Thursday, October 30, 2014

Horror of Dracula Has Risen From the Grave!

Five years ago, Kevin B. Lee invited Christianne Benedict and me to talk about Horror of Dracula (1958) for a podcast on his now-dormant blog Shooting Down Pictures.

Man, it’s fun to talk about Dracula!

During our 25-minute horror geek-out, Christianne and I ranged freely across the broad vampiric landscape, with fun tangents on the Hammer Dracula’s similarity to James Bond, low-cut inspirations for Victoria’s Secret, the professionalization of the vampire stalking business, the threat from the east, and Bram Stoker’s ever-lurking anti-Semitism and misogyny.

Going into this podcast, I was more than a little intimidated by the prospect of playing Siskel/Roeper to Christianne Benedict.  She is my favorite living film critic.  When I watch a movie and then want to sample an intelligent critical response, I take a beeline to her blog first.  At Krell Labs, I can always depend on being challenged and delighted by unexpected insights backed by solid film scholarship.

This remains my one-and-only podcast, which probably says much about my performance.  I drawl, stutter, repeat myself, and say ummmm way too much.  But the content’s pretty good, rendering the total podcast respectable enough to deserve a chance to rise from the grave again this Halloween season.

Christianne, Kevin Lee, and I bonded years ago on the IMDb (International Movie Database) Classic Film Board.  These days, Christianne and I primarily express our love for movies through our blogs.  Meanwhile, Kevin is a rising star.  After completing the Shooting Down Pictures project (where he blogged himself through the 1,000 greatest films of all time as compiled by the website They Shoot Pictures Don’t They?), Kevin became a filmmaker himself—swiftly gaining a reputation as an innovative master of the emerging video essay format.

This week, it would be worth a trip to Austria to catch Kevin’s remarkable short documentary Transformers: The Premake at the prestigious Viennale (Vienna International Film Festival) 2014.  This 25-minute film is an intoxicating joyride that wickedly dissects film production, promotion, and fandom.  And if you can’t make it to Vienna, enjoy a viewing below in its most natural setting: YouTube.

So gorge yourself on the podcast and video treats... and whether you go trick-or-treating this year as the Prince of Darkness or as a shape-shifting robot monster, Happy Halloween to all!

© 2014 Lee Price

Monday, October 6, 2014

Halloween Tips from Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939)

Seventy-five years ago,
Jean Renoir filmed
The Rules of the Game (1939) ...

Jean Renoir as a bear, with Nora Gregor and
Marcel Dalio to his right in folk costume.
In the spirit of the season, I offer some Halloween costume ideas inspired by Jean Renoir’s classic film The Rules of the Game (1939):  bear costumes, Austrian folk clothes, traditionally-sheeted ghosts, and a classic skeletal Death.

In The Rules of the Game, a masquerade is announced at the country estate of La Colinière—a time for the elite to play dress-up, Halloween-style.  Jean Renoir, genius director and pratfalling actor, dresses as his alter ego, a bear.  The party’s hosts are in the colorful Tyrolean getups.

Then, as things really start getting wild and weird, Death takes the stage.

The Master of Ceremonies arrives.

Screams followed by laughter.
Like guests touring a modern-day haunted house attraction, the high society regulars at La Colinière enjoy the domesticated thrill of an encounter with the inexplicable.  The ghosts that dance with Death leave the stage and playfully terrorize the appreciative audience.  We all love to be frightened, provided it’s a predictable scare at a designated hour in a safe place.

Of course, this being a film masterpiece, the scene functions on several levels, simultaneously launching farce while foreshadowing tragedy.  The gliding camera picks up on numerous subplots, deepening and commenting upon them.

For Death’s set piece, a player piano slips into Camille Saint-SaënsDanse Macabre.  Backstage, four men don their costumes—three as ghosts and the fourth as Death.  The curtain drops and the cavorting ghosts are revealed against a black background, each dancing with an umbrella frame like a prescient undead version of Singin in the Rain.

Leaping and prancing, Death leads the ghosts in the dance.  When the ghosts descend into the audience, Death appears to be looking for something in particular.  He spots the two playful lovers whose actions will trigger the climactic tragedy.

Death spies the lovers, played by Julien Carette and Paulette Dubost.

