Sunday, February 25, 2007

Sunday Moaning

I'm feeling under the weather completely today. My online session this AM to post early crashed, but I managed to rescue much of my original attempt to post -- here 'tis, then back to moaning and feeling miserable for this lad. My first real cold of the season -- I'm going to let it soak through.

The final word is in at last on the Mario Bava boxed set from Anchor Bay -- and Tim Lucas has posted it all
  • here at the Video Watchblog.
  • Alas, no English/AIP (American International Pictures -- the original US distributor) prints of the key '60s trio of films (Black Sunday, Black Sabbath, The Girl Who Knew Too Much/The Evil Eye) -- so reckon I'm hanging on to those old vhs versions. Still, I'm eagerly anticipating this purchase!

    Thanks to Tim, an early birthday gift of the Dark Sky edition of Kill, Baby... Kill!/Operazione Paura joined my collection yesterday morning. Can't wait to screen it! I have stolen a little time to view the bonus documentary by David Gregory, in which Mario's son Lamberto tours the original locations the film was shot in over 35 years ago; astounding, really, though sections of the ancient Italian village are succumbing to decay and finally crumbling into rubble. The transfer of the film itself looks fantastic -- come dark, I'm savoring the experience of this, among my favorite of all Bava films, anew.

    And speaking of screening --

    CINE-KETCHUP, Part the Later

    * Absolute Wilson (2006) -- Katharina Otto-Bernstein's bio-documentary of innovative theatrical director Robert Wilson (The White Raven, Einstein on the Beach, The Black Rider, etc.) is a real treat. To my eye and ear, Wilson's brand of theater makes for lively viewing -- the stark, iconographic imagery and movement; the inventive play with sound & music; the imaginative use of color, costume and body language -- and is, once integrated with the interview/'witness' format and use of archival home movie and film clips, completely cinematic.

    The presentation of Wilson's life is deftly communicated in broad strokes, from his childhood in Waco, TX (with a black child, Leroy, his best friend in a segregated community and Wilson's further isolation due to his stuttering) to his early outing of his gay life & escape to New York City and exposure to the work of Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and others. The chronology moves quickly into his university, architecture, film, dance and directing theatrical career, touching on his innovative movement therapy work with brain-damaged children (a mere 15-20 minutes into the running time). The tantalizing, too-fleeting glimpses of Wilson's film The House (1965) is tied to his suicide attempt and hospitalization after his return to Waco, after which Wilson returned to NYC and his blossoming thereafter, from his ongoing non-verbal movement & dance therapy work (with paralyzed patients) to his theatrical work he is now renowned for, emerging from the hotbed of 1960s countercultural experimentation.

    The expansive, playful and sculptural (in terms of movement, objects, and use of space) variety of Wilson's theatrical creations showcased throughout the film's running time makes for always engaging viewing, and director Otto-Bernstein's insistence on contextualizing every aspect and phase of Wilson's personal and creative life makes this a very satisfying experience. The onscreen presence of Susan Sontag, Philip Glass, Tom Waites, Trudy Kramer, John Rockwell, David Byrne, Jim Neu, Earl Mack, and many others is integral to the biographical tapestry Otto-Bernstein effectively weaves, further enhancing the viewing experience. A terrific documentary, highly recommended!

    * The Grandfather Trilogy (1978-81) -- I'm pretty well versed in underground and experimental film history, but this trilogy from filmmaker Allen Ross was new to me. This is comprised of three short films: Papa (30 min, b&w, 1978), Thanksgiving, 1979 (color, 20 min., 1979), and Burials (color, approx 10 min., 1981). The first and third were shot in South Carolina, the second in Illinois, and these are hardly your typical 'family portrait' films. If anything, Papa isn't so much a portrait of Allen Ross's grandfather as much as it is an obfuscation: the camera is almost always on its side or akimbo, or focusing on Ross's grandfather's feet, or some other person or feature of the room or landscape, peppered with erratic sound (sometimes silent, sometimes ambient) and precious little of his grandfather really emerges. The most extensive passage offering tentative connections for viewers features Ross reading a passage from the Bible at his Grandfather's urging, and a brief exchange of words after: the camera, resting on the tabletop on its side, again captures this askew in the frame. We see a black woman walking with Grandpa, sitting alone in a car -- who is she? What's her relation? We don't know, and Allen doesn't tell or even hint. All this may have had meaning for Ross, but it conveys little but frustration to the most patient or indulgent of viewers.

    Thanksgiving, 1979 has a perverse appeal in that it captures, by and large, the utter tedium of family holidays, comprised in part of shots of Grandpa and other family members sleeping (on chairs, couches) in their holiday best clothes. Everyone waves as they drive off to church; the family assembles before an (offscreen) TV, where then-current news of the Ayatollah, the hostages and Iran is heard offscreen. Same as it ever was! Burials presents Grandpa's burial, period, with a deliberately irritating soundtrack of harsh, grinding white noise (the clatter of the camera?). Together, these indeed are a coherent trilogy, but I can't admit to having gleaned much from the whole or parts.

    * The Messengers (2007) -- Hard to believe my generation had so few ghost movies as reference points -- The Uninvited (1941), The Haunting and The Innocents (both 1961), and little else of note outside the Topper-like ghost comedies of the '30s and '40s were on TV (along with reruns of Topper, the TV series), and aside from 13 Ghosts, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken and Mario Bava gems like Kill, Baby... Kill!, the big screen was rarely haunted by ghosts. The largest quantity of ghost films my generation experienced were the made-for-TV movie-of-the-week outings, peopled by the likes of Hope Lange or Dennis Weaver, often produced by Aaron Spelling and/or directed by John Moxey, and rarely providing more than 90 minutes of distraction (though there were gems, including Steven Spielberg's Something Evil).

    Alas, The Messengers, for all its J-horror flourishes, is the rough equivalent of one of those made-for-TV exercises, right down to its family-in-jeopardy scenario, ominous flocks of crows and remote North Dakota sunflower farm (yep, sunflowers) setting. Since the popular success of The Sixth Sense and the transoceanic import of J-horror and seemingly endless remakes of Japanese and Asian contemporary spins on the venerable genre, we old-timers can barely keep up with the plethora of almost weekly ghost flicks the current generation have been inundated with. This is the latest Ghost House Pictures opus, which I made a point of catching due to the involvement of co-directors Danny and Oxide Pang, whose Bangkok Dangerous (1996), Gin gwai/The Eye (2002) and sequel I quite enjoyed.

    The Pang Brothers bring their usual eye and ear for the uncanny to bear here, but the formulaic strait-jackets simultaneously defining and confining this contemporary vein of ectoplasmic antics prevents the film from ever transcending its TV-movie premise or feel. The cast is TV-movie perfect, including Northern Exposure and Sex and the City's John Corbett's turn as the wanderer-turned-handyman so integral to the plot and a red herring appearance by ol' X-Files Cancer Man himself William B. Davis, but I'm happy to report that Kristen Stewart (Panic Room, Cold Creek Manor, Undertow, etc.) almost elevates this up a notch thanks to her sympathetic performance alone as the unhappily displaced teen daughter. The visualizations of the malignant spirits plaguing the remote farm house and grounds will seem like just more Grudge residue to the casual viewer, but the fact is these spidery, spastic wraiths clinging so tenaciously to the ceilings are lifted from William Peter Blatty's underrated The Exorcist III, which was where I first saw this kind of imagery evoking a real chill. Thanks to CGI, the crow massings and attacks are worthy of The Birds; Ub Iwerks would have been proud. The Pangs do all they can with the material they've been given to work with, managing to mount a couple of effective setpieces and maintain an integrity of visual design and pacing worthy of better source material, but it all succumbs to the unfortunate over-familiarity of the narrative, which wouldn't have worked up a sweat back on 1973 ABC-TV's lineup. I wish I'd have made the extra ten minute drive to Blood and Chocolate instead; at least the premise of that flick (werewolves and -- cartoonists!) rings a bell closer to home.

    * Music and Lyrics (2007) -- A Marge movie choice, and a painless way to pass the time... though I'm no fan of this kind of sitcom-style romantic comedy fluff, so take whatever I have to say here with a vast vat of salt. Writer/director Marc Lawrence (Life With Mikey, Miss Congeniality, etc.) maintains the light touch of all his work, and the matching of Hugh Grant (as 'washed up' '80s music star Alex Fletcher) and Drew Barrymore (as surprise freelance-plant-caretaker-turned-lyricist Sophie Fisher) seemed to work for the audience we saw it with. I perversely couldn't forget that Grant was in Maurice roughly the same time Drew was in Babes in Toyland (1985/6) -- that kept things in perspective, especially once they were coupling (offscreen) under the piano. The core of this confection revolves around lovely but (intentionally) vacuous Haley Bennett, neatly sending up the 21st Century pop scene playing teen pop sensation Cora Corman, a tidy conflation of every blonde teen pop starlet of the past six years. You see, Cora is a fan of Alex's MTV-era band "Pop" and gives Alex mere days to compose a new tune for her upcoming CD and tour, and ol' Alex sorely needs the career resurrection this might provide. Enter Sophie, filling in for Alex's usual apartment plant-caretaker (someone to water his plants -- I know, I know, it didn't make a lick of sense to this backwoods fella, either. Water your own fucking plants!), thus our two star-crossed lovers-to-be meet "cute," and begin the unlikely lyricist/composer relationship this whole chick flick revolves around. And around. And around.

    This inherently coy tease of a genre depends eternally on deferring, delaying and waylaying the inevitable union of its protagonists -- when will they get together? What will seperate them? What will the reconciliatory moment be? -- and Lawrence juggles those requirements and expectations skillfully enough, though it's usually sheer agony to me. The oddest aspect of this film that kept distracting me had to do with how little the New York City locations looked like New York -- is it just me? Thankfully, the clever framing conceit (the film opens with Pop's 1984 music video, "Pop Goes My Heart," and closes with the Pop-Up Video reboot of same) and satiric collision of 1980s pop music conventions with 2006 pop music conventions is neatly maintained stem to stern; it ain't deep, but it is entertaining enough for this one-time music video junkie. I'm not vulnerable to either Grant's patter or Barrymore's perk, but there are a couple of laughs at Grant's expense, passages of clever dialogue and exchange, and all ends happily. A nice evening out -- nothing more, nothing less.

    * The Other Way Back: Dancing With Dudley (2006) -- This is an excellent regional VT/NH documentary on Contra Dance populist Dudley Laufman (aka William Dudley Laufman) from local filmmaker/teacher David Millstone, a followup to his first documentary on New England Contra Dancing, Paid to Eat Ice Cream. Made with considerable more polish and skill than Paid to Eat Ice Cream (which was a solid piece of work, nonetheless), Millstone once again brings his passion for the contra dancing tradition to bear, composing an affection and thorough portrait of poet/Quaker/musician/caller Dudley Laufman of Canterbury, NH.

    Laufman's career dates back to 1953; he was a Quaker who registered as a conscientious objector, a 'back to the land' poet with roots in Brattleboro, VT, Concord, NH and his home in Canterbury, NH, and he emerged as the keystone of the Contra Dancing revival of the '70s. Laufman's devotion to the tradition, and the passing on of that tradition, is manifest, from his 1965 Newport Folk Festival participation and subsequent workshop to his absolutely vital, pivotal leadership of the 1970s Contra Dance revival, which also had its political and social dimensions, fully articulated herein. Millstone's integration of on-camera interviews with Laufman himself along with Vince O'Donnell, Dillon Bustin, Jack Perron, Randy Miller and many others is compelling, gracefully orchestrated with an abundance of archival concert footage (the earliest dating from 1964, though the most extensive archival material dates from 1974-75), onscreen use of clippings, posters, flyers and other artifacts of Laufman's career, and plenty of contemporary footage. Millstone doesn't shy away from Laufman's reputation as a womanizer (including comments from charmed women), or his 'fade' from the scene as other contra bands blossomed in the wake of his mid-'70s popularization of the dance; this culminated in Laufman's decision to mount family dances and work with local schools, passing the core traditions on to new generations of youth as he saw others (to his mind) modernize and dilute those original traditions of music and dance. It's all here, and we're the richer for it.

    Have a great Sunday, what's left of it...

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