Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Video Watchdog (1990 - 2016 - 20??)

The news that Tim and Donna Lucas' Video Watchdog is to cease activity as a print magazine has put me in melancholic humor this evening. Running a magazine of any kind is no easy task, and few last very long. It's a shame that esoteric interests are rarely catered for on the magazine racks, so all the more remarkable that Video Watchdog ran for a staggering 27 years. The magazine’s influence on the sell-through market and film-collecting culture is frankly immeasurable. Every publication, every website and blog which offers a word of advice to readers on the technical virtues (or shortcomings) of a DVD or Blu-Ray, has some of Video Watchdog in its DNA. Magazines frequently suffer dry spells and periods of low-voltage over their lifetime, but Video Watchdog remained consistently brilliant throughout its long run – two recent articles from 2015 on the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Walerian Borowczyk were among the finest the magazine ever produced. So much of the magazine’s success was down to its dogged independence, its refusal to compromise the content with incongruous advertising, or acquiesce to the kind of tacky commercial cul-de-sacs the magazine’s contemporaries pursued. Thankfully Video Watchdog never did stoop to heavy metal and video game reviews or dreary set reports of instantly missable sequels. Beware of false imitations.

No appraisal of Video Watchdog is complete without a word for Tim Lucas' most important collaborator, Donna Lucas, responsible for the magazine’s art direction. From its maiden voyage in 1990 the magazine employed a simple and economic design strategy within its attractive (and it must be said, fetishistic) A5 size. It's been a pleasure to watch the design of the magazine evolve over the years. Issue 100 marked the arrival of color (heralded by a lovely foldout cover of Dorothy Gale's first glimpse at the Technicolor land of Oz). If the stylish layout of text augmented by stills, posters and ad mats reflected the magazine’s serious investigative concerns, the covers were by contrast unashamedly playful, colorful and eye-catching with big ornate lettering accompanied by a well-chosen image related to the lead feature of that particular issue, and framed within the much loved round-cornered cathode ray tube. To borrow a line from an old Video Watchdog friend: "I think that even Pete ought to be able to sell the hell out of a classy campaign like that"

Video Watchdog's mission may have come to an end at least in the struggling print format but like the Voyager 1 probe that is hurtling across interstellar space, the magazine will continue to transmit data for years to come. For this reader, the magazine still fulfills one very important function - in times when my love of Cinema is flagging, when no film in my collection can stir my interest, I can reach for an issue of Video Watchdog and have my spirits restored. My heartfelt thanks to Tim and Donna and all the contributors over the years.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

German Film Programs

Some German film paper for the memorabilia junkies out there... I recently re-discovered these two film programs for The Night Porter and The Exorcist toiling away in obscurity among my stash of Films and Filming magazines. A quick Google image search for both yielded no results so I thought I'd post them here for posterity. I picked both up some years ago at a flea market in Vienna, the best of a huge selection of programs for vintage German films and not terribly interesting Hollywood imports. My lo-fi photos don't do justice to both programs but production wise, The Exorcist program is the classier of the two, printed on good quality paper and more professionally designed. The Night Porter by comparison is rather flimsy and the slab serif typeface is dull and unimaginative. Still, I wish I could stretch my rudimentary German a little further to understand the text. Apart from showing Charlotte Rampling semi-naked on 3 of the 12 pages, how does one sell a film like The Night Porter to a German audience ?

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things

Yesterday I chanced upon some mixed reviews of VCI’s 2016 BR of Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, and I was sufficiently enthused to revisit the film last night courtesy of VCI’s ancient DVD edition from 2000. I remember well the disc's Amazon product page which advised customers to view the film in a darkened room due to the transfer’s shortcomings. Watching the VCI disc again, the picture frequently melts into a soupy mess (much more so in the film’s third act) but somehow the discoloration and unstable blacks render the film even more unnerving. The film’s debt to Night of the Living Dead goes without saying, but there are some interesting parallels to look out for with Zombie Flesh Eaters – one is tempted to imagine Dardano Sacchetti having the film in mind when writing the screenplay but perhaps not. I’m so familiar with the film at this point, I devoted much of my attention on this pass to Carl Zittrer’s terrific electronic score, and I particularly enjoy the synthesized howling and wailing which adds tremendous atmosphere to those long dialogue scenes in the graveyard. The score rises to truly Industrial proportions in the sequence where the dead worm their way out of the ground - it must have been something to experience this in a well-equipped theatre. A CD collecting Zittrer’s experimental scores for Children, Deathdream, Deranged and Black Christmas is long overdue.

