Thursday, April 03, 2008

2001: It Is What It Is

Last night, I observed the 40th anniversary of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY's original release by watching it for the first time (in its entirety) in Blu-ray. I intend to write a fuller review of the disc for VW, but seeing the movie in this ideal home format brought back vivid memories of its 70mm majesty, which I first experienced in the mid-1970s.
Warner's Blu-ray disc is magnificent, the first video medium to properly deliver the antiseptic essence of Kubrick, but even with a 60" Pioneer Elite monitor, a new amplifier and five Bose speakers, there remain areas where the translation of the 70mm experience to disc falls conspicuously short. I miss the gigantic curved screen, but I particularly found myself noticing that the both the DD and LPCM 5.1 audio failed to replicate the discrete audio separations of the 70mm six-track sound. It's most noticeable aboard the space station, where the sounds of paging announcements are pushed to the front of the 5.1 surround image, rather than sounding truly ambient and separated from the spoken dialogue. As wonderful as this disc may be, Kubrick's mastery of cinema, at least in the case of this film, remains ultimately exclusive to theatrical experience -- which is, I suppose, how it should be.
I include 2001 on my list of Top Ten favorites. My primary reason for this is its ultimate unknowability and openness to interpretation, which I feel separates it from the majority of films and places it among our greatest objects of art. Watching it again, perhaps because of the anniversary circumstances, my attention was particularly riveted to the black monolith, which not only heralds three stages of man's advancement -- from animal to thinking creature, from earthbound man to space explorer, from man to Starchild -- but may also be the catalyst behind these metamorphoses. Kubrick and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth take great care to have these graduational moments coincide, compositionally, with an exact alignment of the monolith with our moon, the sun, and other planets -- a harmonic convergence, to use a phrase that came well after the film's release. I've known people who hate the film because they claim it makes no sense, or because they find it godless, but I've always questioned why art should have to make complete sense in a world that none of us fully understands, and I have always recognized a form of godliness in the film's moments of celestial alignment; a kind of mathematic intelligence whose benign quality is expressed through a pleasing symmetry.
This symmetry doesn't begin and end with the three appearances of the monolith. The film itself is presented as three chapters or segments. The story also encompasses three birthdays, beginning with that of Heywood Floyd's daughter (sorry, Squirt, Daddy's travelling), repeating with the birthday greeting sent by Frank Poole's parents (alienation), and finally with Dave Bowman rebirth as the Starchild (the final shedding of human skin). There's a similar recurrence of references to liquid refreshment: the two warring ape tribes in "The Dawn of Man" are fighting over a watering hole, control of which leads one ape to commit the first murder; then, in the Howard Johnson Earthlight Room aboard the space station, a group of Russian scientists engage Dr. Floyd in polite but pointed conversation about the US government's secrecy concerning a rumored epidemic outbreak on Clavius, a tense dialogue between divided nations once again unfolding over Floyd's refusal to share drinks; and late in the film, Bowman, while dining alone in some kind of alien zoo recreation of 19th century earthly environment, accidentally knocks over a crystal water glass, breaking it. The monolith's appearances also find counterpart in the final scenes of Bowman, who, after travelling through a black hole (or "stargate") above Jupiter, arrives in captivity and spies a future tense of himself, who then replaces his younger self in the present moment... until he catches another glimpse of a future self that, once again, assumes his place to carry the narrative one more leap into the future. He sees as many stages of himself as we see appearances of the monolith, the threads ultimately coming together (aligning) in the moment when the monolith appears at the foot of Bowman's bed like a doorway to the mysteries awaiting us all.
These are just my thoughts of the moment, and I may have different ones the next time I see 2001. There have been times when I've watched it and found it very funny, which wasn't the case last night. (Has anyone else ever watched 2001 and wondered how differently it might have played had HAL 9000 been voiced by Woody Allen?) There have also been times when I've paid very close attention to the elliptic storyline and other times when I've let the experience wash over me like music. It's one of those rare films that grows and changes apace with us as we move through life.
If there is anything about 2001 that I feel should not be open to interpretation, that should be evident to everyone regardless of how well they understand the picture, it's that it was the creation not only of a genius but of something rarer still: a truly colossal artist. I don't think it is an exaggeration to place Kubrick on equal footing with Michelangelo, and the ways in which 2001 has enabled later generations to better interpret the universe and design the ships we sail into it may place him on a par with the likes of Galileo and da Vinci.
And herein lies my big thought about 2001, based on last night's viewing, which is that the film, in its own oblique way, is the black monolith. (On disc, what we see for the first several minutes of overture music is a black screen of comparable proportions.) 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is something that suddenly appeared in theaters back in April 1968, that wasn't immediately a hit (certainly not with critics) but which happened to coincide with searching trends in art and music, science and cinema -- another harmonic convergence -- and gradually attracted a cult of viewers determined to have the experience and have it again from the very first row. (And this first generation of fans was, as it happens, quite hairy.) It inspired many people to become filmmakers, many more to become special effects technicians and model builders, and no doubt many more still to become scientists, physicists, astronauts.
Time has revealed Kubrick's masterpiece to be a kind of celluloid enzyme, a herald of our graduation as a species, the epicenter of a cultural force that changed the very face of our planet. It lives on as a kind of moveable milestone, a touchstone that we can revisit throughout our lives to keep track of how much we have grown or remained the same. If the black monolith represents an inscrutable source prompting quantum leaps in human growth and discovery, I ask you, what film better fills that definition than 2001?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Michael Reeves' First Film

