This slow-paced, atmospheric Swiss sci-fi movie is set in a grim future where Earth has become inhabitable. With hopes of joining her sister on the paradise planet Rhea, a doctor working on a spaceship gradually discovers the sinister truth behind the official version of reality. Released in 2009 and directed by Ivan Engler and Ralph Etter, it is available in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray from Elevation Sales.
We are pleased to announce that the winner of our July film writing competition, run in connection with the Electric Sheep monthly film club at the Prince Charles Cinema is Adam Lowes. Our judge was blaxploitation specialist and Electric Sheep contributor Joel Karamath, who said: ‘The recognition of cinema’s existence before Tarantino is always reassuring and that the reprocessing of styles and themes, so central to his oeuvre, have always been an integral part of the reasonably short, inter-textual, history of what is arguably the first post-mordern art form. Great to see someone remembering The Rockford Files, could that be the next QT homage?’
Here’s Adam Lowes’s review:
Regardless of how you feel about Tarantino the filmmaker, his obsessive perseverance in bringing trash cinema to the masses (further enhanced by casting Blaxploitation queen and star of this film, Pam Grier, in Jackie Brown) has undeniably made a dent in many a cineaste’s subconscious. His reverence doesn’t end there either.
Like hip-hop producers who use obscure hooks and melodies (from sometimes equally obscure artists) to construct a song, watching Foxy Brown is like seeing the visual interpretation of this process, with Tarantino having ‘sampled’ themes and images from here, only to cut and paste them into his own oeuvre. Elements of Kill Bill Vol. 1‘s rape and revenge tale are instantly recognisable in this film, alongside more throwaway visual flourishes (Foxy Brown‘s psychedelic, low-rent Bond-esque opening credits are lovingly recreated for the training montage in Kill Bill Vol. 2).
Foxy Brown isn’t high art by any means (the aesthetic at times is akin to a souped-up episode of The Rockford Files, bathed in a 70s floral hue) but the real enjoyment derived from a film like this – similar to unearthing the source music behind the sample – is the opportunity to see the original article and not just some slick recreation of that era.
Co-produced by MGM and Romulus Films - which had just been founded and went on to produce many highlights of British cinema throughout the 50s and 60s (from Cosh Boy to Oliver!) - Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is an unusual film that seems foreign to both Hollywood and British cinema. It was directed by Albert Lewin whose literary pretensions - great adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray and Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence - are in evidence here.
The story is a bizarre mix of 18th-century maritime legend and Greek mythology narrated by Geoffrey Fielding, a professor of antiquities played by Harold Warrender. James Mason is Hendrick van der Zee, the legendary ‘Flying Dutchman’ cursed to sail the stormy seas eternally alone until he finds a woman who loves him enough to die for him. The subject matter certainly seems more suited to a Wagner opera than a Hollywood melodrama. But replacing the phantom ship with a Mediterranean yacht and adding a glamorous community of expats living in Spain somehow turns the preposterous into something quite magical and full of adventure. Alongside a romance across the centuries we have an attempt at the world land-speed record, a romantically distracted bull-fighter, a gypsy flamenco band and a Tudor-period flashback. Ava Gardner is perfectly cast as the beautiful but emotionally cold object of desire that has men drinking cyanide when rejected and wrecking cars to prove their love. And James Mason does a good job at appearing mysterious and three centuries old.
From the opening quotation from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam claiming that ‘what is written cannot be erased’ (or something along those lines) and the discovery of two drowned bodies hand in hand, a strong sense of fate permeates through the film (which is told in flashback). But the other-worldly feel on which this ridiculous tale somehow stands should perhaps really be credited to Jack Cardiff’s cinematography (even more beautiful than Ava Gardner). Reputed to be the first Briton trained in the use of Technicolor, he was perhaps its greatest exponent. The heavy use of coloured filters gives the film something of the oppressive, enchanting air he gave to Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (for which Cardiff rightly won an Oscar). The characters seem more surely trapped by fate than any noir anti-hero.
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman treads the line between profound and baloney somewhat awkwardly. But it is great to see a film that has such a sense of the magical without falling into the tweeness of Chocolat or the CGI overload of The Lovely Bones. Yes, it is a little bit pretentious - aiming for eternal truths is not really what we expect of MGM - but it clearly illustrates why Jack Cardiff was so deserving of his recent retrospective at the BFI.
As a rule, I try to hear/read/see as little as possible about the films I’m going to write about, but in the case of The Human Centipede - if one moves in sleazy circles - it was difficult to avoid the advance word, and the advance word was ‘yeeuch!’
The film’s selling point is a nasty idea - that a mad surgeon, Dr Heiter (Dieter Laser), will capture three human subjects and sew them in a row, mouth to anus to mouth, so that they effectively become one creature with one digestive tract. I sincerely hope you’re grown up enough to realise the icky connotations of this operation, because I’m sure as hell not going to spell it out for you. I also don’t think I’m spoiling anything for prospective viewers when I reveal that the operation doesn’t end well for anyone concerned.
Tom Six’s film is, in many ways, exactly what you expect. The set-up is perfunctory B-movie cheese, straight out of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and countless others, with two dumb American teenagers, Lindsay and Jenny (Ashley C Williams and Ashlynn Yennie), stumbling into a madman’s house after their car breaks down in the woods at night. It’s clearly cheap, the cast is small, locations are few, script and acting hover around porn movie standard, and, following the rules of exploitation, any characters that aren’t crazy are stupid. Audience sympathy for Lindsay and Jenny’s characters greatly increases post-operation, partly because of the horror of their predicament, and partly because they are now unable to voice any more idiotic dialogue. Anyone wondering why Dr Heiter has this elaborate, sick obsession will be disappointed. We know he doesn’t like people, he used to separate Siamese twins, and he’s crazy. That’s it, and without any real reason given for his insane desire, Heiter comes to resemble the arse-obsessed doctor in South Park. THC exists to show a number of horrible things happening to a number of people for 92 minutes. Pretty much everybody dies. That’s what it’s about, and you can’t say you weren’t warned.
This utilitarian gross-out approach actually makes the result more watchable. We don’t see the doctor kidnapping Katsuro (Akihiro Kitamura) to be the head of his centipede, because it’s only important to the tale that he turns up. In fact, we don’t see much of the world outside Heiter’s house at all - a motorway side road, some woods, an anonymous hotel room - because we don’t need to see more. When the cops inevitably turn up, they’re at the doctor’s front door at once; we never see a police station, or the witness that is overheard screaming ‘in an American accent’, because Six isn’t really interested in anything outside his hermetically sealed medical nightmare. It’s as if Heiter’s house, with its clean, ordered furnishings and bleached hospital cellar, exists outside of any recognisable place in the world. This, together with the unreal, stilted nature of some of the dialogue, gives the film an off-kilter weirdness, and good thing too. If we were convinced that any of this was happening to real people it would be unbearable.
How much of this weirdness is simply down to budget, and how much was through Six’s design is uncertain, but the film is designed, in a European minimalist fashion. This is not a Texas Chainsaw freakout, there’s none of your Rob Zombie hand-held nonsense here, the camera work has been composed: all tripod, pan and dolly, with none of Saw or Hostel‘s tricksy editing or industrial Gothic flourishes. This may sound crazy given its subject matter, but the film is actually pretty restrained. The expected sexual angle isn’t exploited, bar a little un-eroticised nudity. The soundtrack is unobtrusive and uncluttered. Likewise, anyone expecting fountains of gore and scatological filth will be surprised at how much the film doesn’t show.
While it’s cracked in concept it’s not entirely devoid of thought. There’s a recurring motif about communication; with the two girls unable to comprehend Heiter’s German, and no one speaking Katsuro’s Japanese, the doctor has, perversely, given his centipede a head he himself cannot understand (and oddly, Katsuro’s longest, most dramatic speech goes untranslated). What’s Six trying to say here? That perhaps, y’know, we might all learn to get along as a species if a mad doctor would only sew us together? Hell if I know. He was one of the original directors of the Big Brother TV phenomenon. Which seems to make perfect sense.
So, are there any reasons to watch The Human Centipede, other than grotesque novelty? Well, there’s Dieter Laser’s performance: he suggests absolute gibbering insanity through clenched body language and measured language, overacting and restrained at the same time, like Christopher Walken on Thorazine. He pretty much screams ‘mad scientist’ even before donning the regulation white coat and shades, and his utter impatience and irritation with every other character on screen make his scenes genuinely amusing. Then there’s the title creation itself, which is both a sick and unsettling idea, and an undeniably surreal spectacle, like something that’s crawled out of Bosch’s garden of earthly delights, or Pasolini’s Salí², or 120 Days of Sodom.
But, frankly, there’s not much to The Human Centipede, really. It’s as if once he’d conceived of the central idea (apparently as an appropriate punishment for convicted paedophiles), Six couldn’t come up with much to do with it. It’s better than it ought to be, I had some evil chuckles, and it will get a following. The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) is already on the way, god help us. Can I be the only one hoping for a whole new direction in which the human centipede comes to terms with itself as a new organism, learns to love its own body, and we end with a tap dance routine on Broadway that the audience will never forget? C’mon! Now that’s entertainment!
My first viewing of A Sixth Part of the World (1926) was over the internet - an erratic fuzzy copy with subtitles, strangely enough in indecipherable Esperanto. Mildly exasperating. Still, through the frozen screens and illegible intertitles, Dziga Vertov’s striking ethnographic and mechanical shots of bygone Soviet Russia and his note-perfect, rhythmic editing shone from the screen. Workers’ faces faded over mechanical cogs; an arctic fox was inspected , eye gleaming in gray scale; sheep were flung into the sea with fleece turning to frothing waves; fruit rolled and hopped into a wooden box in beautiful stop-motion, straw shuffling on top with brown paper following, all with a joyful, playful pace.
The Austrian Filmmuseum’s recent DVD release brings the context of these images alive. The film’s (thankfully English!) intertitles sing out an exultant panegyric to socialism. The images become visual prompts; impressionistic examples that bolster Vertov’s message. Russia is the ‘hub for the workers of the West; a hub for the people of the East who stand up to fight against the yoke of Capital’. Lenin is saluted as the ‘Icebreaker’, a great ship slicing through still oceans laced with icebergs: ‘You break the ice with your chest. You pave the way for our freighters, to trade our grain, to trade our furs for needed machines, machines that produce other machines which in turn accelerate the rate of growth of production of more machines.’
This unerring belief in industrialisation and endless quest to produce machine after machine conjures up a terrifying vision for 21st-century viewers, who have been reared on environmentalist messages and science-fiction nightmares, in which machines turn on mankind. Indeed, the politics of the film often appear just as antiquated as a 19th-century attempt to create and disseminate a universal, international language. Religion is seen as a dying phenomenon (‘Here and there, there are still women with veiled faces. Some still recite the rosary. Still some act crazy… slowly the old is disappearing like you disappear into the icy distance’). Capitalism cries its final death throes (‘on the brink of the historical downfall the capital celebrates’). A world socialist revolution is seen as inevitable (‘Oppressed countries gradually leaving the world of Capital. They will pour forth into the stream of the united socialist economy’). The capitalist system might have just crashed around us but Vertov’s utopian vision is yet to materialise.
Yet, while the political idealism of A Sixth Part of the World might jar with modern scepticism about political spin, the film still appears fresh and vital. Some of Vertov’s views do not provoke cynicism and successfully transcend his era, particularly those regarding race and racial diversity. He attacks racism (‘Black people existing for amusement as chocolate kids’) and celebrates ethnic differences across the Soviet Union (‘from the lighthouse at the Arctic Circle to the Caucasus Mountains’). In fact, the film, at times, acts as a kind of travelogue, chronicling and rejoicing in traditional ways of life, culture and dress. Vertov sent out his cameramen (or ‘kino-eyes’ as he referred to them) to the far reaches of the country, with instructions to shoot specific groups of peoples. The film asks these disparate ethnicities to unite behind socialism, addressing each in turn (‘You Tatars, You Buryats…’), never once asking them to lose their cultural differences.
More than this, the reason why the film appears so vibrant, rather than a clunking, dated piece of propaganda, is its stunning approach to the media of film and the subtlety of its rhetoric. The film never presents a didactic piece of dogma. Instead the message unfolds slowly, washing over the viewer. Just as Vertov’s later masterpiece Man with a Movie Camera (1929) created effervescent crescendos and lilting diminuendos, the rhythm of A Sixth Part of the World is extraordinary (and supplemented on this DVD version with a buoyant soundtrack by Michael Nyman).
The film, together with the feature Forward Soviet! (which enjoyed a limited release earlier in 1926) marked a departure for Vertov after three years working on a series of newsreels, Kino-Pravda. During his work on the newsreels, Vertov began to experiment with cinematic ‘artificialities’ and came under attack for his idiosyncratic, personal approach to films that were meant to serve a primarily informative, journalistic function (although the idea that a news story could ever avoid subjectivity is, of course, a problematic contention). Described as a ‘film poem’ in its credits sequence, A Sixth Part of the World was a controversial challenge to the documentary genre. The reception was mixed among contemporary critics and Vertov was forced to defend himself on two accounts: for not representing the world as a newsreel should; and, conversely, for not being artistic enough because he renounced fictional staging. A Sixth Part of the World was then, as now, hard to categorise.
Indeed, ‘poetry’ is the best term to describe its form. The poetry of oration: the rhythm and the power of words to uplift. Vertov may be known as a master of visual artistry but it is his language that stands out in this film. Repetitive refrains, inventive juxtapositions and emotional calls to arms ring out from the intertitles. The images are harnessed to support the text - to give the audience time to contemplate and let the words ripple over them. Like poetry, the film does not passively document, but rather attempts to present the viewer with a series of universal truths; truths about humankind as seen by Vertov. The work opens with a shot of a plane and the text ‘I see’ - a list starts to assemble of the things ‘I’ can see (‘the golden chain of Capital, foxtrot, machines’) until ‘I’ lands on ‘you’. The camera alights on the nape of a bobbed-haired woman: ‘And You. And You. And You.’ The repetition of ‘you’ draws the viewer into the text, into the images themselves. In one self-reflexive moment, Vertov even shows cinema-goers watching an earlier piece of the film (‘And you sitting in the audience’). But it is only at the very end of the film that Vertov suggests that the ‘I’ and ‘You’ could have been a political speech-maker and audience all along; the closing sequences show a crowd gathered around a speaker and the text of the intertitles becomes an edited version of a Central Committee report, given by Stalin at the Fourteenth Congress of the Communist Party in 1925. The film is far too subtle to set such roles in stone.
In his book, Dziga Vertov: Defining Documentary Film, academic Jeremy Hicks has highlighted links between A Sixth Part of the World and the poetry of Walt Whitman, finding analogies between Vertov’s use of the first person and the recurring use of ‘I’ in Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’. Both use ‘I’ to serve as the collective nation, taking a broad sweep across humanity. When Whitman sent the first edition of his anthology, Leaves of Grass, to Emerson, he asserted that the greatest poet should change the character of the reader or listener. With A Sixth Part of the World, Vertov was attempting to do just that.
The Nazi ideologues despised other ‘races’ as inferior creatures. The ideologues of the Soviet Union turned their hatred inwards and despised the ‘classes’ that made up their country, including the very proletarians they exalted. Like Plato they believed that the workers could not be trusted with the truth, could not be relied upon to form the ‘right’ judgements on the basis of shared information; so the plan was to bring them to an appropriate form of consciousness by the manipulation of stirring art. Hence watchers of Alexander Dovzhenko’s 1930 silent film about collectivisation of agriculture in the Ukraine must accustom themselves to being treated like dimwits. You can see who the hero is because he is strong and tall and handsome: his confident bearing and zealous gaze tell you that you should side with him. Inspirational words are declaimed boldly by the good guys; the bad guys skulk and cringe. Don’t expect irony or subtlety: that would be un-Soviet.
Shouldn’t we make more imaginative effort to do what the makers of Zemlya (Earth) wanted its viewers to do, to identify with the heroic struggle of the workers? I don’t think the subsequent history of the Soviet Union attests to the value of that identification. Never mind the robbing and killing of those who were decreed to be on the wrong side of the struggle. Most of the several million Ukrainians who died in the famine that followed two years after this film was made were poor peasants.
Since we’re dealing with a propaganda film here, let’s assess it as a political ploy. Was it judicious to try to arouse the poor peasants’ resentment against the less poor peasants (the kulaks)? No: resentment and hostility between social groups was a factor in the failure of the Soviet project. Of course it was absurd to blame the kulaks for the plight of the poorer peasants. Soviet leader Zinoviev admitted: ‘We are fond of describing any peasant who has enough to eat as a kulak.’ But Soviet ideology demanded a ‘class enemy’, and the kulaks were the only candidates conveniently to hand. The release of Zemlya coincided neatly with Stalin’s 1930 decree that ‘the resistance of this [kulak] class must be smashed in open battle and it must be deprived of the productive sources of its existence and development’.
Was the appeal to collective interest above individual interest judicious? No: even the unarguably poor had their goods confiscated in the name of the collective, and the prospect of striding gladly into the future alongside their comrades was not sufficient compensation (many of them preferred to destroy their property and animals rather than hand them over). Individuals may be willing to make sacrifices for the sake of their families, but to induce them to do so for the sake of a collective, mostly composed of strangers, would require a stronger motivating message and far greater skills of dramatic persuasion than displayed in this film.
But wait - isn’t it supposed to be OK to like this film? Don’t its admirers say that it was subversive of Soviet policy? Isn’t Alexander Dovzhenko a Ukrainian cultural hero?
Certainly the reception of Zemlya in both Russia and Ukraine was violently mixed: but the cultural climate of the time was so mistrustful that it was almost impossible to make any artistic move without being criticised from one quarter or another as being insufficiently revolutionary-minded. The strongly Ukrainian character of the film may have made Russian viewers uncomfortable, and the Party faithful apparently did not like the fact that it showed the dark side of life rather than being relentlessly positive. We know that the Soviet censor edited the film before release. But the nature of his cuts (nudity, urination, prenatal labour) suggests that his discomfort was rooted in prudery rather than ideology.
Dovzhenko’s best hope for moral exoneration might be to embrace the subsequent criticisms of the most extreme Stalinist zealots: that his film was not as anti-kulak as it might have been. But that cannot alter the fact that the kulaks are the villains of his film - the enemies of its heroes.
What we have is a sincere paean to collective agriculture, released shortly after the launch of Stalin’s policy of forced collectivisation and confiscation, and used as propaganda for that policy, which involved killing and deporting large numbers of Ukrainians and deliberately depriving most of the remaining population of their means of subsistence. Which was Dovzhenko - a conscious agent of Stalinism? Or a ‘useful idiot’? Either way, his film contributed to the ruin of his beloved Ukraine.
I have scarcely mentioned the aesthetic qualities of the film: there are certainly some memorable images that stay in the mind and are strongly evocative of their time and place. I admire the simplicity and dignity of many of the shots and scenes. But Zemlya is hard to take seriously as a dramatic work because of its blinkered worldview and lack of interest in the ambiguity and mutability of human experience and interaction. I do not think it can have been purely on grounds of aesthetics that this was voted one of the 10 best films of all time in 1958. These critics were presumably motivated by thoughts about the historical significance of the film. But it is precisely its historical significance as a work of destructive propaganda that makes it a distasteful watch.
The quality David Lynch most valued in the late Freddie Francis, his cinematographer on The Elephant Man, Dune and The Straight Story, was not so much the technical knowledge accrued through a long apprenticeship in the British studios of the 1940s and 50s, remarkable though that was, but the more elusive ‘sensitivity’, Francis’s ability to respond evocatively to dramatic situations, characters and spaces.
This was not a quality Francis could use to full effect on projects like The Deadly Bees or The Creeping Flesh, his bread and butter when he became a director, although even in patently absurd projects like the Joan Crawford apeman movie Trog, you can see him striving to inject some interest. But occasionally the scripts he dealt with was just about good enough to allow him to shine. Paranoiac (1963), his third credited feature, is such a movie. Since Francis the director was as sure a hand as Francis the cinematographer at creating atmosphere through lighting, composition and movement, this convoluted country house crime story is rich material.
Now available from Masters of Cinema, Paranoiac is an early entry in Hammer studio’s long line of twisty thrillers ‘inspired’ by the success of Les Diaboliques, and to a lesser extent Psycho. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, a driving force behind Hammer horror, could apparently knock these out in his sleep: weave together at least two criminal conspiracies, add some false identities, leapfrog from one shock or suspense sequence to another as rapidly as possible, and strain credibility until it groans but doesn’t quite give way.
Here, we have a confused heiress (Janette Scott, of Day of the Triffids fame) being driven insane by her wicked, drunken brother (Oliver Reed, playing very much to type), until another, long thought dead, brother (Alexander Davion) shows up. Suspicions quickly arise that this interloper is an impostor, part of a Tichborne claimant-style plot to steal the family inheritance, but where does the eerie, masked figure armed with a lethal hook fit into the puzzle, and who is singing at night in the crypt?
The answers probably won’t startle you too much, but this handsome edition shows off Arthur Grant’s widescreen black and white cinematography to terrific effect - Francis had shot The Innocents just a few years before, and he uses many of the same tricks in this less sophisticated country house melodrama, from the elegant mise en scène to the subtle vignette effect that darkens the corners of the frame. His camera glides and arcs almost ceaselessly, explicitly taking over the storytelling at times, a creeping, constant presence; and then jabbing and swinging in rhythm with Reed’s unrestrained, gorilla-like machismo. When Martin Scorsese hired Francis to photograph Cape Fear, Francis said it was because he would know how to shoot a young lady in a night gown wandering around a dark house when she ought to be in bed. He does indeed have a feel for the modern Gothic. Playing it just straight enough (Reed occasionally mugs too vigorously, but he’s electrifying the rest of the time), Francis uses everything he’d learned as a cinematographer to create a genuinely beautiful-looking movie, moody and powerful, combining the gusto of Hammer with some of the eeriness of the classic English ghost story.
When an event as prestigious as the London Film Festival describes a film as ‘probably the best ninja movie ever made’, as film critic and author Tony Rayns did in their 2009 programme, then you have to sit up and take note. The film in question is Kamui - The Lone Ninja, which has been loosely adapted from the classic Japanese comic book written by Sanpei Shirato in the mid-1960s through to the early 1970s - one of the first manga titles to become popular overseas when it was published in the US in the 1980s.
Yet while Kamui, the comic book, is widely commended, not least for its accurate portrayal of feudal Japan and its mix of exciting action with political and social commentary, Kamui, the movie, is unlikely to reach such high regard or indeed meet the LFF’s lofty tag. It’s clear that by choosing Sanpei Shirato’s ninja stories, director Yoichi Sai had pretensions of doing for ninjas what Akira Kurosawa did for the samurai, but Kamui never quite manages to fulfil its potential. The film’s biggest flaw is its overly slick, CGI-packed, blockbuster-friendly polish; although it delivers plenty of thrills during some well-choreographed fight sequences, the story lacks the kind of emotional depth to truly engage the viewer on any level beyond that of a teenage boy’s cry of ‘Awesome - cool fight!’
The overall result is a movie that promises much but delivers only in fits and spurts - like a rollercoaster ride where your anticipation builds as you trundle up that first incline, all tense with excitement as the carriage crests the initial peak in the track, only to discover there’s a slight downward slope on the other side with a few neat turns to follow before the cart disappointingly comes to rest at the exit point.
And those turns seem a long time in coming. Although the running time is a fairly standard two hours, the paucity of action, as good as it is when it does come, and a preponderance for over-exposition of story and characters make the film feel a lot longer.
This film starts well enough, as Kamui flees the ninja tribe that trained him from a young age, with the intention of retiring from the assassination business, but as he soon discovers, it’s not so easy to leave a life of killing behind. After rescuing an opportunistic thief from certain death at the hands of a local lord, he winds up hiding out on an island, joining up with pirates - with a penchant for fishing for great white sharks with big swords - and then fighting not only the lord’s armies but also his old clan who have been commissioned to chop him up into so much sushi.
Sparks of inspiration glitter throughout and the action sequences are exciting without being particularly ground-breaking, but the film’s lack of pace, muddled story (perhaps the result of trying to pack too much in from the comic book) and lacklustre performances hamstring the film almost as soon as Kamui makes his initial break for freedom. By the time you cross the first-hour mark, you’ll be looking at your watch and counting down the minutes to the inevitable final ninja-pirate army showdown.
So, is Kamui ‘the best ninja movie ever made’? Probably not. Stick to pizza-eating turtles…