Thursday, July 31, 2014

Remembering Dick Smith (1922-2014)




Dick Smith - the cinema's most important makeup artist since the immortal Lon Chaney - has passed away at the age of 92, leaving behind him a treasure trove of character and horror makeups whose imagination and scientific detail were truly indistinguishable from magic: LITTLE BIG MAN, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, THE GODFATHER, THE EXORCIST, ALTERED STATES, THE SENTINEL, GHOST STORY... and so many more. As many of the stories being repeated today confirm, he was also one of the great gentlemen of the business. This - I'm happy to say - I got to experience, a few times, by telephone.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dick a couple of times, back in the 1980s and 1990s - first in relation to an uncredited favor he did for his protégé Rick Baker in relation to David Cronenberg's VIDEODROME (in the basement of his home, he and Steve Johnson took a full body cast of Deborah Harry for a scene that was ultimately not filmed), and then again as Donna and I were preparing VIDEO WATCHDOG's sixth issue, devoted to THE EXORCIST - an issue whose impact directly led to the publication of Mark Kermode's BFI Modern Classics books on the film, his documentary on the making of the film (which appears on the DVD and Blu-ray of the film, and William Friedkin's own "The Version You Thought You'd Never See" recut.


While interviewing Dick for a VW piece about the film's subliminal imagery, I asked him about this now-famous facial makeup done for THE EXORCIST. At that time (in 1990), he had - or, I briefly suspected, pretended that he had - no recollection of it, because the moment had the aura of a secret that wanted to be kept, and no one had really explored this aspect of the film in it's nearly 20 years of release. I explained that it was a subliminal image, something I had first seen pop out at me in a darkened theater the day before the film officially opened in December of 1973; I promised to send him a copy of the image to examine and comment on. To get one, I had to freeze-frame my VHS of the film, sit in front of my analog television set, and shoot a whole reel of film of the image, hoping to get just one that wouldn't have "roll bars" interfering with it - this was long before digital frame grabs. It worked - and I was later also able to pull some other shots of the makeup (not in the film) from a rare 16mm reel of withdrawn TV spots.

When Dick saw the images, he remembered doing the makeup and - something I'll never forget - he congratulated me on the acuity of my vision, one of the nicest compliments I've ever received, considering from whom it came. William Friedkin separately had identified the actor wearing the makeup to my co-author Mark Kermode as Eileen Dietz - this was something not previously known, though Eileen's participation elsewhere in the film was well-known at the time; Friedkin said that the "Apparition" image, as he called it (which I dubbed "Captain Howdy" because this is how Regan identifies the voice inside her elsewhere in the picture), was actually that of a demon test makeup that "didn't work" in its intended use on Linda Blair, but which he later decided might have power if used onscreen briefly.

Mark and I were not at all sure, given its crude, high-school theatrics look, that Dick had done the makeup, but he did admit to doing it, explaining that it was something done in relative haste and not really agonized over. It wasn't anything meant to be seen clearly. He remembered it appearing in the film only once, in a brief scene where the Apparition was double-exposed onto the face of the rotating head model, giving it the brief appearance of literal possession as Regan's room was shaking and quaking - which he considered "probably the most terrifying image in the picture." He was genuinely surprised to learn that it had appeared elsewhere in the movie.

We published the Captain Howdy image for the first time anywhere back in June 1991, and it has since gone on to be paused on countless VCRs and DVD players, to appear on T-shirts and even album covers. But seeing it linger in a still frame is quite different to having it flash out of you in the dark of a big-screened theater. Though it was a makeup that Dick Smith had literally done so quickly that it was instantly forgotten as he pursued some other on-set challenge, it has gone on to become one of the most famous horror images of all time, and I'm sure - in retrospect, and rightfully so - one of his proudest accomplishments.

See also this earlier blog entry about the origins of Captain Howdy.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Per Mario


Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Proust Questionnaire

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Those moments when I feel outside of time - when I'm engrossed in reading a book, watching a film, looking at a painting, or gazing at the ocean; when I feel lost (and found) in conversation, or kissing; when I'm caught up in the urgency of writing something beautiful and true.

What is your most marked characteristic?
Productive.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
MARIO BAVA: ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK.

What is your greatest fear?
Losing my wife. That, and being conscious during my cremation.

What historical figure do you most identify with?
Tim Lucas.

Which living person do you most admire?
Donna Lucas.

Who are your heroes in real life?
Writers and artists and filmmakers too numerous to mention; their fabulous muses; good mothers; people who care for animals and the aged.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Need.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Dishonesty.

What is your favorite journey?
A correspondence.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Success.

Which word or phrases do you most overuse?
Hello. What?

What is your greatest regret?
Not believing enough in myself; not speaking French.

What is your current state of mind?
Impatient.

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
My parents... but this would also change me - and so, having already survived the hand I was dealt, maybe not.

What is your most treasured possession?
My manuscripts.    

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Unrequited love.

Where would you like to live?
A clean and spacious house, large enough to hold everything without a hint of clutter, conveniently located in a cheerful, interesting neighborhood, in a country with a good health care system.

What is your favorite occupation?
Writing.

What is the quality you most like in a man?
Reliability.

What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Reliability.

What are your favourite names?
Van Neste Polglase, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Paul Vaguely, Dolores Haze.

What is your motto?
Never give up.

On UNDER THE SKIN (2013)



This new science fiction film from the UK was way oversold to me. There is quality here, a very watchable, occasionally engrossing technique of style and subtraction, but the serial monotony of the story - a female of extraterrestrial origin lures a series of men into an apartment that traps and absorbs them (think the scenes in Adjani's apartment in Zulawski's POSSESSION played out on black Astaire-Rogers studio floor) - should have more substance or purpose. The old saw about the alien who finds themselves becoming more human after prolonged wearing of their human skins also gets played again, and the film is basically reducible to an abstract remake of JAWS in which the shark ultimately gets eaten. Jonathan Glazer's directorial stance withdraws from the story to a point that initially seems godly but is ultimately atheistic. I've heard this described as Kubrickian, but there is absolutely none of the poker-faced humor that is Kubrick's hallmark. If anything, there are moments reminiscent of Lynch's ERASERHEAD and these are the moments that make this movie so pleasingly environmental and demanding of larger screen immersion. I did not think Scarlett Johansson was exceptional, but I've always found her competent. Worth a look, but hardly the Second Coming.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Monday, July 07, 2014

Scorsese's NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS Documentary

New York Review of Books editor Robert B. Silvers in his office, as seen in THE 50 YEAR OLD ARGUMENT.

I got to see Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi's documentary feature THE 50 YEAR OLD ARGUMENT (about THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS) last night - I had to go looking for it online, as it has so far aired only on the BBC. The film's onscreen commentators surprisingly favor the British and Irish contributors to the venerable newsprint journal, and it may well be too intellectual to qualify for broadcast on PBS here in the States - and where else would you find it? But it's a surprising, welcome and often engrossing study of the leading role played by one publication in a time when American life was more involved and stimulating, when our culture was being actively determined by books and writers, by intellectualism, literacy and worldliness - as well as revealing yet another facet of Scorsese's love for the New York of his own life and times. In the 1970s, I was a regular reader of the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS and probably a happier person for it; Scorsese and Tedeschi made me feel guilty for falling off the wagon. One speaker in particular reminded me of the importance of reading and responding to the work of one's own time, because literature is a dialogue; it is involvement and interaction that keeps literature vital and moving forward. No one should ever fear of writing the first book to be read by no one.

I found particularly engrossing a segment concerning Joan Didion's NYROB essay about four young black men arrested in connection with a series of Central Park rapes, and how they were subliminally pre-judged in the mainstream press by the introduction of the biasing term "wilding." So well did this word work on the fears of the city's influential white populace that the suspects were identified in the press with their full names - including that of one 14 year old later forensically proved innocent. Didion recalls that working with NYROB editor Robert B. Silvers increased the length of her essay by three-fold. I only vaguely recall the case, but I found this almost scary in its prescience, as our politicians now use similar tactics all the time in the press, against one another and against other countries, biasing the public with their loaded lingo. Didion is not only interviewed but shown reading from her essay.
 
When the film ends, you may feel appalled at the emptiness of our time, how our lives have become engulfed not only by ungrounded images, but images taken at face value in media that continually grows more tyrannical without context and without that grounding in an engaged and informed, conscious dialogue. Life should not be processed in clicks. 
__________

Updates:

According to VARIETY, THE 50 YEAR OLD ARGUMENT will debut on HBO on October 6. Not a likely outlet for this sort of programming, but bravo to them.

Also, reader John Seal writes:

"In light of your blogpost today, you may be interested to know the CP5 [Central Park 5] were finally (FINALLY!) exonerated... http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/20/nyregion/5-exonerated-in-central-park-jogger-case-are-to-settle-suit-for-40-million.html?_r=0

"There's a very fine documentary about the case that I highly recommend: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2380247/?ref_=nv_sr_1. "

 


 

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Hell of It

In today's mail, I received a copy of Culture Factory USA's limited edition high-definition CD of Paul Williams' soundtrack for PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, which I've heard is on the verge of exhausting its 3000 print run. I'm glad I snagged it (from Amazon); the soundtrack album hits the listener differently than the music heard in context, even on the 5.1 Blu-ray discs; as I listened to this CD, I could hear the instrumentation deployed as a means of complementing the lyrics, of couching the lyrics; the placement of a Hammond organ here or an electric guitar there stands out more as an element of composition - as the official statement of this musical idea - than it does when there is a visual element also in play. For these reasons, I found "Upholstery" - in some ways the wittiest of its musical satires if one of the score's less compelling songs - is in some ways the most revelatory cue from a production angle. But listening to this collection of songs again confirmed for me all the more that this is Williams' masterpiece. The libretto cuts deep into matters of life and love and metaphysics, not in the least shying away from the film's satirical basis in FAUST, but also the forces of irony that bring us all to our knees at one time or another. In some ways, it's more than De Palma's film warranted, and the primary key to its greatness.

Here's a song that I think could stand as an epitaph for almost anyone who's been around the block, in the arts, in business, in life or love - which I think gives its vaudevillian/music hall trappings a real sting, one that says that all stories must come to an end because the show must go on.




Sunday, June 22, 2014

THE RED HOUSE (1947)

Caught Delmer Daves' THE RED HOUSE late last night on Hulu Plus, almost in the spirit of emergency after failing to find anything else acceptable to the two of us. It's a bit overlong, helpless to resist adding loving brushstrokes to secondary characters, but so much of value to savor here... It's not exactly a horror movie, but its mystery and suspense are of a high order, conveyed within an unusual but effective atmosphere that is hard to peg, somewhere between a Lewton RKO and a Disney Hardy Boys serial. (It's beautifully shot by DP Bert Glennon, who had earlier pictures like the 1933 ALICE IN WONDERLAND, Sternberg's THE SCARLET EMPRESS and John Ford's STAGECOACH under his belt.) Had this movie been presented to me without credits, I would have thought it was the work of Jacques Tourneur, if only for its deceptively mild, delicate handling of young romantic leads Lon McCallister and Allene Roberts -- whom I remembered from a couple of ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN appearances, notably the (again) similarly pitched episode "The Haunted Lighthouse." The scenes between a very young but quickly ripening Rory Calhoun and Julie London look ripped from the pages of LIL' ABNER and have the snapping, lusty vitality of early Russ Meyer -- in fact, the entire film, while superficially wholesome, contains a surprising number of fairly forthright sexual references in its dialogue; this serves to foreshadow the romantic obsession/mental ilness that's finally revealed as the prime motivator behind the mystery, which builds to a surprising, semi-giallo intensity given Edward G. Robinson's somewhat fetishized dread "The Red House."