Wednesday, December 26, 2018

My Obsessions of 2018

As I look back over the myriad months of 2018, I see a year in which my personal interests turned up the heat, or in which my undiagnosed OCD finally ramped into overdrive. I didn't just acquire new interests; I was assailed by one obsession after another, each one instigated by having a little spending money in pocket for a change. It may have also had something to do with dawning intimations of mortality, owed to the episode I suffered last March (never adequately diagnosed, but which my nerve specialist is now referring to as a "mini-stroke") and the neuropathy that's now a mild but constant nag on my left side, but this year life and work became more urgent. My reading became more intensive, running about equal with my film viewing for the first time, and so did my collecting. I went through different phases so quickly it was almost like I was becoming one person after another, each burning with an especially keen interest. So in looking over this year, it makes more sense to me to list my guiding obsessions than to attempt a "Best of Year" list. As the holidays wind down, I would like to come back and blog about the year's major restorations and some overlooked titles, however.

Anyway, the following ruled my year:

SPIRITS OF THE DEAD (1968)
No surprise here, as this Poe portmanteau was the subject of my current book for Neil Snowdon's Electric Dreamhouse imprint, my first book in a decade. I couldn't be happier with it; the weeks in which I wrote and researched it were a mad blur of inspired industry and set the tone for the months that followed.

JOE SARNO
Sarno is the subject of my current book-in-progress, which is presently written up through 1968 - about 300+ pages. The Film Movement Blu-ray containing SIN IN THE SUBURBS (1964), WARM NIGHTS AND HOT PLEASURES (1965) and CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE (1974) includes two commentaries by me, which will give you a taste of what the book will be like and why I think such a book will be important. My own contribution aside, I feel this was one of the most important releases of the year.

NEW SPEAKERS!
My former home entertainment speakers - a Bose 5.1 set-up - served me well for some 20+ years but they bit the dust earlier this year and had to be replaced. (One of them took a fall and was never quite the same after that, and others were just blown out. I chose to replace them with a set of smaller  Yamaha speakers to complement my Yamaha amp and the results were immediately appreciable and spectacular - and I mean "I've got a whole new music collection!" spectacular. I could instantly hear far greater rear channel response, purer highs and less distorted lows. Some 5.1 musical highlights of this past year include THE BEATLES (white album), ROXY MUSIC (debut album box set), and the King Crimson SAILORS' TALES box set (including the studio albums from their 1971-73 period and a live Summit Studios performance in 5.1). But I must say that the most remarkable, transcendent audio experience I've had with them was an older release, Berto Pisano's DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER soundtrack, which was released some years back as part of a three-disc Klaus Kinski-themed Digitmovies CD set (now OOP, I believe), and it was also released on vinyl this year by Arrow Records in the UK. That music is nothing short of glorious, especially with the 7.1 option on my amp activated, sending the higher ranges to the rear channels.

SHERLOCK HOLMES
This year, I revisited the entire run of Universal's Holmes series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce on Blu-ray, and this in turn led me back to the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novels and stories for the first time since my teen years. This is hardly a groundbreaking headline, but they are marvelous - I definitely get more out of them now than when I first discovered them. Actually, I had never read any of the novels - but I found A STUDY IN SCARLET in particular to be a bracing, adventuresome read - one of my best reads of this past year. It took me awhile to find my way back to these, but I found them again at the right time - and now I'm continuing to punctuate my reading of other fiction with a dip back into the short stories. On a related note, I took a minor dip into the bound editions of THE STRAND MAGAZINE, which I saw looking very handsome when all the original blue-and-gold bindings are complete and arrayed on a shelf. I have too many interests!

CARLOS ENRIQUE TABOADA
I had never before heard of this Mexican horror film specialist, but I was floored by his initial effort EVEN THE WIND IS AFRAID (1968) and promptly sent out a call to friends, which helped me to gather as many of his other features as were out there to be had in English-friendly versions. There is something very novela-like about his drama scenes, which is true of most other horror films coming from this country in this period, but Taboada's handling of horror and suspense scenes confirm him as one of Sixties' finest genre stylists. I've fallen behind in my viewing and need to get back to him. Too many interests!

JOSEF VON STERNBERG AND MARLENE DIETRICH
Criterion's box set was the excuse I've been waiting for to plunge into these films as a cosmos all their own. The set, while handsome and essential, is not as generously equipped with supplements as one might wish, but the films were all long-overdue revelations for me. THE SCARLET EMPRESS is an antique plunge into excess worthy of Ken Russell (who must have been a devotée), DISHONORED is a whipcrack early spy picture, BLONDE VENUS and THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN are delightful works of exquisite irony, SHANGHAI EXPRESS is like watching a Steve Ditko comic brought to life... but it was the first of the lot, MOROCCO, that most deeply impressed me. It somehow elevated an initially corny and not very believable love story to something transcendent and metaphysical by the time it reached its devastating end. I immediately bought books about their partnership (my copy of FUN IN A CHINESE LAUNDRY is signed!) and installed a photo of Marlene on my office wall so that I can see her pride, her pain, her determination, her beauty every day.

MAD PAPERBACKS
From the sublime to the sub-lemon, you might say. Some years ago, I managed to collect as many of the original MAD magazines as I felt were essential, basically from #24 (when the magazine format started) through #300 or so. I'm now a MAD subscriber and enjoying the mag's new direction under the stewardship of Bill Morrison, so there's a hollow area in the middle of my collection that I'll someday think about filling - though my interest wanes during those Eighties and Nineties issues, much as my interest wanes in the movies and TV shows of the time they were satirizing. That said, this year I realized that my collection had one very notable gap - the Signet paperbacks, which featured original classic cover art by the likes of Kelly Freas, Norman Mingo and others found nowhere else. So I started picking them up piecemeal from eBay till I had gathered the first 15, from THE MAD READER through GREASY MAD STUFF. This basically satisfies me, though I should probably also go after the paperbacks consisting of all-new original material like Dick DeBartolo's MAD LOOKS AT THE MOVIES books. There are some other later ones with covers I like, such as the horror-themed ones, so I may go after those in time - then again, maybe not since - with my mental orientation, I'd feel compelled to fill-in the missing space defined by two parentheses. But I love the first 15, which include much of Wally Wood's deliriously gorgeous black and white art.

GIDGET
This was an interesting one. I did a Gidget-themed blog posting here once before (search for it), but I had never seen the entire 1966 Screen Gems series starring Sally Field and Don Porter. At a loss for things to watch during the dinner hour, Donna and I decided to fill this gap in our educations with the help of Amazon Prime. All but maybe one of the 32 episodes turned out to be sheer delight - the majority were helmed by William Asher, who directed most of the BEACH PARTY movies and also BEWITCHED. I recently read Sally's autobiography IN PIECES and, though much of it was about pain and disappointment, I was pleased to learn that she loved making this series too, and was so disappointed when it was unceremoniously cancelled after one season. Donna received the original Frederick Kohner novel (signed by Kohner's daughter, the original Gidget) as a birthday gift, and I think I'll be borrowing it to read fairly soon.

LES COMPAGNONS DE BAAL
This is a seven-part series of hour-long episodes, a French miniseries scripted by and starring Jacques Champreux, the grandson of Louis Feuillade - who later played the master criminal of Georges Franju's SHADOWMAN (Nuits rouges, 1974). This is one of fantasy cinema's best-kept secrets, a dazzling work easily the equal of Franju's JUDEX, and an absolute masterpiece of French fantasy - featuring an unforgettable performance by Jean Martin as the Fantômas-like leader of the criminal cult known as The Companions of Baal. The individual episodes are available for viewing on YouTube, but alas, only in French. However, English subtitles may be found if you look around online and know how to outfit your downloads of the episodes with them. There really deserves to be an English-friendly official release of this gem. It was the greatest film experience of my entire year.

"CRIME CLUB" NOVELS AND MOVIES
In the late 1930s, Universal released a series of B-mysteries based on novels from Doubleday/Doran's long-running "Crime Club" imprint: THE WESTLAKE CASE (1937, based on Jonathan Latimer's HEADED FOR A HEARSE), THE BLACK DOLL (1938, based on William Edward Hayes same-titled novel), THE LADY IN THE MORGUE (1938, based on the eponymous novel by Jonathan Latimer), DANGER ON THE AIR (1938, based on DEATH CATCHES UP WITH MR. KLUCK, a novel written by Edith Meisner under the pen name Xantippe), THE LAST EXPRESS (1938, based on the novel by Baynard Hendrick), THE LAST WARNING (1938, based on THE DEAD DON'T CARE by Jonathan Latimer), THE MYSTERY OF THE WHITE ROOM (1939, based on MURDER IN THE SURGERY by James G. Edwards), and THE WITNESS VANISHES (1940, based on James Ronald's THEY CAN'T HANG ME). The films are serviceable sometimes better-than-serviceable,  time-killers making use of Universal's lower-tier players like Preston Foster, Frank Jenks, Nan Grey, William Lundigan, and C. Henry Gordon, but the books are a good deal better - and sometimes they were reprinted as collectable Photoplay editions. I've been going crazy for them, and my copies of the films are in sore need of an upgrade.

THE SHADOW and THE SPIDER
One of my greater frustrations as a book collector is keeping up with Nostalgia Ventures/Sanctum Books' series reprints of stories from the great pulp mystery magazine, THE SHADOW. My love for The Shadow is completely unreasonable: I've read maybe only five of the stories to date, but I must have ALL of them! The cover art is so beautiful, so moody, and the stories (advertised as "Complete Novels") are atmospheric and sometimes gripping. I have some original pulps (a few), some Girasol replica editions (a few), all the 1960s paperbacks (which I've learned can sometimes be incomplete), some raw manuscript pages of books not included in the previous paperback runs, and the first 30 or so of the Nostalgia/Sanctum books - which leaves me in need of the remaining 120 or so! Oh well, bit by bit as they say. As I was trying to brainstorm ways to fill out this collection, a friend of mine happened to say, "THE SHADOW is good, but when I want to read pulps, I'd much rather read THE SPIDER." I had read and enjoyed a couple of this character's adventures before, so I understood the compliment - the SPIDER pulps are absolutely insane with action and incident! Skyscrapers topple! Hoards of vampire bats raid cities! Thousands perish! These have been many times reprinted, and still are now, but never before have they been reprinted in their original sequence. (I understand such a publishing program is gearing up.) So I picked up and read a couple of the original pulps (not in the best shape, but readable - including the incredible "The Mad Horde" and "Machine Guns Over the White House") and they are highly addictive.

GRAHAM GREENE'S WITHDRAWN FICTION
The great British novelist (1904-1991) was never pleased with the critical reception attending his second and third novels THE NAME OF ACTION and RUMOUR AT NIGHTFALL. Feeling them to be weak himself, he withdrew them from circulation after their initial release in the early 1930s. Therefore, if you're curious about why and wish to read them, you'll either have to visit the reference room of your local main library (where they keep the rarities they don't lend out) or pay exorbitant collector's prices. Recently, I had to good luck to find them both in worn but acceptable condition - "reading copies" - at fair double-digit prices and grabbed them up. So far I've read RUMOUR AT NIGHTFALL and I can understand Greene's misgivings. Unlike his flintier, more worldly, careworn prose, this early book suffers from an affected, overly poetical narrative voice, yet it very much shows us the more mature Greene taking shape in his concerns for what is moral and lasting and sacred in our base, coarse, tempting, material world. Consisting of three parts, the second (the only one written by a secondary character) contained the passages I loved. It held my interest throughout and was well worth reading.

GODZILLA ALL MOVIE COLLECTION DVD BOXES
My most absorbing obsession of the year came about when my Facebook friend Jean Guérin made me aware of a new publishing plan that Japan's Toho Films had undertaken with the publishing house Kodansha. To coincide with the release of SHIN GODZILLA in 2016, they initiated a two-year plan in which they would release a new box of collectables devoted a title from their 60+ year history of kaiju eiga movies. Each box - issued bimonthly - would include the film itself on DVD with bonus content in a tall, attractive box that would also be stuffed with replica reproductions of various original posters, manga, souvenir booklets and more - all priced at roughly $20 each. After fulfilling their initial plan of 51 "magazines," they expanded their plan to encompass 61 titles, with the last ten devoted to Toho films outside the giant monster prospectus, including such classics as MATANGO, THE H-MAN, THE HUMAN VAPOR and THE THREE TREASURES. I'll go into greater detail about this obsession in a lengthy article I've written for FANGORIA #3. In the meantime, if you want to look around... Suffice to say, these are highly addictive items. The DVDs are in Japanese only, of course, and Region 2 - but many retain the original Spectarama stereo soundtracks never heard abroad.

THE LATE WORKS OF JULES VERNE
This is the one roiling about inside of me now. I confess to not having read as much of Jules Verne as I should. I have loved reading some of his works (THE GREEN RAY and ROBUR THE CONQUEROR, for example); I have found others slow and could never get through them, which may well be the fault of their translations or just my mood at the time. That said, I love the many films his visionary work has inspired, from the silents to the works of Disney, Harryhausen and Zeman. Verne fascinates me as an historical figure, as a father of science fiction, and he thus demands a place in my library. I wish I'd started collecting him earlier because the individual editions can be quite pricey now, and the early illustrated editions are the Victorian equivalent of today's blockbusters. In their stead, I have managed to collect a 15-volume set of his major works as well as two different ebooks - one a Delphi "COMPLETE WORKS" in English, and the other an OEUVRES COMPLETES (160 titles) in French that I can't read - but which I had to have for its 5,400 reproduced original First Edition engravings, which are so essential to the enjoyment of those works! But onto my particular obsession of the moment...

In listing Verne's novels in English, the Delphi collection footnotes their complete list with a further list of 16 books, which had to be included in French only because their English translations (when they exist at all) are presently under copyright and could not be included. A few of these works, including LIGHTHOUSE AT THE END OF THE WORLD (filmed in 1971), are said to be the work of Verne's son, working under the father's name - but most are definitely his. A number of these have appeared in English - THE SUPER ORINOCO, VILLAGE IN THE TREETOPS, THE KIP BROTHER, INVASION OF THE SEA, and TRAVEL SCHOLARSHIPS to name the main ones - and, as ever, my desire is stoked by the taunting knowledge of what lay outside the bounds of my collection. So, yes, I'm now chomping at the bit to explore this forbidden fruit, but my finances are tight at present from this impassioned year's spending and so I wait. Perhaps I should read more of the Verne I have in the meantime!

PS: Not illustrating or providing handy links in this article has been my Christmas present to myself!

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.
 

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