Now that the fascination with extreme horror films from the East has died down – the focus for sick thrills seems to have shifted to Europe (see The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film) – this year’s Terracotta Festival felt like a much more chilled affair. It was less about landing big blockbusters and controversial titles and more about simply having fun, with Festival Director Joey Leung lining up 14 movies that showed the lighter side of the East while revelling in its illustrious filmmaking history.
While last year’s fest opened big with a Jackie Chan action movie, this year premiered Donnie Yen’s latest historical biopic The Lost Bladesman. Although Yen isn’t a huge international star, he’s gathered a healthy cult following in the West thanks to his work with Wilson Yip, especially in his portrayal of Wing Chun master Ip Man. Martial arts and film was one of the main themes of the festival, with several movies paying homage to old kung fu movies and others ditching CGI-enhanced acrobatics for more impressive old-school antics.
The action comedy Gallants saw two veteran Shaw Brothers stars, Leung Siu Lung and Chen Kuan Tai, return to the big screen for a well-received spoof of 70s martial arts movies while legendary fight choreographer Sammo Hung starred alongside his son Timmy in Choy Lee Fut. It’s great fun to see the pros at work but Terracotta has always been about showcasing new talent. When the festival began back in 2009 it screened High Kick Girl, featuring upcoming martial arts sensation Rina Takeda, and this year she returned with Karate Girl, which puts her up against another rising star, Hina Tobimatsu. No blood, no gore, just wholesome family entertainment about a girl kicking ass to protect her family name. As an added bonus, Takeda was in attendance at the festival to prove her high kicks don’t need any digital assistance.
The festival was keen to show that Asian films don’t always take themselves too seriously. Helldriver was a crazy splatter-fest through a Japan plagued by zombies; if you think you’ve seen every zombie possibility on screen then you haven’t seen Helldriver. Also taking the grindhouse approach was Yakuza Weapon, in which a feared gangster is rebuilt with a machine gun for an arm and a rocket launcher for his leg.
But what really got audiences laughing were the sublime comedies on offer. On the surface, Kim Joung-hoon’s Petty Romance looked like it could be any gimmicky rom-com from Hollywood: a comic artist and a sex column writer team up to win some cash – will they fall for each other? It’s got a sassy, Sex and the City air, but it’s distinctly South Korean with Kim weaving in imaginative ‘manwha’ animation to offer something much more than a girl-meets-boy tale. The deserved winner of the Terracotta audience award was China’s Red Light Revolution. The story of a bumbling guy trying to run a sex shop in a conservative community, it has plenty of gags but it’s also a timely story of a changing China, a society becoming enamoured with consumerism and self-gratification.
No festival of Asian cinema would be complete without a hard-hitting tale of vengeance and that came in the form of Revenge: A Love Story. Viewers may wonder how brutal it can be when it features a pop star (Juno Mak) and a porn actress (Sola Aoi), but its opening proved to be very grisly and unpleasant, the story revolving around a killer who murders and dissects pregnant women. But just as you begin to wonder why you’re watching it flashes back to a heartbreaking tale of innocent love that descends into an inescapable cycle of violence. Although it never quite says anything new about the hopelessness of revenge, director Wong Ching Po has created something that sticks with the viewer; his slow, subdued scenes leave a stark impression.
Revenge: A Love Story is released on 25 November by Terracotta Distribution.
Of course, there was one out-and-out horror movie, Child’s Eye from the Pang Brothers, but compared to the sheer variety of the rest of the programme it seemed a bit old hat. Audiences have moved past the cliché of Asian horror and Terracotta provided a wonderful glimpse of what filmmakers are getting up to over there.
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell, Katharine Ross, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle
113 mins/133 mins (director’s cut)
‘If a Tangent Universe occurs, it will be highly unstable, sustaining life for no longer than several weeks. Eventually it will collapse upon itself, forming a black hole within the Primary Universe capable of destroying all existence.’ – from The Philosophy of Time Travel by Roberta Sparrow (as seen on screen in Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut, 2004).
As the debut feature by director Richard Kelly, Donnie Darko is a stunning statement of intent, depicting the last day(s) of the eponymous troubled teenager who, having narrowly escaped death by UFO (a mysterious, unclaimed jet engine that falls through his bedroom ceiling) due to his somnambulism, spends the next month being visited by an animal totem warning him about the approaching end of the world. Kelly effortlessly mixes a perfect recreation of the 1980s, through subtle direction of his young cast as well as extended cameos by notable children of the 80s – Drew Barrymore and Patrick Swayze – the well-chosen backdrop of a presidential election (many jokes in the film derive from Michael Dukakis’s claim on office) and a terrific soundtrack including well-known and lesser-known tracks from the period. Indeed, the latter aspect of the film drew comparisons with the work of Quentin Tarantino, another director renowned for creating atmosphere in his films through a well-curated soundtrack, and Kelly’s debut came second in Empire magazine’s list of ‘Greatest Independent Films’ after Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992).
In the original cinema release of Donnie Darko, Kelly expertly combines the eschatological and SF aspects of the script with the depiction of teenage angst and ennui. Donnie’s psychological problems are contrasted with his visions of humanoid demon rabbit Frank, Frank’s ability to conjure wormholes and forcefields, and the billowing iridescent snakes that Darko sees issuing from people’s chests, which display their future paths through life. Almost every aspect of the film is spot on, from the terrific casting of Jake Gyllenhaal as the lead, his real-life sister Maggie as his fictional sister on screen (a sibling double act to rival John and Joan Cusack), to the subtle humour in the dialogue and in visual gags, such as the local cinema’s advertising of an irresistible Halloween double bill: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and The Evil Dead (1981) – two films about resurrection whose leads are also harassed by supernatural forces.
It’s been said that director Orson Welles lived his career in reverse, starting with the finest film that he (and arguable anyone else) ever directed, followed by a downward slide. Unfortunately, in his first three films as director, Kelly has followed a similar path; Darko is excellent but Southland Tales (2007) is absolute drivel and The Box (2009) is a wasted opportunity. Without grilling the director and his collaborators, it’s hard to work out what went wrong. It’s possible that Kelly only had one really good film in him, or made a good film despite himself – as evidenced by the considerably less successful director’s cut of Darko, which bloats the running time by 20 minutes, including scenes that don’t work as well as the original footage (such as an awkward and ill-judged discussion of divorce by his parents) and unnecessary shots of information being both downloaded into Donnie’s brain and superimposed on screen. If you listen to the director’s commentary on the movie (in conversation with Kevin Smith), it becomes increasingly apparent that Kelly always intended to make a less ambiguous film than the one originally released. There’s a lot to be said about the modern phenomenon of the director’s cut – certainly the most famous example, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982/1992), does improve on the cinema release (although 2007’s ‘final cut’ doesn’t) – but just because a director can do a more idiosyncratic cut of a previously released film, it doesn’t necessarily mean he or she should. Unlike Blade Runner, the director’s cut of Donnie Darko thankfully hasn’t superseded the original, otherwise the film’s reputation might be gradually tarnished, but the director has gone on to make underwhelming films that may yet damage his own reputation.
Title: Southland Tales
Release date: 31 March 2008
Director: Richard Kelly
Writer: Richard Kelly
Cast: Justin Timberlake, Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Wallace Shawn, Kevin Smith, Jon Lovitz
160 mins (Cannes cut)/144 mins (Cinema/DVD release)
First to follow Donnie Darko is the grande folieSouthland Tales, a 144-minute sci-fi comedy that fails to tell a coherent narrative in its interminable running time. Following a disastrous screening at Cannes of an even longer cut (I’ve had the misfortune of seeing both), it led to Kelly writing three prequel comic books to start off the story. For better or worse, George Lucas inspired a generation of filmmakers, and like his most famous film, Southland Tales begins with ‘Episode 4’, a device that may have added to the allure of Star Wars (1977) when it was re-released, but does nothing for Kelly’s confused epic.
Tales is a multi-voiced narrative set in the south of the United States after a nuclear explosion has irradiated Texas and accelerated the advent of a police state and the need for new forms of electrical production. Unlike Donnie Darko‘s sideways travels in time, which make sense at least within the film’s internal narrative (even if it’s not clear what Frank’s predicted apocalypse will entail), Southland Tales sees two characters travel back in time. Unlike Donnie Darko, actor Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) and police office Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott) have ended up as their own doppelgängers (something that would reoccur in the sequel to Donnie Darko, S. Darko, in 2009), co-existing with them. In Boxer’s case, his copy has died, but as two Taverners still co-exist, their eventually meeting – in a plot device seen in many other time travel movies, where there are dire warnings about confronting oneself – presages the apocalypse.
So far, so comprehensible. However, Kelly adds florid performances by a range of comedy actors, including director Kevin Smith, Wallace Shawn, Jon Lovitz and Curtis Armstrong, who all play their parts broadly and unsympathetically to each other. Even the moment of apocalypse itself is made absurd by the two Taverners meeting in the back of an ice-cream van, which is used by gun-runner Christopher Lambert in plying his trade. Southland Tales also marks the start of Kelly’s apparent interest in making beautiful women look unattractive – Sarah Michelle Gellar in this movie (which may have destroyed her career) and Gwyneth Paltrow in The Box – and miscasts Gellar as a dumb adult film star (a sci-fi Magdalen, perhaps?) who has foretold Boxer’s messianic potential in her portentous movie script. Elsewhere, Gulf War veteran pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) narrates the tale from his vantage point of a tower-mounted machine-gun outpost, watching the streets for violent crime and terrorist activity, while various stoners haphazardly mount a ‘neo-Marxist’ protest to the current regime. When the only watchable scene in a movie is Justin Timberlake miming to The White Stripes in a beer-fuelled pastiche of a Busby Berkeley musical number (a scene that Kelly hilariously refers to as ‘the emotional heart of the movie’), you know something has drastically gone wrong, and if the preceding sentence has piqued your interest, please do find that scene on YouTube, but take my recommendation in avoiding the rest of this tedious movie…
I haven’t seen Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (1979), but the mixed (and generally unfavourable) reactions to that film suggest that Southland Tales is a similar experience, not only as a broad, ill-conceived comedy postulated as a response to a semi-apocalyptic event inflicted on the American people (Pearl Harbor, belatedly, in Spielberg’s case / September 11, 2001, in Kelly’s), but also as the product of an imaginative low-budget director being given more money than he knows how to spend, with access to a comedic cast he doesn’t know how to direct. Although Spielberg’s subsequent films have included comedic elements – witty dialogue in the Indiana Jones films, for example – he hasn’t done another full-blown comedy again, and on the basis of this, it is to be hoped that neither will Kelly.
Release date: 19 April 2010
Distributor: Icon Home Entertainment
Director: Richard Kelly
Writer: Richard Kelly
Cast: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne, Frank Ridley
I’m not going to explore Kelly’s script (about the real-life bounty hunter) Domino (2005), directed by Tony Scott, as there’s nothing about the movie that deals with the fall of mankind, other than Scott’s attention-deficit-disorder style of shooting and editing, but Kelly’s third film, The Box, is a partial return to form and a thematic prequel to Donnie Darko in many ways. Like Darko, The Box effectively mixes a well-conceived recreation of a recent historic era – in this case the mid-1970s – with mysterious presages of doom (here, facially scarred Frank Langella and his acolytes, replacing his namesake in Darko as the disrupter of a suburban household) and autobiographical elements. I don’t know if the high school scenes in Darko are based on Kelly’s own experiences – there is an honesty and reality to them that suggest they are – but certainly the lives of Arthur and Norma Lewis in The Box, as played by James Marsden and Gwyneth Paltrow, are based on Kelly’s own parents, including the former’s role at NASA and the latter’s pedal deformity and job as a high school teacher.
However, while Darko told a relatively straightforward narrative in a beguiling way, Kelly’s adaptation of the short story ‘Button, Button’ by Richard Matheson (previously filmed as an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1986 by Peter Medak) sees the director distracted by too many narrative possibilities, left potentially unexplored by the original short story and TV adaptation. While his overegging of the script in The Box doesn’t cause this eschatological soufflé to completely collapse – as Southland Tales does – it is too complicated for its own good and makes the casual viewer wonder why the director felt the need to over-embellish a memorable story that succeeded due to its simplicity.
The Box is set in Langley, Virginia, in 1976, an evocative time and place due to the celebrations of America’s bicentennial and the first contact of mankind (or at least its robots) with the Martian landscape, bringing with it the potential discovery of life on another planet. The juxtaposition between these events, the arrival of a mysterious man, who offers ordinary couples the chance to earn a million dollars through the pressing of a button in a box, and the subsequent execution of a random stranger, is never fully articulated. The non-terrestrial origins of Langella and his network of remote viewers are never explained either. But the co-opting of some of the style and imagery of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) suggests that mankind’s first landfall on another world (as with the unearthing of the Black Monolith on the Moon in 2001) has initiated a test by a greater intelligence to see if we need guidance from now on. Certainly the aims of Frank Langella’s character are described as a test of our morality, to see if we are worthy of continued existence as a race.
Like Darko, The Box contains a text that ‘explains’ (or rather obfuscates) the nature of travel between different realities: ‘Grandma Death’ / Roberta Sparrow’s The Philosophy of Time Travel in Darko and Human Resource Exploitation Manual, Section 1 – Abstracts (July 1976) in The Box. Both feature exactly the same drawing (which must indicate more than just laziness on the director’s behalf) of a human skeleton moving through dimensions and both contain mention of some kind of watery portal between these places. In an extract from The Philosophy of Time Travel seen on screen in Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut, we read: ‘Water is the barrier element for the construction of Time Portals used as gateways between Universes’, which is applicable to the ‘science’ we see in both movies and suggests both books are possibly one and the same.
In Darko, when a character asks about how time travel can be philosophical, this is entirely apposite as it’s as much about Donnie’s experience and interpretation of the world – indeed the entire movie could be the hallucinations of a disturbed mind (possibly during his last hour of life). This is crystallised in a conversation that the character has with his science teacher; when Donnie asks about how God might influence time travel, his lecturer ends the conversation as it is beyond his remit as both a scientist and a state-employed teacher to answer that kind of question. However, although The Box has an atmosphere of hard science – the male lead character works for NASA, after all – the brief glimpse we have of the book doesn’t even contain good science, including such extracts as: ‘Test subject is submerged in NaOH+Hcl barrier during analysis period of 60 minutes.’ Curious about the chemistry, I googled it and ‘NaOH+Hcl’ is meaningless in this context – it describes the production of water in an acidic chemical reaction. The correct formula is something along the lines of ‘H2O+[C10F18+O2]’, which describes the properties of an oxygen-rich liquid that human beings can be submerged in for long periods of time, as proposed for future space exploration (which is mentioned elsewhere in the film) and shown in other SF films such as James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989), a film that clearly influenced Kelly in its (CGI) depiction of water-based life forms.
The problem is that Kelly wants to have his cake and eat it – he proposes pseudo-science that sounds plausible, but the more you give the audience a chance to examine it, the greater the chance they might realise how daft it is. To try and deflect this realisation, in The Box, Kelly has Marsden quote writer Arthur C. Clarke: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ while staring at a religious canvas in the Renaissance style, suggesting that simultaneously he wants to try and understand the science, dismiss the science as too hard to understand, and attribute a supernatural/religious aspect to it. Continuing the theme of art and religion, in a deleted scene on the Blu-ray we see a triptych of deformed self-portraits by Francis Bacon on a desk in Frank Langella’s ‘Bond villain’ lair – inviting questions about whether an alien possessing the body of a man with a horrifically scarred face is looking for a reflection of himself, or whether his scarification was intended to evoke a literal example of humanity’s self-loathing.
In an additional line of voice-over added to the director’s cut of Donnie Darko, Frank says, ‘pay close attention, you could miss something’. But with Kelly’s scattergun approach to imagery and ideas in all his films except the original cinematic release of Darko, there are so many elements, clues and red herrings, that without clearer storytelling, the audience is more likely to be perplexed than enraptured. Within The Box and its excised footage, there’s the potential for a better film – trying to come up with a coherent edit of Southland Tales would defeat even an expert editor – and a double bill of Kelly’s first and third films makes for arresting viewing. However, the question of what it all means is left unresolved – the workmanlike remake/sequel S.Darko does the original no favours – so unless the director’s next or subsequent project forms a more satisfying trilogy with Donnie Darko and The Box, it is a picture of the apocalypse left unresolved, an ‘apocatastasis’ where one has a vision of the end times but the revelation is interrupted and remains incoherent. Whether the director can show us the end of the world in a way that satisfies the audience is yet to be seen. I wonder if anything interesting happened in his family history in the 1990s that may yield another good film in the future.
To complement our Apocalypse theme this month, you can listen to Alex Fitch’s podcast on the Sci-Fi London website, 3.16 – Apocalypse (cinema) now. In a pair of on-stage interviews recorded at this year’s Sci-Fi London 10 festival, Alex Fitch talks to a couple of filmmakers about their recent takes on the apocalypse in film: Dekker Dreyer, whose film The Arcadian stars Lance Henriksen and Brian Thompson, and mixes the iconography of shamanism with elements of the road movie in a post-apocalyptic setting; and Maxi Dejoie whose film The Gerber Syndrome is an Italian take on 28 Days Later…, using a pseudo-documentary style to follow a member of a biohazard clean-up crew who is scouring the streets looking for the contagious, and is the first overtly political zombie film in a long time. In the latter interview, Alex and Maxi are also joined by Gerber producers Claudio Bronzo and Lorenzo Lotti.
With a healthy mixture of provocative and cheerful films in competition, and higher-calibre entries than last year in the other strands of the Official Selection, Cannes 2011 was in many respects one of the most exciting and adventurous editions in recent memory. A good handful of titles, especially those of a significantly darker variety, stood out in the usually strong Un Certain Regard strand. But it was films like Urszula Antoniak’s Code Blue, screened in the Directors’ Fortnight, and Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter, which deservedly won the International Critics’ Week Grand Prix, that truly raised the bar for any new and emerging directors setting out to infuse the bleak reality of psychological drama with something deeper, richer, more mysterious and profoundly unsettling.
Despite the rather grim and gloomy subject matter of the best titles on show, there was a sense of buoyancy about the future of US indie cinema, owing to the fine quality of the films and some magnificent performances, most notably the one by Michael Shannon in Take Shelter, his second collaboration with the director since Nichols’s acclaimed 2007 debut Shotgun Stories. Shannon plays the troubled construction worker Curtis LaForche, a loving husband and father, who slowly looses touch with reality as he becomes haunted by nightmares and apocalyptic visions about a fatal cyclone whose exceptional strength causes devastation on an unprecedented scale. Being the son of a paranoid-schizophrenic mother, Curtis decides to seek the help of a doctor, but as the hallucinations grow, he scraps the advised psychological treatment and instead takes out a risky bank loan to rebuild and fully equip the shabby storm shelter in the family’s garden. Shannon makes the story work, with support from an equally convincing Jessica Chastain as the caring wife who is desperate to understand her husband, while Nichols’s remarkably assured directing style creates a deep sense of unease about an unsettling near-future, in the vein of Todd Haynes’s Safe. Shot with a careful eye for colour, light and framing, and refined with an array of stylish visual effects, the film impresses most in the way Nichols manages to keep the tension at a nerve-racking level in a film that deliberately refuses to give much space to hope and optimism.
The hot tip from Sundance, and hence eagerly anticipated, was the debut feature from writer-director Sean Durkin. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha, a young woman who escapes from an abusive cult’s commune somewhere in the woods, and tries to re-connect with her previous life while staying with her well-off older sister Lucy and Lucy’s husband in their expensive lake house. Deftly balancing past and present, and withholding any information that is not absolutely necessary to our understanding, Durkin slowly builds an air of dread and panic around Martha, who might simply be so scarred that she is beyond the help that she’s been offered. Although the story is not highly original, and is at times a little clichéd, overall Martha Marcy May Marlene is a subtly horrifying film, and one of the highlights in the Un Certain Regard section.
Less subtle, yet with a confident, fiercely restrained handling of the material, Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown (screened in the Critics’ Week) was a powerful, intense, but tough-to-watch portrayal of Australia’s most notorious serial killer, John Bunting, who killed 12 people between 1992 and 1999. Shot on location in Adelaide and with a disturbingly charismatic Daniel Henshall in the lead role, Kurzel has crafted a brutally naturalistic, stomach-churning, small-town drama so rich in psychology and attention to detail that tension fills nearly every scene. There is no denying that the film is brutal and sadistic to the extreme, as it does not claim that there was ever a deeper emotional or factual reason behind Bunting’s actions other than his sheer pleasure in killing. Consequently, quite a few people left the screening towards the end, but as the festival went on, this turned out to be a good sign: the same happened at almost all the films that impressed the most.
Walk-outs were also the general reaction to Code Blue, Urszula Antoniak’s dark, chilling drama about a middle-aged, emotionally sealed-off nurse, played by a disturbingly excellent Bien de Moor. Afraid of intimacy, she ultimately gives in to a dangerous and overwhelming longing as she engages with a neighbour after they witness a crime. It didn’t help that the director’s notes gave warning that Antoniak’s intention was to make her audience uncomfortable. However, everyone who managed to sit through the thoroughly compelling 81 minutes of one woman’s desperate struggle to connect to the world around her left the cinema safe in the knowledge that Antoniak clearly is a talent to watch.
There were, of course, a number of established directors on view, and among them Terrence Malick gave us one of the most enigmatic, yet ambivalent films of the competition. Much has been said about The Tree of Life since the very first press screening, and even more so after the film received the Palme d’Or at the end of the festival. However, there were other films in the Official Selection that deserve a mention here, and I don’t mean Lynne Ramsay’s eagerly anticipated but ultimately disappointing We Need to Talk about Kevin, or Lars von Trier’s latest offering, Melancholia, which, sadly, I missed. One of the most intriguing and endlessly disquieting films I did see was first-time Austrian filmmaker Markus Schleinzer’s Michael, about the everyday life of an outwardly normal paedophile who keeps a little boy imprisoned in his basement. Featuring great performances and giving a real sense of how bizarrely ordinary the situation appears to this couple, the film neither judges nor dismisses its central figure. Instead, Michael builds on small, often uneventful, yet subtly affecting scenes that progress towards an appropriately restrained climax. Schleinzer isn’t afraid of throwing in some well-placed moments of humour and irony in what turns out to be a deftly crafted, intelligent thriller that conveys a quiet, visceral intensity similar to Michael Haneke’s early masterpieces.
While the Un Certain Regard section was patchy, there was more room for excitement and an overall much stronger selection than last year (although in retrospect that didn’t seem difficult to achieve). Nonetheless, it has to be said that although Gus Van Sant’s Restless, which headlined the section, might go down in history as a guilty pleasure for some critics, it certainly didn’t live up to its expectations for most of us. By contrast, Miss Bala, Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo’s follow-up to I’m Gonna Explode, was an unexpectedly sophisticated, yet thrilling drug-related crime drama, despite the fact that it was slightly overlong. Also worthy of note was Oslo, August 31 by Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier, whose debut feature Reprise impressed me five years ago. Vaguely inspired by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s 1931 novel Le feu follet, Trier’s second feature feels much more mature, not only because of the time that’s passed, or the film’s melancholic subject matter: a day in the life of recovering drug addict Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), who is only two weeks away from leaving rehab and re-entering the real world. In fact, with the help of cinematographer Jakob Ihre, who has done a brilliant job painting a haunting portrait of Oslo in early autumn, Trier has pulled together a curious and skilful blend of gloomy, slow-burning art-house lyricism and a raw, intense character study to form an accomplished whole.