Well, first proper film or first surviving film, take your pick. It's a 16mm thriller short entitled INTRUSION. Made in 1961, when Reeves was only 17 or 18, it's a remake of an earlier (lost) 8mm project called CARRION and features Ian Ogilvy, Reeves himself (acting as "Martin Reade"), Sara Dunlop and some of their friends. Photographed by WITCHFINDER GENERAL cameraman Tom Baker, it runs just under 10 minutes and, until now, it has been just about impossible for Reeves' fans to see. But now, thanks to the generosity of Reeves' biographer Benjamin Halligan (whose excellent book can be found here), you can see INTRUSION here on David Cairns' blog Shadowplay.

Thanks to David for alerting me and for sharing with the rest of us.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Joe Dante's DANTE'S INFERNO

L.A. residents rejoice, everyone else check your frequent flyer miles.

This just in from Joe Dante, who is finally claiming the above title (impressed upon him by movie reviewers for so many years) for an upcoming series of retrospective screenings.** Prepare yourself for at least one "Holy $%#@!" booking:

I'm hosting a series of screenings at the recently renovated NEW BEVERLY CINEMA in Hollywood from April 9 thru 22. (I'm not there every night tho.) Come down and wallow if you're in the neighborhood. Here's the final rundown:

April 9 + 10 MONDO CANE and ZULU

It's hard to imagine today the impact this tawdry but fascinating Italian "shockumentary" had on the world in 1962, when the bizarre customs of people in other lands seemed both exotic and horrifying to Western eyes. Its smash success spawned a whole genre of mostly phony Mondo movies, each outdoing the other for pure sleaze, which lasted into the 80s and paved the way for something much more upsetting: Reality TV.

Cy Enfield's ZULU is simply one of the great historical epics ever--100 stuff-upper-lip British soldiers battle 4000 Zulu warriors in a beautifully staged reenactment of the 1879 Battle of Roarke's Drift. John Barry should have won (but didn't) an Oscar for his brilliant score. The cast, led by producer Stanley Baker, is terrific, but the great Nigel Green steals the show as the consummate side-whiskered, mustached Victorian Sergeant-Major. With Jack Hawkins, James Booth, Patrick Magee and a very young Michael Caine, whose work here got him THE IPCRESS FILE.

April 11 + 12 HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD and TRUCK TURNER

We called it "Day For Nothing" when we made it (shot in ten days around footage from 12 other movies on a bet with Roger Corman). One of the last of New World Pictures' popular "three girl" drive-in movies where pretty girls doff their duds and chase around non-permitted LA locations. The late great Candice Rialson plays a version of herself as a naive Indiana girl trying to make it in scuzzy 70s Hollywood. Pulled from 42nd Street after two days, it seems to have survived as a cult movie. It's certainly an accurate record of what it was like to make a New World Picture. Producer Jon Davison, co-director Allan Arkush and co-star Dick Miller are scheduled to appear.

TRUCK TURNER, which came out late in the blaxploitation game, got lost in the Hollywood shuffle but it's as dazzling a piece of action filmmaking as the 70s had to offer. Isaac Hayes is a bounty hunter on the trail of a big-time pimp whose vengeful, bitch-slapping squeeze is played by Star Trek's Nichelle Nichols! Along for the violent ride are Yaphet Kotto, Alan Weeks, Scatman Crothers, Sam Laws and Dick Miller. One of the overlooked gems of the decade.

Director Jonathan Kaplan (HEART LIKE A WHEEL) will introduce the film.

April 13, 14, 15 THE SADIST and THE PRIVATE FILES OF J EDGAR HOOVER

Fairway-International was a tiny company specializing in grade-C drive-in movies like WILD GUITAR and EEGAH! But from such unlikely soil springs a chilling surprise! James Landis' intense 1963 drive-in classic is based on the same true crime story as BADLANDS-- the serial killing exploits of Charles Starkweather and his underage girlfriend. Brutally unfolding in Real Time over 94 taut minutes, mad killer Arch Hall Jr. terrorizes our small cast in a junkyard -- maybe the best-photographed junkyard ever, courtesy of the great Vilmos Zsigmond, who will appear in person on the 15th.

THE PRIVATE FILES OF J EDGAR HOOVER - Tabloid genius Larry Cohen brings his guerilla style Sam Fuller-lite approach to this 1977 ripped-from-the-headlines pop-culture AIP comic book about the near fifty-year reign of America's "top cop", who dug up the dirt on famous personalities through six turbulent administrations. It's gutsy and disreputable and Broderick Crawford 's finest hour. Eat your heart out, Oliver Stone!

Larry Cohen will be on hand to introduce.

April 16 + 17 THE SECRET INVASION and TOMB OF LIGEIA

This scenic WWII epic, shot in Yugoslavia in 1964, is one of Roger Corman's least-seen yet most accomplished films, with essentially the same plot as THE DIRTY DOZEN -- which wasn't made until three years later! Stewart Granger, Mickey Rooney, Edd Byrnes, Henry Silva and Raf Vallone are felons recruited for a mission to rescue an Italian general from behind enemy lines. Roger used this story idea in his first movie, FIVE GUNS WEST. I haven't seen this since it came out!

TOMB OF LIGEIA was the last of Corman's popular series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, but unlike the others it has many beautiful English countryside exteriors and mostly departs from the stylized stage-bound unreality of its forebears. Robert Towne (CHINATOWN) wrote the script in a more romantic vein, thinking Richard Chamberlain would play the lead--but AIP intervened and sure enough, Vincent Price took over.

Roger Corman will elucidate further in person, schedule permitting.

April 18 + 19 WRONG IS RIGHT and Mystery Movie

When Richard Brooks' star-studded adaptation of Charles McCarry's spy novel The Better Angels came out in 1982 it was roundly dismissed as a confused jumble. From the hindsight of 2008, it looks like the STRANGELOVE of its era. So many aspects of this film have come true, it's up there with NETWORK as a predictor of the future, our sorry present. Sean Connery stars as a globe-trotting tv reporter who's tracking a terrorist dealing nuclear weapons in the mideast. Along the way we meet a President who goes to war to boost his ratings, a (Condi-like) Vice President, CIA and FBI figures who are so broadly caricatured they seemed divorced from reality in 1982-- but who closely resemble figures we now see on the news every day! Suffice it to say the climax involves the World Trade Center. One of the all-star ensemble will join us--John Saxon!

Plus another movie in the same vein TBA with guest.

April 20 + 21 BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW and HORROR EXPRESS

Piers Haggard's atmospheric and beautifully photographed (Dick Bush) entry in the burn-the-witches genre benefits from a prolonged sense of dread, literate dialog and an unusually convincing period flavor -- sort of a Masterpiece Theater horror film. When hairy patches of "satan's skin" start cropping up on the bodies of nubile 17th century teenagers, local judge Patrick Wymark gets to the bottom of things, starting with voluptuous teen temptress Linda Hayden's. Less well known than the same studio's earlier WITCHFINDER GENERAL, but equally effective, with more emphasis on the supernatural. Great score by Marc Wilkinson.

I love train movies. HORROR EXPRESS was made because the producers had access to the train models from NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA. One of my very favorite vehicles (get it?) for Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, this Spanish-made extravaganza (also known as Panic on the Trans-Siberian Express) has it all -- good characters, lots of wry humor, a mad monk, a mysterious countess, a prehistoric fossilized monster alien, eyeballs in a jar, Telly Savalas as a bellicose Cossack (it's 1906) and a surprisingly complex science fiction plot. And I left out the zombies! Seriously, this one of my top favorites of all time.

April 22 THE MOVIE ORGY

This the first, one nite only public showing in many years of my first project. In 1968 when "camp" was king, Jon Davison and I put together a counterculture compendium of 16mm bits and pieces (tv show openings, commercials, parts of features, old serials etc.), physically spliced them in ironic juxtapositions and ran the result at the Philadelphia College of Art interspersed with parts of a Bela Lugosi serial. The reaction was phenomenal. This led to THE MOVIE ORGY, a 7-hour marathon of old movie clips and stuff with a crowd-pleasing anti-war, anti-military, anti-establishment slant that played the Fillmore East and on college campuses all over the country for years -- always the one print, viewed through a haze of beer and controlled substances. We called it a 2001-splice odyssey. We kept adding and subtracting material over time so this, alas, is not the original version-- it's the later cutdown, running a mere 4 hours and 19 minutes! But it's still a pop time capsule that will bring many a nostalgic chuckle from baby boomers and dazed expressions of WTF?! from anyone else.

Admission to THE MOVIE ORGY is FREE, so buy plenty of concession stand items!

** Actually, "Dante's Inferno" was the title of Joe's first published article, which appeared in FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND #18. But he's never used it on a movie. Not that this is a movie, of course, it's a film festival, but... oh, never mind.

VIDEODROME Delayed

A reader wrote to me this afternoon with some concern about the state of my forthcoming VIDEODROME book from Millipede Press. He was notified today by Amazon.com that his advance order of the book was being cancelled because they "found that it is not available from any of our sources at this time." He added, "I hope everything's OK with its publication and that it's delayed rather than cancelled."

That's exactly the case. The preparation of the book has proven more time-intensive than expected, which has caused it to miss one or two seasonal deadlines. At present, the text has been proofread, the footnotes have been placed, and we are now waiting for the last of the photos to be scanned and dropped into the layout for captioning. I'm personally very excited about the way it's taking shape.
Publisher Jerad Walters expects the VIDEODROME book to be available in June, and both he and I apologize for its unavoidable postponement.