memory tombs: spain and me, part one

There are numerous ways in which a person can fall in love with a country. For some it is the culture and traditions that spark the imagination. For others it may be the history, politics, or football team of a particular region that demands devotion from the newly seduced. The exoticism of food, sex, and literature can also coax one into the undertow of romance.

Film has always swayed me the hardest. Somewhere embedded within the images, there is a truth flickering within the persuasive lie. The Italian Spaghetti Westerns probably did more to seduce me to Spain than anything else, especially to the region of Andalucia (where I am currently residing). Bunuel, of course. But it has been the horror film that I’ve been thinking the most about here in Granada. Perhaps that’s because the weather has been so dreadful of late.

Hope you enjoy the following clips. They are from Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971), The Werewolf vs The Vampire Woman (1971), Who Can Kill a Child? (1976), and Rec (2007) respectively.

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boris spassky in granada

He no longer resembled the serious, nervous young Russian champ that had stealthily destroyed players with his expert, sometimes crushing middlegame. No longer, I suspect, did he secretly keep the White Queen in his pocket as he had as a child. In post-World War Two Soviet Union, Boris Spassky was trained to use his keen intelligence and stealthy courage to become one of the finest young chess players the country had ever produced, often playing five hours a day and trained by a procession of chess masters. He was a Grandmaster at the age of eighteen and fighting fit for a series of clashes over the next two decades that made him yet another standard-bearer of Soviet might.

Then he met Bobby Fischer.

Spassky and the late great highly controversial American chess superstar, still the only American to win the World Chess Championship, battled one another five times throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, then most notably during the 1972 World Chess Championship held in Reykjavik, Iceland, where they played twenty-one grueling games. The two month long tournament between the reigning champion Spassky and Fischer was billed as the “match of the century” and heightened with surrealism, aggravation, political intrusions by the U.S. and Soviet governments, rumors of mind control weapons being used on both players, and on and on and on. The mild-mannered Spassky and the outlandish, petulant though brilliant Fischer did manage to play chess amidst the carnival, with Spassky eventually resigning in heartbreaking fashion. I say heartbreaking, because although Fischer was without question one of the finest modern practitioners of the game, his persistent melodramatics and expertise at psychic warfare did as much to break Spassky down as did his skills on the board.

The events surrounding thst spectacular match-up are chronicled in Dave Edmonds and John Eidinow’s fabulous book, Bobby Fischer Goes to War, published in 2004. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. We’re talking desert island/favorite read here. It’s that good. Not surprisingly, the subject of Spassky v Fischer is headed for the silver screen as well. There’s not a lot written about the project yet, but it appears that Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland) is set to helm it. I always thought P.T. Anderson would be a fantastic director for the job, with his strong visual sense, penchant for naturalism that could swerve into the realm of the absurd or surreal at any moment, and his attraction to brilliant misfits and tragic eccentrics. With Kubrick (who was an avid chess player in his own right) dead, Anderson would be perfect.

Spassky, mentally and physically drained, would continue to play competitive chess (he became the 1973 Soviet Chess Champion), though in later years the game would never possess him as it had pre-1972. Fischer, on the other hand, distanced himself from chess despite a boom in the game in the months after the Reykjavik tournament, especially in the U.S., and did not play a competitive match for the next twenty years until he played a rematch against his old rival Spassky in Yugoslavia. The unsanctioned “Revenge Match of the 20th Century” ended with Fischer beating Spassky again. Spassky returned to France, where he’s been living since the mid-1970s, and Fischer became an outlaw for the rest of his life after defying the U.N. embargo on playing the match and the subsequent U.S. arrest warrant.

Two weeks ago, as part of the Hay Festival Alhambra which lasted from April 3-6 and held at the magnificent Moorish fortress here in Granada, Spain, Spassky made a rare appearance. Playing a group of twenty players or so simultaneously, the great Russian expat jovially (though his White Queen was still shockingly violent at times) greeted the small crowd in attendance and then set to systematically beating all of his opponents. Except for one. That honored gentleman is featured in some of the pictures that I took, seen below. He’s the player in the green horizontal striped sweater having a nervous breakdown. Spassky beat his first opponent at the thirty minute mark. His second about a half-hour later and then the rest after he himself was beaten at the ninety minute mark. Watching a three hour chess exhibition may sound like slow death for some, but it was a superb and strange way to spend my third night in Granada. I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.

You can read more about Spassky’s appearance here, at my partner in mischief’s blog.

everyday should be halloween

Here are four television spots that freaked my crazy little head out as a child. First up, Nanny and the Professor‘s Juliet Mills in Exorcist rip-off Beyond the Door (1974). I still haven’t seen the film because I was so traumatized. Then, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), for my money, still the most relentless American non-supernatural horror film ever. Third, Larry Coen’s It’s Alive (1974). Man, they don’t make PG movies like that anymore! And then, Phantasm (1979) double-featured with John Carpenter’s underrated The Fog (1980). I so wanted to be that kid from Phantasm when I was ten years old. Still do, I think.

And finally, last but certainly not least, a trip through Disney’s Haunted Mansion. Talk about formative childhood spook experiences.

help out film critic d. k. holm

For as long as I can remember, there’s been a D. K. Holm spinning around my orbit. In the early 1990s I regularly read his film reviews in the Willamette Week alternative rag while working at a Northwest Portland independent video store. I don’t recall agreeing with Holm a lot of the time, but I always read him and appreciated his insights, intelligence, and occasional brutal turn of phrase. When he departed to the town’s other alternative weekly, PDXS. I followed him. Later, I’d catch Holm’s cable access film review show and always appreciated his continued crusade to highlight the weird, esoteric, and just plain good DVDs that hit the shelves week in and week out.

For what it’s worth, we’re both Portlanders and have written books for UK publisher Kamera Books. Holm’s latest one (he’s written five, I think) is on independent cinema. We both love Tarantino’s Kill Bill (Holm also wrote a book on the film(s) as well as an earlier tome on its director for Pocket Essentials). And I suspect, being that we’re both from Portland, we both love a good microbrew. I don’t know Doug. But I sure would hate to hear that he was no longer around.

Holm has been diagnosed with a serious, though “treatable” form of esophageal cancer. On April 27 at the Northwest Portland landmark, Cinema 21, a benefit for Holm will take place in a hope to stave off some of the nightmarish medical bills the uninsured film critic is collecting.

So you can help. Go here for more details. Good luck, Mr. Holm. The microbrew is on me!

heston

Charlton Heston is dead. At the time that Heston made The Omega Man in 1971 (featured in the clip above), the notorious conservative actor (who was still a card carrying member of the Democratic party at that point but a Nixon supporter) probably did feel like the last man on earth. Surrounded by counterculture Hollywood, a relic of the studio system and more a practitioner of a relentlessly old fashioned theatrical style than a Brando, Heston still loomed large over the decade of decline. It was a credit to his adaptation that he managed to survive in an industry that doesn’t always reward change.

I mourn his loss because as a youth growing up in the 1970s, he was my first real movie star idol, the first real impression I had of what an actor was. He also starred in one of my favorite films of all time, Planet of the Apes (and its sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes), and to a lesser degree The Omega Man. As with the Planet of the Apes films, I loved Omega Man as a kid, then went many years without seeing it, in which I romanticized and misremembered it. When I finally saw it again in my early twenties, I was disappointed. It was far more campy and shoddy than I remembered it being, and unlike Planet of the Apes, lacked wit or imaginative bravado. But in its own misshapen way, I’ve come around and now love Omega Man and watch it at least once a year. Heston’s post-Apes roles in the 1970s are remarkable for the sheer number of times he suffered beatings and death at the hands of apocalyptic maniacs. I enjoyed, and still do, the Heston of the Epics (The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, El Cid, The War Lord) or the Westerns (The Big Country, Major Dundee, Will Penny, Heston’s favorite role). And then there was his role as a Mexican cop in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, arguably the last of the original American film noir cycle. It takes awhile to adjust to Heston’s casting as Vargas, but without him in the lead the film with Welles at the helm would have probably never happened.

As the story goes, Universal Pictures wanted Heston to appear as the star of the picture. But when the actor heard that Welles was only attached to the film as an actor, Heston recommended him to direct as well. It was a gigantic risk for the studio considering that Welles was virtually blacklisted in Hollywood due to pressure from William Randolph Hearst, the FBI, and a series of box office disappointments leading up to his exile in Europe from 1947 to 1956 where Welles conjured up new avenues of magic–though hardly anything Hollywood would want to touch. There’s a scene in Tim Burton’s otherwise fine Ed Wood in which the “world’s worst director” meets America’s best in a dark lounge. Welles, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, remarks to Wood (Johnny Depp) that he’s just been saddled with Charlton Heston to play a Mexican at Universal. It’s a funny moment, but there’s no way the real Welles would have said it considering the actor had just given him the chance to direct in Tinseltown again.

Apocalypse Heston. Disaster-mode Chuck. The slightly paranoid, cynical, volcanic Heston from the 1970s: that was the actor for me. Clint Eastwood, another early movie star idol for me, was meaner, tougher, and cooler. But for me, Heston was the quintessential Hollywood action star: masculine, intelligent, versatile, and absurdly charismatic. His portrayals of larger than life heroes was always tinged with a humanity and vulnerability that I don’t think many of the action stars that followed, e.g. Stallone or Schwarzenegger, were ever able to match. He was also the consummate professional and a gentleman from all accounts. You don’t last in the business for as long as Heston did without mastering the art of good manners.

It’s sad that for many, younger, film fans, Heston will be remembered for his “hammy” acting or as president of the NRA, conservative activist (though I find it amusing that so many of his detractors conveniently ignore Heston’s liberal past and his civil rights involvement) , or as the elderly Alzheimer-afflicted scapegoat in Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine, where the intrepid filmmaker/gadfly bum rushes the ailing actor in his own home. I’m no apologist for Heston’s political beliefs. No doubt, I’d have more in common with Moore’s politics. But the scene is disgusting and a cheap shot. Regardless of personal beliefs, I know who I’d rather have dinner with.

Below are two more favorite clips from his dystopian science fiction period: the finales of Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green, the latter an aesthetic predecessor to Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic Blade Runner. You can also go here, here, and here for some rather wonderful and eloquent pieces on this true colossus of Hollywood.