Saturday, November 27, 2010

When you're on a good thing.... : Serial killer films of the 90s

There's a joke that comedians tell each other, a kind of jazz standard. It goes like this:

A guy goes into a an agent's office and says I've got a family act for you. The agent says, "sure, tell me about it."
And the guy describes a series of increasingly depraved acts perpetrated by family members on each other. The agent is stunned at the end of it but manages to gasp, "that's insane what do you call it?" The guy says, "the Aristocrats."
I didn't laugh either but I left something out. The description of the act is where the comedian puts their own schtick on the joke, makes it their own the same as if they were a jazz soloist recreating My Funny Valentine: the structure's all there you just need to walk around in it. If you fail, meh, just another cover version. If you shine, it'll be a version prefaced with your name.

Big Hollywood's 1990s began with Silence of the Lambs. It was an okay effort, pushing buttons and running through the checks until it had everything on the list covered, including a high profile cast. Would have come and gone and been remembered as a step along the road of crime thrillers but for one unfortunate thing: it scooped the oscar pool for 1991. This wasn't as horrible an outcome as 1994 when Mel Gibson won with Braveheart against a field that included Leaving Las Vegas and Casino. Silence of the Lambs isn't such a bad piece of work but that's not the point. The point is that a dark mooded thriller suddenly looked like money and so began the 1990s genre-in-chief.

Film after film of rising mediocrity levels appeared for the rest of the decade, each promising more intensity than the previous one until, as will happen in all genres, they all looked and danced pretty much the same way. Like the comedians outdoing each other with descriptions of intra-familial outrage, the fashioners of serial killer movies wanted the central monster to be less and less human, more untouchably terrifying, his (almost exclusively a male) crimes crueller, his IQ higher, his daring more audacious. On the other side the detective had to be more prone to mistake and human frailty than Clarice in Silence.

So what, all genres are like that, live with it. Well, no they aren't. The central problem I have with this one is that the sleaze, the exploitation, the call to the audience's baseness coupled with a band-aided appeal to its sense of justice was coming not from the grindhouse merchants but from the big suits. They wanted our money as they always do but with serial killer movies they also dug how directly identifiable the monsters were. They knew the audience would get with the strength and however much emotional rallying around the detective hero there was at the end it was really us and the bad guy, slicing up everyone we wanted dead.

Now, if I sound like a grandstander here let me attempt some assuagement by claiming that the resulting danger I mean here is not moral but aesthetic. If the clumsily manipulative Silence of the Lambs hadn't scooped its year's oscars the cinema of a decade might not have been stuffed with the kind of pop hysteria it suffered. So megabudgeted rubbish like Braveheart, The English Patient, Forrest Gump and Titanic didn't just get guernseys they got made. The kind of simplistic pandering to the lynch mob inside every multiplex audience rode high and while it might not have been the fault of Jonathon Demme and Hannibal Lecter, the high sheen garbage that their efforts engendered appears indistinguishable from the award winners of the time. If the 80's was Hollywod's teen decade, the 90s was its freak show era. I hated the serial killer genre not for being a genre but for its rabble rousing carnival cynicism.

Some exceptions you might find enjoyable:

Seven? But you said... I know, it lines up with all the other toes, with the world wise retiring detective and the puppish young rookie and the icecold monster and the relished depravity of his crimes. But it also has some unusually strong performances (I don't think Kevin Spacey has topped his performance in this film) and, best of all, it questions the value of cynicism. Oh, and by omitting the race against time common to all other entries in the genre it broke the mold. Didn't matter to the factory which kept filling and pressing out the same old sausages. I am fond of Se7en and very glad that its director's contribution to the great year of 1999 was Fight Club.

The Ugly
A dark and stormy night. An asylum (not a mental health facility, an asylum) whose filthy corridors are ice blue and haunted by raving, toy clutching spectres and male nurses who look like they've been outcast from the Bouncers Federation for excessive aggression. Into the unstaffed reception comes a beautiful young woman to see one of the inmates. She's a star forensic psychiatrist and is here to see a human monster and test his insanity defence with an examination. So far we're so deep in genre territory it's beginning to look like Walpurgis Nacht. But...

This isn't downtown Chicago it's Auckland and the bad guy isn't a big threatening nasty like Hannibal, he's a shy gaze avoiding wimp with a weedy little voice. Almost immediately, as the examination begins and he begins to talk about his life and crimes we are given a series of clues to suspect the point of view the film is projecting. As in the recent The Fall, as a story is told we see it being imagined by a character. In The Ugly elements conjured by the teller or listener appear in the present reality until Simon, the serial killer, sees his examiner surrounded by his slashed victims demanding that he: "kill the bitch". The Ugly is the closest thing I have seen to stream of consciousness cinema. Add to that its refusal to either condemn or acquit its central criminal figure, preferring to invite its audience to reach beyond these simple pleasures and do a little thinking. There's no avoidance of thinking by the film's conclusion which, with a very simple optical effect, we are being asked to wonder rather than decide.

Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer

A year before Silence walked away with all the statuettes, this little film received six nominations in the Independent Spirit Awards. If its fortunes had switched with those of Silence of the Lambs the 90s might have looked very very different.They might have had the courage of the Taxi Driver 70s and the sheer punch of Sam Fuller's 50s. Henry is loosely based on the crimes of Henry Lee Lucas and his cohort Otis Toole.

What you get is a no budget character study of a pathological murderer. He's not a would be Hitler with an Einstein IQ and the wealth to build elaborate torture chambers in remote woodlands, he's just a bloke. When he gets angry or frustrated he kills someone. More, finding a fellow ex con eking out a living in a blue collar drudge job supplemented with a little pot dealing, Henry creates a fellow murderer in circumstances that are distrubingly believable. There is no long arm of the law in this story. No world weary figure appears to hit one last nail into the coffin of the bad guy. Henry goes from life station to life station, taking it one body at a time.

Strangely, very strangely, the passionless nihilism of this film's central figure does not rub off. There is no call to enjoy a little twist of the knife ourselves. We don't even get invited in as such. We watch Henry from the wall along with all the other flies and hope he doesn't think we're worth a swatting. This is very like witnessing violence in real life, it's ugly and paralysing.

Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer is not above its own exploitation but it's also not shy of being upfront about it. The complete absence of authority outside of Henry himself prevents too much ease in assuming the position (as it were). The result, the resort, is a kind of stunned fascination.

This is the kind of beside manner you only get by paying for.

The '90s serial killer gallery ended in 2000 with Tarsem Singh's The Cell. Having taken the physical depravity as far as bare credibility could stretch, The Cell went further by going into the psyche of the monster, literally. Well known real life forensic psychiatrist J Lo takes a swim in the neurones of a comatose monster to find the real him and effect a cure. This meant that anything at all went. So if the worst thing in 1990 was the sight of a torn fingernail lodged in the wall of the victim's pit, in 2000 it could be a man having his intestines hauled out of his body with a rotiserie. Couldn't happen in real life? Didn't have to. This (for me) final entry in the genre felt like a heightened aesthetic sense bashing the walls to be free of a deservedly long moribund genre. Tarsem was to redeem himself beyond all expectation in his 2006 outing The Fall. For which, see below...

Monday, November 22, 2010

Review: The Fall: tripping the lite fantastic

Tarsem Singh was responsible for the film I put at the end of the 90s serial killer genre. At the time I dismissed it as style over substance and the most desperate final stroke of the cat on the old grey mare. Now that I’ve seen the only feature film he made after it I’m inclined to give The Cell another run. The main problem with The Cell was that the inventiveness and intense richness of the imagery left the generic narrative so far behind that whenever the story surfaced it felt clumsy and unwelcome. There are similar issues with The Fall but to completely different effect: they work this time.

Roy, a stuntman for the early movies, is in hospital after a fall has left him partially paralysed. The woman he loves has rejected him. He’s been better. A simple accident leads little Alexandria, a European émigré girl, to his ward and almost immediately the two begin a rapport which swiftly evolves into an epic tale of adventure. So far this could be any kid’s story but Roy isn’t just relieving his boredom, his mind is on the morphine tablets kept in the hospital’s pharmacy in overdose quantities and he knows that a popular little girl like Alexandria can have free passage through all the gloomy halls of health care. He doesn’t just want to tell a good yarn, he needs to.

The Fall is based on a time-obscured Bulgarian film called Yo Ho Ho which I wish was available. It’s also in the same territory as Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen. So you might want some lightness of touch with the central relationship and a hand as heavy as possible with the more fantastical elements and a strong interplay between them. I’ll get the latter out of the way first.

The Fall is probably the most visually beautiful fiction film I’ve ever seen. If you could animate all of those special report photographs from National Geographic, photography textbooks and computer monitor calibration test cards you might just get something as rich as this film.  Deserts look like powdered ochre. Grassland almost smells of wet earth. A butterfly transmogrifies into a reef bound island in an opalescent sea. Add to this a selection of ancient and renaissance architecture from Europe, the middle and far easts, whether moss mottled ruin or jade green pavilion. Edible colour. But even the opening sequence in black and white features a clarity and depth that could shut the most inveterate movie-talker well up.

But it’s not all sheen. Mixing aesthetics from world history into the colour palette reveals a strange blend of influences; Mayan and Persian, Gothic and Ming, Pacific and Saharan. A wedding is consecrated amid a host of whirling dervishes in a circular building that might be in Florence. A desert landscape gives way to a rich green rainforest. It’s a dizzying cocktail but it has a real point. And that point is the reason The Fall works and The Cell didn’t.

The Cell, a kind of psychiatric Fantastic Voyage, took the audience into the mind of a comatose serial killer as a shrink tried to discover the whereabouts of the perp’s final victim. So we got Tarsem’s showreel of the weird and woeful, going from Hieronymous Bosch through David Lynch to Damien Hirst. Everything looked very pretty (even when it was meant to disgust) but all of it really had one reference point so it didn’t matter how strong the imagery got it could only ever loop what it had already stated.

The Fall has a built-in mechanism preventing this. Roy is telling a story, making it up as he goes along. Sometimes he’s interrupted by Alexandria who points out a logic problem here or voices an emotional objection there. Sometimes Roy’s limitations constrain the story and its scope. Alexandria’s impatience might motivate the characters (as it does when she keeps listening over a nagging bladder). Dig? The tale is naturalistic; it can go where it wants; it can be ruled by its teller or his audience or it can be used to manipulate them: the uncertainty of its character, what happens to its tone is as important as what happens to its players. The base narrative doesn’t drag the fantasy one nor does the fantasy feel too light for the gravity of the initial setting. The balance is achieved by mutual dependence. 

Telling tales is a euphemism for lying. Modified truth or misrepresentation appears in almost every frame of this film. Roy’s career is based on his success at creating illusions and it is his tale that feeds the trust at the centre of the film’s narrative. And cinema is everywhere, not just in the screening of the film that has caused Roy’s despair but in the reversed image of a horse drawn cart that Alexandria sees through an accidental camera oscura of a keyhole. The radiologist in his 1920s lead armour is what she sees when the whinnying violent henchmen of the tale’s Governor Odious appear. Cinema is imagination and imagination is cinema. When the film’s final sequence rolls we hear Alexandria’s own narration fading in and out of what we are seeing. What she has learned from this time is something new, something she has fashioned from her own experience rather than repeated from a delivered message. I can think of no finer suggestion of what cinema might be.

I don’t think that I’ll find something deeper in The Cell a second time. This next effort is made from such different stuff that the sole point of comparison between the two is the richness of the visuals. The difference which is a question of substance sets them far apart. Tarsem did use something he found to create this film rather than start from scratch but he clearly believed in it enough to make the exact film he wanted over a period of four years, sneaking in location work on shoots for his main profession (ads and music videos) eking finance where he could. There’s no need to compare the titles themselves but this aspect reminds me of nothing so much as the story of the production of my favourite film: Eraserhead.

