Thursday, May 14, 2009

VHS Tapes Have I Known: The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977)

Although my movie collection is overwhelmingly DVD, I keep a few VHS tapes around. I'll be devoting some space to them sporadically.

The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977)
Director: Marty Feldman
Starring: Michael York, Marty Feldman, Ann-Margret

I could spend hours discussing this highly underrated comedy, which begins with Marty Feldman destroying a 1940s-era Universal logo and maintains the same level of zaniness from there. This is the first of Feldman's two outings as a director (the second being In God We Tru$t) and if he doesn't have the surest hand in controlling his material, there's a certain delight in the fact that the whole affair is so uncontrolled. Feldman's approach is clearly inspired by Mel Brooks, particularly Young Frankenstein. Like that film, it's a loving parody of a particular kind of classic movie, in this case the old Foreign Legion chestnut Beau Geste (in one scene, Marty Feldman has an argument with footage of Gary Cooper from the 1939 version).

To protect the family's prized Blue Water Sapphire from his scheming (and unreasonably attractive) stepmother (Ann-Margret), Beau Geste (Michael York) absconds with the jewel and joins the Foreign Legion in Africa. Digby Geste (Feldman) soon follows, and together they attempt to survive an insane commander (Peter Ustinov) and attacks by the Arabs (lead by the genial and cheese-tastic James Earl Jones).

Much of the humor derives from the relationship between Digby and Beau, who we are told are identical twins (although Digby notes, "Somehow Beau was much more identical than me. "). Beau is apparently too handsome, courageous, and wonderful to feel pain, so Digby feels it for him (which leads to all the expected jokes). Digby is unreasonably devoted to Beau and Beau is... well, reasonably devoted to Digby. Beau's more interested in honor, adventure, and being buried at sea (even in the middle of the stinking desert).

Feldman's approach to humor is very much of the "throw it at the wall and see what sticks" variety and, admittedly, many of the jokes seem to be coated in teflon. Feldman's desperate willingness to please, however, maintains a continuity between the groaners and the belly laughs. Once you've become as accustomed to the film as I have, even the dumbest jokes (like the grinning Jack T. Ripper with the severed arm in his medical kit) take on a certain charm. Comic turns from folks like Henry Gibson, Trevor Howard, Terry-Thomas, Roy Kinnear, Ted Cassidy, Burt Kwouk, and Spike Milligan (as the ever-devoted and terribly senile butler, Crumble) keep the movie lively and entertaining throughout.

What's more, you can actually watch the film right now without the benefit of VHS (and in widescreen) thanks to the fine folks at Hulu. Check it out.

Incidentally, there was another version of Beau Geste made after this, in the form of a 1982 miniseries, but Feldman's film is the last cinematic outing of the Geste brothers, so the title still holds.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Movie Cities I Love: Vienna in The Third Man (1949)

After a showing of Wolverine on Saturday (no great shakes -- Hugh Jackman is charismatic as always, but the plot made very little sense), my girlfriend had to run an errand, so she left me at Barnes and Noble to wait. It probably wouldn't have been her first choice, since I have a tendency to tarry excessively in any shop with a DVD section, but there's not much she could do about it. By the time she came to pick me up, I had worked myself into a properly self-righteous froth about the store's ghettoization of the horror genre -- stuck in an out-of-the-way corner next to the bargain discs. Such tyranny would not stand!

Well, okay, it would stand, but I would shove it lightly in hopes that it had a severe inner ear condition.

Anyway, as we walked out, my chagrin turned to joy when I spied the Criterion Collection Blu-ray of The Third Man. Now, ask me what my favorite film of all time is and the answer will vary from day to day, but lately it's been a pretty solid 50/50 split between Carol Reed's mystery-thriller and His Girl Friday (1940).

Of course, I've been on a "DVD diet" lately, curtailing my propensity to add to my gargantuan movie collection. Plus, I already owned the older Criterion disc. There had to be a way around this, of course. "It's okay to buy the Blu-ray of a movie I already own if it's my favorite movie of all time right?" I asked my girlfriend. My girlfriend, in her infinite wisdom, shrugged, knowing full well that if I was set on talking myself into this, I would do it no matter what she said.

Which brings us to the body of this post. I did, in fact, buy the Blu-ray and while it's not as impressive an upgrade as I'd hoped, I still fell in love with post-war Vienna, the real "third man", all over again. The beautiful architecture, the cobblestone streets, the very climbable piles of rubble, the narrow passages just perfect for the manipulation of shadows and light -- all of these make the Vienna of The Third Man one of my favorite movie cities.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Nine years, ten months, and twenty-one days on... is fast approaching its tenth birthday/anniversary (well, Classic-Horror, anyway -- the domain didn't come into the picture until a year in). It started out as a poorly coded section of an otherwise disposable personal site on Angelfire and has since mutated into the beast it is today.

I have mixed feelings associated with the occasion. Certainly, there's a sense of accomplishment. With the invaluable help of the best writing team a horror film site could want, I feel like the last couple of years have been key in solidifying what Classic-Horror is all about and where we fit in the broad landscape of horror on the Internet. Of course, the site continues to evolve. It always has and it always will, partly because I'm an inveterate tinkerer, partly because any project started at age sixteen will have identity issues built into its foundation, but mostly because that's just how the Internet works. It's part of the fun.

There's a strange melancholy mixed into the reverie, however. Ten years is a long time for anything and for a guy like me whose whims flit about like a pixie on a cocaine binge, it's occasionally rough. I am not the most organized or responsible guy on Earth. I've let down plenty of PR firms who've sent me screeners that I've proceeded to ignore. There's been correspondences I've let slide and interviews that I never transcribed. I feel that I let down Classic-Horror's readers with our entirely inconsistent posting schedule. I always refer to it as "my other job," even though I'm about to remove the ads and thus the (rather meager) revenue stream. I put about forty hours a week into the site, as well as the forty-five to fifty I clock in at my "real job."

Mind you, that's just how I am. My play is work. Always has been. I have tried the relaxing thing, but I wind up starting another project, sometimes before I'm even aware I've done so. Plus, I'm an autocrat by nature; I have the worst time delegating responsibilities (and I'm constantly thinking of new things to add or change or redesign).

Sometimes I wonder what other areas I could be applying these energies to. My cinematic knowledge is ridiculously unbalanced -- there are so many non-horror movies I have yet to see, others that I've seen but have yet to really appreciate. I've written some moderately clever things about some great horror movies in my time, but can I expand to other genres?

Even staying within the genre, there are other avenues I could explore. I'd like to write an article for Video Watchdog or Rue Morgue at some point. I'd love to have a book on horror published by McFarland. Given how often I hover around their booth at San Diego Comic-Con every year, I probably owe them something.

Also, for a variety of reasons that don't bear mentioning, I never finished college. I have just a year and a half on a Bachelor's in Cinema and Comparative Literature from the University of Iowa. I'd like very much to see that through at some point in my life, even if I'm terrified of the notion at the same time.

If you're with me so far, you're probably thinking one of two things right now:
  1. "Can't you do both Classic-Horror AND (study other cinema / write a book/ go back to school)?"
  2. "You sound miserable. Why don't you quit Classic-Horror so you can (study other cinema / write a book / go back to school)?"
The first one is easy to answer, the second one... not so much.

Can I do both the site and another project and do them sanely? No, not really.

Y'see, when I do something, I do it full-on. Everything else must fit in whatever spaces are left. It's probably a coping mechanism from the years when my severe ADHD and mild depression went undiagnosed. It's also partially a personality thing; moderation is not my strong suit. Once I stopped having a structure and a goal associated with this blog, for instance, I pretty much forgot it. When I was working on this blog regularly, however, I squeezed out all the time I needed for things like cleaning my apartment, socializing with friends, and general "staying-sane-now" downtime. My girlfriend damn near held an intervention.

So... can't I just drop the site?

...are you CRAZY? Quitting Classic-Horror at this point would be tantamount to shutting it down. That would be throwing ten years of hard work down the drain, not to mention some fantastic writing from the C-H team.

I could only conceivably drop even part of my commitment to the site if I found someone as obsessively detail-oriented as me to share in the daily duties. Preferably this person would be more interested in the business side of the website, because I completely fail there. They'd also be sensible enough to say, "Don't you think we have enough on our plate?" The major kicker, however, is that they would have to be someone that I trust implicitly and I don't come by that sort of thing easily. Plus, Classic-Horror being the major time commitment that it is, even if I did trust someone enough, they'd have to be willing to put in all that time for nothing but the satisfaction of a job well done. That's not exactly something I can put an ad out for (believe me, I've considered it).

Plus, for every occasion of angst the site has brought, I've had twice as many moments of giddy joy: meeting and interviewing genre personalities, corresponding with horror experts, having published authors contribute reviews to the site, and seeing Classic-Horror reviews quoted on DVD covers. I've been interviewed by the Chicago Tribune, had a letter column debate with Roger Ebert in the Sun-Times, high-fived Wil Wheaton while geeking about Motel Hell, and even attended an honest-to-gosh Hollywood movie premiere. These are moments I wouldn't give up for anything.

So in case you're wondering, Classic-Horror is not going anywhere anytime soon. There's still whole swaths of horror history we haven't covered and I still have things I want to say.

I occasionally wonder, though, if another ten years will be worth the effort. Something, I think, will have to give eventually. I just hope it isn't my sanity.