Saturday, January 12, 2008

Edward Klosinski: Fade to White

I just learned today of the death of Polish cinematographer Edward Klosinski, who passed away on January 5, at age 65, after a relatively short battle with lung cancer.

Klosinski's 70-plus picture filmography includes such classics of Polish cinema as Andrzej Wajda's MAN OF MARBLE (1977) and the Palme d'Or-winning MAN OF IRON (1981), as well as Lars von Trier's EUROPA (1991). The news of his death carries an extra sting because he was a favorite collaborator of the man whom I consider the most important director of the last quarter-century, the late Krzysztof Kieslowski. Klosinski photographed "Thou Shalt Not Take the Name of the Lord thy God in Vain," one of the finest episodes of Kieslowski's THE DECALOGUE (1990) and, more importantly, he was the director of photography for the second film of his celebrated "Three Colors" trilogy, WHITE (1994), starring Julie Delpy and Zbigniew Zamachowski -- the brightest dark comedy ever made.

A compulsive smoker, Kieslowski died of cardiac arrest in 1996, shortly after completing "Three Colors" and embarking on a life of speculative retirement. Five years later, in 2001, his valued collaborator Piotr Sobocinski -- the cameraman responsible for two DECALOGUE episodes and the third entry in the trilogy, RED (1994), died unexpectedly of the same cause at age 43. Klosinski's death leaves only Slamowir Idziak, the gifted cinematographer of THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VÉRONIQUE (1991) and BLUE (1993), as a living representative of Kieslowski's final camera trust.

Julie Delpy in THREE COLORS: WHITE, photographed by Edward Klosinski.

Of the "Three Colors" films, WHITE has always carried the burden of being the odd one out; in contrast to the tragically wrenching BLUE, set in France, and the metaphysically momentous RED, set in Switzerland, it's a wry black comedy set in Poland -- and Nabokovian to the extent of featuring a protagonist named Karol Karol. Whether or not one finds Julie Delpy a comparable beauty to Juliette Binoche and Irène Jacob is a matter of taste, but she wasn't called upon to carry her film in the way her two colleagues were; her Dominique is an important supporting character, a bedevilling harpy rather than a heroine. The film is really about her miserable husband Karol, from whom she is separated and pursuing a divorce, and the Faustian friendship he strikes up with a businessman met in a tube station, a vaguely written character that becomes one of Kieslowski's most memorable personages through the performance of actor Janusz Gajos.

Klosinski photographed WHITE in a manner that is at once en suite with its companion films while also striking a distinctly different attitude, more earthy and realistic, depicting its director's homeland as a humble country that magic can reach only from within.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Vampira: Too Cool for the Graveyard

Some of those horror hosts who succeeded her professionally have preceded her in death, but today the sad news reaches us that Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira -- the world's first horror movie host -- has died of natural causes at the age of 86. This link will take you to a fairly complete episode guide for the historic VAMPIRA SHOW (which ran on KABC-TV, Channel 7, in Los Angeles, Saturday nights at midnight, from 1954-55).

Vampira -- the name was coined by her then-husband Dean Riesner, a screenwriter who, the year before, had penned MESA OF LOST WOMEN -- launched every episode with a scream guaranteed to raise hackles, wearing a black dress so tight it raised many a tent. A shapely creation forged from elements of the "sick humor" that was arising at the time from the beatnik culture (making her a sister of sorts to Lenny Bruce and Brother Theodore), Vampira's sense of humor was dry, droll and devastatingly unpredictable; no one else could get the upper hand with her around. She was simply too cool for the graveyard.

As this remarkable photo encapsulates, Vampira was more than a horror host: she was a genuine pop cultural icon whose original, beckoningly deathly look left what is likely to be a permanent impression on her world. The rough sketch for her character may have originated in the NEW YORKER cartoons of Charles Addams, but it took the corporeal form of Maila Nurmi, her bohemian sensibility, and her dry rapier wit to make it avant-garde and sexy. There had been other "horror women" in the past, like Gloria Holden in DRACULA'S DAUGHTER and Acquanetta in CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN, but only Elsa Lanchester's BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN seemed to foreshadow Nurmi's flair for fashion and similarly exult in her own macabre appeal; Holden and Acquanetta, like June Lockhart's SHE WOLF OF LONDON, were accursed, baleful women, saddened by their status as monsters. Maila Nurmi took the beauty of the horror genre, adapted it into a personal fashion statement, and called it Vampira. Unlike her sisters onscreen, Vampira was a one-woman celebration of the pleasures of mixing abominable thoughts and an epicure's libido -- which, it must be said, not only made her horror's first truly liberated female figure, but arguably the first liberated horror character of either sex.

Merely to peruse the list of some of the movies she presented -- ROGUE'S TAVERN, MIDNIGHT LIMITED, LADY CHASER and CASE OF THE GUARDIAN ANGEL (the baby of the bunch, made in 1949!) -- is to realize just how early a phenomenon she was; there was not yet a Universal "Shock Theater" package and, obviously, the world was still four years away from the first issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND magazine. Vampira never once presided over a Frankenstein, Dracula or Wolf Man movie; her beat was Monogram miseries, British quota-quickies, and forgotten films noir. She also established a behavior pattern for all those who followed in her footsteps by looking down the full length of her nose at them.

Though only a very small portion of the country ever saw her show (of which very little kinescope footage survives), her legend spread like wildfire -- partly through Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s casting of her as Bela Lugosi's dead wife in the immortally cheesy PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1956), where she sported a waistline so narrow that it has been known to make other women wince in pain; it had the ribs-removed look that could make even a martini glass envious. (Of course, in 1994 Lisa Marie gave a touching and dead-on performance as Vampira in Tim Burton's career high ED WOOD.) By the late 1950s, Vampira's likeness had become a popular Halloween mask, an evidence of her fame that also ironically marked the moment when Maila Nurmi lost control of her immortal creation.

It would seem to be her example that resulted in the arrival of this sort of predatory seductress in horror cinema, such as Barbara Steele's Princess Asa in BLACK SUNDAY (1961) and Ingrid Pitt's Carmilla in THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1969); indeed, Vampira's two-year reign over the midnight airwaves in Los Angeles influenced Carolyn Jones' performance as Morticia in THE ADDAMS FAMILY TV series, as well. In Jerry Lewis' 1963 classic THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, his character Buddy Love summons a sullen waitress by shouting, "Hey, Vampira!" Her image also crossed over into the music world, evident in everyone from Siouxsie Sioux to Marilyn Manson, and today we can meet any number of Vampiras simply by walking down the street, people who emulate her look and deadpan manner of speaking without ever having seen footage of she who started it all.

Ms. Nurmi's death follows the release last August of VAMPIRA THE MOVIE, a 70m documentary by Kevin Sean Michaels that combines archival footage and one of the last interviews granted by its subject, still wickedly sharp-witted in her mid-eighties. Rest assured that we will see her like again... and again... and again... but let us bow our heads in wistful sadness as another true original leaves the building for a future etched in marble.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

I, Videowakkhond

Full kudos to artist Enrico Guido Krieko (Erik Kriek) for this amusing caricature of me unmasking Mario Bava -- by telephone, of course -- which appears in the current "Tutto Bava" ("All Bava") issue of the Dutch horror film magazine SCHOKKEND NIEUWS. The magazine's website offers a generous 13-page free sample pdf of the issue online, in which this cool illustration appears on page 13. Signor Krieko has done a marvelous job of recreating the look of Sei donne per l'assassino's Belgian poster art, by way of Daniel Clowes perhaps, and I must say he also nailed my hairstyle -- if not my height. (Or my neck -- I have one.) I haven't yet seen more of the issue than appears in the free sample, so I don't know if this is a single pager or if it continues into a fuller comic strip... but time will tell. And when it does, I'll tell you.
The text below the image, written by Bartolomeo del Pozzo (Bart van der Put), translates thusly: "Evasively, the mysterious filmmaker eludes those who threaten to expose his true identity. The Italian manages to hide behind his darkness and death-filled body of work. A quarter of a century after his death, his obsessed biographer sees his chance. From another continent, and armed only with phone, fax and remote-control, video watchdog Tim Lucas strikes. The six kilograms-weighing MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK ends many mysteries of the Maestro. But those who descend into his colorful darkness will always find new mysteries...."
My thanks to friendly correspondent Gustav Verhulsdonck for the translation.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Dreams Is Dapressin'

If my day today was a Popeye cartoon, that would be its title.

I went to bed late but was awakened early, after just a few hours, by one of the most remarkable dreams I ever had. It was scary, funny, full of action, and it had a tense dramatic story attached to it. I woke myself by consciously realizing, in the midst of this subconscious wallow, that I had never seen a movie quite like this, and it would be lightning in a bottle if I could only get it onto paper. So I woke and scribbled down eight lines of notes -- I used to do this all the time in my twenties, as an aspiring novelist, and rarely do it anymore, which made the effort seem even more exciting.

Then I returned to bed, where I found myself unable to sleep because I kept going over the idea and its imagery in my thoughts, trying to reel back in the parts of it I was losing touch with. An odd thing is that parts of it dovetail with fragments remembered from another dream from decades ago, which I've always held onto as having possibilities. The more I tried to fit these two together, natural as the fit seemed to be, the more I could feel the new dream's freshness and unpredictable, mercurial quality becoming hemmed in by the hard nails of conscious detail. Unable to get back to sleep, I got up for the day about an hour later and looked at the notes I'd written down. Fortunately, they didn't say "Boy Meets Girl" -- there is a real live germ of a book or movie in there, but it's sketchy as hell and it's going to take a lot of work to romance it out of the dream world into this one.

The torment is that part of me keeps saying "This could be your fortune." And I know that, if I don't take the most important steps in this process in the next day or two (which I can't, due to other obligations), or at least within the next week, there's a good chance it will be pretty much gone. No wonder so many people just play the lottery; it's easier than playing "The Old Man and the Sea" with one's own inner pool of hobgoblins.

As long as I can keep this idea interesting to myself, and add to it slowly, there's a chance it could become something. But, because of this dream and attendant lack of sleep and a determined return to the gym yesterday, I've had a long day of fuzzy-headedness, tired muscles, and haven't gotten much done other than some laundry. We have a dinner date with friends this evening, so my only aspiration for the rest of the day is to be good company.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The First Doctor's 100th

Today, DOCTOR WHO fans the world over will likely be taking note that today would have been the 100th birthday of actor William Hartnell (1908-1975), who introduced the long-running character to the British public.

It's often observed that the success of The Beatles in America may have been allied to the country's need for something upbeat in the wake of the assassination of US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Likewise, DOCTOR WHO's inaugural serial chapter "An Unearthly Child" happened to premiere on the BBC on November 23, 1963 -- the evening immediately following the terrible news -- so it may have similarly benefitted as a much-needed ambassador of escapism and gladder tidings. Hartnell's "First Doctor" -- and the subsequent variations of him from Patrick Troughton to David Tennant -- have been a beloved part of the national (nay, international) fabric ever since.

Hartnell remained the star of the series through 1966, during which time Amicus Productions made two "Doctor Who" features in which they cast Peter Cushing, who played the role à la Hartnell: DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS (1965) and DALEK'S INVASION EARTH: 2150 A.D. (1966). Six years after being released from the show by its second team of producers, Hartnell returned to the role he made famous one final time, in the 10th anniversary broadcast "The Three Doctors."

Hartnell's other important performances include Darrow in BRIGHTON ROCK, Will Buckley in THE MOUSE THAT ROARED, and Dad in Lindsay Anderson's THIS SPORTING LIFE (which joins the Criterion Collection later this month), but for sheer pop cultural impact, his Who was the big What When. And for many fans, it still is.

Also, a hearty "Buon' compleanno!" to Marcello Fondato, the screenwriter of Mario Bava's BLACK SABBATH (I tre volti della paura, 1963) and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (Sei donne per l'assassino, 1964) and many other films, who turns 84 today.

And can you believe that this needs-no-introduction fellow is now 82 years young?

Monday, January 07, 2008

Skidoozy

Wow. Many thanks to Mark Evanier's News From ME blog for posting a link to my defense of SKIDOO. As I type this, it's not even 2:30 in the afternoon, but thanks specifically to referrals from News from ME, Video WatchBlog has already received nearly as many hits as it usually accumulates in the course of an entire day. Which just goes to show that there's something about this movie that intrigues people. Maybe it's a sign of the fall of Western civilization or the crumbling of our educational standards, but if SKIDOO was just a bad movie, would hundreds of people (thousands before the day is out) be out there, chasing down information about it?

Also thanks to one of our frequent correspondents, B. Baker, who sent this informative communiqué:

"If BREWSTER McCLOUD is rather more respected [than SKIDOO] -- which I believe it to be -- it's because it was not only directed by Altman, but entirely re-written by the director and Brian McKay. According to C. Kirk McClelland's book about the making of the film, Cannon's deal with Altman and MGM guaranteed the writer sole screen credit. McClelland's book, published by Signet in 1971, interestingly includes both the final version of the Altman/McKay screenplay and Cannon's original script (titled "Brewster McLeod's Flying Machine") for comparison, and the two scripts have little in common. It has been years since I read the Cannon screenplay, but to my memory the only real similarities between it and the Altman/McKay version are the idea of a young man named Brewster who wants to fly away, and a mysterious mentor named Louise. The characters, setting, much of the story and nearly all of the comic situations -- in other words, almost everything -- are very different in the Altman film.

"I also recall [Cannon's script] as being extremely dark -- even bitter -- and I believe the story was set in New York. I think the script's climax involved Brewster being shot out of the sky by police. This idea almost survived in the Altman/McKay script -- Brewster was originally to be shot while flying around the Astrodome, with the film possibly ending with a freeze frame of a stricken Brewster in flight -- but shortly before the scene was shot, this idea was scrapped, partly because it seemed similar to the climax of the recent BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID. [Also, as the picture was constantly being re-written and re-imagined to take advantage of the Houston setting and locations, it was possibly inevitable that the Ringling Bros & Barnum & Bailey Circus, co-owned at the time by the Houston Astros organization, would figure into BREWSTER at some point.]"


Well, B., it's been decades since I saw BREWSTER McCLOUD so the auteur links I cited between it and SKIDOO were really nothing more than a nod to the broadest outlines of both projects: they're both wacky, eccentric pictures, wackier and more eccentric than other works in the filmographies of Preminger and Altman, POPEYE excepted. There's something about these two movies that is almost Thomas Pynchonean, or at least semi-Charles Griffithian, Robert Thomian, or T. Coraghessan Boylean. Hey, look at me -- I'm writing Harry Nilsson lyrics!

Speaking of which, as I noted on a favorite discussion board, the end credits of SKIDOO are like a musical remake of the opening credits of FAHRENHEIT 451. With subtitles.

SKIDOO - As Bad As All That?

Turner Classic Movies recently screened one of the most widely reviled films of the 1960s, Otto Preminger's SKIDOO (1968) -- the movie that inspired so many critics of its day to advise "Skiddon't."

I suppose it goes against the common wisdom, but it's my own belief that there are different kinds of bad movie. Some bad movies are simply dull and incompetent; some movies become a mess due to the inability of the filmmaker to grasp what he/she is reaching for; some movies are bad because they think their message is above your head when it's really beneath your contempt; and there are also movies, made by competent people, that just happened to be made with the wrong people at the wrong time and became an unintentional freakshow that, depending on its audience, either elicits our condescending sniggers or empathy and curiosity. If SKIDOO must be seen as a "bad" movie (a term I try my best to resist because it tends to slam the door on understanding), it best fits into the latter category.

I'd like to give SKIDOO the benefit of the doubt. First of all, I think it's unfair to be so harsh on a film that hasn't been given every opportunity to make its best impression. Despite a brand-new-looking Paramount logo, TCM's presentation of the Panavision 2.35:1 feature was cropped, had the stale look of an aged VHS conversion, and sported a horrendous sound mix that sometimes had background score drowning out dialogue. Whatever our knee-jerk response to SKIDOO, in all fairness we must remind ourselves that this is our reaction to seeing the film in this wretched state. We're looking at a distorted presentation -- photographed by the great Leon Shamroy (LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, SOUTH PACIFIC, PRINCE OF FOXES), no less -- so our response is bound to be similarly distorted.

No, I'm not going to make a case for SKIDOO's unrecognized brilliance, but I certainly wasn't bored at any point. (I wish I could say the same about Mike Nichols' last twenty years on the job.) One thing that interested me most was that the movie I saw had little to do with the godawful reputation that preceded it. It has been called Otto Preminger's mid-life crisis movie, but it's not really an auteur picture, even if Preminger himself thought of it in those terms. The script was written by Doran William Cannon, who later wrote Robert Altman's rather more respected fantasy BREWSTER McCLOUD (1970), and I can see a fairly straight creative line between those two pictures that simply doesn't exist between SKIDOO and Preminger's next, TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME, JUNIE MOON (1970), or his previous HURRY SUNDOWN (1967, excepting the shared presence in both of John Phillip Law).

SKIDOO has long been the subject of underground finger-pointing: after all, it's the movie where Jackie Gleason takes an acid trip, the movie where Groucho Marx smokes a joint. From the days when I bought ZAP Comics in head shops, people have traded these bits of information as if such ideas were themselves contraband, but both actors handle these dramatic challenges, if that's what they were, with aplomb. In fact, smoking a joint from a roach clip is the only thing that Groucho does with his usual masterly ease in the movie, where it's painfully evident that he's reading all his lines off of cue cards. Even his trademark shoe-polish mustache is applied unevenly. I've never known anyone to mention, in conversation anyway, that the movie is about the Mafia. Jackie Gleason -- who plays a retired suburban mafioso recalled by his ex-captain "God" (Groucho) to infiltrate a prison and commit one last hit (against Mickey Rooney, of all people) -- gives his usual fine performance, one that actually reaches a kind of pinnacle at the height of his delirium, though it's surrounded by a lot of noise (like casting that sometimes feels decided by dartboard, panning-and-scanning, and that infernal sound mix). Seen today, SKIDOO makes it almost tempting to see Jackie Gleason and his pampered Jersey wife Carol Channing as psychedelic templates for Tony and Carmela Soprano; indeed, the adventure taken by this Tony (Gleason, it's also his character name) has probably become an easier pill to swallow now that we've followed James Gandolfini's Tony through the weirder side-streets of his life and crimes on HBO.

SKIDOO opens with a lot of remote-control zapping of a televised image and later indulges in solarized color psychedelia, both of which featured prominently in Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson's Monkees movie HEAD (also 1968). If it's bad, it's certainly not because Otto Preminger was out-of-touch on the subjects of the youth and drug culture of the day, something that can't be said about THE LOVE-INS (again, 1968), the riotously conservative groove-fest that followed SKIDOO on TCM's schedule. Where SKIDOO goes astray is not in having establishment movie stars dabbling in counter-cultural amenities, but in taking an interesting premise and other intriguing divertissements and trying to make a comic musical out of it all. Even here, Preminger was not necessary incompetent; he had the good taste to hire Harry Nilsson (another Monkees affiliate) to supervise this end of things, and Nilsson's songs are fine, a bit in his COURTSHIP OF EDDIE'S FATHER mode. Unfortunately, they don't have any kind of organic fix on the story at hand. Nilsson also appears in a very funny (because so unexpected) scene as one of two tripping prison guards -- the other is CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB's Fred Clark (again, "of all people") -- and looks down from his observation post to see a large yellow-orange hot-air balloon being filled to facilitate Tony's escape, which prompts him to ask the rhetorical question "Scrambled eggs?", which I, for one, found very funny.

People make a lot of fuss over SKIDOO's unfocused casting, its bizarre shuffling of media images, but this aspect of the movie is perfectly consistent with HEAD (which featured The Monkees, Sonny Liston, Frank Zappa, Carol Doda and Annette Funicello) and MYRA BRECKINRIDGE (Mae West, Rex Reed, John Carradine, Raquel Welch, William Hopper) -- not to mention the grand-père of them all, CASINO ROYALE (1967, Orson Welles, Woody Allen, David Niven, Daliah Lavi, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Vladek Sheybal, Frankenstein). All of these movies were long reviled by critics -- still are by the stodgier ones, say I -- but nowadays each of them has found champions among a subsequent generation of critics who have a better grasp of the zaniness these films were reaching for. Perhaps these films so kaleidoscopically of their time really were ahead of their time; perhaps they still are, though we are showing signs of drawing nearer to a better appreciation of what they captured, through design or sheer recklessness, about their moment.

In researching my (unpublished) book on Jefferson Airplane's CROWN OF CREATION, I found interviews with band members who remembered Otto Preminger dropping in on a recording session, probably because he happened to be at RCA Studios in Los Angeles to oversee Nilsson's SKIDOO scoring sessions. The Airplane were a little creeped out by his presence and they didn't find him particularly warm or likeable, but he assured them with his trademark icy unctuousness that, if they bothered to get to know him, they would realize they had much in common in terms of tastes and beliefs. It's said that Preminger, like Roger Corman prior to THE TRIP, took LSD in an effort to change his outlook -- and while it didn't have too positive an effect on his filmmaking, it does seem to have done something positive in terms of dismantling one of Hollywood's most infamous egos and making him a more empathetic human being. I can understand how some people might see SKIDOO and whatever Preminger was going through at the time as a mid-life crisis, but mid-life crises don't always have to be destructive or embarrassing. At least SKIDOO shows Otto Preminger attempting to push his work in a different direction -- more relevant, more playful -- and, disaster or not, I would personally prefer to watch it than just about any other movie from his last twenty years on the job.

In 1968, generational lines were so rigidly drawn that Jefferson Airplane couldn't help but see Otto Preminger as "the man," even as a dirty old man who was hanging around the studio to keep his epicurean eye trained on the comely Grace Slick. Looking at SKIDOO in 2008, I don't see anything that suggests Preminger as a dirty old man or as a card-carrying member of the Establishment. I see a brave, pleasurably catastrophic attempt at turnabout by an artist who was earnestly determined to reinvent himself, his life and his art. He didn't succeed of course, but even Bob Dylan, the master of self-reinvention, delivers the occasional DOWN IN THE GROOVE.

The important thing for any artist is to try and keep on trying -- or, to use another word, becoming. ("He who's not busy born is busy dying," to quote he who went down in the groove.) We, in turn, as their audience, need to become less insistent that high quality is the only valid aim for a piece of art, whether it's a film or a book or a piece of music, and more appreciative of work that scatters in all directions, reflecting the internal struggle that resulted when its makers set out to chart the unexplored territory of self and career, or simply to move from one place to another.

Stash, the hippie character played with a wink by John Phillip Law, has a line that puts what I'm trying to say right into the proverbial nutshell: "If you can't dig nothing, you can't dig anything... you dig?"

Sunday, January 06, 2008

New Shameful Cinema Link

Today at the Classic Horror Film Boards, VW critic Bill Cooke posted the following message:

"For years I have welcomed a close-knit group of friends over to my house once per week to eat, drink and experience the joys of crazy cult films. Recently, one of my fold started his own web site, www.shamefulcinema.com, as an outlet for his growing interest in writing about weird cinema. The site gets its name from our weekly gathering at 'Bill's House of Shame.' Since I review as many DVDs as I can handle for VIDEO WATCHDOG, I agreed to occasionally contribute soundtrack CD reviews since I'm not currently doing that elsewhere and film music has always been a special love of mine."

With Bill's good efforts in mind, I have added a permanent direct link to this site at screen right, where I provide an ongoing roster for the extracurricular online activities of the VW Kennel. Bill has already posted generous reviews of Jerry Goldsmith's ALIEN complete score and the Ronald Stein compilation MAD, MOD AND MACABRE, and his friends Andy and Stewart are tackling video reviews, so give them a look and keep the site bookmarked for regular visits.