In 2011, I set off with a camera to explore a mental asylum in Mexico run by its own patients. The place is just beyond the last junkyard on the curdled fringe of Juárez, the world’s most violent city. Years ago I’d seen a Russian film called Palms by Artur Aristakisyan. It’s about people conjuring up their own worlds on their own terms while living amongst the detritus of lumpen society. They’re presented as an aristocracy representing freedom. Consciously or not, I’d been seeking out similar people, and all at once I encountered 120 of them running their own asylum in the desert.
On one level these people shared a common purpose in that they dressed each other, cleaned each other and fed each other. But then there were many other levels, many other worlds. As there was very little medication available, people were free to incant their nightmares or be amused at apparently nothing at all. The tragicomedy of Beckett was everywhere, ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’, while the infantile grotesqueness of Jarry’s Ubu Roi was never far away. I admit I was more than a little afraid but set about to film these people. The more I filmed, the less I understood, and the more curious I became.
There will be a live soundtrack performance to Antes Muerte, the prequel of Dead When I Got Here, in London on June 21 – for more details, please go to deadwhenigothere.org.
I met a man called Josué who was managing the asylum. Five years previously he’d lost his mind and the ability to walk, but I found him in a reflective mood. He told me his dream. After two visits and many hours of material, my editing was frustrated by a desire to present the mystery I’d encountered while needing a story to hang it on. Then Josué’s dream came true. His daughter in LA emailed me to ask what her father was doing in a mental asylum. She’d seen a trailer for the film I’d posted online. She hadn’t seen her father in 22 years and had been told he was dead. Two more visits and I managed to put Josué and his daughter together and filmed the reunion. I had my story and it had arrived in mysterious ways.
Dead When I Got Here unites the oddest of bedfellows: a warm family reunion and the mystery and trauma of mental illness from a city where eight people are murdered every day with impunity. The film is due for completion later this year and we’re inviting people to take part in the process over the month of June.
If you’re interested in taking part, please go to the project’s Kickstarter campaign.
Mark Aitken (Producer/director)
Watch an exclusive scene for Electric Sheep readers – ‘Breakfast at the asylum’:
It was meant to be the highlight of the London Film Festival’s Experimenta Weekend last October, but a broken projector prevented Austrian avant-gardist and experimental filmmaker Peter Kubelka from presenting his ambitious Monument Film project – a double projection of his works Antiphon (2012) and Arnulf Rainer (1960), back to back, side by side, as well as superimposed. Both works explore the four cinematographic elements – light and darkness, sound and silence – effectively stripping cinema down to its bare essentials as well as offering ‘a countermeasure to the dominating emotional motion picture’ (Jonas Mekas). What’s more, Antiphon literally presents the answer to Arnulf Rainer: what was white before is now black; where there was sound there is now silence. Monument Film is a response to what Kubelka describes as the ‘hostile takeover’ of analogue cinema technology by digital media, and hence might be best understood as a ‘last call to dogged resistance’. This month, Kubelka will be back in London to accomplish his endeavour, which he himself considers to be a culmination, the grand finale to his cinematic labors.
Pamela Jahn talked to Peter Kubelka about the essence of cinema, stealing films and losing friends when making them.
Pamela Jahn: You once said that you’ve lost most of your friends because of your film Arnulf Rainer. Why did you decide to produce another film, which is the polar-opposite version of it, as you’ve done now with Antiphon?
Peter Kubelka: To be honest, I love it when people enjoy my work, but I don’t really care if they leave the cinema. My intention when making films is not a wish to entertain, but rather that of a scientist who does his research. I use my medium – though use is also a too-cool word in this sense – I love my medium, and I use it as a ship to go on a journey to places that I haven’t been to, or nobody has ever seen before, and whatever will be found there is fine. I made my film Arnulf Rainer without having a precise idea of what it would look like on the screen, because I couldn’t project it or look at it on an editing table, because I had no means. I was very poor back then. And as with almost everything, when you are poor, you are more courageous because you have nothing to lose.
But to answer your question, I am overjoyed when people share my satisfaction. But if they don’t, I won’t change my mind because of this. And if some people leave now when they see my work, whether it is Arnulf Rainer or Antiphon or Monument Film, that really gives me pleasure, because it proves that they can evoke a reaction from the audience even after more than 50 years, when so-called ‘art’ has turned into something that is closer to social entertainment, where people accept anything, and it has practically become impossible to get people to admit that they are shocked, because they really don’t feel it anymore, or worse: they don’t care. People are not really interested in what it is they are experiencing any more, they just participate in the social epiphany. But again, I never really had a relationship with the public. I work for myself. And I strongly believe that if I do the best I can for myself, according to my standards, then other people will understand my work, and stay.
But particularly the people you worked for in the beginning didn’t share that opinion. Your first films Adebar and Schwechater were originally commercial films that your clients – a Viennese bar and a brewery – refused to approve.
I consider my position towards the commercial side of cinema, and by that I mean commercially produced films and the industry around it, as that of a parasite. I had to fight a lot in order to squeeze out some pieces of hardware and material for my work. Again, in a way, it’s a very similar position to that of a scientist or explorer, in that you have a wish, or a strong ambition, and in order to get where you want to be, you need to have some sort of a relationship with those who pay for the medium. And the only way I thought I could do this was to become a criminal – I stole all my films. I accepted commissions, but then didn’t really execute them in the way that those who paid for them had anticipated. But what gave me the moral assurance that I was right was to believe that I gave them something that was much better than what they really wanted. So when I worked in the 50s, I had that same attitude.
Were you sued by the brewery, Schwechater?
