Thursday, February 14, 2008

Dan and Bands at Brat's Tinderbox,
Cinema 57 Part Three,
and Some Thoughts on
George Romero
and Diary of the Dead...

My son Daniel called me from Boston earlier this week, in part to let me know about an upcoming Brattleboro, VT concert venue he'll be part of -- The MAJESTY FOREVER GLOWING MUSIC AND ART SHOW!

  • Here's the Tinder Box MySpace page, which will provide directions, info, and all you need to get there --
  • and here's my earlier Myrant writeup about the Tinder Box (scroll down a bit for text, pix and more).

  • So, if you're in the area this weekend, rush on over to The Tinder Box on Elliott Street in downtown Brattleboro on Saturday, February 16th at 8 PM. Playing are Colin Ahern aka Flash 'C'; Jeremiah Crompton aka Jeramigo, 'Kyle Thomzo' and finally the trio of Sam Phillips, Zach Phillips and my son Daniel Bissette.

    and I can't make it -- we'll be away -- but if you can, please, go! $5 donation at the door, more if you can afford it (support the musicians, folks), all big fun for a few bucks.


    Yesterday was the shits weatherwise -- a few inches of snow overnight Tuesday into Wednesday AM, light and crisp, which then turned into almost 20 hours of rain, freezing rain, sleet and slush. Marge and I had no school at either of our places of employment, so we were home. We stayed put, pretty much, too, except for shoveling/scraping/salting late afternoon so Marge could make it to her late afternoon appointment, by which time the roads weren't as hazardous.

    Today, it's all glittering cement, rock-hard ice and our driveway is a steeply pitched ice rink, narrow and black-iced. I've spread salt (environmentally sound salt in 50 pound bags -- and get this, it's been dyed a light green) and the sun is already beaming, so the day's looking good.

    We've already exchanged Valentine's Day gifts and had a pretty sweet evening together, once I wrapped up work on the Gaiman book. Life is good -- Happy Valentine's Day, one and all; if it's a day you'd rather not have to deal with, well, then, the hell with it. It's Thursday, is all.

    The first two images in the pages of Cinema 57 #20, the historic horror film issue, are telling: a shot from Frank Tashlin's Artists and Models (including the Bat Lady wall-size painting ostensibly credited to Bob Kane) and a Charles Addams cartoon. From the outset, the French cineaste's orientation to the horror film was more exploratory, more expansive, and far more mature than that available to the hungriest American devotee of fantasy, sf and horror. (Again, I'll humbly ask Classic Horror Film Board posters not to just cut-and-paste this info to that board; please link to this blog post, and bring some eyes here. Thanks, and hope this offers insights to the merits of this vintage magazine.)

    Pierre Billard's introductory text immediately evokes Buchenwald and Hiroshima; the first article, Jean Loth's "Le Fantastique Erotique ou L'Orgasme: Qui Fait Peur" further codifies the decidedly adult orientation of this first digest dedicated solely to the genre -- for one issue, at least. Loth's essay is peppered with evocative stills, all now familiar images to devotees of the genre: the night shot of beauty and beast in a Florida lagoon from Revenge of the Creature (1955, the caption citing director Jack Arnold), 'la Belle' walking up a dark corridor lit only by hand-held wall-mounted candles in Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete (1945), RKO's mockup of Kong clutching a dangling Fay Wray, both impossibly gigantized over a NYC cityscape from King Kong (1933), and Leslie Nielson embracing Ann Francis in a posed MGM shot from Forbidden Planet (1956). Not a bad four-image summary of the theme, eh?

    A cropped (the right half only) of this now-iconic, then-rarely-seen artfully composed but absurdly proportioned publicity shot of King Kong appears in Cinema 57, already a mythic image of horror, power and eroticism.

    It's a grand lineup. As promised, I'm listing the zine's contents today to wrap up this snapshot of a historic bit of horror movie history.

    Loth's article is followed by:

    * "Mephisto, Ce Martien" by Robert Benayoun, an overview of the devil in fantasy films (and more).
    * "King-Kong Magicien" by Jean Boullet, which concludes with a tantalizing three-panel sequence from what appears to be one of Boullet's silhouette animations in which a Tyrannosaurus rex-like dinosaur devours the Statue of Liberty!
    * "La Mise a Mort Dans le Film de Terreur" by Andre S. Labarthe, with a focus on the then-recent 3-D feature House of Wax (1954).

    The giant of the snows from Georges Melies's La Conquete du Pole/Conquest of the North Pole (1912) was first seen by most American monster movie fans in 1967's An Illustrated History of the Horror Film, but Cinema 57 readers were familiar with it a decade earlier.

    * A three-page, three-image piece "Les Createurs de Monstres" showing Jack Pierce applying the Frankenstein monster makeup to Boris Karloff in Son of Frankenstein (1939), an unidentified ("l'anonyme createur") Bud Westmore posing with six different Metaluna mutant maquettes and the mask used in This Island Earth (1957), and a perversely amusing shot from the filming of the dinosaur episode of The Animal World (1956) showing producer/director Irwin Allen behind the animation camera, pointed at the table-top set sporting a stop-motion Brontosaurus [sic] (now Apatosaurus) while a rather zonked-looking Ray Harryhausen (unidentified in the caption, but the real 'createur de monstres' on Allen's film) looks on behind Allen, looking for all the world like he was just another studio carpenter, with two other unidentified technicians in the background.
    * "L'Humour Chasse les Ombres" by Armand J. Cauliez, companion piece to:
    * "La Comedie Fantastique dans le Cinema Americain D'Avant-guerre" by Etienne Chaumeton, a great overview of the 1940s and early '50s comedy-fantasies like the Topper films, A Guy Named Joe, Here Comes Mister Jordan, etc.
    * Ado Kyrou's "Le Merveilleux de la Realite," which I'm eager to translate and read.
    * "Le Fantastique de la Realite" by Jean Thevenot, a companion article to Kyrou's.
    * "Le Cinema Interplanetaire" by Remo Forlani, an analysis of sf films featuring a cool comparative shot of Kirk Alyn as Superman (from the Columbia serial) next to a Wayne Boring panel of Superman from the comicbook series and a similar panel-to-still comparison of Alex Raymond comic strip art and the Universal Flash Gordon serial (1936).
    * "La Science Fiction Trahit L'avenir" by Raymond Borde, opening with a vertical still of the 'faceless' alien from Harryhausen's gem (ahem, I mean, uh, Fred Sears's) Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956).
    * The most 'monster magazine' like piece in the magazine is the 24-page "Galerie des Monstres" by Pierre Philippe. This was the model for Forry and Famous Monsters of Filmland, showcasing lots of the creatures soon to lurk on the pages of Famous Monsters stateside: the Universal monsters from Frankenstein's Monster to the first mutant from Tarantula (1955), King Kong and the pteranodon (1933), Charles Laughton's Dr. Moreau from Island of Lost Souls (1935), Caligari and his shadow (1919), Charles Gamora's martian from the George Pal/Byron Haskin War of the Worlds (1954), etc.

    Director Tod Browning and the cast of Freaks (1933), still shunned, unloved and essentially unknown in 1957 -- except by the editors of Cinema 57 and writer Jacques Pinturault!

    * The highlight of the issue for me: Jacques Pinturault's essay on Tod Browning's Freaks (1933), written and published at a time when Freaks was still a 'lost' aberration in American (probably still road-showed by Dwain Esper or his successor under the title Nature's Mistakes) and still banned in Britain. This is the major find here, and the piece I'm most eager to translate and clear the rights to reprint -- in English, at last.
    * "Catalogue du Fantastique Americain" by F. Hoda and L. Seguin, a concise 11-page capsule history of the genre in the US cinema. A curious one-page cameo piece interrupting the article spotlights Curt Siodmak's weird cheapie Bride of the Gorilla (1951).
    * "Paul Leni, l'Inventeur de la Terreur," with filmography (two pages total), the first horror auteur essay.
    * "Y a-t-il un Cinema Fantastique Francais?" with a four-page filmography of French fantasy/horror/sf films, accompanied by a half-page piece "Quand les Martiens Sont Japonais" citing the then-in-it-infancy Japanese sf films (remember, this was 1957!), illustrated with a shot of Gojira and Angilus/Angurus facing off in Gojira no gyakushĂ»/Godzilla Raids Again/Gigantis the Fire Monster (1955). With the Japanese genre a mere three or four years on at this point, one can see the editors were paying attention, no two ways about it!
    * Another historic piece: Lotte H. Eisner's "Le Fantastique dans le Film Allemand," covering the silent German fantasy-horror classics.

    There you have it, cover to cover coverage of Cinema 57! The Metaluna mutant adorns the back cover as well as the interior pages, the very year he appeared onscreen for the first time.

    * "Helas! Le Cinema est Devenu Intelligent!" by Jean-Louis Caussou -- Melies, Ziegfeld Follies, The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Tales of Hoffmann; music, dance and fantasy film.
    * "Comment Peut-on Faire l'Impossible Pour Vous Satisfaire?" by Andre Martin, an expansive 10-page essay embracing current animation and the genre, including everything from Walt Disney to Karel Zeman, Ted Parmalee's UPA cartoon The Tell-Tale Heart, Robert Cannon's Gerald McBoing-Boing on the Planet Moo, and Norman McClaren's Phantasy experiments at the National Film Board of Canada; this is a terrific piece, well-illustrated article.

    Two short Cinema 57 non-genre pieces follow, with a few pages of ads, but as you can see, this gem of a digest is far more ambitious and wide-ranging in its exploration of the genre than anything we'd see in the US until Castle of Frankenstein after its 10th issue, Carlos Clarens's An Illustrated History of the Horror Film (1967) and the blossoming of Photon and Cinefantastique -- and Cinema 57 is still more expansive and all-encompassing with the net it casts than anything in English until the 1970s. All in all, a historic and impressive tome!

    A number of the Center for Cartoon Studies students are eager to see George Romero's new feature, Diary of the Dead, and the Spanish film [REC] is eagerly anticipated, too. I just posted this reply to a CCS discussion board thread, since these youngsters (well, OK, they're in their twenties) are seeing it all in the context of now, as youngsters will, and this geezer felt the need to add a bit of context. I'll post my blather here intact (I don't use the format I use on Myrant typically, so bear with the capitalized film titles, please):

    Since Romero is one of our great living filmmakers, and he himself calls DIARY OF THE DEAD his "running away from LAND OF THE DEAD" and his experience with Universal Studios (which he admits went much better than he feared, but still, the studio system just doesn't work for Romero), I'm eager to see it. Even Romero's least (BRUISER) are interesting films, and worth seeing.

    I see where you're all coming from, but don't assume Romero's in lockstep with current fashions or fads. This whole genre -- as I note in my yammering about CLOVERFIELD at Nine Panel Nerd's podcast (link's on my blog yesterday) -- goes back to Peter Watkins and his work for BBC in the mid-60s. There's a clear lineage here, and horror movies have been part of it from Orson Welles's fake WAR OF THE WORLDS radio broadcast in October 1938 that sent listeners screaming out of their houses believing the martians WERE coming.

    There were also key underground filmmakers (Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Andy Warhol, Ed Pincus, etc.), feature films like DAVID HOLZMAN'S DIARY (1967) and passages in Brian DePalma's early films (GREETINGS, HI MOM) that anticipate this whole current movement. DePalma's use of faked video footage was often quite funny; there's sequences in HI, MOM and GREETINGS that are still hilarious and scathing, forty years later, that absolutely anticipate this whole "new" 21st Century movement.

    Though the new vein is definitely fueled by the democratization of technology via digital video media (including cell phones), the conceptual turf is at least half-a-century old; if you count home movies and amateur movies, it goes back to the 1920s and the first available 16mm cameras, boosted immeasurably by 8mm film in the 1940s-60s. But Brakhage was the first cinema diary keeper, beginning in the 1950s, and Ed Pincus formalized the genre by the 1970s -- by which point satirists like DePalma were already goofing on it.

    "Shoot 'em in the head": A martial law execution of civilians in The War Game. Like Gillo Pontecorvo's La Battaglia di Algeri/The Battle of Algiers, also made in 1966, Peter Watkins's The War Game emulated newsreel techniques to make its harrowing portrait of nuclear war-ravaged Britain utterly believable.

    Horror entered the fray early on: to my mind, some of Brakhage's films are genre-relevant (SIRIUS REMEMBERED, his meditation on the corpse of his dog, found in the woods near his home; THE ACT OF SEEING WITH ONE'S OWN EYES, a grueling but beautiful and staggering feature-length work filmed in a city morgue). Watkins was using faux-documentary techniques to recreate historical medieval warfare for CULLODEN (1965) and to make THE WAR GAME in 1966, "documenting" the nuclear bombing of the UK and the aftermath with such vivid power that BBC (which produced the film) refused to broadcast it.

    "Bring Out Your Irradiated Dead!": Another stark newsreel-like image from Peter Watkins's classic The War Game (1966), a definite precursor to Night of the Living Dead and the current vein of 'you are there' digital-era horror films.

    Point being, Romero is tapping a much, much richer and deeper vein than the most immediately apparent (CLOVERFIELD, [REC], MY LITTLE EYE, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, THE LAST BROADCAST, etc.) contemporary context.

    Don't forget much of the first flesh-eating zombie movie of 'em all, Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, depended on faux-TV news broadcasts, which meshed with Romero's use of handheld cinematography and 'you are there' staging in its narrative passages to create something completely fresh in 1968. He was, at that point, building on John Frankenheimer's films (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY) incorporating news film techniques with mainstream studio filmmaking traditions -- Frankenheimer emerged from live TV drama, and in the early '60s his approach was startling and new to most viewers. Romero was taking that further, and by doing so reinventing horror cinema -- a step Frankenheimer himself had taken two years earlier with the underrated SECONDS (1966) -- so he was tapping this tree looooooooong before the current wave of filmmakers were even born.

    All horror fans have heard of, and many have seen, Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust (1981), but how about the BBC broadcast that scared a nation, Ghostwatch (shown only once -- October 31, 1992)? It's the real successor to Orson Welles's historic Halloween 1938 radio play of The War of the Worlds, and another precursor to the current wave of digital horrors.

    That, for me, is the context for DIARY OF THE DEAD. I can't help it, I grew up watching these films AS THEY CAME OUT -- so I've experienced this genre as it took shape, usually seeing the films when, or close to when, they were first shown publicly. Even Watkins's horrific THE WAR GAME, which was shown by anti-nuke activist groups in the 1960s on 16mm, including a showing at my high school up in Duxbury, VT in 1970!

    Off the top of my head, for anyone interested in tracing this lineage with their own home-movie festival of precursors, I'd cite Watkins's THE WAR GAME, BBC's crafty, fun GHOSTWATCH (which so terrified a gullible UK viewing audience that BBC never showed it again, so vehement was the public outcry against their 'true ghost' mockumentary broadcast), Ruggero Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1981, and still a shocker, template for many that followed including BLAIR WITCH and CLOVERFIELD), and a few others.

    Shameless Plug Dept.: Speaking of this whole school of 'you are there' digital horror, I did this cover art two years ago for the definitive DVD re-release of Lance Weiler and Stefan Avalos's digital feature classic The Last Broadcast (1998), the film that predated (and provided the obvious template for) The Blair Witch Project (1999). My cover art was ultimately used as an inside-cover sleeve 'pinup'; a few CCS pioneer class students and I also worked up a sweet little two-color minicomic on the Jersey Devil for this DVD package, too, which is mighty cool and only available in this DVD.
  • You can buy your copy online from a variety of venues; check it out!

  • For those of you interested, here's the online trailer for Diary of the Dead,
  • and a Spanish trailer for [REC] -- enjoy.

  • __________________

    OK, tomorrow is the last post of the next full week or so, more than likely, so I made this a fat one and hope to do the same tomorrow. Workload and travel require my attention be occupied elsewhere next week, so I'll likely weigh in here rarely if at all -- as promised, I'll be back to daily posts come March.

    Have a great Thursday; we've got my amigo Howard Cruse coming in to speak at CCS later today, and Marge and I are looking forward with dinner with Howard tonight, so we'll be having a fine day ourselves.

    You do the same...

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