Sunday, October 31, 2010

Rock on Film Pt 3: Concert films

Concert films. Fun as an immersion exercise but winceable to see on the shelf with all the real movies. They can give visitors the wrong impression (did you really need to own a copy?) You might like the occasional plunge into an immersive experience or just plug into a favourite song now and then. Are they history, narcissism, both or neither?

Whatever the motive do they deliver? Do they take you there? Are they more self-indulgence than gestures of outreach? An occasional series. First up a contrasting pair:

 Right, well, this is a barn door of a target as it is so much a product of its time that it’s almost obligatory to ridicule it for its excess and complete lack of irony. This is a document of dinosaurs walking the earth, gigantic and unassailable, when rockstarism was celebrated and fandom a matter of plain religious devotion. The fandom is built into this film and far from being a document of a concert, it is a faith maintenance device.

This film started life as a legitimately narcissistic exercise and then just bloated out and kept bloating right up to its release date and into the reputation of its all important soundtrack album. But it was troubled from the start. The director hired for the job proved inadequate for the task, hopelessly out of his depth in the logistics of capturing a live band on the scale of, say, the biggest live act in the world of the time. Another director was found and finished the job with far truer results. But there was more.

Someone had the idea of extending the concert experience with sequences drawing on the band’s mystique. These would be daydreams or fantasy landscapes, places where the musicians might go while in the midst of musical euphoria. And, further, some context of their lifestyles would all add up to a complete experience for the fan of what it was like to live and play at the top of the mountain.

So how did it go? Where to start? Ok, the beginning might do. Remember the fantasy sequences? Well Led Zep’s movie started with the fantasy of the band’s manager. Who would do that? Well, Peter Grant, an ex boxer who had done a lot for the band in terms of surrounding them in a fog of mystique and fear, assisting them with record record deals and concert tour takings etc etc. He was no slouch and kept the big lead balloon aloft. So, his fantasy sequence begins proceedings. He’s a Capone-style gangster and along with a lot of other gangsters raids a Nazi operational centre and machine guns it up with some of the goofiest gore effects you’re likely to see outside of a Romero zombie movie knockoff. Ok, that was interesting, what about the band?

Well, then we’re off to ol’ Blighty where a delivery boy cycles o’er hill ‘n’ dale through endless rural estates to hand each band member an envelope with the details of the next US tour. Singer, Robert Plant is en famille, with his wife watching his kids splash about in a stream. John Bonham tortures a tilled field with a tractor, the perfect image of a black country farmer. John Paul Jones, also en famille, goes about his fatherly duties and grins with ridiculous overstatement at receiving the new tour dates. Jimmy Page is found at the end of a lengthy handheld tracking shot (like the pov of a stalker). He’s playing a hurdy gurdy by his own personal lake. No delivery boy can get a chance to pass on the tour dates, though as Jim turns around to reveal a pair of glaring scarlet lights where his eyes would normally be. It’s not shown in the film but it’s a fair bet that the delivery boy probably found a pebble to weigh the envelope down and retreat as quietly as he could. Then it’s on to New York for the concert.

Any good? Well, the tour is celebrated for being one of the band’s finest hours, firing on all four cylinders and playing epic shows for masses of the goggle-eyed devout. Except that the gigs filmed for this movie were done at the exhausted end of the tour and, while there’s a fair grab of very fine moments the whole thing is musically lacklustre, something that the soundtrack album made sadly unignorable. But this isn’t music as much as it is spectacle and what you get, as a fan, is the spectre of the mighty at work, in full strut, widescreen and in big fat dolby sound. Then there are the fantasy sequences.

Robert thinks he’s a Viking and fantasises (within his fantasy) that he’s saving a damsel locked in a tower, fighting a pair of guards left over from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (why not, Zep footed a lot of the bill for that film) and more silly gore. John Paul Jones leads a gang of masked vigilantes on horseback to … play the organ in a church before getting back home in time for a late supper.  John Bonham’s daydream is a home movie of a family party and a few bits of drag racing. If anything it lowers the interest value of his interminable drum solo. Jimmy Page climbs a cliff face and meets himself dressed as Gandalf the Grey before regressing through youth and childhood to an embryo. This one kind of works as it’s accompanied by the spooky violin bow section from Dazed and Confused.

After all this the band finish their set with one of their legendary closing numbers that morphed into a juke box of classix from blues and early rock ‘n’ roll and then it’s “New York, good night” which fades into the jet engine sound of adulation from the golden years o’ stadium rock.

I went to see this a few times when it was new, and was rapt each time, gorging on the big screen imagery and the magisterial sound. I played the album at home after an overfilled bowl of chocolate ice cream and then snoozed to it. There was a big difference between it and seeing the movie.  

Does it take you there? And beyond! But the place it more durably takes you is back in time when rock superstardom was as unchallenged as it was unironic. Led Zeppelin were reviled and ridiculed in the press on a scale that increased with their global success. The sense offered the viewer of this film that there is nothing between the band and the audience outside of mystery of the stars is palpable. Just watch as much as you can take, you’ll see.

Before flowing wizard robes there had to be cardigans

Could there be a greater change in how one band is presented when packaged in different eras than this compared to The Song Remains the Same? The earlier film was a product of a living organism, self aware and imperial. This double disc dvd comes decades after the success of the management of its legacy.

Led Zepellin’s currency is so departed that there is no longer any need to preface affection for them with an appeal to irony. While the unbridled self-celebration of the earlier film is absent from this package there remains a clear sense of distance between viewer and content.  The discs, once in the machine, launch straight into the performances, no time for breath or reflection. Worry about the menus later. The same barrier but this time it looks serious rather than risible.

Apart from one mimed clip of an early single everything here is live, warts and all. Except there is a distinct absence of warts. The image quality is stellar, even for the shot-on-video pieces and the sound is appropriately gigantic. Also, unlike the earlier film, there is a real sense that the performances presented have been very carefully handpicked. There’s even footage from the same concerts as Song but here they seem assured and powerful rather than overblown circus attractions. The false mystique removed, there’s substance there after all. Also, well considered is the decision to retain performances of the same material over time. Whole Lotta Love in 1980 sounds very very different to how it sounded in 1970. Call them what you will, LZ could keep it fresh when needed.

This package is a selected history of a band that whose live work was considered as important as its studio output for the difference between the two. That said, there’s really no reverence in the presentation, just the faceless offer of the live footage, a series of artefacts rather than a sales job. Yes, just for fans (what concert movie isn’t? ok, Gimme Shelter: I’ll do that one soon) but for fans a treat as deliciously stuffed as a Christmas turkey.

Clowns 1

In 1998 I was in a band that practiced in Brunswick. That meant I had to take the 96 tram along Nicholson St.That meant I had to do a fair bit of waiting at tramstops. I drew compulsively and would never be without a pad and a pen if I had to amuse myself. I'd buy A6 sized pads and had a fantastic Rotring Art pen with a fine nib. One afternoon at the Nic St tramstop I drew a circle which I crosshatched until it looked like a shiny ball. Or a nose. I drew eyes around it, a mouth and so on and soon had a clown. I flipped the page and started another from the circle, shiny nose outwards. Over the next year, at the tram stop, at gigs, in the National Library of Australia's restaurant,  give me about thirty seconds and I'd do you a clown.  I started naming them and then, at the suggestion of a friend, assigning roles.  This turned into a kind of ministry of clowns. I had a theme and reason for finishing the parliament of them and putting it out as a book. It would accompany the third edition of my mini comic Hysteria, as a bonus. Hysteria #3 never came out. The clowns languished in the A6 book .... until now. Here are four to start off.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Rock on film Pt 2: The Beatles

Didn't want to even start this. Too much to say. Too little. In the end I couldn't avoid it so I thought I'd get it out of the way. I'll try to offer only opinions rather than give backstory. Also, not much on the films as films. More on the depiction of rock bands on film.


John and Stu share a joke
 I saw this new at the cinema. I was happy to sit through something tryhard and naff as long as it had ok music and made a fair stab at evoking the era. I didn't expect a well rounded drama, bursting with atmosphere and a seriousness that eclipsed its occasional false steps. What's good about this film is that it doesn't have to be about the Beatles.

By centring the story on the friendship between John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe the film starts out with a purpose beyond that of a plain biopic. Lennon's resistance to losing his best friend's attention to a woman is a poignant story knowable to just about everyone in the audience. There is an increased poignancy, given that they are the Beatles, in that it could be easily claimed of Lennon that he did the same towards the end of the group's initial life.

Also, the fact that these characters future is known by the audience and we really only see them in obscurity and five minutes past it adds a lot of weight to the tale. It still doesn't have to be about the Beatles, it's just richer that it is.

There are problems with this, though. There's a scene in the bar where the band are taking a break between the gruellingly long sets they were required to play in the Hamburg dives. Lennon is complaining about the hours and the exhaustion. He says something along these lines: "I'm talking about being on stage for four hours straight, I'm talking about dying for a piss..." and closes with, "I'm talking about a hard day's night." Now, I don't care if it was Ringo who came up with that or not. I do care that the audience already knows the phrase and probably also know it's being used here is way out of time and is being plonked in there for the sake of cuteness. It strikes me that it was probably just something that wasn't deleted from the screenplay after everyone had had a little old laugh about it at the first reading. Whatever, the line serves no purpose and pushes the viewer away for a moment. Why? Some Brecthian assault on the fourth wall? Nah. Someone just thought it was cute. The problem is that film not only doesn't need cuteness, it's considerably hampered by it. The scene ends with one of the regulars (probably a hooker) offers the lads some speed. Cut to close up of Lennon looking like he's about to explode while screaming Dizzy Miss Lizzy on stage. In another scene Paul complains to John that Stu can't play. John says: "we know you're a better bass player than Stu, we all know that." Scuse? There isn't a guitarist in any rock band in history that would campaign to give it up for bass. It shows an annoying gap in the understanding of the writer. That's not trainspotting, by the way. Ask any rock bass player what they started on and see what they say. (Exception: John Entwistle) Sigh. Imagine a parent videoing his toddler's first steps. Now imagine dad puts an elf hat on the kid.

Apart from such lapses (and there are a few), Backbeat delivers a strong story of fractured friendship, youthful loyalty (such as it is), the sheer energy of people who are determined to succeed (especially as a rock band, a cultural unit typically riddled by grossly unrepresentative self-fervour) and the inevitable stretches of discomfort and boredom that starting at the bottom can offer the keen. It's not "this is how the Beatles started" but "hey, even the Beatles started like this." That's what's really good about Backbeat, it gets the age right.

Ian Hart and Stephen Dorf are superb as Lennon and Sutcliffe respectively.


John and Brian share a joke
Not an attempt to explain or in any way prove the Beatles, this cinematised play rises above its frequent awkward moments to achieve something quite fine. The story is based on the holiday Brian Epstein shared with John Lennon in Spain in 1963. The characters could almost be anybody but it is important that the younger man be beholden to the elder and that the swelling celebrity offscreen has made the younger man brattish and demanding. If you will, it's about a client managing his manager. Epstein's frustrated love for Lennon is centre screen and Lennon's various toying with it is largely the plot.

There are major events suggested without full disclosure which serves the quiet power of the piece. Much of the dialogue is on the one hand too theatrical for the screen but on the other might well serve to illustrate a kind of formal common ground for the two players where they could speak without ambiguity or with candour.

The best sequence is not between these two but involves the reappearence of an air hostess from the opening scene. She shows up unexpectedly at their hotel and Lennon claims the suite to enjoy her while his manager sulks in the lobby, filling up on sangria. The dialogue between the stewardess and Lennon shows him one unit shy of command over any woman he meets and develops into an interesting compromise. This is the best acting in the film.

On the performances, David Angus as Epstein is frequently stilted and theatrical, apparently informed by film interviews with the original (what else would there have been?). Ian Hart as Lennon owns the film, though, as he would soon after in Backbeat.

At around an hour of screentime, this won't break your attention budget and holds rewards for the open minded viewer (fabs fan or not).


A big canvas movie in the same neighbourhood as American Graffiti, this comedy of chaos is set during the Beatles first momentous US tour and their performance on the Ed Sullivan show. It's not about the Beatles, though, it's about the fans and their attempts to get in to see the show. Ultimately it's a feelgood piece which ends in a lot of resolution you can predict as soon as you get the initial character keynotes. Still there are one or two moments that have the kind of tang that American moves were allowed in the 70s. See it if on tv.


The early Beatles share a joke
Of its time which means that it couches a cute scousey laddism in some late 70s grimness. The actor playing Lennon does pretty well but looks about 30 when he should be 21 or so. Brian Epstein is a little too insubstantial for someone who would have used his class status and commercial clout locally to rope the Beatles into his corrall. American filmmaking in the 70s is a mixed bag where depictions of homosexuality are concerned. It can be as frightened as it was in Papillion or as celebratory as Rocky Horror. Here it is expressed by personal timidity that "makes sense" in a later scene of gay bashing. From memory, that incident is handled pretty well without being cloying but its appearence as a major part of the narrative seems to have commanded a particular performance style from the actor playing Epstein at odds with what he needed to be in the light of history. Just sayin'...

The Beatles themselves wanted this film prevented (The Abortion of the Beatles?) and you might wonder why, on seeing it, but if you read the credits you might get a clue when you see that Pete Best was the chief consultant. Well he was there, wasn't he? Yes he was and famously he was rejected by them at the point of their lift off into the celestium. He wasn't invited. Ringo was. So we get Pete Best as the great misunderstood genius who brought them all together and drove them to stardom. I'm exaggerating here but you won't find another account that suggests that George Martin liked Best's drumming.

Some of the hijinks are Cliff and The Shadows ish but the 70s grey carpet underneath allows a little control to provide a serious attempt at telling the well worn story plausibly. Ends on the eve of the US tour with a brief portentous exchange between Lennon and Epstein.


Paul McGann (I in Withnail and I) plays Lennon. The non-John fabs are all money grubbing grumblers driving the sole godlike genius from the garden. Goes up to the murder of one of the title characters. Does what it says on the tin.



The Fabs in the 80s
By today's post Anthology standards this is slim pickings but, coming as it did pre-MTV and Rage, it offered a well-rounded history which included song clips not seen for decades (eg Strawberry Fields Forever), incompletely but they were there. Rendered invisible by Anthology.

School photo
On the Twentieth anniversary of Sgt Pepper, this celebratory outing included the surviving Beatles and George Martin along with a crew of ... anyone else they could find who had been alive and not comatose at the time. First hearing for me of the unmixed recordings. Also, eclipsed by Anthology (cds as well as documentary), this was a very welcome addition at the time.


One of the finest records of a band at the door of worldwide fame. From this point on, the Beatles were the most recognisable musicmakers on the planet. How many other bands' bass players can you name (it won't be none but it won't be many: few people would nominate Brian Wilson, for example)? Anyway, here they were, having legitimately broken and entered American culture. We follow them through interviews, photoshoots, being bored in hotel rooms, playing to huge venues and on tv and most memorably, being funny for the camera on an interstate train (watch it with Hard Day's Night). The publicity machine was of course old and grizzled by this stage but you get the distinct feeling here that it's about to change, that its objects were going to start taking more than their share.

This is joyous documentary making. It was made by the Maysles brothers, a team whose documentary career remains exemplary for its candour, depth and power. Whether its Grey Gardens about a pair of old New England aristocrats decaying as certainly as the old mansion they live in, or Salesman an account of the life of a door to door bible salesman which is as funny as it is depressing, a Maysles film will reward your attention long after you've spent it. There are always approaches and ideas that lift their films above the generic grind and in The Beatles 1st US Visit it's a doozy. They were not allowed to film in the studio during the momentous Ed Sullivan Show performance so they arranged to visit some friends with teenage daughters who would be watching it (ie teenage daughters). So instead of turning the cameras in the direction all the other ones were they showed that the reaction however muted by distance was still intense and portentous. The DVD release "corrects" this with inserted footage from the show so the effect is muted.  This also detracts from the stolen feel to the live concert footage later in the piece. As for the fabs themselves, the Maysles picked up pretty soon that they needed to do little more than point and shoot. Tellingly, during the spontaneous-feeling hijinks on the train, the lens lights on an unsmiling Paul who says to it: "I'm not even in a laughing mood." Probably the last time that was allowed to happen.

Having introduced the flavour of 1960s rock to the world, the Maysles showed its demise with Gimme Shelter (which deserves its own entry), a post Woodstock journey into the hell on the other side of hippiedom.

Utterly recommended even to non fans (see also, Let it Be)



Playwright Alun Owen followed them around for weeks, wrote the kind of things he heard into a plot more or less about the real band going for fast paced comedy. The fabs take the train to London and appear on a tv show. Plot generator is provided by the character of Paul's grandfather who mucks up continually. It's fun. John Lennon at one point is handed a small bottle of Coke. During the dialogue between the others he quietly puts the nozzle to each nostril and sniffs it deeply. It's one of a host of jokes for the adept that pepper this movie and keep it from being a Cliff and the Shadows show of sexless mania. Seeing the Maysles Bros. film of the 1st US Visit, particularly the train sequences, I can't believe Owen and Lester didn't also see it before this went into production. Watch one then the other, either order. The tight similarity is testament to the quality of both films, as far as I can see.

Final point that I haven't seen anyone else make: I recall all the other Beatle films apart from Let it Be as a series of clips joined by dialogue. I remember A Hard Day's Night as a film and THEN recall that it has songs in it.


The story with this one is that from the top of Mount Fame the Beatles couldn't be bothered but were still contractually bound. This meant that Dick Lester had no co operation of the level he'd enjoyed on the previous one that had allowed it such energy and fun. The end result has a kind of accelerating hollowness as though it's being eaten from within. That's before you get to the cringey Brit Character actors in blackface doing Goon show Indian stereotypes. This is countered a little (a very little) by the local villans who are just as bumbling. Victor Spinetti, in one of the few genuninely funny bits, keeps cursing his ever failing equipment for being British.

I first saw this film when I was about thirteen and loved it. I also loved Benny Hill and Dick Emery. The side of me that revered Monty Python might well have been sleeping that day as, if awake, it would have slapped me around the head until I left the cinema. When I saw it much later on tv I cringed.

What's good? The songs and their clips, particularly You've Got to Hide Your Love Away.

George finds friends to play with
You know the story. Brian dies and Paul takes over. At his insistence they make another film ... by themselves. It is shown in black and white on Boxing Day when its audience is dozing off on yesterday's plum pudding and has little tolerance for anything more difficult than the St Trinian's movie rerun. Result, universal ridicule and the fabs take their first real punch on the jaw. No wonder they fled to India.

So what's it like. It's gibberish with a few good video clips of some fine pyschedlic era songs. It's the result of people being dragged out of bed at six in the morning and told to be whacky so it's about as funny as a joke prefaced with "this'll make you laugh" and as surreal as an op shop copy of a Dali painting. But then what wasn't from that era? Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, The Knack, Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came Magical Mystery Tour were all try hard cringeworthy rubbish that attempted to encapsulate something of their time but could only stay encased in it for all time. is no worse than that but it is also a little better as it includes a number of what would otherwise be video clips for some great Beatle songs like Fool on the Hill and (best of all) I Am the Walrus. Compare either of these to the Strawberry Fields Forever clip and they'll stand proudly beside it.


The mid 70s was a strange time in the Beatleverse as, being the period immediately following the band's demise, far more attention was given to the individual's careers (at the somewhat unsurprising insistance of the individuals themselves) and it would have seemed like old news anyway. So in the Christmas holidays of 1975 when I stumbled on a broadcast of Yellow Submarine I had no idea that it was an official product of the Beatles machine. I thought it was just a feature length Japanese cartoon. I sat back and enjoyed it.

The year to come brought the rumour of the reunion and stories of insane sums of money being offered to them for one final concert. There was another story doing the rounds that they all happened to find themselves together in New York when a Saturday Night Live skit put the request out. Supposedly, they all thought why not but couldn't get through due to traffic. Yeah right. Anyway, that kind of thing was in the air. A few compilations were released which spread the Beatle meme like superpollen throughout the teenage world and the second generation of Beatle fans arose from the fertile ground. From then on the brand settled into its cushions at the top of Merch Mountain where it remains unassailed to this day.

So what's it like?

First up, the fabs themselves had almost no involvement with the film, no writing or acting beyond the final sequence when they appear in a live action coda which includes a mimed performance of Paul's Althogether Now. Second, there is a lot of psychedelic imagery in this film but it's only drug related if you are making the association yourself. If you look at it as a fantasy film it suits an under ten audience pretty well. I was only a little over ten when I saw it and I loved the whimsy and Christmas cracker jokes and the sheer colour assault along with the Sgt Pepper era songs that fill it to the brim. There's nothing remotely as risque as the coke bottle bit in Hard Day's Night. It declares its hand early and keeps it on the helm. If Magical Mystery Tour had this kind of discipline this film wouldn't have been made. As such, it's rendered essential, if only as a thing to put in front of Magical Mystery Tour and Help when you have visitors.


Well, like it or not, this is at least an authentic document of a working band at the end of its life as a unit. As such it works perfectly, offering a dreariness to the rehearsals which now and then breaks into conflict (the infamous Paul vs George argument) and then rising to a kind of joy as the momentum builds for the rooftop concert. I can't say what non fans would make of most of it. Even as one who doesn't like the songs on the resulting album very much I still find the tension of the strained friendships on screen compelling. Would I watch the same thing if it were a band like ... Hootie and the Blowfish? Maybe, if the drama was there ... once. If you want to see what the most successful rock band of all time was like just before it jumped off the roof here it is, yawns and all. Intriguing but trying. I love it.


The closest thing you're going to get to the real story with the involement of its principal players. Masses of archival images, film and video footage and interviews with people surrounding a given passage of the history. Lennon is represented through archival interviews. The DVD box set of this television documentary includes the extensions of the home video version as well as an extras disc. For the anorak fan there is much left unaired in the interviews but the good thing about this is that we are presented with what the people who were there could recall when asked. But what was left on the cutting room floor, hmmmm? Couldn't care less. What I have is a thoroughly enjoyable history of a thoroughly enjoyable band in a thoroughly enjoyable package. Any shortfalls can be bridged with the various accounts that have appeared since the mid 70s boom-that-never-ended. Beyond that, there are a number of fine albums to enjoy while planning urban renewal schemes or doing the dishes.

Rock on Film Pt 1: When You're (sure that people will think more highly of you if they deem you) Strange

Jim Morrison shares a joke with the photographer
Just saw When You're Strange: a film about The Doors.

The story of The Doors goes something like this: four magic elves form a band in L.A. and "isn't it a shame about Jim?"

I have a very special reason for liking The Doors. It's highly personal, so much so that many would simply not understand: I enjoy listening to their records.

Sure, there are plenty of things that come through when listening to their records that add an air of intrigue to the experience that make the listener want to know more about them. From the time I saw the depiction of Jim Morrison in the Rock Dreams book and (this is in the late 70s) read a couple of articles in rock rags that were leading the archeology into his legend I developed an interest. I found the story compellingly dark and involving but still had only heard a few of the hit singles that local radio played (mainly as they hadn't quite caught up to the crud that they were meant to be playing at the time). Anyway, then I saw Apocalypse Now and went out and bought the albums. From that point I was a Doors fan. Still am.  When the box set with the remasters coupled with the DVD-Audio hi-res albums came out I went through the lot all over again (listening to one of them now, in fact). But there's a problem with things like When You're Strange. It bugs me.

What I'm hearing as I type this, as the title track of LA Woman shuffles and rustles through my headphones is how good the band was as a band.  They are a tight unit that allow a lot of looseness in the flow of the songs as well as stiffening up when it needs to be strident, cold or harsh. They're a band that had done a lot of playing together, knew each other well and could really deliver on their promises. They're a unit, no one's pushing in front, just a big shifting cloud of pooled skill and vision.

So why with every depiction of them on film, documentary or fictional, does the story splat against the wall as Jim Morrison: Lust for Death? Oliver Stone's hagiographic intensity defeated his talents as a filmmaker so he ended up with a series of great scenes gaffer taped together with some frankly goofy inventions (Robbie Kreiger's character: "Oh man, you get all the babes and I get all the dawgs." or Ray Manzarek - Dale Cooper in a wizard wig: "OK guys, give me a few mintues" before he comes up with the organ riff for Light My Fire. YES!). And this one wants you to believe the band virtually got the love generation going and rode the great tide of anti establishment protest on great waves of liquid LSD all the way to the tragic demise of the fragile dark poet with the mic. One of the final images from the lashings of rare footage in the film shows Jim in slow motion, walking the bowsprit of a yacht as though risking all for adventure. Well, all I could think was that whoever shot the footage had already just done that.

Look, Morrison was clearly intelligent and talented, charismatic and intriguing as a mind especially in the context of rock music when the charisma is all most of the greats ever extend to. It's just that every time I listen to one of the albums now, I hear a band. The De Cillo film attempts to spend a little more time on the other three (ie the ones you actually hear most when you play the records) and while it doesn't go down the path to purgatory that the embarrassingly slavish tome No One Gets Out of Here Alive did it still derails itself as soon as Jim starts falling apart. Compare this to The Beatles. A good basic band, sure, but all the really innovative and adventurous stuff was done by Lennon and McCartney. All four fabs get pretty much equal limelight in any major depiction.

And really, who doesn't already know this? Is it meant to be an essay (there are no interviews with the surviving players, just Johnny and a mic through the speakers)? In what, exactly? Fame? The corruptibility of fame? Jim himself? What? De Cillo uses the rare footage, some seamless reconstructions with a ringer for El Jimbo on a Mr Mojo Risin road trip. The narration is pretty linear and functional until a kind of goofy reverence surfaces and starts taking over. This fulfills the ominous opening of stark white font on black during the credits and a very slowly rising soundtrack of various human voices and music which fades into a screen filling sunrise. Look, everyone, this is important. Come on, look. Meh.

My recommendation is that if you want to view what made The Doors special go to the live stuff as there is a fair bit of it available locally on DVD. There's a pretty good 80s docco with the three surviving band members which I think was organised by the Sugarman/Hopkins book and uses the same title: No One Gets Out of Here Alive. And best of all thhere's the Classic Albums episode on the first album which offers a window into the working life of the band (and treats them as a band). But put the Soundstage Performances disc into your player and watch as they work their way through the serpentine folds of The End for an audience, each one responding to the other and together creating a big mysterious landscape of words and music. It's really fine stuff.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

For those that didn't make it....'s your salute.

Devising the programs for Shadows seasons has always been difficult. The goal of offering films that are special to me and I think need to be shared always conflicts with the equally important one of getting people along to the nights.  I wanted the experience to be rare but also shared which often created an internal conflict: could I entice people in sufficient numbers to sit in front of films they'd never heard of and might not take to at all? Was rarity enough? Personally, I like a lot of boring films. Boring films, unwatchably violent films, films that reach far beyond what they are able to deliver and what I tend to dismiss are films that make the experience too cosy for their audiences. I always had to be conscious of the high possibility of failure to attract audiences and then give them something they could take away. So, when I made these programs I tried to mix films of varying accessibility together. The title of this post and it's completion, thus refer not to those people who couldn't make it to the nights but the flicks that fell outside of the programs, having been seriously considered.

James Woods chats to Debbie Harry in Videodrome
Such an original film it ought to be placed wherever you're meant to put things like Eraserhead or El Topo. A borderline case of local availability vs unfamiliarity to younger audiences. Invasion of the Bodysnatchers won against it for local unavailability (at least in the correct aspect ratio and decency of transfer). This is the only iteration of the Bodysnatchers story that hasn't been given a good local release.

Which Program would it have been in? Spring Pt 2 2010

What did it lose out to? Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, a kind of precursor.

Should I have shown it anyway? Probably as I suspect it has fallen by the way and younger audiences might not know it.

Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill recall the good times in Possession

Has high quirk value and ABC has been host to some impressive Zulawski titles like Devil and The Third Part of the Night. I always consider it, it will fit into any schedule as it is so singular (a little like "black goes with anything), but always reject it as it's available locally and I hate Sam Neill's performance in it, however intentional it was. If I consider it I promise myself to watch it afresh but never feel like it.

Which Program would it have been in? Winter Pt 2 2009

What did it lose out to? The Rapture which worked really well.

Should I have shown it anyway? I'll have to see it again ... on second thoughts....

Hausu: where cute meets brute
Weird Japanese horror fable from the 70s. Stumbled upon it in a lateral search, thought it sounded interesting and ordered it. Got halfway through before losing interest (it's very selfconsciously whacky) and then saw that there were two separate other screenings of it at around the same time.  I would've beaten both to the punch but ended up not caring enough. That, and I knew it would be one of those ones where I and the audience would probably be shrugging shoulders at when the lights went up. The guy who runs Cinecult had a full house with it so what would I know? Still haven't finished watching it.

Which Program would it have been in? Winter Pt 2 2010 

What did it lose out to? Noriko's Dinner Table (for a mention of which see next entry).

Should I have shown it anyway? Nah

Jeanne Moreau lies back and thinks of her dental plan
Bunuel piece with a great central performance by Jeanne Moreau in the title role surrounded by the quirky residents and staff of a French country mansion. The more I think of it the better I like it but the initial impression was a shrug. Then again I have trusted a film's subtlety before with frustrating results (Noriko's Dinner Table, a superb deepening essay into contemporary Japanese identity which left most of its audience with the impression that it was too long).

 Which Program would it have been in? Spring Pt 2 2010

What did it lose out to? Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Should I have shown it anyway? In the right context, yes.

Gene Hackman finds his agent
Superb 70s noir by Arthur Penn with Gene Hackman as a detective on the trail of a missing girl. The ending resolves too much and makes the film outstay its welcome (in my affection, anyway).

Which Program would it have been in? Spring Pt 2 2009

What did it lose out to? The Hospital

Should I have shown it anyway? Right context would have made it pretty popular, I reggon.

Mick and James get together and form David Bowie
Perfect arthouse fare with a very hot Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg and James Fox as well as some real Kray era gangsters and a superb integral song vid of Memo From Turner. Themes of shifting identity and sexuality approached boldly and relevant in the extreme to its cultural context. Parts of it are excellent.

Which Program would it have been in? Spring Pt 1 2009.

What did it lose out to? Love is the Devil which depicted London in the same era but holds more interest for me.

Should I have shown it anyway? No. Dean ended up showing it for Time Capsules later that year which made more sense, given the program he showed. 

David Bennent has a chuckle in The Tin Drum
Outstanding hard edged adaptation of Gunther Grass' twisted bildungsroman with unbelievably sharp casting. Does what a film adaptation of a novel should -- nails the spirit and brings you into the world between the covers.

Which Program would it have been in? Winter Pt 1 2010

What did it lose out to? Werckmeister Harmonies, which is insanely good and unlikely ever to be available locally. 

Should I have shown it anyway?  I think so. It's out locally but no longer very well known.

Godard's rejected initial take on the Brady Bunch title sequence
Jean Luc Godard's mighty return from wilful obscurity in his Dziga Vertov years saw him just as angry as before but with a steadier hand on the helm. A-listers of the time Jane Fonda and Yves Montand play close to their own skeletal units as radicals softened by the failure of the May '68 revolt thrown into a situation that compels them to take a side. Both openly didactic and stylish, this is anti-class with class.

Which Program would it have been in? Winter Pt 2 2009

What did it lose out to? Wise Blood

Should I have shown it anyway? Not in that context with the disruption to the schedule which made the film night really have to sing for its supper. If Wise Blood couldn't draw a crowd, Tout va Bien would have sunk before the opening credits had finished.

Romero never did recover from the solemnity of his zombies
George Romero's second film was a social conscience comedy which involved generational conflicts and the advertising industry that Romero was still part of.

Which Program would it have been in? Winter Pt 1 2009

What did it lose out to? Man of Flowers for its workable quirk and similar themes handled better.

Should I have shown it anyway? Nah. Novelty value as rare non-horror Romero insufficient to bring it out of its own ordinariness as a film.

Eva Renzi listens for her cue
Tight and tough debut by thriller maestro Dario Argento works every time it's viewed and isn't on local shelves (well, it wasn't then, anyhow). White knuckle opening scene rivals the best of Hitchcock.

Which Program would it have been in? Winter Pt 1 2009 
What did it lose out to? Nightmare Alley which was seen by exactly three other people who left with a new favourite in their cinemaginations. Ah well... 

Should I have shown it anyway? Not then, in retrospect, but it's such a pleaser it would easily open a future season.

Tim Roth tries out his Baggy Trousers moves
 Grim and tough tv movie starring a young Tim Roth as a skinhead making his sharded way through the welfare system. Very effective and hard to get to see outside of US or UK. 

Which Program would it have been in? Winter Pt 1 2009 

What did it lose out to? The Face of Another. Rarely scene masterpiece from Japan. 

Should I have shown it anyway? Nah. Too grim for that program or maybe any other.

Queue for the first bullet train. But it still went to Hell
Very odd story of disparate group who go on a kind of retreat or holiday and end up in hell. 

Which Program would it have been in? Winter Pt 2 2010 

What did it lose out to? Kuroneko, which was well received (if not quite as wholly as the previous year's Onibaba, by the same director) 

Should I have shown it anyway? No. When I reviewed it for possible inclusion it had less going for it than I'd first thought. It's reputation rests on the final sequences set in Hell, which are impressive. The build up, involving people bending their ethics and hazarding their souls, is neither solidly melodramatic nor in any real way intriguing.

Dylan McDermott shopping
 Cyberpunk tale of tech has things to say about consumers, environment, complacency and survival as Dylan McDermott (later of tv's The Practice), a soldier, brings his estranged girlfriend, a sculptor, some robot junk he found in the desert. The junk is alive, however. Dylan splits. You can guess the rest. Made for about three pounds fifty of dodgy money in the late 80s, Hardware came long after the Bladerunners and Terminators of the era but had a little extra to say. It continues saying it throughout its short screen time and pumps in plenty of white knuckle suspense, animatronics and stunts. But somehow it just doesn't really fulfil its promises. Don't know why. It's a great entertainment piece, it's just that its essayed ideas are lost in the action and themselves seem a little rushed. 

Which Program would it have been in? Spring Pt 1 2010 

What did it lose out to? Shutter. 

Should I have shown it anyway? It could have held its own and was replaced with a similar horror film but Shutter beat it, having a little more to say and space to say it. If a future season needs some quick oomph, I'd certainly consider it.


There yuz go, that's not the lot but the ones I could most readily think of.  Unless they have really been given the thumbs down I'd recommend each one. If you're inclined to leave comments and would like to see any of these in a future season of Shadows, let me know via the comment feature below and I'll consider it seriously.

October 25: Anethetised from dentistry

Review: The Road

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit McFee share a joke in The Road.

Caught up with this one on dvd.

The Road is an adaptation of a novel by Cormac McCarthy which I spent about a year reading at the laundromat. It's not a long book but I kept getting frustrated with its prose style. While you would expect a story of a father and son trekking through a landscape of post-apocalyptic despair to be solemn McCarthy's prose just trowels on the grey concrete until the end. So when I heard that John Hillcoat was directing the adaptation and putting people like Charlize Theron, Viggo Mortensen and Robert Duvall in front of his camera and maximising the use of outdoor locations and minimising the CGI I thought: I bet it'll be better as a movie.

I was right. And the first thing that told me so was not the cinematic staging of the world of the story, the charred but frigid landscape, the massive conflagrations and loungeroom-trembling audio that gave a very present meaning to the earthquakes that happen in the story. No, what told me that the film would be better than the book was the performance of the dialogue. Most of the dialogue in the novel is the man answering his son's questions about the world, the way they have to live, their goals, nature etc. There is so much of this and it is presented so solemnly that it's so hard to care enough through a page that your washing load can go through an entire cycle before you're finished. McCarthy's prose has that precious sombreness that irritates me about almost every high profile American writer from Hemingway on, a kind of whispered reverence hushed by even the most mundane of events or experiences. So when the following exchange happens on the page I hear it delivered in a quiet monotone:

"Are we the good guys?" asked the boy.

"Yes," said the man, "we're the good guys".

When Kodi Smit McFee asks the question above he sounds like a little boy who really needs to know the answer. And when Viggo Mortensen answers, it's "YES, we're the good guys!" It's natural and paternal, a genuine response from a character who is confronted by the question but still needs to reply with reassurance. That's why this film is a better experience than its source material: it simply makes me care. And when couched in some strong cinematic imagery and soundwork it makes for an excellent example of why mainstream filmmaking can still be effective and matter to me as a viewer.

But it's not all good. Part of the solemnity of the novel is its religion. As an atheist from childhood I can find religious expression in others untroubling and often quite engaging. I'll never convert to it but the airing of beliefs simultaneously alien and familiar can be compelling. So it is with The Road, the man's religious conviction is frequently tested and he meets the tests with both a flat honesty or a wide eyed denial. Nevertheless, the novel's use of this theme is to its author's credit for its subtlety (until the end which might well be either a nasty irony or a genuine hope). Hillcoat has allowed so much of this into the film, however, that it progressively marrs the tale, it goes unquestioned and seems left to hang in the assumption that its audience will be in solemn agreement, their heart perhaps beating toward bursting with communal joy. One scene showing the pair eating around a campfire in safety ends in a wide shot revealing they are in a church, bright inspirational light blasting through a cross shaped window. Potential classic became well made bullshit in one shot.

And then there's the music score. I hate orchestral scores in most films (mainstream or not) as they always sound jobbingly rote. Here's an opportunity to get some tough sounds to harden up the probable sentimentality of this father/son journey, some musique conrcrete derived from the settings. Wouldn't take a lot of imagination just some judicious field recording and a little style with the editing and shaping. But no, we get a slushie with extra syrup; big banks of strings everytime something important happens as though the imagery needed extra coating (it doesn't, it's very powerful by itself). And what Hollywood hack perpetrated this fastfood film music? Goth rocker Nick Cave and improvisational Dirty Three maestro Warren Ellis. It's flat, routine, passionless sludge that for me knocks points off. You mean these two between them couldn't have come up with something ... real? The music was one of the only good things about the try-hard garbage of The Proposition and it was the same team. What happened? Were The Necks busy?

2 out of five for putting in more religion than the book had and the automaton score.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Recess pictures

Spoke to Avatar last night at Milos' exhibitionabout collaborating on film nights next year, assuming the space is still available.  We'll do alternate Fridays. Makes sense.  More when more emerges. Meantime, I've decided to use this blogspace for a mix of film reviews and pictures.  I need practice in both for various reasons. Here's the first.  Today I felt like an owl so that's what I drew:

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Thank youse!

So, that’s it for another year.  From My Winnipeg to Spider Baby we sho did see some fine works o’ cinema.  Thanks to everyone who came along. I hope it left you a little richer.  Thanks to Milos of whom more later.

Not everything worked, of course.  My attempts to evade last year’s problems of getting bumped failed. No one remembered which Friday of the month the Core Program was showing. Lost Valhallas, a go at celebrating Melbourne’s history of arthouse cinema, also fizzed due to no one liking its irregularity.  I blamed myself and moved on to a weekly schedule at Milos’ recommendation, starting in autumn with Heathers. From then it was every Friday at the gallery bar where everybody knew your name.  There were only two bumps which is pretty good going. 

And then there were the titles that my best efforts couldn’t save from their audiences. Myra Breckinridge was generally not seen as the self performing lesson in the misalignment of concept and execution. Liquid Sky was pronounced dumb by the gen ys who came to see it. Noriko’s Dinner Table was jest plain misunderstood.  

My self performing lesson? Can’t win em all. Seriously, young and old cry time poor and when they make their minds up that’s it for eternity.  That means if I am to suggest some context for a given title I have to do it carefully which takes a lot of preparation. Time poor!

That ranted, A Woman is a Woman and Harold and Maude both gained new fans and Come and See left us again stunned and silent.Their success made up for how disturbing I found the consevatism of the younger audiences and the few lo-shows.

Now, the future. Milos who again generously gave of his space and time needs both between now and the end of the year for his own concerns including an exhibition of his own works, spending time with his famliy and the seasonal parties and functions that do more to pay his outgoings than my little film night. He got a decent round of applause during my speil for Spider Baby and deserved every last clap.He has shown every encouragement and a lot of tolerance (especially of the horror movies I keep putting in front of him). He's also suggested I come back in January to do some more.  I'm into it as long as the  bar and screen are there. If that happens you will know.

Meantime I'll be using this space to air praise and greviances of the more contemporary fare available at local cinemas.  High time I went back into the legitimate darkness of commercial movie houses and hacked into choctops of all flavours. I'll letcha know


Saturday, October 9, 2010


Friday October 15th 8pm

(USA 1964)
Ralph, completely bald at 17 is an intellectual infant. Virginia, his sister, thinks she's a spider and catches the odd postman in a home made web. Remaining sister Elizabeth seems perfectly normal. I said "seems"... Meet the Merryes the last remnants of an old landowning family with their own aristocratic curse, a neurological condition that inflicts a galloping dementia on its sufferers from the age of 10.  Keeping the three children from the dangers of the world and the world from the dangers of the children is butler Bruno (Lon Wolfman Chaney jr. in his last significant film role), long suffering but compassionate and crushed by the knowledge that this equilibrium is about to tumble out of all stability.  A pair of greedy cousins appear to lay their claim on the family estate and they won't be turned away by a few minor grotesqueries.

Spider Baby sits somewhere in a multiple crash of Venn diagrams. Is it horror, black comedy, satire, exploitation, what? All and none. The budgetary limitations and shortfalls in the director's expertise provide a lot of creaking but there is a lot in this strange exercise to compel.  There is a real sense of creepy menace in the performances by the kids (particularly Jill Banner, pictured, 17 during production) and it extends beyond the Addams Family kookiness to suggest something disturbing about the world beyond the walls of the mansion as much as anything within them.


Yes, Milos needs his space.  he needs to host a few parties there as well as spend more time with family and host a rare exhibition of his own work. So this Friday's screening o' Spider Baby is the year's final. He suggested I might resume screenings in January so all is not lost. Watch this Space.  Instead of a Twilight Zone I'll just be running the movie and the year's season trailers so you can relive what you saw and seethe at what you missed.  So it's equally film night and party. Come one come all!