Friday, January 04, 2008

Surely I'm Not the Only One...

... who saw this poster for the latest Jacques Rivette film (released here in the US as THE DUCHESS OF LANGEAIS) and thought, "Oh my god, they've remade THE BRIDE!"

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Resequencing THE PRISONER

Patrick McGoohan runs for office in "Free For All," the second PRISONER episode shot and the fourth to be shown.

I'm presently going through another viewing of the classic ITC series THE PRISONER, courtesy of Network Video's fulsome 40th ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL EDITION box set, by my count the third time I've gone through the entire series since its original broadcast. One thing that this new set brings to light, to me anyway, is that some of the episodes' rough edges are due to peculiarities stemming from their order of broadcast. There is a wonderfully thorough paperback book included with the box set, THE PRISONER - A COMPLETE PRODUCTION GUIDE by Andrew Pixley (poor fella didn't get his name on the spine of his own book), which chronicles the series in their original production order, different to their broadcast order, which in turn differed between the UK and the US.

I was surprised last night, while revisiting "Dance of the Dead" (Episode 8 in both countries), to notice several references in the dialogue to the Prisoner's "recent" arrival in The Village and various other signs in the program that "P" (as he was designated in the original scripts) was still just beginning to settle in. In this episode, for example, Number 2 informs him that The Village is a democracy in some respects, which is something he has already learned in "Free For All," the second episode to be shot and the fourth to be shown here and abroad -- a bewildering anachronism. It also introduces a black cat, initially a friend to "P" that is later identified as the property of Number 2; this same black cat figures prominently in the episode "Many Happy Returns," which happened to be broadcast immediately prior to "Dance of the Dead," thus depriving it of its character as a referent to Number 2. I felt sure that "Dance" had to be one of the earlier episodes shot, and indeed Mr. Pixley's book shows it to have been shot fourth. It feels decidedly misplaced in the show's chronology.

Speaking of "Many Happy Returns" (one of my favorite episodes, perhaps because it feels most closely allied to the way things were sometimes done on DANGER MAN), I was intrigued to discover that it was the 13th episode to be filmed, prior to the series' only break in production (as star Patrick McGoohan was off filming ICE STATION ZEBRA) -- in effect, the show's only season finale. It makes much greater sense, narratively and dramatically, if positioned this way. Indeed, I've yet to revisit the final episode "Fall Out", but I find myself wondering if "Many Happy Returns" might not be even more sequentially valid as the final episode, or as a postscript to the series as a whole.

THE PRISONER was conceived as a limited run series (only seven episodes were originally planned) but, as demand for additional episodes increased, it appears to have been reinvented on the fly, changed from a prototypical miniseries with more-or-less continuous narrative to a kind of anthology show about a rebellious protagonist who resigns from espionage, is abducted by mysterious forces (friend or foe?), and awakens into a different trap or test of character each week. In one notorious episode, "Living in Harmony", the show told its story in metaphoric Western drag, the main titles replaced with a scene of McGoohan flinging his marshall's badge on someone's desk. "P" doesn't know which end is up, week after week, and the chaotic ordering of events leaves the viewer about as disorientated. I personally feel this works against the show's overall success. Without narrative order, "P"'s imprisonment in The Village loses its sense of time and duration; there is no wearing-down of our hero. Unintentionally, the random manner in which his dilemma is ordered refreshes him.

In an opening statement in his book, Andrew Pixley cautions his readers that, while his book chronicles the episodes in the order they were made, "this is not a logical viewing order for the series." He offers no explanation why. My questions, then, are:

Has anyone ever come up with a more definitive viewing order for THE PRISONER? One that makes greater sequential sense in terms of what the dialogue reveals, one that strengthens the drama inherent in the episodes? Is this celebration of individuality ultimately best taken not as a collective series but as a series of individual episodes? Or is it really six of one, half a dozen of the other?

I realize that PRISONER fandom is hardly new, and it's possible that I'm not the first spectator to ask these questions. If not, perhaps someone out there has done all the footwork to formulate a more satisfying sequencing for THE PRISONER's 17 episodes; if so, I'd love to know about it. God help us, I suppose there may even be different theories out there about how to resequence the show to maximum effect, which would make this classic program not only a puzzlement but a veritable Rubik's cube.

Update: Friendly correspondent Nate Yapp has written to inform me that A&E's box sets of THE PRISONER are presented in what is known as "the fan order," which proceeds thusly:

Arrival / Free for All / Dance of the Dead / Checkmate / The Chimes of Big Ben / A, B, and C / The General / The Schizoid Man / Many Happy Returns / It's Your Funeral / A Change of Mind / Hammer into Anvil / Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling / Living in Harmony / The Girl Who Was Death / Once Upon a Time / Fall Out

This reordering does suggest an improvement, except for one or two troublesome details -- most notably Colin Gordon's casting as Number 2 in two consecutively placed episodes, "A, B, and C" and "The General." In "A, B, and C" (originally Episode 3), Gordon is introduced as a rattled, ulcerous Number 2 whose job (and nervous system) are under threat by the offscreen Number 1, whose warnings of dire consequences should he fail to break Number 6 once again have him twitching and sipping milk through the entire episode. In "The General" (originally Episode 6), Gordon's Number 2 is mysteriously back -- despite his previous failure -- and comports himself altogether more confidently. The inconsistency between these two episodes is distractingly bizarre. According to Andrew Pixley's book, the episodes were indeed shot in this order, but the role of Number 2 in "The General" was not intended to be played by a returning actor. Mr. Pixley reveals that the actor originally cast as Number 2 didn't work out and the dependable Gordon was asked to step in as a quick replacement, without any thought given to the performance he had previously given or its context. Therefore, though not intended to be shown other than in the order they are seen on the A&E and Network discs, the fact of Gordon's recasting nevertheless requires "The General" to precede "A, B, and C." This rearrangement not only clears up the confusion of Gordon's recasting but provides us with the backstory for his Number 2 character that is only vaguely implied at the beginning of "A, B, and C."

Monday, December 31, 2007

Here's to 2007: An Amazing Year

Those of you who dislike personal blogs (probably the same folks who dislike pasta in their Italian cuisine) can tune out now. Another year is ending and I feel inclined to take stock. Professionally speaking, 2007 was far and away my most productive year to date; I pushed myself so hard, in fact, that I'm closing out this year, for the first time I can remember, under the weather. I came down with a cold just after Christmas, and I'm presently feeling sluggish and a bit feverish, and my constant reaching for the tissue box has aggravated a problem I've been having with my left eye since the physical exertions of the Bava book shipping last September. On the first day of the book signing, I felt that something -- perhaps some powder from the books -- had found its way into my left tear duct and, shortly thereafter, I began to notice a new and most unwelcome heavy-duty floater in that eye. Now, whenever I look to the right, the floater (which resembles a large shred of dirty opaque plastic sheeting) gets dragged to the left, and vice-versa. I'm hopeful that something can be done to zap it in the New Year.

First and foremost, 2007 was the year Donna and I finally delivered MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK. Even though this was the year I added the last paragraphs to this 32-year project, the year I finally held the finished book in my hands, and the year of our "Ultimate Bava Book" auction on eBay, it's the saga of the book's shipping that stands out most prominently in my mind. Having our home invaded by hundreds of 37-pound boxes, seeing my little 5' 1" wife bossing around two immense delivery trucks and commandeering our friends and relatives through the militaristic details of packing and shipping... it was a nightmare, but in retrospect, one of my life's most amazing adventures.

Likewise, the response to the book has been truly gratifying, from the feature article in the current issue of RUE MORGUE to the rave reviews in SIGHT & SOUND and FANGORIA, and of course the many wonderful letters and photos and postcards sent to us by happy readers. I'm a bit unhappy that the same factors that made the Bava book such a monumental event in publishing (not just in fan publishing) are working against its availability to greater numbers of readers, and its recognition on many year-end Best lists. I'm seeing that it may be necessary to create a kind of "Shorter FINNEGANS WAKE" version of the Bava book for the benefit of general and introductory-level readers. Nevertheless, sales of what RUE MORGUE calls "The Black Bible of Mario Bava" continue to be strong and my new agent -- Howard Morhaim of the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency, Inc. -- is presently pursuing "popular edition" and foreign language opportunities for the book. One Italian company, I'm told, has already expressed interest in publishing the book in Italian translation, so here's hoping.

This year I also wrote two other, shorter, non-fiction books. The first was a monograph on Jefferson Airplane's 1968 album CROWN OF CREATION, which I analyzed in terms of being, in part, a science-fiction concept album inspired in part by the writings of British author John Wyndham -- the flower children of 1967 mutating into the Midwich Cuckoos, so to speak. I wrote this book in hope of contributing to Continuum Press's "33 & 1/3" line of books on classic albums. Though editor David Barker didn't accept the book on the basis of my selection, he later read and approved my completed manuscript... but he has no place for it on his roster unless one of his other contracted writers has trouble making a delivery date. This hasn't happened yet, and the book is starting to burn a proverbial hole in my pocket; I'd like to find a home for it.

The other book is VIDEODROME, my inaugural contribution to Millipede Press's forthcoming "Studies in the Horror Film" series, which is an updating of my 25-year-old unpublished book-length manuscript on the making of David Cronenberg's film, originally intended as a double-issue of CINEFANTASTIQUE. Portions of this book have previously appeared in Piers Handling's 1983 book THE SHAPE OF RAGE: THE FILMS OF DAVID CRONENBERG and as a text feature included on Criterion's VIDEODROME DVD. Originally announced for November of this year, the book is running behind schedule and I'm presently proofreading the text and helping to select images for the final layout.

Eric Yarber and I also collaborated this year on an original horror screenplay called SCARS & STRIPES. Represented by Judy Coppage of The Coppage Company, it's a potent horror script with an anti-war message, strong dramatic roles for a young cast, and, I believe, franchise potential. If I've intrigued any lurking producers out there, drop me a line and I'll direct you to Judy's office. So many new horror DVDs are released every week, made by people I've never heard of; I'd like to think that an original horror film written by a known genre authority and novelist would have some promotional advantages that others might not.

Joe Dante and his partner Elizabeth Stanley are continuing to seek funding for THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES, the comedy script about the making of Roger Corman's THE TRIP that I wrote with Charlie Largent. I've been asked not to share specific details, but some recent developments are encouraging. I feel sure it's going to happen.

More visibly, I also edited and co-published eight new issues of VIDEO WATCHDOG this year, to which I also contributed numerous reviews and one notable feature article: VW #133's study of Joseph Losey's THESE ARE THE DAMNED. Additionally, I wrote a dozen "No Zone" columns for SIGHT & SOUND, as well as a separate feature article choosing 10 outstanding "grindhouse" movies.

Though it won't be surfacing until sometime next year, I also contributed to Scott Bradley's project THE HORROR BOOK OF LISTS, a list of "10 Great Horror Films That Aren't Horror Films" that I'm told had an even longer word-count than the list submitted by Richard Stanley.

Today, friendly correspondent Bill McAlpine wrote to share with me the happy news that I tied with Alejandro Jodorowsky in DVD Beaver's DVD of the Year 2007 poll for Best Audio Commentary. This serves to remind me (I actually forgot this last night, when making up a preliminary mental list!) that, in addition to everything else I did this year, I released eight new audio commentaries for Anchor Bay Entertainment's MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUMES 1 and 2 as well as two stand-alone Bava releases: ERIK THE CONQUEROR, THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, BLACK SABBATH, KILL BABY... KILL! (withdrawn), BARON BLOOD, BAY OF BLOOD, LISA AND THE DEVIL and RABID DOGS -- and my 2000 commentary for BLACK SUNDAY was reissued as part of VOLUME 1 and as a stand-alone release (as was BLACK SABBATH). The majority of DVD Beaver's respondents (28%) say they don't listen to commentaries, which is a shame; nevertheless, 25% voted for Jodo in the "Director" category and another 25% voted for me in the "Scholar" category. This comes as a great surprise and a very nice honor with which to close out the year. I found all the catagories in the DVD Beaver survey very interesting indeed and I recommend you give them a look.

I was also extremely fortunate to be the recipient of three Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards at last May's Wonderfest in Louisville, Kentucky -- for Best Magazine, Best Website (Video WatchBlog) and Best Writer. And this past December 23, Donna and I celebrated our 33rd wedding anniversary, an honor beside which the rest of these accomplishments pale.

What else did I write this year? Oh, yes -- this blog.

I've been giving some serious consideration of late to retiring this blog, because it imposes a lot of extra work on me; frankly, since the completion of the Bava book, I've been having difficulty finding my way back into purely creative writing and the blog isn't helping. But after compiling this list of everything I was able to achieve this year, above and beyond Video WatchBlog, I'll try to carry on awhile longer. I have a couple of projects already in mind for 2008, and this past year I managed to carry out a little more than a couple, so everything should be doable as long as I keep my health.

Of course, all of this writing I do would be meaningless without its audience, and I thank you all for being there for me and my eagerly-shared opinions and insights, for paying attention, and for keeping me honest by correcting my occasional mistakes. Donna joins me in wishing you all a very happy, healthy -- and, above all, productive -- 2008.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Bissette on I AM LEGEND, Matheson, etc.

I recommend you check out Steve Bissette's MYRANT blog, where he has posted some typically well-considered thoughts of typically epic length on the new Will Smith blockbuster I AM LEGEND, bringing into his discussion notes on the source novel by Richard Matheson and its previous film adaptations THE LAST MAN ON EARTH and THE OMEGA MAN.

By serendipity, we caught I AM LEGEND tonight and, like Steve, I thought it was going along pretty darned well... until the bad guys showed up and turned out to be a bunch of Hulk-roaring cartoons. (Makes it easier to adapt to a video game, I suppose.) Nevertheless, Smith puts a lot of heart into his performance and, despite running on a relatively flat tire for too much of its third act, it's got three or four terrific sequences definitely worth seeing.