Rare Screening of 1929′s The Mysterious Island on Tues. March 4

This Tuesday night, March 4, at 8 PM the Northwest Film Forum and The Sprocket Society join forces to bring an ultra-rare screening of The Mysterious Island (1929), the nearly-lost science fiction epic from the dawn of the sound era. Also playing is a rare early sound cartoon by the Fleischer brothers, Noah’s Lark, released the same year. The screening is part of NWFF’s quarterly Search and Rescue series, devoted to showing rare film prints from educational and private archives. The prints come from my personal collection, and I will be introducing the screening.

As extra temptation, libations will be served after the films and if you’re a member of NWFF (and you should be), admission is free.

The Mysterious Island is one of the great rarities of early science fiction film. For decades, serious fans have suffered taunting glimpses by way of jaw-dropping stills published in fan magazines like the late, great Famous Monsters of Filmland. These tantalizing images evinced art direction and effects so wondrous for their time that one nearly ached to see it. Well, now you can be one of the lucky few to see the whole shebang.

No sci-fi film fan should miss this show.

The 1929 version of The Mysterious Island was never released to home video, has never restored by the studio, and only a single reel of its original tinted and Technicolor glory is known survive (in the UCLA film archives, where it languishes in their fire-proof nitrate film vaults, not far from possibly the only surviving set of its Vitaphone discs). Today, only a small handful of black-and-white prints are known to survive, probably only on 16mm and mainly in the hands of private collectors. Every couple years or so, TCM airs it for a single showing at inconvenient times, like Sunday at 11:30 PM. Bootleg copies of these cablecasts now circulate on BitTorrent and DVD-Rs from grey-market video dealers…but it is almost never actually projected in anything resembling a theater.

The Mysterious Island was intended to be MGM’s high-budget answer to First National’s hit The Lost World (1925) and UFA’s Metropolis (1926). It was originally budgeted at a million dollars, shot in the early two-strip Technicolor process that debuted with Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate (1925), and was to feature extended sequences of cutting-edge undersea cinematography by J. Ernest Williamson, who provided such astonishing work for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1919). But the production was seemingly cursed — churning through countless rewrites that led it ever further from its source material, three different directors, and no less than three hurricanes that thoroughly destroyed the expensive underwater sets in the Bahamas. As it limped to completion, the advent of sound changed everything and necessitated a cast change and still more rewrites and reshooting.

It finally premiered as a part-talkie in October 1929 — three years late, a reported $3 million over budget (what is it with the threes?), and minus much of Williamson’s artistry — just a few weeks before the stock market crash that precipitated the Great Depression. Despite positive reviews in the popular and industry press (including the NY Times and Variety), The Mysterious Island bombed at the box office and earned back only a tiny fraction of its production costs. The whole affair was so notorious that no major studio would touch science fiction again for years and film itself, in a kind of punishment, vanished into the vaults to rot.

As a result, film fans and scholars were largely denied the opportunity to see The Mysterious Island. 16mm prints were reportedly struck sometime during the 1950s for TV distribution; tonight’s print is said to have been struck ca. 1977, but almost certainly came from the same master elements used 30 years earlier.

In recent years, the 1929 Mysterious Island has garnered a reputation as MST3K fodder but, while hardly the acme of filmmaking art and suffering from a somewhat tortured plot betraying its tenure in rewrite hell, the film is much better than the wags would have it. It is elevated by no small measure by the still-amazing art direction of Cedric Gibbons (who later helped realize the classic The Wizard of Oz), which reaches its peak in the final reels of the film. Picture if you will: retro-futurist brass diving suits like something out of Alien, armies of diminutive mer-men looking like undersea Martians, giant sea monster, and other visual wonderments hard to describe.

The accompanying cartoon, Noah’s Lark, was released by competing studio Paramount the very same month. It is the first Paramount “Talkartoon” ever released by the Fleischer brothers, but it is hardly their first foray into sound animation. Indeed, by that late date they were already veterans in the emergent technology. Beginning in 1924 (three years before The Jazz Singer), the already-successful Fleischers produced more than 30 sound animated shorts for Lee DeForests’ Phonofilm company. Most of those were sing-along films that originated the famous “bouncing ball.” Noah’s Lark followed the Fleischer tradition of unscripted visual improvisation, with animation by Al Eugster.

This is a screening not to be missed by fans of science fiction, and/or early sound film.

Original poster art for 'The Mysterious Island' (1929)

Al Jazeera on the Death of Malachi Ritscher

On January 13, 2008, Al Jazeera’s english-language station aired a story about my late friend Malachi Ritscher. As I posted here about at the time, he died on the morning November 3, 2006 when he set himself on fire next to the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago, before a statue named “The Flame of the Millennium”. He left a handmade sign that read “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” On his web site, before he killed himself, he posted last testaments that said he was immolating himself to protest the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Except for a handful of fleeting stories, US press coverage was essentially non-existent. Coverage in Europe was slightly more extensive, but equally fleeting. Malachi videotaped his self immolation but his family, understandably, has not released the tape and they have stated they never will. Further information about Malachi’s suicide and its impact can be found at the link above.

The Al Jazeera story was aired as part of their series People and Power, described as an investigative program “which looks at the use and abuse of power.” This particular episode was titled “The North Front Line.”

Streaming video of the segment has been posted on YouTube. I am also posting it here. Many thanks to  Eric Leonardson for bringing this to my attention.

Prototype API Documentation Search Bar Add-On

The Prototype JavaScript framework is a fine thing, and the Prototype API Documentation online reference is obviously indispensible. The only problem is that currently the Prototype site has no site search, except for the API Search Bookmarklet which will only retrieve for specific method names (which is certainly useful but somewhat limiting, since it assumes you already know what you’re looking for and is not a free-text search).

So, after one too many searches on Google using site:www.prototypejs.org/api/, I wrote a couple search bar add-ons that simply uses the same Google trick to perform full-text searches of the API docs on the Prototype site.

There are two different versions — one for Firefox and one for IE7 (which has a slightly crippled implementation of the OpenSearch protocol…go figure).

Install the Prototype API Documentation search bar add-on here. (Sorry: Firefox and IE7 only.)

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

Me (right) and buddy Joe Rodenberg visiting Indianapolis, circa Nov. 1985.

My dear old friend Steve Niman just resurfaced and sent along some scans of old photos from The Day. This one is of my buddy Joe (left) and myself (with, um, accouterments and stylin’ Zero Boys t-shirt) taken, I believe, right around Thanksgiving of 1985 during our first trip back to Indianapolis after moving to the bizarre and overwhelming megalopolis of Chicago.

Joe and I spent a summer living on the streets of Indianapolis together, as a result of (and resulting in) a series of events far too long to recount here. We were part of a tribe of punk rock kids that became our collective family and fellow- and sister-travelers during a time that truly changed my life. (Someday I may get around to writing that book.) Joe and I both wanted out of Indy pretty much more than anything, and when I eventually got it together enough (thanks almost entirely to my dad) to move to Chicago and go to college, I was only too happy to have Joe ride my coat tails northward.

But imagine, if you will, going directly from a Huck Finn lifestyle, living free as can be and sleeping under the stars in the woods by the river, to a grey concrete jungle where you could never see the horizon and only the faintest hint of the Holy Sunset, weeping at its occlusion. It was a brutal case of culture shock, for true.

Joe and I are clowning for the camera, but in retrospect that’s pretty much what we must’ve looked like trying to adjust to the Big City. In the end, Joe didn’t last very long — he wound up moving back to Indy after a few months, joined the Army and got hitched in quick succession and then, after a series of personal tragedies, wound up vanishing somewhere in the far distance. Wherever he is, I hope he’s doing well.

Man. What an amazing time.

Arts Funding in King County

Important info received from a friend…

Right now there are bills in the Washington state legislature (House Bill 3054 and Senate Bill 6638) that will extend arts funding to 4Culture from the King County lodging tax. If this bill doesn’t pass, arts funding in King County will become drastically reduced within a few years, and this will affect just about every arts organization in Seattle — theater, music, dance, film, spoken word, you name it.

Any resident of Washington state can help. Go to:


…and take just a few minutes to learn how to find out who your representatives are and how to send them a short e-mail or phone call, urging them to support this bill.

We have very little time to make this happen, and if it doesn’t happen this year, it’s going to be much harder to do in the future. Your e-mails and phone calls will have a significant impact.

Recombinant Etymythologisms

My mom (or “Your Dear, Sainted Mother,” as she likes to periodically remind me) recently sent me a fairly hilarious list of neologisms (aka “sniglets” for us ’70s kids who remember the Not Necessarily The News cable show). They allegedly originated from something called “the Washington Post’s Mensa Invitational,” which “asked readers to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter, and supply a new definition.”

This purported “invitational” got my net-hoax nose all a-tingly (which I didn’t notice at first since I was lubricating my sinuses with a little milk while reading). I didn’t find the “Mensa Invitational” specifically, but there is indeed something pretty much the same recently offered on the Washington Post’s blog, The Style Invitational, run by a mysterious “Empress.”

(And speaking of homeopathic lacto-nasal treatments, anyone else remember the all-time classic 3rd Annual Nigerian Email Conference?)

Whatever. Here’s the stuff my ma sent, along with some other choice picks from the Post’s site.

Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period of time.

Ignoranus: A person who’s both stupid and an asshole.

FAQu: The response to frequently asked stupid questions.

Intaxication: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.

Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.

Foreploy: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting lucky.

Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.

Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.

Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

Hipatitis: Terminal coolness.

Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)

Karmageddon: It’s like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, and then the Earth explodes, and it’s a serious bummer.

Decafalon (n.): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you

Glibido: All talk and no action.

Dopeler effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.

Arachnoleptic fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you’ve accidentally walked through a spider web.

Elbrow: Extremely long underarm hair.

Eruditz: A philosophy professor who can’t figure out how to work the copying machine.

Entrophy: The consequence of resting on one’s laurels.

Enguish: What elocution teachers feel when they hear the president on the radio.

Unergy: A condition that strikes people on the way to work, mostly on Mondays.

Zencompass: Wherever you go, there you are.

Demoticon: A little symbol signifying bad news on an e-mail from the boss.

Nestrogen: A hormone produced during pregnancy that produces cravings for wallpaper with matching borders and dust ruffles.

Estrogent: Someone who asks if the fabulous pumps are available in a 13 1/2 E.

Farternity: An old boys’ club.

Fistipuffs: Very minor squabbling.

Fatulence: That squishing noise of thighs rubbing together.

Auntie Augie, 1904-2007

Whilst trolling about the web for family info, I came upon the following obit for Alice McComb, sister of my maternal grandma and known in my family by the nickname of Auntie Augie. I thought I’d post it so I’d have this in the future. Alice was universally beloved by everyone in the family and, I daresay, by everyone who ever met her. She was the most genuinely sweet person I’ve ever known, someone who was always smiling and whose gentle, ever-ready laugh I can still hear.

Alice B. McComb, age 103, of Indianapolis, passed away April 17, 2007 after a short illness. Alice was born in New Albany, IN on March 11, 1904, she lived in Indianapolis all of her adult life. She was a genius with a needle and specialized in fine fashion alterations and bridal gowns. An employee of Potpourri Shop in Zionsville, she assisted many brides until her retirement in her 80s. She enjoyed bridge and bingo with her friends at Marquette Manor Retirement Community until her 103rd birthday. Mrs. McComb was a member of Tabernacle Presbyterian Church, Pi Omicron Sorority, the Women’s Department Club and the Indianapolis Symphony Women’s Group. Her husbands, Herbert Massie and Erwin McComb and her brother, E. Bartlett Brooks of Dayton, OH preceded her in death. She is survived by her sister, Grace. E. Dale; niece Nancy (Nan) Brooks and nephew John M. Rader of Indianapolis as well as nieces Marsha Brown of Denison, OH, Sandra Jordan of Athens, GA; grandnephews Matthew Sundell of Chicago and Spencer Sundell of Seattle and a wide circle of friends. A memorial service will be held at Marquette Manor, 8140 N. Township Line Road, Indianapolis, IN 46260 on April 28, 2007 at 1PM.

A couple years before Aunt Alice died, I spent an enthralling four hours with her in Indianapolis as she told me tales of her life, over a dinner of fried catfish (one of her favorites). Among the stories that stick with me was one when she was a young girl, which I hope I’ll recount correctly. (Alas and alack, I did not have a tape recorder with me that day.) Her father, I believe, owned a shop in the Ohio River town of New Albany that was devoted to “all things with wheels”, as she told me. In the early 1900s bicycles were still a relatively new and evolving novelty. In those days, it was apparently scandalous for a female to ride one. Nevertheless (or perhaps precisely because), young Alice would occasionally ride a bike through the tiny town, attracting attention and leading curious followers back to the shop.

It may not be a surprise, then, that dear Aunt Alice was a true coquette who was a flirt, albeit always a proper and lady-like one, right to the end. She was also a woman of taste. She told me of how much she loved to attend dances as a young lady, and how at one particular dance she ultimately dumped a very serious suitor for the man who would be her first husband because he wore such fine trousers.

Alice was also an adventurer, in her Indiana Presbyterian way. In the 1970s, she joined a “jet club”, a jet-age travel club that would charter trips all over the world. Among her travels, she told me, was one in 1979 that included a stop in Kabul, Afghanistan…which would have been just barely before the Soviet invasion that same year. Believe me, for ’70s-era Indiana this was about as cosmopolitan as you could possibly get. My father also fondly tells a story of once traveling in Germany with my step mom, when they literally bumped into Alice and her sister, my grandma Grace.

It was truly a pleasure and honor to have known Alice, let alone have her in the family. We all miss her dearly.