Clive Davies' recent book from Headpress, Spinegrinder, is an absolutely massive brick of a thing, and well-deserving of the appellation “tome.” It comes in at over 1000 pages, and crams in 8000 reviews (“or thereabouts”) within said pages. It's a fascinating bit of reading, covering as it does so many films. Additionally, it really lives up to its subtitle, “The Movies Most Critics Won't Write About.” It's an invaluable and entertaining reference, especially for those bin diggers looking to find a diamond in the rough. Now living in Japan, Davies gives a little bit of introduction at Spinegrinder's outset, but we were curious as to the particulars of how the book came together.
STARBURST: How did you come to be in Japan?
Clive Davies: I met a Japanese girl in London many moons ago. The whole long-distance relationship thing is quite tough, so I moved here and married her. Totally unexpected turn-of-events.
What is the review process like? Are you writing these as you go, or are they compiled from notes afterward?
Good question. I would say 95% of the reviews in the book were written immediately after viewing the film in question, usually for the first time (I take notes as I watch, and believe I am responsible for the destruction of at least a few acres of rainforest!). When I first started writing back in 1999, I did write some reviews from memory (stuff I’d seen in the preceding 4-5 years, mostly). The small pool of reviews that I wished I had time to go back and redo before publication belong to this category, and are not necessarily as accurate (in terms of plot details, etc.) as the rest of the book, but the overall assessments are probably on the money.
The inclusion of Hollywood blockbusters alongside obscure Asian cult cinema make for an interesting flip-though. Did you include every movie you saw, period?
The idea of including all sorts of fare, regardless of budget, genre, etc. was just one of the many ways I was inspired by the trailblazing Michael J. Weldon, particularly his second Psychotronic Video Guide, which came out when I was teenager and changed my life. On the video shelves (spot the outdated reference!) this stuff exists side-by-side, and is all fair game for the punter in search of a good time. I certainly wanted to include every movie I ever saw (within reason and certain genre boundaries), but I just couldn't get it all typed up in time (I used to write reviews longhand to begin with. There goes another acre of rainforest!). There's about an additional 2,000 reviews that I’m slowly slogging through, typing up, and updating for inclusion in Volume 2. Plus, we maxed out the printer at publication, so a few hundred were cut out then as well.
Alternately, were there films you specifically sought out once you started work on the book?
From the beginning I had an idea that there are certain strata of cult movies and movies in certain genres such as horror etc. that must be addressed, otherwise the book's worldview seems off-balance somehow. I think I managed to get all the canonical milestones in there (bar a few exceptions that had me kicking myself later), to provide context if nothing else (how many new ways are there of saying that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a classic?).
After those were out of the way, it was pretty much a free-for-all. If it belonged to a cult/exploitation-friendly genre in some way, it didn't matter whether it was a theatrical, direct-to-video or amateur production, if it got watched it got written about. I sucked a few Tokyo video shops totally dry! I now realise that I was temporarily insane for a decade or so, thinking I could review every single title out there! The future for Spinegrinder is somewhat more selective. Losing stamina, getting old!
The tone of Spinegrinder is interesting, in that you're willing to acknowledge when a film is merely decent, rather than everything being either superlative or absolute dreck. Is that honest approach what attracted Headpress?
You would have to ask Headpress about that. I've always appreciated honest criticism and don't know how else to write, really. Seems like common sense to me. Sometimes something mildly diverting is just what you're in the mood for, so those films should be identified as so, just as the classics and turkeys are.
In the introduction, you speak about the forward-thinking Japanese approach to preserving film, and comment several times about comparing different version of the movies you've watched. Do you think there's a particular reason for these differences?
There are always reasons I guess, but on a case-by-case basis. I have no blanket explanation for this practice of altering things for different markets. Or why the Japanese seemed to be so diligent in their approach to the home video market. This ‘Video Watchdog-like need to know the details’ is an interesting geek culture fetish actually, occasionally for the greater good of film preservation, but sometimes just existing for the sake of itself I think. The act of research and reference can be enjoyed by some people (myself included I have to admit) purely on its own merits. Knowing that an obscure Taiwanese kung fu movie exists in a 5-second longer cut on Korean VCD, but with a different soundtrack is the kind of useless info I live for! And yes, I do know I need to get out more. Some filmmaker needs to make a Jorge Luis Borges-style Library of Babel documentary on this endless self-reflexive empire of signs.
Additionally, are there Western films of which you've only been able to find Japanese versions?
Off the top of my head, I can't think of anything specific of interest that existed only in a Japanese version, or in an alternate cut for Japan only (apart from the much sought after, mythologised ‘Far East’ violent versions of Hammer productions that were apparently distributed back in the day). Of course, there are many examples of longer and/or alternate cuts that ended up preserved on Japanese VHS and laserdisc. To this day, grey-market dealers of the obscure still offer prints sourced from these Japanese sources. But it depends on your genre of choice. Spaghetti western fans will have an equal amount of rare Greek-sourced bootlegs in their collections.
In terms of watching some of these films early on, you say that your wife was the translator. Talk a little about the experience of watching a movie where someone is having to explain the dialogue second-hand, and how you've progressed since then.
We would sit down to watch a raw, un-subtitled Japanese VHS together. She would stop every now and again to explain what was going on, or I would stop and ask questions if I was confused. This process could take a long time depending on the type of film it was. A Nikkatsu roman porno would be pretty easy to figure out, while a complex dialect-heavy yakuza flick with surprise twists and turns could take a while! She would also supply me with accurate cast & crew credits (no IMDB entries for some of these, or bare-bones at best). Since then, my own language skills have improved a bit (not as much as I would like, because I’ve wasted so many years watching crap films!), especially the online research stuff (the JMDB, Japanese Movie Database is the place to go for in-depth cast & crew info, but it's always a few years behind-the-times). The biggest difference since those days though is that within the last ten years there has been a flood of releases (both legit and not so legit) of Japanese films of all type, with reliable English subtitles. It would take a while to get through this stuff before you would run out and have to switch back to the raw stuff again, and in the meantime who know what else will turn up. So we are living in pretty good times in terms of the availability of this stuff.
You suggest another book in a decade or so, and even promise in the book more reviews at the website, but it's not been updated in nearly two years. What are you up to these days, other than recovering from "celluloid poisoning"?
First off, credit where credit is due, the term “celluloid poisoning” was coined (unless he nicked it off someone else) by Richard Lewis, a very good teacher I had for a one-year filmmaking crash course in Llanelli from 1997-98. Actually, the way my approach to writing for Spinegrinder, and my life and interests in general, have changed since I wrapped up Volume 1 has been rather substantial – too much to go into in detail here without boring everyone, and I hope to address that in the intro to Volume 2. There will be a future volume, and I hope it will be in about a decade, but it will be a very different collection than the current book (although it will essentially still be just a collection of a few thousand film reviews!).
The website is not a priority at present, I have to confess. I'm keeping the domain and space, but have no idea what do with it. It’s awaiting its utility. Apologies for anyone who has tried to negotiate the very ugly, basic design of the site, or has been awaiting updates. Go watch a move instead!
You can find a taste of Clive Davies' writings at Spinegrinderweb.com, and purchase the book from Headpress.