No film, however, weirdly enthralled and puzzled me as much as Sion Sono’s latest offering, Guilty of Romance, which screened in the Directors’ Fortnight section. Divided into five chapters, the film focuses on three main characters: Izumi, an unsatisfied, bourgeois housewife who is diving in and out of forbidden worlds of sexual pleasure; Kazuko, a married, lower-middle-class cop; and Mitsuko, a highbrow professor by day who turns into an uninhibited prostitute by night. All three become dangerously involved in the mysterious murder case that Kazuko is called in to investigate. In spirit, Guilty of Romance seems closest to the extravagant Love Exposure, although visually and rhythmically it is very much of a piece with all his work so far. Cruel, darkly funny, dazzlingly imaginative, flagrantly absurd and strongly compelling, Guilty of Romance remains an exaggerated conceit, but one I’d happily see again.
As part of Watch Me Move – On the Big Screen, a special animation season that runs throughout July and August and complements Watch Me Move – The Animation Show in Barbican Art Gallery, the Barbican explores the work of some of the most influential filmmakers in animation, starting with Jan Švankmajer from Thursday 16 to Saturday 25 June. The screening of Alice, a wonderfully sinister interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s story, on Thursday 16 will be followed by a Q&A with Jan Švankmajer and Peter Hames. The director’s latest film, Surviving Life (Theory and Practice) (2010), a comic, surreal take on psychoanalysis, screens on Sunday 19.
Mark Stafford and Virginie Sélavy interviewed Jan Švankmajer by email.
Q; You have said you were ‘steeped’ in Prague and yet the city rarely features in your films. In what way has Prague, and being Czech, influenced your work?
Being Czech definitely didn’t have any influence on my work. What did influence it was that I spent my childhood in Czechoslovakia, particularly in Prague. A personality is formed by its mental morphology. For artistic work this is absolutely fundamental. Prague appears in my films quite often. You will find it in Alice and in Surviving Life (Theory and Practice), but this is not the Prague of the tourist guide books, but the Prague of my childhood. You won’t find ‘the sights’ but chipped walls, the dirty staircases of blocks of flats, mysterious cellars, hidden courtyards, the suburbs.
Q: Is it true that you had a little puppet theatre at home as a child and that this was common in all Czech families? How important has this been for your work?
Yes, it was quite a common toy. For an introverted child it was an amazing gift. I could use puppets to play out all life’s injustices, correcting them, taking revenge. Puppets have accompanied me throughout my life. It may be that everything I do is just a puppet play.
Q: Alice was your first feature film, why did you choose to start with Lewis Carroll? How important is he as an influence on your work in general?
Alice belongs to my mental morphology. Before I made up my mind to do a feature-length film I was circling around the subject. I made Jabberwocky and Down to the Cellar and only then dared to shoot the whole of Alice. Personally I think that Lewis Carroll’s Alice is one of the most important and amazing books produced by this civilisation.
Q: Although it is not an adaptation, your Alice feels very close to the book, and in particular brings out the sense of menace and aggression that is present in it but is often overlooked in insipid versions such as Disney’s. Was that an important aspect of Carroll’s work for you?
So far all adaptations of Alice (including the latest by Tim Burton) present it as a fairy tale, but Carroll wrote it as a dream. And between a dream and a fairy tale there is a fundamental difference. While a fairy tale has got an educational aspect – it works with the moral of the lifted forefinger (good overcomes evil), dream, as an expression of our unconscious, uncompromisingly pursues the realisation of our most secret wishes without considering rational and moral inhibitions, because it is driven by the principle of pleasure. My Alice is a realised dream.
Q: Around the time of Alice, you said you were interested in a dialogue with your childhood. Do you still feel this way?
Yes. Of course I wouldn’t cut myself off from the most important source of my work.
Q: Do you feel animation can best represent the world of childhood, dream and imagination?
Animation is, so far, the only way of breathing life into inanimate things. Children’s games work with the same magic. This kind of magic is the point where childhood and animation intersect with each other.
Q: You have a clear interest in the materiality of the objects, in textures, shapes and surfaces and it is always wonderful to see how you bring to life very ordinary and often old, broken or discarded objects, which can become unfamiliar, menacing or amusing. Why are you particularly interested in that type of objects?
I like things that have passed through human hands. Things that have been touched. Such things are charged with emotions that are capable of revealing themselves under certain, extremely sensitive circumstances. I collect such objects, surround myself with them and in the end I cast such ‘fetishes’ in my films. That’s also the reason why I don’t like computer animation. Virtual reality doesn’t have a tactile dimension. Objects and figures created on a computer have no past.
Q: Did you feel there was a political aspect to Alice because of her rebellion against authority?
An absurd court hearing with Alice (‘off with her head,’ shouted the Queen) obviously recalls the political trials of the 50s. Of course Alice, compared with the accused from that time, doesn’t respect the official script. It was just a minor analogy, I didn’t shoot the film because of that. But each imaginative work has got within itself, from its very essence, a subversive charge, because it knocks down the notion of lived-through reality as the only one possible.
Q: In your latest film, Surviving Life, you tackle Freud, who has been a big influence on your work. The film makes a lot of play about the battle between Freud and Jung, and is not particularly respectful of either. How do you see Freud now and what is attitude to psychotherapy?
I read a quote somewhere that a person can only really make fun of things he truly loves. It is the same with my psychoanalytical comedy Surviving Life. Psychoanalysis is for me in particular an amazing system of interpretation. I am not that much interested in practical therapy.
Q: How much of the film’s imagery came from your own dreams?
The whole film in fact originated on the basis of my dream. The beginning of the film (the first dream) is my authentic dream and then the dream about soldiers is a dream from my childhood.
Q: How much of the film’s mischievous opening section (where you confess that Surviving Life is only an animation because you couldn’t afford live action) is true?
It is true, although it didn’t turn out that way. My producer claims that we didn’t save anything; on the contrary, by using animation the shooting period became longer. But animation brought a new symbolic level into the film and thus enriched it imaginatively.
Q: You have said that Surviving Life would be your last film but we have read that you are currently working on a project called Insects, is that true?
I have pulled out of the drawer the film story of Insects, which I wrote in 1970, and which couldn’t have been made at that time – that’s why it finished in the drawer together with many other projects rejected by the censors. Some of which I have since completed: Food, Conspirators of Pleasures, Lunacy. Now we are going to try to do Insects. The story: amateur actors in a small town are rehearsing the play by the Capek brothers The Life of Insects and their destinies mingle with characters from the play.
Q: You created work over 45 years under an oppressive regime. How does working under a capitalist system compare with working under a politically repressive system?
That stupid censorship had, after all, one advantage: at least now I have a supply of stories and screenplays, although even nowadays it is not easy to make them. This utilitarian, profit-chasing civilisation, doesn’t need authentic work. The new iconographic art is now advertising and mass culture, because if advertising were to fail, civilisation would collapse, and mass culture is supposed to entertain the masses in their free time so that they don’t think about their poor lot and take to the streets. I don’t intend to do either.
Q: There is a quote from you that we love: ‘Unless we again begin to tell fairy stories and ghost stories at night before going to sleep and recounting our dreams upon waking, nothing more is to be expected of our Western civilisation.’ This was written in 1987, what is your view on this now?
I don’t have anything to change on this. Only the possibility that it might happen seems to me even more distant.
If you’re watching television and there’s a series of news reports occasionally interrupted by zigzags of old-fashioned static and if, on the television, there are fires in foreign streets, and a superficially calm but increasingly panicked newsreader talking about disorder / a mystery disease / environmental disaster / scientists being flummoxed / authorities losing control / calling for people not to panic / populations being evacuated and / the growing tension between Made-upia and Inventedland; in other words if you have the distinct impression that what you are watching is the teaser, trailer or prologue for the long-awaited apocalypse, then I have one extremely important piece of advice to offer: buy a dog.
Preferably an Alsatian, or German Shepherd, but the breed doesn’t really matter. Just buy a dog. Even a mongrel. Better still a telepathic mongrel. Start stocking up on food and other essentials: water, a generator, generator fuel, warm clothing, torches, guns, ammunition and dog biscuits. Board up the windows, clear wall space to make room for art treasure to be purloined from deserted and unguarded national art galleries, get yourself a shopping trolley if you’re thinking of going mobile and put down some newspaper and a water bowl.
Why? Dogs make survivors happy. No dog and you just might as well not bother surviving the cataclysmic (but often vaguely defined) event at all. You’re just going to be in a grump.
Robert Neville (played by Will Smith) in I Am Legend (Lawrence, 2007) is having a grand old time of the end days with his dog. He tools around Manhattan in a sports car, hunts elk, plays golf off the deck of an aircraft carrier, watches Shrek so many times that he could act in it (playing any of the parts) and kills the odd unconvincing CGI zombie. OK, he’s going a little stir crazy and he’s upset that his wife and child were killed, but when his dog gets infected and he has to kill him, that’s when it really all goes wrong. That’s the moment he properly loses the will to live.
He should count himself lucky though. In The Omega Man (Sagal, 1971), an earlier adaptation of Richard Matheson’s first novel, which itself is a kind of science fiction melding of Bram Stoker’s Dracula with Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, poor old Robert Neville (here played by Charlton Heston) doesn’t get a dog at all and spends the whole film in a chronically bad mood. Superficially, he does the same kind of stuff Will Smith does. The opening sequence involves Heston in a sports car, the wind in his thinning hair, and he also watches a film so often he can recite whole tranches of it, but whereas the young bereaved father’s love of Shrek is understandable, Heston’s enthusiasm for Woodstock (Wadleigh, 1970) is bewildering. It could be ironic, because Heston is constantly uttering bitter and not very funny one-liners. Even when he gets himself a new car and conducts an imaginary conversation with the car salesman, he gets jipped. ‘You cheap bastard,’ he yells over his shoulder to thin air. The art treasures he hoards go unnoticed (the bust of Caesar is reduced to a hat stand) until the anaemic ‘survivors’ of the plague, a pseudo-religious cult called the Family, decide to destroy them. Heston looks mildly annoyed, but he doesn’t tell them to stop, plead or anything like that. His one reason to be properly cheerful is his relationship with Lisa (Rosalind Cash), but even this has an uneasy edge in keeping with the extremely confused racial politics of the film. On the one hand, one of his main enemies is a black man, turned white by the plague, who has a particular animus towards the Honky, and on the other there’s Lisa, anticipating a Blaxploitation vibe that will definitively appear that same year in Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Rosalind Cash will go on to star in Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (Crain, 1976). Heston’s discomfort comes in another of his one-liners to Lisa about his good old Anglo-Saxon blood, which is going to cure Lisa’s brother, the non-Anglo-Saxon Richie. His determination to hole up in his house and his refusal to countenance any attempt at accommodation with the Family, even when a cure is at hand, has the echo of the credo of a right-wing survivalist who appreciates the simplicity that the apocalypse offers.
Somewhere in between the two, but actually the first attempt at an adaptation of Matheson’s book, is the Italo-American production The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price. Filmed in Rome in 1964 and directed by Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow, the film is brave in giving us a dour version of the End. Life for Price’s Robert Morgan is drudgery and loneliness. Here’s a typical day: up early, collect corpses, get some gasoline, take corpses to the pit, burn corpses, lunch. Make wooden stakes, kill vampires while they sleep, collect garlic. Home before dark, repair boarding, loud jazz and a sleepless night of listening to the demented cries of people who want to kill you. Price is superb, his hang-dog features and his deadpan voice-over never stray towards the inviting pastures of camp, there to frolic the way a bare-chested Heston occasionally does in The Omega Man. There’s even a moment when he looks glumly at a sports car before deciding on the station wagon because it’s easier to load it with corpses.
His dog turns up halfway through the film, offering Morgan a brief moment of joy and happiness, but unfortunately he too gets infected and Morgan must stake him and bury him. It is while doing this that he meets another survivor who will bring about his ruin. As in I Am Legend, the death of the dog is a crucial moment.
But why? What is it with dogs and the end of the world? This is not (entirely) a facetious point. The dog in I Am Legend is partly a link to Neville’s family (the puppy is handed over by the daughter just before their helicopter explodes), but it is also an iconic vision of a man paradoxically alone while still being in command. When nature has gone wrong and society breaks down, the last man on earth regains an element of mastery via man’s best friend. He even gets on the poster.
For Morgan, the dog simply represents happier times and uncomplicated company. He chases the dog for a significantly longer amount of screen time than he does the woman he meets. And whereas the dog is a possibility of salvation denied, the woman is his downfall. The dog in John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009) is initially a threat, but ultimately a sign of normality returning and the proper relationships (man, dog, family, etc.) that had melted down, being restored.
Based on a Harlan Ellison novella and directed by L.Q. Jones – one of those actors you see in tonnes of Westerns but can’t name – A Boy and His Dog (1974) is set after World War IV and features a baby-faced Don Johnson playing Vic, an amiable rapist, who is accompanied and helped by his telepathic dog, Blood, as they wander the post-apocalyptic wasteland. As in the other films, the lone survivor is offered various alternative societies to join or to be threatened by – The Family in The Omega Man, the new hybrid society in The Last Man on Earth and, perhaps most terrifyingly, Vermont in I Am Legend. After encountering various scavengers, Vic is lured by a young woman, Quilla June, into an underground city where his semen is to be drained from him and used to impregnate the women of the community. The film plays on the extremely dangerous ground of A Clockwork Orange (1971) in making society so grotesquely awful (for obvious satirical effect) that the rapist becomes morally preferable, if not heroic, in at least being honest. The true horror is normalised by the harmless (and sometimes not so harmless, cf. the last line of the movie) banter and bickering of boy and dog and the black humour the film liberally indulges in. Ultimately, Vic doesn’t want female companionship, a family, love. He wants his dog, the occasional rape and freedom. It might well be the end of the world as we know it, but Vic feels fine.
The 2011 Edinburgh International Film Festival starts on Wednesday 15 June and invigorated by the appointment of a new artistic director, as well as input from guest curators and various collaborations, its 65th edition looks set to open new directions and offer an innovative festival experience to its audience.
Opening with the UK premiere of John Michael McDonagh’s Irish comedy-thriller The Guard (starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle), the programme includes Alex de la Iglesia’s latest, The Last Circus, which we’re very much looking forward to, and Norwegian director Andre Ovredal’s mock doc The Troll Hunter, which sounds very intriguing. This year, the festival celebrates its documentary roots with a third of the programme paying tribute to the genre, led by Liz Garbus’s portrait of the chess legend Bobby Fischer against the World.
Also debuting at the Festival in 2011 is Reel Science, an exploration of the depiction of science on film, which sounds great. Events include the joint UK premiere of James Marsh’s (Man on Wire) Project Nim as well as a film-and-eye-tracking technology demonstration and the opportunity to watch Christopher Nolan’s psychological thriller Memento alongside top Edinburgh neuroscientists.
Among the guest curators, Gus Van Sant has curated a mini-retrospective of Derek Jarman’s Blue, The Last of England and The Angelic Conversation and Hungarian director Bela Tarr is presenting a selection of film classics from his home country.
We also like the emphasis on music with Sound Tracks, a programme of screenings, discussions, networking opportunities and gigs across the festival, in association with Domino.
Other initiatives include Project: New Cinephila, an experimental platform for established and aspiring film critics. Electric Sheep is very proud to be contributing to one of the panel discussions, ‘Critical Approaches II: Tools, Formats and Experiments’ on Thursday 16 June at the Inspace Gallery. 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!
More details on the Project: New Cinephilia event on the EIFF website.
Cast: Thomas Dekker, Haley Bennett, Chris Zylka, Roxane Mesquida, Juno Temple
Gregg Araki made his name in the early 90s with confrontational, riotous films obsessed with teenage sex, drugs, dysfunction and violence. Since then, his work has taken different directions and he has explored various genres and moods, most recently following his acclaimed Mysterious Skin (2004), a sensitive, poetic account of sexual abuse, with the stoner comedy Smiley Face (2007). His latest, Kaboom, brings together the many strands of his work, working them into an outlandish bundle of fun.
Smith (Thomas Dekker) is a young gay college student about to turn 19, who fantasises about his idiotic but handsome surfer roommate Thor (Chris Zylka) and has bizarre dreams that involve men in animal masks chasing and killing a red-haired girl. His best friend Stella (Haley Bennett) is a lesbian who falls in love with a girl who turns out to be a witch. Although Smith and Stella have many sexual encounters with gorgeous-looking young people, the world around them becomes weirder and weirder as Stella’s ex-girlfriend copes supernaturally badly with rejection and Smith’s place in the dark conspiracy of a secret society is gradually revealed.
Virginie Sélavy talks to Gregg Araki about teenage apocalypse, American attitudes to sexuality and David Lynch’s influence.
Virginie Sélavy: Do you see Kaboom as a return to the ‘irresponsibility’ of your early films, in particular The Living End?
Gregg Araki: I don’t know if it’s really the ‘irresponsibility’ of The Living End. I really wanted to make a film that was completely outside of the box and came from a very creatively free space of not being worried about things like, is this too weird or is this too sexy, or mixing too many genres? It was just about letting my imagination run wild and not being constrained by genres, or people’s expectations, or what’s popular in the market place right now. It was really about making an old-fashioned film that could be free of all that.
But it doesn’t seem like you’ve ever tried to make a film to please a certain audience, or according to the market rules.
That is true, I’ve never made an overly commercial movie. I’m very proud of all my movies but some of my movies have been more genre-based, more within a definable box. Kaboom is a mash-up of so many different genres, so many different tones, it has a character with supernatural powers. There’s a sort of joie de vivre in this movie and creative freedom, which for me was very liberating and exciting.
The film feels like a celebration of unbridled youthful sexuality unencumbered by any kind of taboo or prejudice. Was that a conscious thing?
Partly. It is part of my sensibility to view sex and sexuality as a positive aspect of the human experience and all the adventures and sexual escapades that the characters in Kaboom have are an important part of their growing up and it’s really important that they not be judged for them. This sort of freedom in your sexuality, that it’s not bogged down by guilt, judgement, punishment, that there is no negative baggage attached to it, is very unique, certainly in American cinema. American cinema tends to be so puritanical and hypocritical while at the same time being kind of titillating… I feel that this attitude about sexuality is not really represented in American films.
Kaboom has some elements from your early films, the teenage apocalypse and the sexuality for instance, but it revisits them from a comic, fun angle. Why the change of tone?
I’m a different person, I’m older and hopefully a bit wiser. The tone of Kaboom, this sort of joyfulness and playfulness, is much closer to Smiley Face, my last film, because my head is much closer to Smiley Face than it is to The Doom Generation. Kaboom shares with The Doom Generation this wild sexuality and gorgeous 18-year-olds but the sensibility is very different. It’s really a reflection of my own evolution. At a certain age I felt that I’d found my place in the world. When I made my first films I was much more angst-ridden and unmoored, I was more like those characters, insecure in my place in the world, and as I’ve got older there’s been a certain level of figuring out who you are, and this is reflected in my films.
Do you feel it also has something to do with changes in social attitudes to sexuality and to AIDS?
I think that’s had an influence on me and on my films, particularly if you watch one of my early films, The Living End, which is so much about that specific time, late 1980s and early 90s, the AIDS epidemic and the crisis of that time, and things have changed since then.
In a previous interview you’ve said that you saw Mysterious Skin and Smiley Face as fitting together as ‘yin and yang’, one being your first straight, serious drama, the other your first comedy. How does Kaboom fit in relation to that?
I couldn’t have made Kaboom without making those two films. When we were in Deauville, Thomas [Dekker] pointed out to me, ‘in a way Kaboom is almost like your greatest hits, like the best bits of all your movies put together’. And I didn’t realise at the time but it really made sense to me when he said that because there’s a lot of Smiley Face in Kaboom and a lot of Mysterious Skin too. Kaboom is definitely part of the continuum of all my movies.
And like in Mysterious Skin you also have that supernatural and conspiratorial aspect to the plot, which is connected to sexual identity, although of course in Mysterious Skin it was used to explore much more serious subject matter.
I’ve always been interested in cults and conspiracies. For Kaboom I was fascinated by Scientology and modern cults, that sort of mentality and how that works. It was a lot of fun to explore the idea of Smith living in this world of paranoid conspiracies because frequently when you’re a young person you do feel that the whole world is out to get you. It was cool with this movie to make that feeling, and the apocalyptic feelings of doom that you have when you’re younger, real and literal, take that metaphor, expand it and play with it.
I thought there was a Lynchian element to the weird dream and fantasy sequences. Was he an influence on the film?
David Lynch has always been a huge influence on my movies from the very start, and this movie in particular is my most overtly influenced by David Lynch. I’ve always wanted to make a Twin Peaks-y mystery and I’ve always thought of the red-haired girl in Kaboom as the Laura Palmer of the story, the central person in that other characters wonder what’s going on with her.
The music is very important, as in all your films. How did you choose the tracks?
Kaboom has one of the most incredible soundtracks I’ve ever been lucky enough to assemble for a movie. It has bigger bands like Interpol, Placebo and the XX, all these incredible alternative bands, and a score by Ulrich Schnauss and Robin Guthrie from Cocteau Twins. The movie is like Mysterious Skin in the sense that when you listen to the score of Mysterious Skin, you see the whole movie. So much of the spirit, the mood and the tone of the movie is contained in the music. And it’s the same with Kaboom, you can listen to that music and the whole world of the movie is conjured up.
The final moments of the film are very provocative. Why did you decide to end in this way?
I love the ending of the movie. It’s really one of my favourite endings of all movies. When we had the world premiere at Cannes and the movie ended, the whole audience started to cheer. To me it’s the only ending possible for a movie like Kaboom. It has that energy and it takes place in that stylised universe. It’s the ultimate ending to the ultimate movie.
Gateshead writer Dr Simon Morden is a rocket scientist and one of the few people who can claim to have held a chunk of Mars in his hands (the red planet, not the chocolate bar). He’s edited the British Science Fiction Association’s Focus magazine, judged the Arthur C. Clarke Award and is the author of a trilogy of thrillers set in futuristic England: Equations of Life, Theories of Flight and Degrees of Freedom, starring the immoral, charismatic Petrovitch, a survivor of the nuclear fallout in St Petersburg, and now residing in London’s dangerous Metrozone (all published by Orbit). Below, he explains why his apocalyptic alter ego would be James Cole in Twelve Monkeys. EITHNE FARRY
Apocalypses are like buses. You wait for ages, then three come along at once. It’s no fun dodging flaming meteors, global flooding and the imminent return of the Messiah – but once the last tree dies, the last mountain peak slips beneath the waves, and the heels of the last believer disappear into the clouds? What next? That’s when it gets real.
Post-apocalyptic landscapes: they’re all around us. Just take the wrong turning in town, and the bright lights are suddenly behind you. The boards are up on the windows, the weeds are sprouting in the gutter, and in the distance, a glass bottle kicks against the kerb.
You’re not alone, of course. You might be The Last Man on Earth, but alone? It doesn’t work that way. The ghosts are as hungry as the feral creatures that live in the slowly decaying ruins. There’s nothing to stop you from becoming an animal yourself: post-apocalypses are hard on the weak, the compassionate, the humane.
Which is why my alter ego is James Cole, reluctant time traveller and would-be saviour from Terry Gilliam’s masterful Twelve Monkeys. Cole is an unlikely hero – in fact, there’s a good argument to be had about whether he’s a hero at all, and that the proper hard work is being done by the scientists responsible for the time machine.
So, protagonist or patsy? Cole, haunted by visions of the past, of the future to come, haunted even by the present he finds himself in, behaves… more or less decently. He’s the guy who does his best: mostly crazy, banging around the time-lines like a pinball, he stumbles across enough clues to give the future a fighting chance. He even finds himself unexpectedly in love.
No gunplay. No big explosions. Just, you know, people. I can’t fool myself that I’d be a leader of a band of post-apocalypse warriors, or the lone survivor looking on the works of Man without despairing. But Cole? I could be Cole. So could you.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews