Format: DVD

Release date: 3 September 2007

Distributor: Optimum

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Alternative title: Trigger Happy

Cast: Margaret O’Hara, Brian Keith

US 1961

93 mins

Sam Peckinpah was already an experienced director (and screenwriter) before he came to make his first feature The Deadly Companions in 1961. He had worked extensively in television, usually on Western shows such as Gunsmoke and The Westerner. The Deadly Companions was produced by its star Margaret O’Hara, for whom Peckinpah claims he worked as a hired hand. He was allowed very little input in the writing and thus it lacks his typically strong authorial signature.

Despite this, the film is in many ways an unusual Western. Yellowleg, a former Union cavalry officer played by Brian Keith, star of Peckinpah’s television series The Westerner, accompanies Kit (Margaret O’Hara) and the body of her dead son across Apache territory to be buried with his father. It is as much a fight for survival as it is a search for redemption. Yellowleg is at the end of a five-year hunt for the confederate soldier who tried to scalp him. With the man as his unwitting companion he is left to question what to do after he takes his revenge – how he might live without his driving motivation. However, perhaps to give the producer/star Margaret O’Hara more screen time (certainly more than any other woman in a Peckinpah film), the film develops into a romance, moving away from the revenge thriller that the opening seemed to promise.

The town they are leaving, Gila City, certainly matches the Peckinpah ideal of a Western town. The taming of the West is rarely a positive thing in his films. Women and children, those Western symbols of civilisation, are as nasty in their own ways (gossiping and teasing) as the gunfighters. The hypocrisy of the townsfolk is exposed through a dispute over whether it is Monday or Sunday, and through the closing of the bar, as the saloon becomes the chapel (for those who believe it is Sunday). The congregation whisper aloud snide comments about the undesirables, Kit and her fatherless son. These are characters who clearly mirror the abstinence marchers caught in the crossfire at the start of The Wild Bunch (1969).

The Deadly Companions is a decent but unremarkable Western, let down by a confusing ending (re-cut without Peckinpah’s approval), some poor dialogue and some two-dimensional characters, particularly Billy the black-clad gunman. But the biggest problem is that we have learnt to expect something a little bit different from Peckinpah. Not just the flawed heroes and the filthy ‘gutter trash’ (usually played by Strother Martin – the preacher in The Deadly Companions) but a sense of humour and some bizarre occurrences, such as the arrival of motor cars, or the camel vs. horse race in the brilliant Ride the High Country, made just a year later. Unsurprisingly (for 1961), there are none of the voguish stylisations of late-sixties Hollywood, such as slow motion, sunlight glares on the camera lens and split-screen photography, that Peckinpah made his own. And although The Deadly Companions has a theme song beautifully warbled by O’Hara it is nowhere near the great soundtracks of The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and the Bob Dylan score for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973).

The Deadly Companions is as uninspired a beginning to a career as the CB-radio comedy Convoy (1978) was an end. Fortunately, Sam Peckinpah made many great films in between.

Paul Huckerby


Hallam Foe

Format: Cinema

Release date: 31 August 2007

Distributor: Buena Vista International

Director: David Mackenzie

Cast: Jamie Bell, Sophia Myles, Ciaran Hinds, Clare Forlani

UK 2007

95 minutes

Both thriller and comedy, Hallam Foe is an enticing coming-of-age film about love, grief and redemption. Directed by David Mackenzie (Young Adam), and based on the novel by Peter Jinks, it’s dominated by Jamie Bell’s exciting performance as the title character – a screwed-up teenager addicted to voyeurism.

Grieving over the mysterious death of his mother, Hallam is an almost feral creature, hunting his prey on the family estate in Scotland. Rejecting the luxury of his stately home, he lives instead in a tree house, surrounded by his mother’s photos, clothes, even her make-up. Obsessed by sex, he compulsively spies on his family and neighbours, furiously detailing his observations in a diary. His father (Ciaran Hinds) has re-married after his wife’s death; his new bride and former secretary (Clare Forlani) is a gorgeous, enigmatic temptress. Shamed by an erotic encounter with her, Hallam flees his home for anonymity in Edinburgh, where fate leads him to Kate (Sophia Myles), a woman who looks almost identical to his mother. He soon charms her into offering him a job as a kitchen porter at the hotel where she works. Hallam takes to life on Edinburgh’s stunning rooftops, spying on Kate in her home, piecing together the minutiae of her personal life, desperate to be near her.

A humorous current runs through the film, from the opening credits (animated by the much loved off-kilter illustrator David Shrigley) through to the very end. But at its heart, Hallam Foe is something of a thriller. Echoes of Hitchcock permeate the film’s style and narrative. In Edinburgh, Hallam’s pursuit of Kate, and her blonde hair, pulled back tightly, recall Kim Novak in Vertigo; so too do the vertiginous views of the city as Hallam clambers over the slate rooftops to spy on her. There is also something Rear Window-like in his insatiable voyeurism; not physically bound in a wheelchair as Jimmy Stewart is, he’s handicapped instead by his grief. Spying on other people is Hallam’s way of escape, of submerging his pain over the loss of his mother. But it’s also an addiction that spirals out of control; seeing only fragments of the big picture, Hallam, like Stewart, comes to suspect that a murder’s been committed. The suspicion that his stepmother might be involved in his mother’s death becomes an obsession, tormenting him until he has no choice but to act. The film unravels, like Hitchock’s movies, as part mystery, part thriller, and part romance.

The claustrophobic camerawork forces us to see through Hallam’s eyes. On the family estate, sweeping views of the Highlands are almost conspicuous by their absence. Rather Hallam’s world is close up and uncompromising: writhing, naked bodies are seen through an entangled web of trees; the glassy lake where Hallam’s mother drowned dominates the field of vision, forcing Hallam and the audience to confront the mystery of her death. We see Kate as Hallam sees her, framed by windows, seen through binoculars. But instead of making us feel alienated by Hallam’s behaviour, Mackenzie compels us to share in his pain and desire. Though Hallam’s voyeurism is pathological, his violation of privacy frightening and disturbing, Bell imbues his character with a humour and wit that makes him both charming and vulnerable, even innocent. He’s an outsider, just a teenager trying to fit in.

While Bell so thoroughly dominates the core of the film, the characters on the periphery somewhat languish in their supporting roles. The women are especially two-dimensional, and come perilously close to serving as little more than the ‘mother, sister, whore’ triptych all too often found in popular culture. Hallam’s devotion to his own mother borders on the religious, while the villainous stepmother uses sex to manipulate both Hallam and his father to achieve her own ends. Kate is both enigmatic and vulnerable, an object of desire who is characterized by her affair with a married man and her vampish attitude towards sex. Though Hallam’s relationship with her is central to the film, her character is never really flushed out – would he fall in love with her if she didn’t resemble his mother? It’s a shame that the female roles aren’t stronger, and more complex, but it’s a common fault, and one that Mackenzie is also guilty of in Young Adam.

Though the film celebrates Edinburgh, this is one British film that is not trying to earn its success by being a tourist promotion for the UK, unlike the objectionable Notting Hill, or even Woody Allen’s Match Point, which pander to American audiences by creating a false, idealised view of Britain. Instead, Hallam Foe is a touching, funny and intelligent portrayal of a teenager stumbling through his grief in the cold, inhospitable climate of a grey country.

Sarah Cronin


Ecoute le temps

Format: Cinema

Release date: 17 August 2007

Distributor: Dogwoof

Director: Alanté Kavaí­Â¯té

Cast: Emilie Dequenne, Ludmila Mikaí­Â«l, Mathieu Demy, Bruno Flender

France 2005

87 minutes

Ecoute le temps is the promising debut feature from young French director Alanté Kavaí­Â¯té, whose previous work includes the noted 2002 short The Carp as well as the co-directed documentary Childhood of a Leader, about Boris Yeltsin. Set in rural France, the film is a subtle thriller about a sound recordist, Charlotte (Emilie Dequenne), whose mother (Ludmila Mikaí­Â«l) is murdered in her home. Upon visiting the old house, Charlotte soon realises that she knew little about her mother’s life in the tiny village, a place where sinister locals eye Charlotte with suspicion. A police enquiry begins, but Charlotte decides to investigate on her own. Using her sound equipment, she starts recording noises in the house, but events take an uncanny turn when sounds of the past blend with sounds of the present.

The thriller narrative has a supernatural dimension as the recorded voices of the past, which ultimately lead Charlotte to the murderer, take the story beyond reality and beyond the conventions of the genre. This could be perceived as simply a clever gimmick, but Kavaí­Â¯té treats the subject matter with sensitivity; the ghostly voices also help Charlotte relive moments from the past and explore her troubled relationship with her mother. As such, Ecoute le temps is as much about grief as it is a murder mystery. This is also evident in the mise en scí­Â¨ne; the rural landscape shrouded in perpetual autumnal rain creates a mood of melancholy, which is intensified by Charlotte’s isolation in the house, an ominous place full of secrets.

Sound, both a central theme and a narrative trigger, is elemental in the film’s development. Coppola’s 1974 classic The Conversation (or even De Palma’s Blow Out) is an easy comparison to make here, but it is the way Kavaite turns the abstract sound into something tangible that is really striking. The voices of the past have no chronological order in the house but rather depend on the position of the microphone in space. Charlotte marks spots of sound by stretching thread between all four walls of the room. She eventually weaves a web so complex that she can barely move. This intricate maze is visually arresting (if a little confusing), and adds dynamism and physicality to both the narrative and Dequenne’s performance as Charlotte.

Dequenne is a versatile actress who has enjoyed great success in France in a number of films, including Rosetta, which won her the best actress award at the 2001 Cannes festival. Her performance as Charlotte is understated: she is diligent and has an air of cold distance (she has reason to be suspicious of the locals), but her warmth is visible in her relationship to Jérôme (Flender), the simple but sweet childhood friend and neighbour. Perhaps a little unexpectedly it is the old house that is the strongest supporting character. Charlotte is intrigued by the cracks in the walls that creak and moan as though exhausted by years of secrets and deceit. As Charlotte delves deeper and skeletons come out of the closet, the house slowly begins to succumb.

By the film’s conclusion it is clear that the identity of the murderer isn’t the only revelation. The ending suggests that the ineffectual police investigation is symptomatic of a deeper-rooted problem within the small community: a sense of apathy towards crime and a denial of responsibility, and Charlotte’s mother is a victim of their attitude. Like the secrets within the crumbling old house, Charlotte exposes the shortcomings of the community, though perhaps it is too little too late. Kavaí­Â¯té has turned her original screenplay into an atmospheric and often innovative film, and is probably a director to keep an eye out for in the future.

Lindsay Tudor


12:08 East of Bucharest

Format: Cinema

Release date: 17 August 2007

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Corneliu Porumboiu

Original title: A fost sau n-a fost?

Cast: Ion Sapdaru, Teodor Corban, Mircea Andreescu

Romania 2006

89 minutes

At 12:08pm on December 22, 1989, the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, fled the capital city of Bucharest in the face of overwhelming protests against his authoritarian regime. That moment is heralded as the collapse of communism in the Eastern Bloc country, and the beginning of an uncertain transition towards democracy. Corneliu Porumboiu’s Caméra d’Or winner for best debut feature, 12.08 East of Bucharest, is a sparsely elegant, humorous film that reflects on those events sixteen years on.

As the snow falls lightly across the desolate streets in a small town in eastern Romania, three men prepare to commemorate the anniversary of that fateful day. Jderescu (Teo Corban) is something of a local celebrity; a presenter and owner of the small, local television station, he is struggling to find guests willing to come on his talk show to discuss their recollections of the revolution. Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), one of the guests, wakes up hung over, his memory of the night before erased, to a call from Jderescu reminding him about the show. He is a drunk, a history professor who carries around a bottle of booze in his briefcase and is in debt to what seems like the entire town. The other, last-minute guest, Old Man Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu), is a lonely widower, known for playing Santa Claus at Christmas.

Jderescu’s talk show turns into an awkward, painfully comedic disaster. The topic up for discussion is whether or not there was a revolution in this obscure, modest town, or whether people merely took to the streets after 12:08 to celebrate Ceausescu’s flight. (The film’s Romanian title translates as ‘Was There or Wasn’t There?’) Manescu insists that he was present in the town square before 12:08 on that day in 1989 – and that he and a small band of colleagues (now all dead) played a small but essential part in the protests that toppled the communist regime. The irate townspeople who call in to the show contradict his version of events: a drunk now, he was a drunk then, and could never have taken part in such a momentous event. Insulted, Manescu clings to his story, desperate to believe that, once in his life, he performed a heroic act. Piscoci seems unconcerned with the debate, contenting himself with making origami sailboats. Full of regret over the loss of his wife, he has little interest in portraying himself as a hero. Ultimately, the acrimonious debate is inconclusive.

Shot in muted tones of brown and khaki, the film evokes not nostalgia, but the impression that little has changed in the years following the victory of the pro-democratic movement. The town itself is drab and barren; ugly concrete apartment blocks line the treeless streets, the architecture unmistakably communist. Long, uninterrupted takes filmed at a distance from the action with a single camera convey the impression that this film is of another era, composed much like a state-controlled television programme might have been. This realist cinematography roots the characters in the past for most of the film. It is only during the real-time filming of the talk show that the station’s young cameraman, standing in for Porumboiu, becomes involved in both the debate and the film itself. Framing the men in close-up, exposing their awkwardness, penetrating their truthfulness and remorse, he finally injects a touch of modernity into the reminiscences of the past.

12:08 East of Bucharest is undeniably an esoteric film that will appeal to a small, but avid film-going audience. A perfect example of Eastern European art-house cinema, it offers an intelligent reflection on the nature of memory and the collapse of communism in a small Romanian town.

Sarah Cronin



Format: DVD

Release date: 23 July 2007

Distributor: Metrodome + Third Window Films

Director: Johnnie To

Cast: Simon Yam, Lam Suet, Maggie Siu, Ruby Wong

Hong Kong 2003

88 mins

Johnnie To’s stock has been rising steadily in the West ever since his two Election films garnered critical acclaim and brought the Hong Kong action director to the attention of mainstream audiences. His latest, Exiled, a smart, energetic and dazzlingly stylish actioner, was unanimously and deservedly praised, cementing that success. Following a short run at the ICA, one of his earlier efforts, the 2003 PTU (Police Tactical Unit), has now been released on DVD in the UK.

PTU takes place over one night in Hong Kong, during which the eponymous Tactical Unit led by Sergeant Mike Ho, tries to recover the gun lost by their goofy colleague Sergeant Lo during a scuffle with a gang of thugs. They have until dawn to find it and avoid a scandal that would cost Lo his promotion. A race against time ensues as the team trawl through a deserted, glacial Hong Kong, resorting to violent tactics to get the information they need. The situation becomes even more desperate when another team of police officers, working on the related case of the thugs’ murdered leader, start to view the Unit in general, and Lo in particular, with growing suspicion.

Opening with a brilliant set piece of slapstick power games that involve Sergeant Lo, the thugs and an apparently hapless kid fighting over a diner table, PTU offers a satirical view of police cynicism and incompetence. The satire is never too serious, though, and the film is less about flagging up social issues than about the humorous absurdity of fate. The random laws of chance rule and neither Lo’s dubious old-school tactics nor Ho’s scarily ruthless professionalism bring them any closer to the misplaced gun. Interestingly, as this is after all an action movie, action is shown to be futile and pointless here, and the plot is resolved only by a series of chance happenings and freak coincidences.

Famed for his stylish virtuosity, To certainly does not disappoint in PTU. His Hong Kong is all slick urban spaces and metallic surfaces, entirely deserted but for the police and the gangsters, so sanitised as to be slightly unreal. The cold, hard blue light of the streets at night contrasts with the reddish tones of the chilling game arcade scene, in which Ho forces a thug to remove a tattoo on his neck by rubbing it until it’s sore. The director creates an exquisitely over-stylised world that is at least as captivating as the gratuitous convolutions of the plot.

PTU has been criticised for its tonal shifts, but the mixing of registers – in this case satire, light-hearted humour and intense violence – is typical of Asian filmmaking. More problematic is the plot, clever and tightly scripted in the first half, but losing all sense of direction and fizzling out like a damp squib in the second half. As a result, although PTU provides enjoyable, intelligent Hong Kong action fun, it’s one for To fans only.

Virginie Sélavy



Format: DVD

Release date: 6 August 2007

Distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment

Directors: Walter Hill

Cast: Brad Dourif, Robin Weigert, Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Keith Carradine

US 2006

691 mins

Although it looks like season three will be the last, Deadwood has been another triumph for the US premium channel HBO. Like many viewers I had been looking forward to something like the seven seasons and ten years that The Sopranos had. Deadwood has built its own cast of compelling characters and in Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) it has a complex, charming sociopath to rival Tony Soprano. But it is true to history that Deadwood should be short lived; the real town was destroyed by a fire in 1879 (the cost of rebuilding the set perhaps put HBO off funding a fourth series) and, perhaps more damaging to the prospect of further seasons, shortly after the rebuilding the Methodists closed the brothels.

With Deadwood, HBO has certainly cemented its reputation for ‘cinema quality’ programming. The first episode was directed by experienced western filmmaker – a rare breed nowadays – Walter Hill. Included among his many credits are Wild Bill (1995)(partially set in Deadwood of course), Geronimo (1993) and one of the great mud-and-blood westerns, The Long Riders(1983). Not only that, but he brought his cinematographer, Lloyd Ahern II, with him. Although the two men only worked on the first episode, a standard for the look of the show was set that was maintained throughout. Later episodes were directed by two key Sopranos directors Alan Taylor and Tim Van Patten while eighties indie legend Michael Almereyda was even brought in to direct one. The show’s main director is Ed Bianchi, who also worked on the equally acclaimed TV series The Wire. However, as is always the case with television (and almost never with cinema), the man most recognised as the auteur of the piece is its key writer, David Milch.It was Milch who also created two of the most successful cop shows on TV, Hill Street Blues (1981-87) and NYPD Blue (1993-2005), two series that were praised for their realism and in the latter case for its strong cinematic style.

One can almost imagine Milch pitching Deadwood to the HBO execs as ‘The Sopranos out west’ and it is certainly closer to that genre (the HBO adult drama) than to its predecessors in western TV history such as Gunsmoke (1955-75) and Bonanza (1959-73). Only Lonesome Dove (1989) had similarly high production values, with a first-rate cast and a great script but its setting, a cattle drive, makes it a very different show to Deadwood; the style and mood of the two series are worlds apart. If Deadwood has any forebears they are more likely to come from the cinema – particularly the ‘revisionist westerns’ of the sixties and seventies. The look of Deadwood with its sepia tones (and the copious mud) is reminiscent of McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) although it does not go as far as Robert Altman’s film – much criticised for its blurry images. Both works depict the growth of a mining camp into a town with images clearly based on nineteenth-century photography. However, Deadwood gives us complex, intelligent characters (Warren Beatty’s John McCabe is neither) and more plotting and scheming than I, Claudius or Dynasty. It has much in common with the soap-opera – all that is missing is a Joan Collins conniving ex-wife.

Deadwood begins in July of 1876, two weeks after the death of Custer at the Little Big Horn. Much of what takes place is based on historical fact: the gold rush turning to deeper mining; the small pox outbreak; the political machinations as the Black Hills become part of South Dakota State (more complicated than The West Wing). What’s more, a surprising number of characters are based on real former Deadwood inhabitants – not just the well-known Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane but also Seth Bullock, Al Swearengen, E.B.Farnum, Sol Starr and many others too. However, this certainly doesn’t mean that one should expect faithful historical accuracy from the show. As David Milch says, ‘history is just a lie agreed upon’ and nowhere is that more true than in the western. The falsification of the west began almost immediately through dime-store novels and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in the nineteenth century. Many of (the ‘real’) Calamity Jane’s stories of ‘indian hunting’ with Custer have proved to be false. The ‘revisionist western’ is usually caught between wanting to show things as they really were and wanting to be a ‘western’. Thus, in Unforgiven (1992) the myth of the dime-store novels is exploded, only to have it ride through the storm and take revenge in the finale. In Deadwood the western myth is not given the serious debunking it gets in Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) but neither does the series portray the west of Kevin Costner – where historical accuracy seems to equal big moustaches.

Deadwood‘s cast of characters is one familiar from many a western: the corrupt saloon manager who runs the town, the straight-shooting sheriff and the prostitute with a heart. Perhaps the only character that isn’t familiar to westerns is the female drunk. Jane (never called ‘Calamity’ – she just is one) is a million miles from Doris Day and far closer to Dean Martin’s character at the start of Rio Bravo (although she shows no sign of ‘getting it together’ to save the day). But unlike the typical western, Deadwood has a soap-style ensemble cast and is not centred on the hero/sheriff. If anyone is the central character it is the show’s ‘J.R.’ – Al Swearengen – the town boss, saloon keeper and whore-house owner. It is normally against such characters and their hired guns that the western hero must avenge himself as Sterling Hayden does in Terror in a Texas Town (1958). But revenge is rarely a motivation in Deadwood. It is a place of business, of laissez-faire capitalism where more noble motivations are not to be trusted. As the legendary Wild Bill Hickock soon finds out, it is a place where heroes are shot in the back. With this shift of focus away from the hero the western stock characters are given depth, motivations and their own running storylines.

But the most strikingly original aspect of Deadwood is the language. Never before in film or television have the people of the Wild West spoken this way. We have become so used to the cowboy’s ‘aw shucks’ and ‘darn it’ (the occasional use of a ‘hell’ always reprimanded by the house matriarch with a ‘mind your cussing’) that the language of Deadwood seems anachronistic. One assumes David Milch researched this and found ‘cocksucker’ the most common curse of the 1870s. Still, as with David Mamet and his swearing estate agents, one wonders whether this is how they really spoke or whether Milch is using language in the same way that he’s using the sets and the cinematography – to create a unique world.

In his 1972 book on the genre, Michael Parkinson claimed with some justification that ‘the TV western has only ever followed behind its big brother in the cinema’. Well, with Deadwood the television western has finally equalled, if not surpassed, its cinema equivalent. Perfectly adapted to the hour-long soap-opera structure, produced by an impressive team of writers and directors, featuring acting of the highest quality as well as a brilliant soundtrack, Deadwood has truly revolutionised not only the western, but also the TV series in general, and all this despite the casting of Lovejoy as the main character.

Paul Huckerby


Down to the Cellar

Format: DVD

Distributor: The BFI

Release date: 25 June 2007

Czech Republic 1964-1992

7 hours 44 minutes

Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer is probably best known in this country for Alice, his full-length animated version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland; but for a fuller sense of his achievements it’s to his short films that we should look, as this magnificent triple DVD box set from the BFI makes clear. That one of these shorts and one of the three documentaries also included in the box were funded by, respectively, the BBC and Channel 4, should also alert us to the extent of the current degradation of British TV culture. Gone are those heady days when Channel 4 would host a season of short films, and neither channel gives airtime presently to anything more serious than the latest mewlings of the Kaiser Chiefs or Razorlight, BBC4 notwithstanding. Indeed, except for the pop song, the short form across all fields - cinema, theatre, fiction - is a forsaken species. Unsurprisingly, then, the weakest piece in the whole DVD set is a video made by Švankmajer for a song by ex-Strangler Hugh Cornwell, an eminently forgettable piece of clichéd nonsense in which Švankmajer does little more than pay lip service to his own considerable body of work.

And this box set certainly reveals what a body of work it is. The discs cover over a quarter of a century of filmmaking between 1964 and 1992 and there are 26 films in total. In an interview on the third ‘extras’ disc, the Brothers Quay discuss how in 1983, having just been told about Švankmajer and never having seen any of his work, they felt compelled to go to Prague to make a documentary about him! They watched 15 films in a single afternoon - some shown by the Czech authorities and others, the banned ones, by Švankmajer himself at his home - before making their own film. Though something of a marathon effort, this is no bad way to expose oneself to the work as it allows for the tracing at a single sitting of Švankmajer’s particular thematic and technical continuities and developments.

The first disc opens with The Last Trick, in which two magicians attempt to outdo each other in their acts. In the opening credits we see the two actors donning oversized head masks and this combination of human and mannequin establishes a productive tension between live action and animation, which plays out so effectively in much of Švankmajer’s work, often to startling effect. The fact that we see the actors putting on the masks is a Brechtian ‘trick’, or non-trick, as the transformation from human to actor is made manifest rather than remaining hidden or assumed. Thus, throughout the film, we are always aware of the human presence beneath the fiction in spite of the ‘trickery’ that we are presented with, trickery that is as much about the camera as the magician’s magic. The fact that the action is played out in a theatre adds another tension between theatre and film, another recurrent motif in the Czech’s work whereby older and newer technologies are brought into fruitful interplay.

In later films, the human/mannequin tension is made much more explicit and is more disturbing as a result. In Don Juan (1969), actors again wear head masks but this time on top of each mask there’s a contraption with attached strings, which lead in turn to the hands. The actors are in effect auto-motivating puppets. It’s a powerful fusion of human and non-human made more disturbing by the fact that each actor moves with a puppet’s faltering gait. In the last film, Food (1992), Švankmajer again uses actors but employs stop-motion photography to make them look like animated figures, thus blurring the boundary between live action and animation. The effect is distinctly uncanny in the true Freudian sense.

In Les Chimères des Švankmajer, another of the set’s documentaries, the director is asked whether he has ever considered using computer-aided animation, to which he replies firmly that he has not. His preference for stop-motion photography, he reveals, is nothing to do with nostalgia for an older technology (though the early cinema of Meliès is a constant touchstone) but an aesthetic decision to do with the feel of the animated object. In fact, there is in his work an implicit critique of both technological progress and indeed human evolution. In ‘Factual Dialogue,’ the first section of what is probably his best-known short film, Dimensions of Dialogue (1982), two Archimboldo-esque heads, made from food and cutlery respectively, confront each other only to have the former consume the latter. After a process of pulverisation, painstakingly animated, the consumer head vomits out the consumed head and the process begins again - the consumed, pulverised head confronts another head, this time made up of office stationery, which it in turn consumes, pulverises and vomits out… Et cetera (itself the title of another of Švankmajer’s shorts in the box). The process is repeated and the pieces of each successive head become smaller and smaller until they are eventually transformed into undifferentiated human heads. This scenario, which dramatises the confrontation of violently opposing forces, could stand for the entirety of Švankmajer’s output. It’s certainly a part of his surrealism, which is explored in some detail in the interviews on the third disc. These interviews emphasise the difference between the French and (less well-known) Czech versions of surrealism, the latter much darker in its impulses.

However, what also makes the first section of Dimensions of Dialogue so compelling is the way in which the scene consists of two impulses moving in opposite directions. As the heads evolve into more recognisably human forms, in other words towards a state of implied ‘perfection’ where the animated object resembles more closely what it is ‘supposed’ to depict, the animation, the film’s processual meat and drink if you like, becomes less and less interesting - as the pulverisation becomes more complete, the number of ways of showing the confrontation is depleted. One of the ‘appeals’ of Dimensions of Dialogue is precisely to see how Švankmajer makes each head pulverise the contents of the other, and in often improbable ways. It’s one thing when scissors belonging to the first head slice up an apple belonging to the second, but it’s another to see keys destroying a lettuce! It’s like an extended, involved version of ‘Stone, Paper, Scissors’, a game alluded to in The Garden (1968). I’ve often wondered in what world paper could ever be said to ‘defeat’ stone simply by wrapping it up, but in Dimensions of Dialogue Švankmajer shows us as he has an envelope crushing an assortment of metal thimbles and a book destroying a plate!

It’s clear from all this that Švankmajer has an overwhelming interest in the materiality of objects (and in their particularities) and it’s this that is overridden by computer-generated animation. Shrek for example would be like the final head, undifferentiated matter devoid of particular texture. In all his shorts, Švankmajer favours the close-up, which reveals the hidden grain of everyday things and objects. Thus, in Punch and Judy, a puppet strokes a hamster but the camera is as interested in showing us the animal’s fur in almost microscopic detail. Similarly, walls are not simple flat surfaces but are photographed to show all their blemishes. The credits of The Last Trick are scratched like graffiti into a wall’s plaster, becoming a part of its very fabric. Other materials such as wood and stone are given the same treatment. One might go as far as to say that Švankmajer fetishises the materiality of the object, not as commodities to be exchanged, but as Marx himself does in Das Kapital, as things that are valorised for their use as opposed to their debased value in an exchange economy. And like Marx, Švankmajer has something of the occultist in him. In Les Chimères des Švankmajer he says the following:

In my films, people are often replaced by objects which have always seemed more permanent and more exciting through their latent content, their memory. In the films I have always tried to uncover the content, to listen to the objects and decipher their narration. Here’s the special appeal animation holds for me, which is to let objects speak for themselves.

And again:

Hermetic teaching shows that by touching an object in a certain emotional condition one leaves one’s imprints, not fingerprints, but emotional prints and a person who touches that object imbibes them. So I don’t actually animate objects, I coerce their inner life out of them.

Objects have a hidden or dormant life that can be reanimated by the human hand. There is something very East European about this as the interviewees in Les Chimères des Švankmajer again confirm. Think of the alchemical tradition or the tradition of the golem, in both of which the city of Prague plays a central role. In the latter a 16th-century rabbi is reported to have created a golem or clay figure (not unlike those used by Švankmajer) to defend the Prague ghetto. However, it soon grows out of control, killing Gentiles and Jews alike, and he is forced to destroy it. The act of creation in both the alchemical and golem traditions is transgressive and fraught with danger.

The objects that Švankmajer unleashes in his films are similarly double-edged. He often brings the most mundane, everyday objects to life - furniture, clothes, food - which become terrifying in their auto-existence but also fascinating as a result. Witness A Quiet Week in the House (1969). The male protagonist descends on a bare and dilapidated house that may or may not be his own and which resembles a prison (this is reinforced by the fact that each night he scribbles out the date on a calendar as if he is doing time). He effectively incarcerates himself so that he can wake each day only to drill what seem like glory holes in various doors and spy voyeuristically on ‘scenes’ of objects brought to life. The first scene he watches is of a dismembered tongue which breaks through the wall of a kitchen and proceeds to lick a drawer-full of unwashed pots, pans and plates before mincing itself in a hand-cranked mincer. Another has a wind-up toy bird attached to a piece of string, which prevents it from reaching a saucer of corn. Eventually it breaks free and reaches the corn to the apparent delight of a nearby kitchen dresser - its drawers move in and out in a kind of demented applause - only to find itself buried by a mountain of clay spewed out by the very same drawers. These scenes are not merely re-enacting the old cliché of life’s futility to which its ‘protagonists’ are resigned but show how the latter are punished for their actions, which are made to seem transgressive as a result.

There are multiple ways of reading A Quiet Week in the House. Politically, it probably references the ‘Prague Spring’ of the previous year (1968) when Czechs saw a brief window of political optimism snuffed out by the invasion of Soviet troops. Imprisonment, however, is a recurrent theme in Å vankmajer’s work. He is fascinated by enclosed spaces - the coffin in Punch and Judy and The Fall of the House of Usher (1980), the fence in The Garden (made entirely of men and women holding hands), the cellar in Down to the Cellar (1983) and the simple room in Darkness-Light-Darkness (1989) where a ‘human’ head finds itself growing into a body that’s far too big for its allotted space. The drilling in A Quiet Week in the House is a form of escape and after his ‘quiet’ week is up, the man uses the holes as cradles for sticks of dynamite with which to blow up the house. As he is about to press the detonator, however, he stops and runs back into the house because he has forgotten to scribble out his final day on the calendar. Having ‘freed’ himself he is in effect still in thrall to another set of controls.

I would argue, however, that the motif of breaking through solid matter is also a testing of the limitations of the physical world. Švankmajer returns again and again to walls, which he often films opening up of their own accord, their surfaces peeled back or decaying through the animation process. In the Hugh Cornwell video the protagonist, a forlorn male figure in a room, wails about the inaccessibility of his love, eventually drawing an outline of her on the wall, which brings her to life like another golem. Her face, breasts, arms and legs emerge one by one from the plaster and she ends up absorbing him into the wall itself. If it wasn’t compromised by its misogyny - female as monster defined by separate body parts - this might be seen as a defining gesture with the body defying the very laws of physics. The wall is no longer a physical hindrance or barrier and animation becomes a kind of utopian endeavour allowing the filmmaker magical access to the otherwise impenetrable. This kind of absorption would indeed be ‘the last trick’, and the very attempt to pull it off makes Å vankmajer a true heir of the alchemical tradition. For the time being the cinema, or in the case of this wonderful DVD box, the living room, must remain the theatre where we can witness it.

Jeff Hilson


Touchez pas au grisbi

Format: DVD

Release date: 13 August 2007

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Jacques Becker

Title: Casque d’or

Cast: Serge Reggiani, Simone Signoret, Claude Dauphin

France 1952

96 minutes

Title: Touchez pas au grisbi

Cast: Jean Gabin, Jeanne Moreau, Lino Ventura

France 1956

94 minutes

Title: Le trou

Cast: Marc Michel, Jean Keraudi, Philippe Leroi

France 1960

125 minutes

It’s as subtle as a slap in the face (of which quite a few are administered in the course of events). And yet . . . Jacques Becker’s terse, down-to-earth 1952 thriller Casque d’or keeps threatening to be art as well as entertainment. It opens with a timeless bucolic setting on a French river, bringing to mind the river films of Becker’s master Jean Renoir, in particular Une partie de campagne. And the resemblance of the following scenes, at a riverside café, to Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s famous paintings of promenades and social gatherings (in particular Le Bal au Moulin de Galette) is surely not accidental. But the lowlife ethos of Becker’s film is a notch or two down from Renoir pí­Â¨re’s respectable petite-bourgeoisie, let alone from the aristocratic leisureliness of Renoir fils (in La Rí­Â¨gle du jeu even spouses call each other ‘vous’; in Casque d’or even strangers are ‘tu’). Painterly tableaux recur through the film, but neither the camera nor the characters linger. So fast is the exposition it is as if they are rushing to keep to a deadline. But at the crucial turns of the story the camera fixes unblinkingly on the characters’ faces. Simone Signoret is the insolently voluptuous moll Marie, treated as a chattel by the gangsters with whom she consorts – ‘Voici l’objet’, they say when they fetch her in to see the vain and sinister boss Felix (Claude Dauphin). Signoret won an award for this role, but the most gripping performance is by Serge Reggiani as Manda, the tough but sensitive ex-convict who is trying to keep to the straight and narrow path as a small-town carpenter. Will Manda and Marie escape this thuggish world?

In Touchez pas au grisbi, Max wants to quit too. They’re getting too old, as he tells his partner in crime Riton, grabbing his jowls. But they have to dispose of their grisbi first – 50 million francs in gold bars in the boot of Max’s flash car. Touchez pas au grisbi (‘Hands Off the Loot’) opens with a four-square shot of that great block of Gallic masculinity Jean Gabin. As Max he wades through an impressive tide of comely young women, half his age, in and out of some fancy frocks. Their effortless chic must have been an eye-opener for British audiences whose native visions of with-it youth didn’t yet go much beyond the tweedy heartiness of Genevieve. Equally striking must have been Grisbi’s casual sexual frankness, in word and deed. Max complacently takes himself to be on groping terms, at least, with most of the damsels he encounters. Riton, by contrast, is having a hard time with the defection of his girlfriend Josy (Jeanne Moreau) to a younger and meaner crook. Max can’t help him with this – ‘Je ne peux pas policer les fesses’ – he has his mind on more serious things. Gabin dominates the film, leading the camera with him as he smokes and drinks and snogs his way up and down ornate staircases and lift shafts, from cabaret to restaurant to boudoir. Despite killings and violence (again gifles are dispensed liberally, especially by Max), the tone is less sombre than in Casque d’or, more playful. But by the end of the film Max loses more than his grisbi, which becomes too hot to handle.

These two Becker films are now available on DVD, together with Le Trou (1960), a tense, stark, and compelling story starring non-professional actors and a strong candidate for the best ever escape film. Escape films – what a strange subgenre, now missing, presumed dead. The world must have changed in some way, but for a while in the middle of the last century the idea of escape from imprisonment was a potent stimulant of imagination, sympathy, and suspense.

Peter Momtchiloff

PS: I wonder whether the French acting community would consider reviving the custom of single names for actors? It’s always a pleasure to see that some supporting role or other is played by ‘Barge’ or ‘Bouvette’.


Rabbit, Run Wrake

Format: Paperback + DVD

Date of Publication: November 2006

Published by Lux + Arts Council England

Number of pages: 160 pages

Illustrations: 870 full colour images

The Animate! Book: Rethinking Animation was edited by the Lux’s Benjamin Cook and by Gary Thomas, who was Head of Moving Image at Arts Council England at the time of publication. Despite the fact that its really quite awful cover looks like some kind of utilitarian Arts Council funding brochure the book is fine as a graphic object. The interior has plenty of frankly delicious images from many of the animate commissions and one can animate them with one’s eyes…. However, the section where the bonus DVD slips in doesn’t work and is an example of shoddy paper engineering, inconsiderate of the actual use of the object by a reader.

The book either posits radical reinterpretation of what animation is/is not or, thanks to Mike Sperlinger’s fruity interviews, simply engages in fascinating conversation with animation artists themselves. The book is refreshing because it generally resists a centralised argument and summary; neither does it attempt to homogenise diverse artistic practices beyond locating them in the very broad area of animation. The bonus DVD is actually surplus – duff despite the inclusion of a few gripping works. In the main, it doesn’t so much fail as disappoint, some of the artists interviewed in the book offering work that seems remarkably mediocre or pedestrian compared to their thoughts and musings on animation. They really talk it up well and then go pancake with the tweening.

Many of the artists are, naturally enough, primarily concerned with the cinematic, and in this case televisual, display of their work. Ian White’s essay ‘Occupation’ concerns itself with expanded cinema and installation-based work, but on the whole the book pays scant attention to video games, motion graphics, the internet and converged media (for example, mobile phones). It’s important to note that, as stated, the work included on the DVD was manufactured for a major British TV channel (C4) and is therefore likely to be suffering from an impeded artistic brief because you know they’ve just got to put something on between the animated adverts and American Football coverage.

Sadly the medium of TV is also squandered heavily as a topic in the book, which is odd considering the longstanding benevolence of the televisual industries to animators. Odder still, it is also squandered by the artists on this disc (who, it must be said, represent only a small sample of many of the artists commissioned since 1990). TV, that most coquettish of mediums and an environment only slightly more corporate than a Clear Channel billboard is a potentially fertile space for artistic resistance, one would think, but there is little here to conquer the small-fry détournement of animating the TV yourself by pressing little rubber numerals on a remote control handset at stroboscopic speed. Certainly, there is nothing that would make the casual accidental viewer ask anything other than ‘Is this an advert?’. Nothing is particularly confrontational and I so wanted the work to seethe with self-loathing at the futility of its very existence in the dank shadows of Pixar and Dreamworks.

Contrasting with the overall uninspired works, the essays included in Animate: Rethinking Animation are captivating, even when they appear to be quite silly and excitable. In Edwin Carrel’s ‘Animation = A Multiplication of Artforms?’, Carrel talks of the Russian term for animation multiplikatsija. Animation as a concatenated artform, then. This is a red rag to Carrel’s bull and he uses the term as a banner for his oblique polemic on animation. He argues that animation is unique as an artform because of the variety of techniques deployed and sensations it evokes; ‘a multiplication of stimuli: visual, perceptive, cognitive, art, historical, technological, emotional, racial, gender based, psychological, biographical, religious and gastronomic.’ This could also be applied to football, pop videos, a box of eggs on the back of a speeding motorcycle on a motorway in a snow storm, cinema, darts, roller skating, aerial displays by The Red Arrows, Pizza Hut, The Antiques Road Show, anything starring animals, a circus, an orchestra, the back of the bus or a pub. It is meaningless and feels like a slippery Belgian’s witty attempt to shake off the cloying grip of binary criticism and call a spade a spade. Looking for film-historical support Carrel opts for a quote from that master of aphorism Jean-Luc Godard (whilst riffing about Norman McClaren and multivalent artforms), the familiar cinema = truth = 24 frames per minute thing. A quote so over-used it ceases to have any meaning other than the inference one has when one sees it deployed; that the user is still soppy over the bourgeois Marxist cinematic unorthodoxies of the 1960s. I mean, sure, in loose application it kind of works because animation is usually a frame-by-frame process but so what…?

Nonetheless, it doesn’t prevent Carrel’s essay from being a thoroughly entertaining wee read that asks tonnes of questions. For instance, I was left asking myself the following: Are photographers the ultra-minimalists of animation? Reducing activity to one frame. A frame that undulates so rapidly it appears to be static. Maybe curators can be thought of as animators, organising images and physical objects sequentially in space and time; or it could be that architects and urban planners are the real animators, organising our perception of the totality of space and time… Overall, I think perhaps it’s best not to ask the question when the answer is so inconclusive… perhaps the best thing to do is worry not about how what is done is defined but to just do it.

Talking of doing it, Gareth Evans and Dick Arnall use the 17 years of Animate!’s existence as a prism to view changes in technology and therefore practice. In ‘Build It and They Will Come’ they place the animators within the context of Britain’s alternative cinema and briefly look at the pros and cons of the expanded creative autonomy that digital technology enables. They also lightly pick at the dichotomy between mass consumption and compromise that the average TV commission foists upon artists. The hybridization of Hollywood cinema and computer-generated imagery is examined too and they acknowledge that the fusion of cinematic live action with digitally synthesized live action should be the bulls-eye of any contemporary animator’s target. This last point still seems a little cock-a-hoop when one considers that even the most basic, entry-level, motion capture technology retails at $30,000 plus. But at least people in rubber suits are still getting the work 53 years since Ishiro Hondo’s Godzilla, and they don’t have to do anything depraved either.

Tantalizing work not included on the DVD is discussed in Angela Kingston’s piece ‘Curating The Animators’. During 2005 and 2006 Kingston curated a touring exhibition entitled The Animators. It was an attempt to reflect on the cross-pollination of what is commonly known as artists’ films and animation and how this is mediated by digital technology. She talks of how she learns that animation as a term has become so expanded that it now includes ‘all manner of real-time footage that has been messed about with’. Thing is, I’m convinced that most mainstream movies – Dodgeball, The Fantastic Four, Hidden, you name it – consist of real-time footage that has been messed about with. Can we call these movies animation too? Probably, if the term is so elastic then it is only right and proper to stretch it.

In ‘Occupation: Animation & The Visual Arts’, Ian White takes on the subject of animation beyond the screen. He recounts Oskar Fischinger’s experience of xenophobia at Disney and successively examines an animatronic George W. Bush that in a Philip K. Dick-like twist is more convincing than the real George W. Bush; Paul McCarthy’s film/installation piece ‘Caribbean Pirates’, a mutant Disneyland theme park ride, a gross ketchup and chocolate sauce anti-Disney splatter-fest that antagonises the web of simulacra that comprises American home comforts, exports, entertainments and imperialism and perhaps even animation itself. He then moves onto Valie Export’s intriguingly paranoid, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers-style pyscho-sexual sci-fi horror ‘Invisible Adversaries’, which is an autopsy of Austria’s history amongst other things and closes with Catherine Sullivan’s ‘The Chittendens’, a kind of QE2 nightmare spread across multi-screens. All of these artists like to expose the seams in their work and favour the stylings of chaos over those of precision. Whether you concede that these people are animators or not is a test of your snobbery and patience but I take my hat off to Ian White for broadening the scope of this book and for being bold enough to deal with politics. In essence, I think White is saying that animation, especially of the kind exemplified by the aforementioned artists, can be a perfect metaphor for the macabre banalities of contemporary Western existence and those that it is imposed on. I disagree with this, I have been to Oxford Circus.

Philip Winter


Labyrinth of Passion

Format: DVD

Release date: 25 June 2007

Distributor: Tartan Video

Director: Pedro Almodí­Â³var

Original title: Laberinto de pasiones

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Cecilia Roth, Pedro Almodí­Â³var

Spain 1982

94 minutes

It features two incest scenes, a nymphomaniac called Sexilia and a cross-dressing Italian princess undergoing fertility treatment, and yet Pedro Almí­Â³dovar’s Labyrinth of Passion fails to captivate as much as his other early works.

Filmed in Madrid in the early 1980s, the film trembles with the aftershock of the ‘movida madrileí±a’ – the social and cultural explosion that followed the death of General Franco and marked the end of the totalitarian regime. Depicting the hedonism of underground music venues and gay cruising grounds, the daring script shows Almodí­Â³var’s enthusiastic embrace of Spain’s new-found freedom of expression.

A simple love triangle was obviously not enough for the excess-loving director and here we have nothing less than a love pentagon – the titular labyrinth of passion. Tired of orgies, Sexilia wants to fall in love with the exiled son of a fallen Arabic emperor. Unfortunately the newly-fertile Italian princess has the same idea. She is being treated by Sexilia’s father – an eminent fertility doctor – who both Sexilia’s therapist and her best friend are determined to get into bed. Combined with a few more trysts and plots twists – including a plot to kidnap the Emperor’s son – the film takes a winding road down to an inconclusive ending.

Not that the ride isn’t enjoyable. The film is packed with the characters Almodí­Â³var does best – women. Parading through the film is the full gamut of Almodí­Â³varian female personalities: the dowdy, put-upon women, the feisty man-ivores, and the kooky ones with regional accents.

Then, there’s Almodí­Â³var’s outrageous sense of humour, which he has applied to everything from AIDS to child abuse throughout his work. Here he tackles incest with remarkable finesse. In contrast with the rape scene in Kika, which lost Almodí­Â³var a few female fans because of its bombastic humour, the director approaches his delicate topic with the right mix of sympathy and comedy here and consequently gets away with a graphic incestuous rape scene – which involves bondage no less.

On a more minor note the film is also worth watching for Almodí­Â³var’s appearance in full drag as a nightclub compere. The director also plays himself at the beginning of the film in a short but hilarious scene in which he directs a young transvestite junkie to butcher himself with a drill for a photo strip entitled Photo Porno Sexy Fever.

Sadly though, the rest of the film does not follow through in this vein. Although funny and vaguely intriguing, the film lacks the dark humour and memorable scenes of the director’s best films. Both the female leads are encumbered with too many boring worries to fully come to life. The rest of the characters are never developed enough to become truly sympathetic or consistently hilarious. Introduced to the film in a flurry of make-up, affected spanglish and camp coquettishness, Fabio – the star of the Sexy Fever photo shoot – could have been a great character. But as soon as we get to know him he disappears from the film without a trace or an explanation.

It is undoubtedly a treat to have access to another early Almodí­Â³var work in this country, especially one that captures the carefree spirit of eighties Spain and provides such a refreshing contrast to the glut of Hollywood’s cloned blockbusters. However, a dragging plot and the spotlight on the least interesting characters make Pedro’s labyrinth a less than compelling ride.

Lisa Williams