Page Two: A Cheating Top 10
An introduction, then a list of lots of cool things, shoved into 10 slots, that are not necessarily related to 2008
Here is a list of many different things that I enjoyed this year, force-fitted into 10 slots. This is by no means complete (whatever that may mean in this context) but is random and arbitrary. There was so much great music that I either heard for the first time or revisited in the past year that new, old, and re-released CDs are not included on this list. In that direction lay only madness.
1) Lynd Ward Ward was a woodcut artist whose work illustrates many books. He also produced six graphic novels, telling the story with only woodcuts. Gods' Man (1929), his first, is just fantastic – well, actually, they are all quite excellent. Gods' Man evokes the exquisite silent masterpiece Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, directed by F.W. Murnau. Dover has reprinted Gods' Man, Madman's Drum (1930), and Wild Pilgrimage (1932) and has announced that in the near future it will reprint his last woodcut novel, Vertigo (1937). The only criticism of these reprints is that they have a woodcut on every page: The original editions had the woodcuts facing a blank white page. All are easily found online.
2) Winsor McCay and George Herriman People often talk about who was the first person to do something in a creative medium, but one of the amazing things about the last century and a half is how quickly art forms matured. In terms of perspective – use of the comic-strip frame, violating rules, exaggeration, and pushing the envelope with art and stories – the work of McCay, one of the first great cartoonists, still not only holds up but is often startling. He did a number of strips, but the two great ones are Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, which appeared from 1904 to 1913, and Little Nemo in Slumberland, from 1905 until 1914. It's worth noting that McCay also created Gertie the Dinosaur, generally regarded as the first cartoon.
Evolving out of another strip, Herriman's Krazy Kat remains one of the great masterpieces of American surrealism. Appearing from 1913 until Herriman's death in 1944, the strip is simple in narrative but complex and brilliant in every other way. Quality reprints of both McCay's and Herriman's works are readily available.
3) Will Eisner's The Spirit and Plastic Man by Jack Cole There are a lot of interesting and exciting comic books, as well as many meaningful and even inspiring ones, but some of the greatest work ever done in comic books is from these two of the very few geniuses in that field. On both of these artists and their creations, I could write a very long introduction, but not here. The Spirit was featured in a 12-page comic-book supplement that was inserted into newspapers. The brilliance of the comic has to do with storytelling techniques, the stories themselves, and the use of art and design. The character of the Spirit was great but was sometimes barely included in the strip and was a minor player in others. The stories still work, the art is still striking, and Eisner did create some of the great female villains of that period.
Just as the character Plastic Man was not bound to the usual physical limitations of the skeleton and flesh, Cole similarly was not limited by story, tradition, comic-book panel art, or character. In its admirable and extensive Archive Editions, DC Comics has produced at least 25 volumes of the Spirit stories and at least a couple of Plastic Man volumes, but these are more for the aficionado than the novice. Instead, as introductory volumes, the best currently available for the The Spirit is The Best of the Spirit by Will Eisner, a trade paperback from DC Comics containing reprints of 22 great Spirit stories. Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd's Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits! (Chronicle Books by arrangement with DC comics) is a serious consideration and biography of Cole that includes a lot of art; at least three full Plastic Man stories; another featuring his sidekick, Woozy Winks; and one Jack Cole story from True Crime Comics. (Interestingly but not surprisingly, Eisner cites Lynd Ward as a major influence.)
4) Craig Rice Currently, every black-and-white film made in the Forties or Fifties has been re-released as a film noir, with most of them tagged as forgotten noir masterpieces. Now, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler have long been in vogue, but the last couple of decades have seen the resurrection, re-evaluation, and reprinting of a number of the lesser-known hard-boiled or tough-guy writers, including Jim Thompson, Paul Cain, David Goodis, and even Horace McCoy. Still, some of the best journeyman detective writers of that time remain neglected. Few of them are as good as, and none is better than, Craig Rice (pseudonym for Georgiana Ann Craig). Rice was the first detective writer to be featured on the cover of Time magazine; her mysteries, including 8 Faces at 3, The Big Midget Murders, Having Wonderful Crime, and My Kingdom for a Hearse, feature the couple Jake and Helen Justus and their friend John J. Malone: a short, rotund, hard-drinking lawyer. When someone asks him, "Are you on a case?" Malone replies, "Working my way through the second bottle."
Rice ghosted novels for George Sanders and Gypsy Rose Lee and, in one of the great team-ups in history, co-wrote stories with her friend Stuart Palmer, featuring Malone and Palmer's main character, the schoolteacher turned detective Miss Hildegarde Withers. Many of these works have been reprinted by various publishers at different times.
5 & 6) Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle Sadly, the only things most people know about Arbuckle is that he was very fat (thus the nickname "Fatty") and he was involved in one of Hollywood's earliest and most notorious scandals. This is a shame, as the 300-pound Arbuckle was most likely completely innocent, and, given his size, his athleticism and comic abilities are just wonderful. The brilliance of both these inspired comedians, who appeared in literally dozens of shorts together, really needs to be seen rather than discussed. In light of her films and influence, the story of dark-haired, exotic comedienne Normand is very much undertold. She was Keystone Comedies' Mack Sennett's longtime on-again, off-again girlfriend, and she spoke up on behalf of Arbuckle and Chaplin when he was uncertain about their abilities.
Normand directed some of the earliest Chaplin shorts in which she co-starred and also co-directed three shorts with Chaplin before he went off to direct on his own. Arbuckle had a long run at Keystone and then made a series of comedy shorts for Paramount. It was while making those that he met Buster Keaton, whom he featured in many shorts as well as taught about filmmaking. One or two of his features had been released, with an extraordinary seven others finished and waiting to be released, when his career disappeared. I love both these talents for their comic gifts. Even if Normand wasn't nearly as talented as she is, I would still adore her because, when she talks to Arbuckle, though the title card may read "Fatty," you can see her carefully mouth "Roscoe," every time.
7) Robert Thom Thom is a screenwriter whose strength is an almost unimaginable perversity. The purest Thom is in the one film he directed, Angel, Angel Down We Go, and The Witch Who Came From the Sea, directed by Matt Cimber. In many films he wrote, the screenplay got toned down considerably. These included 1968's Wild in the Streets (D: Barry Shear), 1975's Death Race 2000 (D: Paul Bartel), and 1975's Crazy Mama (D: Jonathan Demme). Arguably Roger Corman's Bloody Mama (1970), based on a Thom script, is as perverse if not as hallucinatory. Recently the Alamo Drafthouse screened The Witch Who Came From the Sea at midnight to an audience that was appropriately taken aback.
8) Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley, by Sybil Rosen It's not just a beautifully written book, offering a great portrait of Foley, but in addition captures a certain lifestyle of the 1970s as well as anything else and better than most. It was great not only to get to spend some time with Foley again but to do it without the often-destructive craziness of when I really knew him.
9 & 10) A hoped-for 2009 DVD review series I'm hoping to find the time in 2009 to initiate a series of DVD reviews on movies that are perfect candidates to be cult movies but which are not really considered as such: Instead, many of them are still largely unknown, even among the devoted. There are, of course, fans of these movies, but, for one reason or another, they haven't achieved the status of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Eraserhead.
All these films don't necessarily share any characteristics. When available, the condition is often crappy, and the colors have often bled red. I use two numbers for this entry but will mention more than two films.
The story of a big-game hunter's two daughters who live together in a bizarre, baroque old house, Karen Arthur's The Mafu Cage, starring Lee Grant and Carol Kane, is unique unto itself.
The filmography of Monte Hellman is problematic in that his two great existential Westerns – Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting, both starring a very young Jack Nicholson – are more pretentious than artful. I haven't seen many of his other early titles, but in general, I've lost a lot of my affection for generic drive-in exploitation films. Both the controversial Two-Lane Blacktop and China 9, Liberty 37 are great. Regardless, 1974's Corman-produced Cockfighter is a stone-cold masterpiece. The great Warren Oates stars as a master cockfighter who, at the end of the previous season, had bragged on his fighting cock, only to get the bird engaged in a meaningless fight that it lost. Since then, Oates' character has taken a vow of silence. In this time where the deification of pets has become so completely unreal, for some of you this should be a brutal antidote.
One of my programming dreams is to present a double bill of the just-made-available-on-DVD Payday, starring Rip Torn as a Merle Haggard-type honky-tonk country & western singer, and the Bud Shrake-written Songwriter, starring Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. Together they present the most honest portrayal of the music scene imaginable.
Jonathan Demme is a longtime favorite, with debut film Caged Heat having almost passed into cult status. Any number of his films should join it, including the Thom-authored Crazy Mama, Something Wild, Citizens Band, and Melvin and Howard. Recently released on DVD is his long-unavailable, absolutely wonderful American Playhouse production of Who Am I This Time? based on a Kurt Vonnegut Jr. short story.