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.

Don't Forget to Vote!

A friendly reminder to one and all to remember to vote for the Fourth Annual Rondo Awards. Yes, the deadline's still a few weeks away -- Saturday, February 18, to be exact -- but important tasks shouldn't be postponed till the last minute. If you've got time to read this blog, you've got time to vote, right?

You don't have to vote in every category. You don't have to vote for what or whom you THINK will win. You don't even have to vote for this blog. (Not that I'd object if you did!) All I'm asking is that you get involved, to whatever extent you wish, by taking a stand for your own personal preferences on the ballot. These are adorable little puppies and it's important that they all find their way to good homes.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

What Do You Want On YOUR Tombstone?

How about a naked actress, grinding away?

This weekend, MASTERS OF HORROR concluded its First Season with "Haeckel's Tale," a Mick Garris adaptation of a Clive Barker short story, directed by John McNaughton. Roger Corman was scheduled to direct this episode until he had to withdraw for health reasons; then it was turned over to George Romero to direct, but he had to beg off for personal reasons. In the long run, I think they both rather lucked out.

Not that "Haeckel's Tale" is all bad. It's set in 1832, which makes it at least distinct from its predecessors this season. It's also fairly well acted, and offers a jolt or two. (I especially liked the bit with the hanging man.) Best of all, it plays like a story rather than a script; it has the unmistakable feel of a literary backbone running through it, which counts as a mark of distinction in a series which has primarly felt screen-written. But regrettably, "Haeckel's Tale" is one of those dramatic pieces that pulls you along by the nose, promising you that you will see things you'll never forget, unimaginable sights that will sear your eyes and stain your very soul... and then delivers silly horror clichés that are actually so feeble, they're laughable.

Derek Cecil stars as the young medical student Ernest Haeckel, whose Frankensteinian ambitions to restore life to the dead are curbed after a disastrous, failed demonstration. When his provider of cadavers alerts him to the presence of a necromancer (Joe Polito) in the vicinity, he attends his sideshow and witnesses the reanimation of a dead dog. But the necromancer reveals that to resurrect a more ambitious subject, like a human being, would rob him of an entire year of life, so such requests must be well compensated. Informed by letter of his father's failing health, the penniless Haeckel sets out on the open road and is met by bad weather. A passing elderly stranger (Tom McBeath) offers him shelter and a meal cooked by his beautiful young wife (Leela Savasta) but, as the evening passes, Haeckel observes that the May-November couple has a baby... and that the wife has a lover beckoning to her from outside. Left alone with his host, Haeckel discovers that the wife was impregnated by her lover, with whom she has assignations in the neighboring cemetery.

The episode opens with the title card "In Association with George A. Romero," placed there to dot some legal I's, because the series had Romero's name attached when it was proposed to its financers. It has a nice Cormanesque atmosphere in the cemetery scenes, but when it introduces its living dead characters, they all come across as pathetically comic -- like the reanimated dog, who's in pretty bad shape but, as the old joke goes, at least he's "in show business." As I've suggested, the episode involves necrophilia, but it's not NEKROMANTIK-style necrophilia or even KISSED-style necrophilia; it's more like Sara Bay-movie-poster necrophilia. Silly as it is, at least it allows the season to end with a bang as well as a whimper. The whimpering, incidentally, comes from Baby, whose true nature is another low-level shock you can see coming from a mile away. The final surprise of the framing story did catch me unawares, but not in a good way; it merely served to add another layer onto an underbaked cake, causing the whole thing to collapse.

The good news, as you've probably read elsewhere by now, is that this episode was put into production at the last minute to replace the original, intended, final episode of MOH, which Showtime refused to air. The only episode filmed outside of Vancouver, Takashi Miike's "Imprint" apparently succeeded in its aims to unsettle and frighten only too well, becoming the series' unexpected sole foray into toxic cinema -- kind of a "Cigarette Burns" for real. This reportedly very-hard-to-take episode will be released on DVD by Anchor Bay Entertainment in the fall, for those of you prepared to surpass the spectacle of a naked girl ecstatically humping a KNB EFX Group zombie and break on through to something really serious and adult and confrontational.

How do I rate the Season 1 episodes of MASTERS OF HORROR? Since you're bound to ask, here's my Top 12, presented in reverse order for maximum suspense:

12. Deer Woman (Landis)
11. Haeckel's Tale (McNaughton)
10. Incident On and Off a Mountain Road (Coscarelli)
09. Dance of the Dead (Hooper)
08. Chocolate (Garris)
07. Sick Girl (McKee)
06. The Fair-Haired Child (Malone)
05. Jenifer (Argento)
04. John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns (guess who?)
03. Pick Me Up (Cohen)
02. H. P. Lovecraft's Dreams in the Witch's House (Gordon)
01. Homecoming (Dante)

I think the top four finalists add something significant to the filmographies of their respective directors, and this in itself is a vindication of the series. The three top finalists converge for me in something very close to a photo finish. I think Gordon's episode is the strongest traditional short horror film of the bunch, but Dante's and Cohen's are ultimately more disturbing and innovative and reflective of our times. I'm not even sure that either of them really qualify as horror, or if they are just reflecting as unflinchingly as possible the horror of what we've become as a society. As a fan, I am delighted by that sort of uncertainty.