Thursday, March 30, 2006
And you thought Criterion just "put stuff out on disc"!
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
FAMOUS MONSTER MOVIE ART OF BASIL GOGOS
Compiled and edited by Kerry Gammill and J. David Spurlock
Vanguard Productions (390 Campus Drive, Somerset NJ 08873, email@example.com), 160 pages (softcover, hardcover), 176 pages (deluxe hardcover), $24.95 (sc), $34.95 (hc) or $59.95 (dx hc) plus $6.95 shipping
THIS BEAUTIFULLY DESIGNED art book by Kerry Gammill and J. David Spurlock is the first to pay tribute to Basil Gogos, the Michelangelo of the Macabre. The basic edition, available in soft and hardcover, collects more than 150 color illustrations from Gogos' 40+ year career in book and magazine illustration (many reproduced from the original art) and more than 50 in B&W, while a deluxe edition limited to 600 slipcased copies, signed by the artist, adds an additional 16 page portfolio in color. Some may quibble that the portfolio contains a repeated image from the main pages, but it is substantially enlarged, further enhancing one's appreciation of what went into it. According to publisher J. David Spurlock, the deluxe edition was an instant sell-out with retailers and is now available only from Vanguard,while supply lasts. Those able to afford (and find) the limited edition are advised to shoot for the moon.
Despite the specificity of its title, FAMOUS MONSTER MOVIE ART OF BASIL GOGOS devotes about 40 of its pages to Gogos' paperback, Western, and men's magazine art, some of which is quite good, but none of which strikes the profound chords of his monster portraiture. Paging through the monster cover portraits collected here, one is continually struck by their amazing powers of reference.
The HOUSE OF USHER painting that started it all on the cover of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND #9 is a classic case in point: in its coarse caulky outlines, bleachy tonalities, and uncanny flecks of irrational color, it seems to define in visual terms the relationship between Roderick Usher's (Vincent Price's) disintegrating mind and family hearth. One of Gogos' greatest works, his rendering of Fredric March's Mr. Hyde for the cover of FAMOUS MONSTERS #62, facets the distorted, bedraggled features of Dr. Jekyll's alter ego with so many daubs of fantasmagorical color (lavenders, lime greens, sunny yellows) that we can imagine how Rouben Mamoulian's B&W film might have looked under the painterly direction of Mario Bava.
There is something about the way Gogos paints the cold blue light striking the combed hair of Christopher Lee's Count Dracula (MONSTERSCENE #3) that summons the entire flavor of the experience that is HORROR OF DRACULA. Gogos' uncommonly impressionistic, almost sketchy painting of Ingrid Pitt for the cover of MONSTERSCENE #8 captures the vivacity of its subject in an unexpected cocktail of colors. It's so alive that one's impression of the painting is one of startling brightness, though the work itself is more than half-based in dark hues. When tackling a subject as seemingly soulless as the prehistoric GORGO (FAMOUS MONSTERS #11 and 50), Gogos somehow imbues the image with a sense of gigantism and primordial power that one would imagine beyond the province of a page dimension usually reserved for characters of human proportion. Even something as rudimentary as a charcoal sketch of Henry Hull in WERE-WOLF OF LONDON miraculously captures the whole truth of the actor's body language and threatens to leap snarling off the page.
There are also many, many instances in which Gogos' oils and acrylics provide his subjects with atmospheric settings far in excess of any they ever received onscreen. Jonathan Frid makes his greatest bid for immortality as Barnabas Collins not on the videotape of DARK SHADOWS or in its theatrical spin-off, but in the oils of Gogos on the cover of FAMOUS MONSTERS #59. One aches to see the Technicolor Wolf Man movie starring Lon Chaney sampled on p. 156. Looking at King Kong on p. 153, his face looming with godly majesty and ungodly delight, we experience the same awe and revulsion and terror we imagine Ann Darrow must have felt when lashed to those sacrificial posts on Skull Island. For dyed-in-the-wool monster fans, almost every page of this book offers that kind of rich, emotional experience.
Despite a blandish accompanying text that doesn't fully succeed in revealing the man behind the art or the reasons for his singular affinity for these subjects, FAMOUS MONSTER MOVIE ART OF BASIL GOGOS keeps its promise of collecting and paying tribute to Gogos' work superbly. It covers his diversity as an artist both reasonably and fairly, while accentuating the monster paintings where he found his most lasting success. The art reproductions alone are worth the cost of the book in any edition. A fair amount of digital restoration was likely involved in refreshing these works for print, and it is to the designers' credit that such work is absolutely invisible.
Of course, Gogos is still living his story and his growing legacy may well inspire other books in time. Future volumes on the subject may cut deeper, but they will need to go to superhuman lengths to be more beautiful or more loving than this one.
Note: A longer and more detailed draft of this review will appear in VIDEO WATCHDOG #125.
Monday, March 27, 2006
Unfortunately, another passing to report. Correspondent Darren Gross has written to inform me that writer-producer-director Dan Curtis -- the formidable producer best known for the groundbreaking Gothic soap opera DARK SHADOWS and its spin-off feature films, and also the ratings-shattering made-for-TV movie THE NIGHT STALKER -- died this morning at 6:15 a.m. PST of brain cancer, diagnosed only four months ago. His wife of 54 years, Norma, succumbed to heart failure only two weeks earlier.
Curtis also produced the memorable adaptation of THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE starring Jack Palance, a later adaptation of DRACULA (also starring Palance) that greatly influenced Francis Coppola's later film version, and the well-remembered feature BURNT OFFERING starring Bette Davis and Oliver Reed.
A man whose name was once as synonymous with American trends in horror as that of Stephen King, Curtis' death occurs only a few months after the November cancellation of an attempted NIGHT STALKER series revival on ABC (which lasted only two months) and one month after the death of original series star Darren McGavin. For some years, DARK SHADOWS scholar Darren Gross has been working with Dan Curtis Productions to recover and restore uncut elements of the two DS features, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS and NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS. We hope that work will continue.
Correspondent Samuel Bréan has written to notify me of the death of Spanish writer-director Eloy de la Iglesia (GLASS CEILING, CANNIBAL MAN, NO ONE HEARD THE SCREAM, CLOCKWORK TERROR) last Thursday, at the age of 66. (The IMDb lists an apparently erroneous birth year of 1944.) Here is a link to some Spanish language reports.
It's amazing the degree to which one can put the noses of strangers out of joint just by writing candidly about something personal that doesn't even concern them. For people who admitted they hadn't read VW in years, or only thumbed through it at Borders on occasion, these milling souls felt fully authorized to broadcast some rather fresh opinions about me. One of them, with only five or six postings on the entire site to his credit, had devoted more than half of them to taking me down a few pegs. (I just paused in my typing to see if anything else worth reporting had happened in the thread, and it appears the administrator has locked it because things were starting to turn nasty!)
Let's drink to being a so-called public figure.
To correct an unfortunately common misunderstanding, I'm not "bitter." I've been somewhat depressed of late, but not about this. As I clearly stated, I was disappointed that my articles were not acknowledged in the Criterion's pocket-sized history of MR. ARKADIN annotation. No more, no less. I think they deserved a mention. That thought was on my mind when it was time for me to write a blog, so the blog turned out to be about that. As I hope my friends at Criterion know, I'm very enthusiastic about the set and looking forward to watching it and reviewing it. (Of course, I won't be mentioning my lack of mention in my review; that would be impertinent, but I don't believe it was an unreasonable passing subject for a personal soapbox like this.) As I also mentioned, it's possible someone mentioned my articles in a commentary track or somewhere else on the disc. If not... oh, well. At least I know, and you know -- right?
Also, I may feel worn-out at times, but as Glenn Erickson and my wife will tell you, I am the polar opposite of "worn-down." In the last 30 days, I've probably written 30 reviews, columns, blogs and essays, as well as parts of a couple of articles still in-progress, not counting God knows how many e-mails and message board postings. I knocked off yesterday's Sterling Hayden blog, a biggie, before breakfast. Before coffee. Of course, I have no right to be proud of any of this, even though self-satisfaction is all that most of it pays.
One of the e-mails I received this weekend offered the following counsel: "I have not read your initial essay that ran in VIDEO WATCHDOG, but from how you describe it in your blog, it sounds like the type of piece that runs often in the mag, an essay that's more of a shopping list of differences than a text exploring the films themes and ideas. It seems sort of weird that you would want your article to be included or mentioned in the box set. What's the point? Watching the films, any viewer can see what's missing or been added compared to the others. Hardly sounds like an 'important' text... You seem to do this a lot, especially in the blog - blow your own horn, congratulating yourself. It's a little unnerving at times. Let us, your fans, do that. Sorry if this sounds like a mean note, it's just that I read the blog religiously, and that last entry just sounded so weirdly indignant, it left a bad taste in my mouth."
Hey, pass the Listerine. Twenty-two double-columned pages which annotated, in full detail for the first time, the minute differences between three distinct versions of a classic Orson Welles film, and it "hardly sounds like an 'important' text." Ladies and gentlemen... my fan.
