Repo Man: Interview with Alex Cox

Repo Man

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 20 February 2012

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Alex Cox

Writer: Alex Cox

Cast: Harry Dean Stanton, Emilio Estevez, Tracey Walter, Miguel Sandoval, Fox Harris, Del Zamora

USA 1984

92 mins

To coincide with the release of Repo Man as a new Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema, Alex Fitch caught up with director Alex Cox to talk about the film, its sequels and his career over the last 28 years.

Alex Fitch: Most people have seen Repo Man on video or pre-digital TV. The Blu-ray release will allow audiences to see Robby Müller’s cinematography in its full glory for the first time since the original cinema release.

Alex Cox: Yes, it’s probably the best it’s looked since the 35mm print. Robby’s work is really wonderful in the film. His lighting is so beautiful and the locations are fabulous. Those Los Angeles landscapes… It’s really fun, looking back.

In your book, X Films, you said that at the time of making Repo Man you felt that you were more like a writer who also directs, rather than a director. But Repo Man has a notable directorial style: from your choice of the distinctive blue and white packaging for the comestibles, to the framing of shots and the mise en scène. Looking back on it, do you feel you were developing as a director?

More as a script writer. The mise en scène is Robby Müller! He had these opinions at the time – he didn’t like to move the camera unless it was necessary, he preferred medium shots to close-ups, he liked to play things in master shots if it was possible, and I just went along with Robby’s aesthetic. Obviously later, everyone changes their aesthetic – Robby’s work on 24 Hour Party People, where they’re shooting on 20 little video cameras, is completely different, or his work for Lars von Trier. Also, perhaps Robby brought the somewhat austere style – there aren’t many fast cuts, cutaways and useless shots such as one encounters in the cinema of today. Although, interestingly, a fair bit of Repo Man was made in post-production. We did extra shots, reconstructed extra scenes, moved things around, and so there were two other cinematographers involved: Robert Richardson, who has become quite famous as the cinematographer of Oliver Stone and the Coen Brothers, but for whom this was the first feature, and Tom Richmond with whom I’ve worked many times since, who shot Straight to Hell.

Listen to the podcast of the interview with Alex Cox.

When you talk about Repo Man, and reading the chapter on it in X Films, it seems very obvious that working with Müller and Harry Dean Stanton meant you were able to indulge your love of cinema as well as making a film yourself.

Well, it’s true, and also those locations… The LA River has such a rich filmic historical importance: it’s where the giant ants were in Them! and where the assassination takes place in Point Blank. Immediately after Repo Man, Robby shot To Live and Die in LA for William Friedkin, which included a big-shoot-em up in the LA River. Drive has a scene where they race down it, very similar to our little car race.

Repo Man, along with other films of yours – Three Businessmen, Revengers Tragedy, Death and the Compass – seems to be a meditation on man’s relationship with the city. Is that something you’ve always been interested in, or did it start when you moved to LA?

No, I like the country the best. In almost all my films the characters go out to the desert, though not in Revengers Tragedy, because we couldn’t find a desert near Liverpool! The desert is where Three Businessmen ends up, where Straight to Hell takes place, where Walker meets Vanderbilt, where the Villa Triste-le-Roi is located in the Borges film. So, I’m really the desert guy.

Tenuously linking Death and the Compass to Repo Man, there does seem to be a bit of a Borgesian narrative at play in the earlier film: there are all of these characters in search of that undefinable thing, and it’s almost as if the city is the thing that keeps them down, that stops them from fully realising their dreams…

It is! There was one shot that we could have done in Death and the Compass but didn’t have the budget for. I really wanted to have a big night-time shot of this futuristic city interlaced with all of these freeways and overpasses, which would be full of police cars with all of their flashing red and blue lights on, so that you realise the city exists purely as an authoritarian exercise. It’s entirely about domination and control, and of course there’s the underside of the city, which is an entire criminal class arrayed against the forces of authority, like two sets of teeth constantly gnashing against each other, somehow in one shot! That’s the shot that isn’t in there yet. One day!

When you were shopping the script for Repo Man around, it had a four-page comic book prequel on the cover that you drew as well as wrote and it’s reproduced in the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray booklet.

The whole Blu-ray booklet is a quasi-comic book itself. It’s all pretty much: ‘What might have been…’ I was going to try and make a whole comic book of Repo Man, but it’s hard work drawing good comic books. You can’t just dash it off, you’ve got to spend a lot of time on it, so I did four pages and I gave up!

Things like the blue and white packaging for the comestibles, the radioactive car, the name of Edge City all seem to have a comic book aesthetic. I was wondering if comics were an influence on the making of the film.

I do think so. I was very influenced by Robert Crumb and by The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. The Rodriguez Brothers in the film are like the Freak Brothers, only with a revolutionary purpose. It’s definitely influenced by those 60s and 70s comic books that came out of San Francisco – Gilbert Shelton and Crumb.

Even though you didn’t get to direct the sequel to Repo ManWaldo’s Hawaiian Holiday – yourself, I believe you gave permission to a bunch of Texan filmmakers to adapt it at the beginning of the century. I was wondering why that production fell apart.

I don’t know. What I did was: I gave a whole bunch of people year-long options on that. I thought you could open source it – anyone can make this film if they want, or if they want to make a comic book out of it or a video game or whatever. That’s when Chris Bones got in touch with me about the comic book, and there were two guys in Texas who wanted to make it as a film and they shot part of it. It’s one of these things. It was a successful experiment in the sense that Chris Bones did a very good comic book. He was very expert at what he was doing. In other cases, if you try and open source something, not everybody in the community who takes it on is going to be able to accomplish it

I’m surprised you haven’t written more comics over the years. You wrote four issues of a Godzilla comic in the 90s but then nothing until your script for Waldo was turned into a graphic novel.

I was going to do another one with Chris Bones, called Helltown. I think the thing is: it’s a big investment of one’s time and my guess is that the Waldo comic book didn’t sell that many copies, and even the Godzilla series didn’t do that well because they didn’t continue the series after a certain point. Comics are maybe a speciality item, maybe guys prefer to play games now than to read comic books. What do you think?

Well, due to the whole democratisation of the app store where the price of a comic is the same as the price of something like Angry Birds, maybe comics are going to become popular again due to mobile devices.

Interesting. I think something has to change in the cinema – I don’t mean 3D or getting rid of film, those are just fantasies of the studios – but the idea that maybe film and games will have some kind of merger, or films will be somewhat interactive. In his most recent film, Twixt, Francis Coppola tried to have alternative scenes, so he’ll sit at the back and he’ll decide, ‘Now we’ll have the happy bit’ or ‘Now they’re going to go in a sad direction’, and at the end of a scene he’ll take you somewhere quite different, depending on what screening you’re at. I haven’t seen the film, so I don’t know how successful it is and I think it’s become muddied as well by having 3D sequences – the 3D thing has overshadowed the alternate aspect.

Are you familiar with the Italian western The Big Silence? It ends very sadly with the death of the hero and the murdering of all the hostages, but Corbucci shot a happy alternative ending. Trintignant bows in, shoots all the bad guys, and he’s wearing a gauntlet or suit of armour he’s got from somewhere, so the bullets bounce off and he saves everybody. So, in a way, Corbucci was saying: ‘For other territories that can’t accept the other brilliant ending of my film, here’s a happy ending, guys!’ Corbucci was a master of these possibilities, and maybe we’ll do films like that in the future, maybe we’ll start getting films with multiple endings or multiple narrative paths. Maybe they’ll play arbitrarily in the cinema and you can pick them at home or maybe people will be electronically wired to the seats, so their emotions drive the movie. Though that’s very dangerous, so they won’t do that! Who knows what will happen?

One of Joe Dante’s most recent projects, Splatter, was an interactive TV mini-series where people could vote on what would happen in the next episode, and he shot two different versions of each five-minute segment.

Exactly! So it’s already happening.

I was going to mention video games, as Repo Chick seems to have that aesthetic in some of the backgrounds.

It depends on which bit. They’re in a game at the beginning when they’re in their car and then the car segues into the model railway.

What made you want to do Repo Chick? Was it to get the supporting cast back together and relive those heady days?

I was trying to get going again after Waldo and all the producers went down to LA. Again I was going through the process of trying to get a sequel made at Universal and failed – they weren’t interested and were very rude and hostile. Then the economic crash occurred and I realised that the Repo outfit, the criminal Repo outfit that Repo Man is about, is based on General Motors Acceptance Corporation. What happened in the 90s, in the Clinton years, is that the Democrats deregulated the banks and allowed GMAC to become a bank. So a lot of those bad mortgages and subsequent evictions that occurred when the depression began were at the behest of GMAC bank, and literally all our (American) tax money went to bail them out. Instead of poor people losing their cars, they were being thrown out on the streets by GMAC, and I just thought: ‘Man, this has got to be addressed. I just cannot sit around and watch these guys laugh as our lives are wrecked’. And that’s why I made Repo Chick. There’s just this five-minute thing at the beginning of Repo Chick about GMAC and how they were largely responsible, at least in the United States, for wrecking the economy and throwing some of the people into poverty. If it was a documentary it would be neither here nor there, but it was important to get that little bit out.

I have to say that my favourite of your films is Death and the Compass. The way I describe it to friends is: ‘An episode of Columbo where it turns out that the villain is The Joker!’ Again it felt like you had a great comic book aesthetic in that movie.

It’s really comic booky. To tell you the truth, I and Cecilia Montiel, who was the production designer, had both seen Dick Tracy not long before, and we were very impressed by Warren Beatty! His direction of Dick Tracy and the visual choices that he made were just sensational. I think he’s a very talented individual, and of course he was working with a very adroit production designer – Richard Sylbert – plus a great cinematographer, some big cast members and all the rest of it. Cecilia, I and the same cinematographer had done another film in Mexico a year before, Highway Patrolman, which was much more naturalistic and much more muted, and we wanted to have a visual break with what we’d done and do something quite different.

There are two different cuts of Death and the Compass. Can you see yourself returning to them, remastering them, adding new scenes? I suppose there’s a director’s cut of Straight to Hell just out…

This is the weird thing, Straight to Hell Returns has done fantastically over here in the States and it’s still playing theatrically, more than a year later, but I’ve had no enquiries from the UK about it. I’ll tell you what I think it is: when Straight to Hell first came out, it was generally not liked by critics or audiences, but in the US it’s acquired a cult reputation. The Returns version’s got additional digital violence, extra scenes, extra music by Joe Strummer and more footage of Courtney Love and Shane MacGowan. There’s a new sound design and a new visual aspect because Tom Richmond went through it and completely changed the colour palette – it’s like a new film, and yet, like Repo Man, it’s also a trip down memory lane because you get to see Strummer, The Pogues, Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones and Courtney when they were still young-ish. In England, the critics and the audience haven’t come to terms with the fact that they were wrong about Straight to Hell! Thank you very much for liking Death and the Compass, a film that almost no one has seen!

My pleasure! In film magazines, there’s always such joy when a critic discovers a film that’d slipped under their radar.

Yeah, but the thing is, they were so mad about my films in the past! Two of the films I made really upset people – Straight to Hell and Walker. It takes people a long time to realise they were wrong and the filmmaker knew best and they should have dug it at the time. I don’t want to sound arrogant but Straight to Hell and Walker were good films. In the US, Criterion have brought out a copy of Walker. It’s a new print, and it’s got a fascinating new documentary by Terry Schwartz about the making of the film, in the political context of Nicaragua at the time. Somehow the Americans have got around Walker. The English take a bit longer… I wish Masters of Cinema would bring it out in the UK. Their Blu-Ray is the most complete version of Repo Man there’s ever been or ever could be, because it’s also got the television version – completely re-edited to take out all the swearing and drug use – and all the various things we’ve made about Repo Man over the years. It’s the only version that’s come out to have the cleaned up TV version, where they say ‘Melon Farmers’!

I’ve got a real soft spot for ‘Melon Farmers’ as an expletive…

Isn’t it great? Although that expression has become frequently heard since then, I think Dick Rude came up with that, because he was on set, with the actors working on things they could say instead of rude words.

Interview by Alex Fitch

Auteur Books on 60s British Cinema

Witchfinder General
By Ian Cooper
Auteur 105pp £9.99

Let the Right One In
By Anne Billson
Auteur 112pp £9.99

Studying British Cinema: The 1960s
By Danny Powell
Auteur 254pp £18.99

Auteur Books produce informed and approachable texts aimed at undergraduate students – but of interest to the general film enthusiast. They have recently published several books in two of their specialist lines that are worthy of attention. In the Devil’s Advocate series they have two new offerings, Witchfinder General and Let the Right One In. In their already established and well-received Studying British Cinema series, Danny Powell’s Studying the 60s offers a solid and informed overview of this boom and bust period of British cinema history. After an introduction that maps out his approach to the period along with a useful contextualisation of the truths (and myths) about the 60s, he proceeds to look at the decade through key films from each year. From Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960) up to the ‘self-parodying… anachronism’ The Italian Job (Peter Collinson, 1969), Powell takes the reader on an often fascinating journey through that much maligned (and over-praised) decade.

Some observations though: more might have been made of the gender issues implied by the fact that Anne Jellicoe wrote The Knack, and although the book does not intend to be comprehensive, the lack of even cursory mention of important players like Alan Bates, Oliver Reed, Tony Tenser, Michael Reeves and Ken Russell, and production companies like Tigon and Amicus, is to be lamented. And what of quintessential period films such as Smashing Time, Morgan, Isadora, Charlie Bubbles, Up the Junction or Poor Cow? These omissions are all the more striking as valuable space is given over twice to Clive Donner’s Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.

In contrast, Ian Cooper’s Witchfinder General covers much of the same period but is paradoxically able to consider a wider cultural field by virtue of honing in on one particular movie. There are inevitable differences in interpretation in both works and this is sometimes a result of the research: Cooper cites Julian Petley’s key text, ‘The Lost Continent’ while Powell does not make any reference to it. In his 1986 article, Petley argued for a consideration of aspects of British cinema that fell outside the then predominant critical view that only films of social realist tendency and toned down emotional excess or spectacle were of import. Reflection on Petley’s thesis might perhaps have allowed Powell’s cinematic net to be cast over a slightly larger area.

Nonetheless, both books are informative and assured and as neither is intended to be definitive or comprehensive both succeed in their brevity. The same can be said of Anne Billison’s succinct account of the Swedish milestone Let the Right One In and her contextualisation of vampirism in respect to this post-modern cinematic contribution to the genre. We can look forward to more sparkling titles in these worthy series.

James B. Evans

To kick off this new and regular bonus addition to Cine Lit – in which the column’s intrepid editor pays homage to wonderful film books that are out of print or just plain ‘missing in action’ – it seems only right to highlight one of the most sought after, and as a consequence one of the more valuable, tomes to appear (occasionally) on second-hand websites, Mark Thomas McGee’s Faster and Furiouser: The Revised and Fattened Fable of American International Pictures. McGee offers what must be the authoritative history of the drive-in circuits’ favourite provider of thrills, spills and chills. Exchanging hands at prices of up to £200, the 1996 edition of his book is a scholarly but non-academic account of the rise and fall of that legendary production/exhibition/distribution hothouse of low-budget ‘youth’ films within whose ranks Roger Corman and his ‘school’ of first-time directors passed: Martin Scorcese, Francis Coppola, Monte Hellman, Robert Towne, Jonathan Demme, Peter Bogdanovich – to name but a few. This warts-and-all tale of the fabulations and near-cons of owners Samuel Arkoff and James Nicholson is a terrific read and a valuable addition to American cinematic history. Save this book! JE

Bog Roll


This article contains spoilers on Psycho (1960), Full Metal Jacket (1987), The Magic Christian (1969) and Kill Bill: Volume II (2004).

Here’s a question, a Trivial Pursuit, pub quiz level conundrum to confound your friends and impress your colleagues. Which single shot of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) caused him the most difficulty with the studio? The shot is thought to be a first of its kind on American screens. Which shot? The knife and the shower? Janet Leigh in her bra and pants? Adultery? The foot-off-the-floor bedroom kiss? The skull? The mummified corpse? The ridiculous backward tracking shot of detective Arbogast falling down the stairs, which always raises a slightly patronising smile in modern day audiences? Of course, rhetoric decrees it can’t be any of these, so before your patience is entirely exhausted I’ll tell you.

Marion Crane flushes the toilet.

Having worked out how much money she has spent of her ill-gotten gains, she tears up the sheet of paper with her calculations and flushes the pieces of paper down the toilet. As Donald Spoto writes in his biography of Hitchcock, The Dark Side of Genius: ‘This [shot], not the scarcely glimpsed, soft-focus nudity in the shower, was the most iconoclastic image in the picture – more influential than Hitchcock’s killing off of the leading lady almost halfway through the film.’ (Plexus, 1983, p. 420) Neither was this a one-off for a director who was fascinated by the body-ness of the body and whose greatest fear in real life was vomiting. Toilet imagery and allusions to bodily functions ‘mark a recurrent and obsessive motif in his films’, according to Spoto, appearing in North by Northwest, Vertigo and Marnie as well as many others. It makes a cameo as often as Hitchcock himself.


The flushing toilet (the sound is important too) is a reminder of the physical comedy of our existence, in the same way Marion Crane’s soon-to-come wet death plays the same tune but in a tragic minor key. With all our sins, our ambitions, our betrayals, our passions and our complex psychology, we all sit on the toilet, and we are all ultimately extinguished. Even in the disposal of Marion’s body and the car into the sucking bog – which for a moment represents a toilet that won’t flush – there is a combination of both the tragic and the comic.

Hitchcock is not the only great director to be keen on featuring the ceramic throne as a recurrent element in the furniture of his films. Stanley Kubrick puts Nicole Kidman on a toilet in the opening of Eyes Wide Shut (1999), giving us a nice little jolt of normality against the glamour of his star, although some criticised her wiping technique, reminding us of James Stewart’s warning to actors that there’s nothing so difficult to do convincingly as the everyday. The most dehumanising sight in Full Metal Jacket (1987) is the uniform row of toilets in the marine barracks. This is where intimate but creepy conversations take place between the soldiers, who with their bald heads, new names and complete lack of privacy represent stretched infants. This denial of privacy and discretion is so profound that Private Pyle (don’t!) chooses this communal bathroom as the location for the execution of the hated and heartless drill Sergeant Hartman and his own final resting place, sitting on the toilet, brains blown a gruesome red against the white wall.

In The Shining (1980), it’s not so much toilets as bathrooms. Bathrooms are the location of all the significant encounters: Jack Torrance’s long conversation with Grady flanked by urinals, the necrophilia of the bathroom in room 237 and Jack’s wolfman trying to get at Wendy and Danny with an axe. Malcolm McDowell’s Alex takes a nice long piss in A Clockwork Orange (1971). We even have our hero consulting the instructions to a zero gravity toilet in the only joke of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

For Kubrick and Hitchcock both, the toilet is normality, the comic realisation of our physicality undercutting the grandeur of our failed spiritual aspirations. As a reminder of our bodies, it is also an intimation of mortality. The inclusion of the toilet is a sign of the filmmakers’ ambition to seek a totality in their cinema, an embracing of all aspects of life and not just that which is dignified and tasteful. It is an ambition comparable to James Joyce planting Bloom on the toilet in Ulysses, and finding all the toilet paper gone, a universal dilemma, to put side by side with Stephen Dedalus’ angst.

Charles Bukowski once noted that one can go through a long life and never have sex, whereas you can’t go for a week without taking a shit, and yet poetry concerns itself almost exclusively with the former bodily act and not the latter. His entire career could be seen as an attempt to redress the balance. W.H. Auden, in his poem ‘VI The Geography of the House’, which was dedicated to the ‘white tiled cabin’, noted:

Hence, to start the morning
With a satisfactory
Dump is a good omen
All our adult days.

And yet when the toilet does appear on the widescreen, it is very rarely for a ‘satisfactory dump’.

We have now come a long way from the sacrilegious inclusion of a toilet in a black and white thriller. Toilets figure fairly frequently in film. In comedies, we have the gross-out excesses of the Jackass team, and the recent Bridesmaids (2011) features a good poo joke. Perhaps the best antecedent was Jeff Daniels’s self-proclaimed Oscar clip in Dumb and Dumber (1994). For the savagely satirical, you should go back to 1969 and The Magic Christian, which concludes with businessmen swimming in a pool of crap in order to retrieve bank notes, which the Magic Christian and his protégé (played by the slightly hypocritical Peter Sellers and Ringo Star, both freshly returned from their respective tax exiles) have liberally scattered in the cesspit. The cockeyed satire is of a piece with the mixed tone of the film, occasionally brilliant but frequently nasty. Jeff Daniels et al have no such satiric aim, but simply play out the extreme physical jokes that our bodies play on us, via the occasional application of jumbo-sized laxatives.

In more serious contexts the toilet is a symbol of degradation. In Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996), the toilet begins as a horrible toilet (true to the novel, ‘the worst toilet in Scotland’), but immediately becomes a surreal portal to some magical undersea drug’s world and the most memorable image of the film, one which, as a poster, graced, bizarrely, many a bedsit wall.

Part one of this vision is replayed in the cinema of Gaspar Noé. The protagonist of Enter the Void (2010) dies curled up like a foetus in a revolting toilet stall. Noé’s use of the toilet is of a piece with his disgust of the world and the body in general. His showing of the toilet is not a grasping of all of life, but rather a rush to the margins, to the extremes, ostentatiously daring, but actually fuelled by the same prejudices that saw Paramount executives so worried at the dailies of Psycho.

Danny Boyle would again use the toilet in Slumdog Millionaire (2008), but now the shit hole is the literal manifestation of life in the Third World. The image of a boy hiding up to his neck in faeces is borrowed from Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), who, with his use of light and black and white photography, renders even this degradation oddly beautiful. Perhaps this is a limit of cinema in that we don’t smell what we see, and its strength, when we are viscerally affected by a stench that is somehow evoked. In Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008), for instance, the dirty protest of the IRA prisoners kept in the Maze initially conveys an overpowering cinematic whiff. And yet their shit literally becomes an artistic expression. Even as we are revolted, we are fascinated. In breaking with this primal taboo, the prisoners have oddly achieved a kind of freedom, albeit a freedom most of us would perhaps not strive for.

In Hunger, Slumdog Millionaire and Schindler’s List, degradation is something to be overcome paradoxically via the excremental. The willingness to jump into shit pits and smear shit on the walls is a way of surviving. It is literally an escape route – though in Schindler’s List salvation is not guaranteed. Earlier in the film we have seen how several people try to escape the liquidation of the ghetto through the sewers only to meet with their deaths.

In Slumdog Millionaire and Schindler’s List, shit is Shawshank shit: it is the medium through which the protagonist has to be immersed as a Herculean test (remember the cleaning of the Aegean stables was a similarly degrading task) before redemption, purification and survival. In The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Andy Dufresne, who has earlier been the victim of anal rape, has to crawl through ‘five hundred yards of shit-smelling foulness’ before being re-born into the cleansing rain. The cathartic image of a man, arms outstretched in a Christ-like pose, whose clothes are presumably still soaked in shit, being washed in the rain, makes (again) for the strangest of film posters.

The contemporary filmmaker whose toilet sensibilities are closest to Alfred Hitchcock is Quentin Tarantino. His characters casually and frequently refer to bodily functions, calls of nature, or what you will. From Steve Buscemi in Reservoir Dogs (1992), who in the aftermath of the robbery ‘needs to take a squirt’, to the opening of Deathproof (2007), in which Michelle Rodriguez is desperate for a pee, Tarantino is as laconic as John Travolta’s character in the matter of factness of doing what has to be done. ‘I gotta take a shit,’ Vincent Vega tells Samuel L. Jackson, interrupting an argument about eating pork, the pig being an animal that, Jackson argues, ‘roots in shit’. It is a running joke that Vega will constantly interrupt proceedings to go to the toilet, sometimes because he really needs to, and sometimes to meditate on what to do next, as in his date with the boss’s girl, Mia Wallace. Unfortunately, the world does not stop while you are about your business and twice nearly tragic things (a nearly fatal overdose and something close to a shootout) happen while Vega is in the loo. The third time will be a fatal denouement, but Vega, in his own way, and because of Tarantino’s jerky chronology, will, like Andy Dufresne, be resurrected via the toilet.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes a toilet is just a toilet. Jackie Brown uses the toilet as a conveniently private place to sort out her smuggling. Mr. Pink and Mr. White will use the bathroom as a quiet place to talk and work out what went wrong, combining strategy with a little male grooming. And Mr. Orange’s story, a scripted story that never happened but that we see, albeit in an obviously unrealistic manner, takes place in a men’s room. The incongruity of all those policemen in the men’s toilet (and this is pre-George Michael), who themselves are listening to another protracted story, represents something of a Chinese box in the middle of the film.

In the Kill Bill films, toilets will appear infrequently, but significantly. In Kill Bill: Volume II (2004), Bill’s brother, Budd, has apparently relinquished his cool suits and hitman ways to live a deceptively humble life, not killing, for instance, the obnoxious asking-for-it owner of the titty bar where he works as a bouncer. Instead of doing jobs, he’s left cleaning them up: here tasked by the strippers to fix the toilet where shitty water is backing up. This might be humiliation but it might also be a grasping after redemption, through the acceptance of the body. Why is shit disgusting to us and blood, violently released, sexy? One bodily fluid is cinematically acceptable and the other not. There is a Saint Francis-like abasement, a patient succumbing to humiliation as a way (although this remains all unsaid) of expiating for past sins.

However, Budd can’t quite make it. He is not a suicide and can’t just let himself be killed. He captures Uma Thurman’s Bride and buries her alive. Her escape will again resemble an Andy Dufresne filth-stained earth birth. She will be the one who is resurrected and Budd will be the one who, having returned to his old bad self, will die.

A toilet appears later in the fight between Elle and the Bride, but toilets appear fairly frequently in fight scenes. James Bond often scraps in the bathroom; it happens in Goldfinger (1964) – ‘shocking… absolutely shocking’ – and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), and most recently in the opening scene of Casino Royale (2006), which is significantly his first killing. Miles Mowbray writes in an article (to which I am indebted): ‘We see a blond girl (a pop culture icon and symbol of white capitalist cultural supremacy) that needs to flush in order to breathe. Her life depends on the toilet’s proper function.’ (‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being Cool, Bright Lights Film Journal, Issue 45, August 2004). But this is going too far. The incident is more about the comedy of having a fight that totally destroys a trailer, bathroom included. The toilet is part of the completeness of Budd’s living arrangements and their subsequent destruction. The Dude’s head gets shoved in a toilet in The Big Lebowski (1998) but that isn’t cultural symbolism of capitalism stuff. Or is it? No.

The best emblem of Tarantino’s use of the toilet and toiletry matters can be seen in Christopher Walken’s justly famous monologue, which introduces Butch’s section of Pulp Fiction (1994). The story about the watch that belonged to Butch’s father should really just be infusing a random MacGuffin with value. Instead, the arbitrary becomes meaningful through suffering. This item is not the Ark of the Covenant, the Enigma code machine or some Doomsday device but instead a simple watch, held up for us all to see. ‘This uncomfortable hunk of metal,’ as Walken’s soldier calls it. Uncomfortable because this watch has been stuck up his father’s ass as he hid it from the Japanese prison guards. The watch represents a history of suffering and of war, and that suffering is not always the famous Tarantino cool. It’s also stoicism and bad luck and dysentery. In fact, Tarantino cool is from the very first associated with the least cool aspects of the body, even as it seeks to deny them. ‘But hey, Mr Brown?’ Tarantino complains of his pseudonym in Reservoir Dogs. ‘That’s a little too close to Mr. Shit.’

We are, as Leonard Cohen recently reminded us, ‘an elaboration of a tube’, and the toilet is a reminder not just of that, but an effect to cleanse the side effects and erase cause. Pasolini’s coprophagia in Sal&#242, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) is of course shocking but it happens outside of a toilet context (stripped of all civilisation), and Luis Buñuel’s radical reversal of the infamous dining scene in The Phantom of Liberty (1974) is so overtly surreal that it ceases to be genuinely disturbing. People sitting about a table on toilets is a crazy nightmare, but it is happily contained by the very idea of nightmare. The true horror is when a toilet ceases to function, when it backs up. A perfect example is Francis Ford Coppola’s most Hitchcockian of films, The Conversation (1974). Gene Hackman’s anally retentive sound technician and professional eavesdropper prowls a hotel room in which he believes a crime has taken place. Its very cleanliness is suspicious, evidence that, along with Psycho murder, there is also Batesian thoroughness and calculation. It is only when he flushes the toilet that blood emerges, and the panic is not so much because of the blood as because of the toilet. This machine that is designed as a portal to take filth away reveals itself to be treacherous, a two-way street. From this scene, Slavoj &#381i&#382ek in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (Fiennes, 2006) argues that looking into the toilet to see what comes back is analogous to the very act of watching films itself.

John Bleasdale

The Tindersticks’ Film Jukebox

The Tindersticks (Photo by Christophe Agou)

Not only have The Tindersticks long had an affiliation with film – dreamy, countrified soundscapes and orchestrated backing featuring on many albums – but they’ve also written many soundtracks for filmmaker Claire Denis, including 35 Shots of Rum, Trouble Every Day, Nénette et Boni and White Material. They release their new nine-track album The Something Rain on Lucky Dog on 20 February 2012. You can see them play live at Soho Theatre, London, during their four-night residency from 22 to 25 February. The band also play several European dates in March and co-headline End of the Road Festival, UK, in August/September. For more information please go to the Tinderticks website. The list below was compiled by long-standing Tindersticks member David Boulter. Delia Sparrer

1. Get Carter (1971)
Most of my favourite films are, like this, ones I saw growing up. I’d have been around 13 when I first saw this, and it amazed me. Michael Caine at his best. Wonderfully shot around Newcastle and Gateshead. With a great Harold Budd score, which took me about five years to find and cost me a month’s wages. The beautiful Britt Ekland as well, giving a young boy sleepless nights.

2. The Wicker Man (1973)
[SPOILER ALERT] Another film I saw around 12-13. I grew up watching the Hammer horrors and loved Christopher Lee’s Dracula. This film’s much darker. Pagan sacrifice of Edward Woodward, the policeman virgin, to save Summer Isle and bring a fruitful harvest. Great story, great characters. Another great score. And more sleepless nights from Britt.

3. Kes (1969)
The story of a boy growing up in Yorkshire with nothing and little future until he gets a falcon to look after. It could be my school and a boy in my class. Shows life in the early 70s perfectly. A beautiful film, yet another beautiful score, impossible to find until Johnny Trunk came along with his wonderful releases.

4. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
Another big event growing up was the Bond films. The first I actually saw at the cinema was The Man with the Golden Gun, another Britt – Christopher Lee pairing. But most memorable were Sean Connery’s, usually shown at Christmas or Bank Holidays, when trips would be cut short to get home in time to watch them. Strangely, this isn’t Sean, but George Lazenby, in his only outing as Bond (or anyone really). Still my favourite. Great music from John Barry. The best story for me, and the wonderful Diana Rigg. When I first left home, the chap I lived with had a video recorder, which not many people had at the time. He had this on tape and I watched it every night for about a month.

5. Carry On… Up the Khyber (1968)
I love Sid James, I can watch him in anything. Like James Bond, Carry On films were a big part of my childhood. I probably didn’t get all the jokes, but they still made me laugh. It’s hard for me to choose a favourite, this and Screaming I have the most memories of. This one probably has the best story. And the great stiff upper lip dinner scene – very ‘British’.

6. The Ladykillers (1955)
Beautiful film about a gang of criminals foiled by a little old lady. A simple story, made so wonderful by the characters and great performances. I was a big fan of Ealing films, especially their comedies.

7. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)
Arthur Seaton became my hero, but I was more like Colin, the character in another of Alan Sillitoe’s stories and another great film, Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. I saw Saturday Night and Sunday Morning first and loved it. Set in Nottingham, where I grew up. One of my cousin’s actually in the film, a child in the street.

8. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
I’d already seen A Fistful of Dollars, which I loved too. I remember being excited all week waiting for this. I’d be about 12. It was on late on a Friday, so I was allowed to stay up and watch it. I remember my Dad coming home from the pub with fish and chips for us. An epic film. I went out and got the soundtrack shortly afterwards too. I drove my Mum crazy with it.

9. Darling (1965)
I was a big fan of Dirk Bogarde, some people said I even looked like him. I saw this and The Servant around the same time, again early teens. Also the beautiful Julie Christie and Laurence Harvey. I think this film had a big influence on me, and a story I wrote later, called ‘My Sister’.

10. Women in Love (1969)
I’d read a lot of D.H. Lawrence at school. I was madly in love with Glenda Jackson after this – more sleepless nights. We’ve planned a video of the wrestling scene for a while. Stuart’s fireplace is very similar to that in the film. Dan, our bass player, looks very Alan Bates too.

Katy Darby is The Last Seduction’s Bridget Gregory

The Last Seduction

Katy Darby’s debut novel, The Whores’ Asylum mixes thrilling high drama with a Gothic sensibility. In the seedy back streets of Oxford in 1887, the close friendship of two worthy men is threatened by the delicious Diana, a woman with a troubled past and a dark future. London-based Darby teaches writing at City University and co-runs the monthly live fiction event Liars’ League. Her filmic Alter Ego is Bridget Gregory in The Last Seduction. EITHNE FARRY

‘When women go wrong, men go right after them.’ (Mae West)

If I had to be a film femme fatale, I’d bypass the obvious choices (Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct) and squeeze myself into the slinky shoes of Bridget Gregory in The Last Seduction (1994). Bridget is quite a piece of work, as is this pitch-black neo-noir crime thriller, an underrated classic if ever there was one. I flirted briefly with the idea of nominating Sean Young’s cool replicant Rachael in Blade Runner – but Rachael, being not quite human, is essentially innocent; and if there’s one thing a femme fatale is, it’s guilty as hell.

Bridget is certainly no innocent: having made off with $700,000 stolen from her crooked husband Clay (Bill Pullman) and gone on the run, she stops off at a bar in Nowheresville, where local boy Mike (Peter Berg) tries to chat her up by telling her he’s hung like a horse. She promptly invites him to sit, sticks her hand down his pants, and says, ‘Let’s see’: now there’s a woman with balls. Soon she decides to rid herself of her annoying ex by manipulating Mike to kill him, then double-crosses Mike too – getting away with the money, and murder, by playing the ‘helpless victim’ card.

Bridget is, unapologetically, a nasty girl. Not conflicted, not confused: just out-and-out bad. She knows it, and uses it to get exactly what she wants. Many femmes fatales, especially in film noir, come to a sticky end because, after all, they’re bad girls, and that’s what happens to them, right? Wrong. In this film Bridget isn’t a plot device, a cardboard villain, or a temptress leading the protagonist astray: she is the protagonist. It’s absolutely her story, and she wins in the end – and we love to watch her do it, leaving broken hearts, cast-off underwear and smoking cigarette butts in her wake.

The Whores’ Asylum is published by Fig Tree.

Katy Darby

Do you like jive? Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady

Phantom Lady

Few film genres would appear to be so readily associated with a particular style of music as film noir with jazz, the former’s smoky chiaroscuro and louche, simmering sexuality apparently the perfect complement to the bruised sax tones of Private Hell 36 (1954), arranged by Shorty Rogers from Leith Stevens’s score, or the swung high hats of Elmer Bernstein’s theme from The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). One film in which this normally cool complement heats up into a whirling fury of burning sexual energy is Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944).

Though there is not a great deal of music in Phantom Lady, Siodmak preferring to build up his tension through atmospheric use of foley effects and extensive silences, such music as remains is consistently worthy of note. The blustery opening theme by Hans Salter, a former student of Alban Berg, whistles along breezily, lulling us into a false sense of security, before neatly segueing into an arrangement of the song the unknown ‘phantom lady’ herself (played by Fay Helms) will soon select on a jukebox in a lowdown dive bar, ‘I’ll Remember April’. This is Siodmak’s first use of what will become a signature leitmotif in his films for star-crossed encounters, recurring later in Christmas Holiday (1944), The Killers (1946) and Criss Cross (1949), always with much the same connotation. But all this pent-up tension is finally released in one explosive, quasi-orgasmic scene roughly half-way through the picture.

Amateur detective ‘Kansas’ Carol Richman (played by Ella Raines) has dolled herself up as a loose, gum-chewing dame in order to seduce Elisha Cook Jr.’s sleazy drummer. He invites her down to a late night jam session in a basement club, and as the door swings open, the camera zooms in on the horn of Dole Nicolls’s trombone as he blasts out a dolorous bluesy solo. The camera dollies deeper into the room, introducing each leering face of the musicians one by one: former Jimmy Dorsey Band charter member Jimmy Slack, hammering out a delirious boogie-woogie on the piano, Barney Bigard, one-time member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Louis Armstrong’s All-Star Concert Group, shoving his squealing clarinet in Richman’s face, Howard Ramsey (possibly a misspelling of Howard Rumsey, bassist for Stan Kenton) slapping at the high end of the neck of his stand-up bass, and finally Roger Hanson on trumpet. The tight framing, Dutch angles and deep shadows constantly emphasise Richman’s discomfort as the session heats up into a wild hard bop. In the novel on which the film is based, Cornell Woolrich describes the scene as a ‘sort of Dante-esque inferno’.

Then Cook takes the drum stool and with wild, possessed eyes starts hammering out a furious solo, building into a tumult of snare fills and flying cymbals as Richman goads him, her hands grasping towards him as though squeezing the energy out of him. The solo builds with such intensity – and with such thinly disguised sexual innuendo – that the local censor board of Pennsylvania insisted on all its close-ups being cut from screenings in the state.

As David Butler remarks in his study of the film’s music, ‘jazz would seldom be featured so graphically this way again’. IMDB credits the drum solo to the little-known David Coleman. But according to Leonard Maltin – and an unknown poster on YouTube who claims to have discussed the matter with Cook himself – it was really Buddy Rich hammering away on the sticks behind the scenes.

Robert Barry

Dirty Diaries

Dirty Diaries (Flasher Girl on Tour)

Format: Screening

Date: 13 January 2011

Venue: Horse Hospital

Organised by: Club Des Femmes

Part of the London Short Film Festival 2012

6-15 January 2012, various venues, London

LSFF website

Unless you count teenage sleepovers, or people sitting on opposite sides of an otherwise empty red-light cinema, watching porn isn’t normally a communal activity. So why, when Club Des Femmes screened Dirty Diaries (2009) – a collection of porn shorts – during the London Short Film Festival, were people queuing round the block of the Horse Hospital to get in on returns? All kinds of people too: men in trendy specs with their heads held high, bequiffed women holding hands, a Horse Hospital regular on his first date with a new girlfriend – and not one filthy mac in sight.

It could be down to the fact that Times columnist and neo-feminist Caitlin Moran had tweeted about it to her 185,000-odd followers on Twitter. She’s broached the topic of feminist-friendly porn in her best-selling book How to Be a Woman, in which she calls on feminists to make their own porn rather than attempt to ban it. ‘Something that shows sex as something that two people do together,’ suggests Moran, ‘rather than a thing that just happens to a woman when she has to make rent. Something in which – to put it simply – everyone comes.’

Dirty Diaries is inspired by the same school of thought. In fact, the short film that initiated the collection is called Come Together, and is made up of director Mia Emberg and several other women individually filming themselves as they masturbate. It was first shown during the Stockholm International Film Festival and, as Club Des Femmes co-founder Selina Robertson explained before the screening, it shocked certain – primarily male – viewers, who complained about the women not being attractive enough.

This gave Emberg an idea: why not allow more women to redefine porn? With funding from the Swedish Film Institute, she asked other filmmakers to write, star in and direct their own porn films. The best of these form Dirty Diaries, a thrilling bag of sexual diversity that tells us almost as much about the difference between mainstream and feminist views on sex as it does about the difference between government film funding in the UK and that in Sweden.

Opening short Skin is a poetic depiction of two bodies clad in skin-coloured bodysuits making love, filmed in close-up by an observer and set – as are many of the others – to the music of Fever Ray. As the petting gets heavier, scissors are taken to the clothes on the nearly neutered figures to reveal body parts bit by bit. The sex between the man and the woman is tender, reciprocal and, when the mouths are eventually revealed, they are smiling.
More smiles in Night Vision, in which a woman takes matters into her own hand by reaching her climax with a vibrator, while being watched by her male lover. The film ends just as she breaks out into a wide post-coital grin. It’s a cheeky in-your-face to standard porn, where the ‘money shot’ is the man’s domain.

Body Contact subverts even more fixtures of mainstream porn. A woman and a co-conspirator behind the camera seek a man on an internet hook-up site and, after sizing up his genitals on the webcam, invite him over for sex. When he arrives, he’s dismayed to find another woman there to film the encounter and nervously admires the view out of the window before being coaxed into submission. The sex is comical, as the man works himself into an over-enthusiastic frenzy while the woman looks bored and smiles conspiratorially at the camera. It’s feigned, of course, but it feels unnecessarily mean: do two wrongs make a right?

More imaginative is Flasher Girl on Tour, in which a cropped-haired girl treats the audience to an excerpt of her ‘travel diary’ as she visits Paris, indulging in her fetish of exposing herself in public. Bashing down what she declares to be ‘the exclusive right for men to be disgusting in public’, she masturbates in a taxi, flashes out of her hotel room window, and straddles the gushing waters of a public fountain. It’s not sexy. It’s hilarious.

But it seemed that not many people turned up at the screening to be titillated. ‘I’m not here to be aroused,’ says Lucy, an academic. ‘It’s more about being part of a community. I like being in a room with lots of lesbians, bi-women and queer women, and having a good time. In fact, I know lesbian and dyke women who watch male heterosexual porn because they prefer it to lesbian porn.’

‘The films were all really refreshing,’ added Caroline, who specialises in sexuality, spirituality and sex activism. ‘A lot of porn seems contrived. People are really aware they’re being porn stars. This is really fresh.’

So what can mainstream porn learn from the collection Emberg has put together? Robertson puts it well: ‘That diversity, humour and horny real women are as sexy as hell.’

For more information, please go to the Dirty Diaries website or the Club Des Femmes website.

Lisa Williams

‘Suck my dick’: The female action hero

La Femme Nikita

The question on the poster stated it boldly: ‘Who is Salt?’ Enigmatically at first, during the early part of the advertising campaign, and then less so, with a picture of Angelina Jolie. So, the answer would be… Angelina Jolie. That’s who Salt is. Although it could just have easily been Tom Cruise, who the script was initially developed for. So the question might also be, how do you retool an action hero when Edwin Salt is changed to Evelyn Salt? In a post-feminist world, where women are apparently allowed to watch Sex and the City without feeling as if they’re killing their own children, this might not seem like a big deal. But the script changes are strikingly evident and strangely telling.

How do we conceive of a killing machine action hero when it has a vagina? First, we see Evelyn dressed like Martha Stewart, an office body, a bureaucrat, high-powered but still rushing home for an anniversary with her dopey-looking husband, exchanging banter with her boss, played by Liev Shreiber. In the process of a last-minute interrogation, a Russian defector names a mole infiltrated into the CIA as Salt. Salt is put under arrest, but escapes. First, she disables as many of the surveillance cameras as she can – one of which is taken out by taking off her knickers and covering the lens with them. It’s a reach but I imagine this wouldn’t have happened if it had been Edwin Salt. She makes a cannon out of cleaning products, which Tom Cruise might have done, but when Jolie does it her familiarity with detergents and antibacterial floor wash smacks of some banal commentary on women’s work. Instead of taking out SWAT teams, she should be tidying up and having a quick dust. When later on, she plugs a bullet hole with a Tampax, the patient viewer might be forgiven for throwing up their arms and saying, ‘OK, we get it, she’s a woman’. There is something about leavening the Bourne-like running and jumping and inching across a ledge seven storeys up with these ‘witty’ references to female hygiene products that feels glumly apologetic. What’s the point of empowering this woman if you keep reminding everyone how jarring this empowerment is? And even fobbing some of the sexists (or post-feminists) in the audience off with the prospect of a knickerless Angelina Jolie free-climbing apartment buildings doesn’t render the film immune from the complaint that the ‘relentlessly paced spy vs spy story glosses over how a lone woman, no matter how lethal a weapon, can repeatedly take out a dozen or more armed men’, (Todd McCarthy, Indiewire, 2010), without, you know, her tits getting in the way, or something. And yet the action set-pieces Evelyn Salt survives are no more ridiculous than the daring feats Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt and James Bond achieve despite their being weighed down by cumbersome dangling penises.

One element of Salt that seems de rigueur when it comes to promoting a female action hero, especially one who is a trained killer, is the make-over and wardrobe change. In La Femme Nikita, Luc Besson’s archetypal female assassin has Jeanne Moreau as a Fairy Godmother, who with a little bit of make-up, skilfully applied, gives Anne Parillaud’s sociopathic punk turned government killer a ladylike veneer for when she’s doing unladylike things. Evelyn Salt goes from office MILF to super-sexy super-spy, presumably with the rationale that the best disguise is to look stunningly and conspicuously beautiful, that way security guards and police officers won’t give you a second glance. She walks away from a multiple car pile-up and manages to deflect attention from herself by lowering her head slightly and glancing from side to side. At least, Nikita has a Mr Ben-like proclivity for a variety of disguises: sexy lady, chambermaid, and finally boring bureaucrat man. Evelyn Salt’s strategy seems to be to look as much like a Nikita-type femme fatale as possible. To be fair, the point, I suppose, is that the normal, conventional Evelyn at the beginning of the film was actually the disguise. The sexy super-spy is who she actually is.

But of course who she actually is, is also a construct. Leaving us to ask again: who is Salt?

Lisa Purse, in her recent book Contemporary Action Cinema, argues that there was a shift from the slightly mad ‘musculinity’ of heroines like Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor and Brigitte Nielsen’s Red Sonja of the 80s to more conventional-looking female action heroines of the 90s and noughties. However, she argues, even now filmmakers have ways of always containing their physically dynamic female leads. Although ostensibly celebrating grrl power, the Charlie’s Angels films employ several of these. Making no attempt at modernising the set-up of the 70s series, it keeps the women beholden to a male authority figure, Charlie. It places them in a non-naturalistic cartoonish universe, where ever more ridiculous events take place and the physical consequences of violence are rarely demonstrated: not a hair out of place. And in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003), Demi Moore is cast as the villain who, unlike the feminine Angels, kind of wants to be a man, what with her fetishisation of guns and the dash of lesbianism.

In Renny Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), the dichotomy is played out in one character. Geena Davis is an amnesiac, Samantha Caine, who, as a result of her condition, is prone to long voice-over exposition. She lives with her daughter in a Bedford Falls-like small town, works as a teacher and is romanced by a dopey boyfriend.

(A quick aside: all these action women invariably have dopey boyfriends, usually with floppy hair. Nikita has the guy from Betty Blue (1986), Geena Davis has this metro-sexual dingle berry, Salt shacks up with an inflated Harry Potter spider expert and one of the Angels has the indignity of Luke Wilson to contend with. I’m not sure, but I think it’s because these women are actually mother figures who will at some point during the film have to protect the weakling men from outside threat.)

After an accident, Samantha’s memory begins to come back and her earlier personality gradually begins to seep in. This, at first, takes the form of doing traditionally feminine jobs with homicidal gusto, chopping veg like a demon, becoming a tiger mom with her whiney child. She also begins to break out of the prim constraints of ladylike behaviour, using foul language to match Samuel L. Jackson’s seedy private investigator. Once transformed into her original identity, the androgynous Charly, she goes from pretty to pretty 80s, with a short blond hairdo like Brigitte Nielsen in Cobra (1986) and sporting Bruce Willis’s vest from Die Hard (1988). Throughout the film there are repeated and jokey references to male genitalia. ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ she asks Jackson. ‘I hope not, ’cause I’m thinking how much my balls hurt.’ Brian Cox’s CIA father figure hides a spare gun in his crotch because ‘agents don’t like touching a man’s groin’. Charly also becomes sexually aggressive. In place of her earlier criticism of Jackson’s leering at women, she is the one who instigates a clinch for the simply stated reason she hasn’t had any recently. This fantasy figure, and it is as much a male fantasy as anything to do with empowerment, of a sexually forward, independent and capable woman, does, however, have to be reined in via Jackson’s rather pathetic plea for Samantha to be a good mother: ‘there’s a little girl … almost Christmas … wants her mother.’ I’d like to think its feebleness was an intentional comment on the feeblemindedness of the idea, but Geena Davis and Renny Harlin were also responsible for Cutthroat Island (1995), so they have form.

Towards the end of the film, Charly’s violent energies have become focused and directed into becoming the avenging protective mother as she hurtles towards the Canadian border in an oil tanker turned bomb through a road block, shouting, ‘Suck my dick, all you bastards!’ Almost exactly the same line is used in GI Jane as Demi Moore overcomes the ingrained sexism of the US Marine Corp by virtually growing a pair. In this line, we have the tension of expressing a balls-out aggression for which there is no apparent female vocabulary. This is also seen in the use of a female adversary that the kickass heroine can refer to at some point as ‘you bitch’ before dispatching, thus appropriating misogyny as a way of empowering women. A classical example of this would be the Cameron containment of the Ripley character in Aliens. More recently, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol promotes Paula Patton’s character into an action heroine hard girl for some femme on femme action, only to demote her back to being eye candy for the ending. Most bizarrely, the ‘you bitch’ line was also used in the last instalment of Harry Potter, when Ron Weasley’s mum (Julie Walters) confronts Helena Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix Lestrange.

So female empowerment, especially when it comes to avenging mother figures, paradoxically involves reasserting misogyny. Powerful matriarchs often depend on, and police, the subjugation of all the women around them, even as they hold sway, pamper their boy-men and protect their children.

Ultimately, the end of these films involves a kind of compromise. [SPOILER] Salt jumps into the river to swim to the sequel. Samantha/Charly heads south with boyfriend and daughter, having become a kind of composite of both her personalities, happy to enjoy a sunset even as she skewers an annoying cricket with a lethal knife throw. Nikita has perhaps the most satisfying ending in that she escapes the male-dominated structures of either monogamy and possible marriage, or the father figure of Bob.

John Bleasdale

Barbara Hammer: Bolex Dyke

Available Space, 1979, at ASpace, Toronto - Barbara Hammer with rotary projector

Format: Cinema

Title: Barbara Hammer: The Fearless Frame

Dates: 3-26 February 2012

Venues: Tate Modern, London

Tate Modern website

Barbara Hammer website

Selina Robertson is one half of female-focused programming team Club des Femmes. She interviewed American filmmaker Barbara Hammer at the Berlinale in February 2009.

‘I love personal attention,’ says Barbara Hammer, the charismatic doyenne of lesbian experimental filmmaking. ‘That’s probably why I’m a filmmaker,’ she adds. Attention is not something this extremely energetic and inspirational 72-year-old woman has ever been short of, especially in recent years. This February, the focus comes to London with a major retrospective of her work at Tate Modern, entitled Barbara Hammer: The Fearless Frame.

The show marks the culmination of a remarkably creative and inspiring three years that began with a diagnosis of ovarian cancer in 2009. That year, her digital video exploring the experience, A Horse Is Not a Metaphor (2009), won the prestigious Teddy Award for Best Short Film at the Berlin Film Festival. The video saw Hammer return to using film’s materiality, after at least a decade of making documentaries, to deal with her recent diagnosis. It is a deeply layered, intimate visual essay, reminiscent of Malcolm Le Grice’s structuralist film, Berlin Horse (1970). Hammer explains: ‘It is an emotional story: a document of my personal inner experiences of going through very strong chemotherapy and surviving, and then thriving, and even thriving with hope as I go through it’.

The film, and her experience, augured an aesthetic turn that has propelled her work into prestigious galleries. Three weeks after Berlin, she was showing off her award (which she described as ‘cute’) while presenting Horse and another new film, Diving Women of Jeju-do, to a 400-strong audience at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of a month-long retrospective. This has also allowed her to bring her stories and unique style of presentation to a whole new generation. ‘I received a standing ovation,’ she says of her MOMA moment. ‘I got to walk up and down the aisle with a roving microphone answering questions! There is nothing I like more than responding spontaneously while standing and walking!’ This is classic Hammer and recalls when she was invited by Club des Femmes to the BFI Southbank in London in 2008 to present her new documentary on Claude Cahun, Love Other. After the screening she impishly acted out the ‘lesbian gaze’ to an ecstatic audience; in this way she always seems to leave a piece of herself in the room.

In tandem with her Big Apple retrospective, her highly successful memoir, published by The Feminist Press, has revealed to readers the world over a lot more about Barbara Hammer and her notorious sex life. The title tells it like it is: Hammer! Making Movies out of Sex and Life (it was Hammer who added ‘and Life’). It begins with a 50-page erotic novel she wrote in the 1970s in a log cabin in the woods outside San Francisco. She says it’s so dirty that she couldn’t even show it to her current partner. ‘It catches the spirit of the time,’ she laughs cheekily.

Born in Hollywood in 1939, but a New Yorker ‘by choice’, she came to filmmaking in her 30s, surprisingly late considering her staggering output, after taking a film history class and watching early avant-garde pioneer Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). She recounts: ‘I was sitting with two feminist friends and finally Meshes of the Afternoon was projected. It was so different from the cinema I had seen that I was convinced, for those 15 minutes, that there was a women’s cinema that had not been told, and there was a blank screen, and this was where I could step in.’

With some 90 films and videos under her belt (she claims she has stopped counting), and a big heap of self-belief – ‘my mother thought I was great and that was all it took’ – Hammer has been unbelievably prolific. Always avant-garde in structure, her films have dealt with such topics as lesbian love, eroticism, age, women’s spirituality, radical feminist politics, lesbian and gay history, art and politics, feminism and technology, her own Ukrainian history and so much more. Her most famous work is the ground-breaking ‘dykes prancing around a field naked’ movie Dyketactics (1974), which is widely acknowledged as the first film to express lesbian sexuality on screen.

Following on from this, Hammer directed a whole host of films about lesbian sexuality – personal favourites include Double Strength (1978), Women I Love (1979) and Multiple Orgasm (1976). Her trilogy of documentary film essays on lesbian and gay history – Nitrate Kisses (1992), Tender Fiction (1995) and History Lessons (2000) – received numerous awards and was given an international theatrical release. Nitrate Kisses famously broke the taboo on lesbian sexual desire by showing two older women making love as well as images of bondage, piercing and SM. The early 2000s saw Hammer draw on the politics of resistance in World War II, with Resisting Paradise (2003) and Love Other (2006).

Getting her life and work in order, partly because of her cancer and partly because of the book and retrospective, seems to have been very cathartic for Hammer, but it has thrown a few surprises her way. She has found some ‘orphans’: films that she has uncovered in her archive that have never been projected or seen the light of day. One in particular captures the imagination: in 1975 she drove to Guatemala – ‘on my 750cc white BMW motorcycle with my 16mm Bolex strapped on the back luggage rack’ – where she shot a local market place full of indigenous women. She wants to return to the same village and reshoot the film in the same locations. Sounds great, especially if that white BMW bike is dug up too. Apparently, there are more ‘orphans waiting to be embraced’, presenting an incredibly exciting opportunity for Hammer, and her audience, to consider this new work in her canon.

Jump to present day: Tate Modern’s important, month-long retrospective of Hammer’s work will be launched with the UK premiere of 2011’s Teddy Award-winning short film, Maya Deren’s Sink (2011), a tribute to Deren’s long-standing influence on the artist. Deren has frequently been cited by Hammer as her film mentor; similarly Hammer has become, over the years, a huge mentor to many women. She is of the ‘let’s get organised’ 70s women’s-lib generation, and because of this, feels like a breath of fresh air every time she enters a room. Animated, flirtatious and always curious, she is currently mentoring a young ‘pierced, tattooed, shaven-headed’ filmmaker, who is hand-processing a 16mm film that they have just made together called Generations – 2 Bolex Dykes.

The Tate retrospective will include screenings of early, rarely seen Super-8 films; her central body of film work; special events featuring artists and speakers from across Europe and North America; and, surely, the highlight, a free, live performance in the Turbine Hall. It will hopefully be a reprise of the outstanding event that saw Hammer literally shine at the 2009 Berlinale, where she performed an expanded, early cinema piece from 1979 called Available Space at the Hamburger Bahnhof, re-naming it The Changing Space of Film: Available Space and Bent Time.

It was interesting for a younger audience to see her in this new (but early career) context, and it was certainly clear that Hammer was in her element pushing around a 16mm projector on a trolley, while dressed in a reflective silver suit. ‘I was a performance artist when I became a filmmaker,’ she explains. ‘I was doing performance in Berkeley in a team, we called ourselves Double Strength. We performed on trapezes and often in the nude; we didn’t think that a costume could show what we were about, so much of which was the physical body.’

It is this physicality that is at the heart of Hammer’s practice – her lesbian aesthetic, as she calls it. ‘The development of touch and sight as my aesthetic, which comes from physically touching a woman whose body is similar to your own, reinforcing your sense of touch, made my cinema haptic, kinetic, sensational in the Jungian use of the word “sensae”, as a form of intelligence. I think that is what I have developed the most in my life, a physical ability to project a sense of touch on the screen.’

Hammer’s own connection with her lesbian sexuality happened around the same time as she started making films, and she put many of her partners in her work. ‘Sex with a woman changed my life,’ she states. ‘Making love with a woman directly influenced my filmmaking. My cinema followed with a desire to make the audience feel their bodies as they watched my films.’ As to what’s in store for Hammer in the years ahead, her cancer in remission, she says she wants to take up gardening, and draws on the example of avant-garde filmmaker Peter Kubelka, who teaches cooking in his film classes. ‘Why? Because you don’t have to have cancer to know that life is so rich and has so much to offer, and to spend all your time in the dark room looking at the screen is taking away from the vibrancy of the growing life, and the sun, and the rains, and the seasons. This incredible global world and the people who inhabit it, that is so different culturally. Why stick to a one-screen studio?’

Hammer! Making Movies out of Sex and Life is available from the Feminist Press.

Selina Robertson & Jonathan Keane