Based on the novel The Screaming Mimi by: Fredric Brown (uncredited)
Original title:L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo
Cast: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi, Umberto Raho
Dario Argento’s directorial debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo) was released in Italy on 19 February 1970, followed in quick succession by Cat o’Nine Tails (Il gatto a nove code, 11 February 1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (4 Mosche di velluto grigio, 17 December 1971). Although not a trilogy in terms of reoccurring characters, there are enough links between the three films that make them worth considering as a sequence that is linked thematically and stylistically, even if the middle film is only an ‘animal’ film in name alone.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is an astonishing debut film. As a reviewer who has seen all but one of the director’s movies (1973’s comedy drama Le cinque giornate [The Five Days], which remains unreleased in America and the UK) and both of his episodes of the TV series Masters of Horror, I have to admit that I was beginning to doubt the director’s talent in recent years: my memories of his excellent early films began to fade and were replaced by his recent output, which has gone from the below average Do You Like Hitchcock?, The Card Player and Non ho sonno in the first half of the last decade to the actually unwatchable – Giallo and Mother of Tears: The Third Mother – in the last three years. However, returning to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage after a gap of several years has revealed a film that is still fresh, innovative and deserving of its status as a seminal giallo.
The Horror Channel (Sky channel 319 / Virgin 149 / Freesat 138) presents a triple bill of Dario Argento on October 31 from 9pm, including The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red and Phenomena. More information on the Horror Channel website.
Having not read the uncredited novel by Fredric Brown, I don’t know whether any of the striking set-pieces, costumes and characters can be attributed to Brown, but the plot is significantly different from the novel’s (filmed previously in 1958 by Gerd Oswald), so it’s possible that Argento only kept the book’s basic premise of an artist obsessed by a traumatised woman who is being stalked by a serial killer. There are numerous memorable scenes in the film: the powerless spectator trapped behind glass as he witnesses a murder, the police pathologist who wears dark glasses while a bank of open reel computers process the evidence behind him, a couple having sex while a metronome ticks, the protagonist throwing a cigarette packet to a suspect to see which hand he catches it with, and bizarre lines of dialogue such as ‘How many times have I had to tell you that Ursula Andress belongs with the transvestites not the perverts’!
This is a film that provides a segue from the noir genre that inspired it – the femme fatale and the amateur detective following her – to a new form of filmmaking and storytelling that seems equally inspired by Ennio Morricone’s jazz score (Argento often cut his films to his musical scores) and Freudian dream logic. While Mario Bava can stake a claim as the progenitor of giallo cinema, Argento also looks elsewhere to international filmmaking (he was a professional film critic before becoming a script writer) with chase scenes reminiscent of The Third Man, featuring close-ups and characters lit by car headlights, the familiarity of those elements made strange by Morricone’s discordant strings and the director’s fast zooms and cuts.
Only the final scene of the movie disappoints, as a police expert explains the motives and psychology of the killer; Argento doesn’t have the blank stare of a comatose Norman Bates to juxtapose with the banal monologue, so instead cuts to random shots of planes on runways as the hero sits waiting to leave the country. While the director doesn’t seem to know how to end his first film, in the third film of this unofficial animal trilogy, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, it seems like he doesn’t know how to continue beyond a fascinating beginning, as will be seen below.
Title: The Cat O’Nine Tails
Release date: 24 January 2011
Distributor: Arrow Video
Director: Dario Argento
Writers: Dario Argento, Luigi Collo, Dardano Sacchetti, Bryan Edgar Wallace (uncredited)
Original title:Il gatto a nove code
Cast: James Franciscus, Karl Malden, Catherine Spaak, Pier Paolo Capponi, Horst Frank
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was a massive hit, making twice its budget back in Italy alone, so it’s unsurprising Argento made a follow-up within a year and would make his third film another six months later. The Cat O’Nine Tails starts with a similar premise: a vulnerable man – this time blind, rather than trapped behind glass – is the only witness to a murder when a laboratory break-in leads to the death of a security guard.
Bird, Cat and Flies‘ lead protagonists were American TV actors Tony Musante, James Fransiscus and Michael Brandon respectively, Bird‘s lead actress (and former ‘Bond girl’) Suzy Kendall is British, while Cat‘s witness (who ends up as Fransiscus’s sidekick when he starts investigating the crimes) is Czech-American film star Karl Malden, whose post-Argento career would mainly be on television. The casting of Americans as the leads shows the director’s international aspirations – understandably, following the popularity of Leone’s Westerns with American leads, who would be dubbed into Italian for the local releases. Cat in particular is a slick thriller in the American mould, Argento keeping his own stylistic flourishes to a minimum compared to the other films in the ‘trilogy’, and including an exemplary car chase and cross-cutting between scenes in the style of American spy shows such as Man in a Suitcase and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Other international affectations include a climactic rooftop chase that recalls Hitchcock’s Vertigo and a Morricone score similar to the music of Lalo Schifrin, as well as references to Edgar Allan Poe, who would inform much of Argento’s work. The opening credits of Four Flies on Grey Velvet would make this explicit – a beating heart against a black background – and here we have grave-robbing, someone trapped in a locked tomb, and rats menacing a bound child. German cinema also gets a look in, with an uncredited rewrite by ‘Krimi’ scribe Bryan Edgar Wallace and Teutonic star Horst Frank.
Argento may have also looked to the work of Michelangelo Antonioni – another Italian director working with English-speaking actors at the time – as many of Cat‘s twists and turns recall the obsessive nature of the photographer investigating a crime in that director’s Blow-Up, made five years earlier. In contrast with the frustrating endings of Blow-Up and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento and his three collaborators provide The Cat o’Nine Tails with a satisfying conclusion: the killer tries to convince Malden’s character that he murdered his little girl and should be executed at his hands in revenge, which recalls the beginnings of the previous and next film by the director.
The fact that all three of Argento’s films made in 1970-71 contain an animal in their title suggests that at some point during production of his second film, he or the producers decided to brand them as a trilogy. But although the titles of Bird and Flies refer to clues that lead to the discovery of the killer, The Cat o’Nine Tails doesn’t feature a cat anywhere on screen or in the foley recording, nor does it feature the 17th-century torture device. One explanation of the title is that it refers to the number of suspects that Franciscus investigates, while I prefer the idea that it suggests the multiple chromosomal combinations that get discussed in a scene about the genetic psychopathy of the killer. Either way, since the title has no reference to the plot, this suggests it was added to the film late in production, to tie it to its predecessor and thematic sequel, which Argento would have already started work on before Cat arrived in cinemas.
Title:Four Flies on Grey Velvet
Format: DVD (Region 1)
Release date: 24 February 2009
Distributor: Mya Communication / Ryko
Director: Dario Argento
Writers: Dario Argento, Luigi Cozzi, Mario Foglietti
Original title:Quattro mosche di velluto grigio
Cast: Michael Brandon, Mimsy Farmer, Tom Felleghy, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Fulvio Mingozzi
Watching a director’s films in chronological order, you expect trends to dovetail, and in this sense Argento’s first three films almost feel like they were made in the wrong order. Bird mixes a traditional thriller with the director’s more surrealistic leanings, Cat is the most conventional and least Argento-like of the three films, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet is the most surrealistic of the three, with a negligible plot that exists purely to superficially connect the gory murders. So instead of the third film recapitulating, or elaborating on, the first two, it feels like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was separated into its constituent parts in the next two films.
Four Flies on Grey Velvet is the weakest of Argento’s early output, but in comparison to films he would make three decades later, it’s an underappreciated gem that provides the template for much of the director’s later work – theatrical, random and bizarre deaths that serve mainly to indulge the voyeurism and fetishes of horror aficionados. The opening features a rock/jazz band at practice being observed by a mysterious man in sunglasses who leaves a trail of burning cigarette butts on the floor. When one of the musicians leaves and eventually realises he’s being stalked, he follows the mysterious figure into a theatre; there, he gets maneuvered into inadvertently murdering the stalker while being photographed by a character in the shadows, who’s wearing a pig mask and talking in whispers. This striking and memorable set-piece isn’t really followed up in the plot – the musician isn’t blackmailed to any notable degree for a start – but is echoed in scenes that are artistic and thematic reflections of the opening, showing how unconcerned the film is with telling a traditional narrative.
The progression of violence on screen is also noticeable in Argento’s first three films – Bird is fairly tame by today’s standards, Cat contains a few violent deaths, in particular a character hit by a moving train, captured in slow motion, but Flies seems to exist purely for the depiction of violent deaths that are almost dreamlike at times – a reoccurring scene shows the lead character dreaming of his own decapitation in a bleached-out arena, which seems like a lost scene from an Italian ‘swords and sandals’ movie. The disjointed nature of Argento’s third film isn’t helped by Morricone’s shortest score to date – apparently he and the director fell out during the film and wouldn’t work together again for another 25 years. It segues from repetitive minimalism (which predicts John Carpenter’s score for Halloween) to strange comedic counterpoints to the action, such as a chorus of ‘Hallelujahs’ accompanying the arrival of Bud Spencer’s character, who helps the musician with the murder investigation. This musical sting is presumably an in-joke aimed at Italian audiences related to Spencer’s reputation playing a deus ex machina in B-movies, or even an obscure reference to the pseudo-religious 1968 album The Book of Taliesyn by Deep Purple, who were Argento’s first choice to score the movie, but it stops the film in its tracks by bruising, if not breaking, the fourth wall. Due to the crumbling relationship between Argento and Morricone, several scenes unfold with no music whatsoever, and these are the ones that tend to drag, in between the lurid and bloody executions on screen.
Perhaps encouraged by recent success, Argento uses the film as a way to experiment with his craft: a scene where an otherwise useless private detective stalks the killer is framed mainly in shots of arms and legs on a crowded metro train, and there are jump cuts during a sex scene (which may have influenced Nic Roeg when he travelled to Italy to shoot Don’t Look Now three years later). Without a complete score to fill the running time of the film, Argento uses the absence of music experimentally in one scene where we hear the sounds of driving juxtaposed with the lead character’s thoughts of travel. The nightmarish plot just about allows for the absurd pseudo-science where the four flies of the title are revealed when a bright light is projected through the severed retina of one of the victims.
As I suggested at the start, this is a trilogy of films that is linked through visual and thematic motifs. Each film is concerned with the act of looking and being seen; for example, in Cat, the killer cuts a hole through a door to look through it, and the hero’s girlfriend tries to stab his eye. There are also strange characters on the periphery that alternately aid and retard the investigation, for example the homeless man in a shack who keeps cats in cages for food in Bird. To this is added unusually honest (for the time) portrayals of homosexual characters on screen (which were cut as much as the violence in early English-language prints), the use of the P.O.V. of the murder weapon (pacePeeping Tom), femmes fatales, city-based locations and the jazz-like riffing on a central theme.
While neither The Cat o’Nine Tails nor Four Flies on Grey Velvet are quite as good as Argento’s first film – the second being slightly too slick and anonymous, the third a little too free-form and under-plotted – the three complement each other and are all worth watching for fans of giallo as they are among the best examples of the genre. As Arrow Video are releasing lavish new DVD / Blu-Ray editions of Bird and Cat, one can only hope they obtain the rights to Flies as well, to allow British audiences to see one of Argento’s rarest films and complete the set of three.
Prior to its DVD re-release from Arrow Video, Midnight Movies presents a special screening of Dario Argento’s classic gory 80s horror Demons on Friday 26 November 2010 at Curzon Soho. One fateful night in a Berlin cinema, art imitates life as one by one the audience are possessed by blood-hungry, puss-filled demons. More details on Curzon Cinemas website.
The strong sense of community is immediately evident at L’Etrange Festival, the Parisian celebration of outlandish new films and obscure rarities from the past, now in its 16th edition, but without an ounce of cliquishness. While the same faces were spotted eagerly returning to get their fill of strange gems, there was also enough diversity in the audience to demonstrate the breadth of the programme, which attracted art-house audiences as much as fans of alternative, genre and exploitation cinema.
This year’s event was graced by the presence of two legendary guests, Alejandro Jodorowsky, who curated a selection of films, and Tobe Hooper, who came to introduce a brief retrospective of his work, including a screening of his restored 1969 debut Eggshells, rarely seen until now. Both Jodorowsky and Hooper were engaging speakers, and it was fascinating to hear Hooper discuss the making of Eggshells, explaining how The Night of the Living Dead played a major role in leading him away from experimental cinema and into the more lucrative horror genre that he mined with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
The programmers are passionate fans of alternative cinema themselves, and the joy of the festival is to know that any screening randomly chosen will lead to the discovery of something interesting or challenging in one way or another. Below, Nicolas Guichard and Virginie Sélavy report on some of the more noteworthy films in this year’s programme.
No Mercy (Yongseoneun Eupda, 2010)
Alejandro Jodorowsky was given carte blanche to put together a programme of films, among which was South Korean revenge tale No Mercy, by director Kim Hyeong-jun. In good form as always, Jodorowsky was warmly welcomed by the Etrange Festival crowd. Introducing No Mercy, he talked about his passion for Asian cinema, explaining that he hates recognising actors and that he finds it easier to get into the stories of Asian films because he doesn’t know the cast. He told the audience that he buys piles of unknown films from his local Chinese corner shop, and acquired No Mercy in this way. Thinking at first that it was a classic crime thriller, he was surprised when the film’s tone changed and turned into a ferocious revenge tale, one that he says impressed him as more extreme than Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy.
While this is debatable, No Mercy certainly offers an interesting take on the revenge story. It starts with famous forensic pathologist Kang Min-ho being called to the scene of a gruesome murder, a woman cut into pieces. The culprit is soon found, a crippled fanatical eco-activist, but it turns out that he kidnapped Kang’s daughter before his arrest to force Kang to help him; the first murder was in fact a set-up to involve Kang because of something in their shared past.
Here, vengeance is about narrative, about the institution or reinstitution of the law. The avenger, being disabled, is not a protagonist, an actor, but is a creator of narrative. As in Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’, the law is inscribed in the physical body itself. The puzzle of the bodies in the film offers a variation on the system of cruelty; the pathologist’s job is to guarantee the correct reading of the signs of law-breaking. But a past mistake prevents him from correctly interpreting what should be obvious: the avenger is not a transgressor, but a rigorous applier of the talion who seeks to punish the story’s real transgressor. Like in a tragedy, not Greek but Elizabethan, the transgressor is the author of his own misfortune.
While the structure of the film offers a fascinating passive variation on the theme of vengeance, the direction is not entirely successful: the realistic style is more banal than in Bong Joon-ho’s landmark Korean crime thriller Memories of Murder and the film does not achieve the fantastical power of Oldboy. The dénouement weakens the theme, as is generally the case in the genre: vengeance relies on a fantasy of power, which necessarily has something surreal, floating, indefinite about it…
The Wild and Wonderful Whites of Virginia (2010)
Appalachian mountain dancer and all-round hell-raiser Jesco White has already been the subject of a feature film by Dominic Murphy, the excellent White Lightnin’ (2009), and of a 1991 documentary by Julian Nitzberg, Dancing Outlaw. Here, Nitzberg returns to Boone County to paint a fascinating portrait of the whole White family, exploring the family tree, down from Jesco’s father D. Ray White, a legendary mountain dancer and rugged miner, and his wife, an extraordinarily strong woman who raised over 20 children (not all hers!), in spite of the dire poverty of their circumstances. Next on the tree come hard-living, pill-popping Jesco and his siblings, their dazed, violent, drug-addicted offspring and their own children.
Nitzberg’s film is never condescending or exploitative and it certainly doesn’t glamorise the Whites. As stories of glue-sniffing, dope-smoking, hardships, misery, fights, shoot-outs, murders, prison, two-timing and violent husbands are told, it’s almost like we’re in an old country song – unsurprisingly, the Whites have been the subject of several ballads, one penned by Hank Williams III, which he is seen singing in the film while Jesco White dances along. The Whites are like the last representatives of a lost culture in a modern world that finds them unmanageable and only tolerates them as characters in a folk tale. It recalls the moment when Nashville country tried to get rid of the last old-school country singers in the early 70s, when Waylon Jennings invented Outlaw Country in reaction against this sanitisation.
It is a fascinating and poignant film because it documents the tail end of a long-gone era that gave birth to country music, but has now degenerated into a world of desperados addicted to prescription drugs, no longer connected to their culture. While the older generations (down to Jesco and his siblings) have a strong sense of where they come from (as when Jesco’s older sister Mamie sings ‘I’m a miner’s daughter’), and entirely understand and take on their outlaw position in relation to mainstream society, the younger Whites seem lost, disconnected from D. Ray White’s harsh spirit and values, devoid of their parents and grand-parents’ ability to make the system work for them, and unable to control their lives, finding themselves in prison or institutionalised. One of the county’s officials describes the Whites as completely free, and in one way, this is very true. No law seems to apply to them, and there aren’t many people capable of living as much in the moment and according to their immediate impulse, without a thought for consequences, as they do. In that sense, they are truly rock’n’roll. But Jesco also says that he feels like he’s already dead, and you cannot help but feel that it is also a sense of profound despair that frees them from caring about what happens.
Quentin ‘Mr Oizo’ Dupieux’s gamble of making a serial-killer thriller with a tyre in the role of the psychopath had us salivating in anticipation. It started well, opening with a US cop in the desert warning spectators armed with binoculars that sometimes there is ‘no reason’ for what happens in films. Their entertainment programme starts when a tyre thrown away in the desert comes back to life and starts exterminating the animals in its path, blowing them up with the sheer force of its evil vibrations. So far so good, but all the deaths follow exactly the same pattern, so that it soon becomes very repetitive. Surely, inventive cruelty is one of the basic rules of horror… The tension and terror we were hoping for failed to materialise, and it wasn’t imaginatively surreal enough to hold our attention.
Mr No Legs (1979)
When a film is described as ‘so bad it’s good’, you can usually safely assume that it is just plain bad and is best avoided. But in the case of this 1979 wheelchair exploitation shocker, this overused phrase of post-Tarantino times provides a perfect and truthful description. Directed by Rico Browning, the creature from The Creature from the Black Lagoon and its sequels Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks among Us, Mr No Legs is so woefully inept that it is phenomenally entertaining. The standard cop story is prodigiously enlivened by the title character of Lou/Mr No Legs, the vicious wheelchair-bound henchman of a drug lord played by real-life amputee Ted Vollrath with tremendous gusto – in fact, the film’s biggest fault is that it doesn’t give him more screen time. The culmination of the film’s bad taste, oddness and outrageousness comes in the swimming pool scene, where Mr No Legs dispatches a number of able-bodied assailants in a jaw-dropping display of legless Kung Fu, complete with jumps, back flips, killer screams and secret weapons. The final car chase is splendidly preposterous, the stunts hilariously amateurish, and it has to be a contender for the title of longest and slowest car chase ever committed to celluloid. Although the comedic value of the film (enhanced by the French dubbing in the version we saw) is clearly unintentional, it is laugh-out loud funny. There is genius in this level of ineptitude.
L’inconnu de Shandigor (1967)
Directed by Jean-Louis Roy in 1967, this Swiss film is part of the golden age of late 60s European science fiction, a dystopian, speculative fiction describing a parallel rather than futuristic world. A mad scientist (played by Daniel Emilfork, who would play another mad scientist nearly three decades later in Jeunet and Caro’s The City of Lost Children) has invented a secret anti-nuclear weapon, the Annulator, and several groups of spies from various countries want to get their hands on it.
Situated between Alphaville and Who Are You, Polly Magoo?L’inconnu de Shandigor is a pop film, boasting a great credit sequence consisting of black and white serigraphy, as well as a superb use of architecture and locations. It stars Serge Gainsbourg as a dandy-ish spy, who plays the organ in black gloves at the funeral of another spy, interpreting ‘Bye Bye Mr Spy’, a song he wrote especially for the film. Like Polly Magoo, it has all the pop accessories, but devoid of the existential depths of Alphaville, it is more on the cartoonish side of sci-fi, and it never really takes off or coheres into a substantial narrative.
Fade to Black (1980)
Vernon Zimmerman’s 1980 Fade to Black could be described as post-modern horror: the protagonist, Eric, can only act in reference to his extensive knowledge of film. A loner whose only passion is cinema, he has a neurotic relationship with his mother that imitates Hitchcock’s Psycho. Mounting frustration and unhappiness lead him to seek revenge against those who have humiliated him, and for each murder he transforms himself into one of his favourite characters (including James Cagney in White Heat, another psychopath with a mother complex).
Fade to Black marks the appearance of the nerd in cinema (here, in an early instance of the revenge of the nerd sub-genre). Eric is like a failed Tarantino who never got his break. And what the film demonstrates is that if the nerd succeeds in expressing his frustration (or if he succeeds in becoming a ‘creator’), he is doomed to repetition.
The Housemaid (Hanyo, 2010)
A re-interpretation of the 1960s South Korean film of the same title, Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid ominously starts with an anonymous suicide, only obliquely related to the story, announcing impending tragedy. From this shocking opening set on bustling, crowded city streets, the film moves to the rarefied surroundings of a rich family’s house. The luxurious, but cold, marble floors, the dark corridors and the blue-green glass lampshades, remindful of Dario Argento and Italian giallos, create a sinister, claustrophobic atmosphere around naÃ¯ve new young maid Euny, hired to look after little girl Nami because her mother is pregnant with twins. The innocently sensual Euny is soon seduced by the husband, a haughty, cruel, rich heir, and their illicit affair leads the family to intimidate and brutalise Euny, with terrible consequences.
As a melodrama about the exploitation of the lower classes, the film is quite heavy-handed and the wealthy family is too simplistically depicted, their cruelty not sophisticated enough to be truly interesting, while the misery piled upon Euny feels relentless. However, this is redeemed by the superb use of décors and lighting, the sense of atmosphere, the palpable sensuality of the affair, and the stunningly extravagant, over-the-top dénouement. Interestingly, the film follows a similarly unusual structure as Bedevilled, another slow-burn Korean film (also showing at L’Etrange Festival) about the exploitation of a lower-class woman, which culminates in an extremely violent, blood-splattered finale that strongly contrasts with the rest of the film.
La vie Ã l’envers ((1963)
This was the last film we saw at this year’s festival, and what a terrific end to the event it was. This Alain Jessua film from 1963 was a total discovery for us, and has led us to seek out his other films – expect to read more on the writer/director in Electric Sheep soon! Adapted from Jessua’s own novel, La vie Ã l’envers (Life Upside Down) centres on Jacques, played by the fantastically long and angular Charles Denner, who gradually disengages himself from all the situations and conventions imposed by society – work, marriage, etc. The detached, ironic, sharp observational tone makes the film a total joy, each of Jacques’s frighteningly lucid comments a devastating and effortless blow to social hypocrisy and conformism. The film has been misleadingly described as anti-consumerist and a rejection of modern society, but it goes far beyond that: it is an existential meditation on withdrawal from life itself, modern or otherwise, and from all human interaction. Shot in minimalist, elegant black and white, the film offers one of the best and subtlest incarnations of the Duchampian bachelor machine in cinema. The end is beautifully ambiguous, and we are left to decide if Denner is mad or whether he has managed to trick society into giving him what he wanted – total solitude and isolation.
Read the interview with one of L’Etrange Festival’s founders and programmers Frédéric Temps.
Cast: Chris Massoglia, Haley Bennett, Nathan Gamble
In the second part of Alex Fitch’s interview with Joe Dante, the director discusses his other recent project available to UK audiences, an excellent new horror film for kids called The Hole in 3D, his interest in the new technology that made the film possible and his hopes regarding the next film on his slate.
Read the first part of the interview with Joe Dante about his new TV and web mini-series Splatter.
Alex Fitch: It’s interesting that The Hole was out in UK cinemas at the same time Splatter was on TV. Splatter is a very quick, low-budget series designed to be shown on small screens while conversely The Hole is being shown in 3D cinemas using the newest 3D technology, and the film has won an award for 3D cinematography…
Joe Dante: I guess I just embrace any technology I can get my hands on! (laughs)The Hole wasn’t initiated in 3D. When I first got involved with it, I suggested it might be enhanced by shooting it in 3D now that the new system is far superior to the one that I grew up with. We did win an award at the Venice Film festival for ‘Best 3D’, and it was the first time they’d given that award. The way I approached it was a little less aggressive than I think people expect. There are some things that come out of the screen at you, but to me that’s not the appeal of 3D. After a while you get tired of having spears thrown at you, and I think the real value of the medium is to be able to envelop the audience in the story and make them feel as if it’s happening to them, and that’s what we tried to do with that.
Obviously the 3D technology has improved exponentially; when you saw 3D films when you were young, did you think, ‘If I ever get the chance to make films, I hope the technology will be considerably more advanced and I get to make the film that I wish I was watching now’?
I think I was too young at the time to have been thinking about having a career in anything, let alone movies, because 3D died off when I was about 10 years old. There were efforts to revive it later on that, for technical reasons, weren’t really very good. But I always loved 3D, in fact the movie that got me interested in movies was It came from Outer Space, which was shot in 3D in 1953, and I was very impressed with it. So I’ve always followed 3D. I’m part of a revival group that we have here in California that every so often – once a decade – runs all the 3D movies that are extant from the 50s in a sort of film festival, and we’re still looking for some of the ones that haven’t come to light. I’ve always been a 3D fan, but I can’t say I’m a 3D fanatic; I don’t run around proselytising that everyone should make every movie in 3D, and frankly I’m a little worried about the future of 3D because of the endless parade of fake 3D movies that have come down the ‘pike, movies shown in 3D that have been computerised to look that way and are far inferior to the results that you get when you actually shoot in 3D.
It seems very odd that various companies are releasing 3D TVs when there doesn’t seem to be enough product to show on them and no evidence that this revival of the format isn’t going to be another flash in the pan.
Well, there is something about this 3D TV thing that has all the retailers excited because everybody gets to replace all their equipment – that’s what they love. It’s like 8-track tapes, then they went to cassettes and then discs… They love to be able to sell you everything three times!
The Hole is a horror film for young adults – it’s not nearly as gory as Splatter or your early films such as Piranha and The Howling – and it has ended up in UK cinemas showing at the same time as the tail end of the theatrical run of Alexandre Aja’s Piranha 3D, so you’re kind of competing with a sequel to one of your own movies, which must be quite funny…
It’s not quite for the same audience, though. Piranha 3D is a gore fest of proportions I couldn’t have imagined being allowed on British screens during the 70s – back then in Britain every Western would have a splice when the gun went off. You didn’t see the guy die! It was very strict in those days, but now obviously things have changed. Piranha 3D is a really, really gory film and The Hole is not, it’s more of a psychological film. I don’t think it’s the same frat boy audience…
Looking at the history of 3D films, even Hitchcock made a movie in 3D – Dial M for Murder – in 1954, or maybe it was converted, I don’t know the technology behind it…
No, he shot it in 3D and it’s one of the best 3D movies ever made. Very few people have seen it in 3D, because it came along at the end of the cycle but it’s the movie that was a template for me when I was doing The Hole.
That’s what I was wondering, because it seems about time that someone – and I’m glad that you have done so – made another thriller in 3D, not relying on the technology just to exaggerate special effects, but using it as another way of making the special environment that the thriller is set in sinister, because the camera can move in a larger number of directions.
Yeah, I’m hoping that if 3D does catch on – if it does manage to survive this wave of crummy 3D movies – it will become a tool, a useful tool like Cinemascope was, something that is not suited to every story but in certain circumstances can enhance the movie and make it more of an immersive experience.
I read that your next film is going to be a behind-the-scenes fictionalisation of Roger Corman’s The Trip…
I’m hoping that’s my next film. You know how it is these days with independents, I hope I can get it financed, it’s very tricky in today’s environment to get films off the ground. It costs so much money to make films, to release them, to make prints and advertising. It’s daunting, so you find the ones that get made are films that are very, very cheap or tent-pole, very expensive gambles. Often, they’re not really gambles as they’re usually remakes of TV shows or have the title of something you remember. Films about showbiz are always tricky to get financed because financiers think that audiences don’t relate to that sort of thing.
Even though there is a fascination among movie buffs for the history of the media?
Movie buffs alone don’t sell the tickets, and all the ancillary effects they used to expect from movies – you know, they would finance a movie and if it didn’t work theatrically it would make money on DVD – are no longer there, now the DVD market is getting soft and it’s turning into video on demand and no one is quite sure how the accounting of that works. So there’s a lot of uncertainty and even fear about the future of the entertainment business.
Why are you interested in making a film about that era? Is it down to your fond memories?
I was actually sent the script by the writer Tim Lucas…
From the magazine Video Watchdog?
Yes, he had written it on spec, basically, and wanted to know what I thought of it, and I liked it so much, I said I would love to do this movie. It’s been a challenge, but it’s a movie I want to see! My whole credo is that I don’t make movies that I wouldn’t go see and his is one that I would like to see, so obviously nobody is going to make it but me and I’m trying to get it off the ground…
Joe Dante is 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.
Dario Argento must be one of horror’s most operatic auteurs. Few directors can lay claim to such a consistency in the blending of image and music with the Grand Guignol theatrics of his most celebrated murders. He is also a great director of women and writer of female characters – this was, after all, one of the reasons he was brought on as a writer for Sergio Leone’s epic Once upon a Time in the West – in a grand Italian tradition that stretches back, at least, to the prima donnas of Puccini and Verdi. But it was only after he stopped working with his regular musical foils, Ennio Morricone and then the various members of Goblin, that the occasional oblique references to opera composers in his films (the great dorm house in Phenomena, we are told, once belonged to Richard Wagner) evolved into the full-scale quotation of actual operatic arias.
His most recent work, Giallo, opens in the lush surroundings of Turin’s legendary Teatro Regio with a burst of recitative from Mozart’s late opera seria, La clemenza di Tito; his Phantom of the Opera re-tread features the overture from Gounod’s Faust as well as the famous habanera from Bizet’s Carmen; even The Stendhal Syndrome manages to squeeze an aria, played on a little boom-box, into one of its murder scenes.
In 1987’s Opera, however, Argento came to believe his choice of quotation had rather got the better of him. Against the advice of many, Argento insisted that the opera being rehearsed in the film’s story should be Verdi’s Macbeth, and during filming, Argento suffered a number of misfortunes that led him to believe he may have become the victim of the famous curse of ‘The Scottish Play’. Major actors pulled out of the film at the last minute, minor actors were accidentally killed on set (crushed by a car), Argento’s proposed marriage to Daria Nicolodi was called off, and his father died suddenly during production. ‘But I felt,’ says an ever sanguine Argento, ‘that I had started with Macbeth, so I had to finish. And anyway, there could be no ravens in Cosi Fan Tutte.’
Apparently, the part of Marco in the film (played by Ian Charleson in his last screen role), the horror film director turned opera director, was based on Argento himself. A hint perhaps, now that film directors from Patrice Chereau to Werner Herzog have taken the helm at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, that Argento is waiting for the call from La Scala.
Opera is available on DVD in the UK as Terror at the Opera from Arrow Video.
With most screenings just a couple of Bloomsbury streets apart, there was a friendly, community atmosphere at the seventh edition of the London International Animation Festival (LIAF): a rarity among such a frenetic, sprawling city. Over the course of 10 days, audience members began to assume familiar faces, and collective interest in the festival competition became palpable, as festival-goers scribbled down their thoughts on questionnaires, filing them into voting boxes. The last say might have gone to the professional judging panel but the audience vote was an important and lively part of the festival, as revealed by the final night’s packed-out Best of the Fest screenings. The announcement of the best film in the competition – Anita Killi’s Angry Man – was greeted with an ardent ‘Yes!’ from one festival-goer. Such a strong reaction is not surprising since choosing the winning film apparently caused some contention between the official judges. A recipient of various international awards, Angry Man portrays domestic abuse through the confused and scared eyes of a young boy. This ethereal, fairy tale work with beautiful paper cut-outs presented an interesting contrast between subject matter and form but was not necessarily a clear winner. The quality of the films at this year’s LIAF was so high and the content and form of work so varied that the selection of the Best of the Fest in some ways felt rather arbitrary.
Still, these final screenings did provide a nice snapshot of what the festival has to offer: from a dark tale of death in the audience’s choice – Zbigniev’s Cupboard – to witty physical comedy in the Chomet-like Runaway; from works that take human dialogue as their starting point – David Shrigley’s Pringle of Scotland and Joseph Pierce’s A Family Portrait – to films that rejoiced in purely abstract imagery. My personal favourite from Best of the Fest, Mathieu Labaye’s Orgesticulanismus, combined both aspects. Opening with a selection of family photographs as a narrator discusses his paralysis, the film used animation to explore the idea of movement and what it means to human beings when physical capability is removed. Small, lonely computer-animated figures repeated the same minute movements over and over again, trapped in an overwhelming black space: a woman swept leaves; a man started up a lawn mower; a lady tossed a pancake. Then the movement suddenly expanded. A single figure became a mass of different dancing, jerky, gyrating bodies before altering into organic, bacteria-like shapes. The film provided a visually absorbing meditation on the difference between human beings’ experiences and interactions between their minds and physical bodies.
Purely abstract work was strong throughout the competition categories and, in addition to its own very fine showcase, this year’s ‘technique focus’ screening presented some lovely examples. All the films used ‘direct to film’ techniques, from scratching and painting on celluloid to the application of objects onto film – fake tattoo transfers in Mike Maryniuk’s Tattoo Step and an eerie selection of moth wings in a soundtrack-less screening of Stan Brakhage’s seminal 1963 film, Mothlight. The screening was attended by special guest filmmaker Steven Woloshen, who presented a selection of his films: spectacularly paced painted and scratched compositions, following in the tradition of Norman McLaren and Len Lye, set to the plink plonk of uplifting jazz and, in one case, the throbbing pulse of Hendrix guitar.
The Woloshen retrospective was one of several special events organised in addition to the competition screenings. Many of these took place in the Horse Hospital, an independent, progressive arts venue and apt setting for more offbeat offerings, like the Late Night Bizarre programme of unclassifiable oddities and the special studio focus on the cutting-edge work of Parisian animation studio Autour de minuit. Daring in their animation style and subject matter, Autour de minuit animators have produced some extraordinarily breathtaking animation (even if on occasion the content did not feel quite as rigorously considered). Hendrick Dusollier’s Obras took the viewer through the process of urbanisation – a continual cycle of destroying and reconstructing – exploring city structures and landscapes through head-scratching angles and flight-simulator swerves. Most of the works were entirely computer-generated but Guilherme Marondes’s Tyger, inspired by William Blake’s poem, combined techniques by following a hand-operated puppet tiger through a night-time city, lighting up its path with illuminated foliage. It was great to see a cohesive portfolio from a single production house presented together. In a similarly concentrated focus, over the festival’s final weekend, a whole afternoon was devoted to rare 1920s Felix the Cat films. Presented by enthusiast and walking Felix encyclopedia Colin Cowes, the screening provided a fantastic immersion into the world of this immensely characterful, plucky black and white cat. The perfect slapstick rhythm and pre-occupations of jazz-era America played out beautifully and audience members could not help but leave with smiles on their faces.
That LIAF can move so seamlessly from ground-breaking, uncompromising CGI to 9.5mm home-entertainment Felix the Cat films is testament to its strength as a festival. It brings attention to unique and unusual animation, regardless of categorisation. Its breadth can make choosing between competition films feel almost impossible but it makes for a far more interesting festival experience. LIAF revels in the innovative possibilities of animation and, from all the lively debate in evidence, it clearly attracts an audience that strongly analyses and cares passionately about the art form.
More London Film Festival reviews from Mark Stafford and Pamela Jahn.
A bracing stroll through an emergent American Muslim punk sub-culture, The Taqwacores follows newcomer and straight A student Yusef as he moves into a shared house in Buffalo, New York, to get his head thoroughly rattled by its inhabitants. There’s a dope smoker, a feminist riot grrl, a flamboyant gay dude, various drinkers and promiscuous party people, all of whom claim to be devout in their own way. Thus we have skateboard sequences jostling with moments of unconventional worship (‘You gotta come to Friday prayers!’ ‘Totally, I’m there!’). We have a call to prayer played on an electric guitar and we have bands called Osama’s Tunnel Diggers and The Guantanamo Bay Packers. Tensions build within the house as the contradictory belief systems clash, and it all comes to a head at an ill-starred all-star punk blow-out.
The film The Taqwacores brings most readily to mind was Penelope Spheeris’s cult gem Suburbia, which detailed the LA squatter punk scene of the early 80s. Like Suburbia, it’s a bit gauche and earnest and embarrassing in places, with lots of on-the-nose dialogue as the ‘cores thrash out their conflicting ideologies. Like in Suburbia, the story has a tragic arc we can sense in the offing, and we have to endure a central character who’s mainly there to ask dumb questions and get opinions thrust at him. Unlike Suburbia though, The Taqwacores has pretty good performances, especially Noureen DeWulf as Rabeya, who manages to convey a forceful personality through a customised full burqa, and Dominic Rains as the mohawked poster boy Jehangir (‘I’m too wrapped up in my mismatching of disenfranchised subcultures!’). It has energy and humour and a nice bleached out look. And it throws a startling image or off-the-wall piece of dialogue at you every few minutes of its lean 83-minute running time.
Apparently the Taqwacore scene didn’t exist until Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel, on which the film is based, inspired a number of bands to spring into being. If so, more power to their various elbows, at least if they’re anything like the mess portrayed here, a welcome vision of Islam as something not set in stone by humourless pricks, but something fluid and playful. Mark Stafford
Another rock solid effort from writer/director John Sayles, Amigo is set during the US invasion of the Philippines in 1900, where a garrison of troops is stationed in a small farming village, surrounded by guerrilla fighters. Sayles, of course, has time for everybody – the Yanquis, villagers, guerrillas, and Chinese coolies all get their sides of the story shown – but he especially has time for Rafael, the poor bastard stuck in the middle: as head man of the village, brother to the local insurrectionary leader, and now servant of the Yanqui occupiers he is, as he rightly surmises, ‘fucked from both ends’. There are clear allusions to the current US Middle Eastern misadventures, of course, including a spot of low-tech waterboarding, and the film as a whole is a demonstration of why invading a country and then expecting to win hearts and minds is doomed. The film’s true ire is reserved for the military high ups (here personified in Chris Cooper’s Col. Hardacre) and the church, in -‘s devious and self-serving friar. It’s an entertaining, old-school, well-constructed piece of liberal drama. But as often happens with Sayles’s films, the visual aspects feel a little bit meat and potatoes, and a little more cinematic exuberance wouldn’t go amiss. Mark Stafford
Finally arriving on the big screen in the UK after it was withdrawn from this year’s FrightFest by the filmmaker and its producers, Kaboom is not as stunning and exceptional as you might expect from the American enfant terrible Gregg Araki, especially as a follow-up to his wonderful Mysterious Skin. A campus B-movie sci-fi comedy romp totally out of this world, the film spins an insane narrative of teen sex of all kinds, drugs, dreams, cuckoo conspiracies and animal mask-wearing cultists. At the centre of this maelstrom is handsome but shy college student Smith, who secretly lusts for his chav surfer roommate Thor, but prefers hanging out 24/7 with his sarcastic lesbian best friend Stella. It’s a candy-coloured, bizarre, chaotic, silly joyride that wins you over instantly once you abandon yourself to its wackiness. A mature continuation of Araki’s confrontational earlier work in terms of directorial style, it is suffused with the same dazzling blend of antic spirit, questionable taste and truly anarchic fervour. Twin Peaks and Donny Darko might obviously have been influences for Araki here, but Kaboom is way too soft and outright ridiculous to ever draw you in in the same way. Nevertheless, it’s sexy to look at and a fun piece of cinema for short-term pleasure. Pamela Jahn
The question of how the hell Errol Morris alights upon his subjects seems less of a mystery in this case, as Joyce McKinney has a habit of thrusting herself into the public eye, though she would deny this was ever her intention. In 1977, she was behind the ‘manacled Mormon’ case that obsessed the British tabloids, and more recently she bubbled up clutching a litter of cloned puppies, in another media sensation. Morris’s entertaining documentary has Joyce, her collaborators and a brace of journalists all telling their parts in a jaw-droppingly screwy tale of bondage, kidnapping and high religious weirdness – it’s a cavalcade of WTF!? moments. Tabloid touches on themes of truth and madness and media complicity, but it’s pretty bubbly stuff, and the style used here is bouncier than in, say, The Fog of War: John Kusiak’s music is suited to a caper comedy, and there are little bits of animation amid the usually artfully picked illustrative clips. But Joyce is a fascinating, mercurial subject, a hyper-intelligent stalker, an ‘aw shucks’ down home gal, a bondage queen and master of disguise. Her relationship with any objective reality is clearly pretty strained, and working out how much of this tall tale you’re prepared to believe is a large part of the fun. Mark Stafford
Decidedly non-yeeha Western tale from Kelly Reichardt, the director of Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. We’re in Oregon in 1845, following a tiny wagon train as shaggy guide Stephen Meek leads it astray while attempting to cross the Cascade Mountains. Bruce Greenwood is Meek, and indie stalwarts Shirley Henderson, Paul Dano, Will Patton and Michelle Williams are among the increasingly paranoid and disgruntled travellers, as water runs low and notional Indians lurk in the shadows. It feels absolutely authentic: Reichart does an impressive job of creating the sounds, sights and textures of life on the trail, the feeling of isolation and peril, and slowly builds real and involving characters out of the figures in this vast landscape. But I’m not sure she guides us to a satisfactory destination. Mark Stafford
An extraordinary film, The Arbor is an exploration of the short life of the Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar and her three children, in which extensive interviews with all concerned have been given to actors to lip-synch direct to camera in various settings. These are intercut with a staging of one of her plays in the middle of the Buttershaw estate where it was set, and occasionally spliced with some of Dunbar’s rare appearances on TV. The result is mesmerising and artful where the bare facts of the lives detailed would have just been unbearably bleak served up straight, especially the life of Dunbar’s daughter Lorraine, a slow motion car crash of child abuse, domestic violence, drug addiction, prostitution, and worse. The lip-synched, cleverly staged sequences give all this squalor and neglect a dreamy, not-quite-right intensity as various parties tell their side of the tale, and we skip around in time and space, from memory to theatre to street and back.
It’s an odd technique, curiously distancing and involving at the same time, and seems to have been inspired by the ‘verbatim play’ An Estate Affair, which the Royal Court staged following up Dunbar’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too, (which was filmed by Alan Clarke). Curiously, Dunbar’s The Arbor, her most extensively represented work, doesn’t come across very well, almost seeming like a parody of gritty northern drama. But the film overall is an original audio-visual one-off, a highly choreographed waltz through memory and truth and time. Mark Stafford
Arguably one of the strongest films in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes this year, Carancho is the latest work of Argentine filmmaker Pablo Trapero, whose Lion’s Den impressed us last year as a brutal and morally ambiguous portrayal of a young mother’s life in prison. Carancho is an equally well-crafted, tough-as-nails thriller built around the world of ambulance chasers, corrupt hospitals and unscrupulous lawyers who make their money out of late-night traffic accidents and other calamities. Echoing the style and moral decay of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood film noir, it feels at times like Trapero is a little too caught up in his own ambitions to push social realism on screen beyond its usual thematic and emotional boundaries, and to get the right balance in the web of corruption, murder and love that connects Sosa (Ricardo DarÃn), a legal vulture who is tired of his job, to young ER doctor LujÃ¡n (Martina Gusman). But as predictable as the narrative is, the procedural set-pieces in which the culmination of car crashes and the couple’s dangerous liaison play out are shot in a handheld style with great old-school skill and energy, and the intense performances by the two leads make for a gripping film that aptly rings alarm bells for the state of the nation. Pamela Jahn
It’s kind of a Funny Story
A teen movie about Depression Lite, call it Absence of Glee. Craig (Keir Gilchrist), a would-be suicide, checks into a mental health ward instead of chucking himself off Brooklyn Bridge, and over the next five days, surrounded by various shut-ins, schizophrenics and self-harmers, learns to gain a sense of perspective on his life and problems. The previous two films by writing/directing team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Half Nelson and Sugar, were both low-key observational indie art-house affairs, but their third film seems to have unleashed a whole world of wacky that they had previously kept hidden. Thus we have freeze frame flashbacks, fantasy sequences, cut-away gags, animation and all manner of quirky bits of business thrown into the mix. It’s warm-hearted and funny if you’re in the mood for that sort of caper. But I found the cutesifying of mental illness a little hard to take. Craig’s problems are reduced to John Hughes movie dilemmas, where his suicidal urges can be shelved if he just picks the right girl, says no to his dad’s career pressure and develops that recently discovered lucky artistic streak. Only Zach Galifianakis’s striking and believable turn as Bobby seems to come from a world where depression is an intractable problem with no easy answers, and he remains gratifyingly awkward throughout. Nice soundtrack by Broken Social Scene though. Mark Stafford
Everything Must Go
Fair tilt at Raymond Carver’s short story ‘Why don’t you dance?’ in which alcoholic Will Ferrel loses his job and arrives home to find his wife gone, the locks changed, and all his possessions out on the front lawn. Already half-blitzed on Pabst Blue Ribbon, he elects to stay out there, surrounded by the remains of his world, until life, the law and his neighbours intervene. I suspect Carver fans will be unhappy that one of his best oblique little vignettes has been fitted with character arcs and social conscience and structure and all that Hollywood stuff, and Will Ferrel fans will just be wondering where the hell the funny got to. Everything Must Go is alright, as it happens. And it’s nice to see Ferrel playing someone difficult, and occasionally unpleasant. Mark Stafford
It’s remarkable that in only two films Joanna Hogg should already have developed such a distinct style and world that I suspect most critics would recognise a piece of her work in 30 seconds or less. I wish it was a style and a world I was more enthusiastic about watching, but there you go. After her debut Unrelated, here we are again with a frosty rich family in a remote location discovering untapped oceans of anger and social tension as a mother, her son (Tom Hiddleston) and daughter ( Kate Fahy) go to Tresco in the Scilly Isles for a family holiday. To await the arrival of the patriarch, who remains stubbornly absent, they picnic, and stroll, and paint, and eat, and fall apart over tiny social fault lines. Hogg’s style, with its off-kilter framing, where her actors are dwarfed by architecture and landscape, and a habit of entering scenes before and after they have started, creates a weird, tense form of naturalism, like a nature documentary observing strange creatures in one of their natural habitats. It’s smart and well crafted and Hogg’s clearly got something. But I hate these people. Mark Stafford
Lucy Walker’s documentary follows artist Vik Muniz back to his homeland of Brazil, where he hopes to spend a couple of years producing pieces about Rio’s Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest rubbish dump. He settles on producing a series of huge portraits of some of the ‘pickers’ who scour the trash for resellable recyclables. The portraits are to be constructed from Jardim junk, and sold to raise money the pickers desperately need to improve their lot. What could have been a simplistic doc about the transformative power of ART, is made more complicated, and touching, by the lives of the pickers themselves, who take centre stage for much of the film. The last 20 minutes or so had me crying like Niagara goddamn Falls, which I guess is a recommendation. Moby does the soundtrack, if that does anything for you. Mark Stafford
American Indie dream couple Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play a couple, married with a cute child, and heading for the rocks. Over a few days we see them bicker, fail to communicate, pick fights out of thin air, and make a disastrous visit to a love hotel in an attempt to fix the problem, unable to alter the character traits that are driving them apart. And this, heartbreakingly, is intercut with scenes of their initial meetings, when they were funny and fumbling, the story of their road to marriage. Romantic expectation is weighed against harsh reality, and we detect the DNA of their split within their budding relationship. Gosling and Williams are extraordinarily convincing as the cute couple going to hell, and the whole thing is almost too painful and intimate to bear. It’s picked up an NC-17 rating in the states, and doesn’t stint on the tougher details of life and love. Upsetting, recommended, fine Grizzly Bear soundtrack too. Mark Stafford
The Tillman Story
Pat Tillman seemed almost tailor-made for pro-war propaganda when he joined the fight in Afghanistan, a hunky football star and all-American boy, married to his high school sweetheart, who’d set aside a lucrative NFL career to join the frontline. You can see what the Bush administration was doing when they used the example of his heroic 2004 death in speeches and press releases. The only problem was that the story the military first put out was bullshit. Pat hadn’t been battling terrorists to save the lives of his brothers in arms, Pat had been killed by his fellow troops in a ‘friendly fire’ incident. This documentary follows the story of his family’s battle to get to the truth through a fog of military and political manoeuvring. It’s overlong and nothing new, technically, but the story’s worth hearing. Mark Stafford
Upside Down: The Creation Records Story
Competent and entertaining documentary detailing the rise and fall of Alan McGee’s label, home to Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Primal Scream and others, from indie roots signing The Loft in the mid-80s to their collapse after the cocaine blizzard/Sony buyout/Oasis at Knebworth years of the late 90s. Full of great stories, but could have done with a bit of context to explain why this music meant so much at the time, and the later years have been pretty well covered elsewhere. Mark Stafford
Mark Stafford and Pamela Jahn
For more information and to book tickets go to the LFF website.
Greg Klymkiw tells us about some of the highlights of the Toronto Film Festival.
I love this movie to death! To pinch myself to see if I was dreaming, I attended a second showing during the 2010 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival with my wife and 9-year-old-daughter in tow. Bearing a passing resemblance to The Addams Family we settled in for an evening of prime family entertainment. I wasn’t dreaming. Black Swan is exactly the sort of film we’ll all look upon as a milestone in cinema history. It’s Powell/Pressburger’s The Red Shoes meets Mankiewicz’s All about Eve meets Verhoeven’s Showgirls with heavy doses of Polanski’s Repulsion – and then some!
Black Swan plays at the London Film Festival on Oct 22, 24 and 25. For more information and to book tickets go to the LFF website.
Director Darren Aronofsky etches the tale of Nina (Natalie Portman), a ballerina driven to achieving the highest level of artistry, brutally encouraged by crazed impresario Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), thwarted by her possessive, narcissistic mother (Barbara Hershey), terrified at the prospect of failure exemplified by an ageing prima ballerina (Winona Ryder) and most of all, facing the threat of extinction by Lilly (Mila Kunis), an earthy rival with less technique, but greater raw passion – something Nina desperately needs to wrench from the depths of her soul to move beyond mere technical virtuosity. O, glorious melodrama! Replete with catty invective hurled with meat-cleaver sharpness, corporeal cat fights, blistering mother-daughter snipe-fests, swelteringly moist masturbation, scorching lesbo action, furious anonymous sex in nightclub washrooms and delectable over-the-top blood-letting, Black Swan is one motherfucker of an ice cream sundae with not one, not two, not three, but a jar-full of maraschino cherries in a pool of glistening globs of red syrup on top.
The performances are expertly pitched to melodrama. Miss Portman commands with such bravado that it will be the performance to beat in the coming awards season. Mila Kunis is raw, gorgeous and sexy as all get out. Winona Ryder proves to be a worthy successor to the suffering bitch goddess Susan Hayward. Barbara Hershey drags us into the demonic bilge barrel of great movie harridans. While last, but certainly not least, Vincent Cassel is a perfect impresario: part genius, cocksman and Mephistopheles.
Some have already referred to Black Swan as ‘The Red Shoes on acid’. They couldn’t be more wrong. Powell/Pressburger’s The Red Shoes is already on acid. From my vantage point, Aronofsky’s Black Swan is pure crack cocaine – a free-base dose to rival that which lit Richard Pryor up like a flaming Weihnachtsbaum.
This is a rewrite of a review that first appeared during the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival at Daily Film Dose.
Consider this review a love letter to a true artist, an artist who has created a film so delicate, inspiring, moving and heartbreaking that it connects with all who see it on a very personal level.
To now begin.
You were born in the former Czechoslovakia – Bratislava, to be precise – but you are too young to have experienced the phenomenal rise to power of Alexander Dubcek and his extraordinary Prague Spring – the grand cultural explosion that infused a national pride that threatened to topple Russian domination. As a young adult, you knew the Prague Spring was cool – not only was there Milan Kundera’s great book The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but there also existed Philip Kaufmann’s sumptuously romantic and sex-drenched film rendering of it. And as Kaufmann brought the Russian invasion so sadly to life on film, you can’t – try as you might – remember being clutched in your mother’s arms as your family flees the Russian tanks rolling in during that horrendous year of 1968 when the Spring turned to a communist-ruled Winter once more.
Or perhaps you remember all too well. The brain is a powerful machine, as is the soul. Your parents’ reminiscences of that time, your experience of being the child of immigrants who were forced to leave everything they loved behind to give you the life you never would have had under communism, your sense of childlike wonder that grew within you and stayed in your heart long beyond childhood – all this and more still might have managed to retrieve these memories and allow you to blossom into the artist you are – to blossom within your soul, the soul of a Slovak!
You grew up in Canada – as Canadian as maple syrup (but with more than a few dashes of Neil Young) – and yet something nagged at you about your beginnings, your parents’ struggles, the painful inability to connect with family left behind (for fear of communist reprisals against them) and always wanting to discover your roots. At the age of 17, you visited the ‘old country’ and reconnected with your family and ethnicity. Returning to Canada, you worked as an actor, a producer and eventually a director.
You are Ingrid Veninger – an auteur of the highest order: the real thing and then some.
Frankly, there’s a film in the above, but as an artist you have taken it so much further in your extraordinary solo directorial feature debut Modra. After producing such ground-breaking Canadian feature films as Gambling, Gods and LSD and Nurse Fighter Boy, co-directing the fabulous experimental short URDA/Bone that premiered at the New York Film Festival and the exquisite feature film Only that was feted with a screening at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and festivals all over the world, you took the next logical step and solo-directed Modra.
Like your co-directorial effort Only, you continued to craft a film comprised of tiny, tender moments and infused with the warmth and love of family. Only starred your son Jacob Switzer as a young boy living in a small Northern Canadian town who, along with a young girl the same age, discovers the simple pleasures of life, the glory of nature and most importantly, love.
Modra stars your 17-year-old daughter Hallie Switzer as Lina, a young lady who, like yourself, takes a trip to the ‘old country’ to connect with her roots. Having just broken up with her boyfriend, she drags along a platonic pal Leco (Alexander Gammal) who has a bit more on his mind than friendship. During the weeklong trip, both kids discover that they have little in common and romance is not going to be part of the equation. However, all of Lina’s old world relatives think they’re a couple. As Lina finds her roots, she finds herself and so does Leco. Most importantly, they discover the value of connecting as human beings and the true power of friendship and shared experience.
To say this movie had me squirting tears would be an understatement. I chocked up emotionally at several points, but also wept tears of appreciation for the movie’s consummate artistry. While Modra, much like Only, feels unscripted, it IS, in fact, beautifully scripted, and the natural performances of the kids, the real friends and relatives in Bratislava and your magnificent probing directorial eye, add up to a film where art meets life, and in so doing, creates a lovely collection of those precious cinematic pieces of time that make us realise again how precious life is, and at the same time, what a glorious, wonderful gift the art of movies is.
My love letter draws to a close. It’s nice to review a movie this way – especially when it’s a movie so infused with love.
Imagine Cormac McCarthy’s The Road ejaculating the seed of post-apocalyptic despair into the foul egg of vampirism that is Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend until a putrid vaginal maw barfs out a cinematic love child in the form of Stake Land.
This intelligent, super-cool, super-scary and super-knock-you-on-your-ass dystopian sci-fi horror picture is set in the heartland of America where ignorant Bible Belt Christians bearing arms, hole up in fortress (gated) communities, killing non-believing heathen rather than vampires. Due to a mysterious virus, the bloodsuckers have taken over much of the world and the Jesus-nuts believe this pestilence was wrought by God to rid the world of sinners. Martin (Connor Paulo), a young boy whose parents have been torn to shreds by the creatures, is rescued by the legendary Mister (Nick Damici), a no-nonsense vampire hunter who, like the character of Neville in Matheson’s great novel I Am Legend, is known to the Bible-thumping survivalists as the meanest, nastiest vampire killer of them all. Not unlike The Road, man and boy journey across America in search of a ‘New Eden’ (Canada, no less). The antagonist, a skin-headed, bible-spouting madman is always on the prowl for women – fer rapin’ anna breedin’, uh course. Even the vampires seem benign compared to this whack-job.
In addition to Jim Mickle’s tremendously directed suspense and action scenes, the writing is first-rate. While I might have preferred a bit more humour, I’m thankful it didn’t descend to the annoyingly silly tongue-in-cheek laugh-fest-grabbing level of Zombie Land. The screenplay delivers a nasty, solid, straight-up 70s-style dystopian social commentary that never feels sledgehammer-like. Written by star Damici and director Mickle, it’s especially gratifying that the script distinguishes between fundamentalism and genuine faith – avoiding the kind of knee-jerk pot shots usually levelled against Christianity.
Into the mix, they’ve written a terrific role for Kelly McGillis (Top Gun, Witness) as a middle-aged nun who is saved by Mister from a gang rape. The nun uses her faith to impart the kind of wisdom missing on both sides of the fence and the writers draw the character so that she’s a genuine human being faced with a crisis of faith.
Intelligence and artistry aside, though, this movie delivers what all true genre fans would want. The carnage is superb, the make-up effects on the vampires is first-rate (l love how they look like zombies/demons) and we also get two MAJOR babes all genre films must have in the form of the delectable Danielle Harris (the token female eye-candy) and McGillis – long-in-tooth (as it were) in all the right ways.
Most importantly, and especially given the title, I for one, was utterly delighted that Stake Land features several magnificent sequences involving the driving of wooden stakes into the hearts, throats and bellies of the vampires.
These days, a good stake is rare indeed.
This is a rewrite of a review that first appeared during the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival at Daily Film Dose.
A cinematic math equation to demonstrate genre success:
Veteran genre-meister John Carpenter (The Thing, Halloween) directs a horror film set in the 1960s where none of the babes have hairstyles remotely resembling 60s dos. + One mouth-wateringly hot Amber Heard (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane), incarcerated in a creepy old asylum after committing arson in her sexy under garments. + As luck would have it, the ward Amber gets thrown into is replete with babes. + One by one, the babes are butchered. + Amber keeps seeing a weird chick wandering the halls, but is told it’s just her imagination and when she insists and persists, Amber gets manhandled by burly male nurses who zap her with electro-shock therapy and truss her lithe body into a straightjacket. + In one of the more disgusting moments in horror movie history, one of the babes in the ward is electro-shocked until… well, I won’t ruin it for you, but trust me – it’s pretty fucking gross! + The ghost is one super-gnarly monster: mucho-drippings of the viscous kind. + A creepy psychiatrist appears to be engaging in (what else?) unorthodox experiments upon the babes in the ward. + An ultra-butch ward nurse manages to give Louise Fletcher a run for her money in the Nurse Ratched Mental Health Caregiver Sweepstakes. + Tons of cheap scares that make you jump out of your seat and, if you have difficulties with incontinence, you are advised to bring along an extra pair of Depends. + A thoroughly kick-ass climax leads up to the delivery of a Carrie-like shocker ending = One free blowjob for the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes for selecting the film and especially for getting me into the sold-out midnight screening after I fucked up getting my ticket from the right place at the right time. Said blowjob shall occur once someone carves glory holes into the public washroom stalls of the new Bell Lightbox complex where the festival and its year-round Cinematheque are now housed. One free blowjob and rim job shall be bestowed upon John Carpenter for making this film. Said delights for Mr Carpenter shall occur once he finishes (I kid you not!) jury duty in El Lay, which, alas, kept him from appearing in Toronto to do a Q&A session.
And that, genre freaks, is your Mathematical equation for the day. It all adds up. Real good.
This is a rewrite of a review that first appeared during the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival at Daily Film Dose.
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Autumn in the Dominion of Canada Yields Bounty from India:
A Conversation with Aamir Bashir, the director of Autumn – Part One: The Political Context of Kashmir, Personal Beginnings of Aamir Bashir, Movies and Mohawk Cigarettes
Taking a break from boozing, hunting, trapping, fishing and fighting with my manly buds in the bush up here on the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula in the outer regions of the glorious Dominion of Canada, I sallied forth in early September to the normally cold, creepy and empty concrete wasteland of Hogtown to partake in the 2010 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (bearing that truly unfortunate acronym TIFF) whereupon I saw 36 movies, hustled some new properties, caroused with old friends I only see on the festival circuit, filed numerous reviews, missed a party I wanted to attend because I had stupid electrical problems with my car, and in spite of this, still managed to attend more parties than I cared to (and not one on par with those held at the Tobermory Royal Canadian Legion Hall – all north country festivities driven by the inimitable thump-thump-thumpety-thumping of the illustrious DJ Scubalicious).
Inevitably though, one can only hack so much clean country living while staring at endless Blu-rays in the cottage (now newly equipped with a glorious off-grid solar electric system fulfilling my wife’s need for green living and my need for libertarianism), a red-blooded fella’ such as myself ultimately desires total immersion in cinema.
In spite of my ire over TIFF’s boneheaded decision not to show Monte Hellman’s new picture Road to Nowhere, which premiered in Venice (where it garnered a Lifetime Achievement Award for the fiercely independent auteur), but apparently wasn’t good enough to screen in the city of Smugly Fucklings, there were plenty of fine movies to see in the festival’s new stomping grounds in the financial district of the aforementioned cold, creepy and empty concrete wasteland of Hogtown.
In addition to the festival’s pilfering of south Toronto’s majestic-mega-multiplexes to unspool their wares, we were blessed with the arrival of the new festival headquarters known as Lightbox (please note I refuse to mention the corporate sponsor that demands its name preface the otherwise deliciously named venue). An architectural nightmare from the outside (fitting in ever so blandly with the rather ugly financial district), it sports a spectacular environment within, chockfull of several magnificent state-of-the-art auditoriums that will be devoted to cinema of the highest order all year round (in addition to TIFF itself).
* * *
One of the best movies I saw at TIFF was Autumn (Harud), an exquisite independent film from India by Aamir Bashir. The picture’s world premiere was in Toronto and will continue its festival run during The London Film Festival in the UK, Rotterdam and, no doubt, other fine venues of world cinema. This is a picture that totally caught me off guard – it is measured, delicate and replete with the sort of observational details that could have descended into ass-numbing pretension – especially in less assured hands (and frankly, even in those that should know better).
Autumn screens at the London Film Festival on October 19 and 20. For more information go to the LFF website.
Set in the Kashmir province on the northernmost tip of India (I think I’ve got an obsession with northernmost tips), Autumn tells the tale of those who live amid violence, terrorism and poverty, with only a bleak future ahead of them. After an unsuccessful try at militancy following the disappearance of his brother, the film’s central character Rafiq (Shahnawaz Bhat) exists in a perpetual walking cat-nap, alternately loafing with his friends and working a dead-end job (morning newspaper delivery). Life for Rafiq moves slowly and is punctuated only by bursts of violence around him. Through the course of the film, scattered gunshots are heard, bombs go off and at one point, he and his buddies discover a man on the verge of dying with a gaping bullet wound to the belly (which eventually leads Rafiq to a slightly better job).
Though haunted by his brother’s disappearance, Rafiq wishes to move on. There is the overwhelming feeling of the inevitable – that his brother has been kidnapped by the security forces and/or killed, and certainly, Rafiq seems to accept this, though his parents refuse to believe their eldest son is dead. This cloud of non-acceptance hangs heavily over their home. At one point, Rafiq’s father Jusuf (Reza Naji) suffers a nervous breakdown – adding more strife and tragedy to a situation foreign to most of us in the West, but a matter of course in so many other parts of the world.
Films such as this have been extremely prevalent during the past 20 years – especially so in the new millennium, but seldom have these works transcended their subject matter the way Autumn does. (Good subject matter tends to blind the eyes of people who should know better. They will often extol a film’s virtues based solely on what the picture is about, ignoring the style and craft, which can frequently be run-of-the-mill at best.)
With Autumn, director Aamir Bashir unflinchingly presents a world where death, destruction and corruption are endless – an eternal plodding state of aimlessness and despair. Life is cheap and can end very quickly. Our filmmaker captures this eloquently through a camera-eye that seldom moves and reflects the day-to-day mundane activities of Rafiq as if the very act of living feels like an eternity – like death itself.
Shots will often hold longer than audiences might be used to, but the detail and observation within these shots is so exquisite that we experience a highly evocative portrait of a life lived merely for the sake of survival. This is NEVER boring – it is the stuff of great drama – etched with the kind of command one usually experiences in the work of such masters as Yasujiro Ozu, Satyajit Ray or Carl Dreyer, but almost never in the work of young, contemporary filmmakers.
Scroll down for the full review of Autumn.
Needless to say, when I reviewed the film for Daily Film Dose, I received plenty of responses from those who immediately wished to see the film, but the note I received that truly excited me was from Courtney Goldman, one of my filmmakers in the Editing Lab at ‘Uncle’ Norman Jewison’s Canadian Film Centre (where I continue to preside as the Senior Creative Consultant in the Film Department after stepping away from a 12-year-long stint as the Producer-in-Residence in order to continue making my own films, after an admittedly lengthy hiatus). Courtney had already seen Autumn, loved it and very much appreciated the review – always an extra special treat for me when it comes from one of my charges, but where I immediately got that extra special gooseflesh was when she mentioned her personal acquaintance with the filmmakers.
I knew immediately that Aamir Bashir was someone I wanted to meet and write more about. Given the film’s title, it was only appropriate we finally met on a crisp fall day with typically overcast Toronto skies (which are overcast with smog when clouds are not present).
Armed with Hogtown’s best coffee from the Cherry Bomb Café in the Parkdale district, I bundled Aamir and his partner Shanker Raman into my pathetic gas-efficient Toyota Yaris (oh how I miss my gas-piggish 1976 lime green Pontiac Laurentian) and drove to the leafy enclave of High Park.
We settled under a picnic canopy and started to talk.
Greg Klymkiw: One of the things I find about cinema over all the other art forms is that because technology, industry and commerce are so inextricably linked to the art, and because it’s essentially an art of the 20th century and now the 21st, the advancements, technologically and otherwise, have been so rapid there are certain vocabularies of cinematic storytelling that filmmakers have barely scratched the surface of and…
Aamir Bashir: …and moved on.
Yes, and that’s always driven me a little crazy because in actuality, it’s not the ‘moving on’ that’s the real problem, but the…
…the ‘leaving behind’.
Yes, the forgetting of certain techniques. It’s so unfortunate.
Your film, of course, has a very unique style by contemporary standards and yet it has a vocabulary that used to be fairly common that blends with current approaches and in so doing is something very new and unto itself. Now I’d like to start with your background. You were born in Kashmir?
I was born in Kashmir and I spent my early schooling life there and in summer 1990 left to study history at St Stephen’s College. That sort of coincided with the beginning of the insurgency in the late 1980s.
[After an ongoing series of border disputes and several rigged elections, an insurgency began to fight Indian rule. India accused Pakistan of instigating and training mujahideen, an Arabic word meaning strugglers or those strugglers who will do jihad which, in turn, refers to struggling with internal faith, struggling to uphold Muslim ideals and within the controversial context of interpretation, participating in Holy War. The results of the insurgency have been thousands of ‘disappearances’, deaths and ‘terrorist’ attacks.]
You obviously have a perspective on your world before and after the insurgency and I’m curious about what it was like growing up in the pre-insurgency years – as a kid in Kashmir. What were some of the highlights of your life there at that time?
It was pretty idyllic. Kashmir is a beautiful place, especially the access to nature – you just have to drive an hour in any direction to find it. My school was heavy into nature activities, so there were always summer camps and skiing in winter, swimming and regattas and lots of outdoor activities throughout the year. My uncle, who I dedicated the film to, was a journalist who owned his own daily newspaper called Aina (‘the Mirror’), which he edited and published. So from a very young age, I was exposed to the politics of the place. My uncle was only 45 years of age when he died, almost homeless. He was evicted from his house by the government on the pretext that his uncle who had migrated to Pakistan gave the house he was living in to him. They have a law that when someone evacuates their home, the state custodian takes it over.
[For a variety of reasons, Bashir’s late uncle, Shamim Ahmed Shamim, didn’t exactly endear himself to the state.]
He started his political career with the most powerful party in Kashmir at that time, which is still the ruling party today, the National Conference. My uncle was a protégé of Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, who was also called Sher-e-Kashmir or the Lion of Kashmir. He was the Prime Minister of Kashmir, which was an autonomous region. After starting his career with the National Conference party, my uncle gradually rebelled and became an anti-establishment figure. His writing, his editorials – he was a lone voice against them.
[Shamin Ahmed Shamin, in a 1969 Aina personality profile, wrote the following about Sher-e-Kashmir: ‘Was Sheikh Abdullah a successful politician? There can be more than one opinion about it. Was Sheikh Abdullah a good man? This is a moot question. One thing beyond dispute is his patriotism. He loved Kashmir to distraction. He could sacrifice the world’s kingdoms for the sake of Kashmir. His entire life has been an expression of this love. It is for the sake of this unfathomable love for Kashmir that Kashmiris turn a blind eye to his faults and see only his virtues.’]
In that sense even at a young age I was politically aware and I do remember local governments falling due to the machinations of the Union government – coalitions wanting this or that and not getting it. Cinema played an important part in the insurgency. Lion of the Desert is considered as a catalyst for the insurgency. This was the only film in English that ran – four shows a day for months. Normally, English-language films would only play twice a day and the rest of the screen time was taken up with Bollywood titles. Lion of the Desert, though, proved so popular it took Kashmir by storm, and soon you started hearing audience members shouting out political slogans during the shows while it was playing.
[Lion of the Desert is the epic war film from the 80s starring Anthony Quinn and Oliver Reed that depicted the exploits of Arab Muslim leader Omar Mukhtar and his fierce battles waged during World War I when Libya was conquered by the Italians who, for their part, ruthlessly and brutally subjugated the peoples of Libya. Substantially financed by Libyan ruler/dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the picture was directed by Moustapha Akkad, best known as the producer who bankrolled John Carpenter’s Halloween and presided over all the sequels in the franchise. I recalled enjoying Lion of the Desert when I first saw it in the 80s. Watching it again recently, I have to admit the picture kicks major ass. Akkad directs with passion, the battle sequences in particular are phenomenal and more than make up for some of the clunky dialogue sequences. The picture even presents an Islamic point of view that is extremely convincing and heartfelt. The sad irony is that Akkad was killed in a Jordan hotel targeted by a suicide bomber.]
And what place did religion play in your childhood?
As far as religion is concerned, I grew up in a fairly liberal atmosphere at home. Also, the neighbourhood I grew up in was not only mixed but fairly cosmopolitan by small-town Kashmiri standards – comprising journalists and civil servants from other parts of India. The only time I remember my mother insisting that I offer my prayers was when my uncle [Shamin Ahmed Shamin], her brother, was dying of cancer. Those prayers – all prayers at home were in the Muslim tradition – went unanswered. Besides, going to a Christian missionary school, the oldest educational institution in Kashmir, and getting a daily dose of stories from the New Testament, made sure that I had a fairly religious upbringing, which of course was instantly negated by a Western, rationalist education. All in all, it was fairly confusing and more than enough to keep me away from religion.
Your uncle’s literary militancy aside, much of the pre-insurgency life seems, as you already said, so idyllic.
Kashmiris were for a long time not considered a volatile bunch of people. I remember whenever small troubles took place, one policeman with a bamboo stick used to control a crowd. From there to what it is now, it is quite a transformation. Even when the insurgency began, Kashmiris used to say that the Kashmiri militant is not really a revolutionary because all you needed to do was deliver one slap during interrogation and the Kashmiri militant would vomit everything – ‘I didn’t do anything!’ This is the joke within the Kashmiris. We were never hardcore.
One thing I’ve always been interested in is the notion of colonisation. Canada, of course, was a colony of Britain. In fact, because of the Commonwealth, we’re really still beholden to the Crown – so much so that I wanted, from the beginning, to call my film column for Electric Sheep, which is UK-based, ‘The Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada’. I have benign childhood memories of the idea of living in a ‘Dominion’ and certainly as a child with Eastern European immigrant grandparents, I heard stories of Anglo-inflicted racism. Even my dad, who was born in Canada, would refer to Anglo-Canadians with a bit of a sneer as ‘The’ English. Not just English, but the English, so even he felt this dominance of Britain. And of course, all of this is incredibly benign given the utter horrors perpetrated upon Canada’s aboriginal peoples by British colonisation. What are your thoughts on colonisation?
Well, the idea of India only happened during the British time. It was never one single unit or one single nation – it was a bunch of trading zones brought together by the British, so in that sense, we owe the idea of India to the British. That’s why Gandhi, when he was fighting for independence, was trying to delay it for a while because, according to him, the people, this so-called nation, was not ready to be an independent nation. As for our experience, I went to Christian school founded by Cambridge priests, all our judicial and bureaucratic institutions are British, our railways were set up by the British, so it’s all there – it’s all there.
But what has happened now – at present – is that India itself is behaving like a colonial power with its own people. That is happening not just in Kashmir, but also in seven individual states in the northeast and across the Red Corridor, or the tribal belt of India, which goes from Central South India all the way up to Eastern India. Along this belt, tribal peoples live in mostly forest land and have been labelled ‘Maoists’. Of course, leftist guerrilla groups support them, and it’s probably an even bigger problem than Kashmir is right now, but it’s just that the media highlights or wants to club Kashmir with this ‘bad’ Islamic problem across the world.
Here, in this Red Corridor, it’s even more colonial than ideological because big industry along with the state wants to go in there and rape, pillage and plunder whatever they can – these beautiful forests that mining companies and others want to destroy are one thing, but the people living there will be displaced. The government brazenly wants them to change their lifestyles, they want to move them into concrete buildings and give them television sets. Local police officers and people who are in charge of security say, ‘All we need to do is give them TV sets’. They just become consumers themselves because they’re not dependent on the forest anymore.
So India is actually a colonial power itself and it scares me. It’s a scary place and of course, the west is backslapping India as an ’emerging power’, ‘an economic power’ and all that. The whole middle class has bought this idea that these tribal peoples, these ‘Maoists’, or Kashmir, are an obstruction to our progress – that if these people in Kashmir will just get jobs there will be no problem.
[At this point in our conversation, I was reminded of Bashir’s depiction in Autumn of all the disenfranchised young men in Kashmir – with no future, no motivation, dead-end jobs if jobs at all – a world where jihad seems like the only way to break free of colonial repression and domination and my mind shifts back to… cinema.]
When did you fall in love with movies? Was it gradual? Was there one epiphany or several?
In the early 1970s, in our neighbourhood there was one TV set – it was state-run television – and whether the movies were colour or black and white, the TV set itself was black and white, so that is how we would watch them. Everyone would descend upon this one household that had the TV on Sundays and watch this movie in the living room. Everybody’s there – a sea of slippers outside, everybody’s sitting down and there’s literally no room to walk, or step or stand. I must have been four or five years old at that time…
And what type of films were they?
Most of the films were Hindi. They were mushy and romantic and all the kids would cry, thinking about the ‘poor mother’, the ‘poor kid’ or whatever was happening on the screen. And that was one experience. That was my introduction to cinema. But when I was 14 or 15, that’s when the VCR came.
The VCR exposed me to a whole new world of movies. That’s when my parents, during one winter, went for a holiday, and I had to stay back home to prepare for an important exam coming up. They gave me a little bit of money for groceries and I remember spending almost all of that money on movies and not on Hindi films, but Hollywood and English-language movies from The Godfather to Ryan’s Daughter to Taxi Driver to British sex comedies – everything! I must have seen over 200 movies that one winter.
So the VCR was the explosion for you?
I’m just trying to place this in context since I’ve got at least 12 to 15 years on you and whenever I meet filmmakers from slightly earlier generations, it’s that whole Tarantino thing of watching movies on VHS. My own epiphanies with all of the same pictures happened on a big screen.
Oh yes, I did have the experience of seeing many movies on the big screen as well because my uncle had press passes and I got to see movies in a special press box separated from the rest of the audience. The movies in the theatres though were almost always Bollywood, so it was truly the VCR that I consider as being the most significant period for me – when my view of storytelling, how to tell a story, changed. Of course, there were a few English-language movies I would see on a big screen. I remember watching The Blue Lagoon. When I came out of the theatre, my physical education teacher from school was there and he was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ And yes, I guess I would occasionally sneak out in the evenings to see English movies on my own, but one movie I remember going to see on a big screen was Kramer vs Kramer, with my parents.
Of course, and the stuff you watched on VHS was probably a lot cooler than the English-language stuff you saw on a big screen.
My dad used to take me to see a lot of cool movies on a big screen – many of which would have been considered inappropriate for children to see, and I can tell you my life certainly changed when he took me to see The Wild Bunch when I was about 9 years old. On a big screen no less!
I need to see Lion of the Desert again.
Actually, forget about Lion of the Desert. If any picture inspires and galvanises people in India, it’s Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.
A big-screen picture for sure.
Yes, but one that plays every year on television and is screened reverently by everyone…
So, after that point at which you discovered a new way of telling stories and you went to St Stephen’s to study history, was there any plan at that time to get involved in movies?
Oh no, no plan to do that at all. In fact, there was no plan at all.
That sounds familiar – my entire early 20s were basically no plan – other than slacking and doing cool shit I enjoyed doing. Say, do you mind if I have a cigarette?
Please do. Would you mind if I tried one of yours?
Oh yes, my pleasure. I’m smoking these fabulous All-Natural Natives that I get from one of the Mohawk reservations in Buffalo. I even occasionally get them in Toronto from a Vietnamese mob source. I can also get Canadian brands manufactured by our Aboriginal brothers on Indian land up north. I prefer the American ones, though. They have fewer additives.
[By this point, we light up the full-flavour cigarettes and begin puffing away.]
The thing with the Mohawks is that they came to this point where they said, ‘Fuck it! Our people like to smoke, but the White Man is poisoning us, so let’s make our own cigarettes.’
[We both share hearty laughs over this and begin coughing.]
Of course, these will kill us too.
I don’t like the cigarettes from America, the Marlboros and all those. They don’t taste right to me.
What do you think of these?
Oh, very nice.
An old acquaintance of mine, Camelia Frieberg, the producer of Atom Egoyan’s really great early work, used to smoke Bidis. She got me hooked on them for a long time. Are those still popular?
Just with old hippies now?
Yeah, old leftist intellectuals.
[End of Part One]
Next month, we will continue the discussion with Aamir Bashir and focus on his acting career in Bollywood, his collaboration with co-producer, co-editor, co-writer and director of photography Shanker Raman – who will also join the conversation – and last, but not least, the development and making of Autumn and the unique pacing of the film.
Note: The above piece included some plot summary used in my original review published at Daily Film Dose during the Toronto International Film Festival.
To coincide with the film’s European Premiere at the London International Film Festival, I am now republishing my Daily Film Dose review in its entirety:
Autumn (2010) dir. Aamir Bashir
Starring: Shahnawaz Bhat, Reza Naji
The proper pacing of a movie can be a seemingly amorphous goal for many filmmakers. The whole problem, I think, is in the notion of whether something is too slow or not fast enough and what precisely defines and contributes to an audience detecting, then reacting to a picture when it lugubriously shuffles along. That said, and where the confusion can come in, is when even a break-neck speed in terms of cuts, movement and/or line delivery contributes immeasurably to creating a dragging effect. Audiences (and I’d argue most reviewers) aren’t always aware that it’s a supersonic speed that, more often than not, induces boredom and/or sore sphincters.
I have often tarred and feathered the cinematic output of Iran (and recently added Kyrgyzstan to my ass-numbing-by-country list), but of course, it has less to do with my desire to be obnoxious than with the fact that there ARE rules to the grammar of cinema – the biggest being that a filmmaker must ALWAYS be serving the story and its forward movement, and furthermore, serving the dramatic beats in a style and manner that hammer them home the best.
Autumn is a stunning new film from India that, for the most part, is snail-paced, but in spite of this, I cannot recall a single moment when my mind wandered or when my eye strayed to my iPhone to check email. My eyes were super-glued to the screen. I couldn’t take my precious asymmetrical globes off the picture if I tried. Part of this is director Aamir Bashir’s desire to tell his story in a manner in which it’s all important for us to experience the minute by minute, hour by hour, day in and day out, emptiness in the lives of Kashmir’s young men.
Living amid violence, terrorism and poverty, and with only a bleak future ahead of him, our central character Rafiq (Shahnawaz Bhat), after an unsuccessful try at militancy following the disappearance of his brother, exists in a perpetual walking cat-nap, alternately loafing with his friends and working a dead-end job (morning newspaper delivery). Life for Rafiq moves slowly and is punctuated only by bursts of violence around him. Through the course of the film, scattered gunshots are heard, bombs go off and at one point, he and his buddies find a man on the verge of dying with a gaping bullet wound to the belly (which eventually leads Rafiq to a slightly better job).
Though haunted by his brother’s disappearance, Rafiq wishes to move on. There is the overwhelming feeling of the inevitable – that his brother has been kidnapped by the security forces and/or killed, and certainly, Rafiq seems to accept this, but his parents refuse to believe their eldest son is dead. This cloud of non-acceptance hangs over their home like a heavy, dark cloud. At one point, Rafiq’s father Jusuf (Reza Naji) suffers a nervous breakdown – adding more strife and tragedy to a situation foreign to most of us in the West, but a matter of course in so many other parts of the world.
This is the story of a world where death, destruction and corruption are endless and by extension, while life is cheap and can end very quickly, while it goes on, it seems to be an endless, plodding state of aimlessness and despair.
Director Bashir captures this eloquently through a camera-eye that seldom moves and captures the day-to-day mundane activities of Rafiq – it’s as if the very act of living feels like an eternity – like death itself. Shots will often hold longer than audiences might be used to, but the detail and observation within these shots is so exquisite that we experience a highly evocative portrait of a life lived merely for the sake of survival. This is NEVER boring – it is the stuff of great drama – etched with the kind of command one usually experiences in the work of such masters as Yasujiro Ozu, Satyajit Ray or Carl Dreyer, but almost never in the work of young, contemporary filmmakers. Bashir is, by trade, an actor, but I sincerely hope he continues to find subject matter that inspires him as much as that on display in Autumn so he can give up his ‘day job’ and dazzle us again and again with his astounding command of cinematic storytelling.
This is a story that DEMANDS a measured pace. The picture is almost neorealist in extremis and there is little by way of overt lyricism – save for the few lyrical moments in the lives of the characters; most notably when Rafiq’s chum sings a haunting song as the young men laze about under the autumn sky and the lads encourage him to enter a television variety show for amateurs with talent and, most importantly, when Rafiq becomes drawn to taking photographs using his late brother’s camera. The pace is what PRECISELY allows for small moments like these to take on almost mythic proportions within the narrative itself.
Too many art and/or independent films almost annoyingly wear their slow pace like some badge of honour. This is why such pictures give this slower approach a bad name – their ‘artistry’ feels machine-tooled.
Not so with Autumn. This is one of the most stately and profoundly moving films I’ve seen in recent years – it is replete with compassion and humanity, using its exquisite, delicate pace to examine and remind us how precious every second of life on this earth is.
From the Dominion of Canada,
On the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula,
I bid you a hearty:
Mark Stafford gives us the low-down on the films he’s checked out so far.
Leap Year (Año Bisiesto)
A freelance journalist working from home in Mexico City, Laura (Monica Del Carmen) is lonely and isolated. She watches any couples with hungry eyes, deals with her distant mother by phone, indulges in a series of unsatisfying one-night stands, and crosses off the days on the calendar. But then the sadomasochistic Arturo (Gustavo Sanchez Parra) turns up. Alternately brutal and caring, he awakens something in her, and a weird relationship starts. He returns again an again, subjecting the willing Laura to ever more degrading sex acts, as spanking leads to choking leads to whipping, and the film takes a dark, strange turn… Australian Michael Rowe’s Leap Year is a claustrophobic, disturbing little gem, set almost entirely within Laura’s small apartment, with a tiny cast of characters. It’s made to work through a clever, ambiguous script, and Del Carmen’s fantastic performance: she makes Laura a wholly believable, complicated and troubled woman that you can truly care, and fear for.
I was looking forward to Patrick Keiller’s latest (after London and Robinson in Space) as I’m partial to the odd polemical psycho-geographical ramble, but Ruins frankly lost my attention in places, and I don’t think it adds up to a satisfactory whole. We are viewing a series of static tripod shots and listening to Vanessa Redgrave narrate the text, both words and pictures being the supposed work of the mysterious Robinson, who has left us the film canisters and notebooks before disappearing. So we see gasometers, lichen on a road sign, a post box and various architecture and agricultural landscapes accompanied by a monologue concerning oil pipelines, meteors, Iraq, the Captain Swing riots of the 1830s and the current worldwide economic crisis. Visual motifs slowly reveal meaning, sly connections and allusions are made, past and present enter a dialogue. It’s boring and baffling and fascinating. It feels more like an art installation than a piece of cinema, and the recurring series of long, silent static shots depicting close-up plant life or fields during harvest began to try my patience, feeling as if they’d wandered in from one of Abbas Kiarostami’s more gnomic efforts. Disappointing.
Other films worth checking out: Essential Killing, the new film starring Vincent Gallo by legendary Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, and great documentarist Kim Longinotto‘s sharp and insightful Pink Saris, about a group of women vigilantes in northern India. More info on the LFF website.
Anton Corbijn’s film is, as you would expect, beautifully photographed. It’s also well edited, scored and performed, it’s slick and sleek and European and is, overall, a class act. You may enjoy it. The problem I have with it is that I enjoyed it when it was Le Samourai, and Murder by Contract, and Day of the Jackal, and The Mechanic and any other of the dozens of hit-man flicks that have been recycled in its 104 humourless minutes. After a brutal, promising opening sequence, we are left with the tale of Jack (George Clooney), a taciturn, not especially charming killer trying to lie low in a gorgeous Italian village, unsure whether some vengeful Swedes are on his tail. While there he takes a job creating a custom weapon for a mysterious client (Thekla Reuten) and starts up ill-advised relationships with local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and local whore (Violante Placido). The priest/whore bit is just one of many big clunking signposts featured in The American: watch out also for some bloody obvious butterfly and cemetery symbolism, and be assured that Jack is told that he is losing his edge, and engaged in one last job. It all ends with the people you thought were going to die being killed, in kind of the way you thought they were going to die. If you’re unfamiliar with genre cinema from the last few decades, the film may work for you, but I still think you’ll find it a little ponderous. Personally, I’m baffled as to why these talents should have wanted to make this film.
The Peddler (El ambulante)
The Peddler is a documentary about Daniel Burmeister, an untrained jack of all trades in his 60s, who drives his ailing car from village to village in Argentina, making ‘hand-crafted’ films with the local population. Recycling the same four or five scripts, he has made over 60 features, shooting on old VHS equipment, roping in anyone and everyone who seems even vaguely willing. Casting the local priest as the priest, firemen as firemen and so on, he gets the community together to produce one of his ramshackle productions, then charges them pesos to see the result. We watch as he puts together another opus, ‘Let’s Kill Uncle’, assembling no-budget action sequences, constantly improvising when his cast drop out to do their day jobs, and wringing hammy performances from cab drivers, housewives and schools of children. Burmeister is an inspiration, an optimist who has ‘1001 solutions to 1001 problems’. He seems to be constantly on the verge of collapse, near homeless and penniless, but gets by on good will and charm. Which you could also say about El ambulante: it’s not especially deep or probing, and it’s occasionally stagy, but it tramples such quibbles into the dust with its sheer love of life, character and creation. Pretty much a big cinematic hug.
A Screaming Man (Un homme qui crie)
In which an ageing pool attendant (Youssouf Djaoro) in war-torn Chad betrays his son out of pride and misplaced priorities, and destroys pretty much every thing he values in the process. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s A Screaming Man is ultimately moving, but it’s a very simple, tragic tale told very simply and very slowly, feeling a damn sight longer than its 92 minutes. It has wonderful moments, the widescreen photography is fine, and it’s clearly a quality piece of filmmaking, but I’d happily swap all this elegance and simplicity for a little urgency and flair. I’m shallow like that.
Living on Love Alone (D’amour et d’eau fraÃ®che)
Oddly shaped film about survival in the modern world, which starts as an attack on the humiliations and idiocies of the job market, moves through family drama and ends somewhere in Gun Crazy love on the run territory. Anaïs Demoustier as Julie is a natural, easy screen presence in the lead, Pio Marmaï has charm as her dodgy lover, with whom she has half-baked plans to leave the rat race. The stuff about working for a hideously hip Paris PR agency is sharp and funny (Julie is fired for being ‘too spontaneous and not natural enough’). And in general the film has a loose unpredictability I found winning. But it does feel like a strange mish-mash of tones and genres, with strands of story that lead nowhere. Also, I had assumed the obligation on the part of young French actresses to get naked as often as possible and have sex scenes with much older men was a trope that would be confined to the work of ageing male directors. It’s nice to see Isabelle Czajka maintaining the tradition.
For more information and to book tickets go to the LFF website.
Piney Gir was born in a Thunderstorm in the middle of May in Kansas City, Kansas. It was tornado season, the sky was green and angry; in a bath of blood out she popped.
Piney grew up in isolation in the American Midwest; this isolation was reinforced by her strict religious upbringing. She went to a special Christian school (no Darwin, no sex education) and attended church four times a week; no sinful TV, no secular music… This left a lot to young Piney’s imagination, which flourished to fill in all the gaps.
Piney always used to say, ‘You can take the girl out of Kansas, but you can’t take the Kansas out of the girl… because country music is just in you when you come from the American Midwest. It’s not ‘cool’ to like country, teenagers wouldn’t be caught dead listening to it, but it’s everywhere in every gas station and grocery store. When I left Kansas I realised I missed the country twang. It reminds me of home and when I feel homesick I write a country song.’
I must sound like the twee-est person in the world but I genuinely love uplifting films that are colourful and hopeful. I guess that’s why a lot of my picks are cartoons and musicals. I could probably make a list of 10 Disney films and be done with it, but I’m going to give it a little more thought… I hope you like my choices!
1. Funny Face (1957)
This film is brilliant on so many levels, first of all the clothes are amazing… it makes a girl wonder why they don’t make clothes that look like this anymore, so elegant yet playful, fashion was fun. It’s a musical (I love musicals)! Audrey Hepburn is a beatnik in it (I love beatniks)! And it’s romantic, set in Paris. I watch this film again and again.
2. The Little Mermaid (1989)
I am a big fan of this film, I love the fact that half the film is set underwater and the fish are colourful and the sea witch really is frightening. I love to sing and find the fact the whole film is about Ariel’s voice really poignant personally. Imagine, having to trade your voice for the boy you love, what a conundrum!
3. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
I must have seen this film 30 times; it’s a Tim Burton film and has his whimsical sense of humour with that dark twisted edge to it. I think this film has greatly influenced me as a person. I can’t help but wonder if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I think good.
4. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
OK, I have a lot in common with Dorothy (namely a matching pair of shoes) but also the fact we’re from Kansas, we have both had little black dogs and wear a lot of gingham. This film is also really frightening with the flying monkeys and trees that throw things, but what really strikes a chord with me is her sense of self. She discovers she has everything she needs within her. That’s a good message. I watch this when I’m feeling a little homesick.
5. Up (2009)
This movie is brilliant and heartbreaking but also a great adventure, following this fellow on a quest to South America with a misfit boy scout and talking dog. I loved it. See it. You will cry though.
6. Amelie (2001)
I love this playful film and the sense of colour and texture in the way it looks. Amelie seems like someone I’d hang out with if I lived in Paris and I love the way she helps people, her practical jokes and the elaborate scavenger hunt she stages. Jean-Pierre Jeunet highlights the beauty in mundane things, which I try to remember to do every day.
7. Fantastic Mister Fox (2009)
I adore every Wes Anderson film I’ve ever seen, but this one is my favourite. The animation is incredible, but also I can relate to Mr Fox’s conundrum, it’s as if he doesn’t really want to grow up and if he just does ‘one more raid’ he can capture the thrill of adventure again, instead of having to relinquish his sense of fun to feel like a responsible adult. I’m always seizing the moment even when maybe I shouldn’t, it’s as if this film was made for me.
8. O Brother Where Art Thou (2000)
The Coen Brothers make films I love, and this reworking of Homer’s Odyssey is fantastic. The acting is brilliant but also the soundtrack changed the way that people thought of bluegrass and country music. I actually think this film is responsible for opening people’s mind to that new folk kind of sound.
9. Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010)
This film is dazzling, for a start it doesn’t look like any other film I’ve seen, it treads the line between what you see and what you imagine when you read the comic books (yes, I’m one of those rare girls who read comics). The whole concept of battling the exes is not just tongue-in-cheek but metaphorically true. See it (but I’d say read it first!)
10. Pecker (1998)
I love John Waters’s oddball humour and I like how this story is set in Baltimore of all places. I want to be in Pecker’s family, it’s such a cast of eccentrics from Mee Maw who talks to the Virgin Mary to his dad who despises the town strippers. I find this a really cute, feel-good kind of film. Christina Ricci is adorable in it too.
* Can 9-5 get honourable mention? I am such a huge fan of Dolly Parton and I have my own day job conundrums (sadly being a Piney doesn’t pay all the bills). This film lives out all kinds of boss-killing fantasies and is a hopeful film for anyone trapped in a job they don’t want to be doing.
** OH and Party Girl, starring Parker Posey as a wild librarian? I loved that film; it inspired me to wear orange platform sneakers.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews