Tuesday, October 23, 2012

"They [women] Love to be Taken."

Dealing with Ian Fleming's novel The Spy Who Loved Me is one of those important times that a working knowledge of pop culture trivia pays off. If you were to pick up this book expecting a wildly exciting opening down a ski slope that was going to lead to a massive battle aboard an underwater superstructure...boy, would you be in for a surprise.

The tenth Bond movie (and the third for Roger Moore) took only its title from the tenth Bond novel.

Critics and fans alike were quite unhappy with how the book came out, a decade and and a half before the movie hit the theaters. It was quite a departure from the usual Bond novel.  In the book, Vivienne Michel, a young Canadian woman, recounts a short history of her youth: growing up in Canada, her first affair with a boy while at finishing school in England, her failed love affair with a German newsman, and the getaway trip she took that led her to a cabin in the American Adirondacks.
This is not the poster of the story described above.
Being in a remote mountain setting might be as close to the movie as the book gets, as the opening has Roger fleeing a cabin on a crazy ski chase.

The cabins are being closed at the end of vacation season, and Vivienne, who had hired on as the receptionist has been left behind to help the owner close up. It's at this point that two hoods show up, and Vivienne does her damnedest to fend them off.  Then, there's a knock at the door.

Two thirds of the way through we finally see 007.  And I'll leave the plot summary there.

In some ways, I like to imagine a Bond or any action movie within which we don't meet the protagonist until the last half hour of the movie.  Granted some other character usually picks up the slack. Obviously, in this case, it's Vivienne, not Bond, whose point of view we're adopting.  But that's not my point, I'm saying things happen and continue to happen for an hour, and then Bond or John McClane or Indiana Jones shows up. I suppose The Good, The Bad and The Ugly sort of comes close, although again Tuco ultimately is the protagonist, but it is interesting how long Eastwood is left out of the action.

Ringo's wife Barbara Bach did not play Viv...but might as well have.
Anyhow. I was surprised at Fleming's choice to adopt a woman's perspective. The writing's not bad although many of the sentiments are cliché. It's not to say that no woman ever had an experience like this, but I feel as though I've heard this sort of scenario before from a number of male authors.  As for the more action end of the plot, it's fairly by the numbers.  In some ways, though you have to admire his decision to experiment this late into a popular game, Fleming handicaps himself by his choice of having Vivienne tell the tale. For one: We know James Bond is not going to die. No one needs the luxury of hindsight for that. And two: The damsel in distress is telling the story, and though she does an admirable job of fending for herself, we know James Bond is not going to let her die.

Now having written out these thoughts, it's only just occurred to me that years and years of cabin-in-the-woods horror movies are also mirrored in this plot long before there was a Camp Crystal Lake.  But while the idea of some psycho or family of cannibals hidden in some remote location seems par the course, it's actually more inventive that the world's top special agent has to fend off a couple of dimestore hoods on an insurance job in the woods in the middle of nowhere. It's one of the most extreme cases of Plot Against Type, I've ever seen.

Kinda like when they don't have a big enough budget on a sci-fi flick, so the robots/aliens/people from the future spend most of their time on Earth at the present time.
"Sorry Rog...we couldn't afford the underwater Lotus. How about a '71 Volvo wagon?
In all, an enjoyable read, if only for a change of pace from the other Bond novels I've read. But how could it not fail at least a tiny bit when in your heart, you're just waiting for Richard Kiel to show up as the beloved Jaws.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

"Matt, They Can Brainwash a Vacuum Cleaner!"

No, from the well. I like my innuendo fresh...
As promised (thanks to encouragement from ilovedinomartin' blog), I've returned to the wacky world of Matt Helm, with Dean Martin's second outing as the I.C.E. counter-agent against the evil machinations of Big O in Murderers' Row (1966).

This time, a super weapon, the Helio-bomb, threatens to wipe Washington D.C. off the map after the scientist who invented it is kidnapped by an agent of Big O. Matt is reluctantly returned to service after faking his death to rescue Dr. Solaris (naturally a guy named Solaris captures killer sun rays. What's he going to make? Moon-bombs?) from an island fortress off the French Riviera. So Dino spends some time in the sun in the south of France and gets caught up in the wild swinging scene of the lovely Ann-Margret.

Wood-paneling: the essence of chic.
Like it's predecessor, The Silencers, Murderers' Row features a non-stop barrage of swanky scenes, snarky dialogue and snappy gadgets.  Though it again tosses aside the grim and grimy underworld of Hamilton's original Matt Helm novels for more colorful settings and a host of fashion magazine glamor, this one seems a trifle less full of the fluff than the first film.  It definitely has a more early Bond film vibe, but doesn't skimp on Helm's endless one-liners, the drinking and driving, and the occasional jab at fellow Rat Packer Frank.

In fact, that almost ends up being the problem: It definitely features a stronger plot than the original, but still features plot holes that one could drive a tricked-out hovercraft over and through.  The one that plagued me most was that after Ann-Margret disables the machine the refines the ore that powers the Helio-bomb with a bobby-pin (ok, fine, fair enough),  moments later, the men guarding her still leave her loose enough to power the electro-magnet that aids Dino in fending off the character I refer to as Quarter Destro (the credits call him Iron Head...see if you can spot him in the accompanying photos).  Wait, what?  She just blew up one machine, and the armed guards let her play with the magnet for several minutes to take out their boss. Guess it's true what the say about finding good henchmen.

When Shop Class goes terribly awry...
That's just one, there's several other gaping gaps in logic.  Now, don't get me wrong, in the generally fun-filled light atmosphere, these heavy suspensions of disbelief can't spoil the fun (and a belt or two of gin will have you giggling over most of them after a wry retort from Dino).  What bothers me, in retrospect, is that this could've been a solid action story above and beyond being a light afternoon's entertainment if only someone had seen to it that the script made a little more sense where it counts (like when Matt's got a cover story for his cover story that isn't spoiled by Big O's inside man in Washington).  All of this could've been avoided, I suppose, if they'd headed off into the bizarre anything goes tone of the 1967 version of Casino Royale, but since they played it more by the numbers, I couldn't help but notice it.  I know that consideration for pop culture longevity has only become a recent concern, but I like to think that for all the talent involved, they'd want a movie that over time would appeal to more than just guys into nostalgia or goofy cinema...oh yeah...like me.

In my dreams, I wake up to this sort of thing...
Karl Malden, the all too serious star in On the Waterfront and Patton, does an entertaining turn as the villain, Julian Wall.  His strange relationship with his mistress Coco is surprisingly risqué for the era of married couples in seperate beds. You'll just have to see the movie to see what I mean.  The only odd mis-step with his character is his introduction where he's given the Blofeld treatment.  For those who don't remember, Ernst Blofeld was James Bond nemesis in the Connery run of movies, but until You Only Live Twice (1967) where he's played wonderfully by Donald Pleasance, he's only shown from behind or in shadows.  Problem is: a) Malden has a very distinct voice, and b) when they semi-reveal him, Malden also has one of cinema's even more distinctive schnozzes. So even if you don't know who he is, when you see him as Wall...you're not likely to not be able to figure out he's the ominous shadow from the opening.

"What?! I thought it was Telly Savalas...I'm serious!"
In any event, a great deal of the fun is found in the genuine chemistry of Martin and...uh... -Margret.  Even though Dino's hilariously out of place in her psychedelic discotheque world, he's never not cool.  But at the same time, the filmmakers don't go out of their way to make her world seem like some idiotic fad either.  It's a far more diplomatic trade-off of the generation gap than was served up in most movies at the time.  In all, you can't help but wish that you could quip off to nearly every bit said to you like Dino can, and you sure wouldn't mind have a kooky beauty on your arm like Ann-Margret while doing so.  (I got to work on a film with Ann-Margret, and I can assure you, she's continued to be every bit of the lovely lady she was then.)

Also, for a silly 60's swankfest, one can't ignore that the first film had the great Elmer Bernstein at the musical helm, and the second features the also dazzling Lalo Schifrin. So I say, see The Silencers to ease into the world of Matt Helm...but keep Murder's Row nearby as just the right chaser.

Bonus: The ideal substitue for the pool noodle.
I will return...at some point...and so will Dean Martin as Matt Helm in The Ambushers (1967).

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


This past weekend the first show by Miami-based art gallery 101/exhibit went on display in their new space at the elegant end of Melrose Ave. in West Hollywood, California.  The choice for the inaugural opening was a new set of paintings and graphic works by Jason Shawn Alexander entitled {sic}.  The word "sic" is most commonly used today as editorial demarcation of intention when grammatical or spelling mistakes are included in a citation, that said mistakes are being intentionally reproduced without editing.  Quite an apt title for Alexander's work, because although it is obviously well-rendered, there is in the vigorous skritching and almost scribbling of the layers of paint flecks of lost color painted over, lines of the sketching peering through or left bare, and various flotsam and jetsam the mapping of a creative process on canvas.  And that's how they were meant to be.

Simply put, the paintings are monolithic as are the figures contained therein. Though they often float freely within their compositions, the figures contain an all too human fragility. They would have substance if they were to suddenly land in your arms.  They can be elegantly ugly. They can possess passion though seemingly on the verge of lost vitality. One gets the impression that the flecks and flicks and splats of paint and ink across these canvases is no different from the sweat and pores and hair of any actual person. It's figurative work of a certain rawness that many artists have hunted and some have captured once again made all the more resoundingly refreshing in the collective of the cute, the clever, and the cartoon that much of the Los Angeles art scene has been given over to. 

There's a danger in the land this work occupies that other recent work I've viewed does not, no matter how soaked in blood it is.

Having followed Alexander's work over a number of years now, what I found most surprising was the introduction of a wider color palette.  The blacks, whites, rusts, and unbleached titaniums weren't wholly absent, but they'd been joined by vivid reds and soft blues that I'd not seen before in the work. But instead of being a jarring change, it opened up an electricity within what's been a consistent vision and emotional tone in the pieces.  Pardon me if this sounds blasé, but keeping such weight in a brighter context is much the equivalent of pulling off a successful and suspense-filled horror film shot entirely in broad daylight with little or none of the familiar tropes of scares in the shadows.  To my mind, it was the indication of transition in Jason Shawn Alexander's work, and I shall remain curious as to the direction until I see where it goes. 

A smaller back room houses a selection of Alexander's drawings, both for comic books as well as a fine series depicting a blues musician.  It is perhaps fortunate that they have been separated from the giants.  In spite of their strength of visual story-telling or the vitality of the line,  they would likely be lost in the context of the painted work.  A catalogue for the show is available, and though it flattens out the textures of the paintings, the reproductions reveals how strongly graphic the work is.

{sic} is on display at the new 101/exhibit space in West Hollywood in Los Angeles, California through November 23rd. Visit the 101/exhibit site HERE for more information.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

"What the Hell is a 'Du Mak'?"

For many years, European exploitation, especially the horror movies (Argento, Bava, Fulci, et al) have always had a following.  They tended to have the higher caliber of known names in the West, better production values, and that non-stop bevy of Euro-beauties. And there's been a fair few glimpses of the Aussie exploitation scene over the years, and volumes of movies that made up Sunday afternoon Kung Fu Theater (though I don't include the Shaws in this, I mean more along the lines of Black Belt Jones 2: The Tatoo Connection).  But most often overlooked is the wild ride that was the Filipino exploitation market.

Whoa nelly.  For over the top nonsensical non-stop bizarre action, from hand-to-hand to machine gun and grenades combat, with liberal littering of jiggling titties, the low budget Filipino scene can be hard to beat.

The cardboard sleeve aka. the former face of brain-frying freedom...
Raw Force (aka. Kung Fu Cannibals, 1982) has...well...just been adequately described above. Just go back and reread the last two sentences. It makes almost no sense. It has frequent action scenes with lots of slow-motion frequently on things that require none and a whole heapin' helpin' of jiggling titties.

Fresh off SNL fame, Ackroyd's career takes a bizarre turn...
The action begins when the Hitler clone of the linen suit set trades a shipment of prostitutes to a bunch of strange monks on a remote island for a treasure trove of jade.  When one of the girls, who've all been stripped, doesn't pass the monks' requirements, she's dispatched by...well...a white guy in white face in a kimono with a samurai sword.  You may want to reread that again just as you might want to rewatch this opening at least 3-4 more times while pinching yourself to be sure that it's all real.

