Tuesday, January 5, 2010


As threatened, I will be presenting a series of films between the monthly Core Program nights, as the Gallery's calendar permits. Celebrating those who fought the big one against the mainstream as it evolved, anime-like from a number of privately owned businesses into Megaplexor and swallowed the little uns. These pre-SBS2 portals to other worlds served the imaginations of the adventurous moviegoer for decades, providing canvas chairs, mono soundtracks, a selection of foyer-made choctops, and a sense of community for the curious.

In memoriam:

The Valhalla
The Carlton Movie House
The Trak
The Brighton Bay
The Lumiere

Here are the first few:

(Michael Ritchie, USA, 1976)

The first film shown at Melbourne's Valhalla when the film was a new release back in 1976. The rest was the history of marginal cinema exhibition in Melbourne. Happily, it's also a knockout film.

Bruce Dern and Barbara Feldon (in a rare post-Get Smart appearence) head the cast (including a teenage Melanie Griffith) in this tale of morality going elastic during a teenage beauty quest. Perhaps a subtler, closer to sober cousin to Robert Altman's epic national biopsy Nashville, Smile plays less for quick laughs than a thoughtful gaze at this most American of rituals.

The more recently made Drop Dead Gorgeous does have its moments but it looks flat and try hard beside this entry from Hollywood's golden age of social satire.

(Slava Tsukerman, USA, 1982)

Aliens vs designer punks! 1982, Manhattan. The earth sustains an alien invasion. But this is not the day the earth stands still. The invaders are so ethereal that they are invisible to the human eye, being less bodies than impulses. Previous and future cinematic visitors have variously wanted conquest or resources and these ones do too. But it's neither gold nor water they're after, it's good old fashioned smack. Yup, ethereal they might be but their spirit-hands are out and they're chasin'!

But this is sci-fi and needs some science. It comes (future pun warning) in their discovery that the endorphins released in the brain during human orgasm the high to end all highs. Where better to make such a discovery than through the life of Margaret, a country girl awash in a tide of drugs, affected nihilism, real nihilism, rotten synth pop, execrable dancing, high fashion, plain human vileness and easy easy sex. She ain't in Kansas anymore but, as she observes with a quiet strength in a striking monologue: "I can kill with my c**t."

The time capsule element in this film is not the look and copped feel of the new romantic scene in New York in the early 80s as much as the mood of independent film making at the time. Following the decade of the midnight movie (El Topo, Eraserhead, Pink Flamingoes) independent filmakers had a newly established public tradition to mine but this time also had a newly powerful indy music force that had made a virtue of intensity over formal skill. Liquid Sky is made very much from the latter spirit. Glimpses of conventionally assured cinematic skill surface throughout from the openly cheap execution of most of what's on the screen. This is self aware trash but it bears a real gravity and delivers a real saddening blow in its extraordinary closing sequence.

(Hal Ashby, USA 1971)
Harold is a teenager who's trying to get and keep his mother's attention. His mother is actually doing a lot to get her son out into the world but her methods seem designed to play out without his involvement. Harold's idea of bridging this communication gap is to stage highly authentic looking suicide attempts. His psychiatrist asks what he does to reach out to the world at large and join society. "I go to funerals," says Harold.

At one of those his attention is agressively pursued by an old lady who is curious at seeing him at all the funerals she goes to. This starts an end of winter start of spring romance like no other. Harold's death wish steadily erodes under Maude's raging life force, and he embraces the beauty of the world, knowing that it doesn't have to be as stifling as the one his mother uses all that valium to navigate. But the bony guy with the scythe isn't going anywhere.

That's why this film works. As quirky as it gets, as airily whimsical Ruth Gordon's rhapsodies become, this film never descends to a series of goofy scenes gaffer taped together in the hope that the sum of them works. There is a committed narrative here borne by strong performances and textured characterisation.

If there was any justice in this world people like Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson would be forced to watch this film and learn how it's done. Here is the range of themes celebrated by those two and almost every other indy film maker from the 1970s onward. Anti-conformity and the strength of the outcast form the centre of this film and they have seldom been examined as well (and never bettered). But this was made in 1971 why haven't those other directors learned anything is this old thing is so good, haven't they seen it? Oh they've seen it, they just can't reproduce it.

Oh, and using pre-existing songs by one artist to add to the experience isn't cloying here. Like the earlier The Graduate with Simon and Garfunkel tracks, Harold and Maude's use of Cat Stevens works more effectively than an orchestral score ever could. They just sit right. Hey Wes, don't just throw your record collection at the screen, think about it.

Best. Rom com. Ever.

(Alan Arkin, USA, 1971)

Alfred, a young self proclaimed apathist, is wrenched by an overachiever girl into society. He goes along with this, suffering one of the most intimidating meet-the-folks scenes outside of the one in Eraserhead. He even accepts her proposal of marriage. The city they live in is breaking down, power outages take on a kind of rhythm, victims of assault fall down subway steps like litter, and the homicide rate is rising to epidemic levels. Flight or fight? The choice has never been less obvious in a film, even a comedy as black as this.

Directed by Alan Arkin (gloriously over the top as a detective soaring into hysteria)and featuring a young Donald Sutherland as a hip priest. Arkin had starred in Catch 22 the year before and Elliot Gould and Sutherland in MASH (also 1970). These two films heavily criticised U.S. involvement in Vietnam through the filter of other wars. Little Murders might well be thought of as the home front version of those.

Absurdism verite? Romblacom? You decide.

(Michelangelo Antonioni, USA, 1970)
Having reduced Swinging London to an essential oil in Blow Up Michelangelo Antonioni turned his deep gaze to the student protest raging in the USA. Mark, a student who restlessly exits a student sit-in soon becomes politicised when he is arrested at a demonstration. In a series of scenes that Michael Moore would green up from Mark and a friend assemble a small arsenal of weapons without licences but a truckload of smooth talk from legitimate gunshops. Then something really really bad happens and Mark is on the run. Well "takes flight" might be more apt.

As this is happening, Daria, a young woman, decides to drive across the desert to get to her boss' grand late 60s sci fi house on top of a mesa. Her path is crossed by Mark's and one of the oddest and most exciting mating rituals ensues (and that's before you get to the desert love-in).

The sparseness of the dialogue, plot and landscape are intentional and effective. This is not an examination of youth culture or the protest movement (like the contemporary Punishment Park or Medium Cool) it's mythmaking. Antonioni is interested in legend rather than politics and seeking a new American one to extend those of the old west. Just as steadily as he built up the Cockney star in Blow Up ony to deflate him fully Antonioni wants to suggest a path to hope in the turmoil. The sequence that expresses this, a series of spectacular cinemascope explosions is justly celebrated.

Warning: with contemporary Pink Floyd, Stones and the Youngbloods on the soundtrack this film can get seriously groovy.

(Alex Cox USA 1984)
A highway cop stops a car driven by a nervous nerdy type. He checks the boot and instantly distintegrates in a flash of intense light, leaving only a pair of smoking knee high boots. Back in desert bound nowheresville, L.A, Otto is drawn into the repossession business and is soon caught up in an intrigue involving aliens, religious loopiness, the local punk scene and a battered old Chevy that everyone seems to want. This film would have been pitched with one word: cult!

Brit Alex Cox took his love of American movies and spaghetti westerns to the United States of A. to fashion a film "for today". Perhaps I'm sounding harsh but I'm only trying to do it justice. See, this movie isn't so much dated as traited. If you surveyed the themes of mid 1980s independent cinema and dropped anything uncommon to all of them what you'd have left is this one. This is from the era when new films were described as cult before their release (bugger having to slave away being projected in fleapits at midnight for eight years before that honour could be bestowed). Much in the same way you could follow a recipe for a rock song from a previous era and create a perfect Syd Barret or Monks track (oh wait, people do do that) Alex the C. looked around him and dressed his satirical agenda with the trappings of the today of 1984. Absurdly first marketed as an actioner this returned from its flop to ride the arthouses o' the world. Everyone saw it and you were no one if you didn't love it.

So is it any good? Yeah, pretty much. Take the context away and it roars along. Emilio Estavez (then Martin Sheen's more famous son) sneers and winces through a nice turn in nihilism. Harry Dean Stanton, fresh from "cult" superstardom in (the execrable) Paris Texas is a must. The sci fi story is fun (if less profound than Liquid Sky's) and well sustained. Depsite what I've written here, I'm showing this one because I do think it's worth seeing.

Cox went on to the embarrassing but successful Sid and Nancy (which at least brought Gary Oldman to the world's attention) and a fraying string of further efforts. He's slated to helm a film for release this year entitled Repo Chick. Don't do it, Alex!

But come and see this one as it's a hoot.

(Neil La Bute USA 1997)
Two white collars travel to a marginal centre to set up a local branch of their unidentified business. They get to talking about career and women and one step at a time arrive at a vague plan to find a woman and destroy her. The woman they find is beautiful, accomplished and to round off the checklist for a perfect victim, disabled. She is deaf, assuring one of them at one point: I can't hear you when you lie.

This is interpersonal politics at its most frightening and sophisticated. Like the Restoration comedies it was inspired by, it examines what it would condemn to the extent of sometimes appearing to be indistinguishable from it. There is a one liner that shocks through its severe misogyny and sheer wit. This is a writer who understands that names can break bones far more efficiently than sticks and stones. Based on director Neil La Bute's own stage play, this film made for about $10.50 in the late '90s, never feels stagey. Aaron Eckhart reported that a woman approached him after an early screening and told him that she hated him. He corrected her, saying, "No, you hate my character, Chad." "No," replied the woman, "I hate you."

La Bute was softened by success in Hollywood, however modest it was, and reached a career nadir with a pointless remake of The Wicker Man. He's since returned to writing for the stage. Perhaps he'll find his way back with something like this. We can only hope.

(Jaromil Jires, Czechoslovakia, 1971)
Stills or extracts from this film make it look like an extra stylish euro-pudding gothfest but it isn't. Valerie is entering puberty and it's scary: there's blood, confusion, pain and the attention of males, particularly the members of the very creepy clergy, all mix in to make the time pass strangely and dangerously.

Instead of using the by then worn devices of cinema verite to illustrate such a kitchen sink subject, Jires instead started with Valerie's emotional state, took it literally and provided cinema with one of the most surreal representations of the rites of passage. Daywalking vampires are variously extended family members or preach from the pulpit and other monstrosities mix with achingly beautiful imagery. This film is told in emotional rather than narrative sense despite some recognisable conventions of narrative cinema perceptible throughout. This is a celebration conducted by its own rules as much as were Alice in Wonderland or Maldoror.

Screening dates as they become known to me. More to follow, over....

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