Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Rain, the Park and Two Kennel Guys

If you'd like to see where I've been doing a lot of my free-time writing over the past couple of days, check out Sam Umland's 60x50 music blog, which is permanently linked from this site over there ► to the right. I started by responding to this posting about the concept of "Desert Island Discs," then commented on this posting about bubblegum and psychedelic music; after that, Sam responded to my comments in a new posting, to which I also responded. Now, today, he has this to say about how satisfying the exchange has been for him -- and, in case it's needful to say, the feeling is mutual.

Well beyond what I have contributed, Sam's "experiment in invention and discovery" always offers bracing and original insights into pop music history and culture and it's become a favorite bookmark spot of mine. Becoming an active participant and getting Sam's responses back has only made its appeal more infectious.

About Sam's current posting, I don't think I was aware that he, like me, had submitted a proposal to the 33&1/3 people. My CROWN OF CREATION manuscript is certainly burning a hole in my pocket. What do you think, WatchBloggers? Should VW launch a complementary series of books examining important rock albums?

Friday, March 28, 2008

Important VW Website Announcement

Since many of you access this blog through the VIDEO WATCHDOG website, please be aware that the VW website will be down periodically during Saturday and Sunday, March 29 - 30, due to a major server transfer. You'll still be able to reach this blog, as Donna has set up a temporary website for the interim (all praise this hard-working soul, who put in an all-nighter to achieve this); you can reach its main page by clicking on the Temporary Video Watchdog Site link found over there ► in the right-side column.

Not all of our website's usual functions will be operational during this changeover period. Most will. Should you wish to place an order, and find some function or other of the temp page unaccomodating to your needs, you can reach us by phone (1-800-275-8395) or the usual e-mail links.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Discovering A Russian Horror-Fantasy Classic

A woman falls helpless before the thunderous hoofbeats of THE SAVAGE HUNT OF KING STACH.


Some weeks back, I was reading posts on the Classic Horror Film Board and found reference to Aleksandr Ptushko's THE NEW GULLIVER being available on disc from a German-based DVD importer called PeterShop. I went to http://www.petershop.com/ and promptly placed an order for THE NEW GULLIVER as well as a half-dozen other Russian horror-fantasy rarities, some of which were on the Ruscico label but not as yet available from the US-based http://www.ruscico.com/ website.

Unfortunately, after placing my order, I received an e-mail from PeterShop telling me that THE NEW GULLIVER was no longer available. They said I could request a replacement title of equal value or a refund, which I did. My shipment of the other titles, including Russian discs of BURATINO and THE CHILDREN OF CAPTAIN GRANT (both 1930s films featuring special effects by the young Ptushko), arrived in good time, so I can recommend PeterShop whole-heartedly.

One of the Ruscico oddities I ordered was a 1979 film called THE SAVAGE HUNT OF KING STACH (pronounced "Stack"). I had never heard of it before, but I took the plunge because the PeterShop ordering page claimed that it had "been assigned a most honorable place in history, next to CAT'S EYE, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and a masterpiece of national sub-horror, the animation HAZELNUT TREE." Now, I don't personally consider CAT'S EYE on an equal level with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but nevertheless I was intrigued... and the hyperbole was grounded by a half-dozen prizes and citations awarded to the film at various international festivals.

The disc is packaged in cover art that I didn't find very tantalizing, so it has been sitting here unwatched since it arrived, but last night -- needing some Dog Byte material -- I watched it on a whim... and surprise, surprise: I think it's one of the great unheralded horror films of the 1970s. I was prompted to write a full-length review for VIDEO WATCHDOG #139 (now going into production). To bait your interest in that review, and in the film, here is an excerpt:

"Boris Plotnikov stars as Bielarecki, a young ethnographer who, at the end of the 19th century, requests the hospitality of Marsh Firs, an isolated castle in the Northwest marshlands, while he conducts research into the myths and legends of the region. He discovers from the castle's young and tragic owner, Nadzieja Jankowska (Yelena Dimotrova), that the place is haunted by two ghosts─the Little Man of Marsh Firs and the Lady in Blue─and that her family line was accursed centuries ago when ancestor Roman Jankowska denied the hand of his daughter to King Stach, whose ghost now rides with those of thirteen horsemen to drag Jankowska offspring and their servants to death in the surrounding marshes... This winner of numerous international film festival prizes could be described as THE HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS meets TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD, with grace notes of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, LISA AND THE DEVIL and DON'T LOOK NOW."

Purely for compositional purposes, I've cropped the frame grab seen above from its standard presentation on disc, which, for the record, does feature English audio and subtitle options. (I think it may work better in English than in Russian.) The director, Valery Rubinchik, claims in a supplementary interview that he made THE SAVAGE HUNT OF KING STACH not with the intention of making a horror film, but a film whose inherent fears and mysteries made it truer to real life. Regardless of his intentions, he made a real gooseflesh-raiser, though it more properly belongs to the realm of fantasy rather than horror. It's one of those movies that force its reviewers to recount a long list of haunting images, so I recommend you try to see them for yourself.

One Hell of a Book

This is actually the 666th piece written for Video WatchBlog. To underscore this interesting fact, I thought I should draw your attention to this new and worthy trade paperback from Dark Horse Comics.

480 pages of the best art and stories ever published by Harvey Entertainment Inc. 110 stories. 64 pages in full color. Edited by Leslie Cabarga, with an terrific intro by the ever-able Jerry Beck and a foreword by Mark Arnold.

HOT STUFF. I bought it, and I love it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Be It Ever So Jumbled

On a personal note, I'd like to mention here that it was twenty-five years ago today that Donna and I moved into our white house high in the Cincinnati suburbs.

Built in 1907, it was the seventh house we were shown by our realtor and we knew it was for us right away -- we loved its woodwork, its staircase, its tiled fireplaces, its apartment-sized attic, but, being two not-very-handy people, its most attractive feature may have been that the walls didn't need repainting nor repapering. Believe it or not, all these years later, the walls remain as they were on the day we moved in. It's not that we can't bear to have them painted or repapered; we just can't get at them anymore.

Before coming here, we were being driven mad by downstairs neighbors in a four-apartment building in an area slipping down the steep slope to disaster. We both remember clearly the day when we took the bus from that apartment here to our future house, with broom and mop and bucket in tow, and prepared the empty three-level place for our occupancy. We kept our two cats, Godot and Kaboodle, shut inside the bathroom of our apartment as the movers emptied its other three rooms of furniture; when I let them out, they dug their claws into the finished wooden floor as if thinking that the law of gravity had been repealed and sent all our furniture skyward, with them to follow presently. I got them into a pet carrier and brought them here by taxi, while Donna traveled here with the movers. Opening the pet carrier, Godot and Kaboodle stepped out hesitantly... but then a wonderful expression seemed to bloom on their faces as they understood how much their territory had been enlarged. That day we met neighbors who remain our dear friends, though they have since moved away, and we attended the weddings of their 7-year-old girl and 2-year-old boy. As a kid, with the exception of one family I lived with for a year, I lived only in apartments and it was a wonderment to discover the pleasures of living in a house. After so many years of being harrassed by neighbors' high drama and overloud and inconsiderate music, it became a source of great pleasure simply to sit in my own yard and listen to the sounds of nature, church bells, or people working on their cars a block away. Our back yard remains our special retreat, weather permitting, the closest thing your hardworking Watchdog team ever gets to vacation time.

Our once-empty house is far more cluttered and disorderly these days, and we groan to ourselves a good deal about the lack of wall space to display our art, posters and books, not to mention the absence of an actual shower. (Funnily enough, the possibility of wake-up and before-bed showers every day has always been one of Wonderfest's many attractions for us.) In the past few years, we've been able to make a number of needed improvements to the property (we're now talking about having a shower built in our basement), but we've accumulated so much stuff in the past quarter-century, our large walls have become covered and our once-spacious attic is cluttered with boxed books and movies. We're outgrowing the place and don't anticipate living here another twenty-five years; we do anticipate that, when Moving Day comes (probably moving days), it (or they) will loom large among days of infamy.

We've been blessed with good neighbors over the years -- some of whom remain, but many of whom have either moved or passed on. We've known and loved their pets, as well. Aside from Pat, who lives on the other side of us and has lived in her house for all but one of her 70+ years, Donna and I are bemused to find ourselves now the elders of our immediate area. Having married in our teens, we have obviously lived here longer than we ever before lived in any one place, and I personally leave this house so seldom that it sometimes seems like my space station, my submarine, my dream-within-a-dream. We've had no children, but it was here that VIDEO WATCHDOG was conceived in 1989; since moving here, we've given birth to 140+ magazine projects, numerous books (four in 1985 alone) and novels and screenplays and comics scripts, assorted unpublished novels and non-fiction, a calendar, and 664 blog entries -- 664 being the inversion of our house number, as serendipity would sweetly have it. This is a good house for entrepreneurs: the couple that lived here before us not only raised a family here, they ran a dental lab from the basement. We once found some false teeth inside a basement wall, reminding me of a scene in Roman Polanski's THE TENANT.

Anyway, the silver anniversary of one's home and hearth is a sentimantal occasion, and one probably not often achieved in today's transient world. "Home is a name, a word," Charles Dickens wrote in MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT; "it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration." Like Dickens, I had an unsteady childhood, fraught with constant moving from place to place, so I share his fondness for the almost mythic conceptual stature of a constant home and hearth. "Home" is much more than the skin that covers our own skin -- that much is a house. "Home" is what we call the walls and roof that give oneness to all that we hold most dear and close to ourselves; it's where we externalize our interior selves in the form of décor and furnishings and comforts; it's the walls of muscle we erect between the outside world and the atria and ventricles of our true selves. We invite friends in.

Absolutely, it's where the heart is.

4 BY AGNES VARDA reviewed

My "Nozone" review of Criterion's box set 4 BY AGNES VARDA -- containing her films LE POINTE COURTE, CLEO FROM 5 TO 7, LE BONHEUR (HAPPINESS) and VAGABOND -- appears in the current April 2008 issue of SIGHT & SOUND, on newsstands now. As usual, my review also appears on the BFI's S&S website and can be read here.

Sidebar to Bava fans: CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 (1962) is shot in real time, like Bava's movie RABID DOGS (1975, released 1998). In my chapter on the latter film in MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, I explained how Bava managed to shoot inside a moving car on a public highway without permits by using different fragmented vehicles mounted on the back of a flatbed truck. Unfortunately, no production stills I have ever found showed how this was done. But, happily, the supplementary materials on CLEO in the Varda set show how a sequence inside a moving cab was shot -- exactly the same way! It's hard to tell if Bava was familiar with the film and heard through the grapevine how it solved such technical problems, or if he solved them the same way intuitively, but it's fascinating that two films shot in real time encountered the same problem and solved it identically.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Bill, Agnès, Eddie and the King

Several entries ago, I previewed Eclipse's forthcoming set THE DELIRIOUS FICTIONS OF WILLIAM KLEIN, originally announced for late March. The latest word from parent company Criterion is that the set is being postponed (for the second time, actually) to May 20th. No reason has been given for the additional delay, but I'm crossing my fingers in the hope that it has something to do with correcting the incommodious, head-cropping, widescreen framing given to THE MODERN COUPLE (1977) on the test discs that were sent to me and other members of the press.

My home viewing has been wildly scattered of late, random "want to" viewing always being more of an enticement to my weak will than regimented "have to" viewing. Over this past Easter weekend, I had the opportunity to show Agnès Varda's CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 to some visiting friends and it was a pleasure to experience it on that deeper, secondary viewing level. Seeing it again made me more astonished by the sheer choreography of Jean Rabier's extraordinary cinematography, always sinuous, vivant, multi-layered, and faceted with mirrored and other reflections and the occasional serendipitous accident. I'm also still proceeding through Tobis' EDDIE CONSTANTINE COLLECTION box sets from Germany and had a wonderful time with John Berry's Je suis un sentimental (1955, in VOLUME 2) in particular, which features extraordinary black-and-white film noir cinematography. Checking the IMDb, I found out that its cameraman -- Jacques Lemare -- had not only shot La môme vert de gris and Les femmes s'en balancent, two of the best Constantine features from the first volume, but Jean Renoir's THE RULES OF THE GAME as well. Unfortunately, unlike the more gracious first volume, the second Constantine set cheaps out by not including French subtitles, which unfortunately makes it harder for me to follow the dialogue and, therefore, get my money's worth.

My recent reading has been just as scattered, but one book that has held my interest this past week is Mark Evanier's much-anticipated KIRBY: KING OF COMICS, a magnificently produced coffee table book about the art of the late Jack "King" Kirby. Wrapped in a dustjacket whose pulpy finish suggests a more durable form of comicbook paper, it achieves new heights of accuracy in reproducing comic art, the off-whites of cardstock noticeably augmented with the brighter whites of whited-out corrections. On some pages, you can see the brushwork in the inking. More than a handsome pictorial tribute to one of the great conceptual artists of the 20th century (and arguably the most fecund of its myth-makers), Evanier's book purposefully and gracefully walks the tightrope between dispassionate history and heartfelt personal insights, the latter drawn from the author's many years of working as Kirby's assistant and befriending the artist and his family. Evanier is reportedly still toiling on a larger, more obsessive exegesis on the subject, which fans are awaiting as they have awaited nothing since the coming of Galactus, but don't mistake this one for a mere appetizer. For anyone who loves comics, it's an eye-wowing, heart-in-the-throat reading experience that renders to the King his overdue and rightful due.