Full of Sound and Fury: The Tragedy of Macbeth

The Tragedy of Macbeth

Back in the early 70s, the Third Ear Band were the festival band. Wherever there was mud, cider and an outdoor PA system, there would be Glenn Sweeney’s merry band with their strings and their hand drums, wigging out on some epic jam which somehow managed to blend together the collective folk music of half the world. Curiously, only when they were asked to provide an explicitly period soundtrack did they find it necessary to add an electronic synthesizer to their line-up. Simon House, later of Hawkwind, joined the group for the Macbeth soundtrack and left shortly after. He played a VCS-3, a keyboard-free analogue synth beloved of Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire (not to mention Karlheinz Stockhausen), and designed in London by the composers Tristram Cary and Peter Zinovieff (with engineer David Cockerell).

This sudden addition of electricity to the previously acoustic group seems to suggest an understanding that the sheer macabre weirdness of Shakespeare’s play – especially as interpreted by Roman Polanski and Kenneth Tynan – demanded something other, some element of fantasy that went beyond what could be notated on manuscript paper.

For a group whose previous compositions averaged close to 10 minutes in length, the Third Ear Band are here remarkably restrained. The extended prog-rock ragas of Alchemy and its eponymous sequel are here compressed to clips of but a few seconds’ length. And for most of the play’s first act, they stick to a fairly straight medievalism, the pentatonic melismas of Paul Minns’s oboe doing a serviceable imitation of a twelfth-century shawm. The only note of something sinister – and obviously anachronistic – comes from the bass playing of Paul Buckmaster: one minute plunging into psych head music, the next evoking the drones of the tambura in Hindustani classical music. This soundtrack was Buckmaster’s only recording with the Third Ear Band, a performance turned in between arrangement work on Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate and Miles Davis’s On the Corner.

As Shakespeare’s story grows darker and weirder, so too does the music. While Macbeth contemplates murdering Duncan, a fizzling hum of shuddering VCS-3 and scraping guitar noise underscores the famous ‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’ soliloquy. Upon the deed itself, a wild dervish of free improvisation. As the film draws towards its conclusion, with the army approaching upon the hill and mist engulfing the screen, a thick fog of dissonance drifts in likewise, seemingly emerging directly from precisely the kind of snaking modal oboe line which had once seemed to speak of happier times. As Macbeth finally meets his end, high tremolando violin merges with more VCS-3 in a pitch of piercing tinnitus.

The Third Ear Band’s music for this film has been compared to both the chamber music of György Ligeti and Masaru Sato’s soundtrack to Kurosawa’sThrone of Blood(1957). The Tragedy of Macbeth has often been called the bloodiest of all Shakespeare films. With its murderous tones, forever teetering on the edge of some horror, this music may be bloodier still.

Robert Barry

Psychotically Spliced Sounds: Ichi the Killer

Ichi the Killer

At a recent seminar on sound design held at the ÉCU (European Independent Film Festival) in Paris, mixer and recordist Nikola Chapelle talked about the tendency of American films to emphasise and exaggerate natural sounds to such an extent that ‘we are always disappointed with reality’. In response to this Hollywoodian hyperacusis, Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer proffers a sound design so amped up as to suggest the experience of some kind of severe neurological disorder. Blood does not merely flow in this immensely bloody film: it gushes, ripples, roars from wounded bodies like waterfalls close-miked and amplified to the point of distortion.

Amid all this, there are many sounds that are on the borders of music and sound effects, or ‘noise’. At which point in the mobile-phone-ringtone-computer-game-soundtrack-muzak continuum do we enter the realm of music per se? The score by Karera Musication inhabits an equally liminal space on the edge of music – albeit coming from the other direction, as it were. There is no functional harmony, no progressions, no build-up and release of melodic tension. Rather, there are rhythms and textures – and not always at the same time; there are gurgling, whirling, sweeping electronic sounds; white noise, high-pitched test tones, processed voices and nature sounds; all sliced up in the editing suite with the same psychotic surgical precision as Ichi’s victims.

Karera Musication is in fact Japanese band The Boredoms, here without their usual ringleader and founder member Yamantaka Eye, with guitarist Seiichi Yamamoto taking over conducting duties, aided and abetted by drummer Yoshimi P-We. The Boredoms were formed by Eye in 1986 out of the ashes of the performance art/noise group Hanatarash, who had been banned from performing due to the tremendous amount of property damage and physical danger that had become a hallmark of their concerts (which would involve circular saws, Molotov cocktails and bulldozers).

Taking their name from a song by The Buzzcocks, The Boredoms started off playing a kind of highly abrasive, yelling, screaming free-form punk noise. But by the end of the 1990s this sound had evolved into a percussion-heavy psychedelic space rock, heavily influenced by krautrock and p-funk. The soundtrack to Ichi the Killer proved to be the last thing the band recorded together before the departure of Yamamoto and other members led to an extensive regrouping around the original core of Yamantaka Eye and Yoshimi P-We.

The music exhibits a great deal of the kind of intense polyrhythmic drumming and wild free electronics that one would expect from The Boredoms, with added moments of Sun Ra-esque jazz trumpet, sludgy wah-wah guitar, and a playful, almost childlike, use of samples and traditional Japanese instruments. The soundtrack as a whole is as delirious and exploratory as the film it accompanies, the frenetic editing style and plethora of post-production visual effects matched punch for punch by The Boredoms’ music. A surreal mix of visceral intensity and wistful lost innocence that might be less an attempt to ‘score’ the film’s images to specific targeted cues, and more a kind of aural animal magnetism, striving to leap directly into the febrile imaginative life of Ichi himself.

Robert Barry

Ken Russell’s Composers

The Music Lovers

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

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

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

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

Robert Barry

Do you like jive? Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady

Phantom Lady

Few film genres would appear to be so readily associated with a particular style of music as film noir with jazz, the former’s smoky chiaroscuro and louche, simmering sexuality apparently the perfect complement to the bruised sax tones of Private Hell 36 (1954), arranged by Shorty Rogers from Leith Stevens’s score, or the swung high hats of Elmer Bernstein’s theme from The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). One film in which this normally cool complement heats up into a whirling fury of burning sexual energy is Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944).

Though there is not a great deal of music in Phantom Lady, Siodmak preferring to build up his tension through atmospheric use of foley effects and extensive silences, such music as remains is consistently worthy of note. The blustery opening theme by Hans Salter, a former student of Alban Berg, whistles along breezily, lulling us into a false sense of security, before neatly segueing into an arrangement of the song the unknown ‘phantom lady’ herself (played by Fay Helms) will soon select on a jukebox in a lowdown dive bar, ‘I’ll Remember April’. This is Siodmak’s first use of what will become a signature leitmotif in his films for star-crossed encounters, recurring later in Christmas Holiday (1944), The Killers (1946) and Criss Cross (1949), always with much the same connotation. But all this pent-up tension is finally released in one explosive, quasi-orgasmic scene roughly half-way through the picture.

Amateur detective ‘Kansas’ Carol Richman (played by Ella Raines) has dolled herself up as a loose, gum-chewing dame in order to seduce Elisha Cook Jr.’s sleazy drummer. He invites her down to a late night jam session in a basement club, and as the door swings open, the camera zooms in on the horn of Dole Nicolls’s trombone as he blasts out a dolorous bluesy solo. The camera dollies deeper into the room, introducing each leering face of the musicians one by one: former Jimmy Dorsey Band charter member Jimmy Slack, hammering out a delirious boogie-woogie on the piano, Barney Bigard, one-time member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Louis Armstrong’s All-Star Concert Group, shoving his squealing clarinet in Richman’s face, Howard Ramsey (possibly a misspelling of Howard Rumsey, bassist for Stan Kenton) slapping at the high end of the neck of his stand-up bass, and finally Roger Hanson on trumpet. The tight framing, Dutch angles and deep shadows constantly emphasise Richman’s discomfort as the session heats up into a wild hard bop. In the novel on which the film is based, Cornell Woolrich describes the scene as a ‘sort of Dante-esque inferno’.

Then Cook takes the drum stool and with wild, possessed eyes starts hammering out a furious solo, building into a tumult of snare fills and flying cymbals as Richman goads him, her hands grasping towards him as though squeezing the energy out of him. The solo builds with such intensity – and with such thinly disguised sexual innuendo – that the local censor board of Pennsylvania insisted on all its close-ups being cut from screenings in the state.

As David Butler remarks in his study of the film’s music, ‘jazz would seldom be featured so graphically this way again’. IMDB credits the drum solo to the little-known David Coleman. But according to Leonard Maltin – and an unknown poster on YouTube who claims to have discussed the matter with Cook himself – it was really Buddy Rich hammering away on the sticks behind the scenes.

Robert Barry

The Ceaseless Noise of Space: Alternative 3

Alternative 3

In 1977, a year after NASA landed its first unmanned probe on the surface of Mars, Anglia Television decided to round off its Science Report documentary series with an April Fools gag purporting to show evidence of a fully-fledged scientific colony being developed in secret on the red planet since the early 60s. It is either unfortunate or enormously serendipitous (depending on one’s perspective on such matters) that an industrial dispute delayed broadcasting from its original April 1st slot to a date several months later and thus accidentally kick-started one of the most notorious science fiction hoaxes since the Mercury Theatre’s War of the Worlds. Like Orson Welles’s earlier broadcast, sound and music played a crucial role in Alternative 3, and when the show’s producers set about deciding upon a composer, they plumped for a certain Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno.

1977 was a busy year for Eno, beginning with live performances with The 801, followed by collaborations with Cluster and David Bowie in Germany over the summer and topped off with the release of his last album of song-based solo material for several decades, Before and after Science. But it’s worth remembering that, having left Roxy Music four years earlier, Eno still only had a small number of production credits to his name and Alternative 3 is one of his first films. Most of the tracks that accompany it on the following year’s Music for Films album were then still just composed for ‘imaginary films’ (even if many of them would later be snapped up for use in actual movies). So despite only a brief mention (‘eerie synthesizer soundtrack’) in David Sheppard’s 2008 biography, Alternative 3 stands right at the pivot of Eno’s move away from rock stardom and towards some supposedly more legitimate and perhaps even respectable trade.

In fact, Eno contributes just one three-minute track to the documentary, and even among the other miniatures of Music for Films it sounds remarkably slight, almost apologetic compared to the grandiosity of the ‘Sparrowfall’ trilogy that precedes it. Just a bed of deep bass drones, with something like the bleeps of submarine soundings and some reversed ‘found sound’ over the top, all drifting in the heat haze of reverb. But its staggered exposition over the course of the film proves a fecund choice.

At first, all we are given is the shimmer of suspended high frequencies, providing, as it were, the question mark that binds together the initial presentation of the ‘mystery’ of the missing scientists. As the plot thickens, so too do Eno’s sound masses: a bass note of menace accompanies the talk of coming environmental catastrophe; a wavering, flanged synth line introduces the NASA angle, soon the beeps of mission control’s dialogue with its astronauts join it; the first springs of melody rise with the lift-off of an Apollo spacecraft, and the suspicion of covert Soviet-American collaboration – in space!

Only, at the very end of the film, with the full story finally revealed – and, with the credits providing the actors’ names, the ‘mock’ nature of this ‘doc’ finally admitted – are we given the full extent of Eno’s piece – and still the music seems to pose an unsettling question mark, as though expressing dissatisfaction with such a neat tying up of loose ends, of the sort later exploited by former Scientologist Jim Keith’s paranoia-baiting Alternative 3 Casebook.

Robert Barry

The Artist: The Sound of Silence

The Artist

Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist may be the first ‘silent film’ made in America to trouble the attention of the Oscars committee for several generations; and yet, paradoxically, no other film this year pays such close attention to sound. It is the absence of sound that first makes us pause. As the film begins, we find ourselves caught in a mise en abyme: in a cinema, watching an audience in a cinema watching a silent film. So the sound of your traditional silent film music comes as no surprise. It is only when this film ends, and the film music with it, and the camera pulls back to reveal the wildly applauding audience, that we are confronted with the curious horror of nothing to hear. Wherever we expect sound, we are confronted with its absence (elsewhere, the music stops just as someone puts a needle on a record, for instance).

We have just about got used to this uncanny reversal when the beginning of the second act is announced with a dream sequence. More properly, a nightmare. It is a nightmare, precisely, of synchronised sound. For what could be more horrifying to a star of the silent screen (such as our George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin) than the sudden coherence of sounds with their source. A glass falls and clinks against a wooden desk and the sound – because it is the first sound ‘effect’ of the film so far – is like a knife in the ear.

George Valentin, our titular ‘artist’, is haunted throughout the film by the traumatising power of the voice. What becomes increasingly clear as the narrative progresses is that it is not any particular quality of the voice or any given enunciation. It matters not what the voice is saying. It is the horror of the voice as such: the voice in its orality, the infinite demand of its insistent address. While the musical soundtrack (almost) literally never shuts up with its endlessly signifying chain of references to classic Hollywood scores, the voice remains that which says nothing, communicates nothing.

The Artist is released in the UK on 30 December by Entertainment Film Distributions.

Robert Barry

Black Rain: Music for the End of Time

Black Rain

Some three minutes of Shôhei Imamura’s Black Rain (1989) have elapsed before the first entrance of Toru Takemitsu’s original score. The credits have rolled, the principal characters and the setting of the first act – Hiroshima, August 1945 – have been introduced. Within only 30 seconds of the creeping entrance of the violins, the blinding flash of white heat has burst upon the frame. So it is perhaps appropriate that one of the chief influences on Takemitsu’s music here is Olivier Messiaen, the composer of the Quartet for the End of Time.

Later, this music becomes the theme of the characters’ scarred memories of that day, as they alternately piece together and try to subdue their memories of the disaster. The strings drift in like a dark cloud. Languorous pedal notes provide a bed for waves of harsh Second Viennese School dissonances that crash intermittently upon shores of the tenderest harmony.

Takemitsu was a great lover of cinema who scored around a hundred films, including for such directors as Kurosawa (Dodes’ka-den, Ran), Ôshima (The Ceremony, Dear Summer Sister, Empire of Passion), and Teshigahara (Pitfall, Woman of the Dunes, The Face of Another). Takemitsu was born in 1930 and conscripted at the age of 14, and his music was founded at a young age on a rejection of Japanese tradition. He developed instead an early interest in the possibility of electronically generated music (roughly contemporaneously with Pierre Schaeffer in France). It was only through an encounter with the music and ideas of John Cage in the 1950s that he came to look again at, and re-evaluate, the music of his own country.

His work first came to international attention after Igor Stravinsky chanced upon his Requiem for Strings in 1957 – at around the same time that he first started composing film scores. The Requiem had itself been written on the occasion of the death of film composer Fumio Hayasaka, who had worked extensively with Kurosawa and Mizoguchi. After Stravinsky’s enthusiastic championing, commissions soon followed from America. By the time of his involvement in the 1970 Osaka Expo, he was firmly established as one of the world’s leading avant-garde composers, but this seems to have scarcely slowed the pace of his cinematic work. In many respects, the funereal music of Black Rain signals a return to the rich swelling tones of the Requiem that first brought him to world attention.

Considering it is the work of a former associate of John Cage, it seems overly reductive to think of Black Rain‘s music as no more than what can be read from notes on a page. The Spartan use of Takemitsu’s score only serves to give it power. The silences that surround it bring us close to his notoriously difficult-to-define concept of ma, which, related to Cage’s interest in the impossibility of silence, would be something like a waiting for sound to become silence, the void of empty space between notes. Throughout the film there is a lively sonorous bed of chirruping crickets and birds, and the fall of rain.

For former soldier Yuichi (played by Keisuke Ishida), the sound of a passing car engine is the trigger for a recurrent attack of post-traumatic stress syndrome. For other characters, the sound of their trauma is more internal, and that is the role taken by Takemitsu’s string music. The connection between the two, between the (diegetic, non-musical) sound that triggers Yuichi’s attacks and the (non-diegetic, musical) sound triggered by the memories of the other characters vividly brings to attention the relationship between these two sonic registers. The gap between the two, between the non-silence of the post-apocalypse and the dream-music of the falling bomb, might serve as a provisional definition of ma.

Robert Barry

L’Etrange Festival 2011

The Unjust

L’Etrange Festival

2-11 September 2011, Forum des Images, Paris

L’Etrange Festival website

The 17th edition of the Etrange Festival celebrated psychotronic and gore cinema with two nights devoted respectively to grindhouse and the Sushi Typhoon label. The geeky atmosphere was summed up by the screening of Jun Tsugita’s Horny House of Horror (2010), which must be seen for the sequence in which a penis is prepared sushi-style. The film was presented by the director and special-effects expert Yoshihiro Nishimura, a hilarious pixie who leapt onto the stage and ended his speech with ‘I’m bald because of radioactivity’. The festival lived up to its reputation, with the diversity of the programming remaining one of its strengths, especially thanks to its policy of ‘carte blanche’ (given to Julien Temple and Jean-Pierre Mocky this year) and its unique selection of filmic gems. Nicolas Guichard

The Unjust (Bu-dang-geo-rae, 2011, dir Ryoo Seung-wan)

An honest cop is forced to resort to the worse methods (including joining forces with a criminal) in order to make progress as he investigates a series of children’s murders. This dark crime thriller follows in the footsteps of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, but despite a script penned by Park Hoon-jung (writer of Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil), and director Ryoo Seung-wan’s talent for action scenes, it is not as inspired as its predecessor, nor does it share its sense of the absurd and its delirious ‘realism’. The main idea of the central character’s betrayal (of his principles and of his team) and his voluntary degradation to solve the case (the end justifies the means) is weakened by some longueurs and verbose scenes that tend to water down the dénouement. NG

The Unjust is the closing film of the London Korean Film Festival on November 17. The festival runs from November 3 to 17 and includes a Ryoo Seung-wan retrospective.

Meat (2010, dir Victor Nieuwenhuijs & Maartje Seyferth)

Surreal Dutch neo-noir Meat, a film concerned with the flesh in all its forms, owes its existence in part to the generosity of a local butcher with a passion for cinema, and to that of lead actor Titus Muizelaar. A famous TV actor in his native Netherlands, Muizelaar gave up his holiday time for three consecutive summers to play a part that has since won him a lead actor gong at the Deboshir film festival in St Petersburg. The former provided the lamb, beef and pork – as well as the hands that chop it on screen. The latter plays both a lugubrious detective, coping dispassionately with the sudden suicide of his former partner, and a butcher, grunting and rutting amid the hanging carcasses of his own cold storage like a randy bull. In between the two, Nellie Benner plays Roxy, a young girl seduced, abused and abandoned by seemingly every man she meets. But the real star is undoubtedly the meat itself: chops, steaks and cubed beef heart, filmed in loving close-up, as erotic as any living flesh on the screen. The narrative unfolds with the logic of a dream, drifting wantonly and waywardly into abrupt changes of time, pace and style. A carnal film, both literally and viscerally, with its heart not so much on its sleeve, as on its plate. Robert Barry

Salue le diable de ma part (Saluda al diablo de mi parte, 2011, dir Juan Felipe Orozco)

In this thriller that deftly exploits Columbia’s political reality (the amnesty offered by the state to the guerilleros who have put down their weapons), director Juan Felipe Orozco focuses on Angel (nicknamed ‘El Diablo’), a repentant revolutionary who is having difficulty reintegrating into society. He lives with his daughter in a somewhat shabby flat until one day one of his former victims kidnaps his daughter and gives him three days to eliminate the members of his ex-group. The contrast between Angel’s ghostly appearance and the stylised violence of the action scenes is not unoriginal, but the revenge set-up, in which the victim forces their torturer to avenge them, sadly soon loses momentum because of the plot’s strict linear structure. NG

Alone in the Dark (1982, dir Jack Sholder)

Sometimes the border is the best vantage point for viewing territories on either side. Jack Sholder’s 1982 psycho-shocker Alone in the Dark is just such a liminal case, poised at the very moment when the more politicised, sociological horror films of the 1970s (Dawn of the Dead, The Fury, Scanners, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) turn into the supernatural psycho-on-the-loose slashers of the 1980s (typified by the extensive sequels to A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th). Alone in the Dark, the first film produced by New Line Cinema (A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc.) might have begun in the 70s, but from the entrance of Lee Taylor-Ann (in the role of nyctophobe Toni Potter) in her pink and black ra-ra skirt, inviting the other characters to go out and see a really cool band downtown (The Sic Fucks, as themselves), it is clear that we could be in no other decade than the 80s. In one particular scene we can see the crossover quite precisely. In the midst of a blackout, ordinary citizens are spontaneously looting and running amok. The blackout has caused the sophisticated electronic locking system of the psychiatric hospital to break down and release four homicidal lunatics who walk into this chaos, one of them wearing a hockey mask. It is as though Jason from Friday the 13th had wandered onto the set of Dawn of the Dead (Friday the 13th part III, the first of the series in which we see Jason Vorhees in a hockey mask, was released just three months before Alone in the Dark, so we can probably rule out any deliberate reference on either part). ‘Sure, they’re crazy,’ says Donald Pleasance’s pot-smoking shrink (based on R.D. Laing), ‘but isn’t everybody?’ It is perhaps a shame that the rest of the 1980s slasher films would tend to forget this second clause. RB

Viva la muerte (1971, dir Fernando Arrabal)

This film was presented as part of Jean-Pierre Mocky’s ‘carte blanche’. In his introduction to the screening, Mocky enthusiastically congratulated the organisers because he’d realised, after choosing the films, how difficult it would be to find copies (in particular John Ford’s The Last Hurrah).

Viva la muerte is one of the key works of Panic, the ‘movement’ founded nine years earlier by Fernando Arrabal, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Roland Topor. This autobiographical evocation of Arrabal’s childhood (based on his novel Baal Babylon) and of his memories of the Spanish Civil War moves between the ‘real’ life of Fando (whose father was denounced to the fascists by his mother) and his fantasies (in sequences filmed in coloured filters). But the boundary gradually becomes blurred and porous, as if the unconscious was pouring into reality. Even though Viva la muerte is not as impressive as Jodorowsky’s work, Arrabal recaptures the freshness of Buñuel’s surrealist imagery (Un chien andalou). Thanks to his sense of the baroque and his interest in confusion (a Panic key word), Arrabal invites us to a sort of orgiastic ritual that conjures the mythological figures of the sacrificial victim (the absent father) and the cruel ‘virgin’, both Eros and Thanatos (the mother, doubling up in the character of the aunt). NG

Super (2010, dir James Gunn)

This, perhaps, is what happens when Troma directors grow up – or rather, fail to: they make films in which grown men cry (and then brutally murder various inconsequential characters and cop off with girls half their age). Gunn broke into movie-making in his mid-20s, taking the director’s chair for Tromeo and Juliet. Following the success of this ‘no holds bard’ Shakespeare adaptation for the low-budget schlock stable (home of The Toxic Avenger), Gunn hit the big league with screenplays for two Scoobie Doo films and a big-budget Dawn of the Dead remake. Now he’s back doing his own thing, shooting his own original screenplay, and clearly having a whale of a time. Super follows the comic book life ‘between the panels’ of the world’s most pathetic super-hero, The Crimson Bolt. The film has all the yucks and irreverence you’d expect from a former Troma man – he even finds room to give his old boss, Lloyd Kaufman, a cameo – and it rattles along at a fine old pace. In truth, there’s little not to like here, as long as you weren’t expecting Tarkovsky – and if you were, then, my god, what were you thinking? Where the film falls down is in the moments where it tries to be a little more grown-up. The sentiment is weak and somewhat tacked on. In the end, it’s the bits where the film ‘exposes its real feelings’ that are the true mask, hiding the gleeful, anarchic face underneath. RB

Piscine sans eau (A Pool without Water/Mizu no nai puuru, 1982, dir Kôji Wakamatsu)

An outwardly dull man (played by the impressive Yûya Uchida) enters the house of young women at night, then chloroforms and rapes them. From this premise Wakamatsu creates a strange, oneiric film, a poetic parable on the relationship to the other in a fossilised society. The originality of the film lies in the manner in which the director uses the conventions of the erotic genre and the references to childhood (games with insects and dolls) to compose an ode to the common man’s quest for freedom. It is a freedom that is negative, just like the waterless swimming pool that gives the film its title, as if the relationships between men and women could only be created through transgression. A true moralist, Wakamatsu paints the picture of a man-child who has found the way to literally touch the object of his desire and liberate himself by giving free rein to his erotic madness. NG

Beyond the Black Rainbow

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010, dir Panos Cosmatos)

My pick of the festival by a country mile. Beyond the Black Rainbow is a highly stylised and oppressively atmospheric take on the kind of weird dystopian science fiction the 1970s did so well – Logan’s Run, Scanners, THX-1138, The Andromeda Strain, etc. – from which it picks up and exaggerates elements to the point of parody in a world of coloured lights and modernist set designs. The music is pitched somewhere between the mid-70s synths of John Carpenter and the ‘spectral’ sound of such recent electronic acts as The Focus Group and Boards of Canada. The story is set in a health-resort-cum-religious-community ‘in a beautiful place out in the country’, to quote the BoC track whose mood comes closest to capturing the spirit of this film. Indeed, it could be said that with its coloristic compositions and repetitive scenic plan, the film’s structure is more musical than novelistic, dovetailing neatly with the ‘hauntological’ moment in contemporary music pinpointed by critics such as Mark Fisher, Adam Harper and Simon Reynolds. What is perhaps most intriguing – and indeed most hauntological – about the film is its apt demonstration that, today, in order to present a future that is genuinely ‘other’ one must set one’s narrative not in the world ‘of tomorrow’, but in the recent past. RB

Beyond the Black Rainbow screens at Les Utopiales, the brilliantly ambitious science fiction festival that takes place in Nantes (France) from 9 to 13 November 2011.

Dementia (1955, dir John Parker)

Dementia is a true oddity, cited in Re/Search’s Incredibly Strange Films. Shot in the mid-50s, it is a black and white film with no dialogue, in fact no synch sound whatsoever (a voice-over was added later for the re-release under a different title), just an eerie, creepy score by one-time ‘bad boy’ of new music George Antheil. Tonight, Antheil’s score has been replaced (although ghostly traces of it remain, as distorted loops, somewhere in the mix) by a live soundtrack performed by Church of Satan councilman and occasional white supremacist pin-up Boyd Rice, along with Dwid Hellion from US hardcore group Integrity. Hellion and Rice make use of a bizarre selection of instruments, from the double bass harmonica (apparently recommended by Addams Family composer Vic Mizzy) and a curious brass-pronged device called a waterphone, whose sound is immediately recognisable from a thousand horror films. These instruments are then sampled and looped, punctuated by occasional bursts of distortion pedal guitar noise, in accompaniment to the oneiric narrative on screen. A woman wakes up, wanders the streets, meets a man, murders him, and runs away from the police – only to wake once more, the waves crashing over her dreams like ill-repressed memories. Dementia is usually credited to producer John Parker, but Wikipedia claims it was actually directed by actor Bruno Ve Sota (who plays the Rich Man, and also directed such classic 50s Bs as The Brain Eaters and Invasion of the Star Creatures). Most famous for being the film showing in the cinema sequence in Irvin Yeaworth’s The Blob (1958). RB

Take Shelter (2011, dir Jeff Nichols)

In the rural American south, a miner starts having dreams of a terrible storm coming. When the dreams start spilling out into his waking hours he begins obsessively taking precautions against what he is sure is a real storm to come. The second feature from Jeff Nichols makes more than a passing reference to Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, though thankfully with the magical-native-folk clichés excised. Instead, we are offered one of the more harrowing cinematic portraits of mental collapse since Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life, with which Nichols’s film also shares more than a passing acquaintance. Curiously, the more I found myself nerve-wracked and devastated by the unfolding domestic catastrophe on screen, the more the rest of the audience in Paris started laughing. Actually, now I come to think of it, when I saw Bigger Than Life at the same cinema a few months back, everyone else was laughing too. Maybe Parisians just enjoy watching ordinary Americans lose their mind. Either way, as torment or farce, Take Shelter is stylishly shot and convincingly performed by its two leads, Michael Shannon (My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?) and Jessica Chastain (Tree of Life). RB

Flesh+Blood (1985, dir Paul Verhoeven)

Before Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Trooper, Paul Verhoeven spent his first American film on an extended jaunt around the medieval castles of Spain, bringing along a few old friends from his native Netherlands – Rutger Hauer, Jan De Bont – for the ride. Flesh+Blood is a knights-on-a-quest epic with all the carnage and carnal knowledge one would expect from Verhoeven, playing fast and loose with accents and anachronism, and not a ‘forsooth’ or a ‘hey nonny nonny’ in sight. In a sense, the film is a kind of Once upon a Time in the West for the romance, an elegy for the end of the medieval era. All three of its principal characters represent the rise of a new order against the old feudal ties: Rutger Hauer’s Martin is the ruthless capitalist, who promises his fellows equality only to assume noble airs and graces when the opportunity arises; Tom Burlinson’s Steven could be the contemporary of Francis Bacon, turning science into technology subjugated to the war machine. They are of course one and the same, as Agnes (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh as a scheming opportunist, the very prototype of the modern footballer’s wife) realises only too well. One of the grimiest films about the era, Flesh+Blood is also one of the most insightful. RB

The Hitcher (1986, dir Robert Harmon)

The Hitcher has a great premise, and it knows it, exploiting some very basic fears that have doubtless been felt by any motorist who has ever seen an outstretched thumb on a lonely road at night. With that, the film has a confidence, an assurance that prevents it from taking too many wrong steps. The taut structure keeps the tension high when it needs to be, and always knows when best to diffuse it with a well-timed gag (a severed finger with your chips, sir?). The film’s star Rutger Hauer said in introducing the film at the screening that this is not just a horror film, but also a love story: from the moment his John Ryder thrusts his hand into C. Thomas Howell’s crotch, an erotic power play unfolds with several layers of complexity. One final thought on this film: towards the end, sitting in the back of a police van, Hauer’s hitcher is seen humming to himself the tune to ‘Daisy’, the song Arthur C. Clarke heard a computer sing at Bell Labs and decided to appropriate for Hal in 2001. At this point in the film, we have just discovered that this man has no records on any computer, no place of origin, and is almost impossible to kill. Might he, in fact, be reprising his role from Blade Runner, made four years earlier? RB

The Oregonian (2011, dir Calvin Reeder)

Of course, every festival has to have at least one real stinker, and The Oregonian, sad to say, is really, truly, irredeemably awful in every possible sense. The acting is pathetic, the shooting laughable, the script (there’s a script?!) even worse. The best I can say is that there is nice furniture in one scene. According to writer/director Calvin Reeder’s smug-as-chips IMDB page, he has been named one of Filmmaker magazine’s ’25 new faces of independent film’ – I can only presume they mean faces to run and hide from, faces not to trust with your production money, faces that seriously deserve a good kicking. How this film got accepted into this festival – let alone Sundance earlier in the year – is beyond me. I’d assume the people who made it were taking the piss, that this was some grand spoof on the pseudo-surreal, except this was probably the only film I saw at this festival at which nobody laughed once. I felt pity for the rest of the audience as we grimly endured this useless mess of a motion picture. I sincerely hope that no one involved in this production – from exec producer to set runner – is ever allowed to work in film again. RB

Decapoda Shock

Courts Métrages

Sudd, a short film by Swede Erik Rosenlund, shows a world of elegant black and white cinematography, gradually being eaten by a disease of animated scribbles. With the rise of high-quality computer animation software packages available off the shelf and capable of turning any laptop into a professional cartoon suite, the narrative of this film could be the narrative of shorts programmes at film festivals the world over, with the increasingly prevalent drawn-not-ray-traced style a kind of compulsory supplement, as much a product of the slick digi-style it seeks to countermand as anything else.

Paths of Glory, shown as part of the fifth shorts package, is little more than a boy’s own adventure dogfight story with some demons and lame-ass heavy metal tacked on the end, etched in the style of the contemporary comic shop. Condamné &#224 vie is more bande dessinée than Marvel Universe and at least raises a few laughs, but still uses the hand-drawn style as a sort of ideological screen to conceal its mode of production. Much better is the somewhat relentless Dutch fantasia Get Real! Here, the scribble is less a self-reflexive imitation pencil than the gleeful mouse-squiggle of a first-time Paint user, a chip-tune-soundtracked story about puppy love and arcade obsessiveness that takes every opportunity to emphasise its own cybernetic provenance.

Elsewhere, big-budget Brit animation A Lost and Found Box of Human Sensation starts off like a mournful, cautionary tale in a vaguely Hilaire Belloc sort of way and ends up as a car advert – it does, however, boast a voice-over by Ian McKellen, which is enough to redeem almost anything. Putain Lapin simultaneously satirises Jean Eustache and Donnie Darko, in a surreal take on the grainy 16mm of the nouvelle vague. As the title suggests, a prostitute meets a giant fuzzy bear, mistakes him for a rabbit, they fall in love. It’s all rather sweet.

The other British offering, Endless, steals from Antichrist and Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho installation with a super slo-mo bathroom murder story with a score that sounds suspiciously like the Handel aria used by von Trier (no prizes for guessing what their temp track was). A hint to Matt Bloom, director of this one: if you’re going to subject your images to the in-depth examination that slow motion inevitably induces, you’d better make sure you’ve got a good image, and not a rather clumsily lit home movie out-take.

The best films on the shorts programme I saw were Sudd (already mentioned) and Decapoda Shock, both of which mixed an inventive and articulate use of ‘real’ cinematography with the freedom of expression afforded by occasional intrusions of animation. The latter, a Spanish sci-fi movie with a man with a lobster’s head for a hero, got my vote for the audience prize in the festival’s ‘competition courts-métrages’. RB

Decapoda Shock screens at Les Utopiales, the brilliantly ambitious science fiction festival that takes place in Nantes (France) from 9 to 13 November 2011 and is curated by some of the people behind L’Etrange Festival. The programme includes scientific and literary talks, exhibitions, video games and films. The film selection includes premieres of Tarsem Singh’s Immortals and Nacho Vigalondo’s Extraterrestrial, screenings of Richard Stanley’s Hardware, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain and Ren&#e Laloux’s Fantastic Planet + short films, documentaries and a conference on Satoshi Kon.

Nicolas Guichard and Robert Barry

Phase IV: Synthphony for the Ant Nation

Phase IV

Phase IV opens up somewhere between a 1970s educational nature programme and the ‘book’ sections of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy played straight, so it is apt that its music would initially recall the darker moments from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop: the shimmering waves of Delia Derbyshire’s ‘Blue Veils and Golden Sands’; Malcolm Clarke’s blocks of ring-modulated dissonances for the Dr Who episode ‘The Sea Devils’; and Workshop manager Desmond Briscoe’s spectral driftworks for the soundtrack to the BBC’s original Quatermass and the Pit. So it comes as little surprise that Briscoe himself is credited as having provided ‘additional electronic music’, and much of the electronic realisation has been done by EMS synthesizers enthusiast David Vorhaus, who had worked with Delia Derbyshire on the first White Noise album.

Amid the almost constant bed of electronic drones provided by Vorhaus and Briscoe, the brief fragments of instrumental music are like floating islands of humanity in an increasingly alien world. With its mordant strings, chiming bells and distant brass doubled by distorted guitar, the score could almost be mistaken for a new version of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, as completed by Scott Walker. Ten years later, the film’s composer, Brian Gascoigne, would provide orchestral arrangements and play keyboards on Walker’s album Climate of Hunter (Gascoigne is an ARP 2600 man), thus beginning a relationship that would continue up to his recent role, crafting sound treatments on Walker’s last studio album, The Drift.

As the film progresses, this latter music becomes ever more a means to encourage the audience to identify, not with the human protagonists, but with the rapidly evolving ants. One scene in particular in which a solitary ant walks solemnly down neat lines of fallen comrades is rendered especially tragic by Gascoigne’s arrangements. If at the start of the film the ants are a symbol for the Soviets, the invading utopian hive mind, by the end, as they struggle heroically to adapt and survive, it is the ants that represent America, one nation under God. For the humans, sound soon becomes itself a weapon, a filtered attack of white noise, not just upon the ant colony, but used equally offensively against the audience.

Electric Sheep and Strange Attractor are excited to present Phase IV as part of Scalarama. For more Information check our Events & Media section.

Robert Barry

Sounds of Fear

Carnival of Souls

Sound of Fear: The Musical Universe of Horror

Date: 3 September 2011

Venue: Purcell Room and Front Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

More info at Vision Sound Music

A seeming paradox: some of the most experimental, some of the most daring and unusual film scores have been created for horror films – and yet, few genres offer a set of aural signatures so seemingly conventional that they are left wide open to parody. One can easily imagine a kind of shopping list of common tropes without the aid of which few horror film composers would know quite what to do with themselves. So closely identified has the visual manifestation of fear become entangled with its audio counterpart that a horror film might scarcely be recognised as one without certain key sonic signifiers. And so, the idea of a recipe for the Platonic ideal of horror movie soundtracks presents itself. What might the essential ingredients be?

Dissonance. Since the Middle Ages, the highly dissonant interval of the tritone – composed of two notes, six semi-tones apart – has been associated with the diabolus in musica. Wagner’s use of low, grinding tritones for the appearance of the dragon in his Ring cycle became the archetype for movie monsters from King Kong to The Thing from Another World. Extremes of unresolved dissonance became particularly noticeable in the 70s after William Friedkin drew on a whole raft of European modernists, from Penderecki to Anton Webern, on the hugely influential soundtrack to The Exorcist. From the late 80s, horror comedies like Beetlejuice and Gremlins 2: The New Batch would make use of the tritone in a self-reflexive parody of earlier conventions.

Organs. The pipe organ immediately situates us in the world of Gothic horror, and certain pieces of organ music – in particular Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor – have become scary movie clichés through overuse. From The Phantom of the Opera and Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to the creeping uncanniness of Carnival of Souls and the camp Technicolor of The Abominable Dr Phibes, filmmakers will put grand old church organs in the most improbable of places in order to provide an excuse for featuring that distinctive full-bodied sound in their film.

Children’s choirs. Our greatest fears are no doubt those that recall us to childhood, and creepy children are just as present on horror soundtracks as they are in the image tracks. Mia Farrow adopts a childlike voice to la la la creepily over Komeda’s soundtrack to Rosemary’s Baby, and a real chorus of children is made terrifying use of in Children of the Corn. Most recently the trope was used in White Noise 2: The Light. But the prize here really has to go to Ennio Morricone’s wonderfully atmospheric score for Italian giallo (starring none other than former James Bond George Lazenby) Who Saw Her Die?

Strings. There can be few more recognisable soundtrack moments than the screeching strings from Psycho‘s shower scene. So immediately does the effect conjure up not just the plunging of a raised knife, which the musical movement seems to suggest almost of its own accord, but equally, by association, the themes of incest and unresolved Oedipus complexes, which dominate Hitchcock’s film, that Harry Manfredini could sum up the plot of Friday the 13th in toto with the Herrmann homages in his theme tune. But above and beyond this particular sound, orchestral strings offer a whole panoply of unusual effects to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Where would any self-respecting moment of tension be without the shudder of tremolando? Or an eerie moment of supernatural weirdness without the glassy harmonics of sul ponticello playing?

The Dies Irae. A 13th-century Latin hymn describing the mythical ‘day of wrath’ in which the souls of the dead are called before the gates of heaven and the damned cast to the flames of hell set to a distinctive melody in the Gregorian chant, the Dies Irae, and sundry variations thereof, appears in countless horror films. Most recognisably, perhaps, in Wendy Carlos’s synthesiser arrangement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique for the opening sequence of The Shining, but also, slowed down, harmonised, somewhat disguised, you’ll find it in Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Poltergeist and in cult nunsploitation film Killer Nun. The Dies Irae was also a favourite of Hammer Horror composer James Bernard’s, who used it in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, and again in his score for the (1997) reissue of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.

Help me complete this recipe for the perfect horror film score, along with Kim Newman, Stephen Thrower (from Coil) and Harry Manfredini, at Sound of Fear, the Southbank Centre, Saturday 3 September.

Robert Barry

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews