Monday, May 08, 2006

A New Chapter

I haven't written here in a few days and I don't really feel like posting today either, but I wanted people to know what's going on with me.

Last Friday, a good friend of ours, Wayne Perry, died in his sleep at the age of 54. That link will lead you to a spendid memorial article that appeared in THE CINCINNATI POST, for which he worked as a features editor, and it will tell you how loved and respected he was as a man and as a newspaperman. Donna and I met Wayne through his wife Jan, a POST columnist whom we've known for about twelve years, ever since she worked the late shift at a local service bureau we used to employ. Though Donna and I are both native Cincinnatians, we know fairly few local people and socialize with even fewer. Wayne and Jan were one of only two couples whom we regularly see; they would occasionally invite us to join them for dinner when they were assigned to do restaurant reviews for the paper. Consequently, nearly every single one of our favorite restaurants in town was first experienced in their warm and chatty company.

When Jan called to tell us that Wayne had died -- according to the coroner, of an advanced yet undiagnosed heart disease -- we felt shaken... then grieving and very, very sorrowful for Jan... and then we became very fatigued and very scared. As the mental shock faded on Saturday, we began to feel bodily injured by the news. Donna said she felt like she had been punched in the stomach; I felt like I had been punched in the chest. We found it hard to do much else other than to sit and stare, reminisce, or nap to recharge our batteries.

Counting up all the times we'd actually met and spent time with Wayne, we were surprised to realize it was maybe only ten or twelve times at most, but all of our get-togethers had been undertaken in the spirit of enjoying good food, good company, and good conversation. But above all, the impact of Wayne's death had most to do with the fact that he and Jan reminded us very much of ourselves. They were writers and collectors who lived in a big, rambling old turn-of-the-century house, who worked together, who had a great many friends but not much time to share with them, who worked too hard. Wayne was an easy-going guy with a wonderfully dour sense of humor, but he often seemed frazzled by the responsibilities of his job.

Our emotions exhausted us, but as Saturday wore on, we felt the need to take some kind of action. Donna realized that she hadn't put anything in place to help me make sense of her duties and our financial obligations, if she were to predecease me, so she embarked on writing a computer program that would answer any questions I might have. We also talked about material possessions and what burdens they can be to survivors in events such as this, so I took to the attic and embraced the physical therapy of clearing out some of my unnecessary videotape accumulation -- the duplicates and redundancies and the no-longer-relevant-or-interesting detritus of my collection. I only went through a portion of my VHS tapes, but by Sunday at dusk, I had discarded something in the neighborhood of 400 tapes. I just put them on the curb and the garbage truck took them away this morning.

This pro-active therapy was good for us and Donna and I are starting to rebound from the shock. It's now Monday and time to continue working on the Bava book. Donna will need to consult me about this, so I have to remain "on call" to answer questions and offer suggestions, but I also want to use my time more valuably, which means spending less time in this chair. I've decided to withdraw as an active participant from the online boards it's been my habit to frequent over the last 10 or 11 years. I value the friendships I've made through these boards, but there has also been a fair amount to stress attached. All told, there have been too many days when I've spent hours responding to other people's passing curiosity, wasting time creatively, and even defending my own honor. None of these things seems a valid priority at present. Meanwhile, my office has been a wreck since January and it's about time I did something to make my work environment more welcoming; that I could endure this clutter for so long, I think, says something about the degree to which I have been inhabiting my own reality. I need to embrace life for awhile, even in its drudgery. I've also discovered that I enjoy writing fiction in longhand while sitting on the swing in our backyard, and something may come out of that.

In short, Wayne's death has been a wake-up call of sorts. I am going to be turning 50 at the end of this month, so perhaps this is my mid-life crisis, but I'm now more aware that there are things I have to do... things that Donna may have to do if I don't do them... things I want to do with my life... things I want to achieve... things that don't involve sitting here and filling my time at this keyboard... things I may not have the energy or the opportunity to do, if I keep putting them off. This isn't the end of Video WatchBlog, but I expect it is the end of what some might consider my online over-exposure.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Cinco de Mayo with Princess Asa

A couple of nights ago, I decided for no particular reason to treat myself to a spontaneous little "Barbara Steele on Television" film festival. Thanks to a couple of proverbial tapes from the attic, I was able to watch her early guest appearances in JAMES A. MICHENER'S ADVENTURES IN PARADISE ("Daughter of Illusion" -- Season 2, Episode 10, first aired December 10, 1960) and ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS ("Beta Delta Gamma" -- Season 7, Episode 6, first aired November 14, 1961).
While the HITCHCOCK appearance actually followed Steele's role in BLACK SUNDAY and coincided with her return to Los Angeles to appear in Roger Corman's PIT AND THE PENDULUM, the ADVENTURES IN PARADISE (a prophecy in that acronym: AIP) episode was the only thing ever released from her short-lived, "blonde" phase at 20th Century Fox. Here, she plays "the delectable Dolores," the daughter of a magician (Alan Napier) who is smuggling diamonds out of a South Pacific island sewn onto the costume of second assistant Sondi Sondsai in place of the customary rhinestones. I hadn't seen an episode of this show since childhood and had only vague recollections of it, but this one was charming, with fine work by all, and Steele -- speaking in her own voice, of course -- is quite natural, at ease, and good humored in it. I always found her blonde publicity poses ludicrous, the lighter hair color so ill-suited to her face, but onscreen, smiling and in motion, she's a fairly convincing blonde. But I still don't think I would have bought her in blue jeans opposite Elvis Presley in FLAMING STAR.

Barbara shares a laugh with ADVENTURES IN PARADISE co-star Alan Napier.

My memory of the HITCHCOCK episode, which I hadn't seen since I originally recorded it off of Nick at Nite (where it was much ballyhooed as being shown "uncut," but shown without the famous Hitchcock profile intermission card), was that Steele scarcely appeared in it, but it's actually a prominent supporting role with quite a bit of dialogue. She seems miscast as one of a group of California college kids -- maybe she was cast from one of those blonde Fox publicity pics. There is no explanation for her age, her accent, or her obvious sophistication, but she plays one of an ensemble who pull the prank of convincing a fellow party attendant (bombed on beer) that he committed a murder while intoxicated, only to have the joke backfire on them. What's odd about the episode is that it's the fresher-faced kids who hatch the plan, quietly goaded on by a bearded but otherwise baby-faced Severn Darden (with an unrecognizable Barbara Harris, future star of FAMILY PLOT, as his girlfriend -- buried under a wig and behind dark glasses), while Steele, introduced doing a slinky cha-cha to the music on a record player, is mostly a dissenting voice of conscience. I suppose that director Alan Crosland Jr. was playing against type, but it is she who ultimately places the "murder" weapon in the hand of the passed-out, hapless hero, top-lined Burt Brinckerhoff.

As a slinky college prankster in ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS' "Beta Delta Gamma."

This little mini-festival of mine tweaked my curiosity, so I turned to the IMDb to see what other early TV Steele might have done. I knew about the SECRET AGENT and I SPY gigs, but I was very surprised to find a listing for a 1961 BONANZA episode called "The Tin Badge." This has got to be one of those IMDb mix-ups; not just because I can't imagine Barbara Steele and Dan Blocker inhabiting the same cinematic universe, but because the IMDb cast list shows two actresses in the role of "Sylvia Ann" -- Barbara Steele and Karen Steele. That's too much Steele for a "Tin Badge." I vote for Karen as the Steele most likely to have visited the Ponderosa.

Speaking of Barbara's TV appearances, does anyone out there have a copy of THE SPACE-WATCH MURDERS, a made-for-television film from the 1970s that features a brief appearance by Barbara as a green-faced alien? That's something I'd love to find.

Rounding out this Cinco de Mayo look back at "Barbara Steele on Television": You may remember that, many blogs ago, I mentioned my surprise discovery of Barbara in a 1960s music video by an Italian artist named Gianni Pieretti. I couldn't provide grabs from the video at that time, but now, here at long last, are a few frame grabs from "Julie Julie." It's just a silly little time capsule, but whoever was responsible for hiring her that morning or afternoon, I think they just might have lucked out and caught The Queen of Horror on the day, hour, and moment when her unusual beauty was at its zenith. This fellow Pieretti just enters frame and flops down beside her on the couch, lip-synching. No wonder Barbara spends the next few minutes looking either cross, bored, or bemused. But regardless of how she's looking, she looks absolutely enchanting.

"You mean I'm just supposed to sit here? What if Federico calls?"

Adesso fingere lei è vampiro, Barbara! ! Molto brava!

Guardare la sua faccia... Lei mai ha visto che niente l'ami?

Ahhhh... semplicemente fantastico.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Add These to Your Datebook

TONIGHT: At 7:30 p.m. eastern time, Turner Classic Movies' Festival of Shorts offers a pair of rarely-seen two-reel shorts directed for MGM by Jacques Tourneur: "Killer-Dog" and "The Jonker Diamond." Both produced in 1936, these were among the first films Tourneur made in this country after leaving France; in fact, "The Jonker Diamond" was the first. Fans of Tourneur's work in the Val Lewton series and elsewhere won't want to miss these early demonstrations of his taste, skill and directorial economy. In case I am not giving you sufficient notice, TCM is running these again at 5:30 a.m. eastern, very early next Tuesday morning, May 9. (TCM's online schedule designates this as their last offering of the day on Monday, May 8, but everything after midnight is the next day, according to the way I was brought up.)

THIS WEEKEND: Those of you who live in the Los Angeles area and are looking for something to do this weekend should saunter over to Drkrm. Gallery (2121 North San Fernando Road, Suite 3, Los Angeles, 90065) for the opening of VW contributor David Del Valle's photographic exhibit, "Haunted Hacienda." No, David didn't go to Mexico with a camera... this exhibition -- in session from May 5 to June 3 -- celebrates the mise en scène of the Mexican horror cinema through rare stills from the Del Valle Archives. For more information, about the exhibit and about David himself, visit http://fanbase1.com/killgraphic/gallery/galleryindex.html

VIDEO WATCHDOG #125 should be reaching subscribers by now, and we look forward to hearing some feedback.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

What We Have In Mind is Breakfast in Bed for 200,000

Earlier today, Video WatchBlog topped 200,000 hits. It's a good excuse for me to thank you all, once again, for your regular attendance and giving me audience and reason to write some things out of my system that might not otherwise get written.

I spent today writing my next SIGHT AND SOUND "No Zone" column, which is about Pola Rapoport's WRITER OF O, a documentary about STORY OF O's pseudonymous author Pauline Réage, who after several decades revealed herself to be Dominique Aury, an editor at Editions Gallimard. Without previewing my column too much, this is one of the most extraordinary and moving films about writing and love of literature that I've seen. It streets next week, and I recommend it to all of you, hand on heart. It's not just a documentary; it also includes dramatic stagings of scenes from STORY OF O (superior, I feel, to the 1975 Just Jaeckin film) and the essay "A Girl in Love," and dramatic recreations of events that actually happened -- and it all flows together beautifully, without seeming in the least indecisive about what kind of film it wants to be.

WRITER OF O's depiction of Madame Réage's writing habits left me feeling as though I have disgraced my craft by not writing more often in longhand. Before the computer age, I used to write in longhand a great deal -- in a personal journal, and also fiction that I wrote on index cards that I subsequently stacked in order and held together with rubber bands. I got my first PC in 1985, and it was paid for with money I received for agreeing to write four volumes and edit all twelve of VIDEO TIMES' "Your Movie Guide" paperback series, which Signet Books later published. Since that time, except for signing books and the monthly checks I send to my debtors, I've basically stopped writing in longhand and do all my writing the way I am writing these words now.

There was one exception: a lone piece of fiction that I wrote in my attic on a legal pad in a sudden burst of inspiration. After watching WRITER OF O, I was inspired to search for it. I found it copied into my computer and dated exactly ten years and one week ago. As I read through its eight pages, the material felt exciting to me and I am thinking of returning to it, extending it into either a novella or novel, and writing the whole thing by hand -- organically. The way artists paint. The way musicians play their instruments.

Oddly enough, my second novel THE BOOK OF RENFIELD was written in a similar way, with the opening chapter written (if memory serves) eight years before the rest of the book. I've been thinking lately that the best way to write is to write fast, to give one's writing the benefit of absorbing one's subconscious, which naturally dissipates the more an author consciously thinks about what he/she is writing, over time. The screenplay I wrote with Charlie Largent, THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES, was written this way and, while some layerings of the material were constructed deliberately, the script also contains a wealth of subtext that entered into the project because it wasn't belabored and thus made too "conscious," and also because we knew our subject well enough that we didn't have to think too much before we wrote each new page. Vladimir Nabokov once wrote that LOLITA was his favorite novel, but that INVITATION TO A BEHEADING (one of my favorites) was the one for which he had the most respect because it came to him in an instant and was completed nearly as fast. Thanks to my collaboration with Charlie, I know how that feels.

To create something new and add it your shelf -- to your self as a broadening achievement -- is one of the best feelings in the world, and I really, really, really want to get back there.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Gidget Goes to Cinecittà

While taking advantage of a recent Deep Disc Discount "Buy So Many, Get One Free" sale, I decided to add Columbia's THE COMPLETE GIDGET COLLECTION to my shopping cart, even though none of the transfers were letterboxed or anamorphic. It was a matter of education for me; I know the BEACH PARTY movies very well, know the various knock-offs (BEACH BALL, THE GIRLS ON THE BEACH, OUT OF SIGHT, etc) pretty well, but I've always been a little weak on the GIDGET series -- GIDGET (1959), GIDGET GOES HAWAIIAN (1961) and GIDGET GOES TO ROME (1963). They started out of the gate a little before my theater-going time, and I didn't warm to the sequels as a kid.

Now, with my memory of all three films duly refreshed, I can see that the GIDGET series was somewhat weak on itself. For some reason, the lead role was one that aspiring young actresses apparently couldn't wait to get away from. A different girl plays Frances "Gidget" Lawrence in all three films, and (I guess appropriately) different actors play her parents in all three, as well. (The mother in the second film, the curiously named Jeff Donnell, plays the same role in the third, opposite a different husband, swapping out bossy Carl Reiner for mellow Don Porter, who would play Gidget's widowed father on the later ABC-TV series starring Sally Field.) Only James Darren as Jeffrey "Moondoggie" Matthews remains constant... on the cast list, anyway; his character's heart is all over the place, and he's seldom written to be much more than handsome, superficial and dedicated to playing the field. We never really learn what makes Moondoggie tick, or what bonds Gidget to him so readily and tenaciously. Darren tries to give the character a depth that isn't really there by smoking and brooding. He also sings the theme songs for all three films. The entire trilogy, if we can use that word for movies like this, were directed by Paul Wendkos, a director who worked predominantly in series television and is probably best remembered today for THE MEPHISTO WALTZ (1971).

GIDGET is by far the best of the three films. It's the ebullient story of a young girl's determination to become part of the beach/surf culture that attracts her -- but the movie also has interesting subtexts concerning the lingering aftermath of WWII on surviving soldiers and the burgeoning spirit of feminism. Sandra Dee gives an endearingly stubborn and spirited performance, but the movie is stolen by Cliff Robertson -- brown as a blue-eyed tobacco leaf -- giving a gritty portrayal as an enigmatic, self-described "beach bum" known as "The Big Kahuna." The nickname has become a cliché over the years, but Robertson's performance is not. Tom Laughlin and Doug McClure are recognizable among the surfers, and Yvonne Craig (not as formidably sexy as she would be in THE GENE KRUPA STORY, but always worth seeing in a bikini) and 13 GHOSTS' Jo Morrow are among Gidget's friends. Watching the movie actually stoked my interest in reading the book on which it's based, a memoir by Kathy Kohner Zuckerman (the real "Gidget," whose nickname was a contraction of "girl midget") and her screenwriter father Frederick Kohner (who wrote 1944's THE LADY AND THE MONSTER).

GIDGET GOES HAWAIIAN may have the most famous title of the three films, but it's the broadest, campiest, and (for me) least enjoyable of the series. Too bad, because I think Deborah Walley, of the three Gidget actresses showcased here, inhabits the role most comfortably; I always liked the shadings she brought to Les, her female drummer character in the Elvis vehicle SPINOUT, and it would have been nice to see what she could have done with Gidget story with more adult (or adult-ish) shadings, such as the first one had. When this sequel tries to get adult, it gets unpleasantly snarky or sappy; the primary "situation" of this "situation comedy" results when Gidget's overly romantic, overly dramatic nature gives another girl the impression that she's no longer a virgin, which leads to gossip and a spoiled reputation. As vacations go, this is a bad one, and it's made no more pleasant by Carl Reiner's loud and unlikeable Mr. Lawrence, a far cry from Arthur O'Connell in the original, who had his apoplectic moments but was kindly and a bit dithering even when he was laying down the law. It's easy to understand why the sequel's Mrs. Lawrence drinks a bit more than the first one did.

As a Eurocultist, I was especially interested to see GIDGET GOES TO ROME, which was made in the Eternal City at the very height of not only the Golden Age of Italian Fantasy, but of "la dolce vita" as well. Here, Cindy Carol (real name: Carol Sydes) -- the worst Gidget of all -- convinces her parents to grant her adult independence by allowing her to join a mixed group of friends on a trip to Rome. As would also occur in another Elvis vehicle, GIRL HAPPY, the following year, Gidget's father arranges for a "respectable" male acquaintence (Cesare Danova in this case) to look after his young daughter without her knowing she's under adult supervision, and the close attention results in an unintentional romantic bond. Meanwhile, Jeffrey falls for the party's Italian tour guide, Danielle De Metz -- who is actually French. The movie becomes a HERCULES UNCHAINED-style study in infidelities of the heart, and without a single scene that takes place at the beach, it seems to be a Gidget film in name only. The filmmakers are very aware of a certain side of Italian cinema, making self-conscious references to LA DOLCE VITA (a romp through the Trevi Fountain and a crazy party that verbally references the movie) and throwing in a Biblical peplum daydream sequence for good measure, and Cindy Carol's moony, swoony Gidget is a bit like the character played by Leticia Roman in Bava's THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH; her imagination is an ashtray that's collected the butts of all the foreign films she's read about in movie magazines but has never seen. Nevertheless, I was pleased and surprised to have the pain of an otherwise hard-to-endure movie eased by a veritable parade of beloved faces and locations from the annals of Italian genre fare. For instance (and feel free to CLICK on these images to enlarge them)...

Gidget's debonair hotel manager is played by Claudio Gori, later the police chief in DANGER: DIABOLIK.

Cesare Danova's wife (sorry, Gidge... he's married!) is played by the lovely Lisa Gastoni, who, under the name "Jane Fate," appeared in a couple of Antonio Margheriti space operas, including the legendary WILD, WILD PLANET.

The Maitre 'D at the restaurant where Cesare Danova introduces Gidget to the pleasures of Italian bitter aperitifs is played by Umberto Raho, who starred the same year in Riccardo Freda's THE GHOST. He would later be featured in Dario Argento's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE.

Later in the film, while snooping around backstage at a fashion show, Gidget is mistaken for a model, stripped and redressed by a flurry of dressers. To my astonishment, one of the model dressers (on the right) was none other than my dear, late and much-missed friend Harriet White Medin, familiar from her performances in PAISAN, LA DOLCE VITA, BLACK SABBATH, THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK, THE WHIP AND THE BODY and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. This appearance was completely unknown to me, and it's not included in her IMDb filmography!

As an added kick, James Darren is shown at the end of this sequence brooding and smoking on the lip of the runway, which was evidently the same interior location used for Christiane Haute Couture in Bava's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, filmed toward the end of the same year. (Albeit with red curtains, of course.)

Finally, when Gidget and Jeffrey (there's really no reason to call him "Moondoggie" in such a landlocked scenario) seek sanctuary at the American Embassy, there is an appearance by Jim Dolen -- an actor with close-cropped white hair whom you may remember as an undercover cop in THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBERG -- as an embassy spokesman. And the guard standing a couple of shoulders to his right is none other than Gustavo de Nardo, the actor with whom Mario Bava worked more than any other. He appears in THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, BLACK SABBATH (opposite Harriet Medin), THE WHIP AND THE BODY (ditto), BARON BLOOD and RABID DOGS, but almost never accepted screen credit. When Jim Dolen speaks in this movie, perhaps for the only time in his screen career with direct sound recording, I recognized a voice I've known all my life from dubbed movies filmed in Rome. (I've tried in vain to upload the frame grab I took from this sequence, but it refuses to cooperate, so please refer to your own disc or, failing that, your imagination.)

THE COMPLETE GIDGET COLLECTION turned out to be more worthwhile than I expected, transfer-wise, because, of the three films, only the first is really and truly "modified to fit your screen." It's a 2.35:1 film cropped and panned and scanned to give you only half of every single composition -- apart from the opening credits, of course. It deserves to be remastered in anamorphic widescreen. The other two films were shot open aperture and shown theatrically with a soft projection matte; both of these can be zoomed up on a widescreen monitor and look pretty nice.

So. When all is said and done, who was the best Gidget?

No contest, ladies and gentlemen: Sally Field. I don't know how well the series stands up as a whole, but the concept seemed to find its true footing once it became a half-hour situation comedy, and I remember Field's Gidget as likeable and endearing. She knew how to play all of the character's eccentricities in a way that made her seem interesting and upbeat and kooky rather than merely fanciful and meddling, and she was also a deft physical comedienne. I was on the point of asking "Where's the box set?" when I checked Amazon.com and found that one was actually released by Sony last month.

Surf's up, Watchdoggie!

Sunday, April 30, 2006

One Of My Favorite eBay Winnings

This treasure needs no annotation. Just enjoy.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Sorrow and Sympathy

While paying my usual daily visit to those few blogs I consider part of my own fraternity yesterday, I was mortified to visit Matt Zoller Seitz's The House Next Door and discover a replacement host informing the regulars that Matt's wife Jennifer had passed away suddenly on Thursday evening at the age of 35. She was upstairs using the computer to plan an upcoming vacation, while their two children, aged 8 and 2, played downstairs. The eight year-old went upstairs to ask her mother a question and found her lying on the floor, unresponsive; an uncle was summoned to revive her and explain to the children what had happened, and the truth was kept from Matt till he could get from his office to the hospital. At present, no cause is known.

As a happily married man, wedded young, whose significant other is not only his wife but his business partner, someone on whom I rely each and every day, I can't imagine much worse than this. I don't know Matt except through his blog, and also through his fine independent film HOME (which Jennifer co-produced), and I feel shaken to know that someone for whom I have such respect and feel such kinship -- we even use the same blogging system -- must now live through this reality. If any of you know Matt or visit his blog irregularly, you can use the link above to read more about Jennifer, the family's preferred way of making a donation in her memory, and also leave a note of sympathy and support.

As for me, I want to spend more time off this computer and in the company of my wife this weekend. The last copies of the new issue are being shipped out today, we are having dinner with Donna's mother tonight, and we resume work on the Mario Bava book on Monday -- with a renewed sense of purpose and a renewed appreciation of the preciousness of time.

Friday, April 28, 2006

The Diabolic One, Oh Oh!

Today marks the centenary of the birth of Pierre Boileau, the elder half of the Boileau-Narcejac writing team. Their internationally famous partnership of the pen was the subject of this marvelously gruesome editorial cartoon (Boileau is the one impaled on the right), which I found on a Russian website; I couldn't find out anything about it, not even the artist's name. As this is one centenary even more likely to be overlooked in our day and age than that of Samuel Beckett (which was in fact commemorated with festivities in Ireland and also here by the Sundance Film Channel, which has been presenting various "Beckett on Film" programs this month), I hope you'll join me in remembering M. Boileau today and, by association, his friend and writing partner. Even if you don't recognize their names, it is virtually guaranteed that you've enjoyed their work.

Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (real name: Pierre Robert Ayraud) began writing separately and were admirers of each other's books, in which they recognized common interests and diverse approaches. They joined forces in 1951, proposing a new form of mystery fiction that attended not the killer (as in the whodunit), nor the investigator (as in police procedurals), but the victim. Once they began to collaborate, Boileau-Narcejac became one of the great phenomenons of European mystery fiction. Their prose was lean and dialogue-driven, which made it naturally adaptable to the screen. Indeed, their work seeded and brought to bloom some of the finest thrillers ever to grace the screen: Henri-Georges Clouzot's LES DIABOLIQUES (based on their novel CELLE QUI N'ÉTAIT PLUS, translated into English as THE WOMAN WHO WAS NO MORE), Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO (based on their novel D'ENTRES LES MORTS, translated as THE LIVING AND THE DEAD), and two directed by Georges Franju, LES YEUX SANS VISAGE (aka EYES WITHOUT A FACE, which they adapted from a novel by Jean Redon) and the original PLEINS FEUX SUR L'ASSASSIN. One of their 1960s novels, translated as CHOICE CUTS, was later the basis for the 1991 thriller BODY PARTS. All told, Boileau-Narcejac receive screen credit on some 40 different films.

In addition to writing thrillers for adults, they also published many mysteries for youngsters and were also responsible for the continuation of two famous "orphaned" characters, Maurice Leblanc's "gentleman burglar" Arsène Lupin and Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret. In this sense, the Boileau-Narcejac partnership was also post-modernist -- professional mystery fiction written by fans of the genre capable of impersonating earlier literary voices to perfection. Boileau died in 1989, some nine years before his partner. The Criterion DVD of EYES WITHOUT A FACE includes a most enjoyable interview with the two gentlemen, filmed for French television in the 1970s.

English-speaking bibliophiles who aspire to read and/or collect Boileau-Narcejac have a tough row to hoe, and I speak from experience. Dozens of their books remain in print... alas, nearly all of it in French and German. Only a portion of their output has been translated into English at all, and some of that portion appeared only in Great Britain; consequently, what exists is highly collectable. THE LIVING AND THE DEAD was reprinted under the title VERTIGO by the British Film Institute some years ago, but if it should whet your appetite for more, Heaven help you. ABE Books shows that used first editions of their most famous novels in translation are priced in the hundreds, even the thousands.

In VIDEO WATCHDOG #40, I published an article based on my long-overdue reading of THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, in which I compared Boileau-Narcejac's now-obscure novel to the Hitchcock film prized by many as the Master's best. If I had to pick a list of my 10 favorite articles I've written for VW, I might well include it; it's one of the VW pieces I'm proudest of writing, if only because articles comparing novels to films are so much less common than articles comparing different versions of films, and also because there is so little information available in English about this great literary partnership. This issue is still in print, for those of you who missed it -- and now you can even read the novel yourself, which wasn't so easy at the time the article was first published.

Maîtres de mystère, je bois à votre mémoire!

Thursday, April 27, 2006

VIDEO WATCHDOG 125 Is In The House

The new issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG was delivered to our door this afternoon and the mailing process is now getting underway. Since we posted the particulars about this "Coming Soon" issue on our website, the cover has generated an unusual amount of pre-release interest and advance orders. It would seem that new customers have been attracted by the KONG coverage, but also, every title mentioned on the cover is a big, multi-million-dollar production with a high recognizability factor -- which I suppose isn't always the case with the stuff on our covers. Why the sudden commercial stance? Well, even though VW has continued to reach newsstands on a strict bimonthly schedule, for Donna, our Kennel contributors, and me, VW was the first issue we had produced in about four months. It was the first time in 15 years that so much time had transpired between issues, or at least between bouts of active magazine production, so I was frankly a little nervous about returning to bat. I felt the occasion required everyone to pull together and put the best foot forward.

I am so proud of our contributors. They really outdid themselves, providing Donna and me with enough reviews to fill the greater part of not one, not two, but three issues. God bless them every one: As I sat down to edit their material, I found that their submissions collectively pooled into 104 single-spaced pages of criticism... but editing the work turned out to be pure pleasure because the time off had energized everyone; everyone was writing at the top of their form. As I read through the submissions, I noticed that some reviews mysteriously dovetailed with other, unrelated reviews, either topically or thematically, which made it fairly easy to organize everything into three distinct issues. But, for this first issue of the three (as I mention in my "Watchdog Barks" editorial), my goal was specific. I wanted to start out by picking "the biggest, reddest apples in the orchard."

Beyond the blockbuster titles listed on the front cover, VW 125 also reviews such releases as KING KONG - PETER JACKSON'S PRODUCTION DIARIES, THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN - THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON, SON OF KONG, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, ALONE IN THE DARK (1982), HOUSE OF WAX (2005), KONGA, FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON, Bruce Campbell's MAN WITH THE SCREAMING BRAIN, Jess Franco's NIGHT OF THE SKULL, and much else of interest. Furthermore, our LAND OF THE DEAD Round Table Discussion (14 pages!) is complemented with a review of the direct-to-video DAY OF THE DEAD 2: CONTAGION; we've got Ramsey Campbell on The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society's THE CALL OF CTHULHU; and "Biblio Watchdog" features an expanded, more detailed draft of my WatchBlog review of THE FAMOUS MONSTER MOVIE ART OF BASIL GOGOS. Even Doug Winter's "Audio Watchdog" covers only monster-related soundtracks, this time around.

For a free sampling of the issue, visit our website at the link near the top of this page, click on "Coming Soon" and click on the KONG cover. This will bring up pdfs of two different page spreads from the issue -- four pages you're free to enlarge and peruse to your heart's content. The issue can also be ordered from that page.

All in all, I think it's one of our best issues, and I hope you will all add it to your collections. And for you KING KONG buffs, the KONG saga will continue in VIDEO WATCHDOG 126, with two major contributions by Yours Truly -- a "DVD Spotlight" review of the Peter Jackson film, and a feature article about Edgar Wallace and his oft-overlooked role in the genesis of the 1933 classic. I'm especially pleased with the latter, which I believe adds something conspicuously new to the annals of KONG research. You may never look at Kong in quite the same way again.

In the meantime... First Class subscribers should find VIDEO WATCHDOG 125 in their mailboxes sometime next week. Enjoy!

