Saturday, June 9, 2007

Andre Philippe R.I.P.

Character actor Andre Philippe, who guest starred in TV shows from Bonanza to Magnum P.I., passed on April 29 from a heart attack.

Philippe was born Everett Cooper in the Bronx. He served in World War II. After the war he went to Paris where he adopted the stage name "Andre Philippe" as a singer. His singing career led to an appearance on Surfside Six in 1961. Philippe was a semi-regular on Hawaiian Eye, appearing as the Emcee or Paul (the Emcee's given name). Afterwards he made guest appearances on several shows, including two on Bonanza (one was particularly memorable), The Gallant Men, Combat, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Monkees, The Virginian, The Wild Wild West, Get Smart, and Magnum P.I.. He also appeared in the unsold pilot I Love a Mystery (based on the old radio show of the same name). Philippe appeared in movies as well, including Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Alex in Wonderland, Invasion of the Bee Girls, Black Belt Jones, and Scenes From a Mall. Although he was born in New York, Philippe often played Frenchmen.

I've always thought that Andre Philippe was a very talented actor. Indeed, I remember one of his two appearances on Bonanza in the episode "The Frenchman." Philippe played a young Frenchman who believed himself to be the reincarnation of the poet Francois Villon. Philippe was absolutely hilarious in the role, particularly when "Francois" jumps to the conclusion that Ben Cartwright must have killed his wives and writes a poem celebrating him as a modern day Bluebeard! To me it is a real shame that Philippe never received his own TV show, as he would have been an ideal comedic lead. At any rate, he will certainly be missed.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Wallace Seawell Passes On

Wallace Seawell, the photographer who took photos of celebrities for several decades, died May 29 at the age of 90.

Seawell was born in Atlanta, Georgia on September 16, 1916. While he was young his family moved to Sarasota, Florida. As a child who displayed artistic talent and wanted to be a painter, but became interested in photography after getting a camera. He attended Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, where he studied photography.

Following graduation he would be a set designer and fashion photographer in New York. World War II would see him in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. While in the military he made over fifty training films.

After World War II Seawell got a job with commercial photographer Paul A. Hesse. He worked for Hesse for twenty years, until Hesse's retirement. Seawell then started his own photography studio in West Hollywood. Seawell was most famous for his portraits of movie stars. Among the stars he photographed were George Burns and Gracie Allen, Joan Collins, Nat King Cole, Tony Curtis, Ava Gardner, Audrey Hepburn, Janet Leigh, Sophia Loren, and Gregory Peck. He accompanied the Harlem Globetrotters on three different world tours. He also served as the official photographer of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus for a time. He also took photographs of heads of state, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Lyndon B. Johnson, and the Shah of Iran. He had worked for Howard Hughes at RKO Studios for a time as well.

Seawell often credited his success as a result of his enthusiasm for his work. Despite this, he also had a good deal of talent as well. Seawell had a gift for discovering the best in his subjects and capturing that on film. It was a talent that even many famous photographers lack, and it was that talent which placed him in such demand. He will certainly be missed.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Torture Chic or Torture Porn?

It seems to me that over the millennia what Man fears has not changed much. Oh, the advance of technology and science would seem to have brought along with it new things for mankind to fear, but it seems to me that these phobias can safely be placed under the headings of the same old fears. Certainly, the fear of flying did not exist before the invention of hot air balloons, airships, and aeroplanes, but then it seems to me that the fear of flying can be counted under the old headings "Fear of Heights" or "Fear of Death." Spermatophobia, the fear of germs, certainly did not exist before the discovery of bacteria, viruses, and fungi, but then I am willing to bet the fear of disease has existed ever since the Stone Age (indeed, the people of 17th century London had good reason to fear disease...). Technology and science may advance, but the old fears remain.

Given the fact that what Man fears the most has not changed terribly much since the days of cavemen, one would not think that horror movies would be prone to trends or cycles. In fact, however, horror movies seem more prone to cycles than most film genres. By way of example, in the Thirties there was a cycle of Gothic horror films that produced such classics as Frankenstein. And many of you may remember the slasher film cycle of the late Seventies and early Eighties.

The current cycle in horror movies seem to be towards films that have been labelled "torture chic," movies that focus on Man's inhumanity to Man. There has been a lot written about the cycle in the past year, much of it negative. In fact, two of my favourite blogs, Reel Fanatic and Strange Culture, both featured pieces on it of late. Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly, even wrote about the genre at his site, Whedonesque. In fact, I first heard the term "torture chic" in an article by Vanessa Juarez that Entertainment Weekly published last October. As I said earlier, most of what has been written about torture chic has been negative. The billboard for the film Captivity alone has sparked a wave of controversy (indeed, Whedon himself attacked it in the above mentioned piece). In fact, in most articles and editorials on the subject I tend to hear the term "torture porn" more often than "torture chic."

Of course, movies which focus on the extreme cruelty of humanity are nothing new. In fact, director Wes Craven could be considered a pioneer of the genre. His movie Last House on the Left was attacked upon its release in 1972 for its graphic inhumanity. Eventually it would be labelled a "video nasty" in the UK (a video nasty was any film considered so depraved by some that they were banned from video distribution). His 1977 film, the original Hills Have Eyes, offered up more of the same. While Wes Craven's movies can be argued to have some artistic merit, the same cannot be said for Scream Bloody Murder, a 1973 release directed by Marc B. Ray (who would go on to direct episodes of Kids Incorporated of all things...). And although it was a glossy, Hollywood picture, Lipstick has all the hallmarks of a torture chic revenge fantasy. Forced Entry, a 1975 grindhouse movie starring Tanya Roberts (not yet one of Charlie's Angels), could make many of the current crop of torture chic movies look tame.

Although critics at the time couldn't have realised it, there would eventually be films that would make Wes Craven's efforts look tame at times. In fact, when it came to films about extreme cruelty, the Europeans could make even the most outre American directors look like rank amateurs. Wes Craven's work was mild compared to Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo o le 120 giornate di Sodoma, an adaptation of 120 Days of Sodom by the man who may well have invented "torture chic," none other than the Marquis de Sade himself. Nico Mastorakis' 1975 film Ta Paidia tou diabolou (Island of Death) features a psychopathic couple who kill "sinners" in the most imaginative ways possible. Yet another case in point is the notorious revenge fantasy I Spit on Your Grave, directed (if that is the operative word) by Meir Zarchi. Not only was it labelled a "video nasty" in Britain, it was banned outright in Canada, Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, and West Germany. It is quite rightly considered outright garbage by many. That's not to say that Americans weren't capable of movies nearly as offensive. The 1977 movie Fight for Your Life was purportedly an action movie, but to many it seemed to be an extreme exercise in racism and cruelty. It was classified a "video nasty" in Britain, where it is still for all practical purposes banned.

Of course, before the term "torture chic" was even coined here in America, Japan had its own practitioner of the genre in the form of director Takashi Miike. His 1999 film Odishon (Audition) was so graphic that even Rob Zombie found it difficult to watch. His 2001 movie Koroshiya Ichi (Ichi the Killer) was even more intense. In fact, the British Board of Film Classification refused to allow the film released there unless it was severely cut. Even in Hong Kong, where violent movies are nothing new (after all, it is the home of "blood opera"), Ichi the Killer had 15 minutes worth of footage cut!

Many were probably thankful that, with the occasional exception, the United States was free of such films. All of this changed in 2004 when Saw was released, a low budget film centred on a serial killer with a penchant for creative ways of killing. In its wake a number of movies which focused on Man's inhumanity to Man would be released: Hostel in 2005, Wolf Creek that same year, a remake of The Hills Have Eyes in 2006, and Vacancy this year. And as I mentioned earlier, the movies have come under attack in many quarters. Indeed, the label "torture porn" seems to me to be heard much more often than the term "torture chic."

As someone who counts A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, The Warriors, and Natural Born Killers among his favourite films, I am not going to condemn the entire subgenre of torture chic. I can fully understand why many would denounce the whole subgenre out of hand. Many of these films can be intense and some (particularly those directed by Takashi Miike) are very difficult to watch. That having been said, I do think some films in the subgenre have merit. While it has received its share of abuse from critics over the years, I still regard Last House on the Left as a very fine film. And while his works are the sort that give me nightmares, I must admit that Takashi Miike has a great deal of talent and craft. I even like Alexandre Aja's remake of The Hills Have Eyes; I believe it is a very well executed horror movie.

While I cannot condemn the subgenre outright, I must say that I sympathise with those who do, the primary reason being that so many of these films are poorly made and badly executed. A case in point is one of the most successful films of this sort, Hostel. The movie plods along with a leaden pace to get to where it is going. And the trip, with characters so selfish and self absorbed that they are ultimately unsympathetic, is nearly as unpleasant as the torture that follows. Not that it matters. The characters, whether the ugly Americans or the crazed Europeans, are so poorly developed and acted that they hardly seem like characters at all. As if to add insult to injury, Hostel portrays Slovakia as if it was a Third World country afflicted with war, prostitution, and a crime rate that makes Sin City look like Mayberry. As might be expected, the Czech Republic and Slovakia were not happy with the film. Eli Roth claims that the film is not meant to portray an actual geographical location, but to demonstrate the ignorance of Americans of the world around them. Given the lack of care Roth gave to other aspects of the production (the film is very poorly made), I think a more likely explanation is that Mr. Roth simply failed to do his research or, worse yet, simply did not care.

Sadly, Hostel is not the only bad apple in the barrel where the subgenre of torture chic is concerned. While I am hopelessly in love with Kate Beckinsale, even I cannot pretend that Vacancy is a good film, although hardly as bad as Hostel. Its biggest problem is that it is a banal and bland retread of both Psycho and Peeping Tom (I guess they can at least be given credit for ripping off the best). Turistas is worse than banal and bland; it is every bit as bad as Hostel. In fact, as mind boggling as it might seem, Turistas could be a Hostel ripoff, if not for the fact that they were shot at the same time. Like Hostel the film features American jerks who treat the locals poorly. Like Hostel, the characters in Turistas are entirely made of cardboard. Turistas even takes the lead of Hostel in offending a whole country, although in this case it is Brazil rather than Slovakia. Actor Josh Duhamel even apologised to the people of Brazil on The Tonight Show for the movie! The only difference between Hostel and Turistas is that Turistas is largely incoherent in its latter half. Like the slasher films before them, it seems that the majority of torture chic films are just plain bad.

Of course, what separates the torture chic movies from other bad movies (just pick any movie directed by Michael Bay as an example) is that in possessing no artistic, political, or scientific merit whatsoever, they effectively glamourise cruelty, sadism, and violence against women. Part of the very definition of obscenity (that which makes any piece of pornography, well, obscene) under United States law is any work that lacks artistic, literary, political, or scientific value. And it seems to me that this is true of Hostel, Turistas, and a lot of the other films in this recent crop of movies focusing on inhumanity. In these instances, such films are perhaps better labelled "torture porn" rather than "torture chic."

What makes all of this sadder still is that there are many fine films which have been labelled "torture chic," effectively lumping them in with the likes of Hostel and Turistas. The Descent is not only a well crafted horror movie, but a very cerebral movie as well. What is truly horrifying about the film is not what is lurking out there in the darkness, but the very darkness within its well acted, three dimensional characters. And there is not a scene of torture to be had in the entire film. Yet, there are those who would call it "torture chic." Grindhouse is a well done homage to those Z-grade exploitation movies of the Seventies. It is as much an art film as it is a horror movie, complete with film scratches, "missing" reels and fake trailers. And while there are some scenes of extreme violence in the Planet Terror segment, the film actually owes more to George Romero and John Carpenter than Eli Roth. In my opinion, it is not "torture chic," much less "torture porn."

Fortunately, it seems that the torture chic movies will not be with us much longer. As Vanessa Juarez pointed out in her piece in Entertainment Weekly, cycles in horror movies only last at most a few years. As an example, the slasher film cycle of the late Seventies and Eighties began in 1978 with Halloween and effectively ended around 1984. Given the torture chic cycle began in 2004 with Saw, it will probably soon come to an end. And when it does, I am sure there will be plenty of people who will bid it, "Good riddance."

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Bob Barker's Last Stand

For those you who have not heard, today the last show of The Price is Right to be hosted by Bob Barker was taped. While I assume most Americans know who Bob Barker is, I guess I should fill in those living outside the United States. Bob Barker is the long time host of the game show The Price is Right. He has hosted it for a record breaking 35 years, far longer than anyone else who has hosted a game show. This is all the more remarkable when one considers that before that Barker had hosted Truth or Consequences for 18 years! Indeed, Barker's career in television has spanned a total of over fifty years.

Given that Bob Barker long ago became a part of American pop culture, the taping of today's show was naturally a big event for many. Several people camped out over night outside the studio so they could get in line early. People came to the studios in Los Angeles from as far away as Mississippi and Alberta, Canada.

As might be expected, Barker entered the field of broadcasting while still young. He was attending Drury College in Springfield, Missouri when he got a job at radio station KTTS-FM. He would eventually find his way to Los Angeles where he was hosting an audience participation programme on KNX-AM in 1956. It was that year that Truth or Consequences producer and long time host Ralph Edwards would tap him to host the popular game show. He would host Truth or Consequences from December 1956 to its demise in 1975.

Barker would go onto host both Dream Girl of '67 and The Family Game in 1967 (continuing to host Truth Consequences as well), although both would be short lived. This certainly was not the case with his next game show. In 1972 CBS planned to revive the game show The Price is Right (the original had aired from 1956 to 1965). Barker was tapped as the show's host, continuing to also host Truth or Consequences until that show's demise in 1975. Ultimately, the revived version of The Price is Right would become the longest running American game show of all time.

Bob Barker's last show of The Price is Right will air later this month, on June 15. As of yet a replacement has not been announced, although it is difficult seeing anyone replacing the legendary game show host. Bob Barker has seen his share of controversy (he has been sued for sexual harassment, discrimination, and wrongful termination), but the man seems to be made of Teflon. Through it all he has remained America's best loved game show host and a pop culture icon. He appeared as himself in the movie Happy Gilmore where he won a fight with the title character. There have been references to him in everything from Seinfeld to the movie The Tao of Steve. As someone who has been a part of the American TV landscape for so long and long ago became a part of American pop culture, his retirement would seem to be a big event indeed.

Monday, June 4, 2007

A Shroud of Thoughts' 3rd Anniversary

As hard as it is to believe, A Shroud of Thoughts turns three years old today. It was on this date in 2004 that I set the blog up and wrote my first entry. Since then I have gone through deaths, the breakup of a marriage (not mine, but someone close to me), lost love, and a change in jobs. Somehow I have still managed three posts a week on average. Granted, some of them were very short posts.

A Shroud of Thoughts has also gone through some changes. For those of you who wonder what it looked like in the beginning, I used the Wayback Machine to retrieve the blog's original template and take a screenshot of it. Here it is.

There have been a few templates between the original and the current template (picture the original, but with three columns), but unfortunately it looks like the Wayback Machine never captured them. Since adopting this template, A Shroud of Thoughts hasn't changed much. I must admit that the unveiling of the New Blogger in the past year caused me some concern, as I was worried that my template might stop working. Fortunately, that wasn't the case.

I suppose many of you also wonder where the title of the blog comes from. It comes from Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage canto iii stanza 113, which is quoted below:

I have not loved the world, nor the world me;
I have not flattered its rank breath, nor bow'd
To its idolatries a patient knee,
Nor coin'd my cheek to smiles, nor cried aloud
In worship of an echo; in the crowd
They could not deem me one of such; I stood
Among them, but not of them; in a shroud
Of thoughts which were not their thoughts, and still could,
Had I not filed my mind, which thus itself subdued.

For those of you wondering about my nom de guerre, it is the Middle English form of Mercury (it can be seen in Chaucer's works, and it survived into Early Modern English to be seen in Shakespeare as well).

As in past years, I have compiled a "Greatest Hits" list of what I consider to be the best posts from the past year. Here it is:

The Most Successful Studio Never to Exist
(June 11, 2006)

Superhero Movies of the Nineties (June 26, 2006)

Fad TV (July 21, 2006)

Action Movies of the Eighties and Nineties (July 24, 2006)

I Want My MTV? Well, Not Anymore... (August 1, 2006)

Midnight Movies (August 6, 2006)

Nowhere Man (August 11, 2006)

Nero Wolfe...Merely a Genius
(August 19, 2006)

Two Shows from 1964 (August 26, 2006)

The Ever Changing Movie Season (September 3, 2006)

40 Years of Star Trek
(September 8, 2006)

The Monkees Turn 40 (September 12, 2006)

Dick Tracy Turns 75 (October 4, 2006)

Dark Shadows (October 28, 2006)

Warren Horror Comic Magazines (October 30, 2006)

5 November (guess when?)

The Long Journey of Casino Royale to the Big Screen (November 19, 2006)

The Beatles Cartoon (December 9, 2006)

The Sixties (December 28,2006)

The 1992-1993 CBS Monday Night Schedule (December 20, 2006)

The Laugh Track (January 5, 2007)

Bonanza (January 21, 2007)

The Future Was Then (February 19, 2007)

James Bond Theme Songs (March 24, 2007)

Reruns (March 31, 2007)

Warner Brothers Cartoons AB (After Bugs) (April, 6, 2007)

Shicinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) (April 15, 2007)

The Week of April 29, 2007, includes Concept Albums Parts One, Two, and Three

The 70th Anniversary of the Hindenberg Disaster (May 6, 2007)

Strange Cover Songs (May 11, 2007)

The Simpsons Turn 400 (May 19, 2007)

The 40th Anniversary of Star Wars (May 25, 2007)

The Anime Wave on American Television in the Sixties Part One (May 27, 2007)

The Anime Wave on American Television in the Sixties Part Two (May 28, 2007)

It Was 40 Years Ago Today... (June 1, 2007)

Over all I think it has been a very good year. Anyhow, here's hoping to three more years!