Monday, April 29, 2013

Top 10 Docs 29/04/13

Crumb: A psychological autopsy of a mind that reveals, more than in any comparable documentary, that the path to creativity is lined with monsters as well as wonders. That's before you get to the state Crumb's brothers are in. Though the material is a weave of past and present the overall effect is of a thorough linear examination of a life and the sense of compulsion that an artist might live by. After seeing this often disturbing film I solved problems I was having writing a story by drawing it as a comic.

Grey Gardens: Decaying American grandeur in flesh and marble on display as we meet a mother and daughter who might have been trapped in a Samuel Beckett sketch. At first this feels like a freak show but before you know it you are living with these strange people and you are the one rapidly becoming a frog-eyed alien. The Maysles brothers gave us some of the most inspired acts of documentary and this might well be the pinnacle.

Let There Be Light: John Huston's record of the use of hypnosis in the treatment of what is now termed post-traumatic stress disorder is quiet and observant and fascinating from go to woah. Huston had taken part in a big fake up of a US military action which he would have never lived down if it had been released. This is a kind of redemptive act. It also fuelled his extraordinary fiction about Freud and more recently, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. Good value, that.

Dig: Two bands, one led as a faux democracy is headed for the underbelly of the big time, the other a miasma centred around a dictatorial mental case whose diastrous caprices lead him to the brink  career suicide easily and regularly. Friends become enemies. This is a very authentic record of how bands work which serves as a hard reminder that these people that fans admire as the chroniclers of their age and agegroup are themselves just immature narcissists (ie people in their 20s). The difference is channeling that self-worship into either career drive or compulsion to create. Guess which band is better: Syd's Pink Floyd or Vanilla Fudge?

Mr Death: Fred Leuchter is an expert on and designer of termination devices for condemned prisoners is drawn into the holocaust denial movement which drops him like a hot spud the moment his findings are questioned. Leutcher's apparent absence of self awareness has not steeled him against his exploiters or does he not care as the attention is too enjoyable. He maintains his convictions well beyond their demolition and claims innocence of the knowledge of his hijacking as well as any notions of historical revisionism. It's hard to know whether to laugh or shiver when he begins to adopt the German pronunciation of his name (like Loihchter) when he had introduced himself as Fred "Loocher".

Listen to Britain: Yes, it's a propaganda piece but look how it does it: the sounds of air raid sirens, marching feet, bomber engines, a charity concert, children playing. Civilian life = wartime life. Under threat, Old Blightly is at war from Lancaster maintenance to hopscotch. I saw this film as an assessment piece in second year of university and then caught every screening I could.

Urgh! A Music War: Not an argumentative piece but still a document of transition between punk through post-punk to the coming absorption of those by the mainstream which is a kind of argument by default. So you get Gary Numan almost in cryo driving what we'd call a disability scooter, creaking through Down in the Park, the frenetic Devo making intriguing use of wireless tech, to The Police on the last leg of their journey to the top of the mainstream.

I saw this with my eldest brother and some of his friends. One of the latter kept in my ear about how unoriginal it all was and I had a rejoinder for each attempt until he gave up. I did the same thing decades later until I realised that there was no longer a useful line to be drawn between mainstream and indy and the market for revivalism as contemporary culture with no possibility of innovation was too fast set to budge through use of mere commentary. Urgh is almost a document of the last time there was innovation in pop music before it lay back down to resume its original purpose. Once upon a time....

American Boy: Martin Scorsese's extended interview with Steven Prince is rivetting from the word go as Prince responds to questions with anecdotes that reveal a great talent for storytelling. The moment he reaches the climax of his gun story looks both impromptu and utterly scripted, it is so arresting it's both impossible to tell and care if it was planned, it just feels like great cinema. Maybe that's what Marty should be doing now instead of his diluted new narrative features. He's a killer at doccos.

The Great Rock and Roll Swindle: Don't I mean The Filth and the Fury? No. While I enjoyed that and was grateful for some of the gaps it filled I was annoyed by its sentimentality a quality completely alien to Swindle which, for all the narcissism of its dramaturg, is a truer document of its times than the latter (even though Filth presents a lot more direct evidence from the late 70s). This is not the history of The Sex Pistols it's what Malcolm McLaren dined out on for the rest of his life. If you couldn't invite him to your table you could fork out for a cinema ticket (cheaper that way, anyhow). So, true story or good story? Shut up, you can have both.

One Plus One: People get this wrong. Maybe I do but I think I avoid the mistake of expecting it to turn into a documentary about the Rolling Stones. It isn't. It's an essay that says: group of successful rock stars who don't have to get out of bed when they don't want to get together and slowly fashion their new cultural H-bomb:  group of urban guerillas with nothing to lose waste their time writing dogma from cassette tapes, engaging in futile paramilitary manouvres and getting into groupies: what is wrong with this picture? The sole act of real subversion depicted is graffiti by a woman who stands outside of these schemes.

The cut with the title Sympathy for the Devil misleads the audience with that title and misunderstands its own material by playing the finished song in full at the end. Not the point.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Top 5 musicals

Jesus Christ Superstar: A kind of flower power Jesus in the age of Vietnam with Woodstock music and a message of trouble and sacrifice. The Israel locations don't hurt either. Also, my sister had the film soundtrack double LP of this the liner notes of which introduced me to the word juxtaposition. They were referring to the blend of elements like US army helmets and homespun robes. So in closing it's worth pointing out that this film is shit hot on juxtaposition.

Fiddler on the Roof: Even though it is Jewish before it is Russian and there is a whole sequence of a dance off between the Russians and the Jews my anti-semitic-on-Sundays Russian nana loved this musical. I loved the music with its more minor keys and flattened sixths than in the entire middle east (or lower east side, more accurately). Then when I saw the movie (our LP was the cast of the stage version) everything fell into place in great style. Still love this one with its big complex 70s pallett and epic sweep. Director Norman Jewison went on to make the first of this list, using even more of his invention. I suppose if Nana had known his surname we would have had another tirade about the Choose. If she did she was being quiet about it or just too wrapped up in this great story with great music in a great movie to care. (Maybe she just found comfort in the fact that Paul Michael Glaser who went on to become tv's Starsky - Choose! Choose! - was one of those foul Bolsheviks.)

The Band Wagon: Very loopy fun as Fred Astaire joins Cyd Charisse and the dry as an Autumn leaf Oscar Levant on the road in a musical within the musical. They pitch it as being about a guy and a gal etc to a self-styled genuis director who imposes his own pet project on it, calling the idea a modern realisation of FAUST! .... in which he'll play the devil. What results is some of the most durably enjoyable song 'n' dance routines on film. My favourite when I first saw this as a kid is the proto-Ken Russell vision of the Faust sequence. Aptly, That's Entertainment was written for this one.

Cabaret: This lies more in the margin of musicals as almost all the songs are performed digetically, on stage in the cabaret itself. Every song is a stunner and there is a powerful early 70s gravity flowing and swelling beneath the story of the guy 'n' gal lost in another town. The gravity is there because the guy and gal are foreigners and the town is Berlin and the time half past Weimar.

I said almost all the songs are depicted as stage numbers but there is one exception. When two of the characters take time out for a stein in a country beirgarten the camera hones in on a beautiful young boy who begins singing something from the Sound of Music. As he approaches the middle eight the camera tracks back to reveal what kind of looks like a boy scout uniform until you see the swasitka on his arm. The song is Tomorrow Belongs to Me and even though it was written for the Broadway musical many people thought they were hearing an authentic Nazi anthem.

They can be forgiven for the thought as the song has a creepy effect. As the middle eight progresses with the boy's natural soprano we hear an undercurrent of bass voices joining him until the chorus explodes across the entire assembly and carries everyone who watches it along. It's a kind of implosion of the La Marsellaise scene in Casablanca or the end of Paths of Glory but its power, though reversed, is irresistable. We are stirred before we know why, exactly like everyone joining in on screen. Only the two friends decline to join, and one saddened old man who keeps his seat amid the hysteria while he recalls the last time his fellow Germans got this excited ended in mass death and the humilation of Versailles. Well, here they are again and everyone humming and shouting along will in a very few years be losing children, neighbours, lovers, their own lives and/or get involved in much much much worse.

This is the strongest scene I've known from any musical. I'm even getting chills recalling it here. And that's just one scene from this film of powerful scenes and showstoppers. Michael York could not have been better cast as the stand-in Christopher Isherwood. Liza Minelli who had already started a decent screen career which would continue for decades provides a surprising centre of gravity while reamaining lighter than a flapper.

Gigi: A great big musical explosion of Collette, Hollywood style. Leslie Caron, a kind of Audrey Hepburn imagined by Jacques Brel, lights up the screen as the young beauty in bloom about to enter high society. Louis Jourdain has a great time shooting down everyone of his uncle's pleas for the joie de printemps by singing, "it's a bore!" His uncle, the ocean-liner elegant Maurice Chevalier, sings Thank 'eaven for Little Girls, a song of such inflammable criminality that the attempt to redeem it at the eleventh hour with a twisty final line fails to erase what we've just borne witness to. I say high society but Gigi is not a debutante as such. She's, in fact, much more of ... a ... Oh, courtesan, the word is courtesan. Gigi is a big lavish Hollywood musical about a courtesan. You'd be forgiven for thinking she's headed for a rom-com-in-fancy-dress marriage but really she's going to be kept (in high style, sure, but kept all the same). Despite all that my favourite bit is when she's shown how to eat quail and talk with her mouth full.

Monday, April 15, 2013

CINEMANIACS: something new, something old, something borrowed, something gold

Last night I ventured out to ACMI, striding through the cooling wet air to see a prequel, a film that followed a mediocre horror movie from the 70s. Why did I bother?

First see here!

Amityville II: The Possession is a rare bird; a second or later entry in a film series that towers above all the rest. Last night I saw it at a cinema for the first time and wondered if it was making its Australian big screen debut (well indoor screen). I first saw it on video as I can safely assume pretty much all of the audience did. Here it was, though, on a big screen with good sound, seen by a good sized crowd sitting in the dark.

I hadn't seen it for some time and was pleasantly taken through some moments I had forgotten were so very effective. It's a good Italian style horror.

I've covered why I think that in the post linked above but I'll revisit two moments here. The seduction of sister by brother is a lot creepier than I remember, his smoothness masking his growing force, her complex acquiesence, confused, unbelieving but compliant, while an eerie wind whistles low on the audio. The second scene is like that one, pretty much all acting. The family gather for Sonny's birthday party and at one point he stands looking at his family on the other side of the table. They are assembled like a family portrait minus him. Reverse shot shows the emotional transition crossing his face from a kind of grief as he realises the gulf between him and them has become intraversible and to the smirk of the demon within him as it assumes control. Just three or so shots and subtle performance. All horror movies that take care to allow for something more profoundly emotive are the ones that stay with me (see also The Innocents and the originals of The Haunting, and Dark Water among others).

A few annoying titters at lines that wouldn't be funny if the gigglers were watching the film alone peppered the experience but far less than at comparable screenings where the guffaws are joined like the dogs of the street barking because one of them has started. But, meh, that's going to be part of it whatever the film (well maybe not Martyrs but you get the idea).

But why am I wasting space here when I could be celebrating theachievement of the Cinemaniacs  (like them on FB, go on, dare ya!). We got to see the team before the screening, heard a rushed but fun preamble and then a series of well edited interviews with three of the cast done FOR THE SCREENING! Not a dvd extra. Then a brief trivia contest with prizes (dvds of the movie) o'er the credits (time=money).

I had to get home straight afterwards but there were drinks and chat happening after. Further screenings are on the cards at various venues throughout the year. Go to the FB page for details.

This is not just a list of flicks, it's an invitation to a community. It's run by enthusiasts with the bottle to offer a whole program of horror sequels without needing a breath of faux irony to sell it. Now that my Shadows night continues snoring through its cryo form indefinitely I think I'll be getting into this.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


I recently aired my continued distaste for Star Wars to a friend who then trotted out the old familiar arguement that without Star Wars there would be no mainstream sci fi as it had been the stuff of low budgets and cheese, an outlaw genre. I managed, however drunk I was, to rattle off a fair few titles which he knew of but obviously not in the context of that argument as the list surprised him. So, here they and others are. Also, here's a list of great sci fi that had to be made under the radar as it had what Star Wars didn't have, compelling new ideas:

Ten year radius either way just for limits. I've disqualified some major footage here, by the way. Dystopias (even with future settings) like Privilege or Brazil as there is a lot less sci fi in them than satire.  Solaris was big budget in context but not given the same start in life as an American mainstream release so it won't be in here. (And some great micro budget sci fi in the aftermath like Primer, Cube, TimeCrimes or Monsters didn't make it as they were made well outside the decade each way limit. They get a mention here, though.) The idea is that sci fi sat as comfortably in the high production value mainstream as musicals, drama or war movies and didn't need the supersized corndog of Lucas' film to change that.

In order that I thought of them (no keys were brought closer to fatigue through Google use in the making of this list - it would be much bigger if I had - I did however, verify a date here or detail there with imdb and wiki).

(Oh, and Christian, if you read this, this is not a delayed "so-there" to our conversation but what happened after I thought about it the next day.)

Big Sci Fi before Star Wars 1967-1977 
(not in chronological order unless the time I thought of them is chronological order.)

2001: A Space Odyssey: This list could begin and end here. A film as influential and monolithic as its arguable central figure, NO sci fi has been made since that isn't mindful of the possibility of moving the technology of the trade as far forward as the thematic thinking. This remains an unassailable masterpiece. And sci fi just doesn't get much bigger than this.

Planet of the Apes: The whole series but the first one will do. A great exercise in sustained irony and the notion of the Promethean dangers of human progress. This despite the involvement of Charlton Heston.


The Omega Man: Adaptation of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend pressed into 70s service with resonance of the newly departed hippy movement (there's even a bit of Woodstock shown at one point) and the ongoing Vietnam spectre. This despite the involvement of Charlton Heston.


Soylent Green: Out with the old in with the new. The sanctity of youth wasn't just a theme of Logan's Run but when it became a matter of what was put on the table things take a queasy Swiftian turn. A flawed but strong satirical fable well disguised as popcorn entertainment. This despite the involvement of Charlton Heston.

The Andromeda Strain: Alien virus combatted against the clock in a whiteknuckle race. Big production values and constantly fascinating story.

Rollerball: War made redundant by globally organised ultraviolent sport with constant information technology supplying bread, circuses and spouses. Flat screen tvs, corporate anthems and even a brief but powerful eco-message moment as the decadent idle rich take hand held rocket launchers to a row of pine trees. Tech and medium=message goodness.

Logan's Run: Sanctity of youth fable of overcatered society and population culls. Some mid-70s goofiness but top budget, A-list cast and big concept.

Westworld: Bread and circuses world gone wild when a circuit shorts and the inventions rise in revolt.

Slaughterhouse Five: Kurt Vonnegut on film. Might as well just say Jules Verne.

A Clockwork Orange: Juvenile delinquency as its own undersociety variously controlled and absorbed by the state. Burgess plus Kubrick.


Silent Running: Eco sci fi in excelsis. Bruce Dern defending the last patch of botany against a a coporate oppression. If that isn't forward looking I can't imagine what would be.

ZPG: Living human museum exhibits, robot babies, gas masks to go to the shop and rebellion by human gestation. The gang's all there.

The Stepford Wives: Strong women of small privileged community suddenly turn docile. New technology for old desires.

Quatermass and the Pit/A Million Years to Earth: Goes from an unexploded bomb discovered in the dig of a London tube station to a fascinating and tense finale involving a kind of interrupted evolution and the nature of human evil. The mind of Nigel Kneale! Yes an adaptation from a tv show but made for the big screen with a visibly big budget.

The Illustrated Man: Rod Steiger as the enigmatic bearer of tattoos that tell weird tales. Ray Bradbury story.

STAR WARS: An impressively art directed beginning, throws off its burden of ideas to play out as a boy's own adventure that could have been a western or pirate adventure. Nothing wrong with any of that but this is sci-fi-as-setting, not the fiction of notions. I understood that at the age of fifteen, not particularly cinephilic but with a low tolerance for padding and bullshit both of which played out on the screen seemingly without end. It was to be the only one out of the six that I would see in its entirety.


Right, so we've made it to Star Wars and are now half way. If Star Wars opened the door sci fi to be treated seriously in its wake what major budget fare did it allow? Almost immediately after its massive success we had a slew of superhero movies like Flash Gordon and the Superman series. Alien? Yes and then Blade Runner. But see below for these as exceptions. Mostly, we got a range of big budget low imagination pieces like Terminator, Robocop, Back to the Future, Tron (not all bad, though) and Ghostbusters and then there's the rise and dominance of Stephen Spielberg and all who fed in his stable, raising production values and lowering expected audience IQs to about the same degree (yes I typed all that in one breath!). If Star Wars opened doors it was to the date movie version of the fiction of ideas, flash without form.

But remember the claim is not that Star Wars influenced the sci fi to come but opened the door for it to enjoy higher production values and climb out of the genre swamp. As we've already seen, there was a lot of big budget sci fi in the decade running up to the big leap into popcorn space and some notable blockbusters up to '87 but what doesn't get acknowledged in the argument is the sci fi with real ideas that had to be made on the smell of gaffer tape because it didn't have light sabres and death stars but real ideas. Vide!

Sub Radar sci fi that Star Wars' success did not help 1977-1987

Videodrome: "Videodrome has something you don't, Max: a philosophy." Is the cathode ray making us evolve into the new flesh or just giving us the beautiful hallucination that we are? Cronenberg was doing on film what great sci fi writers had only done on paper, original scary thinking in genre.

Liquid Sky: Fun but also sobering response to the public reaction to the AIDS outbreak of the early 80s would never have been made with such cheek and honesty on any budget higher than the $35.52 it took for this one. I don't care about the goofy effects or pancacke-flat acting, the formless aliens who feed on human sexuality like junkies is an idea worthy of Cronenberg and, despite its lowly look was a bona fide arthouse hit.

The Brood: The generation of psychobabble gave birth to its own hysterical symptom in the shape of this film of psychosomatically-derived life set horribly free. This is the Frankenstein story that the monster had nightmares about.

Scanners: The airport book racks were filled in the 70s with scenaric doomsaying and popular fringe science about pyramid power, ESP with titles like Supernature. Cronenberg took it a step further. The first time a computer meltdown was shown as it would happen in homes the world over beyond a decade later: a whimper not a bang (an instance where a lack of pyrotechnics raises the sci fi cred).

Rabid: Plastic surgery was not new as a possibility nor the sport of the rich. Cronenberg added a little extra essence.

Brother From Another Planet: John Sayles' tale of an alien landing on earth and making his way through life in the ghetto. He has superpowers and a Christ-like serenity. He is a fugitive slave of an extraterrestrial race. This has high mythological content like Star Wars but as it has some original ideas owes nothing to it nor was it made because of it.

The Quiet Earth: An apocalypse in an eyeblink or is there more to it, or much less? Brilliant stuff that went straight to the arthouse.

Bad Taste: Peter Jacksons yobbos vs aliens epic remains as churning and funny as it was on the day of its birth. Star Wars it ain't ... nor was meant to be.

Mainstream but still...

The Fly: This greenlight came from the success of the previous Cronenberg films in this list. DC made his early films for the drive-in, not the art house and every one was a hit. Not a stormtrooper in sight.

 Altered States: Psychedelics and race memory. Oh, and Ken Russell. Oh, and Paddy Chayeffsky. Still here?

Ok dig it, before Star Wars plenty of strong-concept what-ifs with big contemporary budgets and after Star Wars a lot of big goofy self-referential mythology but really no challenging ideas. Those were, if anything, driven underground by the rush to cash in on SFX and big art direction.

What about The Thing? That was big budget. Yeah but it was in the wake of Alien rather than Star Wars; a boy's own adventure it wasn't. Well, what about Alien? Maybe but not definitely as it was a monster movie more than a quest but I'll give you the sci-fi=setting basis. Then again, its creative team admitted more influence from Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires. Ok, Blade Runner. Big budget sci fi with substance might have been green lighted in the post Star Wars market but boy does it owe nothing to Lucas. Also Blade Runner was a flop, unjust but true.

The problem really here is that Star Wars is not really sci fi. It's far more action adventure with a lot of internal mythology (borrowed liberally from elsewhere or not is not the issue and the permissable norm in pop culture). So the only doors it could really open for sci fi were for films like it that just appeared to be sc fi but were perfectly happy to be retooled westerns, actioners or war movies etc.

I hope I haven't unduly offended any fan of the Star Wars franchise. You like your movies and probably hate all mine. We can get along. But this argument which is more of an attempted ambush at a social occasion than an essayable notion that this massively successful thing ushered in a generation of big sci fi and made it respectable doesn't wash. Star Wars did have an effect. So did Jaws before it and Indiana Jones after. But those effects were for more of the same of each, not for further exploration into questions of mind and time and all else beyond. Those questions were whispered in the arthouses, the fleapits and the video shops, their desperate, gaudy promo art begging fraudulently to be seen to be as attractive as the units of the big league, and on into time future, admired fanatically by the few and sneered at by the main ... like most good ideas until someone can sell them like staples.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

DVD REVIEW: SPECIAL (RX) Specioprin Hydrochloride

Plain-John borderline-ginger Les volunteers to trial a new psychiatric drug designed to effectively remove self-doubt from the patient. The first night of his course he levitates from his chair. In that moment his job as a parking inspector, the tv dinner he's slugging through, the goofs at the comic book shop and all the wheedling parking violators he's ever encountered pale into the grey. He's special.

He goes back to the doctor running the trial with the news and demonstrates his anti-gravity powers. The doctor says it's a psychotic reaction to the drug and orders him off it. That's with his voice but telepathically he assures Les that the powers will only develop with continued use of the drug (called Special) and become permanent at the end of the course.

He quits his job under protest by his boss and demonstrates his powers to the stoners at the comic book shop. He foils a stickup at a 7/11. And then he fashions his costume and heads out to stop bad guys. Two men in a black car are following him. There's no turning back now...

I love stories that present a double perception. The challenge of convincingly presenting two realities concurrently without needing to declare either as the winner seems tougher than the time travel paradox. Cervantes provided one of the milestones of this in Don Quixote which does present the reality of the observers as the primary one with the observers' view providing the measure of the Don's delusions but this is with a mounting admiration of his humanity, illusions and all. More recently They Might Be Giants and, very cleverly, Donnie Darko (original cut: the revised one ruins it by declaring one as primary from the get go) have attempted similar with great success. These are exceptions, though, mostly the dichotomy is unified as the audience is handed the reality goggles the rest is comedy.

Special is comedy but also holds its sobering nobility talisman close. Where I am parking inspectors are called grey ghosts but where Les is they are called meter maids. In the American accent Les is prounounced "less". He's not even Everyman he's an untouchable. As soon as we notice he's levitating (which is before he does) we can't resist wishing it true. Whenever he demonstrates his new powers to others we see what's really happening but on some occasions we are left to guess as Les's joy and pride in what he can now achieve is so infectious. Also, the witnesses vary from stone cold sober to cold stoned and their perception varies.

The fact that we always first see Les's version of everything offers counterpoint before it's expected. We don't always see the reality partly because we assume it comfortably. What we always see, however, is a series of effects shots that are far better than we have been led to expect by the almost self-consiously indy grainy film stock look and raw editing. And then comes the scene where Les wills invisibility upon himself but something else happens with violent results. If we were comfortable before with were we sat in relation to the film's declared reality, we are now at a loss.

Add to this a series of subverted cliches in scenes like meeting-the-bad-guys or meeting-the-girl plus a gently melancholy score that could have come from an early Hal Hartley film and you have something that stands in relation to superhero films with a similar relation to the way Primer stands against time travel films: of the genre and alien from it. To the tiny list of these I'd also add M. Night Shamylan's neglected but best outing Unbreakable as a graver take on the theme.

The finale could be Les's delusion at the point of no return, his genuine rise to real strength or just his break into courage without the chemical assistance. That this is undeclared renders Special special. No,