Sunday, October 30, 2011

Remembering a classic TV horror series: "Dark Shadows"

To celebrate Halloween and preserve my fondly held memories of the original 1966-’71 ABC TV series in the time before the Burton-Depp big screen reworking of the show comes out (and is either an absolute joy or a big-budget embarrassment), I hereby present an appreciation of the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. The series scared the hell out of me as a child, but I still collected the trading cards, the comic books, and even the daily cartoon strips. As a young adult I was able to consume ample amounts of the show in reruns and found that it was both a really terrific horror TV show and a delightful piece of Sixties camp (that decade, as I note frequently on the Funhouse TV show, is the “gift that keeps on giving, and giving, and…”).

First, the horror: the series began in June 1966 as a classic Rebecca/Jane Eyre-style narrative about a governess, Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke), who comes to the town of Collinwood to mind a child in a creepy old New England mansion.

In its first few months, some ghosts appeared, but the most interesting supernatural plot twist involved a character who was a “phoenix” (Diana Millay) and wanted to bring her son (the boy being cared for by the governess) to immortal life. “Laura the Phoenix” was a pretty odd creation for a daytime soap, but was topped in March ’67 by the opening of a coffin that let loose vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid).

At the end of ’67, the show introduced its first time-travel storyline, in which Vicky Winters was sent back (by a séance) to 1795, before Barnabas was a vampire. At that time he intended to marry his beloved Josette (Kathryn Leigh Scott), but was cursed for eternity by seductive witch Angelique (Lara Parker). After Barnabas' “origin story” ended, the show quickly went into horror-overdrive, introducing a Frankenstein plot, a werewolf saga, The Turn of the Screw, a gypsy curse, Druid-like figures, and a plague that wiped out the Collins family.

The time-travel got more and more frenzied as the show continued, but it all seemed to make sense, since DS was after all a soap and had five half-hours each week to delineate its plotline. The time periods covered after the original “origin story” was over went from ’68-’69 to 1897, to ’69-’70 and then “1970 parallel time,” to 1995 (!), back to 1970, and then to 1840 and “1841 parallel time.”

The last move occurred when Frid, now the series’ superstar, demanded that he didn’t want to play Barnabas any more, and thus was indulged with a Wuthering Heights-ish plotline in which he became “Bramwell Collins.” The show unfortunately was cancelled during that flashback — with only a TV Guide article by one of the scripters (Sam Hall, married to the show’s “Dr. Julia Hoffman,” Grayson Hall) to explain where it would’ve gone after that.

Dark Shadows was thus an incredibly ambitious series and its creator, Dan Curtis, was wisely aware of what pieces of literature (all safely in public domain!) he could pilfer from to juice up the storyline. The show was indeed scary as fuck for its time, since it was done live on videotape and thus to monster-movie-fan kids like me, it had a “reality” that the old Universal b&w films didn’t have.

It had extremely primitive special effects, but they were extremely disturbing for that era — the best example being a scene where Angelique was burned alive, with Lara Parker (right) emoting wildly as a fire effect was overlaid in front of her. (This isn’t the scene, but it’s another example of that effect.)

Today that scene would be taken as nothing by kids who’ve seen far more realistic fire effects in movies and TV, but back then this was traumatic viewing for young people, if only because of the screams of pain from the character — and the fact that this was also on in a “comfortable” afternoon timeslot, as afterschool viewing! Lara Parker attributed the show’s over-the-top acting style to its directors in an interesting comment made at one of the DS conventions.

Like every soap, the show was contingent upon secrets that would be revealed in seemingly endless two or three-character conversation scenes, but DS actually offered a payoff of sorts to these chat-filled encounters with the attacks by “cursed” characters and the weird incantations and rituals that became a part of the various storylines.

In the years since, various soaps have gone out on a ledge storywise — off the top of my head, I think of the “weather wizard” plot on General Hospital, an amazing exorcism plot on Days of Our Lives, and the very strange lengths to which the show Passions went with its witch character, played by Juliet Mills.

DS was comprised almost entirely of these sort of plot twists — the normal world of cheating spouses and nefarious schemes that has fueled the soaps since the Thirties on radio was nowhere in evidence on the show. It was a high-key endeavor that did require that you not miss any episodes, but also that you were willing to go with the weirdness as it cropped up.

