Monday, February 20, 2006

Back to Metropolis

I'm sure I'm not the only one who tends to think of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN as two seasons -- the Phyllis Coates season and the Noel Neill season -- rather than as the six seasons there actually were. Accustomed as I've been to seeing this beloved series out of sequence over the years, catch as catch can, I found it interesting to watch Warner Home Video's THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN - THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON chronologically to identify the specific character and points of distinction specific to these 26 episodes. (27 if you include the 1954 bonus non-series episode, "Stamp Day for Superman.")

These episodes, it should be mentioned, were filmed in 1952 -- two years after the first season. Only John Hamilton's Perry White is noticeably unchanged. George Reeves has a beefier look and his hair is more threaded with gray. As Jimmy Olsen, Jack Larson looks less like a young adult and more like a slumming adult actor playing dumb; although identified as a "cub reporter," Jimmy now seems to be more of a staff photographer, lugging around a huge camera and (though no one notices but us) grinning beamishly as all the best photo opportunities pass him by. (In "Around the World with Superman," he doesn't snap a single shot of Superman cradling the little girl he flies around the world as the winner of a Daily Planet contest!) The original Lois Lane, Noel Neill -- who starred opposite Kirk Alyn in the Columbia serials SUPERMAN (1948) and ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN (1950), has her fans and Superman fandom is divided by those who favor her "sweet" approach to the no-nonsense ways of the first season's Phyllis Coates.

I bracket "sweet" in quotes because that's not how I see Neill's Lois Lane at all, especially after watching these 26 episodes in sequence. In all fairness to Neill, she plays the role as it was written -- very inconsistently. On the one hand, Lois regularly scoops Clark Kent (because she's able to get and file the story while he's out making the news), yet the tone she most often takes with him is one of pointed resentment. This season, Lois has wised-up to Kent's double life and spends many episodes trying to expose his secret identity; of course, he outsmarts her every time. And yet, in a handful of episodes, Lois seems to forget all this and scoffs at any suggestion that someone like Clark, always running away at the first sign of danger, could possibly be Superman! She does have sweet moments, but they usually follow remarks or behavior so snide or so waspish they give one whiplash. A bit bipolar, this Lois Lane, and it's very hard to imagine how Phyllis Coates would have handled the part had it been written this way.

The series was produced to peddle Kellogg's breakfast cereal and producer Whitney Ellsworth bowed to sponsor pressure to make the program less violent in its second season. Therefore, the hardboiled stance of the first season shows is replaced here by a more wholesome, occasionally goofy approach that somewhat approximates the feel of what the DC Comics SUPERMAN had become. Stories like "The Dog Who Knew Superman" (a gang moll's dog learns Superman's true identity from a driving glove Clark Kent wears in no other episode), "The Machine That Could Plot Crimes" (an absent-minded professor invents a computer named Mr. Kelso, which is innocently put to the task of devising perfect crimes), "The Clown Who Cried" (a circus clown agrees to perform on a Daily Planet telethon, but is blackjacked and replaced by an ex-con friend when he learns the show stands to accept thousands in cash donations), "Perry White's Scoop" (editor White, fed up with his trouble-prone reporters, decides to show them how it was done back in the day... getting into trouble of his own), "The Golden Vulture" (Lois and Jimmy run afowl of a modern-day pirate) and many other episodes could have easily been adapted as DC stories.

But the season is best remembered (and rightly so) for a handful of episodes that play outside the pocket. The most celebrated of the bunch, "Panic in the Sky" chronicles Clark Kent's battle with amnesia after Superman vanquishes an asteroid threatening to slam into Earth. There's not a kid alive who didn't see this and scream with apprehension as Kent began to unbutton his shirt, revealing the S of his Superman costume, in the presence of Jimmy Olsen. Benefiting from a pensive, apocalyptic mood from the outset, the show gives the immediate impression of something unusual, its tenor turning most worrisome when a woozy Kent crashes through the glass door of his shower. It's in the aftermath of this scene that the show takes one of its most credibility-testing turns, as we see Kent in bed, without his glasses, being visited by his co-workers, who see his bare face and remark on the fact that he emerged from all that broken glass without a scratch, and can't put the facts together like two and two. Aside from this fault, the episode isn't quite so nerve-teasing or tension-stretching as it's remembered to be; Superman's memory is recovered fairly quickly, all told -- but nowhere else in the series is Superman quite so vulnerable.

(By the way, I now have a theory about why Lois and Jimmy, despite suspecting Clark of being Superman, can never recognize that the two are one and the same even when his glasses are off. In short, Kryptonians are smarter than Earth people -- and when we watch THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN or any other SUPERMAN dramatization, we do so with the intelligence of a Kryptonian. That's why Clark winks at us at the end of so many episodes; only he, of all the characters, knows that we're watching. Far-fetched? Well, so is the fact that no one recognizes Clark Kent as Superman when he's not wearing his glasses, as happens at least twice in Season 2.)

"Panic in the Sky" can be viewed on disc with an audio commentary by Jack Larson and Noel Neill, but it's a disappointment; Larson does almost all of the talking, but even his contribution is sporadic. After the two of them fall into a long silent patch, Larson chides Neill and himself, laughing "We're not commenting! We're not commenting!" It doesn't seem to occur to either of them that the buyers of this set might like to know more about George Reeves, or if they were aware that this episode was something special as they were filming it. These two sorely needed a moderator and it was a failure of the disc producer not to provide one.

A similar, equally commendable episode (which actually precedes "Panic in the Sky") is "Superman in Exile," which finds The Man of Steel physically contaminated by radiation after bravely placing himself between Metropolis and a pending atomic disaster. It's curious that this episode doesn't have the following of its successor, because the later episode basically reprises its tensions while putting Superman's secret identity more solidly on the line; even here, though, Lois and Jimmy show signs of getting wise as they notice that Superman's exile from Metropolis has coincided with Clark's disappearance. Similarly, "The Defeat of Superman" dramatizes his first series encounter with the element known as Kryptonite. When you stop to think about it, much of Season 2 is all about "mortal men" resenting Superman and wanting to take him down a notch or ten; the crooks want him dead or disabled, Lois and Jimmy want him unmasked, even his own acts of altruism conspire to deprive him of his effectiveness as a crime-fighter, robbing him of his powers, his memory, his ability to interact with others.

One of my own favorite episodes of Season 2 is the quirky "Lady in Black." A send-up of the mystery genre -- this episode is in the same spirit as Season 1's "The Haunted Lighthouse," with a wide-eyed Jimmy Olsen alert to some strange and inexplicable goings-on in his aunt's apartment building. These include the arrival of melodramatic characters that seem to have stepped out of the mystery novel ("The Lady in Black") Jimmy is reading, so his cries of "wolf" initially go unheeded. Virginia Christine (destined to play an Olsen of her own in future Folger's coffee commercials) plays a dual role of sorts, and the episode is adorned with a number of oddball touches, including a weird surrealist painting in Jimmy's aunt's apartment. It initially sports one staring eye... then it has two... and in the final shot, we see the second eye winking at the viewer! There's also a lingering shot of a clown painting at the end of Act 1, which I've never fully understood till now. In Act 2, we see Christine unloading a sack of groceries and the first thing she takes out is a box of Kellogg's Sugar Smacks -- with what looks like the same clown on the box! Evidently, the significance of the painting at the end of Act 1 was that it was a product-placement lead-in to a Kellogg's commercial!

Another Larson/Neill commentary (a better one) accompanies "Semi Private Eye," which happens to be Larson's favorite episode. It features a guest performance by THE MALTESE FALCON's Elisha Cook, Jr. as private detective Homer Garrity, but Larson favors the episode because it gave him a chance to do comedy. When Lois and Jimmy decide to hire a private detective to uncover Clark's possible dual identity, a gunman intrudes on their appointment. Lois and Homer are kidnapped, leaving Jimmy to indulge his fantasies of being a shamus and saving the day. Larson mugs his way through the episode shamelessly, doing what is probably one of the earliest Bogart impressions on record... and one of the few to incorporate James Cagney's teeth-baring, drawers-hitching mannerisms at the same time. Larson recounts later meeting Bogart, who seemed eager to meet him -- so perhaps Bogie saw this episode and appreciated the take-off; he also talks about "Cookie," who became a personal friend as a result of this appearance.

While not a particularly distinguished episode, "Semi Private Eye" gives Larson a chance to do something different... as does "The Face and the Voice" where George Reeves is concerned. Here he plays his usual roles, and also that of a meatball ex-boxer who undergoes plastic surgery and diction lessons to imitate The Man of Steel in a series of robberies that leave the real Superman questioning his sanity. Kids might suppose that Reeves was showing extraordinary range as an actor by playing a character so unlike the urbane Clark Kent and Superman, but his performance is embarrassingly broad -- but the series offered him no time to refine it. As Larson mentions in the "Semi Private Eye" commentary, nearly all the scenes that made it into the show were first takes.

The season closer, "Around the World with Superman", openly courts melodramatic sentiment with the story of a Daily Planet children's contest, whose winner will be flown around the world in the arms of Superman. The winner turns out to be a hardened but trusting little blind girl, who enters the contest in her mother's name, wanting to win the trip for her. It's a sweet and likeable episode, but it never answers the question of how the blind girl hand-wrote her winning entry, stamped and mailed it without her mother's knowledge. Furthermore, there is the trip itself, whose details fly in the face of earthly geography as we know it. Superman takes off from Metropolis (presumably on the East Coast and analogous to New York City), is immediately over the Atlantic Ocean, then London... Paris... Arabia... but then they are suddenly flying over New York -- and Superman tells the little contest winner that they aren't home yet, that there's still a big country to cross! Not only does this posit Metropolis on the West coast (as those who recognize the Daily Planet Building as Los Angeles City Hall always suspected), but it suggests that Superman either turned back before flying over Russia (!) or that the United States somehow got turned upside down while he was in flight (!!). The insanity is somewhat salvaged by a wonderful moment between George Reeves and Noel Neill, alluding to the otherwise unspoken "Lois Lane as Superman's Girlfriend" angle, that is the perfect capper for the season and this box set.

Whereas Warner Home Video's COMPLETE FIRST SEASON set reflected great attention paid to its digital restoration, the COMPLETE SECOND SEASON evinces less blood, sweat and tears. A noticeable splice in "Around the World with Superman" pinpoints the omission of a fondly-remembered moment where Superman uses his X-ray vision to determine the cause of the little girl's blindness. It wasn't the only such splice I noticed in the set, and one episode (sorry, I failed to note the specifics) recounts important plot points that were not shown. The picture and sound quality is very good, though not exceptional. On the plus side, "The Face and the Voice" -- last seen on a Warner/Image Entertainment laserdisc where the voice-training scene ("I look like Superman, why don't I talk like Superman? I look like...") was presented in absolutely horrible quality -- happily looks every bit as good as the other episodes.

Rounding out the COMPLETE SECOND SEASON are a nice sidebar on Noel Neill (with sound bytes from Neill, Larson, and SUPERMAN scholar Gary Grossman) and the aforementioned "Stamp Day for Superman," a US Defense Bonds promotion filmed in the form of an ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN episode. The episode carries no screen credits, but it's pretty good, with some unusual dramatic choices (check the scene of Superman conferring with the jewel thief who reconsiders his crime) and some fairly witty dialogue (check Clark and Lois' window-shopping banter). Pay no attention to the internet talk about the episode's poor quality; compared to the other examples in this set, true, it's not as bright or as sharp, but this is the best-looking copy of this PD eyesore I've seen in 25 years of video viewing. In fact, I wouldn't call it an "eyesore" at all.

Another random thought or two... On DVD, it becomes fairly obvious in "The Clown That Cried" that William Wayne is playing both clown roles most of the time, doubling for actor Peter Brocco, who is supposedly disguised as him. Also, I don't know if "My Friend Superman" was the last episode shot for this season, but the food fight that ends the show would have been a great stress-relieving way to conclude the stretch. The scene has the air of a wrap party. I should also mention that Warner's screen menus are a delight. They actually tell an archetypal Superman story in a nutshell.

Season 2 marked the end of Superman's television adventures in black-and-white. The third season, only 12 episodes long, saw a transition to color and -- for the most part -- a significant brain-drop. We're talking "The Bully of Dry Gulch" and "Flight to the North," the episode where Chuck Connors plays backwoods clodhopper Sylvester J. Superman. Nevertheless, THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN would always retain its charm, which was specifically the charm of its cast -- particularly George Reeves, who remains for many the definitive Superman -- and its increasingly wacky sense of fantasy.

Although I find myself bringing a stronger critical standard to bear on these episodes on DVD than I've ever done in a lifetime of enjoying them on television, I know exactly how to remind myself of what a wonderment this set really is. All I need to do is think back to a certain Christmas in my childhood when one of my gifts from Santa was a Kenner Give-A-Show Projector. One of the little films that came with the set was a reel of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN; I think it was a condensed version of the final episode, "All That Glitters." I can remember projecting that film, over and over, all Christmas Day, on the wall inside my bedroom closet (the darkest place I could find in the daytime) -- incredulous that something had been invented that allowed me to watch Superman fly, forwards and even backwards, as much as I wanted to.

It may be my job to be critical, but owning this entire season of ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN episodes on DVD beats that childhood memory all hollow -- and don't I know it.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Pretty Paper

You see here a rather fuzzy jpg of the Spanish poster for Riccardo Freda's THE WHITE WARRIOR [Agi Murad il diavolo bianco, 1958], a film photographed by Mario Bava. I spent many a pretty peso to acquire this poster when it appeared on eBay some years ago, and it's one of my favorite pieces of Bava-related poster art. This jpg is fuzzy, but the poster will be sharp and stunning to the eye when it opens the chapter pertaining to that film in my book, MARIO BAVA - ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK.

Poster art is on my mind today. Let me explain why.

To backtrack... As I mentioned yesterday, we're presently working on standarizing what we call the "credits blocks" of the Bava book's main chapters -- you can see what I mean by this by visiting the Bava book site and checking out the second spread of the DANGER: DIABOLIK spread we have posted there as a sample. I originally compiled all the credits off the screen, and added other credits when and if I could find them, so we have decided to standardize the order of the credits to make them easier to read for reference. In doing this, I noticed that I had the distributors listed for some foreign release titles, but not all.

So it fell to me late yesterday afternoon to pull out all of my Bava poster/pressbooks/lobby cards, items hailing from around the world, and open them, one by one, making a record of the full name of each distributor (when possible -- would you believe that some Italian posters list NO distributor?); the correct foreign release title (thus ensuring the title was, say, 5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON rather than FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON in, say, the UK or Australia); cast anomalies (did you know that the star of HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON is credited as "Steve Forsyth" on the Italian posters, but as "Stephen Forsyth" on the posters from every other country?); the brand of color and scope ratio specified (these actually differ on the same titles from country to country, a tip-off to some countries that cheaped out on the color processing); and, when possible, the name of the poster artist for specifying in the captions.

And people ask, "Why is the book taking so long?"

To Donna's surprise, and my own, I finished this task around 4:00 a.m. She expected it would take me at least a couple of days, but I threw my back into it and was determined to put the task behind me, stopping only briefly to have some soup. It was equal parts pleasure and pain to open each of the posters (some of them quite large) on the dining room table; pleasure because it was nice to see them again, and because there is a definite tactile satisfaction that comes from handling and smelling old posters, especially old French stone lithographs; and pain because I was reminded or made aware of little tears in some of them -- a stunning Italian due-foglia (two-sheet) poster for Gli invasori [US: ERIK THE CONQUEROR, or THE INVADERS] actually separated and fell into pieces as it was being photographed for the book, and I handled its tattered pieces especially lovingly. There is also the pain of regret where these posters are concerned; I'd need a whole second houseful of wall space to show off even a portion of them properly. But all I can offer most of them is a protective sleeve and repose in a Tupperware coffin. Donna asked if I'll be selling the posters once the book is published, and I really don't know; I'd like to use the collection, which encompasses all of popular Italian horror and fantasy cinema, to create or illustrate more books... but this one has been such a killer, neither of us is feeling too eager to rush into another project like this.

My job today is to organize the seven pages of legal pad scribblings that resulted from yesterday's labors on my computer, and then drop the information into the layout for Donna to insert. So I'd better get to it.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Bulletin from the Bava Trenches

Sorry to keep the WatchBlog's regular visitors in suspense, but the Bava book is keeping me very busy at present. I got a spare minute to steal away because Donna's on the phone with a customer. Yesterday, after staring at an outdated final page for so many hours that my eyes began to sting and my forehead began to break out in little beads of blood, I finally succeeded in writing the final, final page of the the final chapter, a little after 2:00 a.m. Today, we're standardizing some of the minutiae in the captions and the order in which crew jobs will be presented in the credits blocks -- all tedious but necessary work. Also, it appears that Donna accidentally spell-checked all references to Schock and changed them to Shock, which needs to be undone throughout the book, case-by-case. Once all this is behind us, we move on to the layout of the book's front (forewords, introduction, legends) and back matter (filmographies, bibliography, references, videography, discography, indeces, acknowledgements) -- mostly Donna's work, but I'll be involved too in the selection of the graphics that will accompany the text. It's an exciting time.

One last thing: Don't forget to vote in the Rondo awards! I believe today is "Rondo Eve," so time is running out. Don't worry about voting in every category, and if your favorites aren't on the ballot, write 'em in! Pop on over to www.rondoaward.com and cast your ballot now!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Happy 92nd to Kevin McCarthy!

... who shares a birthday with Sax Rohmer, Georges Auric, Gale Sondergaard, Harold Arlen, Mary Jane Croft, Claire Bloom, Florinda Bolkan, Dennis Skotak, Marie Liljedahl, Matt Groening, and "the other Harvey"... Harvey Korman! (Quite a mix, n'est-ce pas?)

This shot was taken at a dinner that Donna and I were pleased to share with Kevin, Joe Dante, Tom Weaver, Frank Dietz, and others at Wonderfest a few years ago. I hope you're having a great one, Kevin, and may the Grey Goose smile generously on your olives!

I Dream of Harvey

A conversation between Donna and me, upon awakening. I'm still in bed, and she's coming into our bedroom after showering and dressing, looking for her shoes.

T: I dreamed we had to go to the dentist. We couldn't go at the same time for some reason, so they had to send a driver for me. When the driver came, it turned out to be Harvey Keitel.

D: I see. It's what he does during the off-season.

T: Right. Anyway, he turns out to be a quiet guy, not a chatterbox like he is in the movies. Stoic. We get to the dentist and it turns out to be a new location. The parking lot looks like the one between Sebastian's and Blockbuster, but the stores are all different. Harvey and I stay in the parking lot, like that's the waiting area... and you know how dreams are, the waiting area is in the parking lot and inside the dentist's office at the same time. I'm sitting there, and suddenly I can hear our car. I look out the window, which is the window of the office and the window of the car, and I can see you outside at the traffic light.

D: Oh, my.

T: And I think, "Boy, I hope she doesn't get lost trying to find this new place and drives right past it!" The light changes and off you go. Maybe it was my anxiety about you getting lost, but I turn to Harvey, who's still behind his steering wheel with his back turned to me, there in the waiting room, and I say, "You know, I'd kind of like to find a restroom before I have to go in to my appointment. Where's the restroom in this place?" Harvey says to me, irritably, that there isn't one.

D: Uh-oh.

T: "What?" I say. "My dentist moves from his perfectly okay former office to a new place and he didn't even check out beforehand if it had a restroom for his patients?" Harvey shrugs. He's reading a paper now. "If you gotta go," he says, "take your problem across the street over there to the orphanage." I look across the street and, sure enough, there's an orphanage over there. But I tell Harvey, "Look, I'm not 'taking my problem' over there. Hey, I like my dentist and everything, but I'm sorry -- this is a deal-breaker!" Harvey shrugs.

D: He's stoic.

T: Right, not like he is in the movies. Anyway, then suddenly you were there, you found it to the new office allright, and... and that's all I can remember. I can't remember where the dream went from there. I forgot while I was telling it. Hell... (buries head in pillow)

D: So, are you gonna get up and make me some coffee before I have to go to the store?

T: (groans, not ready to get up)

D: Okie-doke, I'll make some instant.

T: (emerging) No no no. I can't have you drinking instant. I'll get up! (I get up and throw on a robe. Donna is already in her shoes and skipping downstairs. I call after her.) I know how much you like the gourmet, expensive stuff. When you drink your coffee, you like to taste it. No instant for you! I'll make you coffee that's so good, even Harvey would taste it and do a double-take!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Criterion Sunday, Anyone?

It's St. Valentine's Day, so it is only fitting that I should write something today about love as I know it. With this noble goal in mind, let me say that I don't know about the rest of you, but my Significant Other has much stricter views than I on what constitutes an acceptable evening's Entertainment. With her, it has to be new -- or at least in color -- and preferably "about relationships." No horror, thank you. And no subtitles, "because I've spent all day looking at words on a screen and now I want to relax."

My wish is to serve. Unfortunately, most of what we are sent for review is contradictory to my Wife's pleasure, so it usually takes me a minimum of thirty minutes of humorous offstage crashes as I rifle through bankers' boxes before I can find some oddball release that at least halfway meets her criteria... and then she watches my prize catch while sewing, scrabbling noisily through a nearby drawer in search of a lost thimble, looking at a quilting magazine, or delighting at the antics of our cats as they tussle in front of the TV screen. In the meantime, I'm watching whatever it is 100 per cent. But I am, as they say, a man in love.

We recently had one of these "entertain me" evenings, my Spouse and I, and the luck of the draw -- something acceptably recent (1990), a "relationship movie," in color, no subtitles -- turned out to be a recent offering from Criterion, Whit Stillman's METROPOLITAN. I'd never heard of the film and didn't know what to expect from it, but, as I should have expected from the Criterion endorsement, it turned out to be a sheer, unalloyed delight. An independent, low-budget film shot in New York City, METROPOLITAN was a "first film" for nearly everyone involved, but through some curious means, the end result is remarkably close to perfection. It might best be compared to a Woody Allen movie without Woody Allen's grandstanding neuroses being channeled by the entire cast list, or an Eric Rohmer movie set outside France, or an F. Scott Fitzgerald story set in a Manhattan he never lived to see.

The story, in short, is about a middle-class leftist named Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) who is serendipitously falls into the company of a group of upper class while exiting New York's Plaza Hotel at the height of Christmas debutante season. Tom doesn't approve of debutante parties, or the class snobbery they encourage, but he finds his conversation with these people invigorating and is persuaded to invest in a used tuxedo and tail coat to continue as an escort to Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina). Audrey, who finds Tom more substantial than other guys she's met, finds herself falling for Tom -- but Tom's heart is still tied to the girl who broke it -- Serena Slocomb (Elizabeth Thompson), who re-emerges at one of these gatherings in the company of Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe), a young baron whose selfish, womanizing ways are rumored to have driven at least one lovesick admirer to suicide.

Cast entirely with talented unknowns, including some who had never considered acting before, METROPOLITAN is one of the most sublimely written, dryly humorous, and engagingly well-cast American movies I've seen in a long time. (Stillman's original screenplay was recognized with an Academy Award nomination.) It's easy to see how Tom is drawn to these people and "the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie" (the subject of a hilarious sidebar), against his own ideals, and comes to relax some of his personal, social, and even literary biases. Another of the film's engaging qualities is that it never reveals its time frame -- it takes place "not so long ago" -- so that, even if we can't personally relate to the characters' way of socializing, we can accept that these events took place in another recent era. Indeed, some young people watching the film might roll their eyes at the notion that anyone could call sitting around and debating politics, philosophy or books "a party," but these parties are like some great ones I can remember attending in the 1970s. Today's parties (at least the ones in the movies I see) are all about getting wasted; yesterday's parties were about stimulation -- the stimulation of new ideas and new friendships, possibly new romances. I presume the film's time frame is sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, as Stillman brought a few of the actors and their characters back for fleeting glimpses in his late '70s-situated THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO (1998) -- a film I now need to see again.

Criterion's high-definition transfer of the film is splendid, needless to say. The extras include an interesting an informative audio commentary by Stillman, editor Christopher Tellefsen, and actors Chris Eigeman (who plays Nick, the "abrasive" one) and Taylor Nichols (who plays Charlie, the bespectacled and anxious one -- my favorite of the film's characters); an outtakes montage; a memorial to a key crew member; and an illustrated booklet built around an essay by Luc Sante.

Discovering METROPOLITAN reminded me of one of home video's most enduring rules of thumb: When all else fails, trust Criterion. In fact, with their backlog of DVD titles now topping 300, one could easily devote oneself entirely to Criterion for the better part of a year and come out the other end a more experienced, more fully rounded connoisseur of film. In my line of work, it's all too easy to get side-tracked and bogged-down by other, frankly lesser movies and lose track of some of the things that are truly important. There are nights when I, too, tell myself I'm not "feeling up to subtitles" or coming to grips with unfamiliar world cultures -- but what I'm failing to remember when I think these things is how invigorating the discovery of a real masterpiece can be.

With this in mind, I'm entertaining the idea of setting aside one day per week to catch up with my Criterion viewing -- "a Criterion Sunday," perhaps. I usually have things to watch on Sunday evening (new SOPRANOS and HUFF episodes are just around the corner), but a Sunday afternoon... Now that might be perfect -- kind of like playing hooky and going to church at the same time!

If my "Criterion Sunday" idea sounds good to you, be sure to include METROPOLITAN as one of the titles you should visit along the way.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Bad Times for Korean Cinema

My friends at Tartan Video Extreme sent me this press release today, which should be of concern to anyone who, like myself, feels that some of the best films being made today are coming out of Korea. I've never used this blog as a billboard for press releases or political statements before, and I don't intend to make a habit of it. But, in this case, I felt the news was relevant to the interests of those who read Video Watchdog:

Korean Cinema at a Crossroads
South Korean government drops screentime quota for domestic films
"Oldboy" director and star return Cultural Merit medals to Korean government in protest


LOS ANGELES — Feb. 1, 2006 — The Korean government is betting that homegrown cinema will continue to flourish without the safety of a screen quota system that has protected the Korean domestic film industry since 1966. Local actors, directors and moviegoers aren’t quite so optimistic and are protesting their displeasure with significant public gestures.

Established to help the Korean film market grow from its humble beginnings into the worldwide cinematic hotbed it is today, the quota requires Korean cinemas to show Korean films for 146 days of the year. Starting July 1st, that number will be reduced to 73. The reduction had been demanded for years by the US government as a key condition for free trade negotiations, but its implementation has not been well received by many, including some of the biggest filmmaking names in Korean cinema.

“The government's decision to cut the quotas is equivalent to giving up our culture,'' said Choi Min Sik, star of Crying Fist, Lady Vengeance and the immensely popular Korean film Oldboy.

Choi recently returned his Cultural Merit medal, a prestigious award which honors Korean artists, to protest the quota system. “The medal was personally my pride and honor,'' Choi told reporters in Seoul. “Now it is a symbol of the government's betrayal. I don't need a medal from a country that chooses to stamp on our own cultural rights.''

In addition to Choi, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance director Park Chanwook, currently preparing to promote his latest film Lady Vengeance at the Berlin Film Festival, also returned his medal and commented that he will voice his concerns further at the festival. Tae Guk Gi and The Coast Guard star Jang Dong-gun has also come forward to voice his opposition.

Korean Filmmakers and artists are not the only ones expressing their displeasure. A group of South Korean lawmakers are currently seeking legislation to maintain the country's current quota for the screening of domestic movies, claiming the government's compromise deal with the United States is humiliating.

Korean cinema has witnessed unheralded success the world over in recent years. A Tale of Two Sisters was one of the ten highest-grossing horror films worldwide in 2004. Oldboy received the Grand Prize of the Jury at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. Korean cinema has made giant crossroads into America on the success of the Asian horror genre as well as the unique style of its filmmakers.

"This is not a fight only for ourselves,” Choi told reporters. “We are fighting for living between the Korean and American movies and cultures. Oldboy would not have existed without the screening quota.”

Oldboy, A Tale of Two Sisters, The Coast Guard are available now on DVD from Tartan Asia Extreme. Tae Guk Gi is available now on DVD from Sony Home Entertainment.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Revel in Evelyn

There is a mind set prevailing, even among those of us who have HD television and should know better, that there is only so much that old black-and-white movies can deliver in high-definition. When Monsters HD premiered THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) last weekend, I watched them both and came away pleased, but with mixed feelings -- the sort of mixed feelings that become possible after you've lived with HD television long enough to begin to accept it as commonplace.

There is no denying that both films looked better than ever, even better than on DVD, as HD decompresses the visual information. But SON looked better than BRIDE... possibly because it was a richer-looking production, and possibly because the art of cinematography had advanced in that four-year difference. I could even see, for the first time in SON, the slender black wires supporting the weight of Bela Lugosi's Ygor as Boris Karloff's Monster carried him to the family crypt, but I can't say that I noticed anything new in terms of nuances of performance. As wonderful as these films are, they are played pretty broadly; you can "get" all their performances have to offer in low-def. BRIDE and SON were fun to watch in HD, but when all is said and done, neither presentation really knocked me out.

The K.O. came last night, when Monsters HD celebrated the 100th birthday of Lon Chaney, Jr. by premiering Universal's THE WOLF MAN (1941) and FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1942). I found the further advance represented by the look of these two films almost startling. They shared with the two Frankenstein films a heightened sense of detail, which brought all of the grace notes buried in the art direction and set decoration to the forefront, but what I found most impressive was their heightened sense of depth, emotion, and temperature.

I never realized it until now, but much of THE WOLF MAN is filmed on studio sets with vast floors, both interior and exterior; the whole look of the film is a celebration of image in depth. A shot of Evelyn Ankers running through the woods, which in a duller presentation one's senses easily reduce to the essential information of her action, is now like watching a beautiful woman who once lived and breathed running through the cinematic equivalent of a magnificent painting. We sense that it must have been a delightful moment for her to perform, as a professional. The fogbound studio sets are a marvel of depth with their receding trees, shafts of light, and rolling fog.

As one might expect, one does tend to see better all the individual yak hairs on Chaney's face, but also hidden recesses of performance. To watch Chaney's performance as Lawrence Talbot in HD is to see much of its seeming bluntness smoothed away. True, he wasn't the actor whom screenwriter Curt Siodmak envisioned when he wrote Talbot as the prodigal son of an old English family and had him using expressions like "chap," but Chaney had an expressive face, the necessary inner turmoil, and the talent needed to convey all the tragic dimensions of the character and story. And then there's the diminutive Maria Ouspenskaya as the gypsy woman Maleva. In my earliest acquaintence with these movies, I can remember thinking that Madame Ouspenskaya was not the most expressive actress in the world. No, she doesn't make a meal of the scenery like some of her co-stars, but seeing her performances in high-def, one can better understand her mastery of film acting technique. She was calibrating her performance to the sensitivity of the camera lens and trusting it to deliver the emotions she was projecting on a more intimate keel. Seen in HD, closer to the readability of a 35mm big screen viewing, Ouspenskaya's Maleva is pitch-perfect: tremulous, fearful, brave, and wearily wise to the mysteries of the world. Even the sound quality is improved, making her muttered dialogue more easily understood.

Another of the uncanny things one can pick up from THE WOLF MAN in HD is a hint of body heat. For example, the scene in THE WOLF MAN where Lawrence Talbot (Chaney), under the boughs of a tree, gifts Gwen Conliffe (Ankers) with the medallion given to him by Maleva; Gwen says she was taught never to accept presents without giving one in return and offers him a penny for it, and Larry says it's not enough -- moving in for a kiss. Their kiss is interrupted before it gets started, but the blossoming of detail in this scene awakens its intended, long-dormant sense of intimacy and makes it surprisingly hot to watch.

Monsters HD general manager David Sehring knows and loves these movies, and one can see his awareness of their chronology and content in the fact that THE WOLF MAN was booked to be shown in tandem with its direct sequel, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. The opening graveyard scene where Chaney is revived in his tomb by a couple of unsuspecting graverobbers, long a top favorite among Universal buffs, is beautifully revitalized in HD. The exterior crane shots come alive in vivid detail -- blowing leaves, twitching trees and a lone crow; when the wind picks up, as one of the graverobbers runs away, the shot conveys a similar thrill to the coming of the tornado in THE WIZARD OF OZ. Inside the Talbot family crypt, one can more clearly read the names on the surrounding name plates inside the Talbot crypt, including one for Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains' character from the earlier film) and another for Lawrence and Anne Talbot, presumably the Wolf Man's grandparents. Seeing the two films en suite like this, one can also better appreciate the ironic arc they represent, as Chaney's character is initially infected with lycanthropy by Bela Lugosi, then seeks the answer to deliverance from this curse from the Frankenstein Monster, whose makeup is worn in the second picture by none other than Lugosi.

In short, Monsters HD gave Lon Chaney, Jr. the best possible present for his centenary. They gave his body of work a new lease on life. And so let it be said:

"Even someone so impure in heart as to shun films in black-and-white may become a fan if they watch Monsters on VOOM, where the picture's so sharp and bright."

PS: Since we last remarked on Monsters HD's introduction of the onscreen station bug, they have further reduced its frequency to only once per hour, so it now appears only once in any film they are presently broadcasting. We thank them for being so responsive to the wishes of their viewers!

Friday, February 10, 2006

Eurodrama: Films Without Pity

MPI Home Video's new subsidiary label, Dark Sky Films, has been making their presence known of late with a number of interesting, offbeat releases on DVD. Among them are the early gore classic THE FLESH EATERS (1963) with Martin Kosleck, the anime-like TERROR BENEATH THE SEA [Katei daisenso, 1966] with Sonny Chiba, the Edgar Wallace krimi THE COLLEGE GIRL MURDERS [Der Mönch mit der Peitsche, 1967], and the R-rated drive-in favorite WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS (1971). Another of their releases, a bit harder to find than the others, is a curious item titled WET ASPHALT, starring Horst Buchholz, Maria Perschy (both pictured above), and Gert Fröbe.

Dark Sky has labelled the release as "Lost Noir" -- but there's got to be a better name for it than that. For one thing, WET ASPHALT is a German picture.

Originally released as Nasser Asphalt in 1958, WET ASPHALT was distributed here in the United States by Walter Manley Enterprises, best-known for importing an especially kooky brand of science fiction film -- PRINCE OF SPACE and INVASION OF THE NEPTUNE MEN , to name a couple. Its release as a Dark Sky title hints at the phrase "contractual obligation" and it might well have been a contractual obligation for Manley too, as it's hard to imagine it ever selling many American tickets on its own. That is not to say that it's not good or not interesting; on the contrary, I was drawn to this release right away, without quite knowing why.

As one quickly surmises from the DVD's sketchbooky cover art, WET ASPHALT is not really a noir film at all -- it isn't a crime picture, per se, nor is it particularly stylized; it doesn't feature hardboiled male characters nor femmes fatale. So why did it continue to beckon to me, long after I had set it aside for later viewing? True, it has some cast and crew members with minor cult appeal, but I believe what most intrigued me is that it reminded me of other unclassifiable works from the same era and area. This led me to the consideration that there may well be a worthwhile kind of European film, largely forgotten now, that has been overlooked precisely because they are not allied to genre. Of course, these films could be said to fall under the basic generic heading of drama or love story, but I would argue that they are a certain kind of drama and love story in need of their own distinctive term. After all, because movie thrillers already existed, that didn't prevent the giallo from being pinned and labelled as something distinct, right?

What do I know about these strange, disenfranchised movies? They are European -- primarily German, French, Swiss, Czech or Yugoslavian; they are movies that, though well-made, didn't have the artistic gunpowder or pretension to make an international mark as art films; they are also mainstream pictures that, in every way other than story, seem to scream genre. They are not really atmospheric but they have mood in spades; they are neorealistic in terms of their look and their frankness about controversial subjects, yet they are decidedly more artificial, more movie-like, than, say, Italian neorealist pictures. Furthermore, they seem to be commonly steeped in post-war feelings of guilt, self-reproach, and sin by association. They make me think of the Gene Pitney song "Town Without Pity" -- written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington for the movie of the same name, which was set in the West Germany of 1961. I'm determined to find a generic handle for these movies, because if they become known as belonging to a specific genre, they stand a better chance of surviving, being re-released, and being discussed. There may also be a few buried masterpieces among their kind.

When I was a kid, I occasionally saw trailers for films like WET ASPHALT at the drive-in, or at a neighborhood indoor theater that hosted kiddie matinees on weekends and catered to the "art film" market on weeknights. They always mystified me because there was an air of otherness about them that I knew ought to interest me, but they didn't promise the monsters and mayhem that would have encouraged me to seek them out. There was also a palpable sense that these movies were for adults. Consequently, my main memory of them is that I saw the trailers, but the movies themselves never materialized. Sometimes these trailers turn up on Something Weird Video compilations; they feature actors like Curt (or Curd) Jurgens, Maximillian Schell, or the star of this particular film, Horst Buchholz. Some years before he made WET ASPHALT, Buchholz starred in another German picture called Die Halbstarken (1956), which was released in America under the title TEENAGE WOLFPACK. I wish I could remember the name of the Something Weird compilation that featured its trailer -- watching this compilation was like dreaming while wide-awake, because the names of the actors were familiar but the films were so obscure they all seemed imaginary! The trailer for TEENAGE WOLFPACK stood out because it humorously "introduced" Buchholz as "Henry Bookholt" -- a new sensation of the screen. TEENAGE WOLFPACK (whose title may well have helped inspire the "True Confessional" title for I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF in 1957) looked like it would belong to the same obscure, disenfranchised pack of Eurodramas as WET ASPHALT.

In hindsight, I suppose these films must have appealed to two basic groups of Americans in the 1950s and early 1960s: 1) immigrants to whom the European settings and actors were familiar, and 2) curiosity seekers who detected in these trailers a whiff of the unknown, the forbidden, the un-American. In other words, somebody might get naked.

Anyone hoping for a glimpse of forbidden fruit in WET ASPHALT will be disappointed, as it is actually a study of a young journalist and the conflicts that arise from his moral code. Buchholz plays Greg Bachmann, a young reporter who was sent to prison for six years for impersonating a French officer to infiltrate Spandau Prison and gain exclusive interviews with the most notorious of surviving Nazi war criminals. Upon his release, he is approached by Cesar Boyd (Martin Held), Germany's one-man news industry, who respects what Greg tried to do and needs an assistant; he offers him top dollar for his services. Narration carries us four years further down the road of their association. Boyd has maintained his stellar reputation and Greg is delighted to be working with him. Distracted by the arrival of Boyd's pretty niece Bettina (Perschy), the two journalists forget their obligation to file a strong weekend story with the leading Paris newspaper by 8:00 on Friday night and need to come up with something fast. Desperate, with the help of his chauffeur Joe (Gert Fröbe in the earliest of his screen appearances I've seen), Boyd concocts a far-fetched story about a group of Nazi soldiers and their prisoners being found alive in a Polish bunker, where they have spent the last six years -- and presents it to Greg as factual. Greg calls it the greatest news item he's ever heard, and to Boyd's astonishment, the world agrees. The story captures the world's imagination and the demand for further details pushes him to invent further updates.

The location chosen for the bunker happens to coincide with a spot in Poland where secret rocket tests are being conducted by the Russian army, and the story excites unwelcome interest in the region, resulting in grave impact on other peoples' lives. The demand for additional news becomes so great, and so lucrative, that other unscrupulous professionals begin to heap their own facets of invention on Boyd's original lie, exciting the hopes of families who lost loved ones in the war that husbands and brothers and sons may be among the fictional survivors. One woman's excitement so overwhelms her that she suffers a fatal heart attack, and mobs eventually converge on Boyd's home, demanding the identities of the survivors be revealed. In time, Bachmann realizes that the story is a lie and he must make the difficult choice of either covering up the deception, or telling the truth and losing his career in the process. In either case, he suffers a rude awakening in regard to the journalist who had become his hero and role model. There is a romantic subplot, but it is fairly prudent apart from some allusions to Boyd's non-avuncular interest in his young niece.

Horst Buchholz and Maria Perschy both passed away fairly recently -- Bucholz in 2003 (pneumonia) and Perschy in 2004 (cancer). Neither of them lived to reach the age of 70, which makes it a bittersweet and sentimental pleasure to find them here looking so young and full of promise. Even Gert Fröbe looks fresher than usual; this was a couple of years before Fritz Lang cast him as Inspector Kraus in THE 1000 EYES OF DR. MABUSE [Die Tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse, 1960], thus setting his career on track toward the immortal role of Auric Goldfinger. The film is stolen, however, by Martin Wald as Cesar Boyd, a robust actor who wasn't destined to enjoy the same level of international recognition as his co-stars. The director of photography, Helmut Ashley, later became a director specializing in krimis -- notably the excellent Moerderspiel ("Murder Game," 1961) and the Edgar Wallace film Das Rätsel der roten Orchidee ("The Puzzle of the Red Orchid," 1962, starring Christopher Lee).

WET ASPHALT (the title refers to the aftermath of a street where the Police have turned firehoses on unlawful public assemblies) was directed by Frank Wisbar, an East Prussia-born director, best remembered for the classic dark fantasy Fährmann Maria (1936), who fled Nazi Germany and made a series of B-pictures at Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) -- including a notable remake of the aforementioned picture called STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP and THE DEVIL BAT'S DAUGHTER (both 1946). He returned to West Germany in the mid-1950s and added another eight titles to his filmography (most of which score high ratings on the IMDb) before his death in 1967. I would never have recognized WET ASPHALT as Wisbar's work in a million years. It's a good and interesting movie, with some commendable things to say about personal and professional responsibility, but not the buried Eurodrama masterpiece I alluded to earlier. ("Eurodrama" -- could it be that simple?)

Dark Sky's disc is correctly rendered in standard ratio and looks pretty good except for some early shots that evince some noise and shimmer as the camera casts a look down a cobblestone road. I wish the disc offered a German language option with English subtitles, to help one get closer to the performances; nevertheless, the quality of the dubbing is excellent. The voices and dialogue doesn't always fit the lip movements, but the voice actors give valid performances and the English track feels unusually wedded to the film.

If you're looking for something offbeat, an unusual evening's entertainment that gestures to a whole other world of filmmaking you're not likely to know much about, consider taking a midnight stroll down WET ASPHALT.

Here's hoping that Dark Sky unearths some more "Lost Noir"! There must be more where this came from.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Master of Monster Music

I dislike the idea of making two death-related postings in a single week, much less four. But alas, it is necessary to reflect on the news from Japan of Maestro Akira Ifukube's passing at the age of 91, from natural causes.

With his grim, churning yet magisterial score for Ishiro Honda's Gojira [US: GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS!] in 1954, Akira Ifukube opened the door to a highly individual orchestral sound that would define the so-called kaiju eiga ("monster movies") of Toho Studios for more than half a century. Ifukube would not score all of the Godzilla films produced during that time, but his spirit was always present and guiding in the works of his replacement composers, who knew all too well whose shoes they were being asked to fill. A Godzilla film would somehow be less than a Godzilla film if his appearances were not accompanied, at least once, by those musical passages familiar to all the series' followers -- the hulking main theme, the strident march accompanying scenes of mobilized military forces, and most of all, the music (proud, ascendant, yet rich in gravitas) that told us that Godzilla was, although bloodied, unbowed.

It is true that Maestro Ifukube was sometimes criticized for leaning too heavily on these standards he had set, but it is also important to note that he continued to add scores of conspicuous significance to his backlog throughout the entire length of his career. Though KING KONG VS. GODZILLA was largely rescored with library music for its US release, the original version Kingukongu tai Gojira (1962) features one of his most ravishing scores, one that was faithful to the urban/jungle orchestral fusions of Max Steiner's seminal KING KONG score, while further fusing it with the lyricism of melodies evocative of the Pacific islands. This score was paid the ultimate compliment of being included in original Japanese release prints in full stereo. One of the greatest glories of Ifukube's catalogue, the heartbreakingly plaintive "Song for Mothra" sung by Imi and Yûmi Ito ("The Peanuts") in GODZILLA VS. THE THING [Mosura tai Gojira, 1963], was showcased in a passage of unexpected poignancy in the midst of what its young audience assumed would be little more than a knock-down, drag-out monsterfest. It was Ifukube's role as composer to keep the series' juvenile aspects rooted in emotion, wisdom and soul -- he infused scenes of war with the awareness of loss.

Knowing his value to the series all too well, Toho acknowledged the 30th anniversary of the original film by producing a memorable home video exclusive in 1984: GODZILLA FANTASIA, a "greatest hits" compilation of series highlights accompanied by all-new stereo orchestrations conducted by Ifukube. In Japan, even in the laserdisc era, it was not uncommon for Ifukube's kaiju eiga to be released on disc with isolated music-and-effects channels. When Ifukube returned to the Godzilla series after a nearly 20 year absence in the 1990s, he added two more masterpieces to his canon with Gojira tai Mosura [GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA - THE BATTLE FOR EARTH, 1992] and his penultimate series score, Gojira tai Mekagojira [GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA II, 1993]. In addition to scoring these films, Ifukube was responsible for creating/recording the roars of the various Toho giants.

Of course, Ifukube was not just about Godzilla. In addition to being an accomplished classical composer and conductor, he used his vast knowledge of medieval and ethnic Japanese music and instrumentation to score the DAIMAJIN and ZATOICHI film series for Daiei Studios, and incorporated all manner of bizarre and modernistic instrumentation (saws, theramin, electric guitar, Hammond organ) when scoring some of Toho's most impressive science fiction films, such as Chikyu Boeigun [THE MYSTERIANS, 1957], Uchu daisenso [BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE (1959), and Kaitei gunkan [ATRAGON, 1965].

Akira Ifukube retired two years ago, on the eve of his 90th year, so his admirers are at least saved the grief of a career interrupted or cut short. We have all the music he planned to give us, and we can rest confident that it will survive us all. Which means that all we recognize of ourselves in Ifukube's music -- our sometimes primitive emotions, our will to survive and triumph, and not least of all, our responsiveness to beauty and tenderness -- will live on, too.

Photo: Godzilla presents Akira Ifukube with a tribute on the occasion of his retirement in 2004. (c) Toho Studios

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

EEK! It's Deke

My friend, the late Louis M. "Deke" Heyward (pictured above with Buster Keaton on the set of 1964's PAJAMA PARTY), passed away in March 2002... yet four years later, his website Ask Deke remains active -- and is apparently still accepting e-mail!

At the time of Deke's passing, we were in the midst of a lengthy correspondence about, of all things, DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE GIRL BOMBS and AIP's early attempts to film a version of H. P. Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror" that would have starred Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee and been directed by Mario Bava. While awaiting Deke's reply to another set of questions, I happened to get online and go to the Classic Horror Film Boards, which was then a fairly obscure AOL folder, only to find Deke's name posted at the top of the "Gone But Not Forgotten" section. I felt it very personally.

Deke was a sweetheart and gave me tremendous quotes for the Bava book, and also loaned me his own leatherbound copy of the GIRL BOMBS screenplay (which I returned after xeroxing). The script was an amazing document of chaotic international co-production with several pages scribbled hurriedly in longhand. His revelations about the GIRL BOMBS filming is "must" reading, and you'll all finally get a crack at it sometime this summer.

It's interesting: all the time I was communicating with Deke, I had no idea that he was also running a website. So it was rather, shall we say, oltre tomba, to stumble across his old site and find it still active and soliciting questions from the curious. Particularly as I've had frequent experience of reading about the deaths of celebrities I already thought were dead. My memory of Deke's sudden death, and the sudden end it brought to our happy correspondence, was so specific in my memory that I would have to check myself into a funny farm if I used that e-mail address and actually got an answer back. Fortunately, the IMDb supports my recollection of events.

Deke, despite being always as sad-faced as Droopy Dog in pictures, was the very soul of humor and surely would have had a chuckle over this.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Another Man Done Gone

In yesterday's mail, I received the 75th issue of WRAPPED IN PLASTIC, the magazine devoted to TWIN PEAKS and related cult television. Though I am very fond of this magazine and have read some marvelous articles in it, I must admit to occasionally shaking my head over new issues as they continued to filter in... in the best possible way, of course. It has been a wonderment to me that Craig Miller and John Thorne of Win-Mill Productions and their contributors could continue, for so long, to find so much worth exploring, discussing, and debating about the two-season David Lynch series. The show has had more than a decade to cool off, but Miller and Thorne have never allowed their torch to go out. In their latest, deluxe, 64-page issue, the fan phenomenon of WRAPPED IN PLASTIC (WIP) finally hits a wall of sorts, with its editors announcing that WIP #75 is their "last regular issue," marking "the end of a rewarding and memorable chapter in our lives."

This makes me feel great regret, especially coming so soon after the discontinuation of another obsessive fan favorite, FILM SCORE MONTHLY, as a print publication. (It continues as an online, subscription-basis cyberzine.)

I can't help wondering: Is this the end of Rico? As a fellow publisher and editor, I know all too well that the reasons not to publish a print magazine far outweigh the reasons to do so. Magazine distribution has changed greatly in the last decade; it used to be a dozen different companies who didn't pay their bills, and now it's basically one huge monolithic company that sends back returns so pristine it's obvious they've never spent an hour on a magazine stand. Then there are the big bookstore chains, who encourage their customers to sit in big comfy chairs and sip lattes all day while they read your product for free. Publishers are also expected to pay for "shrinkage," the brainchild of some brilliant lawyer who couldn't see why his bookstore clients should be financially responsible for copies of magazines stolen from their premises. (Why, then, do these stores have so many security cameras? Are they real?) And there is also the here-take-it phenomenon of the Internet working against the concept of readers paying for the privilege of access to well-written articles, essays, reviews and editorials. Add to all this what hard work it is, and it's really no wonder that some publishers get tired and hang up their hats.

I was very pleased to discover that WIP has decided to go out with a bang: WIP #75 is one of the best issues they've ever done. In addition to interviews with David Lynch, co-creator Mark Frost, chief writer Bob Engels, Lynch collaborator Mary Sweeney, and log lady Catherine Coulson, there is a complete WIP index and an assortment of fresh articles, including one consisting of further thoughts on aspects of TWIN PEAKS FIRE WALK WITH ME that Miller and Thorne never managed to accomodate in earlier efforts. The principal topics of these thoughts are: Garmonbozia, the song standards referenced by Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) during his appearance in the movie, and that enticing topic nobody wants to talk about, Judy. Great stuff.

On the Win-Mill website, the question of WIP's future is handled less definitely than in the magazine itself. Online, Craig and John are calling #75 a "hiatus edition" -- so the door is being left open for a possible return, but as the old song goes, "who knows where or when?" Like TWIN PEAKS itself, we hope that WRAPPED IN PLASTIC will return in some form, someday -- perhaps when the deleted scenes from FIRE WALK WITH ME finally turn up on DVD. In the meantime... Vale, Craig and John, and heartfelt thanks for a job well done.

Given that print magazines seem to be dropping like flies, it's all the more admirable to see a new one preparing for take-off. Jessie Lilley, the former publisher of SCARLET STREET and WORLDLY REMAINS, is now taking wing as the editor-in-chief of a new magazine, MONDO CULT. As the title suggests, the focus is on the world of cult entertainment. The first issue contains departments addressed to new movies on disc, new music (including an especially solid collection of soundtrack reviews), new books, and more. The roster of contributors includes some familiar names, like Ray Bradbury and Forrest J Ackerman, but also excellent work from publisher Brad Linaweaver, Terry Pace (who offers Fay Wray's final interview) , Jerry L. Jewett, Michael Draine, Paul Gaita, and others. #1 has a KING KONG focus that's not exactly unique at this point in time, but I suspect future issues will be more inclined to go their own way. More power to them; I'm interested to see what MONDO CULT becomes. The indicia page says it will be published twice yearly, so let's see what we can do to encourage Jessie and Brad to publish more frequently. Do your part by picking up a copy at your favorite newsstand today.

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Monday, February 06, 2006

The Passing of a Eurocult Master

Walerian Borowczyk, the renowned Polish animator and director of live-action erotic films steeped in the bizarre, has died of heart failure at the age of 82.

Borowczyk made his directorial debut in 1946 with the animated short Mois d'août ("Months of August") and continued to work as a high profile animator through the 1960s, receiving a BAFTA nomination for his 1958 short Dom. It was in 1968 that Boro made his first live action film, Goto, l'île d'amour, starring Pierre Brasseur of Eyes Without a Face fame. As he continued to direct live action, his work naturally gravitated toward erotic fantasy. In more general circles, he is undoubtedly most famous for THE STORY OF SIN (a Palme d'Or nominee at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival) or BLANCHE, which won the Grand Prix at the 1972 Berlin International Film Festival. But among devotées of the fantastique, of which Boro himself was certainly one, his best-known works are IMMORAL TALES (1974, featuring Paloma Picasso as Countess Elizabeth Bathory), THE BEAST (1975, an explicitly adult rumination on "Beauty and the Beast" featuring Sirpa Lane), LULU (1980, a loose remake of Pabst's PANDORA'S BOX, with a cameo by Udo Kier as Jack the Ripper), and BLOODLUST aka DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBOURNE (1981).

The latter film is particularly memorable, with Udo Kier's Dr. Jekyll periodically excusing himself from his dinner guests (including Patrick Magee) to thrash about in a chemically-treated bath, emerging as the vicious rapist Mr Hyde (Gérard Zalcberg), whose knife-like phallus is digitally opaqued in the only uncut version of the film I've seen (from Japan). Shocking, sexy, and also devastatingly funny as Jekyll's increasingly transgressive behavior brings about the collapse of his dining room's microcosm of polite Victorian society.

A frequent but delightful fixture of Borowczyk's work was actress Marina Pierro, who had previously worked with Sergio Bergonzelli and Luchino Visconti before devoting herself almost exclusively to "Boro's" vision from 1977 onwards. (She also appeared in Jean Rollin's THE LIVING DEAD GIRL.) Though she did not appear at all in some of Boro's major works, such was her impact that is it impossible to consider his work without considering her frequent and affectionate recurrence within it.

I found some of Boro's work a bit dry for my liking, but there is no denying that his was one of the most distinctive personalities to emerge from the world of Eurocult in its "Silver Age" (say, 1967-84). One of my favorite descriptions of the special flavor of his work can be found in Phil Hardy's AURUM/OVERLOOK FILM ENCYCLOPEDIA: HORROR. In an entry about the Jekyll picture (as Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes), the author writes: "Borowczyk's imagery, here fed by his fetishistic fascination with all things antiquarian, is often stunning and the film becomes a sort of still life in which familiar yet alien objects -- an ancient dictaphone, a treadle sewing-machine, a book of remembrance -- seem imbued with a secret significance all their own, and in which a glimpse of a whalebone corset or ruffled petticoat carries a heady whiff of eroticism." [Kim Newman has written to inform me that these words are the work of former MONTHLY FILM BULLETIN critic Tom Milne.]

If you find yourself in a mood to celebrate Borowczyk's life and work, it's hard to find domestically... but several examples are available on import DVD from our friends at Xploited Cinema, Diabolik DVD, and Sazuma Trading. We recommend their service.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Verne, Verne, Verne

Now here's something interesting: an advertisement from an old Charlton comic, REPTISAURUS #3, published in January 1962. (The first two issues of REPTISAURUS were called REPTILICUS and "Based on the American International Pictures Film," but I'm guessing all that changed when the folks at Charlton saw a preview of the film and decided it might be wise to withdraw from that affiliation. In the first REPTISAURUS issue, the creature is unmistakably still Reptilicus and hurriedly recolored red, but the creature's look changed completely for its next comic book appearance.) But do you know what's so interesting about this ad? It promotes a movie that was never produced.

As someone who was a kid in those days, I can remember that Jules Verne was pretty hot stuff. It had all started (or re-started) with Disney's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954), which was somewhat before my time, but Verne Fever was still in progress in the early years of my time, even the early years of my time as a moviegoer. AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956), FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON (1958), JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959), MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961), FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON (1962)... and let us not forget Karel Zeman's wonderful live action/animation combo Vynález zkázy (1958), which turned up here in America in 1961 as THE FABULOUS WORLD OF JULES VERNE.

In May of 1961, AIP had hopped aboard this public domain money wagon with MASTER OF THE WORLD, starring Vincent Price. It had done well for them, and they were deternined to maintain a foothold in the Jules Verne saddle. Evidently after taking out this ad, it was brought to the attention of the folks at AIP and Charlton that Jules Verne's OFF ON A COMET had already been made -- as the recently released VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS (1961), distributed by Columbia. Suddenly, there were no more Jules Verne titles forthcoming from AIP.

Seeing this ad, I can't help wondering if anyone entered the contest and how they were notified that there was no longer any movie, no longer any contest. Was the winner invited instead to attend the filming of the Woolner Brothers' FLIGHT OF THE LOST BALLOON (1962), which AIP distributed, written and directed by that well-known Verne wannabe, Nathan Juran? (This was the movie that infamously passed out "motion sickness pills" with every ticket sold. How AIP cleared the dispensation of drugs from movie theater boxoffices with the Food and Drug Administration, I'll never know.)

Consequently, the Charlton Comic of OFF ON A COMET promised in the ad also never happened, but some of us kids had this nifty Classics Illustrated adaptation.

PS: It seems that Blogger has been suffering from some kind of network problem the last couple of days... maybe it was only one day, but it felt like a couple. Anyway, I couldn't access my blog and couldn't post anything new during that period. Most of you couldn't either, because yesterday we had the lowest attendance since we started -- less than half our daily average. I discovered that the system was on the blink after trying to post a blog I'd spent two hours writing; it vaporized in the process. Losing that much work isn't exactly gladdening, even if it usually is improved by its reconstruction from memory. So, from now on, I'll be writing/saving this blog in Word before I post it here. Never fear about the lost article; I patiently reconstructed it in Word. This allowed me to see a manuscript page count and I realized that the blog I was writing was too long, too detailed, and too much hard work. It wasn't a blog after all, but an article... so it'll be turning up in a future issue of VW instead.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Domo Arigato, Sensei

Last night I had a dream about Mark Irwin, one of North America's finer cinematographers, whom I got to know in the days when he worked frequently with David Cronenberg in Toronto. The dream was probably precipitated by me mentioning to Donna, the night before I had the dream, that I should add a word of thanks to Mark in the Bava book acknowledgements; the reason being that Mark had taught me more about cinematography, as a job and as a craft, than anyone I've ever known.

That's Mark up there, in a photo by Douglas Kirkland. As Paul McCartney would say, it's just like him.

When I visited the set of THE FLY in 1986, it was in part because I had been assigned to cover Mark's camera unit for AMERICAN CINEMATOGRAPHER. (The infamous issue that featured two FLY-related articles but made the not-too-bright decision to feature HOWARD THE DUCK on the cover.) When I got up to Ontario, I confessed to Mark -- whom I'd already seen at work on VIDEODROME and THE DEAD ZONE and knew to be a very nice guy -- that I really didn't know all that much about cinematography. With the responsibility of photographing a major motion picture already resting on his shoulders, Mark could have easily said "Well, it's not my job to teach you"... but that's not what he did. Instead, on his day off, he drove me to an office building and screened for me, on Beta cassette, two films he had recently photographed -- THE PROTECTOR (1985) and YOUNGBLOOD (1986). As the movies ran, he gave me a live, running commentary about both films, from a purely cinematographic point-of-view.

Watching a movie like YOUNGBLOOD, which is about ice hockey, my natural tendency at that time would be to get so involved in the action that I wouldn't give any thought to the picture's technical challenges -- which, of course, is the desired response on the part of all the filmmakers -- so listening to Mark was like being handed an extra set of senses. It was a great little four-hour education, and to say that it has been useful to me would be an understatement. More DVDs should offer cinematographer audio commentaries -- Mark shares a track with David Cronenberg on Criterion's VIDEODROME, a release to which I contributed as well.

I haven't been in Mark's happy company since he took me to lunch during one of my return visits to Toronto, when I went up to visit friends and pass around copies of the CINEFEX issue featuring my FLY coverage. (My god, has it actually been twenty years?) Some time later, around the time VIDEO WATCHDOG was getting started, I contacted Mark with a question about screen ratios and he sent me an illustrated chart of different screen ratios -- again, of great help to me in my work. I'm reminded of that jolly line from HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD: "I didn't use to know what an f-stop was, and now I am one."

Anyway, last night -- after a brief interruption of twenty years -- I dreamed that Mark Irwin and I were in the same building once again; we kept trying to sit down and talk but were consistently interrupted. That's as much as I can remember about it, except our mutual amusement at the interruptions, which escalated to Buñuelian proportions.

One of the first things I did today after waking was to get online and Google Mark, to bring myself up-to-date on his recent activities. I found a very good Kodak.com interview with Mark that told me things I either didn't know or had forgotten about him. Then... I noticed that the site also had a Tonino Delli Colli interview on file, in which he talked (among other things) about filming the first Italian color film, Totò in colori ("Totò in Color"). I've often wondered why Mario Bava wasn't invited to shoot the film; he was better established than Delli Colli at the time, and I imagined he would have jumped at such an opportunity. Delli Colli's Kodak interview explained why -- he didn't want the job either! And he wasn't the first to be offered the job. This interview turned out to be very useful, offering a few paragraphs of background about the difficulties involved in Italy's transition to color features... so whaddya know?! In the most mysterious of ways, in a way that perhaps only Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Dale Cooper would be quick to appreciate, Mark turned out to be helpful to my Bava book mission once again!

So, wherever you are, Mark -- domo arigato, sensei. I hope our paths will someday cross again. After all, what's twenty years?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Beware of the Blog: The New Wave of Fanzines

Maybe I'm just the last guy on the block to realize that 2 + 2 = 4, but I had a eureka the other day while writing my "Watchdog Barks" editorial for VIDEO WATCHDOG #124. That eureka being that Video WatchBlog is the fanzine I work on between issues of VW, my magazine.

I thought this blog would be one thing when I started, but it's morphed into something else that I like a lot better -- something looser that plays by only one rule, that rule being the ebb and flow of whatever interests me at the moment. This blog feels to me like a return to the original spirit of VW, before the magazine column matured into the magazine it is today. It's also fun for me in ways that the hard work of VW isn't, always. I suspect this blog and the work I'm putting into it will influence VW in some ways, I hope all for the better, but we're not publishing regularly enough at the moment for me to determine what shape this influence will take.

Since I joined the alternate universe of bloggers, various people have drawn my attention to other blogs, some of which I really like, and a few of which I could grow to love. The blogs that really reach for my heart are not the review sites or the personality sites, but what I'll call (for lack of a better or more concise term) the obsession sites. These focus on a single facet of pop culture and go at it with all the intensity of a diamond drill. These blogs feel to me like the real fanzines of today.

The most glamorous of all the movie blogs I've discovered is undoubtedly John McElwee's Greenbriar Picture Shows, "a site dedicated to the great days of movie exhibition." John, who is a cousin of the brilliant documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee (SHERMAN'S MARCH, TIME INDEFINITE) and figures pivotally in his recent must-see BRIGHT LEAVES, lives up to his appearance in that family drama on his blog with a treasure trove of reminiscence, insight and photographic memorabilia. John generously posts the most amazing, obscure photographs in superb "click to enlarge" resolution. I admire this site because it's so anchored in affection for all facets of movies; I always learn something new by going there.

Then there's Flickhead, which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago when it coralled a number of fellow bloggers into celebrating "International SHOWGIRLS Day" or somesuch. Flickhead is the brainchild of Ray Young, whose MAGICK THEATRE was one of the greatest fanzines, or semi-prozines, ever devoted to fantastic cinema. Ever. Scout for copies on eBay -- you won't be disappointed. I assume that Ray stopped publishing because he found his interests expanding beyond those perimeters of his formative years, and Flickhead illustrates that growth by covering a broader range of obsessions, albeit in the same detail and with the same personality. More than just a blog, Flickhead has characteristics of an online magazine. (A curious footnote: I don't usually surf the net with my computer speakers activated, but I happened to visit Flickhead's index page recently with my speakers on. I was astonished to be greeted by a John Barry cue from A VIEW TO A KILL which had been haunting me for weeks, since I'd last seen the picture. Further proof, if I needed any, of a kindred spirit.)

Another blog I like to frequent is Curt Purcell's The Groovy Age of Horror, which is devoted to "'60s/'70s horror in paperbacks, Groschenromane, fumetti, comics, and movies." Curt is constantly turning up shelfloads of obscure, forgotten horroriana -- a lot of it trash at a glance, the sort of thing people only collect for the covers -- and actually reading it (my hero!), posting full reports on each title's plot and literary quality. He is on a Peter Saxon kick at the moment -- Saxon being the author of the novel on which the AIP cult favorite SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970) was based. Recent postings not only reveal that "Saxon" was one of many pseudonyms employed by this specific writer, but also a "house" pseudonym used by a number of different writers -- and the same fellow who wrote THE DISORIENTATED MAN (the basis of SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN) also wrote the novel that became the basis of the notorious Peter Cushing film CORRUPTION (1967)! I've also gotten a big kick out of past blogs addressing the topic of obscure novels written about the Frankenstein Monster (more extensive than you'd ever imagine), horror-based erotica, and Italian fumetti. Poring through the backlog of amazing book cover scans and poring over the accompanying text will shave hours off your day, but you need to check this place out. The only down side is that The Groovy Age of Horror creates a terrible appetite to read or at least sample all the neat junk uncovered by its archaeology dig.

A couple of days ago, Charlie Largent introduced me to Bubblegumfink! -- damn him, damn him! This is one of a growing number of music blogs that either include or lead one to locations where vintage music can be downloaded in mp3 or flac format. What's interesting about Bubblegumfink! in particular is that it encompasses very-hard-to-find children's LPs from yesteryear, like SQUIDDLY DIDDLY'S SURFIN' SAFARI and SNOOPER & BLABBER'S MONSTER SHINDIG, in addition to its primary diet of '70s bubblegum pop. One of this site's most daunting features is its list of other recommended blogs, all of which are sure to tempt a click. New worlds await. Yeep.

By clicking on Bubblegumfink!'s link to a Jack Kirby-themed blog, I was led to something even more commanding of my interest -- a Steve Ditko weblog (not by Ditko himself, naturally) and it led me to this wonderful page of "alternate universe" STRANGE TALES covers. For those of us who were sad whenever Doctor Strange wasn't featured on the cover.

And then there's Record Brother, another download blog, which leans toward blaxploitation and action soundtracks, psychedelia, and other sonic oddities. MAGOO IN HI FI, anyone?

Like exotica music? Then you'll like all the goodies on offer at Planet Xtabay. I can't tell you more about them; I just discovered them... but I'm headed back there now as soon as I can bring myself to stop typing this blog of my own.

With all this in mind, a reader e-mailed me yesterday with the following questions:

Dear Tim -- Does the world need yet another website about genre movies? If so, what would it be about? What would it have that all the others do not? What would YOU want to see and read about?

To which I replied: Dear [Reader] -- I'm afraid the world doesn't need another website about genre movies. If a better one came along, it would simply edge one of the few I visit now off my radar. What the world really needs is a website that could teach us how to micromanage our free time to allow us to do everything we want to do, and don't have time for. If I had more time in my day, I'd read more books and get out of the house once in awhile -- not visit more websites. Sorry, but that's the truth as I see it!

Which is soitenly the truth as I see it, but I also have to admit that the aforementioned (and many other) blogs, of all configurations, are becoming more interesting to me and harder and harder to resist. Like I said at the beginning, I don't know if this is a fresh observation or not, but it does seem to me that these blogs are the new fanzines.

May they never go semi-pro.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Fifty Years Young

... today is that Flower of Romance, the great John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten. You can celebrate his golden jubilee by going to your favorite CD shop and picking up his new 2-disc career overview set, THE BEST OF BRITISH ONE POUND NOTES. It's got almost all the essential tracks from Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd., as well as the fabulous "Time Zone" recording he made with Afrika Bambaata back in the '80s, which was later used to open Season Three of THE SOPRANOS. (Why not the track he did with The Golden Palaminos? Oh, well.)

John has long been a hero of mine. In addition to being one of the truly singular and irreplaceable characters on our world stage, he's made history (while spitting on history), he's lorded over concerts that were sociological epicenters, he's turned AMERICAN BANDSTAND on its head, he's even acted with Harvey Keitel in a movie made by Italians. Look at that face: he should be doing Beckett plays. And making up new words if he can't memorize the scripted ones. The great music he spawned ("Poptones"!), the potent lyrics he's written ("Bodies"!), that one-of-a-kind voice of his... these are colossal contributions (and I haven't even invoked "Anarchy in the UK"), yet they're almost incidental to the greater gift of who he is.

I recently sold off nearly all of my old vinyl. I kept my Captain Beefheart albums, my Can stuff, my Velvet Underground -- and all of my Public Image Ltd. I hope John would take that as a compliment. It's not just that he sang me out of my 20s and into my 30s, but that nearly everything he ever recorded still sounds plugged directly into the raging current that gave it life in the first place. He called it the end of rock, but based on how valid the new Sex Pistols box set sounds, it's an apocalypse we can thrill to for the rest of our lives.

Thank you, John. And if anyone reading these words should see him today, buy that AntiChrist a lager.

Remember These?

Recently, needing some physical respite from the act of writing, I decided to reorganize a couple of shelves in my living room that hold CD box sets and laserdiscs. The object was to go through my laserdiscs and weed out the non-essentials, at least enough of them to make some room for future CD sets I may wish to acquire. A pretty mundane procedure, but it became surprisingly engrossing as I began to slide these laserdiscs off the shelf for the first time in years, and remember what they were all about.

I know that a large percentage of what I own on laserdisc has since been reissued on DVD. I should not need the larger, bulkier, less perfect-looking, older cousin, correct? That's all well and good in theory. But beyond what laserdiscs were and are in terms of pictorial quality, the laserdisc collector must acknowledge what they were and are in terms of packaging. Laserdiscs were the movie version of album covers -- something you could hold in your lap and admire, something that could psych you up for the experience of watching a movie. When was the last time you spent any quality time with a DVD keepcase, other than to curse it for being genetically unable to anchor its disc in place? I know a few people who don't even keep their keepcases; they pop the discs out, slip them into an envelope and keep them in shoeboxes. Why not?

I found that I had not one, but two different deluxe editions of TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY. One was in a nice, thick, multi-platter silver box emblazoned "T2" and the other was in a luxurious, cushiony black vinyl box with a silvery emblem on the front, also emblazoned "T2." I decided to look into the dark one and slipped out a gorgeous inner drawer that pictured Arnold Schwarzenegger on one side and his skinless Stan Winston form on the other, housing three discs and two mini laserdiscs of trailers. A stunning, stunning package. So why did I keep the other version? To find out, I slipped the box set out of its plastic sleeve and took the lid off. Inside the box, atop four platters and a menu brochure, was a letter from James Cameron on Lightstorm Entertainment stationery -- facsimile signed (of course) in blue ink -- that explained in charming detail why this laserdisc was letterboxed, why it was in CAV, and why these factors added up to the ultimate home experience of the movie.

That's why I kept the set. I'll probably never actually load it up and watch it again, but owning it is like owning a piece of history. A piece of history that, once upon a time, posited me in a private club with James Cameron, fellow laserdisc connoisseur. (Incidentally, the silver box houses the theatrical edtition and the darker box houses the "special edition" -- its world premiere, in fact. Cool. Still cool.)

Some laserdiscs need to be kept, or at least burned to DVD-R, because they have audio commentaries you can't find anywhere else. Some have wonderful liner notes and pictures -- Tom Weaver wrote most of the fabulous unsigned notes you find in old MCA Universal laserdiscs, and they compile a fair number of quotes and whatnot that probably don't figure in any other commentary he's done or book he's written. Another interesting case I found was the first letterboxed issue of TOMB OF LIGEIA, whose handsome gatefold offers an article by my friend David Del Valle, copiously illustrated with stills from his archive -- including a shot of Roger Corman directing that is inscribed, strangely, "Better to be on the set than in the office." I guess he'd been having a bad day when he signed that. I've written some liner notes for laserdiscs myself, and I can remember the unique sense of pride I felt in seeing my words printed on the equivalent of an album cover. I like seeing the words of my friends printed on them, too. With that in mind, I couldn't help holding back some titles because I felt that, if I didn't preserve these things, perhaps they wouldn't be preserved. True, I can't hang onto them forever... I may live in a big house, but I'm still running out of room... but perhaps I can hang onto these things until other collectors experience a renewal of interest in them.

Everything from Criterion is numbered; allow a single disc to go and you've broken up a set. The BEATLES ANTHOLOGY laserdisc set (a mere $100 when brand new) is a beautiful thing -- it's like the Beatles album that never existed, and the individual album covers inside the box can be assembled to recreate the Klaus Voormann collage on the cover... almost as much fun as trying to guess the names of all the people in the collage of famous faces on the SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND album cover.

I find it difficult to part with any musical laserdisc because, as I remember discovering while comparing the LD and DVD versions of WOODSTOCK, the audio on a DVD is compressed. Having decompressed audio, my WOODSTOCK laserdisc set roars during The Who's set the way it did in the theater where I first saw it. Townshend's guitar sounds dirty and Entwistle's bass sounds dirtier, growling and crackling. The same performance on the DVD, on the other hand, roars... clinically. I never did get around to playing my laserdisc of YELLOW SUBMARINE -- it's still shrinkwrapped, I see -- but I imagine it's the best option I have of hearing the movie, the next time I feel like seeing it.

When all was said and done, I did clear some space -- enough to make room for the CD box sets I have, with a little room left over for inevitable expansion -- but not as much as I'd hoped to clear. Laserdiscs may be passé as tools for home viewing, but as artifacts, they remain just too damned intoxicating. To handle a laserdisc, especially a deluxe laserdisc box set, is like being reminded of a time when the home video phenomenon was more civilized, more aesthetic, and geared more to the specific concerns of the hardcore cinema enthusiast.

Nowadays, the picture quality is better, the discs themselves are more compact, and everybody's into DVD. But what is everybody buying and watching? That's right: TV shows. TV shows and CGI movies.

I still have another entire upstairs closet full of laserdiscs to process, which represents a few hundred decisions I'll have to make someday. I don't even like deciding what I'm going to have for breakfast, so I think that particular pleasure is one I'll be postponing for as long as time and space will bear.