Robert E. Howard & Patches

The recent loss of my dog, as traumatic as it has been, has turned my thoughts towards Texan author Bob Howard and the story of when he lost his own dog, a part Walker foxhound/part collie who he named Patches (sometimes the dog would be referred to as ‘Patch’). Bob raised the dog from a puppy and the two were inseparable companions for some twelve years (there’s another weird irony of fate- Patch quite likely passed away at the same age as our Barney did, if later recollections of the event are correct). The story has it that as Patch grew old  and sickened to die, Bob left town and did not return home until the dog had passed away and been buried. When he returned, Bob only remarked on his dog once, when he queried his mother as to where Patch had been buried. The story has been discussed and debated by Howard historians over the many years since Bob’s own death (at his own hands prior to the imminent death of his mother). His inability to deal with the death of Patch, and how he later reacted to his mothers passing, have obviously been linked and debated.


For my part, fan as I have been for most of my life of the writings of Bob Howard, the story of his short life has always been fascinating, and like many I have often pondered on how he reacted to the death of his dog. Initially there was the inevitable thought that it was only a dog, that it seemed a strange thing to do, just get out of town like that and leave his pet. But of course, back then when I thought that, I didn’t have a dog of my own. Having lived with a dog some twelve years with all the companionship and everything that that entails, I obviously now appreciate the pain that Bob was going through as Patch sickened to die. In a way, I now feel closer to Bob Howard, the man,  than I did even a few months ago, and I appreciate also how his reaction, leaving the dog, infers some indication of how Bob reacted to such painful situations.  ‘Leaving’ the dog- some would rather refer to it  in stronger terms, as deserting the dog.

On Thursday when we knew Barney was very ill and we arranged to take him to the vets, it was pressing on us how it would likely be one last, final trip. I finished work early and drove home dreading what was coming. When I got home, Barney was in the kitchen, lying in his bed, which was something he never did. It was as clear an indication to me as anything  just how ill he was. I sat down on the floor next to him for some twenty, precious minutes, aware that as the clock turned close to five pm I would have to pick him up and take him out to my car. Obviously I was terrifically upset. I kept glancing at my watch, wishing time to slow down, stop, anything other than reach the fateful time we would have to leave. “I don’t want to take him,” I told Claire. “I know we have to go, but…”

But we did, and things turned out the way we expected, albeit not exactly- a cruel twist of fate yet awaited us, as Barney would pass away in my car on the way back from the vets, after we had been given a cruel false hope. But it occurred to me, even as I sat on that kitchen floor next to Barney, that Bob Howard had obviously felt the same terrible pain and anguish as I was feeling. Bob however couldn’t see things through. He got out of town. I could never do that with my Barney, I owed him that, I had to do what was right for him, and stay with him to whatever terrible end was ahead. Even while I can appreciate the pain Bob was going through, I think he was very wrong to abandon his close companion, leaving his own parents to deal with it. Bob was twenty-two years old; Patches death was obviously a major blow, but his reaction to just flee from it rather than deal with it, live with it, speaks volumes of how he saw suicide as the only option at his mothers imminent death some years later.

On Friday, we buried Barney in our back garden, where he spent so much time in his younger days playing fetch with his ball or just roaming around, taking the air. I think burying him was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. Bob couldn’t manage that. Had he been able to stay with Patch, take care of him later on regards his burial, would he later have the life-experience and strength to better deal with his mothers death?

Was he weaker than me, for not being able to stay with Patch at that desperate time? I don’t know. But yes, I think there is a clue to his psyche, his character and his eventual suicide, by how he dealt with the loss of his dog. I mean no criticism of Bob- he did what he simply felt he had to do when he realised Patch was soon to die. We all deal with death and the loss of loved ones in different ways. We cannot judge Bob Howard, only try to understand him. We cannot truly ‘know’ someone who lived and died some seventy years ago. But it is inevitable that we try, particularly when, as I have, we have read his stories for so many years.

Scholars have often concluded that Bob was subject to his upbringing and how sheltered he was by his parents from some of the harsher realities of life. The curious thing about it all, is that Bob at twenty-two had lived through Texan Oil booms, had experienced much death and violence. His father was a town doctor, and Texan Oil towns could be hard and bloody at times, desperate places to spend a childhood. Bob’s stories are full of violence and gore and horror, and yet he was evidently hyper-sensitive, unable to cope with realities harshest truths, such as the death of his dog. The contradictions of Bob Howard are endlessly fascinating.

Barney is gone.

