The Electric Sheep team reviews the highlights of the 2010 Terracotta Far East Film Festival.
Accident (Soi Cheang, 2009)
The term ‘high-concept’ was coined to describe Hollywood blockbusters that can be summarised in a single sentence; however, it could also be applied to Accident, a Hong Kong thriller about a team of assassins led by the intensely disciplined Brain (Louis Koo), who disguise their hits as ‘accidents’ so that nobody realises that a crime has actually been committed. Produced by the prolific Johnnie To, Accident exhibits an icy aesthetic that keeps the audience at an emotional distance but serves to maintain suspense during the sustained set-pieces. The unexpectedly romantic score by French composer Xavier Jamaux, who previously collaborated with To on Mad Detective (2007) and Sparrow (2008), aims for a tragic resonance that is undermined by the comparatively one-note characterisations of Brain’s crew, but Cheang’s psychological approach towards pulp material ensures that Accident has a meditative quality that is rarely found in upscale action cinema. JOHN BERRA
Vengeance (Fuk sau, 2009) Vengeance marks a return to what Johnnie To does best – stripped down gangster stories with a hard-boiled edge and slickly executed stand-offs. The plot is simple – a woman barely survives the assassination of her family and demands that her father Costello (Johnny Hallyday), a French chef, take revenge on those responsible. Costello employs a trio of hitmen (played by To favourites Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Gordon Lam and Lam Suet) to track them down, but there are a number of twists and turns as the group make their way to Simon Yam’s unrepentant crime lord. As usual, To provides some memorable set-pieces that are both playful and fraught with tension. It’s their simple poetry that gives To’s films a distinctive mark, with a touch of the bizarre and the humorous that sets his work out from the crowd. RICHARD BADLEY
Antique (Min kyu-dong, 2008)
When arrogant yuppie Kim decides to open a cake shop, assuming that such establishments will offer plenty of opportunities to meet available women, his search for a pastry chef leads him to former high school classmate Min, who has become known as ‘The Gay of Demonic Charm’ after being sacked from numerous bakeries following flings with co-workers who find him irresistible. Somehow, this simple set-up serves as the springboard for multiple narrative strands to the point that there are three films competing for audience attention; Antique is ostensibly a comedy about the unusual professional relationship between Kim and Min, but it also takes a darker detour into thriller territory and flirts with the form of the musical through dizzying montages. There are some hilarious moments scattered throughout this adaptation of Fumi Yoshinaga’s popular manga, and the themes of friendship and forgiveness are effectively conveyed amid the colourful chaos. JOHN BERRA
Cow (Dou niu, 2009)
In Chinese director Guan Hu’s Cow, set in 1940, a village simpleton emerges from hiding to discover that his fortress home has been destroyed by Japanese soldiers. The narrow lanes are eerily quiet; the dirt in the square stained with blood. Confused and terrified, he discovers that the only other survivor is a ‘foreign’ cow that he’s promised to care for. Cow unfolds in a series of flashbacks, mixing humorous scenes of village life with the simpleton’s harrowing struggles to keep himself and the cow alive as his home is overrun by returning Japanese soldiers, the Kuomintang, and fellow refugees. The result is a tragic black comedy about the futility of war, told from a unique point of view in an already crowded genre. Initially curious and captivating, it’s a shame that the film starts to drift in the second half once the novelty of the plot and set-up start to wear thin. SARAH CRONIN
Summer Wars (Samâ wôzu, 2009)
This new animé from director Mamoru Hosada is more satisfying than his previous offering, The Girl Who Leapt through Time, although its promising beginning and beautiful animation are equally marred by a fairly simplistic message. The story revolves around a young boy, Kenji, who, while staying with the family of a classmate he has a crush on for the summer, accidentally helps a hacker crack the code to the ‘OZ’ network, a Second Life type of virtual world used by everyone, from private users to government and military institutions. As the mysterious attacker wreaks havoc in OZ with potentially disastrous consequences in the real world, Kenji has to find a way to stop him. The animation is excellent, with two contrasting styles used to represent real and virtual worlds, and the tone is charming and humorous. But while the story is initially captivating, it quickly descends into a basic good versus evil battle underpinned by an unsophisticated, conservative belief in traditional values. VIRGINIE SĖLAVY
Phobia (See prang, 2008)
As with most horror anthologies, Phobia is a mixed bag. A quartet of ghost stories from Thailand that vary in stylistic tricks and genre clichés, they seem like extended 10-minute shorts hastily jammed together with no particular format. Some of the stories are linked by references to other characters but there’s no common theme or central thread, and the title itself is misleading: this isn’t an exploration of different phobias, just a straightforward play on people’s understandable and natural fear of ghosts. Last Fright is the most technically accomplished of the bunch, a slow-burning chiller that doesn’t rely on ropey effects, just old-fashioned storytelling. But the anthology’s stand-out is In the Middle, not because it’s particularly scary but because it keeps a tight, coherent plot, revolving around a group of lads on a camping holiday who are haunted by a friend after he’s drowned. RICHARD BADLEY
Writers: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Fritz Müller-Scherz
Original title:Welt am Draht
Based on the novel Simulacron 3 by: Daniel F Galouye
Cast: Klaus Löwitsch, Barbara Valentin, Mascha Rabben, Karl Heinz Vosgerau, Wolfgang Schenck, Günter Lamprecht, Ulli Lommel
2 x 102 mins
First screened on German television in 1973, Fassbinder’s sci-fi two-part series World on a Wire revolves around the computer game nature of virtual reality. It may come as a bit of a shock to modern viewers who think of this concept as relatively new – having perhaps first encountered it in the ‘cyberpunk’ novels of the 1980s or in films from Tron (1982) to The Matrix (1999) – to realise that it has actually been around for four decades. Perhaps modern viewers inevitably link computer games with VR, assuming the two arrived simultaneously, but writers such as Ray Bradbury, Stanislaw Lem, Philip K Dick and Daniel F Galouye, who penned the novel that World on a Wire is based on, had already been developing the concept in the 1950s and 60s. For the sake of confining this argument to ‘virtual reality’ as we define it today, I won’t go back as far as Plato and his cave.
In World on a Wire, as in The Matrix and TV series like Ashes to Ashes and Lost, there is a double philosophical quandary at the heart of the drama, specifically concerning the nature of the reality the characters perceive to be real and questions about one’s own identity within a world that may not exist. Indeed, the Wachowski brothers, though they didn’t like to discuss their own films, were very happy that The Matrix trilogy inspired much philosophical debate (however sophomoric that debate might have been).
Interestingly, almost every example of films and TV series about virtual environments also uses elements from action films, perhaps because whenever a character finds out they are in a simulation and are being watched, they feel paranoid and hunted, and inevitably go on the run. So as well as being an early example of the VR genre, Fassbinder’s mini-series has scenes familiar from the likes of The Fugitive and Alfred Hitchcock’s prototype action films The 39 Steps, North by Northwest and Vertigo. Indeed, the latter does deal with a character who simulates another ‘real’ person’s identity.
It is difficult to discuss the central themes of World on a Wire without mentioning the twist/cliffhanger at the end of part one of – something I guessed within 10 minutes of the start of the mini-series due to my familiarity with the tropes of the sub-genre – so if you don’t want to know the nature of this twist, please skip to the end of the review.
As I already knew that World on a Wire was about virtual reality, the director’s use of blank, staring models made me realise fairly quickly that the world the central character believes to be real is in fact a simulation, and that those vacuous extras are also virtuals whose personality is ‘under-programmed’ in comparison to the lead – like the infected humans in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (any version), who become devoid of emotions when taken over/replaced by alien doppelgä;ngers. We indeed find out that the lead character and his world are both virtual, but also that in the world we are first confronted with, there is a further simulation – a simulation within a simulation. The virtual characters are studying the behaviour of artificial life, so they can predict events in the ‘real’ world.
There are similar simulations within simulations in The Matrix â€“ white voids where Neo does his combat training for example – and in Mamoru Oshii’s underrated Avalon, where each ‘level’ of reality is more colourful and ‘realistic’ than the last. The last of Kôji Suzuki’s Ring books, Loop, deals with a similar concept of worlds within virtual worlds, which might seem too strange a shift in direction for the franchise, even to audiences familiar with The Matrix – the book has yet to be filmed and I don’t expect it will be the basis for The Ring 3D, due in 2012.
In World on a Wire, even if the twist is predictable to modern viewers, the revelation that the lead character is a copy of someone from a higher level of reality still feels fresh, as it is an intriguing philosophical concept that not enough science fiction films have dealt with. When Galouye’s Simulacron 3, which World on a Wire was based on, was filmed again more recently as The Thirteenth Floor, the virtual world was clearly delineated as being different from the real world right from the start (by being shown as a film noir / 1940s simulation). Conversely, in the original novel and adaptation, all three worlds are broadly similar, and it is only the characters’ perceptions of what is real or legitimate as far as their existence is concerned that differentiates the different layers of reality, something that has greater profundity and disturbing potential compared to other examples of the genre.
[END OF SPOILER]
While certain aspects of World on a Wire were designed to create a world that seemed unusual at the time – such as shooting many scenes in the shopping malls and newly built developments of Paris, which were unfamiliar to viewers in 1970s Germany – there are continuing tropes from Fassbinder’s own oeuvre that mark it out as simply his style of filmmaking. For example, the idiosyncratic sound design and overtly ‘theatrical’ performances from some of the cast and extras do create the feeling of a world inhabited by ‘the other’, when viewed in isolation and without having seen many of the director’s other films. Ironically, it’s these idiosyncrasies that give the series a science fiction feeling, rather than his conscious efforts to shoot in ‘alien’ locations. From a current perspective, all 1970s European architecture seems broadly similar, and this is both a blessing and a curse to filmmakers who want to create a futuristic world by seeking out the modern locations of their time. Michael Winterbottom’s use of a global architectural collage in Code 46 and Jean-Luc Godard’s choice of brutalist architecture in Alphaville to create a Paris of the future have quickly dated (Fassbinder was a fan of Godard and acknowledges his debt to Alphaville by giving Eddie Constantine a cameo in World on a Wire).
Viewing World on a Wire in May 2010 is a strangely appropriate experience. Despite its age, the film still seems fresh, and this combination is unsettling to modern viewers. Although a little slow overall – in part due to the fact that it was conceived as two two-hour-long parts with commercials, which makes the first episode seem padded – it is continuously engaging, intriguing and suitably strange, thanks to the performances and the director’s use of disorientating camera angles as well as shots framed with mirrors reflecting other mirrors. As an early example of a genre, it’s interesting to note that it has almost exactly the same ending as the final episode of Lost (and as the co-creators of Lost, who wrote that episode, are refusing to give any more interviews on the subject, I guess we’ll never find out if they’re fans of Fassbinder).
It has recently been reported that scientists have successfully created artificial life, albeit on the level of microbes; extrapolating this into the potential for the creation of artificial human intelligence, it’s interesting to speculate whether the creation of virtual worlds where human visitors can interact with virtual humans will lead to environments that are indistinguishable from our own, or ones that let us holiday in outré retro or futuristic environments. Certainly, the idea that such a world might be created first for its potential to influence the activities of big business as in World on a Wire seems a very likely one.
Based on the novel Jakob von Gunten by:Robert Walser
Cast: Mark Rylance, Alice Krige, Gottfried John
Acclaimed for their animated short films, the Brothers Quay released their first feature-length live action film, Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life, in 1995. A menacing, oneiric tale inspired by the work of Swiss writer Robert Walser, it follows new student Jakob as he enters a strange school for servants run by the somewhat sinister Herr Benjamenta and his sister Lisa. The film glides fluidly through beautifully textured black and white images that open up imaginary spaces. Intensely visual and musical, its progression is guided not by a linear plot but by dream logic, recurrent motifs and basic fairy tale elements. Virginie Sélavy had the pleasure to interview the Brothers Quay in the wonderland of their London studio.
The Brothers Quay will be in conversation in a very special event at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on Tuesday 22 June 2010. The festival will also screen their brilliant new film Maska. More details on the EIFF website.
Virginie Sélavy: You have often been inspired by literature in your work and for your first live action feature you chose to adapt Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten. Why did you pick that book?
It’s what we were reading at the time when Keith [Griffiths], our producer, asked us if we would ever think about doing a feature film, and our first response was ‘no way’. The thing about this work is that it’s a chamber piece, so it didn’t seem daunting. And in the background, there was always the precedent of Walerian Borowczyk‘s Goto, Island of Love (1968), which was a chamber work in one space, a hermetic universe. And we realised that with Walser’s book, we could set the film entirely in the institute itself.
So Goto played an important role in convincing you that you could do this?
Yes, in so much as it was a great precedent for animators who moved to live action, like Kon Ichikawa, who did An Actor’s Revenge (1963). It’s quite a leap to come from a graphic universe and move to live action but both Borowczyk and Ichikawa have this great graphic quality to their live universe. They don’t change gears. They make live action submit to the same hermetic universe. And of course it’s quite powerful.
And it gives it that slightly unreal quality – humans don’t seem quite human.
Yes, it’s true. It might not have been easy for people like [actor] Pierre Brasseur, but in the end the actors understood that it was very much a type of universe seen almost from an entomologist’s point of view. For Borowczyk, they were insects in the kingdom of Goto.
The way you approach literary adaptations is very interesting. I believe that for Benjamenta you asked your composer Lech Jankowski to write the music first and you conceived the film from the music. Why do you work this way?
I think that the principle is that the music comes first, whether it’s live action or animation, or in many respects dance. Entire sequences of Benjamenta were choreographed specifically to the music. Music is always in place. That suggests for us far more potential for elaborating a scenography than just adapting a piece of literature.
It also seems to be a way of distilling and condensing the original work. It goes through the filter of the musician, and then you filter it some more through images. Is that a way of avoiding too literal an interpretation of the literary source?
I think we place an immense trust in music in that it will open doors in a way a proper scenario couldn’t possibly attempt. It musicalises the way we approach everything. And it’s true that music makes you move from the word, the text, to a kind of musicalisation of space, which allows for another realm to open up, and you can do just as powerful a reading of the text without relying on Walser’s words but on the context that he sets up.
You made three short films inspired by Walser before making Benjamenta (Stille Nacht: Dramolet , Tales from Vienna Woods , and The Comb ). Did you see those films as some sort of preparation work?
Yes, because we never really thought we’d get the film off the ground. It took 10 years to make it, so they were like little stabs, forays into Walser-land. When Keith first asked us to think about it, it was around the time of Street of Crocodiles, so that was 1985, and we made the film in 1995. We then did The Comb, which really tried to map it out, because at one point we were thinking of a mixture of animation and live action. It gave us a chance to play with a bit of live action, somebody sleeping, Lisa Benjamenta.
In The Comb, there is a contrast between the real world, which is in black and white, and the animated dream world, which is in colour. Did you think of keeping that in Benjamenta?
No, not at all, because there was really no separation, it was all live action. What animation there is is totally invisible.
Why did you decide to make a purely live action film and not to have any visible animation?
It didn’t need it. We did a lot of scenes in our studio and the big set of the inner sanctum was a model, so in the live action décor they built only a walkway and a bit of the wall, and the rest was matted in. It was just us building it here in the studio out of photocopied paper – just textures! There is a sequence where the light animates up, but nobody would realise that that was animated. The set was on the floor, just on the other side of the studio. We were trying to light it with artificial light, and then one day, towards the end of the day, we were sitting here with a glass of wine and the sun passes around the corner and comes through the two buildings and we saw it creep across the floor and we said, go! We just rounded the camera and we started clicking every 3 or 4 seconds, manually, until the light came across, crept up and went up the wall. The next day, we waited for the same hour, and this time we did it every 5 seconds, and the next day every 7. And then it was cloudy for a month! But we had it in the can, it was like liquid gold, like a found object. And we realised that artificial light doesn’t have the intensity of real sunlight, so it was a really beautiful discovery.
What about the scenes where there’s a pattern of light that moves along the walls?
The director of photography, Nic Knowland, just asked one of the technicians to run on the upper floor with the light down the hallway and turn the corner!
It feels like the building is alive with this ghostly presence.
We wanted to create the idea that the school was in an imaginary setting where you’re at the edge of a forest but just on the edge of the city, where the trams move around. So you had the animal kingdom and the forest, and the urban side coming in via the trams way off in the distance, and it made it quite magical.
The work on the light and the texture of the image in Benjamenta is very impressive.
The light was pretty much written into the script. The goldfish bowl is the centre of a kind of focal plane, and when the light hits it at certain hours, it ricochets throughout, and Lisa has these erotic reveries because she knows the light comes at certain hours.
Throughout your work you have an interest in imaginary spaces.
It was all filmed in Hampton Court House, which is opposite the beautiful Hampton Court. Apparently, it’s where one of the Henrys had one of his mistresses, and there’s supposed to be a tunnel, nobody knew where it was. It’s just a dilapidated old place which was rented out to a lot of people, and when we went all the doors were marked in Russian numbers… They allowed you to do anything you wanted with it as long as you reverted it back to the state that it was. So we rented it out for a six-week shoot, we lived there on the top floor, and we built sets inside the place, so there was Lisa’s room, Herr Benjamenta’s office, the students’ room, etc.
Inside the film you create a space that opens up inside one’s self as well as downwards, and it feels like both a personal and a metaphysical journey. Is that the sort of impression you wanted to create?
We wanted to give both the banal side of being a student and the magical side of passing through a blackboard. So you have extremes from the banality to the imaginary, and that was part of the voyage that we created in this film. But it had to be almost insufferably claustrophobic at times to allow for this rupture into this inner sanctum of Lisa Benjamenta. And on to this almost neo-realist dilapidated boarding school for servants, we grafted the animal kingdom element, which allowed the fairy tale to slightly contaminate it.
So the stag imagery is both part of the animal kingdom and part of the fairy tale, right?
Yes, very much. I don’t think this particularly came from Walser, it was our own exploration. The deer has always been part of fairy tale lore.
It also seems to be connected to your interest in the fluctuating boundaries between the human and the inhuman, transmutations between the animate and the inanimate, between different realms, throughout your work.
Also, Herr Benjamenta, who, in fairy tale terminology would have been the ogre, was also the great stag deer, Lisa was the doe, and Jakob was the young princeling figure who was meant to arrive with the kiss of life for the sleeping beauty, but brings the kiss of death in a way, both to Lisa, who dies a sort of metaphysical death, and the school, which basically just implodes. And I think that Herr Benjamenta’s implication, ‘let’s go out of this life, out of this world’, is purely fairy tale, but it is a metaphysical journey, to some place, either here or…
Jakob also seems to be on a quest for nothingness, to get rid of one’s self in a way.
It’s a descent into the lower spheres, but also one that opens up potential, a release from the constraints. Normally, everyone tries to go on a journey upwards, and for Walser, going to degree zero was something that could really open up something, an otherness that could be of great value.
And you represent this visually through the circular motifs in the film.
Yes. It was a very crucial formal element. Invariably, the characters would walk around each other and the camera would constantly go in a series of circles. It was a formal way of placing the zero as a physicality as well as a mental notion.
It is a very physical film, there are moments of pure choreography and so much depends on the facial expressions of the actors, like in silent films.
Absolutely. I think that’s why in a way we all like choreography because we watch to see how shapes move through a frame and just what an expressionless face is able to transpose. You have to read it like a mask, and it’s richer than you tend to think. We all have no problem with Buster Keaton because it’s important that he traverse a world mutely with that face that doesn’t give an inch.
Were you inspired by Keaton for the film?
We told Mark Rylance to be aware of that sort of impassivity, because he didn’t have a lot of dialogue. With someone like Gottfried, you didn’t have to tell him that, he knew. He’s a remarkable actor, even in English, he’s faultless. In a way, he was the one character that, although we had written it, we hadn’t a clue how to inform, and he just knew precisely what to do. And he proposed certain scenes like the lipstick scene. We said OK, if Herr Benjamenta would do that, that’s OK with us!
Your films always work on different levels and in Benjamenta you also draw on Walser’s life. Why was it important for you to have this personal element in the film?
Because Walser was that servant, he did do that job. Also, when we first read about Walser, what attracted us was an article that said ‘Portrait of a Nobody’, and we felt that it was for us, nobody, a loser. This was absolutely ideal. You can put more of yourself in or how to elucidate the world of Walser because it is so minimalised, so it allows you to expand that with a sense of décor.
And there’s also the fact that he spent years an insane asylum, so the institute could be a reflection of that.
We had that in mind, that it was also a sort of asylum too. I think in the end we backed away from making it too much of a reference, but it was always there.
You also put in a reference to his death.
Yes, a reference to when he was found in the snow on Christmas Day. We’d shown Mark a photograph and he beautifully added a detail: he makes that gesture at the end and his hat flies off, just like in the photo.
So it was a way of condensing Walser’s life, the servant school, the asylum, the death?
Yes, exactly. And the snow, that was also important. From the beginning, Jakob says, ‘I’ll only be here for a little while until begins the snow’. And it creates this totally fairy tale-ish world. At the end of the book, they go into a desert. So we had to choose the opposite, this Alpine landscape!
What was your approach to the fairy tale element?
We chose a non-specific mode of fairy tale because we didn’t want to have signs of fairy tale-ishness, otherwise it’d look a bit fey. What we wanted was a very hard, proletariat ascent into the fairy tale. The magic is probably closer to something like Cocteau’s Orphée (1950), where suddenly you go through the mirror. That’s what Alice does, you enter another universe that is not only sound but décor. So the images were pulled down into a non-fairy tale simplicity. It was through Walser and through The Comb because he did a lot of exploration of re-telling the fairy tales. He was going through the backdoor and for us it was easier to walk through a backdoor or side door than walking through the big heavily-laden front door with ‘fairy tale’ written on it. That scared the hell out of us. He re-worked Snow White, the text is amazing and we adapted quite a bit of that into Jakob von Gunten, so it’s a real journey through Walser-land to create Benjamenta.
After Benjamenta, you made a second live action feature, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes ( 2005), but when I interviewed you about it on its release, you described it as a rather unhappy experience. You are now working on a new feature project based on Bruno Schultz’s Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, so your experience on The Piano Tuner hasn’t discouraged you from making feature films?
No, not at all. I think it’s a question of returning to what worked in Benjamenta and creating that climate again. And again making a much more visual film and not getting trapped by the Film Council’s idea that it should be dialogue-bound. I think Schultz really gives us that space, so again it’ll be an exploration of Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, but also a lot of other Schultz material that we know and feel comfortable with.
Street of Crocodiles was based on Schultz, right?
Yes, and it’s not one specific story, it’s quite a few stories.
Of course, but you have to go in the opposite direction, because it’s a very powerful and very singular rendition of Schultz, so we’ll stay well clear.
Is it daunting that there’s already a film version of that story?
There was already a film version of Jakob van Gunten that we knew. It was also pretty weird and wild. Even Careful (1992) has resonances of Jakob von Gunten. Guy Maddin is a great lover of Walser. A good text or a novel can hold a lot of interpretations. It’s like, how many people in the world of opera have a shot at doing a Mozart opera or Tchaikowsky? You just have to approach it from a different angle.
Will it be all live action?
It’ll be a mixture, 70% live action, 30% animation, something like that. Probably black and white live action and colour animation. But again, it’s up in the air, we’ll see…
You have also recently made two shorts, Inventorium of Traces (2009), inspired by Jan Potocki, and Maska (2010).
We’ve just finished a film for the Polish Institute based on Stanislaw Lem’s The Mask. The year before, we shot in Poland, we did a documentary on this castle in the south of Poland, where Jan Potocki, who wrote The Saragossa Manuscript – another book that Wojciech Has adapted – lived for a while and wrote a piece for the theatre. So Poland has been supporting us for the last two years. We’re also going to do something for the Manchester Music Festival next summer based around Bartok. It’ll be a live performance, music and images.
Is it getting more difficult to get projects made?
No, what intrigues us is to be leaping from one form to another, be it an animation film, a documentary, a dance film and then a feature film. It’s far richer than just be knocking off three features every three years, or in our case it’d be six or 10 years! The smaller format gives greater scope to keep experimenting with that form and not to approach it in a hackneyed manner. We’ve just been given a grant to do a film in a medical museum in Philadelphia. We’ve also just done a little three-minute clip for Comme des GarÃ§ons for a perfume called Wonderwood. They came to us saying, you guys know about the kingdom of wood, you write the script, you do it. They gave us total freedom – that’s pretty unheard of in the commercial world. It’s nice working with people like that because they were very trusting. In commercials they don’t ever trust anybody, they’re always telling you what to do.
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
The Golden Age of American Television – a personal history of vintage dramatic TV and a review of the Criterion Collection’s DVD set of live TV drama
I was first introduced to vintage American and British programming by virtue of the fact that my hometown of Winnipeg was so remotely situated in the Canadian Midwest that there was no cable television during the 60s. Eventually, one side of the mighty Red River got cable, but I not only lived on the wrong side of the river, but the wrong side of the tracks in the Eastern European enclave of Winnipeg’s North End.
Via rabbit-eared antennae, our Dominion’s national public network, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), was responsible for domestic product that was mostly dreadful or, at best, watchable as kitsch. Especially pathetic were game shows where grand prizes often amounted to pen and pencil sets, or Hymn Sing with its array of spiritual music, or Don Messer’s Jubilee, a variety show devoted to East Coast fiddling and trilling Irish tenors. Happily, CBC programmed some American shows as Wonderful World of Disney and, thank Christ, The Beverley Hillbillies.
The real magic was CBC’s acquisition of British programming. Before the Dominion of Canada had its own formal constitution, it was overseen by England through the British North America Act. In fact, during childhood, each school day ended (as did most public events) by singing ‘God Save The Queen’. (The Dominion, is frankly, still subservient to the monarchy, but slowly and unhappily, British traditions in Canada are now so much dust in the wind.)
Prior to the 80s, British programming on Canadian television was especially memorable, with substantial helpings of Sir Francis Drake, Til Death Us Do Part (eventually remade in America by Norman Lear as All in the Family), Danger Man (with pre-Prisoner Patrick McGoohan), the Danger Man spin-off Man in a Suitcase, all the various Gerry Anderson sci-fi puppet extravaganzas, the cooler-than-cool Roger Moore in The Saint and my favourite of all, The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring the inimitable Richard Greene and sporting a catchy theme song (parodied on Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the Dennis Moore sketch). In later years, I discovered Robin Hood had been shot entirely in 35mm with scripts written by blacklisted American writers like Waldo Salt and Ring Lardner Jr. For a brief period in the 70s and early 80s we were even treated to a portion of that magnificent explosion of British sitcoms that included Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, Man about the House, Up Pompeii, On the Buses and Steptoe and Son. A key thing to note here is that while many of the programmes were contemporary, just as many of them were vintage productions made years earlier, but we assumed they were all new shows.
Amusingly enough, the Dominion of Canada was always protectionist about shielding Canadians from American culture and instead exposed us to British programming on domestic TV. The Dominion of Canada deemed anything remotely British as ‘Canadian Content’. This went a long way in suggesting to Bohunk immigrants and the born-in-Canada Bohunk progeny of said Bohunks that this is what it means to be Canadian.
Having to always deal with the demands of Lower Canada (Quebec) and smatterings of voyageur ancestors dotted across the Dominion, Canada needed to institute an all-French-language broadcast service – thus yielding a beast known as French CBC. It was pretty useless to Winnipeggers as nobody other than the French people who lived on the other side of the Red River in the voyageur enclave of St Boniface actually spoke French. However, the one great thing about French CBC was that it played French movies. Many of these pictures offered glimpses of nudity, which, of course, was of utmost importance to 7-year-old boys (of all ages).
Television nirvana finally reached Winnipeg in the form of KCND, a tiny independent American TV station 100 miles south, on the other side of the 49th parallel. The Dominion of Canada had plenty of advertising revenue to spend and business-owners in Winnipeg lined up to feature their commercials in tandem with the razzle-dazzle programming of ‘Uncle Sam’. KCND was strictly bargain basement and not affiliated with any major network though to kids, tired of fiddlers from Newfoundland and joyful Canucks winning useless pen and pencil sets on stupid Canadian TV, KCND was… AMERICA!
All the station could afford to show were syndicated packages of older American TV programming from – you guessed it – the ‘Golden Age’ of television (50s-early 60s). Just as tantalising were packages of B-pictures – mostly horror movies on a great show called Chiller Thriller or endless Bowery Boys, Ma and Pa Kettle, Bomba the Jungle Boy, Charlie Chan, Mr Moto and other glorious second features. An entire generation of Canadians in Winnipeg, no less, were treated to Perry Mason, The Donna Reed Show, Leave it to Beaver, I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Mr Peepers, Mr Ed, The Untouchables, The Rifleman and Death Valley Days.
Many continuing American dramatic series (including sitcoms) had an anthology flavour. In one episode, you could parachute anywhere in the run and know exactly who all the main characters were. What counted were the individual anthology-styled dramas. One-off guest characters fuelled the drama. Their story was the one that often counted.
It was, however, pure anthology series linked thematically that really caught my attention – every episode had a different story and different characters, occasionally introduced by their creators. (I often wonder if anthologies were closer to feature film that way and if this accounts for my distaste in TV drama that forces us to follow a story and character arcs over more than one season.) My favourites were genre pieces like Rod Serling’s ground-breaking The Twilight Zone, the nasty and often darkly humorous Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspense and the always terrifying monster-fest The Outer Limits. Many episodes of these pure anthology series were corkers of the highest order and corkers are what I value most in drama. I need to be whacked across the face with a two-by-four. I want my insides pummelled into pemmican. I want my eyes and ears to be dazzled. Most of all, I want greatness.
For me, good became and now is, simply not good enough.
I’m a junkie.
Every fix must be more intense than the last.
There was, however, something I had yet to experience.
It was live.
And it was drama.
From the late 1940s to the late 1950s, a unique form of TV drama gripped America – live dramatic broadcasts. Some were adaptations of literary classics such as Wuthering Heights, Julius Caesar and The Turn of the Screw, but the properties that captured the imaginations of the public, critics and, most notably, sponsors were the live dramas based on original material or daring adaptations of contemporary American literature.
The productions themselves were initially based in New York and rooted in the East Coast tradition of American theatre. Sponsors assisted in substantially underwriting the costs of production. Many of the regular anthology programmes bore the names of corporations keen to align themselves with the best in cultural programming. These were companies devoted to cranking out junk food bereft of nutritional value and manufacturing products that not only contributed to the destruction of the environment, but also to the acceleration of global warming. The makers of Kraft Dinner (dried egg noodles, powdered cheese and flavour-enhancing monosodium glutamate) and Cheese Whiz (glass jars full of easy-to-spread processed cheese loaded with deadly, but delicious trans-fats) delivered Kraft Television Theatre. The largest maker of tires (when you’re done with them, just burn them or toss into ditches in the countryside) endorsed drama on The Goodyear Television Playhouse. The purveyors of a product that only Superman could bend (but needed to emit billowing clouds of poison into the air to create it) conveyed first-rate drama on the US Steel Hour.
The list goes on. (It might be of some interest to note that the great Playhouse 90 was based in Hollywood and was financed not by a single sponsor, but several. This worked nicely until the national lobby group representing all the companies supplying the fuel needed for most of the gas ovens in America decided to advertise on the live broadcast of Judgment at Nuremberg. This forced the network to bleep out references to ”gas ovens” and ‘gas chambers’. Sponsor-based censorship was finally rearing its ugly head and soon, this programme became the last live dramatic anthology series.
Live TV drama offered much in the way of greatness and especially developed a way of creating drama that was unique and exciting and, which, due to its high costs, will probably never happen again. In its heyday, the live TV production team and cast had anywhere from two to six weeks (and anywhere in between) to extensively rehearse performance, blocking, lighting and camera moves, and then… on whatever night the broadcast was to happen, with frayed nerves all round, the drama was performed live – replete with all the brilliance and glitches that come from the immediacy of such performances.
One of the special features on the Criterion Collection DVD The Golden Age of Television is a John Frankenheimer interview. He notes that every director he knew personally during the period, including himself, suffered severe back problems for the rest of their lives due to the indescribable tension a director went through during a live show. Directors, in spite of the extensive rehearsal, were responsible for making decisions regarding the camera switching (almost always three cameras). Standing at the ready, the directors needed to allow for actors not hitting marks, dropping lines or even taking advantage of miraculous moments that happened when the camera was rolling and a look, a gesture and/or a shot nobody counted on was too astounding NOT to be captured.
When a live show would prove to be extremely popular, it required a complete re-mount weeks or months later (in order to preserve the purity of a live performance). Due to the substantial time differences between the East and West Coasts of America, the Western audiences were provided with a kinescope of the live production. The kinescope was created when a 16mm camera was aimed at the best monitor available and the live programme was literally filmed off a TV screen.
Thank God for kinescopes. These live broadcasts were seen once and once only. In fact, after the initial broadcast and subsequent West Coast kinescope presentation, these works of art were never seen again – at least not until the 80s when the Public Broadcasting Corporation of America (PBS) secured, re-mastered and presented kinescopes on a limited series entitled The Golden Age of Television.
This PBS series also featured introductions from American actors and interviews with many of the living participants of the original live dramas (included on Criterion’s DVD, with new material also). Criterion is making these shows available to audiences who will see these masterpieces for the first time ever.
For my money, there isn’t a loser in the bunch.
Blending radio drama with live theatre and cinematic techniques (along with those of live television itself), the productions are a perfect example of cusp-period artistic expression. As Guy Maddin explores in his continued re-imagining of that glorious cusp-period of film history – the part-talkie – we are, with these live television dramas, reminded of the fact that so many vocabularies of visual storytelling were never quite given an opportunity to last long. While one is grateful they didn’t overstay their welcome, one also wonders how many great works were NOT made in the mediums of film and television due to rapid technological advancements leaving certain approaches to storytelling behind in favour of offering something ‘new’ and ‘improved’.
In this Criterion package, one of the best examples of cusp-period technique is Bang the Drum Slowly. Adapting Mark Harris’s novel, it tells the story of Henry (Paul Newman) and Bruce (Albert Salmi), respective pitcher and catcher for the New York Mammoths baseball team. Henry is a dreamboat-star of the highest order – equally beloved by fans and players alike – and geeky Bruce is the object of derision from most of his fellow players. When Henry learns Bruce is dying from an incurable disease, he is obligated to keep it to himself (lest Bruce be dropped from the roster), thus allowing his pal to finish out the rest of his short life with dignity and on the baseball diamond.
From the beginning, scriptwriter Arnold (And the Band Played On, Tucker: The Man and His Dream) Schulman and director Daniel (A Raisin in the Sun, Fort Apache – The Bronx) Petrie had their work cut out for them. How to translate a tale that spans two baseball seasons, numerous locations (including dugout action) and a huge cast during one live hour of drama is the challenge. Ultimately, it’s handled with the kind of originality and efficiency that only this cusp-period method of visual drama could tackle.
The beginning of the drama is pure simplicity. Henry approaches the camera and speaks directly into it – introducing himself as the ‘writer’ of the story about to unfold, politely informing the audience of its scope and asking them to use their imaginations in order to run free with the drama to truly appreciate it. All of this is delivered in character and as the drama progresses; Henry is our guide through the story. While his eyes become our eyes, he still holds his own as a character of complexity. And most of all, I love the idea of a drama literally telling us to use our imaginations – a brave, bold move I wish we could see more of.
The performances are first-rate. Albert Salmi as the dying catcher finds just the right balance between good humour, earnestness, dopiness and down-home likeability – he’s Lenny from Of Mice and Men, but armed with a catcher’s glove (and playing off perfectly against Henry, who is equally Steinbeck-like, a pragmatic, yet compassionate ‘George’ figure).
It’s no surprise how impossible it is to keep one’s eyes off the smouldering Paul Newman. It’s a star-making turn but the very cusp-medium approach allows us to behold Newman deliver a stunning monologue after Bruce dies. Newman is so moving, that I dare anyone to experience this final address direct to the camera and not shed more than a few tears – not just for the gorgeously rendered words he speaks, but the sheer virtuosity of his performance.
A Wind from the South, also directed by Daniel Petrie, features an exquisite performance from Julie Harris as the spinster-ish Shevawn who contentedly runs a guesthouse in the Irish countryside, living vicariously through the lives, travels and adventures of all those who pass through her doors. When a disillusioned, American business executive makes a stopover, they both discover their mutual passion and need for love. Harris is so warm, lovely, delicate and controlled that she commands the screen for the full hour. She also handles writer James (Love among the Ruins) Costigan’s rich romanticism with exactly the sort of restraint necessary to bring it into the realm of the poetic.
A different sort of poetry is displayed in No Time for Sergeants, a strange little comedy featuring the screen debut of Andy Griffith as a naÃ¯ve, dim-witted, corn-pone philosopher who gets drafted into the army with a cheery optimism that borders on a pathological refusal to acknowledge anything that is in the least way negative. Griffith, prior to this, was performing in live one-man shows that were part stand-up comedy and part semi-autobiographical performance art. To place someone with no on-camera experience in a live drama beaming to millions was especially daring, but it paid off beautifully. It made Griffith a star and he followed this up with his astounding performance in A Face in the Crowd and the long-running television sitcom The Andy Griffith Show. The screenplay adaptation by Ira (Rosemary’s Baby) Levin, allowed for the main character to walk right up to the camera and address the audience face to face. What is often looked upon as a cheat and/or lazy writing is, in fact, as visually compelling as the flashiest camera pyrotechnics.
Delbert Mann’s live television direction of Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty is also revelatory in displaying the simple power of great writing and acting. Rod Steiger plays a lonely butcher who lives with his mother. He has no prospects of ever marrying. When he meets a plain young woman in a dance hall, they hit it off and, for the first time, he might have found love.
Many live TV dramas were remade as theatrical features and the Academy Award-winning version of Marty starring Ernest Borgnine is what most people are familiar with. While that picture is not without merit, it’s this version that brings out the best of Chayefsky’s writing – so much so that the humanity and tenderness of the characters and dialogue makes us wonder why he never explored this side of himself in addition to his usually acerbic sledgehammer satires (Network, The Hospital). And, while to some, this might be blasphemy, one also wonders why the makers of the theatrical feature version didn’t do everything in their power to retain Rod Steiger in the title role.
One of the things that make this TV version work is Steiger. Sure, Borgnine is Borgnine, but in addition to his girth and everyman qualities, he also has that lasciviously tongue-wagging butt-ugly mug that’s more suited to a Peckinpah picture. Each time Borgnine comes on screen, he looks like he’s more interested in taking the lead on a train pull or gang rape. Steiger, on the other hand, with his soulful eyes, beefy jowls and hangdog expression is the epitome of Marty.
To see this sad schlub, sitting at home, waiting for the phone to ring (a brilliant reverse on the usual female version of this scene), breaks our hearts. When Steiger, on the verge of tears, holds back sobs when he talks about his need for love, he is so truthful that I was compelled to squirt geysers of tears at the telly. This production, once again, perfectly represents the power of live television drama – it’s often about the writing and the performances.
Direction, however, never takes a back seat. It’s the directors who ultimately shine in terms of using this unique cusp-medium to bring out the best in the material and their actors. The legendary John (The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds, Birdman of Alcatraz) Frankenheimer interprets JP Miller’s astonishing screenplay for Days of Wine and Roses with such mastery that seldom have we been dragged through the horrifying depths of alcoholism as we are in this production. Blending live studio action with pre-taped sequences, we bop around between Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, detox sequences and harrowing booze binges.
Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie are riveting as the married couple who seek solace in booze – desperately trying to claw through the muck of their marriage, swinging back and forth from sobriety to drop-dead drunkenness. Watching in flashback, we see the ultra-successful ad executive who uses booze to entertain his clients to a point where booze becomes his one true love. This is astonishingly frank, even by contemporary standards. Seeing him hook his young wife to the bottle so she can share in his joys of inebriation is positively horrific.
Frankenheimer delivers a rollercoaster ride of despair using techniques that seem to be striving for cinematic, big-screen qualities – making the drama lifelike by being bigger than life. This production is, in fact, so great, one can only wonder why the mediocre Blake Edwards was entrusted with the eventual film version, which is not without its moments (notably in Jack Lemmon’s interpretation of the role handled by Robertson in the TV version), but lacks the verve of Frankenheimer’s rendering.
Frankenheimer also delivers the goods with the revelatory production entitled The Comedian. From a novella by Ernest (North by Northwest, Sweet Smell of Success) Lehman and powerfully adapted by Rod Serling, this is, without question, one of the most harrowing dramatic show business exposés ever committed to film/tape/kinescope. Again, it is the simplicity of the basic premise that creates layers of complexity for both director and cast to drag us through the muck of nastiness and corruption.
Using everything at his disposal, Frankenheimer pulls off some kind of miracle. Bouncing from location to location and including – I kid you not – montage and the horrendous visual anchor of an oversized photo of the leering monster of the title, Frankenheimer is indeed a director at the pinnacle of his power. The opening sequence is a rehearsal of a live comedy broadcast and cuts between the performance itself, the master control booth and behind-the-scenes action. Within a live TV drama, Frankenheimer actually recreates the making of a live TV extravaganza. How cool is that?
Mickey Rooney plays Sammy Hogarth, a hugely popular TV comic making the leap from a half-hour show to a full 90-minute special. Hogarth demands more than perfection – he demands worship from all his collaborators. He is, without question, one of the most grotesque, repugnant characters in 20th-century drama. Much of this is due to Rooney. His performance is truly a revelation. While I always admired his work as a child actor in the numerous Rooney-Garland musicals and his moving portrait of the wartime telegram delivery boy in The Human Comedy, nothing could have ever prepared me for his performance in this mean-spirited drama. Rooney’s hurricane-like command of every scene he’s in is so powerful that even when he’s off-screen, his influence over all the supporting characters is not only felt, but it’s as if he’s in the same room with them – poking, prodding, cajoling, haranguing and tearing strips off everyone’s back.
The people most susceptible to his nastiness are his long-time gag writer with a bad case of writer’s block (Edmond O’Brien, the revenge-bent everyman from the great noir D.O.A.) and his brother, a weak, whining simpleton – originally promised the job of producer, but reduced to Sammy’s slave and bearing the biggest brunt of the comic’s ire.
Playing Sammy’s brother is the legendary crooner Mel Torme, whose career in movies was mostly reserved for second banana roles in musicals. Torme is downright snivelling, so pathetically subservient to his older brother that we initially feel sorry for him, but his subsequent actions are so appalling that he ultimately appears as little more than a cretin. It’s a great performance and one can only wonder why we never saw more of Torme on the big screen in roles to rival this one.
Kim Hunter (Stella in Elia Kazan’s version of A Streetcar Named Desire and, lest we forget, Zira, the cute female chimp in Planet of the Apes) plays Torme’s long-suffering wife, who is fed up with how pathetic her husband is and demands he stand up to Sammy. Like everyone in this drama, though, she eventually puts herself in an utterly degrading position to get what she wants.
Oh yeah, did I mention that Edmond O’Brien’s character is so desperate to drag himself out of his writer’s block that he plagiarises the un-used work of a dead comedy writer?
Well, here’s the other revelation – this is ultimately the story of an utter monster who turns everything and everyone around him into bottom-feeding, soul-bereft plankton and yet, like so many live dramatic television broadcasts of the period, the programme sizzled in terms of audience and critical response.
It was based on a work by Ernest Lehman that bears more than a passing resemblance to the nasty feature film Sweet Smell of Success, but at least that story had Tony Curtis’s charming press agent Sidney Falco. Nobody, but nobody, has anything resembling charm in The Comedian. (Interestingly, veteran character actor Whit Bissell delivers a great performance in The Comedian as sleazy gossip columnist Otis Elwell, a character from Sweet Smell of Success.)
Within the Criterion special features, Kim Hunter unfairly suggests that Serling’s writing for men was far superior to his writing for women. Looking at the Serling pieces in this collection, I take strong exception to this. Granted, Serling was obsessed with exploring the innate warrior heart of men in a contemporary peacetime setting, and given the era these pieces were written, it makes perfect sense. The female characters offer support rather than take the lead, but the writing is rich and vibrant. And certainly, The Twilight Zone features some of the strongest female characters of that period.
Serling’s primary interest, it is true, was telling two-fisted tales of men on the battleground of life. Decidedly two-fisted was his script Requiem for a Heavyweight. Nicely directed by Ralph Nelson, Serling etched the story of boxer Mountain McLintock (Jack Palance), a former contender for Heavyweight Champion of the World who is so punch-drunk that the Boxing Commission doctor informs his manager Maish (Keenan Wynn) that he can’t allow Mountain to fight anymore. Maish is devastated. He’s secretly placed a bet against Mountain with the mob, betting his boy will fall in the third. Alas, for Maish, Mountain takes seven rounds of punishment and Maish is into the mob for thousands of dollars.
Mountain is at wit’s end; boxing has been his whole life. When he visits an employment office he pours his guts out to a sympathetic job counsellor (Kim Hunter) who sincerely believes Mountain can contribute to society working with kids in the field of athletics. Maish, however, has other plans for our hero. He decides to commit Mountain to a series of pathetic wrestling matches. It’s easy money, but hardly a dignified way for a former heavyweight contender to earn a living.
Thanks to both Serling’s brutal dialogue and Jack Palance’s visceral, moving performance, Requiem for a Heavyweight is extremely harrowing. Mountain faces a life drowning his sorrows in booze and trading exaggerated fight tales with other punch-drunk (and just plain drunk) former boxers. We’re forced into Mountain’s perspective as he peers through a beer glass into a mirror that shows how the rest of his life could be spent. It’s a story of exploitation, loyalty and finally, seeking a way out, and so doing, finding both redemption and a new future.
As dark as it is, Serling deftly wends his way to an ending replete with hope – it’s neither cheap, nor shoehorned. It’s perfectly natural, and for once, we get a story that has its cake and eats it too – dragging us through muck, but subtly pointing to a glimmer of a new life. There’s a slight ambiguity to it, but by the end, we’re grateful that Serling has not drowned the heavyweight in complete and total despair. There is, at least, a chance to clamber out of the pit, and that, ultimately, is worth its weight in gold.
Last, but surely not least, this truly great Criterion Collection of live dramas leads us to even more gold. Rod Serling’s script for Patterns might be the most savage work in the bunch. Set against the nasty backdrop of corporate roulette, we are witness to the decimation of a kindly, old-fashioned company man, Andy Sloane (Ed Begley), at the hands of Ramsey (Everett Sloane), a fierce CEO bent on tossing out the old and bringing in Fred Staples (Richard Kiley), the new, a lean up-and-comer to replace Andy.
We watch in horror as the shark-like Ramsey unrelentingly berates Andy in front of everyone. However, when fresh-faced rookie Staples realises the worth of the old man, he decides to work with him instead of against him. Not only does this raise Ramsey’s ire, but it forces him to manipulate things so old Andy looks bad while Staples shines.
When Staples moves in for the kill he rips Andy limb from limb, leading to the ultimate deathblow. Young Staples, appalled and in protest, resigns. Ramsey will have none of it. What poor old Andy refused to do was fight back, but what Ramsey wants is an executive who will fight him tooth and nail and, if necessary, slice his throat as handily as he sliced Andy’s. This, according to Ramsey, is what makes good business.
Staples considers, then agrees to stay, but only if the terms of his right to decimate Ramsey are written into his contract, including the right to fulfil old Andy’s dream to physically beat Ramsey to a pulp. Ramsey, looking like he has the biggest hard-on of his life, agrees. These are, after all, the patterns of manhood, the patterns of business – teamwork based on warfare and pure warfare for the good of the corporation.
Serling is on a soapbox, but the script never obviously betrays this fact. The dialogue crackles with authenticity and like the best of these dramas, Patterns is pure post-war American nastiness. The desperation, so common in post-war film noir, transforms into vicious warfare.
The work of artists like Serling, who had seen military action, is fraught with the sort of raw-edged, uncompromising, take-no-prisoners attitude. (A short list of such filmmakers would include Samuel Fuller, Sam Peckinpah, Frank Capra, Oliver Stone and John Ford – good company!) Having served in the Philippines during the Second World War – where death surrounded him constantly – Serling used his life experience and writing skills whenever he could to promote social consciousness (and certainly, his obsession with death was more than apparent in his brilliant anthology series The Twilight Zone).
Patterns, of course, deals with a number of issues – the most important being the shift from old-style corporate ethics and responsibilities towards workers and consumers to the bottom-line mentality of protecting the corporation’s profits and garnering the widest possible margin for the shareholders. Within these thematic concerns lies the true drama of the piece – an old man being repeatedly scavenged like so much carrion, yet with a few breaths left, he holds, so desperately with dear life, to a mere shred of his dignity. The drama of Rod Serling’s Patterns becomes so harrowing one can hardly believe such emotional truth and maturity could exist on a television screen.
Yet it does.
At least in that twilight zone called The Golden Age of American Television.
From the Dominion of Canada,
On the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula,
I bid you a hearty:
Based on the novel A Hell of a Woman by: Jim Thompson
Cast: Patrick Dewaere, Andreas Katsulas, Myriam Boyer, Bernard Blier, Marie Trintignant
There is no non-diegetic sound in Série noire, and yet there is music almost constantly (especially in the first half). When Franck Poupart (Patrick Dewaere) isn’t singing in his car, or singing drunk with Tikides (Andreas Katsulas) in his flat, there is the radio. And the radio is like a character all of its own. In the very first scene, we see Franck alone with his car in La Zone, the wastelands beyond the city, dancing with the radio in his arms to Duke Ellington’s ‘Moonlight Fiesta’.
Alain Corneau transposes Jim Thompson’s harebrained tale of love, larceny and multiple personality disorder A Hell of a Woman to the Parisian banlieue. With the change in setting comes also a change of rhythm, from Thompson’s frantic hard-boiled Americana to the quickened pulse of late 70s urban France. Novelist George Perec’s dialogue, itself a kind of wild music composed of rapid-fire fragments of verlan and argot, is syncopated to the rhythms of French disco.
The film then becomes a kind of extended riff on Noel Coward’s thesis on the potency of cheap music, the songs acting sometimes in ironic counterpoint to the action – as in the use of Dalida’s Francophone Cockney knees-up ‘Le Lambeth Walk’ behind a tense scene in the office of Franck’s boss in which he airs his growing suspicions – at other times heightening the tragic pathos of the scene – Boney M’s ‘Rivers of Babylon’ as the young girl Mona (Marie Trintignant), prostituted by her aunt, strips for Franck.
Sometimes the choice of songs seems even to predict the action. As Franck fights with his wife, Jeanne (Myriam Boyer), in the bathroom we hear Sheila B Devotion’s ‘Kennedy Airport’, as if to suggest that Jeanne’s mind is already made up to leave – and that soon after she leaves she will start to think about returning (we hear the song one more time, later in the film, immediately before their relationship comes to a tragic end). But it is ‘Moonlight Fiesta’ that seems to represent the utopian element of the film. Both opening and closing the picture, it offers a glimmer of hope, the chance of escape, amidst the grim squalor of the banlieue.
Having spent his childhood shuttling between his dad’s flat in Austin, Texas, and his mum’s rentals in LA, screenwriter and novelist Ryan David Jahn ditched school at 16 for a job in a record shop and then headed off to join the army. Demobbed and glad to put that ‘ludicrous experience’ behind him, he used the hours spent reading James M Cain, Carver, Chandler and Stephen King in public libraries to good effect in Acts of Violence, his blood-drenched, contemporary noir debut. Based on a real-life crime – the killing of Kitty Genovese outside her New York apartment in 1964 – it explores the ‘bystander theory’ from multiple perspectives. His latest book, Low Life, is just as powerful – a tightly plotted, psychologically astute existential investigation of identity, murder and memory. Here he wonders what it would be like to be Jim Thompson. EITHNE FARRY
If it included having to live his life, no one thinking clearly would want to be Jim Thompson. The years of obscurity, the alcoholism that resulted in frequent hospitalisations, the money trouble, the strokes, and the anonymous death with his career at its nadir and every one of his books out of print: that’s not a life anyone would choose.
But if one could just be Jim Thompson the writer, that’s a different matter. Sitting at his typewriter he was fearless. He would not hold back. Most people can’t be completely honest with their shrink; Jim Thompson put his psyche on every page for the world to see. And more: he was entertaining as hell while he did so.
I think of Savage Night, in which the protagonist/narrator Charles ‘Little’ Bigger recounts meeting a man who claimed to grow sexual organs, ‘the more interesting portions of the female anatomy’, on a farm in Vermont:
‘I fertilize them with wild goat manure,’ he said. ‘The goats are tame to begin with, but they soon go wild. The stench, you know. I feed them on the finest grade grain alcohol, and they have their own private cesspool to bathe in. But nothing does any good. You should see them at night when they stand on their heads, howling.’
I think of the end of that same novel, when the goats return, and how it makes even the end of Cain’s Double Indemnity seem positively optimistic by comparison.
I think of the mad hell Doc and Carol McCoy find themselves in at the end of The Getaway, when they finally arrive in El Rey, towards which they’ve been running for the length of the novel. It’s a madness not even Peckinpah had the courage to try to capture on film.
With a sunny pop loveliness, Allo Darlin’s songs just jump out at you in the way that the very best tunes do. Watch Elizabeth play the ukulele and with a wiggle of your hips and a tapping of your toes you are transported to a livelier world with intelligent, funny lyrics and songs about Polaroids and Woody Allen. They also pepper some of their tunes with snippets of well-known songs, like ‘You’re the One That I Want’ from Grease… Their film choices are interesting too, with an emphasis on childhood favourites. Elizabeth Morris (singer, ukulele player), Paul Rains (guitar), Bill Botting (bass) and Michael Collins (drums) tell us what cinematic works inspire them. Allo Darlin’s debut album is out on Fortuna Pop! now. For more information, go to the Allo Darlin’ page on the Fortuna Pop! webiste or their MySpace. LUCY HURST
1. Muriel’s Wedding (1994)
It’s slightly weird that my two favourite films both have soundtracks that feature Abba quite heavily but maybe it makes perfect sense. I can see similarities between the two of them. Muriel’s Wedding is an Australian classic and is pretty depressing but also defiant and joyous and funny. I relate to it because I come from a pretty small town in the Australia countryside like Porpoise Spit in the film. All the characters that must seem pretty kitsch to anyone else actually seem real to me – people have overblown personalities in small towns. I can relate to the freedom of moving to the big city – Sydney in Muriel’s case, London in mine. The friendship between the two girls is so genuine it reduces me to tears every time, especially when they sing the Abba songs. It’s absolutely amazing.
2. Together (2000) Together, by Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodyson, is set in a commune in Stockholm in the 1970s. Like Muriel’s Wedding, Together is essentially about friendship. It sounds so stupid when I write it here but the thing I love most about this film is the importance of sticking together – of being together. It captures something I can’t quite put into words but I love the characters so much and it is both very funny and really sad at the same time. It’s perfect and I would watch it every day if I could.
3. The Muppet Movie (1979) / The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
I really can’t decide between these two as one of my favourite films, they’re both part of the trilogy of 80s Muppet films. Both were a massive part of my childhood, so early on that I can’t remember which I saw first. I think The Great Muppet Caper is actually the better film. It’s a heist movie where Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear play a pair of reporters struggling to keep their jobs, so they follow a suspected jewellery thief from New York to London to get a big scoop. The opening sequence has old-school full credits with a tracking shot of Muppets in a descending hot air balloon with accompanying commentary. As with the TV show, both dive in and out of the fictional world and self-knowingly play with their fabrication. The film provides comedy opportunities galore, including a great scene with John Cleese in The Great Muppet Caper. I think The Muppet Movie has better songs. There’s also a fantastic super-villain who owns a restaurant chain called French Fried Frogs Legs. There is a superbly executed cycling Kermit, so it’s hard to choose between them. Jim Henson was a puppet genius, so no CGI needed here.
4. The Big Lebowski (1998)
This isn’t considered the best Coen Brothers film but it’s my favourite. With a fabulous cast – Steve Buscemi in particular – and a fantastic soundtrack, it is THE film to drink White Russians to. The film introduced me to one of my favourite Bob Dylan songs, ‘The Man in Me’, as featured in the fabulous dream sequence with The Dude flying through the air. It’s incredibly funny, the bowling scenes especially, and I really love how the whole thing is essentially about nothing. Great.
5. Watership Down (1978)
I first saw this film at Christmas at my Nana and Papa’s house in Norwich. I don’t think I could describe it as a positive experience but I wanted to include something that had really affected my life. I was six at the time and didn’t see the film to its conclusion, I couldn’t get past Big Wig sacrificing himself in the warren, it terrified me. For nearly eight years I had nightmares about that scene. At the time I had no idea who Art Garfunkel was but ‘Bright Eyes’ is a melody that is permanently etched in my memory.
6. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
I wanted to include light alongside the heaviness of my first choice. My friend Thom once classed this type of film as a ‘pudding film’ and I can’t think of a better way to describe it. It’s something that you know you don’t need, or maybe even want, but something that you crave from time to time and can watch over and over again. I put it on when I want to be transported somewhere beyond reality. It’s ridiculous and I love it for that reason. At the same time, he is a super-hero you can believe in and, like me, is terrified of snakes! I want to be as cool and caring as Indiana.
7. The Blues Brothers (1980)
I have seen this film hundreds of times. I love it. First of all, it’s fucking funny. Proper 70s Saturday Night Live funny, with an awesome cast and amazing dialogue. There is one of the greatest car chase scenes ever – in the mall and then from the Palace Hotel Ballroom to the tax office in Chicago. They trashed so many cars. It’s beautiful, nobody does that anymore, do they? Most of all there’s the music; Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, James Brown, John Lee Hooker, Booker T and The MG’s and then of course Jake and Elwood. It’s fun. It’s soooo much fun. John Candy is great as the affable cop, Carrie Fisher is a gorgeous and hilarious jilted bride, Frank Oz also delivers one of the greatest lines ever – ‘One unused prophylactic…. one soiled’.
8. The Three Amigos (2003)
Every Easter, my family would go on holiday to Bribie Island in Queensland, Australia. The best thing about Easter for me (and this includes all the chocolate) was renting The Three Amigos from Video 2000, the local rental place. I can sing The Three Amigos song in full – including the really long note. I can also do the Amigo salute! There are so many great gags too, like the singing bush and the invisible horseman. Also, I think that Martin Short is like the Barry Manilow of comedy – he’s not all great but he’s done some great stuff.
9. Ghostbusters (1984))
We could have picked any of the great Bill Murray movies, Lost In Translation, Broken Flowers, The Life Aquatic, Rushmore, etc. In Ghostbusters, he is the icing on the cake in a film that we all grew up with as children of the 80s, being scared of the library scene and not much else. At that age, it looked liked the coolest thing you could possibly do with your life if you were brave enough to become a real Ghostbuster. The effects still stand up too, in a Ghostbustery kind of way. Again it’s one of those kids’ films that it’s possible to enjoy as an adult beyond it being pure nostalgia. Incidentally, we just hunted down and ate Twinkies in New York and they were fucking disgusting.
10. Back to the Future (1985))
Marty McFly has to date his own mum – that’s the kind of wrongness you just don’t get in films anymore. He’s a cool, funny, smart guy who can teach his dad how to deal with bullies, skateboard like a motherfucker and play the guitar just like he’s ringing a bell. Doc Brown is a plutonium-thieving, terrorist-provoking mad scientist with a really, really cool car. Time travel has been covered by so many films but never so beautifully as in this one. And Huey Lewis is in it – and Crispin Glover – and actually Marty’s mum is pretty cute.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews