Neither rotten, nor wonderfully brave: “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” (1975)

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By Scott Ross

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For reasons that no longer matter (my mother had grounded me, okay?) and even though I had the dialogue soundtrack in my small but growing LP collection, I managed to miss Young Frankenstein when it opened in 1974. I saw, it, finally, a couple of years after, at a late show to which I was taken by my sister and her fiancée, a screening memorably marred by the movie-long ululations of some insufferable fool who apparently also had the album and who, as if Mel Brooks’ movie was a Rocky Horror Picture Show avant le lettre, shouted out the punchlines before the actors on the screen could. Why he wasn’t beaten up, or at the very least forcibly gagged, during the show remains one of life’s eternal mysteries. In any case, I did know Gene Wilder, from the ill-fated 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which I saw at the age of 10, from a television airing of the somewhat logy but intermittently hilarious 1970 spoof Start the Revolution without Me, and from another dialogue soundtrack of a movie I hadn’t seen, The Producers. Although I could not have articulated then quite what it was that so appealed to me about Wilder, the boy I was would surely have nodded in complete agreement had he encountered Pauline Kael’s contemporary comments concerning that inspired comedian.

Reviewing Revolution Kael noted: “Wilder has a fantastic shtick. He builds up a hysterical rage about nothing at all, upon an imaginary provocation, and it’s terribly funny. It’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t expect to work more than once, but it works each time and you begin to wait for it and hope for it — his self-generated neurasthenic rage is a parody of all the obscene bad temper in the world.” Assaying Young Frankenstein four years later, Kael again returned to this theme, which was so much a part of Wilder’s unique comic persona: “It’s easy to imagine him as a frizzy-haired fiddler-clown in a college production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, until he slides over into that hysteria which is his dazzling specialty. As a hysteric, he’s funnier even than Peter Sellers. For Sellers, hysteria is just one more weapon in his comic arsenal — his hysteria mocks hysteria — but Wilder’s hysteria seems perfectly natural. You never question what’s driving him to it; his fits are lucid and total. They take him into a different dimension — he delivers what Harpo promised.”

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If you think of him intoning Leslie Bricusse’s mad doggerel with increasing — yes — hysteria on that boat trip through psychedelica in Willy Wonka, or screaming gynecological imprecations at the innards of a row of baked chickens in everything you always wanted to know about sex, or at his most panic-stricken in the early scenes of The Producers (“I’m in pain! And I’m wet! And I’m still hysterical!”) you know precisely what Kael meant. And it’s a sustaining shtick; it goes with his slightly popped blue eyes and those unruly shocks of curly blonde hair. You wait for him to explode into hysteria just as you anticipate his disbelieving “Son of a bitch!” every time he’s thrown off the train in Silver Streak. It works more than once; it works every time.

Having deprived myself of Young Frankenstein, which he co-wrote, I was even more determined, at the end of 1975, to see Wilder’s debut as both screenwriter and director. I remember laughing a great deal at The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother then, more than I did on seeing it again recently, but what stayed with me were less the big set-ups that are often only modestly successful and more the odd curlicues that give it flavor: The wanton use of song and dance, exemplified by the delicious music-hall parody “The Kangaroo Hop” which Wilder performs with Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman and in which he is all jointless hips and boneless feet; Dom DeLuise’s fruity, vaudeville ice-cream seller Italianate line readings; Marty Feldman’s distinctive orbs that shoot off in separate directions and his big, ready, close-mouthed smile; Leo McKern’s peerless delight, as a plummy Moriarty, in sending up the sorts of villain roles to which he was all too often consigned before Rumpole saved him; the way, after John Le Mesurier utters an insupportable faux pas to Queen Victoria and a document flies out of his hand, he then emits a Brooksian “Woof!” (much funnier than the sovereign’s muttered “Shit!” with which the scene ends); and Albert Finney’s amusing cameo as a member of the audience at an appalling English-language version of Un ballo in maschera and asking, in an aside to us, “Is this rotten, or wonderfully brave?” (It’s rotten.)

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Albert Finney’s cameo.

The Sherlockian parody itself is often droll, and certainly erudite. Feldman’s Scotland Yard sergeant is called Orville Stanley Sacker, a name close to Ormond Sacker, the one Conan Doyle initially gave to John Watson. Wilder’s insanely jealous (and apparently Jewish) brother to Sherlock, Sigerson, also recalls an alias under which Holmes himself went in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” one used by Nicholas Meyer in an equally playful context at the end of his Holmes pastiche The Seven Per Cent Solution. Kahn’s character is named after the Victorian singer Jenny Hill, and initially attempts to pass herself off as one Bessie Bellwood (“Won’t you come in… Miss Liar!”), another contemporary songbird. Indeed, the very title of the movie is in keeping with Doyle’s — or, if you prefer, Watson’s — method of naming his Holmes stories. If the screenplay itself is, like Blazing Saddles, rather more scattershot in total effect than the well-integrated Young Frankenstein and The Producers, it’s still a very respectable first solo effort, and certainly more intelligent than the typical American comedy then… and the depressing current norm today.

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Marty Feldman as Orville Sacker.

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Douglas Wilmer’s Sherlock Holmes alerts Throley Walters’ Watson to the presence outside their 221-B Baker Street digs.

Partaking of Wilder’s movie now is a bittersweet event. Kahn, Feldman, Kern and DeLuise are gone now, not to mention the wonderful Roy Kinnear, who contributes one of his droll turns as Moriarty’s henchman, while Wilder himself is older, and less active, although he has found a third career as a novel writer and memoirist. Brooks’ longtime musical amanuensis John Morris, who contributed the spirited underscore (and the deliciously fulsome melodies to Wilder’s song parody lyrics) is in his 80s now, and retired, as apparently is the great British production designer Terence Marsh, whose work here gives the movie much of its period authenticity and satirical wit. As with so much in American culture since the ’70s and early ’80s, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother seems the product of an entirely different country.

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Caught in murderous impulse McKern’s Moriarty remarks, “You’ve got a lovely vase.” To which DeLuise pinches the professor’s cheek and ripostes, “And you got a lovely vace!”

Although the climax of the movie is a bit like an undernourished romantic dream from which the fizz was unaccountably let out, the deliberately bad opera libretto is of the type that makes you smile rather than laugh out loud, and the enterprise as a whole is curiously insubstantial, Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother still holds undeniable pleasure.

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Feldman’s Orville Sacker as a supernumerary in the opera sequence. Those wigs don’t do much for either of them.

The single most charming sequence in the movie is the one in which, having extricated themselves from a tiny room with a buzz saw careening down its center, Wilder and Feldman cause a shocked sensation in the ballroom to which they escape as they slowly realize the blade has sheared away the seats of their fancy dress suits. I could have done without the flaming bandleader simpering his approval at the pairs’ exposed backsides, but the way in which Wilder conceived the gag, his acutely comic execution of it, and the delicious sang-froid with which the two comedians meet the challenge, places the scene as among the most surprising and delightful of any shot in the past 40 years. (And, anent that faggy conductor, you have to admit that Wilder did have a cute tush.)

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Feldman and Wilder in the movie’s most charming sequence. Wilder has a cute tushy.

It’s hard to imagine Woody Allen coming up with this, or even Mel Brooks, and certainly neither would have given the moment its air of sweetly inevitable innocence. Perhaps, more than his comic bluster, that very guilelessness is the reason so many of us responded to Gene Wilder as an earlier generation took to Harpo Marx, and why his essential decency belongs to another century.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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All for the hunting ground: Wolfen (1981)

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By Scott Ross

I owe my affection for this underrated (and sadly under-seen) exercise in urban horror to, of all people, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, neither of whose opinions tended to sway me one way or the other. Tuning in to the Saturday afternoon edition of their then-popular PBS series Sneak Previews, I was pleasantly surprised by the clip from, and their enthusiastic recommendation of, a movie that had somehow eluded my personal radar. I grabbed a newspaper (ask your grandparents), checked the listings, saw that I could still make a matinee, and headed out.

I’d seldom seen a more gratifying movie of its kind… although just what that kind might be remains itself a tantalizing mystery. Thriller? Horror film? Supernatural fantasy? Ecological warning? “All of the above” would seem the correct answer. And that is a large part of its effectiveness; Wolfen defies easy categorization. Which may also be why it under-performed at the box-office — ’80s movies were becoming increasingly genre-defined, and that rare entry that couldn’t be pigeon-holed risked instant red ink.

Although I have been unable to unearth a budget for the picture, its total U.S. receipts were $10 million, and I seem to recall reading later that year that Wolfen cost over 20. Its director, Michael Wadleigh, known primarily for Woodstock (and for a pair of Woodstock-related documentaries on Joplin and Hendrix) was reportedly removed from the project after it went over-budget and he delivered a 4-and a half hour rough cut. That of course means little. Many filmmakers work from a lengthy first edit, paring their movies down to acceptable length between the end of filming and release into the theatres. Hence all those stories, now (alas) accepted as fact, of Stroheim screening a 9-hour version of Greed to MGM executives. Whatever his excesses, Stroheim would certainly not have expected to release a film of that length; the tragedy is that he was never allowed to shape the material he had in hand to something acceptable to Irving Thalberg that also reflected the filmmakers’ own vision. (That four editors are listed for Wolfen is a tip-off that something unusual went on behind the scenes.) What Wadleigh might or might not have added to, or subtracted from, his picture, is something we’ll never know. The trailer for Wolfen, available on the DVD, contains longer shots and some dialogue — such as Albert Finney’s police detective suggesting to Diane Venora’s terrorism expert, “You were being lured, we were being separated” by something in a crumbling South Bronx church* — but whether entire sequences, or the narrative arc, would have evolved differently is anyone’s guess.

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Captain Wilson (Albert Finney) looks askance at the possible face of his quarry.

Wolfen was based, rather loosely, on a fair-to-middling Whitley Streiber horror novel which, whatever its relative virtues, was most decidedly not ecologically benign. At its climax, the characters who inspired the Finney-Venora pairing in the movie shoot it out with the non-supernatural beings, killing several and leaving the reader with the sense that humans will soon hunt down and obliterate the predators. Wadleigh’s adaptation (written by the director and David M. Eyre, Jr., with an un-credited assist from Eric Roth) presents a more enlightened, conciliatory ending — a kind of unofficial truce, in which humanity in the person of the Finney character makes a separate peace, accepting the presence of (and perhaps, the need for) what he alone fully comprehends. But whatever its ecological bona fides, Wolfen is in no way preachy… or at least, until its final moments, when Finney’s voice is heard in sober voice-over observing, “In his arrogance, man knows nothing of what exists. There exists on this earth such as we dare not imagine; life as certain as our death, life that will prey on us as surely as we prey on this earth.” Yet even that statement does not seem, despite its loftiness, sententious, or even essentially debatable.

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The mean, barren streets of the South Bronx in Wolfen, where not all the predators are human.

Wolfen achieves its enveloping tension in a leisurely fashion, its opening sequence teasing out an increasing sense of dread. The movie’s first shots, of the lead-up to an abandoned South Bronx building being imploded, the cuts timed to the off-screen voice of the demolitions expert’s count-down, fix the milieu, one we saw often in those years: Of a New York degraded; bordered by hideous poverty, dangerous —  frightening. A lunar landscape where only the brave or the desperate go out in the daylight, let alone in darkness. It’s the geography of misery which later in 1981 would be immortalized by Daniel Petrie and Heywood Gould in their gritty, disturbing Fort Apache — The Bronx. In Wolfen, the violent, inexplicable deaths of a wealthy developer, his wife and their chauffeur/bodyguard come with shocking rapidity, but only after we sense they are being stalked by an unseen force, one whose contours will remain mysterious for some time to come. It is here too that Wadleigh and the movie’s extraordinary cinematographer Gerry Fisher first weave their compelling spell, aided by the then-recent Steadicam and an in-camera effect similar to thermography we will come to realize are the wolfen’s point-of-view. Finally, Lon Bender’s sound design, dropping ambient noise away and heightening the sounds of the creatures’ prey, especially their heartbeats, places us securely in a world beyond the normative. We are in the hands of people who understand not only that distinctive immersion into the preternatural requires for its fullest weight every device in the modern filmmaker’s tool-kit, but that to achieve a total effect its usage must be sparing.

The fulsome wide-screen look Wadleigh and his gifted collaborators designed for Wolfen almost make one weep for the loss to American movies of his nearly unerring eye. While the city is seen largely in autumnal cloudiness (except at night, of course, wherein the terrors reside) the images have a sharpness and clarity that throb and sing. That the song is a dirge in no way lessens one’s admiration.

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Finney and Venora in the blighted South Bronx landscape.

Albert Finney, who returned to the movie fold that year after a lengthy absence with no fewer than three pictures, portrays Captain Dewey Wilson with little hint, until the third act, of the emotional problems that have temporarily side-lined the detective’s career. Some of the character’s fragile psychology may have been lost when Wadleigh was taken off the movie, but what we sense is that Wilson is not a man too easily spooked, which makes his eventual fragmentation all the more effecting. Despite his somewhat sloppy, lived-in appearance, Wilson is exceptionally intelligent, and it suits the casting; Finney (like Peter O’Toole) is at his best and most believable playing men with bright interior lives. Wadleigh and his co-scenarists give Wilson an easy, bantering aspect that is best represented in his early scenes with Venora:

Finney: You wanna a shot?
Venora: Have you got any ice?
Finney: Only in my heart.
Venora: Why are you a cop?
Finney: Oh, I like to kill. It’s a habit I picked up and it’s… it’s hard to shake.

As Wilson’s distaff counterpart, Diane Venora likewise brings intelligence and a light gravitas to her role. With her long hair and serious face, she’s apt to remind you slightly of a more beautiful Genevieve Bujold, and if the role of Rebecca is not as vividly defined as that of Dewey Wilson, she’s no less absorbing than Finney. Venora is a fascinating case: She’s always interesting, projecting a rare intelligence and sang-froid to go with her striking features. Whether she desired stardom or eschewed it (she took off acting for five years in the late 1980s to raise a daughter, and for a movie actress, being out of sight — and worse, aging — is akin to dropping off the face of the earth) she managed to appear in three of the most interesting movies of the past 35 years: This one, Bird (in which she was a fine very Chan Parker) and Heat, as Pacino’s complicated wife. A lot of performers have earned immortality on a great deal less.

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Gregory Hines as Wittington. Why didn’t anyone warn him that the Black Guy always dies?

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Edward James Olmos as Eddie Holt.

The supporting cast is likewise impeccable: Gregory Hines as the smart, joking pathologist Wittington, whom we are genuinely sorry to see sacrificed to narrative inevitability. (Why didn’t anyone warn him that The Black Guy always dies?); Tom Noonan as the oddball zoologist Ferguson; the venerable Dick O’Neill, his forelocks always seeming to proceed him, as Dewey’s pragmatic boss Warren; Dehl Berti as the sage “Old Indian” (as the credits name him) and who seems lit from within by something we can neither grasp nor aspire to; and, especially, Edward James Olmos, looking, despite that pitted face, astonishingly beautiful as the cynical, mocking Native American Eddie Holt, who may or may not be a genuine danger. The smaller roles are nearly as juicily cast: Reginald VelJohnson has a funny bit as a cheerfully blasé morgue attendant, and the then-ubiquitous James Tolkan contributes a vivid cameo as a lab technician.

As screenwriters, Wadleigh and Eyre proved canny and adept, their dialogue not merely serving their story but providing little mental cues along the way that pay off in surprising ways, such as the exchange between Wilson and Wittington over the nearly-severed head of a corpse:

Wilson: It was instantaneous?
Wittington: Instantaneous? You seen a chicken run around with its head cut off? Hey, nobody ever thinks about the head. During the French Revolution, when they chopped heads off… they’d pick them out the basket and look them in the face. Most went out right away, in shock. Every fifth head or so was alive. Wide awake… eyes blinking, mouth trying to say something. […] The brain can live without oxygen for more than a minute. That’s a long time, buddy boy. How’d you like to see your own body and know you’re dead?

Or this, in the Indians’ dive bar, where Dewey goes after a deadly encounter with the wolfen:

Eddie: For 20,000 years, Wilson — ten times your fucking Christian era — the ‘skins and wolves, the great hunting nations, lived together, nature in balance. Then the slaughter came. The smartest ones, they went underground into a new wilderness: Your cities. You have your technology but you lost. You lost your senses.
Old Indian: In their world, there can be no lies, no crimes.
Eddie: No need for detectives.
Old Indian: In their eyes, you are the savage.
Dewey: They kill to protect family?

Old Indian: In the end, it’s all for the hunting ground.

Dewey: They kill…

Old Indian: The sick. The abandoned. Those who will not be missed.

Dewey: More than that.

Old Indian: They kill to survive. They kill to protect.

Dewey: Family?

Old Indian: Man kills for less. But in the end, it is all for the hunting ground.

In a lesser movie, these sentiments might carry with them a tinge of The Noble Savage. Here, however, they bear an almost crushing weight. Dewey has no cogent arguments, nor can he; the proof of what he’s being told is all around him, disintegrating before his eyes. More, it is what provides his paycheck. Wolfen, coming at the very beginning of the Reagan Administration, was, despite its fantastic trappings, a warning. We ignored it, and others like it, at our peril. We live the result of that intransigence — and your children or grandchildren may die of it.

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Diane Venora, Dick O’Neil and Albert Finney, seen through wolfen eyes at the climax.

 

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Finney’s final stand-off with the wolfen, hunter become prey.

But Wolfen is not merely a “message movie,” however urgent that message was. It’s designed to intrigue, and to frighten, and it does so masterfully. If you heed its environmentalism, so much the better. But these imperatives are tucked into a film whose makers know how to scare you… and how to offer you beauty in the hunt. Its images are the kind that illustrate why seeing a movie at home, even on the widest plasma screen, cannot begin to replicate the experience of having a film like this wash over you in a theatre. On the DVD, you can barely see the red eyes that shoot forward in the old church, a moment that in the theatre shoved you against the back of your seat. And the lyricism of those rushing, hallucinatory Louma-crane-and Steadicam shots from the wolfen’s’ point of view (such as the moment when one marauding beast leaps over a fence) lose their breathtaking magic on anything smaller than a full Panavision theatre-screen. Even the thermographic effects are less, although they still carry weight, as when we see the great white wolf though Dewey’s eyes, and recognize that he, at least, has gained back at least some small aspect of the sense Eddie had in mind.

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One of the wolfen, menacing Wittington just before it strikes.

Seeing Wolfen again, in the 21st century, one is struck by its concerns, not merely with ecology but with the growing surveillance state and the concomitant fixation on security from human terror as its stated raison d’être. While this is not hammered home, it exists, on the movie’s periphery. Post-NSA ascendancy, we are reminded again of yet another of the movie’s warnings that went un-heeded.

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Dewey fragmented: The rational man slowly comes apart as he begins to recognize that is more to the world he lives in, and thought he understood.

Wolfen features an early score by James Horner that is eerily effective, without bombast. Hearing it anew, you’ll catch motives and entire swatches of melody the composer later stole for his more well-known Aliens score.† Well, at least he was ripping himself off then and not, as was his later wont, lifting from others.

A final note: When a movie one has seen, and loved, in youth, is later seen exhibited in a truncated, or censored, fashion, it can be a deeply frustrating and disorienting experience. In the case of Wolfen, the typically nebulous “music rights issues”†† necessitated the trimming, in current prints (including home video), of Tom Waits’ cameo in a Bronx dive; as his sudden, un-heralded appearance, singing “Jitterbug Boy,” was one of the signal pleasures of the original, having him quite literally dropped out of the picture disturbs one’s sense of time as well as enjoyment. In effect, a loss like this is a wrenching theft of memory. It’s a violation.

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*Alert viewers will note that the voice-over on the trailer’s soundtrack does not seem to be Finney’s. But the loss of that dialogue is an asset; we can see Venora being lured, and not putting too fine a point on what we’ve just seen, and allowing the viewer to make that association for him-or-herself is, or ought to be, Lesson Number 1 in the Screenwriter’s Primer.

†Horner was a last-minute replacement for Craig Safan, whose initial score for Wolfen was rejected. It’s since, like Horner’s, been made available on CD.

††“Rights issues” usually means, “We decided not to pay the composer what he asked.” When one considers the obscene amounts of money media corporations such as Time-Warner, the current owner of Wolfen, have on hand the only sane response is, “Oh, for Christ’s sake, just pay them the two hundred bucks!

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

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By Scott Ross

An exercise in high style by the director Sidney Lumet. Based on the popular Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie, this is the granddaddy of all those second-rate “all-star cast” whodunits, few of which could conjure up either a comparable look or a players list quite as chic: Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, and Michael York are the suspects, Richard Widmark is the victim, Martin Balsam is the Wagon Lit official assisting Poirot’s investigation, and Albert Finney is the fussy little Belgian possessor of the famed “little gray cells.” (The second-billed actors are Colin Blakely, Denis Quilley and George Coulouris —  best remembered as the guardian and nemesis of Charles Foster Kane — as the assisting physician.)

Finney, nearly unrecognizable under the ornate moustache, patent-leather hair and ageing make-up, gives a deliciously robust performance. Poirot aficionados may cry foul, but there’s surely more than one way to play the role; Peter Ustinov, for example, was a delightful, and very compassionate, Poirot, but, with his bulk, hardly the “little man” the character is invariably described as by Christie.

Paul Dehn wrote the nifty screenplay, with an un-credited assist from Anthony Shaffer; Christie refused to allow a movie of this perennial favorite until movie censorship relaxed enough to allow her original ending to be filmed, and if you haven’t seen, or read, it, I won’t spoil her reasons for you here. The lush score is by Richard Rodney Bennett, and his lilting waltz theme for the locomotive nearly drove Bernard Herrmann mad (“No!” he bellowed on hearing it. “It’s the death-train!”) The beautifully gauzy color cinematography is by the great Geoffrey Unsworth, and the marvelous Orient Express sets were the work of Tony Walton, who designed the staterooms and other compartments to scale and with four walls, allowing Lumet to shoot each suspect interview twice, once straight on and a second time from below, making the eerie claustrophobia even more real, and more unsettling.

The essential elegance of the project was perfectly summed up by the late Richard Amsel in his superbly stylized poster.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross