Thursday, 9 August 2018

The Comeback

I’ve just finished reading James Kaplan’s 2010 book, Frank: The Voice, the first volume of Kaplan’s two-book chronicle of the life and times of Frank Sinatra, concluding in some dramatic fashion with the making of Fred Zinnemann’s 1953 film From Here To Eternity, and the re-making of Sinatra’s faltering career. I found Kaplan’s book to be a little tacky in places, too frequently the author indulges in the kind of coarse vernacular Sinatra used when his temper flared (“She didn’t give a flying fuck. She wanted to see her husband” writes Kaplan about Ava Gardner), but this final section of the book made for compelling, absorbing reading. Previously I had only a sketchy knowledge of Sinatra’s life (and music) and it came as some surprise to discover how low Sinatra’s post-war career had sunk – by 1952 Sinatra was regularly playing half-empty theatres, and was once spotted walking in Times Square alone and unmolested, the bobby-soxers long since retreated. What’s remarkable is how finely tuned Sinatra’s instinct was for what a part like the scrawny but tough Italian-American street guy Angelo Maggio could do for his career. Even before Columbia announced their acquisition of James Jones’ novel, Sinatra had earmarked the part for himself, obsessively learning the character’s dialogue and Brooklyn speech rhythms, and in the months that followed, campaigned vigorously for the role, firing off weekly telegrams to Columbia czar Harry Cohn, always signed Maggio. Despite Sinatra negotiating a demeaning cut-price salary with the studio, Cohn still favored Eli Wallach for the role but it was Fred Zinnemann who finally settled on Sinatra after seeing screen test footage of him performing two scenes from the film. Watching From Here To Eternity again, I was surprised to see how slight Sinatra actually was, his thin bony frame momentarily put in mind Richard Wordsworth’s emaciated prisoner of war in Hammer’s 1958 film Camp On Blood Island. But regardless of his modest physical stature (and he was perfectly cast in this regard, the character in the novel a tiny curly-headed Italian with narrow bony shoulders jutting from his undershirt), Sinatra is superb as Maggio, and the equal of his co-star Montgomery Clift – no small thing considering Sinatra on previous pictures delivered his scenes in one or two takes.

Sinatra was no Method actor but I wonder did some of Clift’s technique rubbed off on set – one gets the impression that Sinatra was harnessing that fierce temper and perhaps the sense of anxiety he often felt in those lean years - look for that genuine look of weariness on his face when he falls into the clutches of Ernest Borgnine’s sadistic stockade warden. The performance earned Sinatra an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, but in later years it seems his triumph was tinged with a certain ambivalence, remarking that his portrayal of heroin addict Frankie Machine in The Man With the Golden Arm was more worthy of an Academy Award (Sinatra was nominated but lost out to his former tormentor Ernest Borgnine who picked up the statuette in 1956 for Marty). And much later Sinatra’s involvement in From Here To Eternity was the source of some embarrassment for the singer after the release of The Godfather, which propagated the myth that Sinatra had employed the services of the Mob to land the part of Maggio. If the down-on-his-luck crooner Johnny Fontane sprang entirely from the imagination of Mario Puzo, perhaps the novelist was remembering an earlier rumor that Sinatra used unsavory connections to release him from his contract with bandleader Tommy Dorsey, a story Sinatra always brushed aside but nevertheless persists to this day…

Thursday, 2 August 2018

The Second Coming of William Bennett

I never expected to be writing words in praise of William Bennett but this past week I’ve been enjoying the work of the power electronics pioneer, two albums in particular, but more about that in a moment. This renewed interest in Bennett’s music was inspired by a lengthy interview Bennett gave to Resonance FM back in 2003, and despite the interview’s vintage, serves as a terrific chronicle of Whitehouse’s long 28-year history (Bennett ceased activity as Whitehouse in 2008 to concentrate on his next musical incarnation Cut Hands). A lot of ground is covered over the two hours – Bennett’s early interest in music, his views on Throbbing Gristle, the influence of de Sade on his own writing and philosophy, the use of provocative subject matter, working with Peter Sotos and Steve Albini, and so on. What emerges from the discussion, quite unexpectedly in my case, is Bennett’s intelligence and wit, an artist who’s fastidiousness with his own work but perhaps most surprisingly of all, Bennett’s sensitivity – not something I had considered from the man who penned songs with titles such as I'm Comin' Up Your Ass, and Wriggle Like A Fucking Eel. Back in the late 90’s I picked up some early Whitehouse albums making their debut on CD – Birthdeath Experience, Erector and Dedicated To Peter Kurten, and instantly disliked them for their hysterical vocals and the extreme frequencies, not to mention feeling shortchanged by the albums’ short-running times. All three CDs rarely got played over the years, but this week, following on from the Bennett interview, I’ve been reacquainting myself with these albums with a fresh perspective. The Erector and Peter Kurten albums remain uncompromising as ever, but I’ve been enjoying tremendously Birthdeath Experience these past few days. There seems to be a consensus that Whitehouse’s 1980 debut has dated badly over the years, an opinion that sounds suspiciously like the kind of macho-posturing one tends to find in the Noise scene. Instead, I would consider the album the most accessible of Whitehouse’s discography, Bennett had yet to further reduce the Whitehouse sound to its most basic and disturbing elements and Birthdeath Experience has more shade and color (and effects) than subsequent albums, and there are some surprisingly expressionist vocals too, Mindphaser in particular sounding genuinely unsettling. And I like the closing title track, 3 minutes of Cageian silence which I suspect played better in the pre-compact disc era, where the white noise of the preceding track Coitus give way to the gentle crackle and surface noise of vinyl.

The other William Bennett work that I’ve been listening to this week, not a Whitehouse album, but another starting point of sorts has been Afro Noise I, the debut album by Cut Hands, Bennett’s exploration of African rhythms and percussive instruments and sounds. I picked up this album a few years ago and was impressed by its power and velocity but after a few cursory listens, I filed the album away and all but forgot about it. Fortunately in the intervening years my interest in African music steadily developed thanks in no small part to labels like Analogue Africa and Soundway, which places the Afro Noise I album in a much more appreciable context. There’s an overlap between Whitehouse and Cut Hands – three of the tracks on Afro Noise I appeared on previously released Whitehouse albums (none of which I have) forging a link between Bennett’s projects, but Cut Hands on the whole is a far more accessible and richer listening experience, with its intricate polyrhythms on tracks like Stabbers Conspiracy and Shut Up And Bleed and there are dark and disquieting washes of sound on Rain Washes Over Chaff and Bia Mintatu, while ++++ (Four Crosses) almost strays into Ambient territory. And lest we forget that Cut Hands did evolve from Whitehouse, the high frequency tones on Nzambi Ia Lufua are genuinely painful on the ears. I’ve read that Bennett has accompanied Cut Hands shows with visuals that featured African symbols and calligraphic images and I could imagine some of the more extreme sequences from Africa Addio or Richard Stanley’s 2002 film The White Darkness, which explores Haitian Vodou working just as well…

Friday, 27 July 2018

Location Location Location...

A supplement to yesterday's post about Chernobyl, I wanted to mention Jacob Kirkegaard's 2008 album 4 Rooms, which provided the soundtrack (among others) to my reading of Serhii Plokhy's book Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe. The Lustmord/Robert Rich album Stalker was also pressed into service over the course of the book, but Kirkegaard's album offered a more profound resonance by the fact that it was recorded within the Zone of Exclusion. Taking inspiration from Alvin Lucier's 1970 sound work I Am Sitting In a Room, Kirkegaard traveled to Ukraine in October 2005 and selected four spaces within the Zone - four abandoned rooms that were once busy meeting places for the people of Pripyat before the nuclear disaster. In each of the 4 rooms - a church, an auditorium, a swimming pool, and a gymnasium, Kirkegaard set up his recording equipment to capture 10 minutes of silence. Upon returning to each of the rooms, Kirkegaard played the recordings back within the space, repeating the procedure a further 10 times to produce a set of dense, layered drones. Using some subtle post-production effects Kirkegaard has given each of the four lonely places a remarkable sonic personality, the overtones infused with spectral echoes and reverberations, and in the case of the recording captured at the gymnasium, a shrill metallic timbre which seems entirely keeping with the curious phenomena of visitors to the Zone experiencing a metallic taste when breathing the air of the radioactive environment. The following pictures were taken by Jacob Kirkegaard during the recording sessions.



Swimming Pool


Thursday, 26 July 2018

Catastrophe / катастрофа

I've just finished reading Serhii Plokhy's excellent 2018 book Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe, and watching some remarkable footage this morning of the liquidators - the brave civil and military personnel tasked with cleaning up the radioactive debris ejected from the stricken reactor 4. Looking at pictures of taken from within Chernobyl’s Zone of Exclusion, the discarded, disintegrating military vehicles; abandoned residential blocks being slowly reclaimed by the wilderness, my thoughts are inevitably drawn to Tarkovsky’s film Stalker and the eerie way the film anticipates life after the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. As per the film, the photographers who took these pictures may well have sneaked into the Zone (strict permission is required to pass thru the military checkpoints), and perhaps a guide or a stalker was required to lead them around pockets of radiation - apparently the poisonous radioactive dust that coats the Zone is more prevalent on foliage than asphalt roads. Something else to reflect on was the high number of crew members, including Tarkovsky, who developed cancer in the ensuing years – most probably from working in the poisonous ruins of the Estonian power station where Stalker was filmed. Seeing the film nowadays I can’t help but wince when I see the actors wading thru pools of dirty water (think of the famous shot of Alexander Kaidanovsky dozing in the stream), or negotiating their way thru spaces filthy with toxic dust. Perhaps one can draw a parallel between the Chernobyl liquidators and the Stalker crew - both groups heroically struggling in the face of adversity to complete their missions; the liquidators working to limit the environmental damage, and the Stalker crew battling to get Tarkovsky's film made after the catastrophic loss of the first draft of the film...

Thursday, 5 July 2018

The World that summer....

Spotted over at the Internet Archive, Dark Side #20 - May 1992, or more specifically, the Video Nasties issue. I've mentioned this hallowed issue a few times on this blog, and yet I cannot stress enough the importance of this sacred text in this 15-yr old's film-watching life - before it came out, I had scarcely heard of Cannibal Holocaust or Last House on the Left, and then suddenly it was as if a wall had come down to reveal a completely different view. I remember well that glorious summer of '92, spending countless afternoons in darkened video shops hunting down the more tantalizing titles. As primers go, the Nasties feature is strictly entry level stuff - if you've landed on this page with little or no clue about the United Kingdom's Video Nasty phenomena, it's a decent enough whistle stop tour thru the Director of Public Prosecutions' hit list, but there are better studies out there - Davids Kerekes and Slater's 2000 book See No Evil: Banned Films and Video Controversy remains the definitive word on the subject. For more seasoned viewers, the Dark Side's roundup is worth reading as a vintage piece. Perhaps the prickly tone of many of the reviews was down to the reviewers having to contend with aging, fuzzy VHS copies (and fuzzy memories no doubt) - some 25 years later, with the advent of DVD and Blu-Ray, we've come to better appreciate the charms of Don't Go Near the Park and Snuff Worth noting too the idiosyncratic selection process - minor list entries like The Funhouse and Dead & Buried are awarded full-length reviews while more significant titles like Blood Feast and Fight For Your Life and relegated to a few remarks in an addendum section.

But that's not all. Elsewhere in this issue of The Dark Side is a terrific David Cronenberg interview, discussing his latest film Naked Lunch (which was lambasted in a later issue when it premiered on video), and it's followed by a Cronenberg filmography with some typically fascinating commentary by the director - mostly culled from Faber's Cronenberg on Cronenberg book it must be said: (On Scanners: "I was exploding heads like any other young, normal North American boy") Before I close, be sure to check out the excellent selection of books and fanzines the uploader has generously shared

Friday, 18 May 2018

Trailer insanity

Some ballyhoo from the trailer of the seedy 1968 Peter Cushing Horror, Corruption. Single guys are advised to check local listings... I'm currently watching, or rather cherry-picking my way thru Synapse's inaugural 42 Street Forever trailer comp, and the clip from Corruption always stands out for its fish-eye lens shots of a frenzied Cushing. I've often wondered what it must have been like to see a picture like Maniac at the Lyric Theatre on 42nd Street, when Times Square was at its most dangerous ("Maniac ! It will tear the life out of you!" warns the trailer's voicover.)

Meanwhile, the perennial favourite of trailer comps, I Dismember Mama / The Blood Spattered Bride trailer, is surely the most irritating promo in the annals of Exploitation Cinema. Watching the trailer just now I noticed that The Blood Spattered Bride title has undergone a subtle tweaking for the marquee seen in the master shot of the theatre, here playing as the The Blood Splattered Bride. My initial thought was that the film's Stateside distributor Europix Interational put it out as The Blood Splattered Bride, but the title card and poster art all have it as Spattered, so it looks like this snafu was confined to the trailer !

In somewhat related matters, earlier in the week I stumbled across this pic Kim Newman posted on his FB page, a snapshot of the Eros Cinema, Picadilly London during its grindhouse heyday. I'm carbon dating this picture to 1984 when Conquest was first released in the UK on a double bill with Forbidden World. It's always a pleasure to see grindhouse marquees at full swing, being from a younger generation, I sometimes find it hard to believe that something like Conquest (fond as I am of this underrated Lucio Fulci fantasy) actually played in a theatre, but here's the proof. And to get back on topic, notice that the marquee painter got the film taglines mixed up ! More pictures of the Eros can be enjoyed here. Incidentally, look out for the Eros Cinema's cameo in American Werewolf In London doubling as the porno theatre showing the faux-blue movie See You Next Wednesday 

Friday, 20 April 2018

Frank Doubleday (1945-2018)

Frank Doubleday as the sinister emissary Romero in Escape From New York... I chanced upon this scene in John Carpenter's film last night, (broadcast on the Syfy channel and looking horizontally squeezed to the point of being unwatchable), and I had to wonder if Carpenter had based Romero's striking look on Klaus Kinski ? I haven't listened to the film's commentary track in over 10 years but I don't recall it being mentioned. And I see a certain resemblance to Captain Howdy too, not to mention a certain similarity to Brad Dourif's character Piter De Vries (another emissary of sorts) in Dune, made a few years later. Rather than post a traditional still of the scene I found this beautiful piece of fan art, originally posted here

I generally don't do obituaries on this blog, but a few days ago I learned that actor Frank Doubleday had passed away on the 3rd of March, so I'd like to use this post to mark his passing. Doubleday worked primarily in television, with few substantial film credits to his name, but thanks to John Carpenter, he has achieved a certain immortality - if his scene in Escape from New York is one of the more memorable moments in the film, Doubleday landed an equally if not more striking scene in Assault on Precinct 13, playing the Street Thunder gang member who shoots Kim Richards' 12-year old Kathy at point blank range - a wanton killing that still shocks today...

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up

The news of Barbara Bush passing away at the grand old age of 92 has me listening to Ministry’s 1990 live album In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up this morning – the connection being that the former first lady had the dubious honor of being included in Al Jourgensen’s infamous roll call at the conclusion of a particularly savage rendition of Stigmata. I’m listening to the expanded edition of the album released last year as the 2-disc Live Necronomicon, and it sounds fantastic, a more faithful document of the original performance without edits or added overdubs. If the new edition can claim to be definitive, I still think the original album, even with its post-production adjustments remains a powerhouse of incendiary post-Industrial rock, and it’s worth keeping if only for the artwork – a pity Ministry didn’t retain it, opting instead for what seems like a meaningless tip of the hat to The Evil Dead’s Book of the Dead, but then again the band have always indulged in appalling artwork. Regrettable too that the release of Live Necronomicon didn’t prompt a DVD upgrade for the In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up VHS tape, an extraordinary film of the Indiana show, augmented with a battery of psychedelic effects, different film stocks and speeds, hyper cutting, and layered with all sorts of found footage and surreal imagery, pre-dating Natural Born Killers by some 14 years. Thankfully it’s available on youtube

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Boyz n the Hood

Ice Cube spirals in ever decreasing circles in Boyz n the Hood, John Singleton's brilliant 1991 debut, which I revisited last night... I recently finished Jeff Chang's 2005 book Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, a sweeping chronicle that begins in the dilapidated third world neighborhoods of the South Bronx in the early 70's and concludes some 20 years later in the smoking embers of the Los Angeles riots. Originally I had wanted to follow up Chang's book with a screening of Dennis Hoppers' Colors, but after learning something about life in LA's gang neighborhoods (and the brutal tactics practiced by the LAPD) Boyz n the Hood felt like a more appropriate choice. I seem to revisit Singleton's film at various epochs of my life, and with the advancing years, Boyz n the Hood assumes greater significance - now that I'm a parent, the struggles of Laurence Fishburne's Furious to keep his son beyond the reach of crack and guns resonate more profoundly with me than ever before. All the more remarkable that John Singleton was just 24 when he wrote and directed the picture. I'm reminded of the early 90's when the South Central region of Los Angeles became the quintessential inner city-hell destination for the armchair tourist, with the tide of films and records that emerged in the wake of Boyz n the Hood - films like South Central, Menace II Society, Friday and albums like Death Certificate and The Chronic, all helped shape a mythology, and a stereotype that I myself have bought into - I remember driving along one of the main arteries in Los Angeles a few years ago and seeing a slip-road for Crenshaw District, I felt momentarily anxious, that a wrong turn would end in disaster for myself and my rental car. I don’t think the good people of Crenshaw would appreciate such typecasting…

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Face to Face with Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman is never far from my thoughts these days, the forthcoming BFI box will surely be, for me at least, the home cinema event of 2018. The BFI box has been delayed by a week so I’ve been trawling thru youtube for Derek Jarman related videos, and found the excellent BBC Face to Face interview Jarman recorded in 1993 before his death in February the following year. The 40min interview feels very much like a last will and testament, and sees Jarman looking back over his life in his usual erudite, and indeed honest fashion – interviewer Jeremy Issacs is perhaps a tad too preoccupied with Jarman’s sexuality at times, but Jarman discusses it and other related matters (being HIV+) with typical good cheer…

In related matters... I've been revisiting the 1995 Eno/Wobble collaboration Spinner this morning, and while it's one of Eno's better albums from an era which saw him slide increasingly into mediocrity. Despite Jah Wobble's fine contributions to the album I can't help but think of it as the poor cousin of Eno's magnificent soundtrack for Derek Jarman's final film Glitterbug, which Spinner is salvaged from (I use the word salvaged because Eno has expressed a certain indifference for the soundtrack). In fact the best stuff from Spinner is when Jah Wobble leaves the Glitterbug music alone (as in the gorgeous Garden Recalled). I'm hoping Glitterbug will be included in the BFI's second Jarman box (Artificial Eye's 2007 DVD of Blue/Glitterbug has gone OOP  clearing the way for the BFI), and it would be nice to see an optional subtitle where the various Super8 footage is annotated, similar to the original Arena screening back in 1994. I mention this because I shared a few comments recently on Facebook with the team lead on the Jarman-BFI box and requested this. One can hope !

Thursday, 15 March 2018


"Max, I would like you to try this on for size"... Listening this morning to Howard Shore's soundtrack for Videodrome, and quite an extraordinary 30-odd minutes of New Flesh it is too. The soundtrack contains all the music from Videodrome but augmented with additional electronic effects and processing. One might even call it an early example of remixing and reconstruction, which seems very appropriate to Videodrome's theme of mutation and "reprogramming". It's a surprisingly abrasive suite of music too, with torrents of electronic noise sometimes overwhelming Shore's central Videodrome theme music, and anticipates glitch music by a good decade - the opening few minutes of the soundtrack could easily be mistaken for an Autechre track as layers of sound squelch, squiggle and ricochet off one another to dizzying effect. Meshing with the cold, mechanical textures are Shores's beautiful use of strings, which remind me of Goreki's Symphony No. 3, as they soar into the upper register (and put to excellent use in the film's final sequence when Max Renn embraces "total transformation"). Incidentally, the album sleeve credits Alan Howarth for engineering duties, forging a link between Videodrome and the great electronic soundtracks of Escape From New York, Halloween II, Halloween III: Season of the Witch...

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Celebrating the Greater Sex

I'm marking International Women's Day today in the company of four extraordinary, inspirational woman from my record collection...

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Rattus Italiano

Some Bruno Mattei borrowed with thanks.... I've just polished off James Herbert's 1974 debut novel The Rats, and while there's no explicit association between Mattei's post-apocalyptic thriller and Herbert's novel, I very much approached the book as if it were an early 80's Italian splatter movie. I don't wish to belittle Herbert's skills as a writer, but imagining the film as an over the top Italian import acclimatized me to some of the more ludicrous parts of the novels - an infant torn to shreds in its cot, a nymphomaniac alcoholic stripped to the bone, and in one of the book's biggest set pieces, a London Underground station besieged by hordes of flesh-hungry rats. Mattei would need a considerably bigger conveyor belt for that sequence but the films of Mattei and his contemporaries are the perfect foil for Herbert's novel - neither of them apologetic about being in the Horror business. Thinking about it now, The Rats could have easily ran as a series in those early issues of 2000AD, perhaps Invasion, with rats replacing Volgans, the hard-as-nails anti-establishment Bill Savage the only thing standing in the way of the UK being reduced to a vermin-infested wasteland... Lair is next...

Friday, 2 March 2018

Criterion of the Living Dead

I watched Criterion edition last night and was very pleased with the presentation - to beat a cliche of the HD era - the film looks so fresh it could well have been shot yesterday. Along with along with Thundercrack!, the Criterion Night of the Living Dead is perhaps my most eagerly awaited title - I first heard speculation that Criterion were putting it out some years so this edition seems like a long time coming. The addition of the Criterion Blu brings an inevitable touch of sadness as it spells the retirement of my cherished Elite DVD, which has seen active duty for nearly 16 years, and a disc that still looked very impressive when I saw the film again last year. Now, I can almost hear the Criterion disc bellow: "Now get the hell down in the cellar. You can be the boss down there, but I'm boss up here!". Wonderful too, that the film with its coveted Criterion spine-number will introduce the film to viewers who may have previously shrugged off the film as B-movie trash, and its place in the Criterion collection will do much to banish memories of the shoddy treatment of previous home video versions, namely the horrendous colorized edition and the abomination that was the so-called 30th Anniversary with its added scenes - "anal-raped" as Todd Doogan memorably described this assault on Romero's film when writing about the various editions DVD editions of the film for The Digital Bits. So, all good ? Well not quite. The transfer may be outstanding but I'm less enthused about Criterion's packaging. I remain lukewarm about Sean Phillips' artwork (and in fairness, it's no easy task to come up with an original piece of artwork for this the umpteenth video release), but shame on Criterion for putting out the film in a thoroughly flimsy digipak sleeve, with the two discs stacked on top of one another. It's fortunate at least that it comes in a protective slipcase because, this one goes up pretty easy....

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Karloff's Heart of Darkness

"He's out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct"... Boris Karloff goes native as Kurtz in the 1958 Playhouse 90 adaptation of Heart of Darkness. Another one of those mind-boggling rarities that turns up on youtube, this one is decidedly lo-fi but worthy of investigation. I've only watched a few moments of it here and there and it looks bizarre indeed. I'm coming at this from an Apocalypse Now angle (rather than Conrad), and it's worth noting that this adaptation was written by Stewart Stern who was the screenwriter for Rebel Without a Cause and The Last Movie, both of which involved Dennis Hopper, and a further connection to Coppola's film. Interesting to imagine what Apocalypse Now might have been like had Martin Sheen's long journey up to the Nung River led to an aging, depleted Boris Karloff (who would have been closer to Conrad's vision of Kurtz than Coppola's) and I do enjoy pondering an alternatively cast Apocalypse Now. Recently, I was hotly debating with some friends, the idea of Steve McQueen playing Willard, and while they flatly disagreed, I think McQueen would have been a better choice than Harvey Keitel or Al Pacino. But I digress... The Playhouse 90 Heart of Darkness can be viewed here: here