slim that I would derive too much satisfaction from it because it was a purely audio entertainment... auf Deutsch, natürlich. But being a collector, I had to have it -- partly to find out what it was, and partly because I had to have it.
What this FILMEDITION turns out to be is a set of three Wallace-krimi film classics -- THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE FROG (1959), THE DEVIL'S DAFFODIL (1961) and THE INN ON THE RIVER (1962), to use their English titles -- whose original German soundtracks (featuring the talents of Joachim "Blacky" Fuchsberger, Klaus Kinski, Eddi Arent, Siegfried Schurenberger... and Christopher Lee (who spoke his own German in THE DEVIL'S DAFFODIL) have been adapted by the leute at VGH Audio into "audio book" format, with the addition of newly recorded narration by (as best I can tell) Joachim Kramp, author of the indispensible reference HALLO! HIER SPRICHT EDGAR WALLACE.
It's an interesting little oddity, an attempt at crossover from Wallace fandom into the audio book market. As such, it's an important validation of how close these early Wallace-krimis were to their original literary sources before the scripts began following their own lead, not unlike the Bond films. I would have thought that these films would lose more than half their appeal if deprived of their imagery and atmosphere, but these discs assert the opposite view -- that the stories and performances are sufficient to sustain interest. Listening to all three discs (und ja, I'm crazy enough to have done this), I have to say that I'm as persuaded as I can be. This set is strangely listenable, even without a grasp of the language, because of the lively interplay of voice, sound effects, the terrific music scores, and the occasional woman's scream. It's also a pleasure to realize that I can recognize Fuchsberger's and Kinski's (and even Lee's!) voices in German, and -- bottom line -- one should never snub the rebellious thrill that comes with thinking to oneself, "I've got to be the only person in the country who's listening to this right now."
One might expect a nice fat annotated booklet to accompany a set like this, but there is only a four-page (single folded sheet) enclosure with a few pictures and the major cast lists for the three films. Mein urteilsspruch: a neat little offbeat thing to have, and the price is right. Impress your friends... and maybe learn a little German in the bargain.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

2008 Saturn Awards Nominations Announced

I announced here yesterday that my book MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK will be honored with the Saturn Award for Special Achievement later this year. Today, the official announcement -- and the full roster of nominees and special recipients for the 34th Annual Saturn Awards -- was unveiled on their website, which is well worth a visit. I'm very pleased to see that our friend Guillermo del Toro is being recognized for his impressive body of work with this year's George Pal Memorial Award, and Donna and I look forward to meeting him at the festivities in June.

Vampira at Rest

An e-mail received yesterday from VW contributor (and Rondo nominee) David J. Schow, who gave permission to reprint here:

Hey Friends:
Just a footnote, but we put Maila Nurmi's remains into the ground at Hollywood Forever Cemetery yesterday morning (Sunday 11 AM, 2/17/08), weirdly enough, about two feet away from Darren McGavin's plot. About 100 people attended the private service (we had to use a code word to get through the gates), including a lot of mutual friends like Coop & Ruth (Waytz), Bryan Moore & Heather Saenz, Dana Gould, Gabrielle Geiselman (who helped administer and organize the fund drive for Maila), Evil Wilhelm & Tara Greer, and haxanthroboticist Tommy Kuntz. Verne Langdon was also there, as I believe were a couple of Maila's very distant kin (cousins, I think -- I could have that wrong). Apparently the fundraiser to purchase Maila a bit of Hollywood Forever (at a cost of about $12K, I've heard) was a smashing success.

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.

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.