Tuesday, September 16, 2008

I Don't Like Ike

In case anyone has been trying to call our offices, we have been without power for most hours since Sunday night -- no electricity, no computers, no e-mail, no telephone, no movies, no television! And no way to work on our next issue and keep to our production schedule -- in short, a nightmare! Our previously reported 16-hour outage of Sunday-Monday was followed by a surprise bonus outage that lasted roughly 25 hours, from 6:10 Monday evening till just after 7:00 tonight. We're hoping the power will stay on this time, but only time will tell. So if you've been trying to renew a subscription or place an order by phone, that's why we haven't been able to answer. But things seem to be working now, he said warily as his thoughts turned to whether the satellite dish was still functioning...

Monday, September 15, 2008

VIDEODROME Arrives


My author's copies of my new book VIDEODROME arrived today from Millipede Press, and I'm very pleased.

I was expecting a book of a certain size and heft because this "Studies in the Horror Film" series has its basis in the "BFI Modern Classics" book series, so I was welcomely surprised when I unwrapped the first copy. VIDEODROME measures 6" x 8.5" and weighs a full pound, so it has the feel of something substantial, a book in its own right rather than a slim softcover postscript or sidebar to the main event (that is, the movie in question). The paper quality is exceptional and, detail of details, it even smells good. If the Bava book was 32 years in the making, this one covers a 27 year gestation period (admittedly, with a lot of off-time between 1983 and 2007), so seeing the job finally done properly gives me a feeling of nearly equal satisfaction.

I'm also delighted by this book because, although I've been working as a critic in print for over 30 years, I haven't had too many film books published outside my own imprint. So it's a pleasure to see my film-related writing published by someone else, and to see the job done so well. Furthermore, although I have contributed to many books in my time, VIDEODROME is, by my count, the tenth book to carry my name as author or co-author -- so it marks my advent into the double-digit phase of my book career.

1. YOUR MOVIE GUIDE TO MOVIE CLASSICS VIDEO TAPES AND DISCS by the Editors of Video Times (Tim Lucas and Alex Gordon, 1985)

2. YOUR MOVIE GUIDE TO SCIENCE FICTION/FANTASY VIDEO TAPES AND DISCS by the Editors of Video Times (Tim Lucas, 1985)

3. YOUR MOVIE GUIDE TO HORROR VIDEO TAPES AND DISCS by the Editors of Video Times (Tim Lucas, 1985)

4. YOUR MOVIE GUIDE TO MYSTERY/SUSPENSE VIDEO TAPES AND DISCS by the Editors of Video Times (Tim Lucas, 1985)

5. THE VIDEO WATCHDOG BOOK (1992)

6. OBSESSION: THE FILMS OF JESS FRANCO by Lucas Balbo, Peter Blumenstock and Christian Kessler, with special material by Tim Lucas (1993)

7. THROAT SPROCKETS, a novel (1994; four different editions: US trade paper, UK hardcover and trade paper, French mass-market paper in translation as SALLES OBSCURES)

8. THE BOOK OF RENFIELD: A GOSPEL OF DRACULA, a novel (2005)

9. MARIO BAVA: ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK (2007)

10. VIDEODROME ("Studies in the Horror Film," 2008)

Our vendor's copies of VIDEODROME are not yet in stock, but we are expecting them soon... so, as they say in the realm of video, stay tuned.

Damage Report

Cincinnati was hit yesterday by high winds, fallout from Hurricane Ike, the likes of which I have never seen except in newsreels. Donna and I went to the local Healthplex yesterday morning for our regular Sunday swim/exercise regime, and everything was fine as we went in; when we stepped out, around 1:00pm, the trees were bending and the decorative bird feeder outside the door was on its side.

Driving home, we found a runaway shopping cart endangering cars at a busy intersection, and I leaped out of the car, chased it, grabbed it and rolled it back onto a sidewalk, where I wrestled it onto its side. Pulling into our driveway, we saw a chunk of one of our two Dish Network satellite dishes resting on our front lawn. I immediately checked our reception and found out that we were still receiving our Dish service; evidently the other dish is the old one they never bothered to take down when we upgraded.

Then, around 3:00, our power went out -- no electricity, no computer (= no work), no TV. So we opened the shades and used our windows for television as the high winds carried parts of trees, garbage cans and lids and recycling bins down the street. (Of course, it was garbage night in our neighborhood, as it always seems to be when high winds strike.) We watched in amazement as a section of vinyl siding from a blue house across the street came loose, began flapping in the wind, and finally sailed off somewhere into its rear yard, leaving large sections of insulation exposed. Then I went into the kitchen for some reason and saw, through one of the windows there, that our next door neighbor's deck was covered in bricks and other detritus -- one of their chimneys had collapsed! A good thing they hadn't let their dogs out. How our rickety chimneys withstood the same winds is a question for the ages.

I went outside for a better look. In addition to our neighbor's indeed fallen chimney, the house next to theirs had lost some stripping from its aluminum siding, and a house on the block behind us had lost its entire back surface of siding! Fortunately, the worst we got was that piece that fell off the dead satellite dish. That is, until our power continued to be lost... for a total of 16 hours. Sixteen hours with no lights, no TV (hence we missed the second night of IN TREATMENT's Alex episodes, adding to my generally pissy mood), no phones, no computers... in short, no distraction from the fact that we live in Cincinnati, Ohio! As the hours wore on, we got so bored, sitting here in the dark with our candles, we decided to get in the car and go out to dinner. That's when we realized how widespread the blackout was -- it reached well into northern Kentucky, yet there were also houses less than a mile from us that did have their electricity. I'm hearing that 750,000 people here lost their power last night, and some are still without it.

As we drove, we had to turn back on some familiar streets because of fallen trees. Amazingly, we saw trees whose entire trunks had been snapped in half. We saw one overturned tree and, as we drove past, saw that it had fallen on top of a parked car. I felt like we had driven into some sort of George Romero "martial law" picture with Mother Nature standing in for the usual zombies.

We ended up at Appleby's around 9:30 -- a half hour wait, crowded as a Bengals locker room after a victory, and the entire staff seemed stressed out. Our waitress confessed to breaking down in tears in the kitchen earlier, once the crush of business started easing off, because it was the busiest night they had ever had, with cars actually circling the place earlier. Dinner was fairly miserable; I'm afraid Appleby's isn't very vegetarian friendly, if tilapia isn't your favorite.

We then went home, got into our iPods and spent fairly separate evenings in the dark, Donna sewing by candlelight. Unlike me, she's really cut out for this sort of pioneer days adversity. I sat outside for awhile, smoking a Frisco and listening to Scott Walker -- surveying a yard covered in green leaves, tree branches and snapped twigs, thankful that our chimneys survived the onslaught -- and saw, behind the dense cloud cover of the southeastern sky, what looked like the aurora borealis. It flickered and turned the dull slate blue sky different shades of deep blue, red and violet. It lasted less than a minute but it was a welcome coda for such a distressing day. I was in bed before 2:00am, most unusual for me.

The return of our electricity this morning prompted me to rise early, and I went around resetting clocks and checking the e-mails I should have received yesterday. It feels good to be reconnected to the world!

Friday, September 12, 2008

THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS reviewed

Claudia and toad in Lech Majewski's THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS.


... in the October 2008 issue of SIGHT & SOUND, now on newsstands, and also on their website here. This is one of the most impassioned reviews I've written for my "No Zone" column in S&S, but I feel very strongly about Lech Majewski's film. I am annoyed with myself, though, for apparently referring to the film's protagonist Claudia Casson with the similar first name of the actress who played her, Claudine Spiteri. Actually, as I look around the web, I see I'm not the first source to commit this error (beginning with the IMDb and the film's own website!), but the confusion may be a tacit tribute to how completely Spiteri makes this haunting character, and this magical film, her own.

About IN TREATMENT

Donna and I have become engrossed in HBO's reruns of their psychiatry series IN TREATMENT, starring Gabriel Byrne (pictured) as psychologist Dr. Paul Weston, which somehow premiered under our radar last January. It's an American remake of an Israeli series (which I'd like to see with subtitles someday), with each episode presenting a real-time therapy session involving five different patients (two of them a couple, played by Josh Charles and VWSE cover girl Embeth Davidtz). Every fifth episode showing Paul himself in therapy with his doctor, Gina (Dianne Wiest).

I became captivated with the series somewhere near the middle of the 43-episode first season and watched it through to the end, intending to catch up with the first half when the shows were issued on DVD later this month by HBO Video. Unfortunately, it seems that HBO have pulled the plug on this release for reasons tied to the green-light recently given to the show's producers for a second season. We assume the first season set's release will be rescheduled to help cross-promote the show's return "sometime in 2009."

Currently, HBO's subsidiary channel HBO Signature is running the first season again but with a twist -- this time, they are showing all the individual case studies back-to-back, four episodes on Saturdays and Sundays, from 7:00pm to 9:00pm eastern. They began this past weekend, so the arc featuring Laura (Melissa George), a sexually compulsive anaesthesiologist who falls in love with Paul, concluded last night. However, for those of you who still haven't seen the program, you still have time to capture the very best of the first season this weekend (9/13-14), in the arc featuring Blair Underwood as Alex, a guilt-ridden Army bomber -- the following weekend (9/20-21) with Mia Wasikowska as Sophie, a teenager seeking escape from a broken home in athletics. Underwood and Wasikowska give the most powerful performances of the season, as does the Emmy-nominated Glynn Turman who shows up in a later episode as Underwood's father. Start watching these and I guarantee you'll search out the remaining episodes.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Happy Birthday to Rebecca Umland!

After Donna, VIDEO WATCHDOG's most constant female presence over the years has undoubtedly been Rebecca A. Umland, who is celebrating a birthday today. (I know I've been using this blog to send out a lot of birthday greetings of late, but, if you look over your own list of friends, chances are you'll find that more of them were born in one month than any other -- and September seems to be that month for us.)

As best I can tell, Becky and her good husband Sam have been reviewing films for VW since our 45th issue, beginning with their coverage of Sam Raimi's EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN, and our affiliation -- amazingly, now in its tenth year -- has been a very happy one for us. She and Sam are both faculty members at the University of Nebraska at Kearney (where TERMS OF ENDEARMENT was filmed!) and they've written some fine books together, including the recent DONALD CAMMELL: A LIFE ON THE WILD SIDE. They have also been regular contributors to the annual Favorite DVDs of the Year posted here at Video WatchBlog. Donna and I finally got to meet the Umlands (and their son John) a couple of summers ago when they swung through town, and enjoyed a most memorable evening of conversation and laughter together -- the kind that made us wish they lived closer. You can read all about it in my WatchBlog posting of July 17, 2006.

In reply to an e-card that we sent her, Becky tells us that Sam is presently engaged in playing a major role in a local stage production of Chekhov's THREE SISTERS, which is in rehearsal later this evening, so they are planning an early dinner with cake and a nice bottle of red wine. Sounds like a plan! So here's to Becky Umland... Happy Birthday, dear, and Many Happy Returns!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Buon' compleanno, Ernesto Gastaldi!


Rare photo of Ernesto Gastaldi, taken during a 1956 trip to Spain.

For some reason, his birth date is not recorded on the IMDb, but today marks the 74th birthday of screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, who in the literal sense was arguably the most important auteur of the Italian popular cinema of the 1960s and '70s. He worked for all the great Italian horror directors from Freda (THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK) to Bava (THE WHIP AND THE BODY) to Polselli (THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE) to Margheriti (THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH) to Lenzi (SO SWEET... SO PERVERSE) to Martino (THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH) -- and, in my opinion, had a knack for enticing titles second only to Ian Fleming. Unlike his more specializing colleagues, Gastaldi also left his mark on such diverse genres as Italian sci-fi (THE 10th VICTIM), sword-and-sandal adventure (THE GIANTS OF ROME), erotic drama (SECRETS OF A CALL GIRL), police thrillers (FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION), and of course the Spaghetti Western (MY NAME IS NOBODY). He also did uncredited script work on such pictures as SODOM AND GOMORRAH and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA.

Especially in this day and age, when 50 is being called "the new 30", it's disheartening to me that this protean artist -- now "the new 54" -- hasn't written a new film since 1998, especially when he tells me that he has a number of unproduced scripts from his heyday littering his file cabinets, including one that he calls "the most perfect thriller machine I ever concocted." Quentin Tarantino (or any other filmmaker aspiring to hew some acreage of their own from the turf QT has claimed for himself) should pick up the phone, go back to the source, and call this maestro out of his premature retirement.

Ernesto Gastaldi in 2004.
I've had the good fortune to be a personal correspondent of Ernesto's for perhaps 15 years now, and I'm still wowed when I realize that the pen-pal who occasionally sends me friendly encouragement is the same fellow responsible for so much amazing cinema -- movies that, without him, would never have existed. WEREWOLF IN A GIRL'S DORMITORY... THE MURDER CLINIC... ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK... THE CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST... AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK... TORSO. He invented Sartana.
I don't know what Ernesto is doing tonight, but I hope he is surrounded by the warmth of family and friends, enjoying himself and bound for still more adventures in filmmaking.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Would You Believe... TWO New Books?

You know you've been really busy/distracted when someone has to remind you that you actually have two books coming out in a given month.

Yes, in addition to my Centipede Press book on VIDEODROME, I have another book streeting on September 16. It's not entirely mine, but I am one of the many contributors to THE BOOK OF LISTS: HORROR (edited by Amy Wallace, Del Howison and Scott Bradley) along with Stephen King, Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, VW's own Ramsey Campbell, Kim Newman and Richard Harland Smith, Johnny Ramone, Karl Edward Wagner, John Skipp, Eli Roth, Edgar Wright, Steve Niles, F.X. Feeney, James Gunn, Poppy Z. Brite, Jorg Buttgereit, Paul M. Jensen, Lisa Tuttle, Stephen Volk, Jack Ketchum, Barry Gifford, Richard Stanley, Ann Magnuson, Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, Thomas Ligotti and many other luminaries. There's also an Introduction by the legendary Gahan Wilson. Scott Bradley tells me that I wrote the book's single longest article, which is titled "10 Horror Films That Aren't Horror Films," and Gahan singles it out for special mention in his Intro, so I feel very pleased about being a part of this project. It's a pleasure to share a forum with so many colleagues, friends and heroes -- not least of all Ann Magnuson, who I don't know, but for whom I've harbored a secret crush for at least twenty years. I'm told that her list is called "Ann Magnuson's 22 Sexiest Movie Monsters (Human and Otherwise)" and I'm looking forward to reading this core sample of her erotic imagination. THE BOOK OF LISTS: HORROR also has a MySpace page, which you can access here, and Richard Harland Smith shares a list of his own early favorite entries from his contributor's copy here.

Speaking of the VIDEODROME book, I received a call from Centipede's Jerad Walters over the weekend and he tells me that the first printing is now in hand. I'm expecting my personal copies to arrive within the next few days. I will be signing pages for a very limited hardcover printing, coming later, but signed copies of the VIDEODROME softcover will be available through Video Watchdog. There's a full-page ad in our next issue, #144, with full details -- and we'll also be presenting that ordering info here and on the VW website once our initial order is received.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Footage Missing from Franju's JUDEX

Channing Pollack as the costumed avenger of Georges Franju's JUDEX.


VIDEO WATCHDOG contributor Brad Stevens informs me that Masters of Cinema's new Region 2 DVD release of Georges Franju's JUDEX is missing some minor footage that is present in Sinister Cinema's DVD-R/VHS release of the film's US theatrical version, as originally distributed by Continental Releasing. There are seven cuts in all:

1- 52m 58s. 33 seconds are missing; the end of the shot showing a man walking away from the camera; the whole of the following shot, showing the doctor walking behind a pair of children; the start of the next shot of the doctor.

2- 53m 11s. After the woman tells the children "This isn't a sight for you," they walk away. In the MoC edition, the shot ends here; in Sinister's tape, it continues for an additional 5 seconds with the boy turning around and shouting at the woman.

3- 53m 23s. The whole scene (46s) showing the man getting into a car and talking to the nun has been cut.

4- 54m 37s. A 35s shot has been cut; this shows two men carrying a stretcher into a room and placing a woman on it.

5- 55m 8s. Shot slightly shortened.

6- 57m 20s. A 3s shot showing a man getting out of a car is missing.

7- 58m 1s. 4s of dialogue is missing after the man says "It's quite a walk, you know."

The same cuts (amounting to roughly two minutes) are present in the earlier French release, with which the Masters of Cinema disc shares the same transfer. As both releases were licensed directly from the film's producer and struck from the original negative, it appears -- judging from the fact that all of the gaps occur within a 5m section of the picture -- that the negative suffered some damage during its decades of storage.

Mind you, the cuts are not disruptive or critical, and these Region 2 releases do offer the best quality for this important title we are likely to enjoy. That said, the completists in our audience may still wish to acquire the Sinister disc while it's still available as a reference copy of what now appears to be lost footage.

Update 9/9/08 2:13am:

Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant responds: "Your description of missing bits from the DVD of JUDEX doesn't read like the result of film damage. The choice of connecting tissue omitted indicates that someone trimmed 'unnecessary' footage to perk up the pace (the slow, 1901 pace we love). This happens more often than one would think, and to the original negative sometimes... a distributor or other nefarious party suddenly decides to 'improve' the film. First it's the 'unnecessary' beginnings and endings of scenes. Soon thereafter, they're cutting METROPOLIS in half! I remember the kid yelling... I hope the little pieces aren't gone forever."

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Happy Birthday to...

... VW's own Richard Harland Smith, seen here paying his respects at the Edgar Wallace memorial plaque at Ludgate Circus in London, England in 2003. Well, that's the sort of bloke he is. Husband (his wife Barb is casting that shadow at the bottom of the frame), doting father of two (Vayda and Vic were but gleams in his eye at the time), screenwriter, samurai and friend, he also blogs brilliantly at TCM's MovieMorlocks site. Click on the pic for a much more detailed look.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

First Look: VIDEO WATCHDOG #144

Our October issue is now at the printer, which means it's time for me to offer Video WatchBlog's monthly advance peek at our next cover and a link to our website's "Coming Soon" page, where you can find a comprehensive list of its contents and contributors and an enlargeable, four-page free preview sample.

I'm very pleased with the way this issue turned out. When Dabbs Greer died last year, I cast my net looking for an unpublished interview to pay proper tribute to this fine character actor, and found one in the hands of our valued occasional contributor, M.J. Simpson. Unfortunately, Mike didn't have any photos to illustrate the interview (which was conducted in 1999), so I had to assign myself to do screen grabs from a wide variety of his work, ranging from movies like IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE, THE VAMPIRE and Joe Dante's RUNAWAY DAUGHTERS to his extensive TV appearances in shows like TWILIGHT ZONE, THE OUTER LIMITS, THE WILD WILD WEST and THE RIFLEMAN. It was hard work, but fortunately I had a lot of this material on hand and the piece is now very handsomely adorned. It's a terrific interview that reveals the ubiquitous Mr. Greer as a very savvy fellow whose memory was understandably selective but who had some great stories to share. I wish he was still around to see how well Mike's interview turned out.

Doug Winter is also trying something new in his "Audio Watchdog" column by focusing for the first time on a feature film: Anton Corbijn's Ian Curtis biopic CONTROL -- and he will continue to follow this very interesting vein in our next issue's column, in which he will write about the music of Curtis' seminal post-punk group Joy Division (which became New Order following the suicide of Curtis in 1980). It might be fair to say that Joy Division's music falls outside the scope of fantastic cinema, but it has been a seminal force in terms of the expression of horror, existential dread and anomie within the arts, and has left its mark on film and other areas of the arts other than music. I consider this VW's first step in the direction I outlined in our current issue's editorial, where I talked about wanting VW to go back somewhat to its original roots as a place where our contributors can more deeply explore their current obsessions, and write about films available on video from stances other than "the DVD review."

My own contributions to the issue include my promised full-length reviews of Zulawski's THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE and Dallamano's VENUS IN FURS (both subjects of recent bloggery here), as well as a full-length review of Tinto Brass' THE VOYEUR and my Blu-ray coverage of CLOVERFIELD.

Plus there's Ramsey Campbell on Cecil B. DeMille's SIGN OF THE CROSS, Bill Cooke on the Hammer ICONS OF ADVENTURE set, Kim Newman on SIMON KING OF THE WITCHES, the Umlands on BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: RAZOR, John Charles on CHALLENGE OF THE MASTERS with Gordon Liu, more from new contributor Michael Barrett, and (whew!) pretty much something for everybody... so reserve your copy now!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Where I'm At

Sorry for my disappearance over the past week but, as soon as I completed my work on VIDEO WATCHDOG #144, I jumped right into a new screenplay project. It's going really well, with nearly 40 pages written already, so this blog isn't much on my mind at present. I'm just hoping to get a solid first draft together before I have to start on VW #145, two weeks from now!

VIDEO WATCHDOG #143, with the Rodd Dana cover, is now back from the printer... for the second time! The shipment was actually delivered yesterday and, a short time into the mailing process, I discovered that the issues were cut a fraction of an inch too tall to fit into our deluxe VW binders! We immediately halted the mailing (none of these copies were actually sent out) and our printer recollected the entire order, cut every issue down to its intended size, then redelivered half the order last night and the other half this morning. So the mailing of #143 is now back on track, and copies should begin reaching our First Class and Air subscribers sometime next week.

Finally, for those of you who have taken an interest in my Vita Nuova, yes, I'm still vegetarian and still swimming three times per week. I don't see either of these things as a fad, but as facets of a new approach to living. I've lost twenty-odd pounds in the past month and am now wearing a belt I haven't been able to pull around myself in at least eight years -- on the third notch. I'm pretty happy about that, though not exactly satisfied, which seems to me the healthiest outlook to maintain.

Friday, August 22, 2008

SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES reviewed

Real-life couple Andrew Prine and Brenda Scott redefine screen magnetism in the quirky SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES.

SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES
1971, Dark Sky Films, DD-2.0/16:9/LB/+, $14.98, 98m 54s, DVD-1

Despite its scary title and the violent, druggy, sexist, black magic trappings of its original promo campaign, this isn't a horror film at all, nor a particularly exploitative one; it's actually part character study about a homeless, mostly likeable, cigar-smoking practitioner of White Magic who lives in a storm drain and a satire of the myriad cults arising from the ashes of psychedelicized Los Angeles of the early 1970s, informed to some extent by the gnostic legends of Simon Magus.

Andrew Prine stars as the affable Simon, who starts out with little more than his own seemingly insane self-beliefs and a bag of cheap trinkets (including a "Pentagram of Solomon," a likely nod to low-budget producer Joe Solomon), but quickly ascends the power chain of LA, using genuinely caring relationships with naïve streethustler/minion Turk (George Paulsin─picture Peter Noone with a Jack Nicholson grin) and the pill-popping daughter of the district attorney (Cincinnati-born Brenda Scott, looking intensely vulnerable and distracted), to reach effete socialite Hercules Van Sant (Gerald York). Stiffed with a bad check by one of Hercules' party guests, Simon proves his abilities with a death curse and soon has enough cash and clients to buy into some real accessories, like an oval mirror that allows him to venture onto the astral plane like a Dr. Strange of the counter-culture, and set about his ultimate plan to expose the corrupt nature of the city at large, its officials as well as its lawbreakers and flakes.

There's a jokey Black Mass scene featuring Warhol acolyte Ultra Violet, some non-sexualized nudity and one or two nearly bloodless stabbings, and a goat─but it's all fairly mild, eclipsed by the humor of scenes like Simon's solution to Turk's priapic problem. Scripted by Robert Phippeny (THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY), an alleged warlock himself, the film's cleverly etched characters, general air of hedonism, and baroque dialogue ally it with the more personal works of screenwriters Charles B. Griffith and Robert Thom. There's far more talk than action, explaining the unusually long running time, but hit-and-miss as it is, it can't be faulted for not talking straight. Alternately interesting, intelligent, moving, rambling and incoherent but, as one character says, "At least it's different!"

The anamorphic 1.78:1 mono transfer is colorful and well-balanced but with variable sharpness traceable to limitations in the original cinematography. The supplements, overseen by Michael Felsher, interview an affable Andrew Prine (16m 53s) and director Bruce Kessler (11m 58s), adding on a 1m trailer and a 58s radio spot accompanied by a lobby card slide show. The Prine interview makes the editorial mistake of illustrating his reference to a naked "ditz" on an altar in the Ultra Violet sequence with footage of Brenda Scott in a similar situation, inadvertently denigrating his ex-wife and a serious actress. For a backstage peek into the casting of the blonde on the altar, see Roger Ebert's profile of producer Joe Solomon in the classic reference book KINGS OF THE B'S.
8/23/08 Update, 1:06 a.m.:
SIMON supplements director Michael R. Felsher responds...
Glad to see a review of SIMON KING OF THE WITCHES on the site. It’s a great little movie and one that a lot of people have never had the opportunity to see. It’s certainly the best movie ever made about a warlock who lives in a storm drain.

I noticed though your comment about an editorial mistake in SIMON SAYS where Prine refers to a “ditz on a platform” as being mistakenly played under a shot of Brenda Scott from the film which you felt added an unintended backhanded comment about Scott from her former husband.

What was left out of the final featurette due to some audio issues and some fragmented sentences from Mr Prine during the interview were some more direct references to that exact scene in the film where Simon seduces Scott’s character and gets her naked on the platform/slab in his abode. Prine was asked by the interviewer to restate the answer and that’s the take I used in the final featurette, which was more concise but did leave out a few details which were garbled by a microphone squelch in the previous answer. As a result, some of the contextual info surrounding his discussion of this scene was lost. I can assure you he was not referring to Scott personally but her character, and was also not referring also to the later scene(s) with Ultra Violet. I noticed at the time, that this “ditz” reference could be taken somewhat out of context, which is why I chose to use this bit to lead into Prine’s discussion of his fond memories of working with Scott on the picture which I felt would clarify his relationship with her and make it clear that his previous comment had only been about the characters.

If the context of his remarks come across as unclear, it was certainly not intentional in any way, but I stand by my editorial decisions in this piece, and hope that this email puts any confusion to rest.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Loving THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE

For a couple of years now, I have resisted seeing Andrzej Zulawski's THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE [L'important c'est l'aimer, 1975] a second time, because I was afraid that it wouldn't -- couldn't possibly -- live up to my recollection of it. Sometimes the oddest films can seem like masterpieces because you happen to see them under a certain phase of the moon. I can well remember seeing Alan Rudolph's TROUBLE IN MIND for the first time on cable and hugging a pillow more and more tightly to me as the story advanced... and seeing it again, some time later, and wondering what the hell had captivated me so the first time around. But yesterday, the time came to put my feelings about Zulawski's film to the test, and I'm pleased to say that it is the masterpiece my earlier viewing suggested it was. I like Zulawski's work more often than not, but this film I find the most spellbinding of them all, due in no small part to the central performance of Romy Schneider, without whose beauty and gravity at its core I suspect the entire zany, enraptured film might collapse like a house of cards.

She plays a 30-year old B-movie actress fallen on hard times, a once-promising talent whose career has nose-dived into pornography ("NYMPHACULA" is one of the fictional movies she's supposed to have done), drugs, prostitution and a marriage to a deranged admirer that seems more like captivity. A paparazzi (Fabio Testi) tries to score a photo of her, is beaten up for his troubles, but she takes amused pity on him when he persists and promises that he can sell better shots as magazine covers. Thus begins one of the most peculiar and affecting love stories I've ever seen, rooted in Testi's earnest belief that, if he intrudes into this woman's life (as he feels he must), things may end badly, but that if he doesn't, they will certainly end much worse.

The movie's effectiveness boils entirely down to the chemistry between these two. It's mysterious, captivating, utterly convincing and never quite explained. It's not a sexual relationship, though the offer is on the table and the tension is palpable between them, enough to sometimes send her pitiable husband (Jacques Dutronc) out of the room when they are brought back into each other's orbit. My theory about Testi's reticence is that he knows that what this woman needs in her disintegrating life, much more than another lover, is a friend -- and he rises above his own urges, and her own cruel and self-destructive taunting, to provide that.

The trouble with THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE is that, for all of its strange magic to kick in, in order to hear its actual heartbeat, you have to watch it in French. It's the live sound option, the one that was recorded as these performances were given (except for Testi, who is post-synched but effectively so), and this is particularly vital to appreciating Schneider's luminous yet ashen performance -- which she considered to be her own best work, and which won her the very first César Award for Best Actress in 1975. (Schneider died at age 43 in 1982, officially of a heart attack, though she was known to have been inconsolable and increasingly dependent on pills and alcohol following the accidental death of her 14 year-old son the previous year. There are currently two different films about her life in production, a feature and a TV movie, respectively starring Yvonne Catterfield and Jessica Schwarz, both remarkable look-alikes.) Unfortunately, while the French version of Zulawski's film is available on DVD, it comes with no English subtitle option. I've only seen that version shown once on the Sundance Channel, as part of a tribute to the late, great Z Channel -- and I prize my DVD-R of that broadcast. A German import from New Entertainment World also exists called NACHTBLENDE (meaning "Day for Night," oddly enough, a translation of the title of the Christopher Frank novel LA NUIT AMERICAIN on which the film is based), which contains audio options in French, German and English -- but only German subtitles are provided. The English dub is kind of heroic in many respects, but cannot help but occupy a much lower level than the exalted plane of the French version.

I failed to mention that it also stars Klaus Kinski, giving one of his most tortured, incandescent and emotional performances. Reason enough to see any movie, but an "also ran" here.
This German disc is available from Xploited Cinema with a choice of three different clamshell covers, based on the German and Belgian poster art. The Belgian poster cover is priced slightly higher and represents a limited edition of only 999 copies. If interested, I would hurry because Xploited has announced their intention to retire from activity and will not be reordering any discs once their current supply expires. Furthermore, the under-construction website of a new company called Mondo-Vision has announced L'important c'est l'aimer as one of three Zulawski pictures on their roster of upcoming releases, but offers no information about its release date or language/subtitle options.
I'm inclined to promote THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE to my Top Ten; that's how strongly I feel about it. I'm going to watch the French version again before I decide. If the German disc is your only means of seeing the film, go for it. It's unlikely that any other issue is going to outperform it in terms of extras, which include PC exclusives as well as Georges Delerue's haunting soundtrack in its five-track entirety. The track called "Largo" is as close as the Maestro ever came to recapturing the tortured gravitas of his unforgettable tragic theme for Godard's CONTEMPT, which happens to be a key word in the screenplay of this film. My fuller review of THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE will appear in VIDEO WATCHDOG #144, now in production.