Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Stephen Weeks' Ghost Story

I’m pleased to announce that next month, on 26 October, Nucleus Films (UK) will issue Stephen Weeks’ 1974 chiller Ghost Story as a special edition double DVD set. Three years ago next month, Stephen visited Becky and me here in Kearney for several days and I managed to get him to sit down and watch Ghost Story with me and do an audio commentary, on the assumption that someday someone might want to use it. Happily, earlier this year, Marc Morris, head honcho at UK’s Nucleus Films, emailed me asking for Stephen’s contact information, and I used the opportunity to mention to him that I had Stephen’s commentary on Ghost Story as well and that he was welcome to use it. I’m pleased to say that he decided to use that commentary on the forthcoming DVD set. Stephen did a splendid job, and my task was an easy one, as I simply had to provide him with a prompt now and then. Here is the text of the official announcement released yesterday from Nucleus Films:

Revered, misunderstood and oft-discussed, Stephen Weeks’ rarely seen 1974 dreamlike chiller is the very definition of a cult British Horror film. Set in 1930s England, it tells of three former public schoolmates, Larry Dann (The Bill), Murray Melvin (The Devils) and the enigmatic Vivian Mackerrell (the inspiration for Bruce Robinson’s creation Withnail, of Withnail and I, seen here in his only major screen role), who reunite in a country mansion haunted by the spirit of insane former resident Marianne Faithfull. The haunting transports them to a surreal world of demonic dolls, sadistic doctors, incest and murder. Hammer fans will see Barbara Shelley (Dracula Prince of Darkness) and Leigh Lawson (Hammer House of Horror), among the cast, cult TV enthusiasts will recognize Anthony Bate (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; Beasts), and sitcom lovers will enjoy a cameo from Penelope Keith (The Good Life; To The Manor Born).

This combination of 1970s Britsploitation and 1930s quaintness, realized perfectly by Weeks and soundtracked by Pink Floyd collaborator Ron Geesin, have made Ghost Story legendary. Now, for the first time on DVD, Nucleus Films proudly presents this pristine 2-disc collectors edition including “Ghost Stories,” an in-depth featurette about the curious tale about the making of the film, an audio commentary, a trailer and a selection of Weeks’ fascinating early shorts and commercials including the rarely seen Tigon film 1917. This latter film, set in the trenches of World War I, led to Stephen being offered the chance to direct his first feature film at the age of twenty-one, I, Monster, starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

2 DISC COLLECTOR’S EDITION – with booklet and essay by Darius Drew Shimmon

DVD Extras include:

  • Ghost Stories – an all-new 60-minute featurette including interviews with Director/Producer Stephen Weeks, Actors Larry Dann and Murray Melvin, British Horror Icon Barbara Shelley, composer (and Pink Floyd collaborator) Ron Geesin, with comments from UK critic Kim Newman
  • Audio Commentary with Stephen Weeks, moderated by Sam Umland
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • The Chelsea Cobbler store commercial
  • Alternate opening credits sequence
  • Stephen Weeks' The Making of Ghost Story (.pdf)
  • 7 early previously unseen short Stephen Weeks films:
  • Owen’s War (1965 / b&w / 10m)
  • Deserted Station (1965 / b&w / 7m)
  • The Camp (1965 / b&w / 4m)
  • Moods of a Victorian Church (1967 / Color / 9m)
  • Two At Thursday (1968 / b&w / 10m)
  • 1917 (Tigon, 1968 / Color / 35m)
  • Flesh (1969 / Color / 3m)
Additional information can be found at Nucleus Films’ website.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Don’t Take Your Trips on LSD

Among all forms of popular music, one generally thinks of country & western when one is asked to think of songs proclaiming conservative values—Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” for instance, or Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man.” If these songs, lyrically speaking, express conservative values, what might constitute a conservative rock song? Strong support for family values? Opposition to pre-marital sex? Strong anti-abortion sentiment? Fear and distrust of government? The right of the people to keep and bear arms? If all of the above constitute what we could call “conservative values,” then here’s a selection of conservative rock songs that also celebrates the virtues of diversity.

