Thursday, March 16, 2006

Hey, EIGHTY!

Somewhere in the world today, Jerry Lewis is celebrating his 80th birthday. Well, Jerome Levitch is turning 80; Jerry Lewis is, as always, now and forever, nine years old.

Without knowing this anniversary was due to turn up, thoughts of Jerry have been occupying the back of my mind over the last few days, without me knowing why. On impulse, I've been reaching for my long-untouched copy of Shawn Levy's well-written biography KING OF COMEDY: THE LIFE AND ART OF JERRY LEWIS several times a day, randomly re-reading different parts -- and it rests horizontally across the tops of some other books on the highest of my shelves, so it's not the most easily reached book in my library. I recommend this clear-headed and responsible book; it paints a complex and divisibly endearing/highly unlikable portrait of the man, while revering the humanitarian and cutting the artist more of a break than he's often received in English.

The night before last, I went up into my attic to re-read a novel I needed to refresh my memory of, for an article I'm writing. I turned on the upstairs radio for some soft classical music accompaniment and -- cue TWILIGHT ZONE music -- found myself listening to "I Left My Heart at the (HONK HONK) Drive-In Movie," a riotous song performed by Jerry in his 1964 movie, THE PATSY. When I saw this movie for the first time a year or two ago, I laughed so hard at the scene of the recording of this song (with Jerry singing, and three Jerries in drag as the background singers), I momentarily thought I was going to die laughing. I had to reel myself back from the edge of hilarity like I was fighting the most vigorous marlin you can imagine. I'm scared to look at the scene again. Anyway, as the song ended, the disc jockey explained what it was and continued with an interview, already in progress, with Jerry Lewis himself... who was speaking from his hotel room, here in Cincinnati! He had apparently made an appearance here at the Aronoff Center which was a big success, and it was the first night of an extended stay.

Disc jockey: We just played "I Left My Heart at the Drive-In Movie" by Jerry Lewis, from his movie THE PATSY.

Jerry: I heard it.

Disc jockey: Jerry, that's a pretty wild song. Where did you ever find that?

Jerry: It's from THE SOUND OF MUSIC. I got it from Rodgers and Hammerstein. They had written it for that picture but it got cut out. I made them an offer, and I was delighted to have it...

(Dead silence from the disc jockey, who's actually bought this story.)

Jerry (loudly): It's a JOKE, you little cocker!

I didn't open the book I had intended to read for another 15 minutes. Instead, I sat in my attic listening to Jerry Lewis being interviewed. He was quick and caustic, suave one minute and cutting the next, and he spoke warmly about his many previous trips to Cincinnati. Once in 1942, again in 1948, and in 1950, when he and Dean Martin played the RKO Albee Theater, where my parents dated, and where I met the charming cashier I am still smooching to this day. "That was the last time I was here," Jerry said... but I knew darn well that he'd been here another time, when he starred in DAMN YANKEES, circa 1996. My sister-in-law had worked as a stagehand on that show, and she said that Jerry loved to go out onstage each night with a big laugh -- so he offered a nightly reward for anyone who could break him up the best. One night, as he stood in the wings awaiting his cue, she showed him a wind-up cow that convulsed, a toy belonging to my father-in-law. It convulsed the man who played Professor Julius Kelp, and he inscribed a gift photo for my father-in-law ("To Don -- Thanks for the Cow! Jerry Lewis") after the show. He treasured it.

That's the exact same photo, but without the inscription. (I told you the inscription; use your imagination -- it's good for you.)

Anyway, I sat there listening, figuring that Jerry must have starred in DAMN YANKEES in a dozen cities and just lost track of the fact that he'd been back in Cincinnati. Then I started thinking... if he was going to be in town for awhile, might I approach his people and request an interview? It's one of those things I think I'd love to do, but know I'd be afraid to do. I don't know if I could cut it, sitting in a room with Jerry Lewis, one-on-one. Could you? I mean, I like many of his movies, and love a few (like THE LADIES MAN, from which the two screen grabs in today's blog were derived) ... Would I still love them after meeting him?

It's hard to tell. I once saw Jerry Lewis profiled in one of those HOLLYWOOD AFTER DARK programs that used to run on AMC (back in the days when I watched AMC, when it was watchable). He was maybe 40 at the time and holed up in his office with some brand spanking new editing equipment. He spoke with fresh enthusiasm about filmmaking and new technology, and he seemed like a fascinating, open guy with whom I had much in common. Him I would have loved to meet, especially in that milieu. The 46 year-old Jerry Lewis who is interviewed on Disc 2 of the new DICK CAVETT SHOW: COMIC LEGENDS box set is a bit more cutting, not quite as mellow, but still approachable -- not as formidable and forbidding as the critical, lecturing, hectoring Buddy Love I've occasionally glimpsed on television, who makes a chilling surprise appearance in the final chapter of Levy's book.

