Saturday, July 9, 2011

TV NOIR (the book)

Back when I was a nine-year-old kid growing up in suburban Detroit there was no shortage of useless crap for me to spend my meager weekly allowance on: comic books, Mad magazines, paperback Mad books, monster magazines, and that most prized thing of all: TV Guide. The whole TV Guide mania occurred for me around 1957, the year local television stations began running syndicated packages of Universal's 1930s and 40s horror pictures (Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, etc.), wedging them into late-night showcases with monikers like “Shock Theater” or “Chiller Theater” or “Nightmare Theater.” These Friday and Saturday night TV fright-fests became all the rage with kids who demanded as much quantity as quality which meant, simply put, a never-ending onslaught of inappropriately unwholesome entertainment. So each Tuesday afternoon (when the new weekly magazines hit the racks) I'd hightail it over to the corner drugstore and fork over 15 cents for the latest TV Guide, rushing home in order to begin that frantic search for all the incredibly astounding movies I could look forward to seeing that week, knowing that only the smallest fraction of them would actually materialize before my eyes—seldom was it possible to sneak into the den at 2:30 in the morning to catch Lon Chaney, Jr. and Barbara Peyton in the unspeakably lurid “Bride of the Gorilla.” But the intent was always there. Always.
Eventually everything dark and weird became interesting to me. Murder mysteries of all shapes and stripes were suddenly the most sinister and appealing thing to watch (or at least read about) on TV. Any B movie about crooks or escaped maniacs or set in the jungle or at some haunted ranch—which was pretty often given their plentiful and cheap availability to local television stations—was instantly and indelibly fascinating.

Of increasing interest were the half-hour TV shows that came on every week on the same night, usually around 10:30 and usually about tough-guy public and private eyes like Peter Gunn and Johnny Staccato and Lt. Frank Ballinger from M-Squad and Chief Dan Matthews from the Highway Patrol.

With grisly  summaries befitting Russian novels, the fractured syntax used by the staff writers of TV Guide was nothing if not altogether mesmerizing.

Armed with a pair of scissors, I clipped out the listings for these movies and shows and glued them into a notebook, gradually accumulating a massive compendium of darkly pungent blurbage that I would read all the time. Reading and rereading this often disturbing and demented nocturnal poetry (subterranean haiku for the nuclear generation?) messed with me in ways that comic books no longer could.

Skipping ahead some thirty years to 1989 and I was still preoccupied with B films and old TV crime shows. By then these films had an easily recognized label: film noir, “that term” coined by the French in the mid 40s to visually and thematically characterize the bleakness inherent to so many fatalistic and foreboding American crime pictures. My own career, as it turned out had veered into this territory, initially as a filmmaker with a small handful of short black & white films to my credit, and then finally as a film programmer for the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Many of the films I like to program for the big screen are the obscure and darkly forgotten B noirs from the poverty row studios—films that were secretly introduced to me in my childhood in the pages of TV Guide—and seen first by me on the small screen. One afternoon around this time a friend came by the house and let me have a big cardboard box with dozens of old TV Guides from the 50s and 60s in lieu of squaring some money he owed me. The effect was staggering: the accidentally artistic descriptions of movies that long ago had formed the foundation of my earliest attraction to them were mine again to do with whatever I wanted.         

I began xeroxing pages—hundreds of them it seemed—then isolating those and only those movies and shows that subscribed to the noir ethos. Cryptic, abrupt takes on tales about human monsters, maniacs, alcoholics, shoplifters, communists, reporters, and robots; sometimes only one or two lines to snare you that wind up haunting you. I wound up with many hundreds of these twisted listings, each one a stark revelation of oddness, often depressing and final. Cutting and pasting, I was able to recreate over 100 brand new freshly minted pages crammed with all kinds of film noir, worldly and otherworldly, adrift together through an impossibly endless Friday night in February.

TV NOIR (the book) is now finished and available to anyone who wants to buy it. Through the kindness of Moe’s Books (thanks Doris!) it is available through the store’s website (More Moe’s link) or at the book’s website,
http://www.iwakeupdreaming.com/.

Later this month I’ll be presenting a special three-night FESTIVAL of TV NOIR at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco! Seventeen different and incredibly rare television films from the 1950s will commandeer the big screen from Monday, July 18 through Wednesday, July 20. If you reside somewhere here in the Bay Area, don't miss this golden opportunity to see a select group of some of the most interesting films made for television--shown on the big screen for the very first time ever! Visit the theater’s website, http://www.roxie.com/ for all the unbelievably true details!