I haven't even mentioned the clear influence of Jodorosky, or the intelligent extension made of a famous piece by Beethhoven, or that one of the characters in Roy's tale is Charles Darwin who gets around in a bowler and an overcoat made of about seventy flamingoes, and carries a bag containing a monkey called Wallace. I'd normally be apologetic about such a gush but I will say that the film quite frequently punches under the weight it has declared and the performances are uneven throughout. But I think such a rare exercise of cinematic muscle and a celebration of storytelling that owns its manipulitive motivations is an impressive thing. Finally,  I think that the difficulty this film must have posed for the marketeers in trying to find a target audience is what I like the most about it. Not perfection, by any means, The Fall is just something that most contemporary cinema isn't: it's interesting.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Review: Amer

Absurdly, considering my devotion to horror cinema, I allowed the recent Hello Darkness festival of horror film that played at the Russell here in ol’ Millsanboon town. I do have an excuse. I got busy with a few projects because my most recent relationship sat quietly deflating in a corner. Actually, that’s no excuse at all, what better means to look the other way from this then with some film-induced survival reactions in the safety of a cinema filled with strangers? A horror-led recovery. Anyway I missed most of it which is a pity as there were a few things in there that I hadn’t seen and wanted to. So when I checked my backlog of e-pidgeons and saw again a suggestion by a Shadows regular to sample some of these screeny wares. So, I made it to Amer, the finale.

All I knew was that this film was heavily influenced by the giallo thrillers made in Italy from the 60s to the 80s, that it had very little dialogue and had a whammio ending. Just the ticket, I thought aloud and took a tram into town.

We start in a troubled house. A little girl runs from the sound of her parents arguing. She takes refuge in her room but a black humanoid shape rises from behind the bed. Before her mother can come in and save her, the shape slinks through a side door. A grandfatherly corpse lies dressed on a bed, the face fixed in a bitter expression. The girl sees the bewildering spectacle of her parents having vigorous huffing sex and passes out. Abandon all hope all ye who enter here expecting anymore dialogue or narrative cohesion.

She’s now an achingly beautiful teen and stands at the edge of a cliff overlooking a rich blue ocean. Her mother walks her along a dirt road to some inappropriately bold music. Her mother gets her hair done and leaves her daughter in a shop where a soccerball flinging boy challenges her to a … something contest. Soon after, she’s back at the cliff eyeing off and being eyed by a gang of mediteraneo bikies. Her mother drags her away in admonition.

Now an adult, she gets off a tram and takes a taxi to her childhood home, now in ruins, and is stalked by a leatherclad killer who favours a straight razor for a weapon. Twisty style ending.

Well it would be twisty except that really there’s no plot. The opening sequence suggests there will be a story emerging from the traumatic scenes the girl has witnessed. But then this film is not about plot and lets you know that quickly and flamboyantly. Much of the screen time is taken up with extreme close-ups, I mean veins in the white of the eye close-ups. Exchanges of stares, wide glaring fear, shrewd suspicion, you name it. Eyes loom large which should clue any echt giallo fan in to what’s happening here. Not enough? Well, how about a fetishistic insistence on the girl’s crotch real estate as it is lovingly caressed by the seabreeze and her own tiny pink dress. Want erect nipples? Done! Lastly and most ghastly you get an extended torture sequence involving exposed body parts and a cut-throat razor with some garooooosome payoffs. Fans of obscure Italian movies, do these things ring bells?

Well, let’s start with the first sequence which is influenced on a scale of one to one by Dario Argento’s Deep Red and Suspiria, right down to the luminous red and blue light that doesn’t make any digetic sense, it just looks good. Ok, it looks great. The music is the kind of harpsichord and picked bass guitar and growling synthesiser with occasional vocal in Venusian that remains one of the true pleasures of the giallo. In fact, it sounds entirely lifted from 60s and 70s originals. The bikies and soccerboy by the sea could be from anything of the golden era o’ gialli and the razor torture is straight as a die out of Lucio Fulci’s New York Ripper.

These refs barely scratch the surface and for awhile I thought I was looking at an expert but pointless celebration of the genre. Then I think I got it. Giallo films are often murder mysteries with some genuine intrigue, atmospherics, high suspense and endurance-testing violence. They are also full of plot holes the size of Italy.

Their least successful moments occur when characters on screen attempt to explain what’s going on. The one in Suspiria where witches are explained by not one but two experts goes on forever and ruins the essential element of the film: nightmare logic. Suspiria’s power lies in action that is so highly irrational and yet so churningly violent that the viewer has no time to conceptually control it. That’s why nightmares are scary, our perception that the dream’s elements are controlling us. Great horror cinema does this every time. In fact the closer you get to reason in a horror movie the further you get from its thrills. 

Well, that’s what Amer is, just the good bits, the high style, the edible colour, the guilty pleasure sleaze, the extraordinary power of a bludgeoning ocular close-up on a cinemascope screen, the sensuality of looks and its proximity to violence, the breath-holding confrontation with extreme cruelty, the trauma of the primal scene, etc etc etc. You want an old time movie? You want plot? You want character motivation and through-lines? Make ‘em up. Look, you’ve got a gigantic elaborate feast of impactful moments rendered emotively despite a near complete absence of context. What can YOU make of it? Amer is a good film because it adds to the bag of tricks. It’s good because it doesn’t just invoke the old it calls to its audience to use their imaginations it does so itself with imagination. Amer is a baroque, cineweariness-killing DIY kit and I'm glad I bought one.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Rock on Film Pt 5: Stones on Film Pt 1: Lo Expectations

The Rolling Stones played it very cannily in the 60s when they rose to stardom. Instead of accepting the shade of the untouchably successful Beatles they went for an alter ego approach. The Beatles do Yesterday, a weepy love song, The Stones come out with As Tears Go By, a very odd song about ageing. The Four of the Law bring out the Staxy brass section of Got to Get You Into My Life about love or weed (depending on the available memory neurones of author Paul) and the Rogues from Richmond produce Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby,  Standing in the Shadow a kind of pre-Zappa freakout about … well, it’s hard to tell. And when the long haired lovers from Liverpool made movies they were (at least the first two) cute and lovable. The Stones were slated to appear in movies with sci fi/dystopian themes (A Clockwork Orange was one of them) but none got beyond amber. So when they did get to the screen it was as themselves, not characters with the same names.


 Jean Luc Godard had not so much started the French New Wave as hijacked it with films that swung a wrecking ball at Hollywood conventions yet still offered riches once the dust settled. Breathless was great cheeky fun, A Woman is a Woman was glorious non-musical musical. Les Mepris and Alphaville were more disturbing and took JLG’s journey into increasingly radical territory. He grew increasingly political and as he did he widened the distance between his films and everyone else’s (not just Hollywood’s). After the failure of the revolt in May ’68 his anger turned to rage and his screen output turned violent in form and content, wilfully challenging his audience to stay the distance. They didn’t. The pity of it is that some strong (if admittedly gruelling) works he produced between 1968 and 1972 are often dimissed and fans of the initial period tend to change the subject when Wind from the East or British Sounds come up in conversation. And when this one makes it’s way into the air it’s met with over defence or over denigration. But it really stands by itself.

The One Plus One title is Godard’s and describes what’s seen aptly if cryptically. Sympathy for the Devil was the producer’s title and the one that appeared on the cinema billboard on the film’s release. Why the difference? Well, the content that features the Stones is of them developing the song Sympathy for the Devil in the studio from an acoustic strum to the big pre-roots epic it became. The difference in the titles lies at the heart of the problem of the film’s reception: one requires active thought and the other promises a film that the audience is not going to see.

This is not a musical film and it’s not really about the Stones. It’s about a chasm Godard perceived between the kind of political activism he saw fail in Paris that year and the culture of the people whom he thought should be politically active: youth. The film has three main strains: the Stones in the studio, a group of urban guerrillas in training and spoken excerpts from an imaginary espionage novel in which the characters have names from contemporary political history like Castro or Kruschev. See, if all you wanted to see was Mick ‘n’ co going through the different stages of a rock classic then you are going to be sitting through a lot of information noise. Calling the film by the song title suggests that the focus will be on the band but that’s not the movie’s purpose.

The most common gripe I hear about this film concerns the scenes with the guerrillas. There is a lot of sloganeering and it is easy to characterise the scenes as naive or dated politics. But there’s a point to all the dogma and it ties in with the film perfectly if you think of it being called One Plus One. The young men are assembled in a car scrapyard and go through a kind of weapons training with rifles and some political education. It’s tedious but look closer. The weapons training is not just repetitive, it’s robotic, as meaninglessly ceremonial. The political education consists of flatvoiced dogma delivered by tape recorder and copied down without a single independent thought getting in the way. (There is also a scene in a bookshop where a young man dictates extracts from Nietzsche and Hitler etc to a typist, just to suggest the streetlevel right.)The alphas in the guerrilla group meet with women who at first seem to be journalists but soon seem more like groupies (these women author the sole political acts in the film –

Back at the studio, Mick plays the four chord song to Brian on an acoustic. It sounds like a bedroom songwriter’s effort. Then when the band eventually appear and plug in, it takes on a more late ‘60s tone, a melancholy lament. Something isn’t right, it’s not taking off.  Eventually, they bring in extra percussion, Keith takes over on bass and finds the famous punching pattern. It’s starting to sound like the real thing. Mick does a vocal and flubs it but we’re really getting there. Then, wow, the girlfriends, wives and significant others gather round a mic and do the whoo whoo backing vocals that send this number soaring. Ladies and gentlemen we have a classique!

There’s also a lot of between time, idle cigarette smoking and waiting but the sense of the band warming up from cold and really having an uncontrived sense of purpose is constantly developing on screen. So…

You get a group of young men with nothing to lose getting together, playing at being revolutionaries and even picking up groupies along the way. You get a group of rich young men who can stay in bed all day gathering in concerted effort to pursue greatness. What, Godard asks, is wrong with this picture?

That’s what I think this film is saying. I don’t see a frame of symbolism on the screen. You can take what you see with all the literalism that a Gen-Y-er obedient to the stereotype would demand and still get to the essence of it. It does require more active thought from its viewers than anything at a multiplex (that’s not snobbery, btw, mainstream cinema can no longer afford risking its audience’s attention with complexity). But if it’s Sympathy for the Devil the song is in the way. If it’s One Plus One, you have a fighting chance.

Had enough? Well, it gets lighter.

The closest thing to any of the first three Beatles movies that the Stones ever did is still only a concert film … kinda.

The idea was to get together with some friends and new talent on the rise, put it all in the colour and fun of a circus. The Stones appear in circus costume and introduce various musical or circus acts and a splendid time is attempted for all.

It almost works. This era in rock music was given to extra colour and flare. It was just post acid and the idea of mixing extended guitar solos with clown makeup fitted perfectly (Jimi Hendrix was infamously once ignored at a bar because they thought he was from the local circus). But there are two problems: the circus acts are of such different pace and mood to the music that they feel wrong; the music acts’ quality is too various. Jethro Tull and Marianne Faithful each mime their numbers.

John Lennon and Mick Jagger exchange some genuinely funny banter by way of introducing the latter’s piece. Lennon’s song is great. An appropriately nasty sounding Yer Blues fresh from the White Album. Whole Lotta Yoko is less stellar but not because of Yoko. She wails a la mode. The rest of the band (Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell from the Jimi Hendrix Experience) waste some interminable minutes playing some twelve bar garbage (what else do you play with rock musicians you don’t know well?) under the vocal. Worst of all, though, is the participation of Ivry Gitlis, a classical violin virtuoso who tries to get down with the kidz but really only shows that he is incapable of improvising over three endlessly repeated chords. I’ve never been able to watch this entire sequence. I’ve come to believe that one can actually die of embarrassment if one did.

(A dvd extra shows classical pianist Julius Katchen similarly wasting his time in a tux at a piano playing something he probably thinks sounds like the classical equivalent of takenoprisonersballsout roque. He even sweats like a lead guitarist only to lie on the cutting room concrete until someone picked him up and folded him into the bonus features. Puh!)

A top hatted, cigar smoking Keith Richards in an eyepatch says, “dig the Who.” And we do for they provide a non-stop proto pilates work out with an early version of an extended rock narrative, A Quick One While He’s Away. This is not note perfect but gloriously live, punching every second of its welcome running time. Completely bloody wonderful, in fact.

John Lennon introduces the night’s hosts in typically smartarse fashion and here we come to a persistent legend surrounding the decades long non-release of this film. The old guy at the campfire who everyone just assumes is the uncle of one of the others will insist that The Stones suppressed Rock and Roll Circus because the Who blew them off the stage. So peeved were the Jagster and his hood that so electric shadow could be cast through this piece of celluloid so long as they all should live (a fair few of them haven’t but that’s neither here nor there).

The Stones take the stage with a muscular version of Jumping Jack Flash and go through songs from their newest releases and one future classic (You Can’t Always Get What You Want). Do they drag after the Who? Well, considering they started filming at 2pm and only got to play at 5 the following morning, no.

Actually, even without considering that they play well. Jagger’s frontman DNA kicks into survival mode and he keeps the boil hot through the set. They finish with Sympathy for the Devil. It’s vibey and powerful, Jagger peeling off his skin tight top at the end to reveal a mean looking torso-sized tattoo of a demonic figure which would look like the worst drunken decision of his life if it wasn’t just felt-penned on.  But, no, great as they are in this, the Who do not put the Stones to shame. The issue of the delayed release would have had more to do with licencing than anything else (final period Beatles bugbear Allen Klein’s involvement might extend a clue or tue).

It’s these performances that compel the viewing of this film. Circuses strike me as despairing voids as far as entertainment goes and I’ve never sat through any of the circusy offerings here. But the better performances are great rock music from a time when it didn’t just sound like old bloke’s beats (as it does to me now even when played by young blokes).

The finale is also worth it as it is a testament to the personal logistics of the exercise. Audience and acts gather together on the floor in glistering harlequin colours. Jagger and Keith sit beside each other. Mick comes up with some unslept words before the backing track to Salt of the Earth wafts in. Keith takes the mic to deliver the first two lines in his customary Venusianly enunciated singing voice and when Mick takes over for the rest of the tune he sounds like Louis Armstrong during the worst hangover of his life. It’s funny but it’s sad.

The assembled company then get into it and the whole thing ends in a colour and movement extravaganza for the whole family (or part thereof).

The conceiver in chief of this film, Michael Lindsay Hogg, would move on within a month to film the Beatles steadily disintegrating in Let it Be

Next in this mini series: Gimme Shelter and Cocksucker Blues

Monday, November 8, 2010

Review: Lake Mungo

 The Blair Witch Project gave me a lot of hope. It was made with such scant means that it and its immediate descendants were called credit card films. But it survived its own production famine and its own publicity campaign (sips, “ah yes, vintage viral”) to take the screen as an effective horror tale. Everything on screen serves a simple premise and however rambling and wayward it might seem it remains one of the most steadily purposed genre movies of the past few decades. As such it provided a clear blueprint for the future of cinema.

Instead, we got a number of copies of decreasing efficacy which took their lessons from the surface before sinking into dear-achieved obscurity. Unsteadicam and video stock only intensifies something that’s intense to begin with. Limited point of view shooting can heighten surprises or shocks but it was a trope rather than a substantial component of the BWP. The BWP works because it concentrates on three students getting scared in the bush. They get lost, angry, frustrated, distrustful of each other, and they are trapped in a landscape of low visibility which night time turns into a mouth of Hell. That’s a concept, a real concept. Now you can git yer cheap ‘n’ cheerful Sony out, scout, flout and shake it all about but if you don’t do your groundwork you’re just going to make people seasick or worse bored and seasick.

Lake Mungo is a recent Australian film which got a teensy window on screen (in Melbourne maybe a week on screen at the George). A girl drowns and haunts her family … maybe. If this were hanging on the wall I’d classify it as mixed media. The core of the film is a series of talking head interviews reminiscent of 4 Corners or Australian Story. Woven around and through are elements dressed up as police video, news footage, phone camera, home video, still photos, “current” location shooting with the various participants and some of the most gorgeous landscape photography you are likely to see in a fiction film (really, have a look at some of Bill Henson’s landscape work and imagine it moving .. just a little).

The blend is masterful. At no time is there any doubt that what you are seeing on the screen and hearing through the speakers is in tireless service to the central theme of grief and its effects. Add to this some family politics, issues of youth, the ethics of supernaturalists and some very dark matter in the home and neighbourhood and you have a pretty full plate that, due to some real skill, won’t make you bloated and drowsy.

I showed this to some friends recently and picked up more detail. Also, this time around some of the quirkiness that had annoyed me initially appeared unobtrusive. One subplot still bugs me though and its removal would strengthen the film’s core (no spoilers, sorry, see it and see if you agree). That said, it does carry the film’s undercurrent of despair efficiently. Again, I was less bothered by it the second time.

One detail open to those who listen to commentaries: at one point the director is talking about a particular shot and suggests to the viewer to use the zoom on the remote control to see something that “no one even knew was there when we shot it”. It’s a step too far and degrades the full value of the commentary. But it’s still fun. And it’s fun where the fun should be in such a film: off screen, away from the saddening content of the feature.

The surface of Lake Mungo is still and shiny, clear enough to look into its depth and secrets. The Blair Witch Project’s surface is all mud spatters and focus on the fly, a more immediately visceral experience. But both work for the same reason: a commitment to the core; they take you to the point and keep you there.

Lake Mungo adds a quality I love in a horror film, one usually overlooked but evident in every title I’d advance as an exemplar: sadness. It’s almost a character in itself, gaining form and substance with the passing minutes until it is the colour, sound and shape in front you and around you. See also, Dark Water (the real one by Hideo Nakata), The Exorcist (yes, really), Night of the Living Dead, and The Haunting (60s original).

If you like your ghost stories simple but substantial then chuck a few bucks for the rental of this 'un. Now!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Rock on Film Pt 4 : Taking Control

A documentary can have the power to interest you in a subject you don't normally care about. A documentary can pose questions you have never asked of something you do care about. That is where fable and report can mix to produce something that can fend for itself outside of the thing it nominally discusses. By fable I don't mean misrepresentation. I mean something between storytelling and celebration, an imaginitive presentation of the facts that can both address a subject and be created from it. Terry Zwigoff's film about Robert Crumb is a perfect example. Zwigoff was finding so much about Crumb's family, particularly his relationship with his brothers that Robert as a subject fell from the mountain peak of focus to join the rest of his world as just another of its walking wounded.  It's a masterpiece of filmmaking which has a dynamic life in the minds of its audience long after the credits roll. I for one was so haunted by brother Charles that when I finally saw a good repro of the childhood comics he'd done in the Crumb Family Album book I felt a swell of real relief years after seeing the film.

So, a few years ago when two films about one of my favourite bands came out within months of each other, why did I prefer the biopic to the docco?

Joy Division is a well presented piece, getting its facts straight and careful to feature the testimony of a lot of the primary players and even have a stab at making the setting for the history work (Manchester as a kind of dynamic hub even in its death throes). It's not dull by any means and even if it were I'd still give it the time, being so into the subject. And it's not just that I've heard pretty much all those anecdotes before in some shape or form. It was great to hear them again told by the participants in their idiom. So what gives?

Well first let me say why I shouldn't like Control, the dramatised account of the bulk of Deborah Curtis' book Touching From a Distance. It's a subjective account in the guise of a kitchen sink film. It features some awful clunking rock'n'roll movie moments. It lends itself to hagiography, regardless of how grim'n'real it claims to be. Finally, it is directed by someone who knew them and took some of the most iconic photos of the doom'n'gloom laden early 80s and they were all of that band. Anton Corbijn was also responsible for one of the goofiest pop videos in history (the posthumous Atmosphere) of a song by the band. Not only was Control made by a fanboy but one who'd never directed more than tv commercials and music videos.

But Control is good. Control is really good. Control so far outstrips the authentic account of Joy Division that the fable is in the end somehow truer than the words of the witnesses.

But let's deal with goofy first. Young Ian Curtis and a school chum scam their way into an old lady's council flat to raid the bathroom cabinet for prescription drugs. Cut to Ian reading the list of disorientating side effects. "I'm taking two," he says. Aw look, he thinks he's people. Worse! Ian takes Debbie to the legendary Sex Pistols gig in the Lesser Free Trade Hall. He meets some friends beforehand and asks them how their band is going. They sullenly tell him the singer isn't working out.  Pistols gig! Cut to Ian, exultant, pogo-ing up to the lads and yelling: "Still looking for a singer?!" Worst! The band are on track for fame and glory and Ian has spent the night up talking intently with the woman he'd leave his wife for. It's fragile dawn and, still awake, she says wistfully, "tell me about Macclesfield...." That set the entire full house of the Princess Theatre on a roar. The substitution of the words "where you come from" would have kept everyone's trap shut. "Oh, PJ, what's it like in Townsville..."

But things work for this film that shouldn't. The photographer's eye is always on and the screen is constantly stained and washed with his grim grey silver gelatin vision of the north of England. Some of the settings could be cut into Eraserhead without anyone noticing. Scenes outside of the rock'n'ragin world of the band achieve some real poignancy, especially when Curtis grows closer to being confronted by his epilepsy. And there you  have it. Not the centre of an issue film like Shine (which I like, btw) but the first knot in a story that will pull all of its characters towards such a profound sadness and darkness that it leads to a character's suicide. I didn't Ian Curtis' suicide, note, but a character's.Sam Riley is doing the same fine job of his character here as Ian Hart did in Backbeat and The Hours and Times. And the gravity of his character's brief walk through the world takes us to a moment that another film might well have failed: the discovery of the body by Deborah is done without onscreen sound. It is swamped by the huge and powerful track Atmosphere. And it WORKS! (Ok, Anton, I forgive you for the MTV version with the midget monks, now.)

The story of Ian Curtis is a heart rending one. The story of the band Joy Division is an intriguing one. When I think of what I think of when I hear the music I feel closer to the journey of the fable than the adminstrative minutiae of a musical unit. So I forgive Control for falling into the same naff cliches that every fictionalised account of rock music seems to suffer from (for the polar opposite see The Girl Can't Help It and bliss out). I forgive it because it taps me on the shoulder and reminds me that Joy Division weren't just a band that made a few records; the records were good. They are good. They are really really good.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Unauthorised biopics

Two from the same year...
David Bowie refused his blessing for this film. The rumour was that he intended to bless his own movie. Maybe he just didn’t want it done by the guy who’d told Karen Carpenter’s story so strongly with Barbie dolls. But Todd Haynes should have had Bowie aboard. The man who had made such a powerful thing in Safe, a body horror epic that managed to further the early work of David Cronenberg without once making reference to it could have done a lot with the cooperation of the man who fell to earth.  But it was not to be.

Instead we get a trunk of near intentions. Once upon a time Oscar Wilde stands up in class and declares he wants to be a rock star.  Then a frail grinning top hatted camper seems to preside over the invention of glam rock. Someone has suggested he represents Brian Eno. And then the character of Brian Slade (Brians Eno and Ferry + the band Slade) starts his career as a precocious shool boy, graduating to being a man in a dress onstage and getting up to international stardom as something like Ziggy Stardust. Some other bands who are reminiscent of Brit glam rockers also appear along the way. Add a stand in for Iggy Pop who has become stridently gay in translation and you’re pretty much there. And then Brian Slade kills off is Ziggyish other and disappears. Or does he?

The problem with Velvet Goldmine is that it looks like it depended on its inspiration's sanction. So much so that when said sanction turned up, looked around and sniffed and said, "I'm taking my ball home and now none of you can play." The assembled, looking as foolish as they felt in their panto finery, then snapped to and tried to play without the ball. Everyone kiiiiiind of looks and acts like someone famous. Christian Bale as the fan who turns into the newshound with the hunch should be providing some gravitas here. He has the presence for it but there is so little he can work with, given the great screaming chasm this film cannot fill.

I think Todd Haynes started in the right direction by avoiding all mention of the Bowed one and his confederates but the problem is that he didn't go far enough. What might have been an improvement on something like Performance (seriously!) a dark intriguing thriller, became a diluted version of the history of glam rock and a paen to its survivor in chief.

When I screened Love is the Devil at Shadows I showed part of an interview with Melvyn Bragg in which he and the Painter Francis Bacon got steadily ratted on red wine in a café in London. Bacon was in fine form and as he got into it I realised with a slight panic that quite a lot of what he was saying made it into Love is the Devil as dialogue, repurposed from years after the setting and placed tightly into the screenplay. Writer/director John Maybury had plundered anything not denied him by Bacon’s fearsome estate and used what he could. When the feature rolled I relaxed. Everyone else had seen it. It wasn’t just a talking point for later, it was working a treat.

Maybury wasn’t allowed to show anything of Bacon’s work in the film. If this had been a matter of his refusal to compromise a good story then the result is his reward. Briefly, the movie tells the story of the love affair between the painter and his Kray period thug companion George Dyer. The action and dialogue are  constantly cruel and severe, glimpses of vulnerability made all the more powerful. It’s easy to see why anyone wishing to keep Bacon’s legacy nice would want the film supressed: it works.

The dialogue swings between  bitchy rejoinders and sullen monosyllabic Cockney anger worthy of Pinter. Almost every scene contains a warped face, often just in the reflection of  a face in a curved shiny surface. Around the lovers and the snakepit of the swinging London era art world there is a real sense of a society walking around in the skin of the era. Bacon and Dyer reside at is centre as far as this story goes but none of the world that surrounds them seems to be in costume. None of this is necessary for this story, no more is necessary than the force of the painter and the curious interdependence he shares with the gangster. But the effort is there for all to see.

Hmm, of the two filmmakers, Haynes is the one who has continued making strong committed features and kept fresh. I haven't seen The Jacket, Maybury's feature following Devil but it promised so little... Haynes has gone beyond mere apology for the listless pointlessness of Velvet Goldmine to come out with the glorious celebration of Bob Dylan I'm Not There. Hmmm and hmmm again....


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Perfect first time? We can fix that: Director's cuts

Charles Darwin kept adding to the title of later editions of his seminal work The Origin of Species to accommodate various criticism he’d endured since the first one. The joke was that it should have been called: The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection and All Sorts of Other Things. Then again Brian Wilson finally finished his epic Smile decades after it had been ruptured by his record company, the rest of the band and his own mental fragility. I’m glad he did and I loved my only hearing of it. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong about a redraft, it’s just that so many seem like completely different works emerging from the carcasses of the originals like fatal parasites. Here’s a few from the world o’ cinema to get started on.

This really would be better thought of as a writer’s cut as the changes were pretty much William Peter Blatty’s rather than William Friedkin who had left the film in its happy state for decades without feeling the lack. A look at the BBC documentary The Fear of God: 25 years of the Exorcist, hosted by the redoubtable Mark Kermode reveals a fair bit about Blatty’s ideas of the film.

What was done? Reinstatement of a number of offcuts to smooth the transitions from the prologue in Iraq to Washington DC, a great slab of medical tests and consultations with doctors about Regan’s condition featuring various fruitless treatments. The Spider Walk scene where Regan rushes downstairs upsidedown on all fours. The Casablanca ending with Father Dyer walking off trading wisecracks with Detective Kinderman. A number of digital superimpositions of demonic figures on household surfaces.

Any of it work? None. The abrupt change from Iraq to America is from exotica to home, from ominous to normal. It works. Now it’s overstated with a warm sequence of an autumn evening in the street, in case you hadn’t quite got the connection. The extra medical scenes serve solely to drag the film into quicksand. One interview between a doctor and Chris seems to have made it in because of the mention of Ritalin, a drug in the news at the time being prescribed for ADHD sufferers. It’s a giggle but just a giggle and out of sorts with the tension the original sequence had. The spider walk sequence shown untreated in the BBC documentary was clearly misjudged and more ridiculous than bizarre. Restored it just looks try hard. The original ending with Father Dyer walking off carries the tension that the rest of the original film delivers in spades. Now it’s warm and chummy. As for the ghostly images of the demonic figures on the fridge, walls and over canopy they are as scary as Bert Newton in a Dracula costume. Errrgh!

I saw this new cut when it was released and every one of the above changes elicited laughter. I sank into my seat. In the cinema and on dvd this was called The Version You’ve Never Seen. Sadly, as the original cut’s early local deletion was to prove, this travesty would be the Only Version You’re Likely to See. I think the bluray will change that but the damage is done, now.

Once upon a time there was a movie I made my dad go and see because I knew he’d love it. It had left the cinema circuit by then so we had to go to the drive-in. This was in Townsville in December. A light muggy drizzle fell throughout the entire film which only helped the immersion of this intense and hyper epic of war and the compulsion to it. From then I was given a mission to make everyone I could find sit in front of it at a cinema. When it even left the rep cinemas I was still flushed from the effort. It remains a favourite and when I do things like Facebook lists it’s always there in the ten if not the five. And then this thing came along.

I’ll admit I was eager for it. As the film is less plotty than expressionistic I welcomed the promise of new material. I went to the Astor (Melbourne’s huge deco movie palace) with a fellow fan-for-life. It was so long it was shown with an intermission. Through this I was rapt right up until the French plantaion sequence which unravelled the lot and dragged even the joyful effect of the beautiful new print and big sound.

Why? Well, it’s not a bad scene as such. None of them are bad as such but all the additions alter the original film (which Coppola had been happy to present at Cannes and then the rest of the world for the better part of two decades). For starters Capt. Willard is a different person. The wide-eyed boyish intensity Martin Sheen maintained through the unsmiling totality of his screen time (almost all the film) was now diluted with his participation in the goofy theft of  Col. Kilgore’s surfboard. He also gets it awn with the beautiful frail daughter of the French planter household. He’s now not just one of the guys where he had been a nervewracking alien presence on the boat before, he’s livin’ the dream.

He is? They all are. The scene at the filling station is mostly atmospheric and welcome for it but the crew get to go the playboy bunnies. Well not entirely but the dry unsexuality that left the original so worryingly unrelieved has now gone. Strike two to its power. The end of the scene comes out of nowhere or a completely different film. Kurtz not only appears during the day, coming out of the obscuring columns of light and darkness where he only seems to exist. Now he looks like anyone else. Willard loses his intensity and Kurtz his mystique. Not bad going for a film that depends on the intensity of Willard and the mystique of Kurtz.

Every one of these scenes would have been better as a well restored dvd extra. I always find the misjudged outtakes as intriguing as the good ones that got away. The special dvd edition of Apocalypse Now contains a seamless branching feature which will allow the viewing of either cut. It’s over two discs but it’s a good solution.

A glorious lavish fable of earthly mediocrity vs divine inspiration, Amadeus was a rare treasure trove from the days when a mega budget could be used well to the last cent. Everything about this production worked, the locations, the music, the adaptation from the stage into what could only be called a liberation, and the mighty casting from Jeffery Jones as the Emperor (my sister called him an axylotl), Tom Hulce as Mozart and the deserving best actor Oscar of that year, F. Murrary Abraham as Salieri whose recollection twisted by self hatred and violent resentment gave this story its ground (and should have warned any pedantic twit that they weren’t about to see a biopic about Mozart). It was long but filled with such life and seriousness in just the right doses that it was also completely compelling. Probably the exact length it needed to be. Well, definitely, actually.

The director’s cut on dvd seems to lengthen the film by about a fortnight, adding everything that could be found and, barring only failed takes, shoving it in like a railway cop stuffing commuters into a Tokyo peak hour train.

What’s new? Subplots. The musical courtiers do more scheming. Salieri tries it on coercively with Mozart’s wife. A drunk and penniless Mozart tries to extract patronage from a former patron. Etc. Not only does this bloat the film and distract from Salieri’s madman’s tale but there’s a very nasty cut in favour of this “new” fluff. Older Salieri, gets to a part of his confession that shocks his confessor with its darkness. Salieri breaks his rock like sternness and breaks into an indulgent grin. It’s about a second long but it says more about his character and puts the veracity of his account into perspective in that little time. Now it’s gone, swept under some courtier’s buckled shoes. The original cut was not included in any release on optical medium after the deletion of the initial release. Can’t get it now. Amadeus is still a great film. It just could be a greater one with the judgement that made the cinematic release such an exhilaration.

In 2002 this film shone like a beacon. It was indy and inventive with great dialogue, an assured helming by writer Richard Kelly and bullseye casting. The concept was strong as an ox as well, was Donnie a time traveller or just mentally ill? The circular nature of the narrative sealed the question without ever needing to resolve it. It was a kind of moebius strip movie.

What’s new? A commitment to one of the two interpretations mentioned in the first paragraph. Everything that could cause doubt as to one of them was removed or disambiguated. The creator of one of the most original and enjoyable films of the 2000s turned his masterpiece into a literalistic mediocrity. I haven’t seen the hated Southland Tales nor the better considered The Box but I’m not inclined to after his self travesty. Did he really not know how fine his original work was? Director’s cuts usually arrive decades after the original. This one came about two years afterward. Rather than replace old with new in this case there is an accessible release of this film which contains both cuts. Finally!

Where are the director's cuts of Taxi DriverAnnie Hall, Videodrome or Blue Velvet? I'll tell you one thing I know. When David Lynch released his personally overseen remastered dvd of Eraserhead he did something very interesting with some deleted footage he was able to recover. Lynch owns Eraserhead holus bolus, he doesn't have to answer to anyone about its presentation. Instead of reinserting the scene he put it on his website and made it accessible only to those who could supply a code number on the content of the dvd. I saw it during a trial free access period. I'm glad I saw it. I understand why it wasn't in the film. I don't care if I never see it again. Eraserhead has been allowed to continue airing its odd universe without a syllable's worth of extrapolation or a frame more than it needs on screen. Now that's protection of legacy.

Do any director's cuts work? There have been too many recuts of Blade Runner for me to bother with but I do like the second one that omitted the obvious narration by Harrison Ford and the goofy happy ending. But that was a case of the director restoring his intentions rather than milking an old cow for champagne. Peter Weir's recut of Picnic at Hanging Rock shortened its length (the only instance of this in history?) as he felt it could do with a little less melodrama. So, yeah, they can work if their creators care about them.

Any further expamples? Counter examples? This list can't be exhaustive.

Shoulder pain

All last week, dentist onwards, I was suffering from a big hard lump of pain in my back left shoulder. A good session with a physio alleviated it until stresses at work brought it back. Not even an otherwise sound sleep cured it.  Finally a long weekend managed to loosen it up and the pain faded. Anyway, this is how I felt.

Monday, November 1, 2010