As I continued to fantasize and fret about this suddenly possible meeting, reprieve abruptly came when it became clear that I was actually listening to an archival interview recorded a decade or so ago, back when Jerry was in town doing DAMN YANKEES. Whew, that was close.... but not really. It was a long time ago, actually; longer ago than it seems. Jerry had not yet gotten ill and swollen with Cushing's Syndrome, and my father-in-law was still alive.

I've never met Jerry Lewis. Maybe I never will, but that's alright. That way, he can always be the Jerry Lewis I want him to be, and the Jerry Lewis he wants himself to be, which is the Jerry he presents through his art. If you think about it, we've all met Jerry whenever we've seen his movies and read his books, and he's met us (well, don't let me speak for you: he's met me) in a way whenever he's heard audiences laugh and applaud. He is the most naturally talented clown of his generation, an inspired and visionary filmmaker who also happened to be possibly the greatest visual joke-teller of the sound era, the maker of some of the most psychologically rich and confrontational comedies ever, and also a soulful fantasist capable of dreaming up sweet little moments like his encounters with the puppets in THE ERRAND BOY -- and selling them onscreen, too. He's made some crap, but what? You and I haven't? I put him on the cover of the 100th issue of my magazine, which is no meager love letter, let me tell you.

So let me wrap this up by simply saying, "Happy birthday, Jerry, you schweet, schweet schweety-face." And, if you ever read this... don't hit!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

CANNIBAL MAN

Fifty-odd years ago, gibbering and wet,
Was birthed into this world one Stephen Bissette.

His four limbs they thrashed, his wee lungs did wail,
And when his eyes opened, all the nurses turned pale.
He spat up warm milk, wanted none of that caper,
Instead he demanded fresh crayons and paper.
Soon all the white walls in the maternity ward
Were covered in comics, obscene and untoward.

As a lad, he watched movies by the hundreds and thousands
He'd stay up past twelve for the Ray Harryhausens.
At school, his poor teachers were hostile and frantic;
They knew not what he drew -- just that it was Satanic.
His Mom and Dad fretted till blue in their faces
They threw out his ECs, but worse books took their places.
They tossed out the lot, horror comics their quarry,
Vowed young Stephen:
"Someday I'll write their history and THEN you'll be sorry!"

And so came the day, like the cat from the kitten,
That about his own comics histories were written.
There are books in the world that encompass Steve's art;
His Tyrant, Taboo, and his Tell-Tale Fart.
But today is the day that I'm rhyming about
When, all moist and gibbering, pink Stephen crept out.

So let us light all the candles and dim the lights too
And tell that big cake of his...

"We Are Going to Eat You!"


Monday, March 13, 2006

DV De Profundis Response

My Sunday sermon ("DV De Profundis") seems to have touched a nerve. It prompted a surprising volume of feedback for a Sunday, when WatchBlog attendance is usually at a weekly low. The following is just a sampling of the response, and makes for interesting reading.
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From Darren Gross:

I must say, I've just gone through all those questions myself and do regularly, as I just moved to a new apartment and the amount of stuff accumulated (mostly DVDs, VHS off-air tapes, film magazines, etc.) in 10+ years was impossible to fathom, and after 4 days of lugging back-breakingly heavy boxes across town, the idea of throwing them all in the dumpster and starting new was intoxicating and very tempting. It felt like each box, each magazine was a brick with which I was walling myself in...."I've had this tape for over 10 years and haven't watched it? So why is is here?" Once I watch some of these saved tapes they're going right in the trash. I don't want all this junk any more. Its a distraction from my daily enjoyments and kills spontaneity.

Conversely, I've always pondered the questions (especially since I spent years working in video stores until 2000, and my partner has worked at video and bookstores through to this day) is "Why do I want to turn my home into a video store or a book store? I hated being at work at those places, so why amI replicating that environment at home."

I have to feel part of it is the price and marketability of DVD. It's created a compulsion that CDs couldn't even touch, and I would like to free myself from it.
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From Wayne Schmidt:

I really enjoyed this column. It's relevant to where I'm at . . . . after much initial anguish I've been selling off titles (admittedly only a few at a time) on Amazon and other places where I won't take a bath (unlike trading them in at record stores).

My epiphany came when I moved from Los Angeles to Portland. You can't get away with the sloppy packing techniques used in moving inner city; everything has to be expertly boxed and cataloged. I'm a native Angelino and had never been through this traumatic experience before (and boy, was it ever). I now peruse my reconstituted vault which takes up one walk-in closet, making note of titles I hauled with me that are still shrinkwrapped after a number of years, titles that were "blind bought" that I didn't care for and most likely will never watch again, and the most difficult kind that you pegged perfectly with the example of CITIZEN KANE: acknowledged classics and great films that, alas, I've seen so many times probably won't revisit until Blu-ray or the next innovation on the technology ladder comes along. So why own it now?

From a collection of 800 store-boughts (not including DVD-Rs - they're cheap and don't take up much room) I could probably lose a quarter of that number and never seriously miss them. There are so many intriguing films I've never seen that revisiting these titles again seems regressive.

One of my closest friends is Glenn Erickson, whom you know. With the website reviews Glenn receives a lot of free DVDs and has a substantial library. When I lived a few miles away I'd avail myself of his "lending library" and found that quite satisfying, especially for fringe titles I wanted to see again from childhood but couldn't really remember their overall merits. Most of the time I saw no reason to buy a copy for myself after watching them. These days I use Netflix as a substitute and again, it quells the "must buy" urge quite nicely most of the time.

I've gone the "film print / VHS / Laserdisc/DVD" route, making huge investments in each. I never had any childhood traumas I could trace the collecting bug back to as you have. Lack of spending cash which forced me to pass on many mouth watering goodies is as close as it gets. But since the inception of your VW column-turned-magazine I do have you, Mr. Lucas, to blame for much of it! If you mentioned a rare or uncut variant of some title that sounded intriguing, off I'd go in search of the latest Holy grail. Many of those are the ones that won't get the chop as I prune the vault. Even so, it comforts me to know that Mr. Watchdog reflects on this obsession now and then!

I was the individual who put the announcement on DVD Maniacs about the Sony sale at DDD, but so far haven't actually ordered anything myself. Does that make me a reformed addict, now a pusher?
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From Adrian Horrocks:

You hit the proverbial nail. And Disney doesn't help - deleting titles so quick it makes me paranoid. Have you seen the price of THE LITTLE MERMAID on eBay?? And film censorship here in the UK meant we spent years grabbing stuff before it was withdrawn, recut etc.
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From Eric Yarber (who I think hits the proverbial nail with his closing sentence):

God knows both of us could probably use a 12-step program (DVDA?) when it comes to those maddeningly multiplying discs, but I think you should know that the very fact you're writing about the subject is probably a sign you're going to find a balance on the matter eventually.

One thing that affected my conditioning was that I was in the first wave of DVD buyers. I had just gotten my first job in Hollywood, and [a friend] tipped me off months in advance that this new format was going to wipe out all others. Once the discs began to trickle into stores, it seemed easy enough to keep up with everything as it was released. Sometimes I'd even pick up stuff I wasn't that keen on just to keep the momentum up. It wasn't long before such omnipresence became impossible, but the idea of keeping on top of the entire format was fixed by then. For me, ironically, it was the horrifying prospect of having to buy everything all over again in a new format that made me begin to taper off and begin wondering what I needed as opposed to what I wanted.

There's also some relief in the time you find to finally get around to those discs you bought out of mild interest and never cracked open, (not to mention all the unread books and albums I grabbed while the getting was good). There's an aspect of compulsive collecting that I think of as the "rainy day" notion, the idea that you're salting entertainment around in case you're not able to afford or find such things later. A lot of the "new" stuff that's fascinating me the most these days are discs I've had on my "to-watch" pile indefintiely. It feels like cashing in a time account that has grown to an impressive amount.

I still buy new stuff here and there, but in going over my receipts for tax purposes this weekend, I'm astonished on how much I used to spend only a year ago, and how diffuse my purchasing was. Maybe it's just a sense of beginning to realize how limited our time is in life, and how trying to hang on to everything for unlimited viewing may be a denial of that reality.
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Further response is welcome, of course -- I know that some of you are just seeing yesterday's blog today.

By the way, there's a postscript to my Deep Discount DVD Sale misadventure of yesterday. I logged on this morning to find an e-mail from DDD awaiting me, saying that my orders hadn't gone through because of some CC information I'd typed in that didn't jibe. I went into my account information and found the typo that stopped the orders. I hesitated, looking over the 27 (!) titles I had ordered. ("But six of them were free!" a whiny inner voice protests.) This was exactly the opportunity my blog had been begging for, was it not? A chance to reconsider my purchase!

So reconsider I did, long and hard...

They should all be here within 5-10 days.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

DV De Profundis

Over the weekend, I was alerted by a couple of movie board threads to a $5.98 DVD sale going on over at Deep Discount DVD. I followed the links, signed up, and spent a bit of money... Then I saw references to an MGM "Buy 2 Get 1 Free Sale," so I poked around a bit further and -- after several attempts to get my shopping cart organized (damn, DDD is a hard site to navigate!) -- I spent at least twice as much again. In the end, as I surveyed the damages, I noted that maybe half of what I ordered I already own in some form or other: VHS pre-record, off-air recording, laserdisc. This is what letterboxing and anamorphic transfers will do to you, once you develop a taste for them.

Besides acknowledging in the back of my mind that I'm essentially paying through the nose (even at sale prices) for titles that weren't done definitively the first time around, I found myself wondering, "What am I buying all this for?" I'm already well over my head as regards things to watch, even in things that need to be watched within the next few weeks. So why do I spend so much money on titles that I know will be put into bankers' boxes to sit around unwatched for an indefinite period?

The title of a documentary about Martin Scorsese once asked the question, "All this filming -- is it healthy?" Maybe not, but at least filming is an activity and a potentially lucrative one. Certainly a lucrative one for Mr. Scorsese. So let me top that question with a more pertinent one: All this watching -- is it healthy? Unless you do your watching on a treadmill, or unless you already spend most of your waking hours on a real or figurative treadmill, probably not.

But what I'm really pondering here is not so much the watching (because who watches everything they buy on DVD?), but rather the compulsive collecting aspect. I have a lot of DVDs, and probably you do, too. And few of us have our collections because we work so hard that we have a loads of leisure time coming to us. I have a valid reason to be acquiring all these titles, because it's the business I'm in; as a video magazine publisher/editor, it's good to have an archive... but I know in my heart of hearts that's not what it's all about.

When I was six or seven years old, my mother married a man who, a week or two into their short-lived marriage, sold every toy and comic book I owned in a yard sale and used the money to get drunk. When I was sixteen years old, I made the decision to leave home and, for various reasons, I could take with me only what I could carry. Aside from clothes and other essentials I could fit into two suitcases, I had to leave all my belongings behind -- my FAMOUS MONSTERS collection, my movie posters, and some complete runs of numerous Marvel Comics titles, not to mention family photos. So, twice in my early life, I suffered the loss of everything I ever owned. Once it was taken from me, the other time I had to marshal the strength to walk away from it all voluntarily. I don't need a psychiatrist to tell me that therein lies a good deal of my compulsion to have and to hoard from this day forward.

I suspect that all of us who are compulsive DVD collectors are working through feelings we grew up with, and not necessarily ones allied to personal circumstances such as I've described. For example, there's this persistent worry that we need to grab these movies while they're available, because who knows when (or if) they'll turn up again? That worry goes all the way back to the 1950s for some of us. To a degree, it remains a reasonable argument because there are many foreign titles, for example, that turn up once on DVD and seldom if ever appear on cable and never on commercial television. Having them is a way of ensuring that these titles will be available when we, or someone close to us, needs to see them again. But considering that, say, CITIZEN KANE is now frequently shown on TCM and other stations completely uncut and commercial-free, that it's easily found on disc in video stores for rental, why do so many of us need to own it? If you stop to think about it, the only valid answer to this question is that, someday, at some ungodly late hour of the night or early hour of the morning, we might feel the need to see CITIZEN KANE right now. I guess that's the impulse that all DVD collecting boils down to: we want these titles in reserve for the time that might come when we'll need to see them right now.

And the sad truth is, no matter how many times we buy it, none of us really owns CITIZEN KANE -- or anything else we have on DVD. We'll all be buying it again on Blu-Ray, and whatever other newfangled format(s) should follow in our lifetimes. Because, no matter how many times we've bought CITIZEN KANE, technology will be forever dreaming up new ways in which we've never seen it.

Hey gang, it gets even more pathetic. If a miraculous new service were offered to all cable subscribers tomorrow, allowing us to watch any movie (and I mean any movie, in any language, in its correct OAR) by request for a reasonable fee, and if this service was secure and guaranteed to remain available for the rest of our lives, how many of us could bear to part with our collections? In fact, let's up the ante: since this is just a daydream, what if the service was free for the asking? How many of us could bear to "have" only what we could watch at a given time?

This, I think, is a profound question. Because the root of DVD addiction is that, through the act of regularly buying these discs, we have trained ourselves (or been trained) to feel that we must own everything we watch. If we don't own it as we watch it, we feel resentful -- don't we? -- as though we're not getting our full money's worth. I believe this is one of many reasons why theater attendance is falling off, and perhaps the only psychological one. Is there a soul alive that doesn't run a tape or burn a disc while watching the latest offering on Pay Per View?

I'm the last guy who would willingly surrender his DVD collection, but as I continue along this strange path of acquisitiveness in life, I do sometimes think of what's in my attic, still in shrink-wrap, and calculate how many trips to Europe, how many adventures, I might have had instead.

I've seen CITIZEN KANE at least 20 times.

I've never been to Europe.