INTERVIEW WITH JORGE SANCHEZ-CABEZUDO

The Night of the Sunflowers

Format: Cinema

Release date: 11 May 2007

Distributor Yume Pictures

Director: Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo

Original title: La Noche de los girasoles

Cast: Carmelo Gí³mez, Judith Diakhate, Cesáreo Estébanez

Spain 2006

123 minutes

A serial killer, an isolated village in the Spanish backwoods, the discovery of a cave, feuding neighbours, speleologists, a murder and an old-fashioned policeman. These are the unusual ingredients of Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo’s assured debut feature The Night of the Sunflowers, which relocates the crime thriller to the rugged outlines of rural Spain. The dying countryside provides an unexpectedly suitable background for the kind of moral dilemmas usually found in urban noirs while grounding the film in a sturdy realism that keeps clichés at bay. The tale is told over six interlocking chapters, each focusing on one of the protagonists, and each gradually uncovering more. This multi-stranded structure is no vacuous attempt at stylistic virtuosity but a skilful way of maintaining the suspense throughout while also creating the sense of a claustrophobic web of connections from which the characters cannot escape.

The Night of the Sunflowers was met with resounding acclaim in Spain and Sánchez-Cabezudo suddenly found himself the toast of this year’s Goya Awards, being nominated for best screenplay alongside such luminaries of Spanish-language cinema as Pedro Almí³dovar and Guillermo del Toro. In the interview below he talks at length about serial killer films and the disappearance of rural Spain and he also explains why the last scene of The Night of the Sunflowers is not an homage to Luis Buñuel.

Virginie Sélavy: The Night of the Sunflowers is your first feature. How did you get into film-making?

Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo: I made two short films ten years ago. One was La Gotera, which starred Dominique Pinon, who was in Amelie and Delicatessen. It was a fantastic experience because he didn’t know anything about us and we wrote him a letter saying we could offer him sangria, free accommodation and a visit to the Prado Museum and he agreed to do the film! (laughs) Incredible! He remains a very good friend of mine. La Gotera was an absurd comedy and it had a certain amount of success. It received prizes in various festivals and was nominated at the Goyas. That same year I made another short film called Mustek, which was a bit more experimental. After that I spent ten years working on scripts for TV and trying to write the story that would convince a producer.

VS: Why is it called The Night of the Sunflowers?

JSC: Well, in France it will be called Angosto. It’s the name of the village where it takes place and it was the original title. In Spanish, Angosto means ‘narrow’, and it’s also ‘angustia’, ‘anguish’, and it evokes ‘Agosto’, which means ‘August’, heat, all that, which suited the film. But in Spain they didn’t like it. They thought it didn’t sound right. La Noche de los girasoles was the title of another script I’d written, and it had given me the idea for the first image of the film. So that’s what I picked when they told me to change the title. Also, the characters are a bit like sunflowers lost in the night. They have nice, organised lives, they think they’ll never leave their well-marked path, and then suddenly everything changes and they get lost.

VS: The title also refers to that crucial night when everything changes.

JSC Yes, there was also the idea of night and day. I wanted the light to be very strong, and to evoke intense heat. The terrible things happen at night and the light of day hides what happened.

VS: It’s a very interesting story because you approach the serial killer story from an original angle.

JSC: I thought about not just the serial killer genre but also current film noir and I thought, why not make a thriller with the type of Spanish characters that you meet in the street every day? In Spain there is a tendency to imitate American thrillers with clichéd characters so I wanted real people, ordinary people who would never imagine they could find themselves in such a situation. Of course the trigger of the whole story had to be someone who is really a killer – and a rapist. There are films that have approached this type of character differently from the classical American story, such as Citizen X, the story of a Russian serial killer, or It Happened in Broad Daylight by Ladislao Vajda, which has a realistic, psychological point of view. I wanted to start the film in a way that would make the audience think that it was a straightforward thriller and then they discover that it’s not that, that the story is different and the final aim is to give a meaning to violence. In some films violence is consumed in a playful way, like some kind of entertainment, but for me, violence is something that is transcendent and important. Killing someone is a serious thing, and it’s a serious thing for those who kill. It’s a bit like in Unforgiven, when Clint Eastwood says, ‘It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.’

VS: There was a Spanish film about a serial killer a few years ago, called Las Horas del Dí­a by Jaime Rosales, which had a similarly realistic approach. Do you feel close to that film?

JSC: I saw that film after I’d already written the script for mine and really liked it. I definitely feel close to the way Jaime Rosales focuses on daily life. And one of the actors, Vicente Romero, who plays the friend of the protagonist in Las Horas del Dí­a, plays the young policeman in my film.

VS: In Las Horas del Dí­a the focus was very much on the killer whereas in The Night of the Sunflowers the killer is simply the trigger for the violence – his violence starts a whole cycle in a kind of chain reaction.

JSC: Yes, it’s a bit like dominoes. The intention was to show how other people’s lives can change ours. It’s like a mosquito that stings and then flies away but triggers the whole drama. It’s the story of lives whose paths cross but it’s not about fatality. The characters are not doomed to do what they do, they can make decisions. It’s just that they decide to go down the worst possible path. The dilemmas that they face are the most important thing in the film. It all came from watching the news and thinking, how can this happen, what happens in someone’s head to make them do those things? And in the news you don’t get the before or after of the story. So I was interested in the circumstances that lead people to do certain things and how they face those things, how they justify their own actions.

VS: Is this why the film is divided into six sections that each focus on a different character?

JSC: Yes, it’s about the subjectivity of each of the characters. And it allowed me to show what happened to them before and what conditioned them to react the way they do. That’s why each chapter has a small amount of flashback so that we know where they come from and why they do what they do when they get to the moral confrontation. It wasn’t about attempting a stylistic tour de force, it was just the best way to tell the story.

VS: The structure makes you feel that their lives are so interconnected that they can’t escape from the events. It creates a very claustrophobic atmosphere.

JSC: It’s interesting that you should say that because the landscape is very open, but at the same time it feels like it swallows the characters. And the claustrophobia is mostly in the relationships between the characters, for instance in the young policeman’s family. The dinner scenes are harrowing.

VS: Yes, and precisely because those scenes are so depressing, we can really understand him even when he makes some rather dubious decisions!

JSC: That was the intention, I didn’t want to judge the characters or give a kind of final moral because that’s not what reality is like. I wanted to let the audience think what they want and judge according to their own criteria.

VS: There is also a certain amount of black comedy in the film.

JSC: Yes, it is a comedy of the absurd in a way. In the scene of the murder there is something completely absurd because both sides believe they are defending themselves. Both feel that they are being attacked. And it’s exactly what happens in most conflicts: each side think that they are defending themselves against the other, just like in Israel and Palestine. Violence is justified through lack of communication and the inability to adopt a point of view different from one’s own.

VS:The thriller aspect is mixed with issues such as people abandoning the countryside and the decaying of the villages. Why did you choose to set your story against this kind of background?

JSC: It was very important to me because it’s something that’s happening in Spain and all over Europe. Rural areas are not a priority for the European Union but the countryside is a very big part of the Spanish identity because it was the basis of our culture and our economy. Since the second half of the twentieth century there has been an exodus and many villages have been completely abandoned. Rural cinema was a strong tradition in Spain, we had many films about country life. I wanted to talk about that Spain, but the way it is now. It was important to have a new perspective on what is happening because everything is changing and there is a whole way of life that is going to disappear completely. Again here I don’t have any answers because I know some villagers welcome the changes while others don’t, but I’m showing what’s happening. And it was perfect for a thriller because there’s an atmosphere of decadence. It’s also the decadence of the characters. I didn’t want to talk about it directly and make a social film. I like films like The Third Man, where the decadence of the background invades the characters and causes moral confrontations between them. It’s not in the foreground but it’s something that enters the characters and is dealt with obliquely through the crime story.

VS: The story shows urban characters coming to a village but it never falls into a clichéd opposition between city dwellers and villagers.

JSC: Yes, I really wanted to avoid that, and I also wanted to avoid clichés about the violence of country people. In Spain we have films like Pascal Duarte, part of what we call Tremendismo, that are about the violence of rural Spain and I didn’t want that either. In The Night of the Sunflowers the violence comes from the town, it’s the city people who bring it into the village. So there is a confrontation but it’s not all black and white.

VS: Why does the character watch a documentary on bees in the last scene?

JSC I wanted to adopt the perspective of an entomologist. We see the story from above, we see the way people’s paths cross. And in the documentary the commentator says, ‘bees don’t sting if you don’t bother them’, which I thought worked well with the killer’s story. But in the subtitles there is a mention of Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread), the Buñuel documentary, and I hadn’t seen that. So everybody said, ah, so it’s an homage to Buñuel, but it wasn’t that at all, I just hadn’t seen it! (laughs)

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

AIRPORT GIRL’S JUKEBOX

Airport Girl

Airport Girl are a downbeat country-pop combo hailing from the Midlands. They have just released their second album, Slow Light, which has received much plaudit from the critics – ‘Swathed in Cosmic Country Shimmer…A toasty soundtrack to duvet-wrapped winter despondency’ said The Metro while SoundsXP saw the band as ‘the true heirs in a lineage of such elegant bands as Felt and The Go-Betweens’. Check out their mySpace page or their label page. Below they tell us about their favourite films.

1- Don’t Look Back (1966)
This documentary of Dylan’s 1965 British tour captures the point in the sixties where he was changing from an earnest protest singer in thrall to Woody Guthrie into, quite possibly, the coolest man on the planet. No one would put up the money for the film to be made so D.A.Pennebaker funded it himself and shot it cheaply (using just a soundman and a couple of Dylan’s friends as his film crew) achieving an intimate, cinéma verité feel. It starts with one of the most iconic film sequences in pop music: with ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ playing and Dylan throwing away cue cards while Allen Ginsberg lurks somewhere in the background. From there on in the documentary follows Dylan from hotel room to venue to press conference as he tours around the UK running rings around hapless journalists and putting Donovan firmly in his place. Dylan is, at turns, arrogant, shy, spiteful, funny, but always compelling. I never get tired of watching this film.

2- If… (1968)
‘Violence and revolution are the only pure acts.’
This was the first in a trilogy of films by Lindsay Anderson that spanned three decades and featured Malcolm McDowell’s character Mick Travis (followed by O Lucky Man in the seventies and the very odd Britannia Hospital in the eighties). In this film Mick Travis is a senior at an English public school with little respect for tradition or for the authority of the school prefects. The revolutionary spirit of the film’s central characters echoes the student unrest that was taking place across America and in France at the time of the film’s release. The film is shot partly in colour and partly in black and white which adds to the feeling of fantasy and reality being blurred.

3- Kes (1969)
This has to be one of the most heart-breaking films I’ve ever seen. One of Ken Loach’s first, it features an incredible, naturalistic central performance from the unknown David Bradley as Billy Caspar, an unloved, working-class lad. Bullied at school by his peers and teachers, and at home by his brother, he finds solace and a sense of identity in training a kestrel hawk. Despite the sense of hopelessness in Billy’s situation, the film is shot through with moments of humour like the farcical school football match in which Brian Glover, as the school’s PE teacher, lives out his fantasies of playing for Man Utd. If you’re not sniffing back a tear at the end (when Billy’s brother kills the bird as revenge for Billy not placing a bet for him) then you have a heart made of stone.

4- Nashville (1975)
This film is set in the Country and Western music scene in Nashville but it isn’t just about Country and Western music. It’s about show business and politics and the points where the two meet. The film follows the lives of a large cast of diverse characters, each with their own story, over the course of a few days in Nashville, coinciding with the run up to a political rally. The end brings all the characters together but does little to tie up the various narrative threads. It doesn’t have a traditional plot with a beginning, middle and end but it’s still totally absorbing.

5- The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)
Nic Roeg made a whole bunch of great movies in the seventies; Performance, Don’t Look Now, Bad Timing, but my favourite has always been The Man Who Fell to Earth. In typical Roeg style this film doesn’t present the viewer with a straightforward narrative and whenever I watch it I’m always a little unsure that I know exactly what’s going on at certain points, but then, afterwards, it all seems to make sense. Bowie’s great in it. He doesn’t seem to be acting.

6- Gregory’s Girl (1981)
Charming, slightly awkward and Scottish. This is like the film equivalent of an early Orange Juice record.

7- Withnail & I (1987)
You know those annoying people that substitute having a sense of humour with quoting catchphrases from their favourite TV comedies like The Fast Show and Phoenix Nights? Well, with this film the temptation’s just too much to resist. It just has some of the most outrageously good dialogue in one of the best, funniest scripts ever. Pitch perfect casting too. Richard E Grant has never been able to match the performance he gives here as Withnail. Don’t ever try and play the Withnail & I drinking game though. You will make your liver cry.

Interview with Alejandro Jodorowsky

El Topo

Screening at: BFI Southbank

Date: 5-19 April 2007

Also available on: DVD

Release date: 14 May 2007

Distributor: Tartan Video

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Title: El Topo

Title: The Holy Mountain

Title: Alejandro Jodorowsky Box Set (6 discs)

On April 13th the BFI Southbank in London was packed with a motley crowd of Jodorowsky enthusiasts, from old-timers to young hipsters, from red-haired eccentrics to scruffy types in seventies cords. The Chilean-born director had travelled from Paris, where he now lives, on the occasion of the re-release of his legendary seventies films El Topo and The Holy Mountain and his first feature Fando y Lis. A long-running feud with former Beatles manager and film producer Allen Klein meant that for years they could only be seen on poor quality pirate copies – circulated with the help of Jodorowsky himself. The three films are now finally being made available in their fully restored splendour and the BFI season will be followed on May 14th by the DVD releases of El Topo and The Holy Mountain as well as a six-disc box set containing both films plus Fando y Lis and a ton of extras.

At the on-stage interview that followed the screening of El Topo the BFI audience were lapping up every heavily-accented word of the charismatic director. At 78, Jodorowsky bristles with youthful energy and playful humour. A wonderful storyteller, he regaled us with fantastic stories drawn from his colourful life as a filmmaker, comic book writer, Tarot reader and practitioner of psicomagia, swearing on his five cats that it was all true. We heard how he drank blood on stage during a happening in the sixties, how he secured Salvador Dalí­ and Orson Welles for his ill-fated Dune project by promising money to one and food to the other, and how he made a neurotic woman carry boules on her back for a week as psycho-magic treatment. A former mime artist, he even got up from his chair for a spot of moon-walking! This was a memorable evening, not just because Jodorowsky is an artist of such colossal stature but also because his joyfully anarchic attitude to life is so incredibly infectious.

Earlier that day Virginie Sélavy caught up with him and quizzed him about eerie sound effects, Sam Peckinpah and the ‘Conquest of Mexico’.

Virginie Sélavy: In a previous interview you said that when you’re making a film you’re in a state of ‘criminal ferocity’. I love this quote but what do you actually mean by that?

Alejandro Jodorowsky: One day I shouted so hard at a young woman photographer who was there for an interview that she started screaming and ran out. She was interrupting the creation. When you’re receiving something from your unconscious and other people try to tell you that they understand, that they can do it, that they can do it faster than you, you can’t receive the message from your unconscious. You need to stop the person because otherwise they will stop you. You need to be a criminal because you’re making your picture and you want to do what you want to do. Every time a person comes from the superficial world and they say, ‘I have an idea, why don’t we do that?’ I say, ‘shut your mouth, asshole!’ That’s why I say I’m a criminal there.

Your films have been described as ‘psychedelic head trips’, which I’ve always found rather lazy and reductive. What do you think of that description?

I make pictures for myself, I am not influenced by anybody. But in order to understand, some people need to put what they don’t know into something that they know. They know ‘psychedelic’ so that’s the definition they give. But when the year is over they will say other things because the mentality will change and they will see it in another way. For the moment they’re saying that it’s psychedelic because they were showing it at a time in the seventies when all the Americans were taking drugs. But I didn’t make my pictures under the influence of drugs. I made them because I have an imagination, that’s all.

One of the things that your films do best is to convey the strangeness of life – in the dysfunctional relationships, the deformed bodies, the violence – and the strangeness of death – in the surreal scenes where birds, flowers or ribbons come out of corpses. Is this what your films represent, this strangeness of human life?

I think life has two movements. One is the enormous desire of materiality to go to the spirit. And the other is the enormous desire of the spirit to go to materiality, to incarnation. In my pictures you have both: there are things that are dying and there are things that are born at the same time. It’s what I wanted to do at that time. But that was thirty years ago. They are not my pictures anymore. They were my pictures but now it’s a very difficult situation because I am doing promotion for something I did thirty years ago, you realise my situation, no?

Yes, I can imagine it’s quite strange… You have created extraordinary images so reviews of your films tend to usually concentrate on the visuals but it seems to me that the soundtrack is also very important.

Yes, the soundtrack is very important! I always think that I’m making musical pictures. But not musicals as you see here in the theatre. They call them musicals but they’re not, they’re just stories in which they put songs and dance. For me a musical is a construction in which images and music go together. The music is always sacrificed in movies; it just accompanies the story in order to produce subliminal sensations in the audience. You need to forget the music. Every time a man and a woman look into each other’s eyes you have the music, na na na, or they’re killing someone, boom boom boom, you have a strong rhythm. But that is not a musical. What I do is different. The music speaks as much as the image. It doesn’t accompany it; they’re both part of the creation together.

How did you create those soundtracks?

In El Topo I had a person who played the flute. I took a piece by Bach for instance and I took scissors and cut it and re-arranged the pieces in another order and then I made the guy play it on the flute. That was one musical idea. There was another idea that I called ’21 Friends’. I gave a musical note to my friends, do re mi fa sol la si, and then I asked them to come to my house and I was noting the order they were coming and I made music from that. Et cetera, et cetera… I was inventing ways to make music.

What about all the animal noises that you use?

In El Topo, when the second master is killed I wanted the mother to scream, and I wanted the sound of a bird, aah aah aah, but I couldn’t find a really dramatic bird sound. But I found a rat that sounded like a bird. It goes aah, aah, aah, but it’s a rat. When you make a picture there’s a person who sells you sounds. So you buy a sound, ‘which ones do you have?’ ‘I have an elephant, a butterfly, a rat…’ ‘How much for the elephant?’ ‘Ah, no, too expensive. What about this one?’ And you haggle and then you buy the sound. (laughter)

So it also depended on how much the animal noises cost?

Yes. Some noises I had to make myself. Nobody knows that but I made a lot of sounds. When the thieves attack the masters in The Holy Mountain I had a piano and I took a chamber pot and I started to hit the piano with the chamber pot. It was fantastic, the chamber pot made a fantastic sound! (laughter) No one has asked me about the sound until today, but I made a lot of sounds. And I worked with a fantastic jazz musician called Don Cherry. He was a hippy musician, he was always doing drugs, and he brought lots of musicians. One time I had 100 guys! I showed them The Holy Mountain and he made the music as he was watching the picture. Every time I discovered ways to make the music I needed.

One of the most remarkable things about your films is the fact that they go beyond any simplistic oppositions. For instance El Topo is neither a hero nor an anti-hero.

The good and the bad is the illness of movies. In 300 you have the heroes, the 300 kamikaze rugby men who are prepared to lose their lives and the thousands and thousands of monsters attacking them. It’s idiotic. It’s stupid. In all the American pictures you need to have the bad guy after ten minutes. In my comics I have heroes and heroines. In Meta-Barons and Incal I have a fantastic heroine. For the male society a hero is a man, not a woman. A man can be a hero, a genius, a champion or a saint. A woman can be a prostitute, a mother, a virgin or an idiot. These are the four options for a woman. It’s craziness. When you see an American romantic picture you always have a rich man who falls in love with a prostitute. It’s terrible. The industry has a poisonous mind. I think that now because I have nothing to lose. My pictures are there now so I can say everything I think! (laughter)

There is a brilliant scene in El Topo that seems to me to perfectly represent your approach: it’s the duel with the bandits. El Topo is facing the bandits in what looks like a classic Western scene. There should be a sense of high dramatic tension as they’re waiting for the signal to start shooting, except that the signal is given by a deflating red balloon, which totally undercuts the drama of the scene.

And they start to die slowly! Because I was against Peckinpah, because of the violence, and all the people dying slowly, so I wanted to make the bandits die really really slowly, without any movement. (laughter) I liked doing that!

So you were aware of Peckinpah’s work?

Oh yes, I was aware of him because I had no money, I had no equipment, I had no nothing but Peckinpah had a lot of money and he came to North Mexico to film in a village. He built roads to get to the mountain, created techniques for explosions, imported horses… And then he left and I used everything he threw away, the equipment, the horses, everything. I used it all so I was aware of Peckinpah! (laughter)

You shot El Topo

…where Peckinpah made his film. In order to go to a mountain, you need to climb the mountain. But when an American comes, he doesn’t climb, he says, ‘open a way for me’. They opened the way, it cost thousands of dollars, he shot the film and I found the way ready so I used it!

There is a fascination for spirituality in your films, but also at the same time a critique of spirituality, at least in its organised and dogmatic forms. The spiritual quest in The Holy Mountain ends with the revelation that the masters who preside over the world are in fact dummies. You seem to communicate the idea that there is no absolute wisdom, no ultimate answer, and that all masters and organised systems of thought should be rejected, is that right?

What I want to say is this. Humans have essentially four languages: intellectual language, emotional language, spiritual, creative language and material, body language. They are the four worlds. And the solution is not intellectual, it’s something you feel. The problem is that we’re in a society that poses problems to you, metaphysical problems, and there are no solutions to those problems. The solution is to be found in action. In The Holy Mountain, they need to go from the symbols to reality, from the fairy tale to reality. And from there you need to go to the heart, to creativity and to action.

In The Holy Mountain there is an amazing scene in which toads and chameleons dressed up as Conquistadors and Aztecs re-enact the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards. It’s a brilliantly irreverent, hilarious scene and a ferocious critique of colonisation. Was this scene inspired by Antonin Artaud’s ‘The Conquest of Mexico’?

Yes, exactly. Artaud wrote a book called ‘The Theatre of Cruelty’ and he wanted to stage the conquest of Mexico. And I said yes, we can do it, but not in two hours, we can do it in two minutes. I will use toads and chameleons and I will make ‘The Conquest of Mexico’. I knew Artaud very well and I was inspired by him there. I wanted to realise his dream.

It seems to fit in quite well with your own ideas because for Artaud it was also a way of showing that Europeans and Christians were not superior to indigenous people and their ancient religions.

When the toads arrive you hear a choir of men who sing ‘Ein Zwei Drei’ in German: it was a Nazi invasion. In that scene I criticise the Spaniards who destroyed the beautiful Maya civilisation. And then I show the American tourists buying and today it’s an invasion of American tourists. It’s always about the invasion of poor countries by powerful countries. It’s the same in Santa Sangre and in El Topo. In South America you have rich people and the Church. The Church was a very big weight, it’s terrible the way they have influenced Mexico.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

For further reading, look out for Ben Cobb’s Anarchy and Alchemy: The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, to be published in July by Creation Books (it can be pre-ordered on Amazon). The book comes with high praise from Jodorowsky himself, who said during the BFI Q&A that he could understand his own work better for reading it!

HEADLESS

Headless

Headless are a noisy London-based rock band. Their sound consists of a heavy muscular rhythm, battling sinister/pretty lead guitar and snarling melodies. Imagine the Banshees covering Kyuss. They’ve got a single out Stampede/Suffer on White Heat Records. Sadly they have just announced that they are splitting up and will play their last every gig at White Heat, Madame Jojo’s, London, on May 15th.

CLARE

1- The Company of Wolves (1984)
Basically if we ever got to do a music video it would be this, it’s so dreamy and dark and badly acted.

2- What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)
Such a sad and funny and twisted film.

NELL

3- The Happiness of the Katikuris (2001)
ARRRRRRRRRRGGGGH CRAZY CRAZY FILM

4- An American Werewolf in London (1997)
This is my favorite film of all time. It’s scary scary and funny and there is a pub in it called the Slaughtered Lamb. PLUS I am in love with Jenny Ageter. Nurse Alex is H-O-T.

CAMILLE

5- Labyrinth (1986)
David Bowie – big hair, tight trousers, plus the genius pairing of Toby Froud and Brian Henson.

6- Krull(1983)
Just a great story – Mark from Eastenders is in it too.

7- Star Wars V (1980)
Darth Vader gets really mean. Classic.

CHRISSIE

8- Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Love that Gloria Swanson played a role that mirrored her own life. Billy Wilder genius. Beautiful eerie film.

9- Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
A fucking classic! Will never get bored of this film.

10- This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
duh.

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: THREE TWISTED FAIRY TALES

The Devil's Backbone

Format: DVD

Release date: 12 March 2007

Distributor: Optimum

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Title: Guillermo del Toro’s Collection

Includes: Cronos (1993), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Mexico/Spain/USA
310 mins

Praised to death by critics and fans alike Pan’s Labyrinth has become the If You’re Feeling Sinister of the movie world. Both of these may be great works, but the febrile twee hysteria that has greeted them is enough to put anybody off. At least in the case of Belle and Sebastian, that album is truly their most accomplished. Not so in the case of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.

Over the last fourteen years the Mexican writer/director has alternated Hollywood money-spinners such as Blade II and Hellboy with more personal works – Cronos (1993), The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and last year’s Pan’s Labyrinth. With these three films del Toro has created a world of poetic horror that has revitalised conventional genres – the vampire myth in Cronos, the ghost story in The Devil’s Backbone, the fairy tale in Pan’s Labyrinth. What makes the films so compelling is not simply their inventiveness, but the fact that, just like Asian film-makers Ji-woon Kim (A Tale of Two Sisters) and Oxide and Danny Pang (The Eye), del Toro is not interested in cheap thrills or mindless gore but in the creaky doors that a horror tale can open onto the darkest corners of human life.

While Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth each take on different figures of the horror canon, there is a striking unity in the worlds they create. All three are Gothic-tinged fairy tales, with a child’s painful initiation to death at their core. In Cronos Aurora silently witnesses her undead grand-father’s decay. In The Devil’s Backbone Carlos has to face his fear of a young boy’s ghost. And in Pan’s Labyrinth Ofelia has to perform a series of magic tasks to be re-united with her father, the king of the underworld. All three films unfold in the nebulous zone between life and death. All three convey the acute sense of loss felt not just by the living but also by the dead, by the orphan but also by the vengeful ghost, by all those who find themselves brutally thrown on either side of the impassable divide. ‘What is a ghost?’ someone asks in The Devil’s Backbone. ‘A tragedy condemned to repeat itself again and again.’ It is that tragedy that del Toro’s films narrate, again and again.

In all three films del Toro creates an in-between world that straddles fantasy and reality. Cronos’ vampire story irrupts into the daily life of an ordinary Mexican family, The Devil’s Backbone‘s ghost story is set in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War while Pan’s Labyrinth returns to that historical period, alternating between the Franquist/Republican conflict and the Faun’s fairy tale world. Poised between magic and rationality, del Toro’s world has an exquisite ambiguity, brilliantly illustrated in a scene from The Devil’s Backbone. Its young hero Carlos, looking for reassurance after a night of frightful ghostly manifestations, enters the office of the orphanage’s doctor, the kindly Dr Casares. Lined with shelves filled with jars of deformed foetuses, this is not exactly the most comforting of places. Nor is Dr Casares’ response reassuring, as he warns Carlos against superstition. Pointing at the gruesome jars, he gently pokes fun at the locals who buy the liquid in which the foetuses are kept in the belief that it will cure everything. ‘If you believe in ghosts, you must drink some of this’, he tells Carlos. Understandably spooked, Carlos runs away. Once alone, Dr. Casares drinks the liquid from the jar he’s holding. Humorously deflating scientific certainties, del Toro depicts a rational world that is just as dark and disturbing as Carlos’ nightly encounters with the supernatural, the preserved foetuses belonging to the same unsettling realm as the ghost.

Each time the realistic background chosen by del Toro features a political confrontation – Mexico’s fraught relationship with the United States in Cronos and the Spanish Civil War in The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Yet, del Toro has clearly very little interest in politics. While much has been made of Cronos as an allegory for the United States’ vampiric relationship to Mexico, the plot itself doesn’t really support this. And in the two Civil War films the fantasy world, being only loosely connected to its historical setting, offers no insights into the conflict. But Del Toro’s choice of setting is far from gratuitous: these dramatically charged situations set the stage for the urgent life and death choices that face the characters. Beyond that, what draws del Toro to these conflicts is that they are moments when reality in all its darkest excesses comes closest to nightmare: the monsters of fascism are as unlikely, as sinister, and as real as the terrifying creatures of childhood imagination.

This idea is also at the heart of Víctor Erice’s masterful Spirit of the Beehive (1973) and it is impossible not to think of this film in relation to del Toro’s work. Set in 1940 rural Spain, it subtly evokes the dreamy world of a child faced with death and the unseen horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Confined by censorship, it uses the occasion of a screening of James Whale’s Frankenstein in the village to elliptically explore the anxiety and trauma caused by the war. Acknowledged by del Toro as an influence, it is a film whose quiet suggestiveness and nuanced poetry touch places that del Toro’s baroque opulence can never reach. This is not to detract from del Toro’s achievements for he has built a magnificent world. But the comparison with The Spirit of the Beehive reveals his weaknesses, which are most visible in Pan’s Labyrinth. In that film, unfettered by financial constraints, del Toro’s exuberant enthusiasm is allowed to run free, recreating his visions in their most literal, florid details. As a result, there are so many fanciful creatures, fabulous caves and extravagant monsters that there is no room left for the audience’s own reverie.

This is why Pan’s Labyrinth, the most lavishly produced of del Toro’s personal films, is also the least affecting of the three, both emotionally and intellectually. And if it is the one that has been hailed as a masterpiece, it may be because there is some confusion in the world of movie fandom as to what imagination truly is. Magicking up a multitude of bizarre creatures through high-tech special effects or impressive make-up tricks is definitely not what it’s about. And for proof you only need to look at the dismal Lord of the Rings trilogy: it has many weird creatures, all of them rubbish, and the flaccid, pointless world it creates has as much chance of making you dream as a tax return form. I certainly do not mean to place Pan’s Labyrinth on the same appalling level of worthlessness as the J.R. Tolkien/Peter Jackson franchise for del Toro has more magic in his chubby little finger than both of them put together plus the preposterous trilogy piled up on top. But when it comes to imagination, less is definitely more, hence the superiority of Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone over Pan’s overwrought Labyrinth.

Virginie Sélavy

Interview with the Brothers Quay

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes

Format: DVD

Release date: 26 June 2006

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: The Brothers Quay

Cast Amira Casar, Gottfried John, Assumpta Serna

UK 2004

95 mins

In the middle of grey, urban Borough the American-born identical twins and animators extraordinaire have transformed an industrial unit into an enchanted fairytale world, a delightful jumble of trinkets and quaint objects where antique clocks chime the hour and classical music plays softly in the background. This is where Timothy and Stephen Quay have been creating their astonishing animation work for over twenty years, including their darkly inventive short Street of Crocodiles (1986) and their feature debut Institute Benjamenta (1995). In 2005 they released their second feature, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. A surreal fantasy bathed in rich golden hues, it tells of a mad inventor who kidnaps an opera singer and takes her to his island to recreate her last performance. In preparation for the concert, he hires piano tuner Felisberto to ‘tune’ his fanciful, monstrous automata.

In an interview conducted in 2005 the Brothers talked to Virginie Sélavy about dream states, Cameroonian ants, Argentine literature and the frustrations that come from being under pressure to make a more accessible film. Their uncanny habit of talking both at once and finishing each other’s sentences made it impossible to disentangle their respective contributions, which is why they are presented here as one voice.

Virginie Sélavy:The Piano Tuner is only your second feature. Why did it take you ten years to make another one after Institute Benjamenta?

Brothers Quay: It took that long to get it off the ground. We went straight from Benjamenta to writing the script for this. We got development money right away from Channel 4 and within a year it was written but they just rejected it outright. They said it wasn’t accessible.

But they’d seen Institute Benjamenta

Yeah, well, they weren’t that crazy about that either… Benjamenta was started under somebody else and when David Aukin [Head of Film at Channel 4] arrived on the scene and was handed the film he didn’t like it at all. But then Terry Gilliam came on board six or seven years later as executive producer and immediately the French and the Germans put money down.

What’s your relationship with Gilliam?

We’ve known him for eighteen years. He’d seen some of our theatre work and he came to meet us and since then we’ve always been in contact. We did some preliminary designs for some of the monster creatures in Brothers Grimm – but of course they got chucked in the bin… We worked on some of his commercials. He’s on your side by his instincts. He just gets bigger money than us! (laughs)

Why do you think he’s seen as more accessible than you?

Well, he goes out and battles Hollywood, like for Brazil when he took out full-page ads and things like that. We wouldn’t do that. We’d just write a little note in The Guardian – or a postcard! (laughs) You have to be philosophical about it. So-called traditional narrative isn’t a huge obsession with us.

Yes, I can see that…

Although we both feel that The Piano Tuner is a compromise of some sort because the brief was to be more narrative and more accessible when the Film Council came on board. And I think it suffers because the script wasn’t written that way. They tried to get the film into a position where it could be shown in forty cinemas. And of course we knew perfectly well that it was impossible. But the sad thing was that the French and the Germans were on board first and they had approved the script as had the Japanese; and the Film Council came on board because the French, the Germans and the Japanese were already there and then decided to tweak the script. We had a lot of interference from everybody. Everybody had their own idea what the film should be.

So it hasn’t been an entirely positive experience.

No, not at all. It’s been a very unhappy experience. Not like Benjamenta, which might be a bit long, OK, but we made the film that we wanted to make. With this one there was a lot of pressure and it’s not something we’re used to handling. Nobody expects anything from animation so they leave you alone – if you want to get down on your hands and knees and move the camera, go ahead, who cares? (laughs)

Although there is no traditional narrative in Benjamenta, I felt that the story went from one place to another. I thought there was less of a sense of direction in Piano Tuner.

Oh, really? Other people have said that Piano Tuner is more narrative. It’s interesting you should say that because with Piano Tuner we were feeling that we were trying to hit certain narrative points which everybody felt were there in the script and therefore should be maintained. But with Benjamenta we didn’t have that, we were sort of cruising very quietly below the surface, like a submarine emitting its bleeps as it moves along. We were very true to Robert Walser [on whose novel the film was based] in that sense. It was sort of a quiet, zero land and we liked that. It allowed so much to be smuggled into the film. But we couldn’t smuggle anything into Piano Tuner because in the end it just got cut.

The subtitle of Benjamenta is ‘This Dream That People Call Human Life’. Could it be applied to Piano Tuner too?

Yes, because in a sense the starting point for this was… do you know the Museum of Jurassic Technology out in Los Angeles? It’s this quirky little museum run by a guy called David Wilson. When you enter and you see all the exhibits you have this eerie feeling that not everything is as it should be. There’s a fine line between is it fiction or is it genuine documentary evidence that he is producing. And one of these things was the Cameroonian stink ant that inhales spores [which infect its brain and cause its behaviour to change] and we used that in the film as an allegory of madness. That anecdote was really the starting point of the film. And we also used the idea of that famous Magritte painting Empire of Light, where in the sky it’s daylight and if you pan down it’s dark. We were interested in that sort of simultaneous in-between world. I think we might have aimed too high for what we wanted and didn’t pull it off, but these were the sort of things that we were using as framing devices for the story. That and South American literature, magic realism, which also adds confusion to everyone’s vision within the film.

Was The Invention of Morel an influence?

Yeah, it was very important. We couldn’t get the rights for it. We actually wrote to Adolfo Bioy Casares and he said, ‘sure, you can have it’, and then he wrote back a day later and he said, ‘I forgot, I gave it to somebody else’. (laughs) We found out that this guy, some Argentinean in Paris who’s had it for thirteen years, never got it off the ground but keeps renewing the rights. So Alan [Passes, co-writer of Piano Tuner]and the two of us said, well, let’s just work around the themes a little bit. So all you really have is the island, the tide, elements like that.

I thought you also kept the idea of people being replaced by their images and living this kind of eternal but illusory, disembodied life.

Yes, exactly. Perpetuum mobile almost, because at the very end the character in The Invention of Morel asks that if anybody should invent a machine capable of reuniting their images, they help him enter into Faustine’s consciousness, which is a little bit what the Felisberto character is attempting at the end of Piano Tuner. He claims to have succeeded – he says, ‘we’re together, buried among the rocks’. In his imagination at least he’s done it. The Invention of Morel was actually a homage to Louise Brooks – Faustine really is Louise Brooks. Bioy Casares was fascinated by her.

And there’s also the character of the mad inventor.

Yes, I think he features less in The Invention of Morel, he’s more like a shadow figure.

Why is the film called The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes?

It was the idea of a character who could hear at the most incremental level. Our whole idea of the Felisberto character was that he should be a kind of medium and earthquakes seem to follow him. At one point Dr Droz says something like: ‘do they follow you on a leash, like a dog?’ Droz wants to have a theatrical earthquake on stage as the showpiece of his opera and Felisberto sabotages it by pulling off a real earthquake. It probably doesn’t quite come off, it’s too abstract, we would have needed much more time at the end.

How did you create the visuals for the film?

We made designs for everything. The whole thing was built. The forest was there, the rocks, the bench, but there was no sea, that was just a blue screen. Actually there was water, but it was more like a giant puddle… (laughs) It was all built up to about one floor and then our model work was grafted and the sky dropped in. We built the whole landscape out of Portuguese cork.

Cork? Why cork?

It makes the best rocks. It’s what’s used for reptiles in museums. All the pet places buy cork for the animals, which is why when we tried to order a few slabs of cork we were told ‘minimum order is 100 kilos!’ (laughs) This giant sled came and we used it all. In fact we had to use another one. We wanted a sort of volcanic island and it gave that beautiful texture.

How do you work together?

We both build the sets, so one’s building the left wall and the other’s building the right wall for instance. You make a list and you say OK, we’ve got to build this, this, this, this, you start on this and I’ll start on that. And you’re always cross-fertilizing so it grows very organically. We don’t bring in other people to help, we don’t have a team of six people doing the mountains. We use one sidekick who helps gear up things technically sometimes but he’s really just a drinking partner… (laughs)

Do you ever disagree?

Oh yes, of course!

How do you sort it out?

Well, you have a firm argument. But also if we’re shooting something, we shoot it both ways, we shoot his version and my version and you decide on the editing table – you’re always much clearer at that stage. You just try things out. But we’re bound to have differences.

And how do you work with your writer, Alan Passes?

The three of us have always worked out the story together. For Benjamenta we’d meet every single day for three or four hours and hammer it out. But sometimes he feels he’s not part of this because the producers never consider the writer as being on board, he’s just invisible to them. Alan is a novelist, he has a novelist’s vision, a broader vision. We have an instinct for the sort of visual world that we want and the way the dialogue should be shaped. So he’ll contribute dialogue but he’ll also listen to our sense of dialogue. It’s a genuine rapport.

But also, I know that some people have said that in Piano Tuner it is as though the characters are speaking in code. Well, for us it’s important that people speak in code and that nobody speaks directly, like, ‘so, would you like a cup of tea?’ and someone responds ‘yes, I’d like a cup of tea’, ‘well, what kind do you want?’ That’s irrelevant to us. When Assumpta goes around Felisberto in the forest and says, ‘shut your eyes’, imagination is at work, and she’s challenged by it as is he. That’s why he says at one point: ‘I like living in somebody else’s imagination’. Things like that are important for us. But if you aim too hard at the state of the dream you can fall flat on your face because you have nowhere else to go. If you start in a more humdrum way, like Buñuel would, and then suddenly the dream erupts violently, it really stands out and it’s powerful. I think we may have misjudged on this one. We did try to aim fairly high right away to get into a nebulous dream state but people might just tire that there’s never a let-up, you never really come down and say, ‘come on, when is someone going to say something normal?’ (laughs) But we’re just fascinated by this kind of dialogue. In Tod Browning’s Freaks there is that amazing sequence when Randian, the guy with no arms and legs, is talking to someone, and you see him take out a box of matches and his tongue takes out a match, closes the box, does that little rotation, then strikes the match. The whole time they’ve had a dialogue and you don’t listen to any of it because you’re so compelled by what you’re seeing… (laughs)

Was Freaks an influence on the film?

No, not really, but it’s just fascinating that the visuals are so compelling. They could just be talking about the most banal things, which is what the guy is basically doing. But in our case we didn’t want to do that… because we didn’t have a character with no arms and legs… (laughs)

But there is an element of the grotesque in your film too, you have the automata, which are those bizarre part-human, part-machine constructions.

The idea with the automata was that there would be a contamination, that they really did infect people’s lives, that there would be a genuine contamination of elements. We wanted more automata but they said, ‘we’re paying all these actors, why don’t you use some of the actors?’ We were told, no excess of animation or automata, just keep the story moving along…

How you would describe your film to someone who has no idea about what you do?

Somebody wrote to us saying they thought it best that you should just wake up as it’s playing and then you fall back to sleep again and then wake up again and you just sort of drift in and out and in that way you would attain a better sense of consciousness about the film… So far it’s been misnamed as Gothic, no way is it Gothic, Gothic is better represented by Tim Burton. For us, a Baroque sensibility, or a mannerist sensibility in the best sense, is something we feel much closer to. The Baroque deals with the cryptic and the infinite and that speaks to us much more.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

THE SCHLA-LA-LAS’ JUKEBOX SELECTION

The Schla-la-las

Photo © Daniel Cooper

The Schla-la-las are five sassy London girls with fabulous matching outfits and boisterous punk-pop tunes harking back to classic sixties girl groups but with fuzzier guitars and shouty vocals. They’ve just released a new single 1234 – you can see their brilliant stop motion Lego video here!

KATRIN:

1- Time of the Gypsies (1988)
This is a tragi-comic coming-of-age tale, told in a magic realism style. I love films that make me laugh and cry. Perhan, a Gypsy teenager with telekinetic powers, leaves his Serbian village in search of his sister, who got abducted by a gang to work as a beggar in Milan. Sucked in by the promises of power and riches, he ends up rising through the ranks of the gang itself, but being a good guy at heart, things come to a tragic end.

2- This is Spinal Tap (1984)
This spoof rockumentary has to be one of the funniest films ever, and if you’re in a band, you are bound to have experienced the odd Tap moment. We follow a slightly past-its-prime British rock band during their tour in the States, trying to promote their new album – not very successfully. There are battles-of-the-frontmen, a Yoko type character, and generally lots of very well-observed moments of rock’n’roll vanity. And if you get the DVD, the second disc with everything that hasn’t made it into the cut is just as hilarious.

GEORGE

3- Ghostbusters (1984)
Okay, I could pretend to be all pretentious and/or arty here, but hand-on-heart my favourite film of all time is Ghostbusters. I saw it at the Chester Odeon with my Grandma and little sister when it first came out and absolutely loved it, have done ever since. Music from the film Ghostbusters and Wham’s Make It Big where the first albums I ever bought in fact. Altogether now ‘Bustin’ makes me feel good!’

4- Great Expectations (1947)
I’ve never really gone in for lists of favourite films (although I’m mad for a music top 5), but I recently saw David Lean’s Great Expectations for the second time, and it was absolutely amazing. I first saw it during a summer holiday from school. Six glorious weeks to do with whatsoever you please, so my sister and I spent them sitting around the house watching daytime TV. Great Expectations came on one afternoon and captivated both of us. I’d never really given it much thought again, until I opened Time Out the other week, saw a still from the film and recognised it immediately. I invited my friend Ben to go with me. I didn’t reveal too much about it as I wasn’t too sure how he felt about black and white films, especially those made in 1947, but he gets discounted tickets at the NFT so it was a chance I was willing to take. And he loved it. Of course he did, it’s amazing. Funny, and thrilling, and touching in equal measure. Go see, go see. You won’t regret it, I promise.

ANGIE

5- Paris When It Sizzles (1964)
Gabrielle: ‘Actually, depravity can be terribly boring if you don’t smoke or drink.’ Paris When It Sizzles is like seeing Audrey Hepburn in a Quentin Tarantino film (without the bloody bits). There’s an amazing use of timeline, classic comedy and of course glamorous outfits for Audrey. It’s purely pleasant.

6- O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Ulysses Everett McGill: ‘What’d the devil give you for your soul, Tommy?’
Tommy Johnson: ‘Well, he taught me to play this here guitar real good.’
Delmar O’Donnell: ‘Oh son, for that you sold your everlasting soul?’
Tommy Johnson: ‘Well, I wasn’t usin’ it.’
O Brother Where Art Thou is an age-old story (based loosely on Homer’s Odyssey) told in that gritty, darkly humorous Coen Brothers style, the acting is superb and George Clooney… *swoon*. The soundtrack is the cherry on top of this fabulous film.

HANNAH

7- The Red Shoes (1948)
Red Shoes is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen. Jack Cardiff is my favourite cinematographer and Technicolor is grand.

8- Heathers (1989)
Heathers is an amazing script displaying a true understanding of contemporary use and development of language. Not to mention it started my first poster-on-the-wall crush of Christian Slater!

DELIA

9- Tommy (1975)
I love rock-opera and films based on albums (see Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Clubs Band for another amazing example of preposterous workings of songs into a storyline! Starring The Bee Gees, Steve Martin and Frankie Howard!). Tommy was written as an opera but it’s no less bonkers. So many fantasy and dream sequences it’s impossible to know what’s real and what isn’t but some amazing set pieces including Ann-Margaret in a jumpsuit rolling in baked beans, Eric Clapton as the priest of money, Oliver Reed revelling in a scary Butlins style holiday camp, Paul Nicholas as twisted Cousin Kevin, Keith Moon as perverted Uncle Ernie and of course Tina Turner as a freaked-out junkie locking dead, dumb and blind Tommy into a needle-pricked sarcophagus!

10- Privilege (1967)
A late 1960s film starring Paul Jones (Manfred Mann’s vocalist) as Stephen Shorter, a pop star of astronomical fame. The numb-to-it-all doesn’t-know-what-he-wants Stephen Shorter is babied and guarded by a posse of wagon-jumping yes-men trying to satisfy his every whim to keep the money-machine turning (‘Stephen wants hot chocolate! Let’s ALL have hot chocolate! After Stephen turns down an alcoholic drink at a garden party). Teenagers are seen as money and music purely as a commodity. Stephen is manipulated by politicians and businessmen who see him as a way of promoting their cause. Eventually the church get involved and Stephen Shorter is re-invented as a Christian rock band with Mersey-beat versions of Onward Christian Soldiers sung by Stephen and his shaven-headed band behind a giant burning cross. A satirical, sometimes bleak but very compelling film. (P.S. – this film is nigh on impossible to get hold of in a good quality – I had a copy but leant all my videos to a friend three years ago and haven’t seen them since! Argh!)

INTERVIEW WITH BLIXA BARGELD

blixabargeld.jpg

Photo © Ali Kepenek

On January 3rd, 1984, members of the German industrial band Einstí¼rzende Neubauten joined forces with musicians such as Genesis P. Orridge and Frank ‘Fad Gadget’ Tovey to perform a one-off piece entitled ‘Concerto for Voice and Machinery’ at the ICA. The gig, involving pneumatic drills and chainsaws, was chaotic even by Neubauten standards, culminating when someone threw bottles into a cement mixer, which sent broken glass flying all around the room. As the ICA tried to put a stop to the pandemonium a riot broke out in the audience. Accounts of subsequent events are rather muddled but it would appear that power tools were used to drill through the stage, possibly in an attempt to get to the underground tunnels that allegedly run underneath it, connecting Whitehall to Buckingham Palace.

On February 20th, the artist Jo Mitchell will stage a re-enactment of ‘Concerto for Voice and Machinery’ at the ICA. A group of artists playing the band members will attempt to reconstruct the events as they unfolded twenty-three years ago.

Now, the idea of deliberately planning to recreate in exact detail what was originally spontaneous mayhem sounds to us at Electric Sheep like a rather intriguing proposition. Can the artists really conjure up the same dangerously exciting atmosphere or will it just be a sterile, sanitized retread of the events? Will the crowd be mainly chin-stroking art types taking in the infernal racket with blasé detachment or will the performers stir up another riotous reaction in the audience? While waiting to see what happens on the night, Virginie Sélavy talks to Neubauten’s charismatic frontman Blixa Bargeld.

Virginie Sélavy: As one of your gigs is about to be recreated as a piece of art, do you feel that you have a stronger connection to the art world than you have to music?

Blixa Bargeld: When I started I would have called myself an artist but the discipline I chose in art was music and text. When I started I didn’t know anything about music. I came from an absolutely non-musical, non-artistic background. But after making music for twenty-six years I can’t pretend I don’t know anything about it anymore. So I’d have to call myself a musician now. But I’d still rather consider myself an artist because I work first of all with concepts. I make up concepts and I design ideas that are meant to be performed, and that’s usually connected with the creation of music.

VS: What do you think of Jo Mitchell’s plan to re-enact the ICA gig?

BB: I talked to her for the first time today but we were in email contact before. The first time she contacted me about it, my answer was: ‘Charming!’ And I think I’ll stick with that. It’s a charming little idea to reproduce the concert. After the performance it will be impossible to distinguish between fact and legend. It is already legendary because there are no videos and very few photos of the event, so the only thing you have is the accounts of people who were there that night. Once she’s done the re-enactment it will be completely in the realm of fiction. It won’t be connected to anything that really ever happened. That’s fine with me. In fact, I like that.

VS: It seems like a rather bizarre idea.

BB: It is a very bizarre idea, that’s what makes it charming! It’s funny that somebody is now cast to play me! That’s very funny.

VS: But surely the power of the original performance came from the fact that everything that happened that night was entirely spontaneous and unpredictable. To try and reproduce that seems very contrived.

BB: I don’t know what will happen on that evening. I’m not going to be there. I can’t really go there because it would upset the whole thing. I could only go if I could watch through a small hole from another room. But I can’t appear at the venue itself. It would be wrong.

VS: Do you feel that this re-enactment might turn the original gig, which was very much alive, into some kind of lifeless museum piece?

BB: It’s already a legend, so it’s already a museum piece. It was already a museum piece the next day when it made the headlines of all the English tabloids because what they wrote didn’t have much to do with the actual performance. The majority of all the myths that surround this have nothing to do with what really happened. It was blown out of proportion, compared to what the evening was really like.

VS: All right, so what happened when you destroyed the stage?

BB: We didn’t! The audience did. That’s my account.

VS: Many commentators have focused on the destructiveness of you performances and what has been seen as the nihilism of the band. This re-enactment is probably not going to help change that perception.

BB: Well, playing children destroy many things and you wouldn’t say they’re nihilistic. There is a passage by Walter Benjamin that I’ve quoted again and again in interviews right from the time when Neubauten started because there were always so many questions about destructiveness and negativity. So the best I can say to that is to quote it again: ‘The destructive character’s only watchword is: Make room… The destructive character is young and cheerful. For destroying rejuvenates, because it clears out of the way the traces of our own age.’ At the moment Goth music is very popular in Germany but I don’t think that Neubauten has ever belonged to that type of music. There’s too much life in what we do.

The other thing is that, if you count all the shows that we played between 1980 and 1984, which ended with the famous destruction of the ICA, serious damage occurred in less than 5% of the shows. What usually gets damaged is the performers. You hurt yourself a lot handling these materials. Sometimes Andrew’s and F.M. Einheit’s hands and arms were covered in horrible cuts and bruises. I remember an American show in Kansas City where F.M. Einheit was handling a piece of corrugated iron which landed under him as he knelt down. He cut both his legs open and had to be taken off stage, which nobody from the band noticed at the time. We were all totally fixated on what we were doing and at some point I turned around and he wasn’t there anymore. The next day Henry Rollins, who was a big admirer of the band, came to visit us in the hotel in Los Angeles. It was the first time we met him and when he comes into the room there are all kinds of medication lying around and one band member has to have his bandage changed every half hour! It was so obviously existential, it just had nothing to do with show business. It was about getting completely immersed into a performance and if you or somebody else got hurt, well, that’s what happened. But hardly ever anybody in the audience actually got hurt, even when we were doing really dangerous things like throwing Molotov cocktails at the crowd. Nobody in the audience ever got hurt but we did. And we did it for years but after a while your body just refuses to carry on. F.M., who is not in the band anymore, severely damaged his right arm because of the way he was drumming and in the end he just couldn’t do it anymore.

VS: It must be difficult because that’s what your audience expects from you.

BB: A display of physicality, yeah.

VS: What’s your relation to your audience? Do you feel there is pressure on you to do certain things and to perform a certain way?

BB: Well, we had to be careful not to repeat certain things because after a while they just become part of a show. So it’s better to stop them. Having said that, we like having an audience. We always perform better with an audience. I do need the audience as some kind of witness. We suck out the attention that we get from this witness and use it in our performance. The audience is the source of the energy that I project back to them. It may look like the performer on stage has some kind of magical force but the magical force is really the ability to suck out the attention of other people and project it back, that’s all.

VS: Neubauten have never done things the conventional way and you have now dispensed with a record label altogether to start an Internet-based project funded by your supporters.

BB: Well, record companies are not doing very well at the moment. The budget that we get from an independent company nowadays is more or less identical to what our budget was fifteen years ago just to make the record cover. So we had to find another way of doing things. Compared to other bands who work on the periphery of mainstream music we have very high standards and we usually take two years to make a record, so that’s a lot of studio time and a lot of costs. We didn’t want to have to compromise on that so that’s why we started this Internet project. We are now in Phase III. We’ll be finished in spring but we still need another 2000 supporters to get through what we have planned. I think it’s a fantastic deal. By subscribing you can take part in the whole process of making the record, and once the record is finished you get it through the post. This way we cut out any middle-men and with enough people we can realise something much more ambitious and much better than with the kind of budget that we’d get from an independent record company.

VS: How many phases are there in the project?

BB: We were thinking four.

VS: Why four?

BB: There’s a seventies movie called Phase IV. It’s about entomologists who study a colony of intelligent ants in the desert and at the end they actually turn into ants and become part of the colony. It’s a very unusual movie so when we started calling our project Phase I we thought maybe we should go all the way to Phase IV as a kind of reference. I hope that by Phase IV we can turn our project into a platform so that it’s no longer simply about producing Neubauten music but it can become a wider model that can be applied to many other people.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews