Friday, November 26, 2021

Review: 'Gothic: An Illustrated History'

Gothic is a bit like that old pornography rubric: I know it when I see it. Dracula? Gothic. King Kong? Not Gothic. The Cure? Gothic. Metallica? Not Gothic. Gothic isn't just the monstrous, or the dark, or the nihilistic. It is ruined structures. It is shadows. It is urbane yet corrupt. It is beautiful and ugly in such close proximity that it is impossible to decipher which specific features are beautiful and which are ugly. Robert Smith tripping on acid with his jet-black bird's nest, smeared lipstick, and vulnerable pout is Gothic. James Hetfield guzzling Bud in denim is not.

Roger Luckhurst keeps his definitions much more specific and academic in his new book Gothic: An Illustrated History. Yes, he agrees that Gothic involves ruined structures, monsters, and blurred borderlines, but he has no problem defining King Kong or Godzilla as Gothic characters because they're monsters and monsters are Gothic. I don't know where he comes down on the big "Is Metallica Gothic?" question because he completely ignores Gothic music. He does address architecture, art, literature, design, and film, so Gothic: An Illustrated History, so it would be unfair to call the book limited, and the writer does cover these topics with authoritative command and novel organization: the chapters are largely organized according to locations, which allows a great deal of discussion of ethnicity and cultures, revealing the racism at the heart of a good deal of what might be considered Gothic. However, by ignoring Gothic music and fashion, Luckhurst leaves a major gaping hole in his book and fails to complete the definition he valiantly works to construct.

The illustrated format of Gothic would have also lended itself very well to discussions of Gothic music and style, since both of those strands are so closely entwined--after all, Robert Smith and Siouxsie Sioux are probably the Goths most Goths strive to emulate. There are no images of those two Gothic icons, but there are plenty of images of architecture, furniture design, fine art, and horror movie stills that make each turn of the page a thrill. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Review: 'You've Got Red on You: How Shaun of the Dead Was Brought to Life'

After about two decades in the grave, the zombie genre seemingly reanimated when Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later became a smash hit in 2002. Except that movie wasn't really a zombie movie. And it didn't really portend the variety of zombie movies that would soon swarm theater. There'd be movies about Nazi zombies, and sheep zombies, and beaver zombies, and chicken zombies, and stripper zombies, and Regency zombies, and on, and on. All of these movies were quite unlike 28 Days Later. On paper, they were more similar to Shaun of the Dead, though none had the wit, humanity, or sheer originality that Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg poured into their script. Not that anyone was expecting much originality from a film with a title that may have been sufficient for a marquee in the background of a Simpsons episode, but was hardly worthy of a movie that didn't go direct to video, as many assumed Shaun would. As influential and sensational as the film became, it initially seemed like it would be little more than awful. Studio after studio rejected the project. Even participants in its making, such as actor Rafe Spall and cinematographer David Dunlap, had zero faith in the film. Dunlap did a piss poor job of hiding that on set.

The difficult gestation of Shaun of the Dead caused no end of heartaches and headaches for Wright and Pegg, but it makes Clark Collis's new book You've Got Red on You: How Shaun of the Dead Was Brought to Life both engrossing and triumphant. Collis also chose the right film to study for maximum participation of original participants. The makers of Shaun were well aware of the major role fans played in their success--not only dedicating themselves to public appearances upon its opening, but also roping in fans of their previous project, the sitcom Spaced, to play its sundry undead. All these years later, Pegg, Wright, Spall, Nick Frost, Lucy Davis, Kate Ashfield, Jessica Hynes, Bill Nighy, and many other cast and crew members were only too happy to rehash their often happy, often trying experiences making Shaun of the Dead for super-fan Collis. We also get remembrances from more periphery players, such as Michael Smiley, who played a recurring character on Spaced, but only appeared briefly in Shaun as a zombified version of his Spaced character; Coldplay's Chris Martin, who has a cameo in the film as himself; and Gillian Anderson, whom Pegg's Spaced character wanks over in one potentially embarrassing episode. All these people share their memories because they clearly love Pegg, Wright, and Shaun. How could you not?

Published by art-book publisher 1984, You've Got Red on You is also a beautifully designed hardcover with metallic embossing on its cover, a ribbon bookmark, and bloody-red gilt-edged pages. 

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Review: 'Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child'

In the introduction to their new book, Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child, Harvey and Kenneth Kubernik point out that "virtually no one claimed to know Hendrix." This sort of absolves them from digging any deeper than the myriad existing books exploring the life of the guitar genius (at least 300, according to the curator of an exhaustive Hendrix website). However, their oral history approach makes one hope they might uncover something new, something personal, something that sheds at least a little new light on what made Jimi Hendrix so different, so innovative, so remarkable. Yet, even his own sister, Janie, doesn't provide any revelations. More often than not, the book's contributors react to Hendrix, like rubes recounting sightings of UFOs speeding over cornfields. He was shy. He was visually striking. He had trouble with audiences who wanted to put him in a box (more than once he is frustrated with dum-dums shrieking for "Purple Haze" while he has other things to express). He was brilliant. 

This isn't a knock against Voodoo Child, because anyone who has ever seen the special edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind knows how disappointing it is to go inside the UFO. Some mysteries are worth preserving, and if few got close to Hendrix, that fact ultimately may be the story to tell. And the Kuberniks do interview or quote people who personally knew Hendrix: producer Eddie Kramer, fellow black artist in a white scene Johnny Echols, bandmate Billy Cox, tour-mate Micky Dolenz, friend and rival Pete Townshend, and so on. Even Janie Hendrix says that she has been learning more about her own brother by curating his legacy as president of the Experience Hendrix company. Oddly, there are quotes from neither Mitch Mitchell nor Noel Redding, whom Moody Blue Justin Hayward speculates may be the only people who really knew Hendrix.

Voodoo Child is also a great-looking book, a small-scale yet photo-filled hardcover as resplendent in color as one of Hendrix's outfits or guitar solos. You may not learn anything from it, but you'll love looking at it.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Review: 'Northern Exposure: A Cultural History'

After Twin Peaks became a sensation on the strength of its complexity, filmic aesthetic, mysticism, quirkiness, and small-town appeal, it was inevitable that other such oddball shows would follow. The first one that seemingly slipped onto a network while clutching Twin Peaks' tail was Northern Exposure, but Joshua Brand and John Falsey actually had their series in the works for a while and had already proved their quirk credentials when they created St. Elsewhere. Northern Exposure also outlasted Peaks' mere season and a half by playing nicer with audiences and not depending on a central mystery said audiences demanded be solved before completely losing interest upon its solution.

While Northern Exposure survived longer as a first-run series than Twin Peaks, it has not survived nearly as long in terms of impact. While there are dozens of books, articles, and doctoral theses devoted to Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure has attracted far less interest. So Michael Samuel's new book Northern Exposure: A Cultural History should fill a void, though there just isn't enough to it to really get the job done. The bulk of the book is a five-chapter, 100-page survey of the series' inspiration, development, content, and legacy. One chapter is mostly made up of short descriptions of characters and bios of the actors who played them and another is a series synopsis, and neither is likely to reveal anything new to NX cultists. By far the most interesting sections are the ones on Roslyn, Washington, the real life setting of Northern Exposure that had a love-hate affair with the series that put it on the map, and the one on the series' background that sheds a lot of light on the decisive role Brand and Falsey played in forcing TV to grow up. 

Beyond page 100, the remainder of Northern Exposure: A Cultural History is mostly an episode guide with brief plot descriptions, script quotations, and occasional explanations of how particular episodes reflect important themes in the show. Samuels also contributes some simple and rather charming line drawings to illustrate his text.

[DisclosureNorthern Exposure: A Cultural History is published by Rowman & Littlefield, which owns Backbeat Books, the publisher of my own books The Who FAQ and 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Minute.]

Monday, November 1, 2021

Review: 'The Essential Directors: The Art and Impact of Cinema's Most Influential Filmmakers'

The auteur theory tends to get overstated when examining the very collaborative art of filmmaking. Nevertheless, the most distinctive directors do tend to have the final say when it comes to the look and philosophy of the films they manage. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of cinema could identify a film that, say, Fritz Lang, Stanley Kubrick, or Steven Spielberg directed from just a single carefully selected still frame. Other very famous directors, such as Robert Wise and Billy Wilder, are less identifiable by visual style than they are by point of view (Wise: optimistic; Wilder: pessimistic). Plus, directors have flashy jobs that require a certain gregariousness, or at least a big mouth. Hunching over a typewriter like Robert Towne or adjusting a lens like Gregg Toland is not as attention-getting as DeMille shouting through a megaphone in his jodhpurs.

Sloan De Forest's new book The Essential Directors: The Art and Impact of Cinema's Most Influential Filmmakers celebrates these most celebrated people to work behind the cameras. Like other volumes published in Turner Classic Movies' series of film studies, The Essential Directors consists of short entries each with a bit of background history, a bit of critical assessment, a few recommendations for representative works, and lots and lots of fabulous photos. More so than the series' volumes on horror films and summer movies I've reviewed here on Psychobabble, The Essential Directors refuses to rock the boat too much with its selections, mostly only straying from the household-name canon to acknowledge that white men didn't always helm movies with entries on Oscar Micheaux, Lois Weber, Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, and Elaine May. Consequently, those are among the book's most interesting and informative entries. De Forest could have diversified his selection a lot more if he did not limit himself to directors who worked in Hollywood before 1975, but I guess that would have been outside the scope of TCM's programming.
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