The Edinburgh International Film Festival has announced an innovative new venture, Project: New Cinephilia, aimed to stimulate debate around film criticism and appreciation today.
The project, which culminates in a day-long event on June 16th, will spark conversation with essays, thoughts and ideas from critics, writers, bloggers and filmmakers who are challenging established modes of thinking about cinema. Remote contributors will publish work via a dedicated microsite, launching on May 17 and co-presented by online cinematheque/social network MUBI, which will host comments and discussion around these commissioned materials in their Forums. Other contributors will participate in online roundtables chaired by Jigsaw Lounge founder Neil Young and Michael Koresky, editorial manager at The Criterion Collection and co-founding editor of Reverse Shot. Koresky will join two other visiting journalists, freelance critic Eric Hynes (Village Voice, Time Out New York), and filmmaker/critic Jeff Reichert (Gerrymandering; co-founding editor of Reverse Shot) attending the event.
Electric Sheep will participate in the session ‘Critical Approaches II: Tools, Formats and Experiments’ on Thursday 16 June at the Inspace Gallery as part of Project: New Cinephilia. We will also have a stall, come along to meet us and take a look at our new book, The End: An Electric Sheep Anthology!
Project: New Cinephilia will culminate in a day-long symposium comprising of six interactive sessions which are open to audiences, press, bloggers and film lovers. Topics include new critical approaches to reading film; discussions on how film is consumed in the 21st century and the role of cinema in our daily lives; and a masterclass in how to start your own fanzine, blog or film journal. The day will come to close with a playful 140-character Film Critic Deathmatch, a â€œbattle to the best reviewâ€ using Twitter.
More details on the Project: New Cinephilia event on the EIFF website.
At first glance, David Fincher’s two explorations of masculinity in crisis, bookending the noughties – Fight Club (1999) and The Social Network (2010) – look similar in the way a Facebook poke might resemble a full-on punch in the teeth. But there are connections. As his most concerted examination of dysfunctional bromance, the films stand alongside his best work, Seven (1995), The Game (1997) and Zodiac (2007), in probing the darker reaches of masculine loneliness. Of course, Alien 3 and Panic Room both feature feisty female protagonists, but they were missteps: the first being a fraught studio-conflict-riven debut and the latter a self-consciously big B-movie. You might think I’m forgetting The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), and you’d be right.
The First Rule of Fightbook Is You Have to Talk about Fightbook.
Fincher is a director who needs writers, working best when he has someone else’s powerful voice to put his images to. Seven was scripted by Andrew Kevin Walker and Zodiac featured Robert Graysmith (the writer of the book on which the film is based) as a major character. With The Social Network, the fame and prominence of its writer makes it easy to see this as an Aaron Sorkin production rather than a David Fincher film; and the Academy, for what it’s worth, duly did. Sorkin’s forte, as displayed in his TV work and most especially The West Wing, is quick-fire talk, and that’s what we get in The Social Network: a young man and a young woman talking; young men talking; young men talking together; young men talking to old men; young men’s lawyers talking and then young men talking again; then a woman says something. Add to this the fact that the nub of the drama is litigation, young men talking about what young men said and what they meant when they said it. It’s fast and witty, but there are also the acerbic silences. Mark Zuckersomething (played by Jesse Eisenberg) has the pout of a man whose best one-liners are zinging around the private theatre of his brain. For all the talk, no one actually seems to have a real conversation.
The Second Rule of Fightbook Is You Have to Talk about Fightbook.
Despite the film’s savage satirising of the talking cure and group therapy sessions, Fight Club is nothing if not a talking cure. Like The Social Network, this film is most definitely a talkie, breaking its own first and second rule again and again. Chuck Palahniuk’s first person prose is almost seamlessly cut and pasted into Edward Norton’s voice-over narration. But it’s not just that. The voice is a controlling element of the film, not only explaining what is happening or what the character is thinking, but directing the action. When Norton walks through his apartment, his words make furniture magically appear. His voice can freeze-frame the film. Telephone calls (from call-boxes and landlines, so 1999) are prominent plot moments. The voice is languid, persuasive, funny, deceitful, but in control even as it complains of helplessness and impotence. The second voice is Tyler Durden’s politically ambiguous radicalism. In fact, it isn’t so much ambiguous as wilfully contradictory: authoritarian anti-authoritarianism, fascistically organised anarchism, self-effacing narcissism. Ultimately, the film, especially on a second viewing, is about a man complaining that men (now) talk too much. And complaining. Following the novel more closely, a better ending might have located the whole story inside a group therapy session for ex-Fight Club men, trying to deal with their Tyler withdrawal.
The Third Rule of Fightbook: Only One Girl at a Time, Fellas.
Of course, it would be ridiculous to say that there are no girls in these films. But there tends to be only one significant other, and she is only there to starkly point out a rejection of, or by, the female world. Marla in Fight Club is a taunting, threatening presence who needs to be eliminated. More Tyler than Tyler himself (who anyway is only ever really half Tyler), Marla’s suicidal nihilism needs to be sidelined if the attempt to find a core masculine identity is to be taken seriously. The rejection of the female – ‘we were a generation brought up by our mothers, I’m thinking if another woman in our lives is really the solution’ – allows also for a freer homoerotic fantasy. But this kind of no-girls-allowed masculinity is really a heterosexual homosexuality, full of backslapping and angry repression. Whereas Fight Club wears its man-worries on its bare (but not particularly hairy) chest, The Social Network maintains an adolescent attitude to women, at once fearing them, despising them after the anticipated rejection and then vengefully commodifying them. Girls with names, there are few and but one of note. Like Marla, Erica Albright is the man-child’s worst nightmare, an intelligent, articulate woman who can see through pretence. Just as Fight Club is a retreat from Marla, so Facebook is a rejection of a girl like Erica Albright and initially an act of publicly delivered vengeance. Every other girl in the film is a trophy to be ostentatiously flung in Erica Albright’s face, girls with bigger tits and less lip. The question-mark endings of both films present similarly ironic and uncertain truces rather than genuine resolution.
The Fourth Rule of Fightbook: If This Is Your First Night at Fightbook, You DON’T Have to Fight.
The most obvious difference between the two films is the level of violence. The fighting of Fight Club has been variously described as metaphorical and whatnot, and yet it is there, a visceral, anti-intellectual attempt at life, at connecting. This late 90s wish for violence, for a self-defining and character-building war, is no longer sustainable post-9/11, in the phosphorous light of Fallujah and the Helmand Province. All the boys who really wanted to find themselves in the zing of battle are in The Hurt Locker (Bigalow, 2008) or Restrepo (Hetherington and Junger, 2010). The Social Network verbally spars where Fight Club smashes your face in, both in its content and in its stylistic vigour. And yet the total absence of violence in The Social Network leaves an outline where violence ought to be. Sean Parker’s flinch is a defining moment in the battle between him and Eduardo: ‘I like standing next to you, Sean,’ Eduardo says. ‘It makes me look tough.’ Fight Club‘s psychotic anguish about ‘being men together’ is more violently played out and the images of movie star masculinity (Brad Pitt and Jared Leto) are at least available, but the loneliness of the central characters of both films, their inability to connect, or even look at each other while talking is there throughout. [SPOILER] The ‘suicide’ at the end of Fight Club ought to be real (the statistics for suicide among young white men in the US make for grim reading), but both films reach out for a possibly hopeful resolution.
If only it wasn’t for that last cock, getting in the way of everything.
American artist Al Jarnow started out as something of an accidental animator. Obsessed with capturing light, Jarnow initially created paintings. Like David Hockney’s photographic collages, Jarnow’s works laid out their subjects through squares of colour. Painted street scenes, architectural structures and landscapes were used to illustrate the motion of time, the changing of light and its transformative powers. Buildings were chosen as vessels; it was light that was the subject. Film, with its flickering frames of light and intrinsically temporal nature, was a natural progression. There was more potential for recording and exploring transience. He was also led towards the medium by his acquaintances and the environment of his city: the artistically free and exciting New York of the 1970s. Film Forum, Anthology and the Collective of Living Cinema provided unique platforms for experimentation. And Jarnow was a natural experimenter.
His first attempt at filmmaking – a psychedelic animation of Edward Lear’s poem ‘The Owl and The Pussycat’ – was for a NYU student film, produced by friend Dan Weiss, with drawings by his wife, Jill Jarnow. By necessity he learnt on the project; and by not knowing the medium, he was able to reinvent, challenge and improvise. Over the course of his career, he has played around with Xerox machines, he has produced stop-motion animations with filing cards and, in recent times, he has ‘fallen head over heels into the computer screen’, investigating the possibility of software-generated sequences without beginnings, middles and ends.
There is an elegant precision to Jarnow’s films. His 70s filing-card films stylishly play with geometric patterns. Piles of paper leap up and down mail-slots or shuffle like packs of cards, all the time revealing rotating architectural hand-drawn cubes. As the numbered sheets of paper flip before your eyes, your mind races to discover how it is done before duly giving in to the hypnotic rhythm, counted out on Mozart-written harpsichord beats. Autosong (1976), inspired by his wife’s blue Volkswagen car, is a labyrinthine journey of bends, bridges and hills knotting into abstract tubes and pipes set to field recordings of revving engines. Jarnow looked to the background scenery of old cartoons, rather than the racing hero.
Indeed, Jarnow presents humans as small specks, insignificant in the lifespan of the earth. In the two-minute short Cosmic Clock (1979), an impassive young male figure watches from a hillside as one billion years flash before his eyes. A strange time-lapse masterpiece unfolds as successive space-age cities rise and fall, water levels surge and plummet and ice ages sweep over the land. Architecture (1980) takes a different approach, using brightly painted toy blocks to create a stop-motion representation of urbanisation. Model animals weave in and out as buildings emerge, disintegrate and rocket up skywards. The elaborate city landscape sees the animals disappear as cars move in.
As well as charting the progression of human beings against the backdrop of the natural world, Jarnow also displays a desire to record time as it relates to an individual’s life. Jesse: The First Year (1979) is a playful sequence of photographs showing Jarnow’s new-born son over the course of 12 months, charting changes and growth during a period when the passage of time is sharply apparent. Similar in its personal approach, Celestial Navigation (1984) is one of Jarnow’s most fulfilled experiments. The 15-minute film records light passing through Jarnow’s Long Island studio from 20 March 1982 until 20 March 1983. As blocks of sunlight fall from the windows against whitewashed walls, Jarnow obsessively traces their movement across mornings, afternoons, days, weeks, months. He creates grids, photographic prints and a model of the studio, surrounded by a shining light bulb. He travels to Stonehenge for the summer equinox and produces a map of the landmark. There is a wonderful zoetrope-like sequence as the camera swirls around the stones, sun shining through and shadows cast. The effect of Celestial Navigation is like a fantastically talented jazz trumpeter stepping up to improvise, surrounded by silence as the rest of the band dies away. It is Jarnow’s personal philosophical riff on time and light.
Given the cerebral aspect of his works, it comes as a surprise that Jarnow also worked on many television commissions, including sequences for the mighty children’s television series Sesame Street. Generations of children remember his film, Yak (1970), an educational short about the letter ‘Y’. This commercial work paid for experimentations in the studio while Jarnow has described his personal work as acting like a laboratory for his commissions. And what a fantastic laboratory his Long Island attic became. Self-effacing in interview, Jarnow depicts his filmmaking as starting off on a very personal basis (‘my wife was an audience, my friends were an audience’). The uniqueness of Jarnow’s work rests heavily on its personal quality. Jarnow is an artist driven by an enviable desire to endlessly chase ideas, taking new perspectives and trying out all approaches.
The Al Jarnow programme ‘Celestial Navigations’ screened on Sunday 27 March at Ikon Eastside, Birmingham, as part of the Flatpack Festival.
With last year’s Icelandic volcano and this year’s colossal earthquake in Japan, it seems Frankfurt’s annual Nippon Connection is perennially haunted by natural disasters. It was even announced that the festival team had toyed with the idea of cancelling the event in response to the recent tragedy, yet the woe at the opening remarks was soon dissipated thanks to the festival staff’s infectious enthusiasm and glowing spirit. With an assorted programme ranging between commercial blockbusters, such as the sci-fi manga adaptation Gantz (Sato Shinsuke, 2011), congenial comedies of the likes of Permanent Nobara (Yoshida Daihachi, 2010) and voices of the independent art scene represented in the appropriately renamed section Nippon Visions, which this report will focus on, Nippon Connection had at least one film to fit our every mood.
Heaven’s Story (Takahisa Zeze, 2010)
The best feature from Japan in recent years, and the FIPRESCI award-winner at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, Zeze’s latest offering from his post-pink period clocks out at an epic four and a half hours. An intricately woven tale of revenge and redemption, trauma and forgiveness, crime and punishment, Heaven’s Story threads multiple characters into its embellished spiralling narrative. The metaphor involving monsters announced in the opening underpins the film’s meditation on the ethics of human encounters, a contemplation that is bookmarked by haunting performance-art footage of puppetry troupe Yumehine and dancer Hyakkidondoro. With stunning photography, the controlled balance of urgency and patience propels Zeze’s characters down their destined paths, which seem designed to cross, each encounter instigating new sparks.
Arrietty (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2010)
Although on a much quieter scale, Studio Ghibli’s latest release, Arrietty, also dwells on the ethics of self-and-other relationships in its adaptation of Mary Norton’s tales, The Borrowers. The predictable winner of the festival’s Audience Award, the story paints the chance meeting of sickly youth Sho and tiny Arrietty, also a teenager, but from a different race of little people who reside underneath rural households. A child of an endangered species, Arrietty is initially wary of her neighbour’s presence, yet soon warms to his tender care and yearning for amity. Though entirely forgettable compared to Ghibli’s previous output, from which it ‘borrows’ quite heavily, Arrietty may be remembered for its serene animation that sees the directing debut of young animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi. But let us all forget the theme song.
Midori-ko (Keita Kurosaka, 2010) / Still in Cosmos (Makino Takashi, 2009)
A double bill that would be hard to come by at any other festival, Midori-ko and Still in Cosmos may at first seem an odd couple, but screened together represented the cutting edge of non-commercial filmmaking in Japan.
Midori-ko is Kurosaka’s lovechild and took 10 years to nurture, a hand-drawn parable that borrows its pale aesthetics from Yuriy Norshteyn. Midori is a young, impoverished scientist who discovers a strange vegetable that has landed in her room as if it were a fallen star. Though rather simplistic and oddly paced, the skewered fairy tale is at times thought-provoking, and the subtle shades and tonal moderations of the drawings are captivating.
One of experimental filmmaker Makino’s latest collaborations with Jim O’Rourke, which fuse sound and moving image, Still in Cosmos shatters the screen surface in a composed piece of sustained tension and controlled ambience. Words prove inefficient to describe the experience of Makino’s experiments, where he transfers film into crepitant digital layers that vibrate into each other in pulsed drones.
The Duckling (Sayaka Ono, 2005-10)
It is no surprise that Kazuo Hara, a pioneering voice of personal documentaries in Japan, is said to have overseen the production of The Duckling, for Ono’s debut feature is steeped in his style of storytelling. Ono’s autobiographical documentary feels like a therapy session as she visits each member of her family to unravel the childhood traumas that have led her to the brink of suicide. Though the film succeeds in exuding a dense intensity that pushes the boundaries of its genre, it feels too much like an uncomfortable continuation of her self-harm. One question remains – at such a young age, what will Ono do now that she has exhausted her entire life within one project?
Teto (Hiroshi Gokan, 2010)
Part of the Tokyo University of Arts special programme, Teto is a feature-length graduation piece by Hiroshi Gokan and was the surprise triumph of the festival. Utterly unique, the film weaves together different generic codes from espionage thrillers and post-apocalypse dread to period set-pieces, performed by the characters, who run a theatre troupe of orphans. Teto sustains its despondent aura and a foreboding gloom with committed control, never caving in to spell out its own mysteries. The ability to conjure intensity from its spectral narrative evokes another recent East Asian debut, End of Animal (2010), yet Teto‘s chaos is more simmering and muted.
All traditions are invented, post facto confabulations and imagined communities. None more so than the British folk song tradition. Seen in this light, the soundtrack composed by American playwright and songwriter Paul Giovanni for The Wicker Man might be seen less as the inauthentic oddity it has often been regarded as, and more as the very ideal type of the genre. An unholy Creole of original compositions, nursery rhymes and assorted fragments from the traditional music of England, Wales, Scotland and even Bulgaria, as an attempt to realistically recreate the indigenous sound of a long isolated Hebridean island, Giovanni’s score must be regarded as a laughable failure. However, as an unheimlich phantasmagoria aimed at transporting its audience into the strange yet hauntingly familiar other places of the unconscious, it is little short of a masterpiece.
The songs were, for the most part, written on guitar by Giovanni, and then arranged and scored by associate musical director Gary Carpenter with additional input from the assembled musicians. Carpenter, who was then a recent graduate from the Royal College of Music, was auditioned for the post by Giovanni, as were Peter Brewis (who played recorders, Jew’s harp, harmonica and bass guitar) and Michael Cole (concertina, harmonica and bassoon). The rest of the band was recruited by Carpenter, largely from his own short-lived folk-rock combo, Hocket. Assuming the name Magnet (after discovering their first choice, Lodestone, was already taken), the band developed and recorded most of the music prior to the film shoot and appeared as performers in several key sequences of the film.
Fans of The Wicker Man are wont to insist that it is not a horror film – in much the same way Kurt Vonnegut fans will sometimes try and dissociate their idol from the science fiction genre, in order not to besmirch such an auteur with such a pulp genre. Considering the importance of music to The Wicker Man, the intimacy with which the songs are integrated into the narrative, and the embedding of performers within the frame, one wonders if those fans would be any more comfortable thinking of it as a musical.
Naomi Wood worked at a kids’ book publishers before she seriously started writing. She went to Paris to do the ‘living-in-a-garret’ thing where she wrote The Godless Boys: ‘nanny-ing in the afternoons, writing in the mornings, living on the 7th floor (no lift = year of great legs)’. Her debut is set in an alternative 1986, on an island where religion is outlawed. With shades of A Clockwork Orange, it is a tender, brutal tale of God, love and violence. Her next novel is ‘a fictional account of how Ernest Hemingway’s four wives – Hadley, Pauline, Martha and Mary – decided to walk away from their romance with the writer – or how Ernest himself walked out on them’. EITHNE FARRY
I wouldn’t like to think I have many of the qualities found in the stiff yet celibate Sergeant Howie in Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. Sgt Howie brings none of the humour nor any of the cheer to the bonkers ‘secret society’ of Summerisle.
And yet what he does bring to the Island is fresh curiosity.
Howie recognises that this is a society that he has no place in. He is excluded by the Islanders’ snarly sexuality as well as their non-cooperation. ‘Where is Rowan Morrison?’ he keeps on asking, only to be met with those irritatingly blank pagan faces.
Howie starts to ken that this society is keeping him out of a secret. And he learns, too, that it’s always harder to survive in a society when you’re the one left out of that secret.
When you watch The Wicker Man you can’t help but feel sorry for the poor figure. Among dancing nude Britt Ekland, masked children, bobbing hobby horses and the weirdest post-mistress this side of America, he is the vulnerable stranger – brash and cheerless, yes, but also persecuted by this viciously sensual community. No one who’s gone to a nightclub sober can feel entirely numb to his awkwardness.
That’s the thing: it doesn’t take a secret society, or a collection of Summerisle types, to make you feel a little baffled at the world. Sometimes, all it takes is looking at the minor societies around you: the weird unit of your family, or your happy band of friends, or your colleagues at work. I like to think I have some of Howie’s curiosity – and bafflement – in each part of the day, because the lives of others are so secret, and so intricate, and so baffling.
The only difference is my curiosity might not be articulated in so broad a brogue.
Warning: Do not read this if you have a morbid fear of acronyms
We live in times where it doesn’t take too much in the way of paranoid tendencies to view the world we know as a vast cauldron of bubbling stew – a stew filled with malevolent, dangerous and often secret ingredients throwing up a miasma of smoke and reflecting the world through a series of funhouse mirrors, behind which lurk all manner of nefarious and faceless bureaucrats constantly on the prowl, configuring secret plots and recruiting plotters. Like the Trojans, worms and viruses in the virtual world, they lie in wait to strike the unsuspecting. They hide behind the ‘newspeak’ and abbreviations of their secret organisations, societies, government departments, organised criminal gangs and affect us in unknown and unknowing ways. A nasty world indeed.
But spare a thought for those denizens of the secret world of 1960s spy films that mushroomed in the wake of the successes of the first three Bond films. The secret agent/spy film rolled into movie houses like a cinematic tsunami. A world of heroes and villains, plotters and conspirators, villains and arch-villains, goodies and baddies, double agents and triple agents, moles and sleepers. And that’s mostly the men. Female agents and fellow travellers come in an equal number of types – though their form (in all senses of the word) is a somewhat more stabilised (heterosexual) convention. One proof of that pudding is the always anticipated photographic essays that would appear in the rightly named ‘Playboy spread’ featuring fetching images of the ‘Girls of Bond’ with the release of each new film. Rosa Klebb, of course – played by the iconic cabaret artiste and wife of Kurt Weill Lotte Lenya – excepted. Worth noting, but a separate article in itself, is the none-too-subtle practice of the ‘good agent’ converting the misguided female (misguided as to political, cultural, consumerist or sexual proclivities) back to hetero or capitalist normativity through assault, conscience, example or just plain old penis power.
Male villains, on the other hand, are very often ‘othered’ by being depicted as older, disfigured in some physical way or just plain repugnant. Fanatical and megalomaniacal, they are doubly disfigured in mental ways as well. But they make for great baddies, and they and their secret organisations are the focus of this piece. Now while these films depict some ‘good’ government agencies protecting our vested interests, which often have true-life counterparts such as the CIA, FBI, MI5 and 6, KGB, MOSSAD and INTERPOL, there is an equal number of counter-agencies dead set on destroying ‘us’ or controlling ‘us’. They will stop at nothing to de-stabilise and subvert the hegemonic society. Or to simply control access to our earthly pursuits and desires, be it sex, space, mind, food or drugs.
The secret agent/spy/super-criminal narrative in these films may take many forms: the extravagant cinema of excess as in Goldfinger and the Bond franchise – enemies are S.P.E.C.T.R.E. (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion) and S.M.E.R.S.H. (a Russian acronym that means ‘Death to Spies’) – or the more downbeat mundane world of the government agent as portrayed in the films of the Len Deighton and John Le Carré novels. Then there is the enchanted world of the low-budget, spy’sploitation film – many made in Europe – such as Operation Kid Brother (1967), starring Sean Connery’s lesser-known sibling Neil, or the quasi-serious spy films such as the Matt Helm or Derek Flint movies, or the out-and-out comedy spoof (sure sign of the end of a cycle) as in Fathom (1967) or Le Magnifique (1973). In almost all of these films, the good guy usually acts as deus ex machina in successfully thwarting the evil doings of the baddie and his acronymic organisation. And you gotta love these baddies if only for the sheer novelty of their evil societies and enthralling webs of organised crime or political machinations. But irrespective of their purposes, both sides share one secret obsession above all others: let’s call it acronymania. And the nemeses of altruistic government agencies have some of the best and most revealing. So it is that the men from U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) have their opposite in the interestingly named T.H.R.U.S.H. (never fleshed out in the television or film series but revealed in a spin-off novel as Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity). Of course, this common enemy was also shared by the short-lived The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., which starred Stephanie Powers as April Dancer.
In the television and film versions of Get Smart! Maxwell Smart of C.O.N.T.R.O.L. had to do battle with K.A.O.S. for five seasons during which, unusually, the acronyms were never revealed. The government men in Carry On Spying (1965) have to contend with agents from S.T.E.N.C.H. (Society for the Total Extinction of Non-Conforming Humans) while in the Morecombe and Wise vehicle The Intelligence Men, the enemy is from Schlecht (a German word for ‘bad’ or ‘ill’). The wondrous Derek Flint, played by 60s favourite James Coburn, works for Z.O.W.I.E. (Zonal Organization World Intelligence Espionage) and lasted for two outings, Our Man Flint (1967) and the lesser In like Flint (1967). The laconic – and ageing – Dean Martin played agent Matt Helm in a trilogy of films. His hands are kept busy working for I.C.E. (Intelligence Counter Espionage) and battling with Big-O (Brotherhood of International Government and Order) in The Silencers, followed by Murderer’s Row (both 1966). Helm returned to the screen in 1967’s The Ambushers and 1968’s The Wrecking Crew – while a fifth instalment, The Ravagers, although announced was never made. Could it be that Big-O triumphed?
Lesser ‘quality’ genre films had just as colourful spy rings, evil agencies, secret criminal gangs, nasty villains and femmes fatales. Tom Adams took the role of Charles Vine in three Bond pastiches: Licensed to Kill (1965), followed by Where the Bullets Fly (1966) and ending with the almost impossible to find Somebody Stole Our Russian Spy aka OK Yevtushenko (1968). Sorry, no acronyms in those, but in the name of inclusion I mention these lesser spy film obscurities. The character of Bulldog Drummond – an early prototype for James Bond – was disinterred from his pre- and immediate post-war jingoistic and chauvinistic British grave by the actor Richard Johnson (who had been considered to play Bond) in, first, Deadlier Than the Male (1966) and then Some Girls Do (1969). It is interesting to observe that all actors originally considered for the part of Bond subsequently appeared in spy films: David Niven, Trevor Howard, Cary Grant, Patrick McGoohan, Richard Todd and James Mason.
A feeble 1966 effort to cash in on the popularity of American Borscht Belt comedians Allen and Rossi was The Last of the Secret Agents, a film that co-starred Nancy Sinatra pitting the G.G.I. agents (Good Guys Institute) against the evil baddies, THEM (no further details provided but clearly not ‘us’). Although the outrageously camp Modesty Blaise (1966) is not strictly a spy film, it does involve a clandestine criminal organisation, The Network, of which Modesty (Mam’selle) is head, and apart from her Colt .32, Modesty Blaise has a secret weapon, you might say, in the form of ‘The Nailer’. Using a cunning trick of stripping off and going topless, she distracts the enemy (nails their attention) while her minions carry out her nefarious plans. Couldn’t be simpler.
Of course, many of these secret agent/secret society scripts, from Bond to Helm to Drummond, originated in literary works. Ted Mark’s satyr-like hero, Steve Victor, The Man from O.R.G.Y. (Organisation for the Rational Guidance of Youth) plied his spy trade over the course of 15 books between 1965 and 1981. Big sellers in their day, they mixed cheeky Bond-like shenanigans with one sexual escapade per chapter, brought about by our spy’s day job as a sexual sociologist and supported by academic funding, which more accurately reflects the true meaning of O.R.G.Y. to Victor: Obtaining Research Grants for Yours truly. Ted Mark’s books took advantage of the post-Tropic of Cancer publishing atmosphere of the sexually liberated 60s, and a new class of erotic spy novels emerged. Other publishers followed with the 34-book Rod ‘The Coxeman’ Damon series. Dr Damon is Head of L.S.D. (League for Sexual Dynamics) and works covertly for the super-secret Thaddeus X. Coxe Foundation. Tim O’Shane is the fictional Man from T.O.M.C.A.T. (Tactical Operations Master Counterintelligence Assault Team) and lasted for nine outings between 1967 and 1971. There was also The Lady from L.U.S.T. (League of Undercover Spies and Terrorists), whose enemy was H.A.T.E. (the Humanitarian Alliance of Total Espionage), and The Man from S.T.U.D. (Special Territories and Unique Development), who dated The Girl from W.I.L.L.N.G. (Western Integrated Long Lease Insurance Nonpayment Group). You get the idea! I leave it to readers to decode the acronyms of some other series that emerged in the light of the Cold War and spymania: The Miss from S.I.S., The Man from S.A.D.I.S.T.O., The Man from P.A.N.S.Y. and The Girl from H.A.R.D. In terms of sales though, it was The Man from O.R.G.Y. who topped the poles (no pun intended of course). Most of these acronym-led secret adventure series were optioned by the studios and were considered for film adaptations to cash in on the boom, but once again, among this lot it was Ted Mark’s man who was translated into celluloid with the 1970 release of The Man from O.R.G.Y. aka The Real Gone Girls, directed by James Hill (Born Free, Worzel Gummidge Black Beauty) with a script written by Mark himself and starring Robert Walker Jr. (Easy Rider) as Steve Victor.
So, now that the Wall is down, and the Commies brought to heel, it is reassuring to know that many of the above clandestine secret agencies have likewise passed into history and can now be revealed. As can another little known state secret: Electric S.H.E.E.P. is a secret sleeper organisation whose acronym means Electric Society for the Halting of Effusive and Excessive Praise.
This article will self-destruct in 10 seconds. Good luck, Jim.
Our friends at Terracotta Festival have put together a great selection of film treats from the Far East. They will be opening with The Lost Bladesman, an epic tale about Three Kingdoms character Guan Yu starring Donnie Yen and we’re particularly looking forward to Revenge: A Love Story, a serial killer story told from an unusual angle from Hong Kong, and Milocrorze, a Technicolor, multi-stranded, time-travelling fantasy from Japan.
Actors and directors from Asia will be attending, including Tak Sakaguchi (Versus), Clement Cheng (Gallants), Rina Takeda (Karate Girl), Sam Voutas (Red Light Revolution) and Kim Kkobbi (Breathless). There will also be masterclasses with directors, the Terracotta Cafe to chill out, and a festival party.
The story has a few variations, but goes much like this: Prince Albert Victor was Queen Victoria’s grandson, and second in line to the throne. He secretly married a Catholic shop-girl named Anne Crook, and they had a daughter, Alice. This was not the sort of thing a Royal should be doing, and when Victoria found out, the Prince was whisked away, and Anne locked up.
Unfortunately Anne’s fellow shop-girl, Mary Jane Kelly, knew the whole story. Down on her luck in Spitalfields, Kelly turned to prostitution. She and three others tried to blackmail the Prince’s friend, the artist Walter Sickert. He told the Royals, and the Royals took steps to silence the blackmailers.
This is where the Masons came in. The elderly Sir William Gull, Physician to the Queen and high-ranking Freemason, was entrusted with the task of silencing this threat to the throne. With coachman John Netley, and the collusion of fellow Masons including Sir Charles Warren, head of the Metropolitan Police, Gull tracked down and murdered the four women, and one more for good measure. These, of course, were the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper. Perhaps unwisely, Gull chose to silence them in the most public way imaginable. He mutilated the victims in ways that had (alleged) Masonic significance, and left graffiti with (alleged) Masonic clues disguised as anti-Semitic slurs: ‘The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing.’ ‘Juwes’ apparently referred to three apprentice masons who murdered the architect of Solomon’s Temple. It’s been denied that the word ‘Juwes’ has any significance in Masonic ritual, although Masonic denials should be taken with a pinch of salt.
The source for this amazing story was one Joseph Sickert, allegedly the illegitimate son of Walter Sickert. His mother was none other than Alice Crook, the product of the secret royal marriage. Sickert told his story to (among others) a journalist named Stephen Knight, and the book that followed, Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976), popularised the theory. Knight’s research is sloppy, and he apparently ignored evidence that disproved his findings (for instance, Gull and other conspirators probably weren’t Masons at all). He falls into the classic conspiracist’s trap of assuming that a lack of supporting evidence is proof of a cover-up, rather than proof of the evidence never having existed in the first place. Knight’s not-so-final solution has been comprehensively discredited.
In its heyday, though, the theory caught the public imagination. The 1970s was the era of conspiracies. Government cover-ups and complicity in crime, from Watergate to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, was taken as read. It was also a time when Britain’s Victorian pomp was being regarded with increasing suspicion. But above all, this was an exciting, fun solution to a famous unsolved murder case. The few credible Ripper suspects were obscure and rather dull. It’s not difficult to see why a conspiracy theory that has the entire Victorian establishment colluding in the murder of five lowly prostitutes is more appealing than any of the more sensible theories. We’d feel let down if he was just another East End nobody.
Two films and a TV mini-series have used the Gull theory to varying extents. Murder by Decree (Bob Clark, 1979) pits Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper. The Great Detective’s investigations into the Ripper’s crimes lead him more or less to Knight’s conclusions. Oddly, Gull and Netley are renamed Spivey and Slade (other historical characters keep their real names). Spivey/Gull is shown as a near-catatonic child-man with no responsibility for his actions, with Slade/Netley as unlikely prime mover. The Masons feature heavily, with Charles Warren (a blustery Anthony Quayle) obediently covering everything up. The conspiracy loses some of its power, though, as the government is simply protecting over-enthusiastic Masonic hitmen, rather than ordering the crimes itself.
It’s an odd film, and not a terribly good one. Director Clark had previously made good low-budget horror movies in the US and Canada (Black Christmas, 1974; Deathdream, 1974), and it’s disappointing that this feels so much like a TV movie. Christopher Plummer is too bouffant and humane as Holmes (although James Mason is an excellent Watson) and the 1970s all-star cast indulges in some dreadful over-acting.
Although the Masonic angle is given a lot of screen time (with Holmes explaining the significance of the Juwes to a sceptical Watson), there’s no real sense that it drives the plot. It’s just a picturesque detail. The film’s main fault is the lack of detection – we’re never told how Holmes figures everything out, nor where his convenient knowledge of Freemasonry comes from. The film lumbers on for 20 minutes after its climax to allow Holmes to explain what happened. There’s also an odd subplot about anarchists, led by rogue cop David Hemmings, who know who the Ripper is and why he’s killing his victims. The very thing the conspiracy is designed to cover up is somehow already common knowledge among the government’s enemies, which makes it all seem a bit pointless and petty.
What Murder by Decree did successfully was add a few more tropes to Jack the Ripper cinema. Ripper films could already be relied on to include fog, gas lamps, comedy cockneys and happy hookers. After Murder by Decree, unruly mobs, police cover-ups, psychic visions and sinister black coaches were thrown into the mix.
1988 saw Jack the Ripper (David Wickes), a centenary mini-series produced by Granada. This also fingers Gull, but does away with any Royal or Masonic connection, without which his candidacy makes little sense. Its abandonment of the conspiracy angle makes it of only tangential interest (Granada was playing it very safe in the late 80s, perhaps wary of upcoming changes to ITV franchising laws). It ladles on the usual Ripper ingredients and, perhaps most importantly, it gives Ripper pop culture its hero, Inspector Fred Abberline.
A real historical figure, Abberline was well known to Ripperology (Knight makes him part of the cover-up). But in Jack the Ripper, Michael Caine played him as a boozy Victorian version of Regan from The Sweeney; this really put Abberline on the map. When Alan Moore wrote the graphic novel From Hell, he cast Abberline as his confused everyman hero. From Hell (art by Eddie Campbell, 1991-1996) is the ultimate Ripper conspiracy story. It draws in almost all the important strands of Ripper lore, concocting a huge, overarching conspiracy in which even time itself is complicit.
Perhaps wisely, the film version of From Hell (Albert and Allen Hughes, 2001) doesn’t try to cram all of Moore’s ideas into its two-hour running time. Although there are some snippets of Moore’s dialogue, and the occasional shot taken from Campbell’s art, it’s more a remake of the Granada mini-series or Murder by Decree than an adaptation of the comic. Many of its details are from those sources rather than Moore (angry mobs, black coaches, psychic visions etc). It’s more of a conventional Ripper movie than it wants to admit, in spite of the directors’ stated intention to emphasise the social injustice and hypocrisy of Victorian London. This is the most socially aware Ripper film – even before Gull starts his gory work the prostitutes are in mortal danger from a gang of local pimps.
From Hell uses the Masonic angle more than Murder by Decree, even showing a minor villain going through an induction ceremony (disappointingly, this sequence doesn’t have the same fetishised attention to detail that the film lavishes on the preparation of absinthe or opium smoking). This scene features a Masonic meeting hall under London, from where the world is ruled by evil aristocrats in funny costumes. The film could have done with more of that. As it is, the emphasis is very much on Abberline (Johnny Depp) as the classic ‘man who knows too much’, and his unconvincing romance with Mary Kelly. A scene in which Abberline learns all the Masons’ secrets from a book in a seemingly public library makes you wonder why the film uses the Masons at all. If they can’t even guard their basic rituals from public exposure, how effective a secret society are they?
That’s the problem with these Masonic Ripper movies. The fact that it’s the Masons, as opposed to any other shady organisation, is largely irrelevant. They’re prominent in Joseph Sickert’s original tall tale, and Stephen Knight was obsessed with them. Alan Moore weaves the Masons’ gloss of mysticism into From Hell reasonably well. But while filmmakers have gratefully seized on the visual trappings of Masonry for an easy way to identify the villains – a ring here, a tiepin there – there’s never any sense that it has to be the Masons as opposed to, say, the Illuminati, or even Fu Manchu. The Ripper is now inextricably tied to conspiracy theory, despite the best efforts of credible researchers; but as far as the movies go, it doesn’t seem to matter which conspiracy theory.
As part of their ‘Secret Societies’ day, the East End Film Festival will screen From Hell, Dark Days and Brotherhood of the Wolf in a Masonic Lodge. More details on the East End Film Festival website.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews