Sunday, November 27, 2011


A room lit brightly by indirect sunlight. A man is masturbating while standing up. He's having trouble. Suddenly a woman rises from a supine position and asks if he wants help. He declines. Suddenly,we're in the kitchen of a busy restaurant. The man from the previous scene is the chef. A middle aged woman enters the kitchen and angrily calls him a selfish arsehole. Suddenly, he's in a car, misjudges a turn and another car rams into his sending it into a spin, he revolves before our eyes pummelled by restaurant supplies, fruit, meat etc. All quite beautiful but what means it all?

Well that's the point for the next two or so hours. Incomplete and intentionally illfitting jigsaw puzzle pieces gradually forming a portrait of a man struggling with grief, self-medicating through anger and sex. Eventually, we are introduced to the cause of this grief and can, through a persistently sharded narrative, start following. And forgiving. Early scenes showing him (name of Tom) being arrogant, coldly suave and self serving invite us to dislike him before we know where he has come from but when we do, piece by piece, his inner maelstrom and outer freeze speak volumes and we can forgive him his trespasses. All that is right there on the cinema screen. So why don't I care about it more than sporadically?

It has good things going for it from the get go: a strong Australian cast put performances which, though fragmented by the structure, come through clearly; that fragmentation at first so uncompromising loosens up with an easy hand at the helm and is soon enough quite enjoyable; the theme of love and loss is constant, intimate and supported by a fundamentally cinematic heart. See, it's all good. But it isn't, really.

The good thing about asynchronous narrative is that it can push the theme, the issues, the more existential elements of a situation boldly out front for our examination while still retaining much of what we like in narrative cinema (performances, motivation etc) but the bad thing about it is how it also seems to encourage the nurture of secondary or even irrelevant elements. Burning Man hits its stride quite early on and, after a few surprises and sleight of hand moments, we are happy to take up its invitation. But soon enough after that the sheer weight of repetition, strains that fizzle and continue to fizzle, the feeling that the film will have no clear ending gets stronger. And then, after what feels like hours later we are given a climactic moment and an emotive coda. As that is happening I realise that I don't care at all about this character that I had begun warming to way back in the first shower of shards. I observe him emote. I do not share his emotion.

All I can think of is that I might have cared if I'd had to wade through about thirty less minutes of screen time. The tech is now too old to be universal but it's also irresistable as a figure: imagine taking a square of photo paper from the enlarger plate and sinking it into the developer, watching the image emerge in the dim light but noticing that every few seconds it erases and emerges again and again and again. That's what the last fortnight of this film feels like. An ongoing attempt at showing how gallows humour works seems forced the first time and then by the third or fourth becomes a strain.

I should like this film. I like grim films. I like a lot of unrelentingly grim films. I like films that challenge classical narrative or even dispense with it while remaining fiction (mid 60s Godard is a good place to start for this). I like films as essays that push their themes forward like stage mothers their unluckily talented children. But this grim, intentionally fractured character autopsy snatched my empathy and then even cold interest and left me at the point where those things started to feel like contempt. It is well made with good makings but god I wish it were better.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Rock on Film part 15: Living in the Material World vs Autoluminescent


George vs Rowland

Big themes so let's start with a couple of lists:

Toy copy of George's "Rocky" Strat

Fender Jaguar similar to Rowland's


Both came to initial fame in influential bands.

Both were guitarists to one side of an impressive front package.

Neither was considered a guitar hero in any traditional sense.

Both died before old age of natural causes


The ex-Birthday Party members continued to make music equal or superior to their work in the seminal outfit. The ex-Beatles' output continues to be dominated by grinding mediocrity.

The Beatles remain the biggest band in the known Universe. You have to find out about the Birthday Party.

George Harrison left drug experimentation behind for a committment to spirituality. Roland Howard's lifelong pessimism led to a kind of romanticism in which spirituality was never more than a handy notion.

Almost everyone who watches the Harrison documentary will do so across the great chasm of the subject's fame and their capacity to cope with the difference will determine their enjoyment of it. In the small cinema where I saw Autoluminescent I could almost guarantee that everyone in the half filled seating either knew or had met Roland Howard or any combination of the interviewees. That does change as soon as you place the screening outside of Melbourne but consider that the first proposition doesn't change wherever it's shown.


The Beatles' magnitude demands that any attempt to render them identifiable to the great unwashed needs more than a little push to be believable. Rowland Howard's life story can tolerate a great deal more praise from pit and peer due to his relative obscurity. In both cases that's what happens. If you want to see it not happen that way go and watch the 1989 hagiography Imagine John Lennon.


As a second or third generation Beatles fan (ie one who turned teen in the 70s) I easily picked out Harrison's contributions for their distinct darkness of tone. His first composition on a fabs disc was the brooding sneer of Don't Bother Me. It's all odd percussion, great guitar tone (a Gretsch through a Vox amp, using its yummy tremolo) and a big putdown vocal. Then there's the lashing Taxman, cheeky Piggies and the big late night spookiness of Long Long Long (how else do you follow Helter Skelter?)

The story goes that against Lennon and McCartney he had to struggle hardest of all to get one of his songs on an album so they really had to shine. Well, for the most part they do. This doesn't make him a great songwriter but it does show his determination and individuality. And it gives him a great reason for quitting to move out by himself and fly free. He did. And then, like all the others whose initial albums had the strength of   triumphant escapees, he settled down to a long determinedly alright graze thereafter.

Living in the Material World doesn't tell it like this. We follow an individual from plucky youth into a maturity of caring and sharing and then an untimely death. Veiled admissions from the likes of Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton provide a womanising side to the quiet one and there are a number of songwriting breaktroughs which are given the status of narrative sign posts by director Martin Scorsese. A clear sense of a teenager from a cheerful working family becoming a benign landed lord emerges but there is a significant amount of shade lost in the telling.

The pioneering Concert for Bangladesh was plunged into controversy as the proceeds were variously held up or mysteriously siphoned off (probably by everyone's favourite depspoiler of rock royalty, Allen Klein). The event is celebrated but its purpose was left ravaged by the greed it attempted to redress. While much is made of George's development as a songwriter and musician the music after the big early albums fades into silence in quiet admission of its decreasing quality. Handmade Films, the company Harrison established because he wanted to see Life of Brian, did some fine work but also would have altered Withnail and I into a goofy forgettable mainstream waste of time.

The reason I can go on about this is that Harrison's factsheet has been posted upon the wall of public memory so gigantically that any attempt to slip one by is doomed. It's why Imagine John Lennon is so winceable. We know Lennon wasn't just some nice bloke that all this happened to. Similarly, Harrison had to be as forcefully competitive to retain his position as any of his fellows. There is some hint of this in Scorsese's film but it's kept nice.

As far as the equalisation alluded to above goes in this film it arrives in the accounts of how Harrison behaved toward the women he loved. Pattie and Oliva Harrison both offer quiet and dignified testimony of a lover and husband. A gesture here and a word there depict someone you'd want to know regardless of how competitive he had to be otherwise. It is these moments (and his son's account of George as father) that have stayed with me. Apart from them, Living in the Material World is a very slight step above Imagine John Lennon.

Rowland Howard has a lot of music with his name on it but all of it is over shadowed by one song: Shivers. He wrote it when he was 16 in response to the emotional turmoil he saw around him as he and his friends paired off and then split asunder again and again. The lyric is a sneer at the resultant over-emotion, even beginning with the line "I've been contemplating suicide though it really doesn't suit my style." If you made it through your adolescence without having that thought then you probably behaved yourself and I hope the pool extension is all you hoped it would be. The chorus begins with one of my favourite lines out of any song: "My baby's so vain she is almost a mirror". Who, capable of coming up with that at 16 along with perfectly fitting music, could not be destined for greatness?

Well, Rowland Howard, actually. Autoluminescent, though it might try to pull the other way, is a story of mounting defeat, showing a vulnerable individual continually beaten by a life against which his talent offered no protection. His is the story of every bedroom rockstar there ever was with the exception that he acted on his daydreams and pushed himself into a career. And it worked ... kind of.

His lean, high cheek-boned pallor allowed him effortless access into Melbourne's alternative scene which was morphing from punk to its posty form that allowed a greater range of expression. A series of talking head testimonies tell of this but nothing does it more eloquently than footage of Howard, Ollie Olsen 'n' co. slinking catlike down Fitzroy St in the late 70s. They stand out from the crowd through clear visual and personal style, aliens among the mud men.

But then something happened when Howard joined the Boys Next Door halfway through their only album. He brought a wild chaos to the sound that lifted it from good to original and he brought Shivers. The song he'd been performing with such cool sarcasm in his first band was taken by Nick Cave and turned into a straight emotionally wrought ballad. That's how I first heard it and it almost made me cry. I didn't have the Door Door album but I had the Shivers single with the creepy and compelling Dive Position on the B-side.

A lot of interviewees in the film have an opinion on the change in the song's mood. Cave himself who'd done the dirty deed concedes that Howard should have sung it which seems a pointless thing to say now. The fact is that Howard allowed the song to be so used and doing so allowed it in turn to enter history with its name on the door. A montage of alternative versions includes Marie Hoy's from the Dogs in Space movie which restores the sneer (actually more clearly than Howard's original).

The Birthday Party's career takes them from, to paraphrase Howard, massive fish in a tiny pond to frog spawn in a massive ocean. Penury, antipathy and heroin in London to localised celebrity in Berlin where their style and drug of choice changed the scene completely. Wim Wenders (a far better interviewee than a film maker, IMHO) offers some very useful witness here.

It was in Berlin that the Birthday Party ground to an end, with Howard being elbowed out over the widening chasm between his and their direction. Other groups formed from this, most durably Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. It's at this point in the film where Howard's decline begins and continues on to his demise. It's also where the account gets both more guarded and more intense with Howards drug and health problems equalised low against the strength of his musical output.

And here we come to the crossroads of any biographical account: do you show everything? It leads to the question of what you're trying to say by telling someone's life. A friend of mine complained about Tim Burton's film Ed Wood, saying that it left out all the ugly seediness of his final years. Burton's purpose was to celebrate the act of filmmaking and chose an unusual but highly useful starting point: Wood might have produced laughably inept films but he'd had a genuine force of vision. That comes through easily. If the film had gone on to report it all it would have descended into the kind of earnest yawn that Oliver Stone so deteminedly gave us in the '80s and '90s.

So what's the big message of Autoluminescent that buries the bad bits under a few hints? Persistence. Howard kept going, kept finding collaborations and writing and recording and playing, regardless of how low his profile was to remain. His music was crucial to his life and while that could be said of other aspects of his days on earth his music remains. It stands the cool removal test (ie imagine if it had been created by someone you "shouldn't" like) and travels well beyond its makers' life.

Of the home/movie/slideshow/talking head rockumentary format, which is better? Autoluminescent is more of an a/v feast as there is a lot less mainstream reverence to get through before you see the subject in any kind of clarity. On the other hand Living in the Material World doesn't have Nick Cave reading a fairytale version of the story over brooding gothic imagery. George's son reads his fathers letters home which becomes emotionally very efficient.

Autoluminescent begins and ends with a fetishistic tracking shot of Rowland Howard's career-long choice of weapon, an Olympic White CBS era Fender Jaguar which he is seen playing almost exclusively throughout and it's there on the soundtrack, wall to wall. Not a word is said about it but it's there. George Harrison was the Beatle who did care about his guitars and amps and was always happy to discuss them. But the only time we see them is in vintage clips. Where are the close-ups of his beautiful old Gretsches, his iconic fireglo Rickenbacker 12 string, the cherry Les Paul or the rosewood Telecaster? Neither word nor sight up close. But there's the difference right there.

Material World is about a famous person whose music became apparently less and less important to who he was as wealth, fame and comfort took over. If you didn't know how he was and hunted his later music down as a result of this film (and it's lack of representation of it) you would probably experience it once, incompletely and put it quietly back where you found it. Rowland Howard slung his Fender Jag where he went and kept plugging it in right up to his final (and pretty damn good) album.

I am more a Beatle fan than one of the Birthday Party and its descendants. The fact of the Beatles is so impenetrably armored by their fame that I feel no lack in enjoying their music without caring even slightly about who they were as people. I was never likely to have met George Harrison and remain unbothered about it. While I cannot claim to have known him, I did meet Rowland Howard on a few occasions, and outside the musical context (ie not at gigs) and I'm glad I did. I found him witty, intelligent and personable.

Neither film alters those impressions but the one I'm grateful to have seen at a cinema is clear to me. Odd for me to write this but in this case at least, between Richard  Lowenstein and Martin Scorsese, Scorsese loses.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Moustaches of the Silver Screen

Since Movember's almost over and I have a week free from promoting SHADOWS screenings (as there isn't one on this week) I thought I might as well get a post about moustaches going in the very nick of time.So, here it is.

My theme will be ...

Give me a second...

Sublimation levels in the suggestion of testosteronic force as evidenced in the appearance of moustaches on leading men in narrative cinema ... through the ages.

To begin with we ought to bear in mind that cinema's emergence from the late nineteenth century featured moustachioed menfolk as a consequence of a century of intense facial creativity. The renactment below of classic Victorian sideboards is indicative:

Nevetheless, by the time cinema rolled around no one looked like that on screen. In fact the only people who did look like that were stalwarts of the industrious underclass attempting to prolong the industrial revolution through the fearless adoption of its style (evidenced below in this portrait of IK Brunel, which I -- quite seriously -- regard as the first modernist image):

Anyway, apart from melodrama villains the moustache was gone from the pre-war screen of dreams.

Then there was the war and the alphas all looked like this:

Kaiser Whilhelm anticipates his afterlife as a park statue

Not goth enough?

The stylised flying vulva atop the headdress attests to the complexity of this artist: he identifies with both egg and egg dispenser. I realise this caption is at odds with the light-entertainment mood of this piece but I am attempting some innovation here so will you please keep it down? Of course it might just be a golden coffee bean. They had colonised both Kenya and New Guinea at that stage, after all.

Anyway, after the great slaughter, the world-wide reaction followed all avantguardist movements by adopting the name of the previous one and adding the word post. The Post-War moustache was for a time absent in reaction to the wartime. What does this have to do with movies?

Ivor Novello: actor of his age in a VERY early draft of Bowie's Aladin Sane cover art
Even the alphas refrained from worrying their top lips:

Edward VIII after a shave.
Similarly, the alphamost of the top followed suit (and in suits):

Cary Grant who here knows something you don't know
And, by Cary's time in the spotlight, there was also a reaction to another famous moustache:

Whose style was really only a cover version of a movie star. Gross Weltanschauung imitated art:

Ladies and gentlemen: the king of comedy!

And ...

Chaplin's companion and frequent co-star, Paulette Goddard. Seen here because she's insanely beautiful

Paulette again. Seen here because it's wrong not to include this still (also from Modern Times) when you've already put any other one up

Where was I.....?

Oh! If you can imagine Iggy Pop covering a Jet song you know the great weight in Chaplin's cover version of Hitler's cover version of the iconic lip grub here:

Irony? The best film of this icon of silent cinema is his first talkie (or shoutie, or preachie...): The Great Dictator

But then it was time to reconsider the lipgrub by making it distinctly non-Hitlerian:

Security means having your own floating nametag
After the war (Post-War II) the moustache was as popular as it had been after the first. There hadn't been a mo-ed president of the United States of A. since Teddy Roosevelt nor has there been since. Yea, through the great re-release of testosteronic overgrowth that was the 60s:

Robert Redford finds a name for his future film festival
... and the 70s:

"John Holmes And the Bawd of Censors"
... the 80s zipped back up and kept it clean:

Really, really, really clean
unless they were playing nostalgia:

This is from the Cotton Club, a highly entertaining take by Sofia Coppola's father on a lot of enduring social problems as encapsulated in the famous NYC night club. I couldn't just use the caption I wanted without this preface and the fact that the phrase that follows is the title from a real film of an earlier era starring Kirk Douglas: The Young Man With a Horn.
Which brings us pretty much up to date. The 90s revolution in facial hair generally incorporated some means of chin concealment and the lone mo was a thing o' the past. But there was this from 1991:

Two men in love with the same tiny cardboard cutout they call Zandalee.

So there you have it. ...... Look, it's Monday and I have a lot of uploading to do which leaves me a lot of time to tap this out between checks. And did you really expect this to be anything better than an extended plea for donations to my Movember effort? Come on!

Come aaaawwwwn!

It's true, though, you really can donate HERE.

Thank you, thank you for your kind attention.


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Review: DRIVE

An action movie is about order wresting itself from chaos, changed, stronger.

Action heroes don't always know they're good people. By the end they are aware of the cost of being good and how important it is to keep up the effort. A bad action movie will have all this but it will push the stunts and pyrotechnics so far forward that that simple moral discovery gets smothered. A good action movie provides a compelling case for the action before it can take place so that we in the audience must need it to happen. True Lies is a bullshit action movie. Drive is a very good one.

Ryan Gosling's nameless driver is a creature of great precision, doing stunt work by day and working as a getaway driver for the kicks as well as the money by night. The film opens with the latter kind of job as he picks up a pair of serious looking burglars and, after a very tight wait for their remergance from the job, and gets them out of danger with a series of impressive evasive manoeuvres. He loves his skill. A flat action star just looks good between lines (Keanu Reeves). A full blooded one shows you what he's thinking and his few lines are precious. Gosling is such an one. When he isn't speaking he's observing. I first saw him as a fuckup teacher in Half Nelson and then as the profoundly damaged loner in Lars and the Real Girl and each time his casting has lifted the film he's in. Same here. By the time you see him shyly notice his beautiful young neighbour in their apartment's lift you start looking  forward to seeing how he thaws out for her. And you know it's going to take work.

Much of the attention of the rest of the cast has gone to Christina Hendricks. She does a fine job as an underworld utility but really the attention is related to her high profile role in Mad Men. It's Carey Mulligan who shines brightest here. I know her from the recent Never Let Me Go where she played the dowdy/sobering  lead. Here, outfitted with an American accent and bottle blondness, she owns her every shot. A young mother with a husband in prison she shows clear personal strength but allows a fragility through the closer she gets to Gosling's character. Also, having all those qualities but the face of a fourteen year old and the body of a woman in her twenties she is utterly disconcerting on screen.

When the crunch comes for these two it is literal and silencing. Because of the work of establishing their characters has been so full there is a genuine moment of  suspense following (no details, no spoilers) as to how this extreme shared experience will play out. It's just a moment but it's there. That's attention to detail for you.

I'm skimping on the plot details as there is just too much to potentially spoil and this is a plotty film. Suffice to say that the driver is taken from his accessory role in crime to a self-revalatory maelstrom that is as believable as it is violent. Rising action maestro from Copehagen Nicholas Winding Refn displays an effortless skill in judging when to turn the action tap on and off and how to soothe the impatient nervous system between times: rest and motion, rest and motion, wrestling and emotion. I will say that the third act felt draggy through an evenness of pacing but also that that appeared to be deliberate.

Also, thanks be for depicting gangsters who don't quote The Art of War or waffle through pages of dialogue before getting to the point. These mobsters are hard arse bastards. When points of vulnerability appear they are dealt with as they would be in life, with a swift and sure dismissal. Comedian Albert Brooks is frighteningly against type and his partner Ron Perlman also. Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston crawls back from badass into pathos effectively. And the violence, the lifeblood of the middle and final acts of any action movie is tense and ugly, the worst of it kept offscreen to prevent it from bloating beyond its purpose.

Action movies find their morality in the fatefully unacknowledged monsters of heroes. There is a song throughout the film, used initially for scenes of the driver and Irene falling in love but then entering into more extreme fare. It's a heavily 80s influenced synth pop number with thunking  bass and ethereal female vocal. The chorus goes" have you the strength to be a real human being and a real hero?" That should be as deadly as a choctop to a diabetic but it works and, blessedly, works without irony.

Go and see Drive. Now!