Thursday, December 30, 2010

O Happy New Year!

Went to see Milos at ABC today where he told me that he'd sold more paintings from the last exhibition than from any previous. This had encouraged him to investigate new materials and the results were on the walls. The morphing creatures were still there but now exploding with solar yellows and shocking reds. He's done fifteen since October and won't be slowing down soon. Another exhibition will be in the air soon.

Also, without my prompting he suggested the resumption of Shadows. Nothing in stone as yet but he wants the summer clear before he can get into it again so we're thinking March. Begin the year with an autumn collection. Well that's when I began in 09 and started weekly screenings last year. So why not?

I'm thinking one or two preliminary nights perhaps a fornight apart before the new programs and am happy to entertain suggestions as to what those screenings might be (assuming they eventuate).

Talks continue. Watch this space.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Didn't you torture my bruvver?: Antipodean horror movies of recent times

Britain had one of the earliest working fiction film industries. We did, too. It worked like a Trojan up to the mid 60s. Same here. Then it slowly disintegrated. Ditto. But the quality that had been there turned up unexpectedly on the small screen. Er ... that didn't happen here.

UK tv from the 50s to the mid 90s boasts some of the best ever committed to the medium: great comedy, a kind of unforgiving toughness, sheer world leading style and, when it wanted to, a kind of creeping horror made of location, atmosphere, good acting and the kind of writing more usually found between two hard covers. Minds like that of Nigel Kneale saw to it that ideas could travel as effectively as the alien DNA in one of the earliest examples of alien invasion that needed nary a metre of tin foil costuming. All those concepts needed was a bit of video production and hey presto stories to entertain and disturb. None of this ended up on the big screen apart from a few adaptations from the tv originals. And don't bother citing Hammer movies. They have their fans but they are too ... campy and bright for me.

Lately, the industry (such as it is in that gem set in the silver sea) has been producing scarefests meant for the cinema. Here are a few I've taken in.

A yuppie couple head out to the lush green and pleasant forest for a camping holiday before it gets developed into a concrete slab. A bunch of untamed youths set up nearby and act like right yahoos. While our heroes are splashing about in the paradisical lake o' the title our young chavs are busy vandalising the yup-mobile and nicking what they can. Discovering this on their return, the male of the two upwardly mobile ones decides to confront the hooligans who meet them with feigned ignorance. Little by little the two parties build a case against each other until it's guerilla warfare home counties style and everyone's a potential victim.

The makers of this film would only celebrate comparisons to Deliverance, Last House on the Left etc and feel honoured to be placed in that tradition. Deserved? Why not? All of these films centre on the violence of survival when the cloak of civilisation is torn off. Whether it's inbred hillbillies, Mansonish manipulators or bored unsupervised teenagers the idea that these bipedal dangers walk among us and could stab into our veneer of order at any moment. And then where would we be? Dead or fighting like savages is the usual answer. There's nothing particularly flawed about this argument at this level, scratch a yuppie and find a bogan, but the differences between outings lies in the depth of what this might mean.

In Deliverance the milquetoasts and weekend warriors from the city are shown where their status as citizens end and the test of their manhood begins. For all the machismo of the Burt Reynolds character on screen it's the perceived failure of Ned Beatty's tenderfoot fat man that strikes the hardest. Burt's always going to be ready to come back with a slammin' right hook. Ned in the world of the film can really only exist in the support system of the urban sward. His humiliation (which kickstarts the narrative proper) is what is meant to anger audiences but at the same time it's an example many in the seats would have savoured in the dark of the cinema. Deliverance's power derives from this contrary motion resolved in Reynold's heroism. No one needs to see the Vietnam parallells but they are there in spades.

Last House on the Left is both more complex and goofier than Deliverance but its points are still strong. The long first two acts follow a group of hippies closer to the Manson family than the Mamas and the Pappas. Krug, charismatic and bored, uses the people around him for his amusement, manipulating them to all kinds of atrocities including finally murder. The final act is the revenge of the relatives of the deceased which is where the civilisation is stripped and sheer bloody fury is loosed. Even though there is a confusion of themes here (are we meant to share the outrage against the hippies? are we meant to laugh ironically at the bourgeois couple turning feral?) the themes are yet there on the screen. Eden Lake doesn't suffer from a thematic problem.

That's because outside of a premise, Eden Lake doesn't have a theme. It doesn't have much beyond a series of payoffs and a subversion of survivalist horror films at the end. There are some well observed moments of peer pressure which carry the added weight of atrocity. After the ordeal, the terror, the violence, torture and suspense there seems less point to this film than the other examples I've given here. Bad things happen, says Eden Lake. I knew that.

If Eden Lake seemed well made and pointless, Mum and Dad goes one step further and demotes the "well made" to competent.

Lena the Clena from Poland misses her bus one night and can't get back from the airport where she scrubs the loos. A smoko mate, Birdie says she can put the Pole up for the night and lives but a walk away. Home is a domestic prison with a knockoff Fred and Rosemary West except the two kids are in on it as well. There's a human abattoir downstairs and a cellar full of stolen goods. What do we do for depth? Well, what about having the victim come across ... kind of ... but still have enough in her to revolt at the end if she needs to.

What would make her revolt?

Have we tried cross dressing yet?  Dad cross dressing. And she has to do it with him.

Ok, put that in then. Have we done dismembered but still alive? How about hanging on the wall?

Yes! Oh, at Christmas! Do it then. Like a decoration!

Half a bloke nailed to the wall in a santa hat! Still squirming!

You're a genuis. What about wanking?

We're doing enough of that ourselves, mate.

Seriously, let's put some wanking in. No one shows that. We can shoot from behind if the actor's too self conscious.

How do we know it's wanking, then?

Shoot the jizz ... so to speak.

Right. Alright.

A shot of the jizz IN the liver he's just cut out of one of his victims!

How much are we paying you, again? Right. Let's set it up before it gets cold!

Sorry (it's me again) but all this film shows that its creators can think up nasty stuff. So can I. So can the average five year old. Schoolkids regularly do this while waiting for the teacher. It really only works when there's a point to it. The point of torture porn films like Hostel is getting to see self centered yuppies get their tongues drilled in. I can daydream that, too, but at least it's something.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Don't you bloody dare! TCM has a similar shock survival premise but crucially shows only as much as it needs so that its audience can do the rest. Imaginative audiences (ie pretty much all of them) are always going to make something worse than could ever be shown on screen. That's the real aesthetic crime of Mum and Dad. It seems to think the unrelenting graphic ghastliness is going to provide substance enough for all the great unwashed cor-blimeys out there in the dark. The effect isn't horrifying but bland. Oh, they're doing that now. Oh, they're trying that. Right. Ok. The problem is not that the gore and cruelty is confronting, it's that it's smug. Smugness has no place in horror. An effective horror film cannot afford to put anything between its audience and the screen. This is like almost every example of a non-genre filmmaker trying genre out; there's often a sense of them slumming it and throwing a bone to the audience now and then. It's like finding out the mark in a filmed practical joke was in on it. Blargh!

Mum and Dad starts, gets nasty, gets nastier and ends.  You've just lost 85 minutes of your life.

Hmmm. Better. Actually, a lot better.

A couple of small families get together for a weekend in the snowy country. One of the kids is ill. The others start acting odd then violent and become literal little terrors. Survival hijinks ensue.

Here's what's good about this film that the two above left out. There are characters to care about. The transition from happy holiday to nightmare is made in smooth and easy paces and never feels forced. The atrocities are variously aggravated accidents or believably childlike in conception. There is a recognisable allegory all the way through about the  unpleasantness of infection in childhood and how alarming it is to see something (even just colds) spread through school populations. Making the victims of infection the threat is not new, nor is rendering childhood innocence sinister, but having the two together pretty much is. The young chavs in Eden Lake are just uncontrolled yahoos. The kids in The Children are bound by microbes, monstrous, soured,  ruined. Ask any parent about the point where they lost the bond with one of their own, however briefly, and their account will be imaginably close to the events here.  See? All you need's a point.

This is more like it. Phillip Ridley who made the sustainably weird The Reflecting Skin makes few films. His other careers include childrens books, written and illustrated, as well as installation art. That might tell you that he has a taste for fable and its often gruesome innards. But three films in about twenty years is Terrence Malik territory. But instead of hours of screen time filled with botany and murmurs we get one of the most engaging pacts with the devil I've seen since Angelheart.

Jamie works as a photographer in his uncle's business but also goes out in his time off taking photos of the derelict buildings and odorous underpasses of his native London. Jamie has Britpop looks (Jim Sturgess) which are interrrupted by the heart shaped birthmark which covers half his face. One afternoon he takes a picture of a figure in a window which he can't explain. Returning to the scene later he finds a backlot teeming with demonic figures around a bonfire. Gang attacks are on the rise on the tv news, hoodies like these demons attacking people with molotov cocktails. One of the victims is his own mother whose death by fire he witnesses helplessly. Life could be better.

Through his extreme emotional state he is finding it increasingly difficult to tell the difference between the cruelty of reality and the nightmarish ugliness of his visions. He is led to a hulked out towerblock where a scarred Cockney called Papa B trades him the beauty he ought to have for a few trivial favours. Jamie agrees and gets a full body burn for his compliance. Then again, when he emerges from his scars his face is clean. Life is beautiful. Well, we all know it isn't.

No spoilers here. You only got that much plot to indicate how much more work was done on this film than the others featured in this post. Ridley likes his realism magical and knows how that will always reveal something wicked if left to its own devices. But he also knows that the glories it promises can themselves be an uneasy mix of awe and horror. Jamie's pact with Papa B is a wish fulfillment and carries the cost they always demand.

Beauty and its capture, boredom and violence, lights and lightlessness, all of it adds up to the London where Phillip Ridley grew up and turned into a city of shopping and drunkenness. There is a little nostalgia here but more than that there is anger and seldom has that emotion been painted so seductively. Maybe this film shouldn't be in this post. While it does contain some generic elements it's far closer to being a fable, three wishes with the devil. But it should be here because it shows that a film can be British, new, inventive to the point where it's almost of its own tribe and yet still perfectly acceptable to the mainstream audience. It shows that good British film doesn't have to be a distillate of the glory years of British tv and it doesn't have to be as smug, try hard or as flat and charmless as Eden Lake or Mum and Dad (or for an example from our own shore, the abject hollowness of Wolf Creek) ... and still be a horror movie.

Out locally on dvd. See it if you can find it.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Review: Severed

I'm going to see if I can do this in 500 words, starting after the colon:

Severed is a Canadian film set in a forest where loggers are fighting protesters. Two scientists, meanwhile, find an anomaly in the tree sap. The loggers merrily lop old life forms until one of them nicks himself with his chainsaw and his blood mashes with the gluggy red sap which looks like the strawberry jam in market donuts. The other loggers run to his aid but he turns nasty, biting them and glaring into the light of the world with wild red eyes.

Back on the shore of the corporation , the boss shows the suits some old school and ropes his only begotten in to enter the forest and investigate the slackened production. Scene of father-and-son-drift and the boy goes off and finds the zombies who are all like the first, rabid, red eyed and hungry. He meets up with a small group of survivors. George A. Romero anyone?

Well, yes and no. First, it's unashamedly on video which lends it the authenticity it needs if it insists on being so generic. Second, the score is a low key drone that shifts the lush Canadian forest from visually pacifying to disturbing. Characterisation and performances are on a par with the average Romero piece: competent enough to keep the narrative going. There is the obligatory stronger settlement where the survivors have fortified themselves to weather the terror until the zombies are gone and the company's gunships stop flying over. The company's a big pig intent on filling the world with the junk of GM forestry. The climactic scene and final sequence play out as a call for responsibility and bring the whole exercise some unexpected dignity.

Isn't this a little like 28 Days Later? 28 Days refined an old idea of zombies being infected from industrial science (Jean Rollin's Grapes of Death). Danny Boyle's film bloats and lumbers into line early. Severed, by comparison is like a groove- rather than note- perfect blues band grinding out standards with style. They're a covers band but that shouldn't stop them being sexy.

If you're going to cover Romero you need do it right. Remember that relentlessly slow moving zombies are more frightening than ones that can run. Remember that if you can't pull off a suspense sequence with performances and minimal editing you're in the wrong business or you're Michael Bay (same thing). Remember if you are going to hammer big business you should put some effort into bringing something fresh to that creaky old table. Overall, go back and watch Night of the Living Dead and remember how much can be made of how little if your idea can survive the premise.

Severed checks out. It's not a remarkable entry in the subgenre but it does its job very well. It also avoids tiresome attempts at injecting stoogey comedy into a situation that works well enough as horror. Leave your eight barrelled shotties and ironic one liners in the first draft. Everyone finds them grating and no one will miss them.


Did it.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Unsungquels II

Cautionary qualification: you will need some form of silliness suspension but if you made it through the first Omen film you should be ok.

All the bad stuff of the first movie has happened and a pubescent Damien is now lodged with his uncle and family. He and his cousin are borders at a posh American military school. Here Damien is getting acquainted with his birthright and some nifty powers that come with it. At home his aunt is having to fend off the attacks of her mother in law who sees Damien for the Antichrist he really is. Meanwhile at the mega corporation run by Damien's uncle, the middle eastern digs have turned up a mural depicting the apocalypse starring Damien's likeness as Mr Anti. Enough plot for you? Happy now?

Ok, well this is a pretty good film taken within its scope as an entry in a horror franchise. The first film still strikes me as a collection of effective set pieces cuffed to each other with some overwrought performances and fanciful reinterpretation of scripture. Reinterpretation? Rewriting, more like. There's a famous faux pas credit from the glory days of Hollywood of a Shakespeare play which begins "additional dialogue by..." I was actually interested enough in the first Omen to read Revelation (don't let anyone at all try to sell you the book as a plural, it's ONE revelaTION given to St John, everything, the trumpets, horsemen, quakes and hail, New Jerusalem, the lot happens in that ONE revelation). Anyway, none of the Nostradamus-ish prophecy in the movie made it into St John's prose. Disappointing but true. And telling. For all its success as an hysterical horror piece, The Omen is projected from a proveable fabrication. I don't mean that it's fiction but that the text it bases its narrative on is easy to check. The one they come up with might as well have been penned by the guy who did the additional dialogue for Shakespeare. Anyway, Damien: Omen II doesn't have that problem.

Damien: Omen II is superior to its predecessor in that it makes no pretence to biblical authority beyond the idea of the Antichrist itself. Actually, as all the overacting and silly expository dialogue (less here than in the first one) the Antichrist as a teenager is pretty compelling stuff. Damien is a likeable and popular boy among the kids at uniform school. He's going through changes the same as they are. Well, apart from the pubic hair and the bumfluff on the upper lip, acne and stirring hormones, he's getting some extras (while they're getting boners he enjoying a bonus).

Two scenes at the school show this splendidly and they arise from the narrative rather than are obviously engineered by it. The first is when a bully tries it on the dark one and pushes him to the limit. A series of quick cuts between the gazes of the two show the sweet faced Damien suddenly become icily intense. No make up or lighting, just acting. The bully is reduced to a twitching wreck seeing untold horrors while writhing on the floor. We don't see what he sees. We don't need to. The next is my favourite. Damien in history class is brought up by the teacher and drilled by him about some significant dates of military history. Damien's face again freezes over as he not only gets every one right but starts to answer questions the teacher hasn't yet asked, in a rapid fire exchange that derails into a shattered teacher and almost oblivious student. Dialogue, editing and performance. This not only fulfills the promise of the first one where the preverbal Damien showed some tantalising power over the big nasty black doberman and made the apes go ... all baboony in the safari park. This is a sequel doing what it says on the tin.

Other set pieces include a blinding by raven on a lonely country road, everyone's nightmare lift ride as one goes plummeting twenty floors, a extended drowning scene under an iced over lake, the revelation of Damien's likeness on the mural and a fine fiery furnace of a finale. All that and a younger Lance Hendriksen as a kind of minder who cautions Damien against revealing his nature too early. Mention must also be made of Jerry Goldsmith's improvement on the already impressive work he did on the musical score for the first one. The black mass extends out into the gutteral squawks of ravens and a darker, more insidious aural landscape on this outing. The look of the film also has a richer palette than the first, in line with the heightened senses of a teenager.

On that, one of my favourite scenes from the film again testifies to Jonathon Scott Taylor's title role performance when he offers the hand of Satanic protection to his cousin. No lightning bolts or gothic music, just two kids arguing the stumbling awkward way teenagers do when going through hurtful disputes about things like loyalty or jealousy. It's not kitchen sink realism but it isn't goth central either. It could have been a scene from Summer of 42.

This film needs its predecessor but by the sequel's finale the original feels like a prequel. Like it.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Rock on Film Part 6 : Pistols on Parade

I'll out myself again as being an early x-er which places me as a teenager when punk rock happened. This is important for this post as it might tell you that I don't buy the American origins revisionism about punk nor do I care much about disputes as to what the first punk rock actually was. All you need to know about the value I assign to punk rock is in the following brace o' paragraphs.

Christmas holidays 1976. I was in the rumpus room with my brothers Stephen (two years older) and Greg (I think nine years older). Countdown had just finished and we were just zoning out in front of Weekend Magazine before the ABC news. Weekend Magazine was a soft news show that could have anything from models of the Sydney Harbour Bridge made of matchsticks and guano or the Birdsville Races. This day it had a story on punk in London and featured the Sex Pistols. In those few minutes (about four of them) I watched the screen in rapture as behind my chair a divide was forming between my older brothers and me. As Greg ridiculed the name of the band and its singer I was aglow with freedom. For my tens and two teen years I had been eagerly taking his lead on music and culture in general, loving some of it and wincing at a lot of it but having nothing of my own to replace it with beyond the garbage on the radio. That door opened in those few minutes and still hasn't closed.

It took a long time for the Pistols album to be released but when it was everything I'd kept as a fading memory came explosively true when the needle hit the vinyl that fateful day late in 1977. Between the two times I devoured as much as I could about what was happening over there. There were inklings in some quarters that there were things worth the listen happening in America, too. When I heard them they didn't really stick. There's merit there, of course but none of it had the violent excitement of the British stuff. So, now when I hear that it all came from New York I ask people to go back and listen to what was actually coming from there and compare it to the Brit stuff. Old hippy ravings of Patti Smith (sorry, never heard much in her), cartoony thrash of the Ramones (never seemed serious enough), and garbage like the New York Dolls didn't convince me. Put all of them against Anarchy in the UK and I know who I'll declare the winner. Subjective? It has to be. Anyway...

Here are some representations of my favourites from the time, The Sex Pistols on screen.

This is the one we all waited for. We knew it would be manager Malcolm McClaren's encomium to himself, a grand ninety minutes of after dinner lies about how much influence he had over the residents of the Milky Way in the late seventies. We knew that. We grumbled about it in the cinema queue. We sat in front of it in sheer overwhelming awe and went to the pub afterwards and whinged about what a wanker McClaren was. He wasn't going to win and didn't deserve to.

He did, however, bring the Pistols to the big screen and we in the Anitpodes who would probably never get to see them for real (that changed in the nineties) had this experience. It's still hip to damn the piece for its message of narcissism and tits 'n' bums 'n' raincoats attempts at offence, hip among people who weren't born until years after the band broke up. Odd how trad youth can get in the struggle to distinguish themselves from the previous guard (did it myself and still find it funny).

So what's the film really like? It is indeed McClaren's show. He is the first to fill the screen in a rubber fetish suit, hissing the introduction to what will be ten lessons in how to get cash from chaos. Guitarist Steve Jones plays a private detective on McClaren's trail and the two threads make enough of a weave to hang a babel of imagery from the band's brief public career augmented by animated sequences. McClaren's claims are grand and often completely out of sorts with the facts as they emerged.

McClaren tells the tale to a dwarf in punk regalia, variously on London Bridge, bathing in a mansion, bamboozling press drones at a private airstrip and other locations suggesting he is in control of all the cultural elements he boasts of altering. Steve Jones' detective goes from one sleazey situation to the next, having sex in a cinema, having sex in a bondage club, crapping on the floor of McClaren's abandoned office. The animations are similarly what was referred to in the seventies as blue (though there are some genuinely atmospheric serious sequences too). Sid Vicious plays up his rep as a walking chaos generator on the streets of Paris, riding a Harley down a country lane and most infamously emptying a pistol into the audience after singing his version of My Way (still my favourite, btw). Jones and Cook apparently reveal themselves as McClaren's loyal abettors in Brazil (Jones in another sex scene) writing songs with Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs and someone playing exiled Nazi Martin Bormann. Everything ends with an animated credit sequence on a pirate ship set to Steve Jones' version of the highly blue Good Ship Venus as something more like the real story of the band is told through members being forced off the plank or just falling off and drowning.

A feature length fabrication by someone who never quite admitted he was lying but also never seemed ashamed at being exposed as a liar. It's all Benny Hill and vaudeville, a kind of romp made of elements that all seemed embarrassingly obsolete in the "ideologically sound" early eighties when it was released. 

All I'll say about this one is that it joins films like The Doors as depictions of rock music history that lose themselves in their own adolescent wish fulfillment. I hate this try hard bullshit waste of time.

In the late nineties, Julien Temple shot new interviews with the surviving members, dredged any archives he had access to and recut the footage he had shot and recut them to produce this film in a kind of atonement for having made the McClaren atrocity and put his name to it.

What emerges is a documentary (which Swindle doesn't pretend to be) in which the members reminisce with what sounds like more authority than they were previously allowed. From this a clarity develops to the picture of the origins of the people in the band, the culture they moved through, reacted against and then contributed to. Context setting footage from news, shockingly out of touch youth-orientated tv shows, etc trades screen time with some great unearthed material from the time. Temple had been recording the band on video and film from their earliest days. This way he establishes a direct connection with the band that tends to squeeze McClaren out. Indeed, of all the talking heads on screen the self styled Fagin is absent in the contemporary plane.

On that, the Pistols themselves are interviewed backlit and any suggestion of their aged facial features incidental as they are almost entirely in shadow. Temple's justification for this was that he didn't want to put a lot of middle aged men on screen whose appearance might distract from the message.

This is where the problems I have with Filth and the Fury begin. I just don't buy the distraction excuse. Temple is doing something insidious here while appearing to be benign. Not only has he edged out McClaren who, tosser notwithstanding, was always articulate and worth the listen, he has put his own contribution higher than it deserves. But worse than that, his keeping of the flame has a jealous feel to it. No, you can't see what they look like now. Only I can. No, you can't project your own emotional responses on to this story, it's MY story.

Worst of all, The Filth and the Fury constitutes a kind of betrayal of the legacy. The Pistols, between being art directed and actually delivering substance (go and listen to the recordings if you don't believe that) constituted a generation's worth of confrontational culture based on a do it yourself ethos, promoting an unforgiving view on the rubbish doled out by the mainstream. This film undercuts that ethos by sentimentalising its subject. I don't, for the record, mean the moment where John Lydon breaks down while talking about Sid. That looks nothing but sincere and profoundly felt. I mean the us against them nonsense that the members contribute to themselves. Oddly, for a band whose interview with a drunk and smug tv host gave them massive press coverage, the air of the film, especially its concluding moments, feels smug.

This is a relative criticism, though. If you want an engaging and exciting account of one of the most important bands in rock music history this is a superb place to start. It will take you through the cultural need for punk rock and might give you pause to wonder if the self pleased assurance of "indy" rock might not itself be due for a similar onslaught. It's a great experience. Just don't let it be your only one.

This should be watched soon after Filth and the Fury as it cuts all the sentimentality away and has the surviving members simply talk about themselves, the band and the times candidly and pithily. As the task here is relating how the album was made any historical anecdotes outside of that immediate context carry a veracity that feels unforced. The members appear on camera in full middle aged glory, apparently unashamed of their looks and time's effects. They are interviewed separately and seem at ease. McClaren, too, is allowed his accounts and opinions which, juxtaposed with the others' seem small and self aggrandising.

The album's producer and engineer as well as the artist behind the epochal sleeve art are also interviewed which reinforces the task at hand and all supply depth through professional insights as well as their own anecdotes. A fairly detailed account is given of the recording process and some fascinating deconstructions at the mixing desk provide some brass tacks clarity to the overall image.

To my mind, this is the most satisfyingly coherent acccount of the Sex Pistols as a band as well as a cultural phenomenon. It is purposed, unassuming and fact packed. If you only watch one account of the band make it this one.

Of all the fare on offer here, my favourite watch is Swindle. For all its clunking attempts at prefabricated offence, laddism and the woeful faux sophistication of its host, it is yet in the idiom of the times it describes. The late seventies were years of tits'n'bums comedy and appeals to humour that didn't ask questions as to why it guffawed at difference. There's an authentic charm to this which is completely devoid of the fireside sentimentality of Temple's revision. Swindle is a time capsule, unreconstructed and bare in its plain mendacity. Also, of all the accounts, it's simply the most fun. You already know the real story. Now see the silly version. You know you want to....

Comics to movies: please exercise caution

When I heard that From Hell was going to be made into a film I smiled. This comic with a bovine constitution courageous enough to follow it's Jack the Ripper theory to its heart rending ending was a gift to filmmakers, depth and pace already tried out in a storyboard you could only call deluxe. What happened? Well, it wasn't embarrassingly bad but it had so little of what had made the comic so wonderful in its frames. The film had all the heaviness it needed in the scenes it showed but it plummeted from my estimation in one detail lasting only seconds on screen.

First, From Hell the comic is not a whodunnit but the film is so it would be wrong of me to reveal all the details about the big bad few seconds. I'll only say that when the Ripper reveals himself to the policeman there is a shot where his eyes change, going from normal to a pair of thick black coals. The filmmakers tried a comics technique to render the villain ... villainous. But it just looks try hard. Nothing as cheesy as that happens in the comic. It just isn't told that way. It was like the gag in the show Frontline where John Clarke and Brian Dawe are being courted by a commercial channel for their singular characterisations of figures in the news. They are scrupulous in not adopting vocal impressions or using makeup but that is exactly what the commercial interests want them to do. The big eye swap in From Hell is the same thing: cinema falling short of its source medium.When I saw V for Vendetta I was better pleased but the climactic scene completely missed the point of the original. Both of these titles, I'll just add, are from comics authored by British graphic novellist Alan Moore who has released a few of his significant works to the Hollywood machine with winceable results. He signs off, accepts the returns, knowing that the comics are still there for any who want the undiluted version.

There are exceptions. Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World has the depth and flow of the Dan Clowes comic. The dizzily wonderful Kickass was adapted for the screen before the comic was finished, being developed in tandem with the film. The two are appreciably different but it works. What's good for the comic happens in the comic and good for movie is in the movie.

But not everything can be this way. Might as well wish for a star athlete with two hearts. So when I hear of a possible movie adaptation of Charles Burns' Black Hole I nearly gag.

Black Hole is a series of comics published eventually as a single volume. The story is the convergence of the twin themes of teenage romance and its rapid fortune shifts and a plague spreading throughout the teenage population in the suburbs of Seattle. A movie is only going to be a disappointment for this one. First, the visual style is arresting. When I showed local comics flame keeper, practitioner Bernard Caleo few pages of Black Hole some years ago the sheer volume of his "WHOA!" made me take a backward step.

Burns takes his immediate cue from the extraordinary work of Lynd Ward whose wordless graphic novels were composed of woodcuts that can take the breath of the most stilted away. Burns applies this to a 70s aesthetic and the result and the result is more than just wonder at the force of his drafting. I read Black Hole per issue from the 90s to recently when the series ended. Years went by between some issues. Very little ever happened in each issue's story but there was so much going on in the depth of the detail in each painstakingly constructed frame. This fed back into the deceptive simplicity of the dialogue and narration. What you got was a comic that you had to read frame by frame, not speeding between them as in a superhero outing; it was something you had to revisit to make sure you'd got it right.

The experience of reading Black Hole is so dependent on its being a comic, at once moving and static, it would be defeated by the narrative film treatment. It would  take the David Lynch of Eraserhead or the Peter Bogdanovich of The Last Picture Show rammed together to do the look any justice and then, well god knows who could do justice to the pacing and depth needed for the story itself. I can't think of anyone who could handle all that. Then again, why do they need to? The comic works without cinema, however much it evokes cinema in its pages. Black Hole depends on the moments of contemplation forced on the reader that a film is too unlikely to achieve without a destructive compromise. Please, whoever you might be, leave Black Hole as a comic. If you like it that much, discern what you like about it and film that.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Jesus on film: a meditation

Islamic works are fobidden to pictorially depict the prophet Mohammed. Much sport was made earlier this year when a film about Mohammed was unearthed which  didn't show him once (apart from a hand in this shot or a foot in that). An early British film depicting the last days of Christ was done entirely point of view. The idea is a sound one, as far as I'm concerned. Got something sacred you want to celebrate on film? Keep it off screen. And that's from a lifelong atheist.


Now the day is here again and we get down to our gluttony and greed (well, that's what I'm doing) I feel it's time to observe the effect of the day's cause as it has appeared on the screens. Not a history as such just a few notable examples. 

If, on the other hand, you want to show some of the reasons why the being might deserve sanctity, it's not a bad idea to show said entity among the people, acting and reacting comparably. That's what this here collection this day celebrateth.
So, sit back, take another sip o' something fine, find room for yet more plum pudding and with me sing: happy birthday Jesus.

This one almost made me a Christian. Really. I got into the story through the music and was impressed by the central figure who now wasn't just a tightly coloured image on a Christmas card but a rebel standing with strength against the man. There was doubt and self doubt. There was anguish and humour. The entire course of music and yarn was coloured entirely by a hippidom it was a little too old for but it presented so well, such a great use of music to tell a story and when I saw the film (my first experience of it was as the soundtrack album) I continued to be impressed. Why, though, when it has such a reputation for sheer unbridled nafness?

Mainly, it works as a film. It declares itself to be stylised piece from the word go with the construction of the sets depicted during the overture (what else are you meant to do with it when in the theatre it's usually just the orchestra and a curtain?). This introduces both the Israel location and it's historical remnants and the modern dress and scaffolding approach to the aesthetic. In other words it looks like it's going to be a typically radicalised theatre production from the early 70s but soon proves itself as a cinema piece. Judas' opening number Heaven on Their Minds sees him walking from the glare of the desert to the warmth of a sizeable cave. This will not be a filmed play, folks.

Nor will it be a movie musical as such. JCS is alone among rock operas by ... being an opera with rock music. Naive statement? Well compare and contrast Hair, more a manifesto of hippydom than a story (and with music I can't listen to) or Tommy (good music but only barely makes any sustained sense ... just had an idea for another post). Jesus Christ Superstar takes its cues from the Bible and revoices them in the idiom of its time, using rock music that doesn't sound like it was played by session drones (though it probably was) and a really tasteful orchestral weave. The libretto can, I'll admit, stray towards the self consciously hip (ie not even remotely hip) but the transposition of the gospels to something more like an early 70s vibe of neat casual seriousness works well.

And then there's the film itself. If the set construction at the beginning didn't clue you in, this is going to be a big busy mix of costumes, locations and props from any era that might work in juxtaposition. Roman soldiers look like US Marines on the Merry Prankster bus. King Herod sings a sustained taunt to Christ in ragtime, looking like an LA cocaine lord surrounded by an extra from every porn movie made between 1968 and 1973. The pharisees have a kind of Greek orthodoxy to them but their black robery reveals some serious chest action. Pilate looks like a king from a medieval passion play. Judas is a kind of Black Panther in homespun with an intensity to match and a cyclone of a voice. He's seen in a later torment being chased by a squadron of tanks. Jesus looks trad but again he almost has to considering how he gets most of the hippier lines, something has to anchor him.

By the crucifixion and the big closer title number which however big 'n' brassy sadly ponders the impact Christ might have had now, we've been through a rapidly changing series of scenes and sets with a lot more dramatic conviction than anyone might have expected from this piece. Don't be put off by being caught drinking in the daggy 70s, the anachronistic bag has already been opened on screen. Just rejoice, exult and pray along with this one. Really, one of the best on offer in this post.

Four crosses.

As a Python fan from childhood (when affecting it could get you otracised) I couldn't wait for this one.

I saw this at the Townsville twin cinema complex (The Forum and the Odeon: same building, two names, they knew how to multiplex back in the 70s) and it was preceeded by a travelogue which started like any other crackly afterthought from a dusty bygone age but quickly took a strange turn when the narrator started getting frustrated with the imagery and began to rant at it. At that point we realised we'd been listening to John Cleese's voice and then savoured every clipped syllable as he hurtled into an intimidating fury. That was just the short.

(Incidentally, I have never seen this in any other presentation of the film, not on video, dvd or bluray, unlike the Crimson Permanent Assurance one that Terry Gilliam made for Meaning of Life which was on every version. Be nice to see it again.)

Anyway, if Jesus Christ Superstar interested me enough to read the Bible, Life of Brian was enough to turn me from it for anything but the enjoyment of myth.. Not least of which was the insane reaction by religious groups who thought that the film was ridiculing religion. In fact, Brian celebrates the simple goodness of the Christ message and sprays contempt on the agenda laden interpretation and subsequent distortion of that message.

First up, Brian isn't Jesus. He's just Brian, the boy born a few mangers west of the messiah whose very proximity causes such embarrassment to the magi when they turn up with approapriately sobering epic music, bearing gifts of myrhh and frankinsence. Brian grows up to sell Romanesque treats at the local bread and circus where he catches sight of the vision-lovely Rebecca, a vocal welsh-accented fighter for the Judean People's Front (sworn enemies of the despised People's Front of Judea). He is smitten and the rest of the story is his attempts to win her affections thwarted by the rest of the world trying to turn him into the messiah ... while the real one is going about preaching and sowing the seeds for the next couple of millenia of European culture.

From this point Brian's life is so closely alligned to the Jesaic one that all the gospel scenes of soberer movies can be lampooned often to savage effect. From the women disguising themselves as men to take part in stonings, the bullseye evocation of Biblical prose at its most tiresomely pedantic, the credulity of those so blind they will only see what they're told, the ludicrous infighting of the resistance movement, a very very funny twist on the Barabas/Christ mob choice scene. And finally there's a Spartacus joke at the end just before a chorus of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life sung by the mass crucified. At that point a younger audience has probably been given as good a primer on religion origin myths as they are going to get.

Five crosses!

Jim Cazeivel shares a joke with Cleophas in The Passion
Mel Gibson wanted to show his Catholicism off with this one the same way that Spielberg wanted to show how ruddy the health of his Judaism was with Schindler's List (ok, cheap shot, I don't care if he done found his religion I just hate the movie). Just as Speilberg cast SL in wartime monochrome Mel went for a film in Aramaic, the language of the region at the time. Oh, and Latin when the Roman's turn up. Nice idea.

But the driving idea behind this film is not linguistic authenticity but an altogether other realism. Gibson's stated aim was to depict Christ's ordeal as graphically as possible. He wanted to confront the easy of faith with the searing example of Christianity's central figure. And that's what happens. We begin in the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus is praying hard and close to faltering. He is approached by a waxily pale woman with a voice like a first violin lesson who suggests he throw off his burden of mission. In case you hadn't twigged who this figure represents Mel organises a fly to emerge from one of her nostrils. Oh ... it's Satan. Good call on the casting, there, Mel. Threw me.

Then the Romans barge in, wake everyone up and seize Jeeze and pack him off to the Procurator of Jerusalem, one Pontius Pilate. If you know your gospels (and Jesus Christ Superstar lead me to mine) you know the rest. In the film version the rest is a constantly amping catalogue of humiliation, torment, torture and degradation to the point where Jesus' ribcage is visible through his flogging wounds. Then it's off to Golgotha for some nailin' and wailin' and -- END.

Ok, Mel meant what he said. The passion of the Christ and nothing but. But while this concept alone might strike us as honest we ought to remember the filter its director pushed it through when making it. Mel Gibson is an avowed Catholic he's made a lot of that. But he's not just any Catholic, he's a pre-Luther, lightning casting, blood literalising, transubstantiating, monster of Catholicism. He didn't just go all medieval on Jesus' ayis because getting medieval and depicting Christ are indistinguishable to him. His is not the soft golden figure on bookmarks and cards, He is not an exalted blow waved glowing alien hybrid of Michaelangelo or Titian, he's a Grunewald Christ, torso ripped with splinters which make its viewers wince with pain. The Northern European rennaissance made its religious imagery hard won, remembering that while no one can easily imagine divine eternal light, they only need a splinter under a fingernail or a toothache to understand hell and suffering.

But here we come to my real problem with The Passion and it's the same as any depiction of suffering toward a religious end. Isn't the fact of seeking to outdo all other attempts and provide the most churningly violent protestation of faith not the kind of hubris that might well constitute a mortal sin? Is Gibson's grandstanding humility not the thing centre screen? It seems to me that the most glaring question of this film is not the extent of its gore but the huffing and wheezing orgasmic blindout that cannot provide the difference between passion and pornography.

Four crosses for the attempt at authenticity but two off that for the sleaze from the director's chair.

Passion play ... Sopranos style
I missed this at the cinema and saw it two years on. I mention that as it was just after I saw Willem Dafoe as the frightening and sleazy Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart. When I heard him intone, "it is accomplished," from the cross it was in the same voice as the one that said, "pretty soon you're gonna hear a big sound coming down from Bobby Peru". This didn't ruin Last Temptation for me at all. In fact, it enhanced it. The film begins with Jesus collapsing in a seizure which told me that this might be a telling of the tale without a god or one in which a god visited his only begotten with such a violent calling card. This is before I got to the fact that the film was directed by one of my favourites at the time: Martin Scorsese.

Scorsese had always attracted me with the honesty swirling in there among the violence. The trouble taken to play out situations so awkward that they felt like the audience's own memories. Marty was a New York Catholic from Little Italy and knew his neighbourhood and its religion. He even studied to be a priest. Lapsed or not, his Christ story was going to be compelling. And it is.

Dafoe breaks through my image of him as a slimy psycho and rises high into the Christ persona. I'm not saying that because he's playing the son of god, I'm saying it because he's playing someone who is surprised and frequently terrified by his sense of mission. It covers a multitude of pains as he walks from moment to moment accommodating the ridicule of others and his burning self doubt. When he does act and speak like the Christ of the gospels it is either emboldening or heart rending. All this with an understatement that seems like a natural self-armor. Dafoe's Christ is constantly so many things at once it's like watching a Bach fugue walking around in a homespun robe.

And that's just Jesus. The most prominent figure besides Jesus is his old mate Judas, played by the leonine Harvey Keitel (who voices a real lion that appears to Christ in the desert). Judas, in this account from the novel by Nikos Kazantsakis, is Christ's minder, not just his disciple but the voice of a human conscience. In an early scene Judas goads Jesus in the carpentry shop, attacking him for making crosses. This could have been a scene from Life of Brian (it isn't easy keeping a straight face through the initial dialogue) but it sets the tone of the rest of the film and if you can accept it you're in for something strong.

And these are the goods Scorsese delivers. A north African location shoot with period costumes and a selection of Renaissance aesthetic performed with the voice of the mean streets of Little Italy. There's a lot of tough stuff in the novel which Marty puts right up there on screen in this his second last great work. Oh, and when I said Renaissance I meant the ugly northern one as well as the more teatowel friendly one that happened in Italy. If Willem is a Boticelli Jesus, Harvey Keitel is a Hieronymous Bosch Judas. A scene close to the end which is a frightening cover version of one of Breughel's visions of Hell.

But the thing that made this telling contraversial is the notion in the title. Christ's torment on the cross comes to a sudden silent halt as an angelic little girl bids him come down and leave his suffering. He does so and walks into a world that at first reveres him and then patches up any earthbound temptations he picks up. Legend diverges from life until he meets Paul (an angry Harry Dean Stanton) tells him his continued corporeal existence has become an embarrassment to the industry built around the inspiring version of the story. A final confrontation with a still living and judgement-heavy Judas and we are whisked back to Golgotha which is no longer a nightmare of human pain but an exultation of the spirit. "It is accomplished," murmurs Booby Peru on the cross. But he's smiling and not Bobby Peru anymore.

Four crosses

... or, more usually and against the director's wishes, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST MATTHEW

Who cares if it's trad. It's beautiful.
Pier Paolo Pasonlini did something very traditional here. I don't mean that he took a single gospel only as the source. I mean that he followed in the footsteps of Italian Renaissance painters by depicting the Bible story locally, paying only minimal service to a biblical aesthetic.

Christ and his disciples here are pretty clearly as Marxist as the limitations of the source text will allow. This is the Jesus who says he comes bearing a sword but, as this is not an American movie, he knows his audience is not going to take it literally and expect him to tie a band around his head and get all ripple abbed on Judea.  The control Pasolini exerts over the text and even his own fiery anti-religious fervour results in a depiction of the Christ story that is clearly serving an agenda (Satan appears as a modern day Catholic priest, for example)
but also quite sincerely serving its origins as well.

Pasolini was a complex figure capable of brutal work, bombast and quiet beauty. Here, he almost challenges himself to find something he can put his name to and still serve a traditional audience (though one prepared for more depth than usual in this central account). Neo-realist religion? Here it is. Plain, if not entirely simple, and the pick o' the bunch.

It's out on local dvd. Find it.

Also recommended but so difficult to find it's almost futile mentioning it, is Dennis Potter's television production Son of Man. Christ and apostles are drawn from Potter's Forest of Dead childhood but the creulty and heart tearing gravity he could wrest from his dialogue are all present. And, another thing I've only seen on tv, a realisation of the Pilate and Christ sections of Bulgakov's Master and Margarita. Also, funny and heavy as Russian lit and UK tv. I can't even give you the title of it but I wish it would appear somewhere.

As to earlier tellings like Life of Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth,The Greatest Story Ever Told etc, they aren't for me. I like the story itself, still, but accounts that give no edge to the figure of Christ seem like wasted time to me. Anyway, there were a few that couldn't escape my attention. But if it's real post prandial viewing on the day of days for the king of kings you want I'd track down a copy of the 60s St Trinians movies or the Tawny Pippet. Relax, sit back, drink, digest. It's Xmas. Speaking of which. Merry....

Monday, December 20, 2010

Blind Spots 2: Terry Gilliam part 3

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
I am possibly alone among my close friends in not having read a single book by Hunter S. Thompson. I've read articles by him but the idea of the books never appealed to me regardless of how gifted an observer I thought he was. The figure that emerged was one of high intelligence mixed with a Rabelaisian appetite for intoxicants who could make his accounts of the sidelines of history tower over its chief players. Who better than Terry Gilliam to bring that to the screen?

Better than Art Linson, I'd hope. Linson's Where the Buffalo Roam with Bill Murray in the lead was an embarrassing watch in the old Richmond Valhalla accompanied by some friends who'd come along at my insistence. It's a desparate mess designed as a celebration but coming across as conceived at a student bong sesssion and followed to the letter.

Gilliam's Fear and Loathing opens where the book does and uses its first lines narrated by a bald head  Johnny Depp. What follows for the remainder of the screen time is how a movie about Thompson really can be done. When Duke (taking Thompson's cartoonist-bestowed nom d'excess) freaks out in a Vegas bar, seeing the patrons as a group of oversized gillamonsters Gilliam just shows it. The film is episodic as it probably had to be but there is an arc there I didn't expect to see (is it from the pages?) and that is the neural avalanche that waits in threat over the heads of these bucaneers of benzadrine and booze. The last scenes in Vegas itself are murmur-perfect depictions of the sheer distance even staying awake too long can create between reality and one's perception. The charmlessness which with Benecio Del Toro extorts food from a diner waitress towards the end feels like experience rather than contrivance.

Gilliam spoke of this film as a kind of anger management exercise for both what had happened to his native USA while he was absent in Britain and his powerlessness to protest it. This should be true if it isn't as it explains why this film doesn't feel like a re-visitation, there's no nostalgic backslapping about these hijinks. It explains why the film feels necessary. Not my favourite of Gilliam's movies but a clear achievement, all the same.

The Brothers Grimm
This film was reputedly made as a bargaining gesture for finance from real money for his next film. This strategy has served Guillermo Del Toro very well to the extent that if you see a Del Toro film in Spanish it's probably a really good one (if in English probably a jobbing one). It's occured to me that Terry Gilliam might do this himself more often. Then again this is the result.

The idea is good. It's a kind of origins issue for the Grimms whose name has become synonymous with the collections of fairy tales they published. Here they are con men, touring the country conquering supernatural threats that they often create themselves, extorting a living from gullible villagers. The Napoleonic Wars are afoot which adds a little extra hazard to proceedings. From that point, after a few typically Gilliamesque setpieces the film plods so sluggishly that I gave up on it about half an hour in. If any readers of this blog want to make a case for it please leave a comment at the end of this post.

In a self-deprecating gesture typical of Gilliam he said of Tideland that the poster should bear the plea: It's great ... the second time. Maybe.

Now, I've told friends, relatives and potential life partners the same thing about my aesthetic tastes thus: "I warn you, I like a lot of boring movies". It's always a pleasanter way of saying that a lot of my favourite films, some of my cinematic best friends are difficult films. My all time favourite is Eraserhead. My favourite Godard movie is Two or Three Things I Know About Her which is one film a lot of Godard aficionadi don't know about his work.

It's not the obscurity (I have a loathing for affecting anything from its coolness value) it's really that films like this appeal to me. And when I say difficult I don't mean intellectually puzzling, I mean films that resist affection but yet were once sufficiently loved that they survived conception, gestation, birth and initial nuture only to be cast out or exposed to the unfeeling ignorance of their potential public. I'm not hunting ugly ducklings, it's really more like curiosity. Sometimes this is rewarding like staying up one night after my flatmates had all crawled off to sit through the gruelling Come and See and discovering my favourite war film. These curios and freaks of the screen, created away from the standards of the honest world always have the potential to offer vision. And when Terry Gilliam makes a film that promises to travel further out than even he has been I am there.

The premise is this: Jeliza Rose is a little girl whose rock star parents are terminal heroin addicts. After the death of her mother, her father takes her out to a family-owned farm house deep into agriculture territory. Then he dies and remains where he has died, upright in an armchair his decaying eyes masked by the sunglasses he would wear even at night. Jeliza Rose spends the rest of the film diving deep into her imagination and dealing with the taxidermising eyepatch wearing neighbours. Mostly, she retreats into wreckage, tunnels, burrows and hiding places, talking to the doll heads she wears on her fingertips, translating the ghastliness of her predicament into the setting of a brightly lit adventure.

It seems strange to call a film centred around a restlessly imaginative child grim but that's what Tideland is for the entirety of its screen time. While there is mercifully no cuteness to the natural performance by Jodelle Ferland there is also no charm as it is impossible to join her in her flight from the nightmarish reality of her parents' deaths. The neighbouring siblings offer little comfort, being wounded and damaged themselves and unable to offer more than a disturbingly cold sanctuary.

Tideland might well have joined luminous pieces like The Spirit of the Beehive or Raise Ravens with these ordeals facing child characters especially with Gilliam's championing of imagination and his obvious respect for the strengths of children. But the result is more akin to The Tin Drum or Phillip Ridley's tirelessly grim The Reflecting Skin.

Please note, I'm not saying that Tideland is a poor film even within the canon of its director. I can see no evidence in its frames that the unrelenting unease is anything but the result of deliberate design. Tideland knows it's difficult. For all I know it might live on as Gilliam's one true work of genius. It's certainly on its own in his oeuvre, bearing his trademarks but fashioned unlike any other piece in his collection. It doesn't feel like an experiment and terms like pretentious or indulgent don't apply to something so deliberate and precisely measured. It's not cold but it's not warm. Perhaps it's up to its viewers to brave it twice to see. So far I haven't been able to do so.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnasus
Dr Parnasus, a former monk in an order somewhere between Bhuddism and Dr Seuss won a bet with the devil that won him immortality. Later he bargained for youthfulness in order to marry a love at first sight with the cost of his first born on her 16th birthday. As this story gets under way he makes another bet for possession of the girl who is soon to turn the fateful age.

Dr Parnasus runs a weird old time sideshow in which the members of the public enter through a carny false mirror and into a realm imagined by Dr Parnasus where their own imaginations can thrive, creating and moving through anything they can conjure. One at a time. If there's two, the stronger imagination will dominate.

Into this situation comes a stranger so strange that he doesn't know his own name. They found him hanging from a rope under a bridge. The sideshow crew take him in and his own personability secures him a working passage in the show as a spruiker. He also has ideas of how to contemporise the show's approach which succeed. The convergence of the bet plot and the stranger's identity (including why he was hanged and why he had a means of escaping that fate without their help) gather a momentum we haven't seen in a Gilliam film for a long while.

I normally don't spend too much time describing plots but I think it's worthwhile here. Gilliam's stated aim was to create a work that wasn't sourced from elsewhere.  Apart from reminding me immediately of The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, Gilliam and co have done what they said they would. The problem is that between predictably stunning setpieces a lot of plot is allowed to be obscured by a busyness that creates confusion rather than counterpoint. By the third act the crises are clear and the final pursuit is cleanly drawn and unambiguous but there is so much in the first two acts that is left as mess on the floor.

Part of the reason for this has to be the tragedy that befell production in the death of Heath Ledger. Much of the mess I referred to was revealed as the carpet was pulled roughly from underneath the filmmakers' feet. Gilliam's response to this is a triumph that almost makes up for the crushing disappointments that plagued his unmade film The Man Who Shot Don Quixote (told in the excellent documentary Lost in La Mancha). He contacted three other A-list actors of Ledger's generation who counted themselves his friends and, with a little plot-point-establishing reshooting allowed for Ledger's character to have a different face when he goes through the mirror. In order, he is played or replayed by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. This could have been disastrous but it works. Not only does it work but from the moment we know it's going to continue happening we sit up and follow even more closely. It feels as though it was intended from the word go and adds an bonus originality to proceedings.

Once again Gilliam works in the celebration of human invention and explores its shadows as well as the brilliance that creates them. While he has done better in this area he certainly acquits himself with such an impressive save. One thing that no commentator seems to mention about this film is also impressive. The London of Parnasus is divided into a kind of series of sets and backstage areas (where the show's caravan-hold goes to nurse its frequent wounds), the latter desolate in appearance but peaceful and revitalising, the clean face of the city, however, for all its renovated sheen, is a hell of shopping and drunkenness. It's as though the grossness and brutality of a Hogarth print had been recreated in modern dress. Gilliam shows this with uncharacteristic restraint and it is easily lost beside the spectacle. But it's there. Go and look.

Well, this was really only meant to be a brief single post about how hit and miss I thought this filmmaker's output was. As soon as I approached the end of the first one, I knew it wasn't going to be that simple. The more I thought about Gilliam's movies the less comfortable I felt about my judging them interesting failures. There's just too much real value in most of them to dismiss them so. I still can't say I like most of them but I'm unable to dispute that for all his quoting form cinema and art history, for all his operatic traditionalism, Terry Gilliam makes films that, with very very few exceptions, feel like he believed in them. The fact that he still has to struggle to make a new film which will burst with originality and people like Christopher Nolan who for some reason is still treated with the reverence of a marginal artiste (and yet comes out with massively self pleased bullshit like Inception) seem to float from one project to the next is a travesty. I'd ditch all of Nolan's work and that of Stephen Spielberg and James Cameron for one finished print of The Man Who Shot Don Quixote. And with that windmill tilt, I'll here end.

All the others in this series will be shorter ... promise....

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Blind Spots 2: Terry Gilliam part 2

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
I first saw this decades after its release, having heard both favourable and annoyed reactions from friends. I don't know why I made no effort to see it as Gilliam is one of those directors whose every film is worth seeing once. Even the poorer ones have qualities rare in the field. In fact, as I used to say of the Cohens that I liked every other film, I have said of Terry Gilliam that even his failures compel. That said, the best I can say of Munchausen is that, for me, it's consistently ok.

And yet it's all there: the gigantism, the visual splendour, the sly humour and Pythonesque absurdism and a cheeky approach to history. Even the framing device of the film is smooth: the titular Baron walks into a theatrical production lampooning his massive fibs and demands the audience hear the "real" story. From that point, accompanied by a kid whose cuteness is never allowed to push ahead of her role in the tale, we see splendid recreations of past heroics and are taken along an incredible journey to present and future ones. Sounds great. So why did I take a week to get through it?

As I wrote, it's all there, all the Gilliam goodness, the scale, spectacle and imagination but too much of it feels mechanical to me rather than natural. All the colour and pyrotechnics on show could not warm this up for me. I know it has its fans and almost all of them of my acquaintance are significantly younger than I am. Maybe that's it. Maybe I saw it too old to forgive it.

The Fisher King
Like Munchausen, it took a long time for me to catch up to the Fisher King. It barely registered on my radar at the time of its release. I don't know exactly why this should be so apart from whatever was happening at the time that kept me from the cinema. I know Wild at Heart came out at that time which I swooned over (don't now, though) and Total Recall which a lot of my friends were swooning over and of which I thought but little. But I'm sorry I didn't make a point of seeing The Fisher King at the cinema as it's so enjoyable.

It's theme is rise and fall, riches to rags and the real treasures that penury can force sight of. Jeff Bridges is a talk radio king until he makes such a grievous false step that he implodes into depression. His redemption comes in the form of a mercifully controlled Robin Williams, a hard-knocks dizzied bum obsessed with a nerdy but unattainable woman. The once and never again king of the airwaves is forced to be selfless if he is to save himself.

One of the really impressive features of this film is Gilliam's own self restraint. Because he keeps the focus on the troubled relationships that drive the film the greater setpieces (the dizzying transformation of the railway station into an old time dance venue) feel less like momentous jokes than moving spectacles. Also, tellingly, this Gilliam film features the most present and fully drawn women out of all of them. Everyone needs to be on this stage and everyone is given depth. I can't help feeling that it was Gilliam's self reflection driving this. The man spent his career trying to grow bigger and bigger while struggling to finish everything he started only to find the depth he pursued by relatively simple means.

Twelve Monkeys
 I saw this on a date. It was going well. My companion and I were really looking forward to the new Terry Gilliam movie about post-apocalyptic time travel. We were whispering along merrily through the ads 'n' trailers and I took delighted delivery of a fantale proffered by her fair hand. Two chews in I stopped mid sentence. There was a chunk of railway girder in the caramel. A molar had found it and given me the ugliest sensation I was to have that night, the feeling of having bitten down on metal. As potential dental emergency outranked dignity I pushed two fingers into my mouth and pulled out the mutant candy which was ugly enough by itself but made nauseatingly ugly by the sight of my molar filling lodged in it, like a shiny stone set into the ugliest engagement ring in history. By some miracle my date was searching through her handbag at that point (and the lights had gone down for the trailers, anyway) and she either didn't see or was busy unseeing it. I wrapped the hideous foundling in fantale paper and pocketed it for the dentist, suddenly feeling a great windblown icy waste in my mouth. Then Twelve Monkeys started.

James Cole, a convict in an underground post-apoclayptic technocracy volunteers to be sent back to a pre-cataclysmic time to gather information on immunity from the disease that has laid waste the world's population (well, most of it). Arriving back in the 1990s a few years before the big bad he is cripplingly ill equipped to deal with life in the past. So he's thrown into the loony bin and makes it worse for himself when he tries to explain his mission. Here he meets two characters who will have a major impact on his progress: a beautiful young female psychiatrist who screams love interest the moment you see her and a whacked out frenetic young male fellow inmate of the hospital. Can he prevent the apocalypse?

It's easy to forget these years later but the casting of the two male leads was significant then. Bruce Willis had taken the king's shilling after a much loved quirky start on tv as co-lead in Moonlighting and established himself as the kind of wisecracking action hero that plagued the screens of the late 80s and 90s. But from the mid-90s he started widening his scope with a deeper role in Pulp Fiction and deeper still in Twelve Monkeys. Going from the grimacing oafish sexbomb of the Die Hards and whatever other ammunition-budget-led extravaganzas to this performance which is, end to end, a man ruled by a grievous sadness and plagued by constant confusion and powerlessness, Willis managed to convince audiences that he could be the direct inverse of what had brought him fame. Now he picks and chooses.

Brad Pitt had been cruising between southern primitives and wispy roles that required him to do little more than aid the lighting design. His explosive mania as Goines engenders a constant edgy laughter when he's on screen. He didn't just break type by being funny he found a kind of danger in a lightless corner well beyond the hound dawgs could ever offer. This is overacting at its finest. That's not a slur. Goines needs to be weirder than life and if you've ever been stopped for directions to god on the street or taken the wrong taxi you know how some of the citizenry love to overact. His performance is exact and exactly to the opposite casting effect of Robin Williams in The Fisher King and the result was a revelation.

Notice here that all this while I've made no mention at all of the pyrotechnics or scale of this film from this scale-happy pyrotechnic artist but I have written about the cast. That's because this film more than any other apart from The Fisher King in Gilliam's output, he puts the wow beneath the woah! This story of loss and regret on a global scale (the world had recently received a mighty scare about the ebola virus) that plummeted back down to the personal level seems to ignite the nervous systems of its players. This is the most strongly human story in Gilliam's canon and the one I still relate to the most.

If you haven't seen Twelve Monkeys yet might I recommend you locate and view its avowed inspiration La Jetee? Chris Marker's film of a time traveller on a mission is told mostly in black and white stills with narration. It's a brief masterpiece. Gilliam's take on the story of La Jetee is neither a remake nor ripoff but more of a theme with variations taken to a symphonic scale.

My own sense of tragedy found a sympathetic moment on screen as Bruce Willis extracts one his own teeth in a gruelling scene. As the icy aircon darted into the small abyss of my molar I felt both vindicated and righteous.

Next ... the last few.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Blind Spots 2: Terry Gilliam part 1 (I know .. parts within parts within parts but I gotta put something up

 When Terry Gilliam began making features in his own right he could do no wrong in my eyes. His animations for Monty Python seemed to open the door to a parallel universe. They were funny by context rather than anything innate. Mostly, they were troubling and angry. Monty Python had me from the get go when the pilot was played back in my childhood. It was like watching psychopaths on hidden cameras, unstable confrontations, inverted banality, and a violent take on British stereotypical characters. In the midst of all that a construction paper gunslinger was shot and buried. Hands grew like flowers from the grave. A girl scissored out of a Victorian picture book came by and cut the hands into a basket. That told me that Monty Python was not going to be some cute BBC half hour but something difficult and fearsome, and that it would probably change all significant comedy that followed it. Ok, I didn't think in those words at ten butit did seem like things were changing.

And we all know the story. The team fought, fragmented and it wasn't the same. Anyone whose tried to make it through all of the box sets knows how gruelling the later Python tv show gets. But if you take the time to watch the movies they were making something very different emerges and it's strange. How could such a cardboard set comedy on video make such a bold transition to the cinema screen? Whenever the tv show had attempted a coherent narrative line through an entire episode it always lost breath early and collapsed. But the grandeur of Holy Grail was what made it funny.  And that came out of the conflicting visions of the Terrys (Gilliam and Jones) which were resolved in the need for sheer pragmatism. Jones veered toward cuteness. Gilliam wanted a cast of thousands. Instead of real horses it was a man clapping two coconut halves together (played by Gilliam himself) not into a microphone in post but on screen in costume. And the film score was all El Cid and Man for All Seasons, tympani and extended brass section. That tension between epic and English whining triviality still makes Monty Python and the Holy Grail feel fresh now. See also Life of Brian and Meaning of Life. Anyway....

So when Terry Gilliam came out with Jabberwocky I loaded myself up with consumer expectations like a suburban dad on a camping holiday ("but why can't we have a spot closer to the shower block if there's one there?") And it went nowhere and took its time doing it. The Python surreality was replaced with whackiness which made it look like a knockoff regardless of how many Pythons were trying to change the lightbulb. What remained was perhaps a look into what Holy Grail might have been given time, money and a free hand to Terry Gilliam. While it's great to see merrye England gone all Ken Loach and the fight sequences with the monster have a genuineness about them what's missing is any cohesion between the authenticity of the period evocation and ... a point. There is nothing to hang the comedy on in this film. The scene, often offered as an example of the film's way, where Michael Palin interrupts an artisan in a workshop with an efficiency suggestion only to have the entire factory collapse around them, outstays its welcome as soon as the big props start to fall.

Then came Time Bandits but before it came Life of Brian which Gilliam didn't direct. He did, however, contribute one of its funniest sequences (Brian saved from plummeting to his death by an alien spaceship) which made the prospect of Time Bandits all the more enticing. And it's a good adventure, taking a child character through the ages and even to the depths of a highly imaginative depiction of hell. For the most part the mix of fantasy fiction and Pythonesque comedy works well, if bumpily right up to the ending which changes the tone of the entire film from adult-leaning adventure to buzzkilling violence. John Cleese is very funny as a Robin Hood more like a Tory politician than a bandit. David Warner is both funny and intimidating as the Evil One. Michael Palin and Shelley Duval as the eternally awkward lovers are very Python, funny or not. And there's Sean Connery who doesn't have to be funny. But a great deal of this and the action are at odds with the tone of the boy being taken on adventure by the dwarf robbers. This is neither a kid's story (even a Roald Dahl one) nor an adult's one. Having the advantage of the Monty Python pedigree it was marketed with that flavour. But it wasn't a Python film. Nor was it so of itself that it could survive the initial confusion of what it was to emerge as a sui generis piece like El Topo or Harold and Maude. The film has its pundits but if you speak to them you'll find a lot of nostalgia in their admiration, a kind of stolen pleasure from their childhood. To its credit the film's delivery on some of its promises and reasonable maintenance of its narrative thread (this isn't Tarkovsky, it needs a constant narrative force) allow return viewings. When I tried to get through it for the second time in two decades I gave up. The imbalance between fantasy and comedy wasn't tension the way it was in Holy Grail, it seemed saggy. It felt try hard. This despite the obvious vision that had conceived it and skill that executed it. I wondered if Terry Gilliam was a technician who had fluked a few good comic moments between bombastic ones.

Then came Brazil and with it an end to the obligatory association with Monty Python. What remained of Python in this film was there in Terry Gilliam to begin with. Mostly, the same kind of troubled anger as I remembered from those animations in the tv show returned.

It was 1984 and journalists were in a frenzy all year playing spot the Orwellian overtone in public events. Michael Radford made a muted but powerful adaptation of the novel. Terry Gilliam threw everything he had (a somewhat considerable stockpile) at contemporary society through an evocation of its past as a reversal of Orwell writing 1984 about 1948. I remember an acquaintance of my flatmate who was roostering himself through local student politics voicing suspicion that Brazil and Nineteen Eighty-Four were released around the same time as they were both obvious attacks on Soviet society. This was a further example of the student pollie phenomenon of treating strong arm politics as though it were the Glass Bead Game and everything outside of that (eg. culture) as remedial reading. When I tried to explain to this fusilier of the SRC that there might be a lot more commentary on the West in those films than he imagined he intoned the mantra so beloved of his tribe: "bullshit." I left it there. It really was only a movie. (He also opined that one thing he liked about Nineteen Eighty-Four was that "the good guys won".)


Brazil deserves the high place given it by Gilliam fans for the sheer force of its argument and the service of every element of the film towards that end. It has his dizzying delight at the confrontation inherent to massive structure, moebius strip logic, and the ugly consequences of a totalitarian enforcement of consumer culture. The tech and fashions are from world war II but the intolerance of dissent by governments applies today. If the film had been released at any time after 2001 no one would be talking about Moscow, they'd be thinking Dubbya's Washington or Blair's London.

And there's still more. Protagonist Sam Lowry's dreams invade the central narrative until the two realms find a strange convergence in the finale. The dreams, initially, are intriguing pieces featuring Sam as a winged figure with a mane of golden curls who increasingly as the dreams progress comes to the rescue of a highly idealised woman. This situation grows enormous in scale to the point where Sam has to do battle with a monster that emerges from the very brickwork of the buildings around him. What a perfect evocation of the fantasies of an oppressed bureaucratic drone. We're reminded by them that Sam is far from the heroic figure he'd like to be. The finale, on a Gilliam-only scale, takes this to its logical conclusion and by that time we are ready to forgive Sam for being the cog in the machine that he was. Where he lands is both better and worse.

Terry Gilliam had arrived in auteur land.

Next ... the other ones....