At points, they went into places that flopped in my estimation (the whole “Adam and Eve” Frankenstein plot was just awful), and at others they introduced characters in one plotline (the heartthrob “Quentin” played by David Selby was originally a ghost in the Turn of the Screw story) and then threw them into another thread (he was also a werewolf!).

And yes, there was the campiness. The Sixties was a time when “gimmick” series ruled — flying nuns, spies who talked into their shoes, cars that had the souls of old ladies in ’em (not forgetting the uber-campy Batman, natch). Dark Shadows ran with this as well — even though the show was played straight, its sometimes-outlandish plot twists were of a piece with the “camp revolution” going on in pop culture at the time. This made the show even more of a weird creation — an over-the-top gothic horror soap with elements that could be laughed at and others that were genuinely kinda creepy, all underscored with the “what comes next?” mechanisms that drive the soap opera format.

The show has of course developed a massive cult and has the distinction of being the ONLY soap to come out on VHS and DVD in its entirety (of course, we’re only talking five years here, as opposed to the lifespan of Guiding Light, but still that is 1,225 episodes, all on disc!). It also was the first soap to widely be seen in reruns (a little research reveals that a Canadian show inspired by DS, called Strange Paradise got there first….)

The show’s producer and creator Dan Curtis, who was also behind the cult telefilms The Night Stalker and Trilogy of Terror, definitely had a knack for TV horror. He also definitely knew how to cast — one of the lingering joys of Dark Shadows is its cast, who continue to appear at the conventions that honor the show, and who have aged incredibly well (most of the cast members look as if maybe two decades or so have passed since the series bit the dust; instead it’s been exactly 40 years).

For evidence of that I need only point you to the websites of Lara Parker, David Selby, and Kathryn Leigh Scott (pictured), a Funhouse interview subject who has kept working as a performer, but is also an author and publisher.

Okay, enough with the reverie and on with the clips. I found it utterly fascinating in doing research for this blog entry that not only is the entire run of DS out on DVD, but the owners of the copyright have apparently had no problem with LOADS of episodes and special features from the DVDs being on YouTube.

I offer the cream of the crop below. For those who already are familiar with the original series (the 1991 “revival” is available on YT, but I didn’t find that particularly interesting, except for the casting of Barbara Steele as Julia Hoffman), you can watch the first episode of the show from 1966 here and the first 370 episodes are all up (really!) here.

The video label MPI put out some themed video compilations that come in handy for those who have never seen the show. The first one that deserves a spotlight is “The Scariest Moments of Dark Shadows”:



Another intriguing MPI vid-comp is here, called “Vampires and Ghosts”:



Another shows you the series’ trippiest moments. It is called “Nightmares and Dreams” (I’m telling you, DS was a VERY strange program for its era…):



Finally, since the bulk of the media attention concerning the new Burton film is devoted to Johnny Depp, not Burton, here are his feelings about Frid’s performance in the original series. And here, to refresh your memory as to what Frid did that made him so “iconic,” is another MPI vid-comp, this one called “The Best of Barnabas”:



It does seem like every extra from every DS DVD has been put up on YT, so here are a few of my faves, all vintage items featuring Frid when he was considered a “teen idol” (he was at this point a man in his mid-40s, much like Patrick Macnee when The Avengers hit). Here he is in 1970 on What’s My Line? in his full Barnabas regalia:



And here he is in 1969, doing a very sober-minded interview (about vampires, coffins, and teen adulation) on The Merv Griffin show (seated between Barbara Bouchet and Rocky Graziano!):



The helpful souls who comment on YT vids supply a lot of information. I had wondered at what point the “Dark Shadows Music Videos” (yet another MPI vid-comp that is not online in one piece) had been created. It turns out they were put together initially for the airing of DS here in NYC on the late, lamented WNYC-TV (Ch. 31) by Alan Matlick, a broadcast engineer, to make the reruns “longer.” Here is the first of the bunch, the super-melo “I Barnabas”:



In closing, I leave you with one of the most unique aspects of the show: the fact that its “bloopers” weren’t outtakes, they actually aired on the program. Dark Shadows, like most soaps, was produced on a shoestring budget, and so retakes were not allowed (unless someone cursed — but that’s a story for another time).

Thus, the actors’ line-flubs, scenery mishaps, and major screw-ups all aired on ABC, making it even more impressive that DS was still scary — since you could see its main vampire and matriarch regularly blowing their lines, supernatural fires going out at the worst possible minute, and doors opening and closing randomly during scenes.

The “blooper” reel for the show has been released on DVD and is not only amusing, it’s also an amazing record of a time when a major network show included fumbles, because the producers were pinchin’ pennies:



A final note about the upcoming Burton film: in the clip I linked to above, Depp had noted that they would stay close to the iconic look that Frid created for the role, but the one on-set photo released thus far shows Johnny in wacked-out mode again. That could be a great thing, if indeed Tim Burton is going to do something seriously creative in “re-imagining” the show.

Burton has also stated his admiration for the original series, which is reassuring to hear, because it was entirely evident that he wasn’t a fan of Batman comics from his Batman pictures, and he obviously wasn’t a fan of the Planet of the Apes movies from his big-budget effort to resurrect that franchise.

Truth be told — although I did really like his Sweeney Todd — Burton hasn’t made a film project that he originated (and thus has seemed “personal”) since Edward Scissorhands, and he’s now at the point of doing a feature version of one of his old short projects, the one-joke Frankenweenie.

Aside from fascinating, unconventional items like Ed Wood and Big Fish, he has been applying the “Tim Burton touch” to remakes and adaptations of very familiar works for two decades now. Let’s hope that his Dark Shadows brings back the sense of innovation and imagination he displayed in his early features. Although, with the kooky, crazy makeup, I’m sorta having my doubts. (I’d be happy to be proven wrong….)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Alice's predecessors: a trio of "shock rock" pioneers

It’s that time of year again. My favorite holiday is upon us, and no, it ain't Xmas or even my birthday. It is All Hallows’ Eve, when monsters are celebrated and people don odd costumes to let their interiors surface on the exterior, for a few hours at least. One of the people I’ve returned to again and again on Halloween episodes of the Funhouse is “shock rock” god Alice Cooper.

Much as I love Alice, he was not the first to do what he did — he, of course, did it to perfection and with a band that was an absolute killer (album title ref, excuse the geekdom). After Alice came KISS (four Alices, acknowledged as such at the time), solo Ozzy, Rob Zombie, King Diamond (boo), Marilyn Manson, and stageshow specialists GWAR and Rammstein. (The shock-rock category frequently lists punk acts, but if we’re doing to do that, I’d rather rhapsodize about the Cramps than talk about GG Allin).

Before Alice, there were three gentlemen who pioneered “horror rock” while making some memorably catchy music. I’ll work my way backward and start with Arthur Brown, whose band The Crazy World of Arthur Brown delivered some wonderfully nightmarish theatrics. Thus, it makes sense to introduce him with the song “Nightmare,” as performed in the 1968 film The Committee. Dig that crazy headgear!



Brown’s Sixties stage show is preserved in this footage, which is punctuated by him being interviewed out of makeup:



Rare color footage of the group, intercut with animation by Gerald Scarfe (best known for Pink Floyd's "The Wall"):



And, of course, the biggest discovery for any Alice Cooper fan is that Brown’s makeup foreshadowed the design that Alice eventually settled on. Here he and the band (who were only together for one LP) do a full-blown TV presentation of their biggest hit, “Fire”:



Arthur is thankfully still with us, but a musician who preceded him in the shock-rock biz has departed the scene. Screaming Lord Sutch, “the 3rd Earl of Harrow” (a completely made-up title) took a few notes from the last of our three shock-rock pioneers (including coming out of a coffin onstage), but he also began in a very good place, working for master-producer Joe Meek.

Interestingly enough, he continually ran in Parliamentary elections, eventually founding his own political party, which he named the “Official Monster Raving Loony Party.” He was never elected to office (although he did get a respectable amount of votes in various elections), but he definitely left an imprint on the pop-rock world with a series of horror-themed hits, including “All Black and Hairy”:



and “She’s Fallen in Love with a Monster Man”:


His biggest hit was a classic horror tune about one of England’s greatest contributions to the world of nightmares, “Jack the Ripper.” Here is a publicity film made for the song:



And a now-quaint but then-transgressive live performance of the song with his group, the Savages:



Screaming Lord Sutch sadly committed suicide at the age of 59 in 1999, but his inspiration, and the man who qualifies as the very FIRST shock-rocker, the inimitable Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, lived to be 71 and was hailed as a crazed god of performance-rock stagecraft.

A Cleveland native, Hawkins served in the Air Force in WWII. He aspired to perform in the manner of his hero Paul Robeson, but one drunken night in a recording studio in 1956 gave him his biggest hit, the unforgettable “I Put a Spell on You” (see below). He started touring in the late Fifties with voodoo props and a bone in his nose, emerging from a coffin at the start of his show.

He sang catchy, creepy ditties like “Little Demon” and, much later, kept his "monstrous" reputation by singing tunes like Tom Waits' “Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard”

Screamin’ Jay was a “wildman,” as was proclaimed in a favorite scene from Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise. He also had an incredibly powerful and evocative voice, as is evident in his rendition of the very non-horrific “I Love Paris.” And speaking of Paris, it is the city that Screamin’ Jay died in, in 2000, but also was home to one of his biggest fans, himself a hellraiser, Serge Gainsbourg. The two dueted only once, but it is an incredibly memorable collaboration, on Hawkins’ “Constipation Blues” (it’s not much of a duet, Serge is actually too busy laughing):



It is noted in Screamin’ Jay’s online bios that he sired many children (anywhere from 55 to 75 — then again, after the first 10, who’s counting?). The song that will forever be associated with him, and has been covered by every shock rocker from Arthur Brown to Marilyn Manson, is indeed “I Put a Spell on You.”

Hawkins maintained that the song was intended to be sung as a tender ballad, but that he and the musicians got very drunk the night it was recorded and it came out the way it did. Here is amazing footage of Screamin’ Jay, bone in nose and voodoo props on display, performing it in his prime. If you just listen to the record it definitely registers as one of the great songs about romantic/sexual obsession. Performed this way, it’s undeniably “haunting”:

Thursday, October 27, 2011

“Top American Humor Award” claimed by unfunny tall goof — and look at the names who were passed over

It’s interesting to see the Mark Twain Prize, which went to Will Ferrell last week, referred to as the “top American humor award” on various news websites, since, as I’ve written before, the Prize has absolutely no value by this point. Especially since the nominating committee has clearly decided that they’ve made a winning connection to Lorne Michaels and Broadway Video. Thus, they’ll keep giving the award to amiable but WILDLY unfunny middle-aged comic actors from the SNL stable, and keep passing over the oldtimers who are still with us and have contributed a major amount to American comedy, but who haven’t had bad multiplex vehicles in the past few years, so… well forget about them, will ya?

I actually can’t forget about ’em, because mainstream American comedy generally is as shitty as it is because the crap-mill run by Lorne Michaels keeps cranking out these amiable types who can act goofy (Will Ferrell) or do the snark really well (Tina Fey), and thus get the admiration of millions of morons with unadventurous senses of humor. There are older comedy “black belt” performers whose work is much funnier and more imaginative, and who definitely deserve to be honored with the *supposedly* most prestigious humor award in America.

Read my piece on the people who've been passed over here. And on behalf of American comedy fans, I hereby apologize to Sid, Mel, Woody, Phyllis, Dick, Mort, and on and on. As for humor writers descended from the late, great Mr. Clemens, well, the Mark Twain Prize says fuck alla yez.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Aki Kaurismaki returns with "Le Havre" (review)

Regular viewers of the Funhouse TV series will be familiar with my long-standing admiration for the work of filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki. His latest feature (and second in French), Le Havre, which opens today in NYC, is a welcome blast of deadpan humor from the Finnish master of quiet, sardonic cinema.

For those unfamiliar with Kaurismaki’s work, there are a few tenets common to every film he’s made:
— deadpan humor that often ventures into openly dark comedy
— a sense of quiet that is uncommon in modern film. Kaurismaki’s working-class characters betray their sense of kinship through merely being in each other’s presence, and not talking about their troubles.
— said troubles can only be held at bay in three ways: smoking, drinking, and rock ’n’ roll
— a definite love for his characters, no matter how petty (or criminal) their behavior

Though Kaurismaki has always focused on the working class (dividing his work between quiet melodramas and the occasional Finnish “hick comedy” — rock on, Leningrad Cowboys!), he has begun to integrate contemporary social issues into his work. And thus we reach Le Havre. The film tells the story of a French shoeshine man (André Wilms) helping out an African boy (Blondin Miguel) who’s a refugee in the titular French town.

The plot certainly sounds schmaltzy, and Kaurismaki is quick to play with that aspect throughout the picture while thankfully never venturing into Spielbergian sentimentality. (The only filmmaker who has been working the same side of the street is the equally deadpan Beat Takeshi; I think here of his man-saddled-with-a-kid movie Kikujiro.)

Although the film has been likened, most likely because of its location, to the work of Marcel Carne, Jacques Becker, Rene Clair, and other French masters of poetic realism, Le Havre strikes me as Kaurismaki’s riff on Italian Neo-Realism. From our hero’s profession (Shoeshine) to his little-boy sidekick (The Bicycle Thief) to the decisive transformation from a Kaurismaki-styled “problem drama” into an outright fairy tale (Miracle in Milan), the specter of Neo-Realism permeates the proceedings — until, that is, Fifties melodrama begin to creep in. As our hero’s troubles multiply, Kaurismaki liberally layers on orchestral music that sounds as if it was lifted from a golden-age “melo,” thereby allowing him to both spoof the genre and indulge in it at the same time.

One of the joys of following Kaurismaki’s work as he creates his “small movies” (a compliment not an insult, per Godard) is seeing how he has maintained a very particular tone in his work from decade to decade (his first fiction feature, a modern adaptation of Crime and Punishment, was released in 1983). He achieves this tone with the aforementioned de-emphasis of dialogue, spare visuals (with many primary-colored interiors to offset the bleakness of the exteriors), and superb casting, drawn from a small ensemble of actors he’s been using for decades, and other performers who know how to “act Kaurismaki.”

Newcomer Miguel does a wonderful job as the African boy, while Wilms (whose face can best be described as “lived-in”) is terrific as our humble everyman hero. Several other performers steal the spotlight with their bits, but none more so than Kati Outinen (seen above with a photo of her frequent Kaurismaki costar, the late Matti Pelonpää), who had featured roles in a number of Kaurismaki’s films. She had the starring role in one of his biggest “arthouse hits,” The Match Factory Girl (1990), and was the female lead in one of my favorite AK creations, Drifting Clouds (1996) (click the link to see the film with English subtitles).

Outinen plays Wilms’ stoic wife (named Arletty, no doubt in tribute to the star of Children of Paradise), who is struck with a fatal malady but asks her doctor not to let her husband know. Since she is the one thing that Wilms truly loves (even more than smoking, drinking, and listening to rock ’n’ roll), she becomes the emotional core of the film, and her health-crisis plotline is the cornerstone of the melodramatic aspect (and the fairy-tale places it goes to — not for nothing has Kaurismaki written of his appreciation for Douglas Sirk).

Outinen’s presence is a delight — her low-key acting has grown subtler and more effective over the years — but she is not the only surprise to be found here. The versatile Jean-Pierre Darroussin (The Taste of Others, Same Old Song) has a plum role as a soft-hearted police detective, and the powerful and always unpredictable Jean-Pierre Leaud (who, besides being an icon in his own right, starred in Kaurismaki’s I Hired a Contract Killer back in 1990) plays the “villain” of the piece .


The last wonderful casting “find” is an older French rock star known as “Little Bob” (seen right, with Aki on the left), who plays himself and helps our hero out in his time of need with what the characters refer to here as one of those “trendy charity concerts” that are so popular these days. Kaurismaki loves pure rock ’n’ roll, and has done great work with Joe Strummer and, of course, The Leningrad Cowboys (all three of his cinematic forays with that band of pointy-shoed rockers are now available in a low-priced box set from Eclipse), so his reverent mythologizing of Little Bob here is nothing short of delightful.

For those who’ve been following Kaurismaki since the days of his “Proleteriat Trilogy” (also available from Eclipse/Criterion as a set), it should come as no surprise that he definitely loves his characters. His deadpan humor disguises a soft heart and an open mind, and Le Havre is perhaps his most humane and charming work since the Nineties.

Here is the trailer for the film:



Probably the best “101” for English-speaking folk who want to know more about Aki, this episode of the Jonathan Ross-hosted series For One Week Only presented a full tribute to him in 1990:



And as a closer, here’s a touching bit of quiet affection from his film Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana (1994), which has remained unreleased in the U.S. Kati Outinen and Matti Pelonpää are featured:

Friday, October 14, 2011

Deceased Artiste Charles Napier, and the 18th anniversary of the first Media Funhouse episode

The Manhattan cable show Media Funhouse went on the air 18 years ago this month, and so I thought it only right to upload the first-ever clip I showed on the program, especially because it featured an actor who left us just last week. First a note about the beginning of the show: in the first few weeks of the program I covered exploitation cinema ("auteurist" exploitation cinema) exclusively. A few weeks in, I was able to diversify the contents of the program when I did my first Deceased Artiste tributes (Fellini, Vincent Price, and Frank Zappa).

To “catch viewers’ attention,” I felt there was no better attraction than the work of Russ Meyer, and thus I presented what I consider the seminal clip from Russ’s work, a montage that is so compelling, so unrelenting, so brilliant, and yet so nuts that it can indoctrinate you instantly into the Meyer cult. And there was no better male lead in any of his films than Charles Napier, a square-jawed blond gent who often played villains, but whom Russ envisaged as a two-fisted hero in the wonderful Cherry, Harry & Raquel (1970) and as a psycho cop in the so-over-the-top-that-it-says-too-much-about-Russ’s-mindset Supervixens (1975), possibly my least-fave Meyer pic.

Napier’s obits explored how the Kentucky native had a number of jobs before he finally settled on acting as his vocation: among other things, he was a high school art teacher, a parking lot attendant, a typist, a truck driver, and (my favorite) a photographer for a trucking magazine.

He was a familiar face on TV, who appeared in Mannix, Kojak, The Rockford Files, Starsky and Hutch, Dallas, and The Incredible Hulk — to which he contributed some of the Hulk’s growls! One of his most memorable TV roles was as a “space hippie” in the Star Trek episode “The Way To Eden.” In recent years, he continued to appear not only in mainstream and “DVD premiere” movies, but also worked as a voice talent for cartoons like Squidbillies and The Critic.

Though he is best known by the general public for his supporting roles in Rambo: First Blood Part 2 and The Blues Brothers, he was indeed beloved by film buffs for his roles in four Russ Meyer movies, and his being a kind of “good luck charm” supporting performer in the films of Jonathan Demme (a casual look over his filmography reveals at least eight Demme films he had prominent small roles in, including such hits as Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia).

While the obit in Variety noted he played a general in four different films, it’s as a sheriff that I’ll always remember him. And speaking of that, below is the clip I spoke about, the scene from the end of Cherry, Harry & Raquel that will convert any neophyte filmgoer into a fan of Russ Meyer. The montage begins in earnest at 1:54 with the great line, "Now all of this didn't really have to happen...."

It’s a power-packed montage that includes virtually every scene in the film (including the odd “thematic” ones in which Uschi Digard is seen symbolically acting out the plot in a desert setting). My high school film teacher maintained that Meyer was the most Eisensteinian of modern filmmakers, and this was undoubtedly true — what he achieves here with his editing and characteristically overwrought narration is to nearly create an “altered state” for the viewer.

He also demonstrates his debt to Eisenstein in the lead-up to the killer montage, in which he intercuts a rather pedestrian showdown between Napier and the actor playing “Apache” with a rather pedestrian lesbian scene, thus creating something exciting out of two rather non-exciting scenes of people clearly pretending to do stuff. Meyer’s world was a ripe and lurid one, and he had no better alter ego than the tough (but oddly friendly-looking) Napier. Please enjoy the scene below — I know you will.


RIP CN/RM

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The coolest old men in the world (2): Chris Marker

While the first and second generations of “Old Master” filmmakers are now gone, we still have a few of the most important members of cinema’s third generation with us. That includes filmmakers from the French New Wave: Resnais is 89, Varda and Rivette are 83, and Uncle Jean (aka JLG) is a mere kid of 80 years old.

Now that Eric Rohmer has left us, the status of “oldest New Waver” has passed to a filmmaker who for me surpasses all superlatives, Chris Marker. Marker turned 90 in June, and you’d never know it, for two reasons: he and Rivette have been the “forgotten” men of the New Wave in the U.S., never achieving great notoriety over here (and thus free to just keep making great movies). Also, Marker continues to behave not like a nonagenarian, but like a kid fresh out of film school who is intoxicated by creating images and toying with the new technologies that surface on a near-weekly basis.

I have saluted Marker a few times on the Funhouse TV show and still heartily urge those who are unfamiliar with his work to first check out his short film masterwork La Jetée:



I have also posted updates on this blog concerning which of his film and video projects have shown up on the Net. My entry from 2008 has links to a bunch of Marker’s video-art clips that are still active; the 2009 entry finds a few broken links (most notably the only head-on footage I’ve ever seen of Marker behind the camera shooting something, and Les Astronautes, the sci-fi short he made with Walerian Borowczyk, which is now available here!). The link to his 2006 feature Chats Perchés (2004), the original un-narrated French version of his Case of the Grinning Cat, is surprisingly still active.

I wrote those entries when Marker’s work was impossible to find on DVD in the U.S., and he had no Web presence. Happily, that situation has changed in the time since, thanks to a number of his best recent-vintage works becoming available from Icarus Films, and Marker himself creating an official website with six projects (two of them massive!) available for free. He also appears to be sanctioning the very thorough website/blog chrismarker.org that keeps track of his activity.

Four of the six works on Marker’s Gorgomancy site are my focus here, as I belatedly celebrate the gent’s 90th birthday. The other two films available on the site are Marker’s portraits of his friends Yves Montand and Simone Signoret — and beware trying to go through the main door at gorgomancy.com, which produces only an “under construction” screen. Click the links I have provided to the site, which are working fine.
********

The first major item on Gorgomancy is Immemory, his colossal CD-Rom, which has been in print twice in the U.S., but both editions were only viewable with a certain build of the Apple “octopus.” To watch the copy I bought (and I am a Mac user), I had to sit for a few hours in an office I worked in that had outdated iMacs with OS9 (since my home computer was too new to view it); the later edition of the disc is for the platform after the one I have.

Marker has solved all these problems by making the copious contents of the disc available online for free. Yes, the text is in French, and while the text is very important to understanding why he grouped the images the way he did, and what personal significance they have for him, Immemory is first and foremost a celebration of the possibilities of the image, and as such can be appreciated whether you comprendre la langue or not.

Immemory is constructed as a museum of Marker’s photos — he’s been working as a photographer since the Fifties, but obviously his fascination with images began a lot earlier than that (here he dates it to the movies he saw as a child in the Twenties and Thirties, including Dracula with Lugosi and Wings). The categories in Immemory include poetry, war, photos, cinema, voyages, and the most important one, memory. Here Marker returns to one of his favorite themes, exploring Proust’s “madeleine” and linking it to Kim Novaks’s Madeleine in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (his favorite film, and one he ably dissects in part of Sans Soleil).

Marker’s “museum” offers a deeper examination of the themes that distinguish his La Jetée (1962) and his brilliant, more complex works about politics, the media, and the power of imagery (Grin Without a Cat, The Last Bolshevik, Case of the Grinning Cat). One viewing tip (which is present on Gorgomancy, but is, of course, in French): when you want to move forward, run your cursor over the middle right-hand side of the screen to find a right arrow. If you want to go back to the menu, run your cursor over the middle-bottom of the screen to discover a down arrow.

I can’t think of another filmmaker who could’ve created such a huge, fascinating odyssey for his fans. Take the trip here.
********

“Ouvroir” is a half-hour film that Marker made using the online virtual “world” Second Life. Here his cat cartoon alter-ego (and real life feline friend) Guillaume-en-Egypte leads us through a gallery of some of the works not found in Immemory. Thus, in this informal video, you journey through a virtual “museum” that includes parts of his photography exhibit Staring Back, excerpts from his “Silent Movie” and “Hollow Men” installations, and some of his “Xplugs” (photo collages).

This video doesn’t have the depth or overwhelming brilliance of Immemory, but “Ouvroir” is definitely fun for those who already know Marker’s work (and the intertitles are in English).
********

Stopover in Dubai is a chillingly straightforward piece, with intertitles in English, that Marker made in 2010. It depicts the execution of a Hamas commander (himself a killer) in a Dubai hotel exclusively through security-camera footage. The piece plays like a thriller without the thrills, as Marker’s opening titles explain the killing and tell us that within 24 hours of the murder, the culprits’ identities were known (according to what I’ve read, none were ever caught). This is most likely because every motion they made was caught on camera (read: they were being observed, without being studied).

Marker’s use of the phrases “the victim,” “the surveillance team,” and “the execution team” lets us know that everything we’re watching is predetermined in a way. As has been stated by insightful political pundits (in this “post-9/11 world”), just because we can see the criminal’s every move doesn’t mean the crime will be prevented (in fact it rarely if ever is). No one watches the recordings made with these cameras until AFTER the crime has been perpetuated and the killers have gotten away. So much for the “deadly accuracy” of Big Brother….
********


Immemory is definitely the “must-see” item on Gorgomancy, but the biggest discovery on the site for Marker fans is the unreleased-in-the-U.S. TV miniseries The Owl’s Legacy. The 13-part series is Marker’s exploration of ancient Greece’s influence on modern society and is present on his site in the original French version.

The series was produced, however, with an English-language variant, and that version can now be seen online, thanks to the terrific Seventh Art blog. The blogger has made all 13 episodes available, with the only caveat being that the last ten minutes of the last episode are missing — not as big a problem as it sounds, since the show’s episodes function independently, and you can catch up to the missing segment on Gorgomancy (yes, in French only, but hey, it’s all free).

The Owl’s Legacy is an unusual Marker production in that it seems fairly “normal” for his work — meaning less whimsical editing and many more talking heads. Perhaps the linearity of the series was due to the involvement of a corporate financial backer (the Onassis Foundation), or maybe it was a case of Marker waiting to underscore the points made by his talking heads.

In any case, the series is still terrific and finds brilliant minds discussing political, social, and cultural concepts — something that can rarely (if ever) be found on American TV. Marker conceived of the show as a “symposium” that would address big ideas an episode at a time: democracy, nostalgia, language, music, mythology, and tragedy, among others.

One of the most interesting things about the show is the open acknowledgment that while the Greeks did indeed create civilization as we know it, they also failed at honoring all of their citizens (discussed in the “Misogyny, or the Snares of Desire” episode, and a discussion of slavery), and the government eventually failed and died out.

The series blends the thoughts of Greek, French, British, American, and Japanese experts on Greek culture. The only instantly recognizable names are Elia Kazan (now he and Marker do indeed make a very odd couple), Theo Angelopoulos, and Vassilis Vassilikos (who wrote the novel Z, which was adapted by Marker's friend Costa-Gavras).

Since the episodes stand on their own, I will merely recommend two of them for those who are interested but are not sure if they want to make the time commitment. Episode 6, “Mathematics, or the Empire Counts Back,” discusses math and its connection to poetry, logic, and the eating habits of animals. (If there is any animal that fascinates Marker more than the cat, it has to be the owl).

The math episode is the single most entertaining entry in the series, but the single most important scene for movie buffs and Marker fans alike is the conclusion to episode 9, where Marker finds the modern corollary to “Plato’s Cave” is a movie theater. Seated in his “Cave,” among others, are actresses Arielle Dombasle, the late and wonderful Juliet Bierto, and Catherine Belkhodja, Marker’s real-life partner for a time and the mother of actress and filmmaker Isild Le Besco. The film? Well, why not his friend Alain's seminal work on memory, Hiroshima, Mon Amour.

Certain topics are Marker’s métier, and none more so than cinema — here he asserts that the movie theater as Cave (not, mind you, watching a movie on a TV, computer, laptop, phone, or iPod, you solo viewers!) has the power “to negate the Cave, disarm the Gorgon, to tie itself to the thread of human creation and, finally, to create its own myths.” Bravo.



********

Other online morceaux d’Marker can be found on his Flickr photostream and his YouTube channel under the name “Kosinki” (not Kosinski). His latest short videos are thus going straight onto the Internet and the offerings run a wide range, beginning with charming (yet slightly strange) cute-animal stuff, like his cat Guillaume-en-Egypte in cartoon form and household-pet hijinks punctuated by his most succinct self-description, “Chris Marker, the best-known author of unknown movies”!

While he has turned back to his original love, photography, on the streets (and in the Metro) of Paris, he has also busied himself creating photo-montages about important international events like Obama’s election, the Egyptian revolution, the riots in London, and even the British royal wedding. As I wrote this blog entry, a new video (with a great image of Uncle Jean) appeared that leads you in one direction, and then (much like the martial art of aikido) sends you flying in another.

The two most creative uploads are his “Pictures from an Exhibition” (utilizing his “Xplugs”):



And a montage of his Metro photos, showing both his admiration for (and adoration of) women, and his keen eye for human expression:


********
As one digs further down into Marker’s work, one is staggered by the imagination, profundity, and wit he has put in his films and videos, and yet he has never acquired an “arthouse” reputation in the U.S. This is primarily because of the layered quality to most of his works — and, of course, the sheer absence of curiosity in most Americans. He will most likely get his just due over here when he has left us. In the meantime, thanks to Gorgomancy and the DVDs, we now have the chance to discover his work while he is still among us, still crafting beautiful imagery and sublime commentary on a regular basis.

NOTE: Thanks to Zach for passing on the initial link to Gorgomancy and this tribute to Marker by his friend Agnes Varda, which features the few clear images of him that we have to date. (He's avoided being in public view for five decades now.)