Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Hate Thy Neighbor, and Bury Them Deep

In my previous review of Hannie Caulder, I once again touched on my love affair with the Spaghetti Western (I still can't bring myself to say the more PC Euro-western), and how their success led Hollywood to try and embrace the stylings of these European productions.  I still haven't seen an American Western that matched or outdid Spaghettis at being Spaghettis (and QT's Django Unchained has yet to be released...and looks to deal more with the Blaxploitation/Spagetti crossovers that were made toward the end of the Euro-western cycle (I did it!)), but at the same time, there are many Spaghettis that fail, for me, because of their attempt to match American Westerns.  The more operatic and mythic they get, the better they tend to be.  The more traditional they get, the more you start noticing the gaping plot holes and wander about all the pointless and drawn out fistfights.

That said, I sat down for a Spaghetti Double Feature.

Hate Thy Neighbor (Odia il promissimo tuo, 1968) d. Ferdinando Baldi:

After his brother is killed over a stolen treasure map, Ken Dakota and the local coffin-maker head into Mexico in search of the outlaw Gary Stevens, but Stevens is also mixed up in multiple double-crosses over the map with sadistic landowner Chris Malone.

Bury Them Deep (All'ultimo sangue, 1968) d. Paolo Moffa:

Gunslinger Clive Norton is hired by the U.S. Army to track down outlaw Billy 'The Gun' who's stolen a shipment of gold. So Norton takes along another outlaw, El Chaleco,  and the two men track down Billy while dodging a gang of Mexican bandits who also hunt the stolen gold.

I can sum up my reviews of both films by merely saying: I had fun watching them, but no, they didn't crack any of my "Top..." lists in any respect.  Both were fairly mediocre examples of the genre, and most of the talent involved had been involved with better Spaghettis.  That's a part of the problem: the greats were the ones that became most easily available as DVD began to pick up titles, and having seen most of those, you could say I'm working my way down the ladder.  A few times I've dipped into the dregs, but these certainly didn't warrant that description either.

Now Hate suffers from what I mentioned above, in that it seems to be going for a more traditional American Western feel.  The ubiquitous Euro-movie bad guy George Eastman's outlaw character is saddled with the hilariously non-bad guy name of "Gary Stevens".  The opening of the movie is actually quite good as a man runs through the town looking for help or shelter from the pursuing outlaws, but being chased by "Gary Stevens"sounds more like a bully problem at recess in the third grade.  This is unfortunate, as Eastman and his German counterpart for ubiquitous Euro-movie bad guy, Horst Frank, who also has a mediocre baddy name, are the most fun things about the movie.  And director Baldi did far better work with the kooky flick Blindman (1971, which featured Ringo Starr as a Mexican Bandit!) or the somber Forgotten Pistolero (Il pistolero dell'Ave Maria, 1969).

Bury Them Deep, on the other hand, has a far more Spaghetti feel, but lacks both compelling (in the Spaghetti sense) heroes or villains.  None of the actors are bad, per se, but neither can they compete with Van Cleef or Garko or Gian Maria Volont√©.  Hill was much better in Tonino Valerii's Taste for Killing (Per il gusto di uccidere, 1966).  In all, a fairly by the numbers affair, which if you've seen enough Spaghettis (or movies in general), you see where the twists are coming while they're still way out on the horizon...and they make about as much sense half the time as you expect them to. (Also, like many Spaghettis, it features the "Bank of El Paso" set from For a Few Dollars More in an early heist scene.)

Now, since I brought up this American v. Euro-western (that's twice!) comparison, I should mention that both of these films had the one aspect that tend to make most Spaghettis fun: bizarre and creative death/torture scenes.  Hate featured the novelty having characters square off in a provincial gladiator style with iron-hooked gauntlets with wicker shields, and at one point Horst has Eastman hung upside down over a snakepit while above him, rats in a cage gnaw at the honey-covered rope.  Bury had the leads first tied to stakes in the sun while (obviously non-venomous) snakes started coming at them, and then later, the far more creative torture of having them tied to nooses from the same rope while balancing on a tossed together seesaw.

And to think, people only assume that modern movies could give people wacky ideas.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Dr. Lao is Coming to Town!

