Thursday, May 30, 2013

Review: 'Ride a White Swan: The Lives and Death of Marc Bolan'

The Marc Bolan sound is instantly recognizable, whether it is tucked in the arcane folk warble of a Tyrannosaurus Rex record or the slithery electric jab of a T. Rex one. Marc Bolan the man was harder to define. To some, he was an unlikable narcissist. To many others, he was an endlessly generous, eternally lovable fount of positivity.

Writer Lesley-Ann Jones’s Bolan-fan status can’t be questioned, and though her writing style is decidedly personal (she occasionally injects herself into the narrative, but never in an obnoxious way) she still fashions her compelling Ride a White Swan: The Lives and Death of Marc Bolan with reassuring balance. Jones does not whitewash the elfin wordsmith’s less admirable traits— which mostly stem from his massive, Mama-coddled ego—yet it’s still hard to step away from her biography with anything but love for the guy. That’s an impressive feat considering that his most obviously love-generating quality was his ability to make wonderful records, and Jones doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing Marc Bolan’s music in detail. Instead, she digs deeply into his rarely discussed Jewish background, his childhood as a weirdo outcast, his relationships with David Bowie and Gloria Jones, his hippie lifestyle and attitudes about sex and drugs, and most movingly, his incredibly tragic death and the awful aftermath soiled by greedy and clueless opportunists.

What we don’t get is a lot of ink about Marc’s band mates Steve Peregrine Took and Mickey Finn, which is either an oversight on Jones’s part or a comment on their superfluity in her subject’s life and art. And though Jones did an impressive job tapping the brains of many of Marc’s closest associates, including his love Gloria Jones and their son Rolan, I wanted more input from the man, himself. Alas Ride a White Swan is very short on vintage quotes from its main man. Consequently, Marc often seems as though he’s hiding behind a curtain, just slightly out of focus. In a way, this is an apt aspect of Ride a White Swan, since Marc Bolan loved to try on and discard personas, invent new myths for himself, and play the slightly hard-to-get Wizard of Odd while others obsessed over whether or not his unique lyricism was influenced by a learning disability or—most shockingly of all—he never actually read a single Lord of the Rings book! 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Twisted and Evil: The Influence of Classic Horror on ‘Star Wars’

“The scene where Anakin actually becomes Vader… it’s in the vocabulary of a time—of the 1930s and 1940s.”

-George Lucas, Starlog 2002

It’s always tempting to place pop fiction in a particular bag, and with its aliens, space ships, and interplanetary jaunts, Star Wars is usually dropped into the science fiction satchel. That’s fine for lazy critics, but the series has always been too much of a dabbler for its sci-fi status to ring totally true. Yes, George Lucas was clearly influenced by such items as Metropolis, Flash Gordon, and Dune. He was also profoundly affected by westerns (The Searchers), Samurai pictures (The Hidden Fortress), historical epics (Lawrence of Arabia), and fantasy (The Wizard of Oz). As the above quote indicates, classic horror also creeped into that yarn set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

The Star Wars saga made its most explicit reference to horror movies in 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, when the Emperor plays Dr. Frankenstein by strapping the freshly mangled Anakin Skywalker to a lab table and transforming his protégé into a mechanized monster who lumbers forth like Boris Karloff. The movies “of the 1930s and 1940s” of which Lucas spoke are, of course, Universal’s Frankenstein franchise. Return of the Jedi even attempts to give the series’ nastiest villain a level of Karloff-style pathos by presenting Darth Vader as a conflicted creature. Inverting Karloff’s mute performance, the expressionless Vader conveys this new facet of his once wholly evil character via James Earl Jones’s voice.

David Prowse, the actor who embodies the dark lord, was limited by his bulky costume fitted out with a long, black Dracula cape. However, he did have a strong link to classic horror. Well, at least he had a link to a classic horror production company considering that 1970’s The Horror of Frankenstein and 1974’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell are not two of Hammer Studio’s best products. In the latter film, the hulking Prowse co-starred with Peter Cushing, the actor who has played Dr. Frankenstein more than any other and whose gaunt, angular face is as iconically linked to Hammer as the studio’s logo. That face was always too unique to waste buried beneath mounds of creature make-up. As he did when playing the doctor, Cushing was still able to convey absolute monstrousness without the aid of so much as fake teeth when he played Grand Moff Tarkin, the unrepentant destroyer of worlds who keeps Vader under his thumb. In contrast to his portrayals of Dr. Frankenstein, there is not a wisp of humanity or conflict in Cushing’s work as Tarkin, making this his most evil role-- far more rotten than any he ever played in a pure horror picture.

Perhaps in an effort to link the prequel trilogy to the classic Star Wars trilogy’s links to Hammer, that studio’s other iconic face, Christopher Lee, was cast as the black-caped Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. The character’s unfortunate baby-talk name is slightly ameliorated by his title, which reminds us of Lee’s most famous role, Count Dracula. The title also takes advantage of how Stoker’s vampire has forever transformed the very word “count” into a calling card of evil and monstrousness.

Star Wars dips deeper into the horror handbag and comes up with a menagerie of monsters distinct from the more typical egg-headed, big-eyed aliens common to outer-space fiction. H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, a classic of both science fiction and monsterrific horror, seems to have run a number of Star Wars’ creatures through its house of pain. The series is lousy with Wellsian man-beasts with names like Hammerhead, Walrus Man, Yak Face, Amana Man, and Squid Head. For the most part these overly on-the-nose names were coined by the folks at Kenner who had to come up with titles for their line of toys, and they have since been given less descriptive ones in the plethora of Star Wars novels and character guides. But a Walrus Man by any other name still looks like something that should be sunning itself on pack ice, just as Ugnauts and Gamorean Guards don’t look any less like hogs that recently hopped off mad Dr. Moreau’s vivisection table. Lucas’s dog Indiana directly inspired the beloved Chewbacca, a ringer for Lon Chaney’s Wolf Man. 

An actual wolf man of sorts also makes an appearance in the cantina scene of Star Wars, though this weird crossover was the result of too little time and not enough budget to create the exotic array of space creatures Lucas really wanted. In other words, the Wolf Man mask was simply handy. When Lucas fiddled with his film to make the controversial “special edition” of 1997, the one cantina patron he digitally replaced was the Wolf Man, perhaps because he felt that this creature was a step too far in paying homage to overly familiar horror icons. It may be worth noting that these animal aliens are almost never articulate like the creatures in the firmly sci-fi Planet of the Apes (the one exception is the fish-headed Admiral Ackbar, whose race being called “Mon Calamari” is probably the best joke in the entire Star Wars series), making their ties to the groaning, grunting, growling monsters of classic horror stronger.

The Star Wars series is speckled with other horror references, from the bounty hunters Zuckuss and 4-Lom, who apparently borrowed The Fly’s face, to the Jedis Dracula-like ability to bend weak minds to the Emperor’s Grim-Reaper cloak to the Blob-like Jabba the Hutt to the AT-AT attack, which plays like an onslaught pulled from some monster movie from 1950s U.S. or Japan (another horrory scene from an early draft of The Empire Strikes Back had Darth Vader feeding a flock of pet gargoyles at his Hellish compound). The series even features one legitimately creepy scene in which Luke Skywalker slips into a gloomy cave to confront a Darth Vader phantom, whose decapitated head explodes to reveal the nightmarish face of Luke, himself . It’s all part of Star Wars’ genre-smorgasbord, which may serve science fiction as the main course, but offers too many delectable side dishes to pass up.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Review: 'The Rise of the Vampire'

The title of Erik Butler’s new study is really misleading. The Rise of the Vampire suggests an origin story. Instead we get an all-inclusive history that takes wing with the first time the word vampire was put to paper in 1725 and the creature’s roots in Serbian folklore to the most contemporary depictions of the beast in pop fictions such as “True Blood” and Twilight. In between, Butler explores bloodsuckers in poetry, art, pop music, regional cultures, opera, religion, and politics along with the usual movies, TV shows, and books. He approaches the term “vampire” with smart elasticity, allowing off-genre works such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Murnau’s silent melodrama Sunrise to fit into the discussion as naturally as Nosferatu or Carmilla without setting off alarms that he’s overreaching. Interestingly, the same can be said of his strange theories, such as the case he makes for Quincey Morris being a vampire in cahoots with Dracula.

As a result, Butler manages to present this way over-analyzed topic with novel perspective and insight. I’m pretty sure I’ve never read another book that got into how singing is a sure-fire way to make a vamp lose its threatening potency, and it’s validating to read that Butler apparently squirms in his seat as much as I do when Spike starts crooning his power-ballad bullshit in the “Once More with Feeling” episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Sunday, May 26, 2013

20 Things You May Not Have Known About Peter Cushing

He was the gracious gentleman who played such vile creations as Dr. Frankenstein and Grand Moff Tarkin. He was the glaring, gaunt-face who embodied such noble fellows as Dr. Van Helsing and Sherlock Holmes. Peter Cushing was one of the most versatile, committed, and skilled stars to thrill and charm horror fans. Yeah, you knew that already. So on the 100th anniversary of his birth, let’s glare at twenty things you may not have known about Peter Cushing.
1. Peter Cushing’s grandfather Henry was an actor who performed with Sir Henry Irving in Faust at London’s Lyceum Theater. Irving’s manager was Bram Stoker, who’d one day write a certain novel that would be the source of one of Peter’s most memorable movies.

2. Collecting toy soldiers was one of Peter Cushing’s great enthusiasms, and he didn’t just keep them locked away in some glass cabinet. Adult Peter liked to get down on the floor with his toys and play with them!

3. Coincidentally, Peter Cushing’s first film role was in 1939’s The Man in the Iron Mask, helmed by James Whale, who directed Universal’s 1931 version of Frankenstein. Cushing was cast as a double for Louis Hayward in his dual role as Louis XIV and the monarch’s twin brother Phillipe. Whale also gave Cushing a small on-screen role as the Second Officer, which required him to learn fencing and nearly resulted in serious injury when he accidentally stabbed his horse with his spurs, sending the beast into a scenery-wrecking frenzy and leaving Cushing dumped on the floor of the set.

4. Early in his career, a future member of one of horror’s greatest teams appeared on screen with one of comedy’s greatest when Peter Cushing goofed around with Laurel and Hardy in 1939’s A Chump at Oxford.

5. Unlike that other creepy duo of Karloff and Lugosi, who never enjoyed a close relationship off screen, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee always remained great friends.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Review: 'The Best Film You’ve Never Seen'

As far as I’m concerned, hipping adventurous film goers to undiscovered gems is the most admirable thing a movie writer can do. Robert K. Elder takes an interesting tack in his new book The Best Film You’ve Never Seen by letting filmmakers chuck in their two cents. Their choices are as diverse as the directors Elder chose to interview. Kevin Smith, that maker of talky low-fi character comedies, discusses Fred Zinnemann’s historical epic A Man for All Seasons. John Waters gabs about Tennessee Williams while explaining why he digs Boom!, Joseph Losey’s critically and commercially disastrous adaptation of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.  Contemporary cult director Edgar Wright makes his case for the B-crime picture Super Cops. These were among my favorite entries in the book, not because of my feelings about these particular films—I actually haven’t seen any of them—but because these are some of the more articulate, well-informed, and fan-boy enthusiastic contributors. A few of my own favorite underappreciated and/or wrongly derided movies are discussed on these pages, but I’m not sure if Jay Duplass deepened my appreciation of Joe Versus the Volcano much and I’m sure that John Dahl was off base by instructing viewers to fast forward through the first twenty minutes of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Even when I felt that the interview subjects weren’t pulling their weight, Elder had so clearly done his homework on each film before conducting his interviews that he never failed to salvage each discussion with his own insights and trivial tidbits, making The Best Films You’ve Never Seen a consistently worthwhile read. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

So Long, Ray Manzarek

I was never a massive Doors fan, but I do like a lot of their stuff, and I'd feel remiss not at least mentioning the passing of Ray Manzarek yesterday. So in brief tribute, here's my very favorite Doors song--and one of my favorite songs by anyone. Ray's piano work has a lot to do with why I love this one so much. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Review: The Rolling Stones in 'Crossfire Hurricane'

When Mick Jagger contacted Brett Morgen about making a fiftieth anniversary documentary on The Rolling Stones, the filmmaker rightfully believed Mick wanted a series not unlike the great Beatles Anthology. Not so. Mick was very emphatic about wanting a lean, under-two hours documentary. Why the hip shaker wanted to place such a ridiculous constriction on such a bountiful history is anyone’s guess. This left Morgen with the task of condensing five decades of dirty work and eighty hours of audio interviews down to 110 minutes. I don’t envy the dude, yet as a hardcore Stones freak I can’t be anything but disappointed with Crossfire Hurricane

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Review: 'Yes Is the Answer and Other Prog Tales'

It is long-winded. It is humorless. It is unashamedly grand and robotically impersonal. It is prog, and until hair metal farted onto the scene in the mid-eighties, it was Rock & Roll’s biggest running joke. But time ameliorates shame, and 35 years after punk ostensibly cleared the pomp out of pop, the prog acolytes are finally crawling out of the carpet to reclaim their favorite genre. In a year when Rush has finally been inducted into the cluelessly snobbish Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, anything is possible, including a collection of essays that not only pay tribute to this long-chided form of music but do so in ways that completely contradict its stuffy rep. Long-winded? Humorless? Grand? Impersonal? These are not words anyone would use to describe Yes Is the Answer and Other Prog Tales. Editors Marc Weingarten and Tyson Cornell have gathered twenty writers who discuss how those mathematical soundtracks for D&D all-nighters impacted their lives with humbleness and wit.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Farewell, Ray Harryhausen

He was the father of some of cinema's most memorable monsters: Mighty Joe Young, the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the Ymir, the Cyclops, the Harpies, the Hydra,  the Kraken, Medusa, and an army of sword-swinging skeletons. The great Ray Harryhausen brought these creatures to life through the painstaking process of stop-motion animation and the more refined variation he invented called "Dynamation." The incredible detail of his models and their slightly jerky yet incredibly expressive movements were Harryhausen hallmarks. He is that ulta-rare special effects wizard who is more famous than the directors behind his films. I'm sure few people went to see Jason and the Argonauts because they're die-hard Don Chaffey fans. Director Desmond Davis certainly didn't create as big a buzz for Clash of the Titans as the man who made its mythical monsters shudder to life. Ray Harryhausen ended his feature film career with that 1981 movie (his only animation work since then was on a 2003 animated short based on "The Tortoise and the Hare"). Sadly, more than thirty years later, he too has passed at the age of 92.

The special effects world has changed a lot since Ray Harryhausen made the giant ape Mighty Joe Young move--move physically, and move audiences emotionally. Computer generated effects have all but replaced the kind of practical, "primitive" effects he pioneered. But as futuristic sophistication has overtaken fantasy films, the soul has gone out of so many of them. Ray Harryhausen put his soul into the films he made, and that made them soulful. He will be missed.

Cult Club: 'Primitive London' (1965)

In this feature, Psychobabble looks at classic cult items beyond Horror and Rock & Roll.

Oh, those kids today with their potty-mouthed comedians, tattoo parlors, licentious pop stars, key parties, and bowling. What of Victorian values? What of the days when women didn’t merely remove their clothes in degenerate strip clubs but did so while sharing the stage with good, clean vaudevillians telling corny jokes and crooning cornier songs? What of the Empire?

Alas, the sixties put an end to the England of old, the one The Kinks lamented, often with tongue-in-cheek, on Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur: The Decline and Fall of the British Empire. Primitive London laments similarly, though its long, lascivious tongue is never out of its cheeky cheek for a second.

Arnold Louis Miller released his movie in 1965 when the mores of old were being swung aside by Swinging London’s new libertine ways but films still had to pay tisking lip service to traditional “morality” in order to stay out of the porno theaters. Three years earlier, filmmakers Paolo Cavara, Franco Prosperi, and Gualtiero Jacopetti assembled stock footage of animals mutated by the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests, cross-dressing Gurkha soldiers, Reeperbahn drunks, bikini girls, and other verboten delights into Mondo Cane, creating a box office sensation and pioneering the shockumentary form that would be Miller’s cup of tea. He’d already been making nudist camp pictures with titles such as Nudist Memories, Nudes of All Nations, and Take Off Your Clothes and Live since 1961. With 1965’s Primitive London, Arthur L. Miller expanded his interests to include sports, music, business, and youth culture, though sights of skin are never far away.

The first is the decidedly unsexy image of a woman graphically giving birth to a smurf-blue baby, the attending obstetrician’s “most difficult delivery ever” if you are to believe narrator David Gell’s voice over, and it’s probably best to never trust anything you see or hear in Primitive London. Nevertheless, that baby does not look healthy and it is hard to believe that the kid we see at the end of the film contentedly tugging on its milk bottle is the same one. Getting hung up on such issues, or expecting the unfiltered look at life and death our narrator indicates Primitive London will be, is to miss the point and the fun. Arthur L. Miller is hip to this and his libertine leer always undermines the rote conservatism of his screenplay, which waves its finger at the “true delinquents” with their “incapacity to postpone present excitement in the hope of future happiness” attending a wife-swapping key party one moment while fixing its gaze on the pastie-festooned glamour girls of an old-fashioned burlesque club tellingly called Churchill’s the next.

While Primitive London apparently wants us to find all the radical new developments of Swinging London to be shocking, it slyly and regularly reminds us of the city’s sordid past with Churchill’s, a recreation of the Jack the Ripper murders, and the Turkish baths where quite a bit of “misbehaving” once took place, but apparently no longer does. A visit to a chicken processing plant where conservative looking folks look bored while slitting the throats of and de-feathering birds in gruesome detail makes us long to spend more time with those crazy long-haired kids and their immoral ways.

Primitive London’s cluelessly reductive portrayal of youth culture is one of the more delightful aspects of this shock doc, as Miller divides kids into three categories—beatniks, mods, and some very sweet-faced rockers—that, naturally, the kids reject. Their crazy pop music is represented by the always old-fashioned and already-past-his-prime Billy J. Kramer and the groovier beat combo The Zephyrs. Quite unexpectedly, “Can’t Buy Me Love” makes an appearance on the soundtrack; unexpected both because it’s surprising Miller got the rights to use a Beatles song in his movie (assuming he bothered with such legal formalities) and because he implies that this is the kind of music rockers fancy.

Elsewhere we get a breathless freak show of London life, in which weightlifting, bowling, the advertising industry, and millinery are all made to seem as bizarre as a goldfish undergoing surgery for a fungoid growth. Every six minutes or so, the raincoat crowd that was Primitive London’s chief audience were rewarded with strippers, fan-dancers, beauty pageant contestants removing padding from their underwear, mod girls sharing a bathtub to shrink their Levis to fit, and nude dudes in Turkish baths. Miller’s sense of humor could be a real boner-killer though, as he overlays a striptease with the dancer’s own narration about the exhaustiveness of her work and cutting straight from her gripe about the toll stripping plays on her tootsies to a pair of exceptionally ugly feet having corns removed. Not great for titillation but terrific for titters, and 45 years removed from the Swinging London era it parodied and preserved, Primitive London holds up best as a work of surprisingly smart, often self-aware comedy.

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