Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Vintage Hitch - Bright and Bubbly

Some weeks ago, while visiting Dave Kehr's blog, I discovered the existence of three new French import box sets (from Studio Canal) cataloguing reportedly superb prints of Alfred Hitchcock's 1927-32 work. Though I had copies of most, if not all, this material in cheapo Brentwood box sets -- like THE ESSENTIAL ALFRED HITCHCOCK COLLECTION, which offers nine features and a documentary for only $19.98 (I found it at Best Buy for $14.98) -- and at least one of the titles (BLACKMAIL) as an exquisite Criterion Collection laserdisc with an audio commentary by screenwriter Charles Bennett, I decided to order the sets anyway, if only to provide some guidance for you, my devoted readers. I ordered them from -- somewhat blindly, as their listings itemized the contents of each set only in French. Here is a handy translation:

Disc 1: Le Masque de Cuir (THE RING, 1927) #6
A l'Americaine (CHAMPAGNE, 1928) #8
Disc 2: Laquelle des Trois? (THE FARMER'S WIFE, 1927) #7
Manxman (THE MANXMAN, 1928) #9

Disc 1: Chantage (BLACKMAIL, 1929) #10
The Skin Game (THE SKIN GAME, 1931) #13
Disc 2: Meurtre (MURDER, 1930) #12

Disc 1: A L'est de Shanghai (RICH AND STRANGE, 1932) #15
Numero 17 (NUMBER SEVENTEEN, 1932) #14
Disc 2: Correspondant 17 (FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, 1940) #25

As you probably noticed, the sets aren't really a definitive overview of Hitchcock's "first works" (none of his first five films is included), nor are they arranged in correct chronological order. (I've added numbers after each title above to show where the movies fall in the sequence of Hitchcock's 53 features.) The three sets are packaged in moss-green colored clamshell boxes with a printed contents sheet affixed to the back, which can be removed after cracking the shrinkwrap and tucked inside for future reference. Every online description of these releases I've seen lists them as offering the films in French and English -- which is true, but the French subtitles are non-removable. They are also non-disruptive, but it would be nice to have the option of not being distracted by them.

The rumors about the films' quality are true. They look beautiful -- crisp, silvery and full of detail simply not available in domestic PD prints. Many are preceded by their original British Board of Film Censorship certificates. The only detailed comparison I've done so far concerns CHAMPAGNE, included in the first set, which is available domestically as part of Brentwood's THE ESSENTIAL ALFRED HITCHCOCK COLLECTION. Like its companion feature in the Studio Canal set, THE RING, this 1928 silent is not in the true Hitchcock vein, being essentially a maudlin romance rather than a thriller. Hitchcock himself described it to François Truffaut as "probably the lowest ebb in my output."

CHAMPAGNE is the flimsy story of "The Girl" (Betty Balfour, pictured below), a flighty young heiress whose romance with a slick-haired young man, "The Boy" (Jean Bradin), comes to a halt after she uses her fortune to arrange a flight to his transatlantic ship, leaving her to the more suspect intentions of a sinister, older admirer, "The Man" (Theo Von Alten, pictured above). Our heroine's father, "The Father" (Harker), aiming to teach his willful child the value of money, and to test whose romantic interest is most sincere, pretends he has lost the family fortune in the stock market, leaving he and his daughter without a sou -- the stuff of comedy in 1928, destined to become the stuff of tragedy only a year later. (One can easily imagine CHAMPAGNE being remade starring Sandra Bullock or Meg Ryan, if it hasn't been done already.)

Like its disc companion THE RING, CHAMPAGNE shows Hitchcock compensating for a milquetoast story by revelling in audacious (one might even say "effervescent") camera technique, montage, and opportunities for droll humor. He takes particular delight in staging a banquet hall sequence on an ocean liner suffering rocky seas, where the cast (presumably prompted by cues barked off-camera) go stumbling left or right in remarkable concert with one another. Though not Hitchcock at his best (or even half-best) by any means, CHAMPAGNE is worth watching by anyone interested in eavesdropping on people intoxicated by the untapped possibilities of cinema.

The film, which Studio Canal's info sheet lists at a mere 72 minutes, actually runs a startling 85m 11s in PAL -- which translates to 88m 49s in NTSC -- and that's without including the British Board of Film Censors certificate at the beginning. In contrast, Brentwood's CHAMPAGNE (included in THE ESSENTIAL ALFRED HITCHCOCK COLLECTION) runs 84m 56s -- and has no BBFC certificate. The Studio Canal presentation is exquisite, making the 1928 film look surprisingly fresh, with a wealth of fine detail. The piano accompaniment by Xavier Berthelot adds to the film's enjoyment, being attentive to its spirit and variety of moods, even accenting little gestures like Gordon Harker's feigned facial tic. The classical orchestra accompaniment on the Brentwood version actually scores this lighthearted, bubbly film as though it were something far more grave, like the story of a sinking ship with all hands lost. The Brentwood picture quality has no fine detail (Theo Von Alten loses all the little wrinkles around his eyes, which not only gives him a face-lift of sorts, but erases nuances of his performance) and looks pasty and smudgy by comparison.

There is a 4-minute difference between the two versions, but I didn't notice anything missing in its entirety; instead, little bits and the odd intertitle were missing from individual scenes and shots. The omissions are damaging to the two scenes which I consider the film's comic and dramatic highlights.

The comic highlight occurs when "The Boy" (Bradin) visits "The Girl" (Balfour) in her humble apartment, where she is trying to learn how to bake. She is overjoyed to see him and embraces him. They argue when the Boy offers the Girl and her father his charity, and the Boy leaves with the parting shot, "You'll make a mess of it, the way you do everything you lay your hands on" -- then he turns his back to the camera to exit, revealing the Girl's flour-covered handprints all over the back of his suit jacket. This scene is present on the Brentwood disc, but an intertitle is edited into the wrong place, so that the parting shot is followed by the Boy's earlier intertitle, "You can't live on pride!" -- ruining the continuity of the joke, and the scene!

The film's most intriguing dramatic moment occurs when the Girl, reduced to selling boutonnieres in a nightclub, is spotted by the Man, who invites her to dinner. Learning of her predicament, he pledges his eternal friendship and guides her from their table to one in a series of private nooks in the club where men and hired women can enjoy their privacy. He begins kissing his way up her arm, then takes even fresher advantage of her mouth, and she fights her way free as he tries to force himself upon her even more... In context, the scene is nearly as disturbing as the rape scene in FRENZY, but as the action settles on a close shot of the Girl, the camera dollies back to reveal her still seated at the restaurant table across from the Man, imagining all this -- just as the Boy happens along to save her from this presumed fate.

This sort of thing is fairly commonplace in today's movies and television (I've seen it often used in SIX FEET UNDER, for example), and I can remember seeing it used in some of Luís Buñuel's work of the 1970s and finding it quite radical then. There may be earlier examples of this sort of narrative trickery in silent movies, but I can't think of an earlier instance than this, nor can I name another as brilliantly deceptive. After seeing this scene in the Studio Canal presentation, which had great impact, it was disheartening to compare it to the Brentwood version, which was not only "scored" insensitively, but was missing snippets from the Man's attempted molestation of the Girl and ended up making her seem less vulnerable and invaded. And because the Brentwood version delivers a soundtrack dissociated from the original celluloid, it doesn't offer the usual pops and other telltale audio clues that usually tip us off when footage is missing or rearranged.

As for THE RING (a boxing story, not to be confused with the recent Japanese horror hit or its remake), I've given it only a cursory look; I watched my Brentwood copy (included in Brentwood's 10-movie set ALFRED HITCHCOCK - THE MASTER OF SUSPENSE) only a month or so ago, so it's not something I'm eager to view again so soon. But I did notice that the image on the Studio Canal disc is, again, delightfully vivid and the framing is far superior to what I had seen. I can remember some heads being lopped off in some of the Brentwood shots, from the nose up! I didn't make note of the Brentwood running time, but the Studio Canal version of THE RING runs 85m 35s in PAL (it carries no BBFC certificate) -- that's 89m 14s in NTSC -- so you can compare that to the running time of your copy, should you have one.

I know that many people who love Hitchcock can't get into his early films, finding them "too creaky," and that many of those who do "kind of" like them are perfectly satisfied with the PD versions so prevalent on DVD here in America. But if you take your Hitchcock seriously, I submit that these Studio Canal presentations just might make a difference in how well these films play for you. After watching CHAMPAGNE, I referred to some of my Hitchcock books and found it given fairly short shrift by pretty much everybody. (Donald Spoto's The Art of Alfred Hitchcock dismisses the "amusing trifle" in far fewer words that I've given you today.) Having now seen the film under refreshed conditions, I can't help thinking that a smudgy presentation may lead to smudgy thinking. When considered in relation to other films being made at the same time, Hitchcock's early silents are remarkable for the degree to which their images burst off the screen, even evoking the illusion of sound on occasion. CHAMPAGNE may tell a tedious story, but there are other valid reasons to watch a film -- especially a Hitchcock film -- than to be told a story. A Hitchcock scholar armed with these new transfers just might be able to write a more enticing defense of these early years.

Of course, the inclusion of FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT in the third set is baffling, especially when so many other, earlier Hitchcock titles would better fit the description of a "First Work." It's also a useless addition to those of us who own the recent, extras-laden Warner Home Video release, but you shouldn't let that prevent you from obtaining the best available copies of RICH AND STRANGE (one of Hitchcock's very best early works) and NUMBER SEVENTEEN (as close as Hitchcock ever got to filming a Monogram "old dark house" comedy).

The sets also include optional introductions by Noël Simsolo and various other treats. The 1927 - 28 set adds only a photo gallery, but the other two sets both contain a half-dozen glossy, postcard-sized still reproductions. Some of these I've seen in books before, but never so generously cropped. 1929 - 31 contains a stills gallery, an alternative ending for MURDER, something to do with BLACKMAIL star Anny Ondra, and a 52m documentary called HITCHCOCK - LES FILMS DE JEUNESSE (featuring Claude Chabrol and critic Bernard Eisenschitz) that is undoubtedly in French sans soutitre. The final volume contains a stills gallery and a 26m documentary featurette, JEUX AVEC L'INVISIBILE, featuring commentator Noël Simsolo.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

If You Have a Disc On Which You Think You Can Rely

In recent months, I've been converting some old tapes as well as some laserdiscs to DVD-R. I don't always watch them while I do this, but it can be an engrossing process, refreshing my memory about beloved films, good and not-so-good, which have not been part of my current consciousness because they haven't been released on DVD or shown recently on broadcast television. The process can also unearth some unhappy discoveries about the state of one's collection, and how it's deteriorated while we haven't been watching it.

I've never had the problems other laserdisc collectors have reported with "laser rot" and so forth, but I did discover a different kind of problem recently while attempting to convert a disc. In the past year, I had placed a winning eBay bid on a Japanese import laserdisc of the Sex Pistols last concert at Winterland in 1978. I watched it when it arrived and the disc played perfectly. Would that I had converted it then! A few weeks ago, while recording it to my hard drive, I discovered that somehow, in the meantime, it had developed a crack and no longer played past a certain song. Considering what I paid, I don't think I got my money's worth out of this one, so I was miffed. I was hoping to burn the Pistols' Long Horn Ballroom and Winterland shows to the same disc, and now I have the Long Horn Ballroom show on my hard drive, which I'll probably end up burning to disc separately. It makes me wonder what other sad stories might be awaiting me in the deadweight of my laserdisc closet.

Ah, but there are joys to be rediscovered there, too. Last night I decided to convert my Warner Home Video laserdisc of Lindsay Anderson's O LUCKY MAN! (1973), my thoughts having been turned in that direction by a recent letter asking me if Warner had any plans to release it on DVD. (Of course, I have no way of knowing what any company plans to do until they do it. I'm in Ohio.) I didn't intend to watch it, but once Alan Price's infectious score kicked in, I couldn't pull myself away.

That's Lindsay Anderson on set, directing Alan Price (who appears with his band throughout the film as a sort of Greek chorus commenting on the narrative).

Based on an original idea by star Malcolm McDowell and scripted by David Sherwin, O LUCKY MAN! attends the CANDIDE-like misadventures of an ambitious young coffee salesman that educate him in the dark, labyrinthine and oft-interconnected ways of sex and politics, big business and government, crime and punishment. It's one of those works of art, like John Lennon's ballad "Working Class Hero," that I think should be required experience for everybody when they reach a certain age, not only for the sake of their artistic education, but their education in life. Knowing this film, I believe, will make you a better person -- at least if you like it.

Though a stand-alone film, O LUCKY MAN! is also a vague sequel-of-sorts to an earlier Anderson film, IF... (1968), which starred McDowell as a character with the same name, Mick Travis. Whether McDowell's two characters are, or are not, the same person in terms of continuity, O LUCKY MAN! makes a number of references to IF... in terms of content and shared casting, and it makes similar references to McDowell's more recent success in Stanley Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) -- again, in terms of shared casting (Warren Clarke, ACO's "Dim") and other references (Ralph Richardson plays a "Mr. Burgess," McDowell sports an Alex-like derby at one point, and the films touch on similar subjects of good and evil, as well as prison and reformation). I'm making it sound overly intellectual and dull, but it's actually lively, spirited and funny, moving from one big surprise after another -- part of the fun is noticing how the actors recur in different roles, and determining what those different roles have to do with or say about one another. Seeing it again, I was not only surprised but deeply impressed that it managed to communicate itself in an adult fashion without the use of profanities and also that it's as erotic as sometimes is without nakedness. (The only sexual nudity in the film is, as they say, "non-diegetic" -- glimpsed in a stag movie and stage performance that are meant to look ridiculous.)

I first saw O LUCKY MAN! at Cincinnati's long-gone Carousel Theater (a fantastic screen) in the summer of 1973 with my friends Ben and Cathy, and we all liked it so much we automatically and unanimously decided to sit through it a second time -- and it's a three-hour movie. Actually, it was just under three hours in its original US release, which cut a section of the "East End" portion where Mick Travis (McDowell) attempts to dissuade Mrs. Richards (Rachel Roberts), a Welsh housewife and mother, from her plan to commit suicide. This section, which was restored to the home video release, would prove unfortunately prophetic as actress Rachel Roberts later took her own life. (The complex and messy details of her demise can be found on her IMDb page under the heading of "trivia.") The film ends jubilantly, with a festive dance with all the cast members in costume that begs confusion with the movie's actual wrap party, and as time goes on, it becomes more bittersweet to see the still-living (McDowell, the delicious Helen Mirren, Mary MacLeod) commingling so joyously with the now-dead (Anderson, Arthur Lowe, Mona Washbourne). McDowell, Anderson, and Sherwin revisited Mick Travis in a third film, BRITANNIA HOSPITAL (1982), interesting but the least of the series and the only one of the bunch that's ever had a DVD release. It's still available from Anchor Bay.

There hasn't been a proper release of O LUCKY MAN! since Warner issued it on VHS and LD a decade ago, which means there's now an entire generation of people out there who haven't had the opportunity to be enriched by it. The soundtrack album is available on CD and highly recommended, though it's absurdly overpriced for a disc that barely runs 25 minutes.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Chocolate, Lite and Dark

The fifth episode of Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR series, "Chocolate," arrives with some added pressures attached and I've been looking forward to it with equal parts curiosity and trepidation. The added pressures have to do with the episode's writer and director, Mick Garris, also being the show's creator and executive producer. Of the 13 directors represented in the first season, Garris is (I'm betting admittedly) the ringer, the one not generally thought of as a "Master of Horror." He's got a track record as a director and screenwriter -- he's one of only two men who can be called "the director of THE SHINING" -- but most of his work has been produced for network and cable television, and therefore fairly tame. For him to step up to bat alongside the likes of Dario Argento, Joe Dante, John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper is a bit like Bob Geldof insisting that The Boomtown Rats (a terrific but non-A List band, which Geldof fronted) be included on the exclusive bill at Live Aid, which he organized in 1985: "It's my party and my band is damned well going to play." Like Geldof, Garris is well within his rights, but the pressure is on for him to deliver.

Garris's highest profile work to date has probably been his TV miniseries versions of two Stephen King properties, THE STAND (1994) and the aforementioned "King's way" remake of THE SHINING (1997). Both of these are technically well-made and faithful adaptations of very difficult-to-adapt novels, but lacking any kind of unique directorial vision or creative edge. They're good television, sometimes very good, but they are ultimately too moderate, too temperate, too careful to summon the balls-to-the-wall horror of Stephen King at his best.

Part of my anticipation for this particular episode was based on what Garris was demanding of himself by agreeing to play this particular venue. Based on the previous four shows, it seemed that MASTERS OF HORROR, by its own evolving definition, almost had to extend Garris's creative perimeters into areas of violence and sexuality that his work isn't exactly noted for exploring. The major exception: his 1990 made-for-cable prequel, PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING -- written by Joseph Stefano -- starred former E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL moppet Henry Thomas as the young Norman Bates, developing into the murderous adult he would become under the twisted tutelage of "Mother" (Olivia Hussey). In a review that I wrote nearly 15 years ago for VW #7, I described PSYCHO IV as "a low-voltage thriller" while praising the daring casting and uncanny performance of Thomas.

It makes good sense, then, that Garris would renew this working relationship for "Chocolate." Thomas (pictured above) stars as Jamie, a recently divorced chemist working at a company that develops artificial food flavoring, whose lonely readjustment to bachelorhood is suddenly besieged by strange phenomena. It begins when his mouth is unexpectedly flooded with the taste of gourmet chocolate. After being dragged to a rock concert by a co-worker (Matt Frewer) who's in the band, his sense of hearing temporarily swaps the hard rock being played with calmer classical music; on the drive home, he is momentarily stricken sightless. In time, Jamie realizes that he is experiencing subjective flashes from someone else's life, waking and sleeping -- a psychic link. In fits and starts he cannot predict, he becomes subject to extended habitations of this other person's body, which he discovers to be female after experiencing sexual intercourse and orgasm the way the other sex feels them. His empathy with this woman's inner life now complete, it turns to full-blown romantic obsession when he glimpses her face in a mirrored reflection, and his impulses turn protective when he experiences her commission of murder, when she stabs her artist boyfriend to death during an attempted rape. When the next of his visions reveals her to live in Vancouver (where MASTERS OF HORROR is actually shot), Jamie drives north there and makes the dangerous move of stepping into her life -- actually rather than literally.

"Chocolate" is based on an original story by Garris which was included in his 2000 short fiction anthology Life in the Cinema. I haven't read it, but the story is not the episode's strongest suit. The premise of psychic links has been explored in films before -- most meaningfully in Douglas Trumbull's BRAINSTORM (1983), but also in THE EYES OF LAURA MARS (1978) and other murder mysteries -- and Garris doesn't make any attempts to rationalize or suggest a cause for this unusual turn of events. This technically takes the story out of the realm of horror and posits it more in the arena of fantasy, not unlike a TWILIGHT ZONE episode (or an episode of AMAZING STORIES, on which Garris served as story editor), where things sometimes happen merely to satisfy an idle curiosity about "What if...?" Again, I haven't read his story, but if Garris's script for this episode had somehow introduced the problem in Jamie's marriage as being associated with his lack of empathy, the phenomena would have at least been given some thematic underpinning. The finale, with Jamie and the woman holding each other at bay with dangerous weapons, seems confused and rushed -- even with the end credits unusually scrolling over the final scene, the episode overstays the program's timeslot by a minute or two. I've heard that the teleplay was cut down from an earlier draft written at feature length, and there is a feeling of dramatic haste and incompleteness. Nevertheless, looking back over the hour, there are occasional sparkles that lend the episode its own distinct character and way of looking at the world. For instance, the vividly imagined or well-observed moment when Jamie spies a blotch on his ex-wife's chest as she's changing clothes in front of him and asks, dumbstruck, without thinking, "Is that a hickey?" A moment like that, and the silent reaction it gets, is worth 10 pages of a guy crying and soliloquizing into his beer.

The episode's greatest asset is... I was going to say "the performance of Henry Thomas" (who, as an actor, can summon the edge Garris's story needs), but in fact, after scanning through the show a second time, I have to say there is not a single instance of bad casting or uninteresting performance in it. Garris would seem to be an actor's director; it's in the performances that his work finds what character it has. And yet, between the good performances and the adequate story, there is a layer or gulf that doesn't feel quite lived-in. As expected, there is an unusual (for Garris) amount of requisite sex and graphic violence in the episode, but even the stuff that happens directly to Jamie feels somewhat vicarious, as if the story is merely referencing the emotions it deals with rather than sinking its teeth into them.

I know Mick only slightly (we both wrote for CINEFANTASTIQUE back in the '70s); I have no idea what sort of life he's had, but I suspect that his art comes from -- to fall back on a convenient and overused musical parallel -- a McCartney place rather than a Lennon place. "Chocolate" is a story about pain and longing, but it's theoretical or conceptual pain/longing rather than a pain/longing that the viewer instantly recognizes as coming from a real and hurting place. As Paul McCartney has said (and I paraphrase), "John had a terrible childhood; I didn't, and if that's what you need to be a great artist, I'd rather not be a great artist." Of course, McCartney is a great artist anyway, and he didn't become a conspicuously greater one after his songwriting partner was murdered, or after his wife died of the same cancer that claimed his mother when he was a young man. So it's not always necessary for pay one's dues as an artist with blood and tears; sometimes sweat alone (i.e., hard work) is enough to push the craft on to the highest plateau. But horror, of all genres, cries out for that "something extra" -- something we find in the work of David Cronenberg and George Romero and Tobe Hooper and other masters going all the way back to Tod Browning and F. W. Murnau. In the cases of all these men, one has no doubt that something very real and very close to them, at one time or another, scared them all shitless -- and they were so traumatized, they consecrated their lives to scaring it back, or at least to thoroughly exploring the emotion to better understand its impact on them. I've never really sensed that "something extra" in Mick's work; he may not have it in him, yet he clearly loves the fantastic and has given a lot of himself to it. "Chocolate" marks an advance in his filmography: while not an especially original or solid story, it feels more personal than much of his past work, and is noticeably more adult. What is most vital here are its characters, their human dimension and their relationships, rather than its horror content. It wouldn't surprise me if Mick eventually produced his best and most successful work in another genre, like drama or romantic comedy.

As you may remember, The Boomtown Rats ("I Don't Like Mondays") played a memorable set at Live Aid. In a similar vein, "Chocolate" finds Mick Garris entertaining at his own party and earning his place onstage. I know this because, although it's not the best MOH episode I've seen, it's not the worst either.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Where's Tim?

It might seem like I'm taking a long and lazy holiday weekend, but we've had a number of little household emergencies the past couple of days, in addition to me starting immediate work on editing the contents of VW #124 (even though it won't be out till February or March), all of which has conspired to keep me from blogging.

A number of our appliances have recently elected to give up the ghost or show signs thereof -- two living room lamps, the coffee maker, the washing machine, and last night, the vacuum cleaner. Our vacuum "up and died," as they say, last night, so we went out, grabbed a quick deli dinner at Izzy's (I recommend the Izzy's Mex sandwich -- corned beef, melted cheese, diced onion and jalapeño chips on rye toast), and went to Best Buy where we looked at washing machines and bought a fancy front-loader, along with one of these new Dyson contraptions. The washing machine will be delivered December 18, but the Dyson vacuum we brought home with us. The crazy thing works like a charm and sucked up a surprising amount of dirt from floors and rugs heretofore imagined clean. I took the occasion of the downstairs clean-up to change some of the framed objects on our living room wall, taking down a couple of Bava locandini and putting up some autographed album covers. The posters had been up for years, maybe four years, which is well beyond the time when one starts to see through them. The change was refreshing and gave me a new feeling of pride about my surroundings; maximum return for minimal effort. I really must try to remember what a healthful difference it makes to one's outlook simply to change the things on the walls now and then.

Donna and I have been watching the entire SIX FEET UNDER series again, for the first time on DVD with the audio commentaries. Some of the commentaries are quite good, certainly a cut above those on HBO's THE SOPRANOS sets. We finished Season Two and started Season Three last night, where the discs suddenly bloom into anamorphic widescreen -- a pleasing change. Before starting Season Three, we decided to watch AMERICAN BEAUTY for the first time in several years, and now that we have the SIX FEET UNDER experience behind us, it's certainly easy to see it was written by Alan Ball: the main protagonist is aware of his own impending death; the wife is uptight; the daughter is an alienated artist-type with a more "popular" best friend who at least pretends to be a teenage sexual predator; there's the pot smoker, the gay couple, the "uniform" character -- it's interesting in retrospect to find all the 6FU archetypes there, having their moments of campy effusion as well as their moments of epiphany about the beauty and brevity of life. I don't mean to sound critical or condescending; we loved the series (we habitually watched it twice each week in first run) and we liked the movie, so we're fond of Alan Ball and his characters. Annette Bening has a scene in AMERICAN BEAUTY with Peter Gallagher -- the scene where she's sloshed and confesses her admiration of him -- that has some of the most pitch-perfect acting I've ever seen.

Anecdote: Donna has been snacking of late on a Shur-Good product called "Cheese Flavored Crunchy," which features the additional word "Baked" in a starburst on the bag. I looked at her happily munching on this stuff and noted, reading the bag, "'Cheese Flavored Crunchy -- Baked'... That's weird; it's all adjectives and not a single noun. It's like they know what it's like, but not what it is..."

Worry: The Game Show Network has been showing something other than WHAT'S MY LINE? in the 3:30 a.m. slot the last couple of nights/mornings. I hope they haven't taken it off their schedule.

Promise: I watched Mick Garris's MASTERS OF HORROR episode "Chocolate" last night and will be posting something about it later today.

Or tomorrow.

Next, at any rate.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Thanksgiving - The Day After

Today is one of those get-up-late, sit-around-in-your-bathrobe days here at Chez Watchdog; it doesn't feel unlike the day after Christmas.

I got some nice goodies in the mail today, including my check from the gentlemen who have optioned the screen rights to my novel, The Book of Renfield. I knew that screenwriter Mark Kruger was one of the optioners, and now I have learned that his partner in this venture is Ryan Murphy, the creator of NIP/TUCK, who has written and directed several episodes of that hit series, as well as a couple of feature films, including the promising-sounding RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, currently in post-production. My agent tells me that Mr. Murphy is hoping to direct THE BOOK OF RENFIELD, which is exciting news. RUNNING WITH SCISSORS sounds like it could have been based on my own life, so his interests seem well-attuned to mine -- and his partner Mr. Kruger, of course, wrote the excellent Hallmark adaptation of Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN last year, which showed him to be a skillful practitioner of the faithful and artful adaptation. I feel the book is in good hands.

Also in today's mail came the three new French import sets of Alfred Hitchcock's 1927-32 work (said to be beautiful and a great improvement over the many domestic PD releases); an eBay-won copy of Peter Reich's memoir A Book of Dreams (logical next-step reading now that I've happily re-read Orson Bean's Me and the Orgone); a couple of books on the Pixies (a British copy of the oral history of the band that comes out in the States early next year, and John Mendelssohn's much-maligned book, which sounds intriguing to me); and Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again: Post Punk 1978-1984, which looks to be fabulously written and well-researched. My KING KONG box set also arrived.

VW #123 went to the printer before we turned in last night. So today is for unwinding, for prolonging a somewhat compromised holiday by tucking into some new books and listening to some music and appreciating the fact that I am inside and warm when it is turning so cold outside. A day for feeling blessed and being appreciative.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Happy Turkey Day

Three hundred sixty four days of the year
"Turkey" means just one thing:
The kind of bad movie that goes down like beer,
Of whose charms you're left dying to sing.

But on Thanksgiving Day, it's the likely main course
Of a dinner that will hold us entranced.
Stuffing, cranberries -- pumpkin pie, of course,
With some coffee as we unbuckle our pants.

Give your thanks, pilgrim, and when you've eaten it all
In the company of those whom you love,
Here's a suggestion from me: Turn off the football...
And watch BLOOD FREAK (pictured above)!

Just an idea.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Of November 22, on November 23rd

A MEMORY OF November 22, which I should have posted yesterday: About four years after the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, while I was attending grade school at Allison Elementary, we had a substitute teacher who brought up the subject of "Where where you the day the President was shot?"

As Fate would have it, this woman happened to be the same home room teacher I'd in second grade at North Norwood Elementary on the day of the assassination, and it was from her -- en route to the school's lunch room -- that I first heard about it. As I recall, the shooting was known but the fact of the President's death was not learned until after lunch, at which time the students were dismissed to go home and be with their families. I had not yet spoken to this teacher (whose name I've since forgotten) to remind her of our previous acquaintence, so I was eager to raise my hand and tell her what I remembered of that day, part of which we had spent together.

About halfway through my story, when she realized I was including her in my recollection, her expression became very strange, as if she was trying to place me. When I finished telling my story, she said with awed surprise, "I remember you!" Then she paused before adding... "Are you still drawing monsters?"

And the whole classroom broke into laughter because, yeah, I still was.

SPEAKING OF MONSTERS, I'm still awaiting my KONG stuff from Warner Home Video, so I chose not to pre-empt the pleasure of receiving the discs by watching the TCM broadcasts last night. Instead, I found myself drawn to watching a movie on IFC that I actually love a good deal more: Krzysztof Kieslowski's THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VÉRONIQUE, a wondrous and tragic masterpiece that deserves DVD release more than any other film I can think of. Watching the movie again for the first time in close to a decade, I was struck by how the scene in which Véronique (the wonderful Irène Jacob) begins to intuitively grieve the passing of the Polish double she has never met, and how evocative this scene is now of the fact of Kieslowski's own premature death. When I discovered Kieslowski's work, it was like discovering a brother; he captured on film something of the way I view my own world, which no one before him had done in quite the same way. Each of his films reawakened in me a long-dormant hope that was more of a constant in the 1970s, when any movie I went to see harbored the possibility that it might change my life. So when Kieslowski suddenly died in 1996, it was like losing someone of close and mysterious kinship, and much of my hope for a renaissance of the cinema also died with him. I have yet to see the work of any new director who I think might conceivably replace him, which would be impossible anyway; better to say, no new director has come along since to offer me anything like an equal measure of hope. So I still grieve for Kieslowski. I can only imagine how his actors must feel, carrying on in their careers without him.

There are times when I feel I need, for the well-being of my soul, to spend some time with the healing works of a Kieslowski or De Sica or Parajanov or Rohmer, but my job being what it is, what I have to watch is... something else. And so it was that I had to follow last night's viewing of THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VÉRONIQUE with Ishiro Honda's MATANGO, aka ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE -- a movie I've always enjoyed and respect to some degree, but hardly the ideal chaser for a Kieslowski film. I ask myself if I didn't hurt the experience by subjecting it to such comparison. Fortunately, I have to watch the movie again with its audio commentary on, so I'll have a second chance to approach the film when I'm in a more receptive mood for it.

TODAY IS THE 118th anniversary of Boris Karloff's birth (Billy Pratt's, anyway) but I'd like to extend more active birthday greetings to some still-vital people I doubt read this blog: the inimitable Michael Gough (who turns 88 today, proving that railing at people in Herman Cohen productions is good for your health); WILD WILD PLANET star and former president of the English Language Dubbers Association, Tony Russel (80); TOMB OF LIGEIA screenwriter Robert Towne (71); and, with pleasing symmetry, Boris' daughter Sara Karloff is celebrating her 67th today. (I once spoke to Sara on the telephone and she seemed to me a very nice lady.) Also worth mentioning is that ONE STEP BEYOND host-director John Newland (a fellow Cincinnatian) would have been 88 today, and CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN director Rafael Balédon would have been 86.

OVERNIGHT, CINCINNATI HAD its first snowfall of the year. I hate snow. It doesn't help that I'm dieting -- never a good idea on Thanksgiving week, anyway -- and taking diet pills that seem to be making me just a litt-tle bit cranky.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Eighth Wonder of the World... and More

In case you need reminding, today is the day that the original KING KONG finally comes to DVD here in America. In case you need psyching-up, or want to know why this is such an important event, I recommend you high-tail it over to the Classic Horror Film Boards, where there is a lot of stimulating discussion in an entire folder devoted to all aspects of the film, its sequel, and its remakes. I am particularly tickled by this thread about SON OF KONG star Helen Mack.

New Yorkers won't understand this because many of them grew up with the MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE, which sometimes played KING KONG every day of the week, but there are still a lot of people who have never seen the movie called "The Eighth Wonder of the World." In conversation with our next-door neighbor recently, we found that he'd never seen it, and we also know that a friend of ours who passed away some years ago spent her entire life without seeing it. I first saw KING KONG the first chance I got, when it turned up as the premiere offering when Bob Shreve's ALL-NITE THEATRE moved from the local CBS affiliate, WCPO-TV, to the NBC affiliate WLWT-TV around 1970. I went over each new issue of TV Guide like a hawk in those days, and it was the first local broadcast I was aware of. I was accustomed to the crystal clarity of the stills that appeared in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, so I was surprised by the ancient look of the actual movie -- remember this was a local television print of an early sound picture -- but I was instantly drawn in by the human drama of the depression-era "hard luck" of Fay Wray's character Ann Darrow and the exuberant bombast of Robert Armstrong's great '30s character, Carl Denham. Kong himself was worth the wait, and once he showed up, the movie was at once charmingly antiquated and intoxicatingly fresh. More than 30 years later, it still plays that way to me. Isn't it the closest thing to a genuine American fairy tale that we have?

A few years ago, when we first got our HD widescreen set, I discovered how much the format favored stop-motion films like EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS, turning my TV into a regular Saturday matinee movie-house. So I decided to watch a German import DVD of KING KONG I happened to have. I'd had it for awhile, but had been putting off because rumors of an impending domestic, restored KONG release were going on even then. That German import looked pretty good (though not as good as this new DVD is supposed to look), about as good as the laserdisc releases had looked, but it gave me the happiest KONG experience I'd ever had... and by then, I'd even seen it a few times in a theater -- in 16mm at the University of Cincinnati, and in 35mm at Cincinnati's (now long-gone) Alpha Theater, with the long-rumored "censored" scenes restored. (When the film got to those points of Kong stripping Fay Wray or stomping native Africans into the ground, the movie got a lot darker because the footage had been recovered from a dupier print. Reportedly, the new DVD makes these scenes and shots look fully reintegrated with the rest of the picture for the first time.) Seeing KING KONG large in your own living room is one of life's great pleasures.

If you're reading this blog, you're probably an old hand at KING KONG. Maybe you've even seen it more times than I have. (I've personally long stopped counting the numbers of times I've seen movies, but I know I've seen KONG more than 15 times.) But if you're one of the people who has somehow missed out on this ineffable pleasure, do yourself -- do your family -- a favor and rush down to the video store today and buy or rent yourself an unbeatable evening of entertainment. Or, if you have Turner Classic Movies, turn it on tonight starting at 8:00 p.m. eastern for a full evening of KONG-related entertainment, beginning with the Merian C. Cooper documentary, I'M KING KONG.

KING KONG changed Ray Harryhausen's life when he first saw it at the age of 13. If you're the right age, maybe it'll change yours, too.

Today I get to do the final proofreading of Video Watchdog #123, our 20th Anniversary issue, which features Steven Lloyd's coverage of the second LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION set and David Kalat's profile of the inventive Japanese horror writer-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (CURE, CHARISMA and BRIGHT FUTURE). You may be interested to know that the great horror novelist and critic Ramsey Campbell has agreed to join the VW Kennel with a regular column, "Ramsey's Rambles," which will debut in VW #124. In each issue, Ramsey is going to discuss whatever film is obsessing him at the moment, and I'm sure we'll all enjoy following his lead to wherever it might take us.

Lastly, I want to mention that the new Mario Bava Soundtrack Anthology, Volume 2 disc -- a two-disc set from DigitMovies featuring Carlo Rustichelli's complete scores for THE WHIP AND THE BODY (mono) and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (full stereo!) -- is now in stock here at Video Watchdog. (Several of these cues can also be heard in other beloved movies, too, including Bava's KILL, BABY... KILL! and the Paul Naschy film A DRAGONFLY FOR EACH CORPSE.) We don't have an order page up yet on the home site, because we're still busy with the issue-in-progress, but it can be ordered from our toll-free number 1-800-275-8395 for $29.95 (USA first class) or $34.95 (outside USA, air mail), postage paid. (I should emphasize that I think these are the correct prices, which are the same as the EUGENIE double disc set we are selling from the same company. Donna, who will be filling your order, will know all the correct pricing so discuss this with her.) This is the soundtrack set all your Eurocultists have been most eagerly awaiting, and it's everything you hoped it would be. The full-color, illustrated booklet includes liner notes by Claudio Fuiano and me, as well as an interview with Maestro Rustichelli, who lamentably passed away before seeing this project come to fruition.

So today, two great dreams come true: KING KONG on DVD, and the two greatest Mario Bava scores on CD!

Monday, November 21, 2005

A Fine Feathered Film

Last night I decided to crack the shrink-wrap on my new store-bought copy of ALFRED HITCHCOCK - THE MASTERPIECE COLLECTION (Universal, $119.98) and was very pleasantly surprised to find that the attractive box is covered in burgundy-colored velvet. The presentation gives one the feeling of opening a gift package of Louis XIII de Rémy Martin cognac, and no other filmmaker deserves the comparison more.

The movie I felt most like watching to test these newly remastered waters was THE BIRDS (1963), which I haven't seen for awhile and was the subject of a recent interesting discussion on the Classic Horror Film Boards, in the "1960s and '70s Horror" folder. The gist of the conversation was, "Is it science fiction or not?" I can see where some might think so, but I would more readily categorize it as fantasy since there's no science involved, unless you side with the picture's resident ornithologist Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffies, who played Mrs. Whack in 1935's WERE-WOLF OF LONDON!) and consider that different species of birds don't typically flock together; then, I suppose, the story might represent some department of science fiction.