In the hope of clearing up any and all remaining misunderstandings, the purpose of Friday's MR. ARKADIN blog was three-fold. I wanted to 1) help generate anticipatory interest in the Criterion set, which I count as a very exciting release; 2) to do what I could to re-stake my 14 year-old claim in ARKADIN matters (which, sorry, I consider an important personal achievement), and 3) to let people know that these Welles issues of VW were still available, because the release of the Criterion set makes them relevant and timely once again. Since Friday, we've sold more than a dozen sets of the magazines, so some people got the idea. Without the blog, they'd still be sitting in inventory... so it was a good idea.
Oh yes, about the "self-aggrandizing." The participants on this shall-be-nameless message board somehow overlooked the fact that everybody blows their own horn, from the guy who finds a quarter on the sidewalk to every television channel on the dial. True, some people hire publicists to make it appear that other people are talking them up, but I can't afford that phony luxury. I do, however, have the advantage of publishing a magazine -- and our Kennel page exists to further compensate our contributors (of whom I am one) with a little personal publicity about their outside activities. Even though VW doesn't cover fiction, per se, we donated full page ad space to my novel THE BOOK OF RENFIELD -- Lord knows Simon and Schuster didn't have an advertising budget for it. The ad featured some enthusiastic critical blurbs, which is obligatory. I also used VW to announce when the novel and my Roger Corman bio script were optioned. It's called sharing good news. I think friendly readers accept such things in that spirit.
Perhaps when one publishes a monthly magazine, one's byline and constantly updated list of activities begins to look like "me, me, me" to the surly, the teeth-grinding, and the unoccupied. But there's a big difference between saying "This is what I've done" and "Look how great I am." I don't think I qualify for greatness, but I do think I write my butt off. My work is the better part of me and, through discipline and diligence, it stacks up. I take a natural, parental pride in what I produce. I'd like my work ethic, the quality of my work, and the good notices paid to my efforts to pay off in better opportunities, and this desire occasionally leads me to the indignity of self-promotion. An indignity, by the way, not exactly alien to Pablo Picasso, Alfred Hitchcock, Norman Mailer, William Castle, Andy Warhol, Muhammad Ali, John and Yoko, David Bowie, or Forrest J Ackerman -- to name only a few of the thousands of shameless self-promoters beloved by history, and possibly by you. Not that I'm saying I'm in their same league, only that I'm entitled to the same rights as they. And I think I avail myself of those rights with relative restraint. What, me Morrissey?
Anyway, enough about me. "I couldn't agree more," some of you good people are likely murmuring. For those of you who don't care for the occasional toot of my horn, I recommend that you employ common sense and avoid those of my outlets which are "first person" by nature and design, like my blog and my VW editorial.
Like it or not, I'm the only "first person" I have.
Sunday, March 26, 2006
You may have read elsewhere online about the death of veteran director Richard Fleischer over the weekend, at age 89. The son of animation kingpin Max Fleischer, he was an adept genre specialist and consequently a woefully underrated filmmaker. He was responsible for such films as THE NARROW MARGIN, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, THE VIKINGS, COMPULSION, BARABBAS, FANTASTIC VOYAGE, THE BOSTON STRANGLER, SEE NO EVIL, 10 RILLINGTON PLACE, SOYLENT GREEN, CONAN THE DESTROYER and RED SONJA. Even this far-from-complete list constitutes an impressive body of work.
Also on Fleischer's resumé was AMITYVILLE 3-D -- his only horror picture -- the making of which is the subject of an excellent production article by filmmaker Paul Talbot in the current issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG, VW #124. Paul's article was built around an interview with Richard Fleischer that was possibly the last he ever granted.
Every magazine aspires to be timely, and this sort of timeliness is always double-edged, but VW is proud to be representing the work and thoughts of this filmmaker on newsstands as a subject of active interest at the time of his passing.
Thank you, Mr. Fleischer, for speaking with us -- and for your films, which will continue to thrill and entertain audiences for as long as there are movies.
Hayden is best remembered as the star of such films as JOHNNY GUITAR, TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN, THE KILLING, DR. STRANGELOVE (pictured above), THE GODFATHER and 1900. When he was a young and rising star at Paramount, their publicity mills called him "The Most Beautiful Man in the Movies" and "The Beautiful Blond Viking God" -- but when Sterling Hayden first arose in my consciousness, he was a different kind of beautiful. He was a formidable looking man in his 60s with an aura of the Old Testament, or maybe Captain Ahab; he stood 6' 5" and his craggy, wasted features were wreathed by a long, straggling mariner's beard that hung down over his chest like greyed seaweed. When he spoke, he seemed to be summoning his voice from the bottom of the sea, and in the years of his final illness (he died of lung cancer in 1986), he seemed to be dragging his life's breath up from just as deep.
Hayden got to me. I had seen him in the movies, of course, but he didn't really get under my skin until I first saw him for who he really was, in the first of a series of late night television interviews with Tom Snyder on NBC's TOMORROW, circa 1977. I was a habitual viewer of the show and would watch even if the guests didn't interest me; the unexpected often happened. During the first of Hayden's three TOMORROW show interviews, I seem to remember him not wanting to talk about old Hollywood, calling it "no way to live." This sort of mutiny didn't usually go over so well with Snyder, but in this case, the guest's preference to discuss real life matters led them to discover a wealth of interests in common. It was like watching two best friends meeting for the first time. The show particularly caught fire as they explored their mutual fascination with trains; Snyder spoke of his obsession with collecting Lionel model trains, then Hayden trumped him with the story of an actual railcar that he owned. A second guest had been announced, a promise hovering over the first half of the interview like an unwelcome intruder, but was happily bumped. When it was all over, I felt invigorated. It was 90 minutes of some of the best conversation I'd seen on television.
Some time after the broadcast, I happened to find a copy of Hayden's autobiography WANDERER at a downtown used bookstore. I eagerly snapped it up, looking forward to spending many hours in the company of this interesting character. Reading the book, I discovered that our early lives were somewhat alike, but that his disposition was far more rugged than mine. Hayden ran away from an unhappy home to sea at the age of 17 and rose in ranks as he sailed around the world, time and time again, finally becoming the skipper of his own ship. When he signed to Paramount as an actor in 1941, mostly to finance his aquatic life, he was promoted as a handsome, bare-chested, barefoot, nature boy -- a sort of prototypical Robert Mitchum. When he acted opposite THE 39 STEPS' Madeleine Carroll, the posters cried, "The two most gorgeous humans you've ever beheld - caressed by soft tropic winds - tossed by the tides of love!" Hayden and Carroll married after that film, but they were soon separated by his stint with the US Marines during World War II; they divorced in 1946.
As it did with many men, Hayden's wartime experience changed his life in unforeseen ways. As a wartime gun-runner, he formed many friendships with the people of Yugoslavia and became sympathetic to the form of Communism they embraced. He attended some meetings after returning home, which flagged him for the special attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Hayden was was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee for investigation and, to his everlasting shame, he cooperated -- naming names. Here his life, as he knew it, begins to disintegrate.
After giving his testimony, Hayden found it impossible to forgive himself, just as many of his colleagues in the film business found it impossible to forgive him. He sought escape from his inner demons at sea, throwing himself into sailing to the extent of becoming the skipper of his own tugboat, and occasionally amassing crews with whom he could sail out into the most challenging tests of the open sea. In order to maintain this increasingly essential lifestyle, he had to continue to work in films, which contradictorily inflated and ballyhooed a self-importance in which he no longer believed. He let his beard grow whenever he wasn't working in Hollywood, and he wrote of detesting the work because it obliged him to strip his beard away and come face-to-face once again with the mirror reflection -- the "rat" -- he held in such dread contempt.
After 1958, Hayden's film work became much more infrequent. The roles that wooed him back to the screen intermittently thereafter seem to share a common theme of corrupt power. It's there in DR. STRANGELOVE's Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper, in THE GODFATHER's Captain McCluskey (the last of his bare-faced roles, he started growing his beard back immediately once he wrapped), and even in silly one-day jobs like his walk-ons in Robert Fuest's THE FINAL PROGRAMME (as peacetime arms dealer Major Wrongway Lindbergh) and William Reichert's WINTER KILLS.
Hayden remarried several times (even the same woman a few times) and fathered families, but escape from himself -- escape into women, into the sea, into writing -- seems to have remained a priority. Then, in the 1960s, he discovered marijuana and began escaping into himself. He described it as a means of survival, of maintaining his inner peace, when landlocked. His co-workers have said that he would load his meerschauum pipe with it anywhere and everywhere, smoking it freely without regard to its illegality, and apparently had no problems with the law about it. He spoke about pot as if it were the great illumination of his life, and he was writing a book about the role it had come to play in his life at the time his final illness was diagnosed. Unfortunately, that second volume of autobiography never surfaced.
As a young writer, I was very taken with WANDERER, which had tremendous literary value for a Hollywood autobiography. It helped me to see that the greatest adventure upon which anyone can embark is the dark and by no means secure journey into themselves. It inspired me to write a poem I no longer have, called "Daddy Jim (Back in the Shadows)," Daddy Jim being Sterling's name for his stepfather. It's been so long since I've read the book, I no longer remember the precise nature of their relationship, but it resonated with me at the time. Magically, my reading of WANDERER and my writing of this poem happened to coincide with Tom Snyder announcing at the end of a TOMORROW broadcast that Sterling Hayden was going to be his only guest on the next night's program. Hayden was coming in to promote his new novel, VOYAGE. Another book!
I tuned in and watched, of course. Both men spoke at length about how viewers far and wide had complimented them on what a special program the first interview had been. (I believe, to this day, Snyder recalls Sterling Hayden as his favorite TOMORROW show guest.) The second interview was interesting, above-average conversation about life and films and literature, but not quite as captivating as the first. At the end of the show, there was a promo for the hotel that provided lodgings for TOMORROW's guests, and I resolved to take that information and try to get in touch with Sterling Hayden.
The next morning, I called the hotel switchboard in New York and, to my surprise, was put straight through. I think I woke the Haydens. Sterling's wife Catherine answered, and I could hear her whisper discouragingly to her sleepy husband that it was a TOMORROW show viewer calling. Then I heard the familiar voice roused in the background, booming cheerily, "No no no! I'll talk, let me talk to him, give it here -- HELLO!"
As I was introducing myself, Sterling interruped by exclaiming "'Tim Lucas' -- now there's a good, strong name!" A fateful exclamation. My father had died before I was born, and I grew up having no ties to my father's side of the family, so I never felt any particular attachment to my own name. At that time of my life, I was toying with the idea of changing my name, if only on my manuscript cover pages. But when Sterling Hayden -- my idea of a good, strong name -- responded so favorably to mine, I took the endorsement to heart and decided to stay Tim Lucas.
Our conversation lasted for no longer than five minutes, but, in that short time, I told Sterling how the first Snyder interview had inspired me to read WANDERER and how deeply it had impressed me. I told him about the poem I'd written in response to the book and that I would like to share it with him. He gave me an address in (I think) Hartford, Connecticut, where I sent the poem along with a chapbook I had written and self-published about Amelia Earhart -- which I thought might interest him, being about another kind of voyager. "You can write me there," he said in his King Neptune's voice, "and I will respond to you!" He thanked me warmly for reading him, and for tracking him down.
I never heard back from Sterling Hayden, but that wasn't the point. We made contact -- a contact I still look back upon happily and with privilege. I proceeded to buy and read VOYAGE in hardcover , which remains one of the most criminally, critically overlooked novels of the late 20th century. A proud accomplishment. He never wrote another.
When Sterling Hayden appeared on TOMORROW some years later, for the third and last time, he was clearly ill, a more diminished Biblical figure. He was dressed like a hippie, in a form-fitting T-shirt (possibly tie-dyed) and a headband, and he made horrendous deep-breathing noises as he fought to dredge oxygen from his lungs between drags of his chain-smoked cigarettes. He talked about the marijuana manifesto he was trying to write, and about the difficulty of writing. I thought about trying to approach him again through the mail, but time had passed since our previous contact, and I didn't.
And so, with these thoughts in mind -- Happy Birthday, Sterling Hayden. I would love to have the time to sit down and read your WANDERER and VOYAGE through once again; they're both big books, as befits their bigger-than-life author. It was such a strange way in which your life touched mine. Today, when I see you in DR. STRANGELOVE, your pupils dilating with terror at the prospect of your character's manifest destiny (and, legend has it, your inability to get through your lines), I marvel at the thought that this Mt. Rushmore figure of the cinema was the man to whom I spoke on the telephone, and who, with unexpected warmth and familiarity, gave me back my name.
PS: Another anniversary. Donna tells me that it was 23 years ago today that we turned our backs on apartment living and moved into "the old Minser place," which we proceeded to turn into the Video Doghouse. This old house, which was built 99 years ago, has been the base of all our good fortunes and we love it, though we're both perpetually distracted and don't care for it nearly as well as we should. I like the idea that Sterling Hayden's birthday is also House Day. We've lived here longer than we've lived anywhere else, together or apart, and be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.
Friday, March 24, 2006
In yesterday's mail, I received an advance review copy of a new DVD box set I have been eagerly awaiting: Criterion's THE COMPLETE MR. ARKADIN. As the author of two revelatory articles detailing the differences between various different versions of the film, I had hoped that my contribution to Orson Welles scholarship would be remembered on this occasion by Criterion -- especially since my articles could be said to have proposed a veritable floor map for this set, which includes three different versions of the feature, along with alternate scenes and outtakes from other versions.
But the accompanying booklet credits only an article by Jonathan Rosenbaum ("The Seven Arkadins," FILM COMMENT, January-February 1992) with having "explicated seven different texts and ur-texts" of MR. ARKADIN. Rosenbaum's seven included three different episodes of the radio series THE LIVES OF HARRY LIME, a 1953 screenplay draft titled MASQUERADE, and the MR. ARKADIN novel signed, but not truly written, by Welles. The radio shows and the novel are among the extras included with Criterion's lavish new set.
My articles "Will The Real MR. ARKADIN Please Stand Up?" (VIDEO WATCHDOG #10, pp. 42-59) and "MR. ARKADIN - The Research Continues" (VIDEO WATCHDOG #12, pp. 26-29) also appeared in 1992 -- the first in March, the second in July. Between them, they amass a total of 22 double-columned pages on the subject.
The first article painstakingly compared the version of MR. ARKADIN then extant on so many public domain video labels to the alternate version known as CONFIDENTIAL REPORT, which Criterion had just issued for the first time on laserdisc. It also included, possibly for the first time anywhere, photographic documentation of the alternate casting of Sophie in the Spanish version, where the role was played not by Katina Paxinou, but by Irène Lopez Herédia. My second article was prompted by a bargain bin discovery of a completely different, and more satisfying cut of the film, also under the MR. ARKADIN title, on the Corinth Video label. Collectively, these studies not only pointed out the points of variation between these versions, they explained that the ideal version of MR. ARKADIN could exist only in the viewer's collective experience of the three. (The most compelling facet of Criterion's definitive box set is a brand new "comprehensive" cut of MR. ARKADIN assembled from the other extant versions.)
I remember it coming as quite a shock, opening that issue of FILM COMMENT and seeing Jonathan's article, while my own initial ARKADIN piece was still at the printer. But our respective articles were actually quite complimentary; his article got the "scoop," so to speak, that the film existed in different versions, but my articles explained in great detail why they were different, how they differed from one another qualitatively, and they also told people where to find the alternate versions on video. The coincidence that we both happened to be mining this obscure ground at the same time was too striking to ignore, and I used my contacts at FILM COMMENT to get in touch with Jonathan, whose work as a critic and scholar I'd long admired. We spoke by phone several times. I told him about my article, sent it to him when it appeared, told him about the availability of the Corinth Video version once I discovered it (I also made him a copy), and arranged for him to receive my follow-up piece. (I'm interested to see that Jonathan, who wrote in his original liner notes to the Criterion laserdisc that "the superiority of CONFIDENTIAL REPORT... over the various public domain versions... really cannot be quarrelled with," now favors the Corinth version, as I did and do, in his essay for the Criterion DVD booklet.) Jonathan was very complimentary about my articles after receiving them, and kindly mentioned them on page 515 of his notes for the Peter Bogdanovich book THIS IS ORSON WELLES, which he edited.
Those two MR. ARKADIN articles of mine represented, for me, a major step outside my usual genre film perimeters into the arena of serious international cinema. They stretched me, and they also constituted a significant early stretch for VIDEO WATCHDOG. Having written what I believe remains the lengthiest, most detailed reportage extant (at least in English) on the minute differences between the variants of this film, and to have helped bring these differences to public attention in the first place, I regret that I wasn't approached to participate somehow in this Criterion set. But even moreso, I'm disappointed to find my thorough mapping of this terrain overlooked by the various international Welles scholars who contributed to Criterion's booklet.
Of course, Criterion's box set has only just arrived, and I'm in the midst of other duties. I haven't yet had a chance to watch its various cuts of the movie, or to delve into their audio commentaries, so it's possible my work is noted elsewhere. As a writer who feels a sense of personal investment in things Arkadian, I sincerely hope so; I would hate to be the little detail that makes THE COMPLETE MR. ARKADIN incomplete.
Incidentally, VIDEO WATCHDOG #s 10 and 12 are still available, though #10 is in very low supply. These can be ordered from the Back Issue department of our website (click on the VW link above) or by calling our offices toll-free at 1-800-275-8395. My ARKADIN articles may be 14 years old, but the release of this new Criterion set makes the ink on them seem fresh again, and their method of approaching Welles' baroque masterpiece seem absolutely prescient.
Thursday, March 23, 2006
While decompressing at different times of day, I've managed to pop up in a thread or three over at the Classic Horror Films Board and Mobius Home Video Forum. But whenever my thoughts have turned to this blog, my brain has felt like six inches of well-stacked cigar ash. At least there's not a SIGHT AND SOUND deadline this week!
Monday, March 20, 2006
I don't usually permit myself to watch television in the daytime, but my breakfast happened to coincide with the showing of REMEMBER LAST NIGHT?, so I watched it as it was being broadcast. It's the story of a group of rich-and-pretty folks, permanently tight in the giddy days following the repeal of prohibition, who awaken in a fancy mansion the morning after a gay (in the old sense of the world) party to find the host dead in his bed, shot through the heart. Everyone was so smashed the night before, they can't remember the party much less the murder, so the police (in the stout personage of Edward Arnold and a nutty sidekick) arrive to investigate... but the pieces must ultimately be put together by the likeable Robert Young and Constance Cummings, who manage to do so while out-drinking and out-wisecracking Nick and Nora Charles. Or trying to.
It's a cute movie, with some Cracker Jack prizes for the auteurists (Robert Young parading around in his wife's fluffy dressing gown, the idle rich being mocked by the snotty working class asides of the cops and even Arthur Treacher's snooty butler, dialogue references to Dracula's Daughter, The Black Cat and the Bride of Frankenstein, and a hypnotism gadget that is only slightly less spectacular than all the crackling Kenneth Strickfaden devices that brought corpses to life in Whale's Frankenstein pictures), and jaw-dropping sets by Charles D. Hall that make the actors look like ants running around through a limited edition book with Lynd Ward endpapers. There is an entire wall in one room made up of cubed glass, which looks as though it was actually left over from Edgar Ulmer's THE BLACK CAT, made the year before. The sets and the costumes actually dominate the film to such a degree that I found myself watching the backgrounds more than the foregrounds, and laughing especially hard when Young and Cummings exclaimed "What a beautiful room!" when they happened to find themselves in a dingy, ugly cellar lined wall-to-wall with untapped liquor bottles.
It's been awhile since TCM has shown some of these, and I'm grateful. Thanks to this morning's schedule, there are about five old Beta tapes in my attic that I can now throw out.
Sunday, March 19, 2006
On a related subject, Steno's Le avventure di Giacomo Casanova ("The Adventures of Giacomo Casanova," 1955) -- the first film photographed in color by Mario Bava -- was recently released on DVD in Italy by Ripley's Home Video, a label dedicated to resurrecting the Italian popular cinema of decades past. I don't know whether the disc has English subtitles (on the basis of previous Ripley releases, it's doubtful), but Casanova is a movie of incalculable importance to any study of Bava's developing aesthetics as a visual filmmaker -- and also a delightful entertainment.
It was Ursula Andress' screen debut (her hair's still dark, and she appears in the last scene of the movie as the last of many women to turn Casanova's head), but more importantly, it's a surprising film in terms of its sexual candor. There is absolutely no trace of the self-conscious, self-restricting neuroses that one would encounter in a similar film if made in the United States or Great Britain during the same period, and that's what's so refreshing about it. It treats sex as a normal human appetite, perhaps extraordinary in the case of Casanova (played by Gabriele Ferzetti -- "Mr. Choo-Choo" of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST), but his courage to pursue and quench his impulses makes him all the more likeable as a protagonist.
The film was a French-Italian co-production, and long before this once-thought-to-be-lost picture was rediscovered, it was surmised that the French version might have included some alternate scenes disclosing female nudity. The Italian version of the film I saw contained a brief instance of breast nudity, but in the time that has passed, another print was found (alas, a black-and-white print) which included some additional nude footage. This bold pageantry has been included on the DVD, I am told.
A copy is on its way to me, so I should be able to share more details once it arrives.
Thursday, March 16, 2006
Without knowing this anniversary was due to turn up, thoughts of Jerry have been occupying the back of my mind over the last few days, without me knowing why. On impulse, I've been reaching for my long-untouched copy of Shawn Levy's well-written biography KING OF COMEDY: THE LIFE AND ART OF JERRY LEWIS several times a day, randomly re-reading different parts -- and it rests horizontally across the tops of some other books on the highest of my shelves, so it's not the most easily reached book in my library. I recommend this clear-headed and responsible book; it paints a complex and divisibly endearing/highly unlikable portrait of the man, while revering the humanitarian and cutting the artist more of a break than he's often received in English.
The night before last, I went up into my attic to re-read a novel I needed to refresh my memory of, for an article I'm writing. I turned on the upstairs radio for some soft classical music accompaniment and -- cue TWILIGHT ZONE music -- found myself listening to "I Left My Heart at the (HONK HONK) Drive-In Movie," a riotous song performed by Jerry in his 1964 movie, THE PATSY. When I saw this movie for the first time a year or two ago, I laughed so hard at the scene of the recording of this song (with Jerry singing, and three Jerries in drag as the background singers), I momentarily thought I was going to die laughing. I had to reel myself back from the edge of hilarity like I was fighting the most vigorous marlin you can imagine. I'm scared to look at the scene again. Anyway, as the song ended, the disc jockey explained what it was and continued with an interview, already in progress, with Jerry Lewis himself... who was speaking from his hotel room, here in Cincinnati! He had apparently made an appearance here at the Aronoff Center which was a big success, and it was the first night of an extended stay.
Disc jockey: We just played "I Left My Heart at the Drive-In Movie" by Jerry Lewis, from his movie THE PATSY.
Jerry: I heard it.
Disc jockey: Jerry, that's a pretty wild song. Where did you ever find that?
Jerry: It's from THE SOUND OF MUSIC. I got it from Rodgers and Hammerstein. They had written it for that picture but it got cut out. I made them an offer, and I was delighted to have it...
(Dead silence from the disc jockey, who's actually bought this story.)
Jerry (loudly): It's a JOKE, you little cocker!
I didn't open the book I had intended to read for another 15 minutes. Instead, I sat in my attic listening to Jerry Lewis being interviewed. He was quick and caustic, suave one minute and cutting the next, and he spoke warmly about his many previous trips to Cincinnati. Once in 1942, again in 1948, and in 1950, when he and Dean Martin played the RKO Albee Theater, where my parents dated, and where I met the charming cashier I am still smooching to this day. "That was the last time I was here," Jerry said... but I knew darn well that he'd been here another time, when he starred in DAMN YANKEES, circa 1996. My sister-in-law had worked as a stagehand on that show, and she said that Jerry loved to go out onstage each night with a big laugh -- so he offered a nightly reward for anyone who could break him up the best. One night, as he stood in the wings awaiting his cue, she showed him a wind-up cow that convulsed, a toy belonging to my father-in-law. It convulsed the man who played Professor Julius Kelp, and he inscribed a gift photo for my father-in-law ("To Don -- Thanks for the Cow! Jerry Lewis") after the show. He treasured it.
That's the exact same photo, but without the inscription. (I told you the inscription; use your imagination -- it's good for you.)
Anyway, I sat there listening, figuring that Jerry must have starred in DAMN YANKEES in a dozen cities and just lost track of the fact that he'd been back in Cincinnati. Then I started thinking... if he was going to be in town for awhile, might I approach his people and request an interview? It's one of those things I think I'd love to do, but know I'd be afraid to do. I don't know if I could cut it, sitting in a room with Jerry Lewis, one-on-one. Could you? I mean, I like many of his movies, and love a few (like THE LADIES MAN, from which the two screen grabs in today's blog were derived) ... Would I still love them after meeting him?
It's hard to tell. I once saw Jerry Lewis profiled in one of those HOLLYWOOD AFTER DARK programs that used to run on AMC (back in the days when I watched AMC, when it was watchable). He was maybe 40 at the time and holed up in his office with some brand spanking new editing equipment. He spoke with fresh enthusiasm about filmmaking and new technology, and he seemed like a fascinating, open guy with whom I had much in common. Him I would have loved to meet, especially in that milieu. The 46 year-old Jerry Lewis who is interviewed on Disc 2 of the new DICK CAVETT SHOW: COMIC LEGENDS box set is a bit more cutting, not quite as mellow, but still approachable -- not as formidable and forbidding as the critical, lecturing, hectoring Buddy Love I've occasionally glimpsed on television, who makes a chilling surprise appearance in the final chapter of Levy's book.
As I continued to fantasize and fret about this suddenly possible meeting, reprieve abruptly came when it became clear that I was actually listening to an archival interview recorded a decade or so ago, back when Jerry was in town doing DAMN YANKEES. Whew, that was close.... but not really. It was a long time ago, actually; longer ago than it seems. Jerry had not yet gotten ill and swollen with Cushing's Syndrome, and my father-in-law was still alive.
I've never met Jerry Lewis. Maybe I never will, but that's alright. That way, he can always be the Jerry Lewis I want him to be, and the Jerry Lewis he wants himself to be, which is the Jerry he presents through his art. If you think about it, we've all met Jerry whenever we've seen his movies and read his books, and he's met us (well, don't let me speak for you: he's met me) in a way whenever he's heard audiences laugh and applaud. He is the most naturally talented clown of his generation, an inspired and visionary filmmaker who also happened to be possibly the greatest visual joke-teller of the sound era, the maker of some of the most psychologically rich and confrontational comedies ever, and also a soulful fantasist capable of dreaming up sweet little moments like his encounters with the puppets in THE ERRAND BOY -- and selling them onscreen, too. He's made some crap, but what? You and I haven't? I put him on the cover of the 100th issue of my magazine, which is no meager love letter, let me tell you.
So let me wrap this up by simply saying, "Happy birthday, Jerry, you schweet, schweet schweety-face." And, if you ever read this... don't hit!
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Was birthed into this world one Stephen Bissette.
His four limbs they thrashed, his wee lungs did wail,
And when his eyes opened, all the nurses turned pale.
He spat up warm milk, wanted none of that caper,
Instead he demanded fresh crayons and paper.
Soon all the white walls in the maternity ward
Were covered in comics, obscene and untoward.
As a lad, he watched movies by the hundreds and thousands
He'd stay up past twelve for the Ray Harryhausens.
At school, his poor teachers were hostile and frantic;
They knew not what he drew -- just that it was Satanic.
His Mom and Dad fretted till blue in their faces
They threw out his ECs, but worse books took their places.
They tossed out the lot, horror comics their quarry,
Vowed young Stephen:
"Someday I'll write their history and THEN you'll be sorry!"
And so came the day, like the cat from the kitten,
That about his own comics histories were written.
There are books in the world that encompass Steve's art;
His Tyrant, Taboo, and his Tell-Tale Fart.
But today is the day that I'm rhyming about
When, all moist and gibbering, pink Stephen crept out.
So let us light all the candles and dim the lights too
And tell that big cake of his...
"We Are Going to Eat You!"
Monday, March 13, 2006
From Darren Gross:
I must say, I've just gone through all those questions myself and do regularly, as I just moved to a new apartment and the amount of stuff accumulated (mostly DVDs, VHS off-air tapes, film magazines, etc.) in 10+ years was impossible to fathom, and after 4 days of lugging back-breakingly heavy boxes across town, the idea of throwing them all in the dumpster and starting new was intoxicating and very tempting. It felt like each box, each magazine was a brick with which I was walling myself in...."I've had this tape for over 10 years and haven't watched it? So why is is here?" Once I watch some of these saved tapes they're going right in the trash. I don't want all this junk any more. Its a distraction from my daily enjoyments and kills spontaneity.
Conversely, I've always pondered the questions (especially since I spent years working in video stores until 2000, and my partner has worked at video and bookstores through to this day) is "Why do I want to turn my home into a video store or a book store? I hated being at work at those places, so why amI replicating that environment at home."
I have to feel part of it is the price and marketability of DVD. It's created a compulsion that CDs couldn't even touch, and I would like to free myself from it.
From Wayne Schmidt:
I really enjoyed this column. It's relevant to where I'm at . . . . after much initial anguish I've been selling off titles (admittedly only a few at a time) on Amazon and other places where I won't take a bath (unlike trading them in at record stores).
My epiphany came when I moved from Los Angeles to Portland. You can't get away with the sloppy packing techniques used in moving inner city; everything has to be expertly boxed and cataloged. I'm a native Angelino and had never been through this traumatic experience before (and boy, was it ever). I now peruse my reconstituted vault which takes up one walk-in closet, making note of titles I hauled with me that are still shrinkwrapped after a number of years, titles that were "blind bought" that I didn't care for and most likely will never watch again, and the most difficult kind that you pegged perfectly with the example of CITIZEN KANE: acknowledged classics and great films that, alas, I've seen so many times probably won't revisit until Blu-ray or the next innovation on the technology ladder comes along. So why own it now?
From a collection of 800 store-boughts (not including DVD-Rs - they're cheap and don't take up much room) I could probably lose a quarter of that number and never seriously miss them. There are so many intriguing films I've never seen that revisiting these titles again seems regressive.
One of my closest friends is Glenn Erickson, whom you know. With the website reviews Glenn receives a lot of free DVDs and has a substantial library. When I lived a few miles away I'd avail myself of his "lending library" and found that quite satisfying, especially for fringe titles I wanted to see again from childhood but couldn't really remember their overall merits. Most of the time I saw no reason to buy a copy for myself after watching them. These days I use Netflix as a substitute and again, it quells the "must buy" urge quite nicely most of the time.
I've gone the "film print / VHS / Laserdisc/DVD" route, making huge investments in each. I never had any childhood traumas I could trace the collecting bug back to as you have. Lack of spending cash which forced me to pass on many mouth watering goodies is as close as it gets. But since the inception of your VW column-turned-magazine I do have you, Mr. Lucas, to blame for much of it! If you mentioned a rare or uncut variant of some title that sounded intriguing, off I'd go in search of the latest Holy grail. Many of those are the ones that won't get the chop as I prune the vault. Even so, it comforts me to know that Mr. Watchdog reflects on this obsession now and then!
I was the individual who put the announcement on DVD Maniacs about the Sony sale at DDD, but so far haven't actually ordered anything myself. Does that make me a reformed addict, now a pusher?
From Adrian Horrocks:
You hit the proverbial nail. And Disney doesn't help - deleting titles so quick it makes me paranoid. Have you seen the price of THE LITTLE MERMAID on eBay?? And film censorship here in the UK meant we spent years grabbing stuff before it was withdrawn, recut etc.
From Eric Yarber (who I think hits the proverbial nail with his closing sentence):
God knows both of us could probably use a 12-step program (DVDA?) when it comes to those maddeningly multiplying discs, but I think you should know that the very fact you're writing about the subject is probably a sign you're going to find a balance on the matter eventually.
One thing that affected my conditioning was that I was in the first wave of DVD buyers. I had just gotten my first job in Hollywood, and [a friend] tipped me off months in advance that this new format was going to wipe out all others. Once the discs began to trickle into stores, it seemed easy enough to keep up with everything as it was released. Sometimes I'd even pick up stuff I wasn't that keen on just to keep the momentum up. It wasn't long before such omnipresence became impossible, but the idea of keeping on top of the entire format was fixed by then. For me, ironically, it was the horrifying prospect of having to buy everything all over again in a new format that made me begin to taper off and begin wondering what I needed as opposed to what I wanted.
There's also some relief in the time you find to finally get around to those discs you bought out of mild interest and never cracked open, (not to mention all the unread books and albums I grabbed while the getting was good). There's an aspect of compulsive collecting that I think of as the "rainy day" notion, the idea that you're salting entertainment around in case you're not able to afford or find such things later. A lot of the "new" stuff that's fascinating me the most these days are discs I've had on my "to-watch" pile indefintiely. It feels like cashing in a time account that has grown to an impressive amount.
I still buy new stuff here and there, but in going over my receipts for tax purposes this weekend, I'm astonished on how much I used to spend only a year ago, and how diffuse my purchasing was. Maybe it's just a sense of beginning to realize how limited our time is in life, and how trying to hang on to everything for unlimited viewing may be a denial of that reality.
Further response is welcome, of course -- I know that some of you are just seeing yesterday's blog today.
By the way, there's a postscript to my Deep Discount DVD Sale misadventure of yesterday. I logged on this morning to find an e-mail from DDD awaiting me, saying that my orders hadn't gone through because of some CC information I'd typed in that didn't jibe. I went into my account information and found the typo that stopped the orders. I hesitated, looking over the 27 (!) titles I had ordered. ("But six of them were free!" a whiny inner voice protests.) This was exactly the opportunity my blog had been begging for, was it not? A chance to reconsider my purchase!
So reconsider I did, long and hard...
They should all be here within 5-10 days.
Sunday, March 12, 2006
Besides acknowledging in the back of my mind that I'm essentially paying through the nose (even at sale prices) for titles that weren't done definitively the first time around, I found myself wondering, "What am I buying all this for?" I'm already well over my head as regards things to watch, even in things that need to be watched within the next few weeks. So why do I spend so much money on titles that I know will be put into bankers' boxes to sit around unwatched for an indefinite period?
The title of a documentary about Martin Scorsese once asked the question, "All this filming -- is it healthy?" Maybe not, but at least filming is an activity and a potentially lucrative one. Certainly a lucrative one for Mr. Scorsese. So let me top that question with a more pertinent one: All this watching -- is it healthy? Unless you do your watching on a treadmill, or unless you already spend most of your waking hours on a real or figurative treadmill, probably not.
But what I'm really pondering here is not so much the watching (because who watches everything they buy on DVD?), but rather the compulsive collecting aspect. I have a lot of DVDs, and probably you do, too. And few of us have our collections because we work so hard that we have a loads of leisure time coming to us. I have a valid reason to be acquiring all these titles, because it's the business I'm in; as a video magazine publisher/editor, it's good to have an archive... but I know in my heart of hearts that's not what it's all about.
When I was six or seven years old, my mother married a man who, a week or two into their short-lived marriage, sold every toy and comic book I owned in a yard sale and used the money to get drunk. When I was sixteen years old, I made the decision to leave home and, for various reasons, I could take with me only what I could carry. Aside from clothes and other essentials I could fit into two suitcases, I had to leave all my belongings behind -- my FAMOUS MONSTERS collection, my movie posters, and some complete runs of numerous Marvel Comics titles, not to mention family photos. So, twice in my early life, I suffered the loss of everything I ever owned. Once it was taken from me, the other time I had to marshal the strength to walk away from it all voluntarily. I don't need a psychiatrist to tell me that therein lies a good deal of my compulsion to have and to hoard from this day forward.
I suspect that all of us who are compulsive DVD collectors are working through feelings we grew up with, and not necessarily ones allied to personal circumstances such as I've described. For example, there's this persistent worry that we need to grab these movies while they're available, because who knows when (or if) they'll turn up again? That worry goes all the way back to the 1950s for some of us. To a degree, it remains a reasonable argument because there are many foreign titles, for example, that turn up once on DVD and seldom if ever appear on cable and never on commercial television. Having them is a way of ensuring that these titles will be available when we, or someone close to us, needs to see them again. But considering that, say, CITIZEN KANE is now frequently shown on TCM and other stations completely uncut and commercial-free, that it's easily found on disc in video stores for rental, why do so many of us need to own it? If you stop to think about it, the only valid answer to this question is that, someday, at some ungodly late hour of the night or early hour of the morning, we might feel the need to see CITIZEN KANE right now. I guess that's the impulse that all DVD collecting boils down to: we want these titles in reserve for the time that might come when we'll need to see them right now.
And the sad truth is, no matter how many times we buy it, none of us really owns CITIZEN KANE -- or anything else we have on DVD. We'll all be buying it again on Blu-Ray, and whatever other newfangled format(s) should follow in our lifetimes. Because, no matter how many times we've bought CITIZEN KANE, technology will be forever dreaming up new ways in which we've never seen it.
Hey gang, it gets even more pathetic. If a miraculous new service were offered to all cable subscribers tomorrow, allowing us to watch any movie (and I mean any movie, in any language, in its correct OAR) by request for a reasonable fee, and if this service was secure and guaranteed to remain available for the rest of our lives, how many of us could bear to part with our collections? In fact, let's up the ante: since this is just a daydream, what if the service was free for the asking? How many of us could bear to "have" only what we could watch at a given time?
This, I think, is a profound question. Because the root of DVD addiction is that, through the act of regularly buying these discs, we have trained ourselves (or been trained) to feel that we must own everything we watch. If we don't own it as we watch it, we feel resentful -- don't we? -- as though we're not getting our full money's worth. I believe this is one of many reasons why theater attendance is falling off, and perhaps the only psychological one. Is there a soul alive that doesn't run a tape or burn a disc while watching the latest offering on Pay Per View?
I'm the last guy who would willingly surrender his DVD collection, but as I continue along this strange path of acquisitiveness in life, I do sometimes think of what's in my attic, still in shrink-wrap, and calculate how many trips to Europe, how many adventures, I might have had instead.
I've seen CITIZEN KANE at least 20 times.
I've never been to Europe.
Saturday, March 11, 2006
Streeting next Tuesday, March 14, is Tartan Asian Extreme's MAREBITO, the latest J-Horror import from Takashi Shimizu. Shimizu is the talented young fellow behind JU-ON (2003), its sequel JU-ON II (also 2003), and the American remake, THE GRUDGE (2004). I was given a welcome jolt or two by each of these films, which I consider the work of a brilliant stylist, but MAREBITO ("The Stranger from Afar"), based on a novel by screenwriter Chiaki Konaka, is something altogether more extraordinary. I think it may be a masterpiece, a fresh and defiantly uncommercial horror film with a cold finger tightly pressed to the pulse of our times.
Be warned: It's an oblique picture, full of unresolved mystery, and utterly void of human warmth -- which means it's bound to alienate a certain percentage of its audience. But these are traits it holds in common with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, though I'd be doing the film a great disservice to come right out and proclaim it the 2001 of horror films. I won't know if it can sustain such comparison until I see it a few more times. The analogy isn't a perfect fit anyway; 2001 was like nothing the science fiction genre had known before, and the same cannot fully be said of MAREBITO's relation to the horror genre. MAREBITO's antecedents are fairly obvious -- PEEPING TOM, VIDEODROME, PI and LOST HIGHWAY, to name a few -- but it's more disturbing than all of them; Shimizu melds their diverse ingredients in a highly original way, with a fluid visual style that replicates the ebb and flow of human thought, even to the extremes of obsession and disorientation, and a knack for visual horror (and more importantly, dread) that frequently achieves perfect pitch.
Most importantly, MAREBITO is that increasingly rare horror film that speaks with unsettling but gratifying directness to our present-day fears and concerns. I think it may have nailed the perfect metaphor for our soulless, internet/information age existence; that it speaks for where we are today, or where we're headed, in the same way VIDEODROME did back in 1983. There is perhaps only one dialogue scene in the film that plainly isn't taking place on the plane of the protagonist's own abstracted madness, and it's the film's most terrifying moment because it's our only glimpse of the rational. What makes the film all the more astonishing is that Shimizu knocked it off in eight days, shooting in Digital Betacam.
This is Tartan Asian Extreme's box art for the release. It's lovely, but note how, in contrast to the original poster art reproduced above, the female figure has been clothed... and unshackled. Interesting.
I will be writing in more detail about the film for VIDEO WATCHDOG, but I wanted to alert you to the fact that something very special is on the release horizon next week. Not an old TV show, not a box set... just a new horror movie that I expect the genre's devotées will be watching and discussing, and possibly debating, for decades to come.
Thursday, March 09, 2006
This is a very busy week for me, deadline-wise, so I've perused my files for bits of previously unpublished writing to keep this blog going while I am otherwise disposed. Here's a fragment from a project that didn't get much further than this, though I like what I did here. Maybe I'll go back to it someday and finish what I started.
As I have said many times before, Columbia owns a vaultload of terrific crime B-movie series -- not just The Whistler, but also The Crime Doctor, Boston Blackie, and The Lone Wolf -- and it would be wonderful to have them in box sets on DVD. Several of the Whistler and Crime Doctor pictures were directed by none other than William Castle, and they occasionally point to ideas he expanded upon in his later, better-known films. -- TL
THE WHISTLER (1944), MARK OF THE WHISTLER (1944), POWER OF THE WHISTLER (1945), VOICE OF THE WHISTLER (1945), MYSTERIOUS INTRUDER (1946), THE SECRET OF THE WHISTLER (1946), THE THIRTEENTH HOUR (1947), THE RETURN OF THE WHISTLER (1948)
Unlike Columbia's other crime series of the 1930s and '40s, the Whistler series is not constructed around a recurring role. Like the Columbia Broadcasting Services radio program which inspired it, the Whistler films are an anthology series, unified by the constant but otherwise hazy presence of The Whistler. Voiced by the otherwise unseen Otto Forrest, The Whistler is a slouch-hatted, trench-coated silhouette of a man who whistles a hauntingly discordant, halting tune as he strolls by night; because he walks the streets after dark, he "knows things" about the people who have"stepped into the shadows of life."
In all but the last of the eight Whistler films, these tragic protagonists are portrayed by the same actor: Richard Dix. Like most of the other Columbia crime series stars, Dix was a former matinee idol of the silent and early talking screen. He was in his 50s, but as with the dialogue in Warner Baxter's "Crime Doctor" films, the young actresses appearing opposite him often refer to him as handsome and quite a catch. A beefy, cordial actor who sometimes slurred and clipped his lines, Dix could turn on the ice as well as the charm, but was not an actor of particularly broad range. Nevertheless, the Whistler series turned him into one.
Alone of all the Columbia crime series, the Whistler films offered their continuous lead perpetual opportunities to extend his playbook. In seven short pictures, Dix portrays a melancholic, a quirky gumshoe, a workaholic executive, an amnesiac who gradually awakens to his identity as a murderer, as well as men in love, sociopaths, bad luck charlies, and normal honest guys driven into desperate corners by circumstance who must bend the law... usually past its breaking point. In each of Dix's performances, one tonality is ever-present: a furtiveness which recalls the later performances of David Janssen in TV's THE FUGITIVE (1963-66). Beset by a series of strokes, Dix retired from films in 1947 and died of a heart attack in 1949 at the age of 56. A solid attempt to perpetuate the series, 1948's THE RETURN OF THE WHISTLER, failed to be carried commercially by top-lined actor Michael Duane.
For all their edgy, paranoid atmosphere, the Whistler films nevertheless portray a shadowy world in which it is comparatively safe for people, like The Whistler, to walk by night. In THE POWER OF THE WHISTLER, our heroine (Janis Carter) approaches a perfect stranger, for whom she has read a baleful fortune in a deck of playing cards, and not only pursues his acquaintence to warn him, but when he shows signs of dizziness, she steps with him into the backseat of a stranger's parked car until he feels better! And when the car's owner (I. Stanford Jolley) happens along, he not only shows no sense of outrage at their presumptuous trespass on his property, but offers to drive the two strangers wherever they might need to go! Likewise, in THE VOICE OF THE WHISTLER, a former UK lightweight boxing champion (Rhys Williams) gladly retires his cab stand in order to follow a wealthy chance acquaintence and his new bride to a solitary lighthouse, to work as their general dogsbody.
All in all, the Whistler universe is an unusually healthy, trusting and upbeat world... but, as is common in the writings of series contributor Cornell Woolrich and in the annals of film noir in general, it is a world governed by ironic fate. Things go wrong, bad pennies keep turning up, the best laid plans turn out to be rotten eggs. And nowhere in the Columbia crime series are these principles more directly and piercingly felt than in the Whistler films, because the misfortune always befalls Dix, whomever he might be portraying. The Lone Wolf, Boston Blackie and The Crime Doctor get into their share of hot water, but it's always circumstantial; in the Whistler films, the hot water is always existential.
For more hard data and beautiful graphics pertaining to this series, check out this well-stocked Whistler website.
Wednesday, March 08, 2006
I am standing on a public street in cold weather. To my left, very close to me, is a short shelf of books I have written in my dream state. I do not recognize them by title, but I feel a bond with them.
I am standing on a short flight of stairs and the shelf is built into the façade of a building. On the street, catching the cold wind, is an attractive African-American woman in her 30s, who has evidently prepared a copy of my most recent book for me, turning it into a matching small-sized hardcover that I can shelve with the other books. I take it from her and ask how she liked it.
“I liked it. I like straight-forward writing like that; it’s not what I expect from you, but I liked the directness of it. There wasn’t anything between you and getting your thoughts out.”
“And what thoughts were those?” I ask.
“What do you mean? You wrote it. You know better than I do.”
“You don’t understand,” I tell her. “I wrote it so fast, I don’t remember what I wrote. My whole memory of the process is a smear.”
She looks at me warily, as though she doesn’t believe me and wants to get out of the cold.
“What should I call it?”
“That’s your job, not mine,” she says irritably. “Why don’t you sit down and read it and come up with a title yourself?”
“I haven’t got the time,” I tell her. “I’ve got to press on.”
“Me too,” she says, waving half-heartedly and trudging off, leaning into the winter winds. I wave my farewell.
The weather doesn’t bother me. I look at the little handmade book and place it at the end of the queue of other books identical in size. I notice that the other books in the sequence have similar titles, all pertaining to shades of red: CRIMSON SAILS, DOCTOR SCARLET, VERMILLION TO ONE. As I shelve the new book, I remember something about it: it was about the loss of innocence and the wisdom that comes with age.
Suddenly, I have the title: CHERRY LIQUEUR.
As I name my book, I realize that, in my dream state, I am the author of "The Red Quartet."
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
Before I get to the gist of this message, let me start by saying that I owe the existence of my website, Hong Kong Digital, to my dear friend Sanney Leung, proprietor of the much beloved Hong Kong Entertainment News in Review website. It was he who encouraged me to start HKD, which was originally just meant as a temporary means of promoting my book. It has grown to be so much more and lasted far longer than I would ever have expected. While I do all of the writing, cover scans and video grabs, it is Sanney who does the design work and uploading. Unfailingly generous and modest man that he is, Sanney refused to be credited for this, but there would quite literally be no HKD without his dedication. In fact, Sanney is so diligent, there have only been two or three instances in the past 5 1/2 years when HKD did not offer at least one update for the week. Thus, when we missed three in a row last month, readers first expressed surprise and then worry that something was wrong.
Ah San is an avid jogger and come hell or high water, he is out there logging the miles on a regular basis. Unfortunately, he also seems to always be pulling muscles or ending up with the flu by going out when it is far too cold. On more than one occasion, I have joked to him that jogging would end up killing him. As it turns out, it just may have saved his life. A while back, Sanney hurt one of his legs and this required a trip to the hospital for minor surgery. A routine blood test revealed a high percentage of Epstein-Barr antibodies. While this is never a good sign, it was particularly worrisome to Sanney's doctor. Cantonese men in their 30s whose roots can be traced to a certain region in China have some sort of flaw in their DNA that makes them susceptible to Nasopharynx Cancer. Tests were done and, alas, it was discovered that Sanney did indeed have this disease. A tumor was discovered at the point inside his head where his throat and his nasal cavity meet. I don't have to tell anyone that cancer is a horrible disease; in Sanney's case, it is also a horribly unfair one. Not only does he jog, he rarely drinks, doesn't smoke or do drugs, and eats just about the most consistently balanced and healthy variety of foods of anyone I know.
Sanney began his regimen of chemotherapy treatments three weeks ago. Many different side effects can occur from this, including electrolyte and enzyme imbalances. The body tries to compensate for this through vomiting and, a day or so after this first session, Sanney found himself to be consistently sick and unable to keep anything down. This required a stay in hospital and, not long after he got home, the problem re-occurred and he had to be re-admitted. He was home again for awhile, but a few hours ago, a member of his family contacted me to say that he had contracted a chest infection and would be in hospital indefinitely.
Sanney had planned to post a message on both of our websites around the time of his first session, but the severity of his body's reaction took him by surprise. He told me last week to notify everyone about the situation, but I felt that its personal nature required that he be the one to make any kind of announcement. However, in light of this most recent development, it seemed necessary for this to finally be done. Let me take this opportunity to apologize to anyone whose letters I have not answered and to those who received answers that were a dilution of what was really happening. While I have not yet had another update on Sanney's condition, I can thankfully offer some very encouraging news: after just the one treatment, the tumor volume decreased by 40%. His oncologist was so encouraged by the results, he told Sanney that he might be able to reduce the chemo treatments by half. I'd imagine that his latest hospitalization will delay things somewhat, but hopefully the positive signs will continue when treatments resume.
As it stands now, there may be updates on his and/or my websites in the coming weeks or, quite possibly, none until the fall when his treatments are scheduled to conclude. Both websites have mailing list options so that subscribers can be notified when there is an update. Click on the following link for Hong Kong Entertainment News in Review: http://www.hkentreview.com/pages/join.html; the Hong Kong Digital update box can be found about halfway down the front page (http://www.dighkmovies.com/).
If you would like to express your Get Well wishes to Sanney, please send them to my website address (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will forward them to him. At this point, I think this is all the communication that Sanney can have with anyone outside of immediate friends and family until he feels noticeably better. Even without the other complications, he told me in his most recent letter that the drugs, fatigue and restlessness resulting from these treatments makes it difficult for him to even watch TV, let alone correspond. In addition to his many other positive qualities, Ah San is extremely humble and I know that he would not want a fuss to be made over him. However, I think this is exactly what is really needed here. Lord knows he deserves it after all of the thousands of hours he has spent enriching the education of English-speaking HK entertainment fans. So please direct any and all positive thoughts his way and think about getting your own blood test, particularly if you are a Chinese male in your 30s. Sanney's prognosis is very good because the cancer was detected early; if it had been found as little as two or three months later, it may well have been too late for him to beat it.
If anyone would like to re-post this announcement on their own sites or on a newsgroup, please do. There isn't enough space on this message board for me to properly convey how much my life has been enriched by Sanney's friendship and counsel. I could not ask for a better friend and I truly wish I could trade places with him.
Monday, March 06, 2006
It's doubtful that anyone is going to come along and fill the shoes Hope left empty: a celebrity who loved being out among people, who entertained the troops, who golfed with US Presidents and other leaders of state. Hope's entire legacy of stand-up comedy was predicated on current events, in-jokes, and breaking the fourth wall -- things that endeared him to audiences of his time, but which may well work to obscure his legacy where future generations are concerned. But the character he affected in movies is going to remain forever relevant: the sly, self-deprecating, girl-crazy bluffer on the make. That's an archetype with whom young men can always identify, and one that women will always appreciate in the way they appreciate all incorrigible rascals. Woody Allen once said that Bob Hope's screen persona was one of his biggest influences, and it's possible to see a lot of Bob Hope in Woody's work -- especially in lines like (I'm paraphrasing) "I'm allergic to fighting; I break out in blood."
This weekend, I had unexpected cause to give a good deal of thought to the man who was Bob Hope -- which is one of those names, I find, when you look at the name itself on paper, it ceases to mean anything. At least for me. When I hear the name Bob Hope, my brain somehow jumps past the name itself to a face and a unique style of delivery. When I look at the name printed out, like on a comic book cover, it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the legend to whom it belonged. It's too unassuming, too much an Everyman name for someone so larger than life.
Metaphysics aside, I recently received my copy of THE DICK CAVETT SHOW-COMIC LEGENDS -- and went directly to the Bob Hope interview. Yes, I jumped right past Groucho Marx to get to Bob Hope. The interview was everything I wanted it to be: Hope was funny, no less funny when his jokes bombed, debonair and talkative, sometimes revealingly so -- and Cavett was every bit the unabashed fan boy that I would have been, had I been conducting the interview. It's as close as I, or most of us, will get to an informal sit-down with this national landmark, and I wanna tell ya, it's wild...
Hope talks about his early days in vaudeville, his Hollywood injuries, even a couple of near-death experiences aboard airliners in desperate trouble. Asked if he's ever been fired, he looks back with candor on the miserable feeling of not having his option renewed by Paramount Pictures after being under contract to them for 19 years. He also tells a heart-warming but unsentimental story about Fred MacMurray's rise to fame, which doesn't always portray Hope himself in the best possible light, but which is an admirably real confession of recognizable human nature. A clip from Hope's then-current movie, CANCEL MY RESERVATION, is also shown -- and it's absolutely dreadful. It would turn out to be his last star vehicle theatrical feature.
Then this weekend, for reasons I still don't understand (perhaps there's an anniversary of something I failed to observe), The Game Show Network suddenly jumped backwards in their chronology of WHAT'S MY LINE? episodes to present Saturday and Sunday night episodes from the early 1950s featuring Bob Hope as the Mystery Guest. Watching these two appearances, I realized that my whole mood brightens and opens up like a spring bloom whenever Bob Hope turns up onscreen. After last night's show, Donna and I stayed up an hour or so longer so that I could show her the Cavett/Hope interview, which I enjoyed watching just as much the second time.
As I type these words, I think the reason for WHAT'S MY LINE?'s Hopealooza just occurred to me. It was Academy Awards weekend, and Bob Hope was (among other things) the greatest host Oscar ever had. The Academy should release DVDs of the classic Oscar presentations, don't you think? I'd love to see Hope's introductory remarks again: "Welcome to the Academy Awards... or, as it's known at my house, Passover."
And all that's why Bob Hope is on my mind today, at the start of a new week. I'll close with a shot from one of my favorite Hope vehicles, CALL ME BWANA. (I may be in the minority, as usual, but I find it hilarious. That's the one where Hope plays Matthew Meriwether -- "That's M.A.T.T. -- as in 'available," as he tells a female member of the cast.) Hope always had the good sense to surround his sly smile with the most beautiful women he could find. For CALL ME BWANA, he got Anita Ekberg and Edie Adams, but they needed one more to play the big bed scene with Bob. "Get me the gal with the best legs in the business," he said.
And the rest is B-movie history...
"Couldn't you at least find one who shaved?"
Friday, March 03, 2006
FOUR FLIES (or 4 Mosche di velluti grigio) was Argento's third feature film -- following THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970, released by UMC Pictures) and THE CAT O' NINE TAILS (Il gatto a nove code, 1971, released by National General Pictures) -- and his first to receive US distribution from an actual major, Paramount Pictures. There may well be other exceptions to the rule out there in the world somewhere, but I'm aware of only one official release: a French VHS tape from Atlantic Home Video called 4 Mouches de Velours Gris; it's dubbed in French, of course, and sort of incompletely letterboxed with the sides of the main titles noticeably cropped.
Given the situation with the film, Argentophiles have had to resort to what is euphemistically called "the grey market," probably in tribute to this very film. Over the years, I've been able to find three different copies in addition to my French pre-record. I'm not fanatical about it, and I haven't looked recently, so there may well be other options on the grey market today, but what I've been able to find are: 1) a complex dupe utilizing the French tape visual track, with English dialogue slotted in; 2) a squeezed copy of a 16mm print of the English language version that is so squeezed, I can't fully unsqueeze it on my widescreen set; and 3) an excellent looking copy that opens with perfectly letterboxed main titles and then adjusts -- "Goddammit!" the viewer wails, striking the arm of his chair -- to pan&scan. Of these three, surprisingly enough, I found the pan&scan version most pleasing, if only because it alone summoned a hint of the beauty that must reside in a perfect print. The colors are bold and the image is consistently clear; it's like watching the film on television in the 1980s, but without commercial interruption. This version, in case anyone is wondering, hails from Video Search of Miami. (It also includes the padded cell scene missing from some prints, including the French tape.) I have no idea if VSoM have upgraded their copy since then, but this pan&scan version is/was one of their best-looking tapes, at least in my experience.
Watching FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET again for the first time in maybe ten years, I have to say I didn't care much for it... but, then again, I chose the French/English synch source for my first viewing. I suspect I was distracted by how the ambient sound of the tape kept shifting as the compiler shifted from the French and English sound sources. I was aware that it wasn't an optimal presentation, but there was a great deal about the film itself that annoyed me. Given its final resolution/explanation, the story -- or rather the situation -- makes no sense, and Argento spends so much time gagging around with his semi-comic supporting characters, it seems evident that even he was aware of how flimsy it was. I was so disappointed, in fact, that I turned to Maitland McDonagh's chapter in BROKEN MIRRORS, BROKEN MINDS and Kim Newman's chapter on the film in THE ART OF DARKNESS (all of two pages!) for illumination. Kim's piece may have been written to the order of finding something nice to say about it, and he struggles valiantly toward that end, settling on faint/forced praise like calling it one of Argento's "most cynical and cruel" movies. Maitland also gives it short shrift, just half a chapter, but in those few pages, she probes its psychological underpinnings with some success. Her insights primed me to give the film a second viewing, this time with the pan&scan print. (After watching the picture, which involves a woman driven mad by being raised as a boy, I couldn't help but smile at the irony that two of the film's chief commentators are a man named Kim and a woman named Maitland.)
Watching the film a second time, with sharper focus and sweeter colors and a smoothly consistent soundtrack, as well as armed with leads as to what to look for in terms of theme, I found FOUR FLIES somewhat more enjoyable... and I also came up with some ideas of my own. Argento's next picture, Le cinque giornate, an historical comedy, broke from the giallo mold that brought him fame, and I believe he was already showing signs of restlnessness here. FOUR FLIES is a kind of anti-giallo: the prog-rock musician hero (Michael Brandon), who lives on Via Fritz Lang (!), believes himself to be a murderer, which causes him to keep his distance from the authorities. Consequently, this is that rare giallo without any kind of ongoing police investigation; instead, Brandon finds his answers internally, by probing his dreams and by talking with God -- his friend Godfrey, that is, played by Bud Spencer. The mystery is ultimately solved and the film's title are explained in a single, far-fetched stroke, as the Italian police remove the eye of a murder victim, hook it up to some sort of nonexistent machine, and read the last image imprinted on its retina by death. At the time of the film's release, Argento insisted that such a machine was being used by some progressive police departments, but he surely stole the idea from the old Universal sci-fi/horror film, THE INVISIBLE RAY (1936).
Because of his essential passivity (not to mention his inability as a rock drummer to maintain any kind of beat or rhythm), Brandon is easily the least interesting of Argento's heroes; the movie comes to life most enjoyably when it redirects its attention to gay private detective Gianni Arrioso (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who defends his ability to solve the case by citing his formidable track record of having never solved a case before -- 84 unsolved cases, ergo he's due to solve one imminently! Arrioso's flitty, touchy-feely investigation is dated and stereotypical but also affectionate, and the scene in which he runs afowl of a hypodermic loaded with some kind of luminous blue poison that exists only in the Argento apothecary (found in the same outré universe as the Argento library and Argento airport) is surprisingly poignant. Mimsy Farmer plays Brandon's wife with the brand of porcelain calm and bared electric wiring that is her trademark; when she is revealed as the puppet-master behind her husband's carefully engineered torment (I'm not revealing anything here that wasn't revealed in the movie's stills set), she's as convincing a psychopath as Argento ever showcased. McDonagh's book reveals that FOUR FLIES was the only one of Argento's films in which the director did not stand in for his killer; she surmises that this is because Brandon's resemblance to the director satisfied his narcissistic needs, but I can well imagine the white-coiffed Ms. Farmer flashing her clenched teeth at Argento the moment he got too near her black gloves and sending him cowering to the nearest corner.
So why don't we have FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET on DVD yet? Is Argento suppressing it? Is Paramount unaware that they have it? Does Paramount still have it? I don't have the answers to these questions, but though I've already watched it twice in the past week, I'd eagerly give a definitive presentation a go if such a disc was released tomorrow. Until that day comes, those of us who wait are all hapless Argento heroes, straining toward the perfect recollection of an image just beyond our grasp.
Thursday, March 02, 2006
The cover art is both handsome and peculiar. What looks like the thin white outlining of Kieslowski's name on the accompanying illustration is actually transparent; the letters are glossy and stand out against the matte finish of the packaging. As you can see, Irène Jacob looks surprisingly unlike herself in the cover photo (which I've never seen before); she looks rather like Nastassja Kinski. The set is elegantly packaged in a slip case, from which a wallet-like insert slides out, which opens to reveal a menu enclosure and the two discs, one featuring the film and the other consisting of extras. As you slip the wallet out (a tight fit), the first thing you see is a handsome sheet of dark card stock resting on top of it; the card has a tall window cut out of it, which exposes a strip of 35mm film -- six frames worth -- a piece of the film itself. The card is numbered, one in a limited edition of 20,000.
My card bears the richly-doubled number of 4488 and I recognized the scene immediately as I held the film strip up to light. I was initially disappointed to find that it wasn't an image of the luminous Ms. Jacob, but then I realized it was something even more precious. It was my luck of the draw to receive the shot from Weronika's (Véronique's Polish doppelgänger) point of view as she suffers her heart attack onstage, moments into her first and only professional vocal performance, as she sees the conductor (Aleksander Bardini) giving her cue. It's the moment when her zenith of achievement is touched by the moment of her death. I feel like whomever ordered THE STANLEY KUBRICK ARCHIVES book and got the section of 2001 film strip that showed the femur turning into the spaceship.
So I count my lucky stars. After all, I could have received six frames of the pedestrian who opens his overcoat and flashes her.