Sunday, October 14, 2007
I love collecting live concert recordings, but I've never been much of a concert-goer. I've seen a number of acts who have mattered to me -- I had a seventh row seat to see Iggy Pop on his IDIOT tour with David Bowie on keyboards, I was once one of maybe 75 people who saw Pere Ubu one rainy night in the 1980s, I saw the original lineup of the Ramones three times -- but I've generally refused to travel very far to see any performer, and it hasn't helped my frequency of attendance that I don't drive, and my wife and I have conflicting musical tastes much of the time.
This year I've spent a lot of time undertaking a thorough self-education in Dylan -- I carry all of his albums, as well as some key bootlegs, on my Creative Zen (think iPod); I've read more than a dozen books about him this year, and seen most of his movies and the Scorsese documentary; and reading Paul Williams' trilogy of books about Dylan as a performance artist has turned me into a compulsive downloader/collector of his live shows from the past four decades. (My present goal is to collect at least one representative show from each live period... but I'm basically grabbing whatever I can find.) So I've been immersed in Dylan for awhile, as Donna well knows, and it seemed the culmination of all this process to actually attend one of his concerts, to see him in the now and hear what he happened to be playing now.
Value City Arena is a big basketball or hockey arena that is converted into a concert hall with temporary flooring and pre-arranged rows of folding (but surprisingly comfortable) chairs, whose only problem is not allowing for much in the way of shoulder room. The sound quality was a bit boomy, given the huge hollows of the arena, but was relatively clear and not overly loud. Amos Lee played for about 40 minutes with his band and was warmly received. He was not the sort of opening act you tune out. Their sound might be filed somewhere between classic period The Band and Dave Matthews, but that's just to give you a point of compass, not a remark on their originality. The songwriting was both heartfelt and capable, and the band itself seemed rehearsed while the music itself remained open to interpretation; they seemed quite flexible in performance, allowing themselves to seize upon moments of inspiration to veer from the charts into undiscovered country. I liked them -- not least of all because they were serious, eager to please, and comported themselves as though still uncorrupted by the record business.
After a ten-minute break, Elvis Costello took the stage, his microphone surrounded by a brace of four acoustic guitars and a table with bottled water and a cup of some other beverage. I was a big fan of Costello in his early years with The Attractions but drifted away after BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE for no particular reason, as I still regard it as one of his finest albums. But as Elvis took the stage, I felt an unexpected flush of happy emotions that he proceeded to earn with a consistently and impressively energetic and passionate performance of songs ranging from the very early ("Radio Sweetheart", "Allison") to more recent songs with a pronounced anti-war theme ("Whip It Up", "The Scarlet Tide"). These songs -- with a few humorous, personable, but pointedly political asides tucked betweeen them -- were torch-bearers for the troubadour spirit of the 1960s Bob Dylan and proved Elvis an inspired choice to share the bill with the original. If only he had launched into "Tokyo Storm Warning," I thought to myself, the Dylanesque resonance would have been complete. On second thought, nothing he was lacking. Elvis Costello was great and fully worth the price of admission.
Bob Dylan and his band took the stage after a somewhat longer break. Donna and I had scored fairly good seats for the show -- the first row of the second group of center seats on the floor -- but, from the moment Dylan took the stage, any benefits of our positioning were queered by everyone rising to their feet -- and they remained that way for 90% of the show. Not because the music was rousing and demanded a steady surge of enthusiasm, because these people in the priciest seats remained standing even during all but one of the ballads, though they could just as well have effectively gawked at the living legend from a sitting position. This caused some inconvenience to me, because I don't enjoy standing in a stationary position for an hour at a time, but even moreso for Donna, who's short and couldn't see much of the show even when standing. So, after driving all the way to Columbus, and paying over a couple of hundred dollars for the tickets and our overnight accomodations, she spent most of the show sitting and listening.
Dylan was wearing a very sharp, dark grey suit with sequins and a broad-brimmed gray hat with a blue feather in the band. He looked like Doctor Phibes, as he would've looked if he had turned up in a later sequel as a riverboat gambler with a Spanish alias. As is his habit these days, Dylan played the first three songs on guitar, then moved over to an electric keyboard for the rest of the show. I didn't mind him playing keyboard, but I minded that he moved away from the forefront of the band to sing and play in the manner of one of his own sidemen. He was seen, from that point on, mostly in profile and it seemed a deliberate cutting-back on the powerful opening impact that he had on the audience. For my money, the concert was at its most effective during the first four numbers -- "Rainy Day Women 12 & 35", "It Ain't Me Babe" (beautifully reinvented and given, in my opinion, the evening's one transcendent performance), "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" (one of the irregular numbers from the current tour) and, after the move to keyboards, "Love Sick" (the potent opener from TIME OUT OF MIND that was only recently added to the current tour's playlist).
The rest of the show alternated between flat-out roadhouse rock 'n' roll ("Rollin' and Tumblin'", "Summer Days", "Highway 61 Revisited"), sweet whimsy ("Spirit on the Water"), and dark ballads, including "The Ballad of a Thin Man," which I was especially happy to see performed. That classic song from the HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED album closed the main performance, and an extended stomping/clapping/cheering from the crowd lured Dylan and Company back out for a perfunctory encore of "Thunder on the Mountain" and "All Along the Watchtower." I've heard many different renditions of this song as it has been explored in Dylan's live repertoire, and this performance was not particularly inspired. The lead guitar was Hendrix-like to the point of being overtly imitative and the vocals were so phonetically rendered that Dylan might have been trying to teach the song to a kindergarten class rather than tell a powerful tale of revelation. Despite an extended milking of audience applause, the lights came up -- there was no second encore.
It was strange: the audience seemed to be giving Dylan everything that an audience can give an artist, at least in terms of standing at rapt attention and applauding and whooping like crazy. This was the first concert Donna and I had attended since roughly 1999, and we were surprised by some of the changes made in audience comportment over the years. First of all, no wafting aroma of cannabis. Secondly, we were amused (and a bit horrified) to discover that the cigarette lighters once used to coax encores out of artists have now given way to cell phone screens being held on high. (Talk about scenes that should have been in THE INVASION!) There were hundreds of them -- any one of which could transmit photos or a live recording to a receiving line -- yet people all around me were getting caught with cameras or recorders and being told to turn them off and put them away. Nobody cried "Judas!" either, but Dylan hadn't really done anything to earn such rude treatment -- unless you compare his show to the one he was doing the last time that word was hurled at him. He actually played a very good and entertaining, if a bit by-the-numbers, show, and his band (most of them dressed to the nines as well) was hot, but I believe they left the auditorium a song or two short of satisfied. It was, however, needless to say, a thrill simply to be sharing the same very large space with him, to cheer him, to sing along with him, and to know that he was playing for the two of us and everyone else assembled there.
So there you have it, my first Dylan show. It was neither one of his legendary uninspired shows nor was it one of his legendary great ones, but parts of it could serve as an illustration of both extremes -- so, all in all, a good place to start. I had the sense that he was definitely enjoying it for awhile and giving the audience close to everything he had; his fire is not yet extinguished by any means. But I did sense from the second half of the show that he was deliberately sparing himself from investing his performances with too much pain and acuity or anger -- the very forces that Elvis Costello is still drawing upon to fuel his performances. But they were there in his reading of "Love Sick," which would be a damned hard song for even him to fake.
Reading Paul Williams on the subject has taught me that the show you see is not necessarily the one you hear -- so I'm eager to find a recording of the show and re-experience it more specifically through my ears, away from the smell of the hoagy being eaten by the stranger sitting next to me, removed from all the people standing or milling back and forth in front of us, apart from the raised cell phones -- just the pure, undistracted sound of the music and the receptivity of one for whom it was intended.
Am I coming to Bob Dylan's concerts too late in the game to see a sustained show of greatness? I don't think so, and I hope not. I've got tickets for Monday night's show in Cincinnati -- which I understand to be Show #1999 of the Never-Ending Tour.
Saturday, October 13, 2007
Friday, October 12, 2007
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Fred (later Tex) Avery was involved in animating a couple of these Oswald shorts, so we shouldn't be taken too offguard by things like this, but I was tickled when the third example "Grandma's Pet" (1932) incorporated not only Avery's trademark twists on beloved fairy tales -- in this case, "Little Red Riding Hood" -- but a hyperbolically surreal climax in which the Wolf (a perennial Avery character, of course) gains possession of a magic wand and uses it to transform Oswald's environment into a series of hilarious death traps. As if to further cement the cartoon's ties with Avery's later MGM masterpiece "Magical Maestro" (1952), Oswald gains control of the wand and turns the tables on his tormenter.
The last two Oswald cartoons, "Confidence" and "The Merry Old Soul"(both 1933), both find the Lucky Rabbit rallying to cheer audiences in the grip of the Great Depression. "Confidence" is the most amazing cartoon in this batch, opening with a dark spectral Depression arising from the steaming foment of a public dump and spreading its infectious gloom as it floats above a Fleischer-like, three-dimensional, turning globe. Oswald awakens one day to find his formerly happy farm animals "down in the dumps" and speeds off to fetch the doctor, who points to a posted image of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and says firmly, "HE'S the Doctor!" Oswald flies to Washington DC by ingenious means (I won't spoil it for you), where he cartwheels into the Oval Office (how else?) and is greeted by FDR, who stands tall (!) and comes out from behind his desk to swing his fists with gusto while delivering the pep talk of all pep talks. Duly energized, Oswald cartwheels back out and flies back home by even more ingenious means (that would be telling) to spread the miracle cure of "confidence," which he administers by syringe.
"Confidence" is a masterpiece, if a delusory one; one of those fascinating amalgams of animation and patriotism like Chuck Jones' Porky-Pig-meets-Uncle-Sam opus "Old Glory" (1939), but even more interesting because Oswald embodies such trusting, homegrown, corn-fed American optimism while confronting what we now know to be a false, propogandic image of a US President who had, in fact, been bound to a wheelchair since 1921 with paralysis from the waist down.
"The Merry Old Soul" tells the same story in essence, though in a more disguised manner, as Oswald is alarmed by a radio report that "Old King Cole's got the blues!" He scurries off to round up the country's greatest comedic masters -- including Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers (big-footed Greta Garbo sits this one out) -- and arrives with them at the castle, where Hollywood's assembled royalty seek to cheer the wan-faced King by any means possible, much to the conniving jealousy of his unfunny jester. When Oswald accidentally discovers that the secret to making the King laugh involves pie-throwing, the cartoon offers a valid historic explanation for the popularity of slapstick comedies in the 1930s and, in its hard-won wisdom about the need for comedy, anticipates to some extent the finale of Preston Sturges' SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS -- in which the laughs were generated, let us not forget, by none other than Walt Disney.
Speaking of Disney, one can't help but notice that there are a lot of little Mickey Mice running around and bouncing off of drumheads in these Universal cartoons. I don't know if Disney just wasn't big enough to be more litigious in those days, or if there existed in those times a greater brotherhood among different studios that made allowances for friendly jabs such as these. Disney's company reportedly recouped the rights to the Oswald character last year, but that doesn't explain how Universal is able to include a trademarked character here that people are now expressly verboten not to paint on their children's bedroom walls. Perhaps they're trading on Oswald's titular (but not always evident) luck?
I don't have the answer to this burning question, but one thing I do know: I want more Oswald cartoons! The list of "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" cartoons on the IMDb amounts to 152 titles, but it doesn't include most of the titles included in this first set, so there must be even more where these came from. Happily, Walt Disney Home Video plans to release their own two-disc "Walt Disney Treasures" set of Oswalds on December 11, and I'm eager to be further educated and entertained by what it has to offer.
Monday, October 08, 2007
I recently made a retroactive purchase of MGM's INGMAR BERGMAN SPECIAL EDITION DVD COLLECTION box set. Last night, I decided to begin my viewing at its beginning, with PERSONA (1966), the earliest movie in the set. I had seen it once before but, for some reason, remembered only its most soft-edged imagery; I had completely forgotten what a wrenching acid trip of a movie it really is, but I'm unlikely to forget this now. One of the reasons I resolved to write about the movie today is to better remember its traumatic impact, but there is also a more pressing reason for why I'm writing about the movie here.
PERSONA opens with a remarkable sequence deconstructing its own conveyance of images, beginning with the ignition of the carbon arc rods inside a 35mm projector and the rattle of perforated celluloid travelling through its gate. We are shown some subliminal images right away (including, shockingly for a 1966 film, an erect penis) and also during the subsequent main titles (including barely registering glimpses of a Keystone Kops comedy, or perhaps its Swedish equivalent). For some reason, during this procession of images meant to do nothing more than tap on my consciousness, I had the feeling of being in the presence of the same demonic energy I felt the first time I saw William Friedkin's THE EXORCIST -- probably because it, too, made potent use of subliminal imagery, as Mark Kermode and I first explored way back in VIDEO WATCHDOG #6, one of our earliest issues and still one of our best.
And then, about 46 minutes into this very involving but abstract "poem" about the mysterious bonding between a psychologically withdrawn actress (Liv Ullmann) and her attending nurse (Bibi Andersson), I was witness to something amazing. As some of you may recall, there is a pensive close shot of Andersson...
She is standing behind a sheer drape when, suddenly, the celluloid conveying Bergman's poem begins to disintegrate, along with the mind of the character. First, there is a scratch...
It follows the fluid form of the drape, but quickly is reassigned to other areas of the frame. Then portions of the frame disappear entirely...
And then even the anchored left side of the frame becomes unmoored and floats freely, the print seemingly destroyed and past the point of rethreading...
We fear the image has entirely disappeared, but it comes back just long enough to convey a penetrating glance from Andersson's eye that seems to burn from a place outside her performance.
The intensity of her gaze, her madness, seems to burn a hole into the celluloid, which grows like a cancer...
... until the nothingness of the burn engulfs the entire screen, turning it white.
The white lingers on the screen for several seconds. It is then followed by another sudden procession of intensive subliminal images, the first of which is this one:
It is there for no more than one or two frames, but I have a very good eye for subliminals. Many people would not have detected it, but I knew what I had seen. I had to stop the film at once and step back until I found the Devil in the details. My strange feeling, throughout PERSONA, from its opening subliminals and shock images of a hand being hammered to a crucifix, that I was somehow in the presence of THE EXORCIST was vividly explained.
For years, William Friedkin actively denied any knowledge of this subliminal image of Eileen Dietz as "Captain Howdy" in THE EXORCIST, but once the film came to home video and could be manipulated by those in the know, it became undeniable. (I should point out for the sake of interested historians that, even though Linda Blair's Regan refers to her inner voice/imaginary friend as "Captain Howdy" in an early scene of the movie, the epithet is never heard again in the movie and never mentioned in relation to her demonic possession. It was actually me who first identified this face as "Captain Howdy" in VW #6, and I note with some pride that the ID has caught on.) This is not the exact frame of the face as it flashes onscreen in THE EXORCIST, which you can see on the cover of the first edition of Mark Kermode's BFI Modern Classics book on the picture; the face in the movie bears much the same pallid, ogreish look as Bergman's Devil.
The brief appearance in PERSONA by a pasty-faced Devil is not the only instance I found of the Bergman film's influence on THE EXORCIST. Accompanying the flashing image of this Devil is a turmoil of sound effects, most particularly a chaos of tormented voices being played on tape in reverse. It sounds not unlike (in fact, quite like) the tape of Regan's nonsensical speech which is discovered to say "I am No-one!" when played in reverse.
Furthermore, as the culmination of an extended dialogue scene shown respectively as it plays on the face of the listener and then again as was communicated by the speaker, Bergman and his cameraman Sven Nykvist merge a disconcerting close-up of Bibi Andersson's face with an identically measured close-up of Liv Ulmann, combining their faces into one to accentuate their surprising likeness to one another -- indeed, their mutual "possession" of one another.
Thursday, October 04, 2007
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
Buñuel was incorrigeable. Even in his most reverent religious works, L'AGE D'OR and MEXICAN BUS RIDE among them, matters of eroticism cannot help but intrude upon the Sacred. It occurred to me to address this particular level of Buñuel's works after a recent viewing of THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE. Rather like my own idea of Heaven, the Academy Award-winning film puts one in the company of Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier, and Stéphane Audran while a creature no less divine than Milena Vukotic waits on the tables. Enjoying once again the convivial interplay of these women onscreen, I was struck by that uncommon quality which they all shared in common, namely... alas, I have lost my train of thought.
Photos of Buñuel in later life, of course, are impossibly rare but I was able to find this one by Googling his name.
I am reminded of a dream I had recently. I was sitting on the swing in my backyard, enjoying the warmth of the day while enjoying a cool drink and reading a newspaper. I do not usually read the newspaper, but I was drinking the sort of thing I would usually drink until I suddenly became aware that the ice cubes in the glass had become loose, swirling bits of fruit: it had become a sangria. At the same moment I noticed this, I tried to resume my reading but my concentration was thwarted by the sound of castanets. I looked around for signs of Carmen Miranda, who had perhaps lost her hat in my drink, but she was nowhere to be found. My investigation led me to my garage, which was built only two years ago and still looks brand new. Expecting to see nothing inside but our car and the usual bales of hay, I was startled to find a man I had never seen before. He was watching two young boys who were taking turns riding a piebald horse in circles around the inside of my garage. The horse's clacking hooves were the castenet-like sound I had heard.
"What are you doing in my garage?" I demanded.
The man took an exception to my volume and turned toward me. His manner was cordial but firm. "You are not to shout at those boys like that," he told me.
"Look," I said, maintaining my rights, "I don't want my garage to be used for walking horses."
There was more to it, but this is going nowhere; and, as they say, there is a time and a place for such stories. Suffice to say that Luís Buñuel was splendid. Besides his many noteworthy professional accomplishments, he is said to have read DON QUIXOTE many times and would hold accidental acquaintences spellbound for hours at a time by recounting the details of his favorite chapters and improvising new ones that typically involved needlepoint, matadors, priests, footwear, terrorism, and even toilets.
In closing, I was able to locate (also by Googling) this obscure retitling of Buñuel's VIRIDIANA. I have read a great deal about the Argentina-born director over the years, and I have also seen the documentary THE LIFE AND TIMES OF DOM DE LUISE BUNUEL, but never before have I discovered any reference to him casting Catherine Deneuve and Claudette Colbert in the same film in the same role. Still, I wouldn't put such a thing past him.
Tuesday, October 02, 2007
Roger Corman has always said, though in not these exact words, that the recipe for a Roger Corman film was a good, fast-moving story, rich in exploitation potential, with an added element of social commentary or satire. Even if audiences didn't consciously pick up on that last part, it was there and got under their skin. You don't find much of this secret ingredient in Corman's earliest works, like HIGHWAY DRAGNET (which he wrote) or SWAMP WOMEN, but from the time screenwriter Charles B. Griffith joined his posse on GUNSLINGER (1956), it was suddenly there in full force. GUNSLINGER starred Beverly Garland as a woman whose lawmaker husband is killed, motivating her to pick up his badge as the marshal of a small western town. Post-JOHNNY GUITAR (1954), of course, but still early enough to qualify as the frontline of feminist cinema.
Woe is us, as Howard Beale might say, because Chuck Griffith died of undisclosed causes on September 28th at the age of 77 -- and we are in a lot of trouble. With the possible exception of Charlie Kaufman, I don't see any other Chuck Griffiths climbing up the ranks of today's screenwriters and the movies need such voices -- irreverent, acerbic, edgy, well-read, flippant, disdainful of the hoi polloi yet also generous, transcendent. Griffith was an unpolished gem of a screenwriter, a beatnik/stoner/outsider who smuggled those crazed and (then) highly individual sensibilities into the mainstream via Corman's commercial cinema. He was the sort of writer who could answer cinema's cry of "Feed me!" by dashing off a non-conformist vampire script like NOT OF THIS EARTH and make room in it for Dick Miller to shine as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, or to introduce a character like Jack Nicholson's masochistic dental patient into the midst of the two-day mayhem of THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS; who could write a whole movie like ROCK ALL NIGHT that more or less took place in a single room; who had the audacity to write the dialogue for THE UNDEAD and ATLAS and A BUCKET OF BLOOD that ran the gamut from mock-Shakespearean to quasi-Homeric to Beat poetic. Chuck Griffith, man! Who else would have dared? Sometimes his quirky cantos got rewritten, but it was impossible to subvert their essentially subversive character. His zany script for Corman's Puerto Rican lark CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA is the reason why it's the closest thing to a Thomas Pynchon novel ever to appear on the screen... and Griffith pulled it off years before the first edition of V. hit bookstore shelves.
Griffith's credited screen work disappears between 1961 and 1966, a period of European self-exile after which he scripted Corman's still-shocking and iconographic THE WILD ANGELS. Yes, he was responsible for Peter Fonda's unforgettable tirade: "We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do! We wanna be free to ride! We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! And we wanna get loaded! And we wanna have a good time. And that's what we are gonna do. We are gonna have a good time... We are gonna have a party!"
One of Chuck's known activities during this blank period is tagging along with his pal Mel Welles to work as a script polisher on the Italian cheapie now known as THE SHE BEAST -- the directorial debut of Michael Reeves (WITCHFINDER GENERAL). It was apparently Griffith's idea to turn the horror film into a tongue-in-cheek essay on how the mythologies associated with Transylvania were corroding under 20th century communism. Chuck Griffith, man! Who else would have effing dared?? Mel Welles told me that it was his idea for the moment when the resurrected witch Vardella kills someone with a scythe, then throws it across a mallet to form the hammer-and-sickle symbol of Soviet power -- but I've always felt that Griffith must have had a hand in it. It was precisely his brand of crazy, a Third Man in a triumvirate with PAIN Magazine and the statue called "The Third Time Phyllis Saw Me, She Exploded."
When Roger Corman had the idea to make a film about LSD, Griffith was still his go-to guy for cutting edge counterculture and he asked him to write the script. The result was deemed "unfilmable" by Corman, because it was too long, too costly, too outré, whatever -- so the job of writing the film ultimately fell to Jack Nicholson. When Charlie Largent and I were writing THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES, our comic screenplay about the making of THE TRIP, the character of "Chuck" sprang to immediate life and got a lot of the script's best dialogue. Joe Dante (who has optioned the script) later told me that, when Quentin Tarantino read it, his first response was to say that he wanted to play Chuck. Well, you know and I know that Quentin says a lot of things, but I think his reaction shows what a standout character Chuck became in our scenario. I don't know how the casting cards will eventually play out, but Quentin went on to dedicate "DEATH PROOF" to Charles B. Griffith, and I'd be happy if our script played even a small part in putting that particular bee in his bonnet.
Consequently, I am feeling at the moment not only as though a hero has died, but that one of my characters has died -- one that Charlie and I loved so much, we worked extra hard to assign him a happy ending. I never got to meet the real Chuck Griffith. Joe tells me that Chuck never got to read the KALEIDOSCOPE script, which is a shame, but then again, he might have felt funny about it. I feel confident that the movie will be made someday and shine a spotlight once again on Griffith's particular maverick shade of genius.
Griffith also directed a half-dozen films over the years, the most commercial being EAT MY DUST! (1976) and the most interesting being DR. HECKYL and MR. HYPE (1980) with Oliver Reed, a contemporarily comic twist on the R. L. Stevenson story about man's dual nature -- but directing was not his strong suit. He was a writer through and through.
A lot of people get away with saying they did it their way, when they actually spent years if not decades paying their dues and kow-towing to lesser mortals, but as far as I know, Charles B. Griffith really did do it his way -- living in Hollywood (later, San Diego) but apart from Hollywood, living incognito on giant silver screens, directing enough movies to know it wasn't what he was best at, writing a number of genuine countercultural classics -- and he'll always be immortal to those who care as one of the primary colors, arguably the primary color, in Roger Corman's palette.
From his point of view, Chuck undoubtedly saw things differently and harbored some bitterness, as I know Mel Welles also did -- but I'm betting that, deep down, he knew moments of deep satisfaction in the crafting of his work, enough to matter, and that he understood he was living the life given him to live. Not as the celebrated Walter Paisley, sitting on his throne with a toilet plunger scepter, as he once parodied every artist's dreamed-of moment of success, but happier still as "an obscure hobo, bumming a ride on the omnibus of art."
Monday, October 01, 2007
1974, 20th Century Fox, DD-2.0/MA/16:9/LB/ST/CC/+,$14.98, 98m 22s, DVD-1
Filmed at Mexico City's Churubusco Studios with Mexican actors supplementing what was then a made-for-TV-level cast, CHOSEN SURVIVORS finds ten people -- mostly scientists (Bradford Dillman, Barbara Babcock, Diana Muldaur), but also a rich executive (Jackie Cooper), an aging athlete (Lincoln Kilpatrick), a how'd-he-get-in-here novelist (Alex Cord), and a young woman (Christina Moreno) whose only apparent skill is hysteria -- who are isolated by the US Military in a silvery bunker some 1,800 feet underground. There, a videotape of vacuous-looking LA newscaster Kelly Lange informs them that they are one of a number of "chosen survivors" of a nuclear attack which has taken place in North America. Beyond this, it's impossible to write about this film without spoilers, so be warned.
Surprisingly, despite the strict racial balancing of the group and absence of any gay characters, the survivors' responsibility for repopulating the Earth is largely overlooked. Just as well, as no two cast members spark any romantic chemistry (Cord and Muldaur, already paired it seems, lie in bed together as though embalmed), and once Richard Jaeckel turns up, they become an odd-numbered bunch as well. The movie doesn't really get going until 25m into the story, when a decorative cage of birds is raided by vampire bats, somehow able to penetrate the stronghold from the caves surrounding it. When subsequent fatal attacks coincide with a failing lighting system, Dillman (giving a twitchy Anthony Perkins performance) announces that the whole program has been a hoax carried out as an experiment in human behavior that has gone horribly wrong. With the only emergency alarm within easy reach disconnected by the bats, the task falls to Kilpatrick (THE OMEGA MAN) to "go for the gold" by grapple-hooking his way to the top of an elevator shaft to manually press an otherwise unreachable "Help" button.
The film suffers from cheesy special effects and a dreary droning score, but -- being a performance-based melodrama -- is most adversely affected by a capable cast uninspired by the script's clichéd dialogue ("I just never thought it would really happen...") and characterization (Cooper actually pulls a Thurston Howell by promising Kilpatrick a small fortune if he can get him back to civilization, and perhaps most incredibly, novelist Cord uses the term "per se" in the midst of an angry outburst). Nevertheless, it conjures up some intermittent suspense and unease, thanks to Sutton Roley's able direction and some exceptional bat wrangling. This is one of those films that plunge its setting into total darkness at the worst possible moments, followed by unnerving neon-blue emergency reserve lighting, so it works less well on video than on the big screen, where it more completely affects the viewer's own environment.
CHOSEN SURVIVORS garnered some halfway favorable reviews when it was first released in May 1974, but it was only sparsely distributed by Columbia Pictures. Movies like this became very trivial very quickly with the release of JAWS the following summer, and, since then, CHOSEN SURVIVORS has been one of the more difficult horror films of its period to see. Now available as a 20th Century Fox "Midnite Movie" double feature with Terence Fisher's black-and-white and barely-feature-length THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING (1964), it's a welcome enough collector's item release though it has not stood the test of time particularly well. The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer does what it can with the blandly photographed materials, which look alternately musty and nostalgically misty with mild grain and acceptable color. Considering the film's production background, it's surprising that no Spanish track is included, but the English audio is supplemented with a choice of English, Spanish and French subtitles.
Sunday, September 30, 2007
To all of our friends who are fans of SON OF FRANKENSTEIN and BAMBI, here is a heads-up. Donnie has consigned with Heritage Auction House for the sale of his original memoribilia from his childhood movie days, beginning OCTOBER 6, 2007. The address is www.ha.com.
Up for auction are many personal items from his early days as a child star, all one-of-a-kind. Included are his original signed contract for BAMBI, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, and others. There are signed original 8x10's from stars like Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Jackie Moran, Ian Hunter, Nan Grey, and others. There are even some actual 35mm film clips from SON OF FRANKENSTEIN.
If you know of anyone who is an avid collector, please let them know. This will be the only time these one-of-a-kind items will be available. Check Heritage Auctions on the web for more info.
Donnie & Dana Dunagan
Saturday, September 29, 2007
Friday, September 28, 2007
Today I need to announce that there is going to be a two-month disruption of VW's monthly publishing schedule.Donna and I usually begin working on each new issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG at the first of the month, which is when new submissions from our contributors are due. This month, by the time the principal mailing of the Bava book was finished, we found that we were already more than halfway through the month, making our October issue no longer possible; we would have to skip one month of publication. Donna and I were exhausted, so I personally welcomed this news, as Margaret Dumont might say, "with open arms."
But finishing the principal mailing of the Bava book doesn't mean that our deck is clear. With three weeks set aside for fulfilling those orders, Donna is now a bit behind in filling our usual subscription and back issue orders, and new orders for the book and other VW products are continuing to come in every day. I'm also being called upon to promote the book (and the upcoming Anchor Bay box sets) with interviews, one of which is requiring us to look into webcam technology. With all this in mind, we've decided that we're going to take next month... not "off" exactly, because we'll continue working, reviewing, filling orders... but let's say "easy." We're going to try to reward our recent overactivity by taking next month a little more easily. Not exactly the vacation we need, but not having to produce new issues in addition to everything else that needs doing during this period should offer us the minimal respite we need.
So please pass the word that there won't be a new issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG in October or November; it may help to cut down the number of calls we're inevitably going to get when our subscribers notice a two-month gap in their delivery. We won't be gone long: VIDEO WATCHDOG #135 should be published sometime around Thanksgiving, near the end of November, and that will be our December 2007 issue.
Of course, this news does not affect Video WatchBlog, which will remain in full session during this period! Halloween is coming, and you can expect me to write about some interesting releases, new and old, through the weeks to come.
Monday, September 24, 2007
Sunday, September 23, 2007
As a voracious reader in my late teens and early twenties, before video came along to dilute such self-improving disciplines, I always looked to Grove Press as a brand of quality. I would haunt the used bookstores of Cincinnati in search of unfamiliar authors who had the good fortune to share literary barracks with the works of Samuel Beckett, William S. Burroughs, Henry Miller, and the translated works of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Genet, and others. This was how I discovered writers and books like John Rechy's CITY OF NIGHT, Frantz Fanon's THE WRETCHED OF THE EARTH, Robert Gover's THE ONE HUNDRED DOLLAR MISUNDERSTANDING, and the harrowing works of Hubert Selby, Jr. (LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN, THE ROOM). It is also what led me to the austere, white-jacketed First Edition of THE STORY OF O that I was so lucky to find -- and it was the only book out of hundreds acquired over the years at Cincinnati's late, lamented Acres of Books that caused the perenially self-absorbed proprietor to give me a second look. Remarkably, though I had read any amount of scandalous prose under the Grove imprint, THE STORY OF O was the only one of their books to carry a disclaimer on the dust jacket recommending its sale be limited only to those over the age of 21.
Perhaps because I was young enough to read THE STORY OF O for the first time without any real foreknowledge of sadomasochistic subculture, before I had read either Sade or Masoch. Therefore I was able to receive it in the spirit in which it was written: as a bravely told love story so selfless in its desire that the act of submission became a state of grace. I have reread THE STORY OF O since and I still believe it is one of the most important novels of the 20th century and a sure contender, at least in Richard Howard's translation (the best I can judge), for one of the most beautifully written. But of Mme. Réage's works, I am most irresistably drawn to the prologue called "A Girl in Love," which opens her slim 1967 sequel to her premiere work, RETURN TO THE CHATEAU. Among the happy accomplishments of Pola Rapaport's film is committing a very convincing interpretation of this short piece -- in which the author looks back on the circumstances under which O came to be written, delineated in some of the most perfect, naked, emotional prose I've ever read -- to celluloid. I reread it for the umpteenth time before going to sleep last night and it remains, for me, perhaps the most moving description of the writing process I've found, with not a word misplaced. I bow to her.
To mark the centenary of someone like Anne Desclos, and more particularly Pauline Réage, is somehow more profound, I find, than marking the centenary of an actor or filmmaker, as I usually do on this blog. It reminds me that time and history claim more of us than our names and the broad outlines of our biographies; they also absorb the secret and powerful stories, told and untold, of our most violent passions.
Friday, September 21, 2007
The cover of VW 126 (pictured left) can be seen on a newsstand visited by Rosario Dawson at the 103:49 mark in the new, expanded DVD of Quentin Tarantino's GRINDHOUSE offering "DEATH PROOF." It's arranged in the uppermost tier of a gas station newsrack, wedged between copies of JET and EBONY, which, come to think of it, is usually where I see it. I made one of my increasingly rare or decreasingly often treks out to a theater to see GRINDHOUSE and didn't notice this, so it may be one of the newly added scenes.
Unless he does so under an assumed name, we have no record of Quentin ever ordering anything from us, but we did notice one of our order blanks on an enticingly cluttered table in his living room, in a full page photo published in ROLLING STONE at the time of KILL BILL 1's release. So we suspect he's a fan, and of course it's mutual.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL editor Bill Chambers was kind enough to send in the screen grab above. As Bill says, "You gotta love that Lebanon, Tennessee gas stations stock VW."