Groovy & Wild Films from Around the World

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Vertigo/DePalma - Part V

* * * Part V

As a cinephile, I have made it my business to collect as many films that I find intriguing, interesting, exciting, and engaging as I could find – the harder to find, the better the challenge. Such was the case with many of Dario Argento's films during my collecting in the 1990s, his films were continually hard (or nearly impossible) to come by until the advent of DVD around the turn of the millennium. Strangely, though, I was never compelled to collect DePalma's movies on VHS, in spite of my adoration for his work. Mostly, I would just rent and re-rent the VHS copies of Carrie, Blow Out, Body Double, Dressed to Kill, Carlito's Way, with only a couple of exceptions, which pertained only to his earlier films – Obsession was one of the VHS videotapes I was lucky to have come by on a shopping excursion to Bellingham, Washington; I'd found a copy of this movie in a VHS retail chain called Suncoast Motion Pictures. Obsession was one of DePalma's titles that I'd never been able to find up until that point, and so after making the purchase it would be the fist time I'd experience that thriller, which starred Genvieve Bujold, Cliff Robertson, and John Lithgow – with Bujold playing a dual-role as doubles. Obsession is DePalma's actually first stab at remaking Vertigo, with the first Bujold character having met her death in a firey car chasing following a botched kidnapping-for-ransom. Cliff Robertson's character then meets Bujold's younger double, fifteen years later, in an unlikely scenario in Florence, Italy. But this is once place DePalma shines as a storyteller – not only in making us believe in these unlikely coincidences, but in his ability to make us want to believe in them. There is actually something genuinely and inherently (and strangely, even innocently) romantic about DePalma's storytelling.

The other VHS tape I'd purchased was Sisters, thanks to that videostore owner who let me buy it right off of the rental shelf of his store. The third and last VHS tape I ever acquired of DePalma's catalogue was The Fury, and this videotape had been given to my by one of my sisters as a Christmas present one year in the late 90s.

* * *

The Fury (1978) marks a very intriguing spot in DePalma's overall catalogue, due to its cinematic content and its context within his filmography – it's a horror-thriller based on a popular horror novel of that time, and incorporates many of the virtuoso camera flourishes that would become the stylistic hallmark of his following films of the 80s. The Fury is essentially the bridge between DePalma's early horror adaptations (Carrie, from the Stephen King novel, and Phantom of the Paradise, a wild twist on “Phantom of the Opera”) and his trip of erotic-thriller masterpieces of the early 80s. The Fury expertly weaves and experiments further on the stylish cinematography and non-linear storytelling of his early thrillers Sisters and Obsession with the visceral energy and immediacy (paradoxically executed through long fluid shots and slow-motion camerawork) of his horror films, Carrie and The Phantom of the Paradox (the latter being more of a horror-thriller-musical in the style of, but superior to in this writer's opinion, The Rocky Horror Picture Show). This would all culminate in DePalma's unofficial Psycho remake, Dressed to Kill in 1980, the film that would really put DePalma on the map.

Although DePalma had toyed with placing media and media technology in his stories before the 1980s, with the television monitors and newspaper writers is Sisters and the series of slide-photographs that help to open the film Obsession, it wouldn't be until after Dressed to Kill that he would really start experimenting with ideas of incorporating all sorts of media and technology in his films. Of course, Blow Out featuring jon Travolta s our sound technician and hero was really the striking point for this, his subsequent Vertigo remake – Body Double – intriguingly toyed with the then-new videotape media that was just making its presence known in mainstream society, both in the consumer realm as well as the production realm. Following Wasson's first investigative moves through the Hollywood video rental store, he then manages to get himself hired onto an actual porn production in order to be able to meet with Melanie Griffith, the body double of the film's murder victim. DePalma takes us through the entire porn-scene production in one amazingly fluid set-piece that was: A) Aped by Quentin Tarantino for his celebrated Inglourious Basterds sequence that opens the fifth chapter of that film; and: B) Set to a pulse-pounding rock soundtrack that would serve as DePalma's foray into “rock video” territory, something that was in fashion within the Hollywood studios of that time. DePalma knew that he was basically shooting a rock video in service of this behind-the-scenes porn-movie sequence, making the entire scene a double-meta affair: A porn movie shot from behind-the-scenes as a rock video inside a movie that is about Hollywood b-movie and porn-movie actors, based on another movie from twenty-five years previous. Sound complex? It's not, because another one of Brian DePalma's brilliant talents is the ability to keep all of these overlapping meta-themes subtly riding the undercurrent of his actual story, about sex, voyeurism, and murder, without allowing these subtextual themes and secret criticisms of voyeuristic media to get in the way of his expertly stylized proceedings. Using a single word, DePalma basically has a firm grasp on his own cinematic style.

After DePalma would continue his stylistic approach to incorporating media tech into his films, with Raising Cain, Mission Impossible, Snake Eyes, and Femme Fatale, he would eventually twist the whole aspect of all of these films' opening sequences in his latest film Passion (2012), which would open up on a shot of the two lead heroines, both of whom are focused in on the screen of a MacBook laptop. For once, DePalma's camera is not showing us the images on the screen, instead, we're make to patiently sit while watching the two women (Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace) as they watch their shared computer screen (also sitting). We see only their faces and bodies and the back of the computer – they're the ones watching, and we don't know what they're watching, and it is never revealed, marking a first for a DePalma film. Soon, however, DePalma allows us to discover that McAdams and Rapace work for a mega-conglomerate media corporation in Europe. And sooner than later, iPhones, YouTube, security cameras, laptop cameras, and commercial media all quickly slither their way, extremely prominently, into DePalma's new take on the story of sexual and corporate power-plays, murder, and double-crosses and backstabbing while still managing to interweave the very importance of dream and nightmare sequences into his personal storytelling. If Passion is to be DePalma's last film, then he certainly went out at his peak, which is astounding unto itself considering his first notable step into the heavy-hitting cinema-auteur arena was Sisters, almost forty years before Passion was released. Sadly, Passion only received a limited theatrical release in North America, another signal of the changing media technology and the way popular media is delivered (and demanded) in society in 2012. The very way that iPhones/uploading/video-streaming marked the shift in Rapace's character's corporate power-position in Passion would wind up being the very reason that DePalma's brilliant thriller would receive very little attention in the cinemas and on hard-copy media distribution. It may have fared better with a VOD streaming release; but of course, watching a DePalma film on a Smart Phone is no way to watch a DePalma film at all...

(To be continued...)

Monday, July 09, 2018

3 Books a Month...

So, my lovely wife and business partner (Darkside Releasing, Cinemafantastique) Nicole (or Nicki, as she's called at home) proposed a literary challenge to me: reading three books per month, within the calendar months (so books started before the 1st don't count, nor do books finished after the 30th/31st). Tough! But doable, right? Stephen King claims to be a "slow reader" and yet he gets through around 80 books every year. 3 books per month is only 36 books a year. Easy peasy, Right? We tried to rope some of our other literate friends into joining this challenge with us, but even the booklovers that these friends our, our challenge was bet with immediate self-doubt. But then again, that is sort of the point of a challenge -- if it was easy, it wouldn't exactly be a challenge, then, would it?

I did make it through the first month, with 4 books, no less, and am on my way towards the July finish line. Here's what I got through (and thoroughly enjoyed, I should add, for all four of these titles), for the month of JUNE...





Thursday, June 07, 2018

The Mysteries of Donald Westlake's “Memory”


Donald E. Westlake might be best known as the author and creator of the hard-boiled Parker character that features in several literary and cinemaitc fictional outings. But a few years ago, a smaller publisher called Hard Case Crime published one of the author's missing, or . “never before published” works, entitled “Memory”.

Written in the 1950s, the plot concerns an up-and-coming stage actor who suddenly loses his functions for all faculties and facilitation of proper memory because of an attack by an angry husband, whose wife the actor had been having an affair with. The betrayed husband hits the actor over the head with a wooden chair, and the novel opens up in the hospital as the actor is awakening from this attack, only to find that he has lost every facet of his previously-working memory. He's lost his short-term memory, his long-term memory, and his ability to retain any memory past the near-present, unless he develops a fairly strict pattern of absolute repetition in his existence. This pattern has to be constantly supported with self-written notes and reminders through the underneath of the new daily routine. Donald Westlake then takes us on a four-hundred-plus-page journey through his lead character's existential nightmare; which for me, raised some skin-prickling philosophical questions, as well as a very big brain-nagging culture question...

The cultural question might not be what one might consider to be expected – in that my own question is actually relegated to something else that has popped up regarding Westlake's themes of memory loss, and to a great contribution to pop culture at that – through Christopher Nolan's breakout film, Memento. My question on this, where in Nolan's film his lead character suffers with the very same existential nightmare as that of Westlake's creation, is sort of a two-parter: Did Nolan somehow have the opportunity the claimed “never before published” manuscript, and was then able in incorporate many of these philosophical ideas of memory and existence into his own screenplay for Memento – or – are these questions just existentially inherent in any of us (like Christopher Nolan and/or Donald Westlake) for us to delve into if the notion ever occurs to us to ask?

My second question as to the mystery of Westlake's book, then, concerns the philosophy itself: Does existence actually really matter if we have no memory to use to incorporate, and in a sense, categorize (and even internalize), our own existence? With huge credit given toward Donald Westlake, he actually attempts to (and depending on your personal opinions, he does) answer these nearly mind-boggling questions. These are questions that stretch our imaginations, to be sure, as well as our own anxieties and nightmares about what it is to be a human being. The nearly heart-wrenching (yet surprisingly subtle and deeply meaningful) ending to Westlake's novel Memory might give most people answers to these philosophical questions, whether they wanted them or not – because the conclusion depends on if living in the present is exciting or horrifying, in your personal perspectives, which is what makes the entire novel, from page one, utterly riveting.

(The film, Memento...)




Sunday, June 03, 2018

MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE

In light of the next “Absolute Horror” column being published in the upcoming summer issue of Absolute Underground, where I chat for a while about one of my favourite authors Stephen King, I thought it might been fun to revisit this piece I wrote about his film, Maximum Overdrive, nearly seven years ago, which I'd always had fond memories of writing up for the UK website Videotape Swap Shop – which itself is now long since defunct.

The article was not as awesome nor as insightful as I'd remembered it to be. It's still a little fun, though. And I still hold a lot of gratitude for that now-gone website, VTSS, which was always quite supportive of my articles. (Huge thanks to Michael & Hannah)


MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE
by Vince D'Amato
(Originally published December 18, 2011)


Car movies, and especially their more-specific crossover cousin the car/road flicks, are something of specifically American cinema culture, having epitomized its heyday throughout the seventies. Coincidentally, this was also the decade Stephen King had his first novel published. And here's a man who has gleefully mixed America's obsession with the automobile as class status and bullet-fast horror and suspense throughout his career – with the likes of
Christine, From a Buick 8, Riding the Bullet, and Dolan's Cadillac just to name a few. When he made his movie deal in the mid-eighties with movie mogul-producer Dino De Laurentiis, It's really no wonder that King figured highways, trucks, and bloody horror would make for a killer directorial debut, and hand-picked his own short story, “Trucks”, as the key concept for his first (and subsequently only) self-directed adaptation of his own literary works.

The concept of King's original short story, which appears in the short story collection “Night Shift”, concerns a bunch of trucks that suddenly possess homicidal tendencies. In the film version, this happens after the earth is caught in the tail of a passing comet, trapping a bunch of truckers, diner staff, and a bible salesman inside the Dixie Boy Truck Stop Diner, with King here doing his best (or taking the piss?) while he tries to explain why the trucks went mental in the first place, something left out of the original short story, and something that is usually left out of his best works. King works incredibly confidently on the what is happening level, but in Maximum Overdrive, the why it's happening is almost gleefully far-fetched, even for a movie where machines suddenly get brains and start killing any humans they can't trap into becoming slaves. Speaking of which, how is it that the newlywed couple were able to keep control of their vehicle through all this...? Anyway...

With a pretty impressive cast including the reliable Pat Hingle (who easily steals the show), Emilio Estevez, Leon Rippy, Giancarlo Esposito (in one of his earliest minor roles), Lisa Simpson, and King's own discovery, Laura Harrington
(What's Eating Gilbert Grape), it's a shame King wasn't able to direct them with the same Americana satire that shines from the characters of his novels. Instead, everyone acts how HE acts in his films (see: CREEPSHOW); mainly, by over-acting to the point where the characters go beyond satire into Looney Tunes. Weirdly, though, this actually all sits pretty well with his over-the-top idea of seeing all the machines in the world suddenly going on a homicidal rampage, and compliments the outrageous style of the movie itself – and there are some truly funny moments, too. Meanwhile, all signs of subtlety are thrown out the window with within the first four seconds of the film, which nicely sets up what we're all in for as an audience.

And as if this weren't all legendary enough, King, ever the rock 'n' roll fan, hired none other than AC/DC to provide the screeching and hyper-catchy soundtrack. But what I want to know is how producer Dino De Laurentiis got King the rights to use the Green Goblin's head on the killer eighteen-wheeler toy delivery truck that's forever known as the cult mascot of this ridiculous but compulsively watchable cartoonish thrill ride. Okay, it's no
Shining or Shawshank or Mist or Pet Sematary, but King's cinematic creation has an ingrained warped sense of humor, and the satire does come shining through when the paper-thin walls of the mundaneness and routine of The American Way (circa 1986) come crashing down. Reading too much into this? Nah. It's awesome in its own unique way, it's a film I've watched a dozen times. It's like comfort food. Not really good for you, but damn it, there's just something so satisfying about it anyway. Then again, maybe it's just the exploding toilet paper truck, as if King is yelling at us from behind the camera: Heads up, you're in for a steaming pile of shit, and we're loving it!











Sunday, May 27, 2018

Vertigo/DePalma - IV

Part IV

...Another notable cinematographic trait from Vertigo [that DePalma utilized in his own films] was Novak's flashback whilst sitting alone in her bedroom. Here, the camera has framed the actress perfectly as she proceeds to write a note detailing her involvement in what we thought was her double's suicide up until now – where she admits, via her own voice-over and visualized for us (the audience) through a lengthy flashback of the bell tower scene, revealing visual information that we had not been privy to when the scene had originally played out earlier, that the “suicide” had been in fact a cover for murderous goings-ons. The mis-en-scene in the hotel room during the flashback brings to mind the excitingly framed flashback sequence from DePalma's The Fury when Amy Irving pauses halfway up an interior stairway and receives a psychic vision of her missing brother. DePalma shows us this vision as a split-screen as Irving remains frozen on the steps for us to witness her reacting to the vision – and while DePalma had played with dual-screen storytelling before in Sisters and The Phantom of the Paradise, he had never displayed it in this tricky and clever manner before – instead of the standard dividing line between the two scenes playing simultaneously, in The Fury, literally half of the backdrop surrounding Irving dissolves away into the vision she's having as the camera turns around her. Here, DePalma has displayed his most brilliant take on the dual-screen technique. The whole flashback trope also teeters over experimental territory, and although DePalma was no stranger to this form on non-linear storytelling, he wouldn't fully experiment with it until his later films, Raising Cain, wherein his seemingly overlapping flashbacks and dream sequences were viewed as too experimental for its time (1991) and DePalma succumbed to the pressure to re-cut his film into its current “theatrical release” version. Since that time, Raising Cain has been recut into a pseudo- “director's” cut where the scenes of real time, flashback, and dream fantasy have been restructured back into a form more closely resembling DePalma's original idea for Raising Cain. (This latter version is now available on a newer home video release). The epitome of DePalma's use of flashbacks had to have been his sophisticated, intricate, and suspenseful reveal of how and why Ethan Hunt's (Tom Cruise's) team of spies had been set-up and killed in the big-budget blockbuster Mission Impossible. This flashback sequence of DePalma's is particularly fantastic because as the sequence plays out as Tom Cruise's inner thoughts, mixing memory with gap-filling logic and circumstantial accusations, John Voight is sitting across from him simultaneously relaying a series of lies and his own false accusations, speaking while the flashback is occurring. The killing of the Mission Impossible team also happened in the first half hour of this exciting action film, literally and cinematically amping up the heroes-dying-halfway-through idea that had so intrigued Hitchcock in Vertigo and Psycho.

The ultimate experiment in non-linear storytelling for DePalma would happen a few years after Raising Cain and Mission Impossible. It would be the next decade, in fact, in 2002, when DePalma utilized a hugely extravagant flash-forward for the entire second act and continuing halfway through the third act of Femme Fatale, without even letting the audience in on it until the last few minutes of the film. At this point in his career, DePalma knew exactly how experimental he was being, he held no allusions that the climax of Femme Fatale might alienate his theatrical audiences. He was looking forward to the reaction that his film would get when it was released into cinemas.

DePalma's inspired fascination with both cinema and media serves to set up nearly every one of his key films in their opening frames. Sisters opens up with a shot on a broadcast television monitor. This was in 1973, and when DePalma returned to this idea of opening his films with televised monitors two decades later, he'd be nearly relentless with this idea. Raising Cain opens with a shot of a video baby monitor in a parents' bedroom. Mission Impossible with a shot of a live-camera monitor, monitored by a group of spies. DePalma had an obvious field day playing with interweaving video technology where a group of spies is pitted against two other groups of spies in the midst of double-crosses and doubleback twists – this is the very epitome of voyeurism quite literally blown out of proportion. In Snake Eyes, DePalma opens the camera shot on a series of new footage monitors until the camera reveals the live footage in actuality, without cutting. From this, the camera continues to weave expertly without any noticeable visual cuts for nearly the next twenty minutes, emulating Hitchcock's Rope once again as the camera follows a rowdy and rambunctious police detective played by Nicholas Cage and setting up the entire first act of the film, introducing all of the film's key ensemble players. Snake Eyes is DePalma's version of Rope on high-octane steroids. Instead of containing the fluid action to the interior of an apartment, DePalma's single-setting is an entire Las Vegas casino and hotel, his cameras gliding across casino monitors, down hallways, around a boxing ring auditorium and across the ceiling overlooking the insides of a row of hotel suites, all elaborately decorated in individual colour schemes. It's no wonder DePalma needed to hire Nicholas Cage for the role, at that time he might've been the only Hollywood actor up to the challenge of out-scene-ing the scenery. As for DePalma's key thriller trilogy of the 1980s, none of them started out with television monitors, instead, Dressed to Kill begins with an outright dream-fantasy seemingly disconnected to the rest of the film's reality, while Blow Out and Body Double both begin with the making of a b-moive, and both of those movies retain the making of the b-movies as their underlying sub-plots (both to be twisted in irony by the ends of those films). It is finally Femme Fatale (2002) that culminated and somewhat epitomizes DePalma's cinematic and media fetishes together – the opening shot, post-90s-DePalma, is of a television (going all the way back to Sisters), but this time the television is not displaying anything that is happening within the reality of the film, as the opening shots of monitors had done in every single past instance DePalma had utilized this technique – this time, the television is playing, appropriately, a scene form the classic Hollywood film noir Double Indemnity. Watching this film on television, we see as the camera fulls back, is a nude Rebecca Romijn, lying across a hotel bed. This is preamble to a diamond heist that is about to occur during a celebratory night at the Cannes Film Festival. This move fixes DePalma's own cinema with his passion for media and cinema, and these themes continue on through Femme Fatale as our other leading character, Antonio Banders, is introduced as a media photographer. Television, cinema, photography, and mass-marketing advertising all crossover each other with DePalma's trademarks: sex and crime. And like Vertigo, Rebecca Romijn takes over for an uncanny doppelganger (also played by Romijn) when the weaker double commits suicide. Not as much of a remake of Vertigo as Body Double is, DePalma's Femme Fatale regardless freely uses and twists around Hitchcock's plotpoints regarding the heroine and her double. The diamond-heisting Romijn, the stronger, more sexually outward and confident one, even gets involved with the dead double's love interest, just as Novak had done with Stewart in Vertigo. DePalma's Femme Fatale actually plays out like Vertigo from the heroine's point of veiw as opposed to the male point of view, up until the third act where DePalma's experimental intentions are finally revealed, pulling the rug out from under the audience.

(To be continued...)


Sunday, May 20, 2018

Issue #68 - The Absolute Underground Papers

(Original text from Absolute Underground Issue #68 - originally published February, 2016)

Cult Epics, Barrel, and German Arthouse Horror

Over the last few months, the independent retrospective genre label Cult Epics has released some of Germany's best and unflinching horror films onto Blu-ray – starting with Jorg Buttgereit's NekRomantik, the limited-numbered Blu-ray disc also included the impossible-to-find-in-English short film Hot Love, which if you can believe it, is actually more twisted than the necrophelic shenanigans of the director's first feature film. For a while in the early 2000s, one could purchase a European Hot Love DVD from the online retailer XploitedCinema.com, which is sadly long out of business. This online retailer was the first place I was able to find a reasonably priced DVD copy of Jess Franco's Exorcism (the one released by Synapse Films) and they had for sale many great out-of-print or unavailable (on this side of the water) genre films on DVD and VHS. Around this time, there was another distribution company called Barrel Entertainment. In the early 2000s Barrel was shaping up to become the niche of niche genre DVD distributors; releasing some brilliant cult oddities into the new and exciting retail market of DVD. Indeed, they were the first distributor to bring Jorg Buttgereit's films to North American audiences via home video – NekRomantic, NekRomantik 2, and Schramm all received glorious special edition DVD releases, as well as some stellar, nearly forgotten, independent films like Roger Watkins' bloody experimental 1970s horror Last House on Dead End Street and Leif Jonker's slightly awkward but exciting 16mm vampire gore-a-thon Darkness. In 2005, Barrel Entertainment announced that they were about to release a hugely anticipated first North American release of Gerald Kargl's German serial killer masterpiece Angst as a special edition DVD... And then suddenly (or gradually, depending on your point of view), the release became bogged down in constant delays. Nobody really knew what was happening over at Barrel Entertainment, as a small independent DVD distributor it was not uncommon for their DVD releases to experience some minor delays when it came to their projected release dates, as packed as they were with new special features and fantastic film transfers, but in the case of the ultimately doomed Angst release, these delays stretched out to nearly two years before Barrel's antsy fans were starting to give up hope of ever seeing this German arthouse horror film released in Canada and the U.S. And sadly, it had been right to give up on the continual waiting – the release never happened. What none of us fans knew was that Barrel Entertainment was going through some strenuous financial hardship, mostly due to director Roger Watkins' suing them over a spat he had with their special features on the Last House on Dead End Street double-DVD release. Ironic, seeing as the whole reason Roger Watkins' film had been available for years on VHS and had developed a cult following without his knowledge was because the original distribution company had quite literally stolen the film from him. Now here was a legitimate distribution company finally putting due care and attention into a new release and special edition DVD of Watkins' film, and he ends up getting in a snit and suing them. This lawsuit was sadly the nail in the coffin for Barrel Entertainment, a company far too small to deal with any costly lawsuit. But as half-cocked as this lawsuit may have been, it was nevertheless truly sad and unfortunate to learn of director Roger Watkins' passing in relative obscurity in 2007 – something that left a bit of enigma in its wake*. As for Barrel Entertainment, their last release was in 2006, and they were not only working on Angst at that time, but also the first-ever North American release of Jorg Buttgereit's masterpiece Der Todesking. Barrel Entertainment official folded in 2007, the same year as Roger Watkins' death.

During the exciting dawn of genre DVD distribution, Cult Epics had also been releasing cult and then-obscure international films onto special edition DVDs, most notably the double-disc version of Abel Ferrara's Driller Killer and the triple-disc release of Walerian Worowczyk's The Beast (La Bete). Nowadays, with Barrel Entertainment nearly a decade gone (gone three years longer than they'd been in business for), Cult Epics has managed to finally pick up where Barrel had to leave off. After presenting NekRomantic and Hot Love in a newly-restored high definition transfer, Cult Epics has moved ahead to give us his gender-flipped follow-up NekRomantic 2 and his aforementioned masterpiece Der Todesking on a Blu-ray that also included the feature-length Buttgereit documentary Corpse Fucking Art; and most recently, a hi-def (and English-subtitled) version of Gerald Kargl's Angst.

I, like most people in North America, got to experience Angst for the first time thanks to Cult Epics' commercial Blu-ray release. To say this film is stunning would be an astounding understatement. It brought to mind another largely unheard-of German arthouse horror film released earlier in 2015 by Mondo Macabro; the fanatic killer thriller The Fan. Both of these highly stylish German horror films were produced in the early-to-mid 80s, and both are amazingly groundbreaking in their depth and explorations as psychological horror cinema. Both of these Blu-rays (as well as the Blu-rays of Jorg Buttgereit) are currently widely available to purchase online in North America, and I would highly recommend a purchase or two in support of these amazing independent distribution companies who are passionate enough to bring these cult films to North American audiences – because who knows how long this might last in our volatile, and dying, environment of home video distribution.

SIDEBAR: THE ROGER WATKINS ENIGMA.
Roger Watkins' 1977 indie arthouse horror film has left behind a seared imprint on my mind since I first borrowed the Barrel DVD from a good friend of mine back in 2004. I think the DVD itself had been released a year or two earlier. In 2009, with Barrel's DVD woefully long out-of-print, I was able to find a different DVD copy quite easily (and cheaply) in the UK through a different distribution company. Watching that film for the second time, I was no less impressed than on the first viewing. There was something so rebellious, so fucking art, so bloody horrific in its low-budget drug-addled production values... It was actually kind of profound in a way. It was then that I began to wonder about the man behind the film – Roger Watkins. So I did what any slave to the immediacy of the internet would do... I Googled him; and discovered forthwith that he'd died in 2007. But this was just the beginning of my curiosity; it quickly piqued higher when I stumbled upon a comment thread following an obituary published online by papermag.com (the comment section has since been deleted and disabled as of 2011) – here reprinted verbatim:


  • Elizabeth Watkins: "I am Roger's oldest daughter and I want to thank you for posting this article and paying tribute to him. I really miss him. He was the smartest guy I've ever met..."
  • Jo C. Schwarz: "Elizabeth, I am an old friend of your dad. I am sadden by the news of his passing. Roger was the smartest man I have ever met myself. His wit and charm will sorely be missed. He often talk about how smart you were as well."
  • Bob Arturi: "Elizabeth I had the pleasure of working with your dad at Bill Kolb Ford in Blauvelt, New York. He was one of the wittiest, smartest people I ever met. I lost contact with him for a while after he left the business, but found him a little later at another dealership. He then totally left the business to move upstate and I didn't have the opportunity to speak with him before he passed away. I can't say enough good things about him, his sense of humor, our long conversations about his life in the cinema world, and of course his tales of his family. He will always be in my thoughts."
  • Barry Koch: "Elizabeth, Your Dad roomed at my house for a while back in the late 1980s. He was a brilliant, creative, and maddeningly mercurial human being... and remains unforgettable to those who knew him in to any degree. Despite the tempests that seemed to swirl about his restless mind, he always spoke lovingly of "his girls", you and your sister.
  • pedobear: "I loved roger too we hung out together looking for young girls. i will miss you. Pedophilia died with you. R.I.H"
  • anonymous: "Pedobear, It is very important that I speak with you. You hold the key to a very important puzzle. Please, please, please email me at this address. [Email withheld] I will make it worth your while."






     

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Vertigo/DePalma - III

Part III

Media itself has played very integral roles in DePalma's most successful thrillers. Without exception in every one of DePlama's key films media has been organically integrated into the themes and plots of these thrillers. Of course, DePalma's use of media in these movies are a technological and societal development of voyeurism, something that Hitchcock also utilized to highly effective extents in Vertigo, Psycho, and of course, Rear Window. With Hitchcock's films, it was telescopes, windows and peepholes. DePalma turns a technological twist to all of this, as with the opening to his film Sisters, where he simultaneously engages his fiction characters and the audience themselves in an act of voyeurism through a filmed television screen which is broadcasting a clip of a new reality-game show that has its own basis in voyeurism – Margot Kidder is pretending to be a blind woman who has accidentally walked into the men's changing room at a gym, and proceeds to undress in front of one of the male clients. The idea of the fictitious game show is “What would he do?”, to which the studio audience and contestants (inside the film) have to take a guess in order to win the game show prize. And while this is all happening, DePalma is also slyly critiquing the whole idea of television media as just another, albeit accepted and even celebrated, form of voyeurism. An extension of Hitchcock's peephole-voyeurism that all of television-watching society condemns – and so DePalma is pointing out our, his film's audience's (and accepted society's), own hypocrisy when it comes to where the line is drawn with our sometimes vampiric voyeuristic tendencies. Media as a plot device then comes around again, this time in the forms of cameras and photography, in Dressed to Kill, where the young hero played by Keith Gordon sets up a hidden automatic time-lapse camera outside of his mother's psychiatrist's office so that he might capture evidence incriminating the psychiatrist in his mother's (Angie Dickinson's) murder. Camera and photography come around again in Femme Fatale, where a crucial photograph taken of a woman-in-hiding throws her fairy-tale world into turmoil when the photograph becomes a printed-media advertising sensation and is plastered all over Europe. In Blow Out, photography is present in the deepening complexity of the plot, but this film is more about the media utilized in the making of b-movies, specifically, recorded sound. In Blow Out it is John Travolta's sound recording that is, in effect, the first witness to a conspiratorial murder, but when Travolta teams up with the good-hearted prostitute Nancy Allen to utilize sound recordings and hidden microphones to solve the murder and capture the villain (John Lithgow), things go spinning out of control and Trovolta winds up completely lost and adrift in his personal world of sound, which throughout the film has become his own personal circle of hell. A precursor to Body Double, DePalma's Blow Out also perversely toys around with the heroine's “doubles”, as villain John Lithgow, needing to be rid of Allen's character as she was also a witness to the key murder in this story, decides to create an alibi for her impending murder by first murdering several other prostitutes who bear an uncanny likeness to Nancy Allen's character. This way, Allen's character's murder would look like a random one in a line of serial killings that had been plaguing the city. Here, then, we also begin to get a mix of slasher-film aesthetics in a film where Travolta is first seen sound-editing a b-movie slasher film; and also DePalma's increasingly flirtatious tango with the misogynistic controversy, something that celebrated writer Harlan Ellison had some very opinionated things to say about within the introduction of a paperback re-print of his book “Shatterday” in 1981.

Voyeurism went from the telescope and directly to the then-cutting-edge media technology of the videotape industry in Body Double. While windows still remained a key element through witch our characters' voyeurism could be accomplished in Body Double, Vertigo, and obviously Rear Window, it was the mass acceptance of videotape technology that gave a welcome twist to Body Double; when hero Craig Wasson peruses the video rental shelves in the Hollywood videostore, launching his amateur investigation into the murder of Deborah Shelton, it's a curiously electrifying scene as we're waiting to see what could possibly come of this. When he finds the VHS videotape featuring the porn star (played by Melanie Griffith) who's erotic-dance routine eerily echoed the murder victim's window-dance, he's able to find, through the production credits, a thin track to follow in possibly finding Melanie Griffith's character, and hence, the possible key to solving a murder. Wasson not only finds Griffith and the key to solving the puzzle, but also manages to find far more danger than he was prepared for. At the end of Body Double, DePalma returns us to the scene of the b-movie production, with film cameras rolling and body doubles put into place for the leading b-movie actress, and this all intentionally circles back to the opening erotic-fantasy sequence in Dressed to Kill (1980) comically triggering memories of Angie Dickinson's shower scene and the practical use of her body double – and so then DePalma has created a mini meta-world of circling media and voyeurism by cleverly utilizing b-movie production, camera, sound, VHS tapes, slasher films, and body-doubles throughout his key thriller trilogy. In all of this, DePalma's inherent good-humour about films and filmmaking are completely in evidence by the time Body Double's end credits begin to roll up over the body double's funny shower scene.

Media also rears its head, again integral to the plots, in DePalma's later films, both of the throwback thriller with which he's gained his fame from, as well as his Hollywood studio summer blockbuster. In Raising Cain, the leading married couple (John Lithgow and Lolita Davidovich) have set up video baby-monitors which become both a storytelling and a camerawork element of that film; and in Mission Impossible, the whole plotpoint regarding media files stored on a hard-disc eventually becomes one of the biggest, most elaborately sought-after-and-captured MacGuffins in spy-movie history, once again providing a grinning example of DePalma's sly, cinematic humour. Funnily, both of these DePalma films also relied heavily on flashback storytelling, something that he'd avoided in his key thriller trilogy (Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Body Double) – a slight exception being Travolta's character back-story in Blow Out – but that flashback did not have any bearing on the exposition of the solving of the mystery in the movie, unlike Raising Cain, Mission Impossible, and unlike Hitchcock's Vertigo, wherein each of these films the cinematic flashbacks actually explained the entire mystery.
Sisters (1973) actually cleverly weaved the cinematic flashback trope with DePalma's interest in media technology by providing a construct for the movie's flashback sequence through warped memory (echoing Stewart's dream sequence imagery in Vertigo) and recorded laboratory research as projected through black-and-white 16mm documentary film footage. From there, DePalma drew far more specific flashback inspiration from Hitchcock's Vertigo in both storytelling and framing mis-en-scene technique, twisting it for his own exhilarating cinematic means, in his 1978 film The Fury. Following The Fury, from 1980-1984 DePalma dropped the on-screen flashback storytelling trope in favour of expositional-dialogue as had been used during the conclusion of Hitchcock's Psycho. Dressed to Kill, in particular, was more of a remake of Psycho just as Body Double was a remake of Vertigo. Listening to the summing-up-the-entire-mystery dialogue at the end of DePalma's Dressed to Kill, we can't help but think of the conclusion of Psycho, which then causes us to reflect on the whole of DePalma's film and the fact that each scene is really an updating of Hitchcock's film within the expanded boundaries of sexualism, realism, and secret hypocritical voyeurism/coveting of “professional” people in society of the 1980s.

As a remake, Body Double also included a circling-camera shot lifted directly from Vertigo, the shot was also exhilaratingly employed in Blow Out – circling John Travolta in Blow Out's most celebrated camera shot as he discovers, tape by tape, that every sound recording in his sound studio has been systematically erased. The circling camera shot is used to maximum effectiveness during the beach scene where Deborah Shelton and Craig Wasson finally interact without telescopes, windows, or lingerie-store changing rooms between them. As the unlikely couple kisses, giving into desire, this is a more lustful and technically updated version of the same take from Vertigo where James Stewart and Kim Novak finally begin connecting. While DePalma's take emotionally mixes love, lust, obsession, and anxiety in Body Double, his take on this same twirling camerawork in Blow Out strictly served to masterfully induce deepening anxiety. DePalma, if anything, is a master of camera movements, to the point that when he was ready to go into production for Femme Fatale (2002) he would require camera rigs that would need to be invented specifically for his film. His virtuoso camerawork, mixed with the heightened sexuality of his content (and context), is what makes his work stand out and stand apart. He is a technically more proficient filmmaker than Hitchcock, but without Hitchcock's experiments in cinematography, from the opening sequence in Psycho to the ongoing takes in Rope (which also required specialized equipment and operators at that time) to the inventive camerawork that permeates nearly every frame of Vertigo, DePalma might not have had such a critical base from which to launch from.

(To be continued...)