Well before I'd read much in the way of film criticism or analysis, I understood intuitively that the movie was a kind of allegory and that the bird attacks were somehow connected to the clashing psychic energies surrounding the characters of Melanie ('Tippi' Hedren) and Lydia (Jessica Tandy, whose performance struck me as particularly marvelous on this viewing). Since it had been some time since I'd seen THE BIRDS, my memory was that Melanie was herself the instigator, being something of a flighty character, wary of being caged, and that her mysterious relationship to the birds became most pronounced at the end, following her attack in the upstairs room. Just as she, in her shock, is easily disturbed, so must the Brenners guide her through the birds warily. There is something to this interpretation, I think, but it doesn't shell out quite so perfectly -- or so I see on refreshed acquaintence -- as do the birds' ties to Lydia, a widow who fears the coming of Melanie as a sign that her grown son Mitch (a pitch-perfect Rod Taylor) may leave her home without its core male strength. A gull swoops down to strike Melanie as Mitch prepares to intercept her at the dock where she is returning her rented boat; a gull crashes into the door of Annie Hayworth's (Suzanne Pleshette's) house after Melanie agrees to stay for Cathy's (Veronica Cartwright's) birthday party; Lydia persuades Melanie to pick up Cathy from the school house because she is fearful of another attack, which does indeed happen -- endangering Melanie, as well; at the Tides restaurant, the bird attacks cause a group of (interestingly, all women) customers to turn against Melanie and accuse her of being "evil" and attracting the birds to Bodega Bay; and I also find it relevant that Lydia is startled by a dead bird at rest on the portrait of Mitch's father, because she later describes her "weakness" as being instilled in her by a lifetime with a strong husband. Of course, during the birthday party, Melanie confides to Mitch that she harbors only angry feelings toward her self-absorbed, absentee mother, a confession whose contained emotion seems to immediately precipitate another attack on the children at the birthday party.

Thus, the most meaningful storyline of THE BIRDS (as I read it, anyway) is really about Lydia's acceptance of Melanie as a daughter, and Melanie's acceptance of Lydia as a mother. (There is a physical resemblance between Melanie and Lydia too, that doesn't exist in Mitch's earlier girlfriend Annie; it may well be the sign Lydia recognizes as indication that this is the woman Mitch will take seriously.) When Melanie emerges from her shock long enough to look up at Lydia at the end of the movie, their connection has the uplifting power of a happy ending before the film continues on to its final, uncertain shot, and we sense that Lydia has finally found her strength in the necessity to care for this more vulnerable creature. The lovebirds are, in a sense, these two -- two of a kind. Their truce may last, or it may not.

I love the fact that THE BIRDS continues to reward me intellectually, as well as viscerally, each time I see it. I have vivid memories of seeing it for the first time, with my mother and grandmother, on NBC's SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES -- several years before I caught up with PSYCHO on television. People of subsequent generations can't appreciate the impact of that program, which was a very big deal in those three-network days, and I'm sure the movie was cut to some extent... but it was a major discovery for me, and I especially remember the excitement created in our living room by the playground scene as more and more birds were added to the jungle gym. Along with the TWILIGHT ZONE episode "Eye of the Beholder," it was one of my earliest and most captivating encounters with film technique. It was almost certainly one of the starting points of my appreciation for film editing. (All hail George Tomasini, who also edited Rod Taylor's performance in THE TIME MACHINE.)

It's been 40 years since that night, and seeing THE BIRDS again -- for the first time on my HD widescreen set (the biggest I've ever seen it, which gave me a whole new appreciation of its uses of landscape and depth of composition) -- I was filled with absolute admiration. Yes, Hitchcock takes his sweet time telling the story, which would certainly never be tolerated in today's market (today's loss), but it's not tedium; it's remarkable technique, a master toying with his story the way a cat toys with a mouse before the kill, and making his characters and their relationships all the more real in the process. Consequently, there is not a single performance in the film that falls short; not only that, but everyone seems to have layers of backstory and their intimate conversations often fade to black on notes of wonderment -- offbeat, haunting chords in a minor key. Most significantly, this is a special effects movie and it's hard to imagine any of its effects being filmed with greater success or to greater effect today. To note that its dramatic impact was not buttressed by a musical score only adds to its achievement, though it is nevertheless one of the most sonically manipulative of Hitchcock's films.

So much to savor here: the way Mitch's discovery of Melanie's lovebirds prank is played out entirely in long shot, silent, with Mitch emphasized in the distance by his white sweater... Lydia's discovery of the shattered teacups in the neighbor's farmhouse (pictured above)... her discovery of the dead neighbor, a FRANKENSTEIN-like three-step cut closer into his gouged eyesockets, follwed by her silent flight from the house and reckless drive back home (again, in long shot)... Cathy feeling sick prior to the attack on the Brenner home and asking Melanie, rather than Lydia, for help (and the cutaway to Lydia, underscoring her notice of it)... Mrs. Bundy unable to turn around fully to face Melanie in the wake of the attack outside the Tides restaurant... and the way the lights suddenly go out in the Brenner home during the final attack. For the first time, I got a sense from watching the film on video how theater audiences must have jumped when this happened -- and also the trepidation they must have felt when Melanie guides her flashlight beam toward the PSYCHO-like flight of stairs leading to that fateful room on the second floor.

Furthermore, this viewing pointed out to me how much George A. Romero is indebted to this film, in particular. Hitchcock's "siege" picture, like Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, begins with the everyday, offers no explanation for the attacks, stages some memorable shots of Rod Taylor bracing the interior of his home against invasion (I love the moment when, having no rope, he trashes a living room lamp to rip out its wiring and secure a shutter), and the ending finds the survivors packing up into a reliable vehicle and moving out. This film's basic structure has served Romero well for four separate films -- and it's a testament to Romero's own resourcefulness that he's parlayed his borrowings into a whole new subdivision of horror fare, itself imitated by countless others.

Hitchcock's later films all have points of interest, even long stretches of bravura filmmaking, but THE BIRDS is the last produced of the films in this "MASTERPIECE COLLECTION" that seems to me an inarguable masterpiece. As time goes on, Hitchcock shows signs of becoming, in death, a kind of conscience of cinema. We may drift away from his movies from time to time, but they always remain a part of us and it's always refreshing and nourishing -- even enlarging -- to return to them. It's hard to think of areas on the map of cinema that he did not chart or extend in some way, and our appreciation of them speaks to our own lifelong growth as an audience.

May we continue to be worthy of him.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Love Means Never Having to Say "You Ate WHAT?"

There are a few moments in Dario Argento's MASTERS OF HORROR episode "Jenifer" when you know, without a doubt, that the madman responsible for FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, DEEP RED, and SUSPIRIA is behind the camera. Ironically, one of them occurs when he's in front of the camera, his beady eyes peering through the window of a padded cell in a mental hospital. The other moments involve cats (cats must cross the street when they see Argento approaching) and his real bête noir, the female sex, which is herein portrayed as dominant and utterly enslaving to the male of the species.

Based on a comics story written by Bruce Jones and illustrated by Bernie Wrightson, "Jenifer" was adapted by actor Steven Weber, who also stars as the protagonist Frank -- a policeman who, while on a stake-out, witnesses the attempted murder of a manacled woman and prevents it by firing his pistol at the heart of her assailant. The woman, Jenifer -- who has a very alluring body and a head of curly golden hair -- turns out to be not only monstrously disfigured of face but incapable of communicating with anything other than the most basic animal gestures. Her licking and nuzzling demonstrate how appreciative she is of her savior. Frank shrugs off official advice to seek counselling in the wake of the shooting and finds himself haunted by images from the encounter, of the woman bent over a metal drum in a soiled slip, which prompt him to attempt rough anal intercourse with his wife -- which isn't to her liking. When Frank learns that no provisions exist for Jenifer's safekeeping, he introduces her into his own home, just for a night or two... with disastrous results. We're not talking about a clash of personalities or the usual breaches of etiquette; Jenifer behaves in ways that simply cannot be overlooked or excused. Yet Frank does. Jenifer bewitches him.

What we have here is a contemporary update of that ancient monster known as the Succubus, and an enactment of the idea that love is blind -- or, to be more precise, that as long as a woman is good in bed, the rest is negotiable. I haven't read the original story, so I can't attest to the nature or quality of the adaptation, but I can tell you that this is the best English dialogue Argento has had to work with... maybe ever. I'm not saying that "Jenifer" is on the same level as his best feature films, which have more complex storylines, but however good his features have been, they are always written or co-written by Argento, who is a masterful stylist, a bold conceptualist, an innovative technician, and let's face it, a mediocre writer at best. I love most of his movies, but those I love, I tend to love in spite of their writing. Or at least in spite of their dialogue.

Whether it's "Mata Hari filing her report" in SUSPIRIA, the guy in TENEBRAE noting in a loopy Scots accent that a moping girl "looks like a turkey at Christmas time," or the hilarious confusion of The Three Sisters in INFERNO with "those black singers," Argento's consistently risible dialogue has become a perverse point of lovability among his devotées. But in "Jenifer," one senses that nothing is funny unless it was meant to be. Here, even the minor characters are interesting and believable, none of them made to stand out like sore thumbs by their alien behavior and manic conversation. The performances are spot-on too, with Weber coming across as believably possessed by the sexual vigor of this subhuman creature, superbly played by Carrie Fleming as a conundrum that is part-needy child, part-nourishing nymphomaniac, and part hell-spawn. Weber has a particularly great moment when a gruesome discovery leaves him momentarily unsure of whether to laugh or scream or vomit. Argento's direction is relaxed and confident, steering with true expertise from the mundane to the hallucinatory. He turns out to be a superb interpreter of outside material, and may he pursue more of it.

As with Stuart Gordon's "Dreams in the Witch-House" a couple of weeks ago, "Jenifer" takes some surprisingly pitch-black turns that would never have been allowed to stand in a commercial feature, and the sex is as graphic and animalistic as the violence. (Reportedly, the content actually went slightly overboard as far as Showtime was concerned, and a shot involving violence being dealt to a character's penis had to be excised for broadcast -- but it will be included in the DVD box set of the series coming from Anchor Bay next year.) Despite this unflinching quality, facets of humor and homage are accomodated as well, the latter manifesting in a rather audacious quotation of James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN (1931). In short, I liked "Jenifer" better than anything Argento has done since THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (1996), and of the two works, "Jenifer" is probably the more consistent and watchable. Yes, its circular structure is predictable -- hence, so is its ending -- nevertheless, it feels right and inevitable. If Frank had supported Jenifer's strange appetites any longer, who would have been the greater monster?

On a semi-personal note: One thing I've been noting from week to week on MASTERS OF HORROR is the name of Lee Wilson in the main titles. Lee, the series' visual effects supervisor, is an old friend with whom I've fallen out of touch. We met on the set of VIDEODROME in 1981, where he was working as part of Michael Lennick's video effects team. Lee went on to design/animate Brundle's computer screen displays in THE FLY, and he's the guy who made Jeremy Irons twins in DEAD RINGERS. He eventually left Toronto for Vancouver, where it became the busier of the two cities in terms of film production. What I remember best about Lee, besides his fondness for Van Morrison and Lene Lovich, was that he was one of the first bonafide Argento freaks I'd ever met. Before it ever came to home video, I taped a pay-per-view broadcast of UNSANE (the hacked-to-pieces US version of TENEBRAE) and shipped a copy to Lee post-haste. On one of my subsequent trips to Toronto, he repaid that kindness by making me a tape of his super-rare Japanese laserdisc of TENEBRAE, called SHADOW, and treating me to a preview of all the uncensored gore sequences. I also remember tapes of SUSPIRIA and OPERA being swapped back and forth, all of which helped to fuel my FANGORIA article "The Butchering of Dario Argento" (included in THE VIDEO WATCHDOG BOOK, still available from our website). Lee and I fell out of touch after his move, which coincided with VW making my life less leisurely, but he tried calling earlier this week -- for the first time in many years -- just as we were halfway out the door to a dinner engagement. Donna took the message, and he said he'd call back. Maybe he wanted to make sure that I caught this week's episode and was aware that he had finally got to work with his hero. I was very pleased to see Lee's name on an Argento film (and on such a good one) and I hope I get to hear some of the stories he must have to tell.

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Friday, November 18, 2005

Smashing the Glass Slipper

Some months back, a reader wrote us out of the blue -- knowing of our fondness for European and Russian fairy tale films -- to recommend one he had recently seen, THREE WISHES FOR CINDERELLA. We tracked the title down to Facets Video and sent them a request for a screener; their representative wrote back to say it would be sent as soon as they could replenish their supply. The film (originally released in 2003) had proved so unexpectedly popular, it was presently on back-order. Our disc arrived some weeks later, and we watched it last night.

THREE WISHES FOR CINDERELLA is actually a Czech film, Tri orísky pro Popelku (1973), whose title translates -- and appears onscreen -- as "Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella," which would certainly confuse American audiences. It's a delightfully unconventional retelling of the classic story that is remarkable for the degree to which it empowers its put-upon protagonist from the outset. Sweetly played by the winsome Libuse Safránková (pictured above), this Cinderella has a more limited number of adversaries, just her fat and stupid stepmother and a single, snooty step-sister named Dora (who may be mildly plain, but isn't the "ugly" step-sister of American tellings of this tale). And this Cinderella also has the affection and support of the household's other servants, including a doting coachman who promises the girl that he will bring her "the first thing that hits his nose" when he ventures next into town. It just so happens that the young Prince (Pavel Trávnicek), out hunting, notices that the coachman has fallen asleep in his coach and deftly aims an arrow at an empty bird's nest, which drops onto his face as he rides below the tree branch, waking him. Inside the nest is a cluster of three hazelnuts, the gift that subsequently provides Cinderella with the means to make her dreams come true -- rather than have the traditional fairy godmother grant them for her. Also, here Cinderella is able to cross the path of the Prince twice, in two different guises (one of them male), before their climactic meeting at the Royal Ball, which necessitates that she dance with the Prince while wearing a veil. In another delightful invention, she presents him with a riddle he must answer in order to find her, after she flees -- but there remains the convention of the slipper which must fit a foot "no larger than a doll's." There is no sudden transformation "back" into the poor little ash-sweeper; there is magic abounding, but it is left to the girl to prove her worthiness by putting the tools at her disposal to practical use.

Directed by the Czech fantasy specialist Václav Vorlícek, THREE WISHES FOR CINDERELLA is a charming little movie whose winning unpredictability succeeds in revitalizing an overly familiar story. There are some things about it which seem stylistically stilted or dated (like the freeze-framed main and end titles, and a couple of ABBA-like songs accompanying scenes of horse-riding) and Facets' standard ratio presentation is very basic, with unsteady still frames, no progressive scan flagging, and awkward (and unremovable) subtitles that tend to confuse "think" with "thing" and "of" with "have." The subtitles will be an obstacle for many children who might have enjoyed the film otherwise, and the DVD's labelling as one of "Facet's Family Classics" overlooks the fact that the film contains a rather graphic account of a fox hunt. I guess Czech kids are made of stronger stuff.

Fans of the great Russian fantasists Aleksandr Ptushko and Aleksandr Rou will find Vorlícek's approach less stylized and more earthbound (the first and second act scenes are deliberately drab in their coloring), yet appealing on its own terms, which are progressive but nonetheless sweet. For this select audience, and children who don't mind reading a movie if it will expand their horizons, THREE WISHES FOR CINDERELLA is worth seeking out. It's available from Facets Multimedia on DVD and VHS, both priced at $19.95.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Get Back, Monkey-Cat

I've just had the pleasure of seeing a piece of film that I haven't seen in close to twenty years, and which most of the rest of you have never seen. I'm speaking of the infamous and legendary "Monkey-Cat" scene from David Cronenberg's THE FLY (1986), which I was originally privileged to see at a special preview screening at Toronto's Uptown Theatre, in the company of director David Cronenberg, director of photography Mark Irwin, and composer Howard Shore (who was also seeing the picture for the first time, and sat next to me while scribbling notes toward the score he would later write).

In the scene, Brundle (Jeff Goldblum, who is seen for the only time in the picture in his Stage 2 makeup, pictured above, which was the personal favorite of Chris Walas/Stephan Dupuis' makeup team) seeks to reverse what has been done to him by teleporting a baboon and a cat from two separate telepods into a third while keeping their molecules separate; instead it fuses them into a pained and angry "mistake" of science that he is obliged to club to death to put it out of its agony. Then he scales the wall to the roof and falls to an awning where a crab-like leg bursts from the hernia-like bulge in his abdomen, which he chews from his own body in self-disgust. Everyone who read Cronenberg's original script recognized this amazing stretch of incident as the highlight of the film, but it encountered endless trouble.

On the day the "crab-leg" scene was shot, DP Mark Irwin suffered a family tragedy and had to leave the set, which left this critical scene in the hands of another member of the camera crew. The footage came back from the lab too dark to use. (It has been miraculously restored on the disc by digital means unavailable to the film at the time.) Though I saw the footage in dailies, I don't remember it being included in the screening assembly for this reason. Thus, I remember the scene ending at the screening with Brundle bludgeoning the monkey-cat to a squirting standstill.
I thought then that the "monkey-cat" scene was the horrific highlight of the picture, and after the screening I stood in the lobby and pleaded its case to Cronenberg and producer Stuart Cornfeld, telling them that they had made a horror picture and they would be crazy to cut it out. The test results came back. I guess the questionnaire asked leading questions like, "Did you enjoy the scene where Brundle hurts the monkey-cat?" and "Did you care less for Brundle after he killed the animal in his lab?" and the majority predictably replied that no, they did not enjoy graphic demonstrations of cruelty toward animals, however misshapen. So the test got the result it wanted and the scene was out -- by popular demand. Audiences did not understand the reason for the scene (how many people do read those computer screen read-outs and comprehend them?) or they simply did not take the dispassionate, scientific view.

When I opened my disc of 20th Century Fox's special two-disc release of THE FLY, the "monkey cat" scene was the first thing I went to. Aside from the omission of an opening foot-to-head reveal of Brundle in his Stage 2 makeup, which opened the scene in the assembly I saw at the Uptown Theatre (and which can be seen separately in the very interesting "making of" documentary), the scene is everything I remember, only moreso -- with the addition of the restored "crab-leg" scene and Howard Shore's thrilling musical scoring. This scene transcends the biological horror of THE FLY as people know it by turning Brundle's teleportation lab into a witch's cauldron of hellish possibilities. Seeing the scene again, for the first time fully-fleshed with music, I felt my original views were completely vindicated. It is absolutely horrifying.

And yet THE FLY went on to become Cronenberg's biggest commercial hit -- which it probably would not have been, had this sequence been retained. It would have taken audiences to a place they wouldn't want to go, and which they wouldn't recommend to their friends. It doesn't matter that the movie tells the story of a woman who falls in love with a man who becomes a mutant who dissolves his food with corrosive vomit, or that it ends with the ultimate tragic fusion of man and animal mutely pleading with its former girlfriend to blow his brains out with a rifle, and getting his wish. All of that still works in the context of the love story the film somehow became in the editing room. In the "making of," even production designer Carol Spier remarks that she was surprised to discover that she had been working on a love story rather than a horror film.

So I came away from watching this new disc set, of a film I know intimately well, with a fresh understanding of its success. At some point while working with Ron Sanders on the editing of this film, Cronenberg saw in his material a way out of the horror ghetto and he went for it. The exit was already inherent in his script, of course, and it was fully realized by the calibre of the performances Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis gave to him. To have retained the "monkey cat" sequence may well have resulted in horror fans lionizing Cronenberg as a Master of Horror, but he'd already been there, done that. He was ready to move on to a new plateau. As a horror fan, it was difficult for me to reconcile these facts, but I am more appreciative now of the fact that it's sometimes necessary to make a creative sacrifice like this in order to evolve as an artist. To pull your punches is sometimes a matter not of cowardice or regression, but of creative modulation.

If either Cronenberg or Stuart Cornfeld had explained this process to me then in those (or similar) terms, I might have better understood why it was important to eliminate the sequence, but they didn't -- and perhaps, at that time, they were not all that aware of what they were doing, and why, themselves.

I spent two weeks on the set of THE FLY -- you can catch a glimpse of me at 2:58 into the David Cronenberg profile segment of the Electronic Press Kit, standing behind the director and star as they check a video playback:

It's hard to believe the film is now almost twenty years old; when the end credits roll, I can still put a face to almost every crew member's name -- a swell bunch of people. On my last day on the set, I swiped a copy of the crew picture that was taped to a wall in the makeup corridor -- because a lot of them had come to feel like family. (A couple of high-ranking people on the picture witnessed the act, smiled, and pretended to look the other way.) I later wrote two articles about the making of the picture, focusing on Mark Irwin's and Chris Walas' respective units, which appeared in Cinefex and American Cinematographer (who unbelievably put HOWARD THE DUCK on the cover). Both of these articles have been long out-of-print, but they are included as bonus content on Disc 2 in a new interactive form.

I'm happy to be on there. It makes me feel like I'm still part of the family.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Kindred Spirits

Two nights ago, I permitted myself the luxury of spending an evening with a book I didn't have to read "for work": Orson Bean's 1988 autobiography TOO MUCH IS NOT ENOUGH. Constant readers of this blog will know that Orson Bean has been on my mind of late, and when I saw the title of this, his second book after 1971's ME AND THE ORGONE, I recognized yet another sign of kindred spirit. This one was allied to my thoughts of last Saturday, when I ranted here about my impatient "hungry wish" to make the most of my time and energy and potential.

Bean addresses this question right away, by saying that he somehow grew to maturity with the idea that "it would not satisfy me to be less than the happiest son of a bitch who ever lived." He then goes on to explain how he learned to stop worrying and love life, essentially, by taking his ego (the classic Freudian ego) out of his driver's seat and letting the universe surrounding him take care of itself and him. The rest of the book, after covering the story of his early life and career as young Dallas Burrows (Bean's real name), is actually the story of his second marriage, to the lovely Carolyn Maxwell, with whom he forged a model of open-minded and spontaneous living that somehow (he doesn't go into reasons) fell short of "till death do us part." He notes that he once had a fabulous golden lighter that he was afraid of showing around too much for fear it would get swiped, and after three years, it finally did. By the time he wrote this book, he had gotten to the point of moving past the loss to boast, "I had a great lighter for three years" -- and also that he had a great wife once, for fourteen years. There is a sense of lament about it, and about living on his own, but also of a man unburdening himself onto paper so that he can press on with the next chapters of his life.

There is an enormous amount of serendipity in the story he tells, which is surely a sign of an attentive and appreciative fellow. One story concerns the Bean family returning to America after a retreat to Australia and buying the first suitable vehicle they saw, a used Volkswagen bus, which cost only $500 but served them well for years, eventually dying -- where else? -- in front of a VW dealership. This and other anecdotes are illustrative of the book's commencing wisdom that "things will take care of themselves." There are also chapters devoted to Orson and Carolyn Bean's experimentation with LSD (a happy trip under controlled circumstances) and open marriage, even a shy visit to the Sandstone sex commune in California, and a chilling moment near the end of the Australian section that touches on the likelihood of a local Satanic cult reaching out for their baby and culminates in a real life encounter with some spectral form of Evil that invaded their home. Here, Bean acknowledges that it's not always enough to leave Life to its own devices; that we can sometimes surround ourselves with negative energy born of our own frustrations and worries and we must find our own ways out of these quandaries with positive and decisive action. By the same token, there are also certain contracts that exist in Nature where we cannot intrude, as a fascinating story about a drama between a mouse and the family cat attests.

Sidebar to my pal Steve Bissette, who would be especially interested in the chapter that relates Bean's weird experiences as the Guest of Honor at 1976 Bicentennial festivities in his hometown of Burlington, Vermont. An excerpt might make a worthwhile feature in a future issue of Green Mountain Cinema.

TOO MUCH IS NOT ENOUGH is a good deal more than your usual celebrity bio, and covers much more ground and human experience in slightly more than 200 pages than might be expected. I was able to get through it in a single evening, and felt richer for it. I hope Mr. Bean writes another book about his subsequent experiences. In today's mail, I received my recent purchase of a signed used hardcover of ME AND THE ORGONE and I'll likely be sitting down with it soon -- though not too soon, as we're presently assembling two issues of VW back-to-back before the end of the year.

Something I've observed over the course of my own life is that, if you find yourself inexplicably drawn to someone else's work, chances are there may be personal similarities involved as well. The more I researched the career and life of Mario Bava, the more things I discovered that we had in common personally, and the same goes for my interest in the novels of Anthony Burgess; I always assumed from his erudition and vast vocabulary that he had impressive academic credentials, but when he got around to writing his autobiography, I discovered that his childhood and schooling were not all that different to my own. He too was largely self-taught. Reading Andrew Biskind's recent biography brought to light even more curious parallels. And, while reading TOO MUCH IS NOT ENOUGH, I discovered not only that Orson Bean was a "monster kid" like me -- there are several passing references to FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, KING KONG and collecting comics -- but that he and I sort of had the same mother.

Orson's mother, never a nurturing or steady presence in his life, committed suicide when he was sixteen, after he had already left home. My father died before I was born, but my history with my mother has always been the greater tragedy. A couple of years ago, she willfully absented herself from my life (not for the first or even the second time), and today she is marking her 77th birthday, with none of her children by her side.

Once while visiting a friend in Los Angeles, the subject of conversation at a small gathering of "monster kids" turned to our mothers. To our amazement and horror, each of us could recognize our own mother in the maternal reminiscences shared by the others. Strong melodramatic mothers, absent fathers. There's a university press book in this, I tell you.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Second "Homecoming"

For excellent further commentary on Joe Dante's MASTERS OF HORROR episode "Homecoming," see Dave Kehr's blog.

The weather here in Cincinnati has been miserable of late. It's too warm for November, and there's been a lot of rain and wind and general atmospheric pressure of the sort that predisposes me to dull but miserable headaches. This is something like my third or fourth straight headache day. Aspirin isn't helping much; acetaminophen isn't helping either. Plus I am presently in the midst of that stage of VW production called "frame-grabbing hell" and, between these two inconveniences, I'm feeling too bogged to blog today.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Masters of War

Got an e-mail from Joe Dante yesterday, telling me that his MASTERS OF HORROR episode "Homecoming" received a three-minute standing ovation this past weekend at the Turin Film Festival!

Joe sent me a preview disc of the ep, which I happened to watch a couple of nights ago. "Homecoming" (written by Sam Hamm of BATMAN/BATMAN RETURNS fame, and based on Dale Bailey's short story "Death and Suffrage") is about dead war soldiers who are shipped back home to America from overseas, and who return to life for the purpose of performing one last act (which I won't spoil for you). These aren't your mama's zombies, either; while it's in the tradition of J'ACCUSE and DEATH DREAM, "Homecoming" turns a new page in how the living dead are represented on film and uses the genre to truly heroic, satirical, and even patriotic ends.

To Joe and Sam: I salute you.

The news of the episode's enthusiastic reception in Turin is heartening, because I suspect a fair portion of the MASTERS OF HORROR audience won't appreciate it; it's fairly sophisticated and not really scary in the overt sense, except in the way it reflects with only slight exaggeration and caricature how scary the world in which we live already is. It contains some instances of graphic horror, but it's mostly a thoughtful and pointed piece, comic and tragic, that treats its audience like it treats its zombies -- as real people. Anyway, prepare yourselves for an innovative show, replete with some of the name-dropping for which Joe's work is famous, and similar in tone to his underrated THE SECOND CIVIL WAR (which was recently sneaked out on DVD).

"Homecoming" is going to air on Showtime, I believe, the weekend of December 2.

As for this past weekend's episode, Tobe Hooper's "Dance of the Dead," I dunno... I don't find myself particularly inspired to write about it. That's not to say I found it unwatchable or even uninteresting; but what is there to be said about that kind of glorying in nihilism? It was well-cast (Robert Englund, pictured above, slimier than usual) and certainly... er, dark. But strip away all that fashionable speed-thrash frame toggling and teenage hellbounding, and what's left is a very thin story about a sheltered 16 year-old girl who sells out her entire future because her mother lied to her... once. Stories this sensitive, I suspect, are not well-served by such a hard and sticky veneer and require more editorializing than Hooper was interesting in mustering, at least if they're aiming higher than making dissolution look cool. I'm still not entirely sure what happened -- another of Richard Matheson's "mists"?

Sunday, November 13, 2005

This Monkey's Gone to Macaroni Grill

Last night we had dinner at a Romano's Macaroni Grill across the river in Northern Kentucky with two out-of-town friends, Linda Franz and her fella Russell Bays. Donna and Linda met on the Internet, Linda being the author of a series of quilt books tied into the writings of Jane Austen and Donna being her #1 fan. They've become like sisters and Donna really blossoms in her company; it's a pleasure to see her come out from under the 400 lb. book and to know that the smiles I fell in love with are still there. I like Russ and Linda too; they're creative, convivial and fun-loving people, and they travel with Linda's professional mascot, Monkey, who is always a miraculously present personality in the room. We see them twice a year as they drive back-and-forth between their regular home near Toronto and their winter home in Naples, Florida. For you note-takers, I had a campari-and-soda aperitif, followed by a half portion of the insalada blu and, finally, the veal saltimbocca and two glasses of the house chianti. At Macaroni Grill, they leave a bottle of the house wine on your table and operate on the honor system. They have paper tablecloths and leave crayons so you can amuse yourself while awaiting your meal, and you're expected to mark your tablecloth for every glass of wine you have. I wrote two marks and made sure our earringed waiter knew that "II" meant two and not eleven. Anyway, a nice, relaxing, head-clearing visit -- and if you read yesterday's blog, you know I needed it.

After dinner (Linda, Russ and Monkey took the tablecloth and are threatening to reproduce it on her website), Donna was easily persuaded to drive over to the Best Buy neighboring the Hampton Inn where we'd dropped off our friends. (They are continuing on to Florida and, as I write this, Linda and Donna are already on the phone chatting and laughing, from Linda and Russ's intermediate stop in Atlanta.) This past week, I got a nice little windfall by selling off a chunk of my vinyl collection, so as Donna likes to say, it was burning a hole in my pocket. I knew nothing about this, but I was surprised to find that all of the Rolling Stones' releases between STICKY FINGERS and DIRTY WORK have been reissued by Virgin Records as part of something called "The USA Collection" in newly remastered pressings. (These aren't listed on, for some reason, so I have no idea how long they've been out.) As a big fan of the Stones' remastered SACD catalogue, I've been awaiting remasters of these later albums for some time, so I picked up my three favorites right away: STICKY FINGERS, EXILE ON MAIN ST. and SOME GIRLS. (I'm putting the rest on my Xmas list.) I bought a lot of other stuff -- including a copy of David Cronenberg's THE FLY, which Fox didn't send to me even though I contributed to the disc -- but be that as it may.

When I got home, I decided to listen to EXILE first and popped it on. I was disappointed when I loaded the disc and didn't see the little "SACD" sign light up on my player display. The earlier albums had been released as "CD/SACD Compatible," so I was hoping for the same here. Nevertheless, the disc sounded fantastic and vivid. As I read the booklet, I discovered it was mastered with a new SACD process, copyrighted by Virgin, that reproduces the complete sound of the original analogue tapes on standard equipment! Traditionally noted as a "murky" sounding album, EXILE burst through my speakers with robust clarity -- and as seems to work with SACD, the louder you play it, the more realistic the sound gets. A track I've never paid too much heed before, "Casino Boogie," riveted my attention to Charlie Watts' drumming, which is surely some of his best and most inspired on record. And comparitively, it became very obvious that Watts wasn't drumming on "Happy" (album producer Jimmy Miller took over here, without much elegance). Can't wait to load up STICKY FINGERS later today and hear "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'" this way.

I followed EXILES by watching a new concert DVD I didn't know was out: Rhino Video's PIXIES SELL OUT, compiled from various performances on the Pixies' 2004 reunion tour. I've been able to download over a dozen Pixies shows from this tour, and they're all wonderful, but the effect of the music is greatly enhanced by seeing it performed. This isn't a particularly visual band, either; they don't exactly "put on a show," they just stand there (or sit, in the case of drummer David Lovering) and belt it out. But Frank Black is one of the best songwriters of the past 20 years, and it's sheer joy to see what was once a cult music being played to sea after sea of people, crowds of 100,000 and more, many of them singing along with the songs -- even when the lyrics are in Spanish. In addition to the concert, there's a menu of bonus performances that can be watched with or without interviews by the Pixies management about the tour, which is almost as generous as the main concert and includes some songs not presented in the other program. At one point, their manager mentions that he sometimes stood in the wings and could see audience members literally in tears to be in the presence of this music. I know it's true, because it happened unexpectedly to me during "Tame." This isn't a tender song; it's the kind of song that gives you goosebumps and makes them explode, which is much rarer. There's a moment in the middle eight, I guess, where all the instruments but the bass drum drop out and Frank Black and bassist Kim Deal keep the song going simply by breathing in a call-and-answer, mock-tantric fashion, and their voices are so primally complimentary, so evocative of roughness and softness, that they seem to fleetingly represent in sound all men and women... until the song resumes its former fury with the most open-throated roaring Frank manages all night long. The song becomes a cyclone. It's the Pixies at the height of their power -- the sort of moment that makes audiences jump and, evidently, strong men weep. If you like the Pixies' music, I think you need to pick this up; it's like finally reaching the main course after the appetizer of the Pixies DVD from last year, which included a 1988 concert and a documentary.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Faster, Pussycat! Write, Write!

While watching THE FORGER OF LONDON last night, I experienced a feeling that is becoming all too regular with me: a hungry wish that I could summon the clarity of mind (and somehow arrange the cleanness of desk) to focus on just one thing for awhile and explore it thoroughly -- like the Edgar Wallace krimis for instance. I would love to read all the Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan novels, to learn French and read all of Fantômas, and to search out the books that would teach me how to get a proper handle on my life, my physicality, and my disorderly thinking. I wish there were hours in the day for me to focus as much on my physical being as on my cerebral pursuits. I need to cultivate more of an appreciation for working up a sweat, and for a cleaner, more spartan, more inviting working place.

But it also weighs on me that I don't know enough about Jean Renoir or John Ford or Claude Chabrol; I've never seen CHILDREN OF PARADISE though it has been in my collection for years. I want to see more Parajanov. There are too many box sets in my life, clamoring for my time. The temptation to wile away the hours revisiting movies I've already seen, not just once but many times, is too strong; a comfort food for the eyes and a brain too tired at the end of a day to desire new experience. A new experience that might actually be refreshing or revivifying.

And I want to travel. Many of the people who are central to my life and work I have never met. There are many places in the world I know I will never visit, and this is something I probably should have started doing earlier in life, though, for me, it wasn't possible. As Donna says, "Thank God for the travel shows on Equator HD," but as pleasing as these are to the eye and ear, they can't bring you the smells and textures and interaction of another land.

I wish work wasn't so god-damned irresistable. At the same time, I feel I am well behind where I should be. I want to write more film scripts, and actually see some produced. And two novels aren't nearly enough; John Fowles was on the point of finishing Daniel Martin by the time he was my age. I don't want to be remembered only by a stack of magazines. I've got a number of ideas for next books crowding the ether around me, but I have to hold these at bay until the Bava book is out the door. Once I finish my work on Video Watchdog #123, my next task is to go through my manuscript and compile a proper Mario Bava filmography. I always felt that the length of the book itself provided the filmography, but more recently, I realized that, if I don't do this, someone else will go through my book and compile one, so the credit might as well be mine. The current filmographies, even the current biographies, are riddled with errors that need correcting.

I need a vacation. I need to work faster. I wasn't always this much of a Gemini.

My creative energies are chomping at the bit, wanting to surge out in all directions. I wonder if this desire to branch out in all directions, to do as much as possible with my available time, is a result of overseeing the omniverous appetites of my magazine, a desire to serve it best by being better informed, or if it's tied to the fears of mortality that become more pronounced with middle-age. The danger, I suppose, is actually undertaking too many new trivialities when I should be narrowing my focus to just a couple of important tasks, giving them something closer to my whole attention.

Why, I ask myself, did I start this blog? Perhaps to make the panic of a creative life less closeted, less subcutaneous. At least here I know I'm not talking to myself.

Alas, fretting takes time and energy, too.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Francesco De Masi (1930 - 2005)

Word reached me yesterday of the passing of the great Italian film composer Francesco De Masi, who died in hospital this past weekend of cancer at the age of 75. A funeral is being held in Rome this afternoon at the Chiesa degli Artisti on the Piazza del Popolo.

For anyone who seriously loves Italian film music, De Masi shares the pantheon with Nino Rota, Carlo Rustichelli, Piero Piccioni and, of course, Ennio Morricone. Morricone has been the most phenomenal of his generation of composers, scoring more than 500 films in addition to writing concert music and other outside projects, but there are some soundtrack collectors who hold De Masi's impassioned work in even higher esteem. They consider Morricone's music the brain of Italian film music, and De Masi's as the heart.

The bulk of De Masi's music was written for Italian Westerns (ARIZONA COLT, SEVEN PISTOLS FOR A MASSACRE, SARTANA DOES NOT FORGIVE), but he also composed and conducted outstanding music for horror (AN ANGEL FOR SATAN, THE NEW YORK RIPPER), war (INGLORIOUS BASTARDS), peplum (THE TRIUMPH OF HERCULES), swashbucklers (THE MAGNIFICENT ADVENTURER), and spy pictures (KOMMISSAR X). I was able to find an online English language interview conducted by John Mansell in 2002, which I am linking here for your information.

One of De Masi's earliest horror scores, for Riccardo Freda's THE GHOST [LO SPETTRO, 1963], is full of shuddery passages and vertigo-inducing heights, but it's most memorable for an achingly tender Irish melody that is heard variously throughout the film with full orchestra, on piano, and as a music-box melody. It's one of those melodies that gives a film so much more than the story demanded; it grabs you by the heart and refuses to let go. A still later cue, written for the finale of THE MURDER CLINIC [LA LAMA NEL CORPO, 1966] but also heard at the end of Mario Bava's library-scored KILL, BABY... KILL! [OPERAZIONE PAURA, 1966], is so exquisitely evocative of tender, guarded optimism that it awakens feelings almost too big to seem an appropriate response to a horror picture. When I was asked to provide some music for the memorial service of my friend Mark Upchurch, I sent along an mp3 of this rare track, which is one that I knew he and his brother Alan had loved.

When I heard this news, I immediately thought of my friend John Bender, a columnist for Film Score Monthly and writer about Euro lounge soundtracks in Video Watchdog #104, who had the good fortune to meet Maestro De Masi in 2003. John wrote back to me as concise and fine a tribute as I can imagine:

"I've cried for this great man's passing. There is just so much courage and honesty in his music, an emotional immediacy that can only come from a man of profound integrity and compassion. When I listen to his music, I can hear what it means to be a man, and it is in this regard that I have lost a father."