Saturday, February 09, 2008

Dr. Caligari (1988) - Review

"My guess is Caligari is saying that life imitates bad art." - Adrian

Not to be confused with the legendary German expressionist film Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari from 1919, this feature is a 1988 experiment of epic proportions from director Stephen Sayadin (aka... Rinse Dream? That's right, Rinse Dream.), who is probably best known for having directed Cafe Flesh, a post-apocalyptic porn film which was given both an edited mainstream release, and a full-on hardcore video edition. It was also co-written by Jerry Stahl, a man who's written everything from episodes of Alf to the Michael Bay retarded action extravaganza Bad Boys II. Released on VHS in the late 80s and then more or less forgotten immediately thereafter, it's a shame... this may well be the most impressive use of sweet sexual nothings pounded into the back of my skull like cold soothing nails that I've seen my entire life.

Mrs. Van Houten (Laura Albert) has lost her mind, a nymphomaniac who's fallen out of touch with reality. Her husband, after losing all hope of controlling her raging libido, seeks the aide of the distinctly unconventional Dr. Caligari (Madeleine Reynal), a woman who's own practices of radical hormone therapy have left the other doctors in fear. The leading directer Dr. Lodger turns a blind eye to her madness for the continued grant support, but the rest of the staff eventually teach him the truth... though it may be far too late for everyone already locked inside the Caligari Institute.

Trying to describe, let alone explain this... thing, is virtually impossible. Playing like an off broadway show that happens to have been shot on film, with minimalistic sets full of overt sexual and classic horror film imagery, esoteric Dario Argento inspired lighting casting the players in a hellish void of candy colored nothing, and wardrobe best described as St. Post Apocalypse Hospital Chic, the entire film borders on the indescribable, or at least the totally illogical. While musicals have a certain disconnection from reality to begin with - after all, while I'm prone to burst out in song in public I can't find anyone else to join me in Monty Python's "Every Sperm is Sacred" - but despite being structured as a piece who's every word is a poem the general aesthetic and refusal of common narrative structure or even an attempt to grab at a certain frame of time or space. In practical terms Dr. Caligari is probably familiar territory for anyone who works in Avant-garde theater, and something of an unexpected synapse rape to pretty much anyone else.

The dialog - assuming I should really call it 'dialog' - is for most of the runtime nothing but free form beat poetry about cannibalism, sexual dissatisfaction, and when the film is trying to play it straight it's still got moments moments where after a shocking revelation the entire cast will quite literally turn the camera and say "wow" in unison. While there's an arcing plot in which Dr. Caligari's experiments in swapping human emotions through chemical transfer is, in actuality, a scheme that will inevitably benefit her own evil ends... it really doesn't matter. What we're seeing is raw art, festering and screaming in the purest sense of the word, a ceaselessly unique experiment in cinematic post modern insanity without even a prayer of marketing itself as satire, using the 1919 silent film as a springboard (or maybe an excuse) to revel in its' own excess. Focusing on any sort of strange vibe the film can find, every bit of it sexual: Injections are "swapping bodily fluids", old men talk provocatively about needing moisture to keep from getting a rash on their poonater, a woman turns her hand into a creepy veined phallus to loosen her overly moral's husband attitude manually (yes), and a cannibal who loves shock therapy keeps asking if Caligari will "still do him" each time they're done conversing. Even a baked good turns into a Lovecraftian tentacle monster! The film is literally a side-show of sexual deviation, but it's impossible to find comfort in anything any more mundane or less taboo: even meal time is spent shearing the leg of lamb before you eat it, and those who are too insecure in their own sexuality are shown as having no power or freedom, in one example embodied by a man lacking a month (something a pornographic television program had more than enough of earlier on).

Yet it's not as if perversion is the key to happiness: while desire is the only thing consistent and thus worth believing in, it brings none of the cast happiness. The prudes who wouldn't dream of giving into their desires spend the whole film trying to cure the ones they love of their manias, while those who are mad with lust exist only to fulfill their selfish desires at the cost of always wanting more and harming those around them in the name of selfish joy. The denizens of the Caligari Institute are prisoners, but of their own device more than of the invisible black walls that surround them. The Good Doctor - such as she is - spends the entire film building up to a plot where she'll remove her own consciousness and replace it with another, proving that even the perverted Goddess who pulls the strings of those around her can't be happy being herself. The film is quite depressing, really, no matter who you are or what gets you off. The repressed are miserable and the perverted are never satisfied, so what morality does all of this poetry lead to? I'd assume that balance, a zen infused middle ground is the way to be satisfied, but as not a single likable character is remotely near this frame of mind I'm left to assume that all of this sexual frustration really has no morality assigned to it, and that a well adjusted and not horrifically repressed or twisted individual simply doesn't exist inside of Dr. Caligari's world. Often art so focused on any inherently taboo sexual nature eventually reveal some moral core, either warning against excess or introducing the viewer to the concept that it isn't all so bad... well, here we're left with open dissections of obsession, but no prognosis thereof.

It's equal parts refreshing and frustrating to see that a film maker with balls big enough to try something truly unique and bizarre assumes anyone willing to watch what he has to say is smart enough to draw their own conclusions from the art rather than demanding it all be spelled out for them. Refreshing because I'm not assumed to be retarded, frustrating because without some moral barometer I'm left feeling that, fascinating or not, what I'm looking at is literally an intelligent series of erotica segments for the truly maladjusted. Not that I mind sick wank fodder for the sake of sick wank fodder in the slightest, but I can't help but feel that Dr. Caligari is trying to accomplish so much more than that. Without knowing more about Sayadin all I can do is write off the lack of a single character the viewer can view as a generally not-fucked-in-the-head individual as a minor flaw, at worst, and perhaps it was a daring and intentional exclusion at best meant to force the viewer to confront which of these maladjusted characters best reflects them. To be fair Dr. Lodger is a sweet old man on the surface, but the fact that he has an idea how insane Dr. Caligari is and chooses to stick his fingers in his ears in the hopes that the Institute will remain popular makes him, at best, a coward unable to cope with the painful reality around him. All the same, he's more entertaining and likable than his paranoid son and his bitch of a wife, who act as moral foils to Dr. Caligari's experiments at the cost of being totally unlovable and squirm-inducing little creeps. There's a world of difference between creep-s and creep-y, and particularly in the context of Dr. Caligari I'd take the latter every time.

Artistic minimalism was a technique used in Lars Von Trier's critically acclaimed 2003 film Dogville, a project I looked forward to for casting Hollywood actors in a 2 and a half hour marathon of humiliation, degradation, rape and - eventually - bloody revenge, extracted upon Nicole Kidman, shot entirely on hand-held digital video cameras, on a thread-bare set in which the period town was to be imagined by the audience to allow the viewer to focus solely on the character interactions rather than the time and place. Despite all the positive reviews and the unconventional daring on display... I hated Dogville. Hated it the way I hate going to the dentist or shutting an oak drawer on my nuts. The concept was golden, but it was spoiled between Kidman being a doormat for no good reason up until the last 15 minutes (and given the finale's revelation she should have had a lot more backbone than we see prior to that), and more importantly, the constant narration force feeding us "this is a bad start", "these people are ungrateful", "her life is a sad one". Hey Lars, if I'm smart enough to imagine a street and a barn with nothing but a tape outline on the floor to give me an idea where it is, I'm fucking smart enough to make up my own mind about what this town is doing wrong to this poor girl who only asked for a chance to live far away from the life she hated. But thanks for assuming I have no moral core anyway. (Dick.) To be constantly spoon fed the morality of the story was one of the most offensive and pointless things I can remember. As such I'd love to compare Dr. Caligari to this more modern and critically acclaimed film, but I think doing so would be nothing but a disservice to Dr. Caligari. Dogville - despite superficial similarities - is a really Dogshit. Dr. Caligari may not be perfect, but fuck, it's so much better than Trier's pretentious and boring "masterpiece" that it's enough to make me sob for the intellectuals and even the generally smart sods' who watch "smart" films and got duped into thinking that boring and offensive turd was worth anything.

I'd love to compare this to MIIKE Takashi's Juvenile A: Big Bang Love, but I actually haven't seen it yet. (Curses.) While Big Bang Love is sure to draw comparisons to Dogville, fuck it, Dr. Caligari is a much better comparison, and I can safely say that only having seen about 3 minutes of Miike's uncomfortably homosexual prison drama.

Watch Miike and not Von Trier, is the moral of this wholly gratuitous tangent.

So, worthless comparisons aside (try as I may), Dr. Caligari is so free form, so bold and strange, so unfocused on meeting any commercial ends as a genre film other than it being the genre film of 1988, that I have no clue what to group it with in terms of recommendations. Certainly the bizarre sexual tensions and post-modern homage seemingly make it an obvious 80s' counterpiece to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but even that picture is comparatively conventional. It's a top tapping musical, it has relatively normal (by which I mean not beatnikese) dialog to establish its' plot, and it has several varied and unique characters the audience could likely relate to or at least like without feeling that they're retarded or totally forked in the skull. In comparison there's virtually nothing to cling to in Dr. Caligari, unless you really get off on unique set design, beat poetry, or really, really dig weird shit. I'm talking The Holy Mountain, Eraserhead, A Snake Of June weird here. I can't say that the film is pretentious - doing so would imply that Sayadin was pulling these concepts out of his ass without any understanding or care of what they mean, and I refuse to believe that he didn't have something to say in all of this - but this is certainly the kind of film that could lead to such accusations. I'd say it's the equivalent of several Salvador Dali paintings made into a feature length film, but that isn't totally fair... Dali was weird, but his technical skills were second to none. The film on display is still rough around the edges, with some special effects looking almost charmingly low-fi and Halloween Party caliber, and several dialog sequences cutting in and out randomly as if clumsily cut by a censor (which for all I know could be true). I'm also disappointed that only two characters at the Institute were fully developed, when there's several - the Asiatic girl in the straight jacket pictured below, for instance - who could have made the film all the more complex and interesting. What issues the film has are less a matter of being "bad" rather than simply being missed opportunities, but somehow, someone thought that this would sell tickets, so that it didn't run 5 hours and feature any stop-motion animation featuring rabid penises is literally just an oversight to have convinced producers to let Sayadin shoot anything in the first place, I'm sure.

To be fair after bitching momentarily, the art design is spectacular in its' simplicity, and the material on display constantly challenging, but you never for a moment think this was shot for over a hundred dollars or feel that it's going to set a new standard by which any other crazy-ass cult film will follow. Sayadin is no Lynch, but that's not meant an insult: the film is spectacular as a unique and uncompromising work of sweat, blood, and tears. No level of technical prowess or budget can make up for raw and unfocused energy splashed on the screen like so many spilled brain chunks, and as being crap like I've never seen before, Dr. Caligari excels where so many supposedly mind-blowing films have fallen flat.

In short I feel kind of bad having so little to say about the film, but only because me trying to further dissect and explain sequences of a woman's hand burned by the crotch-straw of a scarecrow, or of a man discussing the taste of a pretty woman's flesh while wearing clothes versus being boiled in the nude, are slightly beyond my capacity. I don't know what Sayadin, or whomever gave financial birth to this film, was thinking but it was clearly something important to them. Dr. Caligari is a spectacular minimalist experiment in re-moulding what a theatrical film can be "about", which in and of itself surmises if you'll like it or not. If you like 'real' Hollywood fare and the thought of watching a crazy show about unreal human characters talking about their fetishes just doesn't do it for you, don't bother. Personally I liked it, but as I tend to like failed experiments it would come as no surprise to any of you that I'd have watched this thing even if it wasn't interesting or grotesque. That the film promised a hardcore mind fisting and delivered just leaves me tickled right down to my bleeding rectum.

Want a copy? Hit me up, my pretties, because this doesn't have a DVD release anywhere that I've been able to track down. I was given a DVD-R copy by a friend of mine who thought I'd get a kick out of it - and I did, I must say - which appears to be a copy of the Shapiro Glickenhaus Home Video release from '89. The quality is... well, look at the screencaps. About as good as a VHS-to-DVD-R will ever look, and honestly I'd be surprised if 4:3 wasn't the OAR, since everything appears to be in-frame at all times. There are theatrical posters out there, so either the 4:3 version just got lucky or it was matted to 1.85:1 on the big screen, which honestly would likely make a lot of the photography on display look pretty bad (or maybe the video transfer is just missing a bunch of info on all 4 sides). Ironically the poster, but not the video box, calls it "the cult film of the 80s", with the word 'lost' or 'forgotten' conveniently misplaced. I can only assume that Shapiro Films honestly thought they had the next Rocky Horror Show on their hands, and at best they had a fascinating piece of art that's virtually unmarketable outside of people who are simply prone to liking things they can't rightly explain.

A damned shame. It's a fun 78 minutes in that oh-so excessive 80s way, and should a restored DVD ever happen you bet your ass I'll pick up a copy.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Dieses ist schwierig und gibt mir Koepfschmerzen

Well, at least my kopef won't be hurting any longer: I finally finished timing up the extras for my legit-boss at about 4am today, so that thumping migraine from listening to multiple German guys trying to figure out who fucked up the shot all at once will no longer haunt my dreams. Now I can go back to my usual fare of Alejandeo Jodorowsky at age 90 paddling my shins with a salami and my recurring dream of Kuriyama Chiaki hollowing me out from my belly button upwards and then riding me like a fleshy mecha.

I got word that a film I translated and timed more than a years ago is coming out this June. Frickin' awesome, considering the first film in the series literally came out over a year ago I wasn't convinced all that hard work (and guts) was going to pay off. Between more German Z-movies, an upcoming Russian masterpiece, the remainder of a certain Japanese genre directors' output, and possibly some UK films that have such obscure dialects in them that they'll require "American English" subtitles just like TRAINSPOTTING, my legitimate career appears to be back from the dead and hungrier for brains than ever before!

In celebration, have some of my personal fap material:

Don't lie. You get it.

I almost kept good on my word to not play with Vampire Hunter D anymore: while I'm not touching the colors this time, I did some research all the same, since I couldn't for the life of me figure out why the hell my comb filter was creating such extreme ghosting. I then found that virtually every script that used SDDeRainbow() - the plugin I found worked best for the material at hand - has been IVTCed before that filter, which as I've established isn't happening on VHD ever. So, I found another useful command:


The first line turns the original video into a 720x240 video file running 60 frames per second, so the comb filtering, noise reduction and sharpening run on a per-field basis rather than a per-frame one. The second line converts those 60 half-resolution "frames" into 30 full-resolution NTSC frames, so I put everything I want to do in between them, and long story short, it makes them work without smearing or any other nasty surprises. It probably shouldn't work, and I bet if I were more clever I'd spot some horrific artifact that cannot be undone by this evil process, but you don't hear me not complaining about my own ignorance.

It's still too dark, but I simply have to come to terms with this. Now I just need to compress it, figure out what audio files are going on the 4:3 version, and spread all the special features across 2 discs. A 3 DVD set which only contains 2 cuts of the film and no feature-length making of or anything of the sort seems a bit extravagant, but hell, it wouldn't be the worst idea I ever cocked up. I need to try recompressing the extras first, see how low I can get away with before they just look like pixelated ass. I also can't decide if I should take the making-of from the German DVD or the Urban Vision R1: the former is a PAL conversion, the latter has hard-subs, so they're both shit as far as I'm concerned. I really wouldn't mind getting the Japanese LD which also had the making-of, but that would just eat time and money, and I lack at least one of these.

In not-me related news SHIGURUI episodes 11 and 12 have officially been fansubbed. Do yourself a solid and download the whole show. Thank Anime Empire and Saizen for their hard work, too. That dialog is the kind of obscure period stuff that would lead a lesser fansub groups to seppuku.

ADV Films seems to be in bigger trouble than I think anyone realized. Not only has the entire UK division (and likely the German branch as well) been dissolved after ADV started hacking off limbs like Hydra heads - NewType magazine, Anime ADVocates club services, the linear Anime Network station, all of these canned in the course of about a week - but shortly thereafter every one of their anime licenses from mid-2006 onwards, incidentally all titles that were aquired by their Japanese backer SOJITZ, have been deleted from their website. I have it on good authority that retailers are being informed that ADV is not shipping any new stock, nor are they pressing new copies of their back catalog either. While an anonymous ADV employee said publically that there were "short term challenges" to work through, I think not having any product to release is a pretty big goddamn problem. To be fair discs that are supposed to be released next week are starting to filter into retailers' hands, but these were all logically ordered some time ago, and there's no guarantee that anything after that will surface.

As if to quell any rumors or bad tidings ADV Films announced - after 2 days of ugly silence - that they're going to start releasing all of their shows on Blu-Ray! Yeah, because when you have no DVDs to sell, you release on a currently expensive and niche format that only appeals to techno geeks. Dur, makes sense to me! Seriously, it's an almost clever ploy since, if their titles are delayed for a few weeks (or... even months?) they can write the whole thing off as "we need to negotiate with the Japanese rights holders" with the implication that it's all for Blu-Ray. When, clearly, it isn't. You don't take down the websites for your titles - especially not upcoming "big'uns" like (my beloved) Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and Devil May Cry without something catastrophic happening to you.

Of course most of the internet is either assuming:

A) Just because there's smoke there can't be any fire.

B) ADV is out of money, and this will lead to Geneon Part 2.

I don't think it'll be quite Geneon bad... more like CPM Redux, if anything. Geneon is still around, technically speaking, they were just cut off at the knees by Dentsu for bleeding money left and right and aren't currently allowed to release anything. Nobody on the outside knows exactly what ADVs current situation is, but if they literally have none of the titles they've licensed in the past year and a half, the situation ain't good, whatever it is. The statement notes that "they plan on continuing to distribute", but so does Geneon. So, yeah. Good luck with that, because of Sojitz feels that ADV isn't a money maker and has told them to screw... well, we can say goodbye to one of the oldest and most influential R1 anime studios out there.

All this nonsense just makes me want to hug something.

Why, yes, I do know I'm awful. Thanks for asking.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Head Meets Wall: The end of the Vampire Hunter D Saga

Vampire. Hunter. D. Is. Unfixable.

There. I've said it. And I farking mean it this time.

It dawned on me comparing the 16:9 version to the 4:3 version - whilst experimenting with the Godly power that is FFDShow, another happy thought for another not depressy time - that there's a shot on the Japanese DVD that's... literally a long shot of nothing. Here, I have a screencap and everything:

Rarw! I'm a scary shadow of mosquito noise and crushed blacks!

And here we have the German transfer.

S'up muh niggaz!!

If your monitor is on the dark side, try turning the brightness up a little bit. If need be, play with it in photoshop even. See, in the bottom shot there's a black reptilian shadow, right in the middle. See it now? Yeah. There's Waldo. That's actually Cloverfield - no, really, a teeny tiny baby Cloverfield. Not a land whale. Now try cranking the brightness with the Japanese shot. There's... maybe a neck? But not really. There's nothing there. The transfer is a large black blob of nothingness, and god help me it's still a better transfer than the wobbling and torn black hole that is the R1 DVD that Urban Vision shat out years ago.

Literally, the German DVD is the only transfer of Vampire Hunter D I think I can stand to watch anymore. Considering it's cropped 20% of the picture out, words can't rightly describe how sad this fact is, and how frustrated I am that the majority of my efforts to make the JR2 look "better" have been for naught.

I'm not God. I just play him on TV.

I fought the good fight. I've tried to adjust contrast, gamma, brightnees, saturation, hue, quite literally every single setting that I as a man working from a pre-encoded NTSC DVD can changs. But it's a lost cause. The monster isn't there. At all. Maybe he never even was, I... I don't know anymore. I really, really don't. Maybe the German DVD found an alternate animation sequence. Maybe there are two monsters and the first one disappeared, and now he's hanging out at the Starbucks in the mall listening to The Stooges on his iPod and living it up, having not had his skull blown off and everything. Maybe he's really the Fifth Beetle. I don't know. I just, don't know.

With this realization, that no matter how awesome my intentions are Vampire Hunter D is the sole definition of "lost cause", I give up. I've "perfected" a set of restoration filters that don't involve making it brighter, since every time I do that I just wind up with a completely grey screen instead of a completely black one. Despite the daylight scenes looking like they're at dusk, I'd rather have almost solid blacks.

So, what's my secret plot?

There's comb filtering.

There's noise reduction

There's sharpening.

There's saturation boosting.


Oh sure, I've tried to perform an IVTC. I can't do a 100% accurate "by hand" Inverce Telecine. I've tried, quite literally, at least a dozen times in TMPGEnc Plus. The reel changes are 100% interlaced for some frames and the 3:2 pattern is a never ending lost cause in others. The automated IVTC algoritms are even worse, leaving me with interlaced frames smack in the middle of perfect 3:2 No Brainer Progressive Country, and as I can't make a "partly progressive" file in CCE SP (or if I can, I sure don't know how it's done) I guess that just leaves me with interlaced, doesn't it? It's also worth pointing out that if I want to comb filter I have to do it after the IVTC, lest I get temporal ghositng like a bastard out of Hell, so if I were to use CCE's own IVTC algorithm (which was programmed in Greek, I swear) I'd have ghosting. Yeah, that's right: ghosting on a fucking progressive 24p transfer.

But it wouldn't have any rainows, right?

This sucks. This really, really, really sucks. Frankly there's so much noise and so many compression artifacts - even after the rather heavy NR scrubbing - that it really doesn't make a bit of difference in the end: this OVA is crawling in disgusting funk that drags all of those Witchblade screencaps I put up this week into the wood shed and goes to town on them La Madre Terza style, and fuck it, it always will. Vampire Hunter D was the single worst evil plot I've EVER had. It's fundamentally the hardest project on the planet to do, and it was the one that - had I understood how far gone the whole thing was over 2 years ago - I would have given up on. Every new "bright idea" I have on the topic just makes the AVISynth script look even worse than it was before, and to quote Phillip J. Fry, "You can take my money for so long, until you have it all, and I say enough!"

I'm sorry, ASHIDA Touyo. I thought I had something here, but I was just a big stubborn jackass who's wasted more sleepless nights than I can count due to the brain cells I've lost trying to perfect what amounts to this:

mpeg2source("C:\Blah\Vampire Hunter D OAR.d2v")
MipSmooth(preset = "MovieHQ")

Can you believe it? 2 years. 2 years! For that measly scrawny little stupid piece of scripting shit. All right, some of that time was spent figuring out how to make CCE SP spit out a watchable video file too, but not nearly enough of it. Most of this time was spent essentially smacking the Great Wall of China with a ball-pein hammer and wondering when the fuck I was going to strike gold. No, I'm serious, I've been that amazingly stubbornly retarded.

...bloody hell. Watching the video in motion the comb filter caused temporal smearing even on the interlaced version. I guess you know what this means:

mpeg2source("C:\Blah\Vampire Hunter D OAR.d2v")
MipSmooth(preset = "MovieHQ")

Even with that tweak it's all a glorified "smooth it out and sharpen it up" affair, the very principle that most of the time I speak agasinst (though for good reason as it's usually applied by douchebags who don't know that "grain" and "noise" aren't the same fucking thing). Christ, what difference does it make at this point? I might as well slap the R1 transfer on there and call it "Remastered" because it has a stereo Japanese track!

Sorry for getting all bitch like this on you, dear readers, but it's always a harsh moment when you have to look your work in the eye and realize that it's all fucking shit. It's sort of like spending your days studying to become a fine chef only to find you can't even make a Big Mac, or showing up at a porn audition thinking 6 centimeters - rather than inches - is the size of the average prick. It's just painful to realize, and there's no one but yourself to blame.

Well, I've wasted quite enough time on this restoration... and this particular blog. Back to working for my legitimate employer, and as soon as that's over with it's back to Genocyber. Yeah, you thought I forgot... but nah', I can't forget what it is I do. I'm not a restoration expert. Just a subtitle guy with benefits.

P.S. - For the sake of argument here's a shot of the Urban Vision R1:

As you can see, it really is just a black hole. Which is only slightly worse than the R2 disc being a noisy gray hole... I guess? Damn you all. Why couldn't OVA Films have just done their restoration in 4:3?

Listening to the English track I'm hearing a lot of echo, but it's not consistent echo. It comes and goes at random. I don't know for certain if this is because the dub was poorly produced or if it was a side-effect of the 5.1 mix. Could be either, and without getting the goddamned LD I guess I'll never know. I'm also incredibly confused why the Japanese audio track on the R1 is basically a mono track that shifts between the left and right channel. The film was always Stereo on video in Japan, but the US LD and German DVD list the mono Japanese audio as the "original". In short, Vampire Hunter D is a bitch, and even if it popped my otaku cherry I've come so damned close to hating its' guts its' depressing.