by Sam Juliano
Among the Albany Public Library’s more inconspicuous contributions to the film community is it’s formidable archives of obscure and eclectic titles that offer the most enterprising card-holders a treasure trove of off-the-beacon-track rarities and prompt current updates. For an unbeatable price it’s a way to gleefully indulge oneself in many works that can’t be obtained in many on line retail stores.
Fecund and remarkably prolific writer Kevin Gilbert (who goes by the pen name of ‘Samuel Wilson’) has parlayed this unique availability into the main source material for a now three-year-old blogsite named Mondo 70, which represents a labor of love for one of the internet’s most gifted writers. Born in Troy, a neighboring suburb of New York State’s capital, “Wilson,” who holds a PhD in history from the University of Massachusetts, humbly insists he’s not especially knowledgeable in any particular subject, but the scholarly heft of his prose and the level of depth in his comments suggest otherwise. Launched in November of 2008, Mondo 70, whose title pays homage to the Italian cult cinema that Wilson has a hankering for -and has developed a remarkable aptitude for- is a place for the online cineaste with enterprising interests to indulge in engaging, often extraordinary essays of world classics and genre movies that may have slipped by the collective radar. Indeed in an extensive e mail interview completed two weeks ago Wilson asserted: “My actual model are the cult movie magazines, whose readers expect to discover things eccentric and exotic, and in my case sometimes artistic as well.” Wilson is making reference here to Tim Lucas’ Video Watchdog (a popular long-running bi-monthly on specialized horror and fantasy) and Shock Cinema among others. Wilson confides: “While I still like American horrors best, their Italian counterparts have impressed me the most cinematic-ally. There is so much to the cinematography, and the often contra punctually pleasant music -and sometimes even the gore- do much to inspire disquiet that theirs may be the ultimate horror cinema.”
Wilson’s exceeding grasp and appreciation of film criticism and volumes by the most celebrated writers has enhanced the scholarly heft and scope of his online presentation, but it has also afforded him the opportunity to grace the film community with some remarkable rhetorical erudition in applying his own individual insights. Blogsites that are lucky enough to receive visits from Wilson are invariably treated to thoughtful, high-octane submissions, that reflect a wide scope and knowledge of literature, history, form and style, and a filmmaker’s philosophy, politics and manner of artistry. Wilson is almost always generous with the length of his comments, and unlike some other bloggers, he is far less interested in cheer-leading than he is furthering the artistic appreciation inspired by the original posts. For Wilson the “film’s the thing”, and wasted rhetoric is seen as a missed opportunity. Yet Wilson is polite, warm and even-tempered, and never displays the slightest contentiousness to any budding disagreement either at Mondo 70 or at other blogs.
One of the better ways, it seems, to provide a brief but serviceable survey of Wilson’s taste and diversity in assessing film would be to consider his response to a query that asks him to name his favorite film volumes. Wilson opines: “The one I re-read most often is Walter Kerr’s Silent Clowns, even though I can refute some of his observations from direct experience of the films he wrote about. It combines nostalgia and criticism in perfect measures. I also admire David J. Skal’s “The Monster Show”, Ronald Haver’s “David O. Selznick’s Hollywood”, Christopher’s “Spaghetti Westerns”, Thomson’s “Biographical Dictionary” and all the volumes I’ve read in the University of California Press’ “History of American Cinema series.” Like a good number of movie aficionados, Wilson cites his younger days as a time of idols and strong impressions, a time when the aforementioned silent clowns inspired both a biographical and artistic interest. In subsequent discussion at Mondo 70 and at Wonders in the Dark Wilson admits he has always ‘been torn’ when attempting to answer the inevitable question as to ‘who is better, Chaplin or Keaton?’ The gifted blogger-writer hedges his bets in responding, asserting that Chaplin was the more versatile, but Keaton (as the “first action hero”) and the most perfect architect of silent comedy stakes his own claim to the top spot. The Albany blogger talks of ‘movies as a cultural phenomenon’ as an outgrowth of his early viewing of Days of Thrills and Laughter, considers James Whales’ Frankenstein his favorite of all films, and presently manages about a dozen film viewings at home. While the majority are seen on DVD, Wilson sees a fair amount in the movie theater.
The weekly feature “Wendigo Meets Vampire Films” is posted in deference to a revered high school friend with a lifelong affinity to vampire cinema, and it has helped to define cult underpinnings of Mondo 70. Ever the thoughtful and creative blogger, Wilson offered up a novel approach in reviewing the Oscar winner The King’s Speech, while penning some astonishing traditional essays on a wide range of directors and stars including Bertolucci, Malick and Harry Langdon, all of which were comparable to the bests essays available online. He regards the four-part series on Jacpetti and Prospero’s magnum opus Goodbye Uncle Tom (“in which I addressed the two versions available and their different messages as well as issues of racism, sexploitation and political analysis”) as the most the most auspicious he’s ever showcased at his blogsite, while is is proud of the comprehensive defense he made for Capra’s 40’s classic Meet John Doe.
Wilson has long been an avid fan of the ‘movie epic’ and admits that when a kid, this genre pretty much justified a film’s existence. Says Wilson: “They seemed like the reason big screens were made, while more conventional dramas and romances may well have been put on television, and for a long time I associated length with quality. I’m more critical towards epics now, but I’ll still defend the best against those who dismiss what they see as mere bigness. Something like Anthony Mann’s El Cid needs no apology, and Kubrick’s Spartacus doesn’t need much, but I also retain considerable respect for admittedly flawed by heroically ambitious epics like Cleopatra, The Greatest Story Ever Told and John Wayne’s The Alamo.
In a wholly fascinating and intricately candid interview that broaches prevalent issues of taste, influences and blogging approach (as well as some personal revelations) Wilson reveals some of the clues as to why is has come to be regarded by his peers as one of the most talented writers in their midst, and to why Mondo 70 has taken on a reverent regard among the most discerning of cineastes.
SJ: What inspired you to launch Mondo 70 and how long has the site been running?
SJ: What single review or series of reviews are you most proud of?
SW: It looks like I’ve already answered this question in part, but the influence of silent comedy on modern cinema is immeasurable. Buster Keaton is really the first “action hero” in the modern sense of the word — as opposed to swashbucklers like Douglas Fairbanks,– with The General the first action movie. I’ve always wondered whether the Keaton cult as it grew during the 1960s had a direct influence on what we’ve come to call “roller-coaster ride” movies of nonstop stuntwork (aka “gags”) and effects. If so, too many filmmakers have lost the point of the gags. In a reverse of natural history, the evolution of modern action movies from silent comedy is birds turning into dinosaurs.
SW: You may overrate me here but from studying the noir countdowns by Maurizio Roca at Wonders and Dave at Goodfella’s Movie Blog I’ve developed my own theory of noir’s evolution as a synthesis of hard-boiled crime cinema from the Thirties with a gothic sensibility that flourished in the early 1940s and justified the inclusion of expressionist visual elements into crime stories. It’s almost a slap in the face to read through Manny Farber’s reviews from the period and find him regularly dissing noir for visual and other kinds of pretentiousness. But as a pessimist myself I enjoy noirish fatalism, with Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross perhaps the most enjoyable example of it.
SJ: How many movies do you generally watch per week, and has that number risen in recent years, with the wider of availability of product?
SW: The number has grown since I bought a computer with a DVD drive and signed up with Netflix, to something like a dozen in a good week.
SJ: How do you regard the general state of film criticism today as opposed to the glory days of Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Stanley Kauffmann and Dwight MacDonald among others?
SW: Nobody writing for print today is getting a volume in the Library of America from what I can see. The wire-service reviewers (Lemire, Lasalle, etc.) are smothering most of the local newsprint critics, which leaves the field to us bloggers. David Thomson is probably the dean of critics today, but I wouldn’t give him much credit for changing how anyone sees movies.