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.