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by Bill Gibron

6 Dec 2007


Have no fear, Tolkien lovers—Phillip Pullman is not about to steal the big screen title from our beloved Lord of the Rings. The greatest trilogy of all time is still safely sitting in first place, having vanquished previous pretenders to the throne such as The Chronicles of Narnia, the awful Eragon, and the recent The Seeker: The Dark is Rising. All hoped to become future franchise epics. All fully failed to achieve said sense of scope. While there will be a second installment of C. S. Lewis’ veiled theological tall tale, the search for the next big flight of fantasy continues. The latest installment comes from New Line, the company that took the risk on Peter Jackson and wound up winning. Sadly, The Golden Compass feels more like an afterthought than a solid cinematic challenger. While it strives to be the all-inspiring spectacle the genre requires, its universe is too self-contained to truly connect with audiences.

In this parallel place (explained as being like Earth, but with a difference) we meet our heroine in training, young Lyra Belacqua. Constantly followed by her shapeshifting ‘daemon’ Pan (nothing more than the physical incarnation of her soul), this spry orphan is the niece of university science superstar Lord Asriel. By studying something called ‘dust’, the professor has stunned the educational community with his conclusions on temporal placement and the existence of additional worlds. He’s also earned the ire of the Magisterium, an all powerful government cabal that longs for the complete control over—and the undying obedience of—the citizenry.

After her uncle heads to the realm of the ice bears, a place where he can continue his work, the mysterious Mrs. Coulter arrives at the school. She promises to take Lyra to the snowy Northern climes as well. But her motives are far more nefarious. See, our petite protagonist is the last person capable of reading the golden compass, which is actually a truth telling device known as an alethiometer. With it, she hopes to uncover the truth about Coulter, the Magisterium, and the whereabouts of her fellow children. Seems someone has been kidnapping them, and as we soon learn, the reasons are horrifying at best.

Like most mistaken attempts at grandeur, The Golden Compass thinks details can substitute for dimension. In Phillip Pullman’s picturesque predicament, lots of erroneous facts try to make up for a vague, vignette oriented narrative. Unlike true classics of the form, there is not a single overriding goal here. Our lead Lyra is not on some magical quest, nor is she leading a fellowship hoping to rid their realm of the ultimate evil. Instead, what we have here is a series of intriguing possibilities that fail to play out in any significant or satisfying manner. If this is part of New Line and director Chris Weitz’s plan, that’s all fine and well, and if all three films in the His Dark Materials series get made, perhaps this film will feel less foundational. But as a stand alone effort, something styled to entertain us now, The Golden Compass is incomplete.

Most of the problems stem from Lyra’s journey. As an audience, we need the inherent curiosity of the goal to keep us interested. We really should feel the same longing as our hero or heroine. Yet when we learn of everything involved in this story—the totalitarian Magisterium, the findings of Lord Asriel, the unique nature of the ice bears, the hideous truth about the kiddie concentration camp Bolvanger, the wicked witchiness of Mrs. Coulter—only one element stands out. In fact, a kingdom dominated by salient wildlife ends up as The Golden Compass‘s single significant reason for being. Without it, the rest of the film would feel like The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T without Theodor Geisel’s gift of satire. In fact, the typical British fascination with child endangerment (Pullman is from the UK) is apparent in every kid stealing subplot here. It often feels like The City of Lost Children without a hint of Caro and Jeanet’s visual grace.

What director Chris Weitz does bring here is a sense of solemnity. He’s not out to cutesy this material, and his lends a nice level of density to some otherwise puffy points. It’s a credit to his approach that a sore thumb moment like Sam Elliot’s arrival onscreen (playing the only Southern drawling sodpounder in all of this mangled multiverse) doesn’t stick out more than it should. Additionally, the filmmaking is so fluid that we don’t even recognize that Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman (as Asriel and Coulter, respectively) disappear from the narrative for huge chunks of time. In fact, it’s safe to say that there is much too much going on in The Golden Compass at any one given moment. Either we’re dealing with Lyra’s learning of the ambiguous alethiometer (there are one too many trips into its dust driven mechanical workings) or watching unnamed villains scheme and conspire like a veiled Vatican 2. Christian and Catholics who complain about this movie better get their targets straight. They should focus less on Pullman’s atheism and more on the lamentable lack of fun involved.

By far, the best sequences surround Ian McKellen (apparently, no fantasy film can go forward without his involvement) as the voice of exiled ice bear Iorek Byrnison. Fully aware of how to bring this kind of material to life, we really get involved in his Shakespearean tale of betrayal, loss, and redemption. From retrieving his stolen armor to regaining his rightful place in the polar community, we root for this animal outsider, and his climatic battle with the bruin that usurped his throne stands as the single best sequence in Compass‘s often overwrought running time. In fact, had Weitz found a way to streamline the story a little (his script tries to incorporate more information than a movie can successfully manage) and focus solely on Iorek, Lyra, and the discovery of Bolvanger, we’d enjoy the journey more. Weitz makes the mistake of frontloading things, trying to explain it all before the subtext and side characters are even necessary. Along with the relatively formulaic facets of the tale (guessing Lyra’s parentage is pretty easy), there’s just too much groundwork and not enough sparkle.

Still, in its limited way, The Golden Compass does engage us. The daemon element that opens the film definitely draws us in, and when we see the unbridled fury of the bigger than life bear fight, we hope the movie has made it over the introductory hump. But then the uninspired ending arrives, a cobbled together collection of happenstance, accidents, and deus ex machine broomsticking. Unlike the battles for Middle Earth, there is no splendor in this confrontation, no feeling of dignity among the defenders and amorality amongst the attackers. No, it’s just a showpiece send off, a way of getting the first part of the plot over with before jumping into the second book’s storyline. When he made The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson took all three books and conceived them as a single entity, taking aspects of each to elevate his overall concept for the films. Here, New Line and Weitz are obviously hedging their bets. The “one at a time” ideal means The Golden Compass has to do a lot of Pullman and Dark Material‘s heavy lifting. Sadly, it can’t handle it all. 

by Bill Gibron

5 Dec 2007


What is it about the Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy that causes so much critical consternation? In some corners, the films are viewed in the proper perspective - wildly entertaining blockbusters that push the limits of spectacle and scope. In other, more perplexing views, they are unsatisfactory stink bombs, poster children for studio excess, superstar hubris, and clueless directorial overindulgence. No matter that the movies have made scads of dough - this is just the lemming like reaction to clever marketing and a manic mob mentality. Dollars do not equal aesthetics. Yet the questioning of their popularity remains. It couldn’t possible have anything to do with the films actually being good - or dare it be said, great.

But indeed they are great. With the arrival on DVD of the third (and for now, final) installment in the series, it’s interesting to look back and see where the franchise originated, and how it came to transcend the House of Mouse’s misguided merchandising scheme. It all started with the atrocious Country Bears. Disney, desperate to trade on any element of its legacy it could, decided that the next great source of motion picture magic was its well known theme park attractions. With their profile and popularity, even a lousy big screen translation was bound to generate some much needed revenue. Sadly, two of the three proposed projects were incredibly lame. After Bears’ baffling combination of live action and actors in clumsy costumes, and Eddie Murphy’s inadvertent homage to Mantan Moreland, The Haunted Mansion, no one could envision the next installment salvaging the strategy.

It had an unproven cast. The director was, at the time, best known for his commercial kiddie film Mousehunt and the hit horror film The Ring. And then there was the subject - the cinematic scourge known as pirates. The last time anyone attempted to resurrect the buccaneer, auteur Roman Polanski was helming the biggest bomb of his career. Disney apparently didn’t learn the lessons from that undeniable disaster. Yet they weren’t the first to revisit the scallywag storyline. In fact, Renny Harlin also ruined his vocational options - and his marriage - with the Geena Davis clunker Cutthroat Island. Still, Uncle Walt’s cronies persevered, They placed idiosyncratic actor Johnny Depp in the lead, surrounded him with dozens of known British talents, and took the entire company to the Virgin Islands. There, on a fully refurbished boat, the same old peg legged clichés were measured out, circling a story about ancient superstitions laced with post-modern irony.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was the result, and for many, it remains the best movie of the entire trilogy. Since it started life as a single entity, not the foundation for an actual franchise, the completeness of the narrative is hard to overlook. Depp’s brilliant turn as Captain Jack Sparrow started an outright cult, and when viewed in retrospect, it’s hard to see anyone else in the role. Still, it was a risk for producer Jerry Bruckheimer to hire the star. He was mostly known for his unusual choices in roles, not for bringing audiences through the turnstiles. Still, Depp’s dandified dance with the material made Curse of the Black Pearl commercial, and indicated the need for another installment in the series.


There are other elements worth noting in the first film, facets that reinforce its claim to classicism. The entire subplot involving Barboosa and his undead crew brought new life to an old genre, and Verbinski’s visual flair found untold tricks within the tired material. When one sees the shot of skeletal bandits crossing the ocean floor on foot, the novelty of such a sequence reinvigorates a dormant fantasy fan’s aching aesthetic. Indeed, everything about Curse of the Black Pearl was built on the old school designs of the original popcorn movie mavens. It’s Jaws jammed into Star Wars, with just a sprinkling of CGI spice on top.

The second installment, subtitled Dead Man’s Chest, tried to trump the evocative nature of the first film, and for the most part, it succeeded. Created simultaneously with the third episode (At World’s End), it marked a decision by Disney to go the bigger, badder, and broader route with the series. Everything here is larger than life - the swordfights (actors Orlando Bloom and Jack Davenport have an actual standoff on top of a rotating mill wheel - as it travels through a jungle thicket. Really.), the situations, and the fatal consequences for all involved. Verbinski shows his true skills here, producing action that rivals the work of his obvious heroes (Spielberg and Lucas). Yet he also handles the smaller moments with grace and gravitas.

The masterstrokes of using Davy Jones, his ocean life encrusted crew, the haunted Flying Dutchman, and the mysterious allure of the sea may have mimicked the original’s villainous monster’s format, but the director tried to turn the combination of acting and artful effects into something almost tragic. Thanks to Bill Nighy’s marvelous performance as Jones, as well as the numerous storyline sidesteps the film provided (the ship-killing Kraken was also amazing in 35mm), made the movie one of 2006’s finest. It also mandated a finalizing piece, a movie that would make everything that came before seem small and insignificant. At World’s End became that necessary knock out blow.

Unlike the other Pirates films, At World’s End feels the most segmented. It has to deal with so many issues, so many characters, and so many arc endings, that it can’t help but appear partitioned. But when the pieces add up to something this satisfying, the knotty narrative devices speak for themselves. Sure, Keira Knightley is a tad shrewish, and Chow-Yun Fat is fine for what is mostly a cameo clip, but who cares. The epic battle in the middle of revived goddess Calypso’s maelstrom stands as one of the most amazing works of visual wizardry ever captured on film. Even better, Verbinski constantly keeps his creativity front and center. Why have a last stand showdown between Captain Sparrow and Jones on the deck of the ship when the same fight along the top rail of the Dutchman’s main mast would do nicely. Why simply repeat the same crustacean crew from Part 2? Why not add in a few new seafood scumbags into the mix?

There’s also a real emotional center this time around. Since we believe this will be the last time we ever see the Pirates crew, we lament the loss of favored personalities, and relish the destruction of the antagonists. When our heroes are in harms way, we fear for their safety, and we understand the doomed dynamic facing some of our most treasured icons. In fact, when the storm has cleared and the dead are left to travel to the underworld, At World’s End seems to stutter, if just by the smallest bit. Instead of ending on a note of defiance or depth, we get cute callbacks that tend to indicate a studio-mandated desire for future installments. If the high standards of the first three films are maintained, it’s hard to envision Disney stopping here.

Still, some will complain at length about these otherwise excellent films - and it could be a literal matter of viewpoint. No matter the set up, no matter the expensive technical traits, these films really weren’t meant for DVD. Their scale is so seismic, so completely off the cinematic charts that to try and rein them in via a home theater package is nothing short of a fool’s paradise. Trying to appreciate the slow motion descent of Lord Beckett in the middle of his ship’s destruction, or the amazing moment when we follow the Flying Dutchman down into the murky depths from a distinct POV on such a limited scale could affect anyone’s judgment. Then again, some people just hate these masterful movies for no discernible reasons but their own. It’s their opinion and their entitled to it. Time will probably alter their otherwise informed judgment.

Indeed, one can easily see the Pirates of the Caribbean films become the seafaring Star Wars for an entire generation. Like Lucas’ beloved space opera, these outsized extravaganzas with their mixture of comedy, mythos and stunt spectacle could function as the inspiration for a thousand messagaboard debates, and an entire online legacy. Thanks to the Internet, one could envision this happening sooner than later. Indeed, for some, it’s already begun. The Depp contingent have become obsessive, seeking out any and all information they can about their fated star, and minor characters like Marty and the ditzy duo of Ragetti and Pintel have their own honored corp. It’s clear that these movies have made an impact that transcends their viability as populist motion pictures. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise stands as stellar cinema. It should be celebrated as such.

by Bill Gibron

4 Dec 2007


Being a film critic does have its advantages. Yet the problems can often outweigh the perks. Seeing an anticipated title well before regular audiences remains an undeniable benefit. Having to explain in 1200 words why it fascinates or just fails miserably (sometimes, within 24 hours of the viewing) stands as the date stamped IOU. There’s a trade off that few really comprehend, entertainment for effort, the ability to ply one’s (hopefully) cultured aesthetic for the pure joy of dissecting cinema. Not every critic is a writer per se - words are not their paintbox, but their PR punctuation marks - and in an analytical paradigm where ‘good/bad’ often defines a reader’s literary limits, opinions are an unclear commodity. Still, there are factors one should consider when reading any review, aspects within the very process itself that frequently twist a scribe’s sensibilities.

Let’s start with the most basic element of the movie going experience - the image. Print quality, especially in the post-millennium ‘all but digital’ domain should never be a problem. Since a critic is getting the chance to see a first run film, the visuals onscreen should be first run quality as well. A good example of this maxim is illustrated by the recent press screening for Beowulf. While the film was released in both 2D and 3D versions, the studio made the wise decision of showing reviewers a gorgeous, near flawless multi-dimensional transfer. The characters literally popped off the screen, and any underlying issues (dragging second act, unsatisfying ending) were minimized by what was clearly an optical feast. Even the most seasoned skeptic walked out of that showing staggered by the detailed images presented.

On the other side of things was the recent screening for The Golden Compass. Desperate to regain the monetary momentum crafted by their Lord of the Rings gamble, New Line is trotting out this potential franchise with an ad campaign that emphasizes the epic spectacle and scope of the story. We are dealing with a fantasy realm that combines facets of art deco architecture, neo-sci-fi environs, and a CGI subculture of anthropomorphized ‘ice’ bears. It has Nicole Kidman looking swanky, Daniel Craig looking dashing, and the whole wannabe classic appearing sumptuous and rich. Indeed, based on the intriguing commercials alone, the visuals threaten to rival those of Peter Jackson’s masterpiece itself.

Yet that’s not how it looked at the preview screening this week. Instead of an experience that took your breath away, The Golden Compass was a clear ocular letdown (the film’s entertainment issues will be left for another day). The opening shots seemed acceptable, as did moments where two main characters walk an old fashioned Victorian college. But the minute the totalitarian Majesterium was revealed, a fuzzy, almost faded look became the norm. By the time the action moved to the ice bears and their kingdom, the computer graphics looked cloudy and unclear. Colors were faded, and details were in short supply. It was almost as if the studio supporting the picture had decided to trot out a worn out copy of the film for prerelease evaluation.

It’s a trend that’s become more and more obvious over the last few years. When Roger Ebert complained in the ‘90s that movie theaters were cutting down the candle power on their projectors (to save electricity to, in theory, save money), he was pointing to the beginning of an unnerving trend. While owners and distributers scratched their heads over why attendance was waning, exhibitors were passing less luminescence through their carefully constructed negatives. The result was routinely dissatisfied customers, bad image recreation, and an overall feeling that going to the Cineplex was a worthless, unsettled experience.

Home theater didn’t help matters much, and frankly, it still doesn’t. Over the last few months, DVD releases of Transformers, Ratatouille, and Hairspray have looked remarkably better than their preview screening counterparts. Since many critics don’t revisit a film once they’ve seen it (a question of pure time and future obligation), their one and only experience with a title prior to writing it is during these less than impressive press outings. When it happens, when a previously viewed film can seem totally different on your high end digital set up, the experience can be quite revelatory. Granted, there is an additional concept to be weighed - the initial shock of seeing something fresh vs. the familiarity inherent later on - but unless you’re purposefully trying to retrograde your visuals (ala Grindhouse), the first time out of the box should be the best.

That’s rarely the case, however. Danny Boyle’s Sunshine looked stunning during its screening. The Invasion looked awful. The Bourne Ultimatum was so bright and washed out it seemed neutral. Bee Movie practically vibrated off the screen. The importance of this distinction cannot be underplayed. Story is vital, as are cinematic standards like theme and mood, but when you can’t enjoy the proposed power of an animated animal fight to the death, when your enchanted realm (as in Stardust) looks like a badly photographed travelogue, when darkness obscures your chills and thrills, you realize the dilemma the critic faces. In fact, it boils down to one important question - how does someone charged with analyzing a visual medium respond to crappy visuals?

DVD reviews have it easy. The format mandates such scholarship. When Fox sends websites watermarked screeners (the better to fight piracy, so the studio says), critics frequently take the company to task. After all, how does a consumer advocate comment on the final product provided when he or she does not receive same? It’s like lying to the reader. Even better, why does a film journalist avoid said understandable declarations? If they sat through Halloween, barely able to see Rob Zombie’s reimagined horrors playing out on screen, shouldn’t they mention the subpar presentation? Or is it just a question of avoiding the issue all together, secure in the knowledge that the opening weekend audience will see the best print possible?

Yet that’s not always the case either. While the DVD version of 300 emulated the big screen version quite admirably, there was something about the clarity offered in the theatrical experience that was quite unique. On the opposite end of aesthetics, Spider-Man 3 looks better on the digital format than it ever did in a Midwest Multiplex. It could be a company by company thing (AMC seems worse than most, with independent theaters appearing to pride themselves on the best possible picture available). It could also be a matter of studios saving the best prints for paying crowds (even ticketed screenings are freebies to those in attendance). Whatever the case, there are definitely times when a critic has to overlook a sloppy transfer simply to do their job. It’s commiserate to having a music critic listen to a CD on blown speakers.

As directors like George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis push for a switch over to pure bitrate purity, and Luddites lament the possible death of celluloid, the inconsistent visuals experienced both in and out of the big screen experience mark one of the main reasons for customer dissatisfaction. People want to see high quality visuals and their equally evocative replication for their money. High prices, dull product, and slight/scandalous subject matter may also become part of the disagreement, but the inability to clearly see the subtle beauty of a Scottish countryside (as in The Water Horse), marks a major stumbling block.

So the next time you envy a critic for catching your favorite superstar’s latest magnum opus, remember this considered caveat - they may not be seeing the best possible image of your hero/heroine. You, who fight traffic, pay for parking, stand in line, and feel the highway robbery pinch of theater snacks, may be getting the better end of the widescreen deal. At least you get to see the movie in the mandated style you agreed to. For the reviewer, early mornings spent shifting through incomplete narrative threads or avoiding preview audience glowers is par for the course. But the last thing they should have to worry about is the lack of contrasts in the climatic battle between witches, wildlife, and the wicked. For a film reviewer, image is everything. Sadly, most press screenings drop the ball on this vital part of the process. 

by Bill Gibron

3 Dec 2007


For the most part, exploitation films of the ‘50s-‘70s sold their wanton wares with the usual raincoat crowd components: skin and sin. Your typical overworked white male, bloated from a capitalist combination of liquor, beef, and shame, didn’t require subtlety or cinematic shadings in his erotic entertainment. He wanted bare bodkin and plenty of it.

Violence was also a viable way of getting the grindhouse gang in the mood, since beating a broad for no damn good reason apparently aided the sexual inadequate suburbanite in dealing with his depressed, defensive deviance. Yet, believe it or not, music was also used as a way to spike the common corporeal cavalcade. As part of the genre’s cracked kitchen sink approach, anything was fair game: even the occasionally off-key pop song.

Sometimes, the inclusion of a tainted tune was done as a favor to a friend. Musicians — or their mafia-backed managers — usually had some investable money lying around, and for a little quid pro quo, a play-for-pay scenario was neatly arranged. In other instances, the music was treated as added production value. Many exploitation films could not manage true mainstream talent (no known celebrity was going to go gratuitous for the sake of a slim payday), so bolstering the soundtrack seemed like an ingenious way to make the movie more conventional than its otherwise carnal attributes would indicate. And then there were those nutty outsider auteurs who believed that any narrative facet they fancied — including a totally inappropriate musical number — was par for the perplexing course.

As a result, a great many of the classics in the exploitation genre contain misguided musical numbers; songs guaranteed to get both your toes tapping and your gag reflex responding with equal aplomb. Since there are so many examples to choose from, SE&L will concentrate on the crème de la crap, the evil earworms that, once heard, are destined to dull your brain forever. In reverse order, we begin with:

#10: “Do the Jellyfish” from Sting of Death (1965)
How do you perk up your lackadaisical monster movie about a killer invertebrate? Why, call on a washed-up Neil Sedaka and enlist him in creating the latest dance craze. Director William Grefé was no dummy. He was well aware that the same drive-in demographic that would flock to his passion pit-proof production about murderous man-of-wars also loved that rebellious rock and/or roll, and he set about adding the necessary stomp to his otherwise worthless schlock. Unfortunately, Neil was yet to have “Love Will Keep Us Together” or “Bad Blood” in his sonic arsenal. Instead he dreamed up this obnoxious poolside production number that hoped to rival the ‘Monkey’. Sadly, it made ‘The Freddie’ seem graceful.

#9: “The Next Time” from Blast-Off Girls (1967)
Herschell Gordon Lewis suffered from a similar sense of salesmanship as his fellow filmmaker Grefé. While crafting this obvious rip-off to a certain Fab Four’s ‘difficult day’s evening’, someone should have told the exploitation emeritus that his featured act should actually be able to sing and play. The Faded Blue, a kind of New Christie Minstrels on cough syrup, appeared as the The Big Blast, and they tried to pass off the failed four-part harmony of this disturbing drone as a solid Summer of Love hit. It didn’t work. Not even a cameo from Colonel Harlan Sanders himself could sell this finger-licking flop.

#8: “Yipe Stripes!” from Teen-Age Strangler (1968)
A killer is stalking the adolescents from a local high school. So what do they all do to keep themselves safe? Why, they gather around the local soda shop and watch a barefooted bimbo (Stacey Smith) shout out a song about vertical (or horizontal) lines. Though the movie is far more memorable for a nutzoid nerd named Mikey who keeps whining incessantly over his brother’s felonious fate, this otherwise minor musical moment was a nice bit of additional aural apocalypse. After likening herself to The Beatles and Peter, Paul and Mary, our bee-hived babe climbed on the food counter and attempted to wail a wacky salute to style. All we got was a rockabilly retread that should have been defense enough to any killer’s homicidal urges.

#7: “It All Comes True” from Year of the Yahoo (1972)
It’s really tough to pick just one song from Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Face in the Crowd rip-off, what with real life professional hick harmonizer Claude King supplying the plentiful in-concert cornpone. While his ode to “Wicked Welfare” was a hilarious hambone anthem, this epic bit of balladry as balderdash won out in the end. As he learned the truth about the political machine manipulation behind his ‘honest man’ Senatorial candidacy, King stepped up to the podium for one last impassioned plea to the electorate. Like “Cat’s in the Cradle” cooked in corn squeezings, this drippy ditty was the very definition of democracy in action. Our hero lost the vote, proving that the system does work.

#6: “The Female (is More Deadly Than the Male)” from Satan in High Heels (1962)
When a cut-rate carnival stripper steals her junkie husband’s financial stash and flakes off to New York, one envisions a typical, tragic hard luck story. But it’s the Big Apple that better get ready to run. Stacey Kane gave new meaning to the word ‘bitch’. She apparently studied at Beelzebub’s Studio for Method Meanness. After gaining employment as a nightclub singer, she proceeded to undermine the entire establishment. When she wasn’t bedding her boss, she was teasing his tripwire son (poor lesbian manager Pepé didn’t even get a second look). As if to accentuate her wickedness, Ms. Kane put on a schoolmarm’s version of dominatrix gear and belted out the aforementioned admonishment. The riding crop rim shots seal the sonic scourging.

#5 “My Birthday Suit” from Jennie: Wife/Child (1968)
Remember that obnoxious novelty song “Shaving Cream”, with its “almost said ‘shit’” conceit? Well, “My Birthday Suit” was a lot like that fecal fluke, except not quite as clever… nor as intelligent in its humor, either. Director James Landis had to find a way to jazz-up his otherwise ordinary Southern Gothic about a miserable old farmer, his far too young bride, and the brawny hired hand giving them both the big eye. His solution was simple: allow the audience to hear the internal monologue of the characters, and capture said thoughts in song! Thus we get this noxious nod to nudity. And what compelled our title character to sing this silly chantey? Why, she was skinny-dipping, of course.

#4: “Hot Nuts” from Too Hot to Handle (1950)
Granted, it wasn’t an outright original. It was as basic Burly-Q as they came. But that doesn’t mean the song is any less memorable. Since it was a full blown theatrical review captured by a single camera situated in the front row, Too Hot to Handle had to rely on it’s performers to provide the thrills. And aside from the plethora of pulchritude presented by the strip tease “artists” (ah, the good old days of aesthetically acceptable clothes removal) we got the fantastic Jean Carter, doing her best innuendo-filled funny business. Like a less rude Rusty Warren, Ms. Carter crooned a personal testament to the audience’s trouble with enflamed filberts… piqued pecans… charred cashews…burning balls, all right — and the results were resplendently risqué.

#3: “My Own Robot” from Swamp of the Ravens (1974)
Similar to how Grefé decided that his horror needed some hummable hokiness, Spanish moviemaker Manuel Caño realized that his zombie-filled necrophilia fest also required a little show tune support. The result was a subplot revolving around a Don Ho-like lounge singer, whose sole big hit was apparently a piece of pop poetry about worshipping a deceased automaton. And in case anyone thinks something was lost in the film’s eventual translation into English, the android was right on stage with him. It even sang a solo verse! So Caño clearly intended it to be some sort of mangled metaphor. He even insertsed an experimentation scene, complete with bloody beating heart, inside this otherwise cheery supper club sonnet about the dangers of loving technology a little too much.

#2: “You Can’t Fart Around with Love” from Roseland (1970)
One of the rare occasions where a song was seminal to the storyline, this ode to the odiferous nature of affection represented a pivotal plot point in Roseland. As our hero, a self absorbed singer with a one time promising career, sought LSD treatments for his poverty-row porn addiction, we flashback to the event that mangled his entire upward mobility. Appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show (quasi-convincingly realized in memory-enhancing monochrome), our crooner created quite a stir with his production number to poots. While the rest of the film was a flesh-filled freak-out with rampant religious overtones, this single song made this problematic parable a genuine grindhouse gem.

#1: “A Heart Dies Every Minute” from Doctor Gore (1973)
Nothing says rampant, bloody vivisection better than a bearded Roy Clark wannabe busting out a ballad belaboring the loss of a lover. Like Bigfoot with near perfect pitch, our meaty mountain of a musician, otherwise known as the beefy Bill Hicks, took us away from the sinister slaughter of the title character to remind us how affection is like a fatal itching in the blood pumper. Director J.G. Patterson, Jr., a one-time production assistant to Herschell Gordon Lewis, decided to make his own gore epic about a madman medico hoping to create the perfect woman. As he went about removing the necessary parts for his mistress mock-up, Hicks delivered a steakhouse performance worth witnessing over and over again. Even our title character agreed. It’s the music he listened to while preparing for a date… with the electric chair!

by Bill Gibron

2 Dec 2007


It’s time to call out the carnal color guard and get the bugler to blow a rather trashy and tawdry Taps. After nearly seven years celebrating the best of exploitation, Something Weird Video has parted ways with chief home theater distributor Image Entertainment. It was a split fans long felt was coming. Where once a regular schedule of releases would offer between 24 and 36 titles in a year, 2007 saw five. Even more telling, directors the Seattle based company used to champion - Joe Sarno, Doris Wishman - were suddenly finding new homes at places like Seduction Cinema. To drag out the “whore-y” old cliché, a change was definitely in the wind. To continue the truisms, it marks the end of an era.

Ever since its inception as a fan-oriented tape trading collective (back in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s) SWV has marched to its own dare to be bare drummer. Head honcho Mike Vraney took his love of the actual grindhouse (not the reimagined version being propagated today) and channeled it into a solid cinematic cause. He wanted to rescue and preserve as many of these fascinating film artifacts as possible. In addition, he wanted the input from as many of the still living participants as possible. Making important connections with such powerful producers as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, Vraney saw his private collection swell from several dozen to several thousand.

Originally, SWV stayed within the VCR marketplace. Cassettes were cheap, and the low end technical specifications meant that many of the age and damage issues surrounding a title could be ignored. But when DVD became the rapidly evolving film fan format, the company faced a dilemma - remaster all their titles, or be selective in what they released. Working with new partner Image, Vraney decided that every Something Weird disc would fulfill two functions. First, it would offer the best possible print he could find (by this time, he had access to many original negatives), but more importantly, each release would act as volume in an overall exploitation encyclopedia. Commentaries from creators would be added, when possible. Sans said supplement, short films, archival publicity material, and other contextual elements would be provided.

The first few releases - the infamous Blood Trilogy from Godfather of Gore Herschell Gordon Lewis, Doris Wishman’s work with the wonderful anatomical anomaly Chesty Morgan - would be considered bare bones by today’s SWV standards. Usually containing nothing more than a trailer or a discussion with the filmmakers, these first DVDs began an important process. Ever since hardcore pornography stole its audience, exploitation has been marginalized as moviemaking for the lecherous lowest common denominator. Rightfully described as a genre geared toward nudity, naughtiness, and the more notorious aspects of existence, said categorization allowed prudes and pundits to turn the trendsetters into nothing more than incredibly savvy smut peddlers. But the truth is far more revelatory.

What most movie historians fail to fully recognize is that exploitation gave the filmmakers of the ‘60s and ‘70s a model for the post-modern movement. Where standards and practices kept certain “undesirable” facets off the silver screen, the truly independent producers and directors were pushing the very limits of acceptability. While the mainstream watched in amazement, the grindhouse took on censorship, community standards, the MPAA, the government, and the US Supreme Court. It was the exploitation kings who got nudity declared “not inherently obscene” and that challenged local organizations who tried to dictate what could and could not be shown. They paved the way for the frank, honest depiction of life - warts, wantonness, and all. And for their efforts, they got critically keelhauled, diminished as disgusting sleaze for the dirty minded.

No matter if the assessment was accurate or not, exploitation was more than simulated sex and overly aggressive violence - and Something Weird understood this. They fought to maintain the integrity of their product, even deciding to withdraw certain titles when Image suggested certain ones were “unfit” for general consumption. The company never once thought it was going to turn the forgotten legacy of the past into something celebrated in the present, but for the most part, they were convinced that preserving these early efforts provided insight and instruction to those born too late to experience the genre first run.

Over the course of its mainstream marketing - SWV now offers DVD-Rs of almost everything in their massive, multifaceted inventory - the company resurrected the careers of fallen idols Lewis, Wishman, Joe Sarno, Barry Mahon, Bethel Buckalew, and other unknown directors. It also reintroduced Friedman and Novak to contemporary audiences, explaining how important their efforts were in championing unusual and provocative productions. Sure, some of the films were nothing more than tired titillation attached to equally turgid storylines. Others explored the differing cultural dynamic - hippies, drugs - that was slowly changing the shape of society. With their filmic finger consistently placed on the pulse of an expanding motion picture demographic, exploitation also expanded merchandising, advertising, and other financial aspects of the industry. There was definitely more to the grindhouse than T&A.

Yet time and the growing trends within the format were not kind to SWV’s mission. Since most of the films were ‘loaned’ to the company (Vraney had issues with copyright and ownership from the start), holders of the property often looked for green pastures when it came to releases. While Image claims brisk sales (they will keep all Something Weird product in print for now), it was obvious that the glut of available titles on DVD would eat into the various niche providers. But SWV faced an additional problem - the limited availability of recognizable names. While their catalog contained thousands of unheralded gems, those that would translate into profit became few and far between.

Still, the company’s heritage should be celebrated. In fact, film fans should rally in support, hoping that Vraney finds another partner to help him spread the word. It was through his efforts that proto-classics like Year of the Yahoo, Murder a La Mod (Brian DePalma’s forgotten foray in the perverse), and She-Man were finally found, and the company’s international network of archivists and historians have uncovered more and more members of the “lost forever” alumni. Some may call them the Criterion of Crap, but Something Weird has more in common with that famous aesthetic watchdog than many would realize. They remain the seedy standard bearer.

For now, anyone looking to continue their old school arthouse addiction can call up the company’s website (http://www.somethingweird.com) and order up any number of tantalizing titles. There’s also Image’s back catalog, and that distributor has been very good about cutting prices and creating economical box sets of SWV’s product. Still, it won’t be the same…the anticipation of wondering what new notorious wonder Vraney will unleash next…the speculation on what special features will be offered…the chance to hear Roberta Findlay dish on her dead husband, or listen to Friedman regale Vraney with tales of the original exploitationers - the 40 Thieves. Granted, this could be a very premature burial, but it’s still sad to see the company that made the grindhouse a post-millennial institution walking away from the standard business pattern.

We here at SE&L salute the efforts of Mike Vraney, Something Weird Video, and the distributor Image Entertainment. Over the course of their time together, they have created some of the finest, more informative, and downright fun DVDs in the format’s equally short history. Where else would you find an entire two disc collection devoted to the theatrical spook show presentation, or a massive collection of goofy burlesque films? Who else would give the goona-goona movie the same respect as the kitschy b-movie monster? Years from now, when perspective is more objective, the work of this important cinematic sanctuary will be rightfully celebrated. For now, all we can do is reminiscence, and say “So long, Something Weird.” It’s been a great ride - one many a film fan will remember for the rest of their exploitation filled lives.

 

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