Berlinale 2012


The 62nd edition of the Berlinale was marked by a feeling of relief. Not only did the line-up for this year’s film festival look more promising than in previous years, the programme ultimately featured fewer bad surprises as well as some truly excellent films.

Two of the three German titles in the competition stood out for their defiant narrative structure, both in their own way offering an exquisite blend of intensity and emotional restraint. Following up Jerichow with his fifth collaboration with actress Nina Hoss, Christian Petzold probably enjoyed the festival’s greatest triumph with Barbara even if the prize for best film went to the Italian prison drama Caesar Must Die (Cesare deve morire) by directorial duo Vittorio and Paolo Taviani, awarded by a jury headed by Mike Leigh (need I say more!). Set in 1980 in a small East German town, Barbara (Nina Hoss) is a doctor who was denied an exit permit by the country’s authorities and, for disciplinary reasons, was transferred from her prestigious post in Berlin to a hospital in the country. Secretly planning her escape via the Baltic Sea with Jörg, her lover in the West, Barbara has no intention to connect with her new colleagues or local residents, who in return counter her coolness with suspicion and defiance – except for Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), Barbara’s new boss, who seems to have a crush on her. Barbara knows not to trust anyone around her and has no illusions about Andre’s role as observer reporting to the Stasi, who regularly search both the shoddy apartment she has been allocated and her own body, forcibly entering the most private parts of her existence. However, as Barbara realises that she and Andre share the same approach and dedication to work, her defensive wall slowly starts to crumble, which eventually forces her to make a decision about her future. In contrast to most of his previous work, Petzold gives the story a profound warmth and emotional charge, subtly balancing his usual laconic style and distinctive narrative approach, while Nina Hoss unfolds her character stunningly in yet another razor-sharp, painfully acute performance that justly won her the Best Actress prize for the second time, surpassing her breath-taking appearance in Petzold’s Yella in 2007.

The other remarkable German competition entry was Matthias Glasner’s Mercy. Glasner, who some years ago impressed us with The Free Will, about a rapist trying to readjust to society after years in a clinic, has crafted his most accomplished film to date with this strangely intimate moral melodrama. An inadvertent car accident shakes up the troubled marriage between engineer Niels (Jürgen Vogel) and his nurse wife Maria (Birgit Minichmayr), not long after their relocation to a small town on the very edge of the Arctic Ocean, where the couple and their tight-lipped pre-teen son where hoping to make a new start between black night and permanent twilight. One day on her way home from work, Maria appears to run over someone or something. Unable to face up to the situation, she panics and rushes back home. Niels checks the road, but although he can’t find anything, both realise well before the truth comes to light that the accident has forced them into a cruel dilemma – a dilemma that seems to revolve less around mercy than guilt, and ultimately reactivates their relationship. Glasner’s charting of their dark journey is acutely alert to the moral complexity of the situation and chillingly tender while free of sentimentality.

Anything but mercy could be found in Timo Vuorensola’s eagerly awaited Iron Sky, which immensely boosted the fun factor in this year’s Panorama section. Partly financed through fan crowd-funding, which offered supporters a chance to help not only producing the film but developing the plot, Iron Sky is an overwrought and unashamedly daft symbiosis of tongue-in-cheek sci-fi lunacy and old-school guerrilla filmmaking. It’s a film about a bunch of Nazi punks in outer space who, just before the end of the Second World War, managed to build a space station on the dark side of the moon. The action starts in 2018 when an African-American astronaut discovers the swastika bastion led by a Führer called Kortzfleisch (Udo Kier – who else?). Kortzfleisch leads an attack on Earth with an army of steel-armoured zeppelins, which ultimately causes a new war between world leaders. The film requires a reasonable amount of good will to get past the daft jokes, but the few sparks of true brilliance make Iron Sky a joyful B-movie space odyssey.

Far more serious illusions and delusions were at the core of two other Panorama entries: Sally El Hosaini’s My Brother the Devil and Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Headshot (Fon tok kuen fah), two thrilling, dark tales from a transnational, political present in which everybody is an alien one way or another. My Brother the Devil follows 19-year-old Rashid and his teenage brother Mo through the streets of Hackney, where Rashid has learned to make a living as a shrewd drug-dealing gang member. Being too good at heart, he takes the chance to enter a completely new world as it opens up to him, while Mo soon has to face his own prejudices if he wants to save his brother’s life. A moving, well-acted coming-of-age melodrama about repressed feelings and damaged community spirit, the film is told with care and sensitivity and is a welcome departure from the usual grim British social realism.

Aesthetically distinctive in its modern film noir-ish look and feel, Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s follow-up to his inaccessibly cryptic Nymph is a remarkably accomplished portrait of an altruistic cop turned assassin whose vision is inverted when a bullet hits his brain. Despite the brutal action that increases as Tul gets fatally caught up in the slippery concept of justice, Headshot is a marvel of fierce visual beauty, slow, yet effective storytelling and stylish precision: every frame and movement, every colour and texture seems completely controlled. While the story is by no means original, Ratanaruang knows what he is doing and safely steers his badass neo-noir thriller to a devastating finale in which Tul finds a new place for himself in the world of the lost.

A final word about a small, brooding masterpiece. Screened out of competition, Keyhole is Guy Maddin’s latest and by far most ambitious film to date. Trying, as usual, to make sense of the memories and feelings from the past that haunt him day and night, Maddin this time has crafted a heady amalgam of sinister black and white 40s noir-gangster flick, Homer’s Odyssey (loosely adapted), Sirk-like melodrama and haunted ghost story. Like all of Maddin’s work, it’s a perfectly twisted, dark, dreamlike cinematic encounter that stays in the back of your mind long after you have re-entered reality. It won’t convince everybody, but it put a spell on me.

Pamela Jahn

Cine Books on Spaghetti Westerns

Any Gun Can Play: The Essential Guide to Euro-Westerns
By Kevin Grant
FAB Press 480pp £24.99

Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema
By Austin Fisher
I.B. Tauris 304pp £59.50

Cinema Italiano
By Howard Hughes
I.B. Tauris £14.99

Film Noir: Jazz on Film
By Selwyn Harris
Jazzwise Magazine/Moochin’ About £25.95

As readers will already know, there can be no such thing as too much Django, Ringo, Sartana, Sabata, Trinity et al, so the release of not one but two excellent tomes on the Spaghetti Western can be considered a bounty. In no preferential order then, Kevin Grant’s terrific Any Gun Can Play: The Essential Guide to Euro-Westerns, published by the ever reliable FAB Press, gives us an insightful eight-chapter socio-historical overview of the cycle and includes two comprehensive appendices: a 47-page survey of ‘Who’s Who in Euro-Westerns’ and an essential 35-page chronological survey, ‘The Euro-Western Westerns’, which begins the voyage with Joaquín Luis Romero Marchent’s 1955 film El Coyote and ends with Lucky Luke (James Huth, 2009). As if this were not enough, I.B. Tauris has also come up trumps with the publication of the more scholarly tome Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema by Austin Fisher. It necessarily covers much of the same historical ground, but does so in a much deeper critical and analytical way that is not, however, excessively theory-heavy. Academically assured and with a firm grasp on the socio-politico culture of the period, it makes for an engrossing contextual read.

I.B. Tauris is always a reliable and authoritative publisher of film books and has released many other worthy titles in the last months, among which the fecund author Howard Hughes figures prominently. His latest book, Cinema Italiano, is a rip-roaring roller-coaster ride through the history of Italian cinema from the 1950s to the 1970s when it rivalled Hollywood itself as the foremost cinematic production machine in the world. Charting the storming of the box office by Hercules (Pietro Francisi, 1958) and the sword-and-sandal epics that followed in its wake, and then travelling through film space past all the successful genres that the Italians – often with international monies – colonised, such as costume dramas, Gothic delights, sci-fi, Spaghetti Westerns, Euro crime and Euro spy cycles, gialli thrillers, comedies, zombie flicks and soft-core screwballs, allows Hughes to introduce some 400 examples into his text. Though not the ‘Complete Guide from Classics to Cult’ that the cover suggests – a near impossible task as hundreds of films were cranked out in the period – Hughes’s book is comprehensive, with informed commentaries that make the reader want to put down the book and view or re-view many of the movies mentioned, which seems, in this reviewer’s eyes, to be the most important goal of any book about films. Cinema Italiano is great fun and full of fascinating facts that evidence the author’s love and passion for the topic. A thumbs-up for the cover design too, which is a nice pastiche of period graphics.

Finally, Film Noir: Jazz on Film by Selwyn Harris merits a mention for being a classy and sassy little book that is unique in its discussion of five noir soundtracks – Private Hell 36, The Man with the Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder, Odds against Tomorrow, Touch of Evil, Sweet Smell of Success and A Streetcar Named Desire. However, the book is only available as part of a fantastic box-set of these re-released (once difficult to get hold of) soundtracks on CD. While it may be argued that not all the films are strictly in the noir canon, these gems of scoring by the likes of Ellington, Mancini and Bernstein are just the jazzy tonic to listen to while reading your Cine Lit choices. A very welcome – and delicious – release.

James B. Evans

Alongside the warning that the contents include ‘Adult Material’, the back cover of Mondo Macabro: Weird & Wonderful Cinema around the World includes this teaser:
Have you seen:
-the Indian song and dance version of Dracula?
-the Mexican masked wrestling films of El Santo?
-the Turkish version of Star Trek?
-the kung fu fighting gorilla films of South East Asia?
-the gore films of Indonesia?
Author Pete Tombs angles – alongside the like-minded Messrs Stevenson and Sargeant – in the muddy backwaters of film culture in search of strange species. Published by Titan in 1997, this superb collection of mind-bendingly bizarre films takes the reader on a well-researched and knowledgeable insider tour of the transgressive – and downright surreal – cinemas of Hong Kong, the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Turkey, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and three chapters’ worth of Japan. Though 15 years old now, the book is still relevant and necessary due both to the quality of the narrative and the still unavailable nature of many of the films discussed. Save this book!

Ken Russell’s Composers

The Music Lovers

There is a stock image of the composer of classical music that we will all recognise from countless bloodless biopics: Gary Oldman’s Beethoven in Immortal Beloved, Richard Burton’s Wagner in the Tony Palmer series that bears the composer’s name, and more recently, Mads Mikkelsen’s Stravinsky in Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. Each of them cut from the same cast-iron mould of intense, tempestuous, misunderstood genius. Each performance interchangeable with the rest, as though in order to compose classical music one were required to pull just such a personality off the rack and wear it like a gown as condition of entrance to the conservatoire.

And then there are Ken Russell’s films about composers. Such larger-than-life creations as Roger Daltrey’s Liszt (Lisztomania) or Robert Chamberlain’s Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers) may be caricatural – even comic book – inventions, but they are at least their own caricatures. For all their largeness of life, they speak to some truth about the individual composer in question rather than reaching for some imponderably vague cliché about the eternal nature of artistic genius or some such.

Because of his real feeling for historical periods and the artists of the past, the personalities revealed as much by their music as by the lives they lead, along with the overblown and the two-dimensional (‘Satan himself – Richard Wagner’ from Lisztomania), we also get such enduring and curiously endearing characters as Max Adrian’s irascible Frederick Delius in Song of Summer, and Robert Powell’s febrile, neurotic Gustav Mahler. Such affectionate character sketches genuinely seem to bring to life the world from which their music has sprung.

And after all, it is clearly the music that Russell, who as a boy had harboured ambitions to be a ballet dancer, is most interested in. ‘Oh, I’ll tune to the fields and listen to the music of nature. Forget the immortals, I finished with them long ago,’ crows Delius, and it could almost be a personal manifesto for Russell’s approach to the composer biopic. So we have these beautiful images of the young Elgar horse riding through the Malverns to the sound of his Introduction and Allegro for Strings, or Georgina Hale (as Alma Mahler) frolicking in the Cumbrian hills (standing in for the Alps) to the strains of the Leider eines fahrenden Gesellen. Like all Russell it teeters on the edge of the absurd, the pompous, the bombastic, but somehow this road of excess leads us to some sort of palace of wisdom, opening up the music and bringing it to life.

Robert Barry

Once upon a Time in the World of Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Once upon a Time in Anatolia

Format: Cinema

Dates: 16 March 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: New Wave Films

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Writers: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ebru Ceylan, Ercan Kesal

Original title: Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da

Cast: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel

Turkey 2011

150 mins

Combining relatively modest working methods with a highly distinctive visual sensibility, the films of Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan eloquently speak of the emotional impassivity that is an affliction of 21st-century living.

Initially a photographer, Ceylan’s first foray into the moving image was the short Cocoon (1995). Shot in striking black and white, with Ceylan also acting as producer, co-editor and cinematographer, the wordless film tentatively hints at the impossibility of companionship, one of the defining motifs of Ceylan’s work. A feature, Small Town, emerged two years later. Told from the perspective of two children, and in four entwined parts running parallel to the seasons, Small Town served notice of Ceylan’s gift for wry comedy and of his distinguished approach to framing characters and landscapes. Cementing Ceylan’s clarity of vision and his sensitivity to the delicate nuances of life, Clouds of May (1999) takes another crisply composed look at the vagaries of country living. An observation of people coming together, briefly interacting and then gently drifting apart again, the film is inscribed with a profound reverence for the lives of its characters.

Generally casting non-professional actors and family members, and continuing to call upon his increasing stature as a photographer, Ceylan brought these elements and his interest in estrangement to wonderful fruition with the autobiographical Distant (2002). The story of two remote relatives (Muzzafer &#214zdemir and Mehmet Emin Toprak) awkwardly thrown together, the film renders modern Istanbul as a desolate, if intermittently picturesque, snow-cloaked metropolis, with the director drawing on Chekhov and Tarkovsky in his analysis of the alienating effects of urban life. The first film of the director’s to be selected for Cannes, Distant was awarded both the festival’s Grand Prix and the Best Actor prize, which was shared between &#214zdemir and Emin Toprak. The latter award was tinged with sadness as &#214zdemir, Ceylan’s cousin, was killed in a car crash shortly after the film was completed.

Ebru Ceylan has been a contributor to her husband’s films in a variety of guises, and Climates (2006) saw both spouses stepping in front of the camera’s penetrating gaze for an intense and unflinching look at the marriage of a successful Istanbul couple evidently on the brink of collapse. Wilfully blurring the distinction between on- and off-screen lives, Climates makes for frequently uncomfortable and emotionally devastating viewing, revealing Ceylan as a master storyteller who recognises and rigorously investigates the great potential for loneliness and self-destruction within us all. The first of the director’s films to be shot using high-definition digital video, the film captures with enhanced clarity and precision the stunning Turkish locations. The physical details of the protagonists are also beautifully rendered; witness the opening scene of Isa and Bahar frolicking, first playfully and then with the aim of causing provocation, on a golden sandy beach. Such moments lend Climates a pronounced and profound sense of intimacy.

Three Monkeys (2008) expands the unspoken dynamics of a dysfunctional family to society as a whole. Weaving a carefully calibrated maelstrom of violence, moral decay and ruined lives, this gripping psychological drama examines the fall-out from a hit-and-run traffic accident to present a darkly malevolent civilisation slowly suffocating through its own avarice and weakness. This is undoubtedly a dark and pessimistic work, though one still punctuated with flashes of characteristic black humour.

The winner of the Cannes 2011 Grand Prix, Once upon a Time in Anatolia, a title that nods towards Sergio Leone, stands as one of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s very finest achievements. Full of piercing insights and a finely tuned, somewhat macabre wit, this is an epic and rigorous tale of a night and day in a murder investigation.

In a short prologue, three men are drinking and talking. There follows a brutish brawl and hasty confession. A nocturnal convoy of cars is then shown travelling around the countryside as the confessor tries to remember where a body lays buried. After several false leads and a rest in a remote village, the corpse is finally discovered early the next morning. In the course of the long investigation, the hidden thoughts of the main protagonists are gradually themselves also exhumed.

Beautifully photographed in the Anatolian steppes by Gökhan Tiryaki, Once upon a Time in Anatolia is a meticulously constructed police procedural populated by bickering police and hard-bitten prosecutors. Based on an actual event experienced by Ercan Kesal, one of the three writers on the project alongside Ebru and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the film unhurriedly replicates the ebb and flow of human life, unfolding like a fascinating game of chess with clues and gestures ambiguously revealed. In one landmark sequence an apple falls from a tree, the camera tracking it as it bobs and ebbs gently down a stream. The director audaciously decides against showing the actual murder that triggers the search. Ceylan has commented: ‘If you want to find something, you have to get lost. I wanted viewers to lose their usual points of reference, before they slowly become accustomed to the light.’

Citing Chekhov (the film features a doctor, who from initially being a passive observer is gradually revealed as perhaps the key participant in the narrative) and Vermeer as inspirations and influences, Ceylan has crafted a bold and at times testing film whose primary interest would seem to be the concept of truth, and the manner by which we arrive at it.

Jason Wood

Shuji Terayama: Who can say that we should not live like dogs?

Emperor Tomato Ketchup (Courtesy of Kujô Kyôko and Terayama World)

Format: Cinema

Dates: 16-25 March 2012

Venue: Tate Modern, London

Tate Modern website

‘I sometimes wish words could be my friends… you can’t shake hands with words, but they possess a feeling of nostalgic intimacy that even words themselves cannot describe.’ Shûji Terayama

Despite expressing such affection for words, Terayama, avant-garde poet, essayist, screenwriter, director and critic, called out for his readers to discard them in his 1967 collection of essays, Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go into the Streets. In Terayama’s universe, words escaped from the pages and found themselves elsewhere – and one place they found a home was on the screen. Perhaps more famous in Japan for his poetry and abroad for his theatre, Terayama first ventured into cinema as a scriptwriter for Japanese New Wave directors, before directing experimental films. Some readers may have heard his words spoken by the character of Nanami in The Inferno of First Love (Susumu Hani, 1968), screened in last summer’s BFI season devoted to the Art Theatre Guild. Yet, despite his legendary cult status in Japan, Western audiences have had limited exposure to Terayama’s cinematic adventures, a deficiency the Tate Modern will remedy for Londoners in March with their film and performance retrospective, Shûji Terayama: Who can say that we should not live like dogs?’

The moving image was never a mistress for Terayama and nor was poetry ever his devoted wife. Bed-hopping between images and words, Terayama was also attracted to the spontaneity and liveliness of performance-art theatre, the capacity for sonic exploration in radio, and the bodily exertion in boxing and horseracing, for which he provided insightful public commentaries. He never kept these relationships a secret; in fact, what he preferred were chaotic cross-pollinations and rampant art form orgies, with him as the voyeur. The words in Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go Into the Streets were hurled onto the stage in his stage vérité theatre production, and tossed onto the streets, only to get lobbed back onto the cinema screen for his first feature-length film of the same title (1971).

There will be a day-long symposium entitled ‘I Am a Terayama Shûji’ at tate Modern on March 23. This symposium will bring together experts and collaborators, including Julian Ross, Nobuko Anan, Shigeru Matsui, Henriku Morisaki, Steven C. Ridgely, Hiroyuki Sasame and Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei, to reflect on the diverse media blend created by the Japanese poet, photographer and film-maker, whose stated profession was always ‘Terayama Shûji’.

Terayama not only spoke, but also graffitied his poems onto the walls of Shinjuku and, most memorably, chalked them onto a football pitch, only for the letters to disappear into dust when trampled on by teens. In A Tale of Smallpox (1975) and Les Chants de Maldoror (1977), words are written onto the -image to obstruct our view. If words were indeed his best friends, Terayama certainly found a way to mess around with them, with his art as his playground.

Just as he forced his words to escape from the pages, Terayama saw the confines of the proscenium arch and the cinematic screen as limitations to overcome. In Pastoral: Hide and Seek (1974) and his play Inugami (1969), the walls of the sets collapsed to reveal their artificiality, as if he wanted the cinema, as well as the theatre, to burst out of their illusionary space and invade the streets. For the TV film American, Who Are You? (1967), made for TBS, and screened outside of Japan for the first time as part of the Tate’s programme, unsuspecting passers-by were suddenly confronted with a list of questions, thereby mutating a film shoot into a performance-art ‘happening’, then in counter-cultural vogue. In projections of Laura (1974), performer Morisaki Henriku literally jumped into the screen and appeared as an image. In screenings of The Trial (1975), performers and audiences hammered nails into the screen, most infamously at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1984. Terayama’s cinema refused to stay static, and was never at home when simply projected. It’ll be exciting to see whether his screen experiments, always interrupted by words or actors, still hold any relevance for us today.

Close-Up members get concession discount at the Terayama season. More details on the Close-Up website.

Julian Ross

FrightFest Glasgow 2012


FrightFest Glasgow

24-25 February 2012, Glasgow

Part of the Glasgow Film Festival

FrightFest website

FrightFest Glasgow, part of the Glasgow Film Festival, keeps growing, and this year it presented no less than 11 features, as well as shorts, exclusive teasers and special guests from all over the world.

Among the features I saw, Penumbra (2011), from Argentine directors Adrián and Ramiro García Bogliano, was a morality tale about greed. On the day of a solar eclipse, a money-loving, promiscuous businesswoman, Marga (Cristina Brondo), makes a lucrative property letting deal with a mysterious stranger, Jorge (Berta Muñiz), who is acting on behalf of a wealthy client. But to get the cash payment, Marga has to wait as Jorge’s various shady associates arrive at the apartment. Wittily choreographed ensemble scenes, together with Marga’s dealings with a hapless neighbour lean towards a farcical comedy of manners, and Jorge steals the show with a camply hysterical anticipation of his client’s arrival. The film is at its most sinister immediately after the deal between Marga and Jorge is done: in a paranoia-inducing sequence, a tramp covertly directs a stream of vicious verbal abuse; when she retaliates, she appears to overreact and is censured and shunned by the locals. A classic horror trope, this is played with dark comedy, and the comic moments are the saving grace of the film throughout. Sadly, the humour is absent from the final part, and the punchline – that the darkest forces come from within – lacks weight.

The Manetti brothers’ L’arrivo di Wang (Wang’s Arrival, 2011), largely centres on an interrogation between a gruff, increasingly aggressive secret service agent (Ennio Fantastichini) and Mr Wang (Li Yong), a Chinese-speaking extra-terrestrial who claims to come in peace but nevertheless is bound and eventually tortured for information. Gaia (Francesca Cuttica) is interpreter, witness and, ultimately, fellow captive. A film about culture, communication and prejudice, this is no District 9, but it is thought-provoking in its own way, for example managing to make an emergency call to Amnesty International absurdly comic, and generating a compelling tension mostly from the three-way conversation between the engaging leads.

Anthony DiBlasi’s Cassadaga (2011) packs in a plethora of horror devices, including a cross-dressing serial killer in a frumpy dress and a sensorially impaired (deaf) heroine who has a connection to a murder victim. It’s popcorn fun with a variety of references and genuinely spooky ghost appearances, the best moments of suspense deriving from the heroine’s Nancy Drew-like sleuthing exercises.

Extras around the billed features included The Other Side, directed by Bethanie Martin, a well-executed and atmospheric short reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, pitting the grey, factory-like lines of uniformed school pupils/office workers against visceral impulses and raw red meat. Federico Zampaglione presented seven minutes from the opening of his new film, Tulpa, in which a beautiful woman in bondage witnesses the brutal stabbing and castration of her lover – warm applause and cheers peaked as Zampaglione announced, ‘It’s a giallo!’ The Manetti brothers showed a FrightFest exclusive teaser for L’ombra dell’orco (Shadow of the Bogeyman), which they are currently editing. There was much enthusiasm from these filmmakers and FrightFest organisers about the idea that these films mark the beginning of an anticipated imminent resurgence of Italian horror. Fans should look out for these films at London’s FrightFest in August.

After the screening, I asked the Manetti brothers if genre or story comes first. There was no hesitation: for them, the story takes precedence. Marco explained: ‘Genre is a mechanism to get deep – that’s the strength of it. People think genre is superficial but it allows you to get deeper into a problem. Horror amplifies the problem. Comedy and horror are the most difficult genres because they must touch the stomach.’

A savvy audience, waiting for its stomach to be stirred, and reciprocally generous relationships between them, the festival and the filmmakers: FrightFest provides the ideal conditions for a fun exploration of genre filmmaking.

Jo Shaw

Ken Russell and the Press: Why such fury?

The Devils

‘… This is its writer-director’s most outrageously sick film to date, campy, idiosyncratic and in howling bad taste from beginning to end…’ Leslie Halliwell on The Devils

‘The most excessive and obscene of all this director’s controversial works…’ Leslie Halliwell on Lisztomania

The climactic moment of Ken Russell’s relationship with the press came when he smacked Evening Standard critic Alexander Walker over the head with a rolled-up copy of his own review, on live television, while letting out a loud expletive. (Sadly, the BBC, with its usual disregard for history, does not seem to have preserved this footage.) Most of the time, however, the blows were verbal and travelled in the opposite direction. With the great director’s death last year, and the release of his monsterpiece The Devils (1971) on DVD in something at least resembling a director’s cut, Russell seems on the verge at last of becoming respectable. But why was he so beyond the pale in the first place?

The Devils is released on DVD by the BFI on 19 March 2012. Review online soon.

At first the answer seems obvious: think of all the extreme, graphic and unpleasant imagery in Russell’s films. Think of the copious nudity, the bizarre tonal shifts, the campy acting. Russell was outrageous, and the critics were duly outraged.

‘A garish glossary of sado-masochism … a taste for visual sensation that makes scene after scene look like the masturbatory fantasies of a Roman Catholic boyhood.’ Alexander Walker

One distinctive characteristic of Russell’s divisive oeuvre is the way time has treated it: a slow wave of respectability or near-respectability has been advancing over it, starting at the beginning and working forward. At the time of The Music Lovers (1970), there were voices bemoaning his creation of such a dreadful, unsubtle and lecherous film when his BBC work had been so very fine. The unspoken feeling was that tight budgets and strict supervision by Huw Weldon had focused Russell, curbed his tendency to excess, prevented plunges into sensationalism. Which was probably true enough. Hand in hand with that belief went the assumption that artists are better when controlled by executives, or that the moving image isn’t an art and needs to be governed by some kind of management class. Cinema had unleashed a monster, given Russell too much freedom from censorship and editorial constraint, too great resources, too much adulation and self-importance.

It wasn’t until the 80s that one began to hear positive things about his work of the 70s. In his documentary A Turnip-Head’s Guide to British Cinema (1986), filmmaker Alan Parker praised The Devils, but included an interview with David Puttnam, who had worked as a producer on a couple of Russell films, arguing that the vituperation of the British press had essentially sent Russell round the twist, with the burlesque of Lisztomania (1975) positioned as the tipping point. This theory seemed to inform the slightly more sympathetic reviews given to Russell’s 80s films by a new generation of reviewers. These films were bad, according to the reviewers, but they were bad because they caricatured the real merits of Russell’s fine films of the previous decade. This position was still being parroted by Alan Yentob in his recent obituary profile, Ken Russell: A Bit of a Devil, which might as well have been subtitled ‘Why I Never Employed Ken Russell at the BBC’.

‘A welter of arbitrary gags, manic self-references and frantic exploitation-movie clichés.’ Tony Rayns

Of course, some critics were sympathetic, to a point, and admitted to finding The Lair of the White Worm (1988) amusing, as it was obviously intended to be. But there was often either a patronising note to their amusement, or a sense of regret that Russell was apparently no longer capable of ‘serious’ work. Others saw the more dignified The Rainbow (1989) as a step in the right direction, and declared it Russell’s best film since Women in Love (1969), following Russell’s own lead. But such views still disavowed the value of excess, camp and hysteria in the Russell oeuvre.

Electric Sheep and Strange Attractor will screen The Lair of the White Worm on March 14 at the Horse Hospital as part of Ken Russell Forever.

Now it’s not too hard to find critics who will admit to admiring Gothic (1986) or even Salome’s Last Dance (1988). It’s impossible to imagine such films being made today, with their jostling together of high art and low comedy, Glenda Jackson and wank-mag models. You still struggle to find anybody who’ll talk knowledgeably about the later TV work, much of it for The South Bank Show (was Melvyn Bragg’s loyalty a result of friendship, admiration or the sheer inertia that otherwise made the ITV arts show so dull in its later years?), or about Russell’s self-produced final films. Lack of visibility is part of this: a film like The Strange Affliction of Anton Bruckner (1990) should certainly appeal to admirers of the early BBC work, and it’s possible that one day even The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2002) will be honoured.

‘Russell’s swirling multi-coloured puddle … made me glad that both Huxley and Whiting are dead, so that they are spared this farrago of witless exhibitionism.’ Stanley Kauffman

The opprobrium hurled at Russell still seems remarkable, and we’re approaching a time when it will look as quaint and wrongheaded as that which greeted Peeping Tom (1960). When Alexander Walker spoke of his loathing for The Devils and his admiration for A Clockwork Orange (1971), I always wanted to hear why one was terrible and the other wasn’t. Both make their moral points via a lot of sex and violence, and both could be accused of relishing the attendant horrors a bit too much. If anything, the Kubrick film strikes me as the more pornographic.

Another point of comparison is the career of Derek Jarman. Russell’s production designer on The Devils and Savage Messiah (1972), he embarked on a directorial career of his own that was by no means universally praised, but he never faced the united front of derision and fury that Russell had to put up with. Perhaps the greater dynamism of Russell’s camerawork made his films more powerful, therefore more upsetting. Perhaps his early footing in mainstream cinema led to his movies being judged by different standards. But if one looks at the nudity, the irreverent humour, the stylisation, the bloodshed, it’s hard to see why Jarman would provoke less outrage. I have a vague theory, and it’s that Jarman’s homosexuality afforded him some protection in the liberal media. When he indulged in camp humour and shock tactics, the critics somehow felt he was entitled to do so, by virtue of his sexual orientation. Russell, as a known heterosexual, had no business being flamboyant, indulging in vulgar humour, or celebrating the arts with the enthusiasm of a football fan.

‘Ken Russell doesn’t report hysteria, he markets it.’ The New Yorker

Russell’s sense of humour is a particular sticking point. His jokes aren’t always very funny (but sometimes they’re hilarious, to me anyway) but they make a tonal point, throwing the viewer off balance, and they often establish Russell’s attitude to his material, his characters, his audience, and sometimes, yes, his critics. The evolution of one gag, as recounted by Jarman, is instructive.

‘What would really offend the British public?’ asked Russell one day as they were prepping The Devils (so he was influenced to plunge further into controversy by the critical attacks). ‘Well, I suppose you could kill a lot of people,’ mused Jarman, ‘but if you really wanted to upset them you would kill some animals.’

‘Yes!’ cried Russell, seizing upon the idea, and proposed that they show King Louis XIII relaxing on his lawn by blowing the heads off peacocks with a musket.

‘Oh, we can’t do that!’ protested Jarman, but Russell thought they could, and set about getting a special effects man to rig explosive collars to the birds so they could be decapitated on cue.

But a little while before the peacock shoot, Russell’s conscience got the better of him. Remembering Louis XIII’s strange obsession with blackbirds, he suggested instead that the monarch might be taking pot-shots at a Protestant prisoner attired in feathers and beak. Shirley Russell, his brilliant costume designer and wife, duly created a blackbird outfit, and the scene was shot.

As Graham Armitage, the actor playing Louis, watched the crow sink, perforated, into an ornamental pond, he jokingly remarked, ‘Bye, bye, blackbird.’ In another fit of enthusiasm, Russell had him do it on camera. Then, in post-production, he had his composer, Peter Maxwell Davies, quote the 1920s song of that name on the soundtrack. The moment was duly singled out by reviewers as proof of Russell’s offensive flippancy, his reckless anachronism, his lunacy.

‘This gaudy compendium of camp, second-hand Freud and third-rate pastiche is like a bad song without end.’ Sight&Sound

It’s Russell’s arch, bawdy comedy that really seems to get their backs up. When Russell kept his tongue out of his cheek, even if he let it loll out of his mouth a bit, he didn’t usually attract so much negative press. But his more po-faced pieces, like the BBC Lady Chatterley (1993), received at best faint praise, probably because they’re really not as interesting as the ‘swirling, multi-coloured puddle’ films.

The use of parody and pastiche in Russell can seem problematic: it’s often far off the mark in terms of accurately evoking the subject being spoofed, since Russell’s sense of humour was rather Rabelaisian. What I take to be a mockery of Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973) in the opening duel of Lisztomania is barely recognisable in its intent, while the Chaplin sequence in the same film is as distant from its source as Roger Daltrey is from the Little Tramp, although at least the tribute to The Gold Rush (1925) is discernible. Later, the Gothic horror stuff in Castle Wagner is terrific fun, but feeds on a vague shared consciousness of generic stereotypes rather than anything specific to, say, Hammer or Universal.

If Russell were concerned with accuracy any more than he was concerned with strict biographical authenticity, this would be a problem, but the satires are pretty much tossed off without regard for stylistic precision. Russell’s own camera style is so dynamic, he can’t limit himself to the static, classical set-ups of Lester and Chaplin. But there’s one filmmaker whose visual sense he adheres to more doggedly.

The Boy Friend (1971) is an elegant and faithful transition of Busby Berkeley’s remarkable style to a 1920s setting and a wide-screen presentation. Both these modes alter the look of the results greatly, but the compositions and movements (which go well beyond the statuary overhead shot) are pitch-perfect. Crucially, Russell isn’t spoofing Berkeley, or referencing him as part of a set of stylistic ideas, rather, he’s channelling his talent.

Berkeley, more even than Lang, Welles, Eisenstein and Fellini, is the primary influence on Russell’s vision: the floating head of Wini Shaw singing ‘The Lullaby of Broadway’ in Gold Diggers of 1935 is re-imagined as a goat’s head in Altered States and a skull in Gothic. The symmetrical shots in Russell owe more to Berkeley than Kubrick (who was probably influenced by K.R.). And Ken didn’t need pop art to inspire his visuals, since the popular art of Berkeley already showed how to turn trashy modern aesthetics into sheer beauty.

Ken Russell Forever runs from 10 to 20 March 2012 and includes screenings of Altered States, Gothic, Savage Messiah, Lisztomania and Women in Love.

David Cairns

Nick Harkaway is Harry Palmer in Billion Dollar Brain

Billion Dollar Brain

Nick Harkaway is the son of John Le Carré and was born in Cornwall in 1972. He loves obscure cover versions of 1980s hits, with Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s version of ‘Life on Mars’ being an especial favourite. He abandoned screenwriting for the life of a novelist, and his second book, the gloriously inventive Angelmaker (William Heinemann) is Apocalyptically crammed with clockwork bees, doomsday machines, East End gangsters and sinister government agencies. His Alter Ego is Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer in Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain (1967). EITHNE FARRY

Ken Russell’s movies are amazing, but mostly as places to visit. You wouldn’t want to live in those taut explorations of emotional inaccessibility, repression and sexual incompleteness – or the phantasmal horrors and erotic nightmares of Russell’s more Gothic efforts.

But in the midst of The Lair of the White Worm (titled woman in erotic relationship with snake god) and The Music Lovers (closet homosexual composer marries nymphomaniac) and the rest, Russell made Billion Dollar Brain, with Michael Caine as the slightly down-at-heel secret agent Harry Palmer.

The world Palmer lives in is brightly coloured, Byzantine and dangerous. He is assailed by thugs and beautiful assassins, hangs out in Frank Lloyd Wright ski chalets, drinks drugged champagne and sticks doggedly to his job. The enviable thing about Palmer is that somehow, in the face of the clear impossibility of his victory, he never seriously considers the possibility of failure – and neither do we. He’s not a genius, not a martial arts expert. He’s a bloke with a job to do. He’s perpetually on the make, but somehow he never goes bad.

Russell may have been working for hire on Billion Dollar Brain, but he was still Russell. It’s not a nice world or a safe one. And it’s 1967, with all that it entails: you can’t watch Caine slap Françoise Dorléac around without feeling a bit queasy. (Mind you, she has just tried to kill him. During sex, no less.) I’m tempted to say that I’d be a bit-part – a person inhabiting the world that Palmer protects, enjoying the ambience and avoiding the beatings, the losses, and the fear. But that’s a cop-out. I’d be Harry, and accept the risk in exchange for the dream secret agent lifestyle. Because, you know: how often do you get to say ‘I’d be Michael Caine’?

Angelmaker is published by William Heinemann.

Nick Harkaway

Zoe Baxter’s Film Jukebox

Zoe Baxter

DJ and broadcaster Zo&#235 Baxter has a keen interest in East Asian culture, from cuisine to film, arts and music. Zo&#235 collects vinyl with a specialist interest in East Asian folk, 1960s ‘Asia Beat’, reggae and rhythm & blues. In 2005, Zo&#235 began making programmes for arts radio station Resonance FM and has just concluded her 6th series of Lucky Cat. Other strings to her bow include talks on wu xia cinema, writing for BBC China and hosting numerous themed club nights. The third Friday of every month Zo&#235 can be found DJing at Mango Landin bar in Brixton. On March 29, she will be DJing at China Inside Out, a day-long programme of debates, readings, film screenings, food and music aiming at better understanding the freedom to write and read in China. On March 30, she will be presenting a one-off radio show on Resonance FM previewing the Terracotta Film Festival. Below, she picks her favourite films.

1. The Gang’s All Here (1943)
This film is a Technicolor joy to behold. I grew up obsessed with the cinema of the 1940s and 50s – everything from lavish MGM musicals to wisecracking Warner Brothers gangster films. Busby Berkeley was an optical innovator: the choreographed overhead shots of girls’ legs moving in syncopated unison were a speciality. This film doesn’t have too much of a story line, but who needs one when Carmen Miranda does a number that features a 100-foot-high banana hat?

2. Hairspray (1988)
I saw this film as a teenager. It is the only time I’ve ever gone to the cinema twice to see a film. I was also into the clothes and music of the 50s and early 60s. When this movie came out I was in heaven – amazing soundtrack, dance routines, bright kitsch colours shot in John Waters’s inimitable style with a sharp script and fantastic character actors. I have the soundtrack on LP and often play ‘Madison Time’ by the Ray Bryant Combo when I DJ. In fact, I have collected a few different versions of the Madison. R&B legend Ruth Brown cameos as Motormouth Maybelle, who owns the record store. I want to be in this movie, in that record store in particular. It has echoes of 50s films such as The Girl Can’t Help It, which I absolutely love too. I haven’t seen the remake and I don’t intend to. Even on a plane.

3. Rockers (1978)
If you love reggae then this is the film for you. Yes, Jimmy Cliff is brilliant in The Harder They Come and that is a fine film too, but I saw Rockers first and was so elated to see so many reggae stars on screen. The lead is played by musician Leroy ‘Horsemouth’ Wallace and he bumps into Big Youth, Jacob Miller, Gregory Isaacs and others along the way. The soundtrack is exceptional and encapsulates that 70s roots rock reggae sound. Burning Spear’s ‘Fade Away’ is a favourite. Other Jamaican films of interest: Country Man, Smile Orange, Dancehall Queen and documentary Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae.

4. Drunken Master (1978)
The first martial arts film to make an impact on me. I remember watching this at various friends’ houses on dodgy VHS with the sound down and drum’ n’ bass or reggae blaring over the top. Here you have the synthesis of great action, a brilliant up-and-coming director (Yuen Wo Ping) and two charismatic leads – Jackie Chan and Simon Yuen Hsiao-Tien (as the drunken master Sam Seed – Yuen Wo Ping’s real-life dad!). This is one of the Jackie Chan greats – excellent and very cheeky comedic kung fu style. This film features the ultimate training montage sequence, balancing bowls of rice wine on different parts of the body while Sam Seed takes it easy, smoking in a hammock. The Beggar Su (Drunken Master) character first appeared in the 1966 Shaw Brothers classic Come Drink with Me and most recently was seen in Yuen Wo Ping’s film True Legend (aka The Legend of Beggar Su).

5. Talk to Her (2002)
I am a big fan of Pedro Almodóvar. I think he understands women and they are always strong and believable characters in his films. This film has two main interwoven story lines, and it features a homage to silent film and surrealism with a short sequence of a tiny man entering a huge vagina! A lot of the films I like are very colourful, perhaps harking back to my fondness of golden Hollywood and the Technicolor spectacle. Almodóvar always has a fantastic use of colour in his films and also an emotional drama that feels genuine. After I saw this film I was very deeply moved and I remember wandering around London gazing up at the moon just contemplating life for an hour or so.

6. In the Mood for Love (2000)
Well, what can I say that hasn’t already been said about this film? Wong Kar Wai’s masterpiece (we’ll see what The Grandmaster holds in store when it opens later this year). Every shot in this movie could be a still and the music is wonderfully atmospheric. Such a powerful film of understated emotion and yearning, oh the heartbreaking yearning! The two leads are quite extraordinary – Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung Man Yuk. Apparently, there was not much of a script and the film took a year to shoot with lots of improvisation. Legendary Hong Kong singer Rebecca Pan also has a cameo role as the landlady and neighbour Mrs Suen. Oh and I would kill for Maggie Cheung’s cheongsam collection in this film.

7. Wing Chun (1994)
Michelle Yeoh is a goddess and this movie belongs to her. I wish more people could see this film. It’s old-school kung fu, very loosely based on the story of Wing Chun, the woman who invented the fighting style of the same name. As well as kicking ass Michelle can also make a mean block of tofu. A bewildered-looking Donnie Yen stars as her rather dopey sweetheart and Shaw Brothers legend (star of wu xia classic Come Drink with Me) Cheng Pei Pei cameos as Michelle’s grand sifu. Michelle literally emasculates a man in this film – I love that.

8. Rouge (1988)
Stanley Kwan makes some beautiful movies and this is one of them. This film has become more poignant with time as sadly both leads died young. They were known as the king and queen of Cantopop and were both great actors too – Leslie Cheung committed suicide aged 46 in 2003, and a few months later Anita Mui Yim Fong died of cancer aged 30. Great friends in real life, in this film they play lovers in the 1930s who promise to devote themselves to each other for all eternity and form a suicide pact. The film picks up with Anita’s character wandering round a modern day Hong Kong as a ghost trying to find her love. See also Center Stage, starring Maggie Chueng Yuen: a biopic/documentary about legendary Chinese silent film star Ruan Ling Yu.

9. Ghost World (2001)
Steve Buscemi, record collecting and a cracking blues soundtrack – what’s not to love? Let’s just say I identified a lot with Enid – only swap an obsession with Bollywood films for Hong Kong ones.

10. Kamikaze Girls (2004)
If you’ve made it down to the bottom of this list you’ll know I like colourful films. This is a visual sweetie shop with two great strong female leads played by Kyoko Fuyada and Anna Tsuchiya. I love the depiction of intense adolescent friendships and subculture tribes. There really is a shop in Japan selling rococo-inspired bonnets and ruffle dresses called Baby The Stars Shine Bright – you can’t make this stuff up (or if you’re in Japan you don’t need to – it exists!). See also Memories of Matsuko and Confessions. Paco and the Magic Book is for die-hard Anna Tsuchiya/Tetsuya Nakashima fans only.

Also of note:
My Neighbour Totoro, Infernal Affairs, A Matter of Life and Death, The Naked Kiss, The New Legend of Shaolin, Prodigal Son, Imitation of Life, Zu Warriors from Magic Mountain, Sanjuro and A Woman’s Face.