Saturday, May 12, 2007

On VHS

Oops, we just found out there's another birthday to report today! Our warmest congratulations to VW contributor Richard Harland Smith and wife Barbara Fish on the birth this afternoon of their second child (and first son) Victor Harland Smith -- 7 lbs., 14.9 oz. of bouncing baby boy.

Here's to Jess Franco on His 77th

Jess Franco celebrates with a small group of friends in the 1980 film MACUMBA SEXUAL.

Today Jess Franco -- one of my favorite filmmakers, favorite personalities, and favorite people -- is celebrating his 77th birthday. I would like to mark the occasion with a glimpse into a little side project of mine that has been incubating for awhile. I've just completed an immense book about Mario Bava and I have no intention at present of writing another book of that size and scope; however, over the years, many correspondents have encouraged me to write a book about Franco, and this is something that part of me also yearns to do specifically for him. Jess Franco is one of the very few film directors who literally changed my way of seeing, and I would like to repay that debt with a book that, unlike OBSESSION, is wholly mine.
Sometime last year, I began compiling and ordering new thoughts about Franco's work as I set about transfering some of my old tapes to DVD-R. I decided to start with Jess's 1970s films, as I feel this was his most vital and progressive era, and see what developed. As it happens, some interesting things began to take shape. I'm not prepared to embark on a film-by-film study of Franco's entire career (which would probably take another 32 years to complete), but I believe that an in-depth study of his '70s work is doable and could be valuable in itself. Later, if I cared to, I could add to it with other books devoted to the other decades, but I don't want to think about that now. I'm not quite ready to commit even to this endeavor to the extent of calling it a project; at least for now, I prefer to think of it as a hobby.
I thought I would pay tribute to Jess today by excerpting from the text I have written about one of his most interesting and offbeat films of the 1970s. And so, without further ado... Cumpleaños Felices, Tio Jess!

France: LE JOURNAL INTIME D’UNE NYMPHOMANE (“The Intimate Diary of a Nymphomaniac,” 1972 - Videobox)
France: LES INASSOUVIES ’77 (1977)
UK: SINNER (Go Video PAL VHS)
USA: DIARY OF A NYMPHO (Howard Mahler Films, 1974)

This erotic cautionary tale was presumably inspired by the success of such films as Max Pecas’ Je Suis une Nymphomane/Forbidden Passions (1970) and Dan Wolman’s Maid in Sweden (1971): like them, it is a downbeat first person account of a young European woman who becomes involved in intensely sexual lives and lives to regret it. It has always been a staple of exploitation filmmaking to explore subjects like sex and drugs while wearing a mask of sanctimonious piety, granting their audience a margin of safety and separation. Le Journal Intime d’une Nymphomane shares some of these characteristics and thus is a most unusual feature for Franco, as its judgmental quality (reflected in the Scarlet Letter-like title of the English version) flies in the face of the amoral stance he generally takes as an individual and as a filmmaker.

Linda Vargas (Montserrat Prous) is a “live sex act” performer in a nightclub known as The Lucky Ghost. While feigning lovemaking with her co-worker Maria (Kali Hansa), she catches the eye of customer Ortiz (“Jean-Pierre Bourbon” aka Manuel Pereira) and joins him later at his table. After persuading him to buy and imbibe ten bottles of champagne, Linda walks Vargas around the corner to to a seedy hotel room she uses for assignations. By the time they undress, Vargas passes out – and after calling the police and informing them that a girl has been murdered in that room, she cuts her own throat and dies on Ortiz. He is charged with murder and his wife Rosa (Jacqueline Laurent, “Ruth” in the English version) is summoned to the station. Upset with her husband’s infidelity, she determines to help him establish his innocence by undertaking an investigation outside official province: an investigation into the victim’s life and relationships. An interview with Linda’s friend the Countess Ana de Monterey (Anne Libert) reveals that she was a small-town girl who came to Madrid only to lose her virginity to a rapist on an amusement park’s ferris wheel. While delivering laundry to the Countess, she observed her making love and was invited into her bed, eventually sharing her male lover, Paco (“Gene Harris” aka Francisco Acosta). Paco took Linda to the Lucky Ghost where she met Maria. Linda lost Paco when his wife caught them together in bed, and she took refuge in Maria’s apartment and open, nurturing sexuality. Through Maria, Linda became involved in nude modelling after meeting an aging “fat cow” junkie photographer named Mrs. Schwartz (Doris Thomas), and subsequently in drugs. That’s when the Countess lost track of her.

Rosa gets the rest of the story from Maria, a lesbian exhibitionist, who reads aloud to her from Linda’s own diary while shocking the woman’s sensibilities by stripping off and pleasuring herself. Rosa confesses that she’s equally attracted and repulsed by such openness, admitting that her husband has never seen her naked (“we turn off the lights wen we go to bed”) and that she herself has never looked at her own body. Maria seduces Rosa and teaches her to appreciate her body. Returning to the diary, Rosa learns that Linda was nearly rehabilitated from her nymphomaniacal ways by a doctor (Howard Vernon) who ran a private clinic. When she relapsed, he called her a whore and insisted on being paid for his services as a whore would pay, then told her to get out. She then returned to The Lucky Ghost, where Paco tried to get back into her good graces, but it was too late. She went to work at the club with Maria and then, one night, the man who raped her at the amusement park showed up in the audience – Ortiz. She decided to punish him for ruining her life by ruining his own by framing him for murder, her own suicide. The story told, Rosa and Maria fall asleep in each other’s arms. When they awake, Rosa asks for the diary, which Maria gives to her. She takes the evidence of her husband’s innocence of the murder charge with her, but – overcome by the sound of Linda’s voice demanding “He must pay! He must pay!” – she tosses the diary into a lake.

Made in tandem with Les Ebranlées and Franco’s first Manacoa production Un Silencio de Tumba, Le Journal Intime d’une Nymphomane is notable for the first lead performance by Montserrat Prous, a young actress who briefly occupied centerstage in his filmography between the death of Soledad Miranda and his discovery of Rosa Maria Almirall, whom he recristened Lina Romay. Montserrat Prous entered the world of filmmaking as an assistant makeup artist and met Franco through her relatives Isidoro, Alberto, and Juan, who had worked as production secretary and camera assistants, respectively, on Franco’s El Conde Drácula/Count Dracula (1969). She began acting onscreen that same year, in Amor y Medias (1969), directed by Antonio Ribas.

Any seasoned Franco viewer with knowledge of Lina Romay’s later place in his filmography will find his Montserrat Prous films fascinating, because she foreshadows Romay in many ways. She bears a striking physical resemblance to Romay, but has more elegantly sculpted features; Prous represents an almost intermediary stage between Miranda and Romay, and one suspects that Franco must have perceived in her the same continuation of Soledad Miranda that he later observed in Romay. In this film particularly, Franco uses Prous exactly as he would later use Romay: she appears wearing a pair of the thigh-high leather boots similar to those worn by Romay in several films, including Le Comtesse aux Seins Nus and Exorcismes; she participates in red-light “live sex act” stage performances as in Midnight Party; she has lesbian sex with Kali Hansa; she compliments her own dark hair with a longer, straighter brunette wig that makes her look more like Miranda and Romay; and, in scenes representing flashbacks to her virginal youth, she wears her hair in ponytails.

Compared to Romay (at least in her earliest films), Prous was the conventionally superior actress; on the other hand, Romay’s looks had aspects of darkness and derangement that Prous, a more wholesome beauty, could not summon on her best day. With the arrival of Romay, and as Franco’s personal relationship with her took shape, there was no question of which actress was going to become the enduring “Dark Lady” of Franco’s cinema. Prous made her last Franco film in 1973; thereafter, she and Romay stood on equal ground only in the work of another director, Carlos Aured’s El Fontanero, su muer, y otras cosas de meter… (“The Plumber, His Tools, and How Where He Puts Them…,” 1981), shortly after which Prous married and retired for many years from the screen. She has more recently returned under the name Montserrat Prous Segura.

Like Necronomicon and Vampyros Lesbos, and like Exorcismes and several other films still to come, Le Journal Intime… opens with a stage act, a sexual scene followed by the surprise revelation that the intimacy we have witnessed is part of a performance, met with the approval of audience applause. From there, the film proceeds as an hommage to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, as the life of Linda Vargas (a nominal reference to Welles’ Touch of Evil) is reconstructed through interviews with those who knew this figure of mystery. Rosa Ortiz’s investigation, undertaken with the hope of helping her incarcerated husband, is a reprise of the archetypal undercover lover device dating back to Gritos en la Noche/The Awful Dr. Orlof.

In France, a version of the film including hardcore sequences was released under the title Les Inassouvies ’77 (suggesting a sequel to his earlier film Philosophy in the Boudoir aka Eugenie... the Story of Her Journey into Perversion, which was known as Les Inassouvies in France).

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A Night of Fun and GAMES


Last night I decided to spend a little time with Curtis Harrington by refreshing my memory of his first major studio production, GAMES (1967). Though the film was a critical favorite and a commercial success in its day, Universal has never given the film a proper DVD release, and its two pan&scan VHS releases (the most recent released in 2000, after the advent of the new format) are by definition unsatisfactory considering that it was filmed in Techniscope.
Actually, revisiting the movie eased my mind on this issue somewhat, because cameraman William A. Fraker took care to compose the picture at once for scope framing and for television cropping, reserving the periphery of most shots for set decoration accents. I twice noticed an art nouveau bust that I remembered seeing in Curtis' home hovering on the edge of a composition, just out of sight. (The golden helmeted mask worn by Katharine Ross, seen on the VHS cover shown here, also went on to proud placement on the wall of Curtis' living room.) But there is relatively little cutting from one side of the screen to the other -- at least on my copy, which I recorded from a pay cable channel in the 1980s.

Some quick thoughts: I don't think any single movie better embodies the great divide between Old Hollywood and New Hollywood than GAMES. It has an Old Hollywood sense of elegance and décor, all consciously indebted to the influence of the great European filmmakers who brought style to Hollywood from overseas and the plot (with its not-too-subtle tips of the hat to DIABOLIQUE) distinctly European in tenor. Meanwhile, the mise en scène -- with its references to Lichtenstein and Segal and other pop and postmodern art, is well ahead of the 1967 Hollywood curve and the film's interests in role playing, practical jokes, black magic and murder casts it as a clear-cut progenitor of PERFORMANCE. I can't remember ever reading anything that connected GAMES and PERFORMANCE, and this is undoubtedly due to Universal's seeming disregard for the film, which Curtis himself long petitioned for a proper LaserDisc or DVD release. People don't know the movie, and those who do find it hard to look past its allusions to DIABOLIQUE... yet Curtis was a personal friend of Donald Cammell and they had several other friends in common, making the notion of influence a tantalizing possibility, especially for GAMES' sake. Some viewers feel that the second half of the film is weaker than the first, but I disagree. There's no question that we know that a game is afoot in the second half, but we don't know who is involved, what the circumstances are, or the goal of the proceedings -- so the movie engages the viewer, or should, on a different tier (shall we say) in its second part.

As fine as GAMES is on the level of performance, direction, cinematography, wardrobe and set decoration, I feel it was let down in terms of its score by Samuel Matlovsky, which is borderline fussy and overstressed during the masterfully constructed suspense sequences, which would have been better served by having their accompaniment pared down to well-orchestrated sound effects. (Matlovsky had previously conducted Gustavo Cesár Carreón's score for THE FOOL KILLER [1964] -- a pioneering work of dark Americana scored with orchestra and crudely overlaid electric guitar parts. Flawed but fascinating, and with a staggering performance by former WEREWOLF OF LONDON Henry Hull, THE FOOL KILLER is far less well-known today than GAMES.) Movie musicologists will be amused by a scene in GAMES wherein the three principals (Simone Signoret, James Caan, and Katharine Ross looking her personal best) are dressed in costume and pantomiming some strange sacrificial ritual with a 78rpm record spinning on a Victrola, playing organ music. The scene is shot with a lot of panache and it would have been very effective indeed... had Matlovsky not used for this cue Vic Mizzy's "organ loft" piece from THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN!
GAMES is currently out of print on VHS. If anyone within range of this blog has any pull with Universal, please put a bug in their ear about releasing GAMES on DVD. There are few people around today under the age of 55 who can claim to have seen it as it was intended, and it shouldn't be overlooked by audiences or by history. It's a genuine American suspense classic, and a sophisticated foreshadowing of things to come.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Before Curtis

I remarked yesterday that I could think of no film critic prior to Curtis Harrington who made the leap to directing features. Reader Richard Heft wrote to suggest that I check out the IMDb pages for producer-director Alexander Korda and writer-director Pare Lorentz, which proved educational indeed. Apparently, Korda wrote newspaper and magazine film criticism in Paris between 1911-18, while Lorentz' collected criticism was collected in book form in 1975 under the title LORENTZ ON FILM: MOVIES 1927 TO 1941.

I did some online exploring in regard to Curtis' published works and found that, in addition to writing a chapter for the 1972 book FOCUS ON THE HORROR FILM (not one that I own, unfortunately), he wrote a lengthy feature called "Ghoulies and Ghosties" which appeared in a special edition of THE QUARTERLY OF RADIO FILM AND TELEVISION (Winter 1952) devoted to horror cinema. I found the latter item for sale through abebooks.com and ordered it; if this item is all that the seller's description claimed it to be, it would precede in print the issue of the French magazine CINEMA devoted to "Le Fantastique" that is said to have inspired Forrest J Ackerman's FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND. (Curtis' article was more recently reprinted in THE HORROR FILM READER, edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini.)

Novelizations also exist for two Curtis Harrington films: GAMES by Hal Ellson (Ace Books) and, the more desirable of the two, QUEEN OF BLOOD by Charles Nuetzel (Greenleaf Classics, one of those sexed-up items from the publishers of Ed Wood's novelization of ORGY OF THE DEAD). Does anyone out there know if Charles and Albert Nuetzel (FM cover artist) were related or perhaps even one and the same?

Monday, May 07, 2007

Curtis Harrington (1928-2007)

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I have written much more than a thousand words today about film director Curtis Harrington -- who passed away yesterday morning at age 78 -- but having completed that task, I don't feel this is the correct place to present them.

I took this photo of Curtis (whom Bill Kelley and I interviewed in VIDEO WATCHDOG #14) in his living room in 1993. It's the way I'll always remember him: wise, warm, and relaxed, enthroned in a Spanish-style house built in the heyday of Old Hollywood. Many parties had been held there and there was a sense about the place of rhubarbing voices and clinking glasses and raucous merriment that carried from empty rooms into the tossing heights of the cypress trees lining his backyard. I'm sure that Curtis got out and about more than I do, nevertheless his house was a perfect extension of him -- with its framed Belle Epoque posters, Tiffany lamps, porcelain masks, and a stuffed and mounted raven standing vigilant on one endtable, his domicile had the feel of him, and the feel of one of his movies. I remember particularly the cracks in the ceilings, dealt to the property by California earthquakes over the years, and I feel in my bones that they were the inspiration for his last short film, USHER (2002).

Curtis was more than a film and television director; he was also the first film critic (of whom I am aware) to make the ascent into the director's chair. He wrote a book about his favorite director Josef von Sternberg in 1948 (very early for a book about an individual director) and he was also a contributor to FILMS & FILMING and FILMS ILLUSTRATED in the early 1950s. People talk about directors like Bogdanovich, Coppola, Scorsese and DePalma being the first generation of directors raised on movies, but Curtis was making films before any of them -- and he was making films that were in their own way recursive, depending on the audience's knowledge of the screen languages formulated by Sternberg and by the great suspense masters Hitchcock, Lewton, and Clouzot.

A call I placed to his home today, in search of someone to whom I could express my regrets and learn more about the circumstances of his passing, found Curtis' easygoing voice still in absent residence, welcoming callers from his answering machine to send a fax or leave a message.

Here is mine: Farewell, my friend.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Some Thoughts on SPIDER-MAN 3

Your friendly neighborhood webslinger makes Flint Marko gravel in Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN 3 - now in theaters.

I liked the first SPIDER-MAN a lot, loved the second one, but SPIDER-MAN 3 is just about an unmitigated disaster.

Not because it's a cluttered mess that thinks bigger is better and action scenes are best when they fire past the retina rather than actually lodge in the brain. As a reader of the original Marvel comics since the Ditko days, I'm disturbed by the filmmakers' irreverent disregard for the content and chronology of what might be called the canon. I think the introduction of Gwen Stacy now is pointless and gratuitous, and I could tell that mixing the more wholesome spirit of Silver Age storylines with the darker Venom storyline from the Bronze Age Todd MacFarlane years was likely to be a stinkbomb long before it went off on Opening Day. I was especially disappointed by the sappy back story given to the Sandman, whose potential was further dissipated by all the other converging threats. I was really looking forward to him, to see him discovering the range of his powers, and feel gypped by his relative lack of screen time; it doesn't help that they turned him into King Kong.

I can't understand why Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire can't make Peter Parker seem like a good guy without also seeming borderline learning impaired; likewise, when the symbiote arouses his arrogant, evil streak (this movie's "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" moment), he's not just a short-tempered jerk, but like a strutting glue sniffer on a SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER jag. It's so broad, so lacking in subtlety, it made me feel ashamed to be a fan of the character. Even worse is his open cavorting in the jazz club -- after the cafeteria scene in the first movie and now this, I wouldn't be surprised if Peter Parker starts opening taxi doors with his webshooters in SM4. Surely everyone in New York has seen him unmasked by now, so why not?

It's time for Hollywood to call a moratorium on two things: 1) the use of 9/11-like imagery for cheap frissons, and 2) evil doppelgangers in heroic fantasy. We've been getting the latter since STAR WARS and it's deader than Joseph Campbell. It's one thing to say that we all have good and evil tendencies and the freedom to choose between them, but when you take this spiritual philosophy and amplify it into the unadulterated corn of SM3, the heroes somehow come out of it soiled and the bad guys come out of it slightly ennobled. Before picking which side we're on, we need to know which side we're on, and this movie's moral map is slippery as hell. So many characters here have split natures, it's like they got the cast for half price. SM3 actually suggests that people shouldn't have to pay for their mistakes, that acknowledging them is enough. I was dumbstruck by Sandman's exit, and Venom's fate is so dopey and arbitrary and blink-of-an-eye, I actually had to be reminded 10 minutes later what happened to him.

My beloved, not a reader of the comics, liked this one better than SM2. She also thought the old gentleman playing Uncle Ben this time around wasn't as good as the other one was.