Into the Forbidden Zone with Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Pulse (Kairo)

Title: Pulse (Kairo)

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 10 July 2017

A new special edition release, includes a High Definition transfer and brand new interviews with the filmmakers

Distributor: Arrow Video

Japan 2001

119 mins

Title: Bright Future (Akarui mirai)

Format: DVD

Release date: 19 November 2007

Distributor: Tartan Video

Japan 2003

115 mins

Despite being one of the most accomplished, intelligent and adventurous filmmakers to come out of Japan in recent years, Kiyoshi Kurosawa has inexplicably been ignored in this country. With the overrated Ring spawning a seemingly unquenchable thirst for anything that more or less fitted the ‘J-horror’ label, it looked like Kurosawa came to maturity just in time to ride the wave, but the subtler, deeper thrills of his films have kept him stranded on the shore. The fact that Kurosawa has worked in different genres hasn’t helped, his idiosyncratic approach to genre conventions even less so. Too oblique for the grindhouse, too creepy for the art-house, his films seem to have fallen in between audiences, penalised for being so utterly and wonderfully unclassifiable.

Having started out as a director of low-budget pink and horror flicks, Kurosawa came to the attention of Western film-goers in 1997 with the release of the astonishing Cure, a richly enigmatic serial killer story that impressed festival audiences around the world. Kurosawa’s equally masterful Pulse (Kairo, 2001) was the subject of an American remake, but this did nothing to increase his notoriety in the West. More stunningly original films followed, from the tree-centred Charisma (1999) to the lighter Bright Future (Akarui mirai, 2003) via further forays into the supernatural with Seance (Kôrei, 2000) and Doppelganger (2003); but of the director’s prolific output only Pulse and Bright Future have, to date, been released in the UK.

A true film artist, Kurosawa has created an instantly recognisable cinematic world, all greenish, watery colours and eerie sound effects, moving lights and fleeting shadows, run-down buildings and strangely empty streets, and in the midst of it all the befuddled, determined or downright mischievous presence of the great actor Kôji Yakusho, who, appearing in no less than seven of the films, serves as something of a stand-in for the director. Weaving multi-layered metaphors, elliptical narratives and beautifully textured visual and aural landscapes, Kurosawa has created captivatingly complex universes that cannot be reduced to any straightforward, single ‘meaning’. Suggesting more than they affirm, his best films deal with the unexplainable, the unsayable, the rich phenomena that lie beyond the reach of words. Some of these phenomena take the form of supernatural evil or ghosts, but while this is the main focus of this article, these concerns are certainly not the only themes that Kurosawa’s work explores.

Each film is built around a cryptic visual motif imbued with multivalent meanings: the jellyfish in Bright Future, the wheelchair in Doppelganger, the tree in Charisma and perhaps most memorably the X in Cure and the red tape in Pulse. In Cure, murder victims are found with an X slashed across their throats. But in each case the killer is a different person. Soon Inspector Takabe (played by Kôji Yakusho) comes to believe that the link between the killings may be the enigmatic Mesmer student Mamiya who is seemingly able to suggest murderous thoughts through hypnosis to whomever he encounters. Later in the film, when the X appears on the wall at the house of a psychiatrist who has been questioning Mamiya and also at a doctor’s surgery the student has visited, it chillingly and wordlessly signals that both the psychiatrist and the doctor are about to kill. It is a symbol of extraordinary force, condensing the unknowable depths of human nature into two black strokes on a wall, and leaving the question open: is Mamiya really able to manipulate apparently decent citizens into committing homicide, or does he simply reveal the dark impulses that were already present within them?

A supremely ambiguous figure, Mamiya is a potent creation whose mere presence on-screen is enough to give the viewer goose bumps. ‘Tell me about yourself,’ he says to everyone he meets, answering all questions that are put to him with another question, never disclosing anything personal. Is it possible that Mamiya should be truly empty, as he claims, and that by having emptied himself of everything that made him what he was, he has become the ultimate seducer, a sheer void that reflects their own selves back to people, enabling him to exert total control over them? Whatever the answer, evil in Cure is not limited to one character but is a diffuse phenomenon, an atmosphere that pervades everyone and everything, buildings too. Mamiya’s former haunt, a grimy warehouse partitioned by plastic sheets hanging from the ceiling and filled with caged animals and books on hypnotism, exudes an unwholesome, malign air; the same atmosphere of occult malevolence pervades a derelict building that was the venue for mysterious experiments in hypnotism decades previously. Building up throughout the film, it is all this that comes to be invoked in each re-appearance of the X, the profound enigma of evil, the contagion of the malefic through the air, through invisible waves that circulate between people and places.

In Pulse, the striking – and almost mundane – visual motif is the red tape that has been placed around various doorways to seal them shut. These are ‘forbidden zones’ occupied by the spirits of the dead who have begun to invade the world of the living. Those who ignore the red tape and enter those proscribed spaces find themselves face to face with some of the ghastliest creatures ever conjured on celluloid. They are both recognisably human and yet dreadfully inhuman at the same time – one female ghost’s creepily distorted, slow-motion walk is enough to scare one character out of his wits; another has the vague appearance of a living being, only paler and fuzzier, before his eyes suddenly come into disturbingly sharp focus. After a while, the simple sight of the red tape is enough to signify unspeakable horrors, inducing in the audience a powerful, unshakeable anxiety.

As he has repeatedly explained in interviews, Kurosawa’s films are concerned with what lies outside the frame. For the director, these ghosts are part of a wider world that we fail to perceive in our daily lives, part of the world beyond the frame. They are hidden behind doors, they appear through opaque windows, and in Pulse they make their way into the world of the living via computer screens. These doors, windows and monitors are portals between the living and the dead, echoing the cinema screen, the ultimate frame that divides the seen from the unseen. The ghosts are death made visible, and as they move from beyond the frame to inside it the characters are forced to face something which they would prefer to remain unseen. This is why the most frightening thing that can happen in a Kurosawa film is a door slowly opening: doors and windows are breaches through which the wider world that surrounds us can enter the comfort of our well-delineated spaces, allowing the irruption of the unknown, of forces beyond our control, into the familiar sphere of our lives.

This otherworldly reality is also evoked through sound, which plays a crucial role in all of Kurosawa’s work. Buzzes, low-pitched drones, shrill timbres, sounds that hiss, whir, ring and resonate in subtle modulations form elaborate, unsettling soundscapes that combine with the visuals to create a multi-dimensional, immersive world. These sounds are not generated through synthesizers but always come from the real world, as Kurosawa explains in an interview published in Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film. For instance, the ‘staccato, high-pitched sound’ that is heard every time the ghost is about to appear in Seance was created from the trill of a Japanese insect. What drives the director to use real sounds is, as with the visuals, the desire to ‘express (…) the world that lies beyond what is visible on-screen’. These ominous, alien sounds increase tenfold the effect of the visuals, adding an extra dimension to the unseen, stealthily submerging the audience into the film’s ambience and making for an experience of rare intensity.

Adding to the eeriness of the films is Kurosawa’s preferred viewpoint. Eschewing the conventions of traditional horror movies, Kurosawa films his characters from a distance. Rather than sticking the camera on the character’s shoulder and startling the audience when the bogeyman suddenly appears in the frame, Kurosawa observes the events from afar, putting us in a position from which we are able to see shadows move and shapes appear in the background, from which we can see everything, the living as well as the dead around them. Frequently, Kurosawa photographs scenes from behind windows, as though shooting from the point of view of the ghost. Throughout his films, the director chooses to position himself, and us, on the outside, like intruders, stalkers or spirits. In this way, he makes us part of the world that lies outside the frame, placing us on the other side of the screen, turning us, the audience, into ghosts, the passive observers of the living.

Never showy and shunning facile special effects to create elegant terrors, Kurosawa’s films generate a profound, lasting sense of unease in the audience because they make us experience that which lies beyond words. A master of disquiet, Kurosawa touches the forbidden zones of human life, revealing the unseen, probing the unspeakable.

Virginie Sélavy

This feature was first published in February 2008.


Noel Lawrence

Photo: Noel Lawrence

Other Cinema

Listen to the podcast of the full interview on Sci-Fi London

Having started as an underground film venue 25 years ago, the Other Cinema also became a DVD label in 2003, releasing the works of experimental filmmakers such as Craig Baldwin, JX Williams and Bill Morrison. Alex Fitch talks to co-founder Noel Lawrence and finds out more about their ‘mad, bad and rad’ aesthetic. This interview was originally podcast on Sci-Fi London.

Alex Fitch: Experimental cinema isn’t that widely available in the UK; your DVDs are sold in the ICA bookshop and are region 0, so they fill a gap in the market.

Noel Lawrence: Yeah, absolutely. England was a particularly hard nut to crack for us as you’ve got that dated rating system.

AF:What sort of films do you show when you tour your programme to countries like the UK?

NL: I do a combination of things – I showed Experimental Eros in a variety of places, in Switzerland and the Netherlands this year. We show full programmes from the Other Cinema catalogue, some titles that have been released, forthcoming ones to test the market / the audience, to see what they like, that sort of thing. I’ve been in England before, we showed at The Cube cinema in Bristol and at The Horse Hospital in London. I went up to Newcastle: they have a fairly vibrant underground film scene there.

AF: Are you the main curator for titles? Do you decide which releases go ahead?

NL: I’m not exactly the main curator… Let me give you a little history of how The Other Cinema went ahead. We started as an underground film venue in San Francisco about 25 years ago and that was founded by an avant-garde filmmaker called Craig Baldwin who has done several well-known pictures composed of found footage, most significantly Tribulation 99. He started with what’s known today as the micro-cinema movement, which was the idea that we don’t have to show films in movie theatres – anyone with a screen and a couple of folding chairs could set up a cinema and show what they want, something outside of mainstream, outside of what big studios are distributing to the public. Other Cinema is based in the Mission District in San Francisco. It’s a storefront theatre with folding chairs and not the best high-end projection equipment but, how should I put it, a lot of spirit and enthusiastic audiences. The idea of Other Cinema – the DVD label too – is to show ‘outlaw’, marginal cinema that can be broken down into three ingredients; this is how Craig has always explained it: The Other Cinema programming aesthetic is ‘The Mad’, ‘The Bad’ and ‘The Rad’!

AF: Okay!

NL: Let me explain that. ‘The Mad’ being alternative subjectivity, bizarre uncommon ways of looking at things that are ‘mad’ or ‘schizophrenic’. You can make a million associations with that. ‘The Bad’ being kitsch, low culture. We’re all about high culture or low culture – there’s no middle ground! And then ‘The Rad’ is radical politics, progressive politics – the idea that film can be used as a way of changing the world by changing people’s ways of looking at things. Does that make sense?

AF: Absolutely. Those are the sort of things that are part of underground culture in San Francisco and California in general…

NL: I’d say we’re tuned into that… you know, that underground sensibility that characterised California – certainly counter-culture California – for many, many years. Some people talk of West Coat and East Coast rap; there’s certainly a West Coast / East Coast flavour to experimental filmmaking. We’re on the West Coast side of that. Of course, it’s more complex than that – we represent a great number of New York filmmakers on our label, they’re certainly not ghettoised or anything like that. But I feel that we tend to be a little more fun in what we do than some of the things that come out of the New York Film Festival in their avant-garde programme – not to say anything bad about them ’cause they do a great job – but we’re a little more playful.

AF: In a way your label is like a film festival, spread over a number of discs.

NL: That’s an interesting way of looking at it! One of the reasons I became a film curator is that there was certainly a point where I thought, ‘Maybe I should found a film festival’, then I realised, ‘Why bother? There’s a million of them!’ There’s about 150 festivals in San Francisco alone! DVDs have an enduring material legacy that is not possible when you do a festival. Things go to a festival, there’s a big crowd and then they disappear and there’s nothing left. To a lot of undistributed films, that’s what happens: they do their festival run and they get shown in a lot of places but in a few years no one remembers what they are. Even the big stuff that’s going through Sundance or wherever. But because DVDs have this material component, they’re going to be floating out there forever. There are hundreds of video stores that have our catalogue and from today until whenever the DVDs break, people are going to be watching them and that works! So even though a DVD label can be really difficult – ’cause it’s really stressful to put out these discs – it has advantages over showing these things in a film festival… Or showing them in Other Cinema itself, which is a great venue where I’ve seen hundreds of films over the years, but the problem is that you’re limited to whatever audience happens to show up on a Saturday night to see it! Whereas the idea with the label is that we can export the magic that happens at the cinema and put it onto a disc and then everyone around the world can see it at any time.

AF: Another thing about your label is that the packaging is very well designed. You’ve made it collectable, which is important if you’re making something that you want people to keep for a while.

NL: Yeah, I think that’s very important actually. You’re right, we spent an enormous amount of time studying over the packing – there’s not the tiniest detail that is not going to be approved by Craig or myself. That materiality, that aesthetic component of the discs, is really important to what we do and I have a fear that it’s going to be lost because we’re moving into a digital age, where everything can be downloadable from the internet. Ever since I was a young lad I collected old records. When I was fifteen years old I would go to ‘the big bad city’ and go to the underground record shop and get punk rock albums and it was really a rush to go into a store and pick up something rare. I think that’s sort of getting lost today, with the internet now anything can be accessed by a few keystrokes. In a way that’s great, but at the same time, I kind of miss the idea that you have to search these things out.

AF: Definitely. I’d be the first person to argue that the loss of the corner video shop is a terrible thing, because if you’ve got shelves of esoteric titles, it’s much easier to browse them in the flesh and if you’ve got someone vaguely knowledgeable behind the counter, they’re going to point you in the right direction.

NL: Exactly! There’s a really great record shop in San Francisco called Aquarius Records and it’s not a particularly large shop at all, it’s probably the size of my apartment, which is not very big, it’s a studio! They sell a fraction of what you might get in a big HMV, but everything is so lovingly presented; they write these tiny reviews of every disc in this incredibly small hand-writing and it looks like someone has spent two hours writing this little index card review with a magnifying glass! You walk in there and you ask the person behind the counter, ‘I’m looking for this kind of music…’ and they can point you exactly to the CD you’re looking for. You can’t do that at an HMV and you definitely can’t do that on the internet.

AF: Is it important for you to balance the number of short films with the number of features that you’re releasing?

NL: We tend to put out more collections of short films than we do feature films, but it’s not like any kind of hard and fast rule. What we do, running a DVD label and competing in a market place where we’re against the likes of Harry Potter and we’re trying to peak the public interest in our work, is to curate thematically with our DVDs. So a lot of our compilations have been on a subject that everyone knows about, like a lot of people don’t know who Craig Baldwin and Mike Kuchar are but they know about horror films or they understand the concept of the seventies. I put out this disc dealing with themes of sexuality and called it Experimental Eros and everyone’s heard of sex! They might not know the particular short films on the disc, but people get interested because of the theme that gets addressed on the disc and they pick it up for that reason. I’m hoping that from there, people familiarise themselves with the artists that are behind some of this stuff and seek out more of their work.

AF: With the Eros collection, you seem to be tapping into the zeitgeist a bit. I don’t know if it’s the same in America but in Britain, there’s an exhibition of art about sex on at the Barbican at the moment, they had a collection of 70s Swedish erotica on at the ICA recently and before that there was a collection of Edwardian pornography called The Good Old Naughty Days shown in London. To get around the ratings system, you had to join a ‘sex club’ in order to see this film of sex acts that were recorded 80 years ago… So with the ‘mainstream’ becoming increasingly mainstream and people having less challenging films to watch, I guess sex is still a subject that’s somewhat taboo.

NL: It’s interesting you should mention that. Even today, as ubiquitous as porn has become because of the internet, there are still a lot of difficulties in distributing sexually explicit material on DVD and I don’t just mean porn – with Experimental Eros there were a lot of stores that would not pick it up and I couldn’t get it replicated at certain factories that wouldn’t handle that kind of material. There’re a lot of problems that are still present when you’re showing that kind of material and in America they still occasionally do arrest porn directors on obscenity charges and that sort of thing. I don’t know if that happens in England or not… It’s strange because the legal status of porn is still very ‘grey market’ in the United States, particularly under the Bush administration, which is a lot more puritanical than some of the more recent democratic administrations like Clinton’s.

AF: The demarcation between porn and erotica in this country seems to be very much delineated by the artistic intent of the filmmakers. You can show full penetrations and erections in films if you can show that they have some kind of artistic meaning.

NL: There was a famous court case in the United States where the Supreme Court talked about obscenity being offensive to community standards and having no socially redeeming value. So as a result, back in the 60s and 70s when this court case was first decided, you would always see these naughty books that were just wall-to-wall sex, but the first page would always have an introduction by some kind of professor with a PhD who would say something like, ‘This is talking about the social conditions these people are living under’, which is absolutely ridiculous because it was just a pornographic book. But, in any case, our work is erotica and supposedly it has a socially redeeming value! There’re a lot of arguments to what constitutes socially redeeming value, in the sense that all porn – even the most gutter porn – still has relevance in terms of its documenting of social behaviour. There still could be arguably an anthropological argument for that! I heard about a university, I don’t remember if it was Berkeley or not, they were keeping an archive of all of this 70s porn, basically to study the furniture that was used on the sets because most Hollywood films are not filmed in real places – they’re filmed on sound stages, they’re completely make-believe – but 70s porn films were shot in someone’s living room. So people can get an idea of what actual 70s furniture looked like by looking at porn!

AF: It’s funny you should say that because there was a documentary on the very subject on BBC Four a couple of months ago. It was very much looking at these 70s interiors in California in particular, and how the look of these 70s porn films have a certain cultural cachet that has outlasted the films themselves.

NL:Oh yeah. It’s very interesting to watch that stuff – the sex is boring – but they have these really bizarrely tacky soundtracks and I’m particularly enamoured with the bad acting between the sex scenes because it seems like something straight out of some Warhol movie! So, it’s downright bizarre at times which I really enjoy a lot! It’s kind of experimental film, unintentionally.

AF:All of your stuff – the Eros collection particularly – does demonstrate the fusion between high art and low art because it shows an aesthetic quality and at the same time it’s being appreciated for its trashiness.

NL:Exactly! You’re right – that’s the Other Cinema aesthetic right there: the work in Experimental Eros tends to be footage that’s been appropriated from porn, which is pretty much the lowest rung in the totem pole of genres, and it’s been taken by avant-garde filmmakers and made into something completely different. It’s strange; it’s made very beautiful in a lot of cases – I’m think about, for example, the film The Color of Love by Peggy Ahwesh. Do you remember that one?

AF:Yes, it looked really good.

NL:Exactly. Basically what happened was: she found a decayed reel of super-8 porn, took it into her workshop, dyed it, massaged it, changed the look of stuff and made it into something incredibly beautiful. In terms of the low-brow and high-brow ends of the spectrum, she’s definitely in the high-brow end. She’s a published academic, she teaches over at Bard College, she’s a serious artist from New York. That is definitely a good example of our programming style.

AF:I’m glad you mentioned that title because it leads on to Decasia, which is possibly one of the most famous films, at least over here.

NL:Well, that’s Bill Morrison, he’s a good friend of mine and a very nice guy. We released it – the DVD – in something of a limited edition. The idea of it was that he had a print of Decasia that he didn’t need, so we cut it up into pieces and with this edition they would not only get the DVD but also an actual piece of the film. We’re going into that materiality which is very important to the work we show on DVD. What else can I say? It’s a masterpiece, it’s a very important film – one of the most important experimental films that came out in the last decade or so – and I’m a big fan of it! It’s kind of hard for me to find the words to describe it, to be honest with you. I was also really pleased because we just released a new DVD called Experiments in Terror 2, which obviously follows Experiments in Terror 1, and Bill gave us a new film that he made called The Mesmerist for that. Bill took this silent film called The Bells with Lionel Barrymore and Boris Karloff and worked his magic on it; I don’t know exactly what it is that he does in his studio but he creates… When you see a Bill Morrison film there is a certain look to the film that is magical and that film definitely has it.

AF:There seems to be a new interest in silent movies. People have looked into this phenomenon and it seems to be that when a couple of generations have died off and there’re no longer family members left with memories of, say, the 1920s, that’s when young people get into it. It’s the opposite of what you might expect.

NL:Yeah, I don’t know! I guess! I really like old stuff – even my parents seem kind of archaic! It is fascinating the way film can be used that way, to give people the ability to go back in time. What fascinates me is that watching an old movie is an experience that can literally be unchanged from 50 years ago. You see a film like Casablanca in 1942 when it came out or whenever and when you see it 50 years later, it’s still essentially the same experience in a dark room watching this movie and in that sense it’s really the ability to go back in time. Does that make any sense?

AF:Definitely. Particularly when they restore old movies for the film print and not just the DVD; about ten years ago they did a new print of Vertigo where they went to the trouble of finding the cars that were in the movie and matching the colour of the celluloid cars to the paint colour of surviving models so that they looked exactly the same.

NL:Of course, and this being a San Francisco film, I know it well! In fact, speaking of Vertigo, there’s a film on Experiments in Terror 2 called Between 2 deaths and the filmmaker, Wago Kreider, went to the church known as Mission Dolores with a video camera and he retraced Jimmy Stewart’s steps through the church in that scene that was filmed 50 years ago. The film very carefully fades in and out from Hitchcock’s Vertigo to the filmmaker’s version of that scene. It’s really amazing, ’cause he synchs up all of the architecture perfectly, so you see it constantly going from the past to the present, from the present to the past…

AF:…and that exemplifies exactly what Vertigo is about in the first place, by trying to recreate the past using…

NL:I hadn’t even thought of that! That’s a brilliant point that you’re making there. I don’t know if that was the thought that Wago had when he was making it or if he was just being clever… I just took it on a literal level – I just enjoy watching it. I hadn’t thought about that part.

AF:Thinking of the ‘Rad’ aspect of your catalogue, another title that’s well-known over here is Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y

NL:We’ve enjoyed a lot of success selling that title. It’s especially popular in Europe and it continues to sell very well to this day.

AF:How did you pick it up for your label?

NL:Johan came to us with that actually. I think he had probably tried to sell it to somebody else and it hadn’t worked out. We take weird stuff that other mainstream distributors are not going to be interested in. At the same time, I think it’s a fairly accessible work. It’s an experimental documentary without any kind of cohesive narrative but it’s surprisingly watchable.

AF:It’s weird that the kind of documentary films that are popular in the cinema these days – the sort of Michael Moore titles – are very polemic and try to make you adhere to a storyline, in comparison to documentary footage that lets you draw your own conclusions.

NL:You’re right. I like Michael Moore’s work, but there’s a certain authoritarianism with that A to B, ‘this is the point’ kind of filmmaking; you’ve got to follow all these steps to what the conclusion is. It’s much more fun to have this ambiguous kind of work like Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y that lets you draw your own conclusions. We had another documentary too called The Net, which is basically the same thing but is more of a ‘talking heads’ documentary. But it wasn’t there to say, ‘this is the point we’re trying to make’, it just offered a sort of polyphonic view of a certain subject, which was the links between the internet, the Unibomber and LSD…

Interview by Alex Fitch

Read the review of Experiments in Terror 2.


Tommy the Kid

Format: Cinema

Release date: April 25-May 3

Venue: Bognor Regis

More details on the website

A typical assumption about film festivals is that they all take place in major cities or picturesque European provinces, where yachts, schmoosing and canapés feature prominently. For some this may symbolise the end product of a year’s hard work and financial strife, an opportunity to get a foot on the career ladder, or just a place to boost your ego while sipping champagne with a budding French actress, who’s just been promised a role in the next Franí§ois Ozon picture. This world couldn’t be further from the seaside resort of Bognor Regis, which this April sees the start of the fifth annual End of the Pier Festival.

Headed by Bryan Gartside, who has resided in the town since 2001, the festival has seen a dramatic rise in popularity since its creation. Last year saw screenings of 170 shorts and 6 features from as far afield as New York. Gartside has been a film fanatic since his youth, when Saturday mornings were filled with the likes of The Lone Ranger and Flash Gordon. He firmly believes that the coastal town has much to offer in the way of filmmaking. ‘You can definitely get more here than just great fish & chips’, he muses. ‘It might not be obvious but Bognor has a really interesting film history’. He may have a point. Not only was it the birthplace of cinematic pioneer Cecil Hepworth, the town was also the setting for the cult classic The Punch and Judy Man.

The key ethos of the End of the Pier Festival is to demystify the common assumption of what a film festival is, demonstrating to filmmakers that they don’t need to spend money they don’t have flocking to European festivals to get their work exhibited. ‘For most young filmmakers in the UK, the thought of getting over to Cannes or Berlin to promote their film is just a pipe dream’, Gartside explains. ‘It’s important that projects made in the area and the UK in general have a place to be seen’. He also talks of his excitement to exhibit films from all over the world: ‘There’s so much you can learn from a culture from viewing their films’.

The biggest problem facing the festival, it would seem, is getting local residents to the screenings. ‘The one unfortunate factor is that in Bognor the word ‘culture’ seems to be regarded as an expletive. We can attract international audiences but for some screenings there will only be a handful of locals. This is really disappointing’. Gartside aims to tackle the issue this year with special screenings of films set in Bognor Regis that reflect the local traditions, and by commissioning new films to be shot around the area. ‘It’s really a dream to bring the town together for events like this’.

I ask him where he sees the festival in another five years’ time and he has clear ideas about the direction to take: ‘Obviously we want to continue to grow and to screen more films, particularly those made by young filmmakers. I really want to enhance the End of the Pier as a brand in the hope that we can branch out and operate projects around the country. But most of all I really want to establish links with other international film festivals so we can share our discoveries with the rest of the world and learn from other institutions’.

James Merchant


Smoking Cabinet collage, photo by Simon Howarth

The Smoking Cabinet: A Festival of Early Burlesque and Cabaret Film (1895-1933)

7-9 December 2007

More details here

Taking place last December, The Smoking Cabinet presented itself as a celebration of cabaret and
burlesque cinema from 1895 to 1933. The three-day festival at the Curzon Soho specifically concentrated on Germany and Europe rather than looking towards the later burlesque scene in 1950s America. Their centrepiece screening was the 1930 film by Josef von Sternberg The Blue Angel, which launched the career of Marlene Dietrich. The film is set around a small German town nightclub that hosts the touring burlesque stars of the day. It’s mostly frequented by young male students from the local university, but one night their outraged professor follows them there, and falls under the seductive spell of Dietrich’s Lola.

The screening was followed by an excellent panel discussion about burlesque in general, featuring Amy Lamé, host and founder of the notoriously outré vaudeville club Duckie, held weekly at the Vauxhall Tavern; Marisa Carnesky, a long-time burlesque performer with a number of plays and art projects under her belt; and Bryony Dixon, expert and curator of silent and historical film at the British Film Institute. It was interesting to hear both Carnesky and Lamé pronounce burlesque dead at a time when it seems to be in the throes of a massive revival, with countless nights documented weekly in Time Out‘s Social Club section, and risqué outfits gracing the pages of many a fashion magazine. Commenting that a star like Dita Von Teese has made burlesque overground and safe, Carnesky described the current cabaret nights as ‘students in their Hennes underwear’. This is why The Smoking Cabinet as a cinematic experience was so important: it provided an educative programme to an audience who may only know burlesque in its sanitised, modern form.

Elsewhere in the festival, short films weren’t as blindingly obvious as people were perhaps expecting. In an era when old found footage of dancing girls in grainy black & white can be found on any nightclub wall, the Smoking Cabinet programmers have tirelessly researched early cinema to give us work that doesn’t immediately fit into the burlesque canon. The early half of the twentieth century was an important time for all art forms, a time when cinema, live performance, music and dance all interacted with one another in the work of artists such as Man Ray, Norman Bel Geddes, Jean Cocteau, and George Mélií¨s. The Smoking Cabinet recognised these connections, in the screening of such films as the futurist Ballet Mécanique from 1924: using all sorts of mechanisms from airplane propellers to giant bells the film recreates the madness of dance, all accompanied by a highly percussive tribal score that evokes the new musical forms of the 1920s.

Outside of the films, the Curzon Soho bar area gave added attractions and perfect flourishes, from DJs playing 1920s cabaret music to free fairy cakes hand-decorated by the Smoking Cabinet festival organisers themselves. You wouldn’t see the director of Cannes or Edinburgh sitting in full view pouring hundreds & thousands into a creamy paste to tip onto sponge cake! Here’s to a further Smoking Cabinet, and perhaps to widening the net to look at America in the 50s or Britain in the 60s.

Philip Ilson

Philip Ilson is the co-founder of Halloween and organiser of the London Short Film Festival.


Sir Francis Dashwood

We’ve had our eye on Sir Francis Dashwood and the Hellfire Club for a while. They play a fantastic atmospheric surfy bluesy psychobilly punk concoction AND they list Alejandro Jodorowsky, Kenneth Anger and David Lynch among their influences: a band after our wicked heart… Don’t miss them on Feb 9 at the Pitty Pat Club, Nottingham (Valentine’s Ball at monthly burlesque club), and on March 8 at the 12 Bar Club, London. Find out more here. Below frontman Sir Francis discusses his 10, er, 11 favourite movies.

1- Harvey (1950)
This film is just the perfect parable of the Pooka (Guardian Spite) … the whole concept is oddly akin to Aleister Crowley’s concept of the Holy Guardian Angel. In this film Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart), the main character, is at first regarded as a harmless mild-mannered eccentric: he talks away to his ‘imaginary Friend’, a six-foot Rabbit, whom we don’t ever get to see!.. At some point his sister tries to shop him to the funny farm, BUT… the rabbit changes time conditions and events and saves Mr Dowd from any difficult scrapes that he may get into. No one who sees this would ever want anything bad to happen to Mr Dowd, he’s just too sweet and an invincible fool.

2- Theatre of Blood (1973)
Vincent Price is perfect and cheap at the Price… in this classic Horror. A derided Shakespearian Actor who has been thought long dead returns to kill off his critic enemies, each in the style of a piece perfect Poetic Justice, every one exquisitely executed in the precise details of a significant Shakespearian murder. There’s one hilarious scene where a guy’s wife thinks he’s snoring in bed… but he’s actually having his head carefully sawn off.

3- The Holy Mountain (1973)
I have enjoyed, and been given some guidance and answers to some of the more convoluted aspects of Alchemy, Tarot and the western Hermetic Tradition in general through the Medium of Alejandro’s Films. I think it really is time for such a one with this capacity to Put this into moving image unlike no other, to finally come to the fore! Through this fact, I am sure others shall be led into the same studies that gave Him the keys to tap into his Genii! – and therefore likewise themselves become beacons of Creative Fire!!!. . in fact , this is after all the underlying message of such films as Holy Mountain … The acceptance and TRANSFORMATION of Various conditions of what most consider MUNDANE LIFE – is what is depicted through most of his work!

4- Whistle and I’ll Come To You (1968)
Adapted from an MR James ghost story this was a TV film for the BBC OMNIBUS series. The Truly great and most Ghoulish thing about this film is that there is almost no dialogue, there is no music, it is just about an Old guy in Tweed (Michael Hordern) who finds a bone whistle sticking out the side of a crumbling mud cliff, beside the sea. It has an inscription, ‘Whistle and I’ll come to you’… He gives it a toot… and the rest gets progressively creepier. Indeed this is the Most creepy Ghost thing I think I ever saw, its TV budget limitations on the usual production tinsel are precisely its greatest strengths. It has a cold atmosphere, tension, silence and fear.

5- Santa Sangre (1989)
As this Magazine well knows I love The Holy Mountain, but I also must include Santa Sangre. I love everything about this film, the plot, the colour, Atmosphere… It also Has Horror mixed with absurd Hilarity in equal measure, in just the way I like it! Oh! and Really Great Mambo Music! This film may appeal more to those who find they cannot grasp the abstract nature of Holy Mountain… It ‘seems’ to have a more definitive plot. I can’t be bothered to describe something I love so much. So here I end with this one. See it!!

6- Faust (1994)
Another Big Favourite, a wonderful cross mix of animation and real film, with lots of macabre puppetry and black Humour, it sticks well to the original theme of Faust, and loses none of its potency. Prague (one of my very favourite cities) lends its unique atmosphere to many of the film’s scenes. By the way I once saw an Alchemy Exhibition many years ago in Prague that Å vankmajer helped put together, by contributing many Highly unusual Vessels to it. He’s for real!

7- Entertaining Mr Sloane (1970)
Joe Orton’s Stage classic in film form… it’s just great, I never tire of seeing it… It opens with Beryl Reid sucking a rainbow Zoom Lolly in A graveyard, watching a funeral in a see-through Baby Doll Nighty… (You get the picture ??) complete with groovy Georgie Fame soundtrack, well worth it if you’re into this kind of Black Humour. Handsome, amoral and unattached Sloane is offered a room in the house that the middle-aged Kath (Beryl Reid) shares with her brother. Sloane attempts to manipulate them… but you can imagine! it doesn’t quite stay that way.

8- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Simply a classic, I love the themes, the whole journey from the outer to the inner, from the past to the future which is really the past… etc, etc… a real Goer of a film for psychedelic space-heads (of which I was one for a long time). Will always love it.

9- Ed Wood (1994)
This is superb! … Ed Wood was a low-budget Cross-dressing Hollywood filmmaker, and managed to get Bela Lugosi to be in one of his films, by then Bela was a well gone Junkie and died during the making of the film. To all purposes this is set as Wood’s Auto Biography featuring heavily on the making of Plan 9 from Outer Space, one of Hollywood’s saddest B-movies. The 50s styling, costumery and overall sentiment I am drastically in love with.

10- Kaidan (Ghost Story, 1964)
This film is amazing, A beautiful Supernatural Japanese film. I recommend everyone get out and see it now!… the plot is too complex, and in four parts (as only the Japanese could do!) The best bit is about a blind musician who summons the Spirits of a Dead Samurai army, but he doesn’t even know they’re dead (as he’s blind). It turns out the other monks who share the monastery with him realise what he has done and consider it a major Blashphemy. They paint every inch of his body in sacred text and get him to Banish the ghouls… BUT !!…

11- Flowers and Smoke (an experiment in ultra-human contact through the use of flowers and smoke, by Lamda, 2007)
Oh … and an 11th film! (11 is a magick number!!)
This is a truly weird 13-mins short film I recently came across, 50 % of what happens is in the viewer’s own brain, Consecrated roses are burnt, the smoke is filmed and mirrored, the result is a real psychedelic trip-out, Godforms from Many Pantheons appear at you through/in the smoke… and apparently this is just the way it turned out (no trickery!) This is a real operation in Magickal evocation caught successfully on film possibly for the first time ever!! The soundtrack music is amazing also, it glides ebbs and throbs in sync to the imagery until you just don’t know who, why or where you are any-more. Pure Art! (in the Alchemystical sense of the word)!