Monday, February 01, 2016

Captain High At Your Service: RIP Paul Kantner (1941-2016)

The story goes that Cincinnati-born Martyn Buchwald, sporting the name Marty Balin as he closed out his days as a member of the Bay Area folk combo The Town Criers, began to spot members for his next band - not on chops, but on looks. As in, "You look like a drummer; I want you to be in my band" - which is how guitarist Alexander "Skip Spence (later of Moby Grape) ended up playing the drums on the first Jefferson Airplane album. Marty found his second-in-command during an open mike night at a local club when a shaggy, bifocaled folkie in a cap ambled onstage, tuned for an eternity, looked out at the conversing crowd and said "I'm sorry, I can't do this." That overachiever turned out to be Paul Lorin Kantner, who went from this inauspicious moment to confirm Balin's instincts, by becoming his chief songwriting partner, 12-string rhythm guitarist, and ultimately the visionary responsible for determining the group's overall sound and identity. It was Paul, for instance, inspired by the example of Ronnie Gilbert of The Weavers, who determined that this group of theirs needed the egalitarian touch of a woman's voice. The first woman to sing with Jefferson Airplane was Signe Toly Anderson, who, some 50 years later, would die on the same day as Paul - January 28, 2016 - at the same age of 74. Underscoring the curiosities of the flow of time are the facts that these two Jeffersonian deaths took place on the same calendar date as that of the group's namesake, Thomas Jefferson, and that Jefferson Airplane itself officially disbanded in 19... 74. Well, it didn't so much disband as metamorphose into Paul's next stage of the band, Jefferson Starship. And it was in that same year that the last (pre-1989 reunion) Jefferson Airplane album was released, EARLY FLIGHT, which featured the belated release of a previously unissued track by the Signe-fronted band, Judy Henske's "High Flying Bird," which finds Paul and Signe harmonizing on the chorus, "I've got the sit down, can't cry, oh-Lord-I'm-gonna-die blues."

The beautiful symmetry of it all complements that of David Bowie's recent death, but that's not where the parallels end. Kantner, like Bowie, was rock music's original science fiction buff. A long-time buff of writers like Heinlein, Sturgeon and John Wyndham, Kantner saw the burgeoning otherness of his generation in the 1960s as akin to the rise of the Midwich Cuckoos in Wyndham's novel of that same name, better known by the title of the films based on it, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. Kantner had been audacious on record from the get-go, with a few of his compositions and co-compositions for the first album, JEFFERSON AIRPLANE TAKES OFF, being singled out for RCA label censorship. "Let Me In" was a tense monologue directed to a tease who ultimately offered to open up in exchange for money, while "Run Around" painted a somewhat psychedelic picture of public fornication in a park. Both songs had to be rerecorded when the original pressing was temporarily pulled off the market. There was not too much to argue about with the second album, SURREALISTIC PILLOW, which introduced The Great Society's Grace Slick as the Airplane's new female singer; they willingly edited the line "but in bed, baby, I'm afraid you don't know where it is" to "but inside your head, I'm afraid you don't know where it is" to engage with the Top 40 - and continued to sing the line as written in live performance whenever the mood struck. It was with the third album, the joyously experimental AFTER BATHING AT BAXTERS, that Kantner seemed to take directional charge of the band - as he told his record label, who were uncertain of a new album with so little Grace Slick on it, "We've had our hits, and now our audience will take whatever we give them." He knew then what it took Hollywood film directors another 20-30 years to find out, that it's precisely in the shadow of a huge success that one should experiment, when an audience is guaranteed.

BAXTERS opens with a sustained barrage of psychedelic feedback that represents a kind of bomb going off, triggering mutations - as indeed had happened, figuratively, as folk and rock became folk-rock. Kantner conceived of a mutant character named Pooneil, composed of equal parts his childhood hero Winnie the Pooh and his adult hero Fred Neil, and wove an extended song around both their influences, freely quoting from A.A. Milne in "the folk tradition" put forth by folk artists like Neil. The album ended with a surprising anthem for what Kantner estimated to be "about two weeks in time when things were perfect", which Madison Avenue extended into an entire "Summer of Love." "Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon" was, much like the opening "The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil", a mind-boggling suite of shifting time-signatures that achieved a seemingly effortless balance, and the lyrics were largely taken - again, in "the folk tradition" - from an account of the first San Francisco Be-In written for THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE by their resident critic (and an early champion of Jefferson Airplane), Ralph J. Gleason.

The next album CROWN OF CREATION, released in 1968, reflected its times by showing how sternly divisive they were, relegating all the ballads to Side One and the more upbeat numbers to Side Two, and the cover graphics made explicit the Wyndham mutation aspect of Kantner's concept of the Airplane by showing their blurring figures driven aloft by the fiery mushroom cloud at Hiroshima. The illustration of the Airplane as post-war generation was made explicit, as was the current war tensions of the time. The album ended with "The House at Pooneil Corners," a frankly terrifying inversion of "The Ballad"'s utopian introspections. Robert Kennedy dead, Nixon bound for the White House, the draft claiming the futures of countless young whether they died or survived Vietnam - it's all there in a song that shockingly prefigures the brand of "death of the universe" rock that King Crimson would make their own the following year. The Airplane's last great album, VOLUNTEERS, released in 1969, was an openly political response to highly charged political times, packaged to look like an underground newspaper with someone's lunch inside. The album included three of Kantner's greatest songs, "We Can Be Together", "Volunteers" (co-written with Balin) and "Wooden Ships" (co-written with David Crosby and Stephen Stills). The latter, also included with a different arrangement on the first CROSBY STILLS & NASH album, was the first of Kantner's escapist science-fiction scenarios - a field he would explore more definitively on his two "solo" albums (heavily buttressed with guest musician help), the Hugo Award-nominated BLOWS AGAINST THE EMPIRE and PLANET EARTH ROCK & ROLL ORCHESTRA.

I could go on in this vein, but this is just history and what I feel on the occasion of Paul Kantner's passing is powerfully personal. We probably all can admit to at least one, but Jefferson Airplane is the band, the band idea, the band alchemy that has most obsessed me, since I first discovered them in 1969. It was the experience of hearing VOLUNTEERS, at the age of 13, the first album I ever heard with six-minute songs, in a stereo image as deep and complex as it was wide, that weaned me permanently away from a Top 40 orientation - and when I first saw the Airplane in action, on a television special called GO RIDE THE MUSIC, the extreme difference of the studio version of "We Can Be Together" (primarily acoustic, with prominent guest piano by Nicky Hopkins) to the special's live-in-the-studio version (with Kantner playing his 12-string Rickenbacker electric with what I can only describe as courtly majesty) was so striking that I became a lifelong devotee of what were then called bootleg tapes. Over the decades, I've collected close to a couple hundred hours of live Airplane shows alone, and I am here to tell you that the original lineup - with Jorma Kaukonen on lead, Jack Casady on bass, and their brilliantly spontaneous jazz-forged drummer Spencer Dryden - never played a song the same way twice. As a live unit, they were highly unpredictable, explosive, galvanizing, sometimes coming very close to flying off in too many directions, and I have always found that aspect of their chemistry spellbinding. What underscores Paul Kantner's particular value to them is that, when you hear a Grace Slick composition on record, the band basically accompany her - and I would say the same is true of a Marty Balin or Jorma Kaukonen song. But Paul Kantner's songs somehow belong to all of the members; he understood their three-part harmonies, the particular dynamics of their instrumental interplay, and he composed songs that allowed them to shine as a single personality. My favorite example of this is "Alexander the Medium" from 1972's LONG JOHN SILVER album, a song that often brings tears of appreciation to my eyes; another is a song appropriate to this occasion, "Your Mind Has Left Your Body" from the Kantner/Slick/Freiberg album BARON VON TOLLBOOTH AND THE CHROME NUN - which captures the entire Airplane lineup as it then existed and adds some truly celestial Jerry Garcia steel guitar to the mix.

I met Paul Kantner once, backstage at the RKO Albee Theater (where I would meet Donna later in that same year of 1974), and spent about 15 minutes talking with him and Grace; I had heard stories about how difficult he could be, but they were both very kind and generous - in fact, Paul briefly disappeared and came back with some other people, asking me "You don't mind sharing, do you?" I smiled because - as Grace (the mother of his first child, China) had once noted in an interview - that whole childhood thing of being together and sharing was an important facet of who he was, in life and in song. I also saw him once more when he brought his Jefferson Starship to Cincinnati's Bogarts in 1993, with Jack Casady, Papa John Creach and Signe Anderson Ettlin in tow. Signe left the tour not long after, due to some health problem or other, and to be honest, she was not in good voice on that occasion, but I feel very fortunate to have seen them play together. I have a particularly vivid memory of Papa John's solo performances that night, especially a version of "Over the Rainbow" that he seemed to be personally addressing to Donna (it's one of her favorite songs), which Kantner watched while sitting in the wings, with an air of pride and nostalgia as he smoked cigarette after cigarette. We also exchanged a few emails over the years, and fired comments back and forth on one or another of the Jefferson Airplane newsgroups when we were both active there. In one of mine, I responded to a call for requests by proposing that the band try adding the Grateful Dead's "Dark Star" to the "Blows Against the Empire Suite" and I was honored when the next round of set lists showed that Paul had incorporated my suggestion.

He was a utopian dystopian, an anarchistic organizer, a curmudgeonly open heart, unwilling to take anybody's shit and a day early in dishing it out - and all these contradictions held court behind a strumming arm that played riffs as rallying as any in rock. I owe him a great debt, not only for a stack of albums that have guided me through a lifetime, but for helping to shape the person I've become - artistically, spiritually, and politically. And therein lies the power and the value of song.

First Look: VIDEO WATCHDOG 182

It flames its way to subscribers on February 15, and should arrive in bookstores by March 6. Available to preorder now. For a Free Preview of select contents, click here.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Blue-Eyed Ambition: FROM THE TERRACE (1960)

There is a moment in Mark Robson's FROM THE TERRACE, the moment that gave John O'Hara's novel its name, when its protagonist Alfred Eaton (Paul Newman) first glimpses Mary St. John (Joanne Woodward) dancing on a terrace at a posh party in 1948. It's the moment that steers his life down an unhappy path, as can happen with any roll of the dice preceding a first "hello", but in this case it is a decision linked to other decisions in the mind of this homecoming ex-soldier. The scion of a well-to-do but otherwise direly unhappy Philadelphia family, he determines to pursue great wealth and power and all its trappings, mostly to justify himself in the presence of a domineering father (career-best work from Leon Ames). He's several years away from achieving his ambitions, but fitting into his plans with more immediacy than anything else is this St. John woman, with her high society ways and Joi Lansing platinum blonde hair. When Alfred sees her, as you can see here, Newman's blue eyes earn their legendary status in a full-on, double-barreled bore of Technicolor. (Ironically, those beautiful eyes were themselves color-blind.) Robson and his cameraman Leo Tover prepare us for this moment, and help it to resonate, by limning virtually every shot in the picture with the exact same shade of blue. When Alfred and Mary share their first dance - he brazenly taps the shoulder of her sardonic psychiatrist fiance (Patrick O'Neal) - it's hate at first sight, but the kind of hate that is commonly mistaken for passion.

The sex, we intuit, was good - at least for Mary, who spends the rest of the film longing for it, as Alfred continues to focus his potency on career. For a film of its period, even for a film of its kind - this is, unabashedly, one of those schmaltzy romantic dramas for which 20th Century Fox was almost uniquely known - FROM THE TERRACE is remarkably frank about the female sexual drive, which also extends to Alfred's own mother (Myrna Loy), whose search for satisfaction has led her into a middle-aged affair and alcoholism. Much as Alfred had to join the military to escape his family, he flees his wife's rightful itch by taking longer and longer field trips for his company, until one such trip takes him for an extended time to a mining town in Philadelphia, where he becomes acquainted with a man, a family, and a daughter (Ina Balin - frankly, insufficient casting) whose examples show him everything of human substance that his life has been missing. Meanwhile, back at home, Mary embarks on an affair with her former fiancé, only to discover that love really had nothing to do with their attraction to one another. When she raises the question of possible marriage in their love nest, her swain's reaction to the word is so contrary that one wonders in retrospect why they had ever been engaged in the first place.

At two hours and twenty minutes, FROM THE TERRACE is long for a picture of its type, but screenwriter Ernest Lehman (SABRINA, THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS) applies that time to the sensitive unknotting of some unusually adult problems. It also takes the trouble to define some adult problems overlooked by 99% of other movies, particularly when Alfred's boss MacHardie (excellent work by THE MUMMY's Felix Aylmer) explains to his intense young executive that marriage is, above all, a contract; that businessmen are judged by their ability to honor their contracts; and that, from this perspective, infidelity is a lesser evil than divorce, though neither is excusable. MacHardie's logic is hardline and difficult to contest, but Alfred realizes that his decision to abide by it had less to do with honoring his agreements than with selfish ambition, which is demonstrated in time to bring out the worst in people - especially one's competitors - and soil all quality of life.

FROM THE TERRACE is now available from Screen Archive Entertainment as a limited edition Blu-ray disc from Twilight Time, sporting a sumptuous new 4K transfer (remarkable to think that Newman went on to cement his stardom with a string of black-and-white films like THE HUSTLER and HUD) with an isolated music track for a rather hectoring score by Elmer Bernstein.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Facing the Strange: David Bowie (1947-2016)

David Bowie in Nicolas Roeg's THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH.
Last Friday, as we all know, was David Bowie's 69th birthday. I had family plans that night, but the next day, I decided to spend some of my work day tapping my foot along to various favorite Bowie recordings. I listened to tracks from DIAMOND DOGS, STATION TO STATION and OUTSIDE, but chose not to listen to BLACKSTAR - just released the previous day - because I had work to do and knew that its unfamiliarity would tempt my attention away from where it ought to be focused. It deserved my full attention.

In the midst of my work day on Sunday, I couldn't find anything else I wanted to listen to, and because it was being hyped as a "jazz" album, which I find very easy to work to, I listened to BLACKSTAR for the first time, while editing reviews for VIDEO WATCHDOG 182 - perhaps as David Bowie himself  was breathing his last, or preparing to, somewhere in New York. I posted a Facebook note of my initial response to the album - saying, in effect, that while I thought it was a very good album indeed, knowing myself, whenever I felt in the mood for that kind of music in the future, I'd likely "turn to something by Scott Walker for the full dose." (One of my FB friends replied that he didn't think Mr. Bowie would begrudge me that option, and I agreed.) I subsequently broke for dinner, watched the restored version of Orson Welles' TOUCH OF EVIL to unwind, and then - feeling slightly unwell, with a sudden, bone-penetrating chill - came back upstairs in the early hours of Monday to the news that Bowie had died.

Naturally, I removed what I had posted on my wall about BLACKSTAR - not because I was ashamed of what I'd written, but because the album was suddenly available to a whole other context than was previously apparent. The album I'd heard while editing those pages of the magazine no longer existed. I am terribly grateful that I found time to listen to it when Bowie was, so far as I knew or know, still among us - that brief period of time when it was just new music.

The news of his death came as a great shock, particularly in the wake of his hit Broadway play, the new album, his birthday. I got very ill - some kind of stomach virus - and spent most of the next two days in bed, unconscious, unable to eat. I remember having a series of "either/or" dreams, in which I was shown things twice and had to come to a quick opinion of them. One of these was a bonus feature length film included as an extra on a DVD. The film consisted of a few unused scenes with the main feature's name actors, assembled together with other fractured, random material. The question posed to me was, Is this film a piece of opportunistic, consumer-milking, crackpot fakery, or is it a genuine work of art? The question was always posed to me with life or death urgency - as it should, if you're any kind of disciple of David Bowie.

I couldn't eat, I couldn't sit upright for very long, and I found it almost toxic to lie abed in the dark, scrolling past the endless repetitions and regurgitations of Bowie's death notices on my Facebook news feed. In those threads I was exposed again and again to a universal sadness and growing sense of despair, because Bowie was (it's hard to say "had been" this soon) more than an artist; he was barometer and avatar, especially to those of us who had followed him since the 1970s. Bowie is gone, where is gravity now? Of course, this is an exaggeration of feeling, an hysteria, a derangement, but what did Bowie ever represent if not an invitation to derangement? I soon found myself pecking out words in the dark, half-awake, lifting myself out of my own feverish delirium, as it were, to put this enormous cultural disturbance into perspective:

Perhaps the best we can say of any artist is that they took something familiar and made something new out of it, or made us aware of something new about or within it. Turn and face the strange. David Bowie had the almost unique ability to make experimentalism chic. Having established himself as rock's most inspired and inspiring front man, he went on tour with Iggy Pop as an unbilled piano player. One or two of his most revered albums are half-instrumental. He sold out. He retired. He came back to give us two outstanding albums recorded in absolute secrecy. And now his death lends unsuspected definition to BLACKSTAR and its video "Lazarus," an album released on his birthday, when he reached the age of yin and yang, 69, the year incidentally of his breakthrough recording. He always said that his adopted name was a truism for life, because the blade of the Bowie knife is double sided; it cuts both ways. So the symmetry of his exit is astonishing. Also, above and beyond music, we must remember that he turned us to face the strange in ourselves; he represented what was alien within us as individuals and as a society, and made it glamorous. His example - performance art or not, it doesn't matter - helped countless young people to embrace within themselves what parents, peers and priests told them was wrong. He entertained us, redefined us, gave us our most valid points of artistic reference, and he pointed the way to what was next for decades - and now, without him, we once again face the strange. What would Bowie do with that opportunity? What will you?

For an artist as identified with life and vitality as David Bowie, his entire career was veined with melancholy, loss, death, even apocalypse. "Space Oddity" is a paen to isolation from all that is familiar, all that one holds dear. "Memory of a Free Festival" recollects a day when the world seemed at its best, now gone. "Letter to Hermione" is addressed to an unsustainable love. The "Savior Machine" is the story of a failure, "The Supermen" are not; they die. ZIGGY STARDUST itself is a tragedy set on the cusp of a preordained apocalypse, when a new messiah appears and must fulfill his destiny to be martyred. Even the ineffable pleasure of being embraced by "Lady Grinning Soul" will be "your living end." DIAMOND DOGS, his darkest and most dystopian work, thwarts the tradition of the bracing opening track with "... and in the death," and gets darker from there, facets of it telling the Orwellian story of a search for love and meaning in a world where politics have stifled all truth and beauty. What I am getting at here is that death has always been present with Bowie - "because of all we've seen, because of all we've said." BLACKSTAR is really the endgame of a conversation that Bowie has been having with us for decades. Without these bleak songs in minor keys, without the wistful ghostliness of "After All" or "The Bewlay Brothers", without the instrumental tug of war between exaltation and tragedy in "Life On Mars", Bowie would have been a far less meaningful artist. We mourn his loss not because he was upbeat with "The Jean Genie" and "Let's Dance", but because he dared to use the pop milieu to address us on a deeper level - "now we can talk in confidence" - because he had the vision and artistic empathy to remain with us not only during the teenage misadventures, the parties, but after the parties were all over, in the wastelands, in the car wrecks, in the bereavements, and now even in the hospital beds, in Heaven itself, when so many others will have deserted us. "You're not alone. Give me your hands."

