Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"The Passenger" Moves On

Michelangelo Antonioni has vanished from this island Earth at age 94. His disappearance took place the same day as that of Ingmar Bergman, whose death was noted by many a blogger with terms like "Endgame" and "Checkmate." Bergman once staged a memorable chess game with Death, of course, in THE SEVENTH SEAL -- one of the few films whose every image is invested with such power and inevitability that they seem to preexist the film itself, like carvings in ancient wood or stone -- but it was Antonioni who was truly the chessmaster, one of cinema's rare geometric thinkers, possibly its first and without question its most definitive.

This is a very busy week for me, a prelude to a very busy month in fact, and I can't spare the time to write about Antonioni and his glorious work as fully as I'd like. BLOW UP and L'AVVENTURA have always been personal favorites, and when Criterion released L'ECLISSE a few years ago, it immediately vaulted past them into my Top 10: I watched it three times in three days, and then began writing an infatuated short story about the spell it cast, which work and time (again) conspired to prevent me from finishing. Once this present pile of work is out of the way, I would like very much to go back to it and complete it in tribute to this outstanding artist. Last year, "THE PASSENGER" (another of those curious films with titles in quotes, like "DON'T LOOK NOW" and "THESE ARE THE DAMNED") was finally released on DVD, a magnificent film about life, identity, and mortality.

Antonioni's films were often criticized for being too nihilistic, but I don't see them as nihilistic as much as conscious and accepting of the human condition. Just because they are cerebral doesn't mean they are without spirit. "THE PASSENGER" is actually the ideal film to watch if you seek the comfort of knowing that only what Antonioni was, as a man, is dead. What he is and always was, as energy, survives -- I believe the film subtly expressive of this philosophy, that this world is no one's final destination, that we are all merely passengers, our present identity in quotation marks (as well as question marks). Needless to say, his films remain with us as his representatives.

Today, I send a loving genuflection halfway around the world today to one of my favorite filmmakers, Eric Rohmer -- who recently turned 87 -- in the hopes that he can keep his name out of the headlines for awhile.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Requiem for a Heavyweight Broadcaster

Tom Snyder as he appeared in a bit part in "A Friend in Need," a 1961 episode of THE RIFLEMAN. He had two lines.

I was very sorry to read about Tom Snyder's death yesterday at the age of 71, from leukemia. As a constant viewer of his NBC late-night talk show TOMORROW WITH TOM SNYDER (1975-81) and a frequent viewer of his post-Letterman series on CBS, THE LATE LATE SHOW WITH TOM SNYDER (1995-98), I feel as though I shared a big part of my life with him, but that's not exactly true. He shared a big part of his life with me and anyone else thoughtful enough to tune in. Few television hosts were as forthcoming about themselves as Tom Snyder. He would talk "Mother Snyder" when it was her birthday or if she wasn't feeling well, about the joys and woes of raising a teenage daughter, about his problems with the networks, and he would even make on-air references to his experiences with smoking pot or about the times when he tuned into SCREW editor Al Goldstein's public access porn show.
Talk about a box of chocolates. With TOMORROW and Tom Snyder, you never knew what you were going to get. The theme music he chose for the program was probably a clue to the real Tom: Barry White's "Love Theme" -- romantic schmaltzy disco music that was equal parts cheesy and classy. Tom could either be very cool, a complete jerk, and most winningly, he could often be seen vulnerably and forthcomingly trying to navigate a through-line between the two. On the evening that Barry White himself appeared on the show, it was like the Pope had deigned to give him audience. And Snyder gave him the serious attentive interview that I doubt ROLLING STONE ever did.

"Got it. It's not a band, it's a company. It's not a concert, it's a gig." "Humour me..." "Not for long."

Cutting-edge guests didn't necessarily guarantee a cutting-edge interview; his legendary sit-down with John Lydon and Keith Levene of Public Image Limited is a classic example of "failure to communicate," and I can also well remember a joint appearance by James Brown and football great Jim Brown, who apparently showed up at the studio one evening unannounced, requesting airtime on TOMORROW to discuss solutions to the problems facing black youth... in which it quickly transpired that the two JBs really had nothing to offer except that more young black people should look up to role models like them. It turned out to be a fairly bare-faced, smug-assed ego stroke that left Tom so baffled that he spent the next on-air segment scratching his head over why the interview hadn't worked. Very candid, very brave -- and it momentarily turned galling television into great television.

I've written here before about what TOMORROW's great interviews with Sterling Hayden meant to me. But I can also remember seeing a round-table discussion between Snyder and various Russ Meyer stars, including Uschi Digart, to this day the only interview I've ever seen with her. She came across as very smart and business-savvy. I'll never forget Snyder's incredulous comment "So what you're actually saying is that, on a Meyer set, there's no actual..." (he fumbled for a word) "... balling?" His choice of word somehow rooted his question at once and forever in the 1970s. Tom often had trouble with finding the right word for that particular act on national television. On another occasion, he started a show by telling an off-color joke after warning viewers that he couldn't use the word that made that joke so funny. He proceeded to tell it, and to the audible amusement of the stagehands, he sat flustered at his inability to say what he wanted to say. Then he said, "You know, the irony is that I can't say the word, but I can spell it backwards as much as I want. KCUF! KCUF! KCUF!" I've often wondered if he got his wrist slapped over that, the next day. His lusty laugh had an appreciation of the ribald. Another case in point is Grace Slick's first appearance on THE LATE LATE SHOW, when she referred to the crux of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal with the phrase "polishing a knob." Snyder smiled at the former psychedelic rock goddess with an ever-widening Cheshire grin before saying, "You know... I like you."
Which brings us to another of Tom's great TOMORROW moments, and perhaps the one that most crystallizes his value as a broadcaster. There was a night when he interviewed actress Liv Ullmann, I believe on the occasion of the release of Ingmar Bergman's SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE. (Yes, I've heard about Bergman's passing, but that will have to be another topic for another time.) Throughout the interview, there blossomed something very strange in the communication between interviewer and interviewee that was as quizzical as it was compelling to watch. They seemed to be flirting with one another but, then again, they weren't. The next night, Tom opened the show by confessing that, during the previous night's interview with Ms. Ullmann, he had felt a powerful erotic pull that, he was convinced, was being reciprocated and teased on the air. The interview, from his perspective, had been great foreplay. After the show, a production associate alerted him that Ms. Ullmann and her entourage were going to the elevators to leave, and he literally ran after her. Catching the actress just as the doors were closing, he took her aside and explained that he was under the impression that they'd shared what is now known as "a moment." Ullmann then very politely and tactfully thanked him for his flattering interest but said that he must have misinterpreted something in her manner.
He certainly didn't have to discuss such a personal story on the air, but stories like this helped to turn both of Tom Snyder's shows into something conspicuously more than a nightly talk show; they were, in a sense, personality-driven serials in which the interviews were central yet also incidental. There's an element of that in LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN, but in that setting, it's show-biz served with an unhealthy dollop of irony. With Snyder, you always got the reality of Tom Snyder at that moment -- good, bad, smart, stupid, curious, clueless, but ceaselessly watchable -- and his passing drops a precious digit from the ranks of a most endangered species.
Tonight, let's all raise a Colortini in his honor and watch the happy memories as they fly through the air.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

New SIGHT & SOUND, More Dish on DishNet

The August 2007 issue of SIGHT & SOUND is now on newsstands (or should be), which means that a free selection of material therein is now available for your perusal on their website. Among the attractions is my NoZone column on Bret Wood's directorial debut PSYCHOPATHIA SEXUALIS (Kino on Video) -- at least it claims to be there. Perhaps I caught the page still under construction, but as I type this, the link isn't connecting to the review. Maybe it will work for you by the time you read this. If not, keep trying. Better yet, buy the magazine.

To update you on my continuing Dish Network saga: Yesterday we had a Dish technician and his apprentice come to the house for a look at the set-up. To make a long story short, it seems the most likely cure for our recording ailment would be to swap out the VIP 211 with their DVR 622. Not only does this unit offer 160 hours of hard drive storage for HD content (not quite recording for posterity, but close), but the rear panel offers video outputs in both MPEG-4 and MPEG-2. We can run the MPEG-4 to our monitor and the MPEG-2 to our recorder, which would be giving it the same input that we had when there were no problems. In theory, it should work and my fingers are crossed.

The more MPEG-4 programming I see, the more impressed I am. I was checking out the Family Room HD shows two nights ago, before turning in, and was knocked out by the sumptuous video quality of... of all things, FLIPPER. Not the Universal theatrical remake of some years ago, but the original 1964 teleseries; it was like looking through a well-cleaned window at 1964. I never cared for the show particularly, but I was so impressed with the presentation that I stuck with it through the remainder of the episode in progress and an entire second episode. It was reformatted to 16:9 of course, but the show was filmed in such a way that the cropping was never very apparent. It was followed by THUNDERBIRDS, which I've always enjoyed, and it looked beautiful too, though the cropping here was more obvious. Even programming I'm more familiar with, like Rudy Maxa's SMART TRAVELS, looks significantly improved in MPEG-4, with purer, deeper blacks and heightened textures. And a World Cinema HD promo for Kieslowski's BLUE was astonishing in its clarity.

It seems to me, after having made the leap to HD DVD and Blu-ray now for some months, that the companies responsible for cherry-picking titles for release haven't made much of a leap with me. I'm not losing interest in HD per se, but I do find my interest in the HD disc formats slowly eroding. With the exception of CASINO ROYALE and CORPSE BRIDE, easily my two favorite HD/Blu-ray experiences, it's all been about upgrading so far, as far as my own viewing is concerned. The difference is usually appreciable, but very often it isn't exciting -- and, by "exciting," I mean the feeling I got when I first saw STARSHIP TROOPERS in SuperBit.

As I say, it's a matter of poor selection; I'd rather have DRAGONSLAYER than REIGN OF FIRE. Right now, there are only 10-20 titles on the market that I would care to watch more than once -- everything else is the 21st century equivalent of that early videocassette eyesore, FLASHDANCE. Broadcast HD, on the other hand, is infinitely more far-ranging and adventurous than the current selection on HD and Blu-ray discs. I saw 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in HD on HDNET one year ago, and wrote about it here; we're still waiting for the HD disc. That's why I tend to suspect, at this stage anyway, that broadcast HD may well become the surprise victor in this latest "format war," rather than either of its high profile combatants. Of the three options, it's the one with the most obvious imagination, and therefore the one with the most probable future.

HD is also at its best when it can take you by surprise. When you buy a film on HD or Blu-Ray disc, especially with the current crop of pickings, you sort of know in advance what you'll be getting. Broadcast HD offers you the opportunity to browse/surf through unexpected possibilities and have your breath unexpectedly taken away. Maybe even by FLIPPER.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

An Artful Penetration of THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS

Akira (Tamijo Kawaji) checks the beating heart of Yuki (Yuko Chishiro) after assaulting her in THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS.

KYONETSU NO KISETSU (1960), originally released in America under the exploitative title THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS, was the directorial debut of the Malaysia-born Koreyoshi Kurahara (1927-2002). I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting; this Nikkatsu production was distributed here in the States by Radley Metzger's Audubon Productions, usually an avatar of good taste though their ad campaigns could be sensationalistically exploitative, but it's certainly more than I was expecting.

Shown on the Dish Network/VOOM channel World Cinema HD with its Japanese title subtitled as THE WARPED ONES (which, to my senses, suggests a comedy), the film turns out to be an important rediscovery on many fronts. It is directed by Kurahara with a freewheeling, gleefully hedonistic verve that reminded me of nothing less than Joseph H. Lewis' GUN CRAZY, with Yoshio Mamiya's B&W scope cinematography alternating between the carefully composed and the recklessly hand-held. It's also a story of young adult delinquency that has some conscious ties to earlier Western works like GUN CRAZY, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and Godard's BREATHLESS but these pale in contrast to how much the film anticipates Stanley Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Scored by Toshiro Mayuzumi (STREET OF SHAME, WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS, THE INSECT WOMAN), it is also -- perhaps above all -- one of the great jazz films, and possibly the best illustration the cinema has ever given us of the jazz buff. It's the only film I've ever seen that makes jazz seem scarier than the darkest heavy metal, that makes jazz seem dangerous.

Akira, Masaru and Fumiko make plans for their stolen car.

It's the story of two petty thieves, jazz-loving Akira (Tamio Kawaji) and Masaru (Eiji Go), who use their hooker friend Fumiko (Noriko Matsumoto) to separate various horny tourists from their wallets. Caught in the act and arrested at a Tokyo jazz bar, Akira and Masuru find an opportunity for revenge soon after their release from jail, assaulting the arresting officer and abducting his girlfriend Yuki (Yuko Chishiro). They take her to a secluded nearby beach, where Akira rapes Yuki within an inch of her life while Masuru and Fumiko become better acquainted in the surf. As the episodic story continues, the three principals are shown living together, with Masaru determining to join a local yakuza gang, against Akira's leering advice. Akira is also tracked down by Yuki, who informs him that she is pregnant with his child.

Akira disrupts a contemporary art exhibition.

Akira, played by Kawaji with the face-rubbing mannerisms of Brando and the tortured swagger of James Dean, is a more extreme character than was seen in most Western cinema up to this time. He steals cars and motorbikes without shame, eats like a pig, drinks incessantly, and greets every woman he meets with "Wanna get laid?" He's not at all likeable, but he is fascinating -- especially when he's in the grip of something he understands, like a cathartic jazz solo. The film seems to acknowledge and ponder this dichotomy with a pair of complementary scenes; in one, a drunken Akira disrupts an art gallery exhibition, smearing his hands over valuable paintings, turning displayed abstract works upside down, and replacing the phony, lite jazz being played on a jukebox with the Real Thing.

Akira is treated like an art exhibition.

In a later scene, Akira goes to taunt Yuki at her cottage, where he finds her entertaining a group of local artists. Akira does everything he can to alienate these people, whom he regards as the flesh-and-blood equivalent of contemptible lite jazz, but they turn the tables on him and treat him as a remarkable art object in his own right, analyzing and approving his contempt for society to his face, and bidding against one another to obtain him as a model. Much as the exhibit sequence looks forward to Alex's (Malcolm McDowell's) invasive assaults on various Pop and Op Art domiciles in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, this sequence of artists deconstructing Akira seems to anticipate Alex's deconstruction by his admiring, cynical government. It should be noted that Akira sleeps next to... no, not an engaving of Beethoven's stony face... a framed copy of Ornette Coleman's THE SHAPE OF JAZZ TO COME. Even the jazz club where Akira broods between petty crimes foreshadows the Korova Milk Bar: the walls painted black and festishized with portraits of the great jazz masters, their names painted in delirious white strokes like the Milk Bar's adverts of Vellocet and Drencrom. Kubrick simply had to have seen it.

Yuki awaits the humiliation of her boyfriend at the hands of Fumiko.

In an unexpected turn of events, the pregnant Yuki prevails upon Fumiko for her help. Since her pregnancy became known to her boyfriend, their relationship has not been the same; he acts superior to her and treats her as someone tainted. So she pleads with Fumiko to seduce him, to destroy his pride as hers has been destroyed, so that they might rediscover their love for one another on levelled ground.

I won't go into the ironic finale, but the 75m film certainly builds to an evil boil and sustains its mood extremely well. I don't know if Quentin Tarantino is familiar with this movie -- which is apparently available in some form from Something Weird Video, probably the dubbed Audubon version (World Cinema HD showed the film in Japanese with subtitles that pulled no punches in the strong language department) -- but these characters seemed to me very much like antecedents of his most hellbent characters, and the whole feel of the film a convincing annex of his universe.

Under whatever title, Kurahara's film is much too important to be so obscure. The same goes for another Audubon import, Tinto Brass's NEROSUBIANCO, which Radley Metzger retitled THE ARTFUL PENETRATION OF BARBARA. (Yes, Virginia -- theaters actually used to show movies with titles like THE ARTFUL PENETRATION OF BARBARA and THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS, though they won't admit to this in your History class.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Retitlings on World Cinema HD

The World Cinema HD airing of THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS, which I mentioned yesterday, came off with some interesting variations. Dish Network listed the film on their menu under this highly exploitative title, but all of World Cinema HD's on-air promos gave the title in Japanese -- KYONETSU NO KISETSU -- in a bid to make it sound more respectable, I suppose. When the film began and its title appeared onscreen, it was subtitled as "THE WARPED ONES." It was preceded by a Janus Films logo, so it seems there is every chance that a Criterion DVD may someday be in the offing. (Ah, but under which title?)

Follow-up to my Dish Network woes: I was able to record an acceptable (1.78:1) copy of THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS this evening because it was shown in 2.35:1. It's still cropped, but a fast zoom-through didn't show any cropped subtitles or horribly damaged compositions. But most of what is being shown on Dish's HD channels is 1.78 or 1.85:1 to begin with, which my DVD-Recorder is receiving as a cropped 1.33:1 picture.

Donna and I have been troubleshooting today, and it seems that the real problem is inherent in my Panasonic DVD-Recorder, which -- like any other DVD-R currently on the market, that I know of -- is equipped to record MPEG-2 signals, not MPEG-4. It records MPEG-4, but it can't receive a full-blown widescreen signal; it crops the picture. If I use my TV controls to widen the picture, it only widens the cropped portion of the picture. My recorder also can't differentiate between an MPEG-4 picture that is squeezed or letterboxed or zoomed-in; it reads all of this incoming source as the same thing.

This means that -- if you have the same DVD-Recorder as me (a Panasonic DMR-E85H) -- this could well become your problem too, should you upgrade to MPEG-4. These MPEG-4 receivers are the new kid on the block, HD-wise, but it seems they're incompatible with current DVD-R technology, at least as I know it. Now I'm wondering if Radio Shack carries some kind of conduit that can dumb-down MPEG-4 to MPEG-2 purely for recording purposes. What are the chances that such a thing exists?

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back with Dish Network

Last week, we made an appointment for Dish Network to come out to the house and hook us up with a new receiver so that we could have an additional 15 or so HD channels. The Dish guy came to the house within the agreed-upon PM hours, announced that he didn't have a 40-foot ladder (necessary to reach the roof of our house), so he set up another appointment for our upgrade on the following Monday -- today.

Today, another Dish guy arrives... well before the 12-5:00 agreed-upon time. "You're early," I tell him, sleepily. "Yes, I am early," he replies sullenly, obviously refusing to take any guff from the customer. He's got a ladder on the truck but he says he has no intention of using it; I have everything I need for the upgrade already up there, and there's nothing to add on or take down. He doesn't know what the previous installer was thinking. He also can't figure out how he was able to arrange a follow-up visit with a phone call. After replacing my old Dish receiver (an MPEG-2 receiver installed in 2005) with a VIP 211 receiver (MPEG-4), he checks out the picture, tunes to an SD channel and tells me that I should never watch my TV with the gray bars displayed -- I should always watch the picture on these standard channels stretched like Silly Putty. When I begin to object, he cuts me off and says, "You can watch it any way you want, I'm just tellin' ya." Fine. Fine.

After the installer drives away to his next early appearance, Donna and I begin checking all the connections. To make a long and unhappy story short: The MPEG-4 receiver gives us a noticeably more beautiful HD picture... but.

I have always been able to record from my Dish Network receiver to my Panasonic DVD-Recorder. It didn't give me HD recordings, of course, but it recorded the programming shown on HD channels in a handsomely letterboxed format that I could then zoom-up to a most acceptable simulacra of HD. With my hours, time-shifting is often essential, and we use the DVD-Recorder a lot for that reason in particular. However... when hooked up identically to the MPEG-4 receiver, I don't get letterboxing. Even when I dumb the picture down to 480 or 720 and reconfigure the framing to 4:3x2 and get a letterboxed image on my monitor, the signal that the receiver is sending into my recorder is fully uncompressed with the left and side of the frame blocked by my gray bars. I can sit there pumping the Format button on my Dish remote, changing the screen configuration from Zoom to Partial Zoom to Gray Bars to Normal, and the onscreen image being sent into my DVD-Recorder is as unchanging as the expression on the Lincoln Memorial.

We've tried everything and don't know what to do. To make matters worse, Dish's World Cinema HD channel is showing THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS tomorrow evening, something I would dearly love to record. (I've been fascinated by this 1960s Japanese import since I first saw its trailer as part of Something Weird's first TWISTED SEX compilation.) If we keep the MPEG-4 connected, we'll get a recording, but it will be cropped. If we hook-up our MPEG-2 receiver, which we haven't sent back yet, we won't get the World Cinema channel at all, because it's accessible only to subscribers of what they call "the HD3 package."

So now we have to figure out what we're going to do. We still have an MPEG-2 HD hook-up in our basement, but I really don't want to turn the basement into the headquarters of my DVD-R recording. Part of me suspects that the MPEG-4 was created to be used solely with Dish Network's DVR, which can store quite a bit of HD broadcast information on its hard drive but, if you ask me, isn't quite the same as burning that information to a disc. I don't need to record in HD at the moment, but I do need to continue recording my HD programming in SD. Dish Network is sending someone to the house on Wednesday, supposedly between 12:00 and 5:00, to assess the situation. I fully expect the visit to be for nothing, though I would like very much to be able to report otherwise here on Thursday.

I know that this blog is read by many different kinds of film buffs. If there's anyone out there with insight into this particular problem, and perhaps a solution, I'd love to hear from you.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A Preview of VIDEO WATCHDOG #133

Our next issue is now at the printer. To whet your appetite, our customary four-page preview is now posted in the "Coming Soon" department of www.videowatchdog.com -- absolutely free! -- along with a near-complete list of contents. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 22, 2007


For those interested in witnessing important moments in television history unfold in real time, tonight's broadcast of WHAT'S MY LINE? on Game Show Network (3:00 am eastern) should be the first episode shown in the wake of panelist Dorothy Killgallen's death. Last weekend, GSN showed Killgallen's final WML broadcast, with mystery guest Joey Heatherton. Let's hope GSN handles tonight's broadcast more responsibly than last week's, which was ruined by a misplaced commercial interruption that omitted the majority of the second guest's appearance.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

In Case You Don't Check Over There Daily...

Three VERY important announcements were posted today on the Bava Book Update blog.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Dylan's Buried Treasure: "I'm Not There (1956)"

Those of you who have seen the trailer for Todd Haynes' forthcoming experimental biopic about Bob Dylan, I'M NOT THERE, on YouTube may have been struck -- as I was -- by its musical accompaniment. Though I've been reading a lot about Dylan these past months, and immersing myself in his albums as I read, I was unfamiliar with the fragment, which I found immediately absorbing and haunting. I took lyrics from the song to BobDylan.com's lyric search and drew a blank. The reason for this is simple: the song, which is called "I'm Not There (1956)", has never been commercially released.

It belongs to that mysterious group of 1967 recordings known as "The Basement Tapes," and it was not included among the songs found in Columbia's legitimate release of the alleged cream of the crop. The trailer includes only a 1:58 snippet of the entire piece, which runs 5:08; it's been rerecorded by Sonic Youth for the movie but, as the trailer seems to insist, the original version must be heard.

It's been awhile since a song got its hooks so deeply into me. I heard "I'm Not There (1956)" for the first time in its entirety yesterday -- I was able to find an mp3 here (scroll down 13 short paragraphs) -- and must have listened to it at least twenty times throughout the day, amazed that a song could communicate its emotion so palpably even though the lyrics (mostly improvised on the spot) hovered between incompletion and incoherence, even taking the time to learn the comparatively simple piece on my bass to try to come to terms with it musically. Here is some of what I found written in various sources about this amazing piece...

From THE OLD, WEIRD AMERICA by Greil Marcus:

"There is nothing like 'I'm Not There' -- called 'I'm Not There, I'm Gone' when Garth Hudson wrote down basement titles, later retitled 'I'm Not There (1956)' -- in the basement recordings, or anywhere else in Bob Dylan's career. It was only recorded once; unlike others of the new basement songs, which Dylan rerecorded or continued to feature on stage thirty years later, it was never sung again.

She fell into conversation with the first fat man she saw.
"What do you do?," he said, fitting two potato chips into his mouth.
I go to parties and only talk to the fat guys, she thought.
Owen was home writing. She thought of it as an act of fidelity to talk only to the unattractive guys.
She started to tell him about her jobs. She was talking on automatic pilot, hardly listening to what she was saying -- instead, she was listening to Dylan. Going through the host's record collection, she'd found a bootleg album that included "I'm Not There," a legendary, never-released, never-completed song from the Basement Tapes sessions -- a song that she'd heard just once, the summer after high school, and that she'd been searching for ever since. It came on while she was talking; it was even more haunting than she remembered.
She touched the fat guy's wrist. "This," she said, "may be the greatest song ever written."

"The woman speaking is the heroine of a 1991 novel by Brian Morton called THE DYLANIST, and it's a wonderful thing she says -- because so many people have responded the same way, at the same time realizing that 'I'm Not There' is barely written at all.... The song is a trance, a waking dream, a whirlpool... Words are floated together in a dyslexia that is music itself -- a dyslexia that seems meant to prove the claims of music over words, to see just how little words can do... In the last lines of the song, the most plainly sung, the most painful, so bereft that after the song's five minutes, five minutes that seem like no measurable time, you no longer believe that anything so strong can be said in words."

From composer Michael Pisaro:
"It's almost as though he has discovered a language or, better, has heard of a language: heard about some of its vocabulary, its grammar and its sounds, and before he can comprehend it, starts using this set of unformed tools to narrate the most important event of his life... [Rick] Danko plays [bass] as if he knows that all his life this song has been waiting for him to complete it, and that he will be given only one chance."

From BOB DYLAN: PERFORMING ARTIST 1960-1973 by Paul Williams:
"What's astonishing here is that we can feel with great intensity and specificity what the singer is talking about, even though 80% of the lyrics have not been written yet!... It's as though when Dylan writes, the finished song is not constructed piece by piece as we might imagine, but tuned in; there is an entirety from the first but still out of focus, like the photograph of a fetus, a blur whose identifying characteristics are implicit but not yet visible -- not because they're obscured but because they haven't yet taken shape. 'I'm Not There' is a performance complete in feeling -- 'Dylan's saddest song,' says [THE TELEGRAPH editor John] Bauldie -- achieved without benefit of context or detail. It's like listening to the inspiration before the song is wrapped around it."

With this kind of press, I'm surprised that this forty year old piece isn't better known to the public at large. People talk about the Basement Tapes at length, but this particular song is surely, on its own, to Bob Dylan what SMILE was, for decades, to Brian Wilson. As much as I love what Wilson did when he resurrected SMILE as a solo recording, its availability has taken away from the almost sacred mystery that enveloped the original Beach Boys recordings so painstakingly produced by Wilson, which fans loved to collect, share, and arrange into their own personal visions of what the unfinished album might have been. "I'm Not There (1956)" -- whose attached date is only one of many unexplained mysteries about it -- is of such similar appeal that I'm surprised that Dylan fans aren't out there writing and sharing their own lyrics to complete the jigsaw... but, who knows, maybe they do.

One of the many uncanny things about this piece is that Dylan must have known what he had, but he had the awareness of his own craft to know, despite the incompletion of the piece, that this singular recording had somehow miraculously achieved everything that any completed version possibly could and was wise enough to leave it alone. Its rough-hewn quality also invests it with something that no finished song ever has. In its own way, "I'm Not There" is perfect and there's no need for Dylan to touch it again. It might tempt him to finish it.

It's interesting that Todd Haynes chose this obscure song as the title piece for his film, but it does represent in some ways Dylan's own mercurial, artfully dodging persona, which I take to be one of the film's primary concerns, as it supposedly casts seven different actors as Bob Dylan at different phases of his career. My feeling about Haynes' previous work is that it's always very enticing but somehow always falls short of satisfying me completely. The idea to cast different actors as Dylan is an inspired one, one that qualifies this film as fantastic cinema sight unseen, but I'm looking forward to I'M NOT THERE with equal parts eagerness and trepidation. There is a preview scene from the film on YouTube featuring Cate Blanchett as Dylan, who strikes me in this snippet as playing Patti Smith in Dylan drag. Even so, the casting is inspired and it looks like a film that has winks to offer as well as wisdom. If it only brings this song within reach of more appreciative ears, the effort will have been worth it.

I'm hoping it turns out to be the superhero film of the year.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Guess the Secret Moiderer and Win $1000

Do You DARE Sit In One of These Chairs???

Shout Factory's YOU BET YOUR LIFE - THE BEST EPISODES came out three years ago, almost to the day, but it was only recently that I obtained it. Thirty or so years have passed since I last saw Groucho Marx's classic game show, and it was wonderful to see it again: every single episode made me laugh myself sick. In answer to everyone's first question: No, the Tor Johnson episode isn't included, but you do get appearances by Harpo Marx, Chico Marx (not onstage, but visible applauding in the audience), Johnny Weissmuller, Phyllis Diller, Joe Louis, Edgar & Candice Bergen, Harry Ruby and VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS' own Joy Harmon. Not a bad bang for the buck.
After making my way through all 18 episodes, and feeling more than a bit sorry to have finished so fast, I turned to the Bonus Features: three "stag reels" of bits that didn't make it to air, some outtakes that can be reintegrated into the episodes from which they were taken, various commercials (one featuring the three Marx Brothers), and last but not least, three Groucho-related pilots. There remain two of these I haven't watched yet, but the first of the pilots -- THE PLOT THICKENS (1963) -- turned out to be a revelation.
Why? Well, check out these credits from the end of the 29m episode:

I expect a lot of things when I delve into Bonus Features on a DVD, but discovering an obscure, forgotten game show pilot that is the only known collaboration of William Castle, Robert Bloch, and Groucho Marx is not one of them. This was the first Castle-Bloch collaboration, prior to Bloch's scripts for STRAIT-JACKET and THE NIGHT WALKER (both 1964).

Bailiff Warrene Ott, mascot Lucifer and district attorney Jack Linkletter.
THE PLOT THICKENS is an experimental combination of murder mystery/courtroom drama à la PERRY MASON and game show. It's hosted by "district attorney" Jack Linkletter and sidekick "bailiff" Warrene Ott), whose uniform is a black danceskin replete with tail, which Groucho pinches at one point; Warrene (THE PHANTOM PLANET, THE UNDERTAKER AND HIS PALS) is there mostly to lend the show sex appeal, while dutifully stroking the show's unhappy-looking black cat mascot, Lucifer. There's also a panel of four celebrity "detectives," one of whom (Richard Halley) is a real-life detective; the others are actress Jan Sterling (ACE IN THE HOLE, 1984), writer Stanley Ralph Ross (later of TV's BATMAN), and of course, Groucho.

Panelists Richard Halley, Stanley Ralph Ross, Jan Sterling, and the one, the only... Groucho.

The panel are shown a 10m mystery film ("Mystery in the Crystal Ball," featuring Joe Maross as a detective named Penfield) that involves a murder and four possible suspects, then those "suspects" are assembled in four empty seats onstage, where the celebrity detectives "grill" them before a live audience. Each of the suspects must tell the truth... except for the murderer, who is given permission to lie to conceal their identity. Any celebrity who correctly guesses the identity of the murderer wins $500... and if the real detective fails where the celebrity detectives succeed, their prize amount is doubled to $1000.

Two scenes from "Murder in the Crystal Ball," featuring James Callahan, Arthur Batanides, and Linda Bennett.

I grant that it's very odd to see celebrities vying for money they intend to win for themselves, but maybe there wasn't much of a salary involved. Then again -- and this is probably the real explanation, given the show's patrimony -- maybe it's all show business. The mystery film is practically indistinguishable from the first reel of a PERRY MASON episode, and directed by a veteran of 21 episodes of that series, William D. Russell. I personally found the mystery fairly easy to solve, but the pilot was a delight anyway for Groucho's interjections of humor, his flirtatiousness with the bailiff and suspect Linda Bennett (whose IMDb page credits her with this pilot, a movie called NAKED FLAME which I do believe features her, and a couple of Sixties grindhouse pictures in which another woman of her name appeared), and the "grilling" sequences, which required four actors to act in character but without a script -- a rarely witnessed dramatic exercise with actors of this vintage.

Suspects Jay Adler, Linda Bennett, James Callahan and Kathryn Giveney have a laugh when the real killer is unmasked.

YOU BET YOUR LIFE - THE BEST EPISODES would be well worth having even without this pilot, but knowing that THE PLOT THICKENS was included, and its specifics, would have made the set absolutely irresistable to me -- and perhaps to you, too, which is why I thought I'd share the news. There remain two more pilots in this set that I haven't watched: WHAT DO YOU WANT? and TELL IT TO GROUCHO. For all I know, they might guest star Delphine Seyrig and Wild Man Fischer and be directed by Sergei Parajanov.

Apparently, with Groucho, anything is possible.

Monday, July 16, 2007

In Defense of Frank Dietz

Over at the Classic Horror Film Boards this past weekend, Frank Dietz (seen here with his much-deserved "Artist of the Year" Rondo Award) startled everyone by announcing his retirement as horror fandom's foremost artist and caricaturist.

"Unfortunately," he writes, "the selling of my work is apparently illegal, which I did not realize after 12 years of doing so, so I will no longer sell my monster art... Is this an overreaction? Perhaps, but the answer is simple. I have two beautiful daughters. I will not endanger my children's financial future by testing the wrath of studio lawyers, who could 'send a message' by wiping out my life savings. It's that simple."

Frank's announcement does not confirm that he has been approached by a studio legal representative and served with threatening "cease and desist" paperwork, but it would seem a strong possibility. Frank's portraits and caricatures do indeed feature copyrighted characters, trademarked faces or studio makeups, and he sells this work to private collectors.

As someone who owns a couple of Dietz originals (a painting and a charcoal portrait), I find the possibility of such bullying both galling and reprehensible. I say this as someone with intellectual property of my own, toward which I feel a sense of vigilance and responsibility. Certainly, I would object if someone announced their intention to film my novel THROAT SPROCKETS without my permission or involvement; on the other hand, I believe that my rights as creator begin to lose some of their grip, or should, when it comes to my work inspiring other forms of art. The link no longer works, but I once found online a painting by an artist named Léandre Borgia that was labelled as an hommage to THROAT SPROCKETS and, a couple of years ago, a writer approached me seeking my permission to write a novel in which my novel would play an active part in the narrative. I found both of these responses to my novel immensely flattering; it wasn't the same thing as finding my original TABOO story (illustrated by Mike Hoffman) bootlegged in a foreign comic book with the TS movie's title changed to DEEP THROAT. To that, I did object.

When any artist lets their work out into the world, either by printing a book or selling a movie ticket, it is absurd (to use one of the kinder characterizations) for them to presume that their creative rights extend to cover anything and everything that work might inspire. It has to do with the free exchange of ideas. It used to be the same way with movies -- would there be a Batman without Roland West's THE BAT, or a Joker without Paul Leni's THE MAN WHO LAUGHS? -- but no more. Why? Because Hollywood has no new ideas, only new technologies and new video formats. This places a terrible burden on the precious reserves of ideas these studios already have: a burden to make these old ideas continually profitable. If studios had an ounce of faith in a future based on new commercial ideas, they wouldn't need to worry so much about the past.

What if Frank Dietz creates an original portrait of the Frankenstein Monster, or Vincent Price, or E. E. Clive, and sells it at a convention? How does this differ from, say, Basil Gogos doing a painting of the same, selling it to Warren Publications as a cover of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, which is then sold coast-to-coast on newsstands? Is the latter more acceptable, even though it involves a much larger exchange of money all around (especially for Warren), because it is promotional in nature? But who is to say that the art of Frank Dietz isn't promotional? It's fan art like his that kept the appetite for classic monster movies alive all those years when Universal, Warners, Columbia and other studios couldn't be bothered to release those films on home video -- at conventions, in fanzines. But in today's paranoid and possessive climate, such loving action becomes litigable.

Who we must ultimately thank for ugly turns of event like this are, of course, the Studio Attorneys, who must account for their lavish annual salary and expense accounts by doing something/anything. And so Goliath turns viciously on David, bringing down his colossal foot on the banner David is carrying, which just happens to say "YAY, GOLIATH!"

While the expense would surely be dreadful, I would love to see a case like this honestly explored in a court of law. Frank's caricatures are certainly humorous and satire and parody are protected by the First Amendment. There is also the matter of precedent to be considered here. Universal's monster characters, to take a handy example, have not appeared exclusively in Universal films since their inception. You can also find them in shorts and cartoons made by other studios, in MAD magazine, in editorial cartoons, you name it. It comes with being part of the cultural landscape, and none of the artists who perpetuated these characters in these secondary media did so for free, nor were they required to tithe a portion of their salaries back to Universal. And, truth be told, Universal lost nothing by sharing these characters thusly with the world, while they gained a fabulous fortune in terms of fame and public goodwill. But in today's legal view, something like Bobby Pickett's "The Monster Mash" might be characterized as having siphoned unforgivable millions from the Universal till, even though everyone who bought that record loved Universal's horror movies all the more as a result of hearing it and hearing it again.

Sure, Frank profits from his drawings and paintings -- or did. But, as I said over at the CHFB, it's not really the subjects of Frank's work that sell it; it's what his eye and hand bring to those subjects. I have seen a dozen people crowded around his table at Wonderfest, looking at the artwork on display, and everyone zeroes in on something different, something that speaks to their own unique experience of that character, that actor, that scene. In fact, I would go so far as to contend that nothing tangibly existed of, say, Vincent Price and THE TINGLER that can be seen in Frank's caricature of same prior to his drawing it. Through his work, Frank was able to make some elusive quality of Price's performance in the film tangible, in a way that it isn't evident in stills or even necessarily in the movie itself (film viewing being such a subjective matter in itself) -- and that's what makes his art so special and so beloved by fans.

If a studio should want to harness such talent and put it to work for them, that's one thing. But to reach over and unceremoniously pull the plug on an artist's entire future of self-expression, because they are under the psychotic impression that they somehow own it, is something else entirely. Yet this is "studio thinking," wholly consistent with a system dedicated to making us pay over and over for the same movie-going experience, whether it's remakes or double- and triple-dipping DVDs, and obtaining ultimate control over all that we see and hear regarding its output. If such corporate characteristics were applied to an individual, they would qualify him or her as mentally ill.

If Frank Dietz's right to interpret the monsters we know and love in art can be intimidated out of existence, how long will it be before the interpretations of the written word -- film criticism, for example -- suffer the same fate? We must have freedom of the press, which is predicated on what I referenced earlier, the free exchange of ideas.

Mr. Studio Attorney might counter by asking, "What's so free about Frank Dietz charging for his artwork?" Actually, Frank's artwork is freely displayed -- he puts it in galleries and on convention tables to attract and amuse people. It's free to look all you want. When money does change hands, it's mostly to reimburse him for the time and materials that brought those works to life. The people that buy his art then display it on the walls of their homes, where it becomes a vehicle through which these actors, characters and scenes can be venerated and enjoyed on a daily basis -- because the original product, the film itself, has already been consumed. To create art for such a purpose is, in my view, a more honest and respectable living than making your product's biggest boosters feel like crooks.

Hang in there, Frank. Whatever the situation is, I hope it can be resolved.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Hello I Must Be Absent

It's been another two day week here on Video WatchBlog, for which you have my sincere apologies. We're deep in production on VW #133 right now. I've done a lot of writing this week, just very little writing here. Maybe I can make up for it sometime over the weekend, but today I'm supposed to proofread the issue, so I don't expect there will be time to do anything here other than post this early morning explanation.

Did any of you happen to catch OPERATION BIKINI on TCM? Strange movie, and I hope to comment on it in the days ahead. Oh yeah: I also need to tell you about the William Castle curio that snuck out on DVD recently. You may even own it and not know it. Alas, no time.

Before I zip on out of here, a hearty Congratulations and Many Happy Returns to the author of VW's current cover story, my pal David J. Schow, who adds another candle to his cake today.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Set Your Timers for TCM Tomorrow

Just a quick note to alert my readers that tomorrow is an important day on Turner Classic Movies. Scheduled for 9:00 am est is Terence Fisher's SO LONG AT THE FAIR (1950) with Jean Simmons and Dirk Bogarde. The story bears a close resemblance to the Marian B. Cockrell story adapted five years later as "Into Thin Air," one of the select episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS to be directed by Hitchcock itself. It starred Hitchcock's daughter Patricia. It's unusual for any of Fisher's pre-Hammer work to surface on American television, but this Gainsborough Pictures production is masterfully done and suspenseful, so essential viewing for Fisher devotees.

Later in the afternoon TCM is hosting a Tab Hunter triple feature. The third offering at 3:45 pm est, RIDE THE WILD SURF (which TCM is claiming was co-directed by William Castle!), is a frequent enough sighting on TCM. However, scheduled between 12:30pm and 3:45pm are two Tab Hunter pictures never shown before on cable television to my knowledge. OPERATION BIKINI (1963) is an American International produced, serious WWII drama starring Hunter, Frankie Avalon and Jody McCrea; it's directed by Anthony Carras, an AIP AD who directed more of the BEACH PARTY films than he's credited for doing.

Scheduled right after OPERATION BIKINI is THE GOLDEN ARROW, the Arabian Nights fantasy that Hunter made for director Antonio Margheriti in 1962. When I mentioned this film on this blog some time ago, I received an e-mail from a French correspondent who was incredulous that I had seen this "lost" film. I explained that it wasn't lost, merely hard to see, so with this in mind, I would urge any of you with a strong interest in the Golden Age of Italian Fantasy to tune in or record the broadcast. This is a scope film (Technirama, actually), and while the TCM website doesn't list it as a letterboxed showing, neither are any of their other widescreen offerings for tomorrow so described. My guess (at least my hope) is that it will be letterboxed. Go here to preview the film's scrumptiously colorful, widescreen trailer.

To The Land Beyond Beyond

Kerwin Mathews holds Kathryn Grant in the palm of his hand in THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD.

It was learned over the weekend that actor Kerwin Mathews, best remembered as the star of Ray Harryhausen's epochal fantasy THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958), passed away in his sleep during the early hours of July 5. He was, unbelievably, 81 years old. When I was a child, Mathews stood proudly at the helm of a number of exciting fantasy adventures, movies that gave substance to my daydreams and those of countless other kids of, or roughly, my same age. His persona -- handsome, intelligent yet uncomplicated, and somehow speculative in aspect -- was one of those that kept me coming back to the movies.

Born in Seattle in 1926, he began acting in the mid-50s, dividing his time between bit parts on television (SPACE PATROL, PLAYHOUSE 90) and in the movies (Phil Karlson's 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE, Robert Aldrich & Vincent Sherman's THE GARMENT JUNGLE) before claiming his first lead in TARAWA BEACHHEAD (1958), directed by Paul Wendkos. THE 7TH VOYAGE followed almost immediately and that special something that Mathews had, clicked; it found its proper setting. Like anyone wishing to prove themselves as an actor, he often yearned to move outside that narrow definition, and sometimes he did, but it was as a fantasy hero that he most regularly fulfilled his promise onscreen: as a peplum star with more charisma than muscles in Pietro Francisci's THE WARRIOR EMPRESS (1960), as Dr. Lemuel Gulliver in Harryhausen's THE THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER (1960), as the swashbuckling Jonathon Standing in Hammer's THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER (1962, in which he crossed swords with Christopher Lee decades before Yoda), and in the title role of JACK THE GIANT KILLER (1962), a delightful but bare-faced imitation of 7TH VOYAGE that appears to have brought an end to his happy association with Ray Harryhausen.

7TH VOYAGE had been filmed in Spain, and Mathews was very much a continental gentleman in the 1960s. Among his other pictures were Hammer's suspense thriller MANIAC (1963, one of his finer, most surprising, dramatic performance); Euro spy pictures like OSS117 (1963) and PANIC IN BANGKOK (1964), both directed by FANTOMAS helmsman André Hunebelle; the British-made BATTLE BENEATH THE EARTH (1967), and two more by French director Maurice Cloche: THE VISCOUNT (1967) and THE KILLER LIKES CANDY (1968). When the European film scene entered its period of crisis in 1968, he returned to America but found his moment had passed him by. More accurately, his moment kept coming back -- in the form of Columbia reissues of THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD in the mid-1960s and again in the early-to-mid 1970s. Mathews retained his youthful appearance even after his hair turned gray, but it was difficult for him to move beyond a public perception of him that seemed destined to be renewed every ten years. As I reported last April 23 in this blog, even JACK THE GIANT KILLER came back... as a musical!

After making A BOY... A GIRL (1969) for John Derek, what remained for Kerwin Mathews onscreen was essentially unworthy of him. There was Harry Essex's OCTAMAN (1971, now remembered solely as the screen debut of makeup wizard Rick Baker), Nathan Juran's THE BOY WHO CRIED WEREWOLF (1973, which at least scored a prominent national release through Universal), and finally NIGHTMARE IN BLOOD (1978), the low-budget directorial debut of San Francisco TV horror host John Stanley.

Seeing the performance that Kerwin Mathews gives in films like MANIAC and THE LAST BLITZKREIG, one begins to see that there was probably a great deal that he could have done as an actor that he never had the opportunity to share with us. He may have privately bemoaned that the "right" role came along too early and closed a lot of doors to him, but how many of those doors could have led to something more important, and more important to more people, than his Sinbad? Or his Jack? These roles may have closed professional doors, but they kept doors open between Mathews and his fans long after he had retired into private life in his beloved San Francisco. It's said that a week didn't go by without fan mail written by someone newly introduced to the colorful, fanciful fables and myths in which he once starred.

Mathews reminded me a lot of Gordon Scott, whom we lost earlier this year. They were alike in that they both drifted out of exotic adventure pictures into Euro spy fare, and they both got out of the movie business around the same time, spending their extended retirements below the general radar and venturing out only occasionally to make public appearances at autograph shows. (Mathews enjoyed a happier old age, it's comforting to know.) But, most importantly, they shared a magnetism that was equal parts reliability, intelligence, virility, and wholesomeness -- a strange combination that somehow added up to the perfect recipe for adventure heroes. No comic book artist ever imagined more convincing protagonists than these two, and when you saw them in a movie, you knew two things for sure: that anything could happen and they would meet each new challenge head-on -- without fear and without irony.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


If you were lucky, on Monday night you were able to see Turner Classic Movies' premiere broadcast of Joseph Losey's Hammer film THESE ARE THE DAMNED (known in the UK simply as THE DAMNED), made in 1961 and first released in 1963. This showing marked the first time it has ever been shown on American television in its original Hammerscope 2.35:1 width and its original length. Until last night, I don't think I had ever seen a version longer than its 87m US running time, but TCM's print ran 95m 9s.

This is one of a select number of films, and perhaps the only Hammer film, that I find grows more profound with the passing years. I've always admired it, and always for different reasons. In my teens, I admired it for its alienated quality; in my twenties, for its nihilism; in my thirties, for its irony; in my forties, for its doomed idealism; and now, in my fifties, I am most impressed by the previously unsuspected depths of its realism. (Losey was in his early sixties when he made it.) This film still speaks with great urgency to our world and the cruel ways in which it operates, like a candle burning toward its center from two lighted ends, but also with a certain resignation. It's a film that believes in survival, while questioning the idea of survival-at-all-costs.

Oliver Reed as King, his earliest fully realized performance. Kenneth Cope as Sid, another important character, at frame right.

Scripted by Evan Jones and an uncredited Losey, the film is said to be loosely based on "The Children of Light," a story by H. L. Lawrence. The script is ingeniously aimed at the eventual convergence of three separate male-female relationships representative of different phases of life. The first is between King (Oliver Reed), the neurotic leader of a Teddy Boys gang, and his younger, independence-craving sister Joan (Shirley Anne Field); the relationship of these young people is predicated on the past, as it has been traumatized by their abandonment by their parents. The second is between Joan and Simon (Macdonald Carey), a middle-aged American tourist whom Joan lures into victimization by King's gang, but she is drawn to him by his old world gallantry, which makes her feel more a woman than a child; their relationship is predicated, as with all new lovers, on the future they might inhabit together. The third relationship is between two middle-aged lovers, Freya (Viveca Lindfors) and Bernard (Alexander Knox), respectively a sculptress and a former public servant whose professional ascent has left him in charge of a Top Secret military science program whose nature must be kept under wraps at all costs. Their once appealingly provocative oppositions have aged into dangerously divergent philosophies; their relationship is thus predicated on the past, because only in the past was there cause to believe in the future. Freya finds solace from reality in the pursuit of her art; Bernard has no such consolations.

Viveca Lindfors and Alexander Knox.

As I watched THESE ARE THE DAMNED again, I found myself most drawn this time to the different stages of life reflected in these three relationships, as well as the film's subtextual conviction that the world would be a much better place if we could all simply find a way to do what we most like to do. If this is a naïve idea, the film argues, that is its saving grace because any philosophy more cynical lends us as a civilization to our doom. This is an idea that comes out, as do all the film's meatiest philosophic exchanges, in dialogue between Freya and Bernard. As Freya suggests at one point, Bernard's ambition to public service was not his failing, but rather that his morals were different to hers. The film runs riot with divergent morals, and the worst we can do -- the film seems to say -- is to believe the conservative propaganda that there is only one valid morality, because therein lies the key to fascism and the ultimate instrument of political blackmail. Bernard has turned this key in his own heart, and his strict need for secrecy has closed him off, made him cold -- and coldness figures in his secret itself: the existence in a subterranean complex of nine naturally radioactive children who are being groomed to inherit the Earth after the inevitable nuclear devastation of the planet.

Bernard's clandestine classroom -- note the looming shadow of Freya's "cemetery bird" sculpture visible in frame with him.

Bernard's tenure in the world of politics has left him worse than a cynic; he's become a fatalist, too beaten down by bureaucracy to believe any longer in human solutions to human problems. His entire approach to his life and future has a basis in death. He's also a hippocrite, bemoaning how "the age of senseless violence" has reached the British Isles with the vicious antics of the Teddy Boys though he represents a far more conscious and final brand of senseless violence. For her part, Freya -- being a sculptress and daily engaged in the process, discipline and indeed the religion of creation (not creationism!) -- scoffs at Bernard's stoic certainty that such a day will ever come, and when she finally learns of the existence of the children, she rightly questions (as perhaps only a woman can) exactly what kind of world Bernard is preparing them to inhabit. It's my reading of the film that what Bernard hopes will survive the holocaust is not really the children, but rather the principles with which they have been inculcated, so that these creatures of radiation might endure as a tribute to the extinct ideals that promulgated them. Freya's accidental discovery of the children shatters her romantic covenant with Bernard, and naturally signs her own death warrant, and in this way Losey emphasizes that any government that keeps secrets from the people is by definition our enemy, deranged and fascist. When the light of the outside world touches upon Bernard's dark secret, the result is chaos in the classroom -- an anarchic rebellion among the children, itself an indictment of the postwar realities that gave rise to the Teddy Boys' own brand of violent anarchy.

Anarchy in the U.K., fifteen years before the Sex Pistols.

Joseph Losey, of course, made this film as an American expatriate working abroad, during the time following his blacklisting in the United States. Though Michel Ciment's career-length interview book CONVERSATIONS WITH LOSEY finds the director not overly enamored with the film, nor with science fiction as a genre, it's hard not to see powerful personal currents coursing through it. The importance that Losey places on doing what we love to do is most effectively illustrated with Freya's decision to return to chiselling away at her sculpture-in-progress, though she knows she has only minutes left in which to live. Though she lives in almost complete isolation, she has chosen to live in accordance with her ideals and beliefs, and truthfully tells Bernard that she will not live in denial of what she knows. She is, then, a victim of her own honsty, rejecting the offer to join Bernard in his world of shadows, much as Losey himself was sent into exile from a supposedly free country for his political beliefs. In the film's closing moments, seen from the God-like vantage of a government helicopter, we see Bernard's project in ruins, with many lives traumatized if not ended and much faith destroyed, and a barren seaside landscape only modestly removed from desolation. What most survives in the film's closing tableaux is the power of Freya's art, much as the power of this film has survived the political turbulence of Losey's own life and times.

Joan and Simon -- literally kept at sea by the forces of intimidation on a yacht flying the American flag.

It's hard to believe that critical reaction to the film was lukewarm at best. The cutting of ten minutes from the film may have done it no favors, but it didn't really damage it or obscure its bravery and brilliance. Among other things, Losey was criticized for hiring "the bland American actor"Macdonald Carey for the lead role of Simon. What I see in Simon's relationship with Joan -- again, at my present age -- is an illustration of how people necessarily go through life, on some levels, wearing rose-colored glasses, preferring to believe in a fantasy of life rather than look too closely at the true complexion of the world they inhabit. Vacations are always invitations to romantic fantasy, of course, and we imagine that the relationship between Simon and Joan is unlikely to endure even if they survive their accidental exposure to the contaminated children. It is dreams such as they discuss while in each other's arms that makes day-to-day life bearable under the best circumstances. That said, when they are made aware of the hideous truth buried beneath the craggy cliffs surrounding Freya's studio, they show righteous outrage and dedicate themselves to the children's cause. If they ultimate do more harm than good by following their hearts, it's because Bernard's experiment has nothing to do with matters of the heart, or even common sense.

Carey may be unlikely casting, but he conveys a strong humanistic quality in his performance, quite genuine in contrast to Field's initially cool but increasingly warm portrayal, and he's convincing too as the film's only truly pro-active character. Field's dead-on performances as a vapid girlfriend in HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM and as a vapid actress in Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM were responsible for her earlier excoriation in the British press, but her scenes here with the children, or when she asks Simon to put her back ashore, convince me that she was better than competent, seem to me just what the Joan on the page needed.

Joan and Simon discover the cold children who do not turn warm when touched.

Seeing the film for the first time in its correct aspect ratio made me more aware of the specific importance of a supporting character, Sid, played by Kenneth Cope. Sid is first singled out by the film's framing when King (Reed) asks Joan if she thinks he'd ever let another man's hands touch her; it's cropped offscreen in standard ratio prints, but here we can see Sid's wounded reaction to King's words as he realizes that he, too, will have to tangle with King if his secret feelings for Joan ever come out.

Speaking of the film's cinematography, THESE ARE THE DAMNED is without a doubt one of the finest showcases director of photography Arthur Grant ever had. Though overshadowed in his career by the likes of Freddie Francis and Jack Asher, Grant was a master of widescreen photography in his own right, as this film and Roger Corman's TOMB OF LIGEIA show in particular. Both films, in fact, accrue a certain ambience from the presence of calcified rock -- the abbey in LIGEIA and the stony seaside cliffs of Portland Bill in THE DAMNED. The opening moments in the town square of Weymouth, set to an original James Bernard '50s-style rock song called "Black Leather Rock," offer us a fascinating idea of what A CLOCKWORK ORANGE might have looked like had a film been made closer to the time Anthony Burgess wrote his original novel. (Its first edition appeared in 1962, the year after THE DAMNED was made.)

King, Simon and Joan strike a temporary truce as they begin to succumb to radiation sickness.

But moreso than giving rise to appreciations of how well it is acted, directed, constructed, and photographed, viewing THESE ARE THE DAMNED reminds us of what a positive social tool the science fiction genre used to be, in the years before it succumbed to special effects, comic bookery, and soul-sucking nihilism wearing the expensive disguise of style. It was once a cinema of ideas and aspirations. At its best, science fiction could be a political force. As downbeat as this masterpiece may be, it has always left me feeling somehow more alert, more alive, with my hopes for the future in the ascendant. Part of that feeling is based in my own fundamental alliance with Freya's life philosophy -- it's not that I deny that bad things may happen, but that I refuse to live my life in service to the certainty that they will. Another part is my belief that the wisdom of this world-weary (yet world-loving) film is so eloquent and undeniable that -- as long as it can be seen by young people who might someday rise to positions of power -- our chances for survival should be in good hands.

Which brings me to my closing statement: This film has been out of circulation for too long. It's a profound pleasure, perhaps even a relief, to welcome it back.

Ken Russell at 80

The last two times I saw Ken Russell, it was rather unexpected. He makes surprise cameo appearances in two recent features, COLOR ME KUBRICK and TRAPPED ASHES, turning up late in the stories to play two different sorts of lunatic in two different asylums. Viewers of British television might feel that they too last saw him as an asylum inmate, as he turned up earlier this year as one of the surprise house residents of Channel 4's wonky reality show CELEBRITY BIG BROTHER.
Is he trying to tell us something?
Ken Russell has every right to gravitate to such roles because his asylum has always been the cinema, and our world is a madhouse if Ken Russell cannot be allowed to make movies. He hasn't made a full theatrical feature since 1991's dramatic monologue WHORE, though the IMDb claims that he's currently preparing a new version of MOLL FLANDERS for producer Harry Alan Towers. We can only hope that this provocative meeting of minds will yield something more ingratiatingly volatile than what he's been able to give us in the meantime, which ranges from the staid (PRISONER OF HONOR) to the silly (THE INSATIABLE MRS. KIRSCH), and from the disastrous (MINDBENDER) to the agreeably tame (LADY CHATTERLEY) and the unrecognizably bland (DOGBOYS).
Though it's been nearly twenty years of varying degrees of candy floss and novacaine, one instinctively knows that it hasn't been entirely his fault. Thirty years after VALENTINO (1977), I still can't see Ken Russell's byline on any film without imagining concussions of gunpowder and hearing the triumphal passages of the 1812 Overture. Only the spectre of Stanley Kubrick causes me to hesitate before hailing Ken Russell as the Beethoven of English-speaking cinema -- and yet, where Kubrick embodies the gravitas of Beethoven, Russell is the elation of Beethoven. And of Tchaikovsky. And of Mahler. And of Liszt. And of Townshend.
My first exposure to Ken Russell was THE DEVILS in 1971, when I was not really old enough to see it in the eyes of the MPAA. Walking into THE DEVILS without a clue is like inserting a finger(or worse) into a light socket without a clue; in retrospect, I'm certain there was much about the film that went over my 15 year-old head, but some very important life lessons have stuck with me, and every subsequent time I've seen it, I have felt renewed awe in regard to its intensity, passion, and honesty. I feel it's a necessary film to see if one resolves to see the world as it is, which is by no means a sugar pill on the tongue. I wrote a definitive article about THE DEVILS for VW some years ago, which compared all the extant video versions and explained what was still missing and what was known about it. Mark Kermode gave the issue to Ken Russell and sent word back to me that the great man had considered my work "authoritative." Years later, following the blueprint of that article, Mark made it his own cause to see THE DEVILS restored and did so, even managing the impossible: finding the film's notoriously suppressed "Rape of Christ" sequence and having it shown on the BBC. I'm very proud of playing even a detached inspirational role in that remarkable turn of events.
Next Russell film: WOMEN IN LOVE at a revival booking in 1974. When I tell people that going to the movies in the 1970s was exciting because one always went knowing that it was possible you might see something that would completely change your life, or at least your outlook on it, I am mostly thinking of WOMEN IN LOVE. Ken Russell was one of very few English directors who could be counted on to deliver this sort of ego-shattering blow every single time to bat. I was knocked out by WOMEN IN LOVE; I saw it four times the week I first saw it. It inspired me to read the D.H. Lawrence novel, followed by all of Lawrence, and later that same year, it was the movie that Donna and I saw together before I proposed to her.
The same theater where I saw WOMEN IN LOVE subsequently played host to THE MUSIC LOVERS and SAVAGE MESSIAH, and it was in the company of the theater's owners when I saw TOMMY for the first time. In the parking lot, they put me in such a condition for the screening that I felt like I was inside that burning cockpit with Robert Powell. I've since watched TOMMY more times than any of Russell's films, and while the cockpit shot now looks to me quite blatantly phony, everything up to and including the Cousin Kevin sequence is as much like a dramatization of my own life story as I've ever seen onscreen. There are moments, certain shots, when I actually feel as though I'm looking through my own navel at events that took place before I was born.
My Whitman Sampler of Unforgettable Russell Moments: Max Adrian as Delius, honking the score of his next masterpiece to amenuensis Christopher Gable in SONG OF SUMMER... Glenda Jackson taunting the bulls, Alan Bates' reading of the fig poem, and of course the wrestling scene of WOMEN IN LOVE... Richard Chamberlain's suicide attempt in THE MUSIC LOVERS... Oliver Reed's response to the threatened demolition of Loudon in THE DEVILS... Helen Mirren's spectacular nude scene in SAVAGE MESSIAH... Ringo Starr as the Pope, Rick Wakeman as Thor, and Paul Nicholas as a vampiric Richard Wagner in LISZTOMANIA... Ann Margret writhing about in soap suds, baked beans and chocolate in TOMMY... William Hurt and Blair Brown eroding like sand sphinxes under the passing winds of time in ALTERED STATES... Annie Potts wrapping a gift for her estranged husband John Laughlin in Life Savers wrapping paper in CRIMES OF PASSION, and the long dialogue scene between the two of them where she admits to feeling unclean about sex... and literally everything that Oliver Reed does in TOMMY. (Ken Russell gave us the best of Oliver Reed -- never forget that.)
Someday the BBC must release DVD box sets of all of Russell's short films and television works, including the long-withdrawn DANCE OF THE SEVEN VEILS (1970), the subject of a still-standing injunction by the Johann Strauss estate. And Warner Home Video must release THE DEVILS, preferably with Mark Kermode's wonderful "Hell on Earth" documentary included in the set. The day's not over yet -- announce it as a birthday offering, you infidels!
And so bravissimo, Maestro, and a very Happy Birthday to you, wherever you may be. We've never met, but you know me too well. Not only have you changed the way I see, you've shown me how to live.

Monday, July 02, 2007

What, Me Thinking?

Jeremy Richey's Moon in the Gutter blog, which I've recommended to you in the past, has seen fit to "tag" me with a Thinking Blogger Award. There's no tangible award involved; rather, it's a thumbs-up from a fellow blogger, entitling one to include the above jpg with one's blogging and their blessing. I have no idea who started this ball rolling, but I'm flattered that it came to me before it rolled full-circle.

As I explained to Jeremy, I'm appreciative of his supportive gesture but I was reluctant to acknowledge it because that meant compliance with the rules that come with winning this honor, particularly the meme-like obligation to reassign it to five other worthy blogs. I'm really not that much into reading blogs, especially not film-related ones. (Believe me, I have enough film-related material to read by publishing a monthly magazine!) So the few blogs I do frequent, like Jeremy's, typically touch on a variety of different subjects. Also, the blogs I like can be, but are not necessarily, cerebral. Some are, but in many cases, I'm most attracted to the personality of the blogger, their kindred quality, their point of view, the brand of information or wisdom they impart.

As I was saying, it was my intention to thank Jeremy privately for his kindness (which I did) and otherwise pretend it didn't happen (which he understood), but now Peter Nellhaus over at Coffee Coffee and More Coffee has seen fit to give me an Honorable Mention on his list... so I'm feeling like I must make some kind of acknowledgement or run the risk of appearing snobbish.

So, okay, I'll tag some thinking blogs. Here are some personal favorites -- in no particular order, other than "ladies first" -- that I believe would make honorable additions to the roster. I don't know any of these bloggers personally and, to the best of my knowledge, none have been previously tagged:




MORRICONE LOVER by Soundtrack Lover


I don't want to explain why I chose these particular blogs. Follow the links, check them out, and come to an understanding of your own. Likewise, I'm not going to tell any of these bloggers that I've "tagged" them. They can find out for themselves -- by reading my (ahem, award-winning) blog.