All this talk about Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things has unearthed a memory of two VHS copies I had of the film in the early 90's. My introduction to the film was under less than auspicious circumstances courtesy of True World Video, one of those dubious labels that seemingly sprang up overnight on UK video market like a bad fungus. True World put out the film as Revenge of the Living Dead, and came in a hideous cut and paste sleeve with some zombie graphics lifted from a mask advert that frequently appeared in the pages of Fangoria, and augmented with two unrelated film stills on back cover. This was the kind of junk that would routinely snare me in those carefree VHS-collecting days.

My second encounter with the film was even more memorable, this time thanks to the tiny Screen In Doors label which issued the film, under its original title, but crucially with one of the most bizarre sleeves from the post-certificate era. Mike Worrall's wraparound painting suggests a certain Giger influence, no doubt the artist had the creature from xenomorph from Alien(s) in mind although oddly enough the monster anticipates the hybrid creature from Alien Resurrection. Screen In Doors were so pleased with Worrall's work that they chose, rather enigmatically I think, to relegate the title of the film to the spine and back sleeve. I've uploaded a larger scan of the sleeve here for the VHS art junkies - this one is a keeper.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Throbbing Gristle - At the I.C.A., London, 18th October, 1976

"You see, we couldn't get a gig so we thought we'd play at the I.C.A. The Marquee wouldn't have us" (Genesis P-Orridge, Melody Maker, November 20th, 1976)"

After two low key performances during the summer of 1976, Throbbing Gristle made their official debut on October 18th at the opening of COUM's Prostitution show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The exhibition catapulted COUM, from obscure performance art group to notorious cultural terrorists, when UK broadsheets and tabloids vented their disgust at COUM's display of used tampons, anal syringes, framed hardcore photos of Cosey Fanni Tutti (pages from adult magazines she posed for) and other scandalous objets d'art. The strategy to officially launch Throbbing Gristle at the Prostitution event was a spectacular bit of self-promotion, even attracting attention from one unlikely source, Scottish MP Nicholas Fairbairn who called for the Arts Council to be scrapped and deemed all involved "wreckers of civilisation", a headline grabbing quote which has since become a byword for the group. Another unsympathetic eyewitness was Tony Parsons who wrote a sneering sarcastic account of TG's performance for the NME. In fact, TG's set dubbed Music From The Death Factory is one of their great early performances, the band surging with creativity, confidence, and fearlessness.

The opening number Very Friendly had been previously recorded at Death Factory studios but the ICA version is the definitive reading of the song, a dramatic (but factual) account of the final hours of 17 year old Edward Evans before his brutal murder by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Genesis P-Orridge delivers a tour-de-force vocal, antagonistic, outraged, even a little theatrical ("There's been a") amid great tendrils of synth whipped up by Chris Carter, a clanging percussive rhythm track (which had appeared at the AIR Gallery and Winchester shows albeit in fragmentary form) bursts of improv noise and snatches of cut-up dialogue lifted from news programs. Very Friendly segues right into the toxic We Hate You (Little Girls), an exercise in deliberate bad taste but showing a humorous element of TG, something the later wave of Industrial groups could never quite master. Following the relative calm of an eerie instrumental passage, the group embark on Slug Bait, one of TG's most unnerving pieces, led by a weirdly accented vocal by Genesis acting out a Manson Family style slaying. Dead Head returns from the previous show but here is presented in much more lugubrious, sinister form. The final song of the evening, Zyklon B Zombie bears almost no relation, music or lyrics wise to the track found on the flipside of the United single, and after 38mins (and not 60mins as promised by Genesis in his introduction) the ICA concert ends with a high pitched alarm, and polite applause from, one imagines, a bewildered audience. Incidentally, right at the end of the Industrial tape (and at the 58:46 mark of the reissue CD) there's a short clip from BBC Radio's Newsbeat about the Prostitution show, which includes a soundbite by Genesis.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

An Ending...

Just fresh from revisiting Steven Soderbergh's 2000 film Traffic (inspired by a screening last week of Sicario), and it's always a pleasure to see again one of my very favourite final scenes in Cinema, as Benicio del Toro enjoys a late evening children's baseball game. It's one of those endings that seems to have strayed from another film and it's given a majestic quality by Brian Eno's track An Ending (Ascent). That Eno piece, composed for the Apollo missions film For All Mankind seems at first an odd choice, such is its irrevocable association with space, but in fact it lends the baseball scene a nice cosmic touch, the weightlessness of the music echoes an earlier scene in the film where del Toro first mentions baseball whilst floating in a swimming pool. I like the end titles too, which appear to be influenced by Dan Perri's titles for All The Presidents Men, placed at the bottom of the screen in a simple yet elegant sans-serif font.

Watching this final scene of Traffic again, the surreal sulfuric light put in mind Seamus Heaney's poem Markings, in which the poet describes a children's game of football and that singular skill that children have to see their surroundings long after the light has faded...

Youngsters shouting their heads off in a field
As the light died and they kept on playing
Because by then they were playing in their heads
And the actual kicked ball came to them
Like a dream heaviness, and their own hard
Breathing in the dark and skids on grass
Sounded like effort in another world

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

First look at The Rolling Stones In Mono boxset

It seemed like the longest pre-order of my life, but The Rolling Stones In Mono CD box finally arrived this morning and I'm currently dipping in with the 1964 calling card The Rolling Stones. So far so good, the debut album sounds fantastic and has a real crunch (Tell Me is playing as I type this and always puts me in the mood for Mean Streets). As for the packaging, the 15 discs come in a sturdy cardboard box with a flip lid that is closed shut with a little magnet. Very nifty. I've only briefly flicked thru the 48-page book but it looks fine. I'm not so pleased though with the individual album sleeves, which are glossy cardboard facsimiles of the original covers but the images are sometimes cropped from the original LP covers and the printing is a little weak, a little too dark or contrast levels pushed too hard. The Let It Bleed album has a queasy pinkish hue instead of the familiar creamy color.

On the plus side, the box has each of the albums housed in their own plastic sleeve (plus an inner plastic sleeve for the disc - so no rubbing when sliding the disc out). I've heard reports that the US edition doesn't come with the protective plastics which is a little shabby for Stateside buyers. Worth mentioning the Japanese box which seems a far more lavish production, the albums have been upgraded to 7-inch cardboard sleeves and look much more professional than their EUR/UK counterparts. The Japanese box comes with all the usual fetishistic Japanese ephemera but you'll have to shell out over €500 for it.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The Last Waltz

I’ve been reconnecting with Music From Big Pink these last few days, the rootsy songs still sound astonishing timeless. At the weekend, I revisited the Dylan documentary Dont Look Back so last night the stage was set for a screening of The Last Waltz. Of all the concert films I’ve seen over the years this would be one to see in a theatre - the pre-credit title card: “This Film Should be Played Loud” for once seems wholly justified. The music is of course dazzling, and I’m always in awe of Levon Helm, singing those knotty lyrics to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down whilst keeping perfect time. Of the special guests, I think I liked Joni Mitchell performing "Coyote" the best. Ronnie Hawkins tears up the stage with some raucous bar room rhythm and blues and it's a rare treat to see Van Morrison in such exuberant form punching the air during a terrific rendition of "Caravan". I couldn't help but think during Lawrence Ferlinghetti's irreverent take on the Lord's Prayer what a born again Bob Dylan might have made of it, but Dylan was two still years away from his epiphany.

I like the band interviews as well. Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson are like hip, streetwise guys from one of Scorsese’s films, while Garth Hudson and Levon Helm look like they strayed from a Peckinpah western. It’s a shame the group later descended into bitter acrimony because the camaraderie at Winterland and the Shangri-La rehearsal space is a joy to watch. I had one minor complaint about Scorsese’s coverage - Richard Manuel doesn’t get a close-up during his vocal on I Shall Be Released, but after watching the short feature that comes with the DVD which reveals what a Herculean task it was to capture the concert, I can let this one go. Still, Scorsese’s abrupt exit out of the studio rendition of The Weight (which has a fantastic arrangement here) is the one sour note in this otherwise exemplary concert film.