I haven't mentioned this, but when I was still a teenager and starting to write fiction, I took a lot of inspiration from Bowie's writing. I knew he was using Burroughs' cut-up techniques but what he was getting out of it worked better for me than Burroughs. When I wrote my first attempt at a novel - it was called THE AUDIENCE BECOMES FLESH (pre-Cronenberg, mind you), based on dreams - songs like "The Bewlay Brothers" and much of DIAMOND DOGS were like guiding stars to me. So, in my earliest days, he was as important to me as an example as any literary mentor because I really had not read that much at that time. I'm sure there must have been hundreds of other young people whom he inspired to express themselves artistically. There is no way around it - his death is a seismic shock. I've been finding myself thinking about how keyed into new technologies he always was, and thinking that anything new that comes along now will be "post-Bowie." What comes along next will be the tools he never used. I don't like the way this dates him. But he now has a beginning and an end, and he is an immense bloom pressed between the pages of time.

A personal note (as if this whole blog entry hasn't been!): Back in 1977, when I first heard that Elvis Presley died, I literally screamed - my reaction to the news was so primal, so hysterical, that it took even me aback. With Bowie, I'll always remember that I got mysteriously very ill and took to my bed for a few days, sleeping through the aftermath, reviving now and again to write little Facebook essays that might have needed far more editing had I written them when I was well.

As one of many Facebook tributaries has written about Bowie in the past days (my apologies for not taking note of their name), there are certain people whom we mourn deeply not because we knew them well, but because of how well they helped us to know ourselves. I daresay that, for many of us, few deaths in our lifetime will have this effect - and therein lies the proof of Bowie's most important creation.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Goodbye 2015!

2015 was a difficult year for Donna and me, but I'm glad to say we survived it. I shouldn't accentuate the negative because the year was not without its highlights, its pleasures or its blessings. Top of the list would be that afternoon at the HorrorHound convention last March when I got more hugs from the Soska Sisters than I could count!

This was also a big year for personal accomplishments - I wrote the longest chapter for Neil Snowdon's WE ARE THE MARTIANS: THE LEGACY OF NIGEL KNEALE (a book still forthcoming), about the screenwriter's neglected literary career, I also wrote some entries for Marcelline Block's French film encyclopedia (still in the works); I was invited to join the Board of Directors behind Huston Huddleston's Hollywood Horror Museum project; and the record shows that I provided nine (9!) different audio commentaries for different Blu-ray releases this year, with another four (4!) still awaiting release - five, if you acknowledge that VALENTINO is coming out from two different companies on either side of the Atlantic. So this was an extremely busy year for me, though my time was ultimately more addressed to side projects than than to what is mine - which is, frankly, something I need to change. Mind you, I still managed to do all that we were able to do with VIDEO WATCHDOG, and the issues we produced this year - if anything - continued to exceed our usual high standards. I wrote nearly 60 new entries for this blog.

On a more personal note, Donna and I had to bid a sad farewell to our beloved Blabber (aka Mr Blab), who succumbed to renal failure at the ripe old age of 18 - and then, in one of those blessings I mentioned, Janie came to live with us, sitting on my chest and tummy every day to be adored and always taking her leave with such sudden, unpredictable force that I now carry a red, haphazard tic-tac-toe grid on my abdomen.

Next year is already looking better and giving rise to certain hopes, but I can't talk about that yet. My resolution for 2016 is to try to better address my own projects, my own needs, my own life, and my own health. Happy New Year to all of you who have followed this blog over the past 10 years! Celebrate responsibly this evening, and stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

First Look: VIDEO WATCHDOG 181 - in stores January 15!

... and shipping to subscribers NOW.

Read more about it here.

Wishing You A Happy Video Christmas

Last night, rather than watch another Christmas movie we've seen at least a dozen times, Donna and I turned to Hulu and watched a few Christmas episodes of some classic television series that we hadn't seen. It turned out to be a good idea. 
The two highlights were both titled "The Christmas Story." The first was a first season episode of FATHER KNOWS BEST and found the Anderson family indulging Father's whim by driving out to the country to chop down their own Christmas tree, the old-fashioned way. They run into bad weather and must prevail on the hospitality of a kindly old bearded fellow named Nick, who's living in the log cabin they find there. Nick is played by Wallace Ford (FREAKS, Babe Hanson of the MUMMY movies!), who gives a wonderful performance as the stranger who reminds the Andersons of what Christmas is really all about. We also watched another FKB holiday episode called "The Angel's Sweater," which I found less winning but it did have little Kitten (Lauren Chapin, so sweet in the first season) showing off some newly-acquired phrases like "Oh, turn blue!"

Then there was a Christmas episode of LASSIE, in which the heroic collie is hit by a truck while pushing a three-year-old out of the path of certain death. The Martin family and Doc Weaver dote over Lassie, who needs a very risky brain operation to resume her normal functions, which is eventually performed by a specialist on the Martins' own kitchen table as a group of children stand outside with their pets, with an interested newspaper reporter, and the mother whose child ran out in the street, to accompany the surgery with carols. Considering how many more episodes there were, would it really be a spoiler if I told you that Lassie not only survives, but is able to walk outside with her head in a sling to bark them all her thanks for coming out? The episode was directed by Don Taylor, of all people - the former star of NAKED CITY (the movie), the future husband of Hazel Court, and the future director of ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, DAMIEN: OMEN II and THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU.
As we head once again into the year-end holidays, Donna and I both want to thank everyone for their continued support of our ventures here at VIDEO WATCHDOG. A new issue will be wending its way to you very soon, so stay tuned to this page for your traditional "First Look."

Friday, December 18, 2015

VW's Favorite Blu-ray Discs of 2015 - Editor's Choice

Simon MacCorkindale and John Mills in QUATERMASS.
The following should not be mistaken for a list of my favorite films of 2015. Frankly, I didn't see enough new movies this past year to compile a proper list - I liked a few well enough, but the best films I saw this year were all vintage titles; the best film I saw in 2015 for the first time was probably Monte Hellman's THE SHOOTING (1966), which - with its companion feature RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND - was the subject of an excellent Criterion package late last year.

Therein lies the trouble with assembling these annual lists. The new list is always undone by one's attempts to catch up with what was missed last year, or last year's late arrivals, not to mention the intensified need to keep up with television, where more and more quality viewing tends to surface. (I racked up close to 40 individual seasons of different television series this past year.) My viewing this year was also somewhat stalled by the amount of audio commentary work I took on, which required me to watch close to a dozen different films several, several times.

So, this may not be a definitive list, but for now, it's mine. If there's something blatantly missing from my list, it's possible that I simply haven't seen it.

This year, because there were so many, and because the issues of film restoration and preservation should always be at the heart of what VIDEO WATCHDOG endorses, I am going to restrict my Top 10 (my list worked out to exactly 10) to those releases which embody the most important digital restorations of the year. This list is then followed by some other notable releases of this past year. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have orange bolded those titles which feature audio commentaries of mine. I'll comment on these as inspiration strikes.


FAVORITE RESTORATIONS (in order of preference)

     Hands down, this dual presentation of Nigel Kneale's final Quatermass teleplay in its four-hour miniseries and two-hour feature (THE QUATERMASS CONCLUSION) versions are the most radically improved digital restorations of the year - and the competition was intense.

BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, Arrow Films and Video (UK)
     This breathtaking 2K restoration is the most beautiful testament to the genius of Mario Bava to date.

     The closest thing we're likely to see to a proper box set of Roger Corman's Poe Cycle, missing only THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, but pairing state-of-the-art restorations of the remaining half-dozen with the best-available scholarly commentary in spoken and written form.

KWAIDAN, Criterion
     Masaki Kobayashi's masterful ghost story anthology has always looked sumptuous on home video, but this latest release adds glassiness, increased depth and more pregnant color to intoxicating effect. 

     Filmed with a deliberately hazy look, giving it the appearance of a story dredged up from the subconscious, Walerian Borowczyk's wicked masterpiece must have been a devil of a job to restore digitally. The job has been done to perfection and - for the first time - is completely uncut.

     If you've bought this title before - even if you've bought this title on Blu-ray before - you need to buy it again. 4K restoration, and it shows. This beloved Jules Verne adventure has never looked or sounded better, not even on the big screen.

     This collection cherry-picks for sterling preservation a number of the most essential experimental short films of the 20th century. Not all the contents are of equal value or improvement, but some titles here are revelatory and the validity of the project is unassailable. 

HOUSE OF BAMBOO, Twilight Time
     Another 4K 20th Century Fox restoration, and presented for the first time on home video in its original 2.55:1 screen ratio. A must see for the sheer shock value of its storytelling, its use of compositions in-depth, and its preservation of a Japan that no longer exists. 

IN COLD BLOOD, Criterion
     This is another 4K restoration but what it really sells is cinematographer Conrad Hall's penetrating use of black. And the 5.1 remix of Quincy Jones' abrasive, slippery, finger-popping jazz score is a powerhouse.

     A Bryanston Pictures double feature from 1974 restored to a luster it couldn't have had on Deuce and drive-in screens back in 1974. with Andy Milligan's BLOOD the beneficiary of almost 10 minutes of never-before-seen footage.

Yul Brynner in KINGS OF THE SUN.

OTHER FAVORITES (in alphabetical order)


     The AIP version of Mario Bava's anthology horror classic, available in the States for the first time since its laserdisc bow and appreciably better-looking than the greenish Arrow Video release. For the record, this disc also includes a brand-new audio commentary by me, different to the one I recorded for the Italian version a decade ago.

EATEN ALIVE, Arrow Films and Video
     One of my favorite Tobe Hooper films, filmed with so much atmospheric fog, haze and harsh color lighting that it must have been a particular challenge for the restoration team. Like seeing the film for the first time in some ways, and buttressed with the usual wealth of extras for which Arrow is reknowned.




JE T'AIME, JE T'AIME, Kino Lorber
     For many years almost impossible to see, Alain Resnais' French time travel opus - more LA JETÉE than SOMEWHERE IN TIME - is now the American science fiction disc of the year, in my opinion. Also - as it is presented here, with bonus content related to screenwriter Jacques Sternberg - an important testament to an important national chapter in science fiction cinema generally overlooked in English language histories.

     This was a new discovery for me, but more than anything else I saw this year for the first time, it made me feel like I was enthralled in a third row seat at a kiddie matinee. With Leo Gordon as a Mayan warrior!



     With the extended Italian export cut of the main feature (THE NIGHT OF THE DOOMED) and bonus Barbara Steele features CASTLE OF BLOOD and TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE, this is a generous package and a rich immersion in the Golden Age of Italian Fantasy. 



     A beautifully glossy disc, and the isolated music tracks make this one particularly appetizing for us jazz men.



      Ted McCord's black-and-white widescreen photography on this one blew me away. An unexpected Blu-ray of tremendous visual force, particularly recommended for those who mourn the old New York.

VIDEODROME, Arrow Films and Video
     A movie that continues to reveal itself, and ourselves, to us as our society continues to mutate - and this deluxe set, with its bonus disc of short films, is the ultimate Cronenberg feast.

VOODOO MAN, Olive Films
     Frankly, this is here as a sentimental favorite only. The film is intact but the restoration has taken all the whites out of the picture, dulling its veneer. This is the only time I'll say this on this list: save a few bucks and go with the DVD. 

     This Basil Dearden thriller came as a real surprise to me. From its advertising, I had always assumed this to be a torrid romance picture, but it's a Hitchcockian thriller on par with, or better than, the work that Hitch himself was turning out during this troubled mid-1960s period. With Gina Lollobrigida, Ralph Richardson and Sean Connery, caught between his second and third Bond pictures and looking supernaturally handsome.
"X" - THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES, Kino Lorber

Keep watching this entry in the days ahead, as I'm going to try my best to add a few more worthy titles before Christmas hits.

Monday, November 30, 2015

RIP Carolyne Barry aka Carole Shelyne (1943 - 2015)

It was a great gimmick.

It had certainly worked for Harold Lloyd, and indeed for Clark Kent - just a pair of round horn-rimmed glasses.

In the early 1960s, a 21 year-old Brooklyn-born dancer named Carole Stuppler was hired to become one of the dancers on ABC-TV's SHINDIG. She put on a pair of round horn-rimmed glasses, changed her name to Carole Shelyne (pronounced "she-lin"), and danced her little heart out. I suppose the glasses (which were lens-less, like the ones Phil Silvers wore - so they wouldn't reflect studio lights) could have been a further change of identity to protect her privacy, like her name change, but they also helped her to stand out. The Shindig dancers - which included Teri Garr, Anita Mann, Pam Freeman, Brenda Benet and the curiously named Maria Ghava - were all accomplished go-go spirits, but regardless of the choreography, the eye was somehow always drawn to those glasses. At least mine was. I was eight when SHINDIG premiered in 1964, and suddenly going on 12, thanks to this vision of perky kookiness calling herself Carole Shelyne.

She was an early crush of mine, and I just learned the other day that she died last June, at the age of 71. 

The IMDb credits Carolyne Barry - the name she eventually settled on - with appearing on 45 episodes of SHINDIG between 1964 and 1965. On one of those episodes, she stepped into the spotlight to perform a song from a novelty single she had just recorded for Liberty Records, "The Girl With the Horn-Rimmed Glasses." It had even better B-side called "Boys Do Make Passes At Girls Who Wear Glasses," written by the songwriting team of Guy Hemric and Jerry Styner, whose astonishing list of credits include numerous songs for AIP movies, including all the BEACH PARTY pictures, both DR GOLDFOOT pictures, WILD IN THE STREETS and GODZILLA VS THE SMOG MONSTER ("Save The Earth")!

Hemric-Styner also wrote a song called "These Are the Good Times," which Frankie Avalon performed on THE PATTY DUKE SHOW - where Carole followed a MR NOVAK dramatic debut ("Beat the Ploughshare, Edge the Sword") with a special guest performance in an episode called "Patty's Private Pygmalion." Here, sporting the familiar round specs, she played a high school wallflower named Marcia, whom the outgoing Patty Lane grooms to become so popular that she ends up losing her own date to her. The performance that Carole gave here was surprisingly vulnerable and poignant, while also showing unsuspected range in the opposite direction, and the script by Arnold Horwitt (whom I'm surprised to see also wrote one of my favorite GREEN ACRES episodes, "The Case of the Hooterville Refund Fraud") ventured some surprisingly candid comments about teenage jealousy. When people look back on THE PATTY DUKE SHOW, this is one of the episodes they typically remember.

But it was Carole's performance as Marvin (yes, Marvin) in the 1966 spy-beach spoof OUT OF SIGHT that really got to me. If the BEACH PARTY movies were like MAD magazine, OUT OF SIGHT is like those oddball DC Comics comedy titles like ANGEL AND THE APE or THE INFERIOR FIVE, and it has a consistently great score produced by Nick Venet and anonymously played by the famous Wrecking Crew, with guest musical appearances by Gary Lewis and the Playboys, The Turtles, The Astronauts, Dobie Gray and The Knickerbockers. The songs are fantastic. Directed by Lennie Weinrib (one of the constables who investigate Peter Lorre's cellar in TALES OF TERROR, and later the voice of H.R. Pufnstuf himself) and scripted by future LAUGH-IN cast member Larry Hovis, it's a vehicle for a young comic actor named Jonathan Daly, a charming composite of Robert Vaughn, Jerry Lewis and Nancy Kulp. Daly plays Homer, the hapless, envious butler of top secret agent John Stamp, who poses as his absent boss to disrupt the plan of Russian spy Big D (John Lawrence) to destroy all teenagers - because all their "yeah yeah yeah" nonsense annoys him. Marvin is a bespectacled wallflower of a girl who gloms onto Homer as her date for the festival Big D is sponsoring to lure the biggest of all British long-haired bands to their destruction. "He's just my type - a BOY!" she gushes. As the movie continues, we realize that it doesn't really have the Beatles in store; the biggest British long-haired band is Freddie and the Dreamers! (Unless you're watching the band in performance from behind them - then they become stock footage of the Beatles!) Anyway, I loved it when I first saw it in December 1966 and I still do.

On the night I learned of Carole's passing, I pulled out my trusty DVD-R copy of OUT OF SIGHT - recorded from AMC during that wonderful period when they were gearing up for that too-good-to-be-true "American Pop" spin-off channel that never happened - and watched it as my candlelight vigil. She's in the film somewhat less than I remembered, but in the course of its madcap 87 minutes, she has two lines that I imagine imprinted themselves on me deeply. At the end of the film, Marvin reveals that she has seen through Homer's disguise from the very beginning, and when he asks how she possibly did this, she deadpans, "I read a lot." Well. Four words straight to my heart. Secondly, as she explains her liking for Homer twice in the movie, "I go for the weird ones." And ever since seeing OUT OF SIGHT, I did, do, and probably always will.

After OUT OF SIGHT, which lived up to its name at the box office, being one of those summer pictures that end up playing at drive-ins during "free in-car heater" season, Carole seems to have retired her horn-rimmed glasses image but continued to act on series like STAR TREK ("Arena") and THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. ("The Cap and Gown Affair"), and there was also a recurring role as Franny on the ABC series HERE COME THE BRIDES, starring her SHINDIG co-worker Bobby Sherman. In 1976, she actually scripted a low-budget horror movie, DARK AUGUST, starring herself, Kim Hunter, and the top-lined J.J. Barry - a veteran of LAUGH-IN's second season. I assume that she married her star around this time, as her subsequent credits - including a part on the 1988 STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION episode "Home Soil" - settle on the name Carolyne Barry.

In the early 1980s, Carolyne parlayed her experience (which included appearances in some 400 television commercials) into the founding of the Professional Artist Group, the Carolyne Barry Workshops, and finally Carolyne Barry Creative - all acting workshops in which she trained students not only how to act, but how to successfully audition and land roles. On YouTube there are a number of videos that eavesdrop on her seminars, and they show her to be an effective and personable instructor. In this role, she reminds me a great deal of my late friend Mary Dawne Arden, a former actress and model who went on to found Arden Associates, who had a similar gift for public speaking and directing people to their secret potential.

In my early years on Facebook, I found a page for Carolyne and took the opportunity - as I've often done there with people I admire - to send her a note of appreciation. I expressed my particular liking for OUT OF SIGHT (which may have led her to think I was some kind of crank) and shared that her "horn-rimmed glasses girl" character had been responsible for a character trait in myself that had always served me in good stead - to judge women not by their looks, but by their personal character. Indeed, I had married a blonde who wore glasses, and she was one of "the weird ones." Unfortunately, the reply I received seemed confused and wary; it gave me the feeling that she didn't often receive fan letters and perhaps didn't quite know how to deal with that kind of well-meaning intrusion. Before I could reply, a postscript followed from her, apologizing and explaining that she had a sister who was dying of cancer, which was very much on her mind - and, as quickly as that confession came out, thanking me for writing. I wrote back, to thank her for following up, to send my regrets and my wishes for only the very best for her and her sister.

So we didn't become friends, but we didn't have to. Her life had touched mine, so I wanted to touch hers back. I know now, from reading numerous online testimonials from her colleagues and students, what a positive force she was in so many lives, in both her incarnations. Godspeed to her horn-rimmed spirit.