Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Of the Dark and Light

Something I always feel I need to remember is how sprawling the history of film is. There are far too many movies to see and there’s only so much time I have to see them. What I have to do is deal with the ones I do see in the best way I know how. And keep in mind that there is always more to learn about them.

The Mario Bava series at the American Cinematheque is about to begin and I am anxiously looking forward to going, but first there is some unfinished business I need to take care of. I never got around to putting down any thoughts on Tim Lucas’s epic biography on the director, MARIO BAVA: ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK when it was finally released last fall. In some ways, coming up with the right way to describe my reaction to it was a little daunting at the time. It still is, but I think I also wanted to keep my response a little bit to myself. I’d waited a long time for that book. I can remember talking with someone at a Christmas party in 2000, wondering just how much longer we’d be waiting for it. I actually own every issue of Video Watchdog, the journal that he has published with his wife Donna since 1990. I never subscribed for reasons which are just as mysterious to me. No, I’ve simply bought every copy in stores, on newsstands, wherever I would find the latest issue. But not at all mysterious is the fact that it did truly affect how I looked at films. The birth of the magazine coincided with a time in my life when I was open to new concepts, new types of movies that I hadn’t explored yet. Way back then I was really beginning to study Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, countless others…but there were the more fantastic areas of cinema to explore as well. Looking into horror movies that I learned about through reading Video Watchdog led to Hammer Films, to Dario Argento, to Italian Horror films…and of course to Mario Bava. What I get from his films is not expert narrative, but a mastery of a feel which can so rarely be found in such genre films. From him I get a mood, a feel of color, a frisson, which is unavoidably different from what many lesser filmmakers ever seem to think to offer. From his eye came a particular way of photographing Barbara Steele’s face, Christopher Lee’s hands, Boris Karloff in his twilight, John Phillip Law scaling the side of a castle, the pure and utter dream feel to LISA AND THE DEVIL along with many others including the unforgettable finale of TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE, which Joe Dante once referred to as “the greatest ending since CITIZEN KANE.” I remember the gleeful expressions on the faces of the audience after a Cinematheque screening ten years ago and it would have been hard to convince any of them otherwise. His films are sometimes slow and very much come from another time and place but if you’re willing to take that dive, it can be hard to go back to the way it was before where other movies can seem more…normal.

Learning about the films he had made and the circumstances they were made in increased my interest in movies that came from that part of the world during that point in time. The Euro-lounge vibe of DANGER DIABOLIK and FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON tied in to my increasing fixation on lounge scores overall…I could go on with this, but I won’t. MARIO BAVA: ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK is a book I have waited a long time for and the wait was more than worth it. A volume which has essentially been in the works for Tim Lucas’s career as a journalist and film historian, it’s a physically huge piece of work, weighing a full 12 pounds and is 1128 pages. It’s bigger than most coffee table books and has several times the text of any normal book as well. Fortunately I pre-ordered it years ago before the price went up, a wise choice on my part. It is daunting, yes, but like diving off that cliff to explore Bava, his films and Italian genre cinema in general, it is worth it. It’s a culmination of what Tim Lucas has spent a lifetime learning, but it’s also a pure expression of love for cinema. Reading Video Watchdog through the years has been an outlet towards allowing my love of film to grow. An accomplishment on the level of this book reminds me of how much I have actually discovered and loved about films through these years, but it also feels like a signpost telling me how much more there is to learn. It’s a thrill to have this book in my possession and I feel proud every time I open up to see my name in there, my real name, among the patrons who purchased it early on. And it’s spelled correctly, too…even my high school yearbook didn’t get that right.

The book reveals Mario Bava as a man who affected the world of film in ways which have never been fully appreciated. The cult which has been deservedly building around his name in recent years is actually somewhat similar to the character of Max Castle in Theodore Roszak’s novel FLICKER...only the effect Bava has had on the world has been a positive one. In Bava’s films, it is possible to get the feel of the true joy of making a film. And within that, you can get a true sense of the personality of the man who made it. I’m not sure how much more is needed from a movie.

Martin Scorsese, who was praising Bava in Film Comment way back in the seventies, provided the introduction to ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, writing of it, “It deserves a place on the bookshelves of all serious film lovers.” As usual, he’s right.

Yes, many of Bava's films can be found on DVD these days. But there's nothing like seeing them in the theater. The American Cinematheque series Mario Bava: Poems of Love and Death runs from March 13th and through the 23rd. If you need to find me, I’ll be at the Egyptian.

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