Street of Crocodile

Format: DVD

Release date: 20 November 2006

Distributor: BFI

Director: The Brothers Quay

UK 2006

314 mins

The stop-motion animation of the Brothers Quay (never ‘The Quay Twins’) has often been likened to that of Jan Švankmajer, their great Czech forerunner. The Quays are clearly irked by the comparison, despite their clear admiration for Švankmajer, even claiming not to have heard of him when they started out as animators. But really there’s no need for them to be so worried. This magnificent 2-disc set more than confirms the reputation of a highly personal (geminal?) body of work. In fact, work like this whose public life is inevitably fleeting, fragile and obscure - all the more so since Channel Four ditched its experimental remit - gains more than most from being collected and presented as an oeuvre.

The curious thing is, having now traced the oeuvre from one end to the other, I’m no longer sure animation quite covers what the Quays do. At any rate, they are not really puppeteers, or only incidentally. Accidentally, even. In fact, they learned animation on the job because money to make an animated film came their way. The result, Nocturna Artificialia (1979) - discreetly tucked away under the ‘Next’ menu on the bonus disc, which is itself disarmingly titled ‘Footnotes’ - is avowedly a journeyman piece. Even so, it is astonishing how little in the way of actual stop-motion it gets away with. The protagonist figure scarcely shifts; the tram trundles from one end of the frame to the other. I don’t want to underestimate the amount of painstaking work that goes into even this relatively basic animation. But it is positively interesting that most of the movement comes from the way camera and lights travel over surfaces and gaps in the set to create space. This, more than anything, is the aspect that carries on into later films.

The classic Street of Crocodiles (1986) is light years on in terms of technique, and makes striking use of moving parts of all sorts: inexplicable machines perform enigmatic repetitive tasks; bobbins spin endless threads into darkness; screws unscrew themselves; a light-bulb-headed salesman sells light bulbs; a monkey staring moronically through the smutty glass of a shop front periodically goes into spasms, frenetically clashing its cymbals. But the real triumph is the production of a sense of enigmatic space, of action glimpsed dimly through grimy glass. We start out in live action with an elderly Polish gent viewing a section of a city plan through some sort of magic lantern. We then descend into the interior of the machine, which, it turns out, is actually where the street of louche shops on the map is located. The set is of fantastic complexity: a glass plate opens allowing access to a theatre stage/camera aperture, leading into a dark chamber run across with spooling threads. Then, above opens the domed glass roof of an arcade; then on into a labyrinth of nested vitrines, and so on. Our puppet protagonist does move, ostensibly leading us through this odd landscape. But the animation is there to serve the virtuoso camerawork, rather than the other way round. Gestures are caught reflected in glass or in the infinite regress of tailor’s mirrors; telephoto lenses dissolve in mid-animation from one toy going through its motions to another; with his eye to a tiny window/viewfinder, the protagonist’s face is bathed in flickering light. Even in the climactic scene in the tailor’s shop, where the explorer of the tawdry delights of the street is almost seduced in some worryingly obscure manner, the ‘girls’ are basically doll’s heads on trolleys; thus avoiding the pointlessly complex illusionism of making puppets walk. The movements that do interest the Quays here are the repetitive arm-jerks signalling the breakdown of the girls’ mechanisms as the seduction of the zone disintegrates, and the really breathtaking tracking shot that whirls us back out through chambers and compartments we never knew we’d been through in the first place.

Of course, I’m exaggerating: both The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer (1984) and This Unnameable Little Broom (1985) contain a fair amount of minutely choreographed puppet-work. But the use of motion as a focus for light and perspective to play on remains a strong defining part of the Quays’ work. In a sense, their live action film Institute Benjamenta (1995; not included in this collection) differs only in shifting the onus of making stilted, repetitive moves onto the shoulders of human actors. A much more recent work, In Absentia (2000), which also features live action alongside animation, bears this out spectacularly. The opening set is truly hellish, with odd scaffolds and pulleys in a foggy prospect shot through with light that glowers, flashes and rumbles with varying intensity and from abruptly shifting sources. The best way to imagine this would be a detail from a Hieronymus Bosch painting illuminated by a manic overload of the sort of laser-through-dry-ice sculpture once favoured by old school heavy metal bands. But the musical accompaniment is much more unpleasant than this suggests: an original, and authentically disturbing, Stockhausen score of snarling, wailing electronics and treated voices. From here we move beneath a distressingly open window - shot from below, oddly illuminated, and flanked by a tiny, inexplicable balcony from which disembodied child’s legs dangle rhythmically - and into an equally worrying interior where a live action actress and her animated pencil shavings go through the obsessive motions of the madness of Emma Hauck, the subject of the film. It’s probably not a good idea to watch In Absentia if you are feeling even slightly on edge. Actually, you may not want to watch it if you are feeling happy. But you should certainly watch it.

I haven’t even mentioned the Stille Nacht series of short compact pieces ranging from some quite odd stuff about deer testicles and furniture, to music videos that are a little more obvious in some respects (bunnies and dolls on the edge of puberty), but still very good. And even then there is lots I haven’t mentioned, all good. The whole thing is beautifully packaged, complete with a (much) more than usually informative booklet containing an a-z of vital references and the whole of the original scenario for Street of Crocodiles. The films themselves have been transferred and presented with great care, and plenty of extras: commentaries, alternate cinemascope versions, interviews. The interviews offer genuine insight into the work, especially the one in the Paris doll museum where the true extent of their loathing for puppetry becomes apparent. But the twins are fascinating in their own right: watch for the way as one twin becomes animated, the other falls silent and motionless. The bonus disc even includes the short segment of Peter Greenaway’s The Falls featuring the young Quays as ‘Ipson and Pulat Fallari’. Curiously enough, they only appear as stills: frozen in shirtless monochrome, with shades, pouts and wavy hair, they look eerily like some stereoscopic premonition of Andrew Ridgeley. Later, they would refuse to take moving parts in another Greenaway film.

Stephen Thomson


Inland Empire

Format: Cinema

Release date: 9 March 2007

Distributor: Optimum

Director: David Lynch

Cast: Laura Dern, Jeremy Irons, Justin Theroux, Harry Dean Stanton

USA/Poland/France 2006

180 mins

Inland Empire, David Lynch’s tenth feature, is in many ways a summing-up of his career so far: it has a budget, a look and a sound design that are not that different from his 1977 experimental debut Eraserhead; it stars one of Lynch’s favourite actresses, Laura Dern, who also appeared in Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart; and its plot almost follows on from Mulholland Drive.

Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) could indeed be Betty (Naomi Watts) from Mulholland Drive twenty years on. Now mature and established, she has just landed the role of Susan Blue in a film entitled On High in Blue Tomorrows, the remake of an unfinished film based on a Polish folk tale that may or may not be cursed. As Inland Empire plays out, the lines between the remake and the original blur – and to add a further level of complexity these two films blend in with the story of what happened to the cast of the previous film and with the trials and tribulations of Nikki Grace’s personal life.

These stories are so intermingled that it is simply pointless to try and make sense of them. David Lynch goes to extraordinary lengths to make sure that you don’t, guiding you towards a particular frame of mind. Unusually here, Lynch seems to want you to trust the film and to trust him as an artist, exposing himself and his methods far more than he has ever done before. Inland Empire opens as Nikki gets a surprise visit from Grace Zabriskie’s emigrant neighbour who disturbingly seems to know exactly what is going to happen in Nikki’s life. We share Nikki’s confusion at her predictions, which puts us in a situation unprecedented in a David Lynch movie: from the outset we share the journey of the leading actress. This is the key to the power of Inland Empire: at no point do we feel that Laura Dern is any wiser than us; and at no point do we feel that, as an actress, she is lost because of that. Her performance can only come from an actress who completely trusts the director.

While Laura Dern provides the movie with its heart Lynch adds an unusually high dose of almost Godardian one-liners to the script, which attack the rational frame of mind required to follow traditional movies. One example is offered by Harry Dean Stanton’s assistant director Freddie who declares that ‘Dogs reason their way out of trouble’. Godard’s game-playing with the audience is even echoed in a flirtatious exchange between the Blue Tomorrows characters Susan Blue and Billy Slide. It is presented to us as a ‘real-life’ encounter between the actors Nikki Grace and Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) and the artifice isn’t revealed until the fictional director (Jeremy Irons) shouts ‘cut!’

The big difference between Lynch and Godard is that Lynch makes no political or even aesthetic statements with these ploys but merely tries to provide his audience with ways into Inland Empire. This is what makes this film unusual in the Lynch canon and more satisfying than most of his other films. When, in one of the Poland-set scenes, Nikki Grace/Susan Blue replies in English to her Polish interlocutor, ‘I understand it but I don’t speak it’, it uncannily echoes what may be at the heart of the film, i.e., how cinema can operate in a metaphysical rather than a rational sense. Dern’s intense, utterly convincing performance is what makes you trust that the film is indeed full of meaning. In that sense Inland Empire is like the intelligent cousin of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Double life of Veronique.

Kim Nicolajsen


The Family Friend

Format: Cinema

Release date: 9 March 2007

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

Original title L’Amico di famiglia

Cast: Giacomo Rizzo, Laura Chiatti, Fabrizio Bentivoglio

Italy/France 2006

99 minutes

Greed, desire, frustration and revenge all course through Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film The Family Friend, his follow-up to the captivating The Consequences of Love. There are similarities between the two – the enigmatic protagonist who falls for the young, beautiful woman seemingly just out of reach; each man undone by his desire; the lurking, criminal underbelly of humanity that forms the backdrop to both films. But while The Consequences of Love was absorbing, original and thought-provoking, The Family Friend is an irritating waste of potential talent.

Geremia ‘Heart of Gold’ (Giacomo Rizzo) is a vile, miserly loan shark. Seventy and unmarried, he lives in a squalid apartment with his bed-ridden mother, peeping on the young girls playing volleyball on the court outside the window. The town’s professional matchmaker has exhausted all possible brides for him, save for the Romanian immigrant who can barely hide her disgust. Unconcerned by the revulsion he generates, the loan shark insinuates himself into the lives of his clients, the undesirable ‘family friend’. He is eventually unmanned by the young, impossibly beautiful Rosalba (Laura Chiatti). A prized daughter, she is betrayed by her parents for their own vanity. When they realise that they cannot possibly pay off the money borrowed for her wedding, Rosalba’s body is sold to Geremia to cut a better deal. Hardly innocent, she extracts her own, cruel revenge.

Wonderfully shot, beautifully lit and well-acted, there are some brilliant, insightful moments in The Family Friend. Unfortunately, Sorrentino simply tries too hard to create a film that is provocative, nasty, and jarring. There are too many gratuitous absurdities in the film that add little to the plot, while Geremia is too grotesque, too perverted, to be taken seriously. The film is especially let down by one achingly terrible scene that could kindly be called a tribute to David Lynch gone horribly wrong, involving volleyballs and a large woman in control top underwear. The denouement, which could have been an interesting plot twist, is rushed and unconvincing, the pacing appalling.

The director wants us to believe that we are all corrupt, all capable of selling ourselves for the right price. Beauty is twisted into an ugly weapon. But Sorrentino sabotages his own message by placing edginess and style on a pedestal and leaving old-fashioned narrative in the gutter. Sorrentino is undoubtedly capable of making another intriguing film like The Consequences of Love; perhaps next time he’ll be less obsessed with the meaningless provocation that has ultimately made The Family Friend such a disappointment.

Sarah Cronin



Format: DVD

Release date: 5 March 2007

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Director: Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg

Cast: James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, Michí­Â¨le Breton

UK 1970

105 mins

‘While we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men.’ (Jorge Luis Borges)

Performance is finally to be released on DVD, complete with around 30 minutes of extras. Unfortunately these don’t appear to include any of the footage that had to be cut before the film could get its initial release. Although whether any of the cut footage would make the story any clearer or merely further muddy the waters, I cannot say. But of course, as with many Nicolas Roeg films, following the plot is hardly the most important element (although, despite the elliptical editing, the story is a simple one).

Performance was produced in 1968 by Warner Brothers in a pre-Easy Rider attempt to exploit the ‘paisley pound’. It was co-directed by the screenwriter Donald Cammell (he also wrote Duffy 1968) and the then well-known cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (Petulia 1968, Far from the Madding Crowd 1967). Central to Warner Brothers’ interest in the project was the casting of Cammell’s friend of a friend: Mick Jagger. Whether they were really expecting a knockabout comedy in the vein of A Hard Day’s Night or Help, as has been suggested, I am not sure. But when they saw the finished product they were horrified and shelved the film indefinitely; as one disgusted exec claimed, ‘Even the bath water is filthy’. It was not until the ownership of Warner Brothers changed hands that Performance was finally released at the end of 1970 (after a dramatic re-edit).

There are so many myths and stories about the film’s troubled production (and after-effects) that it is hard to know what to believe. Did James Fox (Chas) take his performance too far and become involved with real gangsters before becoming a born-again Christian? He didn’t make another film, or even act, for many years. Keith Richards, so the story goes, was so unhappy about girlfriend Anita Pallenberg’s sex scenes with Jagger (apparently not a performance) that he had to be banned from the set. And Jagger having difficulty playing himself (he wasn’t very convincing) decided to play Turner as Brian Jones (Pallenberg’s original Rolling Stone boyfriend).

Performance is often cited as a film that defines the end of the 60s; as a perfect example, along with Altamont and the Manson murders, of the hippy dream destroyed by violence. But the violence in the film comes not to end peace and love; it exists alongside it. Hate is merely the flip side to love; violence to sex. One of the scenes that most disturbed the censors (and Warner Brothers too, I presume) was the inter-cutting of the whipping Chas receives from a gangland enemy with the scratching fingernails of his lover. The film suggests that violence and pleasure have gone hand in hand throughout history. Turner relates the mythical story of Hasan-i-Sabbah and his hashishin or assassins (most famously told by Marco Polo) who committed murders in order to be allowed to return to their drugged garden paradise.

Hasan-i-Sabbah’s last words, Turner tells us, were: ‘Nothing is true. Everything is permitted’. It is a maxim that would surely appeal to the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges. Borges is the film’s main literary influence and reference. Turner reads excerpts from his story ‘The South’; even the gangsters are seen reading a Borges collection; and it is his portrait that is smashed by the tunnelling bullet. With its philosophical questioning of who we are and the roles we play Performance plays like a Borges story set between the East End underworld and a Notting Hill hippy underground of the late 60s. However, where Borges’ stories are short allegories or parables about ideas only loosely attached to a particular place or time, Performance‘s mise en scí­Â¨ne gives us rich descriptions of its two contrasting milieux.

Despite its universal themes, it is a film that could indeed only have been made at that time (although its 1977 reissue claimed, ‘Ten years ahead of its time… Are you now ready for Performance?’). It is hard to imagine it being made either two years earlier or later and impossible to think of a major studio financing such a film at any other time. It is heavily stylised in both its cinematography (distorting lenses, switching of film stocks) and its design (Turner’s Moroccan interiors). The editing is often non-linear (images from the story’s end are cross-cut into the very start of the film) and Jack Nitzsche’s soundtrack is possibly the most experimental element of the whole film. However, many of the performances are almost ‘kitchen sink’ in their realism (many unprofessional actors are used, not least Mick Jagger) and the dialogue is loosely scripted and delivered with a certain amount of improvisation (the actors were often told what to talk about rather than what to say). But what places the film so clearly at the end of the 60s is the heavy-handed symbolism (costumes, wigs and mirrors feature prominently) and forced metaphors (when asked what his performance entails, Chas replies, ‘I juggle’), although in the gangland section the dressing-up (Chas putting on his ‘work clothes’) is more subtly played than when searching through Turner’s fancy dress box, later in the film.

The film’s bohemianism shows a continuation of the literary drugs and decadence of the Romantics (Shelley and Byron) through to the turn-of-the-century occultists such as W.B.Yeats and Aleister Crowley (Cammell’s father was Crowley’s biographer). Rimbaud and Verlaine’s pot circle called themselves ‘Club des Haschischins’. The drug-taking in the film is in that same ‘experimental’ vein rather than the hedonistic joyride one would expect from Mick Jagger. Even the hallucinogen given to Chas is the more literary mescaline and not the 60s trip favourite LSD.

It is through his unsuspecting experiment with hallucinogens that Chas begins to rediscover his true self beneath his multi-layered performance as a gangster pretending to be a juggler. It was widely believed (and still is) that such drugs allowed access to the deep unconscious mind. Thus the film’s famous line: ‘The only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is one that achieves madness’. The unconscious mind needs to believe the performance too. Both Chas and Turner have lost touch with their true selves through over-playing a role. Chas’ stylish and violent gangster has lost touch with his more ‘feminine’ side perhaps due to his (at least hinted-at) repressed homosexuality. The film shows this through a series of mind games and visual metaphors, some of which are a little heavy-handed, others beautifully playful as when Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) reflects her breast onto Chas’ with a mirror.

Turner is perfectly in touch with his feminine side, often morphing into the androgynous Lucy (Michí­Â¨le Breton) and back again, via the magic of the editing suite. However, he is missing something (his mojo has stopped working, it seems). Similarly at that time, The Rolling Stones had just finished their much-criticised attempt at a Sergeant Pepper. Although Their Satanic Majesties Request, released in 1967, was a brilliant psychedelic album, Jon Landau wrote in Rolling Stone at the time: ‘They have been far too influenced by their musical inferiors and the result is an insecure album in which they try too hard to prove that they too are innovators, and that they too can say something new. [It is] an identity crisis of the first order’. In the film Turner and Chas’ identities are enigmatically merged with the final murder/suicide/execution pact. In real life the Rolling Stones replaced Brian Jones, the inspiration for Turner, with the more prosaic Mick Taylor and rediscovered the back-to-basics libido rock of Sticky Fingers and Brown Sugar. Jones was mysteriously drowned less than a month later.

Overall, it is a flawed (Chas overhearing Turner’s address in a café doesn’t work and seems unnecessary) and messy film but it is held together by James Fox’s incredible central performance. The Krays-styled underworld is as curious as the Notting Hill scenes; the gangsters have pretensions as businessmen (‘It’s a merger, Chas’). The boss Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon) is both hilarious and menacing with his misplaced maxims: ‘United we stand. Divided we’re lumbered’. It is an ambitious and experimental film (although not necessarily ‘ahead of its time’) that kick-started Roeg’s career as a director (and virtually ended Cammell’s). It is another long overdue release for one the key British films of any decade.

Paul Huckerby


Samurai 7

Screening at: The Barbican

Date: 27 March 2007

Time: 8:00

Also availabe on: DVD

Release date: 6 February 2007

Distributor: MVM

Director: Toshifumi Takizawa

Based on: Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai

Japan/USA 2004

The Barbican’s Japanimation season continues in March with anime expert Helen McCarthy – co-author of The Anime Encyclopedia – looking at the opening episodes of the 2004 Japanese TV series Samurai 7. A futuristic retelling of Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai – incidentally also showing at the Barbican on March 6th – Samurai 7 tells the story of the desperate villagers of Kanna who decide to hire samurai to protect them from the bandits who regularly raid their villages. Known as Nobuseri, these bandits are former samurai themselves who, following the war that ravaged the country, transformed their bodies into near invincible machines and now roam the countryside, terrorizing the powerless farmers. Condemned to starvation by the outlaws’ ever greedier incursions the Kanna villagers send Kirara, their Water Priestess, her younger sister Komachi and the courageous Rikichi to the city to look for samurai willing to take up their cause.

Each episode starts with a short summary of the war in a grainy, ghostly black and white that evokes the 1954 original. These preambles explain how the war marked the end of the samurai era, initiating the reign of the merchants and reducing the proud warriors to either bandits or ronin – poor, masterless wanderers. There is a certain melancholy about the samurai’s tragic destiny right from the start, most clearly expressed in the fatalism of Kambei, the leading samurai, who was among the defeated in the war and believes he is doomed to always be on the losing side. This echoes the bitter ending of Kurosawa’s classic in which the original Kambei mournfully looks at the tombs of his fallen comrades while the farmers celebrate, concluding: ‘We’ve lost again. The farmers are the victors.’

In Samurai 7 the real evil lies not so much with the bandits as with the merchants. The overweight merchant Emperor is a cunning, ruthless character who will stop at nothing to maintain his power. His son the Prince is a creepy spoilt brat whose favourite distraction is abducting young girls for his private garden – one of the subplots involves his efforts to kidnap Kirara. That paradisiacal garden, laden with the most exquisite food and beautiful women, crowns the palace, which itself dominates the city laid out in vertical strata Metropolis-style, its elongated buildings and suspended bridges staggered all the way down to the bustling crowd on the ground. Just as in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, the physical organisation of the city figures its social divisions, the lower classes on the lower level, with the Prince’s paradise as the debased pinnacle of the social order, filled with the vapid luxury of careless, inherited money.

However, while Samurai 7 is a visually stunning, accomplished piece of work, its critique of commerce and class conflict is mere child play next to the thematic complexity of the two film giants it so lavishly references. Placing the emphasis on action and cloyed by too much cuteness, it has none of the sophistication of anime such as Ghost in the Shell, Perfect Blue, or the astounding Paranoia Agent (also a TV series). Samurai 7 is a disappointment: not only does it lack substance but its visual achievements are undermined by the expectations created by its filmic references – a cross-breed of Seven Samurai, Metropolis and futuristic animation should just be way more interesting than this.

Virginie Sélavy


Berkeley in the Sixties

Format: DVD

Release date: 26 February 2007

Distributor: Liberation

Director: Mark Kirchell

USA 1990

117 minutes

Berkeley in the Sixties is ostensibly a film about the sixties and about the incredible move from political protest to active, oftentimes violent, resistance throughout the decade. In this sense, Berkeley as a place, or an institution in the form of the University of California, quickly becomes more of a state of mind than an actual location. This doesn’t matter so much though, for this highly entertaining and thought-provoking documentary unashamedly uses Berkeley as the launch pad for an impressive rumination on the meaning of politics, counterculture, and sadly, the inability of an entire generation to, in the end, fight the powers that be.

Having said this, it is also one of those rare documentaries that remain remarkably uplifting. Interspersing documentary footage of Berkeley from the early sixties with the rise of the Civil Rights movement, the beginning of organised leftist anti-war movements and onwards through the Black Panthers and Women’s Lib, the film rolls out a small but impressive list of surviving activists, all of whom are remarkably articulate.

We thus get what is perhaps a not very innovative but still highly effective documentary structure of having people who actually engaged with, and lived through the events, recounting the ‘history’ of countercultural activity in the sixties. There is little interruption by the interviewer, and despite a somewhat laconic voice-over by another ex-activist there is a real sense that this film is as much about how you survive wanting to change America, with the realization that it was perhaps doomed to never happen.

Fittingly, and scarily pertinent taking the last decade into consideration, the documentary starts with The House of Un-American Activities Committee, an organisation which clearly should be credited with more than just giving George Clooney the opportunity to make a film with a lot of smoking in it. As it transpires, the vehemence of the McCarthyist witch-hunts was precisely the sort of thing that spurred on a growing disgust with the Establishment. This – coupled with the fact that civil unrest and protest was being televised on an unprecedented scale – is set up from the beginning of the documentary as a quintessential reason why people eventually flocked to Berkeley, whether it be to drop in, tune out or simply turn on to what was happening.

The film is deceptively shrewd in this manner, for despite its folksy musical soundtrack and footage of flower power girls doing that topless swaying dance we always get in snippets from Woodstock, the film lays bare the necessary media savvy-ness of the more successful countercultural movements. There is some great commentary from ex-Black Panther leaders acknowledging how the fascination with Afros and guns led many impotent-feeling white middle-class revolutionaries to suddenly become ‘brothers’.

Possibly a sign of old age, or simply growing disgust with the complete lack of engagement by university students in current affairs, I was struck by how one student leader shouted into a megaphone on the campus steps: ‘There are times when the operations of the machine become so odious you just have to do something.’ This is a film, then, about a brief moment in American history when some people actually did.