Thursday, March 13, 2008

Mr. Klein

Here we have the cover of MIDI-MINUIT FANTASTIQUE #20, one of the most arresting covers ever perpetrated by the greatest of all French magazines dedicated to the fantastic cinema. I've always loved this image and wondered about the obscure film it was from, even before realizing that the woman in the photo is none other than Delphine Seyrig (LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, MURIEL, DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS). If you, like me, have long been attracted to this photo and puzzled over its point of origin, you'll be interested to know that the movie in question is scheduled for release here in the States later this month.

On March 25, MR. FREEDOM (1969) will be released by the Criterion sub-label Eclipse as part of a box set bearing the provocative title THE DELIRIOUS FICTIONS OF WILLIAM KLEIN. I've just finished going through the whole set, which I've reviewed for the April 2008 issue of SIGHT & SOUND, and people need to know that this is the science fiction/fantasy release of the month and possibly of the season. MR. FREEDOM more than lives up to the promise of its promotional stills as the wildest superhero satire I've ever seen, a clear-cut antecedent of what Paul Verhoeven got up to in ROBOCOP. Also included in the set is Klein's feature debut, WHO ARE YOU, POLLY MAGGOO? (1966), a prescient spoof of Reality TV in which a camera crew invades the privacy of a ubiquitous fashion model that incorporates Felliniesque fashion shows and animated collage sequences reminiscent of Karel Zeman; and THE MODEL COUPLE (1977), in which an "average" French couple consent to live without privacy for six months to provide an entertainment program for the public, without realizing that the whole enterprise is a governmental experiment in reduction, calculated to gauge how much the average French citizen can comfortably live without.
Director Klein got his start as an award-winning photographer, specializing in layouts for VOGUE. He is also an American expatriate, having moved to Paris in the early 1960s, and these three films can be read as a trilogy of sorts about his disillusionment with America and his fears about the encroaching Americanization of his adopted country. These are brilliant and remarkable films, perhaps sharing a tendency to burn too brightly and to burn out sooner or later in the third act, but satisfying nevertheless on the strengths of their concepts, their sawtoothed satirical bite, and Klein's consistently dazzling eye for style. (These three films are written, directed and designed by William Klein -- the sort of possessory credit to which only William Cameron Menzies and Robert Fuest, I believe, have otherwise staked claim.) Klein's style and personality are unique, and even if one can readily discern his influences (Fellini, Méliès, Godard -- especially ALPHAVILLE), they never overwhelm what he brings to these projects. And what he brings to these projects includes a number of impressive fans who consented to appear in them: the aforementioned Delphine Seyrig (in two), Philippe Noiret (in two), Serge Gainsbourg, Yves Montand (as French superhero Captain Formidable!), DARK SHADOWS diva Grayson Hall, and le grand Eddie Constantine.
If you count yourself a discerning genre connoisseur, your future status will be determined by whether or not you own this set. At least two of the three films look and sound terrific, aside from a brief patch of roughly recorded dialogue in MR. FREEDOM). While it also looks good for the most part, there are enough instances of disruptive cropping in THE MODEL COUPLE to suggest that it was shot in 1.33:1 and should only be screened that way.

2008 Rondo Roundup

I want to thank everyone who took the time to vote in the Rondo Awards this year, and for VIDEO WATCHDOG contributors and products in particular. I won as Best Writer for the second year, and MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK won as Best Book of 2007 -- a victory that I share with Donna, whose brilliant design work made my 12-pound gorilla all the more conspicuous when it arrived on the scene.

Close to 3,000 people participated this year and, while there is some controversy about how well the results reflect the "Classic Horror" orientation of the award, I think they were all valid and interesting choices. Donna and I send our friendly congratulations out to the folks at RUE MORGUE, the first magazine to beat us the Rondo's Best Magazine competition; I was also happy to see FANGORIA finish as runner-up, because they both do excellent work at covering the past, present and future of horror cinema and pop culture, and haven't really received their fair share of attention in past Rondo polls. VW came in third, which is compliment enough as both RUE MORGUE and FANGORIA are owned by large corporations, produced from actual offices, and print at least ten times as many copies we do; I'm honored simply to know that VW is accepted on their same level of professionalism.

Speaking of VW contributors, I also want to congratulate Joe Dante and Charlie Largent, whose collaboration on the TRAILERS FROM HELL website earned it a well-deserved victory in the Best Website/Blog competition. By the way, the runner-up in that split category was none other than Video WatchBlog, so the blog you're reading is still Top Blog in Rondoville... but no cigar.

And finally, I was tickled to see my old pal Michael Schlesinger named Monster Kid of the Year. I've known Mike for something like 30+ years, ever since he worked in the office of a Cincinnati-based film distributor, when I was a writer for a local entertainment paper. Even then, he was more adept at quoting movie dialogue verbatim than I ever was. I've vicariously thrilled to the success he has earned since moving out west to supervise the repertory divisions of Paramount and Columbia, ensuring that a lot of great films (including a good deal of horror esoterica) remained available for 35mm bookings. Mike went on to direct the English version of GODZILLA 2000, snagged Larry Blamire's THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA for Columbia, and has since co-produced Blamire's TRAIL OF THE SCREAMING FOREHEAD and the now-filming THE LOST SKELETON RETURNS AGAIN. He is also pretty much single-handedly responsible for Sony's SAM KATZMAN COLLECTION DVD box set, which brought the sleeper THE WEREWOLF and the legendary snoozer THE GIANT CLAW into the digital age -- and he's currently prepping a HAMMER SWASHBUCKLERS set that will include things like THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER and THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY. In other words, sound judgment on Rondo's part.

A full account of Rondo's winners, runner-ups and honorable mentions can be found here.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Look Back at HENRY & JUNE

Anaïs Nin (Maria de Medeiros) finds literary merit in Henry Miller's wife June (Uma Thurman) in HENRY AND JUNE.

Last night, for the first time in almost eighteen years, I watched Philip Kaufman's HENRY & JUNE (1990), a film I reviewed at that time for VIDEO WATCHDOG #5 -- one hundred and thirty two issues ago. Looking back at my review, which praised the film while faintly damning it, I feel a bit embarrassed; our reviews were shorter in those days, but even so, it seems to have been written in particular haste, without much empathy for the director's goals in telling the story of the 1931 Paris encounters of Dutch/Spanish diarist Anaïs Nin, American aspiring novelist Henry Miller, and his troubled wife June. I can't believe I failed to note a cameo by Juan-Luís Buñuel, the director of that fine film LEONOR (1975) and the son of the gentleman whose classic surrealist short UN CHIEN ANDALOU is shown in excerpt.
Since 1974's THE WHITE DAWN, where his mature directorial career effectively began, Philip Kaufman's work has achieved a remarkable fusion of technological skill, elegance, and emotion. To say it in shorthand, he's like Kubrick -- but with feelings. His INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) remains the only sequel to hold its own against Don Siegel's 1955 original; THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) and THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING (1988) are two of the only post-1960s American films worthy of the epithet "epic," not only in length but in achieving a fulsome body of emotional and historic content; and QUILLS (2000) is a remarkably good, underrated addition to the filmography of the Marquis de Sade.
HENRY & JUNE was made directly after the superior UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, which surely also contributed to its lukewarm reception. My old review particularly takes it to task for earning its NC-17 rating too coyly; it was the first film to carry this "adult" rating and expectations, shall we say, were higher... and lower. Its restraint, which doesn't seem any more unbridled today, still seems a modest betrayal of the on-the-table candor of its literary sources, but Kaufman's first responsibility (I can now better appreciate) was to Kaufman. More explicit carnality would probably have worked against the film's eroticism -- or rather its mystique, which is what Kaufman works to a lather in place of eroticism. It smoulders, and it does so exquisitely.
Aside from finding a boyish Kevin Spacey in the cast, the biggest surprise to come from revisiting the picture is the enduring power of Uma Thurman's performance, of startling maturity considering her age (19-20) at the time, and quite possibly still the finest acting she's done to date. She's alternately alluring and repulsive, but the black-and-white footage of her, in the movie-within-the-movie, would have driven Fritz Lang mad with desire. Fred Ward (carried over from Kaufman's previous film THE RIGHT STUFF) and the enchanting Maria de Medeiros are ideally cast as Miller and Nin. In contrast with Thurman, these are two wonderful actors who have not had the glorious Hollywood careers they deserved (perhaps because they prefer more meaningful work -- witness Ward's collaboration with Robbe-Grillet in THE BLUE VILLA), which makes it all the more poignant to see them embodying these historical personages with such precision and seeming ease while Phillippe Rousselot's camera promotes them both so magnificently as movie stars. Ward followed HENRY & JUNE with arguably his finest work in George Armitage's modern cult classic MIAMI BLUES, but it was not until 1994 that de Medeiros made another American film, as Bruce Willis' oral pleasure-loving girlfriend in PULP FICTION.
What I failed to grasp about the film the first time around is that the Miller/Nin relationship, as depicted here, is essentially mutually parasitic, a tango between American and European litterateurs thrown so off-balance by the other's exoticism that they have to rut in order to regain their equilibrium. He gets her nose out of books and into the crotch-seam of life; she teaches him an appreciation for flamenco and tarantella; he teaches her how to cuss like a sailor. They offer each others' talent the opportunity to extend its vista by a conquered continent. In short, they are both in each others' pants to get moistened grist for their literary mills. Likewise, what June stands to obtain from this ménage a trois is the drama queen's pleasure of wishing to be the focus of a book she hasn't the gift to write herself. Once she decides that Henry's realistic prose hasn't done her proudly, she turns sapphically to Anaïs, the prose poetess, her next best shot at the Dostoevskian immortality she envisions as the only acceptable reward for a life of pain. One of the film's faults is that it demurs from authenticating or discrediting or even detailing the causes of that proposed pain.
The ultimate poignancy of all this ambitious trysting around the typewriter is that the books of Nin or Miller -- both of whom were widely read in the late 1950s, '60s and early '70s -- have since fallen out of fashion. It was Nin's crusading that got Miller's earthily philosophic joi du vivre into print in the first place, and ironically, it became her affiliation with him that made her own hour of fame possible -- moreso through her extensively edited and incomplete DIARIES than through often inscrutable "novels" like HOUSE OF INCEST and LADDERS TO FIRE. The true story of their relationship remained locked within her personal diaries until after the death of her devoted husband Hugo, played so well in the movie by the ever-dependable Richard E. Grant.
HENRY & JUNE has not had a DVD release in nearly a decade, not since Universal's non-anamorphic 1.66:1 presentation of 1999. The old disc is still in print; it zooms up acceptably well but its susceptibility to upconversion is limited. The digital 2.0 mix sounds more stunted to my ears than the warmer, richer analog mix on the VHS screener I originally reviewed. All these shortcomings are fixable now, and long overdue for an overhaul, suggesting HENRY & JUNE as a title worthy of remastering by Universal -- preferably with substantial supplementary input.