This photo of John Holmes in short-shorts was cropped for decency...
From there we meet a trio (I think) of martial arts guys who are hopping a cheap southeast Asian cruise in the hopes of a chance to go to Warriors' Island. Naturally, there is also on-board an Asian cook who's actually a martial arts expert and a female SWAT team member. And the captain...oh, the captain, is played by one Cameron Mitchell. Cameron Mitchell was a well-known American actor in the 1950's who then did a slow-slide down the quality pole, first to the Euro-exploitation market and then on down to...well...Raw Force.

This is a family blog, so instead of titties, I give you this.
Anyhow, after the introductions of characters I couldn't distinguish between a few minutes later, the ship makes port in a city.  At the local whorehouse, linen Hitler, who we learn is a jade merchant (Aha!) shows up to warn one of our heroes away from Warriors' Island before sacking the place to collect more whores for the monks (Aha!).  Then, we turn to a titty bar where a fistfight breaks out. Then,  we turn to a birthday party where a bunch of titties break out.

This is easily 20 minutes worth of gratuitous nudity. A pre-internet era teenager's dream.

"I not only star in the film, I'm its biggest fan!"
Back to the action, linen Hitler sends his goons (whose costumes I refuse to reveal, you must see the movie and send me interpretations) to stop the ship before it messes up their plans.  Gratuitous nudity gives way to gratuitous violence as passengers and goons meet all kinds of strange deaths.  One of filmdom's worst fire effects sends our heroes and poor, poor Cameron Mitchell into a life raft set adrift on the seas, which naturally is "hundreds of miles from any shipping lanes."

Vast is the sea of dignity lost...
I would bet that you can't guess where they just happen to make land.  If you guessed Warriors' Island, then go get yourself a sheet of gold stars, take one off, and put it proudly on your chest.

From here, I don't want to give away too much. Not that I have to worry about it. If you can't figure out that the heroes win, then I'll suggest you've been hidden away from basic story-telling your entire life.  However, save for the white guy in the kimono,  I have not, as of yet, mentioned that this is in fact a zombie film.  I was just as unsurprised as you are.  And you may have noticed that above, I did mention an alternate title for this film, Kung Fu Cannibals, but have not as yet mentioned how cannibals fit in.  Any guesses?

Make-up effects provided by Monkees' Mike Nesmith's mom...(look it up)
Well, you'll simply have to watch Raw Force yourself to see just how many more gold stars you win.

A visual approximation of my joy upon viewing this film...
Give yourself a whole sheet if you randomly guessed that the dreaded and almost certainly non-existent "Asian Piranha" would first be randomly mentioned by a character, which would almost certainly necessitate it's (stock footage) appearance by the end, would it not?

Some promises are better left unkept...

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

"Big O..? You're Sick!"

As there's been a considerable reaction to my coverage of the 60's super-spy scene on both blogs, I went back and dug out my review of the 1966 Dean Martin vehicle The Silencers, blew off the dust and gave it a revamping.

The Silencers was the fourth novel to feature Donald Hamilton's counter-agent Matt Helm. Hamilton's hardboiled take on the spy thriller genre was a popular pulp staple from his first appearance in print in 1960 up through his 27th appearance in the 1990's. Even moreso than Fleming's Bond novels, the movies took a far more lighthearted tone with the character than the bullet-riddled, bone-crunching, punch-throwing stories of the books. Produced by Albert "Cubby" Broccoli's former partner, Irvin Allen, the filmmakers felt that the only way to compete with Bond was to stick to a more comedic vein.

A cover that screams "light-hearted romp"...
In a similar fashion, James Coburn's Flint vehicles often get called parodies of the spy-flick genre, but I don't believe they were. I think it was the desire to give into the Swingin' Sixties Beach Party movie vibe, and camp it up...maybe just a little too much. For one thing, Coburn plays it straight, and there's no nodding or winking at the camera. Plus, it has all the usual elements of a Bond moive, only it would appear that everyone making the movie thought that the only way to beat Bond was to go farther, to a point the Bond movies themselves would eventually reach (see The Spy Who Loved Me). But, is over-the-top or more over-the-top a crime? Considering that none of the super-spy flicks, at least the early ones, ever had anything to do with real Cold War threats, the tone fits the total comic book nature of the beast. It just got turned up too high.

Hell, Marvel comic's superspy, Nick Fury, fought more Russians than any of his movie counterparts did.  But, as per usual, I digress...

Could I have a second helping of innuendo?
Matt Helm, as envisioned by his creator Donald Hamilton, is a fairly dark character: a man of action, an antihero whose moral code makes him a valiant warrior but also a cold hearted killer. Now take a moment, read back over that description, and tell me honestly if Dean Martin is the first person that comes to mind. So if you cast Dino, can you keep the movie true to what it was supposed to be at least as far being an adaptation of the novel? The book version Matt Helm was a photographer, but the movie version Matt Helm...well, he has to be a Playboy-type photographer. (Maybe this movie should've been made by Russ Meyer...a marriage of form and function.)

The story is fairly thin. There's a threat to the U.S. There is a big bad villainous consipiracy. Do you need to know more than that? What the movie has is banter...by the truckload. Dean Martin spends nearly the entire run of the movie spitting out one-liners that range from good laughs to the nearly painful. Now, you can't say the movie is a character study, because it's not exactly an in-depth study of Matt Helm, nor does it waste any time delving into anyone else. It's more like a movie of archetypes, characters we already sort of recognize so the filmmakers don't have to say more about them. We've covered Matt Helm, but Daliah Lavi is the dark femme fatale, and Stella Stevens is the ditzy sidekick.

The man who would be King...King Tut on Batman...
Then there's Victor Buono, the main bad guy, who is referred to as Tung-Tze. I assume he was meant to be Asian (and if you see him, you'll know why I say "assume"). Now You Only Live Twice may have contained the silliest Asian make-up job on a white guy (turning Sean Connery "Japanese"), but Tung-Tze...hmm...well, it's not even fair to compare them. At least they were trying on Connery, on Buono they put some dark eye-liner and stopped. It's not even in the same ballpark. And though I've found Buono entertaining in other roles, his sort of shrill distinctly non-Asian accent was for the most part anything but threatening. That's not to say it was bad. It certainly fit in with the rest of the movie. It just wasn't terribly threatening...at all.

Which leads me to the funniest aspect of the movie: Do we care? Do we care that Lavi turns out to be the enemy agent, Cowboy? Do we care that Matt's going to be melted by what was perhaps the funniest early interpretation of a laser I've ever seen? Do we really care if the Big O detonates the missle freeing the underground fallout (is that an oxymoron?)? The answer is...well, no. Did that stop me from enjoying the hell out of this movie? Again, the answer is no. Was it a good movie? No. Was it enjoyable? Yes. Do you see where I'm going with this?

That's what the 60's called feminism...
To be fair, maybe this movie is only as enjoyable as it is because of hindsight. Thirty years later and it's sort of funny to watch nearly every character light up a cigarette every five seconds. This is particularly funny when looking at the efforts of anti-smoking lobbyists over the past few years when you don't have nearly the volume of smokers on screen. Nothing, however, nothing beats watching Dino and Stella having a drinking contest while driving! Driving! And we won't even get me started on the...well, I wouldn't call them mysognistic tones (Ok, there is the dress ripping scene)...or even chauvanistic tones exactly...but something says that your average feminist would not go in for Dino's almost constant carousing with all too willing female companions. But in this day and age, it sure is fun to watch!
Looks like my average Tuesday...
Now, most importantly: Do I recommend it?

If you're looking for Bond, you're going to be let down. And though Austin Powers was more obviously inspired by Matt Helm than Bond or Flint, you're not going to exactly find that kind of humor either. Certainly, if you were old enough to have seen the movie in it's initial release, you may or may not see what I find so funny and/or entertaining about it in the first place. You have to take it for what it is. It's a product of it's time, star, and studio in much the same way as say Indiana Jones (not that there's any comparing the two in terms of quality).

Basically, a good rule of thumb is: If you can enjoy Death Race 2000Gamera Vs. Guiron, and Santa Clause Conquers the Martians then you can certainly enjoy The Silencers. I say that because I enjoy all of those movies.

Give me some time, and I'll return to cover Muderer's Row the Dino's 2nd Matt Helm adventure...and who know, from there I may do the whole series.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

"When You Got a Job to Do...You Gotta Do it Well..."

My love of the movies largely began with ABC's Monday Night at the Movies when I was five or six or so.  The funny thing was that I wasn't allowed to stay up late enough to ever finish anything they showed, with the exception of Star Wars (which I eventually saw in the theater, the summer after seeing The Empire Strikes Back).  So I saw the first half or so of Young Frankenstein and the Carpenter version of The Thing multiple times without knowing how they ended until years later.  When I moved to Michigan, however, there was a great UHF channel that showed blocks of everything from the classics to utter trash, and in a time range where I'd get to finish them.  If memory serves, it was there that I first encountered James Bond, in the form of Roger Moore in Live and Let Die (1973), which coincidentally was Roger's first turn as Bond.

And yes, yes, I know, only Sean Connery was Bond, and Roger gets blamed for everything cartoonish about the series.  But I'd suggest you revisit the last couple of Connery's and Lazenby's one go, and see if you can still tell me straight-faced that it wasn't already headed that way.  Granted, I'll give you Moonraker (1979), as the apex of ridiculousness...in any event...to an eight or nine year old, Live and Let Die was (and mostly still is) a thrilling adventure, worth it if only for the boat chase scene and what's still one of the best Bond theme songs.

...and one of the best Bond posters thanks to Robert McGinnis.
The books, on the other hand, tell a different story as it were. Thanks to VHS and a helpful father, I had seen all the Bond films by the time I was in my teens, but not until my 20's did I actually pick up any of the source material.  Figuring that Goldfinger (1964) was the gold standard in Connery's run as Bond, that was the first book I picked up. About halfway through, I was baffled that one of the most exciting of the movies was one of the dullest books I'd ever read. If it wasn't for the internet, I likely would have never picked up another one, but several reviews of Fleming's canon said much the same, and made their own rankings and suggestions as where better to dive in.  Since then I've read and enjoyed several of the original Bond adventures, both novel-length and short story.

So this past week, as you may have already figured out, I delved into Fleming's second Bond adventure, Live and Let Die (1954).  In it, rare gold coins have been turning up in New York City pawn shoppes, and the U.S. government has contacted the British government over several of the pieces which have been traced to Mr. Big, a Harlem gangster. Bond is sent in to join American agent Felix Leiter in tracking the source of the coins, believed to be the treasure of the infamous pirate Henry Morgan, and distrupt Mr. Big's operations. Big, a practitioner of Voodoo, seems to have an infallible eye and network set up to stop the super-spy from foiling him.

Not my copy, but one with a far cooler cover.
When looking at any of the Bond books, you have to put aside your memory of the movies (if you've seen them obviously), because the books are far more straightforward action/suspense tales and feature far fewer gadgets and hilariously named henchmen than the movies...well, some hilariously named henchmen, but not as many.  Having done that, this book makes for a decent adventure and does a great job with atmospheric description to build some fine suspense. One thing I have noticed, though is that Fleming seems to have trouble holding up the middle. The first third and last thirds of the books are usually action-packed, but a drag always sets in before the finale. The main problem with the plot, however, was that it was very similar to a later Bond novel that took 007 to the tropics, Dr. No (1958), which I had already read. The biggest difference was that Dr. No was a far better developed villain, whereas Big is only dealt with enough to make him intimidating but not very well rounded.

Which leads to a very important point: in today's politically correct world, this book will likely be offensive to new readers. I mention it for two reasons. The first is how far the PC trend has gone: that Huckleberry Finn either gets whitewashed or banned for its coarse racial language and I've read reports of To Kill a Mockingbird being banned for RACISM.  It's more than a little horrifying to become so sensitive so as to miss the point entirely. Are Fleming's somewhat frequent references to "negroid features" and his use of stereotypical "negro" dialect in the dialogue racist?  Absolutely. But other than pointing out the usual (it was a different time, etc.), I won't make any apologies for it. It is what it is.  Big is an interesting villain in that he's physically imposing, cunning, ruthless, able to pray on superstition and fear to subjugate others, philosophical and highly intelligent. In terms of at least three dimensions, he gets a pass. Unfortunately, that's not enough to bolster how more or less stereotypical every other black character around him is.

Believe or not...far less offensive than what's in the book.
Ultimately, it stirred in me the echoes of a great class I took in college on the representation of minorities in film, taught by the great Charles Ramirez-Berg.  At the start of the semester, the professor posited an interesting query: in today's sensitive and politically correct world, can you have a villain? His point being that no matter who you cast as an antagonist, chances are it will ruffle someone's feathers in one way or another.  But he also countered it with the wonderful point that at the same time that didn't mean you couldn't see value in a work just because it had elements that could be construed as racism, nor would every moment or character that might be racist invariably make a negative mark on the mind of the viewer about this or that group. And so, through that lens, I was able to enjoy what was enjoyable about Live and Let Die and lament what was lost to a less considerate age.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A King of Pulp Painting

Norman Saunders (1907-1989) was a part of my life long before I ever knew it.

Take that Rockwell! (Norman...not Sam)
In elementary school in the 1980's, most of the kids had gone absolutely nuts over Garbage Pail Kids. Every recess the disgusting trading cards with silly names came out: trades were made, new ones were shown, and some kid always got to show off with cards from the rare and vaunted first series. In between series, the other card companies were quick to compete for the youthful attention and dollar, among them Wacky Packages.   There was something about this satirical send-up of advertising that appealed to me far more than the adolescent gross-out of the Garbage Pail Kids.  Don't get me wrong: I had complete sets of the 2nd-4th series of the Kids. But there was something one-note about the jokes, whereas, and I had no idea at the time, many of the Wacky's were jokes that were 20 years old at that point...and still going.

I eventually gave a way my Garbage Pail Kids...but I still have the Wacky Packs cards, and Norman Saunders painted more than just a few of them.

Despite having a distinctive style, a publishing record in the thousands and an indelible mark on pop culture, Norman Saunders, like so many great illustrators, never got the respect he deserved outside of his peers and fans of his work.  In 2009, his son, artist and pulp historian David Saunders put together the monograph that his father had always deserved.  This is no minor task as pulp painting originals as well as the magazines and paperbacks they were printed on have become very rare and highly collectible. And, I'm happy to say that I finally got my hands on a copy of one. (On a funny side note, one of the postcards inside the book was for a collector offering rewards for Saunders' originals.)

Remember to R.S.V.P!
Starting as a freelance cartoonist for the ribald Captain Billy's Whiz Bang magazine, Norman Saunders soon had a career doing pulp covers and interior art for Fawcett Publications in Minnesota. In them days, as the saying goes, an illustrator often began in the pulps while angling to get into the "slicks", the higher-end glossy magazines. Though he would try time and time again, Saunders found little luck in the slicks.  In the pulps, however, he had a veritable bonanza in a variety of genres. Saunders always prided himself on sticking to a distinctive style of painting rather than being tied to any one subject, which allowed him to work on westerns, sci-fi, horror, and the hardboiled among others

I know, I know: Frazetta = Conan. But this is still a first.
When the initial run of pulps began to fall by the wayside, paperbacks became the new medium, and Saunders moved into them painting the cover to the first paperback printing of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Conqueror.  Saunders also painted a variety of covers for a number of different comic books, and eventually became one of the kings of the Men's Adventure magazines.  It was through Taschen's wonderful book of cover images from these that I became reacquainted with Saunders, and then discovered his late work in trading cards. Wacky Packs were only one of many series he painted having rendered one of the most iconic series of all time: MARS ATTACKS!

I would've gone to more carnivals if this was the prize instead of an off-color stuffed Pink Panther.
If you haven any interest in this sort of work, I can't recommend this book highly enough. The multitude of high quality images, both published and originals, makes it quite a find. David Saunders keeps the writing short and congenial, conveying just the right amount of biographical information and enjoyable quotes to let the art speak for itself. Overall, it's a very fine quality book for an often criminally overlooked American genre of artwork.

Not sure this is Saunders, but couldn't resist.