100_5091Our beloved King Charles Cavalier spaniel, Barney, passed away last night. You’ll have to forgive me and just plain ignore this post if you want to just read the usual film/book stuff on this blog. Right now movies and my usual musings here seem utterly pointless and trivial to be honest, and I can’t even imagine watching any films or commenting on them. All that seems some other life, some other world. Death is a crushing reality and everything else seems like fantasy.

Claire and I don’t have children, and I guess its fair to say Barney was our kid, the central part of our family unit. He would have been thirteen years old next month, so he was a good age. A Grumpy Old Bugger, I used to call him, the last year or two, but to be honest he still behaved like the lively, full-of-beans puppy he always did- just a bit slower, and he slept more than he used to. His death came as such a shock- it likely shouldn’t have done, he had been diagnosed with heart problems for the last six months, but until Sunday night when he suddenly took a turn for the worse, we could have imagined (denial is such comfort), that he had years left in him. Our loss seems sudden and cruel.

I suppose you have to be as dog-lover, or have one as part of the family, to really understand any of this. I can well imagine many thinking/saying, “its only a dog, get over it”. But Barney passing feels like losing a child, breaking our hearts. He was such a beautiful, warm and loving little guy,  such a central part of our lives for near thirteen years. No matter how bad a day at work I had, I could always come home and have him eagerly greet me with a big smile and a waging tail, leading me from the front door to the kitchen for his customary treat. He won’t ever be waiting for me anymore, and its genuinely heartbreaking right now.

But anyway, I just wanted to write something about him here. I think it helps me a little, somehow.  We buried him out the back garden today, and it was about the hardest thing I ever had to do. That either says something about how little I’ve lived or how much he meant to us, I’ll let you take your pick.  We try to concentrate on the thought he had a good life, he lived like a little prince, was loved very much and lived to nearly see his thirteenth birthday, which is a good age for his breed and he had his health pretty much to the end.  But most of all, well, he was a good boy, our Barney.

Sunset and The Falcon

Just like all those old ‘classic’ albums I’ve never heard (‘Dark Side of the Moon‘ anyone?) or books that I’ve never read, there are also many old ‘classic’ movies that I have never seen, much to my chagrin. Over the years I’ve tried to correct this (I only got through most of Hitchcock’s films during the DVD days), but as anyone who has tried knows, it can be a long list and a long haul. I have found however that with the clear benefits of good HD remasters, catalogue releases on Blu-ray of films I have never seen can prove to be ideal opportunities to rectify my error.

sunset blu So I’ve just recently bought two new Blu-ray releases- new over here in the UK, anyway, as they have been out in the States for awhile now. Sunset Boulevard and The Maltese Falcon– and yes, I’ve never seen either of them before.  I know, I know, I consider myself  a film-buff, albeit one who has watched two many movies -well, too many bad movies anyway- and yes, these glaring omissions clearly demonstrate that as the years roll on I should have become rather more discerning.

The case of Sunset Boulevard though is one that is baffling even to myself. I am a huge Billy Wilder fan; I think many of his films are some of the finest to have ever been made; The Apartment, Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot, The Fortune Cookie, Irma La Douce, Avanti… even the lesser films are simply marvelous, the better films simply astonishing. Indeed there is some credence to the argument he was the greatest director of all, he’s just not as fashionable a choice as, say, Hitchcock. The fact that Sunset Boulevard is said to be one of his best films makes the fact that I have never seen it particularly baffling, even to me, except to suggest that films of this quality are like a fine wine to be savoured. They don’t make ’em like they used to, so lets not rush into it- consider it a treat amongst all the rest of the dross we are fed by Hollywood these days. Indeed, I bought Wilder’s The Lost Weekend on Blu-ray last year and have yet to see it yet, preferring to keep it to one side for the right time- in the case of Sunset though I am so excited to see it, this one won’t be on the shelf for long! maltese blu

Regards The Maltese Falcon, again, its a strange one to have missed for so long. Just released in a gorgeous steelbook edition, its one I’ve been eyeing up for import for a while now but this release saves any such hassle- like Sunset, this mirrors the stateside release regards extras etc. and the steelbook case just sweetens the deal.  The Maltese Falcon is one of those films that always seemed to be on late-night telly when I was a kid, but nowadays seems to have been consigned to the low-rent basement of morning/afternoon television showings once in a blue moon. I think its very odd that, as HD masters have been struck of so many classic films, such films are not given their due even if it meant being on late-night screenings. A season of b&w classics on BBC HD would be a marvelous use of tax-payers money, but as b&w stuff seems to be The Great Evil of modern tv schedules, that will just never happen (even Christmas Holiday schedules seem to have shook off the movie season idea).

I think the fact that I have never seen The Maltese Falcon reflects the fact that I never warmed to Humphrey Bogart as a kid or teenager. Whatever (little) I’ve seen him in, he seemed rather wooden, a movie star of the John Wayne school- likely I’m being rather unkind to him, but it has even stretched to the fact that I have also never seen -wait for it- Casablanca. I know, I know, I can imagine the tuts and ‘for shame!’s being sighed by readers of that last sentence. I have never owned Casablanca either, in any format, but I’m looking forward to rectifying that- except that there is some strange stuff about the UK edition being an inferior master to the version released elsewhere, and I’ll be damned if I’ll spend money on inferior transfers.

But anyway, Sunset and Falcon are high on my ‘To Watch’ list so hopefully I’ll be able to reveal whether they live up to their hype here soon.

Love (aka ‘Space Time L’Ultime Odyssee’) 2011

loveRegular readers of this blog will know I often defend smaller, more esoteric films compared to the huge vapid blockbusters that pervade the multiplexes. Even if a film is ultimately a failure, I figure you gotta love a trier- films like Another Earth, or maybe Solomon Kane, or Dredd. But Love pretty much exhausts any such effort on my part- it simply isn’t really any good.

Love wears its influences brazenly on its sleeve throughout: voice-overs that might grace a Terrence Malick film (except they are not as good or well-judged), visuals that harken to Silent Running, a plot that refers to Moon, a pace and mood that reminds of 2001: A Space Odyssey, an ‘art-house sci-fi’ vibe that echoes Solaris. But it never comes close to any of the classics it aspires to- instead it falls woefully short. It is, simply, a bad movie- there, I’ve said it, and to hell with all those film festival awards that adorn the film poster and Blu-ray covers (what on Earth were they thinking, just how bad were the other films?). It is a films-school demo that tries to be a movie, a pop video without much of a script, and what there is of a script is sadly incoherent. That last point is particularly telling, as the film was chiefly financed by Angels & Airwaves, a band that did the film’s soundtrack- essentially the film is a long music video, and I have my suspicion the whole exercise was chiefly a clever publicity gambit for the band. At least that’s one part of the project that worked- I would imagine there are very many viewers who, like me,  had never even heard of  the band beforehand.

The positives, well, the film looks rather impressive considering its very low budget (purported to be around $500,000), which necessitated building the main Space Station set in a parents driveway, and even shooting a civil war battle in the parents backyard.  The limitations are glaring at times but you could forgive it if it had a story – had the film had a reasonable narrative arc, its budgetary limitations might even have been an endearing feature. There are plenty of decent films with a zero budget but a great story. But as it is, its just a long nonsensical pop video masquerading as a movie. Lots of pretty shots and vignettes pretending to be a cohesive storyline. A prologue following a survivor of a Civil War regiment ends with him reaching a giant crater and with a long reaction shot of the characters face as he marvels at something within the crater- but what he is looking at is never revealed. Throughout the film its slow turgid senseless ‘story’ passes by and throughout I was thinking about how it would tie-in to the reveal of what the soldier was witnessing centuries before. But it never happens. There is no point to any of the Civil War stuff, its just done for the sake of it, as if it lends the film a more serious, art-house agenda by being obtuse and never relating at all to the marooned astronaut in his Space Station.  Its not endearing at all, its bloody infuriating. Much like Melancholia, another pretentious love-letter to the anal arthouse brigade, its a movie for intellectual snobs who misread bad storytelling  as deep philosophical thought. The very title, Love, betrays that very fact- for a film with that word as a title, bizarrely there is no love on display- a better title may have been ‘Loneliness’ to be honest, but certainly ‘Love’ is a criminally misleading title.

Very disappointing.

Stuart Freeborn (1914-2013)

Yoda_SWSBI remember well watching The Empire Strikes Back in the Odeon Cinema in town (long since a Bingo hall, alas) back in the summer of 1980. The thing I remember most clearly about it is during the sequence on Dagobah, when Yoda appeared. I remember being utterly amazed by him.  You see,  I’m not sure what I’d been expecting- everyone interested in TESB well knew the advance publicity concerning a Jedi master and that it was a diminutive character created using a puppet. Most of us had seen pictures of him, or the film’s poster. I’m not sure what I was thinking it would look like, exactly- something like a muppet, such as those we saw on tv I suppose. The possibilities of puppetry hadn’t really been explored up to then – Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal was still some way off- so, you know, I can’t say I was really expecting much. So anyway, the clearest thing I remember from when I first saw TESB was just that- seeing Yoda moving, talking… I was amazed. I was really taken a back by it. By the performance, the mannerisms, the pure sense of character in just the design itself. You take one look at Yoda in a still – I’m talking about the original puppet now, not the cg character the prequels unleashed upon us- and you get an instant impression of the character. It’s in those Albert Einstein eyes maybe, that sense of calm intelligence that oozes from the puppet even when its motionless. I guess that’s the real magic of the Star Wars movies; maybe its because I was pretty much a kid/teenager when I first saw them, but whenever I see C-3P0 I never imagine Anthony Daniels inside the suit, it is C-3P0, and whenever I see Chewbacca, it is Chewbacca, not Peter Mayhew in a fur suit. And whenever I see Yoda in TESB, its not just a puppet, it is Yoda. There’s a heart and soul in all those real-world creations lost to cg; an amalgamation maybe of all the talents behind them; the designers, the craftsmen, the actors, the voice-artists. Puppet it may be, but Yoda in TESB is a far different creation than the cg Yoda of the prequels, no matter how dextrous and mobile the latter may be. There is a soul to Stuart Freeborn’s puppet creation.

So I was very sad last week to learn of the passing of Stuart Freeborn, the make-up artist who will, rightly or wrongly,  chiefly be remembered for designing and building Yoda. Based upon pre-production sketches by Ralph McQuarrie and other Lucasfilm artists, of blue-skinned goblin-like creatures, the distinctive ‘look’ of Yoda was chiefly Freeborn’s own creation- partly a self-portrait (Freeborn had a sculpture of himself that he had been working on and used that to save time), with the Einstein eyes to give it a sense of intelligence. Its a remarkable creation.

Freeborn had created Chewbacca and other creatures for the first Star Wars movie, but had a long and distinguished career as a make-up artist long before George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away came calling. He worked for directors such as David Lean, creating such a grotesque Fagin for Lean’s Oliver Twist that it caused trouble with censors in the US. He did Peter Sellers transformations into President, RAF officer and  maniac Dr Strangelove for Stanley Kubrick, and would later create the man-apes for Kubrick’s Dawn Of Man sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Affectionate movie lore has it that Freeborn failed to win that year’s Oscar because Academy voters didn’t realise the apes were not real. I really don’t know if that’s true but its such a wonderful story it should be.

Trouble Man OST (40th Anniv.Edition)

trouble man cvrTrouble Man– never seen the movie, but good lord its got one of the coolest soundtracks ever. It is the definitive 1970s cool soundtrack- if ever you enjoyed Isaac Hayes’ Shaft music or gritty 1970s crime thrillers like Dirty Harry, or grew up with tv shows like Kojak or Starsky and Hutch… well, this score is right up your street – and if you didn’t well, its a street you should visit! Recorded and released in 1972, it was Marvin Gayes’ somewhat odd follow-up to his monumental  What’s Going On album. The film itself ( a vaguely standard-for-the-era Blaxploitation piece) came and went, largely forgotten,  the album remaining a curio for Gaye fans who generally preferred his traditional studio albums. For himself, Gaye always believed his score would stand the test of time and one day be reappraised, feeling it had some of his finest work.  Now for the albums 40th Anniversary a two-disc extended edition has been released which really highlights how important and ground-breaking this piece of work is, and leaves it cooler than ever. You’ll hate me over-using the word ‘cool’ on this, but really, there’s no better word that captures this music.

The Trouble Man album is wonderfully, yes, cool, and funky in a way only an actual product of the 1970s could be- much imitated in years since, this is the real deal . Smooth saxophone, funky percussion, jazzy piano and early-Moog synthesizer textures deliver an atmosphere of  urban streets so vivid you think you can hear the traffic, smell the air…  effortlessly transporting you back to another world, the seedy New York of Taxi Driver, or the gritty night-time streets of Dirty Harry.  What the world of Trouble Man‘s actual film was I have no idea, as I’ve never seen it.

The original album released in 1972 was an extended suite of music based on the score that Gaye had produced for the film- here, for the first time, is the actual original film-score on a second disc, with several alternates and session tracks added to the remastered original album over on disc one.  The original lp remains a fantastic piece of work,  a construction of the film  music developed for a more balanced listening experience- sort of how Vangelis treats his soundtrack albums, here Gaye layering vocal tracks over instrumentals that sometimes reminds me of Morricone’s use of vocals in his scores.  I’ve often been frustrated by how Vangelis reconstructs his soundtrack scores as albums, but in this case you can’t argue with what Gaye fashioned. That the original score is also now available is just icing on the cake.

The alternates are very rewarding- indeed, my favourite track of the entire two-disc release is an unedited version of  ‘T Plays It Cool‘. There’s no words to express just how cool and  funky this track is- the newly-released extended version approaching seven minutes in length is worth the price of this new release all by itself. It demonstrates perhaps better than anything else on this release just how ahead of the curve Gaye was- it truly sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday. Anyone hearing this on the radio now would be astonished to learn it dates back to 1972.

Octopussy (1983)

bond50Still working my way through the Bond50 set that I brought back in October, I’ve just reached Octopussy, the thirteenth entry in the Bond franchise. A case of Unlucky Thirteen, it would seem, as this film, one of those several  Bond films that I had not seen until now, is clearly one of the weakest Bond films I have yet seen- indeed possibly the worst. Which is curious, as after the typical Bond excess of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, the films turned towards a smaller-scale, more realistic (if you can ever use that word towards a Bond movie) approach with For Your Eyes Only, which I’d rank pretty high amongst the Bonds. I would have thought that any critical and commercial success of that film would have led to more of the same, but it evidently didn’t go that way. Well, no-one makes films in a vacuum, so perhaps Raiders Of  The Lost Ark had something to do with that? Perhaps For Your Eyes Only was the wrong Bond film at the wrong time. As it is, Octopussy is neither the grand theatrics of  The Spy Who Loved Me or the calmer For Your Eyes Only, but instead something in-between,  floundering between the two camps and lost in limbo. The daft humour falls flat (Bond doing a Tarzan yell in the jungle, or crossing a river wearing a plastic crocodile disguise, or suffering the indignity of a silly clown costume) and the thrills are not remotely thrilling enough.

The plot -if the film even has one- is so weak I was puzzled for much of the film as to just what was going on and why Bond was doing what he was doing, a clear sign something is terribly wrong with the film. Its something to do with a fake Faberge egg and jewel-smuggling, a long-winded and dubious scheme in which a rogue Russian commander intends to smuggle a nuke from East Germany into West Germany using a circus (!), and explode said nuke in order to start some grand Russian invasion into Western Europe. Its all as daft as it sounds, and exactly why the film felt the need to relocate to India for much of the proceedings when the menace was back in East/West Germany just escapes me, other than the typical need to spice up a Bond film with an exotic location or two.

Steven Berkoff is very good as the crazy Soviet General Orlov, but is given too little do, as for much of the film Bond deals with Orlov’s partner-in-crime Kamal Khan, played by Louis Jordan with all the menace of a used car salesman.  Likewise the titular character is played by Maude Adams in an utterly bland and oddly sexless performance that fails to live up to her name- I think she was simply miscast here, as the film needed a vamp to chew up the scenery and spice up the film and live up to the Octopussy moniker. Then again, by the time this film was being made Roger Moore was in his mid-fifties and obviously far too old for the role, so the lack of chemistry and passion here may not be Maude Adam’s fault, as casting a sexy mid-twenties vamp being seduced by Grandad Bond would likely look just as ridiculous. The fact that Moore still has another Bond film to go, 1985’s A View To A Kill, another film I have not yet seen, fills me with some trepidation- he must have been pushing sixty by then, threatening to descend everything into farce.

Its clear that the Bond producers slipped up during this period and nearly derailed the franchise. Had Moore left the role after For Your Eyes Only then his credentials as a fine Bond would have been assured, and he would have the franchise in good shape having proven you didn’t need to be Mr Connery to carry a Bond film.  But even though Moore’s original contract was up the producers didn’t have a ‘new’ Bond waiting in the wings, which surprises me, as they had been caught out before, prior to Diamonds Are Forever, when they stuck with Sean Connery for one Bond film too many – and wound up repeating the mistake here with Octopussy. I don’t know what British actors were doing the rounds back then, but I was surprised to learn that the American actor James Brolin was being seriously considered for the role of Bond, and this disc includes some very interesting screentests of Brolin playing  the character.  His accent doesn’t work at all (I wonder if they would have had dialogue coaches erase that yank twang?) and just makes it feel uncomfortable, but Brolin giving it a shot -miscast as he was- would have been preferable I think to having Moore continue. Surely the character is the star, not the actor playing him?

But anyway, that’s Octopussy. The fact that the grand finale features Bond in a clown outfit disarming a nuke in a Circus tent says everything about a lacklustre and disappointing effort. Its the clear clunker of the Bond50 set (though with A View To A Kill to follow, I suspect that’s a title it may lose soon) and cannot possibly imagine anyone buying it as a single disc release- its a film that simply demands to be a part of a box-set. Still, I quite liked the theme song.