Friday, August 04, 2006

Bummer in the Summer

August is all that I know
It's with me wherever I go
It's with me when I need a friend
It brings me good weather
It keeps me together
It picks me up when I'm down

-- Arthur Lee, "August"

Arthur Lee, the man behind the LA-based psychedelic rock band LOVE (a name always rendered in caps, and in red on their album covers), wrote those lyrics for a 1969 album. Yesterday, he was picked up by the month of August for the last time: he died of leukemia in his hometown of Memphis at the age of 61. You can read the story here.

Guitarist, vocalist and songwriter, Lee's place in musical history is cemented by LOVE's third album, FOREVER CHANGES, released in 1967. A mournful, elegiac but tuneful response to the Summer of Love, the album (which included the song "Bummer in the Summer" -- and the closing "You Set the Scene," which ranks with John Lennon's "God" as one of the most poignant songs in the annals of pop music) is now regarded as one of rock's masterpieces, but it was largely overlooked at the time of its release on Elektra Records. It was too much of an album statement to yield a hit single and, to make its fortunes worse, the musicians that recorded the album had disbanded by the time of its release. Lee later claimed that LOVE's replacement line-up (who recorded the FOUR SAIL album of which "August" was a part) disliked FOREVER CHANGES and refused to play in support of it -- but it also seems likely that Lee was simply too progressive, too mercurial a talent to look back for long, least of all at an unhappy band association. (It always amazes me to learn that the most accomplished works of some groups -- like The Zombies' ODESSEY AND ORACLE, Mott the Hoople's BRAIN CAPERS, or Public Image Ltd's METAL BOX -- were recorded as the bands themselves were falling apart, or not speaking to one another. You'd think the glory of the music alone would pull them back together.)

As time went on, LOVE's recorded work began to fracture and Lee began recording solo albums. This later work was intermittently as inspired as anything he'd ever done, like the song "Five String Serenade" (later covered by Mazzy Star), but even his most dedicated fans lost patience under a barrage of poorly recorded live albums issued on small labels, presumably issued to support him through his lean years. Always an eccentric recluse who refused to kow-tow to the music industry, Lee was commonly branded an "acid casualty." (Indeed, in case you've ever wondered who really lived in that crazy, psychedelic pad up in the Hollywood hills where Roger Corman's THE TRIP was filmed in 1967, it was Arthur Lee -- who had moved there after leaving "The Castle," reputed to be the former home of Bela Lugosi, areas of which are pictured on the covers of their first two albums.) As Lee's fortunes went into steep decline, his productivity ebbed and his public behavior turned more erratic.

Firing a gun into the air in the 1990s got Lee sentenced to a dozen years in prison, six of which he served. Upon regaining his freedom, Lee formed a new LOVE lineup consisting of the members of a band called Baby Lemonade, young fans who -- very much like The Wondermints, who support Brian Wilson on record and on tour -- had studied his music and could recreate his orchestral pop masterpieces live onstage. After spending a year getting his live chops back together, Lee and the new LOVE toured the world in 2003 with a concert that presented the FOREVER CHANGES album in its entirety.

As it happens, the spirit and message of that album were more pertinent than ever in 2003, sounding remarkably at home in the contemporaneous context of bands like The Arcade Fire and The Flaming Lips. Furthermore, Lee's live performances (one is preserved on DVD as the must-have THE FOREVER CHANGES CONCERT) miraculously seemed to bring the heyday of the 1960s almost within reach. His shows always closed with an encore of the group's original hit single, the Burt Bacharach-penned "My Little Red Book." Our recovery of the 1960s through the power of Arthur Lee was not to be, but with his final tour given new meaning by the news of his death, perhaps it's most important that he recovered those years personally by finally celebrating, and bringing back to new and old generations, the one unquestionably great thing he created. It was his act of contrition for misspent years, his redemption, and heartening proof that nothing of enduring quality can be overlooked forever.

Arthur Lee spoke of FOREVER CHANGES as his "Mona Lisa," but it would be a mistake to limit his achievements to a single album. He and LOVE started out as a jangly Byrds-like combo with a harder edge, but they were also responsible for introducing outside musical influences to pop and rock, like flamenco, jazz and samba; they are said to have been Jim Morrison's favorite group. They were also influential: their song "She Comes in Colors" prompted The Rolling Stones' "She's Like a Rainbow," the derelict in "Live and Let Live" (whose snot has caked upon his pants and turned to crystal) presages Jethro Tull's "Aqualung," and "Signed D.C." sounds uncannily like The Moody Blues' later "Nights in White Satin" with different lyrics. LOVE were also the first group to cut a track that lasted an entire B-side of an album; "Revelation" (produced by an uncredited Neil Young) wasn't quite what its title promised musically, but its true revelation lay in the fact of showing what could be done. It took that giant stride from the edge of the vinyl to the inner groove first.

For Arthur Lee's death to occur so soon after Syd Barrett's passing gives his loss a doubled resonance, because those of us who loved their music will miss them both for very similar reasons. They were not only musicians, but painters, interpreters, surrealists, and adventurers. We didn't know them as well as they seemed to know us, and there was something a bit scary and forbidding about their kind of genius. Unlike Syd, Arthur gave us (and more importantly, himself) the happy ending of coming back one last time -- as a humbled and ennobled ambassador of the incense-scented music which had been given him to express and share.

Needless to say, it will live on.

This is the time and life that I am living
And I'll face each day with a smile
For the time that I've been given's such a little while
And the things that I do must consist of more than style

This is the only thing that I am sure of
And that's all that lives is gonna die
And there'll always be some people here to wonder why
And for every happy hello, there will be good-bye

-- Arthur Lee, "You Set the Scene"

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Posting a Post-Poster Post Posting

Yesterday's quickie blog about movie poster art, in which I said that APOCALYPSE NOW (the work of artist Bob Peak) was the last great painting I could remember on a movie poster, prompted correspondent William D'Annucci to get in touch. He showed me some recent poster art samples indicating that the painted movie poster is not necessarily a thing of the past. Some of my correspondent's favorite examples:

SUPERMAN RETURNS
THE LADY IN THE WATER
PAN'S LABYRINTH

Of the three, I like the PAN'S LABYRINTH poster best, because it is scene- rather than personality-driven, and also because it is clearly a painting -- and a rather Freudian one, at that. The SUPERMAN RETURNS art, whose overhead art seems to deliberately echo Dalí's Crucifixion, is handsome but not the kind of poster I would choose to frame and hang. Bill shares my doubts that THE LADY IN THE WATER is a painting at all, as it seems more like a Photoshopped photo, but we agree it's an arresting image. (Though, to my eyes, it looks less like a lady in the water than Elijah Wood bundled up for a winter walk.) In fact, this LADY IN THE WATER poster reminds me of one of the last photographic one-sheets I liked enough to buy: Wes Craven's DEADLY BLESSING.

In the Craven film itself, the scene depicted by the poster involves Sharon Stone (then a relative newcomer) being held in place as she dreams of an overhead spider falling into her mouth. I liked the movie better than most of Craven's stuff, but still not enough to have acquired the poster as a memento. I was sold on the poster because it was a rare example of a standout horror moment being restaged as a promotional image; Stone does not appear on the poster itself, and when I saw the film again, years later, I was disappointed to find that the scene didn't play as well onscreen as it did on the poster.


I grew up in the era of Reynold Brown and Albert Kallis, the kings of AIP poster design, and I miss the interpretative angle of their work in today's movie posters. Of course, part of Brown and Kallis' work was to take a cheap film and give its premise as much production value as they could possibly envision. I'll never forget the afternoon I went to the movies as a kid and found myself face to face with Kallis' poster for THE ASTOUNDING SHE-MONSTER; I was maybe five or six years old and it was the first direct hit of eroticism I can remember experiencing. It was on a sandwich board to the right of the red carpet where the ticket buyers entered; it was clearly there to be looked at, but I can remember being torn between my desire to indulge my curiosity and my awareness that I probably shouldn't let anyone catch me looking at it for too long. I hung around the lobby, stealing glimpses from the corner of my eye. When I came back to see the movie, it didn't bear much resemblance to the poster, but the poster had given me the key to daydream about the movie for weeks and years afterward.

Today's movies have all the production value the screen can stand, so today's posters need do little more than nod in their direction. Today's posters show us stars -- not action, not drama, not horror, and sex appeal maybe, but not sex itself. Perhaps there are collectors of today's movie posters, but I can't imagine that they regard them as anything more than paper souvenirs of an experience. Today's posters don't have that larger-than-life, artistic punch that made classic movie posters collectible in the first place.

Given the examples I've shown above, it probably seems as though I collect posters exclusively on the basis of their erotic value, but that's not true. What I look for in a poster, first and foremost, is its ability to astonish me -- either with image, brush strokes, or the artist's ability to summon the entire flavor of a film with an independent work of art. A favorite example of mine is the German poster for the Italian film ATOM AGE VAMPIRE. Regrettably, I don't know the artist's name, but he/she somehow arrived at exactly the right combination of color and caricature to enlarge upon the memory of that black-and-white film experience:

Earlier today I wrote a VW review of the new Shriek Show release of Pete Walker's THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW. Its lively, nouveau-like cover art reminded me that David Friedman's Entertainment Ventures Inc. once had in their employ a very unique and talented poster artist. I can remember seeing the same hand at work in the promotional art for THAR SHE BLOWS! and THE ADULT VERSION OF JEKYLL & HIDE, as well. Can anyone out there tell me this artist's name?

PS: Thanks to Christopher Hasler for identifying Bob Peak for me.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Papa's Got a Brand New Bhag


A correspondent e-mailed me a link to this fantastic Italian poster for Alfred Vohrer's DER GORILLA VON SOHO, which is being auctioned on eBay. I have my eye on another piece, so it's a bit rich for my blood at the moment, but it's a beauty... and a beast. I wish I'd had this poster on hand to help illustrate my article "Edgar Wallace and the Paternity of KING KONG" in the current issue of Video Watchdog. It's got everything, doesn't it? -- the big ape, the blonde, the tower in the background. An excellent demonstration of why the Italian posters for the Edgar Wallace krimis tend to be more beautiful than the German originals, which employed a coarser style of design and were often heavily crowded with text.

I pine for the days when a new movie was an opportunity for some of the world's leading commercial artists to interpret the experience of that film on a highly collectable poster. What was the last major American release to feature an authentic painting on its poster, anyway? The last one that comes to mind was APOCALYPSE NOW, and it was a great one.

Monday, July 31, 2006

A Look at the Criterion Rohmer Transfers

Last Thursday, I had no idea what I'd be writing about for my next SIGHT & SOUND column (due tomorrow). On Friday, I received an advance copy of Criterion's forthcoming ERIC ROHMER'S SIX MORAL TALES box set and, suddenly, I knew that my course was set. In my house, Rohmer waits for no one.

In two days, I devoured the entire box -- features, interviews, books and extras; I had to, because of my deadline and other pressing duties. I suppose this was a bit like gulping down a particularly fine bottle of wine, over the tongue and into the belly, but the retrospective was no less intoxicating for it. These films were previously issued on DVD by Fox Lorber in scratchy, stale-looking presentations, so I'm happy to report that Criterion's new high-definition transfers of his establishing works (supervised by Rohmer himself) are exquisite. Have a look for yourself:

THE BAKERY GIRL OF MONCEAU (1962) was shot in 16mm, and looks surprisingly crisp and sensual in this presentation.

SUZANNE'S CAREER (1963): Also shot in 16mm, this film has the grainiest-looking transfer, but much of the film was shot in low-light interiors and it actually looks quite good, so all is forgiven.

MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S (1969): How many black-and-white DVD transfers have you viewed that can compare to savoring a rich dessert? This may be the most ravishing black-and-white DVD transfer I've ever experienced. In shots like these, of Françoise Fabian, you can actually sense how warm her skin is and can almost read her thoughts.

LA COLLECTIONEUSE (1967): This film was shot third but always intended as the series' fourth segment, as Rohmer wanted the stories split between three black-and-white and three color. Fox Lorber's DVD of this title was ugly trash. Criterion makes the colors and textures of leap off the screen with remarkable sharpness and clarity. Of all the films in the Rohmer set, this is the most surprising transfer and the most gorgeous of the color films. The young lady seen here, Haydée Politoff, later co-starred in Paul Naschy's COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE and can be seen reading a paperback of DRACULA in this movie.

CLAIRE'S KNEE (1970): This probably isn't the best frame for showing off the transfer's vibrant colors and amazing sense of depth, but I love this shot of Laurence de Monaghan, so that's what you get. A wonderful presentation of a delightful film.

LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (aka CHLOE IN THE AFTERNOON, 1972): The colors and textures in this film really pop, and when Zouzou strips down to her black chemise, for the first time on video, you can actually see through the sheer fabric. Based on my viewings of this film in 16mm and on Fox Lorber DVD, it was never a favorite of mine, but now I find it the second best of the Moral Tales, after MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S.

As you may have noticed, all six of the films are presented in the standard 1.33:1 ratio. In an accompanying interview, Rohmer explains why this is his favored ratio and the films included amount to a veritable celebration of the format. The last two films in the set, CLAIRE'S KNEE and LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON, were composed so they could also be projected at 1.66:1, if necessary. I zoomed both of them up on my widescreen set and, while the images became more enveloping as a result, they also felt incomplete. I quickly returned to the 1.33:1, and I think you will, too.

That's as much as I'm going to say for now. Criterion will be releasing ERIC ROHMER'S SIX MORAL TALES on August 15, and I'll be writing at greater length about the set in next month's issue of SIGHT & SOUND.

But, in closing, let me be the first to tell you this much: If you get the set, be sure to empty the box of all the discs and books, at least once, to look inside. You'll be glad you did.