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DVD SAVANT

TWIST!
&
Comic Book CONFIDENTIAL

Separate releases reviewed by Glenn Erickson

HVe hit us with Ron Mann's Grass not long ago, and Savant was impressed with that docu's breezy style and clever use of graphics. They've now released three more Ron Mann works, the two reviewed here, and an earlier piece on poets, Poetry in Motion.

Nobody makes a docu quite like Ron Mann. His work has pace and energy and tends to be about topics one wouldn't expect to be given serious attention. Comic Book Confidential was a hit Criterion laser about ten years ago. The energetic Twist! is a pleasant surprise.


Twist!
Home Vision Entertainment/Voyager
1992 / B&W and Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 78m. / Street Date July 23, 2002 / $29.95
Starring Cholly Atkins, Hank Ballard, Gary U.S. Bonds, Chubby Checker, Joey Dee, Joe Fusco, Gladys Horton, Mama Lu Parks, DeeDee Sharp, Betty (Romantini) Begg, Janet Huffsmith, Jaon (Buck) Keine, Floss (Harvey) Mancini, Jimmy Peatross, Carol (Scaldeferri) Spada
Art direction Gerlinde Scharinger
Film Editor Robert Kennedy
Produced and Directed by Ron Mann

Synopsis:

Starting with the tepid, static, Arthur Murray state of pop dancing in the early 50s, we see, through the testimony of name talent and the dancers themselves, how black teenagers, Elvis Presley, and American Bandstand popularized new kinds of Rock'n Roll gyrations. Then the Twist comes about, and America has its first true Rock 'n Roll dance craze. Subsequent trends, including endless attempts to create a follow-up dance, eventually result in the free-form expression of the late 60s.

Using beautiful graphics that organize his film like a dance instruction record, Ron Mann pulls in an enormous amount of great, fun music to illustrate this comprehensive, authoritative show. Pop dance music is charted from the early 50s until roughly 1967, way before and way after the Twist itself. The show is so much fun, it's too bad they have to slap the pigeonhole word Docu on it.

To Savant's memory, Mann gets the feelings of the times just right, every step of the way. The efforts of American Bandstand to make Rock 'n Roll acceptable by 'cleaning it up' are contrasted with actual clips of redneck spokesmen condemning what they call 'this nigger be-bop music'. The black creators of most of these trends, from Hank Ballard on, are seen on-camera explaining their appeal. These are interspersed with choice clips of all the dances being performed, by kids in the street and on top television shows. 1

Mann interrupts the flow of clips for pleasant graphic cutaways to his on-camera talent, dancing of course. They may have gained a little weight and gone gray, but the fun is still there. Especially interesting to hear are the stories and opinions of the teen dancers from Bandstand, and what seems to have been the very first go-go dancer at the Peppermint Lounge in NYC. All of the interviews are candid: Chubby Checker, thankfully, is more serious than usual. One big female singing star admits to being totally unable to dance, and being embarrassed when she could only sway to the music while performing.

Savant grew up watching other people do the Swim and the Hully Gully and other discotheque fads, but I never got the names of the dances straight. Twist! chronicles them all with clear examples, and explains how the crazes died down.


Hve's Twist! DVD is a high-class presentation with crystal-clear 16:9 imagery. The old film clips and kinescopes can get very grainy, as expected, but the scanning of this older flat material onto the 1:78 screen is careful not to crop off the dancers' feet. The special features start with trailers for several Ron Mann docus. Lulu's Concert Montage is a deleted scene in work print form that cuts together several Rock 'n Roll songs. The Ron Mann interview is another of his rather formless but candid monologues. Best by far is Let's Learn to Dance, a simply-shot primer for five or six different dances - sort of a video version of an Arthur Murray dance lesson. Twist! has the kind of irresistible energy and enthusiasm, that makes you get up and try a few of these spine-shakers just for fun.



Comic Book Confidential
Home Vision Entertainment
1989 / Color and B&W / 1:33 flat / 85m. / Street Date July 23, 2002 / $19.95
Starring Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Sue Coe, Robert Crumb, Will Eisner, Al Feldstein, Shary Flenniken, William M. Gaines, Bill Griffith, Jaime Hernandez, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, Stan Lee, Paul Mavrides, Frank Miller, Victor Moscoso, Frnacoise Mouly, Dan O'Neill, Harvey Pekar, Gilbert Shelton, Spain, Art Spiegelman
Cinematography
Joan Churchill, Robert Fresco
Art Direction Gerlinde Scharinger
Film Editor Robert Kennedy
Original Music Dr. John, Keith Elliot, Gerard Leckey, Nicholas Stirling
Written by Charles Lippincott and Ron Mann
Produced by Don Haig, Martin Harbury, Charles Lippincott
Directed by Ron Mann

Synopsis:

The genesis of the comic book form is charted from the funnies to the action hero comics of the 30s, to the crime and horror phase of the 50s that resulted in the Comics Code Authority crackdown. From that came Mad Magazine, and eventually, the underground explosion of the late 60s.

Comic Book Confidential was a hot rental item when it came out on laserdisc; I remember renting it at least 3 times. Determined to not just celebrate comics, but to attract the artistic attention they deserve, Ron Mann's show places them in historical and political context. The great Bill Gaines got his wings clipped by oppressive censorship, when the entire industry put his E.C. Horror and Crime comics out of business. He bounced back with Mad Magazine, a much more mature and satirical variety comic that was the first major publication dedicated (perhaps unconsciously) to criticism of the consumer culture. Much of Mad's content, before it settled into mainstream blandness in the 60s, was genuinely unsettling.

The docu is innovative in its use of sophisticated graphics to advance its narrative. Since comics is the subject, this was a natural idea, but the creative animation consistently shapes and comments on the flow of the story, and is never simple eye candy. The coverage of the Kefauver commission's anti-comics investigation, and Dr. Wertham's repressive campaign (I actually read his book once - what a rabid attack) is excellent. A key clip from a propaganda film shows kids becoming sullen, antisocial, and perversely interested in violence, just from sitting around reading some comic books.  2

Comic Book Confidential is the introduction to Underground Comix that was always needed. Before, Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton were confusing aberrations; this disc is a chance to see Crumb in person and to see that he was expressing himself in true artistic terms.

The second half of the show is a well-orchestrated overview of twenty-two important artists, from the Mad days to the late '80s. Each is the subject of a sensitive interview, and we are given examples of their work as well. Overall, the docu is educational, funny, and entertaining. My son's college crowd was passing through while I was watching, and the disc snagged them for an hour.

Underground comics are often very graphic. For those concerned about such things, there's some of that kind of content here, but there's a lot more restraint than in the later docu Crumb. Check it out first, but I'd say it's fine for anyone older than 12 or so.


HVe's DVD of Comic Book Confidential looks and sounds great, and if anything, is clearer and brighter than the old laser. It's formatted at 1:33 and looks good that way. Ron Mann is such a stickler for presentation, I wonder if any of the graphics are new and improved.

The old laserdisc set had some extensive extras, including galleries of comic art that one could spend hours reading through. Happily, they're reproduced here - I don't have the laser for comparison, but it seemed as though they are all still on board. Also included are an interview with Ron Mann, and an introduction from director Kevin Smith.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Twist! rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Deleted Concert Montage, Ron Man interview, Step-by-step dance instructions, Trailers
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: July 18, 2002


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Comic Book Confidential rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Good
Supplements: Comic gallery (a sample comic story from each of the 22 artists profiled), Ron Mann interview, Kevin Smith intro, Trailers
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: July 18, 2002


Footnotes:

1. Twist! must have been a clip licensing nightmare. 80% of the show is copyrighted material: news film, television shows, and all that music. The cost had to be staggering. I think this is why good docus are so difficult to put together - the licensing fees can easily put a show like this in the budget area of two or three million dollars.
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2. There's plenty of evidence in old movies of the negative attitude toward comics. Dick Powell launches a tirade in Pitfall that the average American man has lost control of his country, when trash like that can be published for his kids. Young David Blake in Invaders from Mars is definitely the psychological 'victim' of paranoia-inducing comics. And even Billy Wilder gets in some verbal cracks in The Seven Year Itch.
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