A Few Con Rock Classics:
Paul Anka – (You’re) Having My Baby
The Beach Boys – Wouldn’t It Be Nice
The Beatles – Taxman
Bob Dylan – Neighborhood Bully
Sheena Easton – Morning Train (Nine to Five)
Grand Funk Railroad – Don’t Let ‘Em Take Your Gun
The Kinks – 20th Century Man
Lynyrd Skynyrd – Sweet Home Alabama (Response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man”)
John Mellencamp – Small Town
Ted Nugent – I Am The NRA
Elvis Presley – U. S. Male
Marrilee Rush and the Turnabouts – Angel of the Morning
The Sex Pistols – Bodies
The Spokesmen – Dawn of Correction (Response song to Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction”)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

T For Teen

09.09.09: “No. 9” indeed. It’s as if the date was predestined, its significance anticipated over four decades ago on The Beatles, aka the “white album.” Today is the day of The Beatles on Rock Band, coinciding with the (re)release of remastered versions of Beatles’ albums on CD. In addition, there has been widespread speculation that today may see the announcement that the Beatles catalog shall finally be available on iTunes, even though all four of the band members have solo material in the store available for download already. The marketing apparatus has attributed to the date a significance as profound as occultists do the date 2012, as if the human calendar, for the past few hundred years comprised of twelve months and 365 days—save when leap year makes it 366—is linked to events in nature—indeed, all across the universe. Hence today is to feel “historic,” a momentous day that occurs only once in a lifetime, nature and culture coinciding with all the awe and mystery of a planetary alignment: the Beatles remastered, on Rock Band, and perhaps, God willing, even on iTunes. All of this on a Wednesday, too, even though new releases typically occur on Tuesdays: presumably, the event is so unique that it must occur outside a normal routine, a predictable and banal cycle, and be set aside on a singular day and date, a calendar event so fraught with the aura of magic (and the mnemonic properties of an incantation) - 9.9.09 - that only something utterly singular and profound may occur.

Of course, despite all the media hype, what today’s event really marks, or rather reveals, is something Marshall McLuhan observed decades ago: The content of the new media is the old. It also reveals something about the nature of the commodity that Marx observed over a century ago, that the commodity appears initially as an obvious, trivial thing, “but its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” Remember that the media loves singular dates as much as it loves anniversaries: it provides ready-made content that can be repackaged as “news,” as novelty. The 40th anniversary of Woodstock came and went; this day, too, shall pass, with neither bang nor whimper.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Search For Philip K. Dick

Anne Dick, third wife of the late science fiction writer Philip K. Dick (the couple is pictured at left, early 1960s), sent me the link to an interview with her conducted in conjunction with the re-issue of her revised biography of the great author, Search For Philip K. Dick, first published by Mellen Press in 1993. Anne still lives in the house she shared with Philip K. Dick, located in Point Reyes Station, California, about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. Her book is a fascinating, and I think candid glimpse into the domestic life of the writer, to whom she was married from 1959 to 1965 (Dick left Anne, his and Anne’s daughter Laura, and his three stepdaughters in early 1964; the divorce was finalized in 1965). The period from 1959-64, that is, the period during which he was married to Anne, was a tremendously prolific period for the writer, and Anne was there to see it all. During the period 1958-64, Dick wrote many of his most celebrated novels, among them The Man in the High Castle (1962, for which he won the Hugo Award in 1963), We Can Build You (written 1961, immediately after Man in the High Castle; eventually published 1972), The Penultimate Truth (1964), Martian Time-Slip (1964), The Simulacra (1964), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), and Dr. Bloodmoney (1965, in which the house in which Anne still lives is depicted). His great “mainstream” novel, Confessions of a Crap Artist, was also written while he was married to Anne, but remained unpublished until 1975. Note that this is not all of the work Dick published during this period, merely a representative sample of several of the noted works, but in any case The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is, in my view, among his greatest works, and Anne’s portrait of the author before, during, and after the writing of this novel is utterly engrossing reading.

As Anne indicates in the interview, she was compelled to write the book after Phil’s death at age 53 in March 1982, as an attempt to try and come to a complete understanding of her relationship with him, which ended unpleasantly and strangely in March 1964. (The novel for which he is perhaps best known, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, was not written until 1966, while he was married to Nancy Hackett, but draws on some material he first explored in We Can Build You, unpublished at the time he wrote the later novel.) I’m not sure Anne has ever received the proper acknowledgment she deserves for writing Search for Philip K. Dick, as it remained in manuscript form for many years, during which it was used as a source of information for Dick’s biographers—she did them a great service in tracking down a number of the author’s friends and acquaintances from the Berkeley years, as well as providing a rather candid and detailed account of her years married to the author. I’ve spent many delightful hours with Anne, although I haven’t had the opportunity to visit her at her Point Reyes Station home in several years. At a remarkably robust 82 years of age, she reveals in the interview that she is as articulate, candid, and insightful as ever, and explains her reasons for writing the memoir/biography in greater detail. She has always been extremely generous with her time to those like myself who are fascinated by Philip Dick’s remarkable body of work, and so I’m extraordinarily pleased that Anne was able to revise and re-issue her valuable and important book. If you have any interest at all in one of the greatest and most important American authors in the second half of the twentieth century, then I would strongly encourage you to purchase a copy. Order information is available here, and the link to the interview with Anne (also provided above) is available here.

Congratulations, Anne, on the publication of the revised edition of your important book!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Cowlicked Doughboys

The first thing I did this morning, as I started running around using the car to do banal errands (e.g., recycling, purchasing stamps, etc.), was to turn on the radio. First up after the commercial break was the Guess Who’s “American Woman,” a song that time has proved to be as dull as the errands I was performing: Nothing dates faster than lyrics intended to shock. The album American Woman was released in 1970, i.e., during the Vietnam War Era. I was in high school. There are some good songs on the album, but “American Woman” isn’t one of them. The song’s political “message,” with its references to “war machines” and “ghetto scenes,” was so painfully obvious that even a sophomore in high school could “get it,” thus proving the fact that when you take up politics and seek to be politically correct, you end up making forgettable music. Indeed, most politically correct music is bad: John Lennon & the Plastic Ono Band’s “Cold Turkey” is musically quite powerful; “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” is quite the opposite. So is “Give Peace a Chance,” now nothing more than a quaint museum piece, a historical artifact. The lesson? John Lennon assumed that his ideas were more important than his music.

By way of analogy, think of the movies Jean-Luc Godard made under the auspices of “The Dziga Vertov Group,” e.g., La gai savoir (1969), Wind from the East (1970), British Sounds (1970). These films were then, as they are now, tedious and boring, and the only ones interested in screening them at all are Godard scholars, obligated to watch everything. The irony is, when he paid attention to his art, to aesthetics, Godard was far more subversive—think of the “revolution” in cinema caused by Breathless (1960), historically important, still watchable, and a film that altered the course of world cinema. It’s far more memorable than anything he made during the Dziga Vertov period.

Well over thirty years ago, in 1975, Lester Bangs wrote an article lamenting the rather undistinguished careers of the individual Beatles in the 1970s, and he pinpointed what happened to them quite well. He wrote:

What made the Beatles initially so exciting and sustained them for so long was that they seemed to carry themselves with a good humored sense of style which was (or appeared to be) almost totally unselfconscious. They didn’t seem to realize that they were in the process of becoming institutionalized, and that was refreshing. By the time they realized it the ball game was over. In this sense, Rubber Soul (in packaging) and Revolver (in content as well) can be seen as the transitional albums. They doped it up and widened their scopes through the various other tools they had access to at the time just like everybody else down to the lowliest fringe-dripping cowlicked doughboy in the Oh Wow regiment, and the result was that they saw their clear responsibility as cultural avatars in what started out as a virtual vacuum (nice and clean, though), which of course ruined them. (Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, p. 45)

In other words, acute self-consciousness is the enemy of any artist, but what’s worse is taking yourself too seriously and over-estimating your cultural significance. When the music is no longer as important as the message, it’s all over.

Monday, August 31, 2009

High Time

Marijuana use is, of course, illegal. Under federal law, marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance (in the same category as LSD, heroin and peyote) and possession of it is punishable by up to one year in jail and a minimum fine of $1,000 for a first conviction. According to the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report, in 2007 there were 872,721 arrests in the U.S. for marijuana violations. But according to this article that appeared in yesterday’s L. A. Times, marijuana is going mainstream: so-called “cannabis culture” is purportedly “coming out of the closet.” For instance, just this past June, roughly 25,000 people attended the inaugural THC Expo Hemp and Art show in downtown Los Angeles. In addition, Barneys New York in Beverly Hills is celebrating the Woodstock 40th anniversary by selling $78 “Hashish” candles in Jonathan Adler pots with bas-relief marijuana leaves. Cheech and Chong recently concluded an international tour and claim to be at work on another movie.

Once depicted as a drug that could incite a murderous rage (Tell Your Children, aka Reefer Madness, 1936) and recently blamed as the cause for burger runs gone awry (2004’s Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle), marijuana is now just another banal fixture in film and popular music. According to the L. A. Times article, cannabis crops up on shows such as Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm, True Blood and Desperate Housewives, and on animated shows such as The Simpsons and Family Guy. The article goes on to say:

Marijuana’s role on TV and in the movies is no surprise, says Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at the University of Syracuse S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. “The people who are making movies and television shows, from the scriptwriters to the director and the producers - a very large chunk of those are probably people who grew up not only much more comfortable with marijuana’s presence in society, but probably as consumers themselves of it.”

“As a result,” Thompson said, “it’s almost switched with alcohol. Think back to Dean Martin and Foster Brooks - their whole comedy act was the fact that they were in the bag - that now is seen a lot less often. The stoner is the new drunk.”

I thought it might be interesting to assemble a brief cannabis culture chronology, beginning with its emergence as part of modern life with its use by jazz musicians in the 1920s and 30s.

March. Louis Armstrong, a lifelong pot smoker, is busted outside of an L.A. jazz club. Gage, tea, muggles, and reefer are some of the many names for marijuana among jazz musicians.

The cautionary tale, Tell Your Children, is first released; it is re-titled many years later as Reefer Madness.

Devil's Harvest (thanks Bent for providing a link to the poster art! Go here)

Actor Robert Mitchum is busted for marijuana possession during an undercover stakeout in Laurel Canyon.

The TV documentary, A Boy Called Donovan, about the British pop singer Donovan, reveals the singer smoking pot with friends. Later in the year, Donovan becomes the first high-profile British pop star to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Members of The Rolling Stones are busted several times this year.

May. Easy Rider premieres at the Cannes Film Festival, depicting scenes of marijuana use. The same year, Tommy Chong hires stand-up comedian Richard “Cheech” Marin to perform between the bands and strippers at his family’s Vancouver, Canada, night club. The rest is history.

Sometime during this period, future President Bill Clinton experiments with marijuana, but doesn’t inhale.

New York-based magazine High Times is first published; the magazine does for pot what Playboy did for sex.

Reggae musician Peter Tosh releases the album Legalize It.

The first classic stoner flick, Up In Smoke, is released starring Cheech and Chong.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High, with Sean Penn as a bong-smoking surfer.

The Breakfast Club: five high school stereotypes bond as a consequence of smoking of a joint.

Dr. Dre’s The Chronic—taking its name from a slang term for powerful weed and its cover art from a package of Zig-Zag rolling papers—is released. It and 2001 (1999), the latter with a marijuana leaf depicted on the cover, together sell over 10 million copies.

Set in 1976, the pro-pot Dazed and Confused is released with tag lines such as “Weed rules.”

California voters pass Proposition 215 allowing the medical use of marijuana.

October. Dazed and Confused star Matthew McConaughey is busted at his Texas home by officers who arrest him after observing him dancing naked and playing bongos.

Showtime’s Weeds depicts a widowed suburban mother played by Mary-Louise Parker becoming pot peddler. The show recently began its fifth season.

March. The UK Daily Mail publishes a story indicating that Keith Richards says he smokes weed “all the time.” He admits, “I smoke my head off. I smoke weed all the damn time. But that's my benign weed. That’s all I take, that's all I do. But I do smoke, and I've got some really good hash.”
August. Cannabis comedy Pineapple Express opens and becomes a hit.
November. Michael Phelps, the most decorated gold medalist in Olympic history, is photographed at a South Carolina party smoking pot.

April. Kalpen Modi, who as Kal Penn played stoner Kumar of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), accepts a position as the associate director in the White House’s Office of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs.