Viewers with untrained ears might watch Belgian directing team Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s dazzling neo-gialloThe Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013) and wonder why Ben Power (Blanck Mass, Fuck Buttons) would be so bold as to want to re-score it. The heady mix of slick psychedelia, early synth and ambient grooves are a perfect fit and certain signature pieces are used repeatedly throughout. However, not one of the compositions was originally scored for the Cattet and Forzani film. Instead they lifted their music straight from the 1970s giallo films that inspire them.
The directors have said they like to assemble their soundtracks as they write their script, embedding the fusion of audio and visual into the early stages of the development process. So it was no doubt an unusual experience to watch their film with Power’s retrofitted score laid over it. Thankfully and unsurprisingly, the new music comes with the Belgian duo’s approval. It features contributions from Stockholm’s Roll The Dice, London’s Helm, Moon Gangs, Phil Julian, Glasgow’s Konx-Om-Pax, and New York’s C. Spencer Yeh, as well as Mr Blanck Mass himself. Each artist was assigned a scene and given the freedom to score it how they wished. Furthermore they were doing this without prior knowledge of what was planned by anyone else. Their combined efforts have come together to form a brooding cinematic morass of electronica. In particular, Helm’s ‘Silencer II’ is a hyper-tense 11-minute epic of suppressed emotion and pent up frustration whereas Moon Gangs’ ‘The Apartment’ or a couple of the C. Spencer Yeh tracks are far less brutal – allowing your fast-beating heart and fragile mind a chance to relax. Note that the shrill attack of Phil Julian’s ‘End Credits’ makes sure there’s a shot of adrenalin for anyone flagging when the film fades to black.
The re-score of The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears is put out by Death Waltz Records. It’s a double vinyl release, housed inside a 425gsm reverse board jacket and comes in two versions. There’s the ‘exclusive splatter combo’ as Death Waltz’s Spencer Hickman describes it – limited to 500 only worldwide. Not entirely sure what exact colours that means, but it will not be black – that’s reserved for the regular shop version of it.
The East End Film Festival are showing The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears with the brand new score on 10 July at Red Gallery. After the screening there will be DJ sets from Blanck Mass and friends, including Spencer Hickman spinning some rare giallo records of his own.
For more infos about the event and to buy tickets visit the EEFF website.
A rare screening for two oddities from Underground cinema stalwarts the Kuchar brothers: Mike’s 16mm effort Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965) and George’s Orphans of the Cosmos (2009). Fleshapoids is a 43-minute science fiction epic set in a future where the human race has become self-indulgent, depraved and lazy, lounging about on couches and waited upon by artificial humanoids the ‘fleshapoids’. The plot follows one of the latter, Gar (Bob Cowan), as he rebels and flees slavery to pursue his lover in the palace of Prince Gianbeno (George Kuchar) and Princess Vivianna (Donna Kerness), a couple locked in passive-aggressive war, who are going through their own crisis of infidelity. Mayhem ensues.
Fleshapoids is a riot of plastic jewellery, draped fabric and thrift shop tat repurposed to depict a future world of luxuriant decadence. As in much of the Kuchars’ output an old-school Hollywood glamour sensibility rubs up against their low-rent hairy-arsed tin foil reality. This is a sub-poverty row production shot entirely in Bronx interiors, cast from whatever local male and female hotties could be persuaded into it, in rich colour, but without synchronous sound. It has the innocent ‘let’s put on a show right here’ amateurism you might expect from such a youthful production, but also displays a flair for composition and lighting, and a sheer ambition that lifts it out of home movie status. There is a certain defiant swagger to it, utterly unreal but unconcerned, happy to use a painting and a few pot plants to suggest a palace exterior if they’ll do the job. It’s hard not to feel a certain delight when the narrator intones, in his best ‘welcome to the world of tomorrow’ voice, that ‘humans now live in a true paradise!’ as the camera moves over the plastic fruit and leopard skin to settle on the glitter-sprayed cast, who acquit themselves with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Cowan’s Gar moves in your traditional ‘I am a robot’ jerky fashion throughout (which none of the other fleshapoids do), George Kuchar is a vision of five and dime resplendence, and the script, (delivered through on-screen speech balloons and audio narration) runs the gamut from over-ripe to melodramatic and back again. The ending is outrageous and stupid and rather sweet. It has charm.
Orphans of the Cosmos was made by George Kuchar some 43 years after Fleshapoids, and is, objectively, pretty terrible on any technical level you would choose to judge it. A project made at the San Francisco Art Institute with his students, it tells the tale of some ambitious teens with their hearts set on a mission to Mars, who achieve their goal through dope money funding, only to unleash an extraterrestrial attack in the process.
Cosmos seems at times to have been assembled from the worst (only?) takes that George could get, so that flat readings, fluffed lines and quizzical looks off camera are de rigueur. The lush grain of 16mm has been replaced by video, but not high-end digital video, no; this appears to have been shot with the same camera and software package usually employed by the creators of cable television adverts for Crazy Larry’s Used Furniture Warehouse. Thus every other scene will be framed into hearts, or covered with symbols, or kaleidoscoped into fly’s eye vision. Occasionally this is used to some narrative purpose, but it often feels like he is using every setting on the menu randomly, possibly to win a bet. The thrift store aesthetic here continues in the extensive use of toys to stand in as zoo animals, spaceships and Martians, though the combination of these together with cheesy digital FX becomes increasingly confusing. Indeed the whole thing is a lot less coherent and a lot more repetitive than much of his previous output, and, frankly, the last 10 minutes or so of this 40-minute meisterwork had me baffled.
All this said, it’s clearly a bit of a goof, assembled in a hurry with whatever resources were readily to hand. The patented fruity Kuchar dialogue still raises a smile, and there are some disarmingly terrible musical interludes. I watched the whole thing with a feeling of tickled bemusement. It doesn’t fit the pattern or share the aesthetics of anything else in contemporary American cinema, but nor does it look like it cares. So, godawful then, but kind of fun.
The Created Woman is a three-day festival presented by Mayhem Film Festival and Film Hub Central East, with support from the BFI as part of their nation-wide programme Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder. The festival promises to deliver a new perspective on the genre by exploring the theme of the ‘created woman’, with highlights including screenings of 60s Hammer horror Frankenstein Created Woman, 80s SF B-movie Cherry 2000 and satirical classic The Stepford Wives, as well as discussions on topics such as ‘robot women and created wives’.
Eithne Farry spoke to Mayhem co-directors Chris Cooke and Steven Sheil and London Film Festival Programme Advisor Sarah Lutton, who co-curated the season.
Eithne Farry: Tell me a little about Mayhem.
Chris Cooke: Mayhem started as a short film programme dedicated to horror, but it quickly expanded into an annual four-day festival covering horror, science fiction and cult cinema held in October, bringing great guests and audiences together. We’ve welcomed Nic Roeg, Gareth Edwards and many more through our doors, and the audiences have grown in size and enthusiasm. But Mayhem also screens films throughout the year and our interest in sci-fi has grown too.
Steven Sheil: Over the years we’ve altered and expanded our programming, partly to reflect our own interests and tastes as curators, but also in response to our audience and what they tell us that they’re interested in. Over the past few years we’ve brought more science fiction into the mix, and the BFI’s Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder programme seemed like a good opportunity to do something centred around the genre. We always want to be looking at new opportunities to reach out and expand our audience, while still keeping a solid genre grounding to what we do.
What got you thinking about ‘the created woman’ in sci-fi?
CC: It’s a strong, visible theme in the genre and one that isn’t always given focus and attention. Women can be central to the narrative, but the idea of creating life seems to have led a number of writers and filmmakers to contemplate the notion of ‘creating’ women, from robots to brides for Frankenstein’s monster, and asking what that means for society, culture and sex.
SS: There was an interesting season I saw advertised last year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music which was called ‘Vengeance Is Hers’, themed around female-centred revenge movies. It looked great – I really liked its themed, cross-genre approach. I guess that was an inspiration. And as Chris says, the idea of the created woman is a recurring one in fiction – and especially in science fiction – from the Pygmalion myth right up to things like Her and the great British sci-fi film from last year, The Machine. I think it’s interesting from many aspects, not least from a gender perspective. The story of the artificial human is often one which culminates in a fight over agency – whether the creation can be his/her own person – and the fact that this often takes place within a male/female dynamic offers a lot of scope for analysis.
Sarah Lutton: As a woman and a fan of sci-fi I was always intrigued, if not a little bemused, by the common perception that the genre was seen as very ‘male’. In some ways I can understand it, since it’s easy to see that many of the most active roles in sci-fi films are taken by male characters. However, for me, science-fiction film in particular has always offered really interesting alternate realities in which to explore gender relations and dynamics. I responded to the wealth of interesting female characters, both active and more passive, that I saw on screen. I felt that there were some very revealing messages being communicated about creativity and society in general.
Was there a particular film that was the starting point?
CC: Two sprung instantly to mind for me. The Bride of Frankenstein is Gothic science fiction at its wildest, James Whale really enjoys himself here. But the film that immediately made me want to progress with it was 1987’s Cherry 2000, from Steve De Jarnatt, who made the incredible cult film Miracle Mile (1988). Cherry 2000 is another forgotten gem from him. The ideas are really clear in this: a society where people have to draw up contracts before men and women can even go on dates has led to a division between genders, and yuppies, like our central character, have robot sex-dolls. But when those break down, real people (real women) are going to have to come to their aid to find the spare parts in a desolate wasteland (the result: a future American civil war). Metaphors are everywhere, but the film is bold and direct. And Melanie Griffith has a great time as a tough and resourceful ‘tracker’ tasked with finding the elusive Cherry 2000 for her yuppie client (all very 80s). The film was written by Michael Almereyda, who directed the great alt-vampire film Nadja in 1994, which was shot on pixel-vision cameras (continuing a love affair with technology and narrative).
SS: With Metropolis and Bride of Frankenstein, you have two really iconic images of created women, so those two really helped to spark off the ideas for the season. I was also interested in getting something like Hammer’s Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde into the mix – it’s such a weird film with lots of strange undercurrents.
SL: The film Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick’s source novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep have always been iconic for me in terms of thinking generally about artificial life and created female life specifically. I found the ideas about creating life forms for such varying reasons both intriguing and hugely provocative (especially the creation of the niece/Rachael model). We’ll be screening Blade Runner as a kind of coda to the ‘Created Woman’ season on 14 December at Broadway Cinema.
How do you think that the idea of the created woman has changed over time?
CC: The theme of creating women to replace real women has become real – there are sex dolls that talk, and real fembots on the way, disturbingly. Maybe that’s the real difference, that what was suggested by Metropolis has been made fact. But the ideas are there, from Spike Jonze’s Her to S1mOne, the advance of technology suggests new spins on older themes and ideas.
SS: I’m not sure how much has changed really – that’s why it’ll be good to see the films up against one another, to look at whether things have really developed. I think it’d be interesting to see more films that look at created women from a female perspective. We have Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Teknolust, featuring Tilda Swinton as a scientist cloning herself, but otherwise it’s mostly stories of men creating women, which is just a by-product of there being fewer female filmmakers working in the genre, I think.
SL: I think that maybe we as audiences have changed a lot. I’m really hoping that by offering the opportunity to see these films in a more comparative context we can watch them with fresh eyes and make new connections. I think that in the wake of films like Her audiences are approaching ideas about gender and artificial intelligence/life in a rather different way.
Is there a subversive slant to this idea of the created woman?
CC: The main idea, for me, is to get audiences talking and exploring the themes themselves, as well as discovering some new titles they’d perhaps missed, or getting to see some wonderful classics on the big screen. But the perverse pleasure of James Whale casting Elsa Lanchester to play both the creator of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, and the bride that Frankenstein creates for his man-made monster throws up all kinds of readings… And robots from Maria in Metropolis onwards have often been constructed feminine, only to turn on their societies in revolutionary acts. The films we’ve selected are fun, entertaining, exciting and provocative. Hopefully the audiences will have a lot to talk about as well as enjoy.
SS: I don’t know about subversive. With all of these stories there are strong subtexts about the nature of creation and about idealized versions of women, as well as what women’s role should be from a male perspective – which is quite chilling and damning in something like The Stepford Wives. So I guess that opens up a lot of debate about how society sees women and their role, but that’s an ever-present question. I guess we’re presenting the films in this context as a way of opening up a discussion about the theme, and I think it’ll be interesting to see the responses we get.
SL: Yes, I’m not sure about it being subversive but I’m hoping that the ideas are provocative in some way!
Bill Morrison creates stunning works of cinema from forgotten fragments of footage. His debut feature, Decasia (2002), a beautiful composition of decaying nitrate celluloid, was the first film of the 21st century to be selected for preservation by the National Film Registry, although UK audiences might know him best for The Miners’ Hymns(2010), his majestic, poetic rendering of lost coal mining communities in North East England.
Eleanor McKeown spoke to the American filmmaker ahead of the UK premiere of his latest masterwork, The Great Flood, at Birmingham’s Flatpack Film Festival in March 2014.
Bill Morrison: Selected Films 1996-2014 is released in the UK on 4 May 2015 by the BFI. The 3-disc Blu-ray box set includes The Great Flood, Decasia, Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 and many more.
Eleanor McKeown: How did you find the material for The Great Flood and how did the project come about?
Bill Morrison: I had been looking for a longer project to work on with Bill Frisell. We’d done a couple of shorts before – The Film of Her and The Mesmerist – where I used pre-recorded tracks of his. We were looking for a project where we would start from the ground up; he would write new music and I would find new footage to make a new film. I had been working on looser, more metaphorical treatment of flood footage and was looking for any old footage of flood-inundated houses for a project called Shelter (this was back in 2005), and I kept coming across footage from 1926 and 1927. It wasn’t until some time later that I was at a dinner party where they were discussing a book by John M. Barry called Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed American Culture, as it related to Katrina and the problems with that storm and the flood in New Orleans. I read that book. Knowing that there was a lot of footage out there from that era and that Bill wanted to work on a project with me, and that there were musical ramifications from people moving out of the area into the newer cities like Chicago, Cleveland and New York, it all kind of conspired and I realised that this could be a long-form project.
Once we had decided that we wanted to go forward with this project, Bill approached his management team – that’s Phyllis Oyama and Lee Townsend at Songtone – and they were able to assemble a list of performing venues that would co-commission the project. It was not the regular route most filmmakers take to finance a film, but it really came about as part of the multimedia side of the live performance. There were a number of venues that contributed more or less money to the thing, and quite a few would premiere the piece in that region.
Was there a difference between how The Great Flood was originally performed live and how it currently appears in its finished version? With The Miners’ Hymns, your last UK film release, I understand that the film was shown on a double screen when it premiered, with live music, at Durham Cathedral.
Both films were much looser when they were originally performed live, before we had a definitive master recording, which we re-cut to. With The Great Flood, it was a very unique set of circumstances, where I was on tour with Bill in the Mississippi River Delta in the spring of 2011. We had booked a tour just to give Bill and his bandmates a chance to familiarise themselves with the material and to work on it together through rehearsals and performances, on sort of a mobile artist’s residency, if you will. We had absolutely no indication, of course, that the tour would be during another major flood of the Mississippi River. Indeed, the flood levels that spring were as high as they had been since 1927, so it became a very real sort of history lesson on what it feels like to be in a community not knowing whether the levees are going to hold or not.
It was through recording all those soundchecks, and rehearsals and performances that I was able to structure a sort of narrative and emotional arc of how I thought the film would sound. That tour became a tool, both for me to start forming a rough cut of the film, and for Bill to write more music or re-write music that was recorded. It was also just a chance to talk to him about things that I was really enamoured with on his previous records, and how I saw the opportunity for some of those same dynamics to work: the idea of taking a theme and expanding on it. He was really receptive to that collaboration, really more so than any other composer-collaborator I’ve worked with.
How was it different to working with other composers in the past? Was there more improvisation?
I work a lot with classical composers and, once they’ve written the score, it’s really in the hands of the conductor and orchestra to perform it the way the composer wrote it. We arrive at a master recording that way. With Bill, it’s almost exactly the opposite. He doesn’t want to repeat himself two performances in a row. In fact, if it’s something’s good, he tries to avoid it the second time, and if it’s bad, of course, he’s going to avoid it the second time! It’s really a completely different way of approaching performance. The music grew from the spring tour but, after it premiered that fall, we used a recording from the premiere to re-edit the film. Then a few months later, we had a better recording that we made at Duke and that became the basis for the film, and the edit that was used during much of the film’s performance life in 2012. It wasn’t until about a year ago, in March of 2013, that the band did a performance in Seattle that we felt very strongly could be the definitive soundtrack of the film. The film, as released in 2014, was entirely re-cut to this soundtrack to support every note and every chord change. It is cut to the beat in a way that would be impossible to do in a live situation, and that was the same with The Miners’ Hymns too. We started out with a very loose edit and then, when we had a final recording, we re-cut to it, sometimes as many as three or four different times.
Thinking about the narrative arc of the film, The Great Flood is divided into chapters. How did you make decisions about these and, in particular, the segment that uses a montage of the 1927 Sears Roebuck Catalogue and the change of pace in this sequence?
Bill was really adamant that we include these up-tempo musical numbers: music that I associate with Thelonious Monk or a bebop tempo. I’m really enamoured with his dirges and ballads, but he was adamant that those don’t work unless you have something that also cuts them and changes the pace and the mood. He’s a real master at constructing a set – and this was after all a set – so including that type of mood was really Bill’s influence. It was something that initially I was resistant to, but I came to see how he was right.
The Sears Roebuck catalogue was my idea. As you can see from the start of that chapter, it’s listed with a circulation of 75 million, so you can imagine how prevalent this book was in just about every house. It would be like the internet is for us today. It was sort of the portal to all the stuff that’s out there. I’ve been told that some houses had only two books: The Bible and the Sears Roebuck Catalogue. There’re also stories about children making up fantasy stories based on the characters in that book. It was a source of amusement but also a source of dreaming. This is all the stuff you could own, if you had a better life. Then, in the context of the film, it’s also all the stuff that’s getting destroyed by the flood and getting thrown away –what you grab onto. I was able to find a reprint of the 1927 catalogue, which is really upheld as an emblem of the Roaring Twenties. It was financially a very fat time in this country, before The Great Depression, and so this book is an artefact of everything we had and everything we could own. Because the layout page-to-page is very similar, it lent itself to this fast de facto animation. I simply scanned every page and then played with it in edit until it kind of moved. It was also a different way of treating up-tempo material rather than relying on fast action or fast editing.
This up-tempo music reoccurs at other points in the film, such as the segment showing footage of politicians visiting the flood sites.
Yes, also in the dynamiting Poydras chapter. It’s an ironic use of the music, because of course the chapter is showing large class discrepancies, treated as business as usual, and I think that the music communicates that.
Out of all the footage you were working with, you chose a woman dancing to live music in Chicago as the last shot of the film. How did you decide on this final image?
That had always been the premise of the film. The water came down the river and the people moved up it – to the north – and, in so doing, brought music and a way of life and a culture to northern American cities that then went global and really affected popular music and popular culture in the latter half of the century. That shot said so much. It’s obviously an old shot, it’s over 50, almost 60, years old. You can see a woman in the back carrying a large poster of John Kennedy, so one can assume that it’s either an election party or an inauguration party. It’s something that would place it in November 1960 or January 1961. My guess is November 1960. It comes from a film that was released in 1964 by Mike Shea, called And This Is Free, which is a beautiful depiction of Maxwell Street in Chicago, a flourishing musical area and commercial area, which no longer exists in the way it did back then, of course. For me, coming from the South Side of Chicago, I always thought of this film as ending there. It’s as much about me trying to understand where I’m from, as how my neighbourhood became that way and the significance of Chicago as a conduit to the rest of the world. We came across that shot and it encompassed so much. It was at once modern, as well as being ancient. It was very beautiful. It showed passion and great intimacy. There was something very real about it; something where the people were oblivious of the use of the camera, or seemingly so.
And after all the work and really demeaning and unpleasant situations that you’ve seen people in throughout the film – and really you haven’t seen that many women, it’s mostly been a lot of men – to see this woman dancing was so emblematic of survival and of strength. That story goes on. This is not just an ending but the river continues.
Her expression is an interesting one, which provokes a lot of different ideas. She seems to convey so much in that expression.
Yes, there’s a lot of resolve to her. She’s very serious about her dance and she’s extraordinarily beautiful. That’s what I wanted the film to be.
It certainly was. What are your plans for The Great Flood and what projects are you currently working on?
The Great Flood is being distributed in North America by Icarus Films and they’re doing a phenomenal job with it. They oversaw a successful opening here in New York and also in Los Angeles, and they are now taking it to independent theatres throughout the United States and Canada. There’s also going to be a DVD release in May, again through Icarus Films. We don’t have an international distributor yet, and I am interested in finding a UK distributor.
The Great Flood is released in the US on DVD (R1) and VOD on 20 May 2014.
In terms of my upcoming projects, I’m working on a new long-form doc about an archive that was found in Dawson City in the Yukon territory in the late 1970s, after having been buried in a swimming pool for 50 years. And I just finished a film on World War One with a score by a Serbian composer, Aleksandra Vrebalov, which will be performed by The Kronos Quartet. That will premiere in Berkeley, California, and make its international premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival in August. With this film, I worked with the Library of Congress to find footage that other people aren’t able to access on the war. Through soaking and restoration, we were unspooling rolls of film that hadn’t been seen in decades. We’re very much looking forward to the reaction to this film.
Read about Bill Morrison’s Decasia in The End: An Electric Sheep Anthology.
Recently, a couple of my friends were having a light scuffle about music formats on Facebook. The conversation shifted from ‘Why are you listening to that?’ to ‘Why are you listening to that on CD?’ The suggestion was that any physical format for storing music was now absurd: ‘Why would you when you don’t have to?’ Such an outcry would be ignored by the boozy congregation that met earlier this month in Islington’s deconsecrated church The Nave. They were out in their legions to pay homage at the launch of the heavyweight 180g luxuriance that was the limited, double coloured vinyl edition of John Carpenter’s self-scored soundtrack to The Fog (1980), released by Death Waltz Recording Company, founded by Spencer Hickman in 2011. Also unveiled that night was renowned artist Dinos Chapman’s specially commissioned cover artwork: a spidery, skinless semi-human face that seems to emerge from a graphite fog and be consumed by it at the same time.
More information on Cigarette Burns Cinema can be found here.
Rare celluloid print screening masters Cigarette Burns, founded by Josh Saco in 2008, who co-hosted the event, treated us further to lurid trailers from 70s movies, including Burnt Offerings (1976) and Demon Seed (1977), getting us in the mood for the 16mm full scope projection of The Fog itself: Carpenter’s tale of 19th-century undead sailors who descend upon their old haunt, the Californian fishing town Antonio Bay, to avenge their betrayal. They were drowned when their ship was sunk by original Bay folk who were not keen on the sailors’ mission to establish a leper colony nearby. The eerie thick fog that heralds their anniversary visit is a portentous means of transportation. The fog is more than this though: its ubiquity and unearthly toxicity are incomprehensible. A motif perhaps, of the world beyond, an anarchic space outside society, that Carpenter evokes across his films. The Fog is certainly worth celebrating, and the dimly lit, smoke-filled arts venue provided some great visual echoes, especially during the scenes set in Father Malone’s church.
Carpenter is known for scoring and performing the music for his own film projects and The Fog’s soundtrack is indicative of his pared-down, minimal style. The detuned sense of foreboding puts me in mind of his outsider antiheroes, who are at odds with the dominant social forces. This includes my favourite Carpenter character, psychopath turned hobby bobby Napoleon Wilson, played by Darwin Joston in Assault on Precinct 13, who also turns up in The Fog as the coroner. Also, Michael Myers, played by Tony Moran, the slasher who gets to walk away unscathed at the end of Halloween. Whether Carpenter gives us the electro alienation of the Assault score or the agoraphobic mix of The Fog, these spaces are populated by drifters, the disenchanted and the vengeful.
Carpenter’s re-issued score would work on any format because it’s good, but I like Death Waltz’s double vinyl edition that can be handled and played on an analogue system. For me, this is part of the phenomenological pleasure of space, and objects that occupy three-dimensional space and reflect light. It’s also about an enjoyment of the residue of this: the whirring of the projector, cigarette smoke in a beam of light or the suspense of opening a double album, searching for inserts.
‘The 50s were a great time to be a kid, because the whole culture was so juvenile.’
‘Go get ’em, midnight!’ says the scarred man, sending his trained horse down by itself to attack the two riders in the valley below. ‘Lousy cops, always crowding a guy,’ snarls a teen hoodlum anti-hero swerving his car to avoid a back projection. Later he’ll be beaten up in a clumsy cafe brawl that he starts with the line ‘you’re outta your class, throttle jockey!’ Alfred Hitchcock pops up, presenting something. Then there’s Naked City spliced with a stag reel. The Lone Ranger patronises Tonto, Nabisco cereals are giving away ‘Defenders of America’ cards with their shredded wheat, baseball cards depicting US submarines, planes and missiles to warm the heart of your little cold warriors. The sponsors of Robin Hood, Wildroot Cream Oil, proudly announce that it ‘contains lanolin and cholesterol’, and on it goes: George Reeves’s Superman, Abbot and Costello, Rin Tin Tin, Bufferin and Lifebuoy soap, Alpha Bites cereal and Lustre Creme….
This is Joe Dante’s Movie Orgy, a hand-spliced avalanche of mostly monochrome pop culture, adverts, TV shows, B-movies, and whatever else Dante could find, made in 1968 and then toured round college campuses for the next two years. Screenings were supported by Schlitz beer, and the full thing lasted for seven hours (Dante: ‘after the third hour it got funny’). I’m watching a 90-minute edit courtesy of Cine-Excess, the cult film conference, and then sticking around as the charming Mr Dante is interviewed by Kim Newman afterwards. There was only ever one print of The Movie Orgy, and it played 200 dates, constantly falling apart, being added to, cut and re-spliced. No permission was sought for the use of the Orgy footage, and it carries a sly 68 anti-Establishment charge; Vietnam hangs heavily in the background (a trailer for John Wayne’s The Green Berets is one of the few contemporary clips to turn up), and the sexual and racial attitudes of the 50s are repeatedly brought into question. You can almost smell the dope smoke as you watch it today.
The teen hoodlum flick is called Speed Crazy, the cheapo Western remains unnamed, a random pattern that continues throughout; we know that Teenagers from Outer Space and The Giant Gila Monster are in there, and devotees will recognise Bert I Gordon’s The Beginning of the End and Jack Arnold’s Tarantula, but for much of the rest we’re on our own in a world devoid of explanation, the only context being provided by juxtaposition. Whole features are hacked down to their essentials, mined for weirdness and hilarity, the stuff that Dante and friends found funny at NYU at the time, and the stuff that they thought was cool when they were nine years old. At times it resembles a teenage mix tape made with love, at others a scabrous unveiling of the American subconscious, and mostly it’s a goofy mess. With its hand-lettered titles, varying sound levels, clicks, pops and hisses, it’s a distinctly low-fidelity experience, but that adds to its crude power. It’s like Andy Warhol via Mad Magazine, and though it’s largely shapeless there’s a definite method in the madness somewhere. Dante recalls that the original epic ended with a solid 20 minutes or so of the closing moments of dozens of different old shows, and the whole ‘happy trails, buckaroos’ montage would reduce most of the hardy souls who had sat through the whole thing to tears. In a world without video, DVD or the internet, all this material, this 50s juvenilia, had disappeared from people’s lives, and The Movie Orgy dredged it up, sliced it into pieces and fed it back to the viewers, in what must have been a strange and heady experience. Dante had the idea for The Movie Orgy after noting the popularity of a college screening of a complete 1940s Batman serial over five hours. Without the week-long wait between episodes that characterised the original run the audience were made forcefully aware of the repetitions of footage, the outrageous cheat cliff-hanger endings, and all the absurdities and narrative contortions of the type of entertainment that they had doubtless accepted at face value when they were children.
Susan Sontag’s influential essay on camp had recently been published, and The Movie Orgy followed its lead: to be included, footage had to be played totally straight, otherwise it wasn’t funny, and it should ideally push the buttons of the baby boomers in the audience. Rules are made to be broken, and some knowing satirical clips appear amid the Howdy Doody and Puralin, but for the most part it’s an unpolished, disarming trawl through the cathode ray hinterland I only knew through Drew Friedman’s genius comic strips. Here they are, the aging music hall comedians, hard-sell commercials and nightmarish kids’ shows, a festival of hokey staging and stiff delivery. It’s baffling and alarming and hilarious by turns; one moment you could be watching an ad for the Little Hostess Buffet set ‘by Marx’, a toy full dinner service for the career-free little girl, the next you’re pitched into the sheer proto-Lynchian hell of Andy’s Gang, where a live cat and mouse (Midnight and Squeaky) have been strapped into torture devices so that they can be filmed playing Salvation Army drums from a variety of angles while a distressed-looking fat man warbles ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so’ over the footage. It’s a good thing that the kids in the Andy’s Gang audience are provided by stock footage, otherwise they would be screaming in abject terror, as I would have been had I not been laughing so damned hard.
I would love The Movie Orgy for this sequence alone, and there’s plenty more where that came from. It’s a social document from the heady days of revolution, it’s a post-war treasure trove, and for Joe Dante fans it’s a touchstone. This is where the strait-laced dialogue from Mant, Matinee‘s film-within-a-film came from; here’s the first evidence of the anti-corporate, anti-military creator of Gremlins, Small Soldiers and The Homecoming; hell, here’s even the puerile knucklehead who had a hand in Amazon Women on the Moon. It’s a gas. Now, let’s get the full seven-hour cut over, somebody score some Schlitz beer and home-grown, pull up a beanbag, let’s watch this bastard properly.
The Movie Orgy (Joe Dante, USA, 1968) screened at Cine-Excess on April 29.
There is an element of surprise when a still image appears in a film; it creates an incongruous interruption in the endless rolling of 24 otherwise imperceptible frames. Still images offer the filmmaker a change in pace; a climax; an aside; a punch-line. It is often the frozen frame that lingers and floats before your eyes as you leave the cinema. So it creates a certain incongruity when the punch-line becomes the story itself.
Tate Modern’s current film season, PhotoFilm, presents an assortment of films that are all composed from still photographs. The selected works are stripped of the gradual unfolding action that characterises much of cinema, making the filmmaker’s craft immediately more apparent. The juxtaposition of still images reveals the filmmaker’s decisions and choices; and it also makes the audience a more active participant, allowing more time to reflect, make connections and let imaginations wander.
The programming provides a mixture of languid introspection and high-speed playfulness. Perhaps the most intensely contemplative film screening over the season’s first weekend was Ken Jacobs’s Capitalism: Child Labor (2006). A claustrophobic 14 minutes of relentless strobe flickering, the film consists of a single Victorian photograph of a factory floor. Jacobs focuses in on specific aspects of the picture – the cotton bobbins, the young boy’s bare feet, the stare of an older worker – always threatening to move beyond the single image but never able to leave it behind. Confronted with this interminable concentration on a single picture, the audience has no choice but to consider the serious implications of a seemingly non-descript, everyday image. Similarly, Toshio Matsumoto’s lyrical film on the work of Japanese stonemasons – Ishi no uta (Song of Stones, 1963) – presents us with a beautiful sense of time passing and history as the workers labour with the enduring, imposing rock-face. The more light-hearted films played with juxtaposing images to create humorous rhythms and connections, like Pas de repos pour Billy Brakko (No Rest for Billy Brakko, 1983), an early comic-strip animation by Jean Pierre-Jeunet, or De Tuin (The Garden, 1999), which cuts between different characters at a country residence to create a melodramatic soap opera of sexual tension, all merely suggested by constructing a knowing sequence of images.
The best films showing over the season’s first weekend managed to combine both serious observation and joyful whimsy. Arthur Lipsett’s Very Nice, Very Nice (1961) was a frenzied Pop Art short that created a critique of consumerist society while retaining a comic and celebratory love of montage. Der Tag eines unständigen Hafenarbeiters, (A Day in the Life of a Casual Dock Worker, 1966) may have had a more serious political or social aim in presenting the life of someone at the bottom of the labour hierarchy, but it also had a playful edge with its moving image interludes and nice set sequences presenting the dock worker’s morning routine. AgnÃ¨s Varda’s Salut les Cubains (Hi there, Cubans, 1963) also had a political undertone with its love of ‘lyrical revolutionaries’, ‘romantic revolutionaries’. Its lingering still images allow the audience to reflect on Cuba’s political history; but the film does not separate its more sober aspects from beautifully lively montages of cha-cha-cha dance sequences. Cutting the photographs to a lilting voice-over, Varda’s pacing is extraordinarily perfect.
Loosely collected into different strands – the dancing photo on film, the photo novel, the filmic photograph – the films presented across the PhotoFilm season provide a great example of innovative and individualistic filmmaking, highlighting the processes and decisions that go into making cinema. Unfortunately, the thoughtful consideration of the programming is not reflected in its presentation: as the curators choose to introduce each individual film rather than providing a general introduction, the flow of the screenings becomes frustratingly fragmented. As the form of the photofilm encourages the audience to actively make connections within films and across works, it would be nice to allow the audience more room for contemplation. However, this problem aside, the curators have done a great job in bringing together rare works and drawing out some very interesting common threads within the genre.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews