lilFed’s #CBR5 Review #7: ‘The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film’ by Michael Weldon

psychotronicWith all due respect to the late Roger Ebert, along with all due ‘not-so-flattering’, but no less valid, criticisms of his work, it is not really a complicated, time-consuming chore to write your average movie review, if you do it all the time. With film critics as prolific as Leonard Maltin and the online Pajiba crew, or EW magazine’s Owen Glieberman (God, I miss Lisa Schwartzbaum!) churning these reviews out regularly, one can surmise that those thick, impressively small-printed film and video review ‘guides’ that Ebert published with such regularity were more or less simply a matter of cutting and pasting the reviews that were already written long ago, with maybe a few embellishments to update the original. And let’s be perfectly honest: most hugely-popular films are so embedded into the public’s consciousness, even people who have never actually seen the movie could write a fairly passable review about it, just from the knowledge gleaned from every other source under the sun – many a high school book report has gotten a passing grade for the writer who knew just how to bullshit properly in a creative writing assignment.

Michael Weldon, on the other hand, was a whole different animal from the standard movie critic, and remains so thirty years on from the publication of ‘The Psychotronic Encyclopedia Of Film’. The back cover summarizes the overall concept of this ‘Encyclopedia’ as well as anything could:

The complete viewer’s guide to the weirdest movies of all time!

‘Psychotronic’ films range from ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’ to ‘E.T.‘.. from ‘Angel’s Wild Women’ and ‘Hellcats of the Navy’ to ‘I Dismember Mama’ and ‘Let Me Die A Woman’.
‘Psychotronic’ stars are ex-models, ex-sport heroes, dead rock idols, future presidents, would-be Marilyns, and has-beens of all types.

Out of the 3,000-plus movies reviewed in this 800-page encyclopedic ‘novel’, as I consumed it, you’ll find iconic mainstream fare like 1958’s ‘The Fly’(“A brilliant, sick, absurd hit based on a ‘Playboy’ short story”), 1975’s ‘Jaws’and 1951’s ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ (with asides such as “The robot Gork was played by Lock Martin, a seven-foot-seven former doorman at Grauman’s Chinese Theater.”)

But there’s also ‘Bedtime for Bonzo’, ‘Gog’, ‘Eraserhead’, ‘Johnny Cool’ and ‘Mesa of Lost Women’. Mr. Weldon, with some assistance from a couple of fellow ‘psychotronic’ film lovers, simply amazes at describing the most obscure and ‘forgotten’ B-films with a knowledge that leaves little doubt of the extent of his research, many of these which he was allowed to watch as a kid growing up in Cleveland movie theaters in the 60’s-70’s, but also “from poring through thousands of outdated ‘fanzines’ and promotion pieces – and, not surprisingly, from countless all-night marathons in front of the TV screen.”

Weldon had spawned a well-regarded ‘newspaper fanzine’, Psychotronic Magazine, also jam-packed with literally 100’s of movie mentions, which started before and continued after this book.

There’s so much more to comment on, but I’m trying to make a bigger point here:

Let’s take an example like ‘Raging Bull’ (1980) – anyone who knows the plot of this movie could give an instant review of it, without ever having seen it, but knowing enough through 20 – 30 years of hearing others talk about it, or seeing bits on their TV while switching channels, or reading a ton of entertainment media mentioning it whether you were searching for it or not.

Now try and b.s. through a review of, say, 1959’s ‘The Manster’. Ever hear of it? Probably not, though it’s been one of the regular late-night b&w ‘horror’ movies on local TV stations across the country for, oh, like forever. But Michael Weldon has seen it, and after providing us with the year, country, studio, director, and screenwriter who made it (as he does with every film), here’s his review:

“The world’s first double-headed monster movie! An American reporter (Larry Stanford) is given an injection by the mad Dr. Suzuki (who keeps his mutant wife in a cage). An eye grows on the reporter’s shoulder! It soon becomes an ugly head that resembles a carved coconut! The extra-headed monster kills people! Then it splits into two beings – man and ape man. Man throws ape man into a volcano! End.”

Michael Weldon has a gift of informing a person as to what a film is about. There is no personal opinion of this film mentioned in its description, unless one wants to assume that the exclamation points would denote a favorable attitude towards it – that, or just sarcasm. But it’s really left up to the individual, isn’t it?

This is but one example of a review in this book, but an underlying theme throughout, aside from some classics like ‘Bride of Frankenstein’, which are universally agreed and written about as such, is that the reviewers here don’t presume to tell you how good or bad a movie is, how much you will like or dislike it, or what its cultural or aesthetic worth is – they are merely described for the potential viewer’s benefit.. This device is what makes this huge, information-packed source so imminently readable, whether it be in certain parts or as a unique whole.

This book was followed up by TPVG in 1996, when most of the movies reviewed in the first book had been resurrected through home video. But the original is timeless, and establishes Michael Weldon as a very rare, but vital film historian who belongs with the greats, in film genres that have yet to be explored as thoroughly as he did 30 years previously. Get it if you can find it.

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lilFed CBR#5 Review #2: Out of Our Heads: Rock ‘n’ Roll Before the Drugs Wore Off by George Case

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Okay, so a few weeks back I’m drooling at the visually stunning sights of glossy, crisply embossed books on display at the downtown Books-A-Million store: those tantalizing, sixty-five & seventy-tastic-percent-off shelves and bins; the gathered variety of heady aromas emanating from multitudes of perfectly erect, disciplined rows of hard- and soft-back binders, the faux-leatherbound tomes that I at once want to both caress and squeeze with abandon;  thrillers, romances, inspiring biographies and masterful home-repair books; all intensely mingling, tightly and forcefully in surrounding cavities of the vast warehouse of wonder: as one barely containable, orgiastic collective betwixt their dominating, unyielding bookends of cuckolded pressure… and then the intoxicating aromas my olfactory senses begin to experience- nostrils squeezing to capture the seductive musk of pure, silky-white, unopened layers of compressed pulpweed-cum-paper, their factory-bred, tree-raped scent making me giddy with possibilities of liberating the finest, most perfect literary delights, spreading out their– okay, we’ve all been there..

…and only after I’ve prematurely blown my wad over half a dozen slimy, brazenly anonymous literary lizards- that is, impulsively paying out serious money I shouldn’t be ‘blowing’ on new books I haven’t  looked over more thoroughly, or at least read some reviews of beforehand (I made that ‘blowing the wad’ part clear, right?) – WELL, now this leaves me awkwardly trying to remove myself from what I call one of those ‘should have known better’ books. It’s a hazard when searching out some narrowly-defined subjects, I imagine.

I thought this one would be different, that we might really connect, you know?? I am not so vapid as to judge a book by its cover, which I know you’re all thinking and I refuse to even go there – but come. on. : this slut is putting it aaalll out there with that hot provocative subtitle and that dangerously curvaceous, ‘look-at-me’ font, like it knows things I couldn’t begin to imagine.

But then we get home, the prologue alone begins to bore me, and then it’s all like, ‘Well, you didn’t mind pinchin’ on my thick bibliography when you was thumbin’ through my  back pages at the store now, did you?’ So, being starved anyways for some new reading on a now-ancient subject, which by the way is the ONLY reason I’ve maintained my ‘Rolling Stone’ subscription – any articles related to rock music less than 35 years old are ripped out & trashed – I reluctantly bend myself to the book-bitch’s will for the time being and try gving it a go – there have been some great books with amazingly crappy beginnings.

A good historical author should be aware that writing a compelling history, on any subject, requires much more than simply repeating facts. Disappointingly, that’s virtually all Case does in this thing; he doesn’t come close to delivering what his title promises, rather maintaining a wholly uninteresting redundancy throughout that amounts to not much more than rattling off a list of rock artists and the drugs, hallucinogenics and/or formidable amounts of alcohol they indulged in, nothing that a thousand other authors haven’t already done, and in way more entertaining and informative approaches. Case demonstrates a total lack of insight as to how, say, these legendary musicians’ addictions affected their creative process (or obliterated it completely). There are no recollections of wild, joyous release and defining moments of a heightened awareness shared by the generation that first turned on.

Most criminally, however, virtually the only perspective, single and far removed the actual time he dispassionately rambles on about, is from Case alone: no other interview pieces, reflections, or recollections, or even anecdotes from any actual rock stars – he’s not writing about Mozart or Charlie Parker, but artists that are still living and have all of this history to share. You read Steven Tyler’s book, or Keith Richards’ Life, and you know that they know what they’re talking about.

The people who grew up with and loved classic rock already know who the alcoholic, drug-addicted (or recovering) rock stars are, or were; we know how getting high affected their careers and relationships, and how a lot of those times are looked back on fondly by many; and we sure as hell knew then, even more immediately now, when their tripping asses get busted by “The Man” for various indiscretions their respective vices more likely than not contributed to, and their unfortunate discovery for the world to read about.

The closest Case comes in this book is an admittedly wonderful and detailed description of the Great “Summit Meeting” between Dylan and The Beatles, when the folk rock troubadour had the distinct honor of introducing the Fab Four to the herb that literally would change their life in “oh so many ways” (from ‘Help!’, a movie they’d started filming shortly after, where they were stoned throughout the entire production).

I mentioned a bibliography above, but it’s not “thick” at all – it has most of the highlights (Guralnik’s brilliant 2-book Elvis bio, Steven Davis’ Hammer of the Gods). But this makes nary a difference to George Case, ’cause he didn’t learn a damn thing from any of them.

And I slogged through 240-plus pages to see the ‘textbook’ example of NOT HAVING A CLUE about “Rock ‘n’ Roll Before the Drugs Wore Off” – this writer’s only achievement was in completely harshing my buzz.