There’s an old adage, ‘everything old is new again’, the reverse of which is ‘everything new is old before long’, and the depiction of the future on screen constantly moves between these two states. In UK cinemas over the past few weeks, lucky audiences could have seen a preview (at FrightFest) of the new Chinese horror film Dream Home (Wai dor lei ah yut ho) – which one could easily sum up as ‘Cantonese Psycho‘ as it continues some of the themes, in particular psychotic reactions to consumerism, that define Brett Easton Ellis’s seminal work – and a restored version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) in the longest cut to have been made available for over 80 years.
Metropolis (reconstructed and restored) was out in UK cinemas on Sept 10 and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray by Eureka Entertainment on November 22. Dream Home will be released in UK cinemas on November 12 by Network Releasing.
Dream Home is not science fiction because it is set in the recent past and ‘based upon a true story’, but if it had been made 10 or 20 years ago and set in 2008, it would have been classified as SF. This may seem like a ridiculous thing to say as every film set in the present would have been seen as sci-fi by viewers if they had seen it a decade early, but Dream Home continues SF themes of overcrowding and ‘future-shock’ postulated by JG Ballard, Harry Harrison and the writers of various Judge Dredd strips in the British comic 2000AD. What’s more, by being set in an ultra-modern Asian city, it follows in the footsteps of SF films like Alphaville (1965), World on a Wire (Welt am Draht, 1973) and Code 46 (2003), where the filmmakers used footage of new, unfamiliar architectural developments to create an appearance of the future.
On the other hand, Metropolis is both a vision of the future and a historical artefact. Created in 1927, it was the most expensive film ever made at the time, costing 5 million Reichsmark (ironically the same amount in Hong Kong dollars that the dream home, a desirable waterfront flat, of the above film is priced at) and even today, the astonishing sets, huge cast and beautiful model work show a budget well spent. Needless to say, the film’s vision of the future hasn’t yet become reality; latticed roads in the sky, an underclass of subterranean workers and zeppelins have become sci-fi clichés since its creation, shorthand for the future as much as jet packs and laser guns. However, like all beguiling visions of times to come, Metropolis extrapolated elements of its present to predict what might come to pass.
The Wieliczka salt mine in Poland, begun in the 11th century, contains vast chambers and even a chapel, grander than the one shown in Metropolis, while the Merkers salt mine became notorious in the 1940s when it was discovered to contain Nazi plunder, and Getty images from the time show vast industrialised caverns that would allow movement of hundreds of workers. Although Metropolis shows the exploitation of the workers by the ruling class (shown as fit Aryan specimens) it also concludes that they need to work together, and the anti-capitalist message of the film co-exists with scenes of exalted crowds equally ready to blindly follow a saintly leader and her destructive double, which anticipate Nazi Germany. The ambiguous story was developed by director Fritz Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou, who wrote the screenplay, and they separated in 1931 after she joined the Nazi party.
The ‘new’ footage added to the current print of the film varies between pristine 35mm and extremely grainy 16mm and the later reinforces the perception that this is a historical document – a preservation of the future imagined at the beginning of the 20th century. The success of Metropolis led to a brief flurry of imitators – the British High Treason (1929) and the American Just Imagine (1930) – which featured similar model work for their crowded urban landscapes, with scores of flying machines weaving between the buildings, video phones and teeming masses lining the streets below. Both these English-language knock-offs foolishly named a date for their visions of the future – High Treason was somewhat ambitiously set in 1950 and concerns a peace movement bizarrely using terrorism to achieve its aims, while Just Imagine is located in 1980s New York, and in terms of the number of skyscrapers per square mile got closer to the future, now past, that it predicted.
The British are the unsung heroes of futuristic landscapes. Before we skip ahead to the British-directed Blade Runner (1982), High Treason was followed by Things to Come (1936), which delineates the future history of London over the next century, while The Time Machine (1960) shows the destruction, recreation and destruction again of London over the next 80,000 years. Both films oscillate between utopia and dystopia, as is the case of much science fiction, and relay social historian HG Wells’s concerns about the future of mankind being inextricably linked with endless war. All of these early British SF epics continue the tradition of fantastical set building instead of basing their vision on reality and so have become quaint in their depictions of the future.
Social realism in the cinema brought with it social realism in science fiction. As I mentioned at the start, Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire based their visions of the future on the present, a convincing approach since unless the world gets temporarily destroyed by an apocalypse (as suggested by Wells) before being rebuilt, elements of present architecture will persevere into the future. Godard and Fassbinder chose unfamiliar locations to create their futures and even though these have now also become historical documents, there is a certain frisson in seeing these locations as they represented the shock of the new at the time and were perceived to be as dehumanising as any futuristic construction. It’s very telling that George Romero would set his second zombie movie – Dawn of the Dead (1978) – in an abandoned shopping mall, also the set (albeit on a different continent) of some of the scenes of World on a Wire. All of these films see their protagonists separated from the mindless ‘other’ – virtual reality drones, computer brainwashed, living dead – by endless panes of glass and walls of concrete, the most iconically modern of building materials.
Godard also set a precedent for the private detective – a character who always seems more at home in the alienating city than the desolate landscape beyond – as the ideal protagonist for speculative fiction scenarios. Godard poached his from an existing series: Eddie Constantine had been playing Lemmy Caution on screen since 1953 in such lurid dramas as Poison Ivy (1953) and Diamond Machine (1955) and would continue to do so until a couple of years before his death in 1993, one last time for Godard in Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991). Although not specifically described as private detectives, the protagonist of World on a Wire and the titular Blade Runner are also investigating city-based murders while the empathic insurance investigator of Code 46 is investigating fraud in a company that allows people to travel freely between cities surrounded by hostile environments.
Blade Runner was partially set-bound, a quality that allowed director Ridley Scott to needlessly shoot new scenes for his ‘final cut’ in 1997, but also used some very recognisable places such as the Bradbury Building, a famous LA noir location used in Double Indemnity (1944) and D.O.A. (1950) as well as a 1972 horror TV movie The Night Strangler. Like Metropolis, The Time Machine and various Judge Dredd strips, The Night Strangler suggested humans or sub-human creatures might live in an underground metropolis as one city gets built over the ruins of another. These are cities that are constantly retrofitted, abandoned and restored as if these old skyscrapers and brownstones might become the reclaimed caves of the future, barely habitable but still capable of supporting some semblance of life.
The ruinations of these now century-old cities are taken to their logical conclusion in films like Planet of the Apes (1968) its sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) – another home of underground sub-humans – and A.I. (2001), where New York is submerged beneath land and ice respectively. Godard’s location of choice doesn’t escape this fate either, shown submerged beneath 60 feet of sand in the charming time travel comedy Peut-Ãªtre (1999), and when the desert hasn’t claimed the city itself, it has laid the suburbs to waste in Mad Max beyond Thunderdome (1985), Judge Dredd (1995) and Code 46. Unlike previous examples of silicon attrition on film, Code 46 doesn’t rely on outré sets to convey the futuristic and strange but rather creates a city that is both current and forward-looking by combining shots from a variety of global cities, folded into the structure of Shanghai, a city that like Hong Kong in Dream Home already has a retro-futuristic look to it. Needless to say, it comes as no surprise that many commentators compare Blade Runner‘s LA of 2019 to the Tokyo of the present day.
The city of the future reflects the aesthetics, concerns and zeitgeist of the present. It is informed by what looks futuristic to us now and what can be retrofitted to look impervious to (or victim of) the ravages of time. Films made in the 1970s but set in the 22nd century still look like the 1970s due to the clothes that the characters wear, but who’s to say that people in the future won’t wear the fashions of the future as predicted by people of the past, as kids watch the likes of Star Trek (1966-69) and Logan’s Run (1976) and think silver mini-skirts are cool?
Cinematic cities have a prophetic nature not only through the work of the people involved in the movies themselves – Blade Runner owes a debt to the original Metropolis through special effects supervisor David Dryer’s model work – but also the greater aesthetic environment of the times they are made. Code 46‘s architectural mash-up may be partially down to finance and expediency but ‘futuristic’ cities being built now in the United Arab Emirates show architectural influence from around the world and even a touch of sci-fi fantasy to boot. The sci-fi city is therefore a city of the now, a city of the then and a city of what always will be, but those of us who are going to spend our lives living in the city of the future will just have to make sure there’s a decent stock of kinetically charged torches in the cupboard for when the lights go out.
Cast: Mark Alan, Corey Feldman, Tara Leigh, Stuart Pankin, Tony Todd
3 x 10 mins
Splatter is a new three-part mini-series directed by Joe Dante and produced by Roger Corman, starting on the Horror Channel Friday 24 September at 22:55. Episode one will have its UK TV premiere on that date, after which the audience will vote on which character should be killed in the next episode (via the Horror Channel website). This means that the versions of episodes two and three broadcast in the UK may turn out to be completely different from those shown previously on American TV. To understand the mechanics of interactive storytelling, Alex Fitch spoke to director Joe Dante about the series.
Alex Fitch: Splatter is about to premiere in the UK, and it’s interesting that the last time we spoke it was at a screening of your first film, The Movie Orgy, at the Cine-Excess cult cinema festival. While Splatter is very new, it also harks back to your earliest projects…
Joe Dante: True! Home-made, I think is the phrase!
Was that something that attracted you to this project, working with Roger Corman again, doing something that was a tongue-in-cheek love letter to exploitation?
Yeah, it was kind of a goof, really… Roger proposed this idea to me in excited tones over dinner one night and he said: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could have a series where there’s a bunch of people in a house who are gonna be murdered and the audience gets to choose who dies in the next episode?’ and I said: ‘How would that work?’
He said: ‘The way it would work is that you shoot the first episode and you run it. Then you take the votes the night it runs, you write the next episode based on the votes, you shoot it and premiere it a week later. You do it again for the next episode.’ And I said, ‘Roger, there’s a problem with that!’, which is that you have to keep all these people on retainer for the whole period and you have to shoot, edit, score, transfer and put the thing up in a record amount of time. I think this went back to his days when he used to make movies in two and a half days; he used to make them in that time, but he didn’t edit them in two and a half days!
So I said: ‘Roger, I think what would be more prudent would be to shoot all the possibilities of murders and choose to air the one that the audience would vote for.’ That way you have a whole series that you can run in various places in various times and the audience would have the luxury of choosing different people to die and it would all be covered. He realised that would probably be a better idea, so that’s the way we did it, but it was still done in record time!
This series was first aired in America last year, which led to voting from an audience in one certain direction, but now it’s being shown in the UK.
We made a deal with a company called Netflix, which sends rental DVDs through the post, and they wanted to get into video streaming, to show people that they could show films directly via the internet, without having to post films in boxes back and forth. Ours was their test case to prove that they could stream material successfully to people’s computers, and so they were partners on the series, but when time came to pick up the entire series for redistribution beyond its first screening, they only wanted the three episodes that appeared on their site, the ones the audience voted for – we owned the rights to the rest of them. I think if you go to the Netflix site, you can still see the three episodes that were run, but of course the series is designed so that those three episodes wouldn’t always be the same three that were run if it was aired again.
The British audience may vote in an entirely different way to the American audience, so this new run on the Horror Channel may actually be the premiere of one or two of the episodes.
Totally! I think any new audience is probably going to vote differently because the idea was to fill the programme with unlikable people! It’s a rock star’s funeral and all the mourners are hangers-on and people who basically used him. He’s now come back from the dead and he’s going to get revenge on all of them. It’s based on the idea: ‘which characters do the audience want to see die?’, which I guess is a negative way to approach it if you’re an actor, but it’s sort of a triumph if you get picked, because it proves that you managed to be more odious than the person next to you!
Certainly in the current climate of Z-list celebrity culture and reality TV, it’s all very well that someone gets booted out of the Big Brother house or dumped into a tank full of snakes in the outback, but actually I think a lot of the audience would like to see these characters on TV meet a grisly demise!
(laughs) I’m sure!
How involved were you in the casting of the series? Corey Feldman, for example, who actually is a star of reality TV, plays the lead role of the zombie rock star and seems very much cast against type. I didn’t recognise him until I saw the credits.
I hadn’t worked with him since The ‘Burbs (1989), which was a while ago. He’s obviously gone through a lot of changes, he’s pretty much a completely different person, but he was very eager. He loves make-up, he loves horror and he’s got his own band, so it was great to get him! There wasn’t a lot of money involved, so most of the rest of the cast did it just for the fun of doing it.
Also, I imagine the opportunity to work with you and Roger Corman was very attractive.
I would guess that would put a slight stamp of legitimacy on it! (laughs) But these webisodes are a new thing – there are a lot of these going on right now and it’s an interesting new form of storytelling. I think the webisode idea in itself is going to survive, but the idea of interactive storytelling has its limits. If the audience gets to choose what happens, it becomes very difficult to have a point to the story. You can imagine that if Midnight Cowboy had been interactive, the audience would have voted for them to strike out earlier on and move to Beverly Hills!
Also, many webisode serials I’ve seen online have been very much tied in to TV shows. There was a Battlestar Galactica webisode, but the main series didn’t actually reflect its plotline, in which a major character was revealed to be bisexual, so that can delegitimise the new format.
There’s a new show coming out in the USA this fall called The Event, an NBC series that has some kind of apocalyptic content – it’s hard to tell exactly what it is – and they apparently decided to create a character who only exists on the internet for audiences to consult as to what is going on. It’s a fairly clever idea because I think the networks have now realised that the audience of people who don’t have internet connections is growing smaller and smaller as, frankly, their older audience dies off! Their new audience embraces every technological miracle that comes along…
What were your considerations shooting something that might be primarily seen online? Did it affect the way that you lit and shot it, or did you just treat it like any other filmic project?
You couldn’t shoot it just like any other film, as it has its own unique needs. For example, in the script, there are several different versions of each scene, depending on who is currently still alive! When you shoot the scenes, you have to set them up where you can move one actor out and move another actor in and have them say the lines in that version of the script. So it becomes a kind of assembly line of changing actors. You shoot a master shot and then you shoot all three or five versions of however many characters there are. When you do the close-ups, the cast always have to be on call because even if they’ve been killed off, they have to survive in at least one version.
It frankly can get a little wearying – you can get very easily confused as a director as to where you are in any given scene. When the writer, Richard C Matheson, wrote the original story, he didn’t account for every single possibility of transitions depending on where people were and whether they were existing or not… So it was quite a jigsaw puzzle to edit. It was a solvable problem, but it was not like any other film I’ve ever made, and I don’t think I’ve ever made a film as fast as this one! Even my first picture, which was made in 10 days, was a breeze compared to this, because it was so labour intensive.
I suppose to allow for all the possibilities in the interactive plot, you must have shot the equivalent of seven episodes in total?
Actually 10! There are 10 episodes in all… The first episode is always the same, and then the others vary depending on the audience vote. There are more versions again of the last episode than the middle. The exact details escape me, because I probably never quite understood them anyway!
As there are many episodes that might never be seen when the series is showed in different territories, could you eventually consider a DVD or Blu-ray release that would include every episode?
I think it would be an ideal party DVD. There was an incident supposedly 10 years ago in an interactive project where the audience had buttons on their seats and when they pressed the button, it would tilt the story one way or the other. Apparently there were fist fights because it wasn’t a very democratic audience and people who wanted their way would leap over someone else’s seat and push their button to get their way! So, that’s another reason why I don’t think interactive storytelling has such a terrific future…
Joe Dante is also presenting a Director’s Night on the Horror Channel on 25th November where he’ll be introducing his selection of movies including Splatter, Bay of Blood and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
This year, Film4 FrightFest presented one of its most ambitious, diverse and satisfying programmes yet. The festival cast its net wide, pulling in not just monsters, killers, zombies and hoodie tormentors, but also hippies, dreamers and misfits, exploring horror and fantastic cinema in the largest sense possible, and it was all the better for it.
Sadly, FrightFest was forced to pull A Serbian Film out of the programme after the BBFC imposed 49 cuts. The FrightFest organisers said, as their reason for the cancellation, that ‘a film of this nature should be shown in its entirety’ and we entirely agree with them: the extreme imagery of the film is meant to make a political point about Serbia and any cuts would alter its effect and meaning. Of course, the short-sightedness of British censorship is notorious and long-standing, as we were reminded by a timely screening of a documentary on the ‘video nasties’, which provided a wider context for the BBFC’s latest misguided decision.
Elsewhere there was much to enjoy. Tobe Hooper was in attendance to introduce his rarely seen 1969 first feature Eggshells, a wonderfully trippy, loose document of the period and a reminder of the influence of experimental cinema on 60s and 70s horror film. Other highlights included Mexican cannibal tale We Are What We Are, harsh and tender murder story Red White and Blue, giallo reverie Amer and brutal Hong Kong property-slasher Dream Home. Below we review some of the high and low points of the festival in more detail.
I nearly gave Hatchet II a miss because of the paucity of ideas in the first instalment. Inexplicably popular, Hatchet is an unimaginative re-tread of 1980s horror films featuring a handful of stars from the genre – Robert Englund (A Nightmare on Elm Street 1-8), Tony Todd (Candyman 1-3)and Kane Hodder (Friday the 13th parts 7-9). It follows the misadventures of a boatload of tourists who visit the haunted house of a deformed boy presumed dead, only to be dispatched one by one.
In his introduction to the sequel, which premiered as the opening film of FrightFest 2010, director Adam Green assured the audience that it was much better than the original and I’m happy to report he got the formula right this time. Hatchet II is also a love letter to 80s horror, and Todd and Kane return, joined by ‘final girl’ Danielle Harris (Halloween 1-2 and 4-5) and a less annoying cast of victims who get variously disembowelled, hacked in half and turned into paté. Needless to say, this isn’t a film for the squeamish, but the deaths are so over the top, they are clearly intended as a parody of the genre.
The casual homophobia and risible, relentless titillation of the original Hatchet have been left behind and the enjoyment of the cast is obvious on screen. That said, having seen Green’s more laudable thrillers Frozen and Spiral, it is clear that the world doesn’t need a Hatchet 3. Alex Fitch
Mixing spectacular violence and a concern with the harsh realities of the Hong Kong property market, Dream Home is difficult to categorise and full of surprises. Cheng Li-sheung is a young woman working in a tedious sales job at a bank. Obsessed with buying a flat with a sea view, a much sought after and astronomically-priced commodity in Hong Kong, she will stop at nothing to achieve her dream.
Dream Home works well as a slasher, featuring some very brutal and sadistically inventive dispatch methods, but also offers a provocative take on its central theme. The violence Li-sheung inflicts on her property rivals and potential neighbours, although extreme, does not feel entirely gratuitous: it appears to be an angry reaction against the greed and corruption from both the state and criminals that have priced ordinary people out of the property market. But Li-sheung herself is not quite the people’s avenger, and her ruthlessness ensures the film never falls into any facile sentimental explanations for her actions. Virginie Sélavy
Cherry Tree Lane
Cherry Tree Lane, the latest from London to Brighton and The Cottage writer/director Paul Andrew Williams, is a home invasion movie in which a middle-class couple are brutalised by a gang of hoodies lying in wait to ‘fuck up’ their son when he gets home from football practice. You can tell Williams wants Cherry Tree Lane to work on the associative level, tapping into the rich vein of suburban paranoia as mined by Lynch, the Coens and Haneke before him. The trouble is, it just doesn’t.
The naturalistic performances from the really quite excellent young cast, coupled with their characters’ prosaic reason for being there in the first place – the son is a snitch – marks them as individuals rather than representative types. With the exception of the opening shot of the house, all shots are internal. The only glimpse at a context for the film comes from TV news reports on the anniversary of the July 7 London bombings, which might suggest a general climate of fear in the UK. However, under such isolated scrutiny, terrorist to hoodie is too much of an imaginative leap to make.
So, in this instance the couple’s suburban paranoia is justified, but why are the hoodies like this? Is this just a contemporary problem, or is there something deeper about human nature at work here? Williams does not give the audience enough elements with which to speculate. Alex Pashby
Cherry Tree Lane is released in the UK on 3 September.
We Are What We Are
This Mexican cannibal film was another FrightFest selection that was not easily pigeon-holed. Gritty, realistic and slow-paced, it had the feel of an art-house movie, but was punctuated by moments of startling, grisly brutality. When the father dies, the rest of the family has to figure out how to provide for themselves. As the eldest boy, Alfredo is expected to take on that role, although he does not feel up to it. Power shifts in the group as his sister Sabina, clearly the brains of the family, makes plans, their violent brother Julian mostly messes them up, and their formidable mother struggles to assert her authority. Despite a certain lack of direction, the film presented a disturbing study of family dynamics and a chilling portrayal of those on the poorest margins of Mexican society, literally forced to eat one another. Virginie Sélavy
We Are What We Are is released in the UK on 12 November.
An experimental film with a loose plot based around the experiences of four teenage friends who share a suburban house, this is more of a ‘tone poem’ or artist’s film than an ur-slasher movie. Combining moments of comedy, science fiction, surrealism and kitchen sink drama, this is a sweet-natured portrait of the end of the ‘summer of love’ as the kids hang out together, go for walks in the park, take communal baths and throw parties.
The closest we get to horror are scenes set in a supposedly haunted basement where one of the characters has encounters with a pink light that resembles HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey – which must have influenced the visual light effects in the more hallucinogenic scenes. Elsewhere, scenes where a character has a date in the park surrounded by balloons, or another attacks the group’s bubble car before setting fire to it and throwing all of the clothes he’s wearing into the conflagration, recall The Monkees as much as the darker elements of the end of the 1960s. The final scene sees the cast sucked into a prop from a science-fiction B-movie before being extruded as sludge and smoke, which, although it sounds like horror, is less horrific than many scenes from Monty Python.
Padded out by scenes of presumably improvised inane dialogue recorded at such a high level the speech is distorted into incomprehension, the film is occasionally unintelligible, soporific and obtuse, but includes enough visually stunning and memorable scenes to make it worth a watch. Comparable to Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and John Carpenter’s Dark Star, this is an intriguing experience that suggests that outside of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Hooper never reached his full potential as a director (or was allowed to, as there is a persistent myth that Steven Spielberg directed half of Poltergeist). Alex Fitch
F. is a very enjoyable and well-made film clearly modelled on John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 but takes place not in a near-empty police station, but after hours in the empty corridors and classrooms of a contemporary British college. After being attacked in his classroom and finding no support among his colleagues, English teacher Robert Anderson (David Schofield) turns to alcohol and eventual burn-out. One of his pupils is his daughter, with whom he has lost connection, and as he tries to repair this relationship while facing his other demons, he finds himself confronted by a relentless attack on the school by a group of faceless thugs and bloodthirsty killers in the guise of those folk devils du jour, the hoodies.
The cast universally contribute to the film’s success but David Schofield is especially effective and notable for his role as Anderson. While steeped in conventions and plotlines with which we are all too familiar, F. is nevertheless an interesting, clever and very watchable low-budget film, which has both relevance and panache. Definitely director Johannes Roberts’s best work to date. James B Evans
F. is released in the UK on 17 September.
A beautiful but unkind young professional from Seoul goes back to the remote island where she grew up for a break. There she is reunited with her sweet-natured childhood friend Bok-nam, married to a violent man and badly mistreated by his family. Bok-nam bears the beatings and indignities she is subjected to for the sake of her daughter, but one day, a tragic event tips her over the edge and she turns from subservient wife into violent avenger.
This South Korean film felt like a folk or fairy tale. The story had a compelling quality but the two-dimensional characters were painted with broad strokes and the film was heavy-handed in its denunciation of the oppression of women in Korean society. It was very slow-paced for the most part, making the sudden change of tone, sadistic killings and final bloodbath all the more shocking. Virginie Sélavy
The plot of After.Life oscillates between the possibilities that Christina Ricci’s character is dead and can only be seen by a creepy funeral director played by Liam Neeson, or he’s a serial killer who has kidnapped her and is trying to convince her she’s that way. This is a relatively rare subject for cinema, as few films cover the existential experience of the recently departed – outside of the occasional zombie movie shot from the point of view of the undead, or comedies featuring ghosts (Ghost, Beetlejuice, Casper). But this isn’t new ground for TV – Dead like Me, Six Feet Under and Being Human have all had lead or reoccurring characters that are ghosts – so this film will feel familiar to fans of telefantasy – and actually might have worked better as an episode of an anthology show like The Twilight Zone.
The film toys with the necrophiliac possibilities of the plot, but is generally more interested in displaying Ricci’s naked flesh as much as possible than in considering the psychological implications of the various traumas experienced by the cast on screen. Running for nearly an hour and three-quarters, the movie outstays its welcome by at least 20 minutes, but convincing performances by everyone involved keeps the atmosphere reasonably unnerving. Compared to some of the more hysterically scary movies shown at Frightfest, it was refreshing to see something a little more low-key. Alex Fitch
After.Life is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on 6 September by Anchor Bay.
A zombie movie set in Africa was a great idea on paper, but The Dead failed miserably to do anything interesting with it. As a horror film, it was actually boring and as slow and directionless as the shuffling undead hordes. The two central characters fighting the zombies, although both military men, were so inept they might as well have been already brain-dead. Watching Africans killing black zombies with machetes inevitably brought to mind the Rwandan genocide, but the film did absolutely nothing with this. In fact, there was something slightly patronising and Western about the film’s approach to Africa, from stereotypical details such as a preposterous witch doctor to the fact that the main character was a white American. The end was not only a cop-out but it was also nauseatingly sentimental. Virginie Sélavy
Isle of Dogs
American director Tammi Sutton (Killjoy 2, Welcome to Graveland) elected to come to the UK to shoot this screenplay penned by Sean Hogan (Little Deaths, The Devil’s Business) and therein lies the first problem with the film – what should have been at times a subtle, British Ortonesque black humour at work in the script becomes in this director’s hands obvious, over-the-top gags, which muddy the tone of the film. What she evidently thought were clever post-modern references recede into triteness and near-camp.
The film concerns itself with Darius (Andrew Howard), a criminal gang boss and psychotic bastard who is married to a Russian former prostitute, Nadia (Barbara Nedeljakova). While heaping physical and verbal abuse upon her, he comes to learn that she has been sleeping with Riley (Edward Hogg) and determines to seek revenge. He offers Riley one way out – kill Nadia or be killed. Thus commences the orgy of killing that will occur during the evening.
This is a story about the lengths to which humans will go to survive and contains some neat plot twists and sharp dialogue – that is when the dialogue can be discerned – which brings me to the second and biggest problem with this film. Someone in post-production clearly went mad with the audio levels. The cacophony of sounds that bludgeon the viewer – and oftentimes the script – into aural submission serve only to undermine specificities of dialogue and mood. This bombastic and unrelenting John Zorn-like score is really quite unbearable as well as irritating. When the director revealed that it was a showcase for the music of her boyfriend it became clear: Isle of Dogs served partly as a lengthy horror pop-promo for him. A shame because as mentioned, there is a much subtler film here waiting to get out from underneath the wall of sound. James B Evans
Red White and Blue
Erica likes to fuck and run. She doesn’t fall in love and she doesn’t ‘do friends’. But when the dangerous-looking, craggy-faced Nate moves into the same lodging house, some sort of relationship develops between them. Soon, however, the dysfunctional tenderness that unites them is disrupted by the re-appearance of a former lover of Erica’s, who brings bad news.
This was one of the best films in the festival, unpredictable and complex, sweet and gruesome, moving without being sentimental, with fully rounded characters who, although they were capable of the most terrible acts, were neither good nor evil, but always achingly human. Virginie Sélavy
The Last Exorcism
Coming from the production stable of Hostel director Eli Roth, the closing film of the festival, predictably, has its fair share of moments to be labelled ‘not for the squeamish’. Director Daniel Stamm similarly took the mockumentary format into macabre territory with his 2008 feature debut, A Necessary Death, which claimed to follow the final preparations of a suicidal volunteer. Under his hand, The Last Exorcism is clearly as comfortable manipulating its audience’s emotions as it is manipulating its own generic format. As with The Blair Witch Project, however, one can’t help but feel that, were you to strip away the shaky cam conceit of the frame, you’d be left with a remarkably formulaic script. That is not to say it is not grimly effective.
In the end, perhaps the most consistently disturbing feature of this film is not the apparently psychotic teenage girl, or the demon that is supposed to be possessing her, but her control-freak fundamentalist father. And it is in the light of this that The Last Exorcism is very much an Exorcist for our times. Robert Barry
The second Shinsedai Cinema Festival, co-programmed by Jasper Sharp of Midnight Eye and Chris Magee of Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow, presented another exciting selection of films this year. As part of the festival’s aim to showcase the work of a diverse ‘new generation’ of filmmaking talent, many of the big features were preceded by short films. The festival also debuted the Jishu Eiga (self-made film) Room where festival-goers could watch a selection of experimental animation and indie films by Kazuhiro Goshima, Yu Katsumata, and Yuki Kawamura.
The opening event, attended by Deepa Mehta, followed in the footsteps of Raindance and Nippon Connection in putting a focus on young women directors. Momoko Ando’s much talked about Kakera: A Piece of Our Life was preceded by Akino Kondoh’s animated short Ladybird’s Requiem. Kondoh’s animation is an extension of her work as an artist and manga-ka: the central character Eiko carefully sews red buttons onto her dress, symbolising the ladybirds with whom she has a complex relationship. The animation is made up of approximately 3,000 images, hand-drawn using graphite and marker. The stark contrast of black, white and red is striking, and was the most memorable of the festival (Kondoh’s eye-catching 2004 painting Red Fishes was used as Shinsedai’s poster art for 2010).
Ladybird’s Requiem was not the only example of Japanese ‘art animation’ – as non-animé animation is called colloquially in Japan – at the festival this year. Dome Animation featured work by students of the Tokyo experimental film and animation school Image Forum with Nasuka Saito’s A Labyrinth of Residence, which shows the influence of her mentor Takashi Ito, being a real stand-out. In addition, a special programme of puppet animation shorts by Kihachiro Kawamoto (who passed away on 23 August), which Jasper Sharp presented throughout the UK in 2008, was also screened. As the grandfather of puppet animation in Japan, Kawamoto may not fit the profile of a ‘new-generation’ filmmaker, but his work has served to introduce ancient Japanese storytelling and puppet traditions in a modern format to younger generations in Japan.
Other short films of note included Jellyfish Boy, Shoh Kataoka’s touching exploration of childhood friendship and sexuality. Hiroshi Iwanagi surprised with his award-winning film That’s All. It was remarkable that such a young male filmmaker, who also wrote the screenplay, could reproduce with such raw emotion the myriad of conflicting desires and emotions that an adolescent girl goes through in the course of a day. On the surface, the central protagonist does ‘nothing’ with her summer holiday, but this film charts the course of her internal journey through puberty. In stark contrast to the more serious short film fare, comedian Shaq’s Gunman Champion was a hilarious episodic ride following the adventures of a ‘Mexican’ bandit. There were nods throughout the film to slapstick silent comedy Ã la Buster Keaton, Spaghetti Westerns, The Matrix and more.
Another nod to silent cinema came with the screening of Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1933 film The Water Magician with live accompaniment by psychedelic, experimental band Vowls. The Water Magician would normally be screened with a live benshi (narrator) performance, and the brevity of the Japanese title cards suggest that it was edited with such a narration in mind. In place of this, Vowls performed a variety of instruments, including electric guitar, keyboards, harmonium, and a wide range of percussive instruments, which emphasised the emotional impact of the film. Brendan Hocura composed some themes specifically for the film, and many moments such as the knocking at doors were scripted into their music. Although they did prepare a skeletal framework for the film, much of the performance was improvised, with Naomi Hocura singing in a wordless, haunting fashion during some of the more lyrical passages of the film. It was a unique cinematic experience that seamlessly connected this almost 80-year-old film with a contemporary audience.
The real core of Shinsedai were the Canadian premieres of independent features by young directors who have been making waves at Raindance, Nippon Connection and Japan Cuts in the past year. Tetsuichiro Tsuta’s Island of Dreams makes for fun viewing for fans of Akira Kurosawa, Seijun Suzuki and Kinji Fukasaku with its tongue-in-cheek visual and plot references to the director’s favourite films. Yasunobu Takahashi’s Locked Out uses Pulp Fiction-esque dream sequences to lead the audience astray as to the true nature of his main protagonist’s character. Naito Takatsugu’s The Dark Harbour weaves a delicate blend of comedy and tragedy to depict the lonely life of a fisherman who dreams of having a wife and family. With Our Brief Eternity, Takuya Fukushima uses a science fiction plot as a device to examine the fabric of human love and relationships, and Kota Yoshida’s Yuriko’s Aroma is an unusual black comedy that explores the fine line between normal and dangerous desires. The Toronto Premiere of Marie Miyayama’s The Red Spot was also a big hit with its touching story of a young woman trying to come to terms with her tragic family history.
The two most powerful films of the festival were Gen Takahashi’s Confessions of a Dog and Tokachi Tsuchiya’s award-winning documentary A Normal Life, Please! Both films bravely confront institutionalised corruption in Japan despite the grave risks to the directors’ own personal well-being. Confessions of a Dog is a three-hour epic of Shakespearean proportions that follows the downward spiral of Takeda, played by character actor Shun Sugata, from idealistic police recruit to corrupt detective. The film unravels the intricate web of corruption in Japanese society implicating everyone along the way from the Japanese CID to judges, politicians and even the press, and its general release was blocked in Japan because of its sensitive content. It positions itself as a modern-day Monsieur Verdoux, with the main protagonist even breaking down the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly.
Company corruption is the theme of Tsuchiya’s A Normal Life, Please! which follows the story of cement truck driver Nobukazu Kaikura as he tries to get better working conditions for himself. There are two arcs in the story: the first is Kaikura’s fight for ‘a normal life’, and the second is that of the documentary filmmaker who goes from being an accidental tourist filming evidence for the union to having an active interest in Kaikura’s well-being and in the rights of the common worker. As a testament to this, during the Q&A following the screening Tsuchiya remarked that it was the first time he had ever been punched in the face during the making of a film. An excellent documentary in a style reminiscent of the best work of former NFB filmmaker Michael Rubbo.
Guests on hand at Shinsedai included Momoko Ando, Akino Kondoh, Shaq, Gen Takahashi, Yasunobu Takahashi and Tokachi Tsuchiya. The guests were warmly receptive to audience questions and feedback, which contributed to the convivial atmosphere of the festival. The four feature filmmakers present participated in a ‘master class’ entitled ‘Jishu Eiga: How Independent Japanese Filmmakers Challenge Cultural Imperatives of the Established Japanese Film Industry’, which was hosted by the Canadian Film Centre.
Mark Stafford: In the screening I was at, there was one walkout, a lot of dark murmuring and a lot of people clearly thinking Enter the Void was something special. What’s the reaction been to the film?
Gaspar Noé: It’s funny, it’s gotten the best reviews of my career, and the worst reviews too. I had so many bad reviews in my life, I’m amazed by the bad reviews as much as by the good ones. My father, who lives in Argentina, is a painter (actually the paintings you see by the character Alex in the film are by my father) and he does drawings for the leftist national paper in Argentina, so he reads that paper every morning. He comes from a generation where the written press means something. Some people go to church, or the synagogue or the mosque and believe what’s said to them there, some people are raised to believe what the press say, and that recognition by the press is important. He came to Cannes for the screening of the movie as a work in progress. The following day he said, ‘Oh, your movie’s a masterpiece’, and then he read the review in the Argentine paper he draws for, which said, ‘This is the worst movie ever shown in any Cannes film festival, everybody in the streets, everybody at the parties and bars are saying, â€œthis is the biggest piece of crapâ€’ and ‘how can the son of this painter…?’ The same day there was a great review in the New York Times: ‘Gaspar Noé is trying to reinvent cinema.’ So when the biggest paper that counted for my father gave me the worst review I’ve ever had I was happy, but he was saying, ‘Hey buddy, don’t worry, give me his address, I’m going to talk directly to this man, he’s gonna pay for this’ (laughter). I just thought it was funny. I imagine this Argentine film critic, every time the bell rings he’s thinking: ‘Maybe this time it’s Gaspar’s father, here to avenge the honour of his family…’
Did I read Throbbing Gristle on the credits?
Yeah, when Oscar enters the bar where he gets shot, the music is ‘Hamburger Lady’. There is also a sound I used when Oscar dies and the camera goes through the wall, which is from a piece Peter Christopherson made for a record called ‘Cold Hands’. I love his music. I met him and asked if I could use that piece, and he liked the film and gave me the rights to use it. I also asked about using ‘Hamburger Lady’ and he called his partners from Throbbing Gristle and I got the rights for not much. I was so happy because it’s so right and I’m a big fan of Throbbing Gristle.
I read the name on the credits and wondered, because of their history, if there’s anything subliminal in the noise or in the strobe. I know that people are going to drop acid and search the film for hidden messages…
It hasn’t happened as much with this one but people were telling me that Irreversible had a Throbbing Gristle feeling…
It’s the low bass frequencies… Genesis lived round the corner from my sister. Weird, charming bloke, I didn’t know him, but whenever I saw him live he dived into the crowd and started dancing with me… You know he’s got breasts now?
He’s still got a dick. He said he just wanted to get closer to his girlfriend.
He was supposed to go this way, she was supposed to go that way…
But he always said, I think, that he’d always keep his dick on.
Well, y’know, he’s attached to it…
Some people have extreme lives and straight people think they’re gonna be punished. But actually, having a very personal life is very rewarding, as long as you don’t fall too much into drugs. Some drugs open your mind, others are mental cages.
The psychedelic experience is commonly associated with feelings of euphoria. But Enter the Void is pretty much a solid bad trip.
It starts as a weird trip and then turns into a bad trip. But after having done some mushroom and LSD trips what you notice is that when it’s fun, it’s fun for a while, but there’s always a point around 7am when you want to stop the trip and you can’t.
You think it’s all over, you pick up a book and the words start swirling round…
The last time I did acid I mixed it with some other things. At the end of the night I was really wasted and somebody said, ‘do you want to see some colours?’ I think if I hadn’t been drunk I would have been more careful but… I took some liquid acid. When I got home it was like in Altered States, I would look at my arm and it was moving. I thought my arms were three times larger than normal. I kept thinking, ‘Don’t watch yourself in the mirror’. I was scared of seeing myself as those visions in Altered States. So ‘Don’t watch yourself in the mirror, don’t watch yourself in the mirror…’ I lay in my bed and I was watching my father’s painting, and the paint became 3D, it came out in four different layers, the colours at different distances from the canvas. I tried to make a phone call, but I couldn’t understand how the mobile phone worked, it took me two hours to work it out… I’m happy now I’ve had all these experiences because they’re all in the movie. So in the end, it was all professional research.
I’m bloody glad Enter the Void is not in 3D, you’d need a shower afterwards… There’s about 20 minutes difference between the cut that played at the last London Film Festival and the one I just saw, what did you change?
The one that screened at the festival was the full-length version, we had to transfer from high definition and remix the sound. The only difference is we changed the music on the credits. In England they are releasing two versions: the French/European version that was shown almost everywhere that’s 155 minutes, and the shorter version, which is 17 minutes shorter – a whole segment, or a whole reel of the movie is pulled out. That sequence is after the abortion scene. There were some additional astral visions, and then he dreamt that he wakes up at the morgue and he believes he’s alive and then his sister and his friends say, ‘he’s a zombie, we don’t want to take care of him’, but his friend Alex says, ‘you didn’t wake up, you’re just dreaming this, you’ve been burnt, you’ve been incinerated’. And you go back to the astral vision and see his sister throwing the ashes over water into a sink. That’s where the following reel starts. So I managed to have two different versions that were edited the same way but I pulled out the whole reel.
[END OF SPOILER]
I was going to say because the film is shot to seem like one continuous movement, I couldn’t see how the hell you’d cut anything out.
I managed to have a good cut between reels number 6 and 7 and 7 and 8, so you could go directly from 6 to 8 without noticing that a reel was missing. In most cinemas they’ll be showing the shorter version. And you can be sure that on DVD they’re gonna call it the ‘director’s cut’, but it’s really just the long cut and the shorter cut.
You’ve been working on Enter the Void, in different forms, for about 15 years. Were you waiting for technology to catch up with the visions in your head?
I was pushing hard to start the movie for years and years, and now I’m glad it was postponed many times because when we started preparing the movie for real I think it was the right timing. I had gotten used to Japan. I had found the right actors. I had found the right partners to make my movie, the people in the Wild Bunch and the digital company that could take care of the visual effects. Working with Pierre Buffin, who’s the VFX artistic director was amazing. Being able to shoot in Japan, although it was risky for the producers, was great. Things like the floating camera make me glad the movie was held back for years. Even though my main dream as a director was delayed for so long, once I started prepping the movie and started shooting I thought I’d been really lucky that I didn’t start before because the new technologies made it possible to make it look as it looks now. If I’d waited another two or three years I would maybe have had the opportunity to shoot it in 3D…
You’ve essentially made a film in which you’ve killed the audience and re-incarnated them…
Oscar dreams the whole trip. His soul really doesn’t come out of his body, at the end the Tokyo you see is not the real Tokyo, it’s the sculpture/model. The whole dream becomes more and more dysfunctional. When he sees his sister he sees the face of his mother. When he gets into the plane he sees himself as a baby with his parents. When he sees a vision of the future there are old Linda and young Linda in the same room, with the Twin Towers outside, which is not possible. At the very end, when he comes out of his mother’s womb, he’s remembering his birth, or he’s getting into a loop, he’s starting his meaningless life once again. His whole trip is based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but the movie does not promote the idea of reincarnation. You could say it’s an atheist movie.
[END OF SPOILER]
Where the hell do you go from here?
The dream I’ve been carrying for years is to do a good erotic movie. A good sentimental erotic movie.
Good luck. Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie have just spent about 10 years of their lives trying to produce a decent piece of pornography.
It’s weird because it’s a huge genre, pornography. And you have so many good horror movies, good science fiction movies, so many good murder movies, but sex is the closest thing to real life. And sex, whether you’re in love or not, is pornographic. It’s something that happens every week, so why should something that seems so essential to me, to most people around me, why should it be something that’s never properly portrayed on screen?
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Frank Cole: A Life Remembered
For me, September is a month of melancholy and elation. It is that time of year when all Canadians in the film business turn their attention over to the Toronto International Film Festival. Veterans of the event spend 10 days alternating between darkened cinemas, with quick forays outside for much-needed cigarettes and scrounging as much free food and drink at endless parties. We stand in lobbies, trading thoughts on what we’ve just seen, but the most hardened wags are seldom listening to each other, instead looking for that brief lull in the conversation to jump in and spew out their own words of wisdom, which, of course, are equally consumed in one ear and out the other by everyone else in the pack, desperately waiting for that hallowed juncture to jump in and do the same. We’ll all have the same complaints – year in and year out: the festival is just a cheap junket for the studios, the festival is too big, the festival used to be friendlier, the general public are a bloody nuisance with their unwieldy backpacks slamming into us as we jump lines with an air of self-importance. And yet, we’re all still there: it’s easy to avoid the junket atmosphere if one is writing for publications that care little for puff pieces on Hollywood stars, the festival – as big as it is – still offers an opportunity to see just as many movies, if not more, friendliness is in the eye of the beholder and the general public are just ultimately a necessary evil we can all avoid by just seeing movies in the secret press and industry screenings, the festival within the festival. Things really don’t change. And personally, I cannot imagine being anywhere else at this time of year. I’ve been attending the Toronto Festival for 23 years now and while there are three other great festivals in Canada this time of year (the glorious, down-home laid-back Vancouver, the European-flavoured celebration of all cinema not American at Serge Losique’s World Festival in Montreal, and the utter cutting-edge madness of Montreal’s Nouveau Cinema, still led by the stylishly irascible Claude Chamberlan), it is Toronto that finally holds my happiest and saddest memories. The best moment was being at the Toronto Festival when a truly new wave of English-Canadian cinema was burgeoning, and my thoughts at this time always gravitate to Frank Cole and first experiencing his pure cinema, his pure obsessive originality and perhaps most importantly, his genius. Genius is hard to come by and certainly hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. And in 1988, I experienced genius in all its splendour at the Toronto Film Festival – in Frank Cole’s first feature film A Life. It’s those things you don’t forget that keep the bar high, and Frank set the bar to stratospheric heights.
* * *
Frank Cole, an Ottawa-based Canadian filmmaker, crossed the Sahara Desert on foot from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. This feat of endurance earned him a permanent home in the Guinness Book of World Records. Cole’s final journey to the vast, inhospitable land led to a permanent resting place at the Michigan Cryonics Institute in Detroit. As per his last will and testament, Frank Cole’s remains were cryogenically preserved.
Cole believed death was a disease that needed to be cured and though he is no longer with us in a traditional sense (as in, alive), I sincerely hope and pray that wherever he is, he still believes it.
He was happy to admit to people that his sojourns across the infinite grains of sand terrified him to no end, and what eventually killed him was what he feared the most. His last challenge was to cross the Sahara again, from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and back again – a return journey by camel. He never made it. Not long after first setting out from Ber, he was severely beaten, robbed of all his possessions, tied to a desert shrub and left for dead by bandits.
Frank Cole left this world, leaving us to wonder what miracles of cinema he had yet to create, what tricks he had up his sleeve to cheat death. His legacy will be forever enshrined in the work he did create. He left us with two shorts (A Documentary and The Mountenays) and two features (A Life and Life without Death).
On the basis of these works, Frank Cole might well be one of Canada’s (and for that matter, all of cinema’s) most important filmmakers.
Upon the world premiere of A Life in 1988 at the Toronto International Film Festival, known more brashly in those halcyon days as ‘The Festival of Festivals’, I sensed from the opening few minutes that it was never going to let go. Nothing, and I mean nothing, could have prepared me for such an astounding, eye-popping and gut-churning experience. Its grip upon me held throughout the course of the festival, then for weeks, then months, then years afterwards. Now, as I write this re-assessment almost 25 years later, all I can think about is the opening paragraph of what is no doubt the most influential film review of Pauline Kael’s career. On October 28, 1972, the first few sentences of this legendary review declared the following:
‘Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris was presented for the first time on the closing night of the New York Film Festival, October 14, 1972: that date should become a landmark in movie history comparable to May 29, 1913 â€” the night Le Sacre du Printemps was first performed – in music history. There was no riot, and no one threw anything at the screen, but I think it’s fair to say that the audience was in a state of shock, because Last Tango in Paris has the same kind of hypnotic excitement as the Sacre, the same primitive force, and the same thrusting, jabbing eroticism.’
In retrospect, I only wish I had been able to muster something similar when first reviewing Cole’s picture in 1988. Then again, I was hardly Pauline Kael – not even a burgeoning one.
At the time, I was just shy of my 30th year on this planet and though I had been toiling in the trenches of film reviewing, journalism, exhibition and distribution, I was a relative newcomer to actually making movies, and as such was quite overwhelmed with the promise Canada’s relatively young industry held and how I might, in some small way, contemplate being a part of it.
This, more than anything, influenced my approach to reviewing Cole’s extraordinary picture since cool shit was starting to really happen in Canadian cinema. Reviewing A Life as a prairie-based correspondent for the now defunct, but by Canadian standards, legendary trade magazine Cinema Canada, I wanted to shout to the rooftops that Cole’s picture was leading the charge, but when I read the piece now, I think I fell rather short of that lofty goal. In fact, it was a rather unattainable one since I was right in the middle of what could only be contextualised in retrospect. It was, however, a good old college try.
By this point, French Canada had several new waves (and continues to do so) and on the English side, David Cronenberg, Donald Shebib, Don Owen, Phillip Borsos and Zale Dalen had made some striking inroads at earlier junctures, but nothing like our Québécois confrÃ¨res. The fact of the matter is that French Canada was extremely proud and protectionist about its truly distinct society. English Canada was also distinct, but in much subtler ways – especially given the physical proximity to America and the common bond of the English language. In fairness, however, the differences weren’t that subtle. Those of us in the Dominion spoke the Queen’s English as opposed to the bastardised, drawling, mush-mouthed, inbred American English and even our more working-class vernacular had more in common with the clipped, pointed and musical English spoken by our aboriginal brothers (or, for that matter, the joual-tinged English of the Québécois of Montreal’s East End).
But 1988 felt different. Something decidedly new and exciting was happening in the few book-ending years leading up to and following the year Frank’s feature premiered. Even veteran David Cronenberg was on the cusp of a new phase with Dead Ringers.
In the early 90s, German filmmaker Alexander Bohr was so taken with what was beginning to happen in late-80s English Canadian cinema that he produced and directed a ZDF documentary about the phenomenon. It was titled, appropriately enough, Strangers in their Own Land. This, more than anything, typified much of the art and culture in the Dominion of Canada – especially among tail-end baby boomers and Gen-X-ers.
A rag-tag group of late-20-early-30-something whippersnappers, they had little use for the status quo (Canadian-in-name-only dramatic series and movies of the week aimed at international, but primarily American audiences) and absolutely no desire to be part of dour National Film Board of Canada documentaries about children with learning disabilities who had finally found teachers they could really relate to. Most definitely, they were not going to take the path demanded on the side of traditional Canadian government financiers who were looking for product that would develop an industrial base, which led to too many expensive, overblown, dull-as-dishwater glorified television movies masquerading as features.
Strangers in their own land, indeed!
At this time, English Canada yielded (or was yielding) work by the new, young iconoclasts; Patricia Rozema’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, John Paizs’s Crime Wave, A Winter Tan by the five-director collective of Jackie Burroughs, Louise Clark, John Frizzell, John Walker and Aerlyn Weissman, Atom Egoyan’s Next of Kin and Family Viewing, Guy Maddin’s Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Bill McGillivray’s Life Classes, Peter Mettler’s Scissere and The Top of His Head, Anne Wheeler’s Loyalties, Bruno Lazaro Pacheco’s The Traveller, Brian Stockton and Gerald Saul’s Wheat Soup, Greg Hanec’s Downtime, Bruce McDonald’s Roadkill, and numerous cutting-edge short films like John Martins-Manteiga’s The Mario Lanza Story, Alan Zweig’s Stealing Images, Francis Damberger’s Road to Yorkton, Nik Sheehan’s No Sad Songs, Lorne Bailey’s The Milkman Cometh and Richard Kerr’s Last Days of Contrition.
And then there was Frank Cole.
Frank was definitely a stranger in his own land. The son of a Canadian diplomat, Frank spent many of his formative years in locales far more exotic than Ottawa. Brooding, handsome, intelligent and creative – he began with the still image and eventually, under the mentorship of Peter Wintonick (Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media), he turned to cinema.
The Dominion of Canada seems the perfect place for a stranger in one’s own land to thrive as an artist. The sheer physical vastness of the country has any number of regions that are as infinite, desolate and awe-inspiring as the desert that beckoned Frank Cole. With the majority of the Dominion’s population congregated within 100 kilometres of the border between Canada and the United States, the rest of the country is almost exclusively wilderness. The frozen tundra of the North West Territories, the barrenness of the Rock, the unending and oldest mountain range in the world within the Shield, the flat, Ocean-like properties of terra firma on the Prairies and the seemingly infinite glaciers and towering heights of the Rocky Mountains all might suggest that Frank didn’t necessarily need to leave Canada to find danger and desolation, but so goes the cliché: the grass is always greener on the other side.
That said, Canada has always inspired a ‘grass is always greener’ frame of mind in many of its best and brightest. Published in 1977, the late Charles Taylor’s brilliant book Six Journeys: A Canadian Pattern, presents a series of biographical essays on extraordinary Canadians who ‘followed a lonely path in search of a more sustaining vision’ than Canada could ever offer them, in spite of the fact that Canada’s ‘Calvinist rigidity’ might well have been the defining influence upon their work as artists and/or as political figures. Taylor’s book surely might well have considered Frank Cole as a seventh subject had it been revised at a later juncture.
Taylor’s introduction to his book declares the following: ‘More than most people, Canadians are prejudiced in favour of the ordinary – we honour all those pioneering virtues which impose restraint and engender mediocrity. Revolutions produce heroes: it is one reason why the Americans have had such an abundance of exemplary figures. But we lack a revolution, and our rebellions are notable mainly for their ineptitude.’ I cannot argue at all with Taylor’s assertion that the Dominion of Canada seems obsessed with the ordinary – this is often a reigning feature of so much of Canadian cinema, television and literature – but where I might part company with Taylor (ever so slightly and in a quietly Canadian manner) is in the notion of Canadian revolutions being infused with ‘ineptitude’. While this is true of many of them, a number of our country’s revolutions have been ‘quiet revolutions’ – not unlike the sweeping changes that occurred in French Canada between 1960 and 1968 that laid the groundwork for self-determination, cultural nationhood and separation. (Coincidentally, this quiet revolution and its aftermath were examined in detail and foreseen by one of Taylor’s subjects, the iconoclastic writer and first true champion for gay rights in Canada, Scott Symons.)
In the brief period leading up to and following the unleashing of Frank Cole’s A Life in 1988, it is safe to say that a quiet revolution was very much in full swing among a small band of cultural insurrectionists – the best and brightest of Canadian cinema. Movies in English Canada were changing and this was not lost upon critics, programmers and audiences outside of Canada (though much less so within). I feel strongly that Frank Cole was at the forefront with his quiet and quietly revolutionary A Life.
The promotional material generated for the launch of A Life during the Festival of Festivals in Toronto declared that Frank’s film charts ‘a man’s survival amidst death in a room and a desert.’ Both room and desert seem rather appropriate metaphors for Canada itself and certainly within the movie, both locations have the claustrophobic properties of a prison cell – one with literal walls, the other fortified by an all-seeing force of nature with the power to bestow both life and death upon those who dot its immense and virtually infinite landscape.
Survival, it would seem, is (and was, and perhaps in his afterlife, will always be) Cole’s primary concern – whether it be within physical man-made borders of walls or the ostensible limits of the immeasurable.
Early in the film Cole’s off-camera voice queries a jowly, liver-spotted old gentleman in a pointed yet strangely genial tone: ‘Are you afraid of dying, Grandpa?’ The old man seems perplexed, perhaps even slightly intimidated by the camera, and replies, quivering and moist-eyed, that he is indeed not fearful of death.
The camera truthfully captures its subject in an evocatively grainy monochrome and with such a tender, personal eye that the old man’s reaction tells us one thing verbally, but visually, his answer feels rather inconclusive (or perhaps, all too conclusive). In a similarly styled approach near the end of the film, Cole assaults us with the image of an old woman lying on her deathbed gasping for life (or, perhaps, death) while an off-screen voice pleads, ‘Live!’
These two gut-wrenching sequences, so strangely moving, yet disturbing and finally, irrefutably life-affirming, are bookends to a journey that is bleak, barren and sometimes harrowing.
The voyage proper begins after the black and white sequence with the old man. The monochrome yields to full colour, focusing primarily on the interior environment of the film’s central figure, a buff, poker-faced young man played by Cole himself. A series of oddly composed shots of inanimate objects greet us and in each one, they are shoved out of the camera eye; Cole appears to be ridding the Spartan room of what little it has in it.
We’re then battered with a group of strangely disconnected images; a bare, white wall as a nail is driven into it, a telephone call that never really comes and is never really answered, a lithe young woman with a handgun stuffed into her panties and, most disturbingly, a little girl who runs headlong into plate glass – at first in silence, then followed a few beats later with the sickening, almost excruciatingly painful sound of the glass smashing.
All images described above are cross-cut with recurring shots of Cole chiselling, hammering, measuring and sanding. The sound of his labour becomes increasingly grating. Adding to our ever-heightening disorientation and anxiety is the fact that we’re never sure what he’s building and that he’ll never leave this barren interior. In terms of pace, this is expertly timed. We feel like this self-imposed banishment will last for the rest of the movie. It’s uncannily and precisely at this moment when Cole shifts gears – not necessarily in terms of pace, but in locale. We move from one tomb to yet another.
The first exterior shots are simple optical manipulations as a series of sun-dappled head-and-shoulder freeze frames of Cole place him directly in front of several backgrounds that flicker behind. It’s as if the camera itself is sealing him in a crypt, though Cole’s off-screen narration explains it (or, if you will, not at all) when he proclaims, ‘I did this to feel alive’.
Perhaps the very process of making the film is what keeps the on-camera Cole from pulling the trigger of the same gun that was previously stuffed into the woman’s panties and is used later by her as she writhes on the floor and then shoots herself in the eye – a steely phallus delivering death through the one orifice that allows for the only on-camera persona to witness and/or participate in the proceedings.
After putting himself through the most rigorous paces in the interior sequences, Cole transplants himself into the Sahara, risking his life and cheating death to provide a series of stunning exterior images to contrast and parallel the claustrophobia of the room. In the room, for example, we see a snake slithering helplessly and aimlessly across the hardwood floors, while in the desert we see Cole crawling desperately across grains of sand. In the room, we hear the sound of wooden matches being repeatedly struck and extinguished, tossed onto the hardwood floor as the snake slithers over them, while in the desert, a jeep is doused with gasoline and torched as the camera slowly pulls away until the jeep becomes a flickering speck on the infinite horizon of the Sahara.
Cole’s vision is daring, psychologically complex, thematically layered and created by someone with a clear command of the filmmaking process and endowed with a supreme form of artistry. Given the stately pace, we have the option to think about what we see as we see it, or leave those thoughts until after viewing the film and instead allow a series of terrifying, lonely and often beautiful images to wash over us and to open up emotionally, viscerally to a cinematic world that cries for some sense of understanding and passion, not merely for the subject, but for the world, for all of us.
A Life is particularly revelatory in the sense that death, as a final act on this earth, is one of solitude, where we are truly alone with our body and spirit, and when the body goes, so does the spirit – alone into an infinite void.
The film’s emotional core comes from Cole’s seeming sadness and desperation, yet one oddly leaves this experience with a sense of elation, of fulfilment and with the feeling that perhaps there is A LIFE beyond the mere drudgery and suffering and pure survival that Cole so evocatively and painfully explores.
This is a film of lasting value and Cole must be forever remembered as an artist of uncompromising bravery and vision.
His small core of collaborators must also be commended – Jean-Yves Dion’s desert photography, Carlos Ferrand’s interior work and Vincent Saulnier’s stunning sound design are of a level and quality so far beyond the mediocrity of most films made in Canada – far beyond anything seen when the film was made, and now, nearly a quarter century later, that fact has not changed.
These days, it’s very difficult to see Frank’s films. To launch the recent publication of Life without Death: The Cinema of Frank Cole, an exquisite book from the Canadian Film Institute in Ottawa edited by Mike Hoolbloom and Tom McSorley, there have been a handful of screenings of A Life (in addition to full retrospectives at film festivals in Rotterdam, Wroclaw and Jihlava). The book itself includes a DVD copy of Korbett Matthews’s fine documentary film, The Man Who Crossed the Sahara and numerous writings on Frank’s work from a myriad of writers including John Greyson, Peter Mettler, Mike Cartmell, Geoff Pevere and my own original review of A Life published in 1988 in Cinema Canada magazine – a review that I have here revised extensively based on both my initial memories and a recent screening of the work.
Time always declares the final verdict on such matters, but it is safe to say enough time has passed to declare this film a masterpiece. In fact, A Life demands the sort of enshrinement that few Canadian films genuinely deserve. It has its own life. It continues to pulse, breathe, and survive.
Its spirit lives on.
From the Dominion of Canada,
On the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula,
I bid you a hearty:
Now in its 18th year of existence, Paris’s L’Etrange Festival continues to mine the past and present of cinema to unearth beautiful rarities, weird gems and forgotten masterpieces. The remarkable knowledge of cinema that informs the programming, the rich selection of films, and the opportunities for discovery it offers mark it out as a unique event in an increasingly busy festival calendar. It was founded in 1993 by Frédéric Temps, a TV director, music producer, musician and journalist, who somehow has managed to find the time to put together 16 editions of the event, with a two-year break in 2007-2008 when its host venue, the Forum des Images, closed for refurbishment. Helped by a team of four other people – who also all have day jobs in the audio-visual industry – Temps has this year again traced a wonderful path through cinematic strangeness for adventurous audiences.
Virginie Sélavy had the pleasure of talking to Frédéric Temps about the origins of the festival and its aims, as well as the unavoidable topic of the moment, A Serbian Film.
VS: How did the festival start?
FT: As journalists we were seeing a lot of films on VHS and in festivals (at the time DVDs and the internet didn’t exist), which, surprisingly, were not being released in France despite their quality, and one day we decided to create a festival to show the films that we, as viewers, wanted to see on a cinema screen. It started in this way in 1993 and it grew successfully, and now it’s a big festival that is almost international.
You don’t get paid for the work you do on the festival, but do you at least manage to cover your costs?
With difficulty, but these days we’re doing better because it’s better managed and there are more people attending. But after 18 years we still have to do this as volunteers because the state and private funding that we get is not enough to produce an event on this scale, with so many guests and films.
So it’s a true labour of love.
Absolutely, it’s really a passion for the whole team, including the 80 volunteers who help us during the festival and the five members on the main board.
It’s obvious that a lot of care and thought goes into the programming and you always have great guests.
It’s more interesting and enjoyable for everyone if we have guests when we’ve found a rare film. It’s good for the guests themselves to see that 20 or 30 years later their film is still greeted with the same enthusiasm by much younger generations. That was our aim when we restarted the festival last year, we were wondering if the generation that was very young when we started and was now reaching 18 would be interested in discovering those works. And it’s working. Last year we saw a new generation of viewers come to the festival, which was completely different from what we’d seen before the festival took a break in 2006. That’s wonderful, it means that the work we have been doing for the last 18 years goes in the direction of the filmic tastes of other generations, and that’s the best compliment, the best reward we can have.
You don’t just programme new films, as in the case of so many other festivals, you also dig up lost films and obscure rarities from the past.
That’s how it started. The festival was created to give audiences a chance to rediscover films that we knew were gathering dust on the shelves of certain distributors or producers. In France, there are far too many festivals that aren’t really properly curated, so we had to differentiate ourselves from them and do something really specific. But with time, we also followed more new releases because there are still directors who make films today and are not necessarily recognised. It’s good to try and bring recognition to new works that may go unnoticed. The festival is now as much about keeping an eye on the films of the future as those of the past, while trying to discover and support new directors.
This year for the first time, we have created a feature film competition with our partner Canal+. We didn’t have a competition until now because for us all the works had the same value, even if they were badly made or a bit fragile. But the partners of Canal+, in particular the Cinema TV channel, are very close in spirit to us. Unlike many festivals, including the biggest, where the prize is just a worthless trinket, we offer as a prize a direct TV purchase, which represents a large sum of money and is a big boost for the film. We decided to do this to give a chance to a film that maybe would not get a general release.
What is also great about L’Etrange Festival is that you go beyond specific genres to delimit the territory of the strange in a much wider and interesting way.
Exactly. Sometimes it’s a problem, some people don’t get it, and we are still categorised by some as a ‘chainsaws and raped Japanese women’ kind of festival. Those people have clearly not worked out what the programming is about because of course we are interested in all genres. There are films that, unfortunately, we couldn’t get because there are still distributors or people in the media who have a negative view of the festival. For instance, we wanted to show Frederick Wiseman’s latest film, Boxing Gym, which is very important for me because he’s a giant in the history of cinema, but his French distributor did not want to give us the film because he thought it was not the place for it. We still face this sort of problem but I think that, with time, people will understand that we can show Walt Disney films – I’m referring to the programme curated a few years ago by Roger Avary, the co-writer of Pulp Fiction, who had chosen a rare film by Robert Stevenson, the Walt Disney musical Darby O’Gill and the Little People – as well as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or A Serbian Film, which everyone is talking about this year, after what happened last weekend at FrightFest. [The film was pulled by the festival organisers after the BBFC and Westminster Council demanded cuts. Read more about this.]
Will you be showing A Serbian Film uncut?
For the moment there’s no problem because, despite the untruths circulated on the internet for a few months, the film has not been censored in France. No film has been banned in France for at least 30 years and unlike the BBFC, the CNC [French censorship board] has no jurisdiction over films shown for the first time in festivals. There was an article in the music magazine Les Inrockuptibles on what happened in the UK, which concluded by saying that maybe the CNC would get involved here, but that’s not the case at all. For the past year, non-profit-making festivals like ours don’t have to submit the films they are presenting to the CNC. This means that the organisers and the venue take responsibility for screening films that haven’t been shown before. Of course, A Serbian Film is extremely violent, one of the most violent films you can see right now. So we have indicated everywhere that the film can only be seen by over-18s, in agreement with the CNC’s guidelines.
It is indeed a very disturbing film, but I can’t quite understand where exactly the cuts imposed by the British censors will be made, given that the whole second part of the film is essentially one unbearable scene after another.
There has always been very strict censorship in Britain. A Serbian Film was first shown at South by Southwest, then at the Brussels Fantastic Film Festival, and no one said anything. It is only since it was shown at Cannes that things have heated up. The problem is that A Serbian Film, like Pasolini’s Salò, or the Chinese film Corps 731 (Men behind the Sun) by TF Mous, which we have shown, are not for everyone. The scenes that are problematic for some people are the ones involving children. But if those scenes are removed, it changes the film. As the director and scriptwriter have said clearly, the film denounces the crimes committed during the Yugoslav conflict, which is something we all know about, it wasn’t that long ago, and we also know that, as the authors have said, their fellow countrymen have suffered worse things than what they show in the film. If you know this, you can understand that the film is not an apology for ultra-violence or paedophilia but, on the contrary, a denunciation of it.
If people can’t see that, I think it is also because the film is extremely well made, even though it’s a first film. It has sumptuous 35mm cinematography and well-known actors, who have appeared in Emir Kusturica’s films, for instance, and I think that has disturbed people because what is called trash porn films are generally cheaply and quickly made, with a very specific image and grain.
Of course, you can criticise the film like any other film. I know some people who didn’t have a problem with the content but didn’t agree with the point of view and found the film clumsy. They thought it should have included scenes connecting the story to the history of Serbia, with TV images of the time, for instance. They thought the film was not clear enough even if it is metaphorical.
Aside from A Serbian Film, what other films do you think are particularly interesting in this year’s programme?
It’s difficult to say, but Quentin Dupieux’s new film Rubber was a great revelation, and we almost picked it as the opening film because it represents the spirit of the festival so well. It’s a perfect genre film, very respectful of the rules and full of references to Romero, Carpenter, etc., but it also has something that subverts the genre in a completely surrealistic way: the tyre. When I see this film, I imagine Quentin Dupieux watching Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher, the ultimate serial killer film starring Rutger Hauer, for the umpteenth time and thinking that it would be funny to transpose the story with Hauer replaced by a tyre. The idea is fantastic because you can apply it to everything: you could remake The Umbrellas of Cherbourg replacing the actresses with tea pots! It’s a proper serial killer film, very well paced, with actors who are used to this sort of film, including Wings Hauser, who is a well-known American B-movie/genre actor, but it goes off on a completely mad tangent. This is exactly what L’Etrange Festival can be.
Every year you ask film personalities to curate programmes, and this year you’ve asked Alejandro Jodorowsky, among others.
Alejandro is one of the ‘godfathers’ of the event in a way. The first year, one of our coups was to find prints of El Topo and The Holy Mountain, which hadn’t been seen in France for 25 years, and Alejandro was very excited and came to present them. He came back again four years ago when El Topo was re-released. So it’s almost like coming full circle this year. Alejandro has been following the festival for all these years and is in complete harmony with what we do.
You also have an event called L’Etrange Musique.
We’ve had this for the past five or six years. If we had the means, and I hope it will happen in the future, we would like to take the festival into other directions, such as exhibitions, readings with writers and scriptwriters, performances, concerts. The first of those is music. One of my biggest dreams was to see The Pop Group play live and as it happens they reformed this year. So I contacted Mark Stewart straightaway and wrote to him saying how much I would love for them to play and they said yes. For me to have The Pop Group on our stage is one of the most fantastic dreams in the history of the festival.
There is some cross-over in the films shown at L’Etrange Festival and FrightFest. Do you work together?
No, not at all. We know each other. I’ve been following Alan Jones’s work for a long time. They present films that we show a week later, so in some cases the distributors tell us that the prints will be at FrightFest before they get to us. But for the first time this year, we’ve collaborated on the homage to Tobe Hooper because his first film Eggshells has been restored by an English company.We were in contact to organise Hooper’s guest appearance and take advantage of the fact that he was coming to London to bring him to Paris, which is something we’d wanted to do for a long time. That was an exception, but if FrightFest were interested in collaborating on the restoration of a print or the visit of a prestigious guest for instance, we’d be very positive because they do a fantastic job, you can see that they’re passionate about what they’re doing. We’re very open to collaborations with people who have the same passion for what they do as we have for our festival.
As well as being one of the first ever sci-fi talkies, William Cameron Menzies film of HG Wells’s Things to Come (1936) is notable for inaugurating a new wave of British film soundtrack composition. It was in this era, with Muir Mathieson as music director of Alexander Korda’s Denham Studios (later to become part of the Rank Organisation), that a number of important British composers of concert music began writing scores for the screen – notably Ralph Vaughan-Williams, William Walton, Arnold Bax, and Elisabeth Lutyens, along with Things to Come‘s own composer, Arthur Bliss.
With Wells himself given an unprecedented level of control for a screenwriter, the music was placed in a position of paramount importance from the very beginning, and Bliss became involved in the earliest stages of pre-production. Unlike many concert composers who dip their toe into the murky waters of composing for film, Bliss maintained a markedly similar style to his usual music, and as a result the concert suite adapted from the film’s soundtrack remains popular to this day. Even if, as Wells desired and is sometimes reported, the music was not in fact recorded in advance of filming for onset playback, in certain sequences it is evident that the visual and musical aspects were conceived in parallel.
In addition to the resources of a full symphony orchestra, Bliss also had at his disposal a specially enlarged percussion section. It is during the rebuilding of the city, with the operations of the great factories and blast furnaces, that this additional battery is exploited to its full potential, literally chiming with the machinery of production. However, with the City of the Future built, its newly erected skyscrapers glistening like Corbusier’s dream, Bliss’s music returns to the sort of bluff quasi-impressionistic Britishness heard in the film’s opening sections.
With the forward march of scientific progress seemingly unstoppable, the film reaches its climax with a protest of artists and craftsmen against a proposed trip to the moon. You scientists, cry the artists led by the sculptor Theotocopulos, make our creations ‘look small’. The reflexive sense of this mise en abyme may be found in the way the film’s visionary picture of scientific progress and urban regeneration can scarcely be matched by any corresponding music of the future.
Edward Hollis studied architecture before working on Shri Lankan ruins and on old Scottish breweries. In The Secret Lives of Buildings, he charts the history of 13 buildings through time and multiple transformations, from the Parthenon and the Alhambra to the Berlin Wall and the theme parks of Las Vegas. Below, he explains why Wall-E is his filmic alter ego.
In the future, movies will always begin in Manhattan. There will be an opening shot of the East River and the cloud-capped towers of Midtown. The cameras will do a wide, lazy pan, and then zoom into some crevice where somebody normal is doing something normal. It’s always the same.
Give it a few minutes, and it won’t be normal any more. King Kong will be battling biplanes on top of the Empire State, Godzilla will have surfaced from the deep, and the day after tomorrow, a tsunami will be followed by a great freeze. Thousands of years in the future, a robot boy will sit buried under the ice, staring at a fairground attraction.
I don’t want to be a blonde starlet caught in the arms of a gorilla (not this time), nor a dinosaur, nor an artificial child, but I do want to live in that future Manhattan of disasters and miracles; and when I’m there, my movie will start exactly the same way as all the others: the river, the towers, the pan, the zoom – and little old me, scurrying along the sidewalk, being normal.
Except in the future life of my alter ego, nothing is normal, and I’m not in Manhattan. Rather, I live in a gigantic simulacrum of that long-lost city, a simulacrum I have painstakingly constructed myself. The river is a river of dust, and I have built the great towers out of little cubes of compacted rubbish, the detritus of the original Manhattan.
I am a menial robot. Every day I scavenge for rubbish, and occasionally I find a treasure or two. In the evening I drag them back to an abandoned shipping container, and in my cabinet of abandoned curiosities, I rest until morning. I do not sleep. Instead, I spend the night watching my only film: it’s a story set in a vibrant, vanished, New York. ‘Put on your Sunday best,’ sings Dolly, in the guise of Barbra Streisand.
My alter ego, Wall-E, like the junk market at the beginning of Star Wars, the City of the Dead in Barbarella, and the leaking Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Blade Runner, reminds us that in the future, cities won’t be futuristic. They will be quite as messy as those of the past. Indeed, they will be made out of their broken remains, as they have always been.
At the end of the film, the returning human race turn the robot’s trash Manhattan into an Eden, then a garden, then a farm, then a village, a town, and a great city once again. Their efforts are represented in paintings that develop from cave painting to abstraction via every style in between. In each of them appears Wall-E, the robot rubbish collector, more mythic with every redepiction.
Perhaps it’s all happened before. Cities abandoned in jungles and deserts were futuristic once. That we have outlived them is a tribute to the toiling midgets who inhabited their ruins. In the future I want to be a scavenging robot, the sentimental fan of Hello Dolly, upon whose drudgery will be constructed an entire civilisation.
The Secret Lives of Buildings by Edward Hollis is published by Portobello Books.
Once again, the British censors have made it clear that they believe not just children but adults too should be told what they can and cannot watch. Srdjan Spasojevic’s now notorious A Serbian Film was pulled from Film4 FrightFest at the weekend after the BBFC and Westminster Council demanded 3 minutes and 48 seconds of cuts. Our self-appointed guardians have kindly protected us from images that we may find disturbing. This infantilisation of the British public is shocking.
A Serbian Film is an angry, desperate denunciation of state-imposed violence and its utter annihilation of human values and spirit. It shows the most extreme acts of cruelty imaginable precisely so that its purpose cannot be mistaken: it aims to disgust, not to arouse or thrill. For that reason, it is actually an incredibly moral film, unlike the ‘torture porn’ movies it has been misguidedly compared to (sometimes by journalists who haven’t even seen the film – see the Guardian Guide on September 28).
The reason given by the FrightFest organisers for pulling it from the festival was that ‘a film of this nature should be shown in its entirety’. I believe they are absolutely right: to cut anything from this film is to risk misrepresenting it. If the violence was not so extreme, it could much more easily be seen as entertainment. To blunt the horror and mitigate the revulsion it means to provoke would make it more ambiguous and therefore morally more dubious. Just as Pasolini’s SalÃ², or the 120 Days of Sodom, banned in the UK on its release in 1976, the film is a fierce reaction against the unthinkable sadistic brutality that those in power are capable of inflicting on others, and the censors’ response is equally confused and injudicious.
The nauseating scenes in A Serbian Film point to the vicious war crimes that have scarred the nation, to the abject corruption of abusive authorities who force individuals to commit horrendous acts, to the dehumanising nightmare of having no other choice but to be either victim or torturer, to the utter hopelessness such a trauma leaves, and to the impossibility of surviving it. It is also a film that feels directed at Western Europe, a Europe that watched the hellish disintegration of the former Yugoslavia on prime-time TV. It is a film that indicts real horrors packaged as entertainment, not one that offers visions of torture for fun. But the BBFC do not seem to think that the British public can be trusted to understand this.
A Serbian Film was pulled from Film4 FrightFest were it was meant to screen on Sunday 29 August. It will be shown with an 18 certificate at L’Etrange Festival in Paris on September 10. It was scheduled to screen at the Raindance Film Festival in London next month but whether the screening will go ahead is not confirmed at this point.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews