Regrettably unattainable art
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The Internet has made the concept of scarcity in pop culture almost unheard of. Where my dad spent years of his life looking through record shops for obscure 45 RPM singles of songs he hadn’t heard in 25 years, these days, pretty much any album, film, book, or other media is available at your fingertips through legal or not-so-legal means. But there are still odd obscurities that aren’t available at any price here and there. I’ve been searching record shops, eBay, and Torrent sites for years for copies of albums by ’90s Toronto indie band Dig Circus, but have never found them anywhere. Are there any media which are still holy grails to you, that you still haven’t found copies of? —KJ
The one that most chaffs me, even as I respect the impulse that keeps it inaccessible, is a 13-minute animated short from 2002: “Mei And The Kitten Bus,” directed by Hayao Miyazaki himself, as a spin-off of My Neighbor Totoro. It can only be seen at Studio Ghibli’s museum in the Tokyo suburbs—it’s never been released online or for home viewing. That’s a smart marketing move for Miyazaki and the museum, but it does mean I’d have to travel to Japan to watch the child protagonist of one of my favorite movies go on an adventure with an adorable miniature version of the Catbus from the film. Also, Miracleman #25, written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Mark Buckingham, and then never printed because the publisher collapsed and then the ownership rights got ridiculously murky. Really, I’d love to read Gaiman’s entire planned Miracleman arc, supposedly consisting of 18 issues in three books, completing the series. But most of that arc was apparently never even written. #25 is just a particular holy grail given that it was supposedly written, drawn, and colored—it was just never published before Eclipse Comics went down.
There are a ton of old Nickelodeon and MTV shows I’d love to see again that aren’t available for various reasons—at least in their complete form. While there are VHS copies of Eureeka’s Castle episodes, for example, there’s no full-series DVD. More than anything, though, I’d like to get a copy of all the episodes of MTV News: UnFiltered, a sort of newsy precursor to reality TV that ran on the network in the mid-’90s. The premise was pretty simple: They sent a camera to someone with a story and had them film some stuff, and MTV cut it into a story. I was actually on the show in 1995, and while my clip is on YouTube (and no, I’m not linking to it here), the segment that aired right after mine isn’t. It told the not-so-dramatic tale of a slack-jawed kid from Cincinnati who lived and worked in a cemetery. I can’t explain why, but I’ve been dying to see that again for almost 20 years now.
I pine for the conclusion of Alan Moore’s severely truncated Big Numbers, which got two issues into a planned 12 before going pear-shaped. (The unpublished third issue surfaced almost two decades later on the Internet.) I also pine for another near-impossibility: Ken Russell’s Dance Of The Seven Veils. The artistic biographies Russell created for the BBC before turning to theatrical filmmaking comprise some of his best, most overlooked work, and while a recent boxed set made many of them available on DVD, his poison-pen portrait of composer Richard Strauss was an unsurprising exception. Subtitled “A Comic Strip In Seven Episodes,” the film was a full-bore attack on Strauss’ coexistence with the Nazi regime; in one scene, he urges his orchestra to play louder in order to drown out the screams of a tortured Jew. Not surprisingly, Strauss’ estate withdrew the rights to use his music, effectively making the film unreleasable, although clips have apparently been used with music by Strauss’ younger brother, Josef, substituted instead. The Internet being what it is, the whole thing is available on YouTube in somewhat shaky quality, but it would be great to see it properly some day.
I’m not saying I wouldn’t walk away from the experience saying, “Wow, I can’t believe I wasted all these years wanting to see that,” but as someone who loves TV obscurities and failed pilots to an occasionally unhealthy degree, I have long wanted to see Oh, No! Not THEM!, David Mirkin’s failed attempt to bring The Young Ones to America, with Nigel Planer reprising the role of Neil alongside Jackie Earle Haley as a character named Adrian—possibly in tribute to Adrian Edmundson, thereby making him the Vyvyan of the group?—and Robert Bundy as Mike. I don’t actually know who played Rik when all was said and done, but it’s been well established that Mirkin wanted Chris Elliott for the role, and even though Fox vetoed that casting choice, their meeting ultimately led them to do Get A Life together when Oh, No! Not THEM! failed to get the green light, so everything worked out for the best. Still, I’ve developed a real obsession for wanting to see just how bad this Americanized take on The Young Ones was, or if, by some slim chance, it was actually halfway decent. (Apparently, punk legend G.B.H. guest-starred, which certainly seems to imply Mirkin was actually trying to do something as off-the-wall as the original series.) But I’ve never stumbled across so much as a clip. Frankly, I’d believe the project never got off the drawing board if it wasn’t for the fact that I’ve read reports about how the opening credits were done in Claymation, along with a few other vague plot details, so apparently it really does exist. Would someone dig into the Fox vaults and find it already?
As a bad/failed movie obsessive, I’ve been able to write about many of my white whales/holy grails like The Star Wars Holiday Special and even the Cavemen television show, but a few treasured obscurities still elude me. If I had to choose one, it would be Moment By Moment, the famously disastrous romance featuring the mismatched pair to beat all mismatched pairs: hunky young John Travolta and Lily Tomlin. The film has never been available on video or DVD, and the moment it is, I will do a delirious Snoopy dance of ultimate triumph.
There are still shows of relatively recent vintage that cannot be found anywhere, mainly because of obscure legal reasons. That’s the case with Ed, the wonderful 2000-2004 NBC comedy-drama starring Tom Cavanagh as Ed, a New York lawyer who escapes to his Ohio hometown and opens a bowling alley after he gets fired from his high-powered job. He then tries to reconnect with Julie Bowen, the girl he had an unrequited crush on in high school. The show had a fun, easygoing vibe, and it introduced a bunch of quirky characters who quickly became endearing—including Justin Long and Michael Ian Black in supporting roles. But as with most shows at the beginning of the era when third-party pop and rock songs were used in abundance on shows, the folks at NBC and Worldwide Pants didn’t realize they’d need to secure DVD rights to all the fantastic music used in the show. Cavanagh has told reporters that there will probably never be DVDs of the series because those rights are so expensive. So the best we can do is YouTube clips, which we can watch while cursing Hollywood’s shortsightedness in the early years of the DVD era.
I was captivated by Wim Wenders’ Until The End Of The World when I saw it in college. I was especially struck by the final act, in which ex-lovers William Hurt and Solveig Dommartin end up at a remote scientific installation where a brain scientist has learned to record and play back dreams. It’s a profound story (essentially separate from the rest of the film) that stuck with me, especially once I started writing about games—another venue, like dreams, where you’re both the subject of the action and the object of your own gaze. I don’t expect to play back my own dreams, but I would like to play back Wenders’ final cut of the movie. The trouble is, the director’s cut has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray in the United States. I checked around again while writing this response, and I found a streaming version on Amazon—hooray!—except it’s muddy and cropped to the wrong aspect ratio. That’s pretty much how it goes with Until The End. I understand that popular demand can’t be high. The movie is ridiculously long (Wenders’ cut is four and a half hours, a self-contained “trilogy”), it’s dull in stretches, and the chemistry between Hurt and Dommartin is nonexistent. It’s commonly regarded as a failure. (Killer soundtrack, though.) Still, every time some unappreciated, hard-to-like-but-kind-of-brilliant cult obscurity gets a Criterion Collection release, I wonder when Until The End will get its moment.
When I first gained access to such delights as home video, cable TV, and college repertory societies, I tore through so many movies I had longingly read about in high school that the few commercial releases of the past 50-odd years that I’ve never even had a shot at now have an almost mythical tinge to their luster. At this point, I’d sit in a serial killer’s flooded basement to watch a deteriorating print of John Korty’s Funnyman (1967), an improvisational comedy said to boast an amazing lead performance from Peter Bonerz (from The Bob Newhart Show), or James Blue’s 1962 The Olive Trees Of Justice—highly praised relics from what passed for an independent American narrative film scene in the ’60s. Both somehow missed the VCR era and now appear to be gone for good. And I’d love to get a look at the rushes of Arrive Alive, the 1989 action comedy, from a script by Michael O’Donoghue and Mitch Glazer, that was shut down in mid-production, after $7 million had been pissed away, because of the consensus that the lead performance by Willem Dafoe (in a role conceived for Bill Murray) was not so much funny and charming as “terrifying”—though my reasons for that choice may not reflect well on me as a child of God.
When I was in Montreal a few years ago, I wound up having a really long talk with Reggie Watts about The Peter Serafinowicz Show during a car ride from the airport. He was obsessed with the sketch show, from the genius mind of Peter Serafinowicz, and quoted a few sketches to me verbatim. Normally, that isn’t an appealing prospect for humor, but the writing of the sketches was so solid that even this simple retelling was enough to have me laughing, and coupled with the fact that I was a huge fan of his and Robert Popper’s Look Around You, I did everything I could to track it down. I found a handful of videos on YouTube, including one of the ones Watts went on about, and laughed my stupid ass off. Serafinowicz took amazingly absurd ideas to their entirely illogical conclusion (like a ridiculously small Mac with only one key and room for only one letter at a time), but never alienated his audience; sketches built step-by-step, leading the audience along until they were laughing at a joke that could be deconstructed five different ways. Sadly, what I did not find was a viable solution for watching the Region 2 DVDs, still the only means to watch this one-season 2007 show. The egregious oversight continues to this day, and rest assured as soon as some ingenious publisher flips the magical DVD-making machine over to Region 1, I’ll be first in the e-line to snag the entire series.
It’s pretty selfish of me to lament the death of Bruno Schulz more for the loss of his unpublished work than for the personal horror surrounding his life. In 1942, the artist and writer—a Polish Jew—was killed by a Gestapo officer after having been sheltered from the brunt of the Holocaust by the Nazi butcher Felix Landau, who perversely admired and commissioned Schulz’s mural work. But Schulz’s fiction—or the lack thereof—strikes me as especially tragic. His small body of published short stories is staggering in its imagistic potency, metaphysical depth, and magic-realist folkiness. It also just plain fucking floors me every time I read it. Collected in volumes such as The Street Of Crocodiles, it’s the type of writing that promises greatness to come—but Schulz’s sole known novel-in-progress, The Messiah, was lost in the war, along with a number of his early short stories. It’s possible that these manuscripts could surface someday. But that possibility, sadly, grows more remote every year, even as Schulz’s posthumous stature looms larger.
From 1955 to 1961, Washington D.C.-based NBC affiliate WRC-TV devoted 10 minutes of its broadcast days to Sam And Friends, the first televised showcase for Jim Henson and The Muppets. From those five years on the air, only a handful of five-minutes episodes survived into the digital age: Some are available for viewing at The Paley Center for Media, while others have made their way to YouTube. Most fascinatingly, the loss of all this content left behind multiple characters whose voices, personalities, and roles within the Sam And Friends universe are a complete mystery to modern-day viewers. This includes the show’s nominal star, Sam, whose only remaining onscreen appearance is a lip-synced duet of “That Old Black Magic” with a creature whose fared much better in the ensuing years: Kermit, not yet a frog, but a perfectly spazzy Keely Smith to Sam’s Louis Prima. One of the few surviving Sam And Friends sketches with an original script by Henson, “Visual Thinking,” betrays a much more abstract and existential sense of humor than The Muppets were eventually known for; unless someone out there is sitting on a pile of Sam And Friends kinescopes, I’m afraid we’ll never know how Henson’s nascent comedic voice applied to early creations Mushmellon, Henrietta, and Pierre The French Rat.
Sometime in the mid-’00s, I first heard about the original version of Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night, which is reportedly a seamless piece of music with the album’s most harrowing songs connected by Young’s stoned, melancholy musings on death. Ever since, I haven’t been able to hear the released version of Tonight’s The Night in the same way. It’s always been one of my favorite Neil Young albums, and a riveting example of the “audio verite” approach Young was going for in the ’70s, where he recorded life as it happened, with the songs almost secondary to the performance. But as described, the original Tonight’s The Night seems even more indicative of Young’s vision for what rock ’n’ roll could be. Young has recorded and scrapped several albums over the years, and many of those records have leaked out onto the grey market. But the original Tonight’s The Night remains in the archives, and I’m hoping it someday emerges, either officially or unofficially.
My initial answer to this—the original cut of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons—probably doesn’t fit the spirit of the question, since it’s unlikely such a thing will ever be found, and it if was, the Criterion Collection would be all over it, and would soon have a copy in the living room of every cinephile in America. And I suppose I could answer with the complete run of my favorite, much-lamented Sons & Daughters on DVD, but I’ve used that as an answer for far too many of these already. And too many of the TV series I really love that aren’t on DVD—Frank’s Place, St. Elsewhere, Northern Exposure with the original soundtrack, etc.—are available, if you know where to look and accept that less-than-legal means are necessary sometimes, for things that are never going to see the light of day legally. (It’s a compromise I’m okay with.) But there’s one show that, in all my years looking for it, I haven’t been able to find on DVD. That’s Gary David Goldberg’s deeply personal Family Ties follow-up, Brooklyn Bridge, a series that was a critical sensation in the early ’90s—when I first watched it—then promptly disappeared when CBS realized it would never be a hit. The show has a sort of Wonder Years spin, only it’s about a Jewish family in 1950s Brooklyn, two sons who are huge Dodgers fans, and a romantic relationship kicked up between one of the sons and a Catholic girl. (Played by Jenny Lewis!) Marion Ross was terrific—and Emmy-nominated—as the stern but loving grandmother, and Goldberg’s scripts made familiar types and situations seem almost novelistic. At least, that’s how I remember it. When I watched it, I was 11, and this stuff was all new to me. Would I still appreciate it as an adult? Who knows! But I’d love to find out.
I was going to write about this concept album called De Schmog Fairy Tale, released on tape by Houston band de Schmog when I was in high school. My copy of it is long gone, and I haven’t been able to find the album since, but I just learned it’s on iTunes. Behold, the glorious new age! The first thing that comes to mind otherwise is the original batch of songs for Sugar’s File Under: Easy Listening. The band struggled mightily to write and record a follow-up to the band’s masterful Copper Blue (and Beaster EP), and after slogging for two months at Triclops in Atlanta, Bob Mould scrapped everything. And he really did scrap everything: All the work from the Triclops sessions was erased. In the liner notes for the File Under: Easy Listening reissue, engineer Jim Wilson claims, “There wasn’t really anything lost, other than a great deal of time and money. No lost masterpiece there.” I would’ve preferred to judge that for myself.
I grew up in the Golden Age of Nickelodeon television, just after it got footholds in original narrative programming, game shows, and most notably in animation. I loved Doug, Rocko’s Modern Life, and Legends Of The Hidden Temple, but the show I can still go back to now on Netflix and enjoy with greater understanding is Hey Arnold!, Craig Bartlett’s series about the titular football-headed do-gooder and Helga, the girl who bullies him in public but privately pines for his affection. After 100 episodes—a rare landmark for a Nickelodeon cartoon—the hourlong finale (in production order, since Nick frustratingly jumbled the final season and stretched it out over three years) set Arnold and Helga on a journey to find Arnold’s long-lost parents. But the box-office failure of Hey Arnold!: The Movie—which was never originally intended for theaters—put the second film, The Jungle Movie, in limbo. Bartlett had wrapped production on all television episodes of the series and was working for rival Cartoon Network, and when he decided against working exclusively for Nickelodeon, that put the project on ice for good. Rumors of an eventual revival still persist, and I would relish the chance to see Arnold, Helga, and the rest of their friends take a trip to San Lorenzo for a rescue mission.
In my limited exposure to Jerry Lewis, self-directed auteur (I admittedly haven’t seen much of his work: The Bellboy, The Nutty Professor, and the opening credits of Cracking Up), his combination of tremendous talent, comic discipline, and self-baiting/egoism make for irritatingly hypnotic (and vice versa), exhausting viewing. Like many, I’d love to see 1972’s never-released The Day The Clown Cried, with Lewis as a political-prisoner clown, entertaining Jewish concentration-camp kids and eventually laughingly leading them to the gas chambers. In outline, it bears heavy overlap with the actually released Life Is Beautiful. It’s hard to see Clown being so clearly, bewilderingly bad as lucky viewer Harry Shearer described it in 1979: “a perfect object [...] bewilderingly bad.” Watching Lewis try to nobly constrain his egoism during a tonally tricky, totally flubbed Holocaust misfire (in a part he initially thought should be played by Laurence Olivier, no less) is surely a one-of-a-kind experience, but early this year, Lewis once again confirmed (during an appearance at Los Angeles’ Cinefamily theater) that he’d watched the movie recently, thought it didn’t work, and was still dedicated to making sure it never went public. Some films make their way to the cult market (like the five-hour workprint version of Apocalypse Now that arrived on bootleg VHS), but Clown seems to be securely contained for all time.