Thursday, March 31, 2011

Cult Classic of the Week: Eyes Without a Face (1960)

My experience with French cinema is fairly limited. I'm familiar with some of the main themes and leading filmmakers; I've seen some of the New Wave classics, like Breathless and Le Samouraï, and modern ones like Amelie. Still, I feel my knowledge of French film is lacking.

I'm grateful, then, that when I was researching Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans Visage) I found film historian David Kalat's essay for the Criterion Collection DVD. Kalat covers the history of the film and the career of director Georges Franju, and some very good points about the French film industry at the time. It's a short essay, and recommended reading.

Eyes... follows the plans and experiments of a brilliant medical doctor, and his attempts to repair the horribly-scarred face of his daughter (in a car accident when he was driving) by transplanting the faces of unwilling young female donors. She is hidden away in his country house after having "escaped" from the hospital. One of the donors dies from her injuries and is dumped into the river by Dr. Génessier’s assistant. When her body is found, and the doctor is called in to identify the body, presumed to be his daughter, it's his chance to officially declare Christiane dead -- allowing him more time to perfect his transplantation techniques...

There are two points in Kalat's essay that I would like to elaborate on:
The key was in finding the right tone. Feuillade’s genius was in his affectless, matter-of-fact depictions of the wildest, pulpiest lunacy. Franju inverted the equation, while still juxtaposing the fantastique with the mundane, the impossible with the everyday. Franju was on record that “I’m led to give documentary realism the appearance of fiction.” Or, put another way: “Kafka becomes terrifying from the moment it is documentary. In documentary I work the other way round.” Any way you slice it, Franju was fixated on the seam between actuality and fantasy.
Part of what makes Eyes... so effective is this realism. I find the matter-of-fact, realistic style of film-making very compelling and unsettling, particularly for horror and suspense movies. It's the difference between The Blair Witch and Blair Witch 2, as an example. Eyes... doesn't flow in the same way as "horror" films from the time. Only the face transplant scene has any gore, and even then it's very tame by modern standards (looking more like grape jelly to me than blood). The film is much more ethereal with the ever-present darkness, fog and isolation. It adds to the effect of Dr. Génessier’s guilt and obsession. I think this is where we see some of the French film-making style in action.
Edith Scob had worked with Franju on Head Against the Wall in a small but memorable role, and the two became a team: Franju cast her in four more films after this one. Yes, Edith is beautiful and vulnerable, but beyond that she has an intangible air of mystery about her. Franju said of her: “She is a magic person. She gives the unreal reality.”
Scob's character Christiane is the key to the film. She drifts through the film as things happen around her, until the end when she acts, almost as an avenging angel, but gently.

In the U.S. Eyes... was cut slightly, evocatively re-titled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and run on a double-bill with the U.S./Japanese co-production The Manster.

Eyes Without a Face is available in an excellent special edition DVD from the Criterion Collection. This is the source of Netflix's streaming version, which is the method I used to watch it.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Happy 80th Birthday, Leonard Nimoy!

Following on from Shatner's 80th this week, Leonard Nimoy turns 80 today. Although he was portrayed poorly with regards to a raise and increased creative influence on the Original Series, I've always liked Nimoy and I'm not alone in that. He projects professionalism in whatever project he is working on, and he's always been good to the fans; a real gentleman. One of my favorite non-Trek projects of his was the 1970s paranormal investigation TV show In Search Of... The credits music used to creep me out. Scary!

In the spirit of birthday wishes and good humor, take a little trip to the Shire for "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins"...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Happy 80th Birthday, William Shatner!

I've been woefully behind on my blog reading and blog posting for over a week now. A double whammy of flu and an important project deadline has keep me from the interwebs. I almost neglected to post something for both William Shatner's birthday and International Talk Like Shatner Day:

VIDEO: Celebrities Honor Talk Like William Shatner Day

80 Reasons Why William Shatner Is Awesome

See Winners & Finalists For Int’l Talk Like William Shatner Day Video Contest

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Japan Earthquake/Tsunami Relief

Some ways to help:

The Google Crisis Response page for the event lets you donate directly to the Japanese Red Cross.

Several Japanese popular culture writers, including Patrick Macias and August Ragone, are pointing to the Japan Society of New York's relief fund page, where "100% of your generous tax-deductible contributions will go to organization(s) that directly help victims recover".

On that same point, comics and animation writer Mark Evanier links to Operation USA, another organization who uses 100% of the donations for relief efforts.

DriveThruRPG and RPGNow are collecting $5 donations for the Red Cross.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Comics Journal now online and the Frazetta family feud

This week, the new online edition of The Comics Journal went live. It's sad to see another long-running print magazine disappear from the rack, although in this case it's still going in another medium.

I was surprised to see that the lead story for the first online "issue" was a piece on the on-going turmoil between the children of artist Frank Frazetta. I've written about his work here save for the family troubles after his wife's death and his passing. The situation was just too fluid for me to get a handle on although I tried to read the ongoing articles from the Pocano Record website.

I was very glad to read Levin's article "Goodbye To All That" as it's one of the best summations so far of a confusing mess, and I consider it a must-read for anyone interested in Frazetta specifically or even 20th-century illustration in general. I liked the parallel with the Barnes Museum fiasco, the idea of artists' wishes for their works, and I also generally enjoy autobiographical pieces when the subject at hand is contrasted with the feelings and events in the life of the author. On the other hand, I felt, like many others, that it was lacking. The author disclosed his lack of knowledge about his subject and, although Levin seems to have done some good research, it was puzzling to me that a leading comic book industry publication would assign such an article to someone without further knowledge or contacts.

Be sure to check the comments. One can assume that what was expected from some of the readership for this article was a more objective and up-to-date journalistic piece. The tone and voice changed at several points in the article. The most recent event noted was the sale of "Conan the Destroyer" in July 2010. Any word on what has happened with the family or the artwork since then? That may be the reason for the disappointment.

I might also suggest that the author's opinion of Frazetta's work may have discouraged some readers. For myself, I was taken aback by this comment:

"There was no indication that, even in his private moments, Frazetta accessed the quirky, personal corners of the mind that, for me, made art tingle."

Certainly the author is entitled to his opinion, but I'm not sure that the samples shown on the museum website should be representative of the artist's work as a whole. And these qualities were not seen in the published materials consulted for the article?

The books consulted for this piece may also play a role here. The original Ballantine collections are good, but, aside from the documentary DVD (2003), the most recent book in the list was published in 1994. The three volume retrospective from Underwood published from 1998 to 2008 should be the beginning point of any serious look at Frazetta's life and work.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

del Toro closes down "Mountains of Madness"

Just read on The Digital Bits this evening that Guillermo del Toro has withdrawn from negotiations with Universal Pictures over his production of H.P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness". Check the article for details; the short answer is that they didn't want the likely "R" rating.

GDT and Peter Jackson are probably the two A-list director/producers who have the vision and the clout to do justice to "Madness", or any Lovecraft stories. Hopefully he gets another studio to greenlight the project.

Like Bill Hunt at the 'Bits, I'll wish Universal well with their big-budget adaptation of Battleship...

Friday, March 04, 2011

Happy GM's Day!

There aren't many single special days or "holidays" in this gaming hobby of ours -- convention season, Free RPG Day, new product day each week at the local store -- but there is one event that began fairly recently. GM's Day started out through postings on ENWorld and soon spread throughout the online gaming community. The date of GM's Day coalesced around the anniversary of Gary Gygax's passing.
Be sure to check out some of the sales at DriveThruRPG/RPGNow this weekend:
And if you're not a GM, what better time to start than now? 

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Cult Classic of the Week: The X from Outer Space (1967)

[Finally, the first kaiju eiga in this series.]

Shochiku was one of the major studios in Japan. They specialized in the naturalistic style of Yasujiro Ozu and their biggest successes were the Tora-san traveling salesman comedies. In the mid-1960s, most of their production was focused on television. Their motion picture output lagged behind other studios and they didn't take many chances.

Shochiku missed the science-fiction/giant monster boom of the late '50s and the '60s that Toho and Daiei Studios cultivated. Their first foray into the genre, Giant Insect War (a.k.a Genocide) in 1967 was a disappointment. The only insects were a swarm of bees, and they weren't giant bees. Still trying to break into the sci-fi genre, they followed up with Uchu Daikaiju Guilala, known internationally as The X From Outer Space.

In the near-future (a future with space travel and a moonbase, but also mid-60s Volkswagen Beetles), six Mars missions have gone missing. A seventh mission is sent in the most advanced ship available. The crew encounters a UFO near the moon, and the ship's doctor takes ill. They take a side trip to the moonbase to exchange doctors, then continue on towards Mars. The UFO makes a return appearance and fires glowing goo at them which sticks to the ship. The team's German biologist, Lisa, makes a spacewalk with the pilot to retrieve samples, and they turn back to Earth to avoid the UFO. The egg-like sample melts a hole in the laboratory floor, and soon it grows into a monstrous creature which roams the countryside looking for energy sources to absorb. A recently-discovered element on the moon prevents energy absorption. Can the crew of the AAB-Gamma get to the moon and return in time before Tokyo is destroyed?

The X From Outer Space has a certain goofy charm. It will probably appeal more to those who remember growing up watching movies like this on TV. Don't expect logical progression in the story or the best special effects from the era. This was director Kazui Nihonmatsu's first film. He co-wrote it with two novice screenwriters. Some events in the film are explained in quick single lines of dialogue. Other times a scene is set up between the rocket base director and the German nuclear scientist just for the purpose of exposition. Often it seems that something important might have been left on the cutting room floor. There is a love triangle set up between the ship's pilot, the biologist, and Michiko, a crewmember from the moonbase. Initially Michiko is very cold to Lisa, but then all of a sudden they are fast friends. The UFOs are never explained.

The moonbase seems more like a Hilton hotel rather than a working scientific base. The crew arrives just in time for happy hour at the cocktail lounge. Later when the crew returns successfully to Earth, the German nuclear scientist at the rocket base invites everyone to his house for a celebratory party. It's a very social movie. The upbeat theme song, repeated throughout the film, fits the jazzy lounge mood.

It takes 45 minutes for the giant monster Guilala to make its appearance. The movie perks up then, and it's enjoyable kaiju action but not at the level of a Toho or Daiei film. The monster suit is well done and an interesting design. Some of the other miniatures (planes, tanks, etc.) are less effective. Two of the crew members use the rocket base's nuclear fuel as a decoy to lure Guilala away. The chase scene, with a jeep and trailer being followed by the monster, is totally unrealistic (for a giant monster film...) with the changing scale of Guilala's claw, but it fits the bizarre feel of the movie.

American-International picked up the film for U.S. distribution but it went directly into their television syndication package. It would be a mainstay of late-night and Saturday afternoons for years.

Fun and enjoyable films would continue to be made into the 1970s, but the "golden age" of the daikaiju eiga was nearing the end. The last Toho monster film of the '60s directed by Ishiro Honda, Space Ameoba (Kessen Nankai no Daikaiju, a.k.a Yog, Monster from Space) would be released in 1970. Toho's special effects master, Eiji Tsuburaya, had already passed away. Later, Shochiku would release the cult classic Goke: Body Snatcher from Hell. Another of the majors, Nikkatsu Studios, created their one and only kaiju film,  Gappa, The Triphibian Monster (Monster from a Prehistoric Planet), in 1968.

The X From Outer Space was released on a full-frame VHS tape by Orion. It's available in Japan on DVD. I watched the non-anamorphic widescreen Japanese version with the international English dubbing. There is a version out there with the AIP-TV English dub, and I think that might be the preferred way to watch this.