PS: Please note that my review of DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE of a few days ago has been amended to include a postscript with US release information shared by reader Tom Schumaker. Danke schoen!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE reviewed

THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE
Le conseguenze dell'amore
2004, Articifial Eye (UK, Region 2) and Medusa (Italy, Region 2), 100 minutes

It has been a very long time since I've seen an Italian film, a purely Italian film, that didn't look like it was produced for television. This is the initial gratification of writer-director Paolo Sorrentino's THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE -- there is an immediate sense of confidence and craft and style, and an attention to minutiae, that warrants a big screen presentation -- but its gratifications are continuous and diverse.

Though it's an Italian film about Italian characters, it takes place in an unnamed city in Switzerland (we presume Geneva) where a 50 year-old gentleman of apparently Northern Italian origin (placid, unemotional) has occupied the same seat in a hotel bar for the last eight years. This enigmatic fellow with the poker face, we learn through his interior monologue narration, is named Titta Di Girolamo (Toni Servillo), but we quickly learn more about him through our own observations than from his confessions -- looking through a hotel window, he sees a man distracted by a beautiful woman walk straight into a lamppost, and doesn't laugh; while riding an escalator, he passes a beautiful woman going up while he is going down, and he doesn't turn to answer her gaze. Nor does he respond when Sofia (Olivia Magnani), the attractive 20ish hotel barmaid, bids him goodnight at the end of the days they silently share. Instead, he sits in his customary seat, day after day, and jots a memo to himself in a pad that he carries: "Things to remember in the future: The Consequences of Love." (A telephone call reveals that Titta is an estranged husband and father of three children, none of whom care for him... but these aren't the consequences alluded to in his note-to-self.) Another clue is dealt when Titta notes that, every Wednesday morning at precisely 10:00 a.m. for the last 24 years, he has injected himself with heroin -- and only then. Thus we understand that this is a man who has taught himself to live in absolute mastery of his feelings, his emotions and weaknesses -- and become detached from all human feeling and ties in the process.

For all its outward stillness (even the opening shot depicts a stationary hotel porter being brought into closeup by a moving sidewalk), Sorrentino's film is a thriller in the best sense. Here, it is the mysteries of character that hold us in thrall. It's also a mob picture, as Titta's reticence is explained eventually by the fact that he is affiliated with the Mafia, for whom he performs a regular task for which a poker face sometimes comes in handily. But Sofia is angered by the refusal of that poker face to acknowledge her, and one day, when Titta doesn't reply to her goodnight, she gives him a piece of her very Roman mind. The next morning, Titta sits at the bar and tells Sofia that his change of seat may well be the most dangerous thing he's ever done in his life. This seemingly melodramatic remark turns out to be a most realistic and knowing comment.

Marked with deliberate but always surprising and very dry humor, THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE is a skillful construction in all departments, but is a most obvious showcase for Toni Servillo's remarkable, absorbing performance, which makes Titta one of the most memorable screen characters of recent years. Given his general look and outward passivity, it's hard not to think of Peter Sellers in BEING THERE, but Titta's passivity is icy and vigilant, steeped in the calm of an ever present danger. He's not a cipher, he's trying to blend in with the wallpaper. Olivia Magnani's playful, sensual warmth makes her an excellent foil for him, her bright eyes jewelling from a tawny complexion, as does Adriano Giannini (the son of Giancarlo Giannini), who appears briefly as Titta's exuberant younger brother -- a surfing instructor, of all things, who manages to accomplish in a single day what Titta's self-control hasn't permitted him to do in eight increasingly desirous years.

It's become a cliché to refer to the 1970s as a time of unparalleled creativity and achievement in international cinema, but THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE would have fit in well as a product of that period. Yet it is unmistakably contemporary in its look (kudos to director of photography Luca Bigazzi), its tasteful and often exciting techno scoring, and the enjoyably rhythmic feel of Giorgio Franchini's editing. Born in 1970, Paolo Sorrentino is more than just a promising writer-director; he's already delivering the goods. This, his fourth feature, gives one encouragement to think that the Silver Age of Italian Cinema could happen again.

Artificial Eye's THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE (in Italian with optional English subtitles) gives the film an attractive 16:9 presentation with handsomely detailed Dolby 5.1 sound. A short "making of" documentary (9 minutes) and a somewhat longer "behind-the-scenes" visit (15 minutes) are also included, along with a theatrical trailer, all with optional English subtitles. It must be noted that an Italian release, LE CONSEGUENZE DELL'AMORE, is also available on the Medusa label. This disc offers the film with the same audio mix and a choice of English, Italian or French subtitles, and the same production supplements, though these are not subtitled on this release. What makes the Italian disc particularly desirable for fans of the film is a selection of alternate and deleted scenes, for some reason not imported to the Artificial Eye disc; it's also a bit cheaper. But one shouldn't underestimate the value of the English subtitles on Artifical Eye's production supplements, as Sorrentino offers some important insights as to the film's themes and origin.

Both discs are available domestically from Xploited Cinema.

Tony Randall on WEREWOLF IN A GIRL'S DORMITORY


Tonight on Game Show Network's WHAT'S MY LINE?, they showed a 1963 episode with mystery guest Jean Pierre Aumont and guest panelist Tony Randall. When it became known that the mystery guest starred in a new movie opening on Broadway that week, the blindfolded Randall asked, "According to the newspapers, the motion pictures opening on Broadway this week are DIARY OF A MADMAN, CORRIDORS OF BLOOD and WEREWOLF IN A GIRL'S DORMITORY... are you in one of those?"

Naturally, the answer was negative but the question got a big laugh. From me, especially.

After the guest's identity was made known, amused host John Daly asked Randall about the picture he had mentioned called "MADMAN IN A GIRL'S DORMITORY." Randall replied, "No, it's WEREWOLF IN A GIRL'S DORMITORY. Isn't that something? No, I'm not making it up! I'm going to see it!"

It's for moments like this that I love watching vintage TV.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE reviewed

DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE
"The Hound of Blackwood Castle"
aka THE MONSTER OF BLACKWOOD CASTLE (export title)
1967, Kinowelt and TOBIS/UFA Home Entertainment (Region 2), 89 minutes

After the scenically brilliant DER MÖNCH MIT DER PEITSCHE (US: THE COLLEGE GIRL MURDERS, 1967), Rialto Film's long-running Edgar Wallace series entered into what might be called its "Roger Moore phase." The films that followed were not exactly bad, but hereafter, the use of color began to noticeably cheapen what it had so brilliantly illuminated in earlier productions, the scripts began to poke self-conscious fun at the series overall, and the performances became more generally tongue-in-cheek. Also, more than ever, Edgar Wallace was left at the door. One searches in vain for a clue as to which Wallace novel provided the source for DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE, whose title seems cobbled together from Arthur Conan Doyle and Algernon Blackwood (not to mention Bryan Edgar Wallace's THE STRANGLER OF BLACKMOOR CASTLE), but it does offer a cellar full of snakes, so 1926's THE YELLOW SNAKE (the source of 1963's CCC-produced DER FLUCH DER GELBEN SCHLANGE, or THE CURSE OF THE YELLOW SNAKE) may be a reasonable bet.

Upon the death of her father, Jane Wilson (Karin Baal) returns to Blackwood Castle for the reading of the will, only to learn that the castle itself -- a brooding, derelict place full of skulls, suits of armor, and stuffed polar bears -- is her only inheritance. The family solicitor (Hans Söhnker) informs her that the place is worthless, that he might be able to get her $10,000 for it, but while freshing up in her father's old room, she overhears a visitor offer the solicitor twice that amount. Something strange is going on, and it's going on in all directions. The servant at Blackwood Castle (Grimsby, played by Artur Binder) tries to frighten Jane by placing a snake in her bed (one of many he cares for in the cellar); a neighboring inn begins to see unprecedented seasonal business from visitors (Horst Tappert as "Douglas Fairbanks," CARMEN, BABY's Uta Levka) showing unusual interest in Blackwood Castle... and each other; and the two seemingly harmless old fogies playing chess in the inn's tavern are using a tricked-out chesspiece to send messages to the snake-caring servant. Meanwhile, Sir John of Scotland Yard (Siegfried Schürenberg, flirting as usual with sexy secretary Miss Findlay, played by Ilsa Pagé) sends a man (likeable Heinz Drache as "Humphrey Connery"!) to the area to investigate a series of animal attacks committed by a hound with large, tusk-like teeth.

This particular series entry, the most emphatically static and stagebound of all the Wallace-krimis, is not unlike watching a filmed stage play; and since the director is Alfred Vohrer, the most visually dynamic of the series' specialists, one can only surmise that this approach was experimental, possibly expressive of a passing interest in the limitations Alfred Hitchcock had imposed upon himself in his ROPE and DIAL M FOR MURDER period. The film begins nicely with a hound attack on a misty moor, preceding marvelously psychedelic main titles accompanied by one of Peter Thomas's all-time-great Wallace film themes. Thomas's score, in fact, is largely responsible for keeping one interested through all this gothic silliness; the visuals suggest what the experience of one of Wallace's 1920s stage productions might have been like, but the score is aggressively modern and humorous, a kind of sprightly, big band funk with barely coherent Mantan Moreland-like vocals by Joe Quick ("It's COLD, man... lookit that MOON lookit that MOON!... I gotta get outta here it's COLD... at Blackwood... CASTLE!"). As the strangely danceable film wears on, Thomas begins to underline each new surprise with a weird-sounding fanfare that's weird-sounding because it was recorded backwards, with the air gasping back into the trumpets; it's inventive at first, but it soon exhausts its welcome and becomes irritating.

Pictured: Siegfried Schürenberg and Ilsa Pagé.

DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE was originally released on DVD by Kinowelt with some welcome extras (outtakes, photo gallery, interviews with Uta Levka and Ilsa Pagé) but, alas, no provisions for the English-speaking viewer. This version remains the official stand-alone release in Germany, but a new 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer of the film with optional English 2.0 audio and subtitling is available as part of TOBIS/UFA Home Entertainment's four-disc Region 2 box set EDGAR WALLACE EDITION 7 (1967-68), which also includes DER MÖNCH MIT DER PEITSCHE (an infinitely superior transfer of the film released here by Dark Sky Films as THE COLLEGE GIRL MURDERS), IM BANNE DES UNHEIMLICHEN (aka THE HAND OF POWER) and DER GORILLA VON SOHO (aka THE GORILLA GANG or THE APE CREATURE). Of the four films in this set, only IM BANNE DES UNHEIMLICHEN is not English-friendly -- a needless omission, considering that Sam Sherman's Independent-International owns an English-language negative of THE HAND OF POWER, which was released to TV as THE ZOMBIE WALKS.

I am not aware that an English version of DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE ever received a US release, but the disc's English audio track is vintage and fairly well done, and English subtitles are included as optional accompaniment to the German audio track. The anamorphic transfer is occasionally grainy but nevertheless attractive and uber-colorful, and the German audio track is very full-bodied and the best choice for enjoying the musical accompaniment.

Both the Kinowelt release (search for "EDGAR WALLACE - DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE) and the EDGAR WALLACE EDITION 7 (1967-68) box set are available online from Sazuma Trading.

Postscript 4/27/06:
Reader Tom Schumaker of Parkton MD writes "I know of at least two playdates for DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE in US theaters. I saw an English-dubbed print of THE HORROR OF BLACKWOOD CASTLE (not “MONSTER” as referenced in your Blog review) at the Glen Drive-in in Richmond, VA, back in the late 1970’s. It was co-billed with the Peter Cushing/John Carradine potboiler SHOCK WAVES. It was also playing at a local urban Grind-house (the palatial Lowe’s) at the same time. As I recall, the print was marred with green scratches & a few jumps, but otherwise seemed OK. I still have an ad mat from the Lowe’s engagement , which I clipped from the local newspaper ('shows at 2:15, 5:15 & 8:15'). When THE STRANGLER OF BLACKMOOR CASTLE came out on DVD, I had to do some research to convince myself that these were, in fact, two different films."

Monday, April 24, 2006

"Do I Disturb You, Mister?"

Thanks to a correspondent who receives the UK satellite station BRAVO, I've finally been able to see Takeshi Miike's "Imprint," the banned thirteenth episode of Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR. "Finally" may be a strong word to use in reference to a film originally scheduled to premiere on January 27 -- not even three full months ago -- but I feel like I've been waiting years to see it. Such is the headiness of forbidden fruit.

Fortunately for the impatient and globally-connected, "Imprint" was shown on BRAVO (UK) a couple of weeks ago, on April 7... with commercial interruption (what brave sponsors!), but at least it was shown. It should trouble us that we Americans supposedly live in "the land of the free," but if we want to see Dario Argento's MOR episode "Jenifer" uncut, we're out of luck altogether; and if we want to see "Imprint" at all, we need to swap DVD-Rs with someone living in a country that is actually notorious for censoring theatrical and home video releases -- even if we've already paid Showtime for the privilege.

As you may remember, when "Imprint" -- the only MOH episode produced outside Vancouver, British Columbia -- was screened for Showtime, they made the decision not to air it. No official explanation was given, but MOH executive producer Mick Garris later told The Horror Channel that "Showtime felt it was something they didn't feel comfortable putting out on the airwaves." Consequently, "Imprint"'s position as the series' twelfth episode was inherited by "Haeckel's Tale," a Clive Barker story directed by John McNaughton, which was rushed into production to fill the vacated time slot. Originally to be directed by Roger Corman (who backed out for health reasons), "Haeckel's Tale" turned out to be one of the poorest episodes of the first dozen. For all its baleful warnings and talk of forbidden sights, the episode's "transgressive" imagery ultimately delivered nothing more taboo-breaking than a naked woman grinding her rounded hips atop a Romeroesque zombie in a misty graveyard. It was pathetic and laughable.

Which, after all, is what Americans really want horror to be. Statistics show that we won't support a horror film if it's promoted as being in the least comic, but what we really want from the genre, my experience as an observer shows, are scares we can either surf or ride like bulls. We love that feeling of victory as the shock waves swell beneath us, we love riding them out. But such cheap thrills were not the goal of Takeshi Miike (AUDITION, VISITOR Q), the most poetical of the new J-horror extremists. When speculating about the reasons behind Showtime's rejection of "Imprint," online pundits have often pointed to the episode's abortion-related imagery as a likely cause, but I always doubted this was so -- and now that I've seen the episode, I know that Right To Life sentiments weren't necessarily part of the problem. This episode has no shortage of ideas and imagery just as discomforting as having an unborn fetus pulled from your nether regions.

I believe Showtime's refusal of the episode has much more to do with the vast gulf between the American and Japanese concepts of horror. In America, everyone is raised on horror films; we want monsters, gore, laughs and titillation. In Japan, as in Europe, horror films have always been an adult genre. In Japan, perhaps most adult of all. Just look at a movie like HELL [Jigoku, 1960] and you know they're at least 40 years ahead of us in these matters, maybe 50. There, the genre has always been about the investigation, probing and rupturing of taboos; it's about transgression -- social, sexual, spiritual. The most frightening thing any Japanese horror film aspires to deliver is a new, irrational way of thinking or looking at the world. "Imprint" was not created to entertain, but to disturb, repulse and frighten. To those ends, it works admirably well.

Set in a heavily stylized 19th century, it stars Billy Drago (Frank Nitti in Brian De Palma's THE UNTOUCHABLES) as a self-confessed "strange man" from America who returns after a lengthy absence to an unnamed island off the coast of Japan in search of Komomo (Michie), a geisha who once won his heart -- because she reminded him so of his dead sister. The American follows his lead to a carnival-like sin capital where he is warned of lurking dangers, and for his own safety, he agrees to spend the night with another geisha (Youki Kudoh, pictured above), a friend of Komomo's whose face is partially disfigured. The American surprises the geisha by not being repulsed by her twisted features, indeed by finding her "very attractive." Tired and lovesick, the American wants rest more than sex and asks the geisha to tell him a story about herself as he drifts to sleep. She tells him about her childhood, as the unwanted daughter of a midwife who discarded unwanted fetuses in the river outside their rustic home, and proceeds to tell him the story of her friendship with Komomo. The story ends with Komomo's death. Upset and angry, the American feels that the geisha isn't telling him the full truth and demands to know more -- prompting a different and more upsetting story. But this version strikes the American as so horrible that still worse secrets about these events must be harbored by the storyteller. "Why is it that everyone always wants to know the truth?" the geisha ponders. "Sometimes the lie is better. It's prettier."

I don't want to spoil the experience of this episode by revealing too much before most of you have the opportunity to see it, so I'll stop my synopsis there. In fact, I will warn those who haven't seen the episode to avoid at all costs a promotional clip from the episode which is available for viewing online (I won't give the URL, but its Googlable) because it reveals a plot revelation no one should anticipate before they reach that point in the story.

My own interpretation of "Imprint" is that it's about the human reflex that Roman Polanski charted so well in that moment from REPULSION when Ian Hendry, repulsed by the sight of the dead man in the bathtub, suddenly leans in closer for an unflinching look. It's about our desire to know the worst without being touched by it. It's about the horror of our flesh-and-blood existence, steeped not only in repugnant imagery, but much that is beautiful within its repugnant imagery, if we have the courage to lean in closer for a more unflinching look. The American's desire to know the worst he can know is inextricably tied to any viewer's own quest for the capital Truth, and Miike suggests that absolute truth is absolute horror. Our polite refusal to experience horror, even intellectually, especially intellectually, banishes us from the Truth. He shows us some monstrous things about who we are, where we come from, and where we sit in relation to stories such as this. As such, "Imprint" would have been the perfect way to conclude MASTERS OF HORROR's first season, because it responds to the very idea of the show by throwing down a gauntlet no Western director is likely to approach -- not for another 50 years, anyway.

It's a curious East/West schism that Japanese horror somehow becomes more delicate, more epicurean, when it is most gruellingly sadistic, whereas Western horror almost always forfeits its sophistication when crossing these lines, too blunt to be effectively cruel. We're going through a big "torture" phase now in American horror cinema (SAW, SAW II, HOSTEL), and the sociologists among you can fill in the reason for that. But there is a bluntness about the violence in these films that resists intellectualization; not thinking too much about the violence, even enjoying it to a degree, is part of the Big Picture. No matter how gross or gruesome these scenes become, the films always shy away from identifying too much with the victim. (The sociologists among you can rhubarb about that one too amongst yourselves.) There is a protracted torture scene in "Imprint" that is exceedingly difficult to watch, because we never once side emotionally with the pain being so exquisitely inflicted by the torturer, but remain resolutely identified with the victim. However, Miike keeps the process as gratifying to the eye as it is otherwise repulsive -- with color, motion, composition and the occasional goose of surprise. His 19th century Japan is highly stylized, with exquisite décor, much Felliniesque detail (the American's guide is a dwarf with a cancer-eaten nose and a severed cock's head bobbing atop his headdress), and the geishas sport blue and flaming red hair, allowing this ancient past to be shot through with irrational flashes of modernity. During one of the tortures, we see Komomo suspended from the ground like an inverted objet d'art, and as hard as it was to endure this scene, on reflection, I had to admit it was preferable to seeing someone anonymously chainsawed in an American slasher film. Why? Because, as repellent as these tortures might be, seeing a thinking, feeling body reduced to an objet d'art is somehow preferable to seeing a piece of meat reduced to meat. Miike forces us to weigh the civility of violence, inspired violence meted out with black-toothed glee against brute violence... fine distinctions I'm not often called upon by the cinema to acknowledge or consider. These are upsetting things to weigh in one's heart and stomach, and therefore defiantly uncommercial. As my friend Charlie remarked when we discussed this: "Can you imagine Miike trying to make movies like this in the States? They'd probably arrest him. And then torture him!"

On the basis of a single viewing, I'm not certain how successful "Imprint" is -- either as a film, or as a chapter in the Takeshi Miike canon. It is unquestionably as creepy as hell. This man can deliver visual horror like it's never been done. I also found myself chuckling a good deal late in the episode, but I can't be certain yet whether this was a correct or unintended response. Certainly some of my laughs were prompted by shock and surprise. Drago's performance is way over-the-top, in the best Jack Palance/Christopher Walken tradition, but it will take additional viewings before I know if this was a creative error, a thespic weakness, or exactly the spice needed by the stew. On the other hand, it was immediately evident that "Imprint" is the most ravishingly photographed (Toyomichi Kurita), designed (Hisashi Sasaki, Takashi Sasaki), and scored (Kôji Endô) of all the MASTERS OF HORROR episodes.

It's my understanding that Anchor Bay Entertainment will be issuing "Imprint" on DVD sometime this fall. I can't speak for the general horror audience, but no courageous student of the genre should miss it.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Kim Asks Tim

Last February, I was interviewed by Kim August for a paper she wished to enter in a scholastic competition. A few days ago, on April 19th, the finished article -- about the impact of European cult cinema on the international DVD market -- was posted on her blog Gli attori, an ongoing appreciation of Eurocult screen actors that wins my recommendation. IS IT UNCUT? editor Nigel J. Burrell and Koch Media Germany disc producer Ulrich Bruckner are also interviewed. If you'd like to jump directly to the article, go here.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Outer Limericks

THE ARCHITECTS OF FEAR
In the Cold War days, don't you know,
We turned a man into Earth's common foe.
Surgeons reworked his face
Into a visage from space;
But ABC took one look and said "No."

THE SIXTH FINGER
There was a Welsh miner named Gwyllm
Who could just look at people and kill 'em.
In the end it was solved
That his head had evolved;
If you had some big hats, he could fill 'em.

THE ZANTI MISFITS
A consignment of misfits from Zanti
Were banished as socially anti.
In my favorite clip
They arrive in their ship
And one crawls down an Earthwoman's panty.

THE MUTANT
To the planet Annex One Reese did glide
Giving him eyes that looked kind of fried.
He didn't sleep much
And he could kill just by touch
But he always looked on the sunny side.

IT CRAWLED OUT OF THE WOODWORK
At NORCO, the movers and shakers
All wear new-fangled pacemakers.
They get frightened to death
But then they get back their breath.
On pay day, only zombies are takers.

As it happens, these shakers and movers
Are a legion of energy groovers
Who were bred in a pit
By a dustball called "It"
That got sucked up into a Hoover.

CONTROLLED EXPERIMENT
Two Martians, Earth students, did plot
To determine how a human got shot.
To a hotel they went
And with Diemos' assent
Phobos drank cups of joe by the pot.

Behind a plant in the lobby they spied
A spectacle logic defied:
A woman stood with a frown
As the lift came down
And she left a man Colt forty-fived.

Phobos smoked as he pondered this act
And examined the couple sans tact.
He wound time south to north
And played the crime back and forth
With a Martian machine quite exact.

They decided to let the man live
But Mars said it would never forgive
Them, if he fathered a son
And the son of a gun
Turned Earth to a vast bleeding sieve.

A compromise, in the end, was so set
That he'd survive -- with his pants a bit wet.
And so the two Martian buggers
Let him marry his plugger
And kiss her every chance that he'd get.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

GSN's "New" I'VE GOT A SECRET

Game Show Network debuted a new incarnation of I'VE GOT A SECRET yesterday. I would have missed it, but last night they decided to drop it into the 3:00 a.m. time slot usually reserved for old kinescopes of the B&W original -- which I've been watching with baited hope ever since they sneaked in Peter Lorre as a special guest.

I didn't recognize any of the new version's panelists, or the host. I don't know what's most depressing -- that one of the secrets whispered into the host's ear was "I Can Break Pencils... In My Butt Cheeks"... that the panel actually guessed it... or that the home viewer had to be treated to an end credits demonstration of this noteworthy ability. Actually, I know which is most depressing, but the ramifications of the other two are perhaps more sobering.

The original show is no holy relic (Garry Moore always strikes me as brash and rude, unable to host the show without a cigarette in his hand and blowing smoke even in the faces of child guests) and its "secrets" are usually no more than lame pretexts to half-baked entertainment, but sweet Jesus, how far we have fallen.

Monday, April 17, 2006

"How Do You Review Movies?"

This is a question I am sometimes asked, and one that I sometimes ask myself as I sit down to do the job. I've been reviewing films for more than thirty years, but I still don't fully comprehend my process. The mystery is useful; it may be what keeps me coming back -- that, and the desire to keep the pantry and freezer full. It's the same with typing, which I've been doing only slightly longer than I've been critiquing: if you asked me where the "P" is located on the keyboard, I couldn't tell you, but I can find it when I need it without taking my eyes off my computer screen. I'm not even certain whether it's my left or my right hand that finds it.

I take a similarly "zen" approach to reviewing: I approach the task without consciousness or deliberation. I know the process is different for everyone; Richard Harland Smith once told me that he watches each film he reviews at least twice, and Pauline Kael notoriously boasted that she never saw any film more than once. I suppose I fall somewhere between those two disciplines, because I seldom watch anything more than once while I am in the process of reviewing it, though I will later watch those films I like as many times as curiosity and pleasure dictate.

When I was a staff reviewer for CINEFANTASTIQUE in the 1970s, publisher-editor Fred Clarke supplied me with a regular stack of pre-printed, postage-paid index cards, which I was to fill out and mail back after seeing new movies. These were formatted so I could jot down the name of a film, its director and distributor, running time, and a few sentences of critical comment. As a young writer, these cards were very helpful to me. They taught me how to compose my thoughts as I was watching something, and how to be certain of them -- because once I had written something down in marker, there was no erasing it... and crossing it out would limit my available space to file my report. Fred probably never thought of these cards as an educational tool for his staff, but speaking only for myself, I found they sharpened and organized my thinking.

I occasionally saw other reviewers in screening rooms jotting down notes in the dark, so I also adopted this habit in my early days, but I wouldn't fully embrace it till much later. If I was responding favorably or warmly to a picture, annotating the experience tore me away from it; I might miss something good, some important incidental, if I was trying to see what I was scribbling in the dark. And if I wasn't responding favorably or warmly to something, the scribbling became about itself; I became much more interested in creating a witty retort to something I hated, rather than giving it a fair chance to win me back. But, in the days before films were available to reviewers on tape or disc, those notes in the dark were critics' best guarantee of accuracy if they wanted to quote dialogue or venture comment on a cutting strategy.

Nowadays, much moreso than before, the process begins with notes. I keep a packet of unlined index cards on a small table next to my viewing spot, and I jot down thoughts that occur to me throughout my screenings. Sometimes I will stop the disc as I write, but usually not; it depends on the ambition of the thought. My note cards don't show complete or finished sentences. I use them to refresh my memory about important plot points, character names, dialogue, trivia. I try to review the films I annotate promptly, but it's not always possible. Consequently, there's usually a stack of unprocessed note cards resting in the recess just behind my computer keyboard. For example, here -- chosen at random -- are some (slightly dusty) notes written while screening GINGER (1971), that will eventually germinate into a "Things From the Attic" review... or not:

GINGER 100m 26s
Derio Oldsmobile 23 college "straight B average" cheerleader from Hampton NY parents killed plane crash 1 brother extensive travel Brighton NJ resort popu. multiplies 10 x 3 months of year Rex Halsey "people on vacation want what they can't get at home" boss hands her envelope "We call it 'The Halsey Report' - no pun intended" $50 grand to crack case Bondian vocabulary: "dossier," "attaché" handcuffs gun bullets tape recorder camera infra-red film "anything you don't know how to use, learn" etc...

I have no idea how useful this excerpt may be, but it offers the literal answer to the question posed on the title line. If you know the film, my notes should at least give you an index as to which details in the passing parade I'm inclined to pounce on. For instance, the Derio Oldsmobile notation seemed important to me because the producer of the "Ginger" films was named Ralph Desiderio, and seeing this reminded me of a BILLBOARD article I read in the early 1970s, which mentioned that the seed money for this series originated from a New Jersey car dealership. I may not use any of the information I write on these cards, but they bring back the experience of the movie, or at least my experience of the movie -- that time.

While the goal of these note cards is to make some of the more elusive details of a viewing more concrete, the most important aspect of the work is by definition intangible. I find it's essential that I review a film while my experience of it is still reasonably fresh in my senses. This GINGER card depresses me because, as I say, it's been sitting around awhile; when I finally clear the time and have the desire to review it, it may be necessary for me to watch it again, or at least a bit of it, to help me absorb some of its particular atmosphere and energy (or torpor, as the case may be). Yes -- if I wait too long, my note cards become impenetrable even to me.

Here's another note card, dating from the last time I watched the Universal B-picture HOUSE OF HORRORS (1946). I think VW has already reviewed the VHS release of this movie, which is all the release it's ever had on video, so there was no intention to review it again... but the card reflects that the movie was written by someone far more intelligent and world-weary and professional than what they had been hired to write. I jotted down three lines of dialogue with which I felt a particular shade of simpatia:

"Rush, rush, rush -- that's all you get around here."

"The hungry maw of the cinema is always ready to devour new beauty."

"I have to dig up material for a Sunday column... and I haven't the slightest idea where I'm going to find it!"

These were clearly preserved as candidates for VW's Table of Contents page epigram -- where we present relevant quotations pertaining to art, the fantastic, the creative process, or wherever Donna and I feel ourselves to be at that particular moment in time. The last quote particularly reminds me of the "NoZone" column I write for SIGHT AND SOUND, which, until recently, had a Monday morning deadline that always kept me working on Sundays. My schedule being what it is, I tend to decide what I'll be reviewing for S&S one day before the piece needs to be turned in (which is now the first Friday of every month), writing through the night and turning in the finished piece a few hours before the S&S editors reach their desks on the morning of the deadline. It's my experience that necessity is the mother of invention, and that deadlines are probably its father. Things get done when they have to get done and, as the old saying goes, if you want to get something done, ask a busy person.

The present tense of my work looks forward, not back. People are surprised when I tell them I have only partial recollection of all the films I've reviewed for VIDEO WATCHDOG over the years, but it's absolutely true. A friend once sent me a trade list of DVD-Rs and I asked him to send me a certain title, which I'd heard was interesting; he wrote back, in effect, "Well, you seemed to think so when you reviewed it in VW issue-whatever." I had no recollection of ever seeing the film, and when I went back to my review to recharge my memory, not only did my review not remind me of the film I had seen, I couldn't remember writing the review. (At the moment, I must admit to a shiver of worry because I can sense that I have written about this anecdote once before... but I can't remember if it was for this blog, or in a past editorial, or in private correspondence, so please forgive me if I've repeated myself. If your life becomes a roman fleuve, you run the risk of drowning -- and I stock more than one river.)

Charlie Largent cleverly summarized this phenomenon as "the Mashed Potato factor." He says I've seen and reviewed so many movies, over such a long period, they must repose in my head like a lot of mashed potatoes, and trying to pick out one movie in memory from all the others must be like trying to distinguish one plate of mashed potatoes I've eaten from another. It's actually a very apt simile. It's not to say that everything I've seen has been equal; it has more to do with what these movies become, once they have been chewed and discarded only once. Just as we hold important events or moments in memory by reflecting on them again and again, either as memories or with the aid of photographs and home movies, I think important movies demand to be re-experienced. I imagine Pauline Kael carried around a lot of mashed potatoes.

Donna, John and I finished VIDEO WATCHDOG #125 over the weekend, with Donna and I passing over what must have been a nice Easter Sunday with her family to stay at home and get the work done that much sooner. All the details, including previews of Charlie Largent's cover art and four interior pages, can now be found on the "Coming Soon" page of our website. Today we start prepping VW #126, for which all the text is written... except for my editorial and my "DVD Spotlight" review of Peter Jackson's KING KONG. I have no idea how I'm going to do it, but I know that both will be in hand within the next couple of days. After all, a couple of hours ago, this essay you're reading didn't exist. Not even the title. Just the need for a Monday blog.

So, how do you review movies? As another Lucas might say, by doing it until the Force is with you.

Now where's that card?

KING KONG 187:05
opens w/ apes zoo, images of captivity Depression Jolson "Sittin' Top of World" no green anywhere The Lyric Vaudeville Revue all of Ann's backstory looped into uncle's mouth offscreen - written in post? CHANG insert framed outside screening room etc.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Beckett 100


Why did none of us remember that today marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Beckett? Doesn't that make you feel a little ashamed, as one of the surviving torch-bearers for what we laughingly call civilization, to have missed commemorating such an occasion? It does me.

Let's boil this stew down to its basest aroma. It's because of Sam Beckett that the phrase "Waiting for Godot" has entered the popular lexicon, as a way of referring to anticipating something that isn't going to happen, a hope that isn't going to be fulfilled, a prayer that won't be answered -- much like "Catch-22" refers to things that can't happen because their very possibility is inextricable from their unlikelihood. The phrase is known and understood by multitudes for whom the play itself would be well above and beyond comprehension.

On a personal note, the name Godot carries a special personal meaning for Donna and me. We spent many happy, loving years with a beautiful black-and-white longhaired cat named Godot, so named because we had to wait three months to take possession of her and because she never came when anyone called her. I read my share of Beckett in those days, when a novelist is all that I worked at being and hoped to be, and I spent much time coveting the Grove Press hardcover collected works that used to reside near the basement cash register at Cincinnati's long-gone Kidd's Bookstore, priced at a then-astronomical $100.

When was the last time I saw something as substantial as Beckett's collected works given such pride of place in a bookstore? Ouch. How far we have fallen.

I ask myself. I ask you. Which is the more tragic -- that I had to be reminded that today was the first centenery of Samuel Beckett's birth by the IMDb? Or that every link I could find relating to Beckett centenary celebrations (all in his native Ireland) led to "This Page is Unavailable" notices?

I must admit to having gained distance from Beckett myself in this video age of ours, but I cherish the impact he had on me -- as a reader, moreso than as a writer. His early works like MURPHY were novels of acute and comic Irish absurdity and caricature, but as time went on, his titles became more and more about themselves, and reflected such reductive powers of concentration as could be compared to the pressure that transforms coal, over thousands of years, into diamond.

One of my favorite of all literary epigrams comes from the closing lines of THE UNNAMEABLE, the conclusion of a trilogy-of-sorts beginning with MOLLOY and MALONE DIES; in just a few words, Beckett succeeded in summarizing a feeling about life and work that I wouldn't fully appreciate till I reached my 40s, when it became a veritable motto: "I can't go on. I'll go on." I can't think of seven other words that more richly evoke what it is like to live and work in today's world, and that's why we should be raising one to this man's memory today.

To Samuel Beckett. One of the few winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature who was actually worth a damn.

May I humbly suggest that we all adjourn with our pints to the nearest roadside curb, where we can sit and wait for the parade in Sam's name that isn't going to come?

Without Pitney

It was only by a major force of will that I was able to overlook the untimely passing of vocalist-songwriter Gene Pitney last week, in the midst of my week-long Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon. Pitney died of natural causes -- on Corman's 8oth birthday -- at the age of 65, after giving a final concert performance to an appreciative audience of 1,100 in Cardiff, Wales. He was midway through a UK tour and was to have performed in Glasgow, Scotland the following night. BBC News interviewed a longtime fan, Wendy Brown, who spent some time speaking with Pitney (always accessible to fans) in his dressing room after the show; she reported that he "looked fine" and that his concert showed him to be "in great form." The last song he sang: "Town Without Pity."

It's hard to put this mysterious kinship into words, but I've always felt that my first intimations of the spirit to which I gravitate, not just in music but in all the arts, began around 1961-62, when songs like "Town Without Pity" and "Telstar" by The Tornados first seared through the sameness of Top 40 radio. I was only five or six years old, not a sophisticated listener, but whenever these songs came on the radio, I became very still. I became an active listener. They attuned me to something deep inside myself that naturally inclined toward the dark and the fantastical.

I would not realize for several years still to come that "Town Without Pity" was the theme song of a movie, a West German-US co-production starring Kirk Douglas and Christine Kaufmann, about the gang rape of a young German girl by four US soldiers (two of them GOMER PYLE U.S.M.C.'s Frank Sutton and Robert Blake in a performance that points forward to his later work in IN COLD BLOOD) and how the ensuing trial "rapes" her in a different way, more decisively ruining her life and driving her to suicide. But it's appropriate that the vibe in that song for which I felt such affinity would turn out to have ties to what we now call Eurocult.

TOWN WITHOUT PITY is an affecting movie, though not a particularly good one, and when I finally got to see it for the first time in the late 1960s, it didn't eclipse the feelings I already had for the song. I think the song fits the story and the mood of the movie very well, but I also feel that it stands for a great deal more than the concrete situation about which it was written. (It was written, incidentally, by the great Dimitri Tiomkin and lyricist Ned Washington.) For example, I have gay friends who relate to "Town Without Pity" because it speaks to a relationship whose existence must be whispered between its two intimates, because society -- lyrically reduced to a "town" -- doesn't understand or condone their love. (This reading may have had something to do with why John Waters selected it for use in his HAIRSPRAY soundtrack.) At the time, it doubtless spoke just as directly to interracial lovers. There is also something about Tiomkin's music, its slinky 6/4 piano PERRY MASON atmosphere, that speaks even to innocent ears about corruption and despair, about a world of vice and law whose sheer opposing weight is geared to crush out what is best in the human heart through sheer oppression. So I guess you could say that my attraction to "Town Without Pity" was that it offered Top 40 listeners substantially more truth about the world at large ("it isn't very pretty...") than the average pop song.

Of course, it was Pitney's tortured vocal that brought the song so committedly to life. One of the most distinctive interpreters pop music has ever known, Pitney was a superior stylist, a tuneful enunciator who seemed to look past the lyric to each song's underlying meaning -- the soul of each word, and the spirit that strung them together. To hear such an unmistakable voice, one might expect it to be limited or unlikely to be flexible in terms of milieu, but Pitney was much more than just a maestro of octave-swooping melodrama. He could be twee in some song settings, but he could also sing convincingly from the stances of cowboys ("The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"), truck drivers ("Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa" and "Last Chance to Turn Around" -- a song whose chorus incidentally inspired the title of Hubert Selby Jr.'s hard-hitting novel LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN), and even gondoliers. Pitney was one of the first pop vocalists to record foreign language export versions of his hits, and he recorded entire albums of material for the Italian market, which was especially receptive to his near-operatic delivery. He was also one of the pop song's technical pioneers: almost a full ten years before Paul McCartney recorded his 16-track one-man-band solo album McCARTNEY, Gene Pitney provided his own musical accompaniment on his first hit single, "(I Wanna) Love My Life Away," though recording technology was limited at the time to only two or three tracks.

Justly recognized as a talented songwriter ("He's A Rebel", "Hello, Mary Lou"), Pitney spent most of his recording career covering the work of other composers. He was arguably the most notable male interpreter of the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David ("True Love Never Runs Smooth" being a particularly good example). For the past few years, a British label called Sequel has been reissuing most of Pitney's 1960s albums as two-fers, and to know Pitney properly, it's important to move away from the hits and see what he accomplished on his albums, uneven as they often are. A particularly fascinating index to his talents is the album GOLDEN GREATS, which Musicor paired with THIS IS GENE PITNEY. GOLDEN GREATS is Pitney-as-one-man-jukebox, finding him accepting the challenge of either improving upon songs already placed in the Top 40 (if not the Top 10) by other artists, or failing miserably. An awkwardly reworded rendition of The Supremes' "Stop in the Name of Love" frankly kicks his ass, but Pitney manages to score well or better with most of his choices, which include The Hollies' "Bus Stop" and Gary Lewis and The Playboys' "Count Me In." He shows the expected affinity for Roy Orbison's exquisitely melodramatic "Crying," the countrified shadings of Tom Jones' "The Green, Green Grass of Home," and the inspirational doo-wop of The Platters' "The Great Pretender," but it's Pitney's incredible cover of Jay and the Americans' "Cara Mia" that brings the listener to his knees. Here, we realize that it wasn't enough for Pitney to be a sensitive stylist and interpreter; a song had to meet him halfway, to be available to an instrument of Pitney's unique range and ability, for the alchemy to fully ignite. "Cara Mia" offers him opportunities to drag lyrics across the gravel of his lower register and also to soar above one's highest expectations. This track, vastly superior to the hit rendition it covers, deserves to be remembered as one of Pitney's greatest moments on record.

Still, when we note that GOLDEN GREATS was released in 1967 -- the year of SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND -- it's easy to see how out-of-step the album was with its times, regardless of its achievement of moments that now seem absolutely timeless. It also had the misfortune to carry a title which, at a glance, portended yet another of the "greatest hits" albums that were epidemic in Pitney's output. There were exceptions to the rule, but apart from the album he later cut with George Jones (which not only prophesied the 1970s country-rock-crossover but the 1980s "duets" craze as well), Pitney's albums never really took the necessary quantum leap of vision and creativity to maintain his dominance in the field. His popularity may have also suffered by someone's decision to photograph him in the company of an attractive model who would change from one album cover to the next; after all, there was a commercial reason why the Beatles management wanted to keep John Lennon's marital status under wraps in those days. Despite these professional missteps, Pitney seems to have had an unusually solid grip on reality and his place in the world; he resolutely did what he was good at doing, without conceding to trends. He also put his real life first, with his wife and three sons, always making his home in his native state of Connecticut. America forgot him, at least to the extent of making it unfeasible for him to tour the States in later years, but he remained a beloved figure abroad. The only time I saw Pitney on American television in the 1970s was when he appeared on THE DON LANE SHOW, an Australian talk show briefly syndicated here.

When I first came online in 1995, I discovered that AOL hosted some music newsgroups and I spent some time lurking in several of them, among them one devoted to Gene Pitney. I was amazed to discover that Pitney himself was a frequent participant (his screen name was "ThePits") who took pleasure in answering people's questions, at least the ones he hadn't been asked a million times before. It was my first exposure to how the Internet could bring previously distant or unapproachable celebrities within one's virtual reach; in other AOL news forums at that time, it was not uncommon to find the likes of Bobby Vee, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby holding court. My standout memory of "ThePits" is that there came a time when he announced that he would be absenting himself from the forum because he felt a now-or-never need to throw himself into some new songwriting. I don't know what, if anything, came of that woodshedding, but I suspect the yield wasn't anything like he must have hoped for, like a new record deal. However, thereafter, he did more earnestly pursue a return to live performance abroad.


A few years ago, Gene Pitney appeared on PBS television stations across the country in a live performance recorded in, I think, Hartford, Connecticut -- not far from home. The performance, which was also issued as a live album, proved that little about this consummate craftsman had diminished over time. Though they were by then over 40 years old, his most familiar hits were sung as though their sentiments were still coming directly from his heart rather than from the teleprompter of memory. In the midst of this parade of request fulfillments, I was particularly struck by his performance of a Robbie Williams song, "Angels," which seemed tailor-made for the Pitney treatment and proved him a still-heroically-vital interpreter of modern-day songwriting. Unfortunately, I don't think Pitney ever recorded a studio version; it might well have been the adult contemporary hit he was hoping to record.

Yes, 65 is much too young to die... but, on the other hand, Pitney ended his life asleep -- without misadventure, without pain, without infirmity, without disease, without knowing the end was coming, and without the heartbreak of conscious goodbyes -- after a triumphal performance to an appreciative audience, knowing that many more such evenings were still to come. I honestly can't think of a more blessed exit.

And his songs stand every chance of living on forever, or at least as long as hearts can be broken or swell with pride or love or aspiration to the point of breaking. Feeling these things and listening to Gene Pitney, we know that we are not alone.

Monday, April 10, 2006

My Favorite Bands "Under Review"


Fans of, shall we say, audacious rock music will be excited to learn about two new releases coming out later this week from Music Video Distributors and Sexy Intellectual. The first two DVDs in a new series called "Under Review," these feature length programs focus on two 1960s bands whose legacy was supremely influential on the cutting edge music of subsequent decades: Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground. They street on 4/15 and retail for $19.98 apiece.

Fans of these cult groups will find it almost wondrous to see their histories discussed so seriously and eloquently, not only by well-credentialed critics but by former members of the bands in question. VELVET UNDERGROUND: UNDER REVIEW (85 minutes) interviews VILLAGE VOICE music editor Robert Christgau; Clinton Heylin, author of essential books on punk rock, Bob Dylan, bootleg albums and Public Image Limited; Total Rock DJ, author and journalist, Malcolm Dome, and Luna mainman Dean Wareham, as well as Velvets members Maureen "Moe" Tucker and Doug Yule, and Andy Warhol Factory photographer/Velvets album cover designer Billy Name.

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: UNDER REVIEW (115 minutes) interviews Beefheart biographer Mike Barnes; author/critic Alan Clayson; UNCUT magazine contributing editor Nigel Williamson, and a vast assortment of Beefheart Magic Band alumni, including John "Drumbo" French, Mark "Rockette Morton" Boston, Jeff Moris Tepper, Elliott "Winged Eel Fingerling" Ingber, ira Ingber, Jerry Handley, Doug Moon, Gary Marker, Eric Drew Feldman and Gary Lucas. Both discs contain many clips of rare performances, archival interview footage, and are supplemented with interview outtakes and interactive quizzes. It's also great to hear the music of these bands remixed in stereo surround. I want a whole album of how "Ella Guru" sounds on the BEEFHEART DVD.

Both programs approach their subjects chronologically, single by single and album by album. As someone intimately acquainted with the discographies of both bands, I found it actually cathartic to watch these documentaries, to see the work of these often overlooked units so fulfillingly appreciated. Of course I have my own feelings about their recorded output, so I was somewhat disappointed that Beefheart's ultimate statement TROUT MASK REPLICA was not addressed with the same gravity as, say, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO on the corresponding release. (There is some disagreement among the Beefheart authorities assembled here, but LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY and CLEAR SPOT seem to vie for their #1 choice, with TROUT MASK being... well, singular. And for a double album, it IS pretty singular. I wish Matt Groening had been invited to balance the books.) My own favorite Velvets album is their third, self-titled album, which I feel is given its due her, but the VELVET UNDERGROUND program actually reminded me of the importance of the AND NICO album, their first, which was actually recorded in 1966 and not issued until 1967. It is not the better album, but it is unquestionably the more important group statement. Likewise, Beefheart's CLEAR SPOT track "Big Eyed Beans from Venus," his most beloved track by fans and arguably his best-realized studio performance, is rather surprisingly dismissed by Mike Barnes as popular on account of its accessibility. Accessibility doesn't explain why I am nearly moved to the point of tears every time I hear it; it has much more to do with the alchemy of its clean production and the sound of every member of the band mining dissonance until they tap an almost exorcismal sublimity and sweetness. Again, the Velvets disc excels in this area with its extended appreciation of "Venus in Furs" from THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO, which the critics identify -- to a man -- as the moment where that album becomes timeless and transcendent. To hear Robert Christgau, echoing Lester Bangs, cite this track as the moment "where modern music begins" is incredibly satisfying and insightful.

Watching these documentaries, one realizes that Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground had far more in common than their very different music makes apparent. Both groups were dominated by a single personality: Beefheart himself, Don Van Vliet (who abandoned music in 1981 to pursue a successful career in painting), and Lou Reed of The Velvets (who left the band in 1970 to pursue a still successful if increasingly literary solo career). Both groups had members in their early lineups who left after creative clashes with the "alpha male" -- John Cale in The Velvets, Ry Cooder in The Magic Band -- their departures radically changing the nature of the groups' music. Both groups were also "sponsored", in a sense, by iconographic art figures: Andy Warhol (VU) and Frank Zappa (CB). Furthermore, as the two figureheads of these bands have become more remote and inaccessible -- Van Vliet, reportedly suffering from multiple sclerosis, has not been photographed in decades, while Reed prefers to focus on his solo work -- the contributions of their fellow band members have been given the space to come into much stronger relief. It's refreshing to see the Velvets documentary pay so much respectful attention to Moe Tucker, founding member/guitarist Sterling Morrison, and especially Doug Yule, who replaced Cale in the band, which he joined in time to play on their third album. The first VU album is almost certainly their greatest and most important, and their second album WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT is just as grand in a darker way, but the greater balance of the group's classic core of material was written and recorded after Cale's departure. It was only after Yule's joining, and the loss of Cale's abrasive signature viola, that The Velvets became a classic rock-and-roll band.

An interesting result of Van Vliet's silence in recent years, and one about which I have very mixed feelings, is that much of his original projected persona has been revealed as, for lack of a better word, "show biz." His amazing voice, once self-described as encompassing six or more octaves, has since been professionally charted as somewhat narrower. His stories about never attending school and having never indulged in drugs have been proved various shades of hooey, and his former band members have portrayed him as a ruthless task master, almost a cult leader, not to mention a sometimes wrongful appropriator of song credit. And then there is the 1973-76 "Tragic Band" period when Beefheart turned his back on his muse to attempt more commercial music, only to discover that his watered-down brand of funk-pop attracted no new listeners and turned away those he already had. The stories presented on the BEEFHEART disc by his fellow band members are generally very respectful, sometimes acknowledging that Van Vliet was absolutely and unerringly aware of the impact his music would have over time. (John French recalls Van Vliet telling him, some 35 years ago, "Someday you'll hear a knock on your door and it will be someone who has travelled halfway around the world to record your recollections of what we are doing right now!") But the program pays rightful attention to the musical skills of Beefheart's associates, all of whom continue to do good work but clearly miss the "north star" visionary who led them in younger days to vistas previously unexplored in music. Some of them are working today in tribute bands to keep Beefheart's extraordinary blues-avant-art-swamp-rock fusion alive and available to fresh discovery.

These discs mark an impressive starting point for what I hope will be a successful, ongoing series. I'd love to see similar discs address the music of, say, King Crimson, Can, Nick Drake, Brian Eno, Laura Nyro, Amon Duul I and II -- and that's just for starters. Based on the choices shown here, I suspect the producers of these discs are thinking along much the same lines.

Postscript: Music Video Distributors and Sexy Intellectual have now announced the third and fourth releases in the "Under Review" series. June 6 will see the release on a profile of KATE BUSH, and following on June 27 will be THE SMITHS.