The Rules of the Game offers the classic Halloween ghost costume:  white sheets with cutout eyes.  Under the sheets, they wear black clothes (as well as black gloves and shoes) so as to blend in with the background behind them.  The umbrella frames, stripped of their fabric, are an inspired touch.

And The Rules of the Games offers a classic Death:  a black leotard with an artistically painted skeleton.  The skull is a pull-over mask.  The crisp white of the bones makes them seem to glow in the dark.

It’s a charming Halloween ensemble, best played against a black stage and a soundtrack of Saint-Saëns.

Death dresses while the ghosts perform.

Here are some other classic film ideas for dressing up as ever-popular Death this Halloween season:

© 2014 Lee Price

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Death of a Frog in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Horror in
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974)
by Annie Dillard

With the pounce of a bloody tomcat, violence is foreshadowed in the first two paragraphs of Annie Dillard’s nonfiction narrative Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  It’s a classic horror novel opening.  Then Dillard cleverly lulls the reader back into complacency with a pastoral description of a morning stroll down the path to the creek.  Janet Leigh’s heading toward the shower—what could possibly go wrong?

Dillard sits by the flowing creek and in the last sentence of the twelfth paragraph, she returns to Subject A:

“I’m drawn to this spot.  I come to it as an oracle;  I return to it as a man years later will seek out the battlefield where he lost a leg or an arm.”

That’s the transition.  She’s about to unleash the horror.

Some critics compare Pilgrim at Tinker Creek with Thoreau’s Walden, but it reminds me more of Cormac McCarthy’s gore-splattered horror/western Blood Meridian.  McCarthy works out his fixations on the macrocosm of the parched deserts of the American west.  Annie Dillard works with the same themes (a quest for meaning against a backdrop of existential futility) by focusing on the microcosm of life in her Virginia backyard.

When Dillard spies a small frog, it’s like that moment in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet where the camera plunges below the manicured lawns.  The sense of order disintegrates.  A seemingly alien world comes into view.

In paragraphs 13 through 17, Dillard observes—and then broods upon—the annihilation of the frog.  Twenty years after reading these paragraphs for the first time, I’m still mesmerized by the passage.  To proceed with this SPOILER, Dillard watches a frog being sucked dry by a giant water bug:

“And just as I looked at him (the frog), he slowly crumpled and began to sag.  The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed.  His skin emptied and drooped;  his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent.  He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football.  I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall.  Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water...”

For the rest of the book, Dillard struggles to comprehend a theology capable of encompassing the annihilation of frogs.  If she doesn’t entirely succeed in this quest, her effort is as noble a failure as Herman Melville’s to fully understand the nature of the white whale.  At best, Job-like, we glimpse God’s backside as he departs.  In Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy never figures it out either.  These are the themes that you wrestle with till sunrise, leaving you broken and still unsatisfied.

But this is the world we live in, closely observed.  If horror isn’t acknowledged as a neighbor of theology, then the theology is cheap.  The creek is out back;  death waits there.  The frog’s eyes are drained of some undefinable spark, horrific as a transformation in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

“I never knew fear until I kissed Becky.”
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Like Melville, Dillard assumes the existence of God.  And, like Melville, she is determined to reconcile the Creator with the creation.  The notion of a fallen world does not enter into her equation.  She accepts the world as is and holds God responsible for its cruelties, pain, and death, rejecting any theology that does not acknowledge giant water bugs.

Insects are her test case:

“Fish gotta swim birds gotta fly;  insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another.”

Insects creep, crawl, and fly through the book.  A mutilated Polyphemus moth creeps down a driveway “on six furred feet,” a female praying mantis religiously observes her cannibalistic sex rites, a starving clothes moth larva obsessively molts itself into non-existence, a grasshopper exercises its 18 mouthparts, and there’s an amazing description of a bee being eaten by a wasp being eaten by a mantis.  She teases, pokes, and prods at the idea of insects in her search for profundity.

“I ought to keep a giant water bug in an aquarium on my dresser, so I can think about it.  We have brass candlesticks in our houses now;  we ought to display praying mantises in our churches.”

Near the end of his life, Michelangelo painted a self-portrait into his Last Judgment fresco, picturing himself as grotesque folds of flayed skin, his countenance drooping like a kicked tent.  I think the giant water bug caught him at last.  It’s a horrific way to look at life.  There’s no explaining it.

There’s no explaining the death of a frog.

Detail of Michelangelo's Last Judgment.

© 2014 Lee Price

Monday, August 11, 2014

Your Guide to L'Atalante's Cabinet of Curiosities

Eighty years ago,
Jean Vigo completed
L’Atalante (1934) ...

Dita Parlo in L'Atalante (1934).
“It’s a regular curio cabinet!” Juliette (Dita Parlo) exclaims in Jean Vigo’s masterpiece L’Atalante (1934) as she discovers the strange and colorful items exhibited in the cabin of Père Jules (Michel Simon), the barge’s first mate.  Exotic objects hang from the ceiling, are nailed to the walls, decorate the shelves, and rest on the floor.  It really does look like one of those proto-museum displays that were known as “cabinets of curiosity” in centuries past.

Ole Worm's Cabinet of Curiosities,
from Museum Wormianum (1655)
on Wikimedia Commons.

L’Atalante is an examination of a young marriage, focusing upon Juliette and Jean, her barge captain husband, as they journey along the Seine.  While the details of the barge trip are often realistic, the relationships on board the barge (the young couple, the first mate, and a cabin boy) are conveyed more impressionistically.  There are few characters on film quite as charmingly strange as Père Jules, the gruff first mate who appears to have lived a full and fascinating life.  His cabin is our window into his soul.

Père Jules allows Juliette to explore his cabin.  She sees:

The aquatic collection.

Père Jules is a man of the water, with a starfish and octopus nailed to his wall.  Juliette holds a shell to her ear.  And that’s a very impressive sawfish rostrum mounted on Père Jules’ bunk!

The toy collection.
Toys and miniatures are everywhere, from a ceramic dog to a carved alligator.  A miniature skull resides next to a tiny guillotine.  Juliette playfully cranks a music box while Père Jules brings his prize puppet to life.  “I got him in Caracas,” Jules says, “after the revolution in 1890.”

Juliette examines an anatomical specimen.
Juliette curiously picks up a tusk and examines it.  Père Jules identifies it as “an anatomical specimen from a hunting trip.”

Screens, masks, and fans from abroad.
Père Jules has traveled the world.  From Asia, he boasts a large fan and a delicate painted screen.  Masks hang on the walls.  “Nothing but the finest things,” Jules explains.

The art gallery.
Although he shows restraint with Juliette, Père Jules is a carnal man.  His paintings and photographs depict women in various states of undress, including nudes.  The men in his photographs are shirtless, too.

A mysterious jar.
The cabin may be a window into the soul of Père Jules, but we see through the glass darkly.  Mystery remains.  Juliette stumbles upon a jar containing two human hands.  “That’s my friend who died three years ago,” Jules says.  “His hands—all I have left of him.”

Historically, a cabinet of curiosities was intended to showcase the interests of the owner.  These were the things that piqued the imagination of the proprietor.  The links between the disparate objects provided insight into the unique personality of the host.

All that's left of
Lee's Museum.
When I was a boy, I had a museum in my basement.  Lee’s Museum had a chemistry table, a biology section with specimens in formaldehyde, my pet iguana, shells, anatomy models, earth science displays, and lots of rocks and fossils.  It was my cabinet of curiosities.  I don’t have one anymore unless you count my single cabinet of rocks and fossils.

Unlike Père Jules, I think I’ve become less interesting with age.  Unless, maybe, these essays are my new cabinet of curiosities…

© 2014 Lee Price

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Tarzan and His Mate Play House

A summer idyll with
Tarzan and His Mate (1934),
essay 2 of 2

Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) in
Tarzan and His Mate (1934).
Summer is for climbing trees.

“We have a mansion in every glade,” says Jane in Tarzan and His Mate (1934).  More accurately, the glades are backyards for Tarzan and Jane, while they spend their nights in impromptu mansions assembled high above in the trees.

After her visiting American friends coax Jane into putting on an evening dress, Tarzan sniffs the dress, fingers it curiously, then whisks her off via jungle vine to one of their treetop mansions.

Cedric Gibbons, head of the MGM art department, was a master at designing opulent sets.  On a daily basis, he oversaw the designs for royal chambers, grand cathedrals, and rich plantation homes.  MGM specialized in glitzy displays of wealth.  Tree houses were a bit of a stretch for the Gibbons team, headed by A. Arnold Gillespie, especially when the script stressed their simplicity.  No jerry-rigged imitations of modern conveniences were called for.  Tarzan and his mate shared a cozy little pup tent in the trees, with room for one organic mattress and an animal skin blanket.

The exterior of Tarzan's tree house in Tarzan and His Mate (1934).

Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) and Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller) in the
interior of the tree house in Tarzan and His Mate (1934).

As one of the last movies to fall into the pre-Code era, Tarzan and His Mate barely scraped past the rapidly increasing pressure from the censors of the Hayes Office in 1934.  Two years later, with the Code operating in full force, MGM required radical changes in the Tarzan jungle, including a thorough overhaul of the Tarzan family’s living arrangement.  In Tarzan Escapes (1936), Cedric Gibbons and his art department provided Tarzan and Jane with a proper tree house mansion with fully-equipped kitchen, a dining room, and guest rooms.

Tarzan's townhouse in the trees in Tarzan Escapes (1934).

The elephant-powered lift and the
chimp-powered fan in
Tarzan Escapes (1936).
The charming rustic enclosure that served as their bedroom/mansion in Tarzan and His Mate is briefly shown but then dismissed by Jane as “a little bird’s nest.”  She brags that their real home is a townhouse.  “We’ve got lots of room.  You’ll be very comfortable.  Tarzan made it and I designed it…  Hot and cold water—all the latest conveniences.”

Granted license by the script to build a tree house mansion, the art department set about creating the world’s ultimate arboreal playground.  It’s a multi-room extravaganza with an elephant-powered lift, a chimp-powered fan, a wood-burning oven, a complex pulley system for drawing water from the creek below, and a rope bridge that links the main building to a treetop gazebo.

While setting a new standard for tree houses, the new arrangement unfortunately (to the great detriment of MGM’s Tarzan series) domesticated Jane.  After taming an ape man and fending off lions in the first two movies, Tarzan Escapes relegated her to the kitchen, in charge of cooking the wildebeest roast.  It was an inevitable slide into middle class life for Tarzan and his mate, but at least they’d always have the glorious memories of their pre-Code courtship, when clothes were scantier, every glade was a mansion, and the tree houses were built for two.

Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) and Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller) in
Tarzan and His Mate (1934).

© 2014 Lee Price

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Tarzan and His Mate Go Swimming

A summer idyll with
Tarzan and His Mate (1934),
essay 1 of 2

Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller) and
Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) in Tarzan and His Mate (1934).

Lacking a backyard pool—not to mention a neighborhood jungle lagoon—I typically plunge into escapist movies during the summertime.  Safe in an air-conditioned room, far from pesky mosquitoes and crocodiles, I mentally swing through the trees in a vine-draped paradise.  Today’s feature:  Tarzan and His Mate, MGM’s 1934 sequel to their 1932 hit Tarzan the Ape Man.

Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller) and
Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) in
Tarzan and His Mate (1934).
While Tarzan stories undeniably cater to several pernicious imperialist and racist fantasies, Tarzan and His Mate (the greatest of the Tarzan movies) rises above its predictable faults with its depiction the happiest of summertime romantic fantasies:

Jane and Tarzan sitting in a tree,

Tarzan and His Mate is a romance for newlyweds.  The censors, apparently satisfied with Tarzan and Jane’s implied common-law marriage, let them have their fun.  They disappear behind the leaves for the night and appear blissfully satisfied the next morning.

Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) and Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller) in
Tarzan and His Mate (1934).

The movie’s most famous scene, albeit one that was deleted by censors from the movie for most of its existence, follows such a night.  After the lovemaking and the cuddling, the time arrives for the skinny dipping.

Johnny Weismuller
and Josephine McKim,
in Tarzan and His Mate (1934).
Playfully tossed into the water, Jane’s evening gown tears off in Tarzan’s hands, rendering her naked, happy, and free as she swims with her lover in the depths.  Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane) appears in the medium shots and closeups, while Olympic medalist Josephine McKim ably doubles for her in the lengthy underwater shots.  Eminently at home in the water, Johnny Weismuller and McKim swim a flirtatious pas de deux.  It’s jungle play.

For this particular scene, Tarzan absent-mindedly leaves his loincloth on but you get the feeling that it’s purely optional, a concession to having a film crew on hand.  Every night and other day, they’re naked together in paradise.

It’s a fantasy of the young, and a nostalgic dream-memory for the aging:

… remembering that night
September’s coming soon
I’m pining for the moon
And what if there were two
Side by side in orbit around the fairest sun?...

Nightswimming deserves a quiet night.

Lyrics from the
R.E.M. song Nightswimming
by Bill Berry, Peter Buck,
Mike Mills, and Michael Stipe

© 2014 Lee Price

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Ten Great Recordings of Blue Moon

Blue Moon blogging,

from Benny Goodman (1935)
to Julie London (1961)
to She Keeps Bees (2012),

essay 2 of 2

In my first essay on “Blue Moon,” I traced the strange evolution of the story within the song from its original Rodgers and Hart composition through the Elvis Presley dismantling and finally to the Cowboy Junkies rewrite.  I’m including all three highlighted versions here, too, because they really are favorites of mine.

Some obvious versions are missing from this selection simply because they aren’t my favorites.  So you won’t find Mel Torme’s jazzy hit from 1949, The Marcels’ doo-wop classic from 1961, Bobby Vinton’s teen-dream version (best utilized as the American Werewolf in London centerpiece), or The Mavericks smooth country reupholstering of the Elvis interpretation.  All were big hits and remain easily accessible, via YouTube and other channels.

Finally, I’ve left off some dazzling instrumental jazz interpretations largely because I’ve decided to maintain a focus on the interpretation of Lorenz Hart’s lyrics.

The order is chronological, with two bonus tracks at the end:

Benny Goodman in 1935:  There was a lot of “Blue Moon” activity in the mid-1930s, with different versions battling for chart supremacy.  Glen Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra sold best, with Benny Goodman’s arrangement a close second.  I’ll take Goodman for the unaffected vocal by Helen Ward and the closing trombone solo by Jack Lacey.

Billie Holiday in 1952:  Lady Day deserved the love she sang about so playfully here.  It’s an unusually ironic take on the song, with Holiday gently kidding the very notion of love at first sight.  But she’ll enjoy the moment just fine while it lasts.

Jo Stafford in 1952:  Stafford is such a justifiably self-confident singer that she loses a little of the vulnerability inherent in the lyric.  Nevertheless, this is pitch-perfect and a marvel of subtle phrasing.  Lou McGarity’s trombone perfectly complements Stafford’s high style.

Elvis Presley in 1954:  As I posted in the first essay, I love the still-teenage Elvis hitting those spooky high notes.  His wordless improvisation fundamentally changes the song, and brilliantly so.

Ella Fitzgerald in 1956:  In the 1950s, Ella Fitzgerald set about reinterpreting the great pop standards and that included the American songbook of Rodgers and Hart.  She plays it absolutely straight, delivering what may be the most romantic interpretation of them all.

Julie London in 1961:  London delivers a sly understated and sexy “Blue Moon,” as she knowingly trades off with a slinky guitar riff.  It’s pure 60s and irresistible.

Bobby Bland in 1962:  Straying far afield from his traditional swaggering blues attacks, Bobby Bland and his ace arranger Joe Scott cleverly adapted “Blue Moon” for a funky horns-dominated party atmosphere.

Cowboy Junkies in 1987:  While “Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis)” is technically a new song—a wrap-around elaboration of the Presley “Blue Moon”—I’m choosing to include it here as an authentic extension of the original.  I stand by my contention, asserted in the previous essay, that the new lyric emerges naturally from the Rodgers’ melody.

My Morning Jacket in 2002:  I wasn’t expecting this!  Lead singer Jim James takes the Elvis falsetto addition and completely re-imagines it—a new melodic twist that works with the original bridge and closing verse that Elvis had abandoned.  Very cool.

YouTube video of “Blue Moon” by She Keeps Bees.
She Keeps Bees website, with link to the single.

She Keeps Bees in 2012:  There’s no nostalgia in Jessica Larrabee’s vocal, just a smart, hoarse, and spare late-night exploration of love in the 21st century.  “Blue Moon” still matters.


Shirley Ross in 1934:  From Manhattan Melodrama (1934), Shirley Ross sings the song “The Bad In Every Man,” Lorenz Hart’s second attempt at putting lyrics to Richard Rodgers’ “Blue Moon” melody.  His fourth try would finally yield the standard “Blue Moon.”

Harpo Marx in 1939:  Although Groucho might urge you to move on (“I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason why you folks shouldn’t go out into the lobby until this thing blows over”), here’s Harpo Marx playing “Blue Moon” on his harp in At the Circus (1939).

© 2014 Lee Price