Sunday, February 28, 2010

42 Years Later

I am embarrassed to admit this but tonight, February 28, 2010, I saw the film depicted on the right for the first time.

Yeah, I just saw 2001, A Space Odyssey for the first time. Even on a dinky 15-inch flat screen TV, the film lives up to its formidablereputation. I've seen hundreds of movies in my life, avant garde, commercial, exploitation, musical, animated cartoon, horror and any other type you can name. This film is so unique it's hard for me to put it in the context of anything else I've ever seen. It doesn't have a conventional storyline. Instead it's a much grander meditation on the evolution of mankind and our relationship to the rest of the universe. Stanley Kubrick has been accused of showing a lack of  feeling in his later films. That kills a work like The Shining, the world's slowest horror film, for me but it fits perfectly here. The computer, HAL 9000, is the most human player in the film and the relative robotic nature of the flesh and blood characters fits in with their overall insignificance in comparison to the black slabs they encounter and whatever built them.  If that were Captain James Kirk or Han Solo out there going through that light show on Jupiter it would not have been the same.

As imitated, quoted and parodied as this film has been over the last 40 years, it's still amazingly poweirful to watch for the first time. The first chance I get to see this on a proper big movie screen, I am there.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Mojo Workin'

For many years I've preferred to get all my musical info from British music magazines. That began in the mid-70's in college when I began to read Melody Maker and discovered exotic names from all sorts of musical genres like Roy Harper, Hatfield And The North, Lee "Scratch" Perry, and the Globe Unity Orchestra. That gave way to the Punk years of the late 70's and early 80's and my allegiances switched over to the New Musical Express which seemed to uncover some fresh new name like The Fall, Stiff Little Fingers or Joy Division every week and talked about music with a fun blend of sarcasm and excitement. Years went by and a lot of British magazines either consolidated or died off while the writers who made them so much fun went on to other things. I tried out different periodicals until several years ago I came upon the one that would become my musical bible, Mojo.

These are some of the featured artists in the February 2010 issue of Mojo: Corinne Bailey Rae, Ian Dury, Jimmy Page, Slayer, Shane MacGowan and Amorphous Androgynous. That lineup gives some small idea of the magazine's breadth. It specializes in older names, with historical features on innumberable bands from the 60's and 70's but also deals with everything that has happened since then, with a British slant that means they cover a lot of people who were big in England but meant little or nothing over here in the US. Dylan, Stones and Who? Sure, but also The Sex Pistols, Neil Young, Scott Walker, Oasis, Mott The Hoople, Kraftwerk, David Sylvian and almost anyone else you could think of.

Some readers grumble because the magazine dedicates at least one cover story each year to this obscure group from Liverpool called the Beat-somethings who haven't released a new record in thirty years. Seriously, you can hardly blame Mojo for that. Their Beatles covers traditionally sell better than any other issues and the last few years especially there's always been something newsworthy about the group, whether it's the recent Cirque De Soleil-inspired Love remix CD, the Beatles Rock Band videogame or last year's remastered albums. They've also been doing annual 40-year anniversary pieces on the later albums starting back, I believe, with Revolver but that should be over after this year's inevitable piece on Let It Be. They may already have another huge band in mind to dissect. They just finished a two-issue treatise on the concert and film versions of Pink Floyd's The Wall and the latest issue has a piece on the legendary first solo album by Floyd's Syd Barrett, The Madcap Laughs.

Mojo also does its part to promote new musicians and they generally have a good track record in their picks, pumping up the likes of Florence And The Machine, Animal Collective and Fleet Foxes though I don't share their gushing enthusiasm for Kings Of Leon. Overall the magazine is a reliably fun read every month.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Silence Of Navarone

Being snowed in like most of the eastern U.S. the last week, I've passed the time mostly watching a lot of old movies thanks to Netflix, the few DVD sets I have lying around the house and Turner Classic Movies. Something that struck me in watching old 60's and 70's films like The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three and especially The Guns Of Navarone for the first time is how little dialogue there is in some of these films.

Look at Navarone in particular. Long stretches of the film go by without a word of dialogue, which makes total sense since the film follows a group of World War II saboteurs trying to sneak onto a Nazi fortress and blow up a huge gun enplacement. In that setting you would need to keep your mouth shut so the Germans would not find you. If that film were made today by Quentin Tarantino or someone similar, there would be an unending stream of wisecracks and chatter to the point where you'd think the Nazis would have to be deaf not to discover them. In the 1961 Navarone though, only David Niven makes a lot of wisecracks and that is an integral part of his character. They even go to the other extreme with James Darren and have him speak in only two scenes although he is in just about all of the movie. This film is a great example of giving screen characters individual voices and personalities unlike today when every character in an action or horror film cracks bad jokes and is indistinguishable from every other character.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Ernie Kovacs

I finally got through the "Best of Ernie Kovacs" disc I had. As it turned out this was not a new compilation of Kovacs routines but a 1977 PBS TV show of his work that was compiled from the series of specials he did for ABC in 1961-62 just before his death.

Watching this material again I was struck by not only Kovacs' inventiveness and knack for satire but also his reliance on visual humor, which is something that is really a lost art in American TV today where the comedy overwhelmingly depends on dialogue.  Something I else really noticed for the first time was his use of music. He did several bits in these shows of just objects moving around in a setting like an office or a kitchen choreogrpahed to Bartok or Tchaikovsky, nothing overtly humourous but a fascinating way of "illustrating music" as he puts it on one show. Here is one example set in an office to the fizzy arrangements of Juan Carlos Esqueviel.

Of course a lot more "lost" old television clips show up on YouTube and other websites these days, so earlier Kovacs programs are out there for viewing. This is a piece I found of a quiz show he did called "Take A Good Look" where he somehow managed to work in his familiar characters like the poet Percy Dovetonsils. The same person who put this up, rolko52, has also uploaded a couple of complete episodes of a morning show Kovacs did for NBC that actually predated "The Today Show".

Monday, February 8, 2010

Video Watchdog

I'm going to start periodically writing about some of the magazines I read regularly that give me my main information and perspective on the arts I enjoy and my first subject is Video Watchdog.

Video Watchdog is a long-lived glossy-covered little magazine published by Tim and Donna Lucas out of their home in Cincinatti, Ohio. It covers the world of "fantastic video", which over the course of 155 issues and counting, has come to mean every type of cult film genre extant, including horror, fantasy, science fiction, film noir, martial arts, spaghetti westerns, animation and softcore exploitation. Tim Lucas, a thoughtful and intelligent critic who has also written a 1200-page book on Italian fantasy director Mario Bava, does a good bit of the writing himself while, Donna, his wife, does the editing.  Other high-quality film writers like Kim Newman, John Charles, Bill Cooke and David Kalat are also regularly featured. The backbone for VW, like most video magazines is the reviews but they also make room for longer thematic pieces, interviews and in-depth looks at DVD collections of the likes of Tarzan and Astro Boy as well as film-related books and soundtrack CDs.

The great thing about this magazine to me is its scope. They cover the obvious major studio releases but also go far afield to do seemingly anything that makes it to a home video format like J-horror (long before the American remakes started), Russian fanasy films, cult TV series like The Avengers, The Prisoner and Doctor Who, micro-budget American indies, Bollywood horror, early Ingmar Bergman, even some genre material that hasn't gotten an official Region 1 release yet. All that and there is still space for the occasional article on maligned directors like Andy Milligan and Jesus Franco or interviews with people who were involved in some of these films like Roger Corman scripter Charles B. Griffith and actress Harriet White Medin.

Every issue of Video Watchdog tells me something I didn't know before whether it's on some movie I've never heard of or a film or TV show I'd run across but previously ignored. All of the magazine's writers, especially Lucas, have a talent for seeing their subjects in a new way and treating even the work they don't care for with respect. Lucas' recent dissection of a notorious European exploitation film from the 60's, Sweden: Heaven And Hell, relating the film to his own memories  and daydreams about seeing it at a Cincinatti drive-in was a particularly strong recent article. Video Watchdog is a remarkably consistent magazine that tallks about the wild genre films of the world with an erudition they rarely receive elsewhere.

Friday, February 5, 2010


Ever since I started this blog, I've bee halfassing it. I only seem to write at rare intervals and when I do I say what comes off the time of my head without much real thought. I've made up my mind to change that. ( I would call this a new year's resolution but it's already February.)  I always thought I didn't have much to say but I've been reading other blogs more and more and I see that others go on these things and write about some of the same topics that interest me, so hey time's a-wasting.

I bought the book Google Blogger For Dummies and am using it to redesign and add things to this blog like the blog list on the right. As for writing topics, my main passions are music and movies though I may talk about other things like comic art and pro wrestling. I have plenty to say about both and I'm going to try hard to collect my thoughts and put them down here.

My tastes in both realms have always tended towards the obscure and offbeat. I make no excuse for this in music. If the mainstream is the likes of Lady Gaga and the smiling zombies on American Idol, I'll happily stick with Captain Beefheart and the Art Ensemble of Chicago so I'll talk about whatever I hear that strikes my fancy. In the movie realm though, I'm going to make a conscious effort to watch more of the more acclaimed and popular films that I've ignored over the last twenty years or so that everybody else discusses.  I have no interest in keeping up with stuff like Indiana Jones or Harry Porter but I will go more in the direction of the likes of American Beauty and Wall-E mixing those in with the exploitation work, Criterion specials and old TV shows I usually get from Netflix.

With a snowstorm currently under way that is going to Washington, DC look more like Buffalo, NY I'm going to have plenty of time to sit at my computer the next couple of days and write. I've got a typically wide selection of DVDs to watch, Force Of Evil, La Guerre Est Finie and The Ernie Kovacs Show plus DVD sets of Berlin Alexanderplatz and The New Adeventures Of Mighty Mouse. I will write about at least some of these.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Oscar Schmoscar

Screw the Oscars!

I'm not one of those people who hates the concept of awards shows or thinks they should only be about the movies that made the most money, but now that this year's nominations have come out I realize I could care less about the whole thing this time around.  There is nothing in the nominations that really excites me. I actually did see two of the best picture nominees, The Blind Side and District 9, but neither sent me over the moon and it saddens me to think that Sandra Bullock is going to win an award just for playing a straight role with a Southern accent.
As for the other major nominees  Jeff Bridges as a country singer in Crazy Heart is the only thing I'd go out of my way for. I'll probably catch up with A Serious Man, The Hurt Locker, and Up In The Air somewhere down the line. The rest? Avatar looks like a virtual theme park masquerading as a movie, Quentin Tarantino's stuff has gotten so predictable you can figure out the entire story just from watching the trailers and Up is pretty far down the long list of many Pixar movies I want to see. I haven't actually watched the Oscar show in years and this one will be no different.