Thursday, March 15, 2007

Unreleased RIFLEMAN Episodes Start Tonight

You may remember my blog from last January about THE RIFLEMAN, which listed quite a number of episodes from Seasons 3, 4 and 5 that were not included in the last of MPI Home Video's now-OOP box sets of the classic Western series. For your easy reference, click here.

Larry Blamire has written to alert me that the first of the unreleased RIFLEMAN episodes, "Closer Than a Brother" (#98), will be airing tonight on Encore Westerns. The channel's RIFLEMAN hour begins at 7:00pm eastern, and "Closer Than a Brother" airs tonight at 7:30. For the next week or two, every episode being shown in this hour slot will be previously unreleased on DVD. So now's the time to print off that list of episodes and keep an eye on EW's program schedule.

Thanks, Larry!

Cronenberg at 64, Cronenbook at 25

Today is David Cronenberg's 64th birthday, and the perfect occasion to go public with some news I've been keeping quiet for awhile.
Some background first: Perhaps some of you know that I spent most of the 1980s writing almost exclusively about Cronenberg's films, beginning with a series of CINEFANTASTIQUE set reports -- and finally a cover story -- about the making of VIDEODROME. I was the only journalist granted access to the set, which was closed to protect the film's revolutionary storyline from being leaked. I visited for nine full days. My deal with CFQ was to write a book-length article that would appear as a double issue. This issue happened to coincide with the editor's marriage and, by the time he and his wife returned from their honeymoon, VIDEODROME had opened and closed -- a huge boxoffice flop. CFQ had an unfortunate history of bad feature article choices (KRULL, THE BLACK HOLE, etc.) and it was decided to literally cut the losses by editing my material down to a single issue feature. (I was, of course, being paid by the word.) Then it was announced that Cronenberg had been signed to direct THE DEAD ZONE for Dino De Laurentiis, which prompted the decision to assign me to cover that filming for a special double issue that would cover both films, to be published about a year later. (I was, of course, to be paid on publication.) I visited the set of THE DEAD ZONE for a few days, wrote my article and sent it in, whereupon the editor got cold feet -- Stephen King movies were not doing so well at the boxoffice, so it was decided to run my coverage of both Cronenberg films in a single issue. This whittling-down process was agonizing on a monetary level, but that agony was nothing compared to reading what the magazine had done to my VIDEODROME manuscript. Piers Handling, the head of the Academy of Canadian Cinema, had told me that it was the finest production history of a Canadian film he had ever read -- he included a section of the manuscript in a book he edited, THE SHAPE OF RAGE: THE FILMS OF DAVID CRONENBERG, as it was originally written, while CFQ published an abortion, so greatly condensed that my work couldn't be simply cut; it had to be paraphrased. I was so angry when I read the results that I temporarily lost the power to speak, and it ended my ten-year affiliation with the magazine.
My original manuscript then went into a file cabinet, where it resided for the next 20-odd years. Criterion welcomed portions of it into their marvelous DVD of VIDEODROME, but there was a much they didn't use. In fact, material exists in my files -- like a lengthy Q&A with Cronenberg, which I conducted after my first viewing of the film -- that was omitted from the original manuscript because I didn't then have the time to include it and meet my original deadline. After that first deadline had passed, there was no reason to add anything more because pages were already being cut.
Now that you have the messy background, here's my very neat announcement:
Later this year, in the fall, Millipede Press will be publishing my VIDEODROME book as the first offering in an exciting new trade paperback series called "Studies in the Horror Film." If you've seen the BFI's "Film Classics" and "Modern Classics" series, or Continuum Press's "33 1/3" series about rock albums, the same principle applies here... except this series will consist of uniform numbered books devoted to the in-depth study of individual classics of horror cinema. Publisher Jerad Walters is anticipating that later books in the series will run, on average, about 20,000 words and 144 pages, but VIDEODROME -- being a full production history -- will likely be a bit longer. I'll also be adding some new material to help the book bridge the years of its long sleep: hard as it is to believe, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the manuscript's completion.
I've been working with my original typescript to recreate it as an editable computer document, and reading through it again has been an uncanny experience. The book puts me back on the set in so many ways, back into the warm and funny camaraderie of the people who made it, and I think fans of the film and Cronenberg's work in general will be impressed by the level of intimacy it achieves with its subject. I honestly can't remember reading another book quite like this -- it will give you the VIDEODROME you know, of course, but also the VIDEODROME you don't know unless you too were there, the one that David Cronenberg didn't quite know even as he was writing it by night and directing it by day. In other words, it will put you in the midst of Cronenberg's creative process, his wrestling with the raw idea of VIDEODROME. That's what reading it has been doing for me anyway, and it's been so long since I wrote this book, it feels like the work of someone else, a better writer than I remember being at that age, who was somehow privy to my own experiences.
I've been out of touch with David Cronenberg for a long time, so it's interesting to resume touch with him again through my writing, which was so sympathetic and attuned to him and what he was doing. Wherever he is, whatever he's doing, I wish him much happiness on this, his Paul McCartney birthday. As the aged onion skin of my typescript is being rejuvenated on my computer screen, I reflect on those words I was among the first to hear -- "Long Live the New Flesh!" -- and pass them back to their author with many happy returns.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

THE RED SHOES (2005) reviewed

The extraordinary Kim Hye-soo descends into a subway tunnel to suffer a memorably macabre meltdown in Tartan Asia Extreme's THE RED SHOES.

2005, Tartan Asia Extreme, DD-5.1/DTS 5.1/DD-2.0/MA/16:9/ST/+, 103m 45s, DVD-1
This Korean horror film by sophomore writer-director Kim Yong-Gyun doesn't hit all of its marks but is well worth seeing; it's deeply unsettling rather than frightening or abusive, and it has a visual flair (courtesy of DP Kim Tae-Kyung) that at times taps into the stylized wickedness of Dario Argento's work at its zenith. Tropes from other films and filmmakers are evident at times, but there is also a kernel of great originality and promise here. The film is well-acted throughout, but outstanding are Kim Hye-soo and little Park Yeon-ah as a mother and daughter who (in scenes reminiscent of DARK WATER) take a cheap, grungy apartment after separating from the unfaithful man of the family. The mother, Sun-jae, is an optometrist who hires a young separated architect (Kim Sung-su) to design her new offices; she is also a shoe collector who finds an abandoned pair of elegant violet pink (not red) heels on the subway, which she takes home with her. The shoes have an overpowering, irresistible effect on Sun-jae, her daughter Tae-soo , and her sister, all of whom come to hysterical blows in the effort to hold onto them. Sun-jae recognizes the shoes' destructive influence and makes an effort to get rid of them, but they always come back into the possession of her increasingly strange daughter, who claims visitations from her father -- who has not been informed of their whereabouts.
Writer-director Kim has said that his film is about "the extremity of a woman's desire for her womanhood." Part of the shoes' allure is certainly narcissistic and tied to female fantasies of glamor; however, the film's story also encompasses aspects of the original Hans Christian Andersen tale of the same name, the Powell and Pressburger classic, the 1990 Tobe Hooper TV movie I'M DANGEROUS TONIGHT (based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich), as well as David Lynch's TWIN PEAKS FIRE WALK WITH ME (there is even a filthy homeless woman who looks like a deliberate facsimile of the one played by Lynch himself in the trailer park prelude of that film) and some perceptual surprises worthy of A TALE OF TWO SISTERS. Kim makes the notion of the shoes more personal and nationalistic by weaving into this material references to the insecurities attached to bare feet and the Eastern tradition of leaving one's shoes at the door.
After a fairly gripping first hour, the film loses some of its hold with a disappointing, belabored "logical explanation" of its supernatural events, which -- in an appropriate but peculiar swipe from Kieslowski's RED -- involves a woman appearing on billboard advertisements all over town. Despite the choppy navigation of its middle, THE RED SHOES is worth seeking out for its picturesque and poetical set-pieces, its adventurous toying with audience (and protagonist) perceptions, and, most of all, for a magnificent climactic meltdown by Kim Hye-soo, who conveys the most palpable sense of fear and dread I've seen onscreen since Angelica Lee in THE EYE [Gin gwai, 2002]. Frankly, Ms. Kim commands one's attention on an altogether more complex level, being sexier and scarier and disciplined enough to stylize a performance without ever losing touch with its realism. There's no erotic content to speak of, but one of the most admirable things about the film is its ability to pull those punches in a way that baits and intrigues rather than disappoints. Lee Byung-woo's minimalist electronic score also warrants praise and special recognition for sounding original, supportive of the action and atmosphere, and musically interesting all at the same time.
Tartan's disc presents the film in a very nice anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer, but especially pleasing are the five-channel audio tracks which sport unusual and sometimes ticklish attention to detail. The extras include a Making-of featurette interviewing the director and principal actors (17m 3s), a "Look at the Visual Effects" (13m 43s), a theatrical trailer that references Hans Christian Andersen and the Bible (2m 12s), and a subtitled audio commentary by the director and cinematographer, which I have not yet sampled.

Monday, March 12, 2007

33 1/3rded -- Not

In earlier postings, I've mentioned that it's become an ambition of mine to write a book for Continuum Press's "33 1/3" series. I've read about 30 of these virulently collectable monographs devoted to classic albums, and even when the books turn out to be something other than what I expected, I always enjoy or learn something from them. Late last year, I sent a multi-title proposal to series editor David Barker, introducing myself and suggesting a half-dozen or so titles I could tackle. He wrote back to inform me that he wasn't reading new proposals at that time, suggesting that I check his blog regularly for updates about when he would be accepting proposals again. So I began to haunt his blog, and eventually there came the awaited cue.
Dr. Barker cautioned everyone that he would consider only proposals about individual titles, and only one per applicant, please. I had some time in which to ponder the question of what to write about, and -- as you can surmise from my choice of illustration -- I finally settled on Jefferson Airplane's 1968 album CROWN OF CREATION. At the time I wrote my proposal, I didn't think it was necessarily the Airplane's best album, but "33 1/3" books seldom are about the best albums of any given musician or musicians -- they've devoted books to Elvis Costello's ARMED FORCES, R.E.M.'s MURMUR, Joni Mitchell's COURT AND SPARK and Sly and the Family Stone's THERE'S A RIOT GOING ON, to name a few (all undeniably interesting and good fodder for books, but hardly "Best ofs"). More importantly, I found I had most to say about CoC and thought it also provided the ideal vantage point from which to discuss the group's other work. So I wrote a thorough proposal and sent it off.
As January rolled around, I found myself with a free month, more or less, and not knowing how available I would be later in the year, especially with VW bound to resume its monthly schedule, I decided to go ahead and write the book on spec.

I finished the book in a matter of weeks (except for an interview I was hoping to add with the album's producer Al Schmitt), in the process convincing myself that CoC really is Jefferson Airplane's finest studio album. I put the manuscript aside as I waited for the proposal deadline of February 14th to come to pass. Shortly afterwards, Dr. Barker's blog presented a staggering list of close to 450 proposals received. Among these were three other Airplane proposals, one for SURREALISTIC PILLOW and two for AFTER BATHING AT BAXTER'S, which were especially antagonizing as the series observes a strict "one book per artist" rule. Even without these, the competition was formidable.
A couple of days ago, on Saturday, I received a form letter from Dr. Barker informing me that my proposal had not been chosen. While accepting this unhappy news, I couldn't help but write back to let him know that the book existed, that I had written it on spec, and would be glad to submit it, especially as it had ended up quite different to the description I gave in my proposal. I'm still awaiting an answer, but I'm skeptical. He's made his choices. Either one of the other Airplane albums was chosen as more a more commercial selection, or they didn't go with the Airplane at all. (CoC scored a gold record within its first year of release and remains the second best-selling of the Airplane's albums.)
So now I have a book about CROWN OF CREATION on file and not a single idea of what to do with it. Having read more than half of the "33 1/3" books, I'm convinced it would be a worthy addition to the series. It's adventurously devised in accordance with the spirit of the band I was writing about -- a compendium of music criticism, music journalism, autobiography and screenplay. I could self-publish it, I suppose, but I'd rather place it with a company with a track record of publishing books on rock music and getting them reviewed and into libraries.
If any of you have any recommendations about where my latest book might find a home, please let me know.

Rondo Award Results

They can be found here.

Donna and I had written off any chance of VW winning the Rondo this year, so to receive the Best Magazine Award for the fifth year in a row came as an astounding surprise. We published only five issues in 2006, and the magazine business isn't as healthy as it once was, so it's heartening to know that readers still like what we're doing -- even with bigger magazines like FANGO, RUE MORGUE and the venerable FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND added to the competition this year.

The win for Best Website is especially meaningful to me, because I regard it as a writing award. I feel that VIDEO WATCHDOG's Rondos were awarded in recognition of the work of all our wonderful contributors; I treasure them, but I can't take them personally. So the Best Website Rondo feels like my first Rondo. It's the first recognition I've received for my writing in my 35 years as a writer; the only other award I've ever received for personal achievement was an Art Award that I won at my 8th grade graduation, which still commands a place of honor in my home -- which should give you some idea of how much this Rondo means to me.

I'm grateful to everyone who voted for me, and for everyone affiliated with VIDEO WATCHDOG.