For one week in May, the sixth annual edition of the Terracotta Festival saw a selection of films from the Far East brought to audiences in central London. The main strand was devoted to 13 of the latest ‘must-see’ releases from across Asia, while there was also a spotlight on cinema in the Philippines, and of course the infamous Terror-Cotta Horror All-Nighter, which took place at the equally notorious Prince Charles Cinema. Below, we take a look at some of the highlights from the festival.
The Snow White Murder Case (Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2014)
Following the success of Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions (2010) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s superb Penance (2012) comes The Snow White Murder Case, the latest adaptation of a Kanae Minato bestseller. When a beautiful, popular employee at the Snow White soap company is found stabbed to death, with her corpse set on fire, local TV station worker Akahoshi (Gô Ayano) begins using social media to carry out his own investigation into the crime. As he homes in on one of the victim’s co-workers, Miki Shirono (Mao Inoue), a shy woman who has since disappeared, the amateur sleuth uncovers a series of suggestive events from her past, while TV news begins picking up the bait he’s left on his blog. Like Confessions, The Snow White Murder Case explores the circumstances surrounding the crime and its aftermath, as the combination of lies, half-truths, malicious gossip and outright hatred – fuelled by Akahoshi’s ambition – convicts the missing woman before she’s even been located by the police. Less cynical and grim than Confessions, The Snow White Murder Case is a dryly humorous film that works well as both a complex and compelling murder mystery, and as an indictment of the damage that gossip and malice can cause when combined with increasingly intrusive media networks and social media. It might not be as effective as Confessions or Penance, but it’s another respectable Kanae Minato adaptation.
Watch the trailer for The Snow White Murder Case:
Lesson of Evil (Takashi Miike, 2012)
Takashi Miike’s Lesson of Evil (a.k.a. Lesson of the Evil) has attracted comparisons with Confessions, mainly because it deals with violence in a school setting. Unlike Nakashima’s film, Lesson of Evil is a black comedy, and an extremely violent one too.
Lesson of Evil is released in the UK on DVD + Blu-ray on 29 September 2014 by Third Window Films. Special features include a two-hour-long making of and a new UK trailer.
Instead of exploring the causes or effects of violence, Miike lets us watch as teacher Seiji Hasumi – a handsome, manipulative sociopath – sees his plans and schemes go increasingly awry, forcing him to resort to ever more violent and excessive ways of dealing with the problem. Hideaki Itô makes for a convincing, even likeable monster, and the skilled Miike throws in a few bizarre touches (including some distinctly Cronenberg-esque elements) that recall his earlier films. Unfortunately, at 130 minutes, Lesson of Evil is also far too long, taking more than 90 minutes to get to its blood-drenched conclusion, losing much of the impetus built up in the first hour. The film’s final acts are certainly memorable, but would have worked better in a drastically reduced running time. Although it’s already played at a few festivals, the extreme levels of violence inflicted upon children (by a teacher, no less) will probably make Lesson of Evil a hard sell in some territories.
Watch the trailer for Lesson of Evil:
The Face Reader (Jae-rim Han, 2013)
The latest in a steady stream of sumptuous, well-mounted South Korean period dramas, The Face Reader stars Kang-ho Song (Memories of Murder) as Nae-kyung, a dissolute wretch from a disgraced family, who possesses one valuable skill: as a ‘face reader’, he can assess a person’s character from their facial features. He’s extremely good at it, which attracts the attention of a local brothel keeper who holds ‘face reading’ consultations alongside her more traditional services. After Nae-kyung correctly identifies a murderer, his fame grows even further, and before long local politicians and bureaucrats are using his abilities to weed out lazy or corrupt officials from their departments. Soon, Nae-kyung becomes a well-known figure at court, but hasn’t completely understood just how dangerous his new status could be. As always, Kang-ho Song gives an easy, believable performance as the well-meaning but foolish character stumbling further out of his depth with every step. Production values are incredible and the whole film is a meticulous, attractive recreation of 15th-century Korea, boosted by another excellent score from Lee Byung-woo (A Tale of Two Sisters, Untold Scandal).
Watch the trailer for The Face Reader:
TikTik: The Aswang Chronicles (Erik Matti, 2012)
Playing out like a Pinoy version of Dog Soldiers, this energetic Philippine horror film stars Dingdong Dantes as cocky young man Makoy. When his heavily pregnant girlfriend Sonia (Lovi Poe) returns to her distant home village after a fight, Makoy follows to try and patch things up. An impromptu banquet goes awry when the inhabitants of the next village turn up, only they’re actually aswang, a kind of shape-changing demon very similar to werewolves. Trapped in their cluttered house, Makoy and the family try and fight off the aswang, while taking care of Sonia, who goes into labour at a most inconvenient time. Shot on limited sets and augmented by extensive green-screen work, TikTik is a surprisingly good-looking film, given a budget considerably smaller than similar Hollywood movies. Director Erik Matti keeps things moving consistently and makes good use of split-screen effects, but relies mainly on an engaging cast and decent dialogue. While it’s not particularly original, TikTik is well made and memorable enough to please horror fans worldwide.
Taking place across six days, the 14th Nippon Connection film festival, held in various venues around Frankfurt, continues to act as the vanguard for showcasing both populist and independent Japanese cinema in Europe. As with previous years, the festival proudly presented the latest efforts from up-and-coming talents alongside some of the biggest directing names working today. With a hugely diverse selection of features, shorts, documentaries and experimental films in four main strands – ‘Cinema,’ ‘Visions,’ ‘Animation’ and ‘Retro’ – it is impossible to see everything that’s on offer. Below is an attempt to collect some thoughts on a cross-selection of films from each programme.
Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats (Yosuke Fujita, 2014)
The festival’s opening film, and one of the more warmly received, Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats is a sometimes absurd, sometimes crass, but always charming comedy from the director of Fine, Totally Fine (2008) and Quirky Guys and Gals (2011). Residing in the titular FukuFuku apartment building, Tatsuo Fukuda (Miyuki Oshima) is a kind and chubby decorator who lives on his own but always has time to solve the problems of his dysfunctional neighbours. But despite his popularity, Fukuda – or Fuku-chan – has always been unlucky in love, partly as a result of an embarrassing episode involving a conniving girl during his school days. His fears are put to the test when the girl (Asami Mizukawa), now an aspiring photographer, re-enters his life. The film is very much like its protagonist: slightly flabby but with a big, smiling heart. Its absurdities and eccentricities are regularly counteracted with moments of disarming pathos, and it also manages to make you care about its otherwise oddball cast of characters. Co-produced by Asian cinema distributor Third Window Films, expect to see Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats on UK release at some point.
Band of Ninja (Nagisa Oshima, 1967)
Around the time when Nagisa Oshima was directing many of what would become his seminal works of the mid-to-late 1960s – Violence at High Noon (1966), Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967), Death by Hanging (1968), etc. – he found the time to make Band of Ninja, an innovative motion-manga that photographs the panels of Sampei Shirato’s popular manga series of the same name, complete with dialogue, music and sound effects. It’s useless to try and fashion a pithy plot summary, as the two-hour runtime covers a lot of ground, so much so that it’s easy to lose track of what’s going on. Therein lies an issue with directly adapting from the page: an advantage of reading graphic literature, as opposed to watching it, is that you can absorb the material in your own time. But it is better to be confused than bored, and Band of Ninja certainly isn’t boring. Its slightly rickety appearance is belied by its frequently violent imagery, compounded further by Oshima’s quick cutting during these sequences, making the inanimate seem animate for the briefest instance. Band of Ninja is both thrilling and perplexing in equal measure.
Unforgiven (Lee Sang-il, 2013)
Although it is always amusing – and sometimes bemusing – to see the polarity of US/Japanese film remakes reversed (the 2009 Japanese version of 2004’s Sideways springs to mind), was there really much point in remaking Clint Eastwood’s classic revisionist Western Unforgiven (1992)? This is a question that looms large over Lee Sang-il’s version of David Webb Peoples’s story of a retired gunslinger teaming up with his old partner and a cocky, young rookie for one last murderous hurrah to assassinate a couple of cowboys who cut up a whore. Many of the narrative beats from the original film are handsomely replicated here, with only some minor deviations. The main draw, though, lies in the cultural transplantation from the American West to the dawn of the Japanese Meiji era, and the recasting of Eastwood’s grizzled shootist to Ken Watanabe’s shogunate relic. Another interesting detail is the new government’s detestation of the Ainu aborigines that hail from Hokkaido, which serves as the story’s new location. However, while finely made in its own right, this version is not quite as gripping as the original, possibly due to its overt familiarity and, for all its minor narrative additions and immaculate photography, lacks much of the shading that made Eastwood’s film so compelling the first time around.
Watch the trailer for Unforgiven (2013):
Backwater (Shinji Aoyama, 2013)
While there was a strong showing of light-hearted comedies in this year’s ‘Cinema’ section, such as Robo-G (2012), Yokohama Story (2013) and the aforementioned Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats, all of which are pleasantly innocuous, it was strangely refreshing to see something as prickly and dark as Backwater. Taking place in a small, dead-end riverside town in the late 1980s, the film follows 17-year-old Toma (Masaki Suda), who lives with his father (Ken Mitsuishi) and stepmother (Yukiko Shinohara). His real mother (Yuko Tanaka) has moved out but lives nearby, as she could no longer endure the violence her husband exhibits while having sex. Engaged in a sexual relationship with one of his classmates, Toma is concerned that the apple may not fall far from the tree, and that he too may have a predilection for such tendencies. Equally threatening to veer towards both dour misogyny and histrionics, Shinji Aoyama’s iconoclastic psychosexual drama is largely carried by the unsettling vibe conjured by Takahiro Imai’s graceful yet downtrodden camerawork, and a sound mix where hyperbolic insect buzzes and swells of ominous discordant noise place us firmly in an environment of sweltering oppression. Backwater is certainly an interesting work with plenty to ruminate on, but whether it can be liked is another matter.
My House (Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2012)
Shot in stark monochrome, My House looks at the meaning of ‘home’ through observing two groups of characters with two very contrasting lifestyles. The first is a collective of vagrants living in two makeshift domiciles (which can be packed down and wheeled away at leisure) in Nagoya Park, who scavenge for discarded odds and ends. The second group is a family, consisting of a mysophobic mother, a stern father and two kids, living in a reasonable modern suburb. Best known for the 20th Century Boys films, director Tsutsumi returns to his indie roots with this subtle and quietly thought-provoking work. The often enrapturing black and white cinematography not only reflects the harshness of destitute living, or by turn the sterility of a house scrubbed and cleaned within an inch of its life, but also lends the film a mythic quality that helps distance it from straight-up social realism. Tsutsumi’s observant style doesn’t hit the viewer over the head with messages, it merely suggests. My House proves to be an understated and rather endearing surprise.
Number 10 Blues/Goodbye Saigon (Norio Osada, 2013)
A Japanese/Vietnamese co-production made on location during the closing months of the Vietnam War, Number 10 Blues/Goodbye Saigon was recently unearthed by the National Film Centre of Japan. It was intended to be the directorial debut by Norio Osada, who worked as a screenwriter with Kinji Fukasaku throughout the 1970s and 80s. However, tumultuous political conditions and the production company going bankrupt left the film unfinished for nearly 40 years. It was finally completed in 2012. Number 10 Blues follows a Japanese businessman posted in Saigon (Yusuke Kawazu), who goes on the run with his Vietnamese club-singer girlfriend (Lan Thanh) and the son of an Japanese ex-soldier after accidentally killing a slightly deranged Vietnamese man who used to work for him. Cue foot chases on the mean streets of Saigon, clandestine cross-country travel and shootouts with a gang in close pursuit. Like many Asian genre films of its era, Number 10 Blues is overly macho and too earnest to be the fun and breezy potboiler it could have easily been, which is disappointing considering the effort undertaken to get the film finished after so many years.
Watch the trailer for Number 10 Blues/Goodbye Saigon:
The Tale of Iya (Tetsuichiro Tsuta, 2013)
Nearly three hours long, The Tale of Iya was tucked away in a late-night slot in the ‘Visions’ strand, a risky programming decision that strangely paid off. There was something about watching this sprawling rural epic near the witching hour that lent it a dreamlike aura; one could simply melt in the chair and let its majestic 35mm imagery wash over the senses. Set in a small farming community, the film follows a disparate cast of characters whose lives overlap and impact on one another. An old man who lives alone on the mountain rescues a baby, the sole survivor of a recent car accident, from a blizzard. Now a teenager, Haruna spends her days going to school and helping her adoptive grandfather tend to the crops. Meanwhile, a disillusioned man from Tokyo arrives seeking a more humble life. He crosses paths with a construction company that is building a tunnel through one of the mountains, as well as the group of gap-year Westerners opposing its progress. Evoking past classics such as The Ballad of Narayama (1958/1983) and Kaneto Shindo’s The Naked Island (1960), the ambitions of the film’s young director – only 28 at the time of production – are highly commendable. However, the film perhaps overshoots, indulging in a final act set in Tokyo that doesn’t quite sit with what came before, even though it leads to the kind of wonderful moment that can only be realised in cinema. But even if it does meander, The Tale of Iya is by turns grounded and magical, and bears all the hallmarks and directorial assurance of a modern, almost masterpiece. It is a deeply impressive and immersive work.
Antonym (Natsuka Kusano, 2014)
In an era where most new Japanese films seem to be clocking in at over two hours, the presence of Antonym, a sprightly 73-minuter, was all the more intriguing. Partaking in an evening writing class, Aya (Yuri Ishikaza) wins a competition that will see her 10-minute radio play broadcast on a midnight time slot, but only on the condition that she take on a co-writer to rework the script. Intending to work on the project alone, the stubborn and selfish Aya asks a work colleague, Sachiko (Asami Shibuya), to pretend to be her co-writer and sit in on meetings with her teacher. However, Sachiko has a natural knack for writing and wants to get properly involved. What follows is a delicate drama on an intimate scale about two characters of opposing dispositions, but each lonely in their own way. Aya is insular, whereas Sachiko yearns for connection, going out of her way to be friends with the former who, frustratingly, does not wish to reciprocate. But as their relationship develops, it begins to unwittingly mirror the themes of Aya’s play, climaxing in the unlikely pair performing the re-developed script in a recording studio. Antonym is a decent little debut from director Natsuka Kusano, although, unfortunately, perhaps too modest and esoteric to find a broader audience.
Patema Inverted (Yasuhiro Yoshiura, 2013)
With Studio Ghibli curiously absent from the animé line-up (especially strange considering the recent releases of Hayao Miyazaki’s supposed final film The Wind Rises and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Isao Takahata’s less publicised return after a 14-year directing absence), the role of flag bearer for the ‘Animation’ strand arguably fell to Patema Inverted. A mind-boggling adventure set in two dystopian worlds that have opposing gravitational directions, the film follows teenager Patema (Yukiyo Fujii), who lives in an underground city. While out exploring in the ‘danger zone’, she falls down a vertical shaft and soon discovers an outside world where everything appears to be upside down. She befriends Age (Nobuhiko Okamoto), a fellow teen who is confused about the totalitarian state in which he lives, despite the educational propaganda that claims those who are ‘inverted’, like Patema, are sinners who need to be persecuted. While the narrative endeavours to keep us guessing over which ‘world’ is in fact the right way up, it also ensures that we never lose sight of the budding, gravity-crossed relationship at its centre, which gives the film a beating heart and plenty of emotional weight. Maybe a Studio Ghibli title wasn’t needed this year after all.
Watch the trailer for Patema Inverted:
Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2013)
Winner of the Grand Jury prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and the closing film of this festival, Like Father, Like Son poses an impossible dilemma no parent would want to experience. When two couples from different backgrounds find out that their six-year-old sons were accidentally swapped at birth, they must decide whether to swap them back or remain as they are. As with Nobody Knows (2004) and I Wish (2011), Koreeda continues to riff on the theme of broken families, but in doing so further solidifies his reputation as a world-class filmmaker, often showered with daunting comparisons to Yasujiro Ozu. But maybe these aren’t so daunting anymore as, with Ozu’s best work, Like Father, Like Son is humble, humanistic, deeply edifying and executed with such gentle precision you are barely aware of the mechanics at work in making you feel engrossed and moved. Certainly one of the strongest Japanese films of recent years, and seeing as it’s not long been released on DVD and Blu-ray, there really isn’t any excuse to miss it.
Short Peace (Shuhei Morita, Katsuhiro Otomo, Hiroaki Ando, Hajime Katoki, 2013)
An omnibus feature composed of four short animated stories, Short Peace is a mixed bag of minor successes and near misses, which has enjoyed exposure due to the involvement of Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo: he wrote and directed the second segment, ‘Combustible’, and his manga served as the basis for the fourth, ‘A Farewell to Weapons’. The format of equally allotted segments is problematic. The first segment, ‘Possessions’, feels a little too long, whereas the aforementioned ‘Combustible’, a story about firefighting in feudal Japan, feels too short and ends just as it starts to get interesting. Segment three, ‘Gambo’, where a famed and mythical white bear fights a hulking red demon, and urban combat set piece ‘A Farewell to Weapons’ are better paced, although the latter is tonally mismatched with the first three due to its futuristic setting. Despite being assembled by some of the industry’s leading figures, Short Peace, while intermittently worthwhile, doesn’t quite coalesce as a whole.
However, special mention needs to be given to one of the screenings’ supporting shorts. The Portrait Studio(Takashi Nakamura, 2013), a beautifully executed story of a late 19th-century portrait photographer who tries to coax a smile out of a particularly stubborn customer over the course of several decades, was of a similar length to the individual segments of Short Peace and roundly upstaged them all with its pictorial animation style, nostalgic air and delightful piano score.
Watch the trailer for The Portrait Studio
The Ko Nakahira Retrospective
This year’s ‘Nippon Retro’ strand honoured the work of the little known Ko Nakahira, an early innovator of the 1960s Japanese New Wave who laid the groundwork for the likes of Shôhei Imamura, Nagisa Ôshima and Seijun Suzuki. Nine films were selected to be shown at the German Film Museum, which served to highlight the variety of styles, genres and production circumstances that Nakahira worked within while at Nikkatsu throughout the 1950s and 60s.
Nakahira often got into hot water with studio executives over the quick pacing of many of his films, concerned that audiences acclimatised to the more tranquil and metered styles of Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse et al., would have difficulty keeping up. He also got into trouble with the censors over his frank handling of sexual issues. For instance, That Guy and I (1961) is a vibrant yet bawdy school comedy focusing on the new youth culture that rocked the archipelago at the turn of the decade. Characters openly discuss sexual desires with one another as well as bodily functions like menstruation. But the film also isn’t afraid to touch on serious political issues, such as the student riots and the rape of one of the female characters. Only on Mondays (1964) is about good-time girl Yuka (Mariko Kaga), whose life consists of little more than exploring her sexual prowess and her hold over several men, all the while eschewing genuine intimacy as the result of a psychosexually damaging childhood trauma. Stylistically, the film seems to be a reaction to the French Nouvelle Vague, which in turn was partly influenced by Nakahira’s work – reportedly, François Truffaut was particularly receptive to what would be Nakahira’s calling card, Crazed Fruit (1956).
The retrospective also looked at the other side of Nakahira’s career: his less personal, director-for-hire output. A highlight of this was most certainly The Black Gambler – Devil’s Left Hand (1965), the last in a six-part Black Gambler series of films starring Akira Kobayashi as a superstar gambler, who beds women effortlessly and often gets caught up in plots of international intrigue. A professor from the fictional nation of Pandora concocts a scheme to take over Japan’s gambling industry, and plans to build an army (it is revealed that the nation’s army consists of only 56 soldiers) with the revenue. For reasons that are never quite explained, the professor must defeat Koji, the Black Gambler, in order to fulfil his plans. He enlists the help of his three brightest students at Pandora’s University of Gambling: an old woman, a blind man and a precocious child, who each take Koji on. Tongue firmly in cheek, what follows is akin to a Roger Moore-era Bond film (although this was produced before Moore took over from Sean Connery), a franchise that the Gambler series emulated in a number of ways to capitalise on its popularity.
The Koji Yamamura Retrospective
The ‘Animation’ strand also had its own retrospective of sorts this year, a screening that collected several short works by independent animator and teacher Koji Yamamura. Yamamura attended the event to present 11 of his films. Standout pieces included the Oscar-nominated Mt. Head (2002), a modern interpretation of a traditional rakugo story of a man sprouting a small cherry tree from his head after eating cherry seeds; The Old Crocodile (2005), an amusingly macabre tale based on Histoire du vieux crocodile (1923) by Léopld Chauveau; and Muybridge’s Strings (2011), an exquisitely crafted visualisation of Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 experiments of consecutively photographing each phase of a galloping horse’s movements. Filled with wit, intelligence and unusual ideas, Yamamura’s work shows a different side of animé, proving that there’s more to it than giant mechas, busty schoolgirls and fan service.
Author and editor Michelle Lovric’s latest novel The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters (Bloomsbury) is about Irish skulduggery, sibling rivalry and torrents of hair. Her 2005 novel The Remedy, a medical murder-mystery, was long-listed for the Orange Prize. 2010’s The Book of Human Skin took on holy anorexia, unmitigated villainy and an unusual form of bibliomania. So it’s no small coincidence that Lovric finds her filmic alter ego in one of playwright and screenwriter Martin McDonagh’s darkest characters. Eithne Farry
Should I worry that I identify so strongly with a philistine, impotent, dwarfist, suicidal, child-killing Colin Farrell? In Bruges is one of my favourite movies, strongly flavoured with the ink-black Irish bile that flows from my favourite playwright, Martin McDonagh, whose Lieutenant of Inishmore piles up more bodies per square inch of stage and more nervous laughs per minute than anything else I’ve ever seen.
In Bruges has a less biblical body count, but the humour is just as pleasantly vicious. Colin Farrell’s Ray bungles the contract killing of a priest and shoots a child. He’s hustled off to Bruges by his minder, Ken (Brendan Gleeson). The two explore the city while awaiting instructions from their boss, Harry, monstered with magnificently vulgar brutality by Ralph Fiennes.
Bruges is enchanting in the mist. Ken is softened and transformed by the beauty of the mediaeval city. But Ray is hilariously impervious to the city’s charms. The more lovely the view, the darker his view of it: ‘I grew up in Dublin. I love Dublin. If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn’t, so it doesn’t.’
Two things draw me to the movie: its treatment of the sense of place and the issue of complicity. The death of a child is outside the moral code of the contract killer. Ray carries his guilt like a burning brand, scorching everything he sees and thinks. He knows a child killer does not deserve to live. So Ray begins to embrace and even to be complicit in the idea of his own righteous death.
Complicity is explored in my novel The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters. The narrator, Manticory, is complicit in the exploitation of her own body and hair by various men who turn her and her six sisters into stars of the stage and the pharmacy shelves. Manticory is also dangerously complicit in the bullying of Darcy, her oldest sister, whose machinations she entirely fails to curb until it’s too late, and she herself has become part of a crime.
Sense of place is crucial to The Harristown Sisters, set in famined Ireland and in Venice. In Ireland, pessimism falls like the rain; the crooning crows mock the poor, barefoot Swiney sisters. Like Ray, Darcy Swiney is utterly untouched by Venice’s sinuous canals, her dreaming palaces, the history sweltering out of her stones. But Manticory, like Ray, sinks into the city and becomes part of it, and it becomes part of her.
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first film in 23 years is a strictly personal affair, an attempt to reconstruct his life from childhood to the present. For most of its 130 minutes, The Dance of Reality (La danza de la realidad) feels like a potpourri of adventures both magical and tragic. There is no point in trying to compare it to the vicious energy and boldness that his earlier midnight movie masterpieces (El Topo, Santa Sangre) generated, as clearly it would do this beautifully constructed and aptly surreal biopic injustice. Besides, the more revealing film about the Chilean director might be Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune, an entertaining glimpse into the truth behind Jodorowsky’s famously aborted plans to bring Herbert’s epic fantasy novel to the screen. But where Pavich’s documentary is eye-popping and hilarious, Jodorowsky’s own account of his past quests and journeys is poetic, haunting and mystical, flashing with insight and lingering in the mind long after the tale is told.
Pamela Jahn met with Alejandro Jodorowsky at the Cannes film festival in May 2013 and told her about the healing power of filmmaking, the joy of creating and the magic of reality.
Pamela Jahn: It’s wonderful to see a new film by you after so many years. Why did it take you so long to make another film?
Alejandro Jodorowsky: In the beginning cinema was an art, a really great art, but then the stars came, and with it the money. When the stars came, that was the illness of the industry. And today, cinema is in the hands of producers, it’s all about money. I wanted to make art and every time I tried to do something, people said no, because there was no money in it for them. So I waited and thought, ‘One day I will do it’. And it’s not that I didn’t get asked to make films. People suggested I should make a political film about South America or an erotic film, but I said, ‘No, I want to do what I want to do’. So I waited – 23 years. And I suffered. Because making films is the most beautiful art in the world. I have hundreds of films in my library and every night I would wake up around 3am and watch a film. Every single day I was suffering, but I kept saying to myself, ‘One day I will do it again’.
Why did you decide to make this film at this particular moment in your life?
I am an artist. I don’t know why I do these things, because they come to me. I needed to do that film, because I wanted to heal myself, my soul, my family. And I wanted to show the audience a way to heal their memories, their past, because I feel it is necessary to do that.
Do you see cinema in general as a healing art?
Yes, I don’t believe too much in commercial cinema. These films are not really useful for the human being, because they are only entertainment. You go to the cinema, you see the film but then you instantly forget what you have seen. For me, making a film is like changing a part of my life, like having children, and to do something that opens up the perspectives of life. That’s what I am trying to do. But the problem is that for the industry, making film only means making money. So first of all, I make films that are not expensive, because if the film is too expensive I am forced to become a prisoner of the industry. Instead, I make a film with less money, but more creative intention. For this particular film though, I really needed producers who didn’t want to make money. There is a saying that if God gives you sugar, open your mouth. So if the film makes money, that’s fantastic, and I’d be very happy. But if it doesn’t, I am happy too, because I want to do whatever I want. And what I wanted to do here is to go to my little town, where I was born, and where the other children used to laugh at me, and kick me, and hate me, because I was different. I was white with this big nose, the son of Russian-Jewish parents, and nobody wanted to play with me because of that. And that made me very sad, because I loved this town. Then, 70 years later, when I came back to this place, it hadn’t changed at all. It’s like a dead town. Apart from maybe one new building nothing had changed. When I was a child, I used to have my hair cut by a Japanese guy, and when I came back, I went to get my hair cut, which turned into quite a dramatic experience for me. Because it was still the same place and the guy who cut my hair now was the son of the man who used to cut my hair when I was little – that’s in my film. In fact, I changed my town, I cleaned things up, I got the houses painted and I made the people appear in my film. I changed it, like a hero who brings the elixir to the sick, I sort of healed my place, and I needed to do that.
Watch the trailer for The Dance of Reality:
Your last film before The Dance of Reality was Rainbow Thief with Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif. Was the experience of making that film part of the reason why you didn’t want to compromise again?
Oh, I hated Peter O’Toole. And I still do today. I hate him, I hate him, I hate him.
What was so bad about him?
He was terrible to work with. He wanted to do what he wanted. At one point I asked everyone to leave the set and I took a stick, because he’s like a dog, you need to hit him in order to get him to do what you want.
Do you think your life and work as a filmmaker could have turned out quite differently if Fando y Lis hadn’t caused such a stir when it was first shown?
I made Fando y Lis in 1968. Today, even young people understand that film, but when I first made it, it was a scandal in Mexico. They wanted to lynch me, I had to hide because [Emilio] ‘El Indio’ Fernández said, ‘I will kill that guy’. And I knew he wasn’t joking because he had killed someone before. It was a terrible time. And then we managed to sell the film to the United States. At that point, I idealised America and I thought of it as some sort of triumph at last. But then the distributor who bought the film cut out everything that was somehow surrealist and creative, and they tried to make a romantic film out of it. It was shit. I wanted to explain to them that this was not my film anymore, but no one would listen. No journalist wanted to do an interview so that I could explain it to the American audience. And so of course the film was a failure. After that, I decided to make a cowboy film. But I didn’t want to make a ‘Western’, so I made an ‘Eastern’. I made El Topo, and people came to see it.
Why do you think El Topo became such a cult film?
I don’t know, really, because the whole of Mexico was laughing at me when I made it. People said I was crazy. Even the actors sometimes didn’t believe in it when we were making the film, which is also partly why I acted myself, because no one wanted to play that role. And all of a sudden I receive an invitation to the Concert for Bangladesh in New York. I was very poor at that time and the ticket was first class and all paid for, so I thought, why not, and I went there. At the airport, they picked me up in a limousine to bring me first to the hotel and then to a big concert with thousands of people. But I didn’t know why I was there until my producer Allen Klein said, ‘Don’t you know you are a star? The Beatles want to meet you, everyone wants to meet you’. And when we went to the concert, they were all there, Ringo Starr, John Lennon. The next day, they showed my film at midnight. It was my first time in America and when I came to the theatre, there was a cloud of marijuana smoke, it was unbelievable. I went on stage to introduce my picture to the public and all of a sudden I was the star of the underground. In a way, it was the birth of what they now call ‘midnight movies’.
How did you come to make Santa Sangre with Claudio Argento as producer?
After The Holy Mountain, nobody wanted to make a film with me. Allen Klein, the producer, didn’t like the film at all and so he wanted me to make an erotic film next. And then I escaped, because I didn’t want to do that. One day, I got contacted by Claudio Argento, the brother of Dario Argento, who said, ‘I am the executive producer for my brother but now I want to make a different experience, I want to change, and I want to produce a picture for you. I want you to make me a film about a serial killer woman’. I said, ‘Well, ok, I will do it’. Then I gave the script to Argento and because it was in Spanish of course, he gave it to an Italian guy to translate it. And that was my luck. Because that guy didn’t really know Spanish either, and the translated script he came up with wasn’t my picture anymore. He’d invented something completely new, a completely idiotic film. So I went to Mexico and I did Santa Sangre, which sort of was about a serial killer, but my version of a serial killer. Until today, I have not made a cent from this film, but I am happy that I made it. In fact, Santa Sangre is the film I like most of all my films. I am glad I did it.
Watch the trailer for Santa Sangre:
Do you enjoy writing comics as much as making films?
Yes, but you can’t really compare the two, it’s not the same. I don’t get the same immense pleasure from writing comics as from making a film. Because with comics, I write them in one or two months, but to make a film, it takes one and a half years.
How did you convince Michel Seydoux to give you money again, after he lost quite a lot on Dune.
I know, he did lose a lot of money and for about 20 years I didn’t dare talking to him, because I thought he’d hate me. But then there was this young American filmmaker, Frank Pavish, who wanted to make a film about Dune. My first reaction was, ‘No, I don’t want to talk about a failure’. But eventually I agreed. Then Pavish came to me and said, ‘I want to set up a conversation with you and Michel Seydoux for my film’. I thought Seydoux would never agree to this, but he did. So we met again after all these years and realised that we didn’t hate each other. After the interview, we talked and he asked me, ‘Do you want to work with me again?’ I said, ‘Yes, sure, but you need to give me two million dollars without knowing what I will do with your money’. So within five minutes, I had the money to make this film. It was so fantastic. Incredible.
The Dance of Reality is a film about your life. Do you ever worry about getting old?
No, getting older is fantastic. Age only exists in what you see, but inside me I have no age. And I have no nationality, no sex either, really. I am not a man, only when I am with my wife. But when I wake up in the morning, I am a human being – I don’t define myself by my sexuality, or my age. And I don’t have a big ego, I am not proud, because I am mortal. I know that I could die tomorrow. But on the other hand, I am only 84 years old now, so I can still
What keeps you young at heart?
Art! Art is my life. I love to create things. Miracles are everywhere but you need to learn how to see them, that’s the ‘dance of reality’. The reality you see really is a magical thing, but people don’t realise it. You need to open your mind to be able to see the miracles.
Bernard Parmegiani (1927-2013) was one the most formidable composers to emerge from Pierre Schaeffer’s music research group the GRM in the 1960s. Parmegiani’s work abounds with a vivacious corporeality. His compositions are extremely animated and dynamic, and the sounds he composes with are especially distinctive for their kinetic physicality and visceral presence. They meld environmental noises and impulses with electronic sounds and enhancements in a way that, as clichéd as it is, can best be described as alchemical. Yes, there is much in the way of transmutation or, to evoke Catholicism, trans-substantiation. A sound event or impulse without discernibly doing so becomes another event or impulse, or becomes redolent of something else, and one starts to question the nature of what one is hearing. One becomes an active listener. It is true acousmatic music. There is also a great sense of humour and a genuine sense of motion in his work. Interestingly, Parmegiani trained to be a mime artist with Jacques Le Coq in the late 1950s.
His album De Natura Sonorum (1975) is the defining musique concrète LP, a masterpiece. Notable for its exquisite timbral richness and dynamic interplay, it is also very percussive and physical. When you hear what sounds like a woodblock being struck it sounds and feels like it’s happening six inches away from your head. Although it is part of the musique concrète canon and was composed in 1975 it still radiates a sense of being sui generis and extra tempus.
Parmegiani was also a prolific composer for television and cinema, working notably with the Polish auteur Walerian Borowczyk. In Daniel Bird’s short documentary Eyes That Listen, he discusses his soundtracks for Borowczyk’s animations: ‘It’s a type of music which on purpose doesn’t exaggerate distance from the sound to the image… what you see and what you hear… is as in real life… when something falls down the chute it falls down… da, da, da…’ I think he’s underplaying just how unique his sounds actually are.
Parmegiani wasn’t the only composer Borowczyk worked with. Indeed, the Polish director was something of a pioneer in using electroacoustic music in animation. In collaboration with animator Jan Lenica, he had already worked with composers like Andrzej Markowski and W?odzimierz Kotoński, both members of the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio. It was after Borowczyk came to France in 1959 that he started working with Parmegiani on a number of films, including the macabre 12-minute animation Les jeux des anges (1964).
Perhaps Parmegiani’s most widely heard but little known work is the ident for announcements at one of Paris’ major airports, Indicatif – Aéroport Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle. This stunning, glistening micro-composition is full of mystery and magic and excited the ears of travellers for 34 years between 1971 and 2005.
I met Parmegiani once. It was at a London Musician’s Collective concert at the Institute of Contemporary Art. He was sat drinking wine with his wife, relaxing before he diffused some of his work through a monster sound system. I’d recently released a 20-minute composition on a 3” CD published by the Spanish label Oozebap. I gingerly approached Parmegiani and offered him a copy of the CD. He asked me what was on it and I said ‘It’s a collage…’ He looked back at me doubtfully and said with a slight rising inflection and hint of incredulity, ‘You like collage?’ I don’t recall my reply.
Richard Thomas will be part of a musical response to Walerian Borowczyk’s film scores at Café Oto, London, on 10 June 2014: Octothorpe presents Borowczyk: Mise-en-scène, featuring Aleks Kolkowski + The Dufay Collective (Vivien Ellis, Jon Banks, Paul Bevan & William Lyons) + Secluded Bronte (The Bohman Brothers & Richard Thomas) + short films.
Cast: Amy Seimetz, Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Gene Jones
After his slow-burn Satanic chiller The House of the Devil and offbeat romantic ghost story The Innkeepers, Ti West continues on his idiosyncratic path with a faux documentary investigating a religious cult in a far-off land remindful of the Peoples Temple’s Jonestown. Presenting itself as an ‘immersionist’ Vice piece, The Sacrament perfectly captures the mixture of reckless bravery and self-conscious ‘craziness’ that typifies the magazine through the characters of reporter Sam (AJ Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg). When photographer Patrick decides to visit his former junkie sister Caroline in the commune she has joined, they tag along to document the reunion. Although they are met by intimidating armed guards when their helicopter lands on the island, their initial interviews with commune members seem to paint an idyllic picture of life at Eden Parish. But after a bizarre on-stage interview with Father (Gene Jones), the charismatic cult leader, the surface begins to crack, and a far more sinister reality is revealed.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Ti West at the London Film Festival in October 2013 and asked him about making realistic horror, the Jonestown Massacre and the Vice style of journalism.
Virginie Sélavy: With The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, you have developed an oblique approach to the horror genre. You continue with this here, although this time you dispense with supernatural elements altogether. Why were you interested in making a realistic horror film this time?
Ti West: Mostly because this is my sixth feature and all of them have had supernatural elements, so I wanted to do something that was strictly realistic. It’s more horrific than any other movie I’ve made but whether it’s technically a horror movie I don’t know. I just wanted to do something different from the light-hearted romantic comedy ghost story that was The Innkeepers.
Why did you decide to present the film as a Vice faux documentary, as opposed to just a faux documentary?
I thought incorporating a real brand would add to the realism of the movie. When you leave the theatre and you see that brand out in the world it brings you back to the film. I’m hoping that it’s a confrontational movie that people talk about and think about.
Ahead of its UK release, The Sacrament opens in cinemas across Canada via VSC (Video Services Corp) and in the USA via Magnet Releasing on 6 June 2014.
[SPOILER ALERT] When Vice gave you permission to use their logo, did they know exactly what you were going to do? Did they put any conditions to its use?
Yes. In the original script the journalists died, and Vice didn’t want them to die, but I think it was a good idea to change that because it was too bleak anyway. In the original ending, the pilot of the helicopter didn’t get shot. The journalists got in, they made it out, but the pilot said ‘I got to do this for Father’ and crashed the helicopter, and that’s how it ended. But as we started shooting, and as it became less of a horror movie and more of a drama thriller, and because the social relevance started to resonate, because the violence that we’d filmed was very realistic and grim, the movie started to feel very heavy and bleak. And the idea of them escaping, then being killed, was too nihilistic. It wasn’t something that I wanted to say to the world. The tone of the movie was far more emotional and serious to have this cheesy ending, where it was like, and at the last second we got you with one more scare. It wasn’t about scares. It felt that while it was clever it didn’t add to what we were doing. So that, combined with the fact that Vice were saying, don’t kill us in the movie, were the reasons for changing the end.
Why did they not want to be killed in the film?
Just bad vibes. Also, in fairness to them, what they do is some of the most interesting, non-partisan video journalism right now. They go right at the heart of these places and they’re independent, they’re coming from their own Vice thing. They’re very smart, very educated and very prepared for what they do. So to have that ending to some degree would undercut what they do. People have this idea of them being hip, but they’re smarter than this. They don’t just show up in Egypt and pull a microphone. So I think it was a fair thing to do and ultimately it benefits the movie to not have them die. [END OF SPOILER]
When Father blames them for the violence that follows their arrival it’s obviously quite disingenuous, but do you think that the journalists bear some responsibility in what happens?
Yes, absolutely. I don’t think that’s specifically Vice. Part of the reason why I wanted to make a movie where the characters were from journalism is that there are all those blurred lines about the role of the media in those situations. Now, of course, Father is a psychopath, so you can’t really take what he says as fact. However, it’s true that when you look at people who are embedded in situations like Iraq or Egypt, they have this idea that they have to document whatever is happening. When it’s in another country it’s easy to say it’s not my problem. When it’s something that nobody knows about except the people who are there, I don’t know if it’s your problem or not, but no one else is going to do anything. And I think that’s where there’s this blurred line of what your role is. That’s why the characters are journalists, and not just the brother or the friend of the girl who is in the cult.
There is a real sense of tragedy in the film in the way the events unfold and the characters evolve, not just the journalists but the girl and Father too. How important was that sense of tragedy to you?
It was very important to me that the violence in the movie not be fun in the typical midnight horror movie where everybody is clapping. I wanted it to be very tragic and upsetting when the violence happens. And I wanted everyone in the movie to have their own goal that was very genuine. This movie, as are cults in general, Jonestown specifically, shows a very tragic situation, and it’s more complex than people understand. I hope people leave this movie a little shell-shocked, and that when there is horror in the movie you feel it as a realistic thing as opposed to some sort of escapism.
The music seems to follow the same trajectory as the evolution of the Vice journalists: you go from the urban cool of The Knife’s ‘Hearbeats’ as they travel to the island at the beginning, to something much more unobtrusive, sombre and disquieting. What was your approach to the music?
Yes, everything in the movie was supposed to slowly start decaying as it went on. It was my first time working with that composer, Tyler Bates, and it was great. All my movies have been with different composers so with each one I’ve tried something new for the first time. What was hard was that in something that is documentary-style like this, the movie fights the music unless it’s exactly right. We were trying to get the music that you would put in a documentary, and that would be a little sentimental, wearing emotions on its sleeve. But the most complicated, and the most important thing, was that we both felt that when all the horrific stuff starts happening, instead of having scary music we wanted to have tragic music and really bring out the emotional situation, which was a lot harder than it sounds.
The story is very close to what happened with the Peoples Temple in Jonestown.
Yes, I used that as a model because in American history it’s become part of pop culture. People vaguely know about it, but when you find out more, it’s one of the more intriguing and tragic things to have happened in American history in the 20th century. I’ve always been fascinated by it. So I used that as a model because I felt a lot of issues that made people join Peoples Temple in the 60s and 70s are still relevant today. I didn’t want to make something that was based too much on religion like Heaven’s Gate, where people thought they were going to get on an alien spacecraft and go off. That’s too far-fetched and it makes people think ‘cult’ and ‘crazy people’ immediately. What’s interesting about Peoples Temple and Jonestown, and what I tried to bring into this movie, is that they’re just regular people who have been misled and taken advantage of. And I think that’s what makes it all the more horrific and the more frightening.
Is it significant that a lot of the community members are black in the film?
To some degree yes. I wanted it to be a mixed group of people, half and half. This is also because I think that what Father is exploiting is issues with power and race, and people who feel disillusioned. And certainly in Peoples Temple’s Jonestown, the majority of the population was black. So it was keeping in line with that.
Gene Jones is amazing as Father. How did you find him?
I didn’t know who I was going to cast for this role and I was watching an episode of Louis CK’s show where Gene plays a pharmacist in one scene. It’s a very small scene but I thought that was the guy. The first scene we shot was the big interview scene. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We had 200 extras, it’s a 12-page dialogue scene, a massive undertaking. So I told him, let’s just try it, see what happens, then we’ll make a list of everything that goes wrong and we’ll make it right. Pretty much what’s in the movie is what happened on that first take. He came in, the crowd went crazy, he sat down, did a seventeen-minute take and didn’t drop one line. And all the reactions from the crowd – we didn’t tell them to do that, they just did it. It was one of those magical experiences where it all fell into place. It was also amazing to see all the extras react like that because they didn’t know what the movie was about. They were just there for that one scene, they didn’t know the whole story. But while it was great to see them all say ‘yes Father, yes Father’, on the other hand it was also terrifying because they were agreeing with everything he was saying. The idea of the movie was that everything he says should make sense. He’s not actually doing it but what he says sounds amazing. So they’re all responding in the way anyone would to a cult leader who’s promising them these great things. It was one of the most unique and exciting days I’ve ever had making movies.
What he says is mesmerising because you do find yourself agreeing with him despite knowing what he is.
Yes, and that’s one of the big theses of the movie. That’s what I wanted people to take away from the movie: these are not crazy cult people, these are people who were misled by someone who is very manipulative.
[SPOILER ALERT] He is manipulative but you also get the impression that he may believe in what he says.
That’s questionable. He certainly acts like he does. The same thing with Jim Jones in real life and this movie is that they all commit mass suicide by drinking the Kool-Aid except him and it makes you wonder – was he a coward? Did he really believe they were all going to heaven or did he not? To me that’s’ really interesting, this guy who stands there telling them one thing and does another. There are enough elements in the movie to say that he does believe what he’s saying, and enough to say that he doesn’t. Like Jim Jones, he keeps himself separate from his entire congregation and we’ll never know why, it’s something that will always remain ambiguous. Those are the things that make the story very complicated, and ultimately tragic and horrifying.
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel)
In the late spring of 2010, Jody Shapiro joyfully announced on Facebook that he was headed to Winnipeg to produce Keyhole, a new Guy Maddin fantasia starring Jason Patric, Isabella Rossellini and Udo Kier. I immediately sprang into action and furnished him with my most recently updated Greg Klymkiw’s Guide to Winnipeg (see sidebar for all the gory details). The following is our exchange on Facebook after Jody received it:
JODY: Thanks so much for the Guide. You’ll be pleased to know I’ve circulated it to the entire cast and crew and personally handed hard copies to Jason, Isabella and Udo.
GREG: Why do I have a feeling Mr Kier will take special interest in some of my suggested activities?
JODY: Hah! Agreed. Maybe Guy will do some of the things in your Guide to Winnipeg with me.
GREG: Can you do me a favour?
JODY: Name it.
GREG: At some appropriate moment of privacy and solace, would you (a) kneel before Guy on my behalf to pay him that special homage that only those who adore him with all their heart truly can and (b) whilst nimbly offering said tribute from the deepest pit of my soul, make absolutely sure that the photograph of me as Akmatov in The Heart of the World is firmly affixed to the top of your head so that his eyes are trained greedily upon my visage?
JODY: Done. Aaaaaannnnnnndddd done.
* * *
There’s a special language that develops, a shorthand, if you will, when two gents become acquainted, bonded forever, if you will, by sharing relationships with the same object of affection and, furthermore, communicating and/or commiserating, if you will, about said object of passion. Depending on the parties involved and how deep their respective repressions are, how dark and cosy their respective closets are, and how comfortable they be with each other’s mutual peccadilloes, one can safely say the aforementioned ligatures of manly gentility also apply to the greatest love/marriage of all; that between a movie producer and director. To wit, one can safely define Canadian surrealist film artist Guy Maddin and his relationships with producers within the following: beforeTwilight of the Ice Nymphs and afterTwilight of the Ice Nymphs. Acknowledging the happy aberration within these parameters, Vonnie Von Helmolt’s first-rate producerial gymnastics with Maddin on Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, the ‘before’ in this equation would be myself, and the ‘after’, none other than the charming, brilliant, deeply committed artist and filmmaker Jody Shapiro, who began his odd professional-artistic history with Maddin some nine years after mine had ended.
Jody is the director of the all-new Burt’s Buzz, a supremely entertaining documentary portrait of Burt Shavitz, the man whose face adorns a myriad of sweetly gooey products hogging shelves of health stores and pharmacies the world over. Shavitz’s insanely ubiquitous honey-infused lip balms and other body applications that bear the moniker ‘Burt’s Bees’ and his life story will receive a Canadian theatrical premiere at TIFF Bell Lightbox (the year-round home for all of TIFF’s activities, including the Toronto International Film Festival) on 13 June, following its American theatrical debut on 6 June 2014. Jody’s film also enjoyed a successful world premiere during TIFF 2013, so it seems entirely appropriate the film launches here for the general movie-going public here in the Dominion of Canada.
Watch the trailer for Burt’s Buzz:
Yes, Virginia, Santa Claus is a myth, but at least there really is a Burt.
When I recently pinned Guy to a wall and asked if he’s ever harboured masturbation fantasies involving Shapiro, he blushed, shook his head rather unconvincingly, lowered his gaze from mine and instead launched into reciting his own unique Tod Browning-like scene (not unlike the bizarre Browning pitches detailed in the great biography Dark Carnival by David J. Skal and Elias Savada). Maddin’s Shapiro-inspired scene (which hopefully will tuck its way into some future Maddin endeavour) goes thusly:
‘I see Jody at the TIFF premiere of one of his films – he’s outside the theatre stressing about getting comps to his friends. A hundred comp requests have been cavalierly tossed off in recent email correspondences. In this hypothetical (and cruel) scenario, some of the friends feel guilty that they haven’t shown much interest in Jody’s filmmaking over the previous years, so they figure they can pay him a compliment by requesting free tickets to his show. Many of these intend to go, but as the premiere approaches they realize they would rather not go. Some of them get as far as the theatre where they are greeted by long anxiety-inducing line-ups, and the sight of Jody on tippy-toes trying to find his comped friends. For his part, Jody would rather he didn’t have so many friends, especially the ones failing to show up 15 minutes early as he requested. He would much rather be inside, hyperventilating and prepping his introductory remarks, but, no, he must find these friends. Now all the stomachs are churning. Oh, the all-round anxiety! As is often the case with funerals, this strong feeling – of dread in this case, not grief – is an aphrodisiac. Jody’s friends, some not even knowing each other, throng cheek-by-jowl together outside the theatre and bond over the atmosphere hanging over the festival. Soon they pair off and fall into nearby bushes in ardent clinches! (I’m thinking now of the bushes outside Elisabeth Bader Theatre!) And there they stay, forestalling dread and anxiety by attempting to satisfy their lusts of odd providence, and the excitement only gets more and more unbearable the closer Jody’s ever-searching footsteps come to their illicitly and thoughtlessly trysting bodies. I see the scene ending, as it must, with Jody returning to the theatre, now packed with those of the unknown public who lined up in the stand-by queue, the filmmaker’s pockets bulging with comps lovingly set aside for acquaintances who got off betraying his devotion. Hot! Super hot!’
My immediate thought is this: I wonder if such an inspirational confluence of passionate bodily juices would even remotely cross the cerebella of Shapiro’s childhood friends from his North York stomping grounds on Osmond Court near Steeles and Leslie – friends he’s maintained close ties with since those halcyon days among the sleepy, grassy suburbs of Mel Lastman Land (Mel being the longtime King of North York, one-time Mayor of Toronto and furniture salesman). And how about Jody’s parents? His school teacher/principal Mom and key Ontario government consultant Dad? Might they envision their son, a nice Jewish boy from the land of majestic synagogues, delis, creameries and bagel shops embroiled – no matter how inadvertently – in such Maddinesque shenanigans? Well, perhaps not, but Shapiro proudly maintains he was never expected to enter the stereotypically staid world of ‘professional’ activities involving accounting, lawyering, doctoring or dentistry.
‘My parents were always 100% supportive of my need to pursue art,’ says Shapiro as we puff cigarettes on the sunny outdoor Gabby’s King Street patio – conveniently across from the majestic TIFF Bell Lightbox complex.
In fact, other than to smoke my endless supply of bargain-priced Aboriginal ciggies, art is what’s brought Shapiro to the neighbourhood this very day. During the previous TIFF he marvelled at the huge display boards in the Lightbox lobby, which thousands of people pay homage to – scouring the ever-amorphous schedule of world cinema. ‘They’re designed, hand-crafted for utility, but they’re also beautiful in and of themselves. They represent one massive snapshot of an important cultural event – not just in this city, but the world,’ says Shapiro. ‘I asked Cameron [Bailey, TIFF Artistic Director] if the boards were archived but given TIFF’s storage needs, they eventually make a trip to the recycle bin.’
So what’s a feller like Shapiro gonna do? He photographs them, of course – his goal now is to photograph them every year from here on in and eventually – ‘Maybe a book, maybe an installation, perhaps even a permanent exhibit somewhere. Most importantly for me is that these photographs will exist as a record’ – of what once was, is and will be.
This makes complete sense, of course, as does his family’s support. There was probably never a time in Shapiro’s childhood and adolescence when he wasn’t looking at life through a camera lens. ‘Pictures tell stories,’ Shapiro offers. ‘Stories are everything.’
This early obsession with visual storytelling grabbed him by the lapels and hung on for dear life. As a teenager, he fell in love with the immediacy of the Polaroid SX-70 camera and used it to tell stories with a ‘single image’ and upon graduating from High School, armed with a portfolio that might have been the envy of most burgeoning Yousuf Karsh aspirants, he entered York University’s Fine Arts program where he began his studies in photography. He eventually switched to film and video. ‘Most of my time,’ he explains, ‘was spent waiting for a darkroom’. Mostly, though, his love of storytelling and his desire to capture a reality that was mediated through a lens drew him closer to pictures that moved.
Here, one major event changed his life immeasurably. He volunteered to give Rhombus Media partner Niv Fichman (The Red Violin, Last Night) a ride up to York for a guest lecture. Shapiro lived, by this time, in the Annex downtown, which one would presume was an ideal location for him to offer this kindness. Unfortunately, Shapiro did not own a car, so he needed to travel way up to North York, borrow his Mom’s vehicle, drive back downtown and wait outside for Niv. Then, the battery died. Neither Shapiro nor Fichman will ever be mistaken for grease monkeys and this spanner in the works proved a most vexing challenge, which they eventually pulled off with aplomb (and a bit of assistance from the roadside service of the Canadian Auto Association – one of the Dominion’s unsung heroes during the frequent inclement weather here in the Colonies).
Once the vehicle was roadworthy, the two gentlemen forged northwards. Shapiro was then afforded the opportunity to converse and hit it off with the head honcho of what was, at the time, the world’s leading production company devoted to classical music documentaries for television.
After graduation at York U in 1994, Shapiro joined the Rhombus team and never looked back. This became his real film school – one in which he assumed a variety of roles – learning from such brilliant directors as Larry Weinstein (September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill) and Barbara Willis Sweete (Yo Yo Ma: Inspired by Bach) and, of course, one of the world’s most outstanding producers, Niv Fichman.
And it was here where Shapiro eventually met Guy Maddin in late 1999. Fichman had brokered a brilliant deal with TIFF to celebrate the festival’s 25th anniversary and the Preludes were born: a series of short films helmed from coast to coast by Canada’s most acclaimed directors, which Shapiro would be producing in the field. The films are endowed with high points, to be sure, but nothing – and I do mean nothing – comes close to the dizzying epic scope of Guy Maddin’s The Heart of the World.
‘The first time I met Guy was over the telephone,’ says Shapiro. ‘We were supposed to get acquainted and have an initial production discussion. I knew his work to this point very well and I must have spent days preparing for our chat, but all we talked about for an hour – maybe longer – was baseball.’
Shapiro has always believed that filmmaking should be fun, and in that he was influenced by Maddin, who urged him to treat the act of filmmaking as playing in a big sandbox. ‘It really was this collaboration with Guy that nailed it for me,’ notes Shapiro. ‘Fun truly became, and continued to be, the order of the day.’
Maddin, for his part, thinks the world of Shapiro, as a highly valuable producer and mensch of the highest order. ‘Look,’ insists Maddin in that way of insisting that only Maddin has. ‘The guy served 10 grinding years under the delightful thumb of Niv Fichman at the Rhombus dream factory, learning every aspect of filmmaking from top to bottom – at first, I’m sure, mostly bottom.’
Bottoms have always been integral to Gay Maddin’s art also, and he continues to wax eloquent on the matter of Fichman’s attention to Shapiro’s own bottom and subsequent moves up the ladder of love, the ladder of cinematographic epiphany. ‘I can think of no better place for a bright young thing to learn as much as Jody did, stuff they never teach you at film school,’ Maddin explains rapturously. ‘Rhombus stresses the slow massaging of the deal, getting to know the filmmakers organically. A great deal of stress is put on diplomacy, and with that, necessarily, on eating well with big league talent. Jody learned his diplomacy very well indeed and there is no more gracious man working in the business. He’s unafraid of titans as we approach them hat in hand to help us on our projects.’
I have to personally agree with Maddin. I first met Jody on the set of Heart of the World. Guy asked me if I would play the role of Akmatov the industrialist and I accepted immediately. This was a bit of long-gestating unfinished business twixt Guy and myself after I turned down the lead role in Tales from the Gimli Hospital to go to law school, but then never bothered to go – by which point, he’d recast it and I leapt on board as its producer. And now, here I was, so many years later – on the set and utterly in awe of this ‘kid’ Shapiro, tear-assing all over the place like a whirling dervish – even picking up a camera and shooting like some kind of Sven Nykvist on speedballs.
Maddin confirms Jody’s prowess as a versatile creative producer. ‘Jody’s a superb cinematographer. When he and I had trouble keeping DOPs on My Winnipeg – it turned out we were offering so little money we kept losing our cinematographers to other projects, including, in one case, a local French CBC-TV puppet show – we just decided that he would do the shooting, and we never regretted that. We saved $500 and he did a much better job than anyone else could have!’
The Shapiro-Maddin collaboration continued for several pictures. According to Maddin, the reason this relationship worked so well was Shapiro’s ‘impeccable sensitivity to the concerns of others, but iron will in his resolve to get results. That’s a rare combo in Canadian film, which is normally a roiling mess of deferential passive-aggressives enraged by how collaborators failed to intuit the most ardent hopes in others.’
While producing Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World, Shapiro developed a close friendship and creative bond with star Isabella Rossellini. Between his own producing and directing stints (prior to Burt’s Buzz, Shapiro helmed the magnificent Ice Breaker and How To Start Your Own Country), he embarked upon Green Porno, Rossellini’s immortal series of short films sexualizing nature in all its glory. ‘Isabella is the Jean Painlevé of her day,’ says Maddin. ‘With a singular bio-comedic manifesto, an inscrutable tone so delicate it could easily get crushed by the distractions of simply making the work, it was Jody who was instrumental in helping her see her mission through. He frequently produced, directed or co-directed, and even shot the episodes.’
Rossellini, serving as an Executive Producer on Burt’s Buzz, concurs: ‘If it wasn’t for Jody’s special style of making films, I would have never been a director. He knows how films can be made diligently and meticulously, but without the many assistants running around and numerous memos and call sheets. This style actually gave me the courage to direct.’
Maddin adds: ‘Jody is there – as close to conception as is humanly possible and he’s there right till he put on his midwife’s hat. Do midwives wear hats?’
Well, Burt Shavitz certainly wears a hat and he’s been midwife to billions upon billions of bees and frankly, given Shapiro’s pedigree, could there be anyone better to tell Burt’s story than the meticulous, amiable Shapiro? Upon meeting Shavitz through Rossellini, who’d been contracted by the Burt’s Bees Company to be a spokesperson for their product, Shapiro was immediately taken with the bearded old hippie. Rossellini suggested the company hire Jody to shoot a series of interviews that they could use for archival purposes. Shapiro spent a few days getting to know Burt and interviewing him. Going through the footage, Shapiro was convinced a documentary film existed in there somewhere. When he heard that Burt, this supremely private old guy, happy to just be alone on his farm, would soon be taking a promotional tour to the Far East, Shapiro launched into action immediately. A film about Burt Shavitz had to be made.
‘This was the juxtaposition I needed,’ said Shapiro. ‘This is the story I wanted to tell – a private man who occasionally must become very public.’
Hearing Shapiro talk about his film – why he wanted to make it and how he’d be approaching it – was music to my ears. This was exactly why I was so thoroughly and immensely entertained by Burt’s Buzz. The film is mostly all-Burt-all-the-time and for me, was just what the doctor ordered. The camera loves the guy, and his low-key irascibility allows Shapiro to indelibly capture him as the man himself engagingly spins his own story – the city boy who moved to the backwoods to become an avid beekeeper, then, with assistance from the woman he loved, saw his business grow to gargantuan proportions. The shy country gentleman became a brand until melancholy set in and he became unhappy with corporate life. He then experienced the dissipation of love when he engaged in an affair with an employee. This is when his former lover and practical head of the company reportedly forced Burt to sell out his shares for peanuts.
There are certainly any number of strands to this story for any filmmaker to go in and sever the jugular – most notably the implication that Burt is forced out for reasons of sexual harassment, and the unavoidable fact that his former company and, importantly, his image are being used by a corporate entity that now owns the whole shooting match of Burt’s Bees, an entity seen in some circles as anything but a model citizen of natural, whole, healthy remedies.
Burt Shavitz, you see, is no longer just Burt Shavitz – everything he was, is and continues to be, especially as the face of Burt’s Bees (both in terms of branding and in public appearances) – is owned by the dreaded Clorox Corporation.
Shapiro maintains a sense of ambiguity around the issue of Burt’s potential engagement in sexual harassment, which I’d strongly agree with. Given that Shavitz comes from an era of free fucking galore, he’d have no idea what sexual harassment was if it came along and tore out a fresh asshole in his posterior regions. Not that that should be an excuse, but I genuinely feel the guy is a charming, ruggedly handsome rake, but because he also does have a degree of naivety coursing through him, I’d have no difficulty in believing he could be duped into signing a dotted line based on allegations of said harassment – never by the ‘victim’ in question, but in fact, by ‘the woman scorned’ – the woman he was once in love with and, the film implies, might still be in love with.
At the end of the day, this is great storytelling.
As to the whole issue of the Clorox connection, Shapiro maintains: ‘That would be a different movie. It’s not the one I wanted to make.’ As a viewer, I agree. It’s certainly not the movie I’d have personally wanted to see. Burt Shavitz is just too damn cool and I’d prefer to spend time with him – not a story dealing with environmental ironies. That so clearly isn’t Burt’s tale.
Besides, one of the astounding bits of information Shapiro relates is that the company sold back the rights to all his original interview footage with Burt for practically nothing. Even more amazing is that they signed every piece of legal documentation Shapiro needed to make the movie his way – without any approvals of any kind. They signed everything before Shapiro proceeded to make the movie. They then gave him unfettered access to anything and everything. If Shapiro had wanted to make either a promotional film or one that shredded the company from top to bottom, he had every right and all the permission he needed to do so.
He was interested, ultimately, in the man himself.
This is echoed by one of Shapiro’s biggest champions, Steve Gravestock, a Senior Programmer with TIFF and the topper of their Special Canadian Projects and, in general, all things cinematically Canadian. ‘Jody has lots of the qualities good directors have, he’s energetic, committed, curious,’ says Gravestock. ‘I think his rarest quality, particularly within the filmmaking world, is that he seems sort of ego-less. At least, he doesn’t seem to be driven by it either exclusively or primarily. That trait served him well as a producer obviously but it is also probably one of the most important attributes a documentary filmmaker can have. It allows Jody to respond to and profile his subjects in a way devoid of overt editorializing. He has made films about people whom most or many would dismiss as eccentric or just plain nuts, but being dismissive isn’t in his films at all. That doesn’t mean that he’s overly sympathetic to his subjects or functioning as a cheerleader or lacks his own point of view, but he has that kind of clear-eyed empathy allowing us to encounter these people without leaping to easy value judgments.’
At one point, during our time together, Shapiro reveals how insanely busy he’s been with school. ‘School?’ I ask. He responds that he’s studying at George Brown College to be a chef and hopes to soon be interning at a friend’s restaurant. My response is almost dismissive – as if this is just some kind of a hobby. ‘Oh, that makes perfect sense,’ I offer and then add, ‘Cooking – especially at a heightened level – is clearly a fabulous creative outlet.’
Shapiro lowers his head then raises it with a smile. ‘Look, I really have no idea what the future’s going to bring for me in the film business. It’s not like what I do puts me in a position where I can actually apply for a job. I can’t actually be hired for anything.’
‘Fuck off,’ I tell him. ‘You’ve just made a movie with your own money, you own it free and clear, you’ve got John ‘Fucking’ Sloss’s company FilmBuff handling sales and Burt Shavitz is beloved all over the world. On that alone, the movie’s going to sell to millions of his fans. And what? You’re going to chuck it all and be a chef?’
He smiles demurely, excuses himself and heads to the little boys’ room. I’m wondering if he’s pulling a Burt Shavitz on me. Two days later, I got my answer. He sent me a text message that reads: ‘Just made this in class tonight. I thought of you immediately.’ Attached is a photograph of the most mouth-watering Ukrainian food I’ve laid eyes on since my Baba died. I wonder if her spirit has somehow parked itself in Jody’s soul. Then it hits me like a truckload of kishka. I remember that Jody’s grandfather served up some of the finest delicacies this side of North End Winnipeg and that side of the Montreal Main at the long-gone Quality Kosher Kitchen at Dundas and Spadina.
A few weeks later, I’ve dragged Jody to Jilly’s, one of the finer Gentlemen’s Clubs in Toronto, which sadly, will soon be shuttered because of the endless gentrification of the biggest city in our fair Dominion. While we’re getting private dances in the V.I.P. room, I tell Jody my fantasy of buying the building to save this shrine to the magnificence of the female form and forevermore keep a safe harbour for the young fellows of the local Hell’s Angels (formerly ‘Satan’s Choice’) to continue celebrating birthday parties.
Shapiro smiles and admits, ‘I have a fantasy, too. It’s a perfect fit for this obsession you have of always drawing parallels between us, but this time, it has nothing to do with Guy.’
‘Do tell,’ I plead like some chub in the Steamworks Baths in Toronto’s Church Street Boys Town.
‘Well, I may be a lot more Klymkiw-esque than you think,’ he answers saucily. ‘I’ve recently gone into full-on survivalist mode.’
‘You’re finally building a fallout shelter?’ I ask whilst Wanda, a comely platinum blonde, grinds into my crotch.
‘I’ve teamed up with Michel Hunter, an executive chef who hunts,’ he declares proudly whilst demurely gesturing to Flossie, a nubile African-Canadian adorned in a fluorescent pink wig, that he’s happy with her gyrations at a greater distance than my own. He continues: ‘The two of us are working on a photo book about wild game hunting and preparation. I’ve now cooked four different squirrel dishes! Delicious!!!’
He paused wistfully then said, ‘You know that thing I mentioned to you when we last met? The cooking thing? Well, I really have become obsessed with cooking and I’m finally staging in a real kitchen when I have the time – working the line and everything. My fantasy is that I’m training to be a chef and may one day switch careers.’
Ah, I think, he’s not genuinely abandoning his brilliant filmmaking career. Nestled in the comfy red-velvet-lined comfy chairs at Jilly’s, I can’t get an image out of my head – one that’s married to Guy Maddin’s words from his sex-charged Tod-Browning-like idea for a scene in a movie involving Jody.
I think long and hard about the Ukrainian food he prepared. I see the soul of my own Baba and the soul of Jody’s Zayde swishing about in the very depths of Shapiro’s soul – their ‘trysting bodies in ardent clinches’. It becomes clear to me that there could be a lot worse than making movies and cooking. Kind of like Burt Shavitz enjoying the adulation afforded him by fans in a Target store and his fees from that allowing him the privilege of living life the way he likes it best – in solitude – his loyal dog at his side amongst hills, trees, birds and, of course, the bees.
From the wilds of the northern-most tip of the Bruce Peninsula in the Dominion of Canada, I bid you a hearty ‘Bon cinema!’
Burt’s Buzz is released theatrically in selected US cities on 6 June 2014 and at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Canada on 13 June 2014.
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel)
When I moved to Toronto from Winnipeg over 20 years ago, numerous film types from Toronto who’d be in Winnipeg would ask me for tips on where to eat, what to see and what to do, so I began to compile a guide, one I had to revise constantly because everything in Winnipeg was changing for the worst. The following are excerpts from the 2010 edition of Greg Klymkiw’s Guide to Winnipeg. Burt’s Buzz director Jody Shapiro was the last to receive it in its present form when producing Guy Maddin’s Keyhole in Winnipeg. I note what is now gone since 2010.
The most important thing to remember about Winnipeg is this: when in Winnipeg, rent a car! You do not want to walk or use transit in Winnipeg. Only losers walk or use transit in Winnipeg. Winnipeggers will complain about a lack of parking, but as the entire city is a fucking parking lot, this will not be a problem. It will be plentiful, cheap and occasionally even free. If you wish to cycle in Winnipeg, don’t. You will invariably die. Do what Winnipeggers do. Strap your bike to the roof of the car, drive to a park and then do your cycling in the safety of the wooded bike trails.
The best thing to do in Winnipeg is eat unhealthy food. The best Winnipeg restaurants guarantee heart failure, strokes, high blood pressure or (at the least) clogged arteries. When Australian director Paul Cox visited Winnipeg to act in Guy Maddin’s Careful, he constantly made note as to how large the patrons of Winnipeg eateries were.
Dine at Salisbury House – the only remaining Sals’ with a smidgen of the original atmosphere is the North Main Sals’ near Matheson Street across from the Transit terminal and Perth’s Cleaners [now gone] and on the same block as the now-defunct Deluxe/Hyland Theatre, which is now a synagogue (at least the building is still a temple of worship). Most mornings former heavyweight Olympic boxing champ Al Sparks [now deceased] dines at this location. Do not bother ordering anything on the menu that appears remotely healthy. Order only the following items: Mr Big Nips or Cheese Nips (preferably with fried onions) or Egg Nips (with regular fatty bacon, not the healthy back bacon). For some reason, the word ‘nip’ in Winnipeg signifies a hamburger (or burger-like sandwich). And remember that Salisbury House is owned by lead singer for The Guess Who, Winnipeg’s own original ‘American Woman’, Burton Cummings.
Dine at Alycia’s [now gone] – this is the best Ukrainian food since my Baba died. John Candy absolutely swore by this restaurant and he’s dead. ’Nuff said.
Dine at Shanghai [now gone] – true 50s-style Chinese joint. Last time I went, they still used the magnificent all-natural chemical flavour-enhancer MSG. Specialty of the House: Golden Dragon (deep fried pork wrapped in deep fried bacon, surrounded by golden deep fried batter – in pig fat, ‘natch, and lovingly glazed with a gelatinous sweet goo.
Dine at Kelekis [now gone] – order the Split double dog with cheese and bacon, the Yale burger and shoestring fries with gravy. While there, imagine the story my Mom told me about when she worked there as a teen. A wizened old man sat in the basement peeling potatoes, waiting for young waitresses to come down so he could rape them. Sit in the back and marvel at an array of celebrity photographs of people you’ve never heard of.
Dine at Wagon Wheel [now gone] – the best Clubhouse sandwiches in the world, bar none.
Dine at Skinner’s – Lockport, Manitoba – just north of the city. Skinner’s has great hockey paraphernalia on the walls. You’ll find pictures of my father in there when he played for the Detroit Red Wings and the Winnipeg Maroons, Canada’s National Hockey team in the 1960s, managed by none other than Guy Maddin’s now deceased father Chas. The spécialité de la maison are the exquisite hot dogs from Manitoba Sausage. The dogs are boiled. The skin is crunchy, the innards tender and juicy. A first bite should squirt hot grease. After you’ve done eating, take a short drive to the Selkirk, Manitoba Asylum and climb up the huge water tower on the grounds. Here you can imagine the hundreds of inmates who’ve also climbed the tower. Try not to do what they’ve all done, which is, to take a suicidal plunge from the top. I personally knew four people (one friend, one cousin and two close acquaintances) who, as inmates, climbed to the top and took deadly dives. (Tidbit de cinema: one of those acquaintances was to be the cinematographer of Guy Maddin’s first film, the immortal short The Dead Father. On Day One of shooting, the young gentleman did not appear. Guy went to visit him and found him in his bedroom under the blankets. He graciously instructed Guy on how to use a Bolex – under the blanket, ’natch. Just before the fellow’s incarceration at this esteemed mental hospital, he bestowed upon me a play about Jesus and his sexual relationship with a horse. He placed it in my hands and ordered me to direct it. ’Twas the last time I laid eyes upon him.) The Water Tower is easy to access and climb. Considering this is a loony bin, its continued presence makes little sense.
Best bakery for pastries, bagels (pizza bagels) and breads (onion pumpernickel) is Gunn’s. Avoid Bingo night. Too many drunks, glue-sniffers and child prostitutes on the sidewalk in front of the Ukrainian hall next door.
Best kosher butcher: [now gone] L. Omnitsky and Sons.
Best Ukrainian garlic sausage: Tenderloin.
When patronizing ANY Winnipeg Watering Hole, pack heat and/or a blade. In fairness, I’ve yet to be shot and/or stabbed whilst patronizing any of them.
St Boniface Basilica – late at night with jars of open liquor, walk through the graveyard, pay your respects at Louis Riel’s grave, stumble towards the imposing basilica wall, cover three of the four floodlights with coats, dance in front of the uncovered light. Marvel at your shadow thrown upon the mighty front wall, which can be seen by anyone on the other side of the Red River.
Driving pretty much anywhere in Winnipeg with jars of open liquor is a goodtime since it is one of the few places where drinking and driving is still socially acceptable. A familiar farewell at the end of most social evenings will be a hearty, ‘Have one more for the ditch.’ This, of course, is accompanied by the friendly action of your host sloshing more alcohol into your receptacle (preferably a jar). Ditches on the sides of roadways are designed as wide and shallow as possible for alcoholics to receive as little impact/trauma/damage as possible when they occasionally careen gently off the road. The ditches also prevent rollovers.
You’ll find many Winnipeg ladies willing to walk right up to your car and talk to you. They’ll sometimes get in your car and direct you to back lanes where, for a nominal fee, they’ll provide tension-relief services. This is especially fun with jars of open liquor.
Let a mosquito land on your arm, bite you and suck as much blood as possible before you smack it.
Any street in downtown Winnipeg bearing a woman’s name is named after a hooker from the turn of the century. Detailed in the famous non-fiction book Red Lights on the Prairies.
Go to the Belgian Club in St Boniface (the largest French-speaking population in Canada outside of Quebec) to drink with malcontent veterans.
Go to the ‘K’ (Kildonan Motor Hotel) and ask if Fat April still works there. She doesn’t, but you’ll be amazed by the startled reactions from those now manning the doors.
Ask a Winnipegger to explain to you how to get to ‘Confusion Corner’. They will confuse you and if you get there, you will be confused.
A London-based swoon-pop four-piece, Woman’s Hour embrace a holistic approach to their songcraft. Their live shows are a crossover of music and art, with meticulously crafted graphic, monochromatic visuals created in collaboration with fine artists Oliver Chanarin and Adam Broomberg. Formed by singer Fiona Burgess and brother William on guitar, with Nicolas Graves on bass and Josh Hunnisett on keyboards, the band see themselves as a collaboration between four different creative people, who each bring a wholly distinct set of influences to the band, from German cold wave to pop rarities and uncompromising singer/songwriters. Their debut album Conversations is released 21 July 2014 on Secretly Canadian, and you can watch the video for the title track. For tour dates over the summer, visit the Woman’s Hour website. Below, Nicolas Graves chooses his 10 favourite films. Sarah Cronin
1. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
I love everything about this film. The cast, the soundtrack, the sheer scale of the hallucinatory journey upstream through Vietnam and Cambodia – the horror, the HORROR! The actual making of this epic has gone down in cinematic legend: Martin Sheen’s heart attack, the drugs and Marlon Brando, who turned up on set overweight and totally unprepared, having not bothered to read the script. ‘We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane,’ said Coppola… ‘My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam’.
2. Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis, 1995)
The enigma that is Nicolas Cage! Before I had seen Leaving Las Vegas, the Cage I knew was the action hero in films like Face/Off or Snake Eyes – enjoyable films in their own right, but hardly true thespian roles. His performance here though – playing an alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter who decides to move to Vegas and drink himself to death – is immense. Upon arrival he meets a prostitute named Sera, and the two build a relationship based on the fact that neither can change who they are. It’s a tragic, emotionally demanding love story set in the neon- (and booze-) drenched desert.
3. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
A couple of years ago I watched Twin Peaks for the very first time and I became excited. Excited because not only had I discovered the music of Julee Cruise (listen to her album Floating into the Night) but I also now had the world of David Lynch to explore. Over a very short period of time I had binged on his films and entered a place both wonderful and strange! I could’ve included Blue Velvet, The Elephant Man or Lost Highway, among many others, but for me Mulholland Drive is (to date) his masterpiece. Lynch’s long-term musical collaborator Angelo Badalamenti again provides the eerie soundscapes.
4. Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)
One of those films that pushes all my buttons. It has a rather standard cops -v- robbers plot, but the way it’s all put together is a thing of real beauty. I love the dream-like feel that Mann brings to the moody, expansive LA cityscape, and how it’s complemented perfectly by the ambient soundtrack. De Niro and Pacino ain’t half bad in it either.
5. Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
If it isn’t already obvious, I’m rather fond of films set in Los Angeles. I’ve visited the city on two occasions now, but I’ve yet to really understand the place, and I think this is where the attraction lies – a blank canvas upon which many different ideas can be painted.
The Los Angeles in Chinatown looks stunning, and so does Faye Dunaway. Amidst the backdrop of the Californian water wars. everything conspires to create the perfect neo-noir- mystery. No happy ending here.
6. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Peter Yates, 1973)
It quickly became apparent when compiling this list that many of my choices share similar themes and styles. Here’s another slice of New American Cinema, adapted from the novel of the same name by George V. Higgins. Hollywood legend Robert Mitchum plays small-time gunrunner Eddie Coyle who, when facing jail time, is forced to snitch on his pals in the Boston underworld. Gritty realism at its finest.
7. Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970)
Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces explores themes of alienation, worthlessness and the road to nowhere – we’ve all been there at some point in our lives, right? Jack Nicholson is Bobby Dupree, an oil-rig worker who gave up his life as a promising pianist. He’s faced with a return to his upper-class family, and the resulting schism between the world he left behind and his never ending search for something else. It’s classic Americana, complete with road trip and Tammy Wynette’s ‘Stand by Your Man’.
8. The Last Boy Scout (Tony Scott, 1991)
This is best watched with a close pal, a sense of humour and alcohol. Bruce Willis gives a masterclass in cynical deadpan delivery and wise-cracking perfection as a down-and-out private detective who gets mixed up in the murky underbelly of American pro football. It comes complete with camp henchmen, dodgy Senators, and a then record fee ($1.75 million) for a screenplay penned by Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) – worth it for the jokes alone.
9. Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler, 1968)
Set in Chicago during the summer of 1968, Medium Cool combines documentary footage with fiction. There is a (very) loose narrative about the relationship between news cameraman man John Cassellis and a single, lower-class mother who has left her husband. The film’s centrepiece is actual footage from the riots which engulfed the Democratic National Convention that summer. It’s a challenging watch, but provides a fascinating snapshot of the social and political climate of the US during that period.
10. The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974)
I’m a sucker for films that explore political paranoia and conspiracy, and these were particularly prevalent during the Watergate years of the mid-1970s (see also All The President’s Men). Starring Warren Beatty, The Parallax View tells the story of a shadowy corporation specialising in political assassinations that create the illusion of a lone, disaffected gunman acting independently. A not-so-gentle nod and wink to the events surrounding JFK’s assassination.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews