Tuesday, February 26, 2008
How does one say "thank you" to the man who gave us the first recognizable Bugs Bunny cartoon, Daffy Duck, Droopy, Screwy (née Screwball) Squirrel, Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf, the Three Little Pups (is there any one among us who didn't try watching television with their eyes crossed and tongue thrust out the corner of our mouths after making their august acquaintence?), Spike, Egghead, Meathead, Willoughby, and the immortal Owl Jolson? I suppose all the thanks he would have wanted is our continued love (especially from fans of the female persuasion) and laughter, which we give effortlessly when faced with the likes of "King-Sized Canary", "Ventriloquist Cat", "Northwest Hounded Police", "Uncle Tom's Cabana", "Magical Maestro" (if thy hair in the gate offend thee, pluck it out), "Slap Happy Lion", "Senor Droopy" (with a cameo by the original Lina Romay) and "The Legend of Rockabye Point" -- the flat-out funniest body of work to be found in the annals of animation.
MGM, or whoever owns their stuff this week, should have been on the ball (insert "Symphony in Slang" image) to issue a complete Tex Avery set on DVD to commemorate this important occasion. French fans have such a set available to them, and we also had one in the days of laserdisc, but nowadays, here in the country of this Paul Bunyan-sized talent's birth, his genius is widely scattered on disc. (Ignore THE WACKY WORLD OF TEX AVERY - TEX RIDES AGAIN, which is Tex Avery in name only.)
The bear has just come out of his cave again to club my head and demand "Quiet," so I've got to make my summation quick. In a still-young 21st century where Charlie Chaplin is largely considered a museum piece, where W.C. Fields and Fred Allen and Jack Benny are barely remembered, where the name of Preston Sturges is known only to an elite core group of film buffs, where the Three Stooges are generally viewed with disdain by an entire gender, and where Jerry Lewis is appreciated mostly by the French, Tex Avery's brand of humor remains astonishingly fresh (in all senses of that word), direct, relevant, up-to-date and universal, so he would seem to stand a better chance at immortality than most of his 20th century contemporaries in fundom. I can say no more... because the cat has my tongue.
TECHNICOLOR ends here.
Monday, February 25, 2008
Without question, José Mojica Marins is one of the true mavericks of the fantastic cinema, a truly unique filmmaker and one of the genre's most assertive personalities. Working in tandem with his cinematographer Giorgio Attili and editor Luíz Elias, Mojica's early films were not only violent but violently original. Attili's camera, with its cubist framing, would zoom in and out as Elias' cutting made the images snap and crackle; the combination had the feel of bottled electricity, of a cubist painting not only brought to life but prodded to the brink of death. These films also sound like no other films in the world; they scream and vent and weep like the darkest corners in the madhouse of our dreams. If Jean Cocteau was the filmmaker most successful at making audiences dream with their eyes wide open, José Mojica Marins is the cinema's greatest conductor of waking nightmares.
I live and work in North America, where Mojica's films are not widely known, but they are venerated here by a growing cult of enthusiasts who were not able to gain access to his movies until more than four decades after the earliest were made. To tell the truth, we know little about Brazilian cinema in North America, and not much of Brazilian history; therefore, even the most famous Brazilian films have little or no sociologic context for us. It is their alien quality, their exotic strangeness, their sunniness and their sexiness, wherein lies their main appeal. Mojica's work, of course, is neither sunny nor particularly erotic, which makes him a distant cousin to Italy's Mario Bava -- who, like Mojica, told stories of horror retrieved from the darkest shadows of his sunny country.
Years before any of us in North America was able to see Mojica's films, we read about them. For us, the initial germ of the Mojica plague was spread by Phil Hardy's THE ENCLYCLOPEDIA OF HORROR FILMS, first published in 1986. Some of the most famous images from Mojica's films had appeared in earlier books and magazines, but it was not until the arrival of Hardy's book that they were accompanied by any substantial or enticing information. Though Hardy and his fellow contributors at times were harsh in their judgments of the films, their descriptions were outrageous and thus appetizing. Of ESTA NOITE ENCARNEREI NO TEU CADAVER ("This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse," 1965), for example, it was written that "the shoestring production exudes a genuine sense of madness both in its imaginings and in the treatment of its participants, with the eccentric, seemingly out-of-control staging veering from the pathological to the surreal." To read such an account in the increasingly safe and sterile environment of American horror cinema in the 1980s was to arouse a ferocious desire to find and see the work of this crazed genius. And finding these movies would not be easy.
I obtained my own first copies of Mojica's films on bootleg videocassette, which is how all first generation American fans saw them: in poor quality and in Portuguese, a language we did not read or speak, which made them all the more dreamlike and exciting --like the discovery of something long forbidden.
I have a strange confession to make. As a child, I once had a nightmare which I have never forgotten, in which I found myself standing alone in a darkened graveyard. As I saw the headstones around me and realized where I was, luminous eyes opened to peer at me from the darkness and I felt the ground open beneath me, an opening grave perhaps. I plummeted down through the earth, albeit slowly, the way Alice fell into Wonderland, past strange sights and sounds, until I came to rest in a scary room where I was approached by a cackling witch. As you must surely anticipate, when I first saw A MEIA-NOITE LEVAREI SUA ALMA ("At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul," 1964) on VHS, I had the uncanny experience of seeing something on video, a film from a distantland, that was basically exactly what I had once dreamed around the same time the film was being made or first shown. True, there was no descent underground, but the film's titles scroll up from the bottom of the screen, giving one the temporary sensation of falling. My entire experience of seeing that movie for the first time was tinged with déja vu. I told myself that this bizarre coincidence might be the ultimate proof of Mojica's success in capturing the soul-searing essence of a nightmare onscreen. But asI think back on it now, the apparition of Zé do Caixao appears before me, brandishing his cape and taunting me with questions:
What are dreams?
Why do they speak to us?
Do they describe to us our future, those events which arestill to come?
Or is there a common Unconscious, a pool in which we all swim as we sleep, composed of the images (even the moving images) that dictate how we will live and die?
Is it possible that dreams are like birds, migrating from one body to another?
How is it possible for a boy in Ohio to dream what a moviegoer in Brazil has seen in a darkened theater?
Might these images be the final recollections expelled by the mind at the moment of death, as someone is murdered on his way home from a cinema, images not ready to die, images desperate to survive by swimming into the soul of another?
Men may perish, but dreams never die!
For what is Man, if not the discarded skin of a dream?
As you can see, Zé do Caixao's migration to America was a resounding success, perhaps even before we received his films. He is Zé the Inevitable.
The publication of Phil Hardy's book also made possible the belated discovery for several other, similarly transgressive horror directors: Jesús Franco, Nobuo Nakagawa, Walerian Borowczyk, Jean Rollin, and Yasuzo Takamura, to name only a few. Neither Mojica or any of these filmmakers were well-known in America prior to the arrival of this important book, because they made films for adults. In the North America of the 1960s, horror was regarded as a genre suitable only for the entertainment of children. To have exposed a child to the work of José Mojica Marins in the 1960s might well have been a criminal offense.
Through the intervention of André Barcinski, Mojica's special work made the leap from the video underground into the hands of Something Weird Video, an offbeat Seattle-based company which had resurrected the works of Herschell Gordon Lewis, Doris Wishman, David F. Friedman, and many other exploitation outlaws on videotape. The company's owner was Mike Vraney, possibly the only real showman the world of home video has ever had, who understood that Mojica's films needed something to help them vault over the cultural obstacles that too often stand between general American viewers and international cinema. It was Vraney's idea, I believe, to reinvent Zé do Caixao as "Coffin Joe" -- a name that, to American ears, was not only approachable but integrated everything he had to offer into our own cultural tradition of horror. For this demon to have a nickname placed him in the company of other beloved cult figures dating from this same era: "Uncle Forry" (Forrest J Ackerman, the editor of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND), Ed "Big Daddy" Roth (the man behind Rat Fink, futuristic cars and monster T-shirts), and "Brother Theodore" Gottlieb (our most macabre and demented "stand-up tragedian").
Certainly there are many aspects of Mojica's work that are alien to American sensibilities -- its sense of Carnivál, its sadistic glee, its obsession with procreation -- but it also overlaps with some American traditions, notably those of the Western. Like most Westerns, the story of A MEIA-NOITE LEVAREI SUA ALMA is set in a small, dusty village with a graveyard, and one of the first scenes depicts Zé do Caixao visiting a tavern, offending others by his mere presence like a notorious outlaw, and beating another man into submission with chains -- a nightmarish twist on the traditional confrontation in an Old West saloon. Mojica's work also foreshadows the most baroque and psychedelic extremes of the Italian Westerns of the late 1960s.
As fascinating as the technique of Mojica's films may be, they are most remarkable in terms of the character of Zé do Caixao. Introduced as the anti-hero of A MEIA-NOITE LEVAREI SUA ALMA (indeed, the role was written by Mojica with the expectation that it would be played by someone else), Zé has become the filmmaker's alter ego, his doppelgänger, his very shadow, whose sheer force of presence sometimes seems to threaten Mojica's place on the worldstage. It is impossible for me to know how much of the Zé do Caixao persona was consciously rooted in American culture, because I am unaware of how available this culture was to Mojica or any other Brazilian of his time. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the antecedents of Zé do Caixao first appeared in North American culture in the horror radio broadcasts of the 1930s and '40s. It was here that macabre characters first stepped outside their narrative involvements to entice listeners into stories of dreadful, horrific character. Perhaps the earliest of these was THE WITCH'S TALE (1931-38, hosted by "Old Nancy, Witch of Salem"), followed by THE HERMIT'S CAVE (mid-1930s) and, most famously, Orson Welles as the all-knowing announcer and protagonist of the long-running series THE SHADOW (1937-54).
Whether or not Mojica actually heard these broadcasts is irrelevant; it was Welles who established the archetype of a black cloaked character inhabiting the twilight between Life and Death, chortling at his audience's ignorance of the vagaries of the Afterlife and his own tenebrous privilege,while baiting us with existential questions. So popular was Welles' presentation of these stories, his approach long outlasted him in the radio medium; he left the role of the Shadow in 1938, but subsequent actors in the role followed in his footsteps, as did other radio horror hosts still to come: "Raymond" of THE INNER SANCTUM MYSTERIES (1941-52), and also the title characters of THE MYSTERIOUS TRAVELER (Maurice Tarplin, 1943-52) and THE STRANGE DR. WEIRD (1944-45).
These creepy, ironic characters, presiding over the theater of our imaginations, subsequently inspired the storytellers of the famous EC Comics of the 1950s: the Crypt Keeper of TALES FROM THE CRYPT, The Vault Keeper of VAULT OF HORROR, and the Old Witch of HAUNT OF FEAR─and subsequently the first generation horror hosts of television, "Vampira" (Maila Nurmi), "Roland" and "Zacherley" (John Zacherle), and the droll Alfred Hitchcock of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. As I say, how available these influences were to someone like Mojica, I do not know; if he had no direct access, perhaps these ideas and archetypes migrated to him through the depths of his dreams, as once happened to me. These apparitions migrate from one mind to another because they must survive.
The character of Zé do Caixao seems to me very much the personification of a nightmare that must survive. In his first two adventures, he is literally hellbent on siring a son. A new chapter in the Zé do Caixao saga, ENCARNACAO DE DEMONIO ("Incarnation of the Demon"), has been promised by Mojica for more than 40 years; it has become the son that José Mojica Marins must sire. The films made during this period have served to fortify the potency of Zé do Caixao as icon and myth. In each new film, Zé do Caixao has become less fictional, more real; he is determined not only to have a son, but to break free of the boundaries of cinema, to pass from fantasy into reality like the character of Sadako in Hideo Nakata's RINGU (1998). In the third film of the trilogy, the anthologic O ESTRANHO MUNDO DE ZE DO CAIXAO ("The Strange World of Coffin Joe," 1968), Zé steps outside the story to become the storyteller. In O EXORCISMO NEGRO ("Black Exorcism," 1974), he stands in opposition to José Mojica Marins himself -- a polarized personality, each half determined to preserve its dominance.
In the documentary DEMONIOS E MARAVILHAS ("Demons and Wonders," 1987) -- one of the few films I have seen that truly warrants the description "astonishing" --Mojica folds himself back into the Tarot deck of his own art, unable to move forward with his trilogy and deciding instead to simultaneously celebrate and mourn his struggle. The film uses Mojica's disadvantages to its advantage, forging a dark romance from his oppression by criminals and fools, his depression, his worsening health, his stroke, even taking us into the moment of his own "near death" -- all the while reminding us of his celebrity, his popularity, his many friends and supporters, his parties, his continuing presence in newspapers and magazines... in short, his refusal to be denied.
Watching DEMONIOS E MARAVILHAS, it is impossible (for me, anyway) to determine how much of its story is true, and how much of it is, frankly, bullshit -- an incredible pageant of Mojica's narcissism and bravado. Either way, Mojica wins: if the film is truthful, it stands as a stunningly candid and vulnerable expression of the filmmaker's ego; if it's all as phony as its near-death scene, it nevertheless deserves acclaim as a masterwork of meta-fiction, worthy of comparison to the Cthulhu mythos of H. P. Lovecraft and Orson Welles' own F FOR FAKE (1974). It is here that Zé do Caixao achieves his third dimension.
It is now twenty years since DEMONIOS E MARAVILHAS. In a fascinating turn of events, Zé do Caixao's quest to sire a son and José Mojica Marins' quest to complete Zé's Unholy Trinity now appear to be on the point of convergence. It is reported that ENCARNACAO DO DEMONIO is being made at last, and that Mojica has discovered his own twin in a young American admirer, Raymond Castile, who has been cast in the role of the young Zé do Caixao -- the first time anyone but Mojica himself has played the part, and perhaps the first time ever that the part has been "played."
The ramifications of Mojica's discovery of Castile are significant. More than a century ago, Count Dracula left his homeland in Transylvania to conquer England. Where he failed --staked and withered to bones in his coffin -- Zé do Caixao has apparently triumphed. In the person of a young admirer from his conquered America, Zé do Caixao has achieved not only survival but his own rejuvenation.
This essay was written for JOSE MOJICA MARINS: 50 ANOS DE CARRIERA, edited by Eugenio Puppo, published by Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil in association with the Ministério da Cultura, February 2008, for which appearance it was translated into Portuguese by Ricardo Lisias. (c) 2008 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.
Sunday, February 24, 2008
Saturday, February 23, 2008
I just learned that Jim Jones -- a prominent Cleveland-based musician who played with Pere Ubu, the Easter Monkeys and The Mirrors -- died last Monday night, February 18, at age 57. This obit article from the Cleveland PLAIN DEALER, which includes commentary from PSYCHOTRONIC editor Michael Weldon (another Mirrors alumnus) renders a sketch of someone I would have liked very much to know more than musically.
As I've mentioned here before, I once had the pleasure of seeing Pere Ubu live at Bogart's here in Cincinnati when the group reformed in the 1980s. Jones, a former roadie for the band, had replaced Red Crayola guitarist Mayo Thompson in the lineup at the time, and I remember him playing a hell of a lead on "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," the kind that should require a guitarist to wear a welder's mask as it sprays sparks all over the stage. The show attracted a small turnout but I was front and center for it with a huge smile plastered all over my face -- close enough for bassist Tom Maimone to return it more than once.
Fifty-seven is much too young a demise, but Jim was blessed to go the way we probably all of us want to go -- not seeing it coming, while happily engaged in conversation with a friend about stuff.
Friday, February 22, 2008
Thursday, February 21, 2008
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films was founded in 1972 to honor, recognize and promote genre entertainment. The organization was an extension of another group, The Count Dracula Society, which was founded by Dr. Donald A. Reed. Dr. Reed’s passion was bringing recognition to the people who were often overlooked because they dealt in the fields of filmmaking which were considered, in certain circles, juvenile entertainment. Through Dr. Reed’s efforts, we have seen the genre film become a major force at the box office. It’s the genre film which keeps the studios alive and well. Dr. Reed felt strongly in honoring and recognizing extraordinary work and the people who create it. I try to follow in his footsteps.
With your recent publication, Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark, you have completely awed us in your efforts to chronicle the life and work of filmmaker Mario Bava. The book is simply astounding. I am completely blown away by your accomplishments in publishing this monster of a book. The devotion you show to your subject matter is inspiring to the point of obsession. And we are humbled that you had this passion to work on a book which took many years of your life to complete. It’s one of the most incredible achievements we have seen in our lifetime.
The Academy has chosen you to receive a Saturn Award, The Special Achievement Award, for your hard work in seeing this project come to fruition. If Dr. Reed were with us today, I know he would be the first to congratulate you on this monumental labor of love and wish to honor you for it.
Monday, February 18, 2008
I was introduced to Robbe-Grillet by my friend Robert Uth when I was still in my teens, with the famous Grove Press double of JEALOUSY and IN THE LABYRINTH, which pictured the author himself peering through the slats of a jalousie shade or venetian blind. This gesture was, in itself, instructive as it encouraged me, as a young reader and writer, to imagine the author as protagonist; he vigorously denied any such association, but as time has shown, he delighted in tweaking and provoking his audience. The two novellas, two of his greatest, were preceded by analytic essays by Bruce Morrissette and others, which helped me to contextualize these revolutionary, ambigous, objectivist works of fiction -- examples of the so-called "Nouveau Roman" ("New Novel"). I discovered them ten years or more after they were "new," but they remained absolutely unlike anything else I had read. They taught me, before I discovered Nabokov, about the value of scientific detail in description and word selection, yet they also went extraordinarily afield of the Flaubertian search for the mot juste ("right word"). It was Robbe-Grillet's example that taught me, more than either Burroughs or Ballard, that a novel can be a psychological playground where the narrative possibilities are limited only by the author's own imagination and capacity for candor. Robbe-Grillet delighted in slowing down time, collapsing it, having it swallow its own tail, and having key episodes repeat like a hiccup, subtly altering them with each repetition. He was similarly fearless in allowing aspects of the fantastic to encroach upon settings constructed with meticulous realism.
Saturday, February 16, 2008
Friday, February 15, 2008
True, the score -- played by a smallish Filipino orchestra with choir and recorded in mono -- isn't particularly tuneful, but it is original, distinctive, and played with a lot of sweat, saliva and brio. I don't think any other soundtrack CD in my collection quite as effectively conjures up memories of my own grindhouse experience. Listening to this deliriously woozy music, equal parts voodoo exotica and barroom brawl, one is sorely tempted to shake the images in the illustrated booklet violently in front of one's face to fully recreate the experience of the zoom-crazed picture. Tracks 11 and 18 in particular will make fans of Hemisphere and Independent-International's movies squirm in delight because they seem like the theme music for something like 90% of their horror trailers.
The disc has a total running time of 50:43, the main sequence consisting of 20 cues with an additional 14 bonus tracks, including a few with bilingual studio chatter -- which adds greatly to the atmosphere and documentary value of the release and is at least as wondrous a thing to own as the music itself. ("It's incredible! It's unbelieeeeeevable!" as Brother Theodore famously opined.) But the finest additional value brought to these previously unissued recordings is the eight-page full-color annotated booklet written by disc producer Tim Ferrante, who presents a forensically detailed account of how this music came to be recorded, used, reused (in the movie BRAIN OF BLOOD and the trailers for CHILLER CARNIVAL OF BLOOD and BLOOD-O-RAMA SHOCK FESTIVAL), and even re-recorded (the same music was later rerecorded with a smaller orchestra to provide score for BEAST OF BLOOD). A useful bio of Tito Arevalo, who died in 2000, is also included, along with photos of the original session reels and a rare MAD DOCTOR giveaway doll (only a few of these are known to still exist).
The MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND soundtrack is available from Xploited Cinema here for $19.95 -- admittedly a trifle steep for a domestic single-disc release, but reasonable when one considers the rarity of its limited pressing and the scholarship that went into its liner notes. It can also be obtained directly from the Elysee Productions website, where you can read more about the disc and actually sample some of its ineffable sounds in Real Audio or mp3 format. Here's a link to an interview with Tim Ferrante about the production. I encourage you to support this release, which can only encourage Mr. Ferrante and Company to undertake others in the same vein in the months and years ahead.
Speaking of the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards, a few weeks still remain for casting your votes. Voting ends at 12:00am midnight (eastern time) on March 8, so use the link above to support your favorite nominees and write-in candidates while you still can!
Thursday, February 14, 2008
On the Mobius Home Video Forum, Don May, Jr. of Synapse Films has announced that Xploited Cinema has agreed to assume all distribution duties for Impulse Pictures' new DVD release of SCHOOLGIRL REPORT #3: WHAT PARENTS FIND UNTHINKABLE. Impulse -- a sub-label marketed by Synapse -- took special precautions to ensure that this 1972 sequel (co-directed by Walter Boos and Ernst Hofbauer) was uncut, in response to earlier complaints about a missing segment from their supposedly complete release of Hofbauer's SCHOOLGIRL REPORT #1 (1970). Evidently, the uncut content of this particular film was too much for Synapse's usual distributor to bear; after examining a preview disc, they refused to issue it.
Admittedly, SCHOOLGIRL REPORT #3 is one of the darker and bolder films in the series, featuring a few vignettes involving teenage rape at the hands of school officials, peers and pedophiles. However, the bothersome segment in question is undoubtedly one that features some fleeting prepubescent male nudity in a story about a teenage girl who volunteers to satisfy her younger cousin's curiosity about the ways in which their bodies differ. Granted, the boy's nudity can be a bit startling to American sensibilities, but let's be realistic: there is no erotic contact between the girl and boy (which one couldn't say, for example, of a similar scene between Laura Dern and Lukas Haas in RAMBLING ROSE) nor does the scene show anything couldn't be seen on a nude beach.
The film also has its share of more lighthearted, comic vignettes, two of which feature the respectively aged and twitchy series regulars Rosyl Mayr and Michael Schreiner, and there's a remarkably zesty romp -- one of the most erotic in the entire series -- involving doctor/father Dietrich Kerky and experience-seeking student Ingeborg Steinbach in which both performers appear to be enjoying the hell out of themselves... and each other. Jess Franco veteran Erik Falk is also featured in the final episode.
Thanks to the folks at Impulse, Synapse and Xploited for going the extra mile with this important Euro-exploitation series. Here's a link to the SCHOOLGIRL REPORT #3 ordering page at Xploited Cinema. They also have the first two releases in the series, as well as a highly collectable, full-color, 82-page souvenir magazine featuring dozens of poster and stills reproductions, as well as articles and bios pertaining to each film in the series and their key cast and crew members.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
I can remember with great clarity the day I discovered the book on the racks, when it was in its third issue, and it quickly became a passion that left me seeking out the back issues and Howard's back history; it also got me started drawing cigar-smoking ducks which adorned our refrigerator and were also left scattered about our apartment to convey messages to my wife. I bought duck posters like "The Duccaneer" and another one that depicted a Howard-like duck wielding a tommy gun in a scene out of THE UNTOUCHABLES. It was a sweet time of life. I got so deeply into Gerber's brand of comic book existentialism -- that's exactly what HOWARD was, a populist form of Sartre mixed with Groucho Marx -- that I also wrote my first and only letter to Marvel Comics in a lifetime of devoted reading, which appeared in HOWARD THE DUCK #10.
I never met or communicated with Steve Gerber directly, but somehow -- I don't recall how it came together -- I learned that the inspiration for the Duck lived in my hometown of Cincinnati and I tracked him down. Howard Tockman, apparently a college buddy of Gerber's and an aspiring writer, came to our apartment on Dixmyth Avenue with his wife and consented to an interview for CINCINNATI Magazine -- as the first in a series of projected interviews with so-called "Cincinnati Dreamers" -- which they never used. I must still have the article somewhere in my attic files, but I do have a comics newspaper with Howard the Duck on the cover that Howard himself cordially signed. A nice souvenir of those heady times.
Steve Gerber left behind him a good deal more accomplishment than many do, but his death remains a bitter pill -- not just because he was comparatively young, but because we know that he spent much of his prime fighting with his employers over issues like character rights, which ultimately prevented him from leaving behind as much as he might have. It seemed that the initial run of HOWARD THE DUCK ended almost as soon as it hit its stride, and its second incarnation under Gerber was forced by the looming shadow of Disney to evolve into a bizarre mutant strain of its original self, with Howard becoming a rather ratty-looking mouse. But the worst insult of all was the atrocious 1986 Lucasfilm movie adaptation, which eclipsed the actual character in the consciousness of most people and gave the whole franchise -- which included a daily newspaper strip -- the bouquet of stinky cheese.
A couple of years ago, a surge of nostalgia and the right price on eBay inspired me to plunk down for a complete set of HOWARD THE DUCK -- the original comic, the black-and-white magazines, the reboot, the specials, the early appearance books, everything. It held up splendidly, and while it certainly took me back to a specific time and place in my life and heart, I also found it possessed of a certain timeless quality that comes only with art that earnestly speaks the truth. The satiric humor of the book was undeniable, as was its warmth and wit, but what stood out most for me was the pride and passion of Howard's war cry: "Waugh!" Times like ours need that cry, and heroes like Howard the Duck. That's why our world tried to crush and conform him.
I did not know until reading about his death that Steve Gerber had a blog. It is now being handled by his friend Mark Evanier, who hopes to keep it online in an effort to preserve the writing that Gerber did for it and also to give fans a place to vent their feelings of loss over this and coming weeks. Evanier also wrote a moving piece about Gerber on his own blog, News From ME, which you can find by scrolling down here. If Steve Gerber's work meant something to you, you might want to click on these links to read more of and about him. I must plead guilty to unfamiliarity with the greater breadth and depth of his work, but I knew enough of it for his loss to mark a difference in my life. His work will be cherished as he will be missed.
Monday, February 11, 2008
The much-anticipated main feature in VW 137 is the first career-length interview ever granted by 1940s child actress Ann Carter, best known for her performance as little Amy Reed in Val Lewton's classic THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944) — conducted by award-winning film historian Tom Weaver. The photo above, showing Ann with two dogs that appear to have padded out of a stage production of PETER PAN, is a rare promotional shot taken on the set of the film... and just the beginning of a bounty of rare images soon to be unveiled in VIDEO WATCHDOG.
Friday, February 08, 2008
Thursday, February 07, 2008
I read a dozen or so his novels and story collections -- finding his black magic novels BROOD OF THE WITCH-QUEEN and GREY FACE superior to the rest, and delighting at discovering the roots of Chandu and Dr. Strange in THE DREAM DETECTIVE -- before deciding that I needed a change, but the books have remained on display in my attic, where the limited space of my downstairs floors dictates I must hoard my fiction. While paying a visit to the attic the other night, a title on my Rohmer shelf jumped out at me and I simply had to read it, there and then. It was his 1925 novel YELLOW SHADOWS.
It turned out to be a Limehouse (Chinatown) variation on a locked room mystery, in which a playwright enamored of a young actress finds himself embroiled in the murder of a London Tong leader, who is discovered dead -- but still breathing, a macabre side-effect of the exotic poison used on him -- in a sealed room of his Limehouse mansion. The story wears its melodramatic stripes proudly, but there is enough of striking atmospheric value herein to make me think this might still be adapted into an entertaining film. There is an exotic femme fatale named Suzee Lo Chee who is described in ways that recalled to me the Myrna Loy of THIRTEEN WOMEN, which wasn't made until 1932 -- seven years later. To my surprise, the big scare of the book involves a character who, feeling increasingly nervous in his cottage rooms on a stormy night, suddenly throws open the curtains of the room to view the extent of the bad weather and discovers the huge, pock-marked face of a Chinese stalker mashed hideously against the outer glass, looking in. This was almost 40 years before Richard Matheson wrote the same scare into his classic TWILIGHT ZONE episode, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." (I wonder -- did Matheson read YELLOW SHADOWS?)
After much accumulation of romance and incident, YELLOW SHADOWS ends -- abruptly, I felt, as does much of Rohmer's work that was originally written on tight deadlines for pulp magazine and newspaper serialization -- with one of the primary characters receiving an anonymous package, whose enclosure of a single jade earring identifies the sender as Suzee Lo Chee. The note invites the British lawman to return to China someday, confirming that he now has friends there. I find this ending hopeful and significant.
Whenever anyone bothers to write about Rohmer today, it's rare to find anyone able to look sufficiently past their own smug, "politically correct" times to consider him as anything other than a racist -- a writer who sensationalized the Chinese immigrant influx of his day as a malevolent, subhuman force intruding upon the purity and tradition of Great Britain in the early 20th century. While Rohmer certainly did exploit the phrase "Yellow Peril" in his earliest Fu Manchu stories, he did not originate it -- and though he described the arch-enemy of Sir Dennis Nayland Smith as an obscene caricature of every dogface's worst nightmare about the Far East, Rohmer was anything but a white supremacist. Even the most demonizing of his yarns offer tantalizing descriptions that present us with a man torn by Orientalia, a little concerned about its rising presence in his country's midst but also rapturously tempted to succumb to it.
In YELLOW SHADOWS (whose title incidentally refers to the yellowish hue of the heavy night fogs in Limehouse -- the author apologizes in advance for any other interpretation in a brief foreword), he uses the telling phrase "attractive yet repellent" in reference to the Chinese. Mind you, this is 1925: Rohmer is not using the word "repellent" as a synonym for "loathsome," but to indicate their resistance to his interest, their inscrutability. He finds them fascinating but alienating. His characters reach out to them at times, but often find that, however one may be drawn to their beauties and mysteries, they carry with them a persistent and unemotive reminder that the Western ways do not exist for them. Rohmer respects them and their right to their own cultures and traditions, which makes me to see him as more of an anti-Imperialist than a racist. Racism works from a position of power to denigrate and disempower, and this is not at all what is at work in his novels. Rohmer's Asian characters are formidable, knowing and sophisticated. They often are in possession of answers to eternal questions that the English have yet to learn to ask of themselves. Rohmer's stance in relation to them is not that of a racist, but that of a fetishist.
It's important for readers to remember that China and Great Britain were great and geographically opposed empires, meeting for the first time on Britain's home turf. Chinese immigrants were a fairly new element in Britain during Rohmer's day, often forced by poverty to dwell in the less respectable areas of town, and this lowly social standing, and the language barrier, fostered mutual feelings of distrust and secrecy. Even at their most open and communicative, the two peoples were only beginning to interact with, to conform to one another. Rohmer's writing and personal habits show him to have been actually progressive -- in contrast to the xenophobia otherwise common among the native classes -- in terms of being sincerely interested in the exoticism and strangeness of the Asian people. Cay Van Ash's biography MASTER OF VILLAINY tells stories of how Rohmer would sometimes disappear from home for days to live among Chinese immigrants in boarding houses, observing them, coming to a better understanding of them. Fu Manchu himself becomes a more recognizably human character over the course of the 14 different books Rohmer wrote about him, which is perhaps why some readers find the later books in the series lacking.
The primary Chinese characters in YELLOW SHADOWS are wealthy, fascinating, and more sophisticated and at ease with the ways of the world than their authoritative but sometimes fumbling English counterparts. Much of the book's subtext concerns establishing a trust -- not between nations (that's still impossible!), but between people of different nations -- each respecting the other's right to its own traditions, beliefs and sacred secrets. Rohmer's interest was clearly as sexual as it was aesthetical. His British and Asian characters not only work together toward common goals, while mutually respecting the laws and codes of their respective empires, they also kiss.
Rohmer was a superior stylist to, say, Edgar Wallace -- a more cinematic storyteller, too -- but it's true that his work doesn't have the subtlety that the open-minded now demand from such subject matter. Our world is a lot smaller today, and we take international relations so much for granted that they have lost their former charge of magic and exoticism. For Sax Rohmer, when Western man met Eastern woman, the air crackled with electricity as surely as it did when Adam first encountered Eve. Without early thinkers and dramatists as dedicated as Rohmer to seeking common ground between East and West -- and for a grass roots readership, no less -- it might have taken our world a good deal longer to find an in-between. It's important to read him, and to read past the early Fu Manchu novels, to get at the true heart of his infatuated, mystified, and outreaching body of work.
Wednesday, February 06, 2008
Tuesday, February 05, 2008
Going to the Mobius Home Video Forum today, I was surprised to find a thread in progress noting that David Cronenberg's VIDEODROME made its bow in 600 North American theaters 25 years ago, yesterday. People were being asked for their recollections, with a "cough, cough" aimed in my particular direction. Having taken the time to post a lengthy reply, I feel I should post it here as well, for the benefit of my daily visitors and also to help me keep track of it in the future:
I'm amazed to see this thread because, just last night (on the anniversary, as it were), I finished proofreading my book on VIDEODROME for Millipede Press. Today I have to attend to some photo captions and then I should be done, except for signing off on the changes to the text once they've been made.
I'm very pleased with the way the book is turning out, and I feel grateful toward my younger self for the extent and vigor of his curiosity. Piers Handling of the Academy of Canadian Cinema read an early draft of this material and said it was the best production history of a Canadian film he'd ever read; I don't think there's any question that it's better now, with one foot in 1981, 82 and 83 and the other in 2008.
I have a lot of memories connected to this film, including being present for James Woods' first bullet squib shot -- he was scared at first, but jubilant afterwards and cheerfully showed us the red mark caused by its concussion on his chest -- and laughing a lot at his on-set humor and antics.
I saw Les Carlson in his long underwear while his bullet squibs were being removed. He kept putting off our interview all day, then finally agreed to talk with me as he was having the squibs taken off at the end of a long day. The next morning, the production manager got in my face because Les had billed her overtime because of my interview! In fact, the production manager came close to throwing me off the set the very first day because, although I arrived with Cronenberg's approval, he had failed to get the production's permission for me to be there, and everything was top, top secret.
I remember Rick Baker talking on the set about the difficulties of having to be a business manager for EFX as well as an artist. He spoke to me more than once about wanting to retire, when he had enough money, and spend his life sculpting animals. I always heard reggae playing in his workshop, but in our last interview, he confided to me that he didn't really care for reggae, that it was his concession to the guys in EFX, whose average age was 20. I remember standing next to Rick one day, seeing that he was about a head shorter than me, and realizing that this was the guy who had played King Kong opposite Jessica Lange. Kong's hotel room was in the penthouse of the tallest building in Toronto and I stood with him on the balcony overlooking the city.
I remember being under the stage, pulling the cable that tore Barry Convex's upper lip as he had his memorable death scene. We were all wearing garbage bags to protect our clothes from the overrun of Karo blood and it was like being in a submarine. A pretty crew member sitting next to me began to strip and stopped when she got down to a T-shirt that said "Courage, My Love." Needless to say, I've never forgotten her and she's in the book.
I remember telling Cronenberg at the wrap party in March, as Elvis Costello sang in the background (on tape), that Philip K. Dick had just died.
I remember feeling a visceral reaction to my first viewing of the movie, partly engendered by the lower frequencies of Howard Shore's amazing score, and going to Cronenberg's house for dinner after my screening. David seemed nervous at first -- but relieved when I shook his hand and called him "Maestro." I was elated and, I'm sure, cursed more than was appropriate over dinner. I was young and in rarified air.
The movie itself is a miracle. It was shot by the seat of everyone's pants, without a firm middle or end, had a series of disastrous previews as it was being cut together, and somehow came together as what it is in the editing room. It bears little resemblance to any script I read. I love the movie but don't feel it is the perfect expression of what Cronenberg was going after; the time and money simply weren't there. VIDEODROME succeeds on the strength and vision of its ideas rather than how they coalesce into a story. As always, always happened on Cronenberg's films, some of the best scripted stuff got left out for some reason or other.
I later visited the sets of DEAD ZONE and THE FLY but with their escalating budgets and higher profile prima donna stars and various related/unrelated tensions, some of which were my own fault, they were not on the whole as pleasurable to visit. Overlooking the film's failure at the boxoffice, and the failure of my work to surface in any faithful version till sometime later this year, I regard VIDEODROME as one of my life's happiest adventures.
Millipede Press will be publishing my book on VIDEODROME in the spring.
Sunday, February 03, 2008
A link to a 7:32 Eddie Constantine tribute that features a good deal of wonderful poster art and a soundtrack of 2 & 1/2 of Eddie's songs. He sings well... in fact, now I understand why he was never a member of the Rat Pack: he would have shown the others up as a bunch of poseurs.
A cool trailer for the 1959 actioner HOT MONEY GIRL, which pitted Eddie against Christopher Lee and even more closely against Dawn Addams. I want to see it!
A clip from S.O.S. PACIFIC (also 1959) that shows Eddie conferring with CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF's Clifford Evans before showing the gumption that may lead mankind to survival. I want to see it too!
More fun from correspondent Torsten Dewi, who writes: "I have just uploaded a clip of what must be Eddie Constantine's weirdest appearance as Lemmy Caution. He guest starred in two episodes of the positively avantgarde Austrian crime comedy KOTTAN ERMITTELT in the early 80's. He's not dubbed - but it's obvious that his German dialog comes from cue cards." Now I want to see the rest!
And here's the best quality ALPHAVILLE trailer you'll find on YouTube. It's been too long since I last saw this film, and our reunion is imminent. After watching this trailer again, I realized how much more to my liking this world would be if there was no story of Adam & Eve, if everything had begun with Anna & Eddie.