Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Acting by the Void

I've been deeply reassessing old favorites under the new light of DVD lately. Re-visiting CARNIVAL OF SOULS in the midst of a panic attack/nervous breakdown/hazy lazy Sunday evening, the swanky Criterion DVD version with the benefit of clear focus and brilliant restoration. On a big screen, it's like I am finally melting into the film, the pure Cronenberg-ian mecha-flesh union, where eyes become sex organs embedded deep into the silver screen womb of dream. Steve Shaviro should be proud of me!

If that seems florid, consider the nature of CARNIVAL OF SOULS and its place in the cult canon; left of PERSONA, right of PSYCHO and PSYCHO's British mirror-twin, CITY OF THE DEAD (AKA HORROR HOTEL). From there SOULS branches off near THE BIRDS, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and REPULSION. This area of the film family tree  has had initials carved scalpel deep in the Freudian recesses of the American fetish icon bark--the "glacial blonde" wet wood pulp just beneath as portrayed by Janet Leigh, Candace Hilligoss, Tippi Hedren, and Kim Novak. This is where I like to visit, with my copy of Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae tucked neatly under my arm, to peer down in through the grates and watch as directors like Hitchcock and Herk Harvey point out the fascinating lobes and regions of my mom's brooding Viking cerebral cortex for my amazement.

In addition to being able to enjoy solid 16mm black and white cinematography to the fullest, which is pretty full, the DVD in hand gives you a sense of ownership over the experience. I have been trying to decipher what it means that I must keep spending way too much $$ as every wish I made as a 14 year old classic monster movie-obsessed child is suddenly, painfully, gratified. Back in the 1970s as a haunted 11 year-old I would fantasize about having all my favorite Bela and Boris movies at my command, being able to project them on the wall at will.

Of course, my trying to decipher the motives behind such reckless spendsmanship is akin to the searches conducted by the attractive blonde female protagonists of these films themselves. In my attempt to "own" a first-rate DVD of PSYCHO, for example, I "become" Norman Bates trying to "own" Janet Leigh, so he can display her as a stuffed trophy. I should mention my own mother is a blonde who, in the era of these films' original release, was a comparable icy beauty, so there you go... we the insane little boys of the audience craved to possess the silver screen mother and now we can, in a way that teens in the 1950s and 60s could only dream of. It's like nailing a bird to the wall in mid-flight, an owl with its wings outstretched, longing to get unspooled through time and air and white light once more.

I think that, by buying PSYCHO and CARNIVAL OF SOULS on DVD and watching them faithfully through the decades, I harbor the forbidden, unconscious notion that I might undo the action of my original birth via the death drive. I feel it pull me northwards, my chakras revolving in accordance with the earth as it goes round the sun like a slow, hypnotized dancer. The blondes seem to sense this first, even within time and screen, like miner birds. They start the wheel a-spinning, betting all the money on red or black or whichever drips out first from between their beautiful alabaster projector thighs.

SPOILER ALERT - Candace Hilligoss's character in CARNIVAL "wakes up" into death, but so do they all, and so do we all. We artists-- whether organist, writer, lover or dreamer--are called there first and we go alone, and our friends and family fade to blurry behind us. We hear them asking us to come back, but the voices are faded and drenched in reverb. This is addiction, the siren's song luring your ship to the horny rocks of salt and delirium tremens and jail sentence suffering. From now on, your movie will exist with a gaping wound. Now there will be a centerpiece narrative shift.

But going back to the family and the friends, calling vainly to your fading speck of light from their safe dull haven behind that veil, seems worse --that life is spent, played, cashed. Any love you found still left there would just be crumb-like and fleeting. You know the only road left is the one to God, but it's so corny and such a total sacrifice of all one's coolness that you refuse to go. And so the priest suggests that you resign, and Norman's mother's chair starts to rock in agreement. But nothing is happening, and you finally know why that is, or do you, Miss-us Jones?

The truth is that you're living in a maze where every dead end's been gone over a hundred times and all the little treats have been eaten and there's nowhere to go but beyond. But instead of shuffling thy mortal coil like a good little organist you just hang around, drifting from town to town, department store to park to boarding house, waiting for the minotaur to set you free. You'll never know if you're even in the right maze until you finally feel his horns against your weeping eyes. Here be those horns! Honk! Awooga! Woman, thou art goosed, gandered at, and never gone again.

Where'd ya lose those eyes?

Friday, October 12, 2007

GREAT 70s DADS #10: Gene Wilder in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)

As a kid watching the original 1933 Frankenstein on late night TV (where it was shown quite often) I always felt bad--don’t we all?--for the poor monster (Boris Karloff). Dr. Frankenstein (Collin Clive), upon learning his creature is “Alive… ALIVE!” hardly gives the poor brute a chance to examine his new hands before he’s labeled a senseless horror and chained in the basement, where the doctor allows his hunchbacked servant Fritz (Dwight Frye) to torment him with fire and a whip. No wonder the poor monster went on a rampage!

Clearly, Mel Brooks felt the same way I did, the way we all did, and righted this wrong in a genuinely moving scene in his loving satire of the Universal Frankenstein series, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Gene Wilder, magnificent as the doctor, is determined--in classic 1970s therapy craze style--to break through the communication barrier between him and his monster (Peter Boyle). He decides to go into the room wherein his monster is locked, and instructs his assistants Igor (pronounced ""Aye-gor" - played by Marty Feldman) and Elizabeth (a very sexy young Terri Garr) to lock him in the monster's room and not let him out, no matter how much he screams and pleads (which of course he instantly does) until he's broken through to his self-made son.

Once his initial terror subsides, Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein is able to dispel the monster’s hostility through flattery. (“You’re kind of cute!”) and gradually the pair bond in a truly beautiful sequence that heals the terrible rift between mad scientist and monster. From the vantage point of the 21st century, where so many men have grown into monsters rejected or ignored by their fathers if their fathers are even there to reject or ignore them-- this scene is something of a spiritual miracle, a turning of the other cheek, a healing moment of transcendence and forgiveness.

Academic film critics love to analyze horror films as instances of Freud’s “return of the repressed,” - i.e. the abject, cast-off ugliness that doesn’t fit in the social order, returning from the outside to disrupt it. The 1970s was the decade where we actually were making headway into healing that continual repression/disruption process through love and tolerance. Nowhere, for my money, is that transformation more succinctly and wittily dramatized than in this scene, a mere throwaway moment between the broader Borscht-belt gags that had them rolling in the aisles--me included--at the theater where I saw it with my parents at age seven, but this touching little moment was something that Brooks clearly felt strongly enough about to do right. Both in this and in the marvelous BLAZING SADDLES, we see Brooks the comic, but also Brooks the humanitarian and, just as the SADDLES is full of good-natured satire towards racism (freely using the N-word, something that would be considered too reckless and controversial today), so too is YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN satirical of intolerance, suspicion and anti-monster conservative positions. Wilder gives a beautiful, loving performance, his eyes dewy with fatherly emotion, and when he cradles Boyle’s bald, sewed-up head in his arms and declares to the heavens: "This is a good boy!" you can, if you let yourself, tap into the electrical current of love that was in the air back in that golden-green decade, feel a true electrical charge of universal compassion. That's Mel's and Gene's gift to all us screwed-up monsters.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

HALLOWEEN RECOMENDATION 1: the book of Frankenstein!

Many of you readers will at some point this month be at the DVD section of some store and think: "Man, I should get a cheap spooky movie, or set thereof, to wow the loved ones come All Hallows Eve," but upon looking at the vast expanse of iffy titles, may walk away with nothing or--worse--some piece of trash that will turn you off forever from the obsessive world of horror movie collecting. For that reason, let me steer you to these following can't miss recommendations:

THE FRANKENSTEIN Legacy Collection (Universal)
Packaged in a dark book of greens and blacks, for $25 or less you get FRANKENSTEIN, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN SON OF FRANKENSTEIN and right there, that's a great trilogy... that's the lord of the rings of Universal Horror (as opposed to, say, The Matrix trilogy, which would be the INVISIBLE MAN box). The first two are rife with intentional mythic symbolism and eccentric British character actors, cronies whom director James Whale brought over from the London stage to Hollywood. The beauty of Karl Freund's stark black and white photography meshes brilliantly with Whale's gift for staging and lurid symbolism.

If you've grown up watching these films on UHF TV, you will be with jaw agape as whole swaths of detailed information on coded sexual relations is made apparent through the inclusion of long-excised scenes such as the infamous "Now I know what it feels like to be God" line and the actual tossing of the girl into the pond. Hunts through the mountains by torchlight for "the monster!" have morphed from merely exciting small screen stuff to magnificently gloomy Art especially if you have a big screen or projector. All the sequels follow a continuing storyline, picking up where the last left off - with the monster now frozen in oil or crusted over by dry sulfur, waiting to be revived by yet another foolish operator with delusions of godliness.

For SON OF, Bela Lugosi shows up as a crazy proletariat hunchback who controls the monster via his Pan-like pipe through to GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, then the Wolfman shows up and suddenly the production values dip a bit, you realize there's another world war going on behind the camera, and the paucity of lurid decadence shows it - Lon trying to stay sober, looking for his silver bullet ticket out of town, and in FRANKENSTEIN VS. THE WOLFMAN, Bela Lugosi in the throes of drug addiction, struggling under an oppressive mantle of stage makeup as the monster. But that's actually over in the Wolfman set, which is a whole other ball of wax.

After that there's a few more in the story and then it dies a rather timid death in the seemingly censor-transcribed HOUSE OF DRACULA. But for the $$ you can't go wrong... all the giddy delights of classic horror are wrapped up here for cheap, so don't be a chicken... take the plunge into the war-sandwiched nether-Europe of Universal.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Marketers they Just Dont Understand

Now if you want to get me to buy your DVD, you need a cover like this! I got this today for the cover alone - let's see why:

1. Hip reference to archaic silent expressionism
2. Hot chick with blonde flip and 50s white summer dress- in b&w!
3. The colors red and black
4. Vanishing Point-ala-Saul Bass psycho-post-expressionist backdrop.

This is just a freebie to all you market research cats out there! Tell your art directors to take a note and promote whomever did this one, because they got their finger on my pulse!
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