Sunday, September 09, 2007
All the Colors of the Dark
I returned home yesterday afternoon to find a rather large piece of mail waiting for me. I knew immediately what it was: Tim Lucas’s already-legendary book on legendary Italian filmmaker Mario Bava. To understand my state of mind at that moment, you have to understand that I had been expecting this particular package for nearly six years. It was originally supposed to arrive around Christmas 2001… but there were a few delays. If it hadn’t been for frequent updates in the author’s monthly magazine Video Watchdog, I would have wondered if the book (pre-sold at a whopping $99 a pop) actually existed. VW readers, however, could reasonably trust that the delays were caused by the writer’s extreme perfectionism.
I will admit that, by January 2006, the elusive book had become – for me – a running joke. How could any book, assuming it ever arrived, live up to such hype? I must not have been the only one asking that question, because around that time Tim Lucas started a “Bava Book Updates” blog – to address patient and impatient readers en masse. At the time, Lucas and his wife Donna (who designed the book) were indexing and working on the “final layout.” In the following months, they explained that the book had grown a bit in scope: from 800 pages to 1,000 pages. You must bear in mind that we’re talking about an oversized, four-columns-to-a-page, thoroughly illustrated coffee table book… a coffee table book big enough to crush your coffee table. Tim and Donna debated the possibility of a multi-volume work. When they decided against it, they had trouble finding a printer that could handle the binding of such a massive tome. As if that wasn’t headache enough, Lucas was continually finding new material to incorporate into the book. He wanted to include every scrap of worthwhile information… and, perfectionist that he is, he had to make sure that every detail was accurate and consistent throughout the book. In March, he wrote on his blog:
“Now I know why other people don't write books of this size. The sheer mass of the Bava book, and the time it has taken to assemble, means that the main text has become a kind of quicksand, as far as adding to it is concerned. To add a single detail means getting bogged down in a complex procedure, in which that detail must be checked against many others. For example, it was only after compiling the index that we learned there was a Patricia Zulini mentioned on page 756 and a Patrizia Zulmi mentioned on page 830, so we had to determine if these were two people with similar names, or if one was correct and the other misspelled, and which was which. Multiply that example times several hundred and you'll begin to have an idea of what our year has been like.”
Of course, some of these changes were bound to cause ripple effects in the layout. The delivery date for the book was moved back to June, then October. Around Thanksgiving, Lucas reluctantly admitted that the book wouldn’t be published until 2007. Perhaps sensing that he was straddling the fine line between obsession and madness, the author finally committed himself to a text-lock, and the book was mostly in the hands of his wife – a one-person publishing powerhouse, utterly determined that the presentation of the book (with its roughly 1,200 graphics) met her own high standards. After many a day and night in front of the computer, the final manuscript was sent to the printer in Hong Kong, who promised to have the books delivered to them in July. After one final delay, the printer shipped the books – a print run in the “low thousands,” each copy weighing in at 12 pounds – to its expectant parents in late August.
On his blog, the author compared the stack of boxes in his home office to the pyramids at Giza – presumably a welcome alternative to the past months/years when the book must have seemed like a big fat albatross hanging around their necks. I can’t even begin to imagine the labor pains that Tim and Donna went through to produce this behemoth. I have always been amazed by their attention to detail in Video Watchdog – in content and design – but to apply their exacting standards to a work this size is truly astounding. Every issue of Video Watchdog features graphics and a design that are fresh and vibrant. The writing is always that of true experts, who are not only able to track minor plot points and different versions of a film, but who actually notice when the name of the key grip is misspelled in the credits on the Japanese laser disc. I find that there is usually more detail than I need or care about, but I nevertheless read the magazine with awe and respect – because it is the outcome of many people’s awe and respect for esoteric cinema. Every issue is a labor of love… and the Bava book is the ultimate labor of love.
Last night, I stayed up reading until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. After perusing the entire book to get a sense of what was in it, I set the 12-pound book on the floor and started to read the chapter on Bava’s best-known film “Black Sunday” (1961). This was the film that introduced me to Mario Bava – a brooding Gothic fantasy, with black-and-white visuals worthy of a fine arts museum. I first read about the director in Dennis Fischer’s book “Horror Film Directors,” but I had trouble tracking down copies of his films. More readily available were the (American edits of) films of his protégé Dario Argento, who quickly became a favorite of mine. Then, on Halloween 1998, AMC aired the AIP cut of “Black Sunday” as part of its Monsterfest lineup, with Tim Burton hosting. In his book, Lucas quotes Burton (twice actually) on why he loves the film:
“The vibe and the feeling is what it’s about… Bava was probably Number One that way, in telling you a story through the images and giving you a feeling. The feeling’s a mixture of eroticism, of sex, of horror and starkness of image – and, to me, that is more real than what most people would consider as realism in films, because somehow it bypasses your mind and goes straight inside of you.”
This is one of the reasons I love the horror genre – like dreams, the best horror films work on a viewer’s feelings in ways that simple narrative can’t. Tim Lucas obviously agrees. He examines “Black Sunday” from every angle in order to help define its elusive greatness – describing the pervasive influence of Russian literature (not only that of Nikolai Gogol, who wrote the source story, but also Tolstoy and Dostoevsky), revealing inside secrets of photography and special effects, contrasting the director’s use of silence with the accomplished Les Baxter score in the AIP edit. He also provides a great deal of interesting history – about the director, his cast, and the contexts in which the film was made and distributed. To top it off, the chapter is filled with graphics that have been beautifully (and, one imagines, painstakingly) restored. There is no better way to explain the power that actress Barbara Steele has in the film than with photos – not simply screen grabs from the film, but rare publicity photos in luscious color. At the end of the chapter, I was conflicted about whether to keep reading or to sit down and watch “Black Sunday” on DVD, then and there. I kept reading until I passed out.
So… was it worth the wait? Honestly, now that I have the book in hand, I don’t care much about the wait. I just have to find time to read the thing.
Heartfelt congratulations to Tim and Donna Lucas on their new baby. Here’s hoping the postpartum depression (in the prologue, the author admits that he's been working on the Bava book for so long that "I don't know what it's like to be an adult and not be working on it") is mitigated by good reviews.