Yes, I was sued and I had to leave the country. I went to Sweden and worked as a dish washer and god knows what else. It was the only way for me to survive. Schwechater was very influential, so I couldn’t stay and work in Vienna. Even the film lab would no longer do prints for me, because Schwechater was their client and they would tell me: ‘They pay us a lot of money every month and you are nothing. You just create problems because your films are so difficult to print with a thousand cuts in one minute, so go away.’ All in all I paid very dearly for my films, because I lost all my friends, I lost my social and my work environment many times. I lived about 14 years of my life without a clue how to survive until I came to America and started teaching.
Which partly explains why your entire body of work comprises barely 90 minutes of actual film, but you have become a very well-respected lecturer around the world. What do you teach your film students, or your audience, about filmmaking based on your own experience?
Well, I am very strict in declaring that what I do in my films has nothing to do with what I say in terms of my authority. When I talk about my films, I do it in a way as if I wasn’t the maker of these films. And when the films are fresh, as my new work is, I actually talk very little about them, because the verbalisation is of course a completely different medium, and it takes some time to digest what you have done in a medium that, as film does, excludes the medium of speaking and excludes literature, for example. On the other hand, the whole spectrum of what the human being is experiencing in its conscious life is bigger than what one single medium can show. It’s a fact that music is a very important medium that is extremely rich in content, but this content remains within the medium. No one is able to fully explain a piece of music to people who haven’t heard it. It’s like the phenomenon of ‘deaf-mute’. If you are deaf, you are mute because you don’t know what speaking sounds like. So, it’s practically impossible to translate the content of films like mine into another medium like language. So what I do in my lectures is to try to help people to find a non-verbal entry into my work by leading them into my thinking. For me, speaking is just another medium I exercise. It’s not like the filmmaker translates what he has to say. In fact, for me the phrase ‘what do you have to say’ already expresses the dictatorship of language over all the other media which now exist. So, in essence, my lectures are ‘talk’ work, which I have pleasure in exercising.
What was your main intention when making Arnulf Rainer and, subsequently, Antiphon?
Arnulf Rainer is the logical consequence of my previous film travels, so to speak. It’s like when Schönberg started 12-tone music: he didn’t invent it as people always say, rather it was a logical consequence of musical history up to that moment that opened the door to 12-tone music. In the same way, Arnulf Rainer uses the most simple and essential elements that constitute the medium of cinema, namely light and the absence of light, sound and the absence of sound. These four elements are the bare essence of cinema, you cannot go beyond that.
Do you differentiate between the absence of light and darkness, for example?
No, but I prefer the absence of light in this context, to take the thoughts of a person who hears the word ‘darkness’ away from its other connotations, for example, fear or even a romantic kind of darkness. It’s a more neutral way of saying ’darkness’. I don’t want to work the spectator’s brain in that way. Again, it goes back to an essential situation of the human being. We have our senses and with their help we react to changes in the situation we are in. In fact, every sound is the message of a movement, of a change in situation. And that sound is a warning that wakes us. We start to analyse the situation in order to decide what we will do, how we will react, and if it is actually necessary to react. But the important thing to understand is that the change in situation is what makes us feel that we are alive in the here and now. And since the earliest days of mankind, there is a desire to artificially create such moments, to create a ‘now’ experience, like clapping hands, for instance. And then comes, let’s say the artist, who extracts the element, who uses those ‘now’ moments, and by this intensity and rhythmic condensation, ecstasy is given to the audience. So when I made Arnulf Rainer my intention was to use these most simple elements of cinema to create this ecstasy for the movie goer, for the people who cannot dance, and drink or take drugs or party for days, but quite the opposite, they sit very well educated in their cinema seats. In a way you could say with Arnulf Rainer the pole of the cinematic universe has been reached, the point of its most simple form of existence. But it might not be as clear when you look at the film alone. Its counterpart, Antiphon, which I have now made, completes the work in that way. It’s comparable to the philosophy of yin and yang in that both films complement each other to create a whole. This is what I was trying to achieve with Monument Film.
Did you need to go through a process in order to come to that conclusion, or did you always intend to make Monument Film after Arnulf Rainer?
The idea was already there in the very beginning, and it was first of all an economic question at the time. But then, all my metric films are only prototypes, where I realise only one phase that defines that kind of cinema. For example, in Adebar, I had already had the thought that light and darkness should be equal, and I achieved this by showing all the elements in positive and negative for the same amount of time, so by the end of the film, the screen has received the same amount of light in all its parts. So this was my first metric film, an idea that I then followed up with Monument Film. And another point is important here, which is that with Monument Film, I wanted to create a memorial to cinema that explains the materiality of film.
How would you describe your idea of a cinema?
For me, the idea of a cinema is a machine, not a place of entertainment. It’s a machine that has the aim to bring the work of the author to the public in the least disturbed way. And my model of a cinema is the interior of a classic camera, namely complete blackness, where in the place of the lens there is the screen and in the place of the negative in the back of the machine is the brain of the author, represented by the projector and the film strip, and in between is darkness. So the ideal cinema for me would be a black space in which you don’t even feel that there is a space. You should only feel that it’s black and the only element of reference would be the screen and what happens on the screen. As for my films, I call my cinema normal cinema, I make normal films and the industry makes commercial films. The real filmmakers are those who work for a result without compromising.
Not a Dry Eye in London is the debut album from Alexander’s Festival Hall, an elegantly styled electronic pop confection that begins behind a venue curtain and ends some 40 minutes later, dusting itself down in a field. The brainchild of Alexander’s Festival Hall, former Kompakt recording artist (Baxendale), and producer to Piney Gir and other indie luminaries, the record is an urbane journey through love, loss and the possibility of dancing. With nods as various as Cologne’s nightclub sound and 1930s jazz vying for your affection, Mr Festival Hall decided to have fun colliding form and function but without ever losing sight of that perennial virtue – the instantly hummable tune. (from the press release) More information on his website. Below, Alexander’s Festival Hall gives us his top 10 films.
1. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Who wouldn’t love an Algerian war romance set in a French port town with all dialogue sung to a non-stop jazz score? I’ve always loved Michel Legrand’s music and this is a wonderful tribute to the colourful American musicals of MGM. Basically a teen romance gone awry, but with the music and ingénue Catherine Deneuve’s smile vying for lead status.
2. Shoot the Piano Player (1960)
Bit of a new-wave film noir goodness now. French chanteur Charles Aznavour plays a piano player who gets caught up with the mob. Aznavour is a kind of god in France (and still touring I believe) and, as a non-professional actor, puts in one of those rare things from pop stars in films – a really ace, and actually partly improvised performance. Turns out non-sequitur-strewn discussions by mobsters officially belong to Truffaut, not that arriviste Tarantino…
3. Sleeper (1973)
This always seems like Woody Allen’s crossover movie, as he moved from parodying other films into his own upscale Manhattanite satires. That it also manages to be both an homage to the physical comedy of the silent-film era and a pisstake of the late 1960s/early 70s vogue for dystopian sci-fi at the same time is pretty amazing. Miles Monroe, who runs a whole food store in the 1970s, wakes up a couple of hundred years later to be used as a revolutionary by scientists resisting a 1984-like state. Diane Keaton excels as a bratty socialite slash poet who of course he falls in love with.
4. Alphaville (1965)
I remember seeing this when I was about 19 and that was a great age to be struck by the ambition of new wave film – when you haven’t yet seen so many films that you’ve tired of post-modernity’s way with inversion of cinematic tropes. Actually, what I probably thought at the time was ‘that was cool!’. But the point stands. A secret agent must pursue a case in the strange city of Alphaville, ruled by the computer Alpha 60 (the cinema’s first and only chain-smoking computer, it seems – the voice is terrifying). Jean-Luc Godard’s bizarre use of music in the wrong places is playful and the whole thing is clearly shot at night in modernist offices to stay in budget – but it is a great example of using your limitations to your advantage.
5. What’s New Pussycat? (1965)
Quite a curio this. It’s that least loved-by-critics genre, the ‘caper’ movie. And yes, it is a mess. I’d heard Woody Allen talking about it in a recording of one of his early standup routines (though he claimed to be ashamed of it after his own directorial career took off). But a combination of the now-bizarrely-outré sixties premise – Peter O’Toole is so beautiful, women just can’t stop falling in love with him. and he struggles to remain faithful to Romy Schneider – music by Burt Bacharach, and Peter Sellers as an insane psychiatrist are a total winner. Daft but fun.
6. Yi Yi (2000)
If you have three hours to spare and want to immerse yourself in the lives of others, this film is just transporting – a family saga of immense honesty that’s just beguiling. I can’t explain how or why it works.
7. Holy Motors (2012)
You remember those rare films that seem to reach out of the screen and bypass all critical or rational functions and address your unconscious directly? This is one of those. A series of appointments for ‘Oscar’, a professional performer who zig zags across Paris in a stretch limo, seemingly commissioned to play pivotal scenes in other people’s lives. I felt like my brain had been rewired for days after watching it.
8. Blazing Saddles (1974)
A family favourite, this. I think probably the most consistently funny film I’ve ever seen, and I must have seen it over 40 times by this point. Actually I’m smiling just thinking about this film. I’m pretty sure Seth Macfarlane owes his entire career to this movie. Every Mel Brooks schtick is in place and working overtime – nods to vaudeville, pre-PC gags about race, sex and pretty much everything else. The theme tune is a killer too.
9. A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
I could have picked any film by Powell and Pressburger – they pretty much all possess their own vision of what cinema could be. A Matter of Life and Death manages to be one of the most theological/philosophical/romantic war films with a young WWII pilot (dashing David Niven) killed over the English Channel – yet somehow he survives as the organisation from the next world can’t find him in the fog. An academic battle is staged to keep him in the world of the living as he’s fallen in love with June, the operator who tried to help land the plane. It’s thought-provoking, eccentric and also just plain delightful in equal measure.
10. Sweeney Todd (2007)
Sondheim’s dark operetta brought to life by Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, Alan Rickman and Helena Bonham Carter. One of the finest musical movies I’ve ever seen – the non-singer-but-singing actors actually manage incredibly well in what’s acknowledged to be one of the most challenging scores to sing.
Author and playwright Peggy Riley is originally from LA, but now resides on the North Kent coast. She has worked as a writer in residence at a young offenders’ prison, a festivals producer and a bookseller. She also runs workshops for writers. Her debut novel, the bleakly brilliant Amity and Sorrow, is about God, sex and farming, and hones in on three women on the run from the charismatic leader of a polygamous cult: one father, two daughters and 50 wives. Her filmic alter ego is Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Eithne Farry
I am an old friend of sleeplessness, as sleep and I have a terrible relationship. I pursue it; it scorns me. We battle through the night until it completely overwhelms me with dark, heavy dreams it takes all day to shake. Turning myself right side over from a long-haul flight, my sleep is particularly strange. I long to be Sleeping Beauty, spindle-pricked and prince-waiting, dozing for a hundred years. I’d even take Snow White in her glass box of sleep, instead of being this Goldilocks, forever looking for the right bed, the right sleep.
Fairy tale princesses get a bad rap. Yesterday in a bookshop I heard a mother say she wouldn’t buy her daughter Sleeping Beauty, as ‘all she does is sleep’. I thought only ‘bliss’. Bring me a spinning wheel and some fairies – stat.
In seeking a heroine that hadn’t been drawn, my sleep-addled brain found another princess, one of America’s Civil War. Scarlett O’Hara is a handful of a character: vicious and fickle, spiteful and jealous. She takes what she wants and never wants what she gets. But she rides all the rough waves that surround her – war, poverty, the madness of parents, the death of a child, the loss of her many loves – with style and an evolving grace. She even survives the wearing of curtains. I have no doubt that when Rhett leaves her at the door, she shuts it and has a good night’s sleep. She is at peace with herself: after all, it is the needs and impulses she has that make her so compelling, so watchable. And I know that, refreshed of a morning, she simply mounts her horse and charges after him, makes him give a damn. Rhett Butler cannot resist Scarlett O’Hara and neither can I.
Tony Collingwood’s 23-minute animation Rarg (1988) is a charming ode to sleep, dreaming and the subconscious mind. Through Collingwood’s enchantingly detailed drawings and Philip Appleby’s mesmerising soundtrack, the film creates an absorbing idyll of ‘peace and tranquillity; a world so perfect that the sun never rose until it was absolutely sure that everybody was awake’. Rarg is a place where everybody is happy, from its leader, the Rargian senator, to the nesting birds singing outside his window. The key to this happiness lies in the vast library of Rarg: endless shelves stacked with books detailing the revelations of generations. In Rarg, thought and intellectual discovery are highly prized; ‘they discovered simply for the sake of discovery’. The sonorous voice of narrator, Nigel Hawthorne, introduces us to towers filled with professors working away on ‘discoveries’, from tiny revelations to the biggest question of all: ‘where exactly are we anyway?’
To our amusement and surprise, this latter enquiry is answered by an enormous sneeze. One of the professors has installed ‘information-sucking electrodes’ throughout Rarg to determine the meaning of existence. As the professor flicks the switch to turn on these electrodes, an image of a sleeping man named Edwin Barnes appears on his computer screen. When Edwin produces an almighty ‘Achooo!’ the ground shakes in its wake. After six minutes acclimatising to this strangely harmonious world, we realise that Rarg is a construct: the inner mind of a snoring man.
And so the film becomes an allegorical exploration of what happens when we sleep. The industrious professors are the workings of our subconscious minds, building on buried archives of knowledge (the library of Rarg) to reveal truths which remain hidden during our waking lives. And the senator of Rarg, with his delight in creativity and ‘discovery’, shows how our imaginations take flights of fancy when they do not have to deal with the practicalities and complications of our daytime existences. The peaceful harmony of Rarg is – put simply – an illusion and a very fragile construction. This utopia hangs in the balance as Edwin’s alarm clock ticks down to 8 AM. With five minutes left, the inhabitants have two weeks in Rargian time to hatch a plan. The Rargian senate calls a meeting for the first time in 8000 years. Time in Rarg is as fluid as it appears when we dream.
At the prospect of waking up, the mind stages a revolt and the Rargian inhabitants take action to rescue (or rather kidnap) Edwin from ‘reality’ and bring him to Rarg. As the hushed mission gets underway, Collingwood creates some lovely silent comedy set pieces. Like miniature Oliver Hardys, four rotund figures are sent forth with pillowcases on their feet to carry Edwin’s bed. The nuances of their movements are beautifully rendered to produce a delightfully silly heist scene. And, as these figures make their way through Rarg’s streets, a baby bird falls dangerously close to Edwin’s sleeping body, creating another wonderfully tense sequence of physical comedy. These scenes perfectly mimic the lightest stage of sleep in which we might wake from our slumber, every tiny external sound threatening our peace. Edwin survives these perilous moments and the subsequent result is an ending so unexpected and surreal, it is bound to make you smile from ear to ear. As a meditation on the beauty of sleep, Rarg makes you want to turn your alarm clock off, roll over and take another 40 winks!
The Berlinale loves women, on screen and off. For the second time in the past three years there were more female members than men on the competition jury, this time led by Wong Kar-wai, whose martial arts epic The Grandmaster (starring a ravishing Zhang Ziyi) opened the festival. But it was the subtly winning style of on-screen actresses such as Paulina Garcia, who received the Silver Bear award for her performance as grounded but brave middle-aged Gloria in Chilean director Sebastian Lelio’s competition entry of the same name, and Isabella Rossellini’s radiant presence (when receiving the Berlinale Camera award) that captured the media’s attention, and created some quiet sparks during an otherwise largely uneventful 63rd edition of the festival. What’s more, looking at the films on offer, women not only seized opportunities to breach social conventions but, more often than not, gleefully plunged into misery and destruction, both physically and emotionally.
The youngest discovery among the group of on-screen heroines was Austrian actress Melanie Lenz, who plays an overweight teenager doomed to fall in love with her middle-aged doctor (Joseph Lorenz) at a diet camp in the final act of Ulrich Seidl’s female-led Paradise trilogy.
Meli is the 13-year-old daughter of Teresa, who went out on a quest for sexual bliss in a beach resort in Kenya in the first episode (Paradise: Love), while Meli’s aunt, who drops her off at the camp in the opening sequence, scourged herself for the love of Jesus in the second part, Faith. With her family either far away or busy praying, Meli relies solely on her ebullient roommates to read the signs and follow her heart. That nothing good can come from that is as predictable as the unadorned visual style, considering Paradise: Hope is a Seidl film, and a gruff one at that.
Labelled with an equally misleading title, but to more shrewdly amusing effect, was Canadian critic-turned-director Denis Côté’s eccentric Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, which starts off promisingly, but gradually loses momentum, as well as character depth, before an unexpectedly superb, if bitchy, ending. Pierrette Robitaille as Victoria, who has been discharged early from prison for a life sentence, and Romane Bohringer as Vic’s former cell mate and now lover, Florence, who has her own agenda for consistently soft-selling Vic’s mounting fear that she will eventually drop her, both give convincing performances as the outlaw couple trying to make a new start somewhere in the Canadian forest. But Côté doesn’t quite manage to keep the viewer interested in his deceptive directing choices and the film’s enigmatic atmosphere, so much so that one doesn’t really care anymore when the trap that has been carefully laid out eventually snaps shut.
Unsurprisingly, prospects seemed no better for the group of German immigrants who, in the summer of 1898, set out on a journey to find their fortune in the Canadian goldfields around Dawson City in Thomas Arslan’s carefully constructed, weirdly chaste and slow paced German-language Western Gold. The film centres around enigmatic Emily (Nina Hoss), a self-reliant and hands-on divorcée amidst a bunch of peculiar male characters, who turns out to be the most driven member of the group, willing to push ahead at all costs.
Read Pamela Jahn’s interview with actress Nina Hoss.
Arslan, who is best known for documenting Berlin in the 1990s in his unobtrusive trilogy of character studies (Brothers and Sisters (1997), Dealer (1999) and 2001’s A Fine Day), has a meticulous eye for characters continuously in motion and on the move, and here successfully brings the clinical distance and landscape poetics of the Berlin School to bear on what is essentially an ensemble costume drama, carried by yet another remarkably restrained performance from Hoss.
Not strictly part of the official festival programme, but screened in the German Cinema – LOLA@Berlinale section, which showcases preselected films for the German Film Award, Margarethe von Trotta’s cinematic portrait of Hannah Arendt stood out for its astuteness and skill in capturing a persona as prolific yet elusive as the German-Jewish philosopher (played by Barbara Sukova), whose theory of the ‘banality of evil’ made her both famous and vulnerable. The film follows Arendt as she travels to Jerusalem to report on the infamous Adolf Eichmann trial for The New Yorker. Irritated by the staging of the trial as well as by her own and others’ interpretation of the proceedings, Arendt eventually gets caught up in her own judgement of the ardent Nazi and anti-Semite as he manages to disguise the role he played in the Holocaust. Trotta, by contrast, has crafted an extremely lucid, tense and unsettling drama. It’s also an incredibly tender film without ever being sentimental.
One of the most impressive films in the international competition was Harmony Lessons, by 29-year-old first-time Kazakhstani director Emir Baigazin. In its essence, Harmony Lessons is a twisted school-bullying revenge drama revolving around introverted 13-year-old Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov), who is targeted by his ruthless classmates. In return, Aslan vents his anger and frustration on cockroaches and other pests and insects that he uses as guinea pigs for the cruel little scientific experiments that he conducts in his room. Things seem to get slightly better when a student arrives from the city and helps defy the bullies, while palling up with Aslan. However, when a murder takes place at the school, the main suspects are easily found, transforming both the characters and the plot into something deeper, darker and more mysterious. With its existential overtones and the creative assurance of a young director who seems to have little to learn from any arthouse veterans, Harmony Lessons is an inventive, genre-defying film located on the borderline between the real and the imaginary, and deserves more attention than it received in Berlin.
Shortly after I moved to Birmingham, the Museum and Art Gallery held an exhibition of Arts Lab posters. Set alongside august oils and wispy Pre-Raphelites, these artfully slapdash screenprints were a revelation, living, multi-coloured proof that the city had once had an underground. It seemed inconceivable that people had gathered in a converted back-street youth centre for performance art and Oshima movies. The era of New Labour felt like a long way from the countercultural tumult of the late 60s when Arts Labs sprang up all over the country, inspired by the example set by Jim Haynes at Drury Lane. David Bowie started one up in his local pub, and commented to the Melody Maker: ‘I never knew there were so many sitar players in Beckenham.’
Ad hoc collectives wary of any form of administration, the majority of these places fizzled out or splintered within a couple of years. One of the main things that sustained Birmingham’s Arts Lab through the decade was its film programme, led by local boy and Lab co-founder Tony Jones along with Peter Walsh, a student from Ireland who had got a bit of a name for himself showing Andy Warhol films at college. They cobbled together a rudimentary cinema from local building sites and fleapits, and began screening the kind of work that wouldn’t get an airing elsewhere in the city: their opening festival in 1970 included Dušan Makavejev’sLove Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967), Joe Massot’s Wonderwall (1968) and shorts by Jonas Mekas and Ed Emshwhiller.
For more information about the Arts Lab events at Flatpack, please go to the Flatpack website.
Wry editorials in the Lab’s print publicity give you some idea of the financial and logistical challenges they faced, describing how postal strikes and press disinterest had helped limit that month’s admissions. ‘Needless to say,’ they continue, ‘both Flesh and Danish Blue did not seem to suffer from any of the difficulties listed above,’ a nod to the importance of sex (or the faint promise of it) in attracting punters. Happily the Lab managed to build a film audience beyond the soft-core crowd, drawing ‘middle-class culture vultures’ as Pete Walsh described them, as well as the more regular denizens who could more often than not be found sleeping on the premises too.
Part of what attracted me to the Lab was its multidisciplinary nature, but I was quickly disabused of the notion that this was a melting pot for art forms; like many such places, it was pretty territorial. According to Pete Walsh, ‘it was an unusual bunch – I don’t think people held similar views across the board at all,’ and given that film accounted for a good chunk of revenue and helped to subsidise the music, visual arts and theatre programmes, it’s no surprise that there were tensions between the different areas. There were times, though, when these parts came together to form something greater. One-off happenings took over a canal basin or half-built library with music, fire and projections, and on a smaller scale Tony Jones remembers creating a perforated cinema screen for Bruce Lacey to jump through during one of his performance pieces.
The way the film and print workshop sparked off each other was an example of this process at its pragmatic best: as Pete Walsh put it, ‘we liked their work, and they were interested in film, so we would ask them to do posters’. Like the cinema, the press was built from scratch with various pillaged materials by two science students who had taught themselves how to print. The free-wheeling, fragmented results make today’s film marketing look pretty tame by comparison, and it’s easy to imagine the incongruous effect they had when plastered in concrete underpasses.
The Lab posters are often in the back of my mind when we produce our own flyers and brochures, perhaps with half an eye on posterity – when the events are a dim memory, people will still have marketing materials to remember us by. One advantage we have today, of course, is the internet. Postal strikes are unlikely to knock a hole in our audience figures, and the web offers a cheap route to international connections and visibility. On the other hand, plenty of things have not changed. This brave new digital phenomenon of crowd-funding is not a million miles from the Lab’s campaigns to buy a new projector or repair the roof, with the common thread a desire to provide an outlet for the unexpected.
Following the film programmes through the 1970s and into the early 80s, you can see the shift in focus from the avant-garde to auteurism. The increasingly chunky bi-monthly catalogue includes extensive programme notes on the various seasons – some of them honest enough to slate the films they’re supposedly advertising – and can lead to wistful daydreams about a Sunday afternoon double bill of McCabe and Mrs Miller followed by an Ivor Cutler show. There’s even a Dennis Hopper retrospective and photo exhibition in there, with the vaguely optimistic note ‘possibly including a visit by the man himself’. In fact Mr Hopper did materialise in Birmingham, AWOL from a screening at the NFT and trailing an enormous entourage which included his parents.
This legendary misspent weekend became an expensive last hurrah in the Lab saga. By that point it had made the tricky transition from DIY volunteer-run outfit to West Midlands Arts’ biggest client, but on the horizon was a cost-cutting merger with Aston University, which would see the organisation stripped right back to a single-screen venue and film workshop. Tony Jones had already moved on to set up a cinema in Cambridge, which would go on to spawn the Picturehouse circuit recently purchased by Cineworld for £47 million. Pete Walsh continued to programme the place, now known as the Triangle, until its closure in 1994 when he moved on to the Irish Film Institute in Dublin. The legacy for Birmingham was not the glistening three-screen arthouse picture palace they might have dreamt of, but a generation of film lovers marked forever by strange and wonderful movies.
Pete Walsh died in December 2012, and the quotations in this piece are taken from an interview recorded in Dublin in 2009.
Lacking the market influence of the major Hollywood studios, for much of its existence the modern Spanish horror film has been overshadowed by its contemporaries. Generally regarded favourably by both fans and critics, Spain’s genre output includes several genuine classics like Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001) – the most successful Spanish horror film ever made – and the Guillermo del Toro-produced hit The Orphanage (2007), as well as a number of cult favourites and a great many competent but lesser efforts. With leading lights Amenábar and del Toro moving on to other things – Amenábar away from horror entirely (with The Sea Inside, 2004, and Agora, 2009) and del Toro on his twin path between big-budget studio pictures (Blade 2, 2002) and smaller, intensely personal Spanish-language films like The Devil’s Backbone (2001) – it was left to Catalan director Jaume Balagueró to carry the standard for the contemporary Spanish horror scene.
By the time he released his most successful film, [Rec] (2007), Balagueró was already a key figure in the Spanish genre, thanks to his acclaimed debut feature, The Nameless (1998). That success boded well for his future, but his attempts to move into the world of international horror have been dogged by problems. Despite its critical applause, The Nameless would not be released in the USA until 2005, when it was dumped direct to video. Balagueró’s English-language follow-up, Darkness (2002), was heavily (and somewhat pointlessly) trimmed before receiving a half-hearted theatrical release in the US in 2004. His next film, Fragile (2005) starred Calista Flockhart, but sat on a shelf for five years. By the time it finally appeared, any international interest in the film had long since dissipated. Both films are stylish, atmospheric ghost stories that should have an audience, not least of all because of their casts: Darkness starred Giancarlo Giannini (Hannibal), Anna Paquin (X-Men, True Blood) and Lena Olin (Alias), while Fragile featured Richard Roxburgh (Van Helsing, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and Elena Anaya, who was also in Van Helsing.
Following these setbacks, it’s not entirely surprising that Balagueró returned to Spain – and to the Spanish language – for his next project, an instalment in the Films to Keep You Awake (Películas para no dormir) series. Mainly funded by Filmax, the company most heavily associated with Spanish horror, and overseen by genre legend Narcisco Ibáñez Serrador, the series brought in six well-known directors, including Balagueró, Paco Plaza and Álex de la Iglesia, with each one handling a single episode of roughly 60 minutes in length. Balagueró’s contribution, To Let (Para entrar a vivir, 2006), is one of the finest in the series, but unlike his previous films, he downplays the supernatural, atmospheric angle in favour of brutal violence and nerve-shredding tension. The film’s central characters, a young couple in search of a new apartment, find themselves at the mercy of an insane landlady who has decided they would be the perfect tenants for her crumbling old block of flats, whether they like it or not. Their would-be neighbours are already home, chained and gagged in their maggot-ridden kitchens or filthy bathrooms in a twisted version of domestic bliss. Following To Let, Balagueró delved further into the world of explicit violence with the hectic, blood-drenched [Rec] and its 2009 follow-up, [Rec] 2, both co-directed by Balagueró and Paco Plaza. Like Cloverfield (2008) and George Romero’s lacklustre Diary of the Dead (2007), Balagueró and Plaza took the ‘found footage’ approach, with the handheld cameras lending the already frantic material another shot of adrenaline. Following [Rec] 2, Balagueró and Plaza decided to direct separate sequels, the first of which – Plaza’s [Rec] 3: Genesis – was released in 2012. Balagueró’s contribution, [Rec]: Apocalypse, is scheduled to appear in 2013.
Released in Spain in late 2011, Sleep Tight (Mientras duermes) is Balagueró’s sixth feature film, and the first he hasn’t at least co-written himself. This time the script was prepared entirely by Alberto Marini, a Filmax executive who has worked with Balagueró on most of his films, as ‘director’s creative assistant’ (Darkness), story editor (Fragile), co-writer (To Let) or co-executive producer on the [Rec] movies. The film centres on César, played by Luis Tosar, a concierge and building manager obsessed with one of the tenants, Clara, an attractive young woman whose sunny disposition provides a sharp contrast with the unstable, chronically unhappy doorman. Ever since he took up the position, César has been sending her a steady stream of offensive, threatening letters, texts and e-mails. As she continues to rise above his torments, César goes even further, until things begin to slip out of his control.
Like To Let and the [Rec] films, Sleep Tight abandons the supernatural elements that appear in his first three feature movies (The Nameless avoids the overtly supernatural, but still takes place in a world haunted by ghosts with sinister cults attempting to summon an evil messiah figure). By removing the infected zombies of [Rec], Balagueró has moved even closer to a realistic world, although admittedly it’s one populated with twisted individuals like César and the landlady from To Let, who is another variation on the twisted parental figures that appear in Balagueró’s earlier films. It’s difficult to view César as one of those, but it’s probably not a coincidence that these characters do very similar jobs. César is one of the hundreds of faceless employees that most people don’t notice as they go through their lives, whether they’re taxi drivers or cleaners. Some of the building’s tenants – most obviously Clara – will stop and chat to talk to him, but most of them simply ignore him. Even the one tenant who complains endlessly about César has no idea of what he’s really like, content to dismiss him as another lazy employee. It’s this attitude that allows him to go largely unnoticed, even when the police are in the building and apparently closing in on their suspect. It helps that César is skilled at masking his true personality, appearing to be a friendly, helpful man. Thankfully, Luis Tosar (Cell 211) is more than up to the task, changing between genial and malevolent with remarkable fluidity but never slipping into a scenery-chewing caricature.
Foregoing the frenzied rush of the [Rec] films, Sleep Tight is deliberately paced, with Balagueró ramping up the tension carefully, concentrating on atmosphere rather than adrenaline. It’s an approach that works well, and the film is every bit as compelling and uncomfortable as The Nameless, a film it resembles somewhat. Some recent Spanish horror offerings – The Orphanage being the most obvious example – have featured cathartic, emotional conclusions, but it’s good to see that Balagueró has (with the exception of Fragile) managed to resist that trend, turning in an appropriately downbeat resolution.
Even though my eyes were shut I knew for sure that someone was standing above me, watching me. The mental image was crystal clear, clearer than actual vision, as strong as the unmistakable sensation of being stared at. I felt my whole body shake like mad under this enormous, trembling pressure as I tried to move under a fog of tingling static. I was physically straining to wake up – my will battling with my inert body: ‘Move! Do something! The unconscious has taken me hostage!’
I wrote the description above in a letter to a friend almost ten years ago, following a night of intense sleep disturbance. Jetlagged after a long journey I had gone to bed in a strange room and rather than falling into sleep, I seemed to slip sideways into a quick-fire series of dreams. These were set in my bedroom and peppered with periods of lying awake, unable to move my body. Throughout the night, in this sleep-wake state, I was visited by visions of a pale-eyed demon with a claw-vice grip. It was not the first time I had experienced this kind of ‘nightmare’. I have had similar episodes since childhood. They feel real unlike any other kind of dream, and terrifying.
This is sleep paralysis, a very common parasomnia experienced by up to 50% of people at some time in their lives. While in REM sleep (dream sleep) a sleeper’s muscles are effectively paralysed to prevent them physically acting out their dreams. This very sensible precaution usually ceases before the sleeper wakes. Sometimes, however, the process falls out of sync. A sleeper may become conscious while still in a state of paralysis, finding themselves awake and aware, but trapped in a sleeping body which will not respond to commands. Often this can be accompanied by hallucinations – visual, auditory, tactile, even olfactory. It’s as if a door to the dream-state has been left open, and some elements are allowed to leak out into what feels like the ‘real’ world.
Last summer, during a period of insomnia, I was getting sleep paralysis episodes once or twice a week. I was struck by how… cinematic the experiences were. Researching the phenomenon, I became fascinated by the recurring themes in experiences that are reported. These include the sense of a malevolent presence in the room, often lying on or pressing the chest of the sleeper. It has been suggested that this sensed ‘presence’ is at the root of many mythological characters, from the sex-crazed incubus in Western Europe to the demonic kanashibari in Japan (allegedly the inspiration behind the Sadako character in The Ring).
To kick off the project I put out a call for interviewees. I was inundated by accounts of sleepers visited by sinister visions and a sense of ‘overwhelming, ancient evil’. Words like ‘fear’, ‘isolation’, ‘loneliness’ and ‘helplessness’ cropped up frequently, as did emotional associations between sleep paralysis and ‘the feeling of being dead’. With the support of Wellcome Trust, I devised The Sleep Paralysis Project, a cross-platform project designed to navigate and express the experience, cultural history and scientific background of sleep paralysis across film, live events and an online resource. The project was launched at London Short Film Festival in January, with a sold-out event at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre. In this evening of film and discussion a psychologist, a neuropsychologist, a filmmaker and a psychoanalyst all presented very different angles on the subject. A series of curated shorts offered other impressions of sleep paralysis and associated areas. These included Paul Vester’s classic short Abductees, a lively animation documenting memories ‘recovered’ during hypnosis as well as new experimental work from Emily&Anne and cinema iloobia.
Another key element of the Sleep Paralysis Project is the creation of a short experimental documentary, currently in production. Inspired by science documentary, 20s surrealism, Hammer horror and musical theatre, the film is created in collaboration with arts and technology collective seeper and artist-composer Dominic de Grande, who is writing a quirky, original soundtrack. Live action film, stop-motion animation and projection-mapped sets combine to create an evolving visual environment, in which perceived reality is constantly in question.
Perhaps the greatest fear is a fear of madness, and the incredibly convincing realities conceived in sleep paralysis are a chilling taste of what our brains are capable of. And what better medium than cinema to capture and communicate the flickering, fearful illusions of the mind’s eye?
The Big Screen: The Story of Movies and What They Did to Us
By David Thomson
Allen Lane 595pp £25
Jazz on Film: Beat, Square & Cool
By Selwyn Harris
Moochin’ About/Jazzwise Magazine £25
The Future Revisited: Jules Verne on screen in 1950s America
By Françoise Schlitz
Chaplin Books £14.99
In spite of rumours of the demise of printed books and related ephemera, wondrous things continue to be delivered through my letterbox and my heart stirs at the thump on the mat when a padded envelope of unknown contents materialises. This month’s Cine Lit looks at three such recent deliveries.
David Thomson is one of cinema studies’ most prolific authors. By turns enthusiastic, irascible, grumpy, opinionated, personal, fair-minded and judgemental, he is above all deeply passionate, informed and honest. His writing is a joy to read and maintains a rare balance between populism and elitism. A critic and contextualist, Thomson is one of the best cinematic authors that we have. As the author’s modest rear dust jacket description has it: ‘David Thomson has a fair claim to be the greatest living writer on film.’ Can’t imagine who the greatest dead writer is – answers on a postcard please. At any event, it is obvious that any new book from Thomson is to be reckoned with and paid attention to. His propensity for magnum opuses – as evidenced by his authoritative Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Whole Equation, his history of Hollywood – now continues with The Big Screen. His polemical, probing style with its breezy narrative structure and insightful, often provocative, observations has been fashioned over many years. Thomson has been a sharp-eyed critic and writer on film for decades, his first publication arriving in 1967. The new book takes a God’s eye view of movies; it is international in scope and all-encompassing in theme. The reader is taken on a mighty journey from the beginnings of the film industry and through the succeeding decades with stops taken along the route to look at the rise and influence of academic film studies (pro and con) , cultural and social change before, during and after the wars and how these anxieties and pleasures were reflected on the screen and embedded in the textual codes. It ends with a wonderful epilogue reflecting on projection, screen and narrative, which, like the book, is suffused with misgivings about the present and future state of movie-going as a communal cultural experience. The Big Screen is a terrific ‘can’t put it down’ account written by an author who holds back few punches – all at once loveable, charming, irritating and unpredictable. A classic.
In an earlier column I enthused over the terrific CD box set of Jazz on Film: Film Noir and its accompanying booklet. How could this gem be bettered? Well… it has. Moochin’ About has just released a gorgeous new five-CD box-set with another informative 30-page booklet, Jazz on Film: Beat, Square & Cool. Featuring more lost or hard-to-get soundtracks remastered to a high standard, it includes such hipster efforts as The Connection, The Subterraneans (imagine A-Team’s George Peppard as Jack Kerouac! Score by Andre Previn), Shadows (a Cassavetes classic, score improvised by Charles Mingus no less), Paris Blues (score by Duke Ellington) and another wonderful four titles. Lovingly prepared and beautifully presented, this is a must-have set.
Finally, a rather unique title from a little-known publisher. Chaplin Books has released Françoise Schlitz’s The Future Revisited, an examination of Hollywood’s film versions of Jules Verne’s novels with a focus on Around the World in 80 Days, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Mysterious Island and Journey to the Center of the Earth – a film seen in childhood which mesmerised me. Schlitz takes a multi-disciplinary view of the films and culture in which they were produced, with an emphasis on how Verne’s original novels launched readers into travels to imaginary places and provided them with newly imagined – but somehow plausible – experiences therein. She then goes on to deliberate how these spectacles and marvels intersected with, and were translated into, works that served the concerns of modernism, capitalism, notions of progress and consumption, all in aid of American post-war hegemony. Cinematic textual challenges to gender, politics, domesticity, innovation and science itself are winkled out of the films in question and an interesting account has been articulated. If at times the book has the whiff of a re-worked Ph.D thesis, what with its initial insistence on articulating methodologies and justifying certain contextual approaches before the unfolding of the narrative proper, it is nonetheless interesting for all that and provides a welcome perspective on a rarely examined aspect of film history.
James B. Evans
GONE… BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
You’ll pay a premium for securing a copy of this terrific title, Cocaine Fiends and Reefer Madness, Michael Stark’s illustrated history of drugs in the movies. It was a seminal study on the topic, and subsequent writers have borrowed generously from Stark’s research and thorough overview of the topic – though not always acknowledging him. The book was published by Cornwall Press in New York in 1982 and has long been out of print. It pops up on ABE and Alibris from time to time and I was lucky to pay £10 for it a few years ago on Charing Cross Road – you know the Charing Cross Road that used to have lots of used bookshops before the days of designer coffee shops and eateries. It is essential, along with Harry Shapiro’s out of print Shooting Stars: Drugs, Hollywood and the Movies (Serpent’s Tail, London) and the equally essential, though still available Addicted: the Myth and Menace of Drugs in Film by the ubiquitous Jack Stevenson. Save these books! JE
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews