Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song

Format: DVD

Release date: 28 November 2005

Distributor BFI

Director: Melvin Van Peebles

Cast: Melvin Van Peebles, Simon Chuckster, Hubert Scales

US 1971

97 minutes

Too often put in the same bag as the cynical, Hollywood-engineered wave of blaxploitation flicks it influenced, Melvin Van PeeblesSweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is pure, unadulterated ghetto anger that burns as fiercely now as when it was made over thirty years ago. Having started a filmmaking career in France with the support of Henri Langlois of the Cinémathí­Â¨que Franí§aise, Van Peebles landed a contract with Columbia in the US and made the successful race comedy Watermelon Man in 1970 before moving on to Sweetback, a project so radical that no major studio would touch it. Undeterred, Van Peebles raised meagre funds himself and shot his film, the story of a black hustler who goes on the run after killing two white cops, in 19 days, almost losing his sight during the intensive editing and alienating most of his family and friends in the process. After a shaky start Sweetback took off thanks to the support of the Black Panthers, ending up the highest grossing independent film of 1971, topping Love Story at the box office.

Sure enough, Hollywood swiftly repositioned itself, MGM rewriting its script for Shaft, originally meant for a white detective, recruiting black hunk Richard Roundtree to star, Isaac Hayes to score and Gordon Parks to helm for credibility, while Warner Brothers followed suit with Superfly, imaginatively hiring Gordon Parks’ son to direct and Curtis Mayfield to write the music. Although the blaxploitation wave was short lived, it lasted long enough to turn into caricature the heady mix of flamboyant ghetto get-up, funky music and rebel black hero that Sweetback had introduced. Hayes and Mayfield’s brilliantly seductive soundtracks only helped glamorise a boorish, sexist law enforcer and an unscrupulous drug dealer respectively. Sweetback‘s mutinous, inflammatory call for revolt against white rule was excised while the film’s prominent but complex sexuality was entirely misunderstood and travestied. The new black (anti-)hero who had just emerged was quickly reduced to a high-sexed macho stud more influenced by the womanising antics of James Bond than by the firebrand politics of Malcolm X.

The truth is, Van Peebles had to pretend he was making a porn flick in order to get past the all-powerful all-white unions. This was dictated as much by financial necessity – the director simply couldn’t afford to pay union rates – as by politics – Van Peebles wanted a multiracial crew, which the unions couldn’t provide. The only way to dodge the unions’ strict controls was to have enough sex scenes in the film to make them believe Sweetback was porn, which fell outside of normal regulations.

But while Van Peebles may have been forced to put sex in his film he used it to provide an incendiary comment on race relations in America. Unlike Shaft or Superfly, Sweetback is no sexy daddy proudly parading his manhood but a passive, glazed-eyed hustler who is pushed into sex. At the start of the film Sweetback makes a living performing in a sex show for both black and white voyeurs. As he goes through the motions, his face blank and lifeless, he is no paragon of triumphant virility but a sexual object used by other people for their own gratification. Later Sweetback is captured by a white motorbike gang who give him a choice between fighting and fucking. Sweetback has to perform surrounded by whooping and cheering bikers, egged on by the white woman’s teasing ‘well?’. Performing here is very much the right word. The sex is an act, a show put on by the black man to entertain his white audience and stop them from beating him up. Tellingly Sweetback is wearing an incongruous white bow around his neck during the scene, complemented by a black hat at the end. This bow that comes out of nowhere – it was definitely not part of Sweetback’s outfit before he undressed – marks him out as an entertainer, a jester, the black man forced to act out the eternal fool to the white man, forced to conform to the racist stereotypes that the white man has stamped on him – oversexed buck or buffoon. The point is pressed home in another scene, which shows a black man shining a white man’s shoes with his bottom to make him laugh. The black man is constantly performing, forced to put on the act that is expected of him to avoid the white man’s hostility. Sex, just like clowning around, is something he has to do in order to survive in a white world.

In that perspective, the controversial opening scene of the film becomes easier to understand. Taken in by prostitutes when he was homeless and hungry and brought up in a brothel, the pre-pubescent Sweetback (played by Van Peebles’ own son Mario, thirteen at the time) is coerced into sex by a much older prostitute. The BFI has chosen to black out those early images on the DVD, apparently to conform with the Child Protection Laws, even though an earlier video version of the film included them in and Channel 4 and the ICA have both screened the film uncensored. This is regrettable because while those images are undeniably unsettling, they are essential to understand Sweetback’s character: throughout his entire life Sweetback survives by letting people use him for sex, and the brothel scene is where it all started. This is made crystal clear as the young Sweetback lying on top of the prostitute turns into the blank-faced adult Sweetback. That early scene is a defining moment in his life: it is the prostitute who gives him his moniker, the only name he answers to throughout the film. And if any remaining doubts linger about Van Peebles’ intentions, the opening quote of the film spells it out: ‘Sire, these lines are not a homage to brutality that the artist has invented, but a hymn from the mouth of reality’ (Traditional Prologue of the Dark Age). Sweetback is no endorsement of sleaziness or underage sex but an attempt to portray the black man’s experience as truthfully as possible, including in its most unpalatable aspects.

The sexuality depicted in Sweetback also links the film to the Underground cinema of the sixties. Unlike the strictly straight, conventional couplings of Shaft or Superfly the sex in Sweetback comes in many a deviant form: aside from the prostitutes of the opening scenes, there are voyeurs, lesbian performers, a queer compere who calls himself the ‘Good Dyke Fairy Godmother’ and later a trio of camp gay men. These are characters who would not be out of place in the work of Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs or the Kuchar Brothers. Belonging to a de facto marginal subculture Sweetback, sporting an outrageous mustard crushed velvet two-piece, is at home among the misfits and outsiders who hang out on the fringes of the dominant, mainstream, straight, white culture. This may be why Van Peebles found that the forms and spirit of Underground cinema were perfectly suited to the depiction of the black experience. Displaying the same disdain for straightforward narrative Van Peebles strips the plot down to its bare bones, most of the film consisting of Sweetback running through urban wasteland. The bold visual style clearly owes a lot to the techniques pioneered by the sixties filmmakers, and Van Peebles makes great use of split frames, jump cuts, coloured negative images and collages of urban imagery. Sweetback runs through empty concrete aqueducts, seedy back alleys, derelict buildings, rubbish-littered streets, and sewers before leaving the city for the unforgiving desert. Hostile signs flash on the screen – ‘Caution’, ‘Keep Out’ – as well as neon lights promising religious redemption – ‘Jesus Saves’ – as if this was the only path for the black man – fenced in by the white man while promised a better (after-)life by the Church.

Even more so than the visuals it is the design of the soundtrack that really impresses. A complex assemblage of discordant sounds, a cacophony of police sirens, funky theme tune (written by Van Peebles and performed by Earth, Wind and Fire) and Gospel standards, it is raw, cool and edgy, an aggressive, electrifying celebration of African-American culture as well as an angry denunciation of the treatment of the black man by white society. Most striking of all is the menacing, chilling ‘Won’t Bleed Me’, a call and response type of song between a group of singers and Sweetback whose chorus is ‘They bled your momma/They bled your poppa/Won’t bleed me!’.

However, while Sweetback is clearly a political film, it is devoid of any speeches, lecturing or debates of Black Power ideas – see Horace Ové’s 1976 Pressure for contrast. Rather than talking about overthrowing white power, Sweetback literally strikes back against white police. But as with all other aspects of the film there is nothing simplistic about this. It is not that action is better than words, it is simply that Sweetback doesn’t have the words. As the cops proceed to beat up a black militant kid senseless, Sweetback just passively stands on the side, ground down by centuries of white oppression. When he snaps and starts hitting them back, it’s not revolution, it’s pure reaction to an ‘overdose of black misery’. Sweetback is not the leader but the forerunner of the revolt, the first one to stand up but without having the words to articulate the ideas. That role is Moo Moo’s, the young activist that he rescues from the cops. In a later scene he helps him again after the youngster has been wounded in a shoot-out, and when a choice has to be made between saving himself or saving Moo Moo he favours the latter, saying: ‘he’s our future’.

No matter how exhilarating it may have been for black audiences of the time to see a black man stand up to white power, however, the ending of the film is rather downbeat. In a concluding scene that evokes the fugitive slaves of the past, Sweetback manages to kill the hounds that are chasing him, dodging the law once again. If this is a victory of sorts, it is a rather bleak one: Sweetback may have escaped, but he can’t stop running; he’s survived but nothing has changed for the black community. As Sweetback disappears over a desolate mountain and possibly over the border into Mexico, there is no real sense of triumph, only the defiant threat that he will be back: ‘Watch out’, says the superimposed title, ‘A baad asssss nigger is coming back to collect some dues…’ Sweetback was originally conceived as a trilogy but Van Peebles couldn’t raise the money to make the two sequels he had planned. Sadly, on and off the screen the baad asssss hasn’t been able to make it back, kept safely away by white power structures.

Virginie Sélavy

Vote for your favourite Black Screen Icon in the BFI poll! Closing date June 29.



Format: DVD

Release date: 26 September 2005

Distributor: BFI

Title Pressure

Director: Horace Ové

Cast: Herbert Norville, Oscar James, Frank Singuineau

UK 1975

120 mins

The first black director of a British feature film, Pressure (1975), Horace Ové was born in Trinidad in 1939 but moved to England in 1960 to study painting. After six years in Rome where he worked as an extra on Joseph Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963) among other things he returned to Britain where he graduated from film school and set about making Pressure with the help of many of his former classmates (both black and white). Ové has had a long and varied career as a filmmaker – working in television directing serious dramas for Play for Today and episodes of The Professionals – but he is best known for Pressure and 1986’s Playing Away – in which an English village cricket team organise a match against a South London Caribbean side. He is also well-known as a photographer, particularly for his photographs documenting the British Black Power movement in the 60s and 70s in which he was personally involved. A few of these are included on the DVD, including a shot of Darcus Howe protesting the famous Mangrove Restaurant case.

Ové co-wrote Pressure (with novelist Samuel Selvon) and also wrote the lyrics to the theme song which is used almost like a narrator within the film. Pressure was financed by the BFI (a very small budget too) but then shelved for two years due to the controversial depiction of police brutality. It tells the story of a British-born teenager, Tony (Herbert Norville), who leaves school with good ‘O’ levels (‘the star of the class’ according to his friend) but meets with thinly veiled racism and rejection when he tries to get a job. He is left to find his own way between his friends’ petty criminality (shop-lifting tinned food) and his brother Colin’s involvement with Black Power politics.

The culture clash is established by the opening shot of that symbol of Britishness – bacon and eggs sizzling in a pan (with Encona hot sauce on the table instead of HP). Colin arrives with an avocado from their father’s shop, insisting on calling it by its Trinidadian name and berating Tony for his taste in British food and British music.
‘What’s wrong with bacon and eggs, fish and chips and Gary Glitter?’ Tony demands almost answering his own question. Taking his defence their mother says, ‘Don’t forget he’s not like us. He born here.’, to which Colin replies, ‘That don’t make him white.’ For the rest of the film Tony finds himself torn between two cultures he is both part of and separate from.

Tony’s accent marks him as different from the rest of his family (all, like Ové, born in Trinidad) and his West Indian friends (‘Don’t give me that cockney ‘mate’ thing’). A variety of accents are heard throughout the film from the American activists, Tony’s Jamaican ‘street’ friends, his ‘cockney’ school friends and the middle-class accent of the accountancy firm’s interviewer. Characters are placed instantly within their respective cultures by the sound of their voices as clearly as by their skin colour. The strong accents led to problems with the distributors – Ové even considered adding subtitles.

It is after the accountancy job interview that Tony starts to ‘get the message’. The interviewer spouts a selection of ‘mildly’ racist questions – ‘How long have you been in this country?’ ‘Do you play cricket?’ ‘Have you been in trouble with the police?’ – and ends with a final and insincere ‘We’ll be in touch with you…Pretty soon.’ The effects of this ‘softer’ racism (but from a position of power) are felt just as much as that of his white girlfriend’s landlady screaming, ‘I’m not having people like that in this house.’ But the most damaging kind is the racism that is coupled with both power and aggression – that of the police. It was the film’s depiction of that ‘institutional racism’ that caused so much controversy on its original release. Police are seen raiding a peaceful meeting and then framing activists for drug offences. In the interview on the DVD Ové claims these scenes are based on personal experience.

The film is very successful in the way it includes politics without being too didactic. Political discussion stems from the drama – Colin’s involvement with the Black Power groups – as well as from reports on the radio or read aloud from newspapers. The meetings and talks are timed to reflect Tony’s situation (a speech on education and finding work follows Tony’s unsuccessful job interview). However, there are arguments within the group of activists that give more than one side to the debate, for instance when they disagree over whether all whites oppress or just those with economic power.

Ové sees Christianity – ‘That hippy cat, Jesus Christ Superstar’, as one character puts it – as an organ of repression. The black preacher (played by an actor addressing an unsuspecting genuine church audience) is heard promulgating the age-old black/white division. ‘Drive all black thoughts from your heart and replace them with good white holy thoughts’, he tells a real-life congregation of black churchgoers who show no reaction. As the American writer James Baldwin says in the other Ové film included on the DVD, slaves were kept ‘under the whip, the threat of the gun and the even more desperate and subtle threat of the bible’.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the film is its cinéma vérité/neo-realist style. It was shot on the streets of Ladbroke Grove (without obtaining permission) with the ‘extras’ either unsuspecting or often looking into the camera to see what’s going on. Ové claims it was whilst living in Rome that he discovered the films of Vittorio De Sica and Luis Buí±uel. The film even has a Buí±uelesque dream sequence where Tony sneaks into a colonial style house and murders a pig hiding under the bed clothes. Whether the pig symbolises English bacon or the police is not clear but then dreams seldom are.

The DVD comes with Horace Ové’s incredible documentary Baldwin’s Nigger, the filmed record of a brilliant speech James Baldwin gave in London in 1969 followed by an even better Q&A session. It informs Pressure not only through its discussion of the political issues but also as a document of the kind of militant meetings that are shown in the film. Baldwin tackles a variety of issues – economics, White liberalism, Christianity, usage of the terms negro, black, nigger, coloureds etc. with great wit and much humour. And by simply replacing Vietnam with Iraq and Detroit with Paris its relevance to today is obvious. These are two important films that are as valid now as they were thirty years ago.

Paul Huckerby

Vote for your favourite Black Screen Icon in the BFI poll! Closing date June 29.



Format: DVD

Release date: 21 May 2007

Distributor: Anchor Bay UK

Also screening at: The ICA

Date: 10, 16, 21, 30 June 2007

Director: Werner Herzog

Cast Klaus Kinski, Claudia Cardinale, José Lewgoy, Miguel í­Ângel Fuentes

Peru/West Germany 1982

158 minutes

In 2006 during an interview with Mark Kermode for the BBC’s Culture Show, Werner Herzog was famously shot with an air rifle, apparently by a crazed fan – not that surprising perhaps for LA and, if the director’s own words are to be believed, not that surprising for Herzog himself. The occasion of the interview was the release of Grizzly Man, one of Herzog’s more understated ‘documentaries’ and I kept wondering at the time whether the shooting incident might not have been staged to give Grizzly Man some kind of notoriety, the kind of notoriety that attached itself in the early eighties to Fitzcarraldo which is now re-released on DVD, accompanied by Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, a ‘making of’ documentary, to mark its 25th anniversary. For a film-maker like Herzog who has often blurred the boundaries between documentary and feature film it’s perhaps odd to think of someone else turning the lens on his own film-making processes but like Hearts of Darkness which charted the misfortunes of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, there’s clearly a story to tell.

The story of Fitzcarraldo itself is well known. Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, or Fitzcarraldo as he is known by the locals because they can’t pronounce his name, is an opera-loving Irish émigré played by Klaus Kinski. He has tried to make his fortune in South America through various speculative schemes from the building of a trans-Andean railway to the manufacture of ice. Dubbed ‘the conquistador of the useless’ by one prospective financier, his latest project is to build an opera house in the jungle town of Iquitos so that he can bring his favourite opera star, the great Enrico Caruso, to perform. To raise money for the project he decides to embark on one final scheme – the processing of rubber – to which end he has located a vast area of jungle untapped by other speculators because of its geographical inaccessibility and indigenous head-hunting tribes. Only reachable by river (the Rio Ucayali), what lies in the way of immense riches is a series of deadly rapids called the Pongo das Mortes, certain death to any large river-going vessel necessary to transport the rubber back downstream for processing. In an epiphany however, Fitzcarraldo notices on a map that this area can be accessed, and the rapids avoided, by navigating a parallel river, the Rio Pachitea, and there’s a point where the two rivers almost touch. All that’s needed is for the riverboat to be dragged across dry land – a kind of grand-scale portage – from the one river to the other. It is with this journey, from the securing of a loan to buy the riverboat, to the seemingly insurmountable task of pulling its 70 tonnes over a kilometre of dense jungle, that the film largely concerns itself.

It is tempting to see the parallel rivers, which lie at the film’s geographical heart as well as occupying the protagonist’s mental life, as a metaphor for much of what unfolds. When Fitzcarraldo experiences his eureka moment, Herzog has the camera linger for a long time – far too long – on the map showing the near convergence of the Ucayali and the Pachitea. Fitzcarraldo is clearly mesmerized to the extent that he can’t answer simple questions: ‘Have you ever seen a shrunken head’ he is asked, to which he replies; ‘Yes…I mean no…sort of.’ Can you ‘sort of’ see a shrunken head?! Later as they approach their destination, Fitzcarraldo draws the same map for the captain of the riverboat and we as viewers are shown the same configuration again. His fascination I would argue also is also made ours and we are invited to ‘read,’ even over-read, the map too. Like the weird hieroglyphics in another great adventure story, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (have a look at Chapter 23) the lines of the two rivers turn themselves into shapes that are more than what they are supposed to designate. They become for a while the outlines of two faces staring at each other like the face/cup alternative of a gestalt test. Then again the whole configuration turns into a diagram of the female reproductive organs, and the point at which the two rivers converge can be seen as a kind of birth canal. I found myself staring at the map like Fitzcarraldo trying to come up with more ingenious significations – one of the bonuses, or curses, of watching a DVD.

These over-readings of the map can of course be folded back into the film. Although Herzog argues in Burden of Dreams that Fitzcarraldo is not a piece of ethnography (like Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North or even Herzog’s own film about the plight of Australian Aborigines, Where Green Ants Dream) claiming that he’s more interested in the way the native Indians are acting than simply ‘being,’ it does dramatise the convergence of two conflicting cultures in the form of the exploitative, colonising European and the exploited indigenous ‘other.’ The exalted romance of Fitcarraldo’s ‘visions’ of opera in the jungle and the demented portage of a huge riverboat are both individualist and interferist gestures. Neither of these grand projects belongs in their new contexts. Like other river narratives – from Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and even Coppola’s Apocalypse Now – the boat is a figure of hierarchical power and exploitation, both on and off board. The point at which Fitzcarraldo decides to play a recording of Caruso to quell the sounds of beating war drums hidden behind the inscrutable shoreline is a case in point. He sets the gramophone at the front of the boat’s roof with its trumpet sticking out like another ship’s figurehead and the sound of Italian opera cutting through the banks of the river is as violent a gesture as Frederick Forrest’s Wagnerian helicopters in Apocalypse Now. For a minute or two a fusion between the two sound worlds seems possible as drum beat and opera commingle in an awful presaging of world music but it’s the great Caruso who is victorious. The native Indians are charmed and won over by the sounds of the West like the children who are fascinated by the same music earlier in Fitzcarraldo’s house. The native/child connection is of course the oldest one in the book.

Herzog isn’t pressed by the makers of Burden of Dreams on the extent to which Fitzcarraldo reinforces rather than questions colonialist tendencies. The native Indians – or ‘bare asses’ as the ship’s crew crudely calls them – are clearly exploited labour for Fitzcarraldo and the scenes of them clearing the jungle to make way for the boat are at times reminiscent of Sebastiao Salgado’s sublime but shocking photographs of Brazilian miners. Those photographs reveal a scarred and wounded landscape as do the shots in Burden of Dreams of the bulldozer that was necessary to raze the ground for the portage of the boat. I couldn’t help but think of this as a small scale version of the land clearance that was happening at the time on a vast scale across parts of the South American continent in the name of economic progress. But then Herzog has a curious attitude to the land. He thinks of the jungle as a cursed, unfinished landscape. There is harmony, he suggests, but it’s ‘a harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.’ Nature is for him completely alien and he ‘admires’ it against his better judgement. Whilst this is laudable in that it avoids the kind of mawkish anthropomorphism that clogs our TV screens on a daily basis it can also lead to a laissez-faire politics as far as land management is concerned.

The other question Burden of Dreams never explicitly poses is whether we might consider Fitzcarraldo as an avatar of Herzog himself and his vainglorious enterprises a version of Herzog’s own heroic ‘struggle’ to make his film. There’s clearly as much obsession on Herzog’s part in working out the mechanics of dragging the riverboat as there is on Fitzcarraldo’s except that Herzog has also managed to capture the feat on camera! Both are acts of extreme vanity. Burden of Dreams also reveals that Herzog ignored the engineer who warned him of the dangers of using the chosen pulley system with such a heavy payload. The sublime and uncanny sight of the boat making its way up the incline fascinates Herzog to the extent that he holds the diagonal shot, boat filling the frame from corner to corner, for over a minute.

This slippage between Herzog and his own protagonist again brings to mind the convergence of the two rivers as indeed does the relationship between feature and documentary in this twin DVD release. At times it’s an unsettling experience watching Burden of Dreams for the way that it replays or ghosts scenes from Fitzcarraldo. After the boat (incidentally named the Molly Aida in homage to Fitzcarraldo’s beloved mistress and opera – another ‘twin’ if you like) is dragged a little way up the incline it rolls back under its own weight and two native Indians are pulled out from underneath having been crushed to death. We see the same scene in Burden of Dreams shot from a slightly different angle, the bodies pulled out in the same way. One of the bodies lies bloodied and lifeless for longer than is ‘strictly’ necessary and for an awful moment there’s the possibility that a native has actually been killed. When he eventually opens his eyes and leaps to his feet, visibly grinning, it’s almost weirder than if he’d stayed dead.

Unlike Herzog’s however, Fitzcarraldo’s avowed mission eventually fails. Having succeeded in hauling the Molly Aida between the two rivers – and it is, I would argue, a kind of monstrous birth, a violent breach delivery if you like – he and the crew drink themselves into unconsciousness in celebration and in their oblivion the native Indians cut the ropes sending the boat downstream where it overshoots the prospective rubber plantation and crashes through the rapids before listing feebly home. The explanation given by the natives for their behaviour is that it is to appease the angry gods of the Pongo das Mortes and this shows the cultural chasm that exists between native and coloniser. It is of course also a kind of nemesis for Fitzcarraldo’s hubristic act. In a pyrrhic victory however, he sells the Molly Aida and with the proceeds brings a touring European opera troupe to Iquitos. The final shots of the film show them performing on board the boat decked out like a stage set with a beaming Fitzcarraldo sucking on a huge cigar as lord of all he surveys.

Burden of Dreams reminds us that Herzog had finished shooting most of the film with Jason Robards playing the lead role (with Mick Jagger as his sidekick) before amoebic dysentery forced him to pull out. Robards has I think too much gravitas for the part. Kinski is of course the perfect protagonist. There’s a child-like otherworldliness to him that makes him both charming and terrifying but the charm doesn’t allow you to dwell too long on the prospects of the terror. This also sums up Herzog as director. You watch Fitzcarraldo constantly pondering its ambivalent politics but are won over by the sublime imagery which lets Herzog almost get away with murder.

Jeff Hilson


The Wild Blue Yonder

Format: Cinema

Release date: 15 June 2007

Distributor Soda Pictures

Director: Werner Herzog

Cast: Brad Dourif, Capt. Donald Williams, Dr. Ellen Baker

USA 2005

72 minutes

Despite receiving its premiere as part of BBC4’s Storyville season back in 2005, Werner Herzog’s mesmerizing docu-fantasy The Wild Blue Yonder is only now making its British big screen debut. Billed as science fiction but bearing closer relation to the work of Chris Marker and even David Attenborough than Spielberg or Lucas, the film utilises footage shot on the space shuttle STS-43, along with haunting images photographed beneath the polar ice cap, all loosely held together with a rambling, delusional voiceover by actor Brad Dourif.

Dourif’s character claims to be an alien from a planet somewhere in the Andromeda galaxy, a frozen ocean planet known as the Wild Blue Yonder. His people fled an unnamed ecological catastrophe, travelling for thousands of years across the blackness of space before finally arriving at Earth. Their history on our planet seems confused: Dourif at first describes them as being greeted like heroes, but later their presence seems to have been forgotten, with the exception of those members who infiltrated their way into the political or scientific communities. Dourif himself claims to have worked for the CIA, where he was involved in the cover-up surrounding the Roswell incident.

But these aliens are far from the advanced, benevolent angels of sci-fi lore; they’re not even malevolent infiltrators or invaders. As Dourif himself points out, ‘most aliens suck’. The survivors have been travelling for so long that they’ve forgotten much of the science that made their journey possible, and their time on Earth has largely been spent attempting to assimilate into human society, becoming a nation of little Thomas Jerome Newtons, building a separate community complete with congress, senate and shopping mall, a hopeless enterprise that soon fell into disrepair because ‘nobody wanted to buy anything’.

But the plight of the survivors merely sets the stage for the main plot of the film: the journey of six Earth astronauts to the dying oceans of the Wild Blue Yonder. Initially fleeing a microbial outbreak on the home planet (which turns out to be a false alarm) the astronauts travel through newly discovered ‘chaos tubes’ which connect distant stars and galaxies to one another. They explore the new world, scoping out sites for settlement. Then they return to Earth, only to find that hundreds of years have passed and the entire planet is deserted, returned to its primeval state. Where the inhabitants have gone is a mystery which Herzog leaves open, suggesting the possibility that they have either scattered to the outer fringes of the universe, or just as likely wiped each other out.

The bulk of the film’s visual content fits into three categories. The first depicts Dourif wandering in aimless frustration around a dilapidated desert town, ostensibly the proposed site for his great alien capital. The earlier parts of his story are occasionally intercut with flickering historical footage intended to represent the arrival and assimilation of the original ‘alien founding fathers’.

Then there is genuine space footage, shot by NASA astronauts in Earth orbit exclusively for this project. This footage bears little relation to the story being told, merely depicting the inhabitants of a tiny, cramped spacecraft going about their daily routines. Dourif’s voiceover describes the pressure these so-called interstellar travellers are under, but we see very little evidence of this onscreen. There is also very little footage of outside, the Earth below or the stars above, merely repetitive shots of astronauts eating, exercising, or lying down to sleep.

The distant Wild Blue Yonder is represented through footage shot beneath the polar ice cap by Henry Kaiser. These are the most visually exciting moments in the film, as the ‘astronauts’ explore this pale, barren underwater world, drifting through floating clouds of geometric ice shards, or exploring the great husks of half- formed coral structures. Dourif’s voiceover becomes notably more lyrical here too, remembering his homeworld in simple but poetic terms.

Running through all three sections of the film are a series of interviews with slightly deranged Caltech scientists, who use equations and computer models to explain unfathomable concepts or describe the ludicrous physics behind interstellar ‘chaotic travel’. Like random excerpts from alternate universe Open University lectures, these little snippets of scientific banter are perhaps the most entertaining portions of the film.

It’s hard to say how seriously Herzog takes any of this. Between the fantastical concepts of the aforementioned professors and Dourif’s dry, ironic musing, the film displays an awareness of its own absurdity completely at odds with the hauntingly beautiful underwater sequences, or the flatly scientific NASA footage. The voiceover continually points out its own conceptual flaws, describing the search for other Earth-like planets in our solar system, introducing the concept of the alien disease then just as quickly abandoning it. At times it’s as though Herzog is simply uninterested in the real science behind the fantasy, at others it seems like a ploy to make us question the veracity of Dourif’s statements, treat him more like a deluded madman than a real live ‘alien’. Similarly, the references to sci-fi staples like Roswell or wormhole travel walk a fine line between pandering to and mocking the clichés of science-fiction cinema and literature.

There are points at which The Wild Blue Yonder feels like something genuinely new, a radical and fascinating approach to the presentation of documentary footage. But at others it feels random and rather amateurish, attempting to tie together disconnected reels of ‘found’ footage in a manner awkwardly reminiscent of Ed Wood. It’s hard to divine exactly what the film is trying to say: there’s certainly an ecological subtext here, but it’s (perhaps mercifully) buried beneath layers of scientific mumbo jumbo and Dourif’s absurdist rambling. What remains is a fascinating curio; visually arresting, conceptually flawed but never less than entertaining.

Tom Huddleston

onedotzero_select DVD 5


Format: DVD

Release date: 4 June 2007

Distributor: Vital UK

Directors: Guilherme Marcondes, Adam Smith, Takagi Masakatsu, Joe Trussell and more

onedotzero brand themselves as one of the UK’s leading promoters of contemporary digital moving image, both through the international film festivals that they stage and through their onedotzero_select DVD series. The fifth edition, released June 4th, is a captivating compilation of work, including short films and music promos, that combines both high-quality live action and innovative, often humorous animation.

Viewing the DVD is a bit like dipping into a collection of short stories: though lacking a cohesive narrative, there is a commonality between the artistic works. Most of the shorts exhibit an irreverent sense of humour (while the few that don’t all tend to veer towards a dystopian view of society). Music is a hugely important component of the clips: those that aren’t actual promos are still fashioned as elements of contemporary music culture. In the animated War Photographer a Nordic marching band faces off against heavy-metal Viking warriors on the high seas in a battle for their honour while the live-action What Goes Up Must Come Down is a Streets-like urban rap trip through a twilit London. Despite differences in style and technique, all of the films are created to appeal to an audience characterised by a devotion to digital innovation as well as an urban design aesthetic; the DVD would equally be at home on the walls of a Shoreditch club as in a mainstream cinema.

Though the quality of all the work on onedotzero_select 5 is exceptionally high, there are some pieces that stand out. The animated short The Tale of How from South African collective The Blackheart Gang is a brilliant work: an operatic, fantastical tale about a sea creature threatening a colony of Dodo birds. Surreal Japanesesque wood blocks seem to come to life in a sea filled with tentacled monsters, piranha ducks, and the distressed birds struggling to survive in the choppy, dangerous waves. At the other end of the spectrum, Toner by Takagi Masakatsu, is an aural and aesthetic delight, a riot of gorgeous colour accompanied by the Japanese artist Cornelius on the piano, as well as the nostalgic sounds of a dot-printer.

At a time of ever-greater media consolidation and the rise of the bland pop promo created to appeal to the lowest common denominator, onedotzero_select provides an opportunity to see digital art that would otherwise struggle to find an outlet. While videos for the Bloc Party and Ninjatune-veterans Coldcut can get airtime, it’s unlikely that the charming, Miyazaki-esque Soot Giant from France, or the Brazilian film Tyger, a combination of puppetry, animation and photography inspired by a Blake poem, would find a widespread audience in the UK without support from onedotzero. The films on this compilation are well-deserving of our time, and will amply reward repeat viewings.

Sarah Cronin


Ten Canoes

Format: Cinema

Release date: 1 June 2007

Distributor: The Works

Director: Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr

Cast: Jamie Gulpilil, Richard Birrinbirrin, Crusoe Kurddal, Peter Minygululu

Australia 2006

90 mins

Rolf de Heer’s charming Ten Canoes, set among the Yolngu community and billed as the first feature in the Aboriginal language, starts as it means to go on, humorously deflating myths and conventions. Over the magnificent opening views of Arnhem Land in Northern Australia the jovial narrator is heard saying ‘Once upon a time in a faraway land’, only to stop and add, laughing, ‘I’m only joking’.

Ten Canoes‘ rather wonderful adventure started with the thousands of black and white photographs that were taken by anthropologist Dr Donald Thomson in the mid-1930s. One of them, depicting a group of ten men in their traditional bark canoes on the swamp, caught the eye of director de Heer and Aboriginal performer David Gulpilil – the narrator and co-initiator of the project – striking them as a remarkable image that perfectly encapsulated the lost world of the Yolngu’s past.

Shot in black and white to mirror the Thomson photographs, the framing story follows a group of men on a goose egg hunting expedition a thousand years ago. Respected elder Minygululu is leading the expedition and, aware that his younger brother Dayindi lusts after the youngest of his three wives, proceeds to tell him a cautionary tale set in a distant, mythical past. Shot in colour, this ancient tale of jealousy, murder and sorcery alternates with the quasi-anthropological black and white footage of the Yolngu men making canoes from bark, collecting goose eggs or building platforms in the trees.

As the narrator tells us an anecdote about his ancestors, who themselves are telling an anecdote about their own ancestors, it soon becomes clear that Ten Canoes is about the eternal story of mankind – a repetitive tale of love, lust, jealousy, conflict, food, farts, shit and death. Although it presents itself as a morality tale, the film is anything but, the ending being a joyfully inconclusive illustration of the messiness of human life. In all this it humorously demystifies exotic people from faraway lands or from the distant past. There is no idealisation of the ‘good savage’ or of a paradisiacal past here – a dubious perspective last seen in Terence Malick’s unbelievably bad The Lost World.

This is no white man’s view of indigenous culture but a film that connects past and present, Western audiences and Aboriginal community in a fresh, dynamic way. Not only does Ten Canoes incorporate storytelling elements from both Western and indigenous traditions but the film was also an occasion for the Yolngu people to recreate some of the ancient crafts and skills that had fallen into disuse with the increasing influence of modern technology. By recreating their history, and the history of the encounter between the white anthropologist and their people, the Yolngu make the images he took of them their own, part of a renewed tradition engaged in a vivid dialogue with the modern, Western world.

Virginie Sélavy



Format: Cinema

Release date: 1 June 2007

Distributor: BFI

Director: Jan í… vankmajer

Original title: Sí­Â­lení­Â­

Based on the works of: Edgar Allan Poe and Marquis de Sade

Cast Pavel LiÅ¡ka, Jan Trí­Â­ska, Anna Geisleroví¡, Martin Huba, Jaroslav DuÅ¡ek

Czech Republic/Slovakia 2005

118 minutes

With his latest feature-length release, Jan í… vankmajer promises an atmospheric gothic brew of Edgar Allan Poe and the Marquis de Sade set in a lunatic asylum, full of catalepsy, premature burial and kinky satanism. The true mystery of Lunacy, however, is how í… vankmajer can have come up with such a dull and undistinguished film. His most celebrated works such as Alice and Little Otik (Otesí¡nek) mix live action with animation to startling effect, but here the animation is peripheral and perfunctory. A motif of severed body parts threads its way through the action in tableaux separating live action sequences. The credits feature naí­Â¯ve cartoon tarot-ish playing cards depicting mutilation which also reappear later in an enigmatic board game. What, one wonders at first, is the significance of these merrily dancing tongues and eyes, and these eyeless and tongueless playing-card figures? In the end, however, once all has been explained (I won’t bore you with the details), their tantalizing, gratuitous quality seems a sham. The real problem is that the animation does not mesh with the overall art direction. It is tacked on, its exuberance forced, wholly subordinate to a rather tired thesis. Indeed, the film as a whole is just too significant, too allegorical.

From the very start, there is no room for anything to breathe or resonate. í… vankmajer himself appears on the screen to deliver a far from fresh speech on psychiatry and the modern world: we are caught between extremes of discipline and liberty, and end up living with the worst of both worlds. Doubtless new things remain to be done with this theme, but here it dates the film to its director’s youth, to a very sixties convergence of surrealism and anti-psychiatry. The story concerns a young man, Jean Berlot, who is prone to lucid dreams featuring two leering, burly, shaven-headed goons pursuing him with a straitjacket. Having trashed his hotel room in the throes of this dream, Berlot is rescued by the ‘Marquis’, whose anachronistic costume and tendency to gales of insane laughter go largely unremarked by those around him. At this point, there are promising signs: the Marquis’ coach and horses trundling preposterously along the motorway is nice. But once Berlot has been taken into the Marquis’ castle, and changed into ancien régime attire, the ambiguity of setting largely disappears. As Berlot spies on a sort of black mass/orgy we are firmly in the world of 70s art-trash gothic. As the Marquis hammers nails into a crucifix, his followers gorge themselves on chocolate cake before being fellated under the table by nubile wenches in monks’ cowls. The sexual politics are fairly 70s too: the girls have been selected for a quite particular quality of breast and not much else.

Having said this, Charlota requires slightly more involved discussion. She first appears right at the beginning as a wan face caught by Berlot at the window of a departing bus. Now in the gothic setting she seems to try to escape from the Marquis’ rather hum-drum orgy. In the next phase of the film she moves centre stage. The Marquis traces Berlot’s persecution dreams back to his mother’s death, incarcerated in Charenton. The cure he proposes involves a sort of reverse psychology: spend some time in a lunatic asylum. At the asylum, Charlota reappears as the alleged daughter of Dr Murlloppe and once more appeals to Berlot to help her escape. The lunatics, she claims, have mutinied and taken over the asylum. The true director, Dr Coulmií­Â¨re, is locked up in the cellar. What we see when Charlota takes Berlot downstairs are creatures whose identity is obscured by tar and feathers, but whose outline suggests hulking aggression rather than a role in the caring professions. One of the film’s most visually accomplished scenes comes with the release of these fleshy demons, hurtling out of the hatches and straight back into their functions as brutal riot-police of madness. Poor lunatics, celebrating a year of freedom with an extended pillow fight: in a blizzard of feathers they are truncheoned back into their boxes. For, who would have guessed it, the lunatics were the better custodians of chaos. Dr Coulmií­Â¨re and his goons now have a free hand to reinstitute their regime of brutality and mutilation. Now it only remains for Berlot’s nightmare to be made real. All Charlota’s fault!

Misogyny by numbers. Over the course of the film, Charlota has gone from defenceless waif to merciless whore following a depressingly familiar pattern. í… vankmajer doubtless wants us to see her as an ambiguous and troubling figure, but she isn’t. The moment where she does embody a genuine tension (as opposed to a tedious duality) is, tellingly, one that í… vankmajer has explored much more effectively in the past. Charlota’s trips to the cellar to feed the monstrous attendants cannot but recall Alzbetka in Little Otik. What leads a little girl to lure her neighbours into the maw of a ravenous log is never programmatically explained, but a mixture of compassion and a desire to see the cruelty of a folk-tale played out is implied. In Little Otik, í… vankmajer presents ‘normal’ desires remorselessly driving people into grotesque and deadly circumstances, and the whole thing is played out with grim humour. Burdened with a horribly protruding thesis, Lunacy just cannot generate the sort of tensions and ambiguities it say it wants to, and Charlota’s perfunctory innocent/whore shifts are the surest symptom of this.

Lunacy made me wish at various points I was watching a number of other films: some of the late eighteenth-century interiors brought Werner Herzog’s Kaspar Hauser fondly to mind, and the feather-storm in the asylum had me dreaming of Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite. Apart from the echo of Little Otik, it made me think very little of í… vankmajer. Back to the drawing-board.

Stephen Thomson


Opening Night

Format: Cinema

Release date: 15-28 June 2007

Distributor: BFI

Director: John Cassavetes

Cast: Gena Rowlands, John Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara

USA 1977

144 minutes

Within one minute of screen time, John Cassavetes’ Opening Night introduces us to three discernible theatrical spaces: backstage (the space of where actors ‘prepare’ to embark on a role); onstage (the space of the drama); and the auditorium (the space of the audience). Having from the onset drawn the boundary lines between these spaces, defining each in turn by the behaviour of, in particular, our heroine the Broadway actress Myrtle Gordon – played by Gena Rowlands -, the film now spends the next two-and-a-half hours doing its best to eliminate those boundaries.

Like all of Cassavetes’ best work, Opening Night goes beyond being merely a self-reflexive investigation into the perils of cinema making. Made immediately after what may be Cassavetes’ best film The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), the film tells the story of the week or so of out-of-town performances before the New York opening night of a play entitled ‘The Second Woman’ – in which Myrtle, who plays the title role of a woman cast aside in favour of a younger one, becomes unhinged after the death of a young female fan one night outside the theatre. Haunted by unbelievably real visions of the girl, Myrtle suddenly finds herself in the midst of a full-blown identity crisis. This initiates what Myrtle herself describes as an attempt to ‘find a way to play this role in which age doesn’t make any difference’, which, of course, counters the entire premise of the play she is in.

What makes this so typical of Cassavetes is the way in which this psychological crisis impacts directly on the film’s formal structure and subsequent events. As Myrtle’s sense of both time and space disintegrates so does that of the audience (as in us and the spectators of the drama being ‘staged’). In this respect, Cassavetes appears to aim for nothing less than to rethink what drama and play-acting actually are as well as the issue of female identity, sexuality and anxieties about aging in the process. Paradoxically, it is probably the latter, which – if anything – has (no pun intended) dated or aged the film and it is somewhat grating to modern viewers. It is an issue that quite literally looms over the proceedings in the oversized photograph of an elderly woman on the set of the play. It’s not merely that the spectre of old age haunts Myrtle in the form of a supernaturally beautiful younger version of herself (the dead fan), but that Myrtle drinks herself into oblivion continuously in order to survive this haunting. Granted, all the characters in Cassavetes’ oeuvre express concerns with time but here, Rowlands/Myrtle’s entire identity as a woman and an actress is completely consumed by the sense that things are slipping away. A rather depressing assessment of female creativity to say the least.

It is possible, of course, to consider this as a commentary on the death of theatre, or if you will, on the end of a palpable distinction between onstage and offstage, performer and audience. Thus, while it is Myrtle who keeps stumbling along the corridors of the backstage in a drunken stupor all the other characters, male and female, also appear liable to break down at any moment. There’s a wonderful scene where the director of the play goes through one of the sets on opening night, deliberately aiming to make it look more ‘messy’ as he agonizes over the complete chaos in which the play already finds itself.

By no means a perfect film, at two hours and twenty four minutes it’s at least half an hour too long, and for me personally, there was a bit too much emphasis on Myrtle’s drinking throughout as a perhaps rather trite, and dare I say, theatrical response to her schizophrenia. Nevertheless, in the grand finale when the play’s director Manny refuses to help her even stand or walk, and makes her crawl to the stage, we cannot help but be caught up in Myrtle/Rowlands’ bravura performance. By no means a standard Hollywood miraculous dramatic ending, Myrtle recovers moment by moment, within the work and the work within the work. Allegedly, Cassavetes even staged the faux play within the film in front of a real live audience, to gauge their natural reaction. Like us, the audience of the play is allowed to voice dissenting opinions on whether Myrtle/Rowlands really pulls it off. Despite her coming through in the end, there’s no reason to expect that she has really resolved anything, and the trick of the film, in a sense, is to make us be fine with this. Ultimately, it is not a film about recuperations or success, but about the agony of making choices. As Cassavetes put it himself: ‘The character is left in conflict, but she fights the terrifying battle to recapture hope. And wins!’



Red Angel

Format: DVD

Release date: 24 July 2006

Distributor: Yume Pictures

Director: Yasuzo Masumura

Original title Akai tenshi

Cast Ayako Wakao, Shinsuke Ashida, Yusuke Kawazu

Japan 1966

95 minutes

Revisionist accounts of the brutalities of war have become so legion in recent cinema that they now constitute something of a sub-genre in themselves. The most recent of these was the twin Flags of our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima project in which Clint Eastwood was supposed to have re-examined the heroic struggle respectively to take and defend a small but strategically placed island in the Pacific during the Second World War. Although avowedly ‘anti-war,’ it’s a liberal ploy to present the story ‘fairly’ from both points of view and in Flags of our Fathers the framing narrative of avuncular old men looking back at the horrors of war from the comfort of their middle-class living rooms envelops the whole enterprise in a Werther’s Original wrapper of cosy sentimentality. Throw in the story of the heroic Native American and the entire project basks in self-congratulatory worthiness.

The same can by no means be said of Masumura’s Red Angel, which is a much more perverse though, for very different reasons, no less conflicted account of the plight of a nurse from Tokyo working in a series of field hospitals in China during the 1939 Sino-Japanese war. Having a female protagonist might make us think that this is going to be a reappraisal of the hitherto undervalued role of women in modern conflict and although we are presented with the day-to-day details of her work it is by no means the focus of the film. Indeed it’s precisely what Masumura does with the genre of the war film that makes it so intriguing and from the title alone we should know that this nurse is not going to be your average Florence Nightingale.

The red angel in question is Sakura Nishi. We first encounter her as she is warned by the Head Nurse to be on her guard against the recuperating soldiers who will go to any lengths to avoid being sent back to the front. What she isn’t warned about is their pent-up sexual boredom and on a night-round she is lured by Sakamoto, a fellow Tokyoan, and raped by him whilst pinned to a sickbed by his ‘bored’ accomplices. So far this account doesn’t seem to have taken us out of the relatively ‘safe’ bounds of the historical re-enactment of everyday life in a field hospital where the fact of a rape, though horrific, is perhaps not in itself that surprising. What raises this scene above the level of documentary however is the way it’s shot. The viewer is shown Sakamoto lifting up successive layers of Nurse Nishi’s undergarments but at the point of penetration the camera cuts to an exterior shot of the ward through a window which is quickly closed by a vigilant onlooker. Visually, the incident is closed off from the viewer and what we are ‘left’ with is a brief muffled scream before the next scene, of Nishi informing the Head Nurse of the event, is upon us.

It would be easy to overlook the way this scene ends but it’s a signal for much of what’s to come. Not only does it reinforce the sense of claustrophobia within which the whole film operates – most of the ‘action’ happens inside in a closed-off world and when we are shown ‘outside’ it’s often shot from inside – but it’s also the first point in the film where we suspect we are not in a nuts-and-bolts war drama. The denial of audience involvement in the rape scene is also one of a number of moments where Masumura withholds what the viewer can and can’t see and these become more intense as the film proceeds.

As a result of his transgression, Sakamoto is redrafted to the front and Nishi herself soon moves closer to the frontline where she becomes assistant to the field hospital surgeon, Dr Okabe. Here we are shown the full-on consequences of battle as wave after wave of casualties enter the hospital and it’s for Okabe to decide their fate. More often than not he is required to amputate limbs because of a lack of suitable drugs. Early on Nishi is forced to hold down a patient whilst his leg is sawn off and from the way it is filmed there are clear parallels between this and the previous rape scene, the difference being we are allowed to watch this time. I find this problematic because although we are invited to view these scenes as versions of each other it’s difficult to see to what extent they are equivalent even given the power relations involved in both acts. Indeed this is the first in a number of incidents which expose the film’s conflicted sexual politics. The second of these isn’t far behind as a badly wounded Sakamoto is brought into the field hospital needing a blood transfusion. However transfusions can only be given to soldiers of superior rank and it is only through Nishi’s pleading with Dr Okabe on his behalf that he undergoes treatment. Do we applaud Nishi’s selfless act, that she is able to forgive her former aggressor? It’s a difficult question and one that we aren’t allowed to linger over as Sakamoto dies anyway having wasted precious blood.

One significant result of Nishi’s actions is that it attracts the attention of Dr Okabe who summons her to his quarters. Here he secretly admits that he no longer thinks of himself as a real surgeon but as a caricature turning all his patients into cripples. The conversation that follows is extraordinary for its combination of crudity and compassion. Okabe’s policy of mass amputation means he is effectively emasculating a generation of Japanese men yet Okabe is himself sexually non-functioning – the job has driven him to drink and morphine which has in turn rendered him impotent – and he implores Nishi to inject him so that he can sleep. There’s clearly a role reversal here. The hacker-off of limbs, the impotence machine, is feminized whilst Nishi assumes the role of male aggressor, syringe in hand (in a later scene this is made more explicit as Okabe makes her dress up in his uniform). Sexual analogy is played out very blatantly but the scene is filmed with a sustained lyrical tenderness that makes it also heart-warming (though this too is undercut by the gentle but austere soundtrack which sounds like some of the quieter of Bach’s organ pieces). It’s an altogether unsettling combination and it makes for at times uneasy viewing. This is reinforced when Okabe tells Nishi to undress because a man of his rank can’t get drunk in front of a nurse, yet ‘undressing’ in this context means leaving on her chemise. There’s a child-like theatre to the whole affair which is reinforced when Okabe asks Nishi to wait by his side until he falls asleep, which casts Nishi less as angel than as mother.

Nishi’s time with Okabe is cut short and she is forced to return to the former field hospital where she now treats Orihara, an armless amputee who is a living example of Okabe’s butchery. Stuck in the hospital he is not allowed home because he is visible evidence of the horrors of war, the admission of which would be detrimental to public morale. Because he has no arms he is also an embodiment of Okabe’s secret guilt. One night as Nishi washes him he implores her to masturbate him as his missing hands have left him sexually unfulfilled and he fears he will never see his wife again. The previous scene between Nishi and Okabe is ratcheted up a notch here – indeed one wonders whether it’s not again another ‘version’ of this scene – with Orihara’s pleading drawn out to the extent that it’s nearly unwatchable. As Nishi’s hands are about to disappear under the sheets the camera cuts to the one of Okabe’s implements rhythmically sawing through a patient’s leg back on the frontline. Again this is a rather crude reminder of the link between amputation and sexual deprivation and it is followed by Orihara’s request that he masturbate her with one of his feet which have become as sensitive as his hands once were.

It’s at this point I think we realise how far we are from a ‘straightforward’ war drama and this is confirmed when Nishi takes Orihara to a hotel for sex. The ensuing sequence is remarkable for the way in which Masumura photographs the bodies. As Nishi bathes Orihara in the starkly photographed hotel bathroom we are shown his stumps, his partial body, yet we are afforded only partial glimpses of Nishi’s own ‘whole’ naked torso as she pirouettes close to the camera. Later in bed they lie across each other, the amputee’s torso covering the parts of Nishi’s body that can’t be shown because of the laws governing what can and can’t be revealed on film in Japan. In another shot Nishi covers her own breasts and Masumura has her head completely out of the frame, effectively beheading her. It’s a magnificent and complex instance of internal and external cinematic permissions coming together.

There’s another telling moment in this scene. Orihara asks Nishi why she is doing all this for him and her reply, ‘for no reason’, is oddly emblematic of her character which is throughout much of the film, certainly up to this point, more of a non-character. Although I’ve said rather flippantly that she’s ‘no Florence Nightingale’ I also kept wondering to what extent Nishi is the ‘red angel’ of the title, a moniker that seems to paint her as a force of destruction. At times the film tries to make us believe this or more accurately it tries to make us believe that she believes this is what she is but it’s not that convincing. For instance she blames herself for the death of Sakamoto and then for Orihara’s suicide – he jumps from the roof of the hospital to his death after Nishi tells him coldly that their encounter is never to be repeated – but there’s a blankness to her ‘sadistic’ rejection of Orihara as well as her burgeoning sense that she is responsible for both deaths. Perhaps the ‘red angel’ label sticks to her despite herself and it’s a comment by Masumura on the hopelessness and emptiness of choice available to those caught up in war – whatever course of action she decides on will inevitably end in death – but the problem with this view is that it can lead to the removal of agency from the equation and thus to a laissez-faire politics which is as disastrous in wartime as it is in times of (so-called) peace.

We might read also Nishi’s blankness as passivity and consequently no more than Masumura’s registration of the constraints placed on women during the war and immediate post-war years. This would be to read Red Angel as a comment on the ‘caring’ role of women who are forced to service a male-dominated Japan but this would hardly be news even in 1966. And what the film doesn’t do either is present us with the emergence of the new woman. After Orihara’s suicide, Nishi is sent back to Okabe’s hospital and the film is structurally locked in a rigid pattern of exile and return which won’t allow for any development of character or otherwise. Witness the scenes between Nishi and Okabe – although occupying different rooms they’re all shot to look the same, enclosed and unchanging and when Nishi does eventually tell Okabe that she loves him – because he reminds her of her father – we’re locked into another set of controls with which we’ve become all too familiar, certainly in the West.

The film’s final section which sees Okabe called yet closer to the front – farther and farther from Japan as he says to Nishi – is no less easy to watch than the rest. Accompanied by a more-than-willing Nishi they are diverted to a beleaguered military outpost where cholera becomes rampant reducing it to a handful of men awaiting an imminent Chinese attack. Intercutting the urgent scenes of expectant soldiers outside, Nishi forces Okabe to give up his morphine habit by tying him down in his quarters and making him go through cold turkey before his manhood is restored and he can die a fully reconstructed male. There’s little sense that Nishi has gained much from this final encounter except to pry the words ‘I love you’ from Okabe after he has achieved his long-delayed orgasm.

If this sounds cynical there is another way of reading it – as a blindly romantic transcendental tryst whose participants must remain oblivious to imminent death – but I think Masumura himself undercuts such a reading by the way he ends the film. After the Chinese attack, Nishi is the only survivor and scouring the camp she discovers Okabe’s corpse, drawn samurai sword in hand. The temptation to see this as evidence of a newly-discovered capacity for heroism is undermined by the fact that his sword has been reduced to a mere stump not unlike the limbs of his unfortunate patients. It’s an unsettling end to a film that constantly denies resolution and I was left with the distinct impression that the landscapes, both interior and exterior, through which its characters move are as much indicators of psychological states as the backdrop for the playing out any kind of ‘story.’ This is unsurprising perhaps for a so-called ‘new-wave’ director and there’s clear evidence throughout Red Angel of sophistication in Masumura’s handling of the mechanics of film. I was still left wondering however, after the death of all three ‘lovers’, what Nishi was left with. As with many of Masumura’s counterparts in Europe the handling of sexual politics is fraught and difficult to ignore.

Jeff Hilson


Blind Beast

Format: DVD

Release date: 22 May 2007

Distributor: Yume Pictures

Director: Yasuzo Masumura

Original title Môjuu

Cast Eiji Funakoshi, Mako Midori, Noriko Sengoku

Japan 1969

86 minutes

From the very first frame, Masumura’s Blind Beast is as visually arresting as it is morally dubious, and it doesn’t let up pursuing its own preposterous logic for a second from then on in. What more can you ask of a film? Whatever the narrative may seem to claim, it would be a gross injustice to suggest that Blind Beast has anything as coherent as a thesis. There are ideas at work, of course, but really, if you want to discipline them and make them reasonable you will have to poke your eyes out. Which is just as things should be.

Early one morning, artist’s model Aki is visiting a photographic exhibition featuring images of herself in various states of bondage, reminiscent of (though predating) the work of Nobuyoshi Araki. In the sterile, brightly-lit, empty gallery she comes upon a man on his knees, strangely embracing and scrupulously caressing the nude sculpture (also modeled by Aki) that forms the centre-piece of the exhibition. Within minutes, the same man has turned up at Aki’s apartment in the guise of a masseur, knocked her out with chloroform and, with the help of his grimly besotted mother, carted her off to a bleak and isolated warehouse. We know the warehouse is bleak and isolated because we do not see the way there, or any suggestion of surrounding space: it is always presented by the same twilit establishing shot in mottled greys, occasionally enlivened with flecks of snow. The whole film is, in many respects, remarkably minimal. There are only the three characters mentioned and not a single other breathing human figure. The action from now on is confined to the interior of the warehouse, made up of a spartan living space where Michio the blind sculptor and his mother live, eat, and share a bed. Through the double iron doors, however, lies the more ambiguous space where Aki is imprisoned.

Michio’s ‘studio’ is likewise minimal in its palette, but otherwise monstrous and excessive. Aki awakes to find herself surrounded by a cavernous darkness punctuated by off-white giant effigies of dismembered female body parts. As Michio explains his artistic mission and tries to persuade Aki to become his muse, the camera reveals what appear to be only small areas of a much vaster space; one that has no visible walls, is not unambiguously rectilinear, and is ultimately incomprehensible. At one point the camera makes a series of high speeding jolting pans to reveal one segment at a time, each devoted to a different body part. Each tableau is flat, but fish-eyed: logically, they ought to be walls, but they doní‚´t add up as walls. The only things holding all this together are two giant recumbent female torsos occupying the studio floor, one supine, one prone. It is around these, particularly the one on its back, that the action and sense of space increasingly revolves. The only touch of vivid colour is Akií‚´s green dress, but this quickly fades. Latterly, the scene is all chiaroscuro in close-up, small moments of light picked out in an enveloping, shapeless darkness. By now, Aki has lost her sight, presumably out of sympathy, and the presentation of blindness has shifted. Earlier Michio showed off his agility and awareness, nimbly chasing Aki round the studio in near-slapstick, now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t routines. By the end, they are both clambering tremulously like Beckett characters whose misfortune is to be condemned to inhabit a big papier-mí­Â¢ché lady; quivering, boggling, reaching with splayed fingers, stumbling.

The film, it seems, is trying to find a way to render non-visual intimacy in an inescapably visual medium. In this respect, it is almost as crazy as the blind beast himself. Why, laments Michio, should art be all about sight and touch? He will create a new genre of art devoted to touch, an art by and for the blind. Tragically for him, the genre in question has already been around for some centuries. What is more, there is nothing in it that positively excludes the sighted, and you are often not even allowed to touch it. It’s sculpture! But it seems almost cruel to point this out, and certainly Aki is too scared to mention it. The theme of blindness is nevertheless important to the film, and it places it oddly in relation to other famous cinematic obsessions with the female body. When cinema has taken a long hard look at itself, it has often concluded there may be something voyeuristic in its very nature. Most obviously, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) upset people because it had the camera perform the rape and violation which it usually only happens to witness. The spectacle of alluringly terrified women driven into darkened corners on its own would hardly raise an eyebrow. Blind Beast, on the other hand, claims not to be about voyeurism at all. Michio’s beef is that, as a blind man, he has been deprived of the only sort of contact that makes sense to him: why should he not be allowed to touch beautiful ladies just as we get to see them?

We, of course, do get to see a lot of Aki, and in a light that becomes more and more curious. After her initial and understandable attempts to escape, at one point aided by the incestuously jealous matron, Aki inevitably falls for her touchingly virginal captor. Her conversion is abrupt to say the least, and the descent into limb-chopping suicidal lunacy is vertiginous. If only they had heard King Missile’s ‘Gary and Melissa’, they would have seen there were many more erotic options open to them between massage and butchery. Even Nagisa Oshima’s famously adventurous couple in Ai no corrida (1976) make their perverse progress at an infinitely more sedate pace. The turning point is Michio’s mother’s death. After this the camera barely leaves the studio; once to focus on Mum’s putrid grave, and once to follow Michio in search of Akií‚´s ultimate sex-toys, a cleaver and mallet. As he returns, she assumes the position, the one, that is, that she took for Michio’s sculpture. And as the cleaver falls, it is the limbs of the sculpture we see fall with a clunk to the studio floor.

But it’s also the posture of the vast landscaped reclining Robert Crumb woman that was already the centrepiece of the studio when Aki first awoke there. For that matter, it bears more than a passing resemblance to the sculpture by a quite different artist round which the pair first met. The whole point of abducting Aki was to produce an unprecedented, genre-forging perfection in the art of touch. To this end, he spends quite a considerable time ascertaining the precise form and consistency of Akií‚´s breasts. He also artfully conceals them in the process. This coyness continues throughout the sex scenes, but interestingly enough is completely forgotten once torture is the order of the day. And what we see here is that Aki’s breasts bear absolutely no relation to those on the sculpture supposed to represent her. What the sculpture does have are the very same mountainous breasts as its artistic ancestors. These breasts, the vast hill-like ones, have a large part in the film. Intimacy gravitates towards their sheltering valley. On a more practical note, they are useful as hand-holds when scaling the heights of giant torsos. But most importantly, they are also a sort of leitmotiv of commodified femininity throughout. They owe their form not to the vagaries of individual artistic perception, but to an invariable, transcendent consumer demand. We are all, it seems, blind beasts, but that never stopped us looking.

Stephen Thomson