Saturday, October 20, 2007

Happy Birthday to Bela and Arlene

Today, October 20, marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of the incomparable Bela Lugosi (we couldn't very well call him "inimitable," could we?) and the centenary of WHAT'S MY LINE's "delightful star of stage and screen" panelist, Arlene Francis. While Lugosi has always seemed to me almost irretrievably Old World, except through the exegencies of the supernatural, of which his screen persona was so much a part, I find it nearly impossible to accept that Ms. Francis could have been born 100 years ago. As a weekly viewer of WHAT'S MY LINE's "Black and White Overnight" reruns on GSN every Sunday night at 3:00am, I can only think of Arlene Francis as a sharp, vivacious, and sexy lady full of life and laughter -- forever present tense, her warm-bloodedness immortal in a way to which the comparatively clammy Lugosi could only balefully aspire.

Memorably, Bela (born Béla Blasko in Lugoj, Romania) and Arlene (born Arline Kazanjian in Boston, Massachusetts) once shared the screen in Universal's MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, directed by Robert Florey and released in 1932. Arlene played a "woman of the streets" in her screen debut, lured by Lugosi's Dr. Mirakle into his coach and abducted to his secret laboratory where he seeks to make her "the bride of science" by mating her blood with that of his pet orangutan, Erik. The admixture doesn't take and, condemning her "rotten" (read syphillitic) blood, he consigns her to the murky depths of the River Seine. It's one of the most hard-hitting sequences to be found in the Universal horrors of the 1930s.

MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE has always been regarded as one of Universal's problem titles, suffering as it does from overly florid writing (though the script is co-credited to John Huston) and awkward pacing. Though the details were always somewhat vague, it became known through books like Gregory William Mank's KARLOFF AND LUGOSI that studio executive Carl Laemmle Jr., then 23, was responsible for ordering that changes be made to Florey's director's cut of MURDERS prior to its release. In VIDEO WATCHDOG #111, I published an article called "Re-arranging the RUE MORGUE," in which I proposed how the extant version might be recut to restore Florey's most probable original intentions. Having written that piece on a deadline, I wasn't able to take the time to actually cut together the version I was proposing, but it made sense to me by playing the scenes in my reordered sequence using my Search button. (I was delighted to discover that my attempted "reconstruction" merited mention in the recently published Second Edition of UNIVERSAL HORRORS, the classic reference by Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and John Brunas.) VW contributor/reader/horror film scholar Gary L. Prange did take the time, however, and, by doing so, he found that my article accounted for maybe 90% of Florey's intentions, while proposing a few additional, crucial tweaks in a letter that we published in VW #114.

Since that article and letter appeared in VIDEO WATCHDOG, I've seen bootleg discs of the recut for sale at film conventions and other copies freely circulated by fans. I was hopeful that someone at Universal might consider Gary's and my findings of sufficient interest to offer a recut version on DVD, either as a newsworthy stand-alone or as a fascinating supplement. Alas, it hasn't happened yet -- but I remain hopeful. I think a director's cut of MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE would attract as much popular interest as David Skal's recovery of the Spanish DRACULA did, a decade or more ago. This 60m re-edit makes for a more enticing, innovatively structured, and effectively scary movie -- moreso than the extant version, a far better tribute to the memory of Robert Florey and his two stars, born this day in October such a long time ago.

New Bava Discs Street Next Tuesday

Glenn Erickson reviews Anchor Bay Entertainment's MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUME 2, including three new commentaries by me, over at DVD Savant today.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

"A Staggering Achievement"

Stuart Galbraith IV recently conducted a lengthy interview with me for the website DVD TALK, which has just been posted; you can find it here. We discussed various aspects of the Bava book (which Stuart calls "the most detailed, probing, and complete examination of any single filmmaker, anywhere in the world, ever") in detail, but we also talked in a more expansive vein about the current state of home video, the future of DVD and video stores, and other interesting topics. Check it out.

Also now online, Chris Alexander's review of Anchor Bay's THE MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUME 2 at Fangoria.com.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

In the Presence of Don Quixote

Last night's Bob Dylan show at Cincinnati's Taft Theatre (where I saw electric Hot Tuna in 1972, Iggy Pop and David Bowie in 1977, and King Crimson's double trio in 1995) might be the finest concert I've seen in my admittedly spotty life as a concert-goer.

The Taft is a smaller auditorium with the look of a moderately scaled movie palace of old. The aisles flow down to the stage, so the likelihood of people standing wouldn't be so much of a problem as it was on the floor of Columbus' Value City Arena, and the seats were more comfortable without being plush. The ticket taker guided us to a pair of seats on the right center aisle, with a more or less dead-on view of the stage; they were slightly pricier tickets than the ones we'd had for the previous show, and they were better seats. We were happy. The crowd was all-ages, from children to geriatrics, but the prevailing mood was one of excitement -- a lot of people were smiling -- long before the lights went down.

Amos Lee's warm-up set was pitched at a more introspective, intimate level than the arena show, which gave me a fuller idea of what he and his band are capable of achieving musically. It was interesting to me, because I was seated and paying attention, but the group took the stage promptly and had to contend with a lot of late arrivals, flashlights in the dark leading people to their seats, incoming folks blocking the view of the stage -- so I had the sense that Amos and company were doing their best to win over a crowd that was often paying only half attention, even if they wanted to pay fuller attention. He left "Careless" -- Donna's favorite song from the previous show -- out of the set, but he added "Arms of a Woman" and saved "Black River," their ace in the deck, for a point when the room seemed most settled and receptive. He closed with an inspired choice, Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come," which Amos sang in a manner that revealed the extent of Cooke's influence on his own vocal mannerisms. Once again, I thought they were a talented, solid act.

As the lights went up between sets, one of the ushers asked to see my ticket and informed us that we were in the wrong seats. We were shown to our new seats, which were in a short aisle against the right wall of the auditorium, but it turned out that these were also excellent seats. It's a local legend that there is no such thing as a bad seat at the Taft, and it would seem to be true.

Donna brought binoculars, so our already good seats could be additionally enhanced with close views of Dylan and company. The band -- Tony Garnier (bass), George Recile (drums), Stu Kimball (rhythm guitar), the remarkable Denny Freeman (lead guitar), and multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron -- were wearing different suits this night, all of them light gray jackets and slacks and dark gray shirts, inverting the color scheme worn by Bob, which was the same silver-studded shades-of-gray outfit he'd worn in Columbus. The blue feather I thought I'd seen in his hat was apparently a lighting trompe l'oeil; the hat was actually a light gray with a slightly darker band with a few feathers in the band, one of them orange. He was no Doctor Phibes: the pencil-thin mustache worn since "LOVE AND THEFT" was gone and he looked like no one other than Bob Dylan. He attacked the set list with a taking-care-of-business poker face that smiled only briefly and occasionally to lend weight or inflection to his lyrics. Occupying a place of honor to Dylan's right was a gleaming golden object: his Oscar for "Things Have Changed," the song he wrote for the movie WONDER BOYS. (The Grammy he won for "Gotta Serve Somebody" was nowhere to be seen.)

As I suspected, the set list featured a number of songs not performed in Columbus, beginning with a rousing "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" and followed by an exquisite "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" accompanied by lap steel guitar and stand-up bass. Dylan once again retired his center-stage stance and electric guitar after "Watching The River Flow" and moved over to electric keyboard for "Love Sick," accompanied by Donnie Herron's electric mandolin. As the music slowed to a bluesy, reggae-spiked mood for this number, the standing crowd took their seats to drink the performance in. Dylan gave a gripping reading of it, and got everyone back onto their feet by the end of it. And they stayed there, for the most part, as they steamrolled into an exciting cover of Hambone Willie Newbern's "Rollin' And Tumblin'." This raucous blues standard (Canned Heat did a great version) has been standard for the current tour, but to witness the two performances I saw was an object lesson in the difference between playing it and meaning it. I could feel the sweatslipping off the notes, and it made me want to work with it, and I found myself clapping my hands through the whole number. "When The Deal Goes Down" allowed the band to catch their collective breath, and the audience response throughout the song showed many attendees were knowledgeable and appreciative of the song's lyrics.

Then came the evening's first "oh my God" moment with a sublime and heartfelt performance of "Blind Willie McTell," with Herron on banjo. After the show, I compared my memory of this performance to an earlier one from Melbourne last August, and -- again -- the difference I heard was the distinction between playing it (possibly even learning how to play it as a unit) and meaning it. Before the song was even over, I knew that this was the finest live musical performance I'd ever seen, of one of the most moving songs ever written. It was rewarded with one of the most enthusiastic ovations of the evening. And what better way to lift an audience from the depths of the heart than to follow through with something as wonderfully wise and whimsical as "Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again"? This selection clearly hit a few people in the front rows the way "Blind Willie McTell" hit me, because they stood and danced and waved their arms through the whole number -- and it only added to the show, not impeding anyone's view of the stage.

A righteously crunching "Workingman's Blues #2", followed by another great bluesman tribute "High Water (For Charlie Patton)", and a typically playful "Spirit On The Water" (a song in which I feel the musical spirit of Stéphane Grapelli looms large) followed, with Dylan using the lyric "You think I'm over the hill?" to milk loud audience denial. Then the pace of the show pressed the pedal to the metal with a thrilling "Highway 61 Revisited" that had a number of people thrusting their index fingers into the air and twirling them whenever Dylan got back to "Highway Sixty-One!"

Though a more deliberately paced number, "Ain't Talkin'" -- a song with an alternately poignant and lacerating lyric -- was developed by the band as an absorbing groove that was at once a Sisyphusian parallel to the lyric and also, as with all the best groove songs, seemed to cut deeper and sweeter with each repetition. I remember looking through the binoculars at Dylan during this performance, seeing one of the most famous profiles in contemporary history looming over his keyboard while half-singing/half-speaking the lines "All my loyal and much trusted companions / They approve of me and share my code / I practice a faith that's been long abandoned / Ain't no altars on this long and lonesome road." At that moment, I felt that I was looking at the Don Quixote of Rock & Roll, and then I got the even stronger feeling that he just might be the real Don Quixote, too -- or at least the living man Cervantes knew, the inspiration for his immortal creation -- determined to walk that road to the end of his days, telling the capital T truth to every cockeyed windmill town on the map. And when he sang the chorus "Ain't talkin', just walkin' / Eatin' hog eyed grease in a hog eyed town / Heart burnin', still yearnin' / Someday you'll be glad to have me around," I felt every heart in the theater pour open. I know mine did.

The Fifties-style sock-hopper "Summer Days" brought back the spirit of carefree fun before the lights intensified to a pregnant blue for a menacing yet magisterial performance of "Ballad Of A Thin Man," which ended the concert proper. A huge, stomping, howling ovation brought Dylan and his band back for "Thunder On The Mountain" and the evening's second "oh my God" performance, an unexpected band arrangement of "Blowin' In The Wind." No one in the audience seemed to know what was coming, as the band wended its way through the introductory passages, until Dylan leaned forward to sing the song's opening question -- and, at that moment, you could hear and feel the awe coming from the crowd, travelling from one person to the next in gooseflesh. Though Dylan has written countless songs, even countless masterpieces since this early anthem, it somehow remains the quintessence of his being in ways one can't fully appreciate until one sees it performed live by the author. This song carries so much baggage -- and the association of so many other voices from Peter, Paul and Mary to Pete Seeger to Dylan himself -- that it can be impossible to isolate and get at its core importance, but it stands there naked when Dylan is singing it to you, no matter what arrangement it's given.

It can't be topped. Show over. Onward, my Sancho Panzas, to the next town. Which happens to be Dayton, Ohio -- for Show #2000 on the Never Ending Tour.

It was either more than a concert, or my ideal of a concert, in that Dylan treated us to a evening full of energy and joy and sacred emotions, and one that left us standing in the presence of living history. We rose to the occasion, and so did he. The set was a song longer than the Columbus performance, but it was the power and sincerity of the performance -- not the number of songs -- that made the absence of Elvis Costello from the bill a complete and rather amazing irrelevance. Afterwards, I felt terribly guilty about some of the things I'd said in my previous blog, questioning whether Dylan might still have the ability or even the wish to channel greatness in concert. Why should this man have to channel what he already is? Whether he's performing at half power or full power, he's absolutely not to be missed.

Greencine Daily Profiles Me

Could I really be "King of the Nerds"?

The Uncle Forry to a new mutant strain of film fanatic?

D.K. Holm thinks so, and he explains why in an extensive, thoughtful and humbling profile of Yours Truly over at Greencine Daily.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

My First Dylan Show

As a little summer's end treat to ourselves, Donna and I drove up to Columbus, Ohio yesterday (October 13) to see Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and opening act Aaron Lee, at the Schottenstein Center's Value City Arena.

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.