Thursday, March 29, 2012

Femme au Miroir: Jean Rollin's Requiem for a Vampire (1973)




Eloquent, expressive and altogether haunting, Jean Rollin’s fourth feature film,
1971’s Vierges et Vampires (Requiem for a Vampire) shows him as an artist totally in control of his own art and totally separate from anyone else in cinema before or since.




Rollin admitted in his introduction to Requiem for a Vampire in Virgins and Vampires that by 1971 he was, “used to the critics insults, the public outcry” and that with the film he, “started shooting for (his own) personal pleasure exclusively since the others had rejected” his past works. It’s that striking spirit of independence that finds its way into every frame of Requiem for a Vampire, a totally secure and confident work that has our guy making one of the purest Jean Rollin films imaginable.




For fans of Jean Rollin’s oeuvre, the images in Requiem for a Vampire are legendary. The opening shots Marie-Pierre Castel and Mireille Dargent dressed as clowns in a never explained high speed shoot out to the many shots of the two of them walking alone and in silence through fields, an empty cemetery and a ruined castle will be chill inducing for admirers of Rollin. A friend once spoke of Requiem for a Vampire reverentially by stating that in the hands of anyone else it would have been an incredibly boring and poor piece of filmmaking, but Jean Rollin’s uncompromising and beautifully singular style makes it all seem so profound and moving.



Attempting to replay the minimal plot of Requiem for a Vampire is a bit senseless. Rollin stated in Virgins and Vampires that the work was “an attempt to simplify the structure of a film to an extreme” and it does so with remarkable veracity. One can imagine the film set to an unwritten opera by Philip Glass or Terry Riley as it contains so many of the repetitive and hypnotic methods inherent in much if the minimalist music that was beginning to come out of the period. Along with being a love letter to a particular style he had perfected, Rollin is clearly building his own mythology with Requiem for a Vampire and he would recount to Peter Blumenstock in Virgins and Vampires as well as Video Watchdog that he was more and more making, “references to (his) earlier films” and that he was looking to, “connects dreams and stories like a construction system and (that) the audience can make their own thing out of it.”




Requiem for a Vampire is a bit of a hard film to nail down. Cohill and Tombs would state the film works as a, “straight horror film and an exploration of personal mythology.” in Immoral Tales but it strays as far from the idea of a ‘straight horror’ film as possible at times. Surprisingly comic (an early sequence involving Castel and an outdoors street vendor is one of the silliest and most infectiously fun moments in Rollin’s canon), undeniably erotic and strikingly mournful, Rollin’s fourth film is a work that defies categorization. Perhaps Rollin himself placed it in the best context when he wrote in Virgins and Vampires that, “excluding the timid erotic scenes”, the work, “could be a film for children made by children”, and that finally it is very much, “a fairy tale.”




Shot quickly in and around the ruins of a dungeon owned by the Duchess of Roche-Guyon, Rollin recalled in Encore’s booklet for the film’s special edition DVD release that it had all come from a spidery script, “written naively without thought, almost in automatic writing, without prior idea and above all without reflection. It’s nothing else but a simple stream of ideas out of an unconstrained imagination.” While the film is controlled by the lovely team of Castel and Dargent (whom Rollin recalls on Encore’s commentary track as two girls he loved that hated each other) other familiar faces pop up throughout its less than ninety minute running time including the hypnotically strange Dominique and musician turned actress Louise Dhour (featured in a terrific interview on Encore’s set), who would be so memorable in Rollin’s 1974 production, Demoniacs.




Inspired by the paintings by Paul Delvaux, and working with a young but stylish cinematographer named Renon Polles, Jean Rollin injects every frame of Requiem for a Vampire with a striking and languid authority. Not in a hurry and delighting in capturing moments that other filmmakers would scoff at, Jean Rollin has by this point totally perfected the deliberately slow and mesmerizing pace that so many of his fans have come to worship and revere over the years. The director himself would state in Encore’s booklet about his most “childish and personal” film that he “was beginning to obtain a certain authority” in his command of the medium, and it's not a stretch to say that every film he has made since owes at least something to the evocative images of Marie-Pierre Castel and Mireille Dargent running from something unseen throughout this, one of his most iconic and necessary works.




The near silent (dialogue wise) Requiem for a Vampire would have a fairly successful run in France and throughout parts of Europe but not surprisingly it was butchered for its US release, and retitled with the wincingly exploitative Caged Virgins moniker. Widely considered one of the best Rollin films, the film is available on a bare bones Region 1 DVD from Redemption (featuring a solid visual presentation) as well as several varying DVDs throughout England and Europe.
Collectors and lovers of Rollin’s work should seek out Encore’s impressive three disc box set which features a beautiful print (I have read some complaints stating that the picture is slightly squeezed but honestly on my player and computer it looks just beautiful) and a terrific set of extras (many of which I have already highlighted in previous posts). Hardcore collectors are advised to seek out the old Something Weird VHS under the title of Caged Virgins, which features some needless additional footage that all but destroys Rollin’s deliberately maintained and incredibly effective pacing.




Called, “a definitive work of French fantastic cinema, post 1970.” By Tim Lucas in the pages of Video Watchdog 31, Requiem for a Vampire is one of the most ideal introductions to Jean Rollin’s filmography to newcomers. It is also one of the most representative and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that a person who isn’t won of by the delightfully different and distinctive images in Requiem for a Vampire will sadly always probably fall outside of the circle of Jean Rollin fans.

***The soundtrack for Requiem for a Vampire has just been released by Finders Keepers and it will make its Blu-ray debut in May, courtesy of Kino and Redemption.***

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Man Out of Time: Ulu Grosbard's Straight Time (1979)


***A repost in memory of Ulu Grosbard, who passed away over the weekend at the age of 83.***

I first saw STRAIGHT TIME (1979) as a teenager in the late eighties via a full frame, and worn out, VHS copy that I found at an Evansville, Indiana video store. I remembered it being a very strong drama with great performances by Dustin Hoffman and Theresa Russell but I had never considered it one of the great American films of the seventies. I recently revisited STRAIGHT TIME and found it one of the most devastating film experiences I have had in a long time. This movie jolted me in ways very few films do anymore.

Dustin Hoffman gives one of the great American performances as Max Dembo, a persistent felon who has been let out of prison on parole after serving six years for armed robbery. Max explains early on that he just wants what everyman wants, a place to live, a good job, a woman who loves him. After being busted again, this time unfairly, Max goes on an angry and frustrated rampage of crime and in the process loses the beautiful woman who loves him, his freedom and finally himself. I was so engrossed by STRAIGHT TIME and yet, at times, I just wanted to look away as I knew that the outcome of Max's life was doomed from the opening frame on.



STRAIGHT TIME was directed by Ulu Grosbard from a script by real life bank robber Edward Bunker. Michael Mann had an uncredited hand in the script and his work on this film surely informed his own later masterpieces like THIEF and HEAT. Bunker knew the life and it is this honesty that really informs STRAIGHT TIME and elevates it above a routine crime film.

David Shire delivers one of his most memorable scores here and it is the equal to some of his best work from the seventies. Unfortunately it appears a full soundtrack was never released. Underrated BOBBY DEERFIELD Production Designer Stephen B. Grimes also deserves a special mention for his work on Dembo's depressing little rent by the week room and for Russell's incredibly natural looking apartment where Max manages to find a little peace and warmth. Legendary EXORCIST cinematographer Owen Roizman provides the film with the notable sun burned and grimy look that is especially effective in the films breathless Beverly Hills chase sequence and the eerie final shots.

Hoffman had originally wanted to direct STRAIGHT TIME but problems with the studio brought this to a halt after just a few days. Grosbard had a less than prolific but interesting career. He had previously worked with Hoffman on WHO IS HARRY KELLERMAN AND WHY IS HE SAYING THOSE TERRIBLE THINGS ABOUT ME? and he would later unleash Jennifer Jason Leigh in one of her great performances in GEORGIA. His work on STRAIGHT TIME is frankly quite remarkable. This doesn't feel like a Hollywood studio film, it has a real authenticity about it that comes through in every shot. It is a mesmerizing work about a lost and haunted man who is out of options and very much out of time.



Theresa Russell had just turned twenty when she shot STRAIGHT TIME. It was her first major role after Elia Kazan's 1976 film of THE LAST TYCOON and she proves herself as one of the great actors to come out of the seventies here. Vulnerable and yet projecting an undeniable strength, the young Russell matches Hoffman's powerful portrayal every step of the way. She would only get better and by the time she shot Nicolas Roeg's BAD TIMING in 1979, there were few American actresses who could inject a role with more intelligence and emotion than Theresa Russell could. STRAIGHT TIME remains one of the great roles in what should have been a much more distinguished career for the undervalued Russell. The rest of the cast is noteworthy as well and includes an astonishing Gary Busey, Harry Dean Stanton and a searing M. Emmet Walsh as the terrifying parole officer who seems bent on sucking all of the remaining life out of Dembo.

The film belongs to Hoffman though. I recently wrote that MARATHON MAN was perhaps his greatest performance but after re watching STRAIGHT TIME it seems clear to me that his possession of Max Dembo is his finest two hours. It's right up there with many of the seventies most iconic and brilliantly realized roles, which includes Pacino in SERPICO, De Niro in TAXI DRIVER and Hackman in NIGHT MOVES. I find Hoffman's work as Dembo really wrenching and downright draining. You like this guy even when he is fucking up beyond belief towards the end, and his disintegration is absolutely heartbreaking. Hoffman delivers one of the most majestic essays on human loss and personal failing ever put on film in STRAIGHT TIME. Days later, it is still a performance that I can't stop thinking about.



STRAIGHT TIME opened up in the spring of 1979 to mixed reviews and lukewarm box office returns. It would go missing in action for awhile afterwards but has recently reappeared on DVD with a commentary by Hoffman and Grosbard. It is a tough and emotionally wrecking film that is wrenching to watch but worth the work. I am grateful to Hoffman for his work in this film, outside of being a great work of art it helped me understand some damaging family issues that have arisen for me in the past decade. If you haven't seen it, or haven't seen it recently, give it a look. You're not likely to forget it anytime soon.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

You Killed Me First: Calvin Lee Reeder's The Oregonian (2011)

Among the most deeply unsettling and truly disturbing horror films in recent memory, Calvin Lee Reeder's The Oregonian is one of the most intense and breathtaking film experiences of the decade. A Molotov cocktail infused with bits of Jodorowsky, Zulawski, Lynch, Beth B. and Richard Kern, The Oregonian is a truly shocking film that is refreshing in just how uncompromising and combative it is. It's the first horror film in quite a while that has a real DIY Punk aesthetic running through it and David Gordon Green's recent exclamation that nothing like it has been seen since 1977 is kind of right on the money.

A traditonal plot synopsis of The Oregonian is completely useless. Like Eraserhead or Black Box, The Oregonian builds its 'story' by rejecting most of the tired and predictable ways most modern films do. Many audience members will reject the film due to the fact that it trades in traditional story development for sheer visual hysteria, but for those willing to be venture into a truly nightmarish world that just hasn't been seen before, then The Oregonian will be one of the most welcome experiences in years.

The Oregonian is the first-feature length film from actor, writer, composer and director Reeder. After a number of acclaimed short films and video projects, The Oregonian immediately solidifies Reeder has one of the fascinating young voices in American cinema. From its opening frames where Reeder immediately sends his audience into a spiral of desperation, confusion and isolation with his star Lindsay Pulsipher to the insane final moments where his film, and his star, literally begin to burn in front of our eyes, Reeder has crafted an audacious and unforgettable work that will be rejected, and even hated, by many but I believe will become a major cult-film in years to come.

Shot on Super 16 by Reeder and cinematographer Ryan Adams, The Oregonian has a wonderful cinematic feel to it and it is about as far removed from the slick safeness that has infected most modern works of horror. Visually, Adams gives The Oregonian a wonderful No-Wave harshness that serves Reeder's nightmarish images incredibly well. Stylistically, the film is incredibly daring (I especially loved the harsh flash editing that recalls Paul Morrissey's early seventies New York based work) and it will turn fans who like safe cinema totally off but there ultimatly isn't anything safe about The Oregonian, which is one reason I loved it so much.



As the amnesiac title character who appears in nearly every scene of the film, Lindsay Pulsipher gives a haunting and quite devastating performance that ranks among the best work given by an actor in a horror film in quite some time. Pulsipher has quite a tough role here and she handles everything Reeder throws at her beautifully as does the rest of his cast, many of whom feel like they stepped out of a Jodorowsky film from the mid-seventies or a Twin Peaks dream sequence by Lynch.

The Oregonian has yet to be released on DVD or Blu-ray but thankfully it is now streaming at Netflix and Amazon. I came into the film cold (all I knew of it was that my friend Nicholas Mccarthy' great The Pact opened up for it at Sundance) but it left me stunned. I hope that Reeder is able to get it on disc soon, hopefully in a special edition, and I urge everyone to watch it via Netflix or Amazon in the meantime. Simply put, The Oregonian lays to waste most of the bullshit being passed off as horror today...it's an alarming and brilliant work that would have been on my best films of 2011 had I seen it sooner.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Souvenir From a Dream: The Twentieth Anniversary of Television's Final LP

This year marks the 35th anniversary of Marquee Moon, the legendary debut album from Television. While it is the anniversary of Television's astonishing first platter that will be celebrated throughout the year, 2012 also marks another anniversary for the band, namely that it has been 20 years since the release of their final LP, the sublime Television. Too long considered a footnote for one of Rock's greatest groups, Television has aged incredibly well and it stands as one of the nineties great recordings, even though it has slipped into undeserved obscurity.

Music critics, and their small but devoted legion of fans, were shocked in late 1978 when Television suddenly split after just releasing two albums together. Although it was just over a year old at the time, Marquee Moon had already been solidified in the thoughts of many who had heard it as one of the defining records of the era. If the follow-up Adventure had been viewed by many as something of a letdown it had more to do with unfair expectations than anything else, as it was a spellbinding collection in its own right. Few expected such a sudden departure from such a vital band, but that's exactly what happened, and by 1979 both Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd would have solo albums in the shops and, it appeared, the phenomenon known as Television was truly over.

The legend of Television was spoken of consistently throughout the eighties in rock magazines, books on the punk-era and in the accolades of young bands ranging from Sonic Youth, to R.E.M., to Fugazi, to The Pixies, to Galaxie 500. Sadly all of the influence Television had did little to help the sales of the extraordinary solo albums from both Verlaine and Lloyd, all of which seemed to sell less than the release before. For those who have treasured them for the past few decades, it is hard to believe that recordings as fine as Verlaine's Words from the Front and Flashlight and Lloyd's Alchemy and Field of Fire failed to find any sort of audience, but the commercial curse that had always plagued Television had indeed followed its two figureheads and not even constant plugs from the likes of Lee Renaldo or Dean Wareham could help.

As the nineties began, and even more groups began singing Television's praises, good luck wasn't exactly following Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd around. Verlaine had found himself without a label after his excellent album The Wonder had failed to shift any units and Lloyd had all but given up on his solo career and was spending most of his time adding some unforgettable guitar work to albums from the likes of John Doe and Matthew Sweet.

As grunge exploded, a series of key events led to the unexpected reformation of Television. Verlaine suddenly found himself in the spotlight again when he was signed to Ryko (although his Warm and Cool LP would prove to be one of his least interesting efforts) and Lloyd reminded everyone again of his brilliance with his searing lead guitar work (split with the equally influential Robert Quine) on Matthew Sweet's intoxicating 1991 album Girlfriend. ROIR's 1982 cassette-only release, The Blow Up, of Television's searing 1978 live set also finally hit CD around this time. It was seemingly a perfect moment for Television to plug back in but when the announcement came in early 1992 almost everyone was shocked.

Of course Tom Verlaine wasn't putting up with any talks of a 'comeback' as word was leaked that he was in a studio for the first time in nearly fifteen years with Lloyd, bassist Fred Smith and drummer Billy Ficca in 1992. He would release a press-release in advance of the self-titled LP that said, "Contrary to popular belief, Television never broke up", and that the band had only been on a, "self-described sabbatical." Verlaine, and especially Lloyd, also wasn't interested in coming back as some sort of aging novelty act looking to take back some glory from the slew of devotees that had followed in their footsteps. Lloyd mentioned that the album would be totally opposite to what he considered the, "processed cheese sound", that many of the nineties guitar bands had taken. Lloyd would turn out to be real weapon of Television's third LP, as critic John Piccarella would write back in '92:

"What makes Television Television is of course Richard Lloyd, whose second guitar picks up where Verlaine never left him, jacked to the ceiling intense and bound by the composer's spare intricacies."

After a decade of intense experimentalism and shadowy intensity the Tom Verlaine that emerged from his own legend in 1992 seemed positively sedate and surprisingly tranquil. Lyrically, his writing for Television would find him mostly at his most relaxed and warm. Early on the album we hear Verlaine sing, "I don't belong to misery", and in hindsight Television stands in stark contrast to the nihilism that was coursing through the bloodline of many of the grunge bands that were finally bringing 'Punk' to the mainstream.

And what of that word 'Punk'? By the early nineties the genre of Punk had been sadly cornered into the simple buzzsaw guitar sound of The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and their countless number of imitators. Few in the early nineties would hear Marquee Moon or Adventure with fresh ears and think of them as 'Punk' albums but, in a lot of ways, Television had always been the ultimate Punk band...that is, if one considers fierce individuality and an uncompromising spirit as the defining qualities of Punk.

On the eve of Televsion's return, Lloyd, Ficca and Smith gave a lengthy interview to Creem magazine from the studios of their new company, Capitol. Verlaine, not surprisingly, already seemed burned out from talking about the album before it was even released but Creem found the other three members in good, if slightly, bemused spirits. Smith humorously said, "For six years people were asking us why we broke up, then they asked when we'd get back together. For the next six they'll ask why did we reform?" Ficca mentioned that they were, "older and wiser" only to have a defiant Lloyd chime in with, "Nah, younger and more naive." Lloyd would also correctly point out that, "We're so unique that categorizations elude us."

After a decade of numerous headaches involving various indie and major record companies, both Verlaine and Lloyd seemed happy with Capitol in 1992. Verlaine exclaimed, "Capitol seems really great to me, they seem like the last record company that leaves you alone." And indeed Television were mostly left alone while recording and self-producing their third (and so far final LP) and when it was released amidst much press twenty years ago there was one thing everyone who heard it agreed on, it was indeed the work of Television (in other words it sounded like the work of no other band on the planet).

From its opening, the exquisite "1880 or So", to it's utterly strange closing track, "Mars", Television still sounds completely out of this world and to say it has little in common with any other recording from twenty years ago is putting it mildly. Verlaine's lyrics, both puzzling and romantic, are mystifying fragments that seem to both defy and invite meaning while the guitar interplay between him and Lloyd remains the most exciting in rock history. While there aren't any epic songs on Television like the first LPs title track or Adventure's "The Dream's Dream" the wonderfully unmistakable tension between Verlaine and Lloyd's playing is still firmly in place, with Lloyd sounding like he's busting down the front door with little regard to anyone or anything in his way, while Verlaine is sneaking in the back just way out of view. Their styles are totally different but they are both breaking in to plant a bomb that will absolutely detonate.

While most reviews of it at the time were only mildly positive to lukewarm, the third Television album contains a number of tracks that are are as brilliant as anything found on Marquee Moon or Adventure. Chief among these gems are the aforementioned "1880 or So, "Shane, She Wrote This", "In My World", "Rhyme", No Glamour for Willi" and the searing kick-off single "Call Mr. Lee". If the album does meander a bit towards the end with songs like "Beauty Trip" and "Rocket" there is still more genius found on this album than most great records you can name. Television remains one of the most resonate and captivating releases from a rather pivotal period in rock history and, of course, no one bought it.

Richard Lloyd was especially busting to tour as soon as Television was released and that's exactly what the band did as the LP failed to catch fire with the public. It must have felt like total deju vu to the them. The tour was successful and the already great songs on Television were really fleshed out on the road, as a number of startling bootlegs attest to (check out their astounding gig at Philadelphia's Living Arts if you can track it down). Lucky fans and critics who were able to catch Television on tour were once again blown away by their unwavering genius. Verlaine would say at the time that it was like, "they were falling together from different angles" and the Television of 1992 proved the same thing that the Television of 1977 had, that Rock music could be an art-form as intelligent as it was fun...

Television continued to tour on and off throughout the nineties and 2000's before finally replacing Richard Lloyd with Jimmy Rip (a gifted player) in 2007 (a move by Verlaine that in a lot of our eyes really ended the band). Television without Richard Lloyd might still be a great group but they will never have another moment like the breathtaking ending of "Call Mr. Lee" where we hear Lloyd coming out of nowhere to deliver one of the most monumental guitar solos ever put on vinyl. It's the sort of electric spiritually-altering moment that is very rarely heard in popular music anymore. Many critics pointed out back in 1992 that Television was no Marquee Moon, and that may very well be true, but when Lloyd launches into that solo during "Call Mr. Lee" and Verlaine steps back, as though he was in just as much awe as the listeners, Television is its own very special masterpiece by a group of artists still willing to 'prove it' long after most of their peers had layed down their weapons in the midst of battle.