Opera Jawa

Format: Cinema

Release date: 7 September 2007

Distributor Yume Pictures

Director: Garin Nugroho

Based on:‘The Abduction of Sinta’ (from the Ramayana)

Cast: Artika Sari Devi, Eko Supriyanto, Martinus Miroto

Java 2006

120 minutes

Javan director Garin Nugroho is a slight man dressed in pale jeans, a black T-shirt and beige anorak. As he introduces his latest work, Opera Jawa, to the Barbican audience, it is impossible to predict how much colour, music and movement is about to appear on screen. Opera Jawa is a retelling of a story from the ancient Hindu text – the Ramayana. It sings the story of a love triangle in modern Java which leads to domestic turmoil, mass political unrest, and death. Nugroho, who is known for his socially-conscious, indigenous films, tells the audience that in the making of the film 60 songs were composed, 70 dance routines were choreographed and seven art installations were created.

Opera Jawa was commissioned last year by the New Crowned Hope festival – funded by the city of Vienna to commemorate Mozart’s 250th birthday – and fittingly, the film takes the form of a requiem. Perhaps predictably, Peter Sellars – the man who staged a series of Mozart’s works re-imagined for New York settings – was chosen to curate the New Crowned Hope project. At the Barbican screening Sellars introduces Opera Jawa as ‘the first film of the 21st century’. As he discusses the making of the film with its director, it becomes clear that these two men from different backgrounds share the same vision – combining old works with challenging new art forms.

Lisa Williams: Opera Jawa is a requiem for all those who have died in natural and man-made disasters in Indonesia. Can you tell me a bit more about this?

Garin Nugroho: The film is about disaster and violence. The three main characters are symbolic in the same way as classical Javan puppets are. Siti means ‘land’. She represents what has happened to the people as a result of natural disaster, conflict and the fight for holy land. She goes through three months of conflict when people fight for her body for these different reasons. She says in the film, ‘I’m not a holy land, I’m a human being’. The character Ludiro represents people who have power in the economy and military and who abuse this power. Setio represents the people who are disempowered and so become violent. That is the way of the world.

LW: Was it important to you to make an intrinsically Javan film?

GN: It was important – in the film there are many popular elements of Javan culture such as the market places, the clothes, the Javan puppets. The movement and the dance are very Javan. But I think the most important thing was the gamelan music. This is the first film accompanied by an entirely gamelan soundtrack. The soundtrack of the film reflects how the medley of art, music and dance can work together to create something incredibly valuable like it does in Java. We live in an oral tradition, and if you come to Java you can see how song, dance and art all live together.

LW: The film is like a showcase of local talent – the artists, musicians, singers and dancers. You made an effort to get the artistic community involved but you also mentioned this move backfired – with artists producing a glut of work for you to include. Where did you draw the line?

GN: Art is about being given room for productivity and the person who gives this room becomes like a hero. I gave artists room to be creative but I had the final say. It is like people are giving me small glasses of sake. Each time I drink one I become a hero to the person who gave it to me. But it’s up to me to control myself. Everyone wants to give me more and more sake, but I must control myself or else I become drunk.

LW: You said the film was conceived five years ago – how does the final product match up to the original vision?

GN: It’s better than how I thought it would be because so many artists gave me their ideas and creativity. So many people collaborated with me and each one brought their own ideas and their own spirit. They trusted me to deliver something, and it was wonderful to be given that space and it was the perfect time to make the film.

LW: To what extent did the Indonesian reformation (following the 1998 revolution which saw the end to 30 years of authoritarian rule) affect your work?

GN: We are still living the post-1998 moment. This is our euphoric moment, the moment for expression and for politics. For example, for the first time many different Indonesian cultures can come together – the Sundanese, the Javanese, the Papuans. Now these different communities can hold festivals and make films. After the 1998 revolution more than 1000 short films were made in a year. It was like a sudden euphoria. People could use film as a way to express what they had been feeling for years. I’ve been using films firstly to express our personalities, and secondly to express what I felt about what had happened in Indonesia. I make films because I want to start a dialogue about something.

LW: What would you be doing if you weren’t making films?

GN: If I hadn’t become a filmmaker I would be a politician. I was the chosen candidate in a number of elections in the past. I’ve also worked for non-governmental organisations because I’m interested in politics. But filmmaking is political itself. Film both affects and reflects the way we are thinking and reacting.

LW: What was it like working with Peter Sellars?

GN: Sellars knows about Java. When I read his autobiography I saw we had similar feelings about things. We have similar aims and I think this is important because we don’t need to discuss everything and break it down into logical details. When I went to him with the idea, he didn’t hesitate, he just said, ‘do it!’

LW: When he has recreated operas and stage plays, Sellars has been criticised before for straying too much from the original story. Opera Jawa was very loosely based on ‘The Abduction of Sinta’ from Hindu text the Ramayana – was this deliberate?

GN: Artistic interpretation has always been important. Reinterpretation is the beginning; it is what I call the support of creativity. I think what Peter did with Mozart was fantastic because he reinterpreted it. Through Opera Jawa people will learn about the Ramayana. Through reinterpretations people hear about the originals.

LW: What is your last word on Opera Jawa?

GN: The important thing about the film is that some of it is chaotic. If there is chaos, people will develop their own system, their own way of understanding what is going on around them. We tell the story of living in a chaotic place where the future is unpredictable. In Asia there is so much unpredictability, but that is the beauty of it.


Wild Billy Childish and the Musicians of the British Empire

Having formed and killed off more bands than anyone else in rock history (except possibly for Mark E. Smith, but then his band’s name has always remained the same), Billy Childish is back with new outfit The Musicians Of The British Empire, which features Nurse Julie on bass and Wolf Howard on drums. Their recently released debut album, ‘Punk Rock At The British Legion Hall’ takes up where the Buff Medways left off, offering more of Billy Childish’s very own brew of radical punk spirit and raw garage-blues. Below, they pick their ten favourite films.


1- The Third Man (1949)
I like black and white films with lots of shadows, I like Orson Welles, Trevor Howard and Bernard Lee, I like Austria just after the war and I like Anton Karas and his zither. I saw this film at a cinema recently and was surprised to find out that it is quite funny too.

2- Spartacus (1960)
What could be better than a lazy Sunday and a three-hour epic starring a ginger-haired bum-chin in a too-short metal skirt?

3- Nuts in May (1976)
It is a brave thing to make a film that has this much space with such little action. The main character, Keith, is seen by all as a rather petty man with petty ideals always sticking to the rule book where he feels most comfortable. This film was made before mobile phones, MP3s and laptops and, although I may not relish having a lengthy conversation with a Keith, I do often wish that he were in my train carriage brandishing an oversized branch and screaming, ‘be told!’


4- It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
This film is a heartbreaker – it gets me every time. I love a film that’s about community, family, integrity and kindness. It’s the kind of a world I would like to live in.

5- Oliver Twist (1948)
One of the greatest opening scenes. The emotion and feeling of it is amazing. I’m a huge fan of David Lean and Charles Dickens so it’s double bubble.

6- Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
This was been a favourite of mine since girlhood. I’d spend hours re-enacting the ‘doll on a music box’ scene in front of the mirror in my bedroom. Great songs, great story, Lionel Jeffries and of course Benny Hill, what more do you need. This is Ian Fleming’s best, better than Bond any day.


7- Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
I think Sherriff is one of the great screen writers. I first saw this film as a child. It is heartbreaking and still makes me cry whenever I watch it.

8- The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
My favourite Powell and Pressburger film with a story of deep meaning, comedy and integrity.

9- Hobson’s Choice (1954)
Charles Laughton was a great actor (and a great director when given the chance); this film is full of humanity.


10- Sons of the Desert (1933)
We all like Laurel and Hardy films. This is one of the few full features they did that really works and is one of their funniest films from beginning to end.


I for India

Format: Cinema

Release date: 3 August 2007

Distributor: ICA Films

Director: Sandhya Suri

UK 2005

70 mins

In the 1950s, economical filmmakers such as Ed Wood and Terry Morse could fashion entire narratives out of found footage to fill drive-in double bills. As film stock and cameras became cheaper, the amateur filmmaker could shoot home-movies and commit transitory life experiences to celluloid and later, home video. As we find ourselves comfortably in the second century of cinema, there are now stacks of footage coming from both traditions for low-budget documentarians to forage within and find more homespun narratives to fill the silver screen.

Following 2003’s acclaimed Tarnation, in which American filmmaker Jonathan Caouette turned the home-movies of his formative years into an introspective psychological examination of his life, a British director has now collated and edited her family’s history into an engaging tale of a bifurcated family separated by land and culture. Alex Fitch caught up with I for India director Sandhya Suri at the ICA in London and asked her about her project to turn decades of transcontinental communication between her émigré father and his family in India into her first documentary feature.

Alex Fitch: When did you decide to take your family’s footage and turn it into a feature?

Sandhya Suri: When I got hold of the audiotapes. There had been Super 8 films I used to watch as well that I knew of, but it was the discovery of the tapes, which really showed there was this exchange of audio letters and films on both sides – forty years of recordings from my father in England and his relatives back in India. So when I realised I had such a long span of material, I absolutely had to make the film.

AF: Presumably the Super 8 films were silent before that and adding the sound made it more real in a way?

SS: Sometimes they’d send us Super 8 reels and the audio reels separately and sometimes as a family we would put our own soundtracks on them, which is why there is some very dodgy 70s music all over the place! We’d either add commentary or send sound separately.

AF: I did wonder: when there’s footage of travelling on a train or going to the beach, is that foley sound that you recorded separately for this movie or was it recorded at the time?

SS: Some of it was recorded at the time. One thing that my father did a lot was soundtracks, he really loved putting on the music that he thought was atmospheric, so for example when he shot snow he took the music from Doctor Zhivago and thought it would really add to the drama when he sent the tape to India!

AF: Was it growing up in that environment that encouraged you to become a filmmaker or was it something you came to on your own?

SS: Well, my sisters have both got very sensible jobs, so maybe I was influenced! I think that the thing that my father taught me most was the importance of documenting, as opposed to cinema, it was the fact that he constantly documented and chronicled everything. That’s why my entry into film was via documentary as opposed to fiction.

AF: What was your filmmaking education?

SS: I studied documentary at the National Film and Television School. I was lucky enough to get this first feature financed directly out of film school – that process was quite quick, making it took a bit longer!

AF: When you look at the kind of Indian films that are available to the general public in this country, it’s fairly earnest titles like Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy and Deepa Mehta’s Fire, Earth and Water. In contrast there’s the whole Bollywood tradition. Do you think that perhaps as your film is linking both British and Indian cultures, it’s creating a dialogue between those cultures on behalf of the film’s audience as well?

SS: I hope so. There’s space for Indian documentaries on British cinema screens – I really wish people would come and see more, as there are some really great documentaries out there and there are a lot of interesting things happening in Indian cinema. There’s been a tendency to take a look at Bollywood culture and focus on the kitsch and the funny, but there’s a lot more behind all of that of course.

AF: There are political elements to your film: you add footage of the National Front and some fairly antiquated footage from the BBC welcoming visitors to the country. How much did you feel you had to add that kind of narrative, which is absent from the home movies?

SS: It was a really difficult process doing the editing because at one stage my editor and myself felt we were really disrupting the flow of the Super 8 by bringing in this archive footage. But at the same time, it was really clear to me that the film had to have a bigger feel about it rather than just my family’s story. There were things in my family archive that were implied but were missing so they needed to be reinforced by the archive footage. I felt it was really important to give that overall picture. The film has a lot of different textures and a lot of different colours and media – Super 8, digi-beta and old archive – so I think it added to that as well.

AF: It’s interesting as well that the first footage your father shot of Britain is in black and white and then the first colour footage you see is of India, which is almost what people expect when they see films from that period!

SS: Exactly! He was going through an experimental phase with black and white when he arrived but he always sent them colour film to record on. I think he always wanted to see India in colour – he would have been terribly disappointed to get black and white India footage back when he was feeling homesick.

AF: And he’s still making films now – you open with him taking footage of Egypt to his local camcorder club. I’m surprised that at that point he’s asking for advice on how to have it edited, after a lifetime’s worth of making films!

SS: Well, like every good filmmaker, he’s always learning! Especially with the release of the film and now that I’ve been to film school and taken up filming more, he’s filming less and less. It’s getting more difficult – he’s getting a lot older, he’s in his mid-seventies now – but when he goes on holidays or to major events he still makes films.

AF: Your film shows how back in the 70s the locals were particularly aggressive to the Indians who’d moved to this country. There’s also an undercurrent of that when you show your mother recently attending a meeting where there’s some haughty guy talking about his experiences in India – it seems just as patronising as some of the stuff from the 50s. Did you want to introduce the theme that that’s still prevalent today in certain circles of society?

SS: No, not at all. That scene’s filmed quite neutrally; it’s more of a surreal situation that my mother is part of this club with a lot of elderly white ladies. She was genuinely interested in seeing this man talk about India, because there are not that many opportunities. There’s Indian television, but she still welcomes those opportunities with any link to India and actually, although his words could be construed as a little condescending, they were also very true in many respects. He did end on a very important note about how hospitable the Indians had been when he’d travelled there and how he wondered if Indians arriving in England – in his town, in his village – would get the same reception. He sent out very mixed messages and I just want people to watch and come to their own conclusions about that.

AF: There seems to be a renaissance in documentaries made from found footage – recently there was the American film Tarnation – because the last couple of generations have been obsessively recording themselves, now on video and then on Super 8. Do you think there are thousands of stories out there waiting to be told in the mountains of footage?

SS: I pity the poor young people of this generation who are going to have to go and deal with eight thousand hours of birthdays and weddings and all that stuff because what was easy for me was that each reel of Super 8 footage is three minutes of film. You have to decide and be very conscious of what you’re filming and why you’re filming it. I think with home videos now there’s a tendency to film for hours and tapes are cheap. It’s not the footage that makes the story, it’s the story that counts.

AF: I suppose also that the period of time that’s elapsed is important. There’s a film about London made in the 60s (The London Nobody Knows), narrated by James Mason, and St Etienne recently made a thematic follow-up (Finisterre) but that film doesn’t have the same resonance because you can just go out on the streets and see what London looks like now. So, maybe it’s like the fascination audiences have now with silent footage of Edwardians – 50 years from now people might want to see all this camcorder material to see how people lived back then.

SS: Exactly. Even now I’m very conscious of that. Even though I’m very bad at it because it’s my job as well, I’m very keen to record little fragments of my life that I can add to this whole mountain of footage that we have that I’ve been able to make into a film.

AF: Self-consciously, you seem to edit yourself out of the film. For example, when you’re talking on the webcam with your sister, your face is obscured by your camera. Did you just want to have the camera itself portray you as the narrator?

SS: For me, it was very important that there not be too many narrators in the film. The strength in the film is the immediacy of listening to the audio archive, particularly my father speaking and the ability of that archive to help you connect with him, because they are very intimate recordings. So, adding me as another layer in between, guiding you through the film in a more explicit manner, that wouldn’t be very helpful. I felt that would have diminished the emotional strength of the film, which is why I kept a back seat, but I am referred to and you know that the daughter is making the film. I hope there is an intimacy in the shooting and the storytelling. People generally seem to realise that there is a daughter that made this film and you can feel the love and tenderness in it without my being present.

AF: What project are you working on next?

SS: It’s a little bit early to say but I’ve got a couple of documentaries in development – these are long-term things that take a long time to get funded and to get going…

You can listen to the Resonance FM podcast of the interview here.


Tokyo Drifter

Format: DVD

Distributor: Yume Pictures

Director: Seijun Suzuki

Titles: Tokyo Drifter, Branded to Kill, Fighting Elegy, Pistol Opera, Princess Raccoon, Fighting Delinquents, The Flowers and the Angry Waves

Japan 1960-2005

Despite having influenced a whole generation of major directors, from Takashi Miike and John Woo to Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch, Seijun Suzuki has remained a relatively unknown name in the West. While some of his followers have overused and even formulised the stylised violence, mischievous humour and fetishistic attention to detail that he introduced, Suzuki’s own films still look as alien and fresh as they did at the time they were made.

Hired by Nikkatsu Studios in the mid-fifties to make low-budget genre flicks, Suzuki soon began to develop a flamboyant, original style unpopular with his employers. Although his personal touch was already evident in such early output, Suzuki really upped the ante in 1963 with Youth of the Beast, a film which combined his trademark explosion of colours, hatchet editing style and unexpected leaps into the surreal – the club as fish tank scene remains one of the director’s most memorable moments. Three years later Suzuki was at the top of his game, firing a staggering three-shot salvo with Tokyo Drifter, Fighting Elegy and Branded to Kill. Ironically, it was over Branded to Kill, a film that many consider his best, that Suzuki was fired by incensed Nikkatsu executives who thought the film ‘incomprehensible’.

The exuberant energy of Suzuki’s films as well as his audacious stylistic subversions sharply contrasted with the stifling subtlety of the previous generation’s filmmakers, affiliating him to the Japanese new wave. Just like the work of contemporary directors such as Nagisa Oshima and Yasuzo Masumura, Suzuki’s cinema is one of exacerbated emotion. However, rather than exploring human feelings and desires, it is with a purely aesthetic emotion that Suzuki concerns himself: the formulaic genre narratives he was forced to work with are simply excuses for increasingly daring visual feasts. In Tokyo Drifter, his pop art masterpiece, Suzuki gleefully dynamites the rules of the yakuza movie, paying scant attention to the stripped down plot and concentrating instead on creating saturated vignettes of bubblegum noir. The Tokyo Drifter of the title is a moody gangster decked in a powder blue skinny suit and spotless white shoes, condemned to lonely (if exquisitely elegant) wandering, forever fleeing the goons of a rival gang. From the villain to the girlfriend, from the gang’s back room to the teen club and the girlfriend’s bar, everything and everybody is colour-coded. In this perfect pop bubble a heightened, intensified kind of life is played out, its delirious beauty an antidote to the repressive kill-joy reality of contemporary Japan. Whether or not Suzuki knew about Alfred Hitchcock’s famous quip, it is clear that for him, too, a film is ‘a piece of cake’ rather than a ‘slice of life’.

As integral to Suzuki’s oeuvre as his ultra-pop aesthetic is his offbeat sense of humour. While there are many light-hearted moments, it is a humour that is more often than not absurd and sometimes even tinged with darkness. The comedy in the director’s work is never simply about entertaining his audience, but constitutes a vital part of his world view. Suzuki was drafted into the Japanese Army as a young man and this experience gave him a particular outlook on life: witnessing grimly comic rescue attempts and farcical corpse disposals in the war made him realise the incongruous, pathetic drollery of death. His is a Dadaist kind of humour, steeped in a keen awareness of the madness of men and the transience of life, laughing in the face of it all with a joyfully anarchic energy.

This spirit clearly shines through in Fighting Elegy. An irreverent anti-militaristic comedy that ends on a sombre note, it draws on Suzuki’s profound dislike of the warmongering Japan of his youth. The film paints a caustic picture of a Japanese society in which traditional views of masculinity force Kikuro, a sympathetic if naive youngster, to repress his emotions and constantly fight other youth gang members in order to prove that he’s a man. The film is played out as a comedy, and the fights, although extremely graphic, are also highly entertaining. Kikuro’s uncontrollable erections, which occur every time he thinks of the young piano-playing girl he has a crush on, are the occasion for a number of outrageous jokes. In one scene, Kikuro, aroused after fantasising about his sweetheart’s delicate hands, relieves himself by playing her piano in a rather unorthodox manner. However, the farcical nature of the film is undercut by the sharply downbeat ending, which shows Kikuro and the local gang members called up to go to war. That abrupt conclusion was added by Suzuki himself (it was not part of the novel the film was based on), making Fighting Elegy one of the most personally revealing films in the director’s oeuvre.

Suzuki’s sixties output culminated with Branded to Kill, in which he abandoned his lush colour palette to plunge deeper into oddball existential noir. The plot is even more condensed than in Tokyo Drifter, reduced here to a succession of duels between professional assassins competing to be the best. The chipmunk-faced Number 3 has to fend off a number of attacks until he finally faces Number 1 in a battle for the supreme title. Our hero, constantly fighting for survival, is tempted by the voluptuous appeal of death and annihilation in the form of a dangerously alluring female assassin who lives among dead insects. With a hero who kills an optician by firing a bullet through the sink’s plughole, gets off on the smell of boiling rice and has a breath-taking multi-position, multi-location romp with his treacherous wife, Branded to Kill is as wildly inventive in death as it is in sex.

This astonishing tour de force, however, not only earned Suzuki a dismissal from Nikkatsu but also ensured that no other studios would hire him. The eccentric director only returned to filmmaking in 2001 at the age of 78 with Pistol Opera. A sequel of sorts to Branded to Kill, it pitches a female Number 3 against a mysterious Number 1 in another deadly fight for the Guild’s top spot. Even more theatrical than Tokyo Drifter and with gorgeous colour compositions to rival it, focusing on an existential fight to the death as in Branded to Kill while sharing its disregard for narrative logic, Pistol Opera feels like a summation of Suzuki’s concerns. The dialogue itself, far more expansive and explicit than in the earlier films, is somewhat self-conscious: one of the assassins says she wants to die on stage like an actress; elsewhere the hero of Branded to Kill reappears (played by another actor) as the washed-out former Number 1, claiming that they, the killers, ‘make the impossible possible and make it into art’, something that could just as well apply to Suzuki’s own work. In the absurd theatre of life dying is no more than play acting and all that matters is that it should be beautifully choreographed. While Pistol Opera‘s explicit self-consciousness makes it a much less compelling experience than its predecessors, the over the top stage-set showdown provides the perfect finale to Suzuki’s ultra-aestheticized cinema (a much more appropriate end note than Suzuki’s last work to date, the rather indulgent musical Princess Raccoon).

Suzuki’s cinema encompasses a whole attitude to life: unlike some of the filmmakers that he has influenced, his work is not simply a case of style over substance. Instead, he strives for an intense aesthetic experience, in which achingly stylish elegance combined with playful humour is the only stance possible in the face of the absurd randomness of death.

Virginie Sélavy


Le Chat Noir

Le Chat Noir are girl drummer Eileen and guitarist Teddy and together they play a riotous mix of dirty bluesy garage-punk-rock. They’ve just released their second album, Deadwood, and are currently gigging in the UK. They’ll be heading off to Europe in September to play shows in Germany, Italy and France and will also be playing in Belgium and Holland in November. More details here!


1- Hana Bi (1997)
Too many films these days employ violence for the sake of spectacle, with half-hearted plots seemingly tagged on as an afterthought. Whilst Kitano’s films are undoubtedly violent, he’s a master of using it to subtle effect. Nishi, the ex-cop played by Kitano in the film, is a man facing a kind of ultimate mid-life crisis; he leaves the police force after his partner ends up in a wheelchair following a botched stake out, and has borrowed money from the Yakuza to help care for his dying wife. Nishi leads a double life; he is a cold-hearted, unpredictable killer and a loving, gentle husband. You cannot help but share his pain as the two worlds come crashing together. It’s wonderfully acted and is directed and edited with sensitivity and imagination. The film has everything – isolation, loneliness, joy, tragedy, bittersweet comedy… if ever a film captured the duality of our nature, the sadness and beauty of life and death, this is it.

2- Amelie (2001)
The ultimate feel-good movie, but not in that cloying Disney way. Anyone who has ever felt like an outsider can identify with the eponymous heroine – she is a reclusive dreamer whose flights of fancy are beautifully realised, but are also evidently a defence mechanism against the experiences of her dysfunctional childhood. You can’t help but smile as her childlike romance with fellow oddball Nico unfolds, the barriers she has created to isolate herself from the world melting away to reveal a character full of love and warmth. Ultimately, the film is a celebration of the fleeting joys of life and making the most of the time that we have – if you don’t feel like going out and doing something good for someone else after seeing this, you’ve got a heart of stone!

3- The Big Lebowski (1998)
Like Raymond Chandler on acid, this is a neo-noir crime thriller blended with absurdist comedy, a laugh-out-loud funny film populated by rich, colourful characters, bizarre dream sequences and stellar dialogue that you will be quoting incessantly after a few repeat viewings. The twisting, shambolic storyline is often as loveably oddball and wayward as the ‘hero’ of the piece, The Dude, a frazzled, ageing hippy who meanders his way through life until a case of mistaken identity turns his existence upside down. Everyone should see this film, then buy the DVD and watch it again and again.

4- Adaptation (2002)
This movie delights in playing with perceptions of authorship and reality in a way that is common in literature but seldom attempted on the big screen. Essentially it’s a film about writing – a ‘metafilm’, if you will, and far superior to the only other film of this kind that springs to mind, the disappointing A Cock And Bull Story. The basic premise is that Charlie Kaufman (the real-life screenwriter who worked with Spike Jonze on this film) has been commissioned to adapt Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, but struggles with writer’s block and ultimately descends into neuroticism and hypochondria as he unsuccessfully juggles his failing script with his unsatisfactory life. Simultaneously, it tells the story of Susan’s own struggles in writing the book. The parallel plot lines deal with the desperation of trying to fathom the unfathomable – both writers are ultimately not trying to dissect their subject matter, but explain and justify their own existences to themselves through their work. It’s a film about artistic integrity, passion and standing your ground when pressures from outside tempt you to succumb to the easy path.

5- Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
An offbeat, quirky film about honour and decline. Ghost Dog is a hitman who lives in a shack on a rooftop and follows the teachings of Hagakure’s The Way Of The Samurai. He and his mafia bosses live existences that seem anachronistic in the modern setting of the film – these are not the confident, ruthless mobsters of Coppola or Scorsese, but rather tired, ageing incompetents clinging to faded glories. The real power of this film lies in Forrest Whittaker’s poignant performance as Ghost Dog – he is single-minded and ruthless in performing his duty, yet there is an underlying sadness in him that is never voiced but permeates the film from beginning to end. He is alienated from society, a lonely figure with little connection to reality, cut off by his devotion to a code which has no place in the modern Western world. His relationship with his only ‘friend’, a Haitian ice cream man, is intriguing – they speak English and French respectively and cannot understand each other on a linguistic level, yet they share an understanding that runs far deeper than words. In their relationship, we see a microcosm of all human interaction – in the modern world we are all essentially isolated from each other, yet sometimes we find unity and solace in the most unlikely of places and people.


6- Amadeus (1984)
Adapted to the big screen from the theatre, it’s a thoroughly entertaining story of the mediocre court composer Salieri and his jealousy for Mozart. Although the film at times isn’t too accurate about Mozart’s life, you get a sense of why Salieri was so jealous and why he detested the young genius. Mozart had everything Salieri wanted: to be loved for the music he wrote and become a success. However, the viewer sees that Mozart had drinking and womanising on his mind as much as composing. In many ways, it almost portrays Mozart as pretty much a ‘rock star’: with his fame, he managed to make a lot of enemies by saying a lot of the wrong things, having a few affairs on the side, drinking far too heavily, then tragically dying a pauper’s death… all at a very young age. I see Mozart as any kind of rock star who lived the life of excess, was famous, adored and hated, and paid the price for it. Saying that, I think every musician must see this film.

7- Ghost World (2001)
A film based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes tells the story of Enid and her best friend Rebecca after their high school graduation. They’re both outsiders who dislike all the normalities of life. Enid has to go to a remedial art class whilst Rebecca gets a job. They play a joke on Seymour, a lost and lonely soul, but Enid ends up becoming friends with him and finds out that she has a lot more in common with him that she realises. Eventually, Enid begins to discover the complexities of becoming an adult in the modern world and views the world in a different light. I think anyone who sees the outside world as a place of conformity, as Enid does, can sympathise with her, which is exactly how I felt when I first saw this film. I can’t think of any other film that has made that kind of impact on me.

8- The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)
The title character just seems to have everything go wrong for him: his partner gets eaten by a mythic shark, his estranged wife has eyes for her ex, his sea-life films are going bust, a man claiming to be his son and a pregnant reporter whom he has a thing for join his crew… the list goes on! But the main chunk of the film focuses on the search for the shark that ate Zissou’s partner and the events that happen along the way. I love Wes Anderson’s other works, but this one is probably my favourite. I’ve seen it about 3 times and I can never get bored with it. The humour is subtle and witty, and there is always something new you learn about the characters and the story. Another plus about the film is that the soundtrack has Seu Jorge singing Bowie covers in Portuguese, how awesome is that?!

9- Ran (1985)
A beautifully shot epic by one of the most important directors of our time. Set in medieval Japan and based on Shakespeare’s play King Lear, it’s the story of the ageing warlord Hidetora and his three sons, Taro, Jiro and the youngest of the three, Saburo. The basic plot is the same as King Lear, but Kurosawa makes it his own by fusing west (King Lear) and east (setting), which he is renowned for in his later films. It’s an exciting and wonderfully done film, with its epic, colourful battle scenes and the haunting image of the lord’s descent into madness. At a staggering 160 minutes, it grips you from beginning to end and doesn’t let go. Kurosawa’s work has provided the basis for a lot of famous films, such as The Magnificent Seven and the first Star Wars film, but I feel the original films have so much more to them. Such talent and vision should not be overlooked.

10- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
‘If adventure has a name… it must be Indiana Jones’. You better bet your socks it is! I love the Indiana Jones films, I have the box set and everything! But this one (the second one) is my all-time favourite. It’s another one of those films that I’ve seen a million times and will never get bored of. The premise is Jones and his 12-year-old friend called Short Round and a singer by the name of Willie Scott go to a small village in India, where the people believe evil spirits have taken their children away after a sacred stone was stolen and it’s up to Jones to save them. At times, it can be a bit cheesy and ridiculous, but that’s part of the charm of the Indiana Jones films. The cool thing about Dr. Jones is that he isn’t really a hero at all; he’s a run-of-the-mill archaeologist who happens to find himself going on a few adventures here and there. This film is also a bit special to me because this is pretty much the first film I’ve seen as a child! It was an awesome film when I was 6, and it’s still awesome now!


Running Stumbled

Format: Cinema

Release date: 27 July 2007

Distributor: Missing in Action + Self Pictures

Director: John Maringouin

USA 2006

85 mins

When American director John Maringouin was just a baby, his father, the small-time Cubist painter Johnny Roe, tried to kill both him and his mother. After twenty-nine years during which Maringouin’s only contact with his estranged father was occasional phone calls, he was told that Johnny was dying (it turned out it was a lie) and that he should go to New Orleans to see him. At the time, Maringouin was shooting his first feature, a fictional film loosely based on his life entitled Self, in which he stars as a homeless man trying to confront his sadistic father. The film was nearing completion but Maringouin was dissatisfied with the ending. So he agreed to go to New Orleans, not so much to see his father as to film him, in order to get a final scene for his movie. He spent ten days at his father’s house, recording the disastrous drug-addled existence that the latter was leading with his long-suffering partner Marie. With this material, Maringouin not only finished Self, a film he’s never shown to anyone, but also shaped the footage into Running Stumbled, a nightmarish documentary of sorts released at the ICA on July 27.

Virginie Sélavy caught up with Maringouin during his visit to London. An engaging, articulate and very funny thirty-four-year-old with a boyish crew-cut, the director told her about the paradoxes of truth and reality, reminisced about his childhood hero Evil Knievel and explained why Running Stumbled is really a stunt.

John Maringouin: I read your review. I found it interesting.

Virginie Sélavy: If you want to respond to what I wrote in the review, that would be great.

JM: I’d have to reread it. I liked it because it was challenging. You were challenging my intentions. I thought that was good. It means you thought about it.

VS: I did. I thought about it a lot because it didn’t present itself in the way those types of films usually present themselves.

JM: What do you mean?

VS: I thought there were two things that made your film different from other documentaries on dysfunctional families. One was that even though it’s about your family, about yourself and your relationship to your father, you don’t appear much in the film. So that was interesting in comparison to something like Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette’s film, which I suppose everybody mentions in relation to your film….

JM: That movie is very much about him whereas this movie is very much about a place. It’s about the environment first. Secondly it’s about a relationship. And thirdly it’s about my relationship to the space and to the people in the space.

VS: Yes, but I think that at the same time it has to be about yourself in some ways.

JM: It absolutely is. But what I wanted to do with the film was not subject anyone to whatever low-brow interpretation I could come up with, because you can only imagine how limiting and how boring it would be to have to tread through my sad, or horrific, or unbelievable life story. I can’t think of anything more self-serving and manipulative. And maybe it’s a lot harder to not make a movie like that because your hands are tied. You can’t do certain things that easily support your narrative goals, like put some voice-over to explain why this is interesting or who this person is, so you have some context. But when you allow the audience to become the filmmaker, to see what you’re seeing and how you’re affected by events and how you are affecting events, that’s a much more real, resonant experience. It leaves you a lot of questions but that’s the whole point of the reality. As the person, as the filmmaker, I was left with questions. Was this the right thing to do? Was this the wrong thing to do? Do these people deserve to live or to die? (laughs) You are left with an endless list of paradoxes. If you talk about truth you have to talk about paradox. If you’re doing anything else, you’re not talking about the truth.

VS: I thought there were two very fascinating things going on in the film, which were one, this relationship between your father and Marie, two, how you position yourself in this relationship. And it seems to me that it is at the same time about revealing things and about concealing things. You’re staging something very personal but you’re not placing yourself within that very personal family history.

JM: Yeah, there were a lot of personal things that were going on with regards to me in front of the camera. They say that the most interesting thing about acting is when people are trying to protect themselves from the material and from their own realities. To me what’s more interesting is, people in front of the camera trying to protect themselves not only from their reality, and the truth of who they are, but trying to hide it from who they know is the son behind the camera. And then you have the other side of that, which is the son, protecting himself from what he’s seeing. So you have this great, unique organism. If I hadn’t been aware of how revealing that organism was going to be, I wouldn’t have done the movie. I didn’t want to make a movie about, ‘oh I’m going to get to know my father, who I’m really afraid of, and we’re going to talk about psychology’. How boring is that! What was there was this amazing relationship that was very volatile and also very symbiotic. They would make references to the past, to things that happened thirty years ago, as if those things were right there in the room. They would do it right in front of you. They’d yell so loud you could hear them on the street. And you have to subvert your instinct to run when they start saying things that you feel you’re going to have nightmares about for the next three years and you do have nightmares about for the next three years. So you are left with: What is the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do? Am I creating art or am I destroying myself? And I think the audience feels all those things.

VS: As you’re watching the film you get the very strong sense that you are protecting yourself with the camera. Would you have gone to see your father without a camera?

JM: No. (long pause… laughs)

VS: Do you want to elaborate on that?

JM: No, absolutely not.

VS: Why not?

JM: Because I didn’t want to have a relationship with him. I didn’t want to know him. It was devastating to even acknowledge that I was from this place. This is one of the scariest places in town, not just for me, but for the town. This is a really crappy, white trash, suburban town, and these were the most fucked-up people there. When you’re trying to take yourself even the slightest bit seriously as an artist, you don’t even want to acknowledge it, much less bring yourself down to that level and allow yourself to let everything in. It’s like wearing a trench coat; you open the trench coat and let in all those demons; and then you close the trench coat and you walk away. There’s some yoga practice where instead of blowing out the evil, you inhale the evil. (laughs) You suck in all the bad energy and you hold it as long as you can, you let it absorb into you and then you let it go. It’s sort of a reverse way of thinking about it. And it’s interesting because there are all those dark energy portals – best example is reality TV (laughs) and Jerry Springer. The format of those shows is to take really wretched examples of humanity and blow them up, sensationalise them into a sound bite, so that you can project off of that thing, so you can discard that piece of human waste that you are (laughs)… that we all are (laughs)… So that’s what you’re supposed to do. But there’s a gigantic problem with it, because it’s fascistic. It’s pushing everyone into a false sense of themselves, where I am not a white trash motherfucker, I am not a junkie, I’m not a whore, I’m not all these things. But these are the same people that all the writers in history were writing about. The people in my movie are the people that Tennessee Williams was talking about fifty years ago.

VS: You got a call from your father saying that he was dying. That was the starting point of the film, right?

JM: There are so many layers to the truth. When people ask me how I ended up making the film, there’s not one reason, there’s probably about nine or ten things that suddenly coalesced and conspired to put me at that door. One of the pieces of that puzzle was a phone call that went something like, ‘your father is gonna die and you’d better go see them. They’re in really bad shape’. But of course it was coming from an unreliable source. In fact the person who was calling me was sort of like a stalker of me. (laughs) So it was a frightening phone call, because it was like, ‘how do you know this information? What are you doing calling me?’

VS: So it wasn’t someone that you actually knew?

JM: It wasn’t a friend, let’s put it that way. It was somebody who was basically a stalker. When a stalker calls you and says, ‘you need to reconnect with your father’, and then you do, there’s something almost perverse about that, and then you wonder, was that a sound choice? Did I have no ability to do anything else? I don’t know… The other side of the story is that I had been making a film about it for years. I had been making a film about a guy who has this life-threatening confrontation with his family, which he hasn’t seen in twenty years. It was a fictional film and it just started to become more and more real. I shot the ending of the film three times with actors and it never worked out. I’m sorry, wait, it wasn’t actually actors, it was Jerry Lee Lewis’ family… (laughs) the rock musician from the fifties…

VS: How did that happen?

JM: It’s a really long story…

VS: Right, so back to your film – that was Self, right, the film you were making?

JM: Yes.

VS: So that was obviously quite autobiographical and concerned with self-examination, wasn’t it?

JM: No, that’s the thing, it was intended to be ironic because it was titled Self but it wasn’t about myself.

VS: But you were in it, right?

JM: I was in it and it was very much based on what I perceived could be a mythology that I would act out. You create a myth and then you act it out to see what would happen. (laughs) It was like, OK, what if I were to be homeless? What if I created this character that was so haunted by the past that he had no choice but to go and confront something that he would so not want to confront that he would have these visceral reactions to it, he would be puking all the time just even having these thoughts. I didn’t have that in my own life but it was like exploding all this stuff that was buried.

VS: Was it like a kind of worst-case scenario of your own life?

JM: Yeah, exactly! It was a much more extreme example of what I could have been like. And it was a way of making fun of that. In my efforts to make it real and powerful and immediate it got more and more dangerous because I’d say, ‘oh you know what would really be crazy, is if I used… no, never mind, I’m not gonna do that’. And then months would go by, ‘oh well, that scene didn’t really work, you know what would really be something, is if I just walked in there… no, no, no, that’s my real father, forget that shit, that’s insane, it’s too much. I won’t do it, that’ll be a white elephant in my life.’ So it was a gradual process and all of a sudden there it was.

VS: Have you finished that film?

JM: The first scene of Running Stumbled is the last scene of Self. I finished it in a few hours of being there. It took me a few weeks to edit and then it was done. And I immediately put it away. It was like the train had left the station and another one arrived. I’ve never shown anyone that movie.

VS: Why not?

JM: I never watched it. I finished it and I put it away.

VS: And you don’t intend to release it?

JM: I don’t intend to release it.

VS: Why not?

JM: It’s a lot of reasons. I don’t know. Maybe it ended up being too personal.

VS: But it’s a fiction though, and you’ve shown everybody your real family. That’s quite a paradox, isn’t it?

JM: It is a bizarre paradox.

VS: Would you say that filming your father was more about making an interesting film than it was about your relationship to him or is it a bit of both?

JM: I wouldn’t say it’s more. I would say it’s definitely both. They’re informed by each other.

VS: The other thing that is very different from Tarnation or other documentaries about dysfunctional families is that you don’t fill in the audience with the back story. We only find out about what comes up in the conversations between the characters. It gives the film a very immediate, intense feeling but at the same time you only get teasing little bits of this amazing story and you just want to know more.

JM: I wasn’t interested in doing that at all because to me that’s boring. And to try and contextualise them would have been stupid because what they were doing was already so interesting, not only in the way that they were relating to themselves, but also relating to me as a director. The movie is a documentary but it’s also a form of improvised theatre. It’s taking a real situation, something that they’ve been acting out in private all the time for twenty years, and now someone is filming it, someone who they trust, because he’s their son. (laughs) It is an improvisational film, and improvisational acting, but it’s also real; it’s based on their actual relationship. I read a review that said, ‘Maringouin showed up and let his camera roll and was the luckiest filmmaker ever’. It’s so funny because it seems that this is what critics think, that I showed up and this just happened. It’s so far from the case. And at the same time it’s not a construction. There was one review that said, ‘Maringouin must have staged all this stuff’. Well, sort of, and then, sort of not.

VS: So your presence made things happen?

JM: My presence made certain things happen. I created certain scenes, or I suggested certain scenes that they played out. But they were always based on things that had already happened or that I remembered happening or had heard had happened. And then there were things that just happened while I was there. So it was all of those things. I think that’s what you do when you make movies. You influence things to happen. Even the driest documentaries are like that. What I don’t like is when people feel compelled to insinuate their opinions in their documentaries. They almost arrive in the middle of the documentary as critics. This format of, ‘I’m going to tell you how to think and how to feel’ is such an unsatisfying experience to me.

VS: I think that’s probably the most unsettling thing about your film, the fact that you don’t know what to think at all. They’re fascinating people to watch but the kind of lives they lead is… appalling. (laughs)

JM: When you watch a Cassavetes movie, you don’t know what to think either, but you’re settled by the fact that it was just actors playing the roles of real people. What’s unsettling is that this is real people, and were they acting or was this real. I think that’s the next thing in film, that’s where this whole thing is going… At least, that’s where I’m going! (laughs)

VS: The way you describe Johnny and Marie in your director’s statement is very striking. You say it was a ‘real-time performance’ that you were filming, which you compare to jumping the Grand Canyon. That’s a very interesting way of seeing things because even though there is an obvious element of performance there, they also don’t seem to be in control of what they show to the camera. Do you really see them solely as performers in the film?

JM: No, I mean they’re performers playing themselves in the context of their lives, which is like reality TV, except that their story is taken seriously as a piece, whereas reality TV services this surface level. It looks for story points. There’s nothing about nuances and ghosts in the past and other realities or other dimensions (laughs). That’s what reality TV lacks, the ability to transcend reality (laughs)… but while staying in reality at the same time. That’s what they’re doing. That’s why I call them performers. And I think they were influenced by my intention to do that.

VS: Why do you think they agreed to do this?

JM: Because they understood what my intention was. When you’re a down-and-dirty character like they are and your son shows up… I could have shown up with a film crew and been like, ‘you know, you guys, there’s cat shit all over the floor back there and I’m gonna have to call the social services and I really want to help you guys because I see myself as right and proper and you as not’. Of course they wouldn’t have revealed anything. But I showed up on the same level as them. I showed up in a white suit on Easter Sunday as the crazy son. (laughs) So of course they’re going to go, ‘wow, look who it is, it’s a character like us. Now you understand us so we’re gonna play this game together.’

VS: In what way was their performance in the film a stunt?

JM: Because it was dangerous. They were in danger of losing themselves, losing their soul. It’s like when Marlon Brando talks about how he’d never do Last Tango in Paris again because he’d never make himself look that vulnerable again. They made themselves completely naked but in a much more dangerous way than acting because actors can always go back to, ‘oh, you don’t really know me. Even though I gave you so much of myself you don’t really know what I do at the end of the day’. This was their house and their relationship and they were being completely naked. It’s pretty dangerous. It is a stunt.

VS: And you described your own filming of them as a stunt too.

JM: Absolutely.

VS: Because for you it was dangerous?

JM: Very dangerous, incredibly dangerous. It was, is this going to be the end of me, is my identity going to be so compromised and so tarnished by this that I won’t be able to ever come out of this, is my soul going to get stuck in this dark vortex forever. It’s like in horror movies. When you get killed it’s scary. But what’s really scary is when the killer is immortal and he’s going to eat your soul after he’s killed you. And that’s kind of what this is.

VS: Your next film is about a Slovenian swimmer, Martin Strel, who’s swum the world’s largest rivers. You filmed him as he was swimming the Amazon, is that right?

JM: I just filmed him when he’d swum the Amazon. I didn’t film him when he swam the other rivers. I just filmed a man swimming down the Amazon.

VS: That’s a stunt too, right?

JM: It is.

VS: So there seems to be a running theme there.

JM: Yeah, stunts are fun. Stunts are interesting. (laughs) Why does someone do a stunt? What’s in it for them? When I was a kid I used to love Evil Knievel. In fact, he was my hero. He was a professional daredevil. He would risk his life and survive and come out the other side. He was like Elvis and David Blaine together. He’d wear these red, white and blue suits with a cape. The stunts would get ever more spectacular. He jumped the Grand Canyon on a rocket and almost died. He almost died every time and then he would stand up and he’d go, ‘Thank you. I almost died and I’ll never do this again’. The point is, there is this great myth about the stuntman. There is a great writer, a friend of Cassavetes’ whose name I can’t remember, who wrote an essay fifteen years ago about where film was going. He said art in the twenty-first century was going to be about a dark energy stuntman. There would be a gigantic wall of information and to get noticed the artist would have to perform insane stunts that explode this dark energy. And I think that’s where it’s at. So the swimmer guy is very much a comedy, not really a documentary. It is a documentary but it operates on some kind of fantastical level.

VS: So is that going to be released?

JM: Yeah, the funny thing is that it’s actually financed by the Discovery Channel. It’s going to be the craziest thing that the Discovery Channel has ever done. (laughs) It’s a job, it’s me making money. But I’m also doing a follow-up to Running Stumbled.

VS: Along the same kind of personal lines?

JM: Yeah, it’s going to be personal. It’s going to do the same thing that Running Stumbled does, half of it real and half of it not real.

VS: At the end of Running Stumbled you’ve included some very striking scenes of a hurricane that’s destroyed part of the town. Did you edit that after Katrina?

JM: Yeah, it was after. I’m not very happy with that ending.

VS: Why not?

JM: Because it’s neat and tidy and it’s also a little bit too narrative. It’s too convenient. It leaves the audience off the hook in a way, because it says, ‘oh the hurricane came and made it all better’… (laughs) ‘Oh, the sun is shining now, and look everybody, Johnny is off drugs, he’s painting again, everything is resolved, now I don’t have to care, OK, goodbye!’ And I hate that. There’s something about it that’s unsatisfying to me. The reason that it’s there, is that I couldn’t film anymore; I felt that it was done. I might get rid of that ending. I don’t want to let Johnny off the hook, I want to nail down his coffin! (laughs) I don’t want him out there in the world, succeeding and painting again after thirty years! But the fact is that he did go through this amazing transformation so I felt I had to include it.

VS: I find the conclusion disturbing.

JM: It is disturbing.

VS: It’s like, OK, he’s better, so I guess that side of things is positive but…

JM: …look what he did to get there, look at the lives he destroyed to get there.

VS: Exactly. We don’t know what happened to Marie. The last images we see of her is when she is taken out of the house on a stretcher because she’s had an overdose and we don’t know what happens next. It’s a very sinister ending in a way, because he seems quite happy but it comes at a cost to everybody else around him. So I think you can be satisfied with your ending, it’s really quite dark. (laughs)

JM: It’s not that I wanted to be dark. It’s just that it’s unsettling to me in a way. I don’t like the aesthetic of it because it looks different from the rest of the movie. But it had to be. I wanted the film to stay in this phantasmagoric place. I didn’t want it to be like reality and that’s what it becomes at the end; it finds its way out into the world and I don’t like that very much.


Radio On

Format: Book

Date published: May 2007

Published by: BFI

Author Jason Wood

Mention the words ‘road movie’ and most people will think of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda riding down the highway to the tune of Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’. Easy Rider may remain the daddy of road movies but there is more to the genre than this, as Jason Wood’s book on the subject amply demonstrates. With detailed entries on films that explore many variations on the template, 100 Road Movies is a thoroughly enjoyable read in which classics such as Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde sit next to more unexpected entries such as The Wizard of Oz and The Searchers as well as modern updates like The Motorcycle Diaries. We met up with Jason Wood, a man whose knowledge of cinema is as phenomenal as his enthusiasm and rapid-fire delivery, to talk about his book.

Virginie Sélavy: In your introduction you say that you think the book should provoke debate and discussion and it certainly has done that for me.

Jason Wood: Yeah, I’ve already had lots of people asking ‘why isn’t that in there?’ but I like that, I think a book should do that. A hundred films seems a lot to begin with but when you start scaling back, it’s not. There are ones now that I wish I’d put in there, for example I don’t have a children’s road movie. I guess The Wizard of Oz just about counts, but not really. There are lots of arguments over what should have been in there.

VS: It makes you think about what a road movie actually is, and how you define it, which is good. What made you think of writing about road movies?

JW: I got a bit of a reputation as somebody who wrote only about American independent film. The first book I did was on Steven Soderbergh. Then I did a book on Hal Hartley and another book for the BFI in the same series, 100 American Independent Films. So I didn’t want to just write about one subject. And I’ve always been interested in the way that road movies have used music, the way that sequences are often cut to particular records or songs. I’m as interested and inspired by music as I am by film. When I first started driving, I had an old car and a tape machine and one of the things I loved to do was to make tapes and just drive and listen to music.One of the things that I really like about this road movies book is actually the part of it that I didn’t write, which is the preface by one of my favourite filmmakers, Chris Petit, who made Radio On. He says something in that preface that I immediately related to, which is the intersection between the road movie and music. The other thing I like about road movies is the fact that that they teach you something about yourself. I think the whole idea of the road movie is a journey towards some sort of selfhood and self-knowledge. I think the back of the book says that road movies are a metaphor for life. You might set out in life having the intention of travelling in one direction but fate and circumstance find you moving in another direction. I like the fact that road movies don’t stick to the itinerary, they often go off road, they take different courses. I find that quite liberating because I think that life is like that.

VS: How difficult was it to select the films?

JW: It was really tough and I knew what was going to happen because I’d done this 100 American Independent Films. For that book I got two filmmakers I like very much, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, who made Suture and The Deep End, to write the preface for it. And their whole preface was kind of having a go at me in mock tones for leaving out their favourite film, a film called Billy Jack. So I knew from doing that that no matter what one hundred films you select, there’s always going to be one or two that people are going to take you to task for for not including. So for the road movies book I actually cheated. In the introduction I list ten other films that I wish I could have included just to try and cover myself. What I tried to do was to select films that are important to road movies in the historical sense, films that are important in terms of key directors and films that might not necessarily have been considered previously as being road movies. I would regard a road movie as something that doesn’t necessarily have to involve a road or even a car, but as something that involves a journey. So I tried to select films that were a new way of thinking about road movies, The Wizard of Oz for instance, and The Searchers, which is a Western. The key goal for me was as broad a selection as possible. To begin with I tried to do a film for every single country but I was selecting films that maybe weren’t the best examples just because they came from a particular country and the selection was suffering because of that. So in the end I just decided to pick the hundred films that were most representative, films that meant something to me, also films that people would expect to see there, such as Thelma and Louise, which is an important film, but not one that I particularly like very much. But even doing it that way I realised that a hundred films isn’t nearly enough.

VS: When I came across the entry on The Wizard of Oz I thought, ‘What? The Wizard of Oz is a road movie?’ I have to say that for me road movies have to definitely definitely involve a car. If they don’t, how do you define a road movie?

JW: I think they certainly can include cars, and motorbikes, and so on, but my definition of a road movie would be the idea of a journey. They have to involve travel, they can’t be stationary, but the idea of them having to involve a car would for me rule out quite a lot of good road movies. The Searchers is obviously set in a period before cars were invented and I think it is a very good example because it clearly involves some kind of personal quest. It’s about the idea that the character played by John Wayne finds out something about himself that he didn’t necessarily know. So I think that to have not included that film would have been a shame. One of the sub-genres that has originated from road movies, and there are several, is the idea of the walking movie as in Beat Takeshi Kitano’s Kikujiro or Paris, Texas. I think that road movies don’t even have to necessarily involve a road. I mentioned right at the end of the book a film called London to Brighton, which is a train journey towards selfhood and away from a crime scene. Of course the fetishisation of the vehicles is an important factor of road movies. This book caught the attention of people who wouldn’t normally be interested in film books, a lot of car magazines, and Top Gear… I can’t believe that Jeremy Clarkson would be interested in this… So ideally the road movie would involve a car but for me the essence of the road movie is a journey, which invariably turns into some sort of personal quest.

VS: Why did you not include Paris, Texas, a work that sounds quite important to you or films such as They Live By Night, Wild At Heart and The Wild One, which you mention in your list of ten, instead of films such as Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers, which I think are rather mediocre films and which you don’t seem to like very much yourself?

JW: The only other self-imposed rule that I had was that I tried to limit the amount of films per director. So Wim Wenders for example, who is perhaps the filmmaker most commonly associated with the road movie – he even named his production company ‘Road Movies’ – made films in Germany that explored the same terrain as Paris, Texas – films such as Alice in the City, Kings of the Road and The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick. I could have had five or six films by Wenders but I wanted to limit it to just two or three, so that’s why Paris, Texas wasn’t included. I absolutely agree with you with regard to Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers, I think they’re both very mediocre films. But they emerged at quite an interesting time in filmmaking, a time when filmmakers were trying to look at the influence of the media and how events were covered, specifically the almost obsessive interest in killers and murder sprees. So Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers had to be included almost as an update of films such as Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde for the way they take on some of the ideas explored in those films. The other film that I’m not a big fan of but that I had to include was Thelma and Louise. It’s one of the few road movies which is written by a woman and has a female protagonist. I actually think that the film is completely compromised by its ending but it’s an interesting one to have in there because it has a certain amount of cachet with feminist writers. And I probably bowed to a little bit of pressure to include it because people would expect to see it there. If people are interested in Thelma and Louise they should certainly see a film called Messidor by Alain Tanner, which is included in the book. It is a very similar film but it takes the feminist perspective of Thelma and Louise that much further. It was made something like twenty years before but it’s a much more audacious film. With regard to some the other films that you mentioned, instead of They Live By Night I actually included the update, Thieves Like Us, by Robert Altman, which is a virtual remake – it’s based on the same book. They Live By Night is one of my favourite films but I realised that I already had a number of films that were covering the film noir angle. That’s one of the other ones that I regret not having. If I could go back, I probably would have included it.

VS: What about The Wild One? It seems to me that it should definitely have been in there.

JW: The Wild One is interesting. It’s one of the ten films that I say I wish I had included in the introduction. I watched all the films again and I thought that The Wild One had dated very much, which is not to detract from the film; it’s still an important film. But instead of The Wild One, I decided to include a British film called The Leather Boys because it takes many aspects of The Wild One, the idea of the teenage tearaways, the idea of counter-culture, the idea of using motor vehicles as a way to break free from the constricting norms of society, but it also had a whole homoerotic aspect between the two male leads. The other thing is that The Leather Boys perhaps isn’t a film that people would expect to see in there. One of the things I wanted to do was to get people to go away and see films that they maybe hadn’t seen. I’m sure everybody reading the book will know of or will have seen The Wild One but maybe they won’t know The Leather Boys. In the entry I wrote about The Leather Boys I make lots of references to The Wild One by way of saying, you’re probably expecting to be reading about The Wild One, but you’re not, you’re reading The Leather Boys, and this is why… I wish I could have had both.

VS: One of the things that you’ve touched on earlier is how some filmmakers construct almost all of their films as road movies of some kind. You’ve mentioned Wim Wenders; I would probably pick Jim Jarmusch as the ultimate example of that. So it must have been difficult to deal with filmmakers like that in a book like yours because so many of their films are very interesting, diverse examples of the road movie.

JW: Yes, it was kind of that three films per director rule. There’s a quote from Truffaut where he says, ‘I’ve always just remade the same film several times’. I think Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders, not to say that they’re just remaking the same film, but they’ve obviously struck upon something that they feel very comfortable doing. And Jim Jarmusch is another director, who you could arguably say, has made only road movies. Dead Man is one of those interesting films, which again isn’t in there but I wish it was, because it’s a Western but it’s obviously a road movie. Both Jarmusch and Wenders – and in real life they are very close – are interested in the way that the road movie opens up the possibility to look at these kind of insular characters. Their characters are all ridden by ennui, melancholia and self-doubt and the road movie is a perfect template to explore that. I don’t think Wenders and Jarmusch are unique as directors associated with a particular genre. John Ford for example is very much associated with Westerns and he certainly didn’t only make Westerns. And you could say the same thing about directors that are associated with the horror genre. With regard to Wenders and Jarmusch this idea of a journey is something that obviously fits the characters that they like to explore. I think it also fits the way in which they like to work. When Wim Wenders made Kings of the Road, which is one of my favourite road movies, he very famously didn’t have a script. He had a very rough outline of the kind of film that he wanted to make. He went out with a very minimal crew and he would visit a location and the night before he was due to shoot he would write a few pages of dialogue. Then they would improvise as they went along. I think Jarmusch works in a similar way. He obviously has a script, a template of what he wants to do. But the idea of being out on the road gives him a certain amount of freedom. As they work with bigger stars it probably becomes more difficult for them to do that. If you look at Jarmusch’s last film, Broken Flowers, it’s obviously a road movie and does involve a journey but it’s more structured and less esoteric in its approach than Stranger than Paradise or Dead Man were.

VS: Stranger Than Paradise – that was a massive turning point in the history of the road movie and of American cinema, right?

JW: Stranger Than Paradise is such an important film for numerous reasons. There’s a book called Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes, which is a history of American independent cinema from the 1980s. And the writer of the book, John Pierson, pinpoints Stranger Than Paradise as a defining moment in American independent filmmaking in that it radically altered the way that American independent films were not only made but also marketed. Stranger Than Paradise came out of the tradition of films such as John Cassavetes’ and the European filmmakers of the sixties and seventies. Jarmusch always cites Wenders as well as Ozu as an influence and Stranger Than Paradise is shot in monochrome black and white with extremely long takes and a very static camera. It has at its centre a relationship between two men and a woman, which is also linked to the key American road movies of the early seventies – themselves influenced by European filmmakers, specifically Antonioni – like Vanishing Point or Two-Lane Blacktop in that it looks at the breakdown in communication between the sexes. So Stranger Than Paradise almost encapsulates the history of American and European cinema from about the 1950s. But it does it in a very un-self-conscious way and when the film was made, it really didn’t feel like there’d been anything like it at that time. If I remember correctly the tagline for Stranger Than Paradise when it was released was ‘a new kind of American movie’. And it really did feel like that, although if you analyse it carefully it wasn’t especially that new. But it redefined the boundaries. It said films don’t have to go ABC, they can go ACB; they can do things in a different way, they don’t have to have big stars in, they don’t have to have this pay-off ending, they can leave questions unanswered. And it had great music. It was a film that felt… I hate to use the word cool… but people often compare Stranger Than Paradise to jazz and it felt like rules were being broken and all bets were off. There are other films that came out in the wake of Stranger Than Paradise that were equally influential. I talked about this book by John Pierson and it analyses the huge impetus that it gave to the career of people like John Sayles, but also Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, all these American independent directors that did things in their own way and on their own terms. And the fact that the characters in Stranger Than Paradise were on the margins of society also gave rise to movements such as the New Queer Cinema. The Living End by Gregg Araki is a film that isn’t a road movie but that I felt was very important because it takes characters on the margins of society, which road movies have always done, and it goes one step further: they’re outsiders not only because of their sexuality but also because they’re HIV positive. And they really don’t give a damn, they’re going to take what they want from life, they’re going to refuse to let society dictate to them how they’re going to live their lives, and it feels very liberating. Without Stranger Than Paradise you probably wouldn’t have had films such as The Living End.

VS: For you what is the defining road movie, the one that established the genre? I’m afraid it has to be one that includes a car… How about Easy Rider?

JW: But that’s got bikes in it.

VS: Yeah, bikes work too.

JW: Easy Rider is often called the godfather of the road movie and I think it’s certainly a key film. When we were talking about Stranger Than Paradise we talked about films that were influenced by European filmmakers from the sixties and Easy Rider is certainly one of those films. I think the film that gave birth to the whole idea of the road movie has to be John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. It deals with the American Depression and with having to go on the road for economic reasons. The Grapes of Wrath is important because it makes clear the links between technology and the development of road movies. Road movies began to come about very early on with the films of D.W. Griffith when it became clear that you could mount a camera onto a car. The Grapes of Wrath took that idea and ran with it. It established some of the iconic visual references of the road movie, the shots through windscreens, the use of wing mirrors, the idea of a car travelling on a highway and the shots of the people on the highway. Then you have the film noirs of the 40s and 50s such as They Live By Night, where you also have those iconic visuals, the looks in the wing mirrors, the tension, the kind of enclosed claustrophobia of the car. But those film noirs also took this idea of an America that was very unsure of itself, and unsure of where it was going; a kind of America that was suffering a hangover from WWII and didn’t know what its future direction was going to be; an America that started to view the open road not as something to go out on and celebrate but as something to be fearful of, with the idea that you didn’t really know where the road was going to take you. Instead of the road offering this kind of escape and adventure it began to be seen as something that was fraught with danger. So in the 40s and 50s this whole idea of paranoia crept in and it was the European filmmakers, Bergman with Wild Strawberries and Fellini with La Strada, who developed this idea that the road wasn’t going to bring happiness but misery and introspection. Because of films like that you had the birthing of films such as Easy Rider. Easy Rider is also important in terms of the way it uses music. I mentioned at the start that one of the reasons I like Chris Petit’s Radio On and Wenders’ films is this idea of music in motion, or sound and vision, to use a Bowie quote. And Easy Rider certainly did that; it cut entire sequences to pop records. It still has one of the biggest selling soundtracks in motion pictures history. But it’s also important in that at the end of the film – I won’t spoil it for anybody who hasn’t seen it – this idea of an America where possibilities are open is shown to be false. The tagline for the poster was something like ‘free men that went in search of America and couldn’t find it anywhere’. Easy Rider is very much a film about an America that has lost touch with itself. It harks back to the film noirs of the 40s and 50s but replaces WWII with Vietnam. It shows characters from all walks of life, you have a lawyer played by Jack Nicholson, a pot-head played by Dennis Hopper, and everybody is lost and everybody is looking for something. But the road doesn’t bring any easy answers, what it brings is frustration and ultimately death. I like the bleakness of road movies. There’s another quote I really like from a Hal Hartley movie called Simple Men, which I described in the book as a road movie with a flat tyre. One of the characters, who wants to leave this small town that he’s marooned in, says to someone: ‘I want adventure, I want romance’. And the other character says: ‘There’s no such thing as adventure. There’s no such thing as romance. There’s only trouble and desire.’ I think that’s very much what the road movie is about.

VS: There’s obviously a strong link between road movies and America, and most of the films we’ve talked about are American films. In the book you include films from other countries. How do you feel they compare with American films? Do you feel that the road movie remains essentially an American genre?

JW: People have described the road movie as being America’s greatest gift to contemporary culture and I think there’s a strong argument with that. The motor car was properly developed within America and the road movie is very much linked with the development of not only car technology but also the building of roads, and America was certainly at the forefront of that too. But the important thing about the book was to show that it’s not unique to America. I already mentioned Wild Strawberries and La Strada, two very important European road movies. In recent years we’ve seen a huge boom in road movies from Latin America with Y tu mamá también, Bombí³n el perro and The Motorcycle Diaries. A lot of the filmmakers working in Europe and further afield saw all those American films and said OK, this is a really interesting way of looking at not only the geography of our countries but also at how we view ourselves. Wild Strawberries did for Sweden what a lot of these road movies were doing for America. It was a way of showing to the Swedish people how their lives were changing and how their aspirations perhaps weren’t being met. But what’s interesting is that a lot of these filmmakers not only used the road movie template as a means to analyse their own social and political situations but they also began to use it as a dialogue with American culture and American imperialism. The best example of that is Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road. The whole film is about the dominance of American culture. The dialogue between the two lead characters is all about pop songs and the film travels through villages where rural cinemas are no longer able to operate because of the dominance of American movies. The film concludes in a kind of abandoned border patrol hut between East and West Germany with one of the characters saying to the other one: ‘The Yanks have even colonised our subconscious’. These filmmakers took the road movie template, held it as a mirror and turned it back on America. In turn American movies such as Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point began to be influenced by that. They took the melancholia and introspection of these European films and they injected it into their own films. If you look at a film like Familia Rodante, the Pablo Trapero film, it is a very clear influence on Little Miss Sunshine. So I don’t think that films from America have just influenced the rest of the world. I think it’s now a situation where the rest of the world is equally influential on road movies from America. I think of it as a cultural exchange.

VS: To end this interview I’d like to ask you what is probably a very difficult question: what is your favourite road movie?

JW: Can I pick two?

VS: All right then.

JW: For very personal reasons I’m a very big fan of a film called Candy Mountain. It’s directed by Robert Frank and it’s written by Rudy Wurlitzer. It opened at the ICA several years ago and I went to see it every single night for about a week. I became obsessed with it because it looks at the interaction between movies and music. The cast is made up of people like Tom Waits, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Joe Strummer, Arto Lindsay. It’s a real who’s who of musicians. The other reason I became obsessed with it is that it’s written by my favourite screenwriter, Rudy Wurlitzer, who also wrote Two-Lane Blacktop, which is another film that would be in there if I could pick three. I became so obsessed with Candy Mountain that I named my youngest son Rudy after Rudy Wurlitzer. And one of the greatest things for me to come out of this book was that I recently had an email from Rudy Wurlitzer saying that he’d seen the book and he liked it and I emailed back saying, ‘it’s a real honour for me because I like your work so much that I named my son after you’… I love the fact that the hero of Candy Mountain, played by Kevin J. O’Connor, who’s almost like a character from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, goes on this journey and at the end of it he’s left disillusioned but still standing. It says that the road can bend you and it can break you but it can never completely destroy you, and I like that. The other film that I would pick is Radio On by Chris Petit. It’s widely considered to be the first British road movie. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it’s certainly the best. It’s hugely influenced by Wim Wenders; it was executively produced by Wenders, it uses Martin Schäfer, one of Wenders’ cinematographers, and it casts one of Wim Wenders’ leading ladies, Lisa Kreuzer. It’s a film that looks at Britain at a very particular time, a Britain in economic decline, a Britain that was thirsting for social and cultural change, but was really unsure of its identity and its future. It catches Britain right before the imminent upheavals of Thatcherism. It’s also a film that is about introspection, about the idea of not really knowing who you are or where you want to go in life. And it has an absolutely fantastic soundtrack. It’s very audacious and it certainly broke boundaries; if anything it was ahead of its time. When Radio On was released I think it was met with a certain amount of confusion because people hadn’t seen anything like it. Thirty years later it’s held as a classic.

John Waters: Hairhopping to Hollywood


Format: Cinema

Release date:


Director: John Waters

Cast: Divine, Ricki Lake, Deborah Harry

USA 1987

88 minutes

The Hairspray remake is released on 20 July 2007.

Distributor Entertainment

Director: Adam Shankman

Cast: John Travolta, Michele Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah

USA 2007

He is known as the Pope of Trash, peddling movies which have shocked audiences and angered the censors since the 70s. But nothing John Waters ever committed to celluloid is as shocking as his decision to allow Cheaper by the Dozen 2 director Adam Shankman, to remake his cheerful hit Hairspray.

Waters made his name with films such as Mondo Trash, Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, which ooze trashiness in both style and content. The sacred 180° rule of filming is often broken, heads are cut out of the picture, and shots of anal flexing, bestiality and diseased, violating penises are held for that little bit too long. Those films were made with a total dearth of means, Waters borrowing money from his father and roping in his friends and friends’ friends to act, paint sets and primp hair.

By the time the cameras were rolling for Hairspray, however, Waters’ bank balance had grown in inverse correlation with his taste for the disgusting. Boasting a healthy budget and a Hollywood studio, Waters’ 1988 film is a far cry from his early movies. The film is about Tracey Turnblad – an overweight teen from Baltimore who dances her way onto The Corney Collins Show, managing to break down redneck segregation policies of 1960s America as she goes. With a cracking soundtrack, a polished script and the newly discovered charming teenage star Ricki Lake, Waters had himself his first mainstream hit.

Two decades later, the film has been remade with a new soundtrack, an altered script, a new undiscovered leading actress and, playing her mother, a cross-dressing John Travolta in a fat suit. Does anyone find fat suits funny? Certainly Terry Jones’ Mr Creosote character raised a few laughs in The Meaning of Life in 1983, but since then? Eddie Murphy thumped about as an overweight woman in Norbit, seeing the film belly-flop at the box office. It seems that one too many Friends re-runs has extinguished our appetite for prosthetic chins and spare tyres.

Unlike Travolta, Divine, who played Tracey’s mother Edna in Waters’ Hairspray, had no need for fake weight. A naturally hefty man, Divine only needed a stuffed bra to cut a matronesque figure. Indeed, it is his size that defined him as an iconic cinema star. Divine’s ample girth was matched by his skyscraping hair, his killer heels and his raised eyebrows – pencilled so high he had to shave back his hairline to make space. He turns a number of heads when strutting down a busy Baltimore road in Waters’ seminal work Pink Flamingos. These onlookers, as Waters revealed, were no stage-groomed extras, but genuine shoppers walking past the camera, startled to see a 20-stone transvestite made up like Elizabeth Taylor on acid. Divine looked like this on and off set. Having originally set out to subvert the transvestite scene – where Judy Garland impersonators featured heavily – Divine was nurtured by Waters into a fully-fledged actor equally as able to play a caring mother (Hairspray, Polyester) as a dog-shit-eating trashbag (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble).

But casting aside, it is Hairspray‘s newly re-styled soundtrack that commits the biggest crime. Waters’ soundtracks have always evoked the spirit of his films. Divine struts his filthy self to the tune of Little Richard’s ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ in Pink Flamingos, while Female Trouble opens to a lounge tune of the same title. Written by Waters and sung by Divine, it strikes the tragicomic chord that characterises the film. In Hairspray the soundtrack transcends this scene-setting importance. Hairspray being a film about dancing, the music comes from within the story in most scenes – from the dancehall’s stereo or straight from the bands employed to play on The Corney Collins Show. The music perfectly demonstrates the clash between black and white cultures. Well-groomed white teens shake a tail feather to black classics by The Five Du Tones and Barbara Lynn, while their black counterparts do the same thing but hidden away from both the media spotlight and the white neighbourhood. In one scene, a pushy white mother, played by Deborah Harry, urges her teenage daughter to listen to white artists such as Shelley Fabares and Connie Francis rather than the ‘coloured music’ she likes to listen to.

So if anything, it is for its great soundtrack that Hairspray is remembered. The belting numbers twist and shout throughout the film, and have been immortalised by new generations who know and love the film. So why oh why does the Hairspray remake dispose of these tunes? Instead of the original music we have a tailor-made soundtrack that is as anachronistic as it is tuneless. In its jangly Broadway harmonies it emits a rather unsubtle whiff of Disney. In fact, the new songs are so bland they make you want to eat dog shit just to reawaken your senses.

It poses the question which Waters himself asked about movie remakes. Speaking about a proposed US version of Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown, he said: ‘Why would you remake a great movie? You should remake the bad ones.’

You said it, John.

Lisa Williams


Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song

Title: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

Format: DVD

Release date: 28 November 2005

Distributor BFI

Director: Melvin Van Peebles

Cast: Melvin Van Peebles, Simon Chuckster, Hubert Scales

US 1971

97 minutes

Title: Baadasssss

Format: DVD

Release date: 28 November 2005

Distributor BFI

Director: Mario Van Peebles

Cast: Mario Van Peebles, Joy Bryant, T.K. Carter, Ossie Davis

US 2003

108 minutes

‘Maybe an asshole but a filmmaker’. That’s how Melvin Van Peebles, the legendary maverick whose revolutionary 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song sparked Hollywood’s blaxploitation fever, describes himself. His actor and director son, sat next to him, exuding the same effortless cool, does not disagree, in spite of all the respect and esteem he evidently has for him. It is in this spirit, enthusiastic but truthful, full of admiration but critical, that Mario Van Peebles made Baadasssss, a vibrant, exhilarating docu-drama recounting his father’s struggle to get Sweetback made.

One of the first black film-makers in Hollywood, Van Peebles first had to take a detour via France to be able to direct in his native country. After seeing his short films, the director of the Paris Cinémathí¨que invited him over to France and, nine years later, Van Peebles’ La Permission was chosen to represent France at the 1967 San Francisco film festival. That got Van Peebles noticed in Hollywood and he was hired to direct the successful race comedy Watermelon Man. Just when it looked like he had made it he suddenly broke ranks with Sweetback, a raw, hard-hitting, edgy depiction of the black urban ghetto with, as a hero, a black hustler forced to go on the run after killing two white cops. Unable to find investors, Van Peebles used his own money, hired a multiracial crew against the rules of the all-powerful unions, and after finally completing the film through sheer bloody-mindedness, found that only two cinemas in the whole of the United States would show his film. Through word-of-mouth and the Black Panthers’ mobilisation, however, Sweetback took up and became the highest grossing independent film of the year.

In an interview conducted in 2005 father and son told Virginie Sélavy how, thirty years on, nothing much has changed in Hollywood.

Mario Van Peebles: To some degree, it’s like a pot with boiling water, if you keep the lid pressed on it, eventually the pot will explode. If you lift the lid periodically, you can keep people oppressed for a lot longer. If you let the steam out and you give them some awards, a couple of Oscars, say ‘you deserve it, you’re terrific’, you might forget the fact that there’s no head of any studio that is black, Asian, Hispanic or female. So you can get distracted by watching the Michael Jackson trial – ‘what do you mean? We’re making progress!’ But when I wanted to make a film like Baadaassss, I sent my script and I was told that if I made a hip-hop comedy out of it, and added a rap soundtrack, they would make the movie. But they said that my father was too political, too sexy, too black, the film was too multiracial and they couldn’t figure out where to slot it in. And I had to make him a more likeable character. And my dad is who he is, and he was very cool, he said ‘hey, make me who I am, tell the truth’. Once I realised this, I thought, well, I made most of my other films for about $8 million and in about 40 days. I made Baadaasssss for $1 million in 18 days. It makes a big difference. So in a weird way, 30 years later, to communicate this message, to show people of all colours making this film, we had to do it in the same way that my father made the original film.

Virginie Sélavy: What do you think of films such as Shaft and Superfly? You made your film as an independent filmmaker and those films were made in Hollywood. How did you feel about them?

Melvin Van Peebles: What happened was, Sweetback made all this money. Hollywood desires money but they could not stand the political content so they emptied the formula, they took out the political content and made it more cartoonish and that became blaxploitation. One of the things that happened is that Sweetback is so steeped in the ambience that they had to hire black screenwriters, black choreographers, etc, so many people got to learn their craft that way. It was a step. Because of the fixation on race, we often overlook the fact that Sweetback was the beginning of independent film, not just black independent film. So I’m the godfather of those films as well as The Blair Witch Project or Motorcycle Diaries. I made those things possible too.

VS: How do you feel about the term blaxploitation?

Melvin: It’s not my term. I don’t consider myself a sociologist, I consider myself a filmmaker, among other things. Maybe an asshole but a filmmaker.

Mario: If I can add something here, Sweetback was a revolutionary film but in the subsequent films, when big money got involved, they made cops hip, they made drug dealers hip so the message gets diluted. But there is a difference too: if you make a series of Vietnam-themed films, Apocalypse Now etc, they won’t say it’s white film, it’s a genre of film. But if you make Shaft, Superfly, etc, they won’t say it’s a genre, it’s got black actors in it so they call it black film.

VS: How did you start in the film industry? When you made Watermelon Man, how many black filmmakers were working in Hollywood at that time?

Melvin: I came to San Francisco in 1967 as the French delegate to the festival. They didn’t know I was black or American. There is a law in France that says that a writer can have a temporary identity card. So I wrote fifty words in French and I got my card. I made a film called La Permission (The Story of a Three-Day Pass) in France and the film won the San Francisco festival and I was the only black person there. So before me, there was nothing. They didn’t expect the French delegate to be black. They also didn’t expect the French delegate to be American.

VS: How did you end up being the French delegate?

Melvin: I’m smart. … I was studying mathematics and astronomy in Holland. Henri Langlois at the Cinémathí¨que saw my first short films and he invited me to go to France. There was a little cinema on the Champs-Elysées where they showed my films and afterwards, we go downstairs and everybody hugs me and kisses me. And I’m standing in the middle of the Champs-Elysées, no money, I can’t say a word of French. That’s how I came to France. Nine years later I was their delegate. So when that happened, that embarrassed the Americans because they could not have the only black American director a French director so they offered me jobs which I did not accept and that forced them to look for others and certainly they discovered other black directors, discovered they were there the whole time, Gordon Parks, the guy got a chance to make a film, and Ossie Davis too.

VS: What happened after Sweetback?

Melvin: When I made Watermelon Man I had a three-picture deal with Colombia but I decided it was time now to attack my plan, my master plan. And my master plan was to retake the images. The long and the short of it is that when Sweetback became very successful, because no one expected it to become successful except for me, only two theatres wanted to show it. But the movie was a runaway success and everybody began to show it. Colombia were so angry that they tore up my contract. That’s what happened to me. However, they did take the formula and take out the political content. And that caricature, that became blaxploitation.

VS: After Sweetback, did you want to make more films like that?

Melvin: Yeah, it’s a trilogy, I never had a chance to make the other parts. I made a couple other American films which no one would distribute because it’s too dangerous, no one owns me. I own Sweetback 100%, I’ve got no partner, I own the music, the book, everything. I had to do it all alone so it’s all mine. And no one would help me. Bill [Cosby] loaned me money at one stage of the game but even he would not take a piece of the movie. He only wanted his money back. This is what I’ve taught Mario and I’m very pleased. He not only knows how to play the game but how to own the team. That’s very important.

VS: You could have done a documentary but you decided to do a fictionalised drama. Why did you decide to go with that option?

Mario: I wanted to be able to get into all those places where a documentary wouldn’t go, like the relationship between my father and me, and I thought that it was such a wonderful period. But beyond the fact that it’s true it’s really about one person standing up and making it. It’s like Rocky, it’s a very classic story.

Melvin:I’m confused by your question. What about Beautiful Mind or Kinsey, would you call them fictions or docu-dramas? Fiction takes you to another place and everything in the movie is true.

Mario: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But then, in a weird way, in the interviews with the characters, it almost gets to be mockumentary. But at the end it does become a documentary, so it changes forms. And it also feels like at times it’s a making of, like someone had walked around with a camera, capturing this wonderful time, when you had all those people, you could see Janet Jackson and Jimi Hendrix and Santana on the same set. And today it would be black radio, Latino radio and rock and be fragmented. And this was a time when everybody was on this movie set, we had every demographic, we even had kid demographic, I was one of the kid demographic, and what a quirky, interesting time to show and to relive, go back to those streets, go back to my father’s life in essence with a camera, talk to Bill Cosby, talk to Jose Garcia, talk to Ossie Davis, and go back to that time.

VS: That form, whatever you choose to call it, works really well for the film.

Mario: It is a strange thing. I hadn’t really thought about that but what happened was once I realised that no one was gonna back it and that I was going to have to make it with my savings, same as how my dad made it, without money, something else simultaneously happened. My muse, my little angel who speaks to me, suddenly said (he switches to a squeaky voice) ‘what studio is gonna take it? What are they gonna make you do?’, that was my muse said and I said, ‘guess what, no studio took it so I’ll do it myself’. So I could literally have a parliament with myself, I could go ‘Oh, let’s see if the director likes it’, ‘I like it’, ‘Well, I don’t know if the writer will approve’, ‘I like it’, ‘well, let’s see if the lead actor likes it’, ‘I like it’. Once I realised this, it was like ‘what now?! We can just take this form further out! Because now it’s just me and I’m just gonna do my own shit.’ So once that happened, I didn’t have to please anybody. And I wasn’t even aware of the fact that my muse was self-editing already so that I could say it’s like this movie or like that movie, because if I couldn’t say that the movie was like anything else before, I couldn’t explain it to the financiers, and I couldn’t get it done. But with my own finances, I could go ‘now I want the thing to go black and white’, and ‘I want to have an angel, and the angel sits on the ceiling’ Who would let you do that? Who would let you have Malcolm and Dr. King talk to the character in a movie? It’s a very rare thing that you get to go that far.

VS: Did you worry at any point that it might turn into some bizarre Freudian thing? Because obviously you’re playing your dad in Baadassss and in Sweetback you played your father’s character as a young boy…

Mario: (laughs) Every now and then I stand back from my life and go ‘wow, that’s kind of wild! I didn’t have a lot of time to think in the process but certain things happened. My son was also in the movie, playing the little angel. When he was playing the angel, the camera broke down. We were shooting on the actual street that my dad lived on, on a lady’s lawn. She really liked me as a kid, but she likes me less now! We’re shooting on her lawn and now she wants me off her lawn, the sun is going down, the camera’s broken and no one’s eaten lunch and everybody’s getting pretty grouchy and my son is running off to have lunch with the other kids… and I heard my dad’s voice: ‘Get back here, this is not a hobby, this is our family business, you wanted to be in the movies, now you’re in it, now do your job!’ There’s my father’s voice coming into my head! And I’m like, ‘this is getting really scaaaary now!’ So I found in making the film that things like that came up all the time. But recently my dad made good on something that had been outstanding for about 33 years. He finally gave me that bicycle, the bike that I didn’t get. They did a re-issue of it and I got the bike. Now my kids can ride the bike. It means nothing to them but to me, I’m like, ‘I’ve got that bike!’ There were lots of times when I had to stop and laugh at the inevitable, you know, that in some ways truth is stranger than fiction.

VS: You don’t shy away from the controversial aspects of Sweetback and your relationship with your dad, in particular when he made you have play a sex scene on film as a teenager. And it’s fascinating to see the conflict, and the drive, Melvin, you seem to be willing to sacrifice the well-being of your children in order to finish your film.

Melvin: That’s absolutely true. That’s absolutely true. I think his reaction is completely valid. Hey, but I’m the parent!

Mario: You know, what’s interesting is I wouldn’t do what he did at the time but my kids are gonna have objections to how I parent. At the end of the day though, if they respect what I stood for, that’s cool.

VS: Was this a way of dealing with it and finding out how you feel about it now?

Mario: No. I’ve done that before. I could have made a hand-held movie about that. That’s a personal thing. But I had already cleared things with him on that. He’d said to me ‘Look, tell the truth’. And I said, that’s the way to do this movie. And that was another reason I had to go independent. People are now looking at the world in terms of axis of evil and evil-doers and by logical extension good-doers, and that’s a very polarised look at good and bad people. Reality is much more complex than that and people can be good and evil on the very same day. The other thing is that as a kid I sometimes felt I was involved in a battle without understanding the war. But in the course of that summer I saw that there was something bigger out there. It’s like stepping your toe is a bad experience but when the person next to you loses their leg in a landmine it’s somehow crushed by something bigger. And then you see that that person is trying to go on and save other people from some situation by putting himself at risk. This was a guy who could have gone off and made money in the system and taken a nice picture with a suit on in front of a big mansion that he bought and been held up as an example to the rest of us to sort of follow in line behind. And here he says ‘Fuck you, I’m gonna have a multiracial crew, I’m gonna do a revolutionary film and I’m gonna do my own thing.’ I could have done New Jack City II and III and IV but I said no, I’m gonna make a film about the Panthers and Baadasssss for no money. I don’t have to risk my house at this juncture and yet there’s a different value, it’s not just economic value, it’s social and political and artistic. And I think that’s a nice thing to pass to your kids.

Vote for your favourite Black Screen Icon in the BFI poll! Closing date June 29.


Catch Us If You Can

Format: DVD

Release date: 4 June 2007

Distributor: Optimum

Title Catch Us If You Can

Director: John Boorman

Cast: Dave Clark, Barbara Ferris, Lenny Davidson, Mike Smith

UK 1965

91 mins

Title Gonks Go Beat

Director: Robert Hartford-Davis

Cast: Kenneth Connor, Frank Thornton, Pamela Brown

UK 1965

90 mins

Title Pop Gear

Director: Frederic Goode

Cast: Jimmy Savile, Peter Asher, Eric Burdon, Spencer Davis

UK 1965

68 mins

The sixties are often considered the heyday of British pop music and British filmmaking but rarely both at the same time. In fact the pop music film in any country (or at any time) has a pretty low reputation. But with young people making up a large percentage of cinema audiences producers have always looked to tap this rich vein. Elvis’ endless stream of rock-a-hula beach parties were at least financially successful if not critically. The British Elvis, Cliff Richard made similarly successful films – replacing dragsters and surfboards with double-decker buses – while within a year of their breakthrough The Beatles were being signed up to star in their own vehicles. This was an era when the entertainment industry was coming to terms with a’changing times. Three films from 1964-65, Catch Us If You Can – The Dave Clark Five’s answer to A Hard Day’s Night -, Pop Gear – Jimmy Savile introducing some of the best bands of 64/65 – and Gonks Go Beat – a truly awful film with some great bands and great songs – illustrate this moment perfectly.

As Matt Monroe sings in Pop Gear, ‘the Beatles started it all’. Although perhaps not as musically innovative as is often thought it was the huge success of The Beatles that sent every A&R man looking for the next best thing and prompted every skiffle band to trade in their banjos and washboards for electric guitars and drums. Similarly the success of A Hard Day’s Night set many producers thinking how to turn the beat boom into successful movies, especially after the Beatles and The Dave Clark Five (followed by the rest of ‘the British Invasion’) made it big in America.

Pop Gear was a cinema release from before the days of pop videos or YouTube. It features a collection of mid-sixties greats and also-rans miming to their hits (in Techniscope and Technicolor). It holds together surprisingly well as a film with the exception of the tacked-on low quality footage of the Fab Four at the beginning and the end, which looks like it must have been acquired through some copyright loophole. The rest of the film is directed by Frederic Goode who avoids the fast cutting style that became de rigueur for pop videos and concentrates on finding imaginative ways to frame the bands. The performers are all dressed in matching suits purchased by managers like Brian Epstein (although The Animals somehow still look grubby). The performances vary from Billy J Kramer’s trademark awkward stiffness to Tommy Quickly’s irritating chirpiness (playing a rhythm and blues version of Humpty Dumpty) to The Four Pennies going round and round a fountain almost in a daze. The minimal sets are often a bit too literal – balloons and alphabet blocks for BJK’s ‘Little Children’ and eyes for The Honeycombs’ ‘Eyes’. There is also some cross-over into light entertainment with a couple of unnecessary interludes – silly dance routines straight from Sunday Night at the Palladium – and three songs from the old crooner Matt Monroe. It is not quite the swinging scene of Austin Powers but we at least get the glasses and the ‘English teeth’ (Peter and Gordon, Herman’s Hermits).

As Jimmy Savile says, it was a big year for rhythm and blues. Thus The Nashville Teens (from Surrey) sing about living in a shack on Tobacco Road or catching fish in the Mississippi, The Animals (from Newcastle) sing of brothels in New Orleans. But despite this emphasis on the blues all of the performers are white. It is notable that the only black face in all three films is a black and white minstrel costume in Catch Us If You Can. Supposedly one of the reasons that the British invasion was so big in the US was that white Americans were more likely to buy black American music if it was performed by white British singers like Billie Davies.

Catch Us If You Can features those great exponents of the Tottenham sound and the Fab Four’s first major rivals, The Dave Clark Five. The ‘Tottenham sound’ being Merseybeat with a saxophone (and also seems to be played solely by the DC5). It is also noteworthy as director John Boorman’s first film and the only film of the three where the direction is as ‘up to date’ as the music.

The plot seems to have been written to match the title of one The DC5’s hit records – although in America it was named after another equally suitable song from the soundtrack – Having a Wild Weekend. Basically, an actress (Barbara Ferris) and a stuntman (Dave Clark) abscond with the boss’ Jaguar whilst shooting a TV commercial for meat. Dave Clark was a former stuntman and drama student as well as being the band’s manager, producer, co-songwriter and drummer. The rest of the band play fellow stuntmen and flatmates who all live together in an old church – complete with a pipe organ alarm clock. Unlike The Beatles the DC5 don’t just play themselves – although only Dave Clark’s character has a different name – Steve. Dave Clark is a bit wooden in the lead role and, as with the band, lead singer Mike Smith steals every scene he’s in. There are a few poor attempts at Beatlesque quirky dialogue and a few zany antics – bouncing on trampolines etc. but it soon moves away from A Hard Day’s Night imitation.

The episodic structure takes them on a variety of adventures from a masqued ball in Bath to wild-west horseback riding in Devon whilst the evil world of advertising tracks them down. We meet some early hippies (who deny being ‘beats’) who try to get the super straight Dave Clark to try drugs. He later turns down offers of cigarettes and sherry claiming, ‘tried it once didn’t fancy it’. This is perhaps why the DC5 failed to make the transfer to the late sixties. Right there in a shed on a military exercise base somewhere in the West Country the future of rock’n’roll is made. If only he’d taken the spliff the DC5 could have made that great psychedelic concept album (imagine an upbeat stompin’ Sergeant Pepper) but instead they were playing Merseybeat (with sax) on the cabaret circuit by 1968.

Gonks Go Beat exploits that curious sixties fad for shoddy handicraft (remember Humpty from Playschool), although the gonks themselves make only a very brief appearance. I wonder if kids took their gonks to see it – although the fad was probably over by the time the film came out. It is a film so poor that even its star, Carry On‘s Kenneth Connor, an actor whose single talent is his unrivalled ability to say ‘phwoar’ to saucy nurses, seems embarrassed by the proceedings. The special effects are sub-Dr Who (in his 60s incarnation) and the story – a war between country of up-tempo music Beatland and its rival Balladisle, whilst two star-crossed lovers search for a happy compromise – is just daft. Even Jimmy Savile seems a better option, even Cliff and ‘the young ones’ putting on a show to save the youth club would have been better. It also features the worst battle scene in the history of cinema – a dance with guitars for guns and drumstick hand grenades. The only highlights are a few great songs by the much undervalued producer/songwriter Mike Leander (the man who gave the world Gary Glitter) performed by likes of The Graham Bond Organisation and Lulu.

Not many people realise it but 1965 was the greatest year in pop music history; even the Eurovision winner was a truly brilliant song. Experimentation was rampant, albeit confined to three-minute pop songs, and yet that year is often dismissed as the transitional period from rock’n’roll to rock. The recent BBC2 series Seven Ages of Rock typically starts with Hendrix and completely ignores this important era. I recently got an email encouraging me to sign a petition to get The Monkees enrolled in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. I think I’ll sign that one and start one for the Dave Clark Five (unless they’re already in). Critical reputation still seems based on a band’s ability to make ‘great albums’ (the DC5 were a singles band) although maybe this will change with the increase of the pick’n’mix i-tunes selections. The Dave Clark Five and some of the great one-hit-wonders from Pop Gear deserve better than to be languishing on compilation albums with names like ‘Now that’s what I call the swinging sixties’ given away free with The News of the World. And Catch Us If You Can is a good film (a great pop film) although in cinema as in music The Dave Clark Five were never quite as good as The Beatles.

Paul Huckerby