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.

8 comments:

  1. B. Lamb9/09/2007

    One day after delivery my copy still sits in its box. I am frightened by the amount of "real" work that will pushed to the side if I remove it.

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  2. I am glad that somebody I know ordered this book. I didn't realize that you were one of the one's who had "held on." I remember reading rampant accusations over the last few years as to whether or not Lucas had "taken the money and run," though his increased transparency eased my fears.

    I've been an avid reader of VW for a few years as well. My subscription is currently lapsed because of the cost - it is refreshing to see a magazine free of ads, but VW costs more than most academic journals - but I do appreciate the views and the type of perfectionism that strikes me as somewhat unimportant (that is, I would never "do" that sort of writing, preferring to deal with larger issues).

    I am glad that the book has arrived. I will probably buy the two BAVA boxed sets. I would like to gripe a bit about the book itself. While I can understand that he wanted control over all aspects of its production, the decision to self-publish means that no public libraries will carry it for some time. This means that its scholarship will go almost totally unnoticed to non-horror fans.

    With the current cost of the book, I doubt I'll ever be able to afford it unless I win the lottery.

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  3. Ben - When you start reading, hold the book in your lap. It's so heavy that you'll cut off the blood flow to your legs, and have to stop reading after one chapter.

    Kevin - I agree: it's a shame that the author indulged his obsessiveness to the point of sacrificing accessibility. Only the truly obsessive will even attempt to read the book... but I suppose that was one justification for the delay: Tim Lucas knows that he has a very tough audience in certain VW readers. I assume he felt that he had to up the ante after Troy Howarth's visually stunning (and also pricey) 2000 book "The Haunted World of Mario Bava."

    Of course, the main reason for the delay is that the author is his own toughest critic - he says that, if he had published the book five years ago, he would have to disown it now because of all that he has learned since then. One wonders how he'll feel in five more years. I think this is something that all intelligent authors struggle with.... sooner or later, you have to put your work (which will always be flawed, no matter much time you spend with it) out into the world. Sometimes, it takes a few guilty nightmares to get to the point where you're willing to accept other people's criticisms over your own.

    I do think it's interesting that, in our information age, it is impossible to write anything that is truly comprehensive. For the more obsessive writer-types, this can be maddening.

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  4. I loved your blog on the book, Joe -- it's the most objective and truthful account of the book's process I've read so far -- but I have to take issue with the things you go on to suggest here in the Comments area.

    The delay in completing the book really had nothing to do with obsession and my refusal to cut the cord. The need to support ourselves by publishing VW monthly was always the biggest problem. Then there were the matters of proofreading (it went through maybe five proofreaders in English and two in Italian), standardization of spelling and punctuation throughout the approximately 800,000 word manuscript, indexing (itself a six-month project) -- all these and more conspired to delay our best and hardest-working intentions.

    The book was a little more than half-written at the time the Howarth book was announced and Donna and I decided it was then or never that we commit to finishing it and publishing it ourselves. There wasn't more than a few hours per day between 1999 and 2004 when I wasn't at my computer typing furiously to meet our unrealistic deadline for delivering the book. I finished the first complete draft around 2003, at which point work on the layout began -- all between monthly issues of VW, mind you. It took Donna between three and four years, between issues, to create the book. It completely consumed our lives, not out of self-indulgence but necessity and a sense of responsibility and professionalism, and it drives me a little crazy that people think we could have done it faster, like we had nothing else going on.

    Between the time I finished that first draft and we locked down the text for publication, it grew (as you note) by hundreds of pages. Not as a result of my needless perfectionism, but because I found other Bava actors to interview, because they told me about other movies he worked on secretly, etc. The book was not significantly delayed by these additions, because the layout was created mostly by Donna and her team of restorationists.

    To Kevin: Donna and I have run a reliable, timely business for the past 18 years. We work out of our home; we're not hiding from anybody. We installed an 800 number many years ago so that any customer can call us toll-free to keep tabs on their investment, whether its a Bava book pre-order or a VW subscription. Anybody who thinks we would actually "take the money and run" doesn't know our product, and doesn't know us. As for the decision to self-publish, I had no other offers. McFarland offered to publish it after we started accepting pre-orders, which made the offer impossible to accept, as did the size and scope of the book itself. And so, too, the fact that we stood to profit more by self-publishing -- an important consideration when a project represents 32 years of your life. Maybe you could have handled it differently, or better. We did what we thought was right and we stand by our decisions. We are delighted by the general response to the book.

    I really appreciate the space you gave the book, Joe, and all your enthusiasm for it, but I had to add this postscript so that your readers wouldn't form a misunderstanding from certain conclusions you drew.

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  5. Tim -

    My apologies for the misunderstanding. My conclusions about obsession and "cutting the cord" are apparently more of a confession about my own current project, than a true observation about yours. Didn't mean to offend you with my amateur psychology.

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  6. Tim -

    I hope that I didn't come off as caddy. I really do respect your work and am quite impressed with your achievement.

    My comment I guess just mirror some anxieties of which you were probably aware. But I always knew the book would come out!

    As for the publishing of the book - It is good that you didn't go with McFarland, since the design, layout, and quality of the presentation would not be nearly as good as it is. I am quite impressed with Donna's achievement in that regard. There is no way that I could have "done better." The only presses that could probably have handled it are art book publishers like Phaidon or Taschen, but even they might not be perfect matches.

    If you do bother checking this again Tim, my one remaining quest is to whether any libraries have ordered the book yet. Its the sort of thing that really should be in some public collections as well, but again, it is sometimes difficult for self-published works (no matter how authoritative, as with the Bava book) to get there. So there is my sincerest hope - for University and public libraries to buy it! I know that at least a few (sadly, too few) libraries have subscriptions to VW.

    Again, sorry if I came off as "mean." Congrats on the book!

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  7. The book was actually acquired for a few libraries, including the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, by a philanthropic individual on the Patrons list. If anyone wants to acquire one for their favorite library, we're happy to comply. Once the mailing is out of the way, we intend to pursue avenues of publicity that might help to bring us greater attention in this area.

    Thanks, Joe and Kevin, and no offense taken -- I just wanted to set the record straight from my POV.

    Incidentally, people keep mentioning Taschen. I like their books too, as far as printing and content are concerned, though the Kubrick Archive book is so unwieldy I may never take it out of its box again. We auditioned their printer in Hong Kong but their quality of binding was a deal-breaker for us. What they offered was not what we wanted or needed for a book the size of ATCOTD. Even as I look at the Taschen books in my collection now, there is visible waviness in the binding reinforcement in each of them, and that's one of the tests their printer couldn't pass for us. I sincerely think that the Bava book is superior in production to anything I've seen from Taschen, at least from a bookmaking point of view.

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  8. Is the book really that expensive in the grand scope of things? It's cheaper than an i-Pod and the battery never dies.

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