Ask The A.V. Club - February 22, 2008

Ask The A.V. Club - February 22, 2008

Dry Welles

Can you explain why Orson Welles is so ill-served on DVD? Apart from Citizen Kane, Touch Of Evil, and F For Fake, his back catalogue is a mess, with poor transfers, little in the way of extras… or often just plain unavailability. As one of the towering figures of 20th-century cinema, you'd expect a comprehensive reissue program or a lavish box set. Lesser figures enjoy this luxury, but not Welles. His career seems as badly treated in death as it was in his life.

William Dodds

Noel Murray raises Cain on your behalf, William:

First off, let's not forget The Lady From Shanghai, which Columbia put out a few years back in a nice edition with a Peter Bogdanovich commentary. And then there's The Stranger, which MGM cleaned up for DVD last year (without providing any extras), and Criterion's 2006 set of Mr. Arkadin, which includes three different versions of the film, plus copious supplements. Throw in Paramount's bare-bones It's All True, and that brings the "official" Welles DVDs up to seven. (The rest, as you imply, are crappy public-domain discs and grey-market bootlegs.) So why can't you sit in the comfort of your own home and watch sparkling, features-packed editions of The Magnificent Ambersons, Chimes At Midnight, Othello, and The Immortal Story? Two words: Beatrice Welles. The daughter of the legendary director is notoriously protective of her father's work, and even caused the DVDs of Citizen Kane and Touch Of Evil to be held up in the past. Whenever Welles scholars work to increase access to Welles' short films and unfinished works, Beatrice Welles brings the big squash.

But lest you think that this is a cut-and-dried case of some big meanie screwing over her father's fans, it's worth noting that Beatrice Welles at least claims to have her father's legacy in mind. She rarely makes statements to the press, but those who've worked with her—even those who disagree with her clampdown—say that she's weighing the memory of all the studio-imposed cuts and budgetary woes that compromised Orson Welles' vision, and she doesn't want to see someone else seize the elements of a choppy film like Chimes At Midnight and try to remake it the way they think Welles would've intended. Something similar to that happened with the Touch Of Evil "director's cut," which was marketed as being true to Welles' plans, because of some notes he made, not because of any actual editing he did himself. Even Welles devotees like critic Jonathan Rosenbaum have expressed worry that the average movie buff sometimes takes these posthumously altered films as definitive, when they're merely speculative.

Of course, Beatrice Welles' fear of outside tampering didn't stop her from having Othello controversially re-dubbed and re-scored when it had its theatrical re-release 15 years ago, so maybe she really is just a control freak, and not a steward of a great man's art. Either way, the best Welles fans can do is hope that she has a change of heart and starts letting the enormous body of her father's work—finished and partial—get out to the people who want to study it more closely.

 

 

 

Pick Up This Answer And Go Home

In the mid-to-late '90s, I remember seeing a movie trailer that had a remake of Fleetwood Mac's "Gold Dust Woman" playing for part of it. I don't care about the movie (although I think it was in the femme-fatale vein) but I want to know who did the remake.

The only thing I can say for sure is that it had a female singer and heavy industrial-ish grungy type guitars. Kind of a Veruca Salt or Garbage type of sound. I know it's not much to go on. Thanks for your time and for saving me from actually, you know, working.

Jon

Josh Modell wrote the bulk of "Live Through This," but was uncredited:

I think this is an easy one, Jon. America's sweetheart, Courtney Love (with her band Hole) recorded a cover of "Gold Dust Woman" for the soundtrack to The Crow: City Of Angels. It's pretty bad, but if you want to revisit it, you can procure a copy of the CD used from Amazon for $.94 plus shipping. I would guess every used-CD store in the world has at least one copy on hand, too. Other '90s acts that rated such a prestigious soundtrack: Filter, Bush, Seven Mary Three, Korn, and NY Loose. (PJ Harvey is on there, too, for a little indie cred.)

 

 

 

The Literal Cliffhanger

I need your help. I am a little fixated on this scene I saw on TV when I was younger. It involves a man in the back of a truck (perhaps an armored car). The back of the truck is hanging over a cliff, and the gold(?) that he was trying to steal has slid to the back edge. The truck is teetering, so he is faced with the possibility of either jumping out and sacrificing the gold, or trying to get it, which could cause the truck to fall with him inside it. I don't know anything else, and I especially want to know how the scene ends. not knowing who the character is, I don't know if he would be the type to go after the treasure to his own detriment, or give it up for his own life (recalling the ending of Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, of course). Any ideas?

Mason Astley

Tasha Robinson goes for the gold:

I have an idea, Mason, but I don't know how satisfying you're likely to find it. You're thinking of the very end [spoilers ahead, obviously] of the original 1969 version of The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine. Much of the film is taken up with the planning and execution of a heist that leaves Caine and his team, at the end of the film, with a huge heap of gold bullion being transported along a winding Italian country road in the back of a tour bus. Then the driver misses a turn, and the bus winds up handing off the edge of a cliff, with the heist crew huddled at one end of the bus, and the gold hanging off empty space at the other. It's pretty obvious that they can all make it to safety if they try, but only if they're willing to lose the gold. And that's where the film ends, with Michael Caine saying "Hang on a minute, lads, I've got a great idea. Uh…"

Find that hard to believe? Here's the end of the film:

Reportedly, producer Michael Deeley didn't like any of the proposed endings for the film, so he suggested the cliffhanger cut, which was designed to lead into a sequel where the Mafia descends from helicopters on Caine and his cronies and seizes the gold, and they have to spend the rest of the movie getting it back. But the film, a British-American co-production, did poorly in America—Caine blames the botched marketing—and funding for a sequel was never forthcoming. So we never find out which Caine's character valued more: the gold, or his life. But given the rest of the film, I think he would have opted for self-preservation. He's a talented guy; he can always steal more gold.

 

 

 

Order In The Court

So here's something that's been making me scratch my head for a long time. I've noticed that when the principle cast from a film is featured on a movie poster or a DVD cover the names of the actors are almost always over the wrong actor. It'd be one thing if I saw this now and again. But, it seems like 99 percent of the time the wrong name is over an actor's head. It doesn't seem like it's alphabetical, or arranged by star status or anything. It's like whoever's making these poster/box covers is going out of their way to put the wrong name over of the wrong actor. Why the hell would they do this?

Alex

Tasha Robinson again:

Wow, Alex, someone's finally letting me show off my fancy college-type education. Thanks. This was actually covered when I was taking film courses as an undergrad, many years ago, and it seemed just as silly then as it does now. Essentially, English-speaking people read left to right, top to bottom. So the topmost, leftmost name on any given poster is the one they'll read first, and that's the position considered "top billing." Who gets that slot isn't necessarily determined by who's the biggest star—it's determined by who has contractual rights for top billing in the film. (That would also be the first name you'd see onscreen, either before or after the film, when the actors' names start popping up.) So the order of the names on the poster—if it's one of those posters with a bunch of names running across the top or middle—is determined by contracts.

But studies say that while people read left to right, they look at images differently—they see the center of the image first, then glance left and right to take in the sides. So often, "top billing" in the images of a poster is considered the middle, and your top-billed star will be in the center of the poster, flanked by co-stars to the left and right. Just as often, though, design will suggest putting something eye-catching in the middle, like a woman showing some skin. Hence, for instance, this poster:

Match the names to the figures below them, and it looks like this poster is saying that Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith have both had sex changes. But from a design standpoint, the names of the three stars across the top are in contractual order—first, second, and third billed—while the photo design puts all the color (and all the boobs and exposed skin) front and center, where people will look first. The order of the names tells you who the contracts say is most important. The order of the figures on the poster tells you what the marketers think you most want to see, and what will draw you in fastest.

 

 

 

STUMPED!

Once again, it's time for you to help us answer baffling questions from your fellow ATAVC readers. If you can identify any of the memories below, let us know in comments, or e-mail us at the address below. Specifics, proof, and video links always highly encouraged.

Okay, Maybe you can help me. I've been trying to find out what this book is for decades. Scholastic Book Club, I would say. Got it in the early '80s. And it had the most bizarre, downbeat plot. It was set in the future after ecological disaster. Food was rationed. It was about a family that had a secret stash of chickens and other animals that they raised under their house and ate. They get busted, I think—the middle is a muddle. But the end has the family admitted to an "escape ship" meant to leave the ecologically destroyed earth behind. Only here's the twist, the ship was actually a suspended-animation chamber, and the people were going to wait tens of thousands of years until humanity had killed itself off and the earth was cleansed. As I said, rather a downbeat book for a 6th grader to read. Any ideas?

Eric

I have some very vague recollections of an anime (or at least an animated film) from probably the late '80s to early '90s. The flick starts with a strange bipedal, frog-like creature with a strange toy. I think it was basically composed of three vertically connected boxes, and when the door on the front of each box was opened, a different figure popped out. The scene continues with this creature talking to a cloaked man who is standing on a ledge overlooking a city. From here, I draw a complete blank in the story. I remember that the protagonist is introduced (it's a young kid) as well as his/her companion (a small furry creature with a tuft of hair at the end of its tail like a poodle).

Another complete blackout of storyline, and we skip to what I believe is the end. It gets really interesting at this point. The protagonist winds up in some sort of building, almost like a castle. I remember the building being composed of block shapes, almost like Tetris shapes. Eventually, the protagonist is chased by a large, robotic T-Rex on wheels. That's all I've got. I really hope you can find this for me. It's had me stumped for years!

Kirk

Okay, so I've got a plotline from a random short story floating around in my head and was hoping someone has heard of it. I remember reading it back in middle school, so probably the mid-'90s. It centered on a town where a new company comes in selling what I think was this incredibly delicious ice cream or something similar that everyone basically got addicted to. Once they started getting really fat, another company came in with a machine that would instantly take off five pounds every time—the only catch was that a person had to get a little blue dot tattooed on their wrist every time they used it. I remember the protagonist was a girl who didn't like ice cream or something, and didn't use the machine. There was a description of one of her friends who had so many blue dots, it looked like a bracelet. And the kicker at the end was that it was actually aliens, and they took you away once you had too many blue dots. Reading back over the summary, this sounds kind of silly, but it's stuck with me all these years somehow, and I'd like to know what it is, even if it's a terrible story. Thanks for your help!

Nicole

As a teenager, I spent a lot of nights channel-surfing at home, often lingering on the movie channels in hopes of stumbling upon nudity or sex. But just as often, I would find blood and gore, and one image in particular has lingered in my mind for years: A small group of trendily dressed teens or twentysomethings is standing in the woods. Each person appears in a medium shot, looking at the ground with a serious, possibly slightly freaked-out expression. Each one of them is covered in blood. A cut to a wide shot of the whole group reveals they are looking at a hollow log that has been cut into slices, along with a now-dead bald man inside of it. A look of horror is frozen on the dead man's face. At this point, either the scene ends or I switched channels.

This would have been during the early or mid '90s, and I remember the film looking pretty new and high-budget. I'm curious to find out what movie this was and what the context was for this scene. I've entered every descriptive phrase I can think of into Google without any luck.

Ken

Hi! I'm trying to track down the best worst-movie I've ever seen. It begins like an educational film: A father answers his son's questions about various animals and natural phenomena during a leisurely hike. The footage of animals appears to be lifted from other, actual nature documentaries: The son points to a bird taking flight, and the animal appears in a completely different setting from that of our couple. The movie then abruptly turns into a mystery-thriller in which, it seems, somebody or something is trying to murder the father, who is nearly crushed by a falling, booby-trapped tree. It turns out that an alien is the culprit: The son steps into some sort of hole in the universe, which transmits him to the realm of an elderly alien who wants to live on a mountain free from meddlesome hikers. Did I mention that the alien also has a nifty remote control which can change reality at whim? While justifiably weary of the alien at first, the son forgets his dear old pa when the alien makes it snow; the two make amends over a snowball fight while the father searches for the boy. The ending, which I've forgotten, is obviously inconsequential, as, needless to say, none of the loose ends are tied up. I've been having trouble finding it, because although it is ostensibly set somewhere in the U.S. wilderness, I saw it only on BBC (one Sunday morning in the spring of 2005). Please help me identify this sublime example of unintentional comedy!

Nate

Next week: The ghost of Pauline Kael has a question, and more. Send your questions to asktheavclub@theonion.com.