Let's Get Lost

Format: Cinema

Premiere: 5 June 2008

Venue: Curzon Soho, London

The premiere will be attended by director Bruce Weber who will take questions from the audience. The Curzon Soho are also screening a retrospective of Weber’s work on June 14-15, including his acclaimed short The Teddy Boys of the Edwardian Drape Society and his debut feature Broken Noses.

Release date: 6 June 2008

Distributor Metrodome

Director: Bruce Weber

USA 1988

115 minutes

DVD to be released by Metrodome on 28 July 2008.

A prodigiously talented, self-taught jazz trumpeter, Chet Baker began his spectacular, lauded career in the early 1950s and carved out a singular pathway through the history of jazz.

Baker’s melodious, lyrical style was traditional and conservative when compared with the developing experimental Free Jazz scene of the 1950s and 60s, yet despite this he became popular on the bohemian/beatnik jazz circuit, rocketing to fame in his early 20s when the photographer William Claxton produced a series of iconic images of the young James Dean lookalike. Over the years his formidable musical skills made him a legend, but a wild, erratic lifestyle became his downfall, leading to heroin addiction, prison sentences and ultimately his untimely demise, aged 58 – shortly after this film was completed – when he fell out of a high window to his death. Retroactively this gives Let’s Get Lost an ominous, portentous quality.

Bruce Weber’s 1988 documentary portrait has, at its heart, an irreducible mystery: Baker himself, who is an elusive, obscure presence, hardly allowing the filmmaker or the audience into his opaque inner life and thoughts; the fundamental passions, drives and motivations behind his cool, seemingly unruffled exterior. After a meandering, restless tour through the US and Europe, we are left little the wiser as to who the ‘real’ Chet Baker actually is and why he later became drug-dependent, abandoned his family and had such volatile, fractious love affairs. Most of Baker’s persona is elliptically constructed through observations and revelations from family, ex-wives, girlfriends and acolytes, who are probably a more reliable source in their subjective portrayals of him than his own somewhat cagey, stilted exposition, gradually and patiently coaxed out by the director.

Weber’s style alludes to a range of cinematic tropes: from the abstract camera angles and stark black and white chiaroscuro of film noir to the grainy, rough-edged flexibility of cinéma vérité and the French New Wave, redolent of Godard, the Maysles brothers, Cassavetes and Haskell Wexler. The director composes, photographs and edits his film in much the same way his subject performs – there is an unrehearsed, immediate, open-ended feel to the scenes where Baker riffs on how he conned his way out of the army or got his teeth smashed out in a fight. Weber reinforces this fairly unstructured, yet quietly designed and captivating ambience through the subtle use of techniques like audio overlay, as when an interviewee’s voice encroaches onto – but somehow smoothly combines with – footage of Baker softly crooning or eliciting a plaintive, mellifluous melody from his trumpet. This irresolute audio-visual quality perfectly appropriates and is synonymous with the free-flowing, spontaneous nature of jazz, although the inexplicable paucity of film clips of Baker’s wonderful trumpet playing – his raison d’í­Âªtre – is a glaring weakness.

Nevertheless, this slow-burning, nostalgic elegy to an artist’s free-spirited youth and his one eternal love, music, is a timeless capsule of a fleeting, intense and unbridled life, made all the more poignant by the tragic death of its star.

James DC

The summer print issue of Electric Sheep is a jazz and cinema special to coincide with the re-release of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, a heart-rending, soulful monochrome gem. To celebrate the belated recognition of one of American independent cinema’s greats, we look at the influence of jazz on film in the US with articles on Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes, Jim Jarmusch and Beat cinema among others. For more information on where to buy the magazine and how to subscribe, please contact amanda [at] wallflowerpress.co.uk.


Space is the Place

Format: DVD (Region 1)

Release date: 28 October 2003

Distributor: Plexifilm/Caroline

Director: John Coney

Writer: Joshua Smith

Cast: Sun Ra and his Arkestra

USA 1974

82 mins

Sun Ra is not only one of the key musicians of the 20th century, with echoes of his work heard in Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Coltrane, Sly & The Family Stone, Funkadelic, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and in almost any kind of music that involves some form of paroxysmal sonic experimentation, but is also an Afrodelic thinker who elaborated the radical concept of space as an otherness opposed to time. Sun Ra is an ever-expanding galaxy (his discography is still growing 15 years after his death), his soulful spaceship creating otherworldly musical visions, still (tele)communicating through music (the label ‘free jazz’ in this case couldn’t be more fitting) as he had intended, while inter-planetary mavericks of all times come on board.

Ra first came to Oakland in 1971, where besides playing he was also lecturing in the Department of Afro-American Studies at Berkeley, after being invited by Bobby Seale to stay with his Arkestra in a house provided by the Black Panther Party. That same year Ra was approached by Jim Newman, a producer at San Francisco’s public television station KQED, who suggested shooting a short fictionalised documentary about his music with the aid of director John Coney. Ra immediately saw the opportunity to share his experience visually with a film audience. Space is the Place was the result, and it is one of those wonderfully strange filmic adventures that now seem impossible.

John Coney’s film is as ineffable and mysterious as Sun Ra’s music. Deliberately conceived as an homage to the cheesy aesthetic of 50s and 60s science fiction (films like Kurt Neumann’s Rocketship X-M), its visuals collide with Ra’s cosmogony in an explosively transcendental filmic experience. The idea behind the film was to create a cinematic vehicle for Ra’s mythology, linking the extra-terrestrial theme with the erudite Egyptian alchemy that played such an important role in the musician’s philosophy. Following mythical archetypes, Ra is challenged in the film by The Overseer (played by Ray Johnson, who appeared in Dirty Harry), a sort of superplaya halfway between Black Caesar and Iceberg Slim before his redemption, the epitome of everything keeping black Americans chained to the System’s gravity force, orbiting in the only positions open to them (pimps, drug dealers, etc.).

Landing in 1943 Chicago in his music-fuelled spaceship, Ra cacophonically disrupts The Overseer’s world, using his concept of alter-destiny to question the pimp’s vision of the black people’s future. The film’s set mutates into a dream-like desert where the fate of the black race is played out in a cartomancy duel between Ra and The Overseer. The duel is simultaneously performed on planet Earth where Ra’s Garveyite message faces The Overseer’s promise of easy money and commodified sex, at the expense of social progress for the black population.

Unlike the coeval Blaxploitation school (with the exception of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, The Spook Who Sat by the Door and a few others), Coney’s film shows the pimp for what he is, a degenerate power figure mirroring the decadence of the society he thinks he’s defying. Although aesthetically cognate to Blaxploitation films, Space is the Place explores racial issues by subverting established categories such as the black avenger and the good-hearted pimp and/or drug dealer, articulating a black cinematic popular discourse initiated by Van Peebles with Sweetback but never taken any further. After Martin Luther King’s failed efforts for peaceful integration and Malcom X’s more belligerent stances, taken up by the Black Panthers and drowned in blood by the FBI/CIA, Sun Ra takes the struggle for liberation to outer space; but just like on planet Earth, his work is undermined by two agents, allegedly working for NASA, but probably undercover FBI agents.

The film delivers a polyrhythmic optic experience that may now be reduced to mere aestheticism but back then was the sign of a subterranean social and cultural current willing to transform potentiality into opportunity in spite of the marginal position of black people in Nixon’s America. Filmed in 1972 in the same film studio as Behind the Green Door, with which it shares an actor (Johnny Keyes), but only released in 1974, this mytho-poetic celluloid manifesto demands to be seen and heard for its depiction of a conceptualized outer space where black people would finally be able to tune in with the universe.

Celluloid Liberation Front

The summer print issue of Electric Sheep is a jazz and cinema special to coincide with the re-release of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, a heart-rending, soulful monochrome gem. To celebrate the belated recognition of one of American independent cinema’s greats, we look at the influence of jazz on film in the US with articles on Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes, Jim Jarmusch and Beat cinema among others. For more information on stockists and subscriptions, please contact amanda [at] wallflowerpress.co.uk.


California Dreamin'

Format: Cinema

Release date: 30 May 2008

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Cristian Nemescu

Writers: Cristian Nemescu, Tudor Voican

Cast: Armand Assante, Maria Dinulescu, Razvan Vasilescu, Jamie Elman

Romania 2006

155 mins

It’s unfortunate that Cristian Nemescu’s debut feature will most likely be viewed mainly as a promising work-in-progress. The tragic death of the 27-year-old writer/director in 2006 left the film unfinished, and the final cut was compiled according to what was known of his intentions. In spite of this, what emerges is a compelling story that triumphs on several levels.

California Dreamin’ begins with a gritty black and white prologue detailing the brutal bomb attacks on Romania during the Second World War and outlining the paradoxes of the situation: frantic locals cry out for American support while an unexploded shell bearing a ‘Made in USA’ logo crashes through an inhabited building.

Flash forward 55 years and the country finds itself in the middle of another military crisis, this time the conflict in Kosovo. A NATO-commissioned radar is being transported by train into Romania to aid the accuracy of air raids on Serbia. Due to the covert and urgent nature of the cargo, there was no time to obtain the necessary customs documents. Under guard from the US army, headed by Captain Doug Jones (an inspired Armand Assante), the train runs into trouble when it is stopped in the small village of Capalnita by bitter stationmaster Doiarum, who demands to see all relevant documentation before it can proceed. During the unplanned stopover, the young army officers mix with the small traditional community.

At the heart of the collision of cultures is Doiarum’s daughter Monica, a striking 17-year-old who commands the attention of every boy in town, yet secretly wants to escape the constricted future that awaits her in Capalnita. The influx of American soldiers not only stimulates her hormones but also her desire to leave, much to the dismay of her father who has positioned himself as a figure of authority within the community. Captain Jones sees this control as tyrannical, and soon looks to convince the locals to overthrow him, bringing the future of the village into question.

One of Nemescu’s greatest achievements is the way in which the vast historical context is weaved seamlessly with engagingly human strands of narrative, without ever feeling contrived. There’s no formulaic love story subplot; rather, the relationship between Monica and her American lover develops organically amidst the push and pull of external events. While the film is infused with allegorical meaning it never feels like Nemescu is consciously trying to get a point across. Instead, the social significance of the Americans’ arrival is perfectly demonstrated through events such as the party scene, where the excited locals invite the soldiers to a celebration complete with a Romanian Elvis tribute act.

While it is uncertain that this is the cut of the film Nemescu would have chosen, its win of the ‘Un Certain Regard’ prize at Cannes last year demonstrates the significance and accomplishment of the director’s efforts, a posthumous success tinged with sadness as one can only imagine what this young talent could have gone on to achieve.

James Merchant


Eyes Without a Face

Format: DVD

Release date: 12 May 2008

Distributor: Second Sight

Director: Georges Franju

Original title: Les Yeux sans visage

Based on: the novel by Jean Redon

Screenplay: Georges Franju, Jean Redon, Claude Sautet, Boileau and Narcejac

Cast: Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli, Edith Scob

France 1959

87 minutes

‘Il faut se contenter de cette chiennerie’. As even Dr Génessier has to reluctantly admit, grafting bits of stray dogs onto each other is a lot easier than replacing your daughter’s face ruined in a car crash. If monstrous self-confidence made him a dangerous driver, it at least made him a brilliant surgeon, no? We first see Génessier delighting a respectable bourgeois crowd with solemn talk of the technical difficulties involved in skin grafts. For an audience caught up in the narrative of science’s heroic efforts to benefit humanity, the language of ‘irradiation’ and ‘exsanguination’ is as sterile, and bloodless, as the procedures it refers to. But the opening scene has already shown us how the messy stuff is disposed of: while the doctor is lecturing, Alida Valli’s Louise drives to a remote stretch of the Seine to dump the faceless body of an abducted girl. Louise is more than happy to do the doctor’s dirty work, for he has given her back her face; and harvesting suitable transplant subjects for Génessier’s poor daughter Christiane from Paris cinema queues is a small price to pay.

Franju’s film is not, however, about undermining the dry scientific façade with gore and violence. Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans visage) presents a clinical Gothic: the horror is in the surface itself, in the calm and sterility of procedure. The encounter of scalpel and skin releases a little blood, but not an excess; only enough to sketch with icy precision a commedia dell’arte mask. Parting this from the poor girl’s face produces a rare moment of texture. Mostly, the surface of the film is as horribly smooth as Christiane’s porcelain mask. Flat middle tones dominate, producing a world seemingly without depth. One is sometimes surprised to see a character walk into a space one could have sworn was a backdrop, and location shots have rarely looked so airless. The only play on the surface of undifferentiated grey matter comes in peripheral disturbance; shadows from multiple light sources, and areas of glowing hangover white. Everything behaves like marble.

And the pace is funereal: the doctor paces around, expressionless, with painfully slow deliberation, a slave to his own self-esteem. Christiane, gliding about in white mask and even weirder white satin housecoat, with the jerking movements of a melancholic android, is of a piece with the backdrop, emerging out of it like a materialised genius of place. Until the very end, she has not a word to say against the destruction of other girls just like her. If only she can have a face again. And when she does briefly have one, actress Edith Scob manages to make it look like another mask. ‘Smile!’ commands the doctor, and the stolen face smiles; ‘Not too much!’ he adds, and it is impossible not to fear the flap of skin we so recently saw flopping into a kidney dish is about to come unstuck. Which of course it does, in the end.

Stephen Thomson


The Sun's Burial

Format: DVD

Release date: 26 May 2008

Distributor: Yume Pictures

Director:Nagisa Oshima

WritersToshirô Ishido, Nagisa Oshima

Cast: Kayoko Honoo, Isao Sasaki, Masahiko Tsugawa

Japan 1960

87 minutes

Following the recent release of Naked Youth, The Sun’s Burial is the second of five Nagisa Oshima films to be released on DVD as part of Yume Pictures’ Oshima Collection. The cult Japanese director earned his reputation making gritty, brutal films, and while The Sun’s Burial, originally released in 1960, is uncompromisingly bleak, it’s also a fantastically evocative snapshot of a post-war Japan traumatised by humiliation and defeat.

In a sweltering Osaka, hard-as-nails Hanako (Kayoko Honoo) runs an illegal blood bank by day, and moonlights as a prostitute by night, giving her a twisted chance to escape the squalor of her run-down home. In what is little more than a shanty town, she lives side by side with vagrants and drunks, an unruly band held together by her somewhat sleazy father Yotsematsu. Takeshi (Isao Sasaki) is a wannabe gangster, but without the heart for the brutality unleashed by his boss, the charismatic Shin (played by Masahiko Tsugawa, Shin exudes a certain glamour in his black shirts and white-rimmed hats, a Japanese Jean-Paul Belmondo in A bout de souffle). Takeshi is the only character with any kind of conscience, but he’s unable to escape from Shin’s grasp; once he also falls victim to Hanako’s manipulations, there’s little hope for him. This motley cast of petty criminals, thugs, rapists, pimps and prostitutes are all caught up in an ugly, vicious turf war, fighting over the scraps of the decimated city.

But the fast-paced and at times impossible-to-follow plot (the film really demands a second viewing) often seems irrelevant; Oshima seems more concerned with style and message than the actual narrative. While Naked Youth is a film about teenage rebellion, here there is no authority for the characters to rebel against. The Sun’s Burial, with its scenes of a setting sun disappearing into the darkness of a ruined Osaka, is full of unrelenting despair at what Japan has lost, at the indignity the country and its people have suffered. A slightly ludicrous character, ‘The Agitator’, who muscles in on Hanako’s territory in the name of patriotism, rages against the Russians and Americans, desperate for another war so Japan can restore her imperial dignity. In another scene, the camera lingers on a banner, printed with the words, ‘let’s give love and a future to our youth’. As their criminality spirals out of control, Oshima’s warring teenagers have little chance of seeing a future at all.

Thankfully, the film’s non-stop misery is relieved by its fresh, almost playful soundtrack and riveting cinematography. The Spanish guitar often lends the film a spaghetti Western feel, with the rival gangs facing off against each other like urban cowboys. Much of the action takes place off-screen, the camera instead focusing on claustrophobic close-ups of tormented and tormenting faces, covered in a thin sheen of sweat as they stare each other down. The incongruous mix of lounge pop and violence, notably when Takeshi and Shin have their final, disastrous confrontation, adds to the film’s nouvelle vague appeal.

The Sun’s Burial is an exciting example of modern cinema that also provides a documentary-like glimpse into a now forgotten past. Little more than two decades later, Japan would once again become a global power and pop culture phenomenon, with Osaka at its heart.

Sarah Cronin

See also Night and Fog in Japan by the same director. We will be screening Naked Youth at the next Hectic Peelers on Monday 16 June, Roxy Bar and Screen, 7:30pm.


Night and Fog in Japan

Format: DVD

Release date: 23 June 2008

Distributor: Yume Pictures

Director: Nagisa Oshima

Writers: Nagisa Oshima, Toshirô Ishido

Cast: Miyuki Kuwano, Fumio Watanabe, Hiroshi Akutagawa, Shinko Ujiie

Japan 1960

107 mins

Concerned with what will probably be a little known piece of Japanese history to today’s viewer, Night and Fog in Japan is an interesting fictional analysis of the actions of the left-wing Japanese student protesters in response to the 1st AMPO treaty with the United States by former student activist Nagisa Oshima. While it might be considered less important or engaging than Oshima’s later work, Night and Fog in Japan is a fascinating reflection on the dynamics of political movements in 1950s Japan.

Opening in 1960 at a wedding party, Night and Fog in Japan begins as a fairly standard, albeit stylised, dramatical piece. As the wedding speeches take place it becomes clear that all of the guests know each other from their past as politicised students. The narrative begins to assume a fragmented form as the guests’ reminiscences are played out as flashbacks. Slowly, Oshima outlines the group’s ideology in general terms, and as the different members of the wedding party put forward their points of view during what becomes an increasingly heated discussion, so the drama unwinds as a series of tensions within the group itself.

Night and Fog in Japan is an incredibly theatrical piece of work. Oshima is clearly not interested in creating an atmosphere of realism, and the technical attention to detail on-screen appears to be aimed solely at enlivening what is otherwise a very dry and ‘talky’ two hours. Although initially visually captivating (an early scene is one long ten-minute take; pauses in dialogue and movement allow for some interesting ‘snapshot’ compositions), the theatricality soon threatens to undermine the dramatic impact and the cast too often seem to be concentrating on hitting their marks rather than delivering impassioned performances. The fluidity of some of the camera movement (occasionally let down by some shaky camera panning – it seems that the style may have been ahead of the techniques) fails to excite after a while and then only highlights the general sombreness of the proceedings.

For the first hour of its duration Night and Fog in Japan is a fascinating prospect. Even with its political allegiances totally at the fore – to the detriment of any real personal drama – the film offers a careful analysis of how political ideals affect a group by using flashbacks alongside the wedding party scenes. Sadly, the second hour of the film moves at such a slow pace – and with a cast of characters that are firstly so large in number and secondly so pessimistic in attitude – that it becomes no more than a backdrop for a lengthy lecture, denouncing in a rather simplistic manner the students’ ‘we’ve just let ourselves down’ attitude.

While it’s not an easy watch, Night and Fog in Japan is an interesting piece of work when viewed alongside other Oshima fare of the period such as The Sun’s Burial which, while still gloomy, manages to bury its political intentions deeper – and much more successfully – into the drama. Sure, part of the problem with Night and Fog in Japan is that it’s difficult to appreciate just how daring the film was on its original release (it was pulled by the studio after just three days in response to a political assassination) so viewed today the film is an intriguing – albeit limited – watch which sadly lacks the punch it had in its day.

Martin Cleary

See also The Sun’s Burial and Naked Youth by the same director. We will be screening Naked Youth at the next Hectic Peelers on Monday 16 June, Roxy Bar and Screen, 7:30pm.


Coup de torchon

Format: DVD

Release date: 24 March 2008

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Bertrand Tavernier

Based on: Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280

Cast: Philippe Noiret, Isabelle Huppert, Stéphane Audran

France 1981

123 mins

One of veteran French director Bertrand Tavernier’s most memorable thrillers, Coup de torchon was adapted from hard-boiled American writer Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280. Despite, or perhaps because of, a change of setting from the American South to colonial French West Africa in 1938, the bleak pessimistic tone of the novel comes through more so here than in any other Thompson adaptations – the most famous being The Getaway (1972 and 1994) and The Grifters (1990). Thompson’s post-war existentialism fits the pre-war colonial world perfectly. Of course, by the 1980s the image of colonials was no longer that of god-fearing missionaries bringing light into the Dark Continent and we are presented with a bunch of self-serving, lazy, dirty and abusive racists. The Senegalese town of Bourkassa is a perfect stand-in for small-town America as a symbol of a world in decay. It could almost be the Wild West: life is cheap and the law corrupt; victims of dysentery float down river, local gangsters shooting at the corpses for fun.

Police chief Lucien Cordier – played by Tavernier regular Philippe Noiret, brilliantly underperforming here – is a man of inaction. Although he lacks the others inhabitants’ malevolence, he has few positive traits of his own. The first part of the film establishes the extent of his inertia. His slovenly appearance is barely altered by a trip to the barber’s. He is bullied by two local pimps and humiliated by his superior; he is the butt of their jokes, literally. He lives with his nagging wife (Stéphane Audran) and what is either her lover or her brother, although Cordier can’t be bothered to find out and simply resorts to putting salt in his rival’s coffee. Even when he does act, he does it surreptitiously.

However, he begins to realise that not intervening makes him guilty by association and he has a sudden change of heart. In a great ‘to be or not to be’ scene, he explains to the town’s priest how it is that he is expected to do nothing: that is why he was chosen for the job. The scene is underscored by a wonderful pseudo-religious visual metaphor: after termites have destroyed yet another cross, Cordier holds the Christ still while the priest hammers in the nails. Thus he begins the ingenious ‘clean-up’ of the title, although quite what he gains from this transformation is less than certain.

Thematically, we could be watching a film noir, but with the pace of the tropics, the high-contrast black and white photography replaced by an almost constant sun-bleached washed-out beige; and instead of tension or suspense there is black comedy. The film’s deliberately unsubtle metaphors are also played for humour. The stinking latrines right underneath Cordier’s window that he at first tried to ignore become a target of his clean-up campaign alongside the town’s bullies and criminals.

In the interview included on the DVD, Tavernier claims the idea to set the film in Africa came from reading Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night. With the combination of Céline and Jim Thompson as the literary influences it’s not surprising that Coup de torchon is such a dark existential misanthropic film; but it’s also somehow funny, sad and just a little bit disturbing.

Paul Huckerby


Mother Joan of Angels

Still courtesy of the Polish Cultural Institute

Format: DVD

Release date: 8 August 2005

Distributor: Second Run

Director: Jerzy Kawalerowicz

Screenplay: Tadeusz Konwicki and Jerzy Kawalerowicz

Story: Jaroslawa Jwaszkiewicza

Original title: Matka Joanna od aniolí­Â³w

Cast: Lucyna Winnicka, Mieczyslaw Vojt, Anna Ciepielewska

Poland 1961
102 mins

In April, the Polish film festival Kinoteka paid tribute to the recently deceased Polish master Jerzy Kawalerowicz, screening three of his films, including the acclaimed Mother Joan of Angels, a feverish exploration of sexual repression and religious fanaticism.

‘Is it my fault that I’m possessed by eight powerful demons?’ Father Jozef is only the latest in a regiment of exorcists dragged to a convent in a blasted wasteland to sort out Mother Joan. Initially impressed in a purely professional capacity by her range of devil moves, he is gradually drawn into her drama, until he loses himself in it. When desire can only find expression in the baroque theatre of possession and devotional self-harm, director Jerzy Kawalerowicz seems to be saying, the consequences are dire. But Mother Joan is not all Tarkovskian gloom: love in the convent precincts may be ultimately doomed, but the film has a fond eye for cheeky grins peeping out of wimples.

In fact, Kawalerowicz maintains near-perfect poise between taking religious torment seriously and celebrating earthly delights. The narrative traces a path back and forth between the inn with its unrestrained if boorish cavorting, and the convent where the battle between purity and lust contorts its denizens into hieroglyphs; now human crucifixes, now packets of convulsed limbs.

The only un-possessed nun, Sister Malgorzata, freely trots across the ash-heap to the inn, to gossip complaisantly with lusty gypsyish strumpets, sing a little song, and win the attentions of the shiny-toothed-and-booted squire. Back in the convent, she skirts the drama, tiptoeing round prostrated bodies, quietly but demurely deflating ceremony. Although closer to the world, Malgorzata is ingenuous rather than devious, and her earthly rapture is sweet but short. Perhaps she ought to have listened to the words of her song, recommending the veil over a faithless husband, rather than the jaunty tune.

On his first trip to the convent, Father Jozef encounters two little children frolicking in the wasteland; the love children of his predecessor Father Garniec, his local guide tells him. A burnt-out stake, all that remains of Father Garniec, is a clear warning of the pitfalls awaiting the prospective exorcist, but the sight of the children – ‘aniolí­Â³w’ (‘angels’), the local calls them – skipping without a care around the scene of their illicit author’s demise, sends another sort of message he is painfully unable to receive.

Lucyna Winnicka as Joan most brilliantly condenses these conflicts into one radiant face, able to slide seamlessly between sincere religious devotion and more earthly desire. Her rapt adoration for Father Jozef’s benediction pivots on the word ‘love’ into habit-rending lust. Between these extremes, it is as if there really is no difference, only a change in the light. In manifesting passion like an electric charge through a body, Winnicka’s performance is exemplary, the equal, mutatis mutandis, of Kathleen Byron’s in Black Narcissus. With practically no commentary or explication, Mother Joan is a brilliant visual exposition of the idea of possession as the only available mise en scí­Â¨ne for emotions that inexorably inhabit and overpower a ceremonial sincerely meant to transcend them.

In one memorable scene, in an airy pigeon loft veiled by rows of drying nun-laundry, naked to the wimple, Mother Joan finishes a lengthy stint of flagellation. She turns with the admiration of a fellow pro towards Father Jozef’s simultaneous mortification. Glowing and relaxed after their exertions, they get dressed and walk out, glancing shyly at each other. At least they’ve had their little moment together.

Stephen Thomson


Paranoia Agent

Format: DVD

Distributor: MVM Entertainment

Release date: 7 April 2008

Director: Satoshi Kon

Original title Môsô Dairinin

Japan 2004

325 minutes

The ground-breaking animé series Paranoia Agent first aired on Japanese TV in the spring of 2004 and has recently been re-released in a beautifully packaged thin box-set. Written and directed by Satoshi Kon, the man behind Perfect Blue and Tokyo Godfathers, Paranoia Agent focuses on a seemingly random set of attacks by a mysterious skater armed with a golden baseball bat. Inspired by a real-life case, Kon uses this story to explore themes of fear, alienation and paranoia in modern society. As Paranoia Agent succeeds particularly well in its multi-layered storyline provided by a variety of (unreliable) narrators, instead of a traditional review what follows is a dialogue about the series between Virginie Sélavy and Alex Fitch.

Virginie Sélavy: I read that Satoshi Kon did Paranoia Agent as a way of experimenting with ideas he couldn’t fit anywhere else and it does go in all sorts of directions and some of the strands don’t seem to lead anywhere.

Alex Fitch: That’s the thing; there are so many non sequiturs and red herrings throughout… They pretty much explain it all in the first episode and then there are twelve episodes of obfuscation to make you think it’s about something else entirely.

VS: Which is why the end is a bit of a let-down, because in those kinds of set-ups, it’s what people are led to imagine that’s interesting and the final explanation always feels a bit flat and disappointing.

AF: And the format changes in each episode; it might be concentrating on one character, it might be part one of a three-part story, it might in fact be four different stories, like with the four women in the apartment block in ‘Etc’. They’re like a Greek chorus. I wanted more of them throughout.

VS: At that point it gets very interesting because the episodes are so formalistic. In ‘Etc.’ the stories they make up about Shonen Bat are all ridiculous, but the other three women keep telling the new young wife that her stories are just ludicrous and that she should know better as she’s married to the scriptwriter.

AF: I don’t know if it’s intentional – it’s like when we both interviewed Park Chan-wook, both of us asked if he played computer games and he said he never did – it’s weird how filmmakers seem to be tapping into the zeitgeist without even knowing it (although that’s one of the themes of the series). Because ‘Etc.’ is very much like an issue of this 1940s comic book The Spirit, which is about to be turned into a movie by Frank Miller. It revolves around this film noir world where the text of the comic book literally imprints itself onto the world. In this episode of Paranoia Agent the tower blocks form the word ‘Etc.’ when you see them from above.

VS: I think that’s what Satoshi Kon is really good at, exploring how the boundaries between fiction and reality are blurred. ‘The Holy Warrior’ is another fantastic episode on that theme, when the detectives are taken into the game world that the copycat attacker inhabits, and characters from the real world are transposed into the game world, with different roles and values.

AF: It reminds me of another comic called The Invisibles, which came out about 10 or 15 years ago and the Wachowskis apparently ripped off for The Matrix. It’s about hacking reality, about how you can literally empower yourself by getting other people to believe in you, but it’s set in the real world, not in a video game. In Paranoia Agent, it feels like the memes of modern-day culture have started to affect people on some kind of physical level rather than just an intellectual one.

…And when characters descend into their own fantasy worlds, the art style changes completely like in the second episode (‘The golden shoes’), about a kid who wants to win at school; it’s a very child-like, brightly coloured world. And in the final episode, when Tsukiko accompanies Detective Ikari into his fantasy world, it’s like a watercolour painting. All the characters are literally two-dimensional – when they turn around they’ve just got an edge rather than a side… That ‘super-flat’ art style has become popular in animation – I suppose in the West there’s South Park – and in Mamoru Oshii’s last film…

VS: Yes, The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters – that was the first Japanese animé I saw that used that style, and to start off, it’s off-putting.

AF: You get the feeling that one of the things that Oshii is getting at, is that when you use old footage / newsreel footage of people to construct an argument, you can’t go anywhere beyond the footage you have. You can’t look behind these characters to see their three-dimensionality – you can only see a flat surface – and I think that’s one of the nice attributes of this style: what you see is what you get. You can’t turn the characters around because there’s nothing there to see. Which I think is an ideal way of rendering a character like Ikari and his fantasies, because the people in his dream aren’t real, they’re just flat caricatures of life.

VS: Also, what’s interesting is that it’s possibly a reaction to all the CGI stuff, which tries to make things look as real, as three-dimensional, as possible… And what do Oshii and Kon do? They go back to 2D, almost like primitive animation from years ago…

AF: …but it’s also something that represents the avant-garde somehow…

VS: Absolutely. And it changes the way you watch the film, it introduces a distance and there’s no longer any suspension of disbelief. You’re in this almost abstract world of ideas; it’s a lot less about recreating an impression of reality and a lot more about ideas.

AF: It didn’t really grab me. It wasn’t the style… I just don’t think Oshii gave it his all. I think that like Paranoia Agent, it was a case of a director throwing all his unused ideas together, but unlike Paranoia Agent, it didn’t really work for me.

Alex Fitch and Virginie Sélavy

Win a copy of the Paranoia Agent DVD box-set (courtesy of MVM) at our next Sunday Shock Therapy on Sunday 8 June, 2-6pm at the Vibe Live.