Friday, 21 May 2021

Massacre Time: Lucio Fulci in Vietnam

Arrow Video are set to release a new boxset of Italian Westerns in July, entitled Vengeance Trails: Four Classic Westerns, and among the quartet is Lucio Fulci's 1966 film Le Colt Cantarono la Morte e fu... Tempo di Massacro, or Massacre Time as it's most widely known as these days. I'm reminded that Fulci's film is mentioned quite unexpectedly in Mark Bowden's 2017 book Huế 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, a gripping account of the battle waged by Vietnamese and American soldiers for the city of Huế (pronounced "Hway"). At one point in Bowden's street-by-street, building-by-building reconstruction he writes:

Leaving some of his lead platoon to hold the north end of the bridge, Meadows sent Lieutenant Mike McNeil with the remainder into buildings across the street. It was a commercial district. There was a movie theater advertising the Italian Western Tempo di Massacre (Massacre Time) - a title that struck Meadows as both macabre and apt... 

It's pleasing to see Fulci's film momentarily stumbling into the narrative but I wonder was Bowden using a bit of journalistic license to add some color to the story ? Certainly, it's plausible that Fulci's film was playing a theatre in Huế in the early months of 1968. The chronology is at least correct: according to Stephen Thrower's authoritive book Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci, the film had its first public screening in Italy in August 1966 and if the dates on the imdb entry are to be believed, the film was in distribution in various Asian countries the following year, such was the popularity of Westerns in Asian markets. And yet, the notion that an American soldier under heavy fire would take note of a title on a film poster (a title in Italian no less!) strains belief. Huế in the 60's was a cultural and intellectual center in Vietnam but I haven't found any evidence to suggest Italian Westerns actually played in Huế or other metropolitan Vietnamese cites - so much scholarship from that era is preoccupied with the American War and the cultural shift that took place after the country was reunified. But no matter, Mark Bowden's book is a masterpiece of military history and if you enjoyed the fiery cauldron of his 1999 book Black Hawk Down, and indeed Stanley Kubrick's film Full Metal JacketHuế 1968 will be a vivid and compelling read.

Italian posters for Lucio Fulci's Massacre Time

Thursday, 13 May 2021

In this month's... Sight & Sound (June 2021)

The latest issue of Fangoria Sight & Sound has arrived and it's refreshing to see the magazine letting its hair down and having a bit of fun on the cover, with Butcher Billy's splendid Video Nasties themed artwork set against a background of color bands that mimic the rainbow lines motif commonly seen on slipcases that housed blank VHS tapes. Inside the magazine Mark Kermode speaks to director Prano Bailey-Bond about her 2021 film Censor set during Britain's halcyon pre-cert VHS era of the early 80's when a slew of violent and transgressive films, many of which had been refused a certificate for cinema exhibition were made available on video. In the film, a censor initially repelled by the content of the videos she examines is drawn into the world of low budget horror films to the point where she can no longer distinguish reality from make believe. On paper it sounds like a mash-up of Videodrome and Berberian Sound Studio, and it will be interesting to see if Sight & Sound's endorsement (S&S writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas has called the film "an electrifying debut") is deserved. The film is reviewed in the July issue.

Sight & Sound (June 2021)

One particular ace up Censor's sleeve is the involvement of Kim Newman, serving as the film's executive producer and advisor, and for the Sight & Sound issue he contributes a fine essay on this most controversial chapter of British home video history. Newman recalls that during the debate on the subject, there was the question among film scholars as to whether the titles that were caught up in the dragnet constituted an actual genre a la film noir, or were simply a collection of disparate films that were chosen with little more than a glance at their lurid titles and VHS artwork. It's a fascinating question and worthy of discussion but as Newman reflects, the notion had real life consequences for the anxious videoshop owner who was never quite sure if having a copy of say the Vampix edition of Eaten Alive on the shelf would prompt a reprimand from disapproving police officers. Eaten Alive was typical of the Italian cannibal films that appeared on the DPP lists of contentious titles, it even boasted one of more sadistic and disturbing VHS sleeves of the pre-cert era. And yet astonishingly it never came to the attention of authorities. I tend to think of the list of 39 titles that were prosecuted as essentially random and the selection criteria used haphazard - why a film like The Werewolf and the Yeti appeared on the same list as I Spit on Your Grave makes no sense but as Newman suggests about another innocuous title I Miss You, Hugs and Kisses, perhaps it took little more than a complaint from a disgruntled renter to secure its place on the list. Looking back on the Nasties phenomena - the tabloid scaremongering, the ludicrous soapboxing by politicians and self-appointed guardians of morality, the furor seems as quaint as the demonization of EC Comics in the US in the 50's, and yet the romance of these once outlawed titles has never gone away. Nowadays, the majority of the Nasties can be seen with the censor's blessing and in expertly curated, uncut Blu-Ray editions, but still the very thought of The Devil Hunter and Forest of Fear immediately conjures up grotty VHS cases sitting in the darkest recesses of the videoshop...

Thursday, 6 May 2021

The World of David Bowie

I've just finished reading Daryl Easlea's lead feature on David Bowie's 1970's masterpiece The Man Who Sold The World in the May 2021 issue of Record Collector. The circumstances that led to the recording of the album and the inherent mythology that surrounds it - the album's proto-heavy metal licks, the arrival of Mick Ronson, the eerie sci-fi Moog textures, the dress and cowboy covers, the influence of Terry Burns, have all been documented elsewhere in forensic detail, but Easlea's article is superb nonetheless at capturing what was an incredibly exciting time in Bowie's life and music. Seemingly a world away from the songs Bowie had written for the album is the Decca compilation The World of David Bowie which is included in a sidebar of the article - the connection being that the Decca album was the only Bowie record issued in the UK in 1970 - The Man Who Sold the World was still 11 months away, finally arriving in April 1971. Interestingly, Decca's World of... series was more than a vault-emptying exercise, the label's intention was to give curious listeners an affordable introduction to an artist, and the series, if the Discogs listing can be trusted, lasted well in to the 80's. Bowie was pleased that he was joining the likes of Mantovani and Val Doonican on the World of... series, and Bowie himself selected the songs for the album - 10 tracks from his 1967 debut David Bowie plus a few essential odds and sods - The London Boys, Karma Man, Let Me Sleep Beside You and In the Heat of the Morning.
The World of David Bowie - left 1970 edition, right, 1973 editionI'm pleased to be reminded of the album again, which served as my introduction to Bowie's pre-RCA years. It was soon supplanted by more comprehensive compilations such the 1972 double-album Images 1966 - 1967 and the 1981 compilation Another Face, which included two Davie Jones numbers Liza Jane and Louie, Louie Go Home but I remain very fond of the World of David Bowie nonetheless. My copy of the album is not the original 1970 edition but 1973 re-press which updated Bowie's 1969 curls to a very 1972-era Ziggy mullet for the sleeve shot, and I'm currently listening to the album, after a fashion, courtesy of the Deram Anthology 1966-1968 CD, programmed to follow The World of David Bowie track listing. Incidentally, the 1973 Dutch re-press which also features the Ziggy cover subtly replaces the fabulous When I Live My Dream with the not so fabulous Laughing Gnome !

Thursday, 29 April 2021

Make Room ! Make Room ! (Laserdiscs vs Blu-Rays)

Something I was pondering earlier as I was making more room of my shelves for some Blu-Rays arriving tomorrow: in terms of packaging, if I had the chance to reconfigure all my Blu-Rays to the laserdisc format (let's pretend the laserdisc was just as accommodating as a BR disc) - would I ? I love the physical look and feel of laserdiscs, and I'm imagining what the specialist labels like Masters of Cinema, Indicator and Second Run could do with the format, in terms of artwork, gatefolds, inserts and 12" booklets. In the eternal battle for shelf space, I find the 40-odd laserdiscs I have a far more tidy option in terms of storage - I could probably fit twice as many laserdiscs on the shelf as Blu-Rays. Oddly enough, I've never felt the same way with vinyl vs CD. The reduction in artwork size is regrettable, but the compact disc has always been my preferred music format - who would want to listen to Music for Airports with the silences filled with surface noise ? The laserdisc wave passed by Ireland without so much as a ripple so perhaps that's why I find the format still strangely futuristic. - my Japanese Warner Blade Runner laserdisc has always felt like the most appropriate format for the film...

My very neat and tidy laserdisc collection

Monday, 26 April 2021

Fat City (1972, dir. John Huston)

I watched Fat City last night courtesy of my old US DVD from 2002, whose tired looking transfer seemed to add to the film's grimy ambience. I'm tempted to call John Huston's film a classic of skid row poetry; it's certainly a classic, but even Tom Waits would find it hard to mine much poetry from this one, as the fate of two boxers is played out among the broken down streets, derelict lots, one-night cheap hotels and last-chance saloons of Stockton, California. I'd wager that screenwriter Robert Siegel had the film in mind when he wrote what would become Darren Aronofsky's 2008 film The Wrestler and perhaps Steve Buscemi's took some inspiration from Huston's film for his 1996 film Trees LoungeFat City is one of two late-career John Huston masterpieces, the other being 1979's Wiseblood, and the film is good enough to cash in my barebones DVD for Indicator's 2017 Blu-Ray which comes with a bounty of fascinating supplements, including a commentary track from film historians Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman, which for once I will put aside an hour and a half to listen to. All that to come, but for now, I indulged in a spot of armchair tourism earlier courtesy of Google Earth, seeking out locations seen in the film. My copy of the usually reliable The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations has no entry on the film, and perhaps that's not surprising: much of the area where Conrad Hall shot those bleached-white streets and dimly-lit bars no longer exists, having been torn down after the filming was completed to make way for a highway. Outside of the film, I hadn't any previous knowledge of Stockton, but passing thru parts of the city and neighborhoods on Google Earth, very little has been done to rid the region of the blight of urban decay, with poor housing planning, poverty, drugs, and neighborhoods lost to gang violence. It's no wonder Stockton is one of California's most undesirable places to live.

Fat City (1972, dir. John Huston)

If the film gains immeasurably from the shooting locations, so too is the film well served by the terrific cast, a mix of well known actors - Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, Candy Clarke, and non-professionals who were not so removed from the film's milieu, and I was especially fond of Curtis Cokes, a former World Welterweight Champion and trainer who plays the soft-spoken Earl with a tremendous dignity, even when fending off his erratic alcoholic lady. There's a great turn too from Art Aragon, another former boxer who plays the assistant coach. Good as Stacy Keach and a young Jeff Bridges are, Susan Tyrrell runs away with the film, playing Oma, an irascible, impetuous alcoholic. It's a shame she had such a patchy film career, but among the more forgettable fare she acted in, there were noteworthy pictures like Andy Warhol's Bad, Forbidden Zone, Tales of Ordinary Madness, Flesh + Blood, and Cry-Baby, plus voice work for two of Ralph Bakshi's animations Wizards and Fire & Ice, plus narration for the Dawn of the Dead documentary Document of the Dead.

Friday, 23 April 2021

In this month's... Electronic Sound (No. 76)

Push and Mark, the editors of Electronic Sound magazine suggest reading the latest issue sitting outside with a cup of tea and that's exactly what I did earlier, with the morning sunshine bouncing off the magazine's customary expanses of white space. The lead feature in this month's issue is David Stubbs' interview with Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti as they reflect on the music they produced as Chris and Cosey. This piece works well as a sort of prequel to the Carter Tutti feature in the March 2015 issue of The Wire. It's good to be reminded of the couple's post-TG albums, 1981's Heartbeat and the follow-up Trance (1982), both retain traces of TG DNA in Chris' rhythms and Cosey's cornet playing. In some respects the music became less interesting as the 80's wore on but albums like 1985's Techno Primitiv and 1987's Exotika have their moments. Perhaps their most widely heard track, the 1983 single October (Love Song), a lovely electro-pop confection ought to have been a sure fire hit but wasn't, such are the mysterious ways songs catch fire with the record-buying public, or don't in this case, but Chris and Cosey to my mind have achieved a level of success far beyond record sales. As they explain to David Stubbs, as early as 1981, they were offered to join Grace Jones on a world tour, and there were invitations from Depeche Mode and Blancmange, all of which were turned down so they could concentrate on their music and raise their son outside the glare of the limelight. Cosey's health problems in the late 80's notwithstanding, the duo managed to weather their four decade long partnership with little turbulence - there were none of the chemical burnouts that Coil suffered or the kind of disquieting antics that supposedly went on within Psychic TV. Closing out the feature is handy little primer on Chris and Cosey's albums which are now long out of print on CD. Perhaps Mute might consider a series of re-issues at some point.

Chris Carter & Cosey Fanni Tutti aka Chris & Cosey

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Satisfactions that are Permanent: Monte Hellman 1929-2021

Monte Hellman, the great American film-maker has passed away at the grand old age of 91. I was first introduced to Monte Hellman by Alex Cox, who often mentioned the likes of Two-Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter during his introductions for film screened as part of BBC2’s Moviedrome’s cult film season. Indeed Hellman’s signature film Two-Lane Blacktop was screened as part of Moviedrome’s 1989 season, but this was just a little before Cinema became one of my obsessions. In fact for a number of years, Hellman’s film were almost like rumors; impossible to get hold of here in Ireland, and I had to wait a few years for the arrival of DVD to secure Stateside copies of Two-Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter and Iguana (all courtesy of Anchor Bay) and The Shooting (VCI). The best of Hellman’s films are hard to pin down, and their pleasures not easily explainable. They can be mysterious and elusive, obscure and aloof, but most film scholars will agree that his best work are among the most remarkable films in post-War American Cinema. He was also the greatest director, Peckinpah included, of Warren Oates with whom he made four masterpieces with: the aforementioned The Shooting, Two-Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter and their last film together, the underrated and underseen China 9 Liberty 37. I’m looking thru filmography section in Brad Stevens' excellent 2003 biography Monte Hellman: His Life and Films and I’m reminded of the often uncredited film work he did, having a hand in The Intruder, The Terror, Dementia 13, The Wild Angels, St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Head, Shatter, The Killer Elite, Avalanche Express, The Awakening and Robocop. Hellman was famously generous and supportive to film students, often taking them out of the classroom and into the field on his own productions and in the 90’s he became a sort of godfather to the American Independent scene when he helped secure financing for Reservoir Dogs, earning an executive producer credit.

To mark the passing of Monte Hellman, I watched Two-Lane Blacktop last night. By right I should have chosen Ride in the Whirlwind or Iguana, two Hellman films I haven’t seen enough, but the pleasures of Two-Lane Blacktop are inexhaustible, and despite numerous screenings over the years, the film retains that special mythical quality. As ever I’m fascinated by the casting of James Taylor in the film, and here he delivers a strikingly hesitant, even uncomfortable performance. I often wonder was the making of the film difficult for Taylor who famously had never seen the film until it was released by Criterion in 2007 (which Taylor put down to in part to the film being long unavailable, which is true), so it’s nice to see him in the pictures below looking relaxed and cheerful.

Filming Two-Lane Blacktop: James Taylor, Monte Hellman and Dennis Wilson

Filming Two-Lane Blacktop: Dennis Wilson, James Taylor, Laurie Bird and Monte Hellman

Filming Two-Lane Blacktop: Monte Hellman, Warren Oates and James Taylor

Watching the film again last night, it occurred to me that Taylor’s Driver is nursing a kind of death wish – not in the conventional sense, but it’s as if The Driver’s failure to make a connection with Laurie Bird’s Girl, results in his giving up the last vestiges of his humanity to meld with the Chevrolet 150. The Driver never sleeps in the film, unlike The Mechanic and G.T.O., and when The Mechanic suggests he get some sleep, The Driver replies: “I feel good. I can take it all the way”. It’s as it The Driver has become a man-machine, such is his obsession for motion. Famously in the film, the race between the Chevrolet and the Pontiac simply peters out, that the race was never about pink slips anyway, but about the rituals involved (engine maintenance, getting across states without being noticed, picking up the necessary cash at grudge matches). When G.T.O exits the film, the story finally runs out of road and the film is effectively over, and while The Driver has yet another drag race to take part in, the celluloid itself seemingly exhausted from these ever decreasing circles, combusts as if to say, “Enough, no more!

Sunday, 7 March 2021

Birth Certificate: Rating Birth of a Nation

I mentioned in yesterday's Birth of a Nation post that I first encountered the film in the pages of Empire magazine when their September 1994 issue reported that the BBFC had awarded the Connoisseur VHS edition a 15 certificate. In addition, the Board prepared an onscreen text introduction to the film alerting viewers to the film's racist content. This edition marked the first legal release of the film since the introduction of the Video Recordings Act in 1984, previously it had had a pre-cert release in 1981 courtesy of Spectrum Video. The Empire writer evidently didn't feel the BBFC introduction was warranted but nowadays I think it only proper that this important work of Cinema be openly acknowledged as a vile and deceitful film. Such things are helpful too in placating those who would consign the film to oblivion. Currently the Masters of Cinema and BFI Blu-Ray editions are no longer available to purchase on Amazon UK which is an ominous sign. Will Gone With the Wind be unavailable one day I wonder ? Thankfully Griffith's film can still be ordered direct from the labels.

Birth of a Nation (Empire magazine, September 1994)

Saturday, 6 March 2021

Birth Pains: Revisiting D.W. Griffith's Racist Epic

I'm currently reading Battle Cry of Freedom, James McPherson’s brilliant and comprehensively detailed book 900 page chronicle of the American Civil War, and the occasion gave me opportunity to revisit Griffith’s Birth of a Nation last night, courtesy of the Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray. I’ve seen Birth of a Nation perhaps 3 or 4 times in the 20-odd years since my first discovery of the film in 1994, when Empire magazine ran a story about the BBFC's awarding of a 15 certificate for the film's VHS release on the BFI's Connoisseur label, an unprecedented age restriction for a Silent film. I remember too catching portions of the film in the latter half of the 90's when it was routinely screened here on one of Ireland's TV channels as part of a Sunday morning Silent slot. The film finally entered the Collection in the early 2000’s with Kino’s Griffith Masterworks DVD edition, followed by the MOC BR 2013 or thereabout. Screenings of Birth of a Nation have always been something of a dry academic exercise, and yet, I’ve always appreciated Griffith’s film as a landmark moment in the evolution of narrative cinema, and admittedly, it was convenient to put the problematic question of the film’s racial politics at arm’s length. In the 10 years or so since I last saw the film much of this distasteful content had faded from memory. But with the film fresh in my mind, I must now confront how absolutely despicable the film is in its treatment - on both sides of the camera, of African Americans. 

NAACP members picketing outside the Republic Theatre in New York, 1947

The worst excesses of the film’s racist cant are found in the second half of the film, set during the Reconstruction era, but throughout the film, African Americans are portrayed in the most dishonest and reprehensible manner, depicted as childish and subservient, drunken, wild and lascivious; with the history of the era warped to suit the themes of Griffith’s deceitful film. It says a lot about Woodrow Wilson’s own views on race, when he famously pronounced that the film was “… like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true" - an astonishing remark from a sitting American president. In the accompanying MoC booklet, Griffith is quoted quite unashamedly as saying he didn’t want to use African American actors among the principle players, and interestingly, there are plenty of African Americans among the wider cast. As per the legend, Griffith made the film without a written scenario so one wonders what exactly Griffith was barking at the African American cast members during the scenes he directed them in. Watching the film again, I had that unpleasant sensation of being complicit in the film’s vitriol and this screening may well be my very last. When Spike Lee included a scene in his 2018 film BlacKkKlansman, where some white supremacists giggle at a screening of Griffith's film, I think Lee was suggesting that Birth of a Nation as it stands today is a film best enjoyed by idiots. And he may be right.

Friday, 12 February 2021

A Dismal Orb

It's not terribly obvious from the picture below, but I was sad to discover my copy of The Orb's Live 93 CD has succumbed to disc rot. This was not entirely surprising, considering the CD matrix bears the dreaded "Made In UK BY PDO" etching. It was discovered in the mid-90's that CDs manufactured largely between 1988 and 1992 at the Philips and Dupont Optical (PDO) plant in Blackburn (“4000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire!") were beginning to exhibit discoloration on the playing side of the CD due to, and I'm quoting Wiki here, "lacquer used to coat the discs was not resistant to the sulfur content of the paper in the booklets, which led to the corrosion of the aluminum layer of the disc " I had seen the telltale signs on the Orb CD a few years ago but inspecting the CD yesterday, the rot had spread right around the edge of the disc and caused skips, splutters and drop outs on playback. No big deal, I simply bought a later repressing of the album yesterday, but I'm looking now at other discs of mine known to be affected – two Warp CDs - first pressings of Autechre's Incunabula and Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Vol 2. Happily, neither discs show any signs of deterioration, and both can be replaced easily enough. The one I'm most worried about is my copy of Coil's Unnatural History, which is not so easy to replace but luckily, the disc is so far unblemished. But considering the amount of optical discs I own, CD, DVD, BR it was a sobering moment to discover the Orb disc is no longer playable…

The dreaded sign of CD rot