Of the many complaints about the internet, one that often comes to mind is how the rare and bizarre have now become commonplace.  I remember how long it took for me to track down movies like Eraserhead and El Topo on VHS or digging through bins for old comics, rare music, or long out-of-print books.  Now, it's not even a matter of on-line shopping, but with forums and blogs (...like this one! oops!) it only takes moments to delve into whole worlds of esoterica. And while those who are into the weird and rare want to share these lost gems, but...well, the truth is WE, as individuals, want to share them, like gatekeepers.  It's a selfish act: we do the searching, and we want the gratification of knowing some rarity.  But what's more, there's a reverence for these things...they're just not for everyone.  It's all a strange cycle, since, as the lost and forgotten, they weren't for everyone in the first place.

(The cover for a later paperback, as I lack a cool dust jacket for mine)

When I was in Texas last, still in love with digging through dusty stacks and bins, I found a first edition copy of The Circus of Doctor Lao by Charles G. Finney (not to be confused, as I was several times, with Jack Finney, author of The Body Snatchers...as in Invasion of...).  Sadly, the dust jacket was missing, but otherwise, it's a fine copy.  Now Doctor Lao was one of those oddball classics I'd often heard of in the strange circus/carnival pulp subgenre (I'm still on the lookout for a copy of Fred Brown's Madball.), but it's a far sharper satire than the pulp company I've often heard it mentioned in.  And while, it's not so well known now, it was the source for a grandiose MGM production, The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) starring Tony Randall and directed by sci-fi legend George Pal.

The book's plot, what little there is, concerns a strange circus of legendary beasts and figures that comes to the small town of Abalone, Arizona led by the mysterious Dr. Lao.  The locals, after quibbling over the contents of the circus parade, attend the spectacle of strange delights in small vignettes that eventually culminate in the final show in which they experience a sacrificial ritual to the god Yottle.    The film, however, adds a well-worn Western plotline, by which a wealthy landowner seeks to buy out the locals who are unaware how valuable their land will be when the railroad arrives.  After experiencing the circus and through the magical interferences by Lao, the townsfolk and the wealthy landowner experience a change of heart.

Though the film is an enjoyable wonder to watch (it was one of the first films to receive a special nod from the Oscars for its make-up effects), it unfortunately eliminates much of the book's sharp satire.  In the written episodes, each of the local characters are explored, and their interactions with the wonders on display (the satyr, the medusa, etc.) directly corresponds to the type of people they represent. One of the few that makes it in wholesale to the film conerns an older woman who has her monotonous and boring fortune revealed to her by the legendary Apollonius of Tyana.  Though he tells her that she won't get rich off her land nor marry any handsome stranger but will live a life of petty drudgery, she still emerges claiming that he revealed the possibility of a bright future.  The tone, however, has been changed as Apollonius appears sad to reveal such things in the movie, but merely delivers the prognostication as a matter-of-fact rebuke to a wasted life in the book. (I believe the point being, in both cases, people will believe whatever they want to believe no matter what you tell them.)

The other interesting facet of the book that the movie somewhat preserves is the way that Dr. Lao's speech varies between polished and educated, and an extremely stereotypical pidgin English.  In the book, it again seems to be a part of the commentary as well as merely a trait of the contrary character of Lao.  The level of his speech often appears to change depending on the nature of the character he's addressing: those who seek wisdom get one version, and those who demonstrate their ignorance get the other.  In the movie, however, it often plays only on the level of offensive stereotype, especially when wed to the fact that this is a white actor portraying an Asian character.  While watching films from this era and earlier, it's up to the viewer whether to damn them for such portrayals, or write if off as being "just part of the time period."  Lao as a character, however, shifts from the page where he plays a more mystical guide character outside of good and bad (√† la Merlin), to a more supernatural assist character who is there to help along the good characters with things they could not achieve on their own. I would argue something like Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie, but that would be inaccurate and merely to wedge in Barbara Eden who also stars in the film.

In all, it presents one of those difficult conundrums: you can't literally translate the book into a film (certainly not a Hollywood film), but while the liberties they take translate into a fairly effective film, it changes the tone of the book.  At the same time, despite the alluring possibilities with the visuals based on the wonderful characters, one still has to wonder how they thought this would ever make a movie at all.  In any event, both exist, and I would very much recommend tracking down the book as it is a fun read and provides plenty of food for thought, but if you'd like to see the movie, I can't say it's not worth if if only for Randall's performances in a myriad of roles beyond just Lao and the general gaiety of the spectacle.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"The First Lady Gunfighter..."

Maybe it was because I was first introduced to the world of the Western through the films of Clint Eastwood that I was never able to enjoy the genre as a whole.  To my grandmother's infinite dismay, I never took a shine to John Wayne.  She complained that Clint had the same expression whether "he's shooting a guy or kissing the girl" to which I replied that Wayne came off the same to me.  I probably saw The Outlaw Josey Wales the most as a kid, but I remember taking an afternoon to watch The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly with my dad, and I was hooked on that desolate, yet operatic, overblown vision of an Old West that had more dirt and grit than the average Western but was at the same time even less realistic.

Apart from Leone's Dollars movie with Eastwood, I didn't really know what a spaghetti western was until probably Junior High, and I didn't get to see any others until college (Thanks Vulcan and I Love Video in Austin!).  It was a whole other bizarre and fascinating world: exploitation films of the wild west as interpreted through the vision of European filmmakers.  In the 60's, in the U.S., the western was foundering. After all, it had been the most popular and highly produced genres since silent films, but had lost steam after fifty plus years. Leone's films would give it a much needed shot in the arm, and upon seeing their success, Hollywood not only imported more movies from the deserts of Almeria, Spain, but even tried making a few, like Hang 'Em High (1968), A Town Called Hell (1971), and today's subject, Hannie Caulder (1971).

(Sadly, this movie was the best I could do as tribute to Ernest Borgnine. RIP.)

Raquel Welch plays the titular gunfighter, who sets out on a path of revenge after being raped by the Clemens Brothers who killed her husband.   Hannie enlists the help of a seasoned bounty hunter, played by Robert Culp, who gets her a gun and instructs her in the ways of gunplay.  Together, they go in pursuit of the Clemens Brothers through the country side and towns. Fairly standard, straightforward Western stuff, yes?

There's only one huge problem. The Clemens Brothers, played by Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and Strother Martin, are introduced as a cruel and callous bunch, and the rape scene, while not on the level of Irreversible, is about as pleasant as...well...a rape scene.  From there, however, the trio takes on an unbelieavably bungling tone: imagine the Three Stooges as cowboy hat wearing villains and you're about there.  Strother Martin had played a similar role as the screeching dirtbag bounty hunter in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, but that hadn't been for the laughs this movie was looking for.  It's one of the strangest tonal shifts I've ever scene.  Now, this is a revenge movie, like many movies of this genre are, but I've never seen one that started so dark then try to shoot for something so light.  It doesn't help that Welch goes from being a rape victim to this...
That's a perfectly sexy image BUT not after a brutal gang rape!

The movie never really recovers from this weird inconsistency, which is a shame, as it seems like it should've been fun if they had come up with almost any lighter scenario for putting Welch on the Clemens' trail.  After all, three of the best Western character actors, Borgnine, Elam and Martin, play the bumbling brothers to the hilt, and seem like they're having a great time. Culp plays the intelligent gunfighter admirably.  There's even a strange cameo by Christopher Lee as a seemingly Mexican gunsmith.  However, there's definitely a reason this movie hasn't become the lovable midnite movie fodder that Welch's other vehicles like Fantastic Voyage (1966) or One Million Years B.C. (1966) have over the years, and I'm going to guess that first act gang rape in a movie largely played for laughs pretty well sums up why.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Big Noir Sewer

"...he'll always be Big Jim to me, because he wrote big." - Stephen King

When I was a kid, mystery/thrillers held about as much fascination for me as romance novels.  I was primarily only familiar with the general banality of what I saw on the book rack at the grocery store.  It certainly wasn't the section that I ran to at the book store.  Admittedly, the crazy illustrations of rocket ships blasting off for worlds unknown in the sci-fi section fell more in line with my comic book reading, but I must admit that it was the horror genre that initially made a heavy reader out of me.  I think it was the hardcover Stephen King books that had been lent to my mother that initially caught my eye.  Poltergeist had petrified me at around six years old or so...but something about those covers remained tantalizing.  Me and horror called it a draw, and I delved in with The Stand.  For a kid, the superflu ranks significantly below "pants shitting scary" than The Shining. (As an adult, whole other story.)

It must've been the movies that convinced me to seek out something in the genre, and it wasn't long before I came to love the term 'hardboiled.'  And that's where I would find Jim Thompson.

I haven't read all of this books.  In fact, I only like to read one every other year or so.  It's the curse of the deceased author: once you've torn through them all, you can't ever read one again for the first time.  The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 remain my favorite Thompson novels, which is sort of odd as their almost the same book about crazy small town lawmen, but while Pop. 1280 has a very comic tone, albeit dark, Killer is just plain ice in the veins psychotic.

Then, I came across a copy of King Blood in a used bookstore. Hardcover. $1.  I knew it's reputation as one of Thompson's later works, but for the price, I had to delve in.

In a nutshell, the King family is a true bunch of sons of bitches. Critch King, a petty hustler, is coming home to the spacious Oklahoma Ranch of his father, Ike King, a landowner of some ill-repute.  The King's are sort of the old West version of the mob: yeah they do underhanded deals and aren't above a quick kill, but there is still a code to uphold. On the way, Critch manages to rob a young lady, who turns out to be part of a killer duo with her sister that she just ran out on, which sets off a sordid chain of events that just keeps getting more sordid as it goes.  (I'd give you more, but you just sort of have to read this upping of the level of darkness' ante for yourself.)

And there's certainly nothing new about that if you're familiar with Thompson's stuff...but...here...well, it just doesn't quite work.  I've racked my brain on what seems to have gone wrong.  The characters are there.  The dialogue is there.  The situation's a little over the top, but not anymore ludicrously so than a lot of other crime novels.  Somewhere along the line, however, it goes from Thompson's usual hardboiled frontier crime drama to strange frontier melodrama.  There's just something silly about what used to be straight up bad ass.  In Thompson's other books, the characters had a certain pathos as they took the express train to hell, but here, there's something a little sappier and dopier about them.  But it's nothing I can pinpoint because, like I said, everything's the same...and yet not the same.

Crime fiction legend James Ellroy wrote the forward to the edition I picked up (definitely not the one pictured above), and he probably put it the best: "It's psychopathic slapstick".  So, that's not to say it's not a fun read, it is, but it's definitely not top of the list or the place to start if delving into the dark world of Jim Thompson.  King Blood is more for a guilty pleasure after you've covered the greats.

(On a side note: In retrospect, it was funny that I eschewed crime fiction for Stephen King only to find out years later what a fan King was of the genre himself.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Magic of Line

More than once I've argued that drawing is the harder discipline than painting.  Painting in many respects is blocking out objects in space in color, so that, in even some of the crudest paintings, the objects can still be distinguishable.  Drawing, on the other hand, relies not only on the quality of line but the conscious choice of how and where to use lines to represent form and shape.  I think it one of the great ironies that John Singer Sargent was criticized in his time for drawing with the paint (as opposed to painting with the paint?).  And yet the two are so elegantly co-dependent: my drawing informs my painting as much and as often as my painting informs my drawing.

So, on opening day, I marched up the hill (literally, the tram was packed and taking far too long) to the Getty Center in Los Angeles to take in a show of Gustav Klimt's drawings.  In all, fighting an enormous crowd, I went through it piece by piece three separate times.  Well, more accurately, I went through it once, then cleansed my palate (or arguably cluttered it) by going through the entire Getty collection, then went through it a second time, and when the second time came to a close, I merely looped around and started pass #3.  Somewhere in that third pass, I became overwhelmed to the extent that I was then ready to make a swift exit.

So what happened?

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) produced thousands of drawings in his lifetime, and so despite the breadth of work that was on display, it was still only a glimpse.  The show presents the work consecutively, starting with his most classical work through to his mature style.  As with many retrospectives of this type, it's the early work that often provides the most surprise, since the public is usually most familiar with the more popular work.  This is especially true here, as the early work is so detailed and lovingly rendered compared to the pieces that would follow.  In fact, as well rendered as many of the figures in his paintings are, it was surprising just how loose the drawing became.  Not that Klimt would need that level of detail in studies having spent so much time at the drawing board, but I couldn't help but wonder  why it had become so simple.  Ultimately, it's likely a moot point. Most everything on display was studies for future paintings, and not meant to be works unto themselves.  Also, no matter how simply or quickly rendered, there was still an expert yet sensual line on display.

But it was these contradictions of sorts that led to the doubts that had me so ridiculously in my head that eventually, I couldn't look at them anymore.

Admittedly, the crowd was not of much help.  Multiple times I heard people bemoaning the lack of paintings (For those of you wondering, there are 2: one small completed work, and one finished study for another work).  First of all, the show is clearly advertised as "The Magic of Line" with every indication that it's meant to be a show of drawings.  Second: as a master draughtsman, this side of Klimt's work is more than deserving of its own show (The curators did a lovely job of featuring images and details of the finished works that the drawings corresponded to). Finally, with the endless parade of coffee table books, posters, and calendars, it is far less difficult to see at least a reproduction of a Klimt painting than his drawings!  Mainly the problem was just volume, both in terms of noise and simply numbers.  The drawings have a very intimate feel, but that's tough to get at with people squeezing and squishing to jockey for a clearer view.  But, it is a summer show, and it is the highly populated Getty...where more people are often outside snapping photos of each other before a smog-blanketed view of the city than inside looking at the art.

On the flip side, I'm not sure that if I had been allowed to go through it alone I wouldn't have been even more in my head.

I should mention that in the West Pavilion, there's a small room that's referenced a few times in the show for contemporaries of Klimt.  Though it's only a few pieces, I must recommend seeking it out, if only to see a lovely pastel study by Alfons Mucha for one of his famous illustrations.

Gustav Klimt: The Magic of Line is on display through September 23rd at the Getty in Los Angeles.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Flinging Ink...

Famed film director John Frankenheimer once said something about how Los Angeles is not a town for artists.  I'd cite it, but I can't remember where I read it and google's no help.  It's a thought that's stuck with me over the years.  William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald, two of America's greatest novelists couldn't hack it writing screenplays here.  Many of the world's greatest directors struggled making films here.  The "art", as it were, is primarily driven by money, and if it wouldn't make money, it didn't get made...and yet it's still a town filled with creatives making whatever they want.

I brought along a lot of these thoughts when reading Jim Mahfood's recently published Los Angeles Ink Stains Volume 1, a collection of autobiographical comic strips that Mahfood has penned in the years since he arrived in Southern California.  The experience comes across as a pretty gonzo ride and provides an intimate portrait of a man who works both in and outside the system.  His work has appeared in or on everything from comics to hair care products, but you might also find it scrawled on a bar room wall.

From comic conventions to art shows in cities around the world, the strips spend equal time balancing the trials and tribulations of being a working creative with the wild times that such a venture often opens.  But it's not all random encounters with musicians, filmmakers, and other creatives as the series is never above giving a grocery list of what was eaten and where a bed was found for that night.  In fact, it's these little mundane moments that humanizes the experience in a way most Hunter Thompson-style adventures do not.

The lesson, as I took it, was to do what you do and do it to the hilt.  With talent, passion, and the will to walk outside, you'll catch up with those moments where you'll be in the right place at the right time.  Mahfood's not above spilling some churned up bile in the course of the story, but it's the open-eyed excitement of meeting each day, each person, and each experience that makes even the monotony of working at home or working a convention seem like a new opportunity.  It doles out a generous dose of hope, if you're willing to meet life halfway.  And most of all it's honest.  At one point in one nightly adventure, one of the characters asks if what they're doing will end up in Ink Stains, and Mahfood answers "Probably."

The artwork of Ink Stains is quick and simple cartoon sketches that jump cut the reader from one moment, one day, or one week to the next which keeps the read lively.  The book is punctuated with collages of photos for a different view of the variety of characters who've been rendered by Mahfood's pen.  The opening by Herbert Russel is also a fun-filled and frank exploration of the contents contained therein. In all, Ink Stains presents the sort of vigorously scribbled commotion that you would only dream of finding in someone's diary or journal.

Portrait of this blog's author by Jim Mahfood

Jim Mahfood and his work can be found HERE and HERE.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

...and YET another new beginning...

Here we are again.  We just keep coming back.  And rather than rip off this festered, pestilent, gangrenous bandage, we try and make it work one more time.

I enjoyed the challenge of trying to keep a semi-regular stream of new fiction in the blog format.  It made for an easy to meet regular deadline, and always insured that I was working on something new.  Unfortunately, while the internet likes things short, it seems like it gets a little too serialized when you're only posting a page or two at a time.  Add any time off from that because of holidays or a busy schedule, and no one can follow whatever blather you were posting as a storyline.

As promised, I've removed all the fiction from the blog.  If you enjoyed reading my literary creations, I've got a new page up over at Jottify (Click it all up).  Being able to post whole works, both long and short, helps insure a better continuity in the reading experience...though admittedly, I did start a new novel-length experiment that's currently languishing without update for at least a month.

What do I plan to put into this space?  Well, my first blog, The B-List Super Hero Roll Call began as something of a review and rant site, but has since become a place for me to post my art endeavors.  So I thought that maybe I would bring some of that back over here.  True, the internet is perhaps overrun with "reviews" of things...but maybe I really have something to say.  Guess, we'll find out.

I hope to have the first new stab at this up this week, so tune back in, and let's see where the new ride takes us.  Could be Cleaveland...or it could be Paradise.

Here's some 80's schlock with Kevin Bacon to illustrate my point:

Hope to see you soon.