If there is one place on Earth where film lovers can truly find solace, it has to be in Sitges during the Festival Internacional de Cinema Fantàstic de Catalunya, which this year celebrated its 46th birthday, presenting yet another packed programme to a hungry audience. For the power of cinema to transform, there can be no better example than a seaside town turning itself into a Mecca for lovers of genre film. For 11 days, Sitges eats, breathes and lives film, with queues of filmgoers on the streets, the celebrity spotters, the red carpet junkies and much, much more.
With Europe still reeling from economic mishaps and with unemployment sky high, it would be foolish to expect any festival to remain untouched. However, it is to Sitges’s credit that the festival managed to maintain an aura of positivity and encouragement, reminding audiences that art plays an important role in lifting the mood of people, as well as in creating new channels of debate.
Although this year’s edition saw many heavy-hitters within the genre present their work to the public, including Eli Roth, Ti West and Lucky McKee, it was the smaller, lesser-known films that stole the limelight.
Afflicted (Derek Lee, Clif Prowse, 2013)
Although at first glance, it seems like just another entry in the over-crowded found-footage market, Derek Lee and Clif Prowse’s entry in the genre proves to be head-and-shoulders above most of their competition. Focusing on the directors’ attempt to travel around the world, Afflicted sees Derek contract a mysterious disease. As his body starts to reject all food and begins to show signs of superhuman strength, the two best friends try to figure out the source of the illness and save Derek before it’s too late.
While Afflicted suffers from all the negative trappings of the found footage film, it’s not long before the keen eye of the directors makes itself felt. The set-up is familiar, yes, and the acting decidedly hit and miss, but it’s the technical prowess and the sheer adrenaline excitement of some of the set pieces that really carry the film forward. Reminiscent of the last climax of Josh Trank’s Chronicle (2012), these set pieces are both technically impressive and visually exciting, giving the film a momentum that at other times can be lacking. Overall it can be considered a very impressive calling card from two young directors who prove what you can achieve with very little money.
Les rencontres d’apràs minuit (Yann Gonzalez, 2013)
Ali and Matthias, along with their transvestite maid Udo, prepare for a midnight orgy in their apartment – they’re waiting for the arrival of The Star, The Teen, The Slut and The Stud. With such a set-up, the audience might expect some sort of vivid, garish and highly questionable scenes to play out, as one after another the members of the orgy arrive. What we get instead is a delicate and very deliberate rumination on the nature of time, on love, on desire and on very large penises.
With thrilling and seductive electronic sounds from M83, Yann Gonzalez’s first feature-length film may fall short of its ambitions, but nonetheless this is one of the more original and engaging films to emerge from any country this year. Boasting a talented cast including Eric Cantona as The Stud, Les rencontres d’apràs minuit (You and the Night) deserves to find an audience with those willing to take their cinema in more intelligent form.
Watch the trailer for Les rencontres d’apràs minuit:
Possession (Brilliante Mendoza, 2013)
Brilliante Mendoza’s winning streak comes to an end with his depiction of the supernatural invading the immoral battle between rival television companies. Playing out like a cross between over-wrought satire and found-footage genre film, Possession (Sapi) tells the story of Meryll Flores (Meryll Soriano), who after being unable to get the footage she needs to boost the ratings of her Sarimanok Broadcasting Network, uses underhand tactics and buys the footage of a real-life possession, filmed by the camera crew of their rival network, Philippine Broadcasting Channel. The director plays this in tandem with the members of the team slowly becoming ‘possessed’ themselves; whether the supernatural stands as a metaphor for the greed and anger that pervades Philppine media is for the audience to decide.
However, the structure of the film does not work with the usual hand-held style of the director, and becomes grating by mid-point. The analogy between the evil that men do and the actions of those in the media feels overdone, and while some of the special effects are eye-popping, there’s nothing here for the audience to really hang onto. Although overall a mess, there’s no doubt to Mendoza’s talent – but it remains up to the director to perhaps distil his message more precisely for his next project.
Watch the trailer for Possession:
Real (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2013)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s foray into science fiction is built upon an intriguing premise: Manga artist Atsumi (Haruka Ayase) lies in a coma after trying to killer herself by drowning, leaving her lover Koichi lost and bewildered. Koichi (Takeru Satoh) agrees to use new ‘sensing’ technology, which allows him to step into her subconscious and try to bring her back out. However, complications arise when Koichi is inside Atsumi’s mind, experiencing the version of reality created by her subconscious.
Similar in concept to last year’s Vanishing Waves, the film’s promising start gives way to a dull and plodding series of events, which seem to go nowhere. Although Kurosawa continues his exploration of themes such as alienation, loneliness, the self and reality, Real ends up being nothing more than a very forgettable and obvious effort. The deft touch he showed in films like Retribution, and even his recent TV series, is missing here, and what the audience is left with is a bland trip into the subconscious, punctuated by the most ridiculous third-act revelation. An unusual miss from the master.
Watch the trailer for Real:
Ugly (Anurag Kashyap, 2013)
Last year’s Gangs of Wasseypur represented a pinnacle for director Anurag Kashyap: a culmination of his skills in one of the most important films of Indian cinema, a rule-breaking behemoth that defied pretty much everything an industry is known for. However, if Ugly is anything to go by, Anurag Kashyap has not stopped striving; perhaps best described as a low-key companion piece to Gangs of Wasseypur, it is another prime lesson in confrontational cinema.
Rahul, a wannabe actor whose chance to succeed is fast running out, is spending the day with his 10-year-old daughter from a former marriage to Shalini, now a middle-class housewife kept prisoner by her police-chief husband Bose. When Rahul leaves his daughter Kali in the car to pick up a script from his casting-director friend Chaitanya, the little girl goes missing. What follows is the ugliest, most brutal damnation of human nature that cinema has seen for a long, long time. Playing out like a shrine to humanity’s failings, Ugly is one of the darkest, most impressive noir films you could ever hope to see. No one, and it’s worth repeating this, absolutely no one in Ugly has any redeeming qualities, and if anyone makes the mistake of making any humane gesture, they’re promptly punished for it. From the desperate father with a star complex to the ex-wife with suicidal tendencies, Anurag Kashyap exposes all his creations as twisted and horrifying. His ability to take standard Bollywood characterizations and put them through the greed and hunger of the 20th century creates unforgettable moments in a film filled with desperation and excess.
Kashyap also managed to pack into the tight running time some of the most incredible cinematic sequences seen this year. Ultimately, the film is further proof that there’s something very exciting and remarkable happening within Indian cinema; it remains to be seen what Kashyap will offer us next – whatever it is, it certainly will be worth watching.
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Toronto International Film Festival 2013: Documentaries
Canada is home to Hot Docs, one of the biggest and best international documentary film festivals in the world, and almost nothing worth seeing in factual cinema skips their notice.
That said, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is one of the biggest and best international film festivals in the world – period. The breadth of programming includes, of course, documentary cinema, and while the number of titles is clearly lower since Hot Docs more than admirably picks up that slack every spring, in the fall, TIFF screens its fair share of high profile docs. Most are world premieres with a few designated as North American premieres.
This section of my annual TIFF report focuses on five feature docs that screened during the 2013 festival, with subjects as diverse as a movie about a movie, a movie about a very famous beekeeper, a movie about Sir Edmund Hilary, a movie about international adoption and a movie about Jews presumably not being as funny as they used to be. You’ll find everything from the great to the good to the not-so-good and, yes, the ugly. So saddle up and join me on a cinematic horsy ride through the colonies, your ever-so-loyal Dominion of Canada, with my report on a mere smattering of documentary product that was on display at the majestic madness that is the Toronto International Film Festival 2013.
When Jews Were Funny (Alan Zweig, 2013) *****
Alan Zweig made two feature films this year. The first was unveiled in the spring of 2013 at Toronto’s Hot Docs. Entitled 15 Reasons to Live, it was inspired by his friend Ray Robertson’s book of the same name.
Zweig kept the book’s 15-chapter headings to structure his film – Love, Solitude, Critical Mind, Art, Individuality, Home, Work, Humour, Friendship, Intoxication, Praise, Meaning, Body, Duty and Death – and then searched out 15 stories that best exemplified each reason to live. He shot and cut each story separately and laid them out in the aforementioned order. Each tale was honed to perfection in the cutting room first and then the transitions from tale to tale were finessed. At times these transitions were subtle and gentle, while others delivered my favourite kind of cut – the cut that takes your breath away. Literally. These cuts, when they work, are not jarring either – they kind of slide in and sidle up to you and before you know it, you’ve been winded.
This structural approach works just perfectly. The film shares an architecture similar to that of Dubliners by James Joyce and Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. It’s a literary structure that Zweig renders, quite astonishingly, into pure cinema. Each book has several great short stories that work fine on their own as such, but when taken all together, they generate an effect not unlike some dazzling combination of a full novel meshed with a mesmerizing tone poem. This cinematic application of Anderson and Joyce’s literary approaches are precisely the thing that, with this film, launched Zweig as a filmmaker into some kind of stratosphere.
Stylistic and structural leaps and bounds are one thing, but Zweig used them to make a film that brought together everything that makes his work so goddamn special; all the compassion and humanity your heart could possibly desire in a perfectly cohesive package celebrating life itself.
Zweig’s first feature-length documentary Vinyl (full disclosure: I was a producer of this film)
was not about the music, but rather, the obsessive collecting of the arcane platform the music was laid down to, the vinyl, the thing itself. As for the accumulation of vinyl, the film never resorts to the obvious – it’s not a film about what’s so quaintly eccentric about collecting, but what, in fact, is missing from the lives of those who do – Zweig’s included.
Then came I, Curmudgeon – the title should speak for itself. Of the numerous ’negative’ personalities (again including Zweig) who are examined, one of them (sort of) jokes that he genuinely fears that the first words his child will learn are ‘Mama’, ’Papa’ and ’Asshole’.
I especially remember that my own response to this moment was to chuckle with considerable health – a bit of the ol’ humour o’ recognition. While watching the scene, I remembered how cute I thought it was when my daughter at age two would, from her booster seat in the car, yell out as we drove – just like her road-rage-afflicted Daddy – ’MORON!’
Some time later I realised she was not referring to the idiot Toronto drivers as ‘moron’, but, in fact, innocently thought the word for ’car’ was not ’car’, but…’moron’. (Zweig once told me I was the most negative person he knew. I balked. Mostly because I thought Zweig was the most negative person I knew. He tempered his charge, though, and said, ‘No really, you are, but you’re in denial.’)
Zweig’s third feature doc was Lovable. Somewhat less infused with self-loathing, he decided to train his camera upon women who chose to remain single. Of course, at the time, Zweig was single and had been for some time – not by choice – and he was curious as to what would drive those from the opposite sex to choose that lifestyle. (Of course, making so much out of being single he couldn’t help but allow a few threads of delectable self-loathing to creep in.)
These first three feature docs comprise a sort of semi-intentional ‘mirror trilogy’, so named as Zweig, between his penetrating, incisive and often very funny interviews, appears on camera, but only reflected in a mirror. His reason for this – initially – was that it ’looked cool’, but he later revealed it was because he could manipulate the way he appeared on camera and even to himself as he confessed to hating his appearance.
Zweig’s fourth feature documentary was A Hard Name. He is heard off camera conversing with his subjects, but no more mirror. This had nothing to do with him – well, not completely, anyway. This turned out to be a film that never fails to devastate those who watch it. Zweig talks to a group of hardened criminals, ex-cons who never, ever want to go to prison again. These were men who’d spent most of their lives institutionalised in one way or another, but now do whatever they need to do to make sure they never put themselves in a position where they’d have to do time.
There have, of course, been many documentaries about ex-cons, but none like this. It is, first and foremost, a film about forgiveness – societal forgiveness of these men, to be sure – but mostly the courage it took for these ex-cons to forgive themselves and, in some cases, the individuals and institutions responsible for abusing them in their early lives. For his efforts, Zweig won a Genie, the Canadian equivalent to the BAFTA or Oscar. For once, it could not have gone any other way, and it didn’t. The picture that should have won Best Feature Documentary – won!
Then came the aforementioned fifth feature doc, 15 Reasons to Live and now, in the very same year, he premiered his sixth feature-length documentary film at the Toronto International Film Festival. But before I discuss When Jews Were Funny, you’ll note I’ve referred to all the aforementioned as Zweig’s ‘feature documentaries’, but if truth be told, his latest feature doc is actually his seventh feature film.
In 1994, Zweig directed his first feature. The Darling Family is a tremendously moving and superbly directed film adaptation of the play by Linda Griffiths, and is an ambitious, powerful and sadly neglected dramatic motion picture that should have been seen and celebrated well beyond the brief shelf life it occupied. Its pedigree alone demanded far more attention than it received even in Canada.
Griffiths is one of the leading lights and true pioneers of Canadian theatre. She wrote and starred in Maggie and Pierre, the hit show about Maggie Sinclair and her relationship and influence upon her very famous husband, the late, great Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. The show played consistently to sold-out houses across the country. The Darling Family enjoyed a healthy, though milder box-office success than the incisive and bitterly funny satirical work about Canada’s First Lady. In many ways, though, The Darling Family might well be the play that Griffiths is best remembered for – no small thanks to a film that’s as fine an interpretation as any playwright could hope for.
Not only did Zweig brilliantly adapt this bleak kitchen sink two-hander – a sort of Canadian amalgam of gritty 1970s cinema and the ‘Angry Young Man’ genre from the UK’s 1960s New Wave – it starred its original theatrical cast, with Griffiths herself opposite the great Alan Williams as her co-star.
Williams, of course, was the legendary playwright and actor from the UK who was referred to England’s Hull Truck Theatre by none other than Mike Leigh, where he mounted his astounding one-man show The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnati, a huge hit in Britain. When he brought the show to Canada after an extensive European tour, it grabbed the Land of Maple Syrup by the short hairs and played coast-to-coast to sold-out houses. Williams emigrated to Canada not long after, and became one of the Dominion’s most prolific and successful playwrights. Now considered one of its most stalwart character actors in film and television, he also had a stint on the faculty of the famed University of Winnipeg theatre program, wherein he nurtured a huge whack of Canada’s best theatre artists.
So here’s a film from a hit play with two of Canada’s best and most beloved actor/playwrights (not to mention a haunting score by eventual Life of Pi Oscar winner Michael Danna) and it came and went without a trace. It did, however, receive a to-die-for review by Canada’s leading film critic, Geoff Pevere, in the country’s ‘newspaper of record’, The Globe and Mail. Pevere delightfully suggested that The Darling Family was perhaps the ’most perverse date movie’ audiences would ever encounter, but in his estimation, an ideal date movie.
I can’t argue with his assessment. The Darling Family is an utterly harrowing 90 minutes that wallows in the roiling emotional torment experienced (in one mega kitchen sink) by a middle-aged couple verbally jousting on opposite ends of a decision to abort a child. As date movies go, it certainly beats Sandra Bullock clomping about with Ryan Reynolds.
Alan Zweig has always been about humanity, and all his work has been infused with compassion. The subject matter (save, perhaps, for 15 Reasons to Live) might – to some – suggest otherwise, but it’s the surface darkness, the often mordant wit, the unflagging care he takes with his subjects, his refusal to let any of them off easy, and his determination to dig deep into the marrow of humanity that places him at the forefront of the world’s master filmmakers.
He’s a great interviewer – probing, insightful, funny, thoughtful and entertainingly conversational – and this, if anything, characterises a good chunk of his style. This wends its way through all his documentaries and it’s one of many reasons why it’s impossible not to be riveted by them.
He’s got an original voice as a filmmaker, in more ways than one. Firstly, there’s his voice – you know, the one lodged quite literally within his vocal chords. Nobody, but nobody can sound like Alan Zweig: a perverse blend of Eeyore in the Disney Winnie the Pooh cartoons and a craggy been-there-done-that cigar-smoke-throat-coated Borscht-Belt stand-up comic. And secondly, ABSOLUTELY nobody can make movies the way he does.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of Zweig’s original approach is that he is, first and foremost, an avid collector. His films are populated with large casts of subjects and these individuals are inextricably linked to the themes of the films, but as such, he pulls from them the things that make each one of them unique.
What he does with his filmmaking is to collect his subjects. Yes, he collects people; he steals and hoards their images (Stealing Images is the title of his classic short drama that won the very first TIFF Best Short Film prize in 1989) with the same passion he collects vinyl or books or movies or tchochkes. BUT unlike the inanimate objects he normally collects, he can’t purge himself of his collection of subjects by dropping them off at the Goodwill Store. They belong to him. Through his films, Zweig gets to keep them forever, not just for himself but also for the world.
If there’s any difference between his 2013 films and his previous work, it’s that he forced himself into maintaining a strict number of subjects to add to his collection. In 15 Reasons to Live, there is one key departure: he tells each person’s story separately without the documentarian’s crutch of weaving in and out of his subjects’ lives, stories and perspectives.
When Jews Were Funny might well be the picture to finally put Zweig over the top, and if there’s any filmmaker who deserves this more, I can’t even begin to imagine who they might be. His entire output is ripe for discovery beyond North America, and frankly, even within his own country.
A common question from some of the more befuddled subjects in the new doc goes something like: ’Is this about being Jewish or comedy?’ A fair question, but frankly, in the sense that Jews and comedy seem to be inextricably linked within the very ethos of North America, it’s probably safe to say it’s about both. In fact, it sometimes seems like the entire Ashkenazi diaspora was solely concentrated in Canada and the USA, where the seeds of stand-up comedy as we know it today were sown during the early part of the 20th century.
The sufferings that led European Jews to the ’New Land’ are incalculable. Yet, Zweig’s film proves (or at least confirms to the converted) that North American humour would not exist without Jews and, in fact, would not be as brilliantly funny and distinctive as it is without the influence of non-Jewish European prejudices, ethnocentrism and hatred foisted in their direction.
Through the subjects Zweig interviews, When Jews Were Funny furthermore presents the perversely provocative and vaguely horrific notion that without purges, pogroms and the Holocaust, the world might well have been bereft of the stand-up style and genius of Henny Youngman, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Rodney Dangerfield, Don Rickles, and the list goes on, for a light-year or two at the very least.
As a film, I can’t say I’ve ever quite seen its like before. I could, of course, probably say this about all of Zweig’s films. The fact of the matter is that they are endowed with the surface tropes of the documentary genre, but he continually subverts all expectations and plunges you into the least expected territory and in a style uniquely personal and finally very much his own – so much so I predict that we’ll eventually see new generations of filmmakers drawing from his approach and using it as a springboard for their own work. This, of course, is what all great art inspires, and Zweig is poised perfectly to do this.
On its surface, When Jews Were Funny features an off-camera Zweig interviewing a wide variety of stand-up comedians who share one thing beyond their profession – they’re all Jewish. He begins his journey with some of the greatest surviving legends of comedy: Shelley Berman, Jack Carter, Shecky Greene and Norm Crosby. It’s this old guard who reject Zweig’s theories about Jews and humour almost outright, though all of them, via his interview style, come round to acknowledging the Jewish influence upon humour, save perhaps for Jack Carter who seems fairly steadfast about refusing to concede.
Watch a clip (Shelley Berman) from When Jews Were Funny:
While the sweet Shelley Berman never comes out and agrees, his separation of humour and Jewishness starts to move closer in proximity, especially during a joyously heart-rending moment when he delivers the very thing Zweig is really searching for, and why Zweig equates Jewish culture with comedy in the first place. It’s one of those extraordinary moments we can thank cinema for – and when it comes, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
The middle-aged and younger comedians are occasionally confused by what exactly Zweig is looking for (though a number of them ‘get it’ immediately and expound upon it brilliantly). The extraordinary thing, though, is that the journey Zweig takes us on, and that we take with him, happens during his conversations. If he has an agenda, he never shows it, and in fact, it’s as if the process of making the film – the journey itself – is what allows Zweig (and the audience) to discover the wisps of those things that haunt all of us.
When you grow up, you equate popular culture of that specific time with your own ethnicity, your own religion, your family, your community, your values – all those things that shape and mould you – with what comes at you from a television, radio, movie screen, record player, magazine or newspaper, and all those you hold dear – mothers, fathers, siblings, extended family, neighbours, friends – are, yet again, inextricably linked.
Most of Zweig’s subjects confirm this. A few of them are absolutely captivating when they do so.
David Steinberg full-on addresses the very nature of suffering experienced by the Jewish people and its relationship to humour when he declares: ‘The thing that helps humour is oppression, the thing that kills humour is assimilation. If you’ve had a great childhood, a good marriage and a little bit of money, you’d make a lousy stand-up comedian.’ He also makes the point of how funny his own family was – his dad and aunt, for example, would switch to Yiddish and shoo the kids out of the room for fear they’d hear the filthy jokes emanating from their mouths.
David Brenner echoes this. He describes his dad as someone who was funnier than the entire range of great comedians put together, and tells a great story about how he’s been taught that humour exists in everything. The fatherly advice here is that to do this, one must make use of a ’third eye’, or as his dad termed it, ’the Funny Eye’ – that thing you use when looking at anything. Needless to say, the example Brenner provides is hilarious.
In fact, there isn’t a single subject who isn’t funny in the film. Almost all of them tell one or two specific jokes, but most importantly, when they’re addressing the topic at hand, they’re equally hilarious. Howie Mandel slays us with his description of how Jews can never betray themselves by feeling good; how they need to shovel every morsel of suffering into their soul when they try to say something positive, so that their faces contort into hideous grimaces, not unlike someone with the worst case of constipation imaginable as they attempt to squeeze a rock-hard turd out of their tuchus.
Bob Einstein (AKA ‘Super’ Dave Osborne) might be the only comedian interviewed who seems utterly humourless, especially since he accuses Zweig on camera of not knowing what he’s talking about, not knowing what he wants and, at one point, not even listening to him. That said, the very conflict – the meeting of two great curmudgeons, if you will – is supremely enjoyable and yes, it’s funny.
Watch a clip (Norm Crosby) from When Jews Were Funny:
‘Jews own humour and I’m proud to say that that’s true,’ says Steinberg, but it’s Gilbert Gottfried who astutely points out that Jewishness is so often muted. He states that all of the characters on Seinfeld are clearly and obviously Jewish, but that the show (and so many others like it) goes out of its way to pretend that the characters are not Jewish. Gottfried’s incredulity on this point is knee-slappingly mordant. He points out that even if a Jew converts and changes his name, he’ll still be herded into ‘whatever mode of transportation is available to be taken to whatever mode of extermination exists.’
This is a great film – brave, brilliant and personal – but (and that’s a big ’but’) its power is ultimately in its universality. Ultimately, I think there are three core audiences for this film, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily exist in separate vacuums. They might be different, but they’re all going to be infused with the same spirit.
The most obvious target would be almost anyone of Jewish heritage. I do, however, say ‘almost’ because there appears to exist a minority of this ethnic group (or, if we must, religion) that might not appreciate Zweig’s picture. Though, frankly, it’s probably a minority of one.
Allow me to explain.
I had a shocking, though telling and funny experience during the 2013 TIFF. I was scanning the humungous schedule boards displayed in the TIFF Bell Lightbox to see if I could squeeze a seventh film into what was supposed to only be a six-film day. A lady stood beside me, also scouring the board. Noticing my media badge she said, ‘I’m looking for something I can take my 80-year-old mother to tonight, but I don’t know what to choose.’ I immediately recognised the distinctive North Toronto (a huge Jewish enclave of the city) timbre in her voice.
‘Have I got a picture for you!’ I beamed ever so Eureka-like. ‘When Jews Were Funny!’
I could almost taste the bile spewing from her as she spat out, ‘Alan Zweig?’
‘Yeah, Alan Zweig. It’s his new picture. You’re not a fan?’
‘A fan? You ask if I’m a fan? I hate Alan Zweig!’
‘What’s to hate?’
‘What’s to hate? His kind of Jewishness and how he represents the Jewish people is offensive.’
She admitted she had yet to see the film, but based upon previous work – none of which has any ‘Jewishness’ save for Zweig, a Jew who happens to be the filmmaker of said ‘offensive’ films – she explained that he was among many Jewish people in the entertainment business who didn’t offer what her idea was of what it really meant to be Jewish.
‘Well, what is that?’
‘What does it really mean to be Jewish?’
‘You have to ask?’
I didn’t answer. Instead, I bravely suggested Zweig’s film might surprise her.
‘No!’ she said, as if banging the final nail herself into Christ’s flesh. ‘It’s not for me.’
Like I said, a minority of one, no doubt. It did, however, warmly remind me of the scene in Zweig’s movie when Howie Mandel does a hilarious riff on how all Jews answer questions with questions.
So, aside from Jews, the second big audience will probably be anyone – goyim, that is – and especially, I think, those of some manner of Eastern European persuasion who belong to the generation that grew up with the stand-up comedians popular during the 1950s and 70s. As a number of subjects point out, much of the humour is dependent upon the distinctively Yiddish cadence in the delivery, one so familiar to Eastern Europeans that it creeps not so subtly into their own ‘delivery’.
Finally, the third audience will be anyone who loves great movies brimming with insight, humour and the eternal quest for those defining elements of one’s past that now seem gone forever, save for one’s memory of them.
And it’s this journey that is the most profoundly moving element of the film, one that pretty much anyone, no matter what their ethnicity, race or religion will respond to. We are all haunted by those things that shaped us in our youth and the reality of how everything changes – fleeting, flickering ghosts that wither away and dissipate before us. When Jews Were Funny is a film that makes us long for those things that were once tangible, but now reside only in our spirit. If anything, we’re all His children and I can think of no better way to share in this collective desire to clutch at our past with dear life through the very special eyes of His chosen people.
Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, 2013) ***
If we imagine a world without Star Wars, we can imagine a world where cinema was not dying as it is now. If we imagine a world where Alejandro (El Topo) Jodorowsky beat Star Wars to the punch with his planned film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune, we can imagine him laying the groundwork for a new and different kind of film spectacle, rather than the empty state-of-the-art 80s blockbusters that spawned endless rollercoaster rides masquerading as movies.
Frank Pavich’s feature documentary is as close as we’re ever going to get to seeing what might have been one of the great movies of the late 20th century. A mere five-million-dollars short of becoming a reality, the film was to star Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles. Seeing this doc is to indulge in the creative excitement that went into every second of preparing this epic motion picture. We experience Jodorowsky’s pride (albeit with a tinge of melancholy) at planting seeds for the future greatness of others from a movie that was never made. The films exists only in a massive frame-by-frame storyboard book with the screenplay and Jodorowsky’s notes – a document used to raise additional financing in Hollywood, but which was instead passed around to one filmmaker after another. Hollywood accepted the genius, but rejected the artist and, sadly, his film.
Watch the trailer for Jodorowsky’s Dune:
Burt’s Buzz (Jody Shapiro, 2013) ***
Jody Shapiro is a genuine creative producer and ‘Odd’ might well be his middle name. Working with Guy Maddin in the latter stages of the great surrealist’s career, Shapiro also became Isabella Rossellini’s chief collaborator on her Green Porno series.
Shapiro is clearly a natural to lovingly document the life of Burt Shavitz, the bearded hippie whose face adorns ‘Burt’s Bees’ health-store products. The film is mostly all-Burt-all-the-time. The camera loves him, and his low-key irascibility allows Shavitz to engagingly spin his own story – the city boy who moved to the backwoods to become an avid beekeeper. With assistance from the woman he loved, the company grew to gargantuan proportions and the shy country gentleman became a brand.
There’s melancholy to the tale since Burt was not happy with corporate life, and his love life dissipated. He sold his shares in the company and his ‘brand’ for peanuts. He continues, however, to make a decent living doing personal appearances.
Shapiro wisely bounces between the solace of Burt on his farm and the genuine adulation he receives during live appearances. This simple, but effective, juxtaposition presents the contrast, conflict and two sides of the coin that is Burt Shavitz. It’s essentially a sweet, funny and loving portrait of a man, his dog and his bee farm. He occasionally trots out to do a horse and pony act at trade shows and malls, but he enjoys the adulation afforded him by the fans and, most of all, his fees allow him the privilege of living most of his life the way he likes it best – in solitude among hills, trees, birds and, of course, the bees.
Watch the trailer for Burt’s Buzz:
Beyond the Edge (Leanne Pooley, 2013) **
Sir Edmund Hillary’s climb to the top of Mt. Everest in 1953 is the thrilling subject of Beyond the Edge. Alas, the picture falls short of its potential, in spite of considerable technical wizardry and clearly exhaustive research. Unrestricted access to archival material (including gorgeous 16mm colour footage, Alf Gregory’s legendary 35mm stills and what seems like every audio interview with the participants that’s ever been laid to tape) makes the film’s failure all the more frustrating.
Three key elements extract their toll: the filling in of blanks with newly shot dramatic recreations (ugh!), the abominable 3D, and the over-zealous attempts to match colour for the myriad of audio-visual materials. That said, the 3D is especially problematic. It’s maddening how the moronically polarised 3D glasses darken everything to distraction. Where this hurts the most is in the historical motion picture footage and stills, the colours of which are so vibrant that in 3D they pale in comparison. Just try popping the glasses off periodically (during any picture in 3D, frankly) and you’ll see how egregious the process is.
For the overall colour grading, an extreme post-modernist approach would have been far preferable to matching and muting the colours. State of the art, however, seems to have been the ruinous goal. A film that pushed aesthetic boundaries rather than technical ones might have been far more vital. I’m sure a boundary-pusher like Sir Eddie might have even agreed.
Watch the trailer for Beyond the Edge :
The Dark Matter of Love (Sarah McCarthy, 2012) *
I wanted, but ultimately could not, respond to this tale of love and bonding between three Russian orphans (among the last to be allowed adoptive parents from outside Russia since Vladimir ‘Just Call Me Uncle Joe’ Putin outlawed international adoption) and their new Apple Pie American family.
Seeing these Russian kids flung into an America that spun the world into a major financial crisis and various wars, an America that seemingly learned nothing from the chaos created by its political and corporate leaders and, worst of all, that sense of gaudy consumerism coming to life on-screen before my very eyes, all conspired to make me wonder what that movie would have been like to see instead of this one – which, sadly, is not very good. The Dark Matter of Love is supposed to be a story about kids who need love, want love, but have never experienced love. How do you give love to a child that doesn’t know what love is? Well, it’s not rocket science – with great difficulty and patience.
The American family in question are clearly fine and generous people with plenty of love to give. We see their frustration at not getting love back, the jealousy experienced by their biological daughter and the overall turmoil that building a new family unit results in.This is all undermined by the regrettable accent placed upon the ludicrous application of certain psychological principles rooted in the film’s title – that love is a matter of science, and that in extreme situations such as this, one must turn to medical professionals. From a strictly moral standpoint, I had problems swallowing this. For my liking it’s all too typically Dr. Phil (the famous reality TV talk-show shrink who presents a hugely rated barrage of suffering Americans and offers all manner of platitudinous pop-psychology to ease the pain).
Worse yet, the film emphasises the gobbledygook of a duo of scientists and trains its camera on them as they watch footage of the family trying to cope – spewing their babble as if they were bloody sports commentators – treating the emotional gymnastics of the family as if they were engaged in a particularly strenuous football match.
The film never really allows us an opportunity to experience what could have been a very moving documentary involving a genuine dilemma faced by thousands, if not millions of families. There is, or was, a great movie in here. In fact, it could have been one of several movies far more engaging and vital than this one proved to be.
The Unknown Known (Errol Morris, 2013) ****
Ace documentary filmmaker Errol Morris is back in familiar territory with this one-on-one exploration of the life and times of George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, the clearly gifted master of political doubletalk, misinformation, disinformation and perhaps one of the most dangerous, despicable and evil Americans of the past decade. Much like The Fog of War, Morris’s exploration of Robert McNamara, Defense Secretary during the Vietnam War, the veteran filmmaker hits his new subject with tough questions, attempting to paint as honest a portrait as possible of a political mastermind of legal mass murder, or, if you will, the war against terror. McNamara was a different beast, though. He at least seemed to be telling the truth. None of that – truth, that is – appears to be on display here.
With a malevolent grin, Rumsfeld makes you think he’s letting the cat in the bag slip out, but in the same breath, he’s letting you know the cat’s still in the bag, and that his final word on the matter will always ensure that the bag’s indeed in the river. In fact, we never get a clear picture of anything from Rumsfeld. It always seems clear, but never feels truthful. In several contexts, Rumsfeld is caught completely contradicting himself and hilariously ignoring and/or talking his way out of his obvious falsehoods and/or discrepancies. We’re witness to one magnificent turn of phrase after another. The man is a master spin-doctor and, even more astoundingly, he might actually be the best generator of juicy sound bites in the world – ever. Here’s a tiny, but choice grocery list of a few of them:
‘All generalisations are false, including this one,’ he proclaims.
‘The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,’ he opines on weapons of mass destruction, or lack thereof, in Iraq.
Watch a clip from The Unknown Known:
Rumsfeld treats us to one of his astounding humdingers (which Morris uses for the film’s title): ‘There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we don’t know we don’t know. The unknown known, however, is a thing that we know, but are unaware of knowing.’
The whole movie is a hoot from beginning to end, but what we’re ultimately presented and left with is 96 minutes of lies – or, at the very least, what Rumsfeld wants us to hear, even if he knows we don’t believe a word.
The man has no shame. None. He could have been a president.
A 1920s pulp novelisation is the sort of book that you’d expect to find with a cracked cover and torn yellow pages at a collectors’ fair, rather than see lovingly republished in a tactile and tantalisingly limited edition. But in an era of mass-produced paperbacks and digital text, it’s not just Penguin Classics and the Folio Society but small presses such as the newly formed Imaginary Book Company that are keeping alive the beautiful body of the well-designed hardback. Their edition of London after Midnight is a rare beast indeed: a hybrid of the British and American versions of the novelisation of Hollywood’s first and long-lost vampire film, it illuminates one of the holy grails of silent cinema, reminds us of the connection between the detective genre and the supernatural, and repositions the debates about the merits of fan fiction and spin-offs almost a century before E.L. James’s Twilight homage, Fifty Shades of Grey.
Described by Jonathan Coe as ‘that bastard, misshapen offspring of the cinema and the written word’, the novelisation has usually been a derided form. It has existed alongside cinema since the early years of feature-length movies, to augment the commercial success of a film by satisfying the fans’ desire for more – to relive the experience, to expand upon it. But who buys these things anyway? Geeks and nerds (specialists), or relatives who don’t know what the cool kids really want for Christmas? My teenage enthusiasm for David Lynch’s film of The Elephant Man extended to the gift (or purchase? I don’t remember) of its novelisation by Christine Sparks (Futura, 1980), who in the 1970s-80s wrote diverse novelisations – Yanks, The Good Life, The Enigma Files, Open All Hours – before her bibliographic trail runs cold. The back cover claims the book was ‘based on the life of John Merrick, the Elephant Man, and not upon the Broadway play or any other fictional account’. Eight pages of production photographs in the middle of the novel are given captions, not to credit the actors and name the characters (e.g. ‘Anne Bancroft as Mrs Kendal’) but as if they were part of a biographical story written in the present tense (‘Befriended by Mrs Kendal, Merrick’s future seems bright with hope…’). Novelisations still exist, mainly as franchises for the younger market – although Hammer have recently revitalised their publishing arm – but the advent of home entertainment in the 1980s and particularly the greater capacity of DVD by the early 21st century challenged their reason to exist as video made ownership of the movie possible, and in a format that expands on the original experience by including not just stills galleries but additional material such as commentaries, interviews, documentaries and deleted scenes.
We’ve rapidly become used to the accessibility of almost every film, on DVD or via the internet, so the prospect of being unable to track down or revisit a movie feels like a thing of the past, like smallpox or infant mortality. The destruction of the 1927 film of London after Midnight in an archive fire took out a work that, even if it was not to be the best of director Tod Browning or star Lon Chaney (but who’s to know, now that it can never be reassessed?), would remain a thing of fascination, thanks to the enduring popularity of the Gothic sensibility in film and literature, and the fact that its creators were between them responsible for many of the defining moments of cinematic grotesque.
Born in 1880 (probably) and having escaped from an eccentric Louisville, Kentucky family at the turn of the century, Tod Browning began his career literally buried alive in the world of carnival sideshows and vaudeville. In the burgeoning silent film industry he made dozens of movies, his superior knowledge of the canon of British Gothic literature inspiring his work and establishing his reputation as cinema’s Edgar Allan Poe. In 1919 producer Irving Thalberg paired Browning with actor Lon Chaney for their first film together, The Wicked Girl, a silent melodrama. Born Leonidas Frank Chaney on 1 April 1883, Chaney was the child of deaf parents who became a skilled mime and vaudevillian actor and was later known for his transformative skills in such iconic roles as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). He would make 10 films with Browning, including circus story The Unholy Three (a silent version in 1925, remade as Chaney’s only sound film in 1930) and The Unknown(1927), in which he plays Alonzo the Armless, a knife-throwing sideshow freak in a love triangle. London after Midnight was to be Browning and Chaney’s next film.
After the MGM archive fire of May 1967 all that was left of London after Midnight was the production stills, and to mark the film’s 75th anniversary in 2002 Turner Classic Movies commissioned film preservationist Rick Schmidlin to produce a 45-minute long photo-film based on nearly 200 stills edited according to the film’s continuity script to give a sense of what it could have been like. Available as an extra on Warners’ Lon Chaney Collection DVD box-set, the photo-film is well constructed but unavoidably feels repetitious, stagey and stilted. The plot revolves around private detective and hypnotist ‘Professor’ Burke, who is called to investigate the apparent suicide of Sir James Hamlin’s friend Roger Balfour and uncovers a nest of vampires in a decrepit mansion before revealing the identity of the murderer. Neither particularly lyrical nor mysterious in its own right (in contrast to that most famous of photo-films, Chris Marker’s La jetée, for example), this version of London after Midnight very much leaves the viewer with the impression that the real story lies elsewhere, in what cannot be seen. A shooting script doesn’t convey much more than the bare bones of the narrative because it is the prose that evokes the spirit of a story, in the same way that production stills can barely begin to capture the complexities of performance, and the abbreviated dialogue of silent film intertitles (credited here to MGM titles writer Joe Farnham – ‘Brevity was his Bible’) can only say so much.
We know that many of even the earliest films were based on stage shows or books, such as Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow’s 1903 version of Alice in Wonderland or the silent adaptions of Shakespeare’s plays and Charles Dickens’s novels because the titles have become literary classics. But it can still be a surprise to discover that a well-known film was based on a forgotten book, or realise that Alfred Hitchcock’s lesser-known silent feature The Manxman (1929) was based on a bestselling novel of 1894 by Hall Caine, largely a forgotten name now but in his day a wildly popular writer associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Then – as now – the studio machine turned over a vast amount of material, and it could be both quicker and more reliable to adapt a novel than to generate completely new screenplays. And in marketing terms, the odds of investing in the adaptation and production of a better-known entity are greater than the chances of going for something more obscure. But what if the story that the filmmaker wants to tell belongs to someone else and can’t be bought?
Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula had not been an immediate best-seller, but the reviews were good and its reputation grew steadily during the early part of the 20th century. In 1921 German director F.W. Murnau directed an unauthorised first adaptation of Dracula, Nosferatu eine Symphonie des Grauens, demonstrating that the haunted screen of silent expressionist cinema and folkloric supernatural subject matter were spectacular bed-fellows, and setting the ground rules for the next century’s worth of Gothic film imagery. Scripted by Henrik Galeen – also responsible for The Golem (1915) and The Student of Prague (1926) – the plots of Nosferatu and Dracula are very similar, their differences being name changes, the setting (from Britain in the 1890s to Germany in 1838) and the omission of secondary characters. There are also some subtle variations in vampire behaviour, for example Nosferatu’s Count Orlok (played by Max Schreck) does not create other vampires, but kills his victims, which the townsfolk blame on the plague. Whereas Count Dracula is only weakened by sunlight, Orlok sleeps by day because sunlight will kill him – and he is ultimately destroyed at sunrise by a woman’s sacrifice.
Dracula was adapted for the stage by Irish playwright Hamilton Deane in 1924, and opened at the Little Theatre in London’s West End on 14 February 1927. As Stoker’s widow had successfully sued Murnau for plagiarism and the film rights to Dracula remained unavailable, by the spring of that year Browning had written an original story, ‘The Hypnotist’. It was cloaked in the studio-friendly detective story, this literary genre having emerged strongly during the mid-19th century due to the popularity of the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and its narrative compatibility with both stage and screen. The machinations of the detective story meant that the audience wasn’t asked to believe in the ‘horrible impossible’ but in the plausibility of the horrible possible. In 1924 Conan Doyle published ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire’, a short story that plays upon the fear of vampires within a domestic setting as a man suspects his wife of sucking the blood from their baby son’s neck. Holmes investigates and debunks the vampire theory, finding the culprit to be the man’s crippled older son who has been jealously shooting poisoned darts at his baby half-brother, the infant’s mother having extracted the poison by sucking it out of the wound. Conan Doyle’s interest in Spiritualism had developed around the same time as his creation of Sherlock Holmes in the late 19th century (1886-87), but he generally kept the two separate. As a doctor, Conan Doyle was also fascinated by experiments in healing and thought transference through mesmerism and hypnotism. Hypnotism had not been part of Stoker’s original novel, but was introduced into the stage play of Dracula, as by the 1920s the phenomenon had become increasingly popular as a compelling method for detecting the truth, with currency not just in stage entertainment but in self-knowledge (Freud was an enthusiastic proponent of hypnotherapy before developing psychoanalysis) and criminology. Hypnotism became the lynchpin of Browning’s story.
Scripted by Waldemar Young (who also wrote The Unholy Three and The Unknown), ‘The Hypnotist’/London after Midnight was sufficiently different from Dracula to avoid charges of plagiarism while retaining enough similarities to satisfy blood-thirsty audiences turned on by the Count. The familiar Gothic iconography of haunted houses, cobwebbed rooms, howling wolves and swirling mists, but more specifically the bats and fangs and bitten necks, also the business of estate rental and the stock characters of the ineffectual clerk and his pure bride, root London after Midnight in Dracula’s territory. The film began shooting on 24 July 1927 for a month, and Browning came in a week under schedule on a budget of $152,000. Meanwhile Hamilton Deane’s play had been rewritten by John L. Balderston for its Broadway debut on 5 October 1927, starring the Hungarian classical stage actor Bela Lugosi (born Béla Ferenc Dezsõ Blaskó, 1882). The play would run for over two hundred performances before touring the country, warming up the audience for Browning’s film, which opened in the States in December 1927, with the novelisation on sale soon after in 1928.
Marie Coolidge-Rask was a hack journalist formerly of the Pittsburgh Press (Illustrated Magazine Section), who the year before had authored the book versions of King Vidor’s La Boheme, starring Lillian Gish, and Sparrows, starring Mary Pickford (both 1926). It seems that the first version of Young’s script was probably the basis for her novelisation of London after Midnight for US photo-play edition publisher Grosset & Dunlap, and that she would have been unlikely to have seen Browning’s finished film in advance of writing. The differences between Rick Schmidlin’s photo-film, which has Joe Farnham’s titles and is based on Young’s second-version script, dated 16 July 1927 (reprinted along stills of the excised scenes in Philip J. Riley’s 1985 book London after Midnight, although the 2011 version of it instead uses a facsimile script dated 21 July 1927 of almost identical content), and Marie Coolidge-Rask’s novelisation are, if not like night to day, then certainly revealing of a substantial literary reworking of the basic story and the procedural whodunit.
Coolidge-Rask developed the family melodrama as the framework for her story. The lonely widower Roger Balfour has committed suicide, leaving his two young children, Harry and Lucy, to be adopted by his friend and neighbour, Sir James Hamlin. Balfour House is left empty to rot. The children’s future seems assured, but five years later after an argument about the renovation of the property, Harry is found dead in the neglected grounds of Balfour House, with small wounds in his throat. Strange tenants have moved into the decrepit Balfour House, and Lucy, the last of the Balfours, can hear her name being called from beyond the trees. Unlike some other early cinema novelisations, Coolidge-Rask’s introduces not so much a sense of colour and life – it remains a black and white tale of the un-dead – but a great deal of atmospheric sound into what would have been a silent film accompanied only by a small orchestra or lone pianist. The pages reverberate with howling banshees, screaming maids and the clatter of a black cat knocking over saucepans in the kitchen chaos of a household descending into panic. There are streams of dialogue, much of which is colloquially written to give a strong sense of individual voices, particularly those of the lower classes.
The book features subtle changes to names and relationships. For example, in the photo-film Sir James has a nephew called Arthur Hibbs, who is referred to as ‘Jerry’ by Lucy in the script while the novelisation has a secretary named Jeremiah Hibbs. The photo-film shows that Harry’s death was cut from the final movie, but it’s there as the opening scenes of the script; meanwhile the book dwells upon Harry’s disappearance and the discovery of his corpse with the mysterious marks on its neck as key moments within the story. Coolidge-Rask also amplifies the central character of Colonel Yates, the occult expert recently returned from India with a head full of ancient beliefs and a fistful of charms. While the shooting script and photo-film are clear that Burke and Yates are one and the same, in the book this is not revealed until the end. It’s likely that even if Browning and Young had initially conceived of wildly different triple roles for Chaney – the Scotland Yard Detective, the Man in the Beaver Hat, and Colonel Yates – this had proved too confusing for such a slender film. Although MGM was cabled by Scotland Yard during the production requesting more information about the film in order to give permission to use shots of its building, the shooting script shows that scenes 18-48 – apparently establishing Chaney as the Detective – were cut. The final film was just 65 minutes long.
Famous as the actor with a thousand faces, Chaney excelled in multiple roles. But while the Scotland Yard detective of Coolidge-Rask’s novel cameos as a Machiavellian figure behind the scenes of the drama – almost like the writer or director of the picture itself –Chaney’s dour ‘Professor’ seems to have been a much less impactful character, allowing his stunning alter-ego, The Man in the Beaver Hat, to steal the show. Young’s script comments that when Burke (as Yates) fondly puts his hand to his cheek where Lucy has kissed him, ‘we have a feeling that if his life were to be lived over again he would like to have romance in it’. Meanwhile the vampire is ‘more ghost-like than human… twisted and mis-shapen. Mostly eyes and teeth’. His image scorched itself onto the audiences’ retinas and – like Malcolm McDowell’s psychopathic Alex in A Clockwork Orange decades later – became part of the popular imagination; Chaney was responsible, as always, for designing his own make-up, and the power of his top-hatted, pointy-toothed, ghoulish image was such that ‘he’ inspired a real-life murder in Hyde Park in 1928, of which The Times newspaper reported that ‘[the prisoner] thought he saw Lon Chaney, a film actor, in a corner, shouting and making faces at him. He did not remember taking a razor from his pocket, or using the razor on the girl or on himself’.
While Coolidge-Rask goes to town with the tropes of Gothic horror and revels in themes of drug addiction and alcoholism that would have not pleased the silent film censors, her representation of the subplot of paedophilia – Sir James’s unhealthy interest in the 13-year-old orphan Lucy – is no stronger in the book than in Young’s script or what we can see in the photo-film. Although in 1927 the film of London after Midnight was not subject to as much scrutiny as its subsequent remake, Mark of the Vampire – made after the enforcement of the 1934 Hays Code and cut on the grounds of incest – Coolidge-Rask seems to have had little interest in detailing the unedifying relationship, despite its pot-boiling potential.
Even given the pulp genre credentials of London after Midnight, today the novel also reads a little like historical true crime. With its crisp attention to the architecture of English country houses, awareness of class differences, portrayal of the ineptitude of the local police and a pervasive fear that the capacity for the ‘horrible possible’ could come from within the family itself, it’s not too much of stretch of the imagination to say that the pleasures of this surprising text could sit alongside those of Kate Summerscale’s best-selling The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008). For that reason, one hopes that Imaginary’s new edition – limited to just 300 copies – will find its way to public libraries, and not be snapped up and kept hidden away by private collectors. It certainly isn’t one for the Kindle, with its thick creamy pages and cobwebbed inlays, full of exquisite details such as the tiny image of a black bat printed at the end of each chapter and again in gold on the clothbound cover, hand-printed and stickered marks of authenticity and, incredibly, a die-cut Desmodontinae bookmark. The cover art image of Chaney’s Man in the Beaver Hat (by contemporary London-based graphic designer Graham Humphreys) evokes the illustrated film posters of the day but with a twist. In true novelisation style, this edition includes 15 pages of tobacco-tinted stills, the original Editor’s Note, a new introduction and, with some poignancy, the Times newspaper obituary of Lon Chaney, who died of throat cancer in 1930 aged 47.
Would Lon Chaney have played Dracula if he had lived? According to Philip J. Riley’s book Dracula Starring Lon Chaney (2010), the actor had indeed been in negotiations with Universal to play the Count (other sources speculate that he would have played the dual roles of Dracula and Van Helsing), despite recently signing a new contract with MGM and having agreed to a sound-version remake of The Unholy Three, albeit without Browning as director. Following the North American success of the stage play, Universal had acquired the screen rights from Stoker/Deane/Balderson for $40,000. For the script they had hired best-selling novelist (but film industry novice) Louis Bromfield, who’d won the Pulitzer Prize in 1927 for his novel Early Autumn, teamed with screenwriter Dudley Murphy (co-director of Fernand Léger’s 1924 surrealist short Ballet Mécanique). The Browning biography Dark Carnival by David J. Skal and Elias Savada (1995) details Bromfield’s attempts to realise the first sound version and official adaptation of Dracula, and the fact that in the event, the final scenario for the film was written by Garrett Fort.
Browning was hired to direct, and, despite the fact that there seems to have been disagreement about the casting, he seems to have always favoured Bela Lugosi to reprise his 1927-28 stage role as the Count (Universal had reservations about the audience-pulling power of a non-American lead). Lugosi had recently appeared in Browning’s first sound film, The Thirteenth Chair (1929), also released in a silent version, as the uncanny Inspector Delzante who solves a murder mystery with the aid of a spirit medium. Some accounts of the making of Dracula have the previously meticulous (but now alcoholic) Browning in a state of distraction and despondency, discarding pages of the scripts and leaving much of the director’s vision to cinematographer Karl Freund, who worked through a translator and always wore white gloves – although the inexplicable appearance of some Texan nine-banded armadillos in Dracula’s Central European castle could only have been attributed to Browning. Skal and Savada assert that Browning and Freund would almost certainly have studied the print of Murnau’s Nosferatu captured by Universal, as there are numerous similarities between the two films, but Browning also ransacked his earlier work for ideas, notably London after Midnight.
Yet, strangely, while that silent era film inspired a novelisation that revelled in sound, Browning’s sound version of Dracula was a film of silences, almost devoid of music. Universal also prepared a silent version of the film for those cinemas not equipped for sound projection; the number of intertitles used in this version was more than twice that in The Unknown, which is testament to the fact that the plot had come to rely on dialogue. Lugosi had to rein in his stage techniques for the screen, while his limited fluency in English resulted in, as Skal and Savada state, ‘a highly mannered and oddly inflected style that become his trademark – and the very essence of vampire elocution’. When Terence Fisher came to make his 1958 version of Dracula for Hammer, Christopher Lee played the Count without speaking, as if to erase the traces of Lugosi (Hammer had perhaps not reckoned on Lee’s rich, aristocratic drawl being a perfect fit for a new kind of vampire antihero).
Dracula took two disorganised months to shoot, and by night producer Paul Kohner shot a rival Spanish-language production on the same sets with a completely different cast and crew, including director George Melford. Browning’s budget was $355,000 (it actually came in overspent at $441,000), Kohner’s a mere $68,000, but the latter emerged as technically superior. Browning was not allowed the final cut, and the studio trimmed the director’s version down by nearly 10 minutes. Dracula premiered on Thursday 12 February 1931 (ironically moved forward a day from the unlucky Friday 13), apocryphally advertised as ‘the strangest love story of them all’ as a counterpoint to St Valentine’s Day. Lugosi’s performance was almost universally praised and the film was a box office sensation, pulling in $1.2m worldwide and stabilising Universal’s finances to give the studio its only profitable year throughout the Great Depression. The film was uniquely frightening to audiences at a terrifying moment in social history, and thus marked a turning point in American cinema.
Although Browning subsequently horrified both his employers and the public with his extraordinary circus sideshow movie Freaks in 1932, MGM was in need of a horror film to rival Universal’s The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer’s adaption of Edgar Allan Poe’s story) and its upcoming Bride of Frankenstein, James Whale’s sequel to his 1931 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel. So Browning was hired again in 1935 to remake London after Midnight as Vampires of Prague or Mark of the Vampire, with a first version of the script by Guy Endore, whose 1933 novel Werewolf of Paris had been a ground-breaking best-seller. Numerous other writers contributed to the final version, including John L. Balderston, co-author of the stage version of Dracula. Lugosi was cast in just one of Chaney’s parts – that of the vampire, a caricature of Count Dracula. Lugosi and his much younger co-star Carroll Borland played their demonic father/daughter roles with great chemistry between them and were apparently oblivious to the fact that Browning had scripted an ending that revealed the vampires to be nothing more than actors. Fakes. The film is both highly derivative of Browning’s previous work, yet also in its own way innovative, as Borland’s character and performance created the prototype of the mute, yet hissing and growling, straight-haired female vampire that has haunted popular culture ever since. Production stills show Browning as a crumpled, broken figure; during filming his catch-phrase was ‘Lon Chaney would have done it better’. Unlike London after Midnight, Mark of the Vampire ran over schedule and budget. Despite being a sound film, like Dracula it was released without music, while Franz Waxman’s vital, atmospheric score for Bride of Frankenstein was the sweet music that underlined Universal’s triumph in the battle of the studio horrors.
Browning’s next film would be The Devil Doll (1936), inspired by fantasy writer Abraham Merritt’s dark arts novel Burn, Witch, Burn! (1933). But by 1939 his career as a director was over, although he stayed on the MGM payroll until 1942, during which time it has been claimed that Browning wrote mystery stories pseudonymously for pulp magazines. After decades of drug addiction, Bela Lugosi died in 1956 and was buried wearing his Dracula costume and make-up. Browning did not attend the funeral. Hobbled by gout and still drinking two dozen bottles of beer a day, Browning himself died in 1962, aged 82 (or possibly 88, depending on which version is to be believed). In accordance with Browning’s wishes, no funeral service or memorial was held.
The industrial speed with which both Browning/MGM made the film of London after Midnight and Grosset & Dunlap published Coolidge-Rask’s novelisation is probably a thing of the past. Stories were adapted, films were produced and remade, books came out of them, all in a cycle of quick succession. Nitrate film prints of the silent era were deemed without value, and recycled to extract their silver while avoiding print storage costs. Key titles of early cinema were routinely lost. But since the early days of Dracula, Nosferatu and London after Midnight, things have changed. Films and books are now routinely archived and preserved, while the cultural appeal of the vampire story has risen again and again, maybe ebbing and flowing from one generation to the next, but at an early 21st-century high, not least with the appeal of the Twilight series (based on a book, of course, by Stephanie Meyer). There have been many Draculas, and much debate about which actor best portrayed the Count. London after Midnight’s meeting of the occult monster and the detective seems now like an exceptionally early manifestation of what would become a popular trend in mid-late 20th-century Hollywood and pulp fiction, the mashing up of legends for new twists. Meanwhile the detective story also went on to capture new audiences in their millions, particularly the recent television adaptations of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss for the BBC (with book spin-offs by Guy Adams). But if anyone knows whatever happened to Marie Coolidge-Rask after 1928 – or whether the Christine Sparks of The Elephant Man book became the prolific romantic novelist Lucy Gordon – that would clear up another little mystery … or case of mistaken identity.
The BFI’s Gothic season runs in cinemas UK-wide and online until January 2014. For further information visit the BFI website.
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Directory of World Cinema: American Independent 2
By John Berra Ed. Intellect
Christmas came early for me this year. I received a copy of Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses, which is one of those fantastic coffee-table books that can only be described as ‘lush’. The book is not only beautifully and lovingly put together, but is one of the best and most pleasurable overviews of the formidable Roger Corman’s film career in print. The last few years, especially since Hollywood finally deigned to give Corman an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, have seen his critical star rise and rise. But film fans already realised long before academics did that Roger Corman is a figure of brilliance and wonder in the firmament of American cinema. Without his initial support and chance-taking on novice directors and actors – and the skinflint budgets of Arkoff & Nicholson of American International Pictures (A.I.P) – we may never have had the future pleasure of the company of Joe Dante, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorcese, Monte Hellman, Ron Howard, James Cameron, Haskell Wexler, Jonathon Demme and dozens of other directors, writers and actors from the ‘Corman School’. There are substantial interviews and commentaries from these directors, who uniformly speak in praiseworthy, sardonic and anecdotally apt terms of their mentor. When first-timer Ron Howard complained – as many directors had before and after – about the impossible shooting schedule, the small crew and the desperate need for a bit of cash for some extras to shoot a crowd scene, Howard recounts that Corman put his hand on his shoulder and said, ‘Ron, I’m not going to get you more extras. But know this: If you do a good job for me on this picture, you’ll never have to work for me again.’
Abrams have produced a book that is a cornucopia of visuals – poster art, stills and on-set photographs – and unusual for most coffee-table books, includes many pages of informative observation. I am a bit smitten with Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses and consider it my book of the year in the category of film-publishing delectables. Stephen King has called it ‘Fantastic – a treasure trove’ and who am I to disagree? On an interesting note, it has recently been announced that ‘ex-student’ Joe Dante is to make a biopic about Roger Corman, who is now in his mid-80s, and the great man is going to take a cameo role.
In my last column I waxed lyrical about the book Offbeat: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems. And now with the publication of X-Cert: The British Independent Horror Film comes a volume that can stand proudly beside it as another informed enthusiast, and inveterate viewer, of films from the ‘wrong side’ of the British cinema-tracks takes us on a journey there. This time the book concerns the other world (and other-worldly) domain of lesser known and barely remembered British horror films. And these films are not ‘independent’ in the American indie sense, but independent in terms of vision (very blurry in the case of some), finance, studio backing and producers. John Hamilton has obviously done his homework here – not in theoretical but in historic and cultural terms – with lively notes on each film’s anatomy, plot and reception. At the end of each entry is a clever segue into the next, which serves as a great aid to continuity and chronology. Not to be missed for fans of the genre or those interested in films that critics like C.A. Lejeune of The Observer and Dilys Powell of The Sunday Times denigrated and dismissed from their imagined ‘quality British cinema’ agenda. But now the cinematic undead rise from their celluloid tombs, and are being heard because John Hamilton has given them voice. Recommended.
The Intellect imprint continues to push out its titles thick and fast, with recent additions to two of its ongoing series, World Film Locations and Directory of World Cinema. The former focusses on the role of particular international cities and their place visually, culturally and sometimes psychogeographically within the cinematic forum, while the latter concentrates on national cinemas and has provided a much-needed publishing niche for overviews of both well and less well-known world cinemas. Latin America and Turkey are two such recent additions to the series, while American Independent 2 bucks the thematic trend somewhat by focussing on American indie cinema (a typology of production type) rather than following the usual strict, national cinema format.
For more information on all recent additions to Intellect’s World Film Locations and Directory of World Cinema series visit the Intellect website.
Of course, the whole issue of ‘independent’, given the continuing practice of corporate Hollywood taking control of many ‘independent’ films in terms of distribution (and finance), is a convoluted one, as editor John Berra touches upon in his introductory overview. I have come to trust Berra’s opinions and observations (he is a recurring name at Intellect as editor and contributor) and this particular title is insightful and will prove to be referentially useful for students of film. Just as Turkey and Latin America will likewise prove to be as introductory texts to various national cinemas which we often do not hear enough about. The series usually starts off with an essay on the ‘film of the year’, which seems a curious strategy, given that by the time the book is published it is already dated, because the film festival circuit has usually already presented the one of the following year. Far better, I feel, to subsume the key film within the body of the text and not chance perceived obsolescence. As for the series on film locations, I suggest that any cinephile or traveller who wants to get a handle on their chosen destination in terms of the cinematic – and hence cultural, social, historical and political – background gets hold of a copy about the place in question before leaving home. This could well change your whole itinerary.
James B. Evans
GONE… BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
In keeping with the above theme of Roger Corman and A.I.P, this edition of Cine Lit’s object of note is the enjoyable romp that is the memoir of Samuel Arkoff, who along with lawyer James Nicholson founded A.I.P., the company that launched – well, sustained! – a thousand drive-in screens across North America. While bunking off for an afternoon from the Toronto Film Festival to haunt the second-hand bookstores, I found a hardcover copy of the memoir, Flying Through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants (Birch Lane Press, 1992), for the very reasonable price of $4.99. This tongue-in-cheek look back at Arkoff’s misadventures in the ‘picture business’ (the subtitle is The Man Who Brought You I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF & MUSCLE BEACH PARTY ) is an important historical document of the period, as well as an insightful look at ‘the business’. Arkoff was one of the last cigar-chompin’ independent showmen whose verve, swagger and chutzpah drove him to produce over 375 films, about which he writes: ‘AIP’s pictures have always just taken audiences out of their everyday world and transported them somewhere else. Today’s movies use their big budgets as selling points and they still don’t hit an audience half as hard as ours always have.’ Those who got their first chance with A.I.P collectively gave us such gems as: The Wild Angels, How To Stuff A Wild Bikini, Bloody Mama, House of Usher, The Thing With Two Heads, Blacula, Cannibal Girls, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, The Trip and the unforgettable The Wrestling Women Vs. The Aztec Mummy. ‘Nuff said… SAVE THIS BOOK. JE
Screening as part of the BFI’s ‘Gothic’ season. For more information visit the BFI website
Dates: 26 November 2013 (The Pit and the Pendulum), 27 November 2013 (The Masque of the Red Death)
Venue: BFI Southbank
As part of the BFI’s ‘Gothic’ season, veteran film director and producer Roger Corman visited London in October 2013 to introduce a screening of his film The Pit and the Pendulum (1961). The season also includes Corman’s lurid and unforgettable film The Masque of the Red Death (1964), the penultimate movie in his sequence of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations.
In the first part of his interview with Roger Corman, Alex Fitch talks to the legendary director and producer about his early career, the differences between shooting in monochrome and colour, and his art of remixing other people’s movies.
Alex Fitch: You produced your first film at the age of 28 and directed your first film a year later. In terms of the start of your career, you trained as an industrial engineer before having a moment of clarity and realising that you’d made a terrible mistake. You worked as a mail boy at Twentieth Century Fox, then a script reader. Working at the fringes of the film industry at that point, was it a challenge to work your way up the ladder?
Roger Corman: It was very hard. At that time there were very few independents – there were some but not very many – almost everything was done within studios. The studios were 100% unionised, and you couldn’t get in to the union without all kinds of things happening. The only position in the studio that was not unionised was the messengers.
I suppose it’s quite similar today, that you get loads of people breaking into the British film industry by working as runners to get their foot in the door.
The genres that you mainly worked in during the 1950s were Westerns, Horror, Gangster movies. Were they genres you were already interested in as a cinemagoer, or did you see a gap in the market?
A combination of both. Then, and to this day, the films I make are partially things I’m interested in, and partially things I believe will work in the market place. It’s the old statement: motion pictures are part art and part business.
You’ve gone back and forth between being a producer and being a director. Are they both roles you love equally?
I liked it best when I was producer and director, because as a producer/director, you truly are this overused word ‘auteur’; you are responsible specifically for what is going on. When I was a director only, I chafed a little bit at some of things suggested or sometimes ordered by the producer. When I’m a producer only, I’m sometimes amazed at some of the choices the directors make.
How hands on are you as a producer? Do you generally – when you’ve chosen someone – trust in their vision, or occasionally do you have to give them a prod?
As a producer I’m probably less hands on than just about any other producer I know; that is, I’m less hands on during the shooting. I’m very much there during preproduction and postproduction. The pictures are almost always ideas I’ve come up with: I’ll write a three-to-five page treatment, then hire a writer to do the screenplay, then bring in the director. Generally, I’ll bring in the director before the final draft of the screenplay, so that he gets his input into the screenplay, so it’s something he understands and can work with. Then I’ll collaborate or work with the director a great deal before shooting, particularly on the themes, how he plans to shoot, what his emphases are, what his interpretations of the characters are. So, I’m really there, all through preproduction, but once production starts, I just totally step away. I know some producers who are sitting there all day long, every day during shooting. To me there’s nothing duller than sitting on the set watching somebody else direct the picture. I’ll be there the first morning, and – if it’s all going well – by noon, I’ve left the set and probably will never come back.
Also, I suppose it’s unnerving for the director if the producer is always looking over their shoulder…
…and particularly, the first pictures on which I was a producer only, I found that the crews were coming to me, asking me questions that they should have been asking the director, and that was one of my reasons for stepping away. I know that having been a director, the director wants to be in charge, and should be, on the set.
Conversely, with the very first films you worked on in the 1950s, you were sitting in on the sets, to learn the craft by watching other people?
Yes. The first two films I produced, I was on the set every day. On the first film I was partially a grip, and I was the only producer/truck driver! I drove the truck as well… We shot the picture in a week. I would drive to the location, unload as much of the equipment as I could by myself, before the crew arrived, in order to save the amount of time they had to spend, and I’d be there all day. At the end of the day, the grips would load the heavy equipment onto the truck, everybody would leave, I would load the rest of the equipment and drive home, and repeat it the next day.
…and I suppose when you’re making low-budget movies, it garners you respect if you’re one of the gang…
They knew that I was working as hard, or harder than they were!
A series of films that you worked on, possibly your most renowned period of work, were the Technicolor Edgar Allan Poe films of the 1960s. Having worked on low budget black and white films in the 1950s, moving to colour must have created all sorts of new challenges – not as prevalent in monochrome – set dressing, lighting, costume design and so on. How did you find that experience? Was it at all terrifying or did you find it a natural progression?
It was a natural progression. There was very little change in the way I worked. I used the camera a little bit differently, and after talking to the cameraman, I was lighting a little bit differently. Danny Haller – a great friend of mine – was our art director, and he and I would discuss the sets. We worked with different colour schemes and patterns on the sets.
Watch the trailer for The Pit and the Pendulum:
You probably brought Poe to an entirely new audience. Did you feel at that time that he was a writer being under represented in the cinema?
Yes, I felt that Poe was under represented and was really not getting the attention he deserved in the American canon. He was thought of as an interesting writer, but not really one of the great writers, and I always felt he was one of the greats.
Presumably he still had a good reputation, so did that make it easier to choose him as the subject of your first colour movies?
Actually my first colour movie was a Western, but after that, with my next colour films, I chose Poe because I wanted to do an Edgar Allan Poe picture. I’d been making these ten-day, black-and-white films, two of them would go together as a double bill, and I convinced American International Pictures that they should let me go shoot for three weeks and make a picture in colour, and that was The Fall of the House of Usher (1960).
Towards the end of your Poe cycle, you had a young Nicholas Roeg as your cinematographer, shooting The Masque of the Red Death (1964). What was he like?
He was one of the best cinematographers I ever worked with. He was very inventive and his use of colour… We had discussed it before shooting started, and he went beyond what I anticipated. I thought the film was beautifully shot.
Watch the trailer for The Masque of the Red Death:
At the same time you were making those Poe films, you helped young directors remix various Russian sci-fi films that you’d bought the rights to. The art of remixing foreign films already existed, started with films like Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956), Invasion of the Animal People (1959), and later in the 60s, Woody Allen would do What’s up, Tiger Lily? (1966), but it felt that you were almost nurturing a new art form.
Well, it was a new form, I’m not certain it was a new art form! What I was doing with the Russian science fiction films… I’d seen one of them and American science fiction films were very popular – I made a number of them myself – but we were making them on very low budgets and I’d seen this Russian film, which was clearly made on a big budget, a giant budget. It had wonderful sets and wonderful special effects, far superior to what we were doing. They only problem was the anti-American propaganda, so I wasn’t so much recutting the films as such, I was removing the anti-American sentiment. That was Francis Ford Coppola’s first job – cutting the propaganda out of Russian science fiction films.
It was pretty wild. I remember I went to Moscow to buy those films and they had incredible anti-American propaganda in them. We of course had anti-Russian propaganda, but our propaganda was one tenth of theirs. Theirs was really outrageous, and I said to this guy in Moscow: ‘You know I’m going to have to cut this anti-American feeling, I’m going have to cut it all out.’ He laughed and said: ’I know that!’
By the time you got to Queen of Blood (1966), Curtis Harrington used about three different Russian films, so it really does feel like a remix of found footage.
At that time, it was our found footage! The only time I really did that was on these science fiction films.
Although, a film you produced in the late 1970s – Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) – you did reuse that later on in your career, with bits of special effects here and there, and I believe the score reappeared in a number of your films. Was it a project you were so proud of, you thought: ‘Let’s keep getting it out there?’
I was proud of it and also there was an economic factor. It was one of James Horner’s first scores, a brilliant score and really better than what I was getting from other composers. So, it just seemed illogical not to use his score again. We always used it in science fiction films. With the special effects, I was reusing primarily space ships that were designed by James Cameron. His first time in Hollywood was designing those model spaceships.
The Raindance Film Festival has a history of screening independent Asian cinema, and this year was no exception, with 13 films showing in the Way Out East strand, including the world premiere of Gen Takahashi’s Court of Zeus. Below, Sarah Cronin takes a look at some of the highlights.
The Kirishima Thing (Daihachi Yoshida, 2012)
A polished, intelligent and entertaining film, Daihachi Yoshida’s The Kirishima Thing won the Best Film and Best Director prizes at the Japanese Academy Awards. Taking place over a period of five days, a series of events is revealed from different points of view in this compelling high school drama. The title relates to star pupil and athlete Kirishima, who mysteriously quits the volleyball team and disappears from school, leaving behind a trail of teen angst. He won’t answer his girlfriend’s texts; his best friends, who skip the virtually compulsive after-school activities to hang out playing basketball, are left in the dark; while his replacement on the volleyball team is bullied for not being Kirishima’s equal out on the court.
With its obvious focus on cliques, the films has well-known elements of the American teen drama: there are the attractive, popular kids; the shy, nerdy outsiders (in this case, they’ve all joined the cinema club, sneakily making a zombie film), and the rebels. There’s the popular, pretty girl who secretly wants to join the cinema club but knows she never will, and there are the familiar heartbreaking crushes, and the devastating disappointments of adolescence. But despite these familiar tropes, the film still feels refreshing. Yoshida shines a light on the pressure inflicted on Japanese teens, with the after-school clubs seen as necessary for future success. Ultimately, that’s why Kirishima’s disappearance is so disturbing to his fellow students; it’s like the near-equivalent of suicide.
Sake-Bomb (Junya Sakino, 2013)
There are some genuine laugh-out loud moments in Sake-Bomb (admittedly mostly in the first 30 minutes), an entertainingly diverting film about the insecurities of growing up Asian-American in California, packaged in the form of a road movie of sorts. Sebastian (Eugene Kim) is unemployed, obnoxious, arrogant, and spends most of his time trying to develop a following for his YouTube channel, where he posts endless videos ripping apart Asian stereotypes. Justifiably dumped by his girlfriend, he has nothing else to do when his small-town cousin, Naoto (Gaku Hamada), arrives from Japan on an ill-fated quest to find the love of his life, his former English teacher, who suddenly returned to California without an explanation. As they travel north to San Francisco, a series of encounters with a dizzy cast of characters reveal Sebastian’s spiteful cynicism, which thaws when he meets Joslyn, a cool, equally misanthropic writer always up for fun. But it’s Naoto, charming and likeable, if hopelessly naïve, who eventually makes Sebastian confront the bitterness that he feels as an outsider.
Sake-Bomb is a charming, if slight, film that appears more interesting for its subtext rather than how it’s put together. Sebastian’s rants about the under-representation of Asian-Americans, for example, is spot on, and it’s refreshing to see Japanese-born director Junya Sakino trying to do something to redress that balance in a comedic, painfully honest way.
Watch the trailer for Sake-Bomb :
Court of Zeus (Gen Takahashi, 2013)
Director Gen Takahashi’s follow-up to Confessions of a Dog, shares the same ethos as its predecessor: a concern for the corruption that eats away at any notion of fairness in the Japanese legal system. In turn, Takahashi’s films expose the wider problems with the society at large: deference towards elders, the obsession with saving face, and the treatment of women.
Read Sarah Cronin’s interview with director Gen Takahashi here.
But where Confessions of a Dog was a riveting film with elements from both the action and thriller genres, Court of Zeus is a far less successful courtroom drama, about a newly appointed, work-obsessed judge, Kano, and his young, neglected fiancé, Megumi, who is arrested for murder after an altercation with her lover. While it is disturbing to learn that most cases in Japan are decided before the protagonists ever enter the courtroom, and the film tellingly reveals the misogyny that taints women’s domestic lives (once engaged, it’s impossible for her to work, and even her choice to take a floral arranging course has to be approved by her future husband), stylistically the film just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The cinematography is clunky in places and feels rather dated, and there are just too many awkward set-ups that lead to an unrealistic conclusion. Still an interesting watch, but sadly something of a disappointment in view of Takahashi’s promising previous work.
Shady (Ryohei Watanabe, 2012)
Ryohei Watanabe’s Shady initially seems like a middle-of-the-road, coming-of-age story about two high school girls who develop an unlikely friendship. The plain, painfully shy Misa, called ‘Pooh’ by her taunting classmates, clearly has no other friends than a goldfish and pet parrot to keep her company. But suddenly she finds herself adopted by the pretty, cutesy Izumi, and the two soon become best friends.
Although the film gets off to a slow start, making one wonder what direction it is heading in, and how it can remain so tightly focused on its two main characters, it soon becomes clear that this film is far more complex than it first seems. There are a few clues, like the disappearance of a fellow student, that are revealed in the first few minutes of the film, but in the end even the twists might not be what they first seem. Instead, Shady gradually builds into a disturbing, multi-layered drama, with impressive performances from its young leads.
Author Paula Brackston lives in a remote part of Wales and spends her spare time walking in the mountains and being serenaded by buzzards and skylarks. So it’s no surprise the landscape plays such a vivid part in the world of her book. Set in 19th-century Wales, The Winter Witch (Corsair, £7.99) is a story of love, conflict and magic, and lyrically describes how ‘wild places make wild people’. A New York Times best-selling author with an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University, Paula is also a visiting lecturer at the University of Wales, Newport. Eithne Farry
My alter ego is Lieutenant Ellen Ripley from the movie franchise Alien.
This might come as a surprise to anyone who knows me, as I find it almost too scary to watch that film, and am not given to dashing about being brave, strong (and tall, let’s not forget tall) and generally kick-ass in a Ripley-esque fashion.
But, hey, what would be the point of having an alter ego where there is no alteration? There’s not much mileage for a film character who spends her days making things up and writing them down while eating her body-weight in shortbread. As multi-tasking goes, the action movie of my own life cannot compare to Ripley’s. Not only does she fill two screen hours (not to mention those covered by several excellent sequels) with derring-do, but she broke new ground for women in films. Hers was the character that gave writers, actors, directors et al. licence to create bold female roles who could save the day perfectly well on their own, thank you very much.
I love that Ripley is not saved by a man. I love that she isn’t stupidly glamorous, and yet is still powerfully feminine. I love that she is smart. I love that she can fire a gun/fly a spaceship/battle aliens/wield a flame-thrower better than anyone else in the film. I love that she saves the cat.
Of course she still had to strip down to her underwear – this was 1979, after all (1979!) and certain things were still expected of a female lead. Yet there was something quite progressive about even that. She may be down to her smalls, but there’s no lace or push up bra, and the scene does feel necessary to remind the by-now astonished audience that yes, folks, she did all that and she really is a woman!
So, while I might appear to do no more than sit and daydream, my alternative persona is out there slaying dragons without so much as a cup of tea, showing everyone what can be achieved with the right motivation (save life, save cat), a well-toned physique (acquired from chasing/being chased by aliens), a sound working knowledge of over-sized firearms (the hefting of which eliminates all possibility of bingo wings), and a healthy dollop of self-belief.
More information on Paula Brackston can be found here.
In our final report from the 57th edition of the London Film Festival, we review some of our favourite titles from this year’s line up, along with one of very few disappointments.
Check out Part 1, 2, 3 and 4 of our 2013 LFF coverage.
Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Sion Sono, 2013)
After a couple of serious post-apocalyptic dramas made in reaction to the Fukushima disaster, Sion Sono returns with a gleeful, mischievously fun, candy-coloured comedic gore fest about wannabe cineastes hired by feuding yakuza to make a film. Humorously violent and deliriously excessive (as is to be expected from Sono) it features some striking scenes, from the yakuza boss’s white-clad young daughter sliding through a blood bath in their all-white living room, to the sexy, sassy, sadistic broken-glass kiss she gives a treacherous lover ten years later. The story takes a while to get to where it is obviously heading, but when it finally does, it does not disappoint: the verve with which limbs and heads are cut off and blood liberally spilt in the final showdown as the fanatic filmmakers continue to shoot is giddily, stupidly exhilarating. After the underlying darkness and complexities of Guilty of Romance, Cold Fish, Love Exposure and Suicide Club, this feels like a return to simpler pleasures and youthful brazenness, which may be due to the fact that the script was written 15 years ago.
Set up as a film within a film within a film, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is also a warm, exuberant love letter to cinema. It references Bruce Lee through a screaming, nunchaku-wielding action star wearing the iconic yellow jumpsuit, and comically pays homage to yakuza movies, more particularly Kinji Fukasaku’s. And amid all the madcap humour, there is a certain wistfulness about the death of 35mm, projectionists, old-school fights, Japanese culture, and the corrupting influence of money on cinema. Inventive, playful and thrill-packed, it is a vastly enjoyable slice of film-affirming fun. VS
Night Moves (Kelly Reichhardt, 2013)
Kelly Reichhardt’s latest is concerned with three eco-activists Josh, Dena and Harmon (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard) who have decided to go further than their documentary-making, organic vegetable-farming compadres and blow up a dam. As they plot to do so, their conflicting characters, backgrounds and motivations are revealed. The operation is a success, of a kind, but has unintended consequences Confident, ballsy Dena becomes an emotional wreck, sensitive, taciturn Josh grows more and more paranoid, and the conflicts become chasms. Reichhardt does good work in setting up her characters and then showing what their crime does to them. She is also is very smart and subtle about mileu and motivation, while the amateur eco-doc we see projected on a white sheet at Josh’s commune is spot on (and is actually shot by producer and horror auteur Larry Fessenden, fact fans!). As is the lame discussion afterwards.
Night Moves has its moments of well-achieved tension, but for me was a disappointment after Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff. There, her ‘less is more’ aesthetic paid off with absorbing, anxiety-inducing films that linger in the mind. Here… I don’t know, we spend an awful lot of the running time looking at Eisenberg’s anxious face, we get an awful lot of silence, and we get a Meek’s Cutoff-style finale that just sort of…ends. I needed more, for once, never feeling as involved as I did with her previous works. All in all, it’s a bit of an unthriller. MS
Watch the trailer for Night Moves:
The Double (Richard Ayoade, 2013)
Richard Ayoade’s second feature film is a very mannered affair, taking pace in its own transatlantic nocturnal bubble, where the architecture is utilitarian, charmless and shrouded in Lynchian gloom, the juke boxes play old Japanese pop tunes, and mobile phones are significant by their absence. Based on Dostoyevsky’s novel, it follows Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), an office drone whose life is a series of frustrations. Nobody notices him, his contributions are ignored, his transgressions are seized upon, and he can barely function when attempting to interact with fellow worker, and romantic obsession, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). So far so depressing, but then one day Simon’s exact double turns up at work, and immediately begins to climb the corporate ladder. This new version is confident and dynamic, a hit with the bosses and a wow with the ladies; he seems to be a better Simon than Simon could hope to be, and slowly begins to edge the original out of his own existence…
The Double eschews any kitchen-sink naturalism (the default setting for many British filmmakers) for a highly stylised, intricately planned and executed aesthetic. There’s more than a hint of Gilliam’s Brazil here, in its office politics and romantic frustration. Each scene is framed, timed and sound designed to create the maximum humiliation for Simon, and there’s a lot of physical comedy here at his expense (automatic doors particularly seem to have it in for him), while his plight is accentuated by staging that leaves him locked out and blocked off from where he wants to be. Also adding to the ‘movie movie’ experience is the casting, or, what I believe is known in the trade as ‘overcasting’: Ayoade has clearly called in a few favours to fill out his film, and as a result we have most of the actors from his first film Submarine turning up here, as well as a couple of his I.T. Crowd co-stars, and apparently everybody else with a resume he could get hold of. I’m in two minds about the effect of all this on the viewing experience. On one level it’s like another design element (I was reminded of John Water’s stated ambition to make a film where everybody who appears on screen is a celebrity of some kind, and the sets are deliberately fake). On the other hand, it is undeniably distracting to have familiar face after familiar face pop up in the tiniest roles (Chris Morris! Chris O’ Dowd! Paddy Considine! Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis, as a janitor, for christ’s sake!) regardless of the quality of their contribution (loved Tim Key’s turn as a heroically unconcerned care home worker, though). I fear that all this stylisation seals the viewer off from total engagement somewhat, and while it plays on common nightmares, it plays as someone else’s.
Whatever… this is bold, intelligent filmmaking. Eisenberg does great work as both unter-Simon and uber-Simon, suggesting two entirely different characters through body language and gesture, often acting against himself in scenes which must have been a technical nightmare. It gets interestingly dark and painful in places, I already want to see it again, and I await whatever Ayoade does next. MS
Watch the trailer for The Double:
Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
Remember Alien‘s classic poster tag line ‘In space no one can hear you scream’? It would have also been the perfect fit for Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity which, arguably, is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and mesmerising films out in cinemas this year. That is, if you are willing to suspend your disbelief at the door and take the film at face value. And most likely, you will. Because from the moment you’ve put your 3D glasses on, Gravity embraces you with its awe-aspiring CGI heart and soul. ’Life in space is impossible’, we are told, along with a summary of plain facts: 372 miles above Earth’s surface, there is no air pressure, no oxygen, and no atmosphere to carry sound. And it’s that very sense of fatal, lonely isolation that Gravity radiates, with an instantly disarming charm and cinematic virtuosity.
Gravity is released in the UK on 8 November 2013 by Warner Bros.
Though essentially a two-hander, with George Clooney as the well-versed astronaut Matt Kowalsky (Clooney being his usual smart, irresistibly charming self) and Sandra Bullock as the overly committed, new-to-space scientist Dr. Ryan Stone, who are caught in an accident while they are out in space repairing a satellite, this is really Bullock’s film. With their shuttle destroyed and all connection to Houston and soon to each other lost, she drifts through the scary, silent darkness of the universe, fighting her way from one space station to the next in the slowly dying hope that she might be able to return to Earth, all alone with her troubled soul on her mission to survive.
Taking the power of long, unbroken takes and seemingly limitless CGI imagery to a new dimension, Cuarón wisely alternates the settings between claustrophobic ship interiors and the boundless expanse of the cosmos, while never losing sight of the incredible beauty of Earth as seen from space, unashamedly putting it all in, from strikingly rendered scenes of sunrises to the northern lights from orbit. But while there is no denying that the film clearly underestimates audiences’ intelligence in terms of plot and character depth, everyone in for a unique cinematic ride against the backdrop of the abyss of outer space will have a fantastic time. PJ
Watch the trailer for Gravity :
The Sarnos: A Life in Dirty Movies (Witkor Eriksson, 2013)
Witkor Eriksson’s affectionate documentary looks at the life and work of Joe Sarno and his loyal wife (and costume designer) Peggy. Dubbed ‘the Ingmar Bergman of porn’ by John Waters, Sarno is responsible for some 75 features, but best known for the run of films he made from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s. Young Playthings, All the Sins of Sodom, Sin You Sinners, Sin in the Suburbs (do you sense a theme?), Inga, and many more, culminating in Confessions of a Young American Housewife, and Abigail Lesley is Back in Town. These were all self-penned works with a recognisable auteurist signature. ‘They were always about women’, notes Annie Sprinkle, and normally featured headstrong, not necessarily pleasant lead characters bringing about their own doom in oppressively bland contemporary America (or occasionally Sweden). Clearly atypical filth, they have gained a cult reputation over time, featuring in RE/Search’s original Incredibly Strange Films book, and now being screened and discussed at the BFI and other edifices of artistic respectability.
Not that this helps out Joe much, who is 88-years-old here, looking unfit, and a victim of bad contracts and shady deals, who doesn’t own or benefit from much of his substantial back catalogue. The Sarnos spend their life flitting between New York and Stockholm, clearly barely able to keep the wolf from the door. Eriksson follows them as Joe tries to get one last feature together, and investigates a life lived on the disreputable underside of the film industry. The film posits that the films Sarno wanted to make were rendered uncommercial by the arrival of hardcore porn, which effectively destroyed the grindhouse/drive-in ‘sexploitation’ genre. The raincoat brigade just wanted to watch people screw, and didn’t want to sit through his glum psychodramas, waiting for the sex scenes when they didn’t have to. The Sarnos also suggests that he didn’t want to have any part of the hardcore business after the failure of Abigail Lesley in 1975, largely glossing over the interim decades, but a quick glance at his IMDB page tells you that he carried on plugging away with explicit smut, and I wish the doc had asked him more about his (reluctant? regretful?) participation in these lesser works.
That bugbear aside, The Sarnos is fine stuff. It’s oddly delightful to watch this ageing couple having matter-of-fact conversations about absolute filth, while there is plenty of arcane and interesting detail to absorb, and the clips of his 1960s/70s output are tantalising. Joe and Peggy are complicated, charming people, and it’s a study of a long-term relationship as much as it is a treatise on a life in dirty movies. Be prepared to wipe away a tear. MS
Watch a clip from The Sarnos – A Life in Dirty Movies :
The Long Way Home (Aiphan Eşeli, 2013)
Set (and filmed) in East Anatolia, The Long Way Home takes place in 1915, just after the Battle of Sarikamish. A mother, her daughter and their guide, refugees from the conflict, are struggling over the snow-choked mountains when their horse gives up the ghost, and they find themselves struggling through the forbidding landscape, and the remains of war, on foot, passing thousands of frozen corpses to arrive at a burnt-out village not found on their map. Digging in to wait out the storm they find two surviving villagers, and then a couple of soldiers, but as the food runs low, what are they prepared to do to survive?
Aiphan Eşeli’s impressively confident first feature works first as a battle-against-the-elements tale of human persistence, then turns darker and more brutal as desperation sets in, only to turn again in a bit of a coup-de-cinema with a devastating final reel. Powerful, widescreen, intimate/epic stuff. MS
Watch the trailer for The Long Way Home :
The Kill Team (Dan Krauss, 2013)
A few years back, a platoon of US soldiers serving in Afghanistan made the news as ‘the kill team’, amid troubling stories about Afghans pointlessly killed and body parts kept as souvenirs. Dan Krauss’s documentary follows the defence team and parents of one of the accused, Adam Winfield, as he is prosecuted by the U. S. Army, interviewing two other platoon members, Stoner and Morlock, along the way. What emerges is a jaw-droppingly horrible account of apparent sociopaths given carte blanche to kill for fun. Winfield claims that he tried to blow the whistle on the Platoon’s actions, but was stymied by a system that didn’t want to hear it, and had to take part in one of the killings for fear of his own life. The others seem utterly unrepentant, and seem to have taken to indiscriminate murder partly because they had been trained to kill, not dig wells, and Afghanistan wasn’t what they felt had been advertised. ’It wasn’t like what they hyped it up to be, and that’s probably why, y’know, stuff happened…’
The Kill Team may focus too much on Winfield’s trial and not enough on the 5th Stryker Brigade, and it has the gaping hole of platoon leader Gibbs (who instigated the madness, denies everything, and wouldn’t take part) at its centre, but it still opens up a world of darkness to argue over long after its closing credits. Recommended. MS
New World (Park Hoon-jung, 2013)
This is the type of film that South Korean directors seem to do so superbly well: the dark action thriller with a conspiracy twist. Directed by Park Hoon-jung, New World is not nearly as disturbing, bleak and tortured as the incredibly twisted revenge story I Saw the Devil, which was written by Hoon-jung, but it is still a gripping, very well-executed example of the crime genre.
Undercover police officer Ja-sung (Lee Jung-jae) is a mole who has worked his way up in the echelons of Goldmoon, a crime syndicate that the cops have spent years trying to crack. When Goldmoon’s chairman manages to evade a guilty verdict in court, only to be killed in a car accident, a bitter struggle for succession ensues. Ja-sung, who has become a lieutenant to the powerful and vicious Jung Chung (Hwang Jung-min), is desperate to get out, but finds himself manipulated into becoming an integral player in the power struggle by his handler, Chief Kang (the always fabulous Choi Min-sik).
Although it starts out fairly generic, New World gradually evolves into something much more compelling, adding in a series of twists, some foreseen, others completely surprising, that make the story increasingly complex and exciting to watch. With all the brutal back-stabbing going on between the police and criminals alike, there’s plenty of violence and gore on top of the more thought-out plot points. Needless to say that by the film’s powerful and dramatic conclusion, there are few men left standing. SC
Virginie Sélavy, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford, Sarah Cronin
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