Le Quattro Volte

Le Quattro Volte

Format: Cinema

Release date: 27 May 2011

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: New Wave Films

Director: Michelangelo Frammartino

Writer: Michelangelo Frammartino

Cast: Giuseppe Fuda, Bruno Timpano, Nazareno Timpano

Italy/Germany/Switzerland 2010

88 mins

Anybody who has found themselves occasionally gazing up into the heavens and wondering about life, death, their existence on this world and what it all means will be glad to hear that Michelangelo Frammartino’s disarming Italian film also ponders the big questions, in its own idiosyncratic and deliberate fashion, and he’s come up with an answer for you: it’s all about charcoal. Well, charcoal and goats. Charcoal, goats, reincarnation and ritual. Some combination of those…

Looking at first like an austere observational documentary about life in an isolated Calabrian village, Le Quattro Volte establishes the sights and sounds and repetitive rhythms of everyday life for an ageing herdsman guiding his goats out to pasture and back again until he falls ill (and there’s a message here for anybody who’s putting their trust in Catholic medicine). The life of one of the newborn kids that would have been under his care takes centre stage for a while, until the focus shifts again. We are made to consider the connections between everything on screen, a tree, a dog, a truck, the animate and inanimate, animal and vegetable, all assume their own importance in a wordless tale told through composed, resonant images and ambient sound.

If all of this sounds too much like hard work, Frammartino assuredly does not make it so; he understands that if you’re going to use long takes, make them good-looking, eventful or funny. When he tells the kid’s story, he shoots from its eye level, and immerses you in its world so completely that when the poor little bleeder gets left behind by the herd, it’s deeply distressing. He manages to hold your interest in the fate of a tree, the processes of rural life, odd rituals, domestic details and strange bits of church and village business that must have been taking place here for decades and centuries.

Le Quattro Volte‘s ace card, however, is its animal cast. Look no further for hot goat-on-goat action: this is by some distance the best goat-related art-house feature film I’ve ever seen. They are fantastically entertaining, without ever being anthropomorphised or sentimentalised &#224 la March of the Penguins. They take over the screen, clambering over everything, curious and tottering and playful. The film’s highlight is a jaw-dropping single-take shot that creates beautifully orchestrated comedy chaos out of the herd, a badly parked truck, an Easter crucifixion parade and a dog that deserves to win a goddamn Oscar if there’s any justice in this world. The film definitely loses something when its focus moves on, but remains engaging on some level. I’m not sure how profound it all is, in the end, or how much Frammartino has played with his material to make the connections he does. But for 88 minutes le Quattro Volte weaves a curious spell, like a live action Sylvain Chomet animation, a bucolic meander through the mysteries of life and death.

Mark Stafford

Suicide Club

Suicide Club

Format: DVD Region 1

Release date: 18 November 2003

Distributor: Tla

Director: Sion Sono

Writer: Sion Sono

Original title: Jisatsu Sí¢kuru

Cast: Ryo Ishibashi, Masatoshi Nagase, Mai Hosho

Japan 2001

99 mins

Maverick Japanese director Sion Sono’s best-known film, Suicide Club (2001), opens with a statement: a jaw-dropping sequence depicting the mass suicide of 54 Japanese school girls at Shinjuku train station. Suicide Club is an extremely confrontational and deeply enigmatic film, and it is not surprising that it has been met with wildly different reactions, from adoration to disapproval and puzzlement. In an interview with 3AM Magazine, Sono called Suicide Club ‘a hate movie’, adding, ‘I hope [the] Japanese hate me… I hope almost all people hate this movie’. Sono was clearly settling scores with his homeland in the film; it is almost as if he were throwing its own destructiveness back in the face of Japanese society. Japan has a high rate of suicide, particularly among young people, and the internet has been blamed for collective suicides seemingly arranged through online chat rooms. Sono appears to be partly motivated by a desire to unsettle complacent audiences, which may go some way towards explaining his gleeful predilection for extreme gore. But here, as in the rest of his work, the violence is accompanied by humour: although you may not notice on first view, the opening scene of Suicide Club is set to a bizarrely cheerful little tune, which undercuts the impact of the orgy of death on screen.

As more mass suicides follow across Japan, the police begin a criminal investigation, with a number of clues seemingly pointing to some kind of organisation behind the deaths. White sports bags left at some of the suicide scenes contain gruesome rolls made of 10-centimetre pieces of human skin sewn together, which, the police later discover, come from the next group of suicides. A strange website consisting only of orange and white dots seems to be counting the deaths, new dots appearing just before new suicides, or so claims a mysterious hacker who goes by the nickname of ‘The Bat’. A pre-pubescent all-girl pop band called ‘Dessart’ may also have something to do with the suicides. Detective Kuroda, helped by Detective Shibusawa, follows the various trails, only to become personally affected by the phenomenon he’s investigating.

Suicide Club has been seen by many critics as a satire of pop culture and of suicide as a fad. Pop culture undoubtedly appears in a negative light in the film, not only through Dessart and the possible connection between the inane messages in their lyrics and the suicides, but also through a weird glam-punk band led by a bleached-blond, androgynous, psychotic young man who calls himself Genesis. In a bizarre Rocky Horror-style sub-plot, Genesis and his gang claim to be the Suicide Club to attract the attention of the media. A scene in which Genesis sings seems to confirm the connection between entertainment and destructiveness: as he performs, one of his henchmen rapes and kills a girl they have abducted. The Rocky Horror interlude may not be entirely successful, but this scene is another example of Sono’s gift for creating memorably nightmarish visions. Genesis and his men are holed up in an abandoned bowling alley and the people and animals they have kidnapped are squirming across the floor, each wrapped in a white sheet. The image of those whimpering, writhing forms, which we know are living beings, but can’t see, is truly disturbing. Even more so when Genesis casually stamps on one of the animals and blood seeps through as the form lies still, with the suggestion that it’s all a spectacle.

As for Dessart, the innocuous-looking pop band seems to hide clues in their lyrics and promotional posters that would appear to point to some sort of cult of death led by children. However, there is no resolution, no explanation of any kind, and the suggestion of this unlikely conspiracy is left open to interpretation at the end. More important than knowing whether the Suicide Club is really a secret society of children is the total separation and incomprehension between young people and adults that its possible existence reveals. Whatever it is that may lead young people to commit suicide, the film suggests that the adults will always be inherently unable to comprehend it.

Sono is particularly interested in secret societies and cults, which is partly to do with the fact that he joined a cult when he was younger and later became a member of a terrorist group (as he explains in the 3AM interview). His early experiences inspired his film Love Exposure (2008), which features the Catholic Church as well as a sinister religious cult. In fact, the Suicide Club could almost be a sect: the children and presumed members ask questions such as ‘Are you connected with yourself?’ and pronounce nebulous statements that would not be out of place in a new age cult. Talking about Love Exposure in the Japan Times, Sono explained: ‘I like exploring borderlines. In this film, it’s the borderlines between perversion and normality, the Catholic Church and cults.’ That statement can be applied to Suicide Club too. Sono does not simply use a religious cult as the perverted contrast to the normality of the Catholic Church, but the cult serves also to highlight the perversions in what we perceive as the norm. In the same way, the possibility of the existence of a secret society called the Suicide Club reveals the fault lines of the supposedly ‘normal’ society, notably the seemingly unbridgeable divide between youth and adults.

Suicide Club has been described as ‘muddled’ and Sono criticised for not making his satire of pop culture and denunciation of the media clear enough. But the ambiguity of the film is precisely what makes it interesting. The Suicide Club is an elusive phenomenon that cannot be attributed to any specific group of people with any certainty. It is a diffuse idea that pervades the whole of society and is not controlled by any one person or group. It’s this idea that makes the film so powerful and disturbing. The Suicide Club remains very abstract and impossible to pin down to any material reality or evidence. The website that seems to count the suicides before they happen is only a collection of coloured dots on a screen. The name of the pop band Dessart is spelt differently in Roman characters throughout the film: ‘Desert’, ‘Dessert’, etc. The police officers are unsure whether the phenomenon they are investigating is accident, suicide or murder. And when a new website appears with the aim of fighting the Suicide Club, it consists only of a revolving white circle: the counter-suicide club can be nothing but another abstract geometric pattern to combat the indefinable, insubstantial threat. The intangible nature of the Suicide Club is at the heart of the film, and it is therefore logical that there should be no final resolution.

By the end of the film, the only thing that seems clear is that the Suicide Club has introduced chaos and disorder into society. The fact that there is no rational or criminal explanation for the suicides upsets and unsettles assumptions about the nature, stability and functioning of society. In many suicidal fictions, the impulse for self-destruction stems from a loss of meaning, a disillusion with the values offered by society, and corresponds to a distrust for language (see the various spellings of ‘Dessart’), seen as a vehicle for the authorities that govern that society, and therefore perceived as corrupt. So while for one person to decide that life is meaningless is an act of nihilism that may cause some disruption to the social fabric, when a group of people decides to form a society devoted to self-destruction, it becomes an all-out attack on the values of society at large, almost an act of existential terrorism. This connection between organised self-destruction and the threat to social order is an idea that runs through fictional depictions of suicide clubs, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1882 short story ‘The Suicide Club’ to Sono’s film, via quasi-suicide clubs such as Fight Club (1999). And yet, despite their fascinating implications and subversive potential, suicide clubs remain a surprisingly rare kind of secret society in cinema, with Sono’s film one of the most formidable, labyrinthine and provocative examples.

Virginie Sélavy

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

Format: Limited Edition Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 19 June 2017

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Dario Argento

Writer: Dario Argento

Based on the novel The Screaming Mimi by: Fredric Brown (uncredited)

Original title: L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo

Cast: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi, Umberto Raho

Italy 1970

98 mins

Dario Argento’s debut film is an astonishing piece of work.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is an astonishing debut film. As a reviewer who has seen all but one of the director’s movies (1973’s comedy drama Le cinque giornate [The Five Days], which remains unreleased in America and the UK) and both of his episodes of the TV series Masters of Horror, I have to admit that I was beginning to doubt the director’s talent in recent years: my memories of his excellent early films began to fade and were replaced by his recent output, which has gone from the below average Do You Like Hitchcock?, The Card Player and Non ho sonno in the first half of the last decade to the actually unwatchable - Giallo and Mother of Tears: The Third Mother - in the last three years. However, returning to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage after a gap of several years has revealed a film that is still fresh, innovative and deserving of its status as a seminal giallo.

Having not read the uncredited novel by Fredric Brown, I don’t know whether any of the striking set-pieces, costumes and characters can be attributed to Brown, but the plot is significantly different from the novel’s (filmed previously in 1958 by Gerd Oswald), so it’s possible that Argento only kept the book’s basic premise of an artist obsessed by a traumatised woman who is being stalked by a serial killer. There are numerous memorable scenes in the film: the powerless spectator trapped behind glass as he witnesses a murder, the police pathologist who wears dark glasses while a bank of open reel computers process the evidence behind him, a couple having sex while a metronome ticks, the protagonist throwing a cigarette packet to a suspect to see which hand he catches it with, and bizarre lines of dialogue such as ‘How many times have I had to tell you that Ursula Andress belongs with the transvestites not the perverts’!

Read the article on Dario Argento’s animal trilogy.

This is a film that provides a segue from the noir genre that inspired it - the femme fatale and the amateur detective following her - to a new form of filmmaking and storytelling that seems equally inspired by Ennio Morricone’s jazz score (Argento often cut his films to his musical scores) and Freudian dream logic. While Mario Bava can stake a claim as the progenitor of giallo cinema, Argento also looks elsewhere to international filmmaking (he was a professional film critic before becoming a script writer) with chase scenes reminiscent of The Third Man, featuring close-ups and characters lit by car headlights, the familiarity of those elements made strange by Morricone’s discordant strings and the director’s fast zooms and cuts.

Only the final scene of the movie disappoints, as a police expert explains the motives and psychology of the killer; Argento doesn’t have the blank stare of a comatose Norman Bates to juxtapose with the banal monologue, so instead cuts to random shots of planes on runways as the hero sits waiting to leave the country.

This review was first published in May 2011 for the original Blu-ray release of the film.

Alex Fitch



Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 12 August 2013

Distributor: Lionsgate UK

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Writers: Darren Aronofsky, Sean Gullette, Eric Watson

Cast: Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman

USA 1998

84 mins

Mathematics is a difficult topic to film. Ron Howard’s biopic of brainiac John Nash, A Beautiful Mind (2001), was hampered in its attempt to make maths visually interesting by the boring nature of maths itself. Scott Hicks easily managed to make mad genius attractive in Shine (1996) primarily because a mad genius pianist is recognisably brilliant, even to those who don’t play the piano. A mad genius mathematician, on the other hand, looks very similar (to the uninitiated naked eye) to a mediocre mathematician, a merely good one, or indeed a rotten one. All the filmmaker can do is surround his genius with intelligent-looking people whose mouths occasionally drop open in wonder when confronted by a manically scribbled equation (used also in Gus Van Sant’s 1997 Good Will Hunting), or resort to tricks like getting him to write on windows, an image nicked from Howard by David Fincher in a desperate attempt to make the writing of computer code look cinematically interesting in The Social Network (2010).

Darren Aronofsky‘s debut, Pi (1998), is a stumbling success in conveying mathematics as a serious subject matter primarily because the maths is not as important as all that. All of Aronofsky’s films are about obsessive madness. Be it drug addiction, wrestling, scientific research or, most recently, ballet, his films all follow the trajectory of characters tearing themselves apart to get at their obsession, literally tearing themselves apart in most cases: the arm in Requiem for a Dream (2000), the heart in The Wrestler (2008), the fingernails and toenails of Black Swan (2010) and finally, where it all began, the brain in Pi. Shot in a granular black and white and with a close-up intensity that feels like an invasion of personal space, Aronofsky’s film tells the story of mad genius Max (played by Sean Gullette), who shuffles from apartment to subway station and back again, suffers intermittent debilitating attacks and becomes embroiled in two conspiracies, one involving a shady Wall Street operation and the other a bunch of Hasidic Jews searching for a numerical answer to the Torah. Max is given succour and advice by a friendly neighbour (Samia Shoaib) and a wise old mentor called Sol (Mark Margolis), who has himself given up being an obsessive genius to devote himself to dishing out wisdom to Max, games of Go and feeding his fish.

Pi will screen for free at Dalston’s Alibi Film Club in London on 19 August 2013.

Max’s explanations of what he’s looking for have a demented Johnny Ball feel, as Aronofsky supplies illustrations and Clint Mansell pounds away with a soundtrack that feels a bit too cool for the main character. The two forces that approach and seek to exploit Max, the stock market thugs, representing the material, and the frankly mad Jews, representing the mystical, are likewise a threat to the rationalist Max. They are trying to get their hands on the 216-digit number that is the film’s MacGuffin. It is Sol who argues the most coherently that once you focus on a number you will see it everywhere as you filter out all that doesn’t fit in. Sol is the voice of sanity and rational retreat. His voice is, in fact, all too sane, showing Max up for the humourless, dour nerd he really is.

Stylistically, there’s a lot of Eraserhead (Lynch, 1977) in here, but, as with Black Swan, Polanski is the main influence, and especially the claustrophobic madness of Repulsion (1965). In the end, we are left wondering how much of the film is real and how much happens in Max’s own head. The forces conniving against him seem more credible, not only as paranoid illusions, but also as projections of Max’s inflated sense of his own importance.

Ultimately, things don’t quite add up.

John Bleasdale

Julia’s Eyes

Julia's Eyes

Format: Cinema

Release date: 20 May 2011

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Guillem Morales

Writers: Guillem Morales, Oriol Paulo

Original title: Los ojos de Julia

Cast: Belén Rueda, Lluís Homar, Pablo Derqui

Spain 2010

112 mins

During a thunderstorm a distraught woman screams abuse into the darkened corners of the room, until a flash of lightning reveals that she is blind, and that there is nobody there. It’s clear she is tormented by something as she makes her way down to the cellar, but by what is unclear, and as the strains of ‘The Look of Love’ pour from the stereo, we see the noose waiting.

Astronomer Julia (Belén Rueda) immediately senses that something is wrong with her twin sister Sara and drives with husband (Lluís Homar) to her house to discover an apparent suicide. Both sisters suffer from a degenerative disease that leads inevitably to blindness, and everyone apart from Julia believes Sara’s more advanced condition caused her to take her life. So Julia begins her own investigation, against the wishes of her husband, seeking out a man her sister was with but whom no one seems to have seen, every step she takes bringing on the stress-induced episodes that reduce her vision more and more…

The first few minutes of Guillem Morales’s film set out the stall for what is to follow, which is 90-odd minutes of splendid Gothic nonsense. We are in a strange Spanish hinterland of almost permanent rain and glowering skies, peopled by odd-looking types with something to hide, the lighting, sound and set design all working overtime to create an atmosphere of unease and lurking menace, where Morales can create creepy scene after creepy scene. One, where an unnoticed Julia listens in on a conversation about her sister in a centre for the blind, closely surrounded by chattering naked women, desperately trying to avoid their detection, had me stunned by its brilliantly mounted wrongness, the sightless women reconfigured into figures of spiteful menace, blithely discussing suicide as an unavoidable consequence of their condition, Julia’s awkwardness, repulsion and embarrassment mounting until the whole scene turns on its head with another twist. All great stuff, in the venerable thriller sub-genre of blind-women-in-peril, in the wake of The Spiral Staircase and Wait until Dark. With lots of artful use of point of view shots and selective framing, we see both through the eyes of the killer whom nobody sees, and through Julia’s steadily darkening vision.

The trouble is that anybody enthusiastic about all this malarkey will have seen enough of it to predict the film’s final twists and turns. Julia’s Eyes is fantastically entertaining for about three quarters of its running time and slightly disappointing thereafter. It’s still pretty scary, but never steps outside the confines of what you’d expect from this kind of thing. The splendid sense of menace built up around the shadowy killer is dissipated as their actual nature is revealed, and the last 20 minutes is unnecessarily cluttered with red herrings and dead ends. And don’t get me started on that final bloody scene… Still, it has all the qualities you’d expect from a Guillermo del Toro production, it looks and sounds great, Rueda plays Julia with the right mix of vulnerability and defiance, and there must be a fair few out there who’ll be just as swept up by the final reel as I was by the rattling nasty fun preceding it.

Mark Stafford

Watch an interview with Guillermo del Toro:

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Woman of the Dunes

Woman of the Dunes

Format: DVD

Release date: 31 July 2006

Distributor: BFI

Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara

Writer: Kôbô Abe (based on his novel)

Original title: Suna no onna

Cast: Eiji Okada, Kyôko Kishida, Hiroko Itô

Japan 1964

125 mins

‘What a terrible place to live,’ muses amateur entomologist Niki Jumpei (Eiji Okada) as he scours a remote desert region for signs of a blister beetle. The protagonist of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s mesmerising masterpiece Woman of the Dunes is a Tokyo-based teacher whose aspirations to become a published academic have led him to take three days of leave in order to visit the sand dunes by the sea in search of the rare bug. After missing the last bus of the day due to falling asleep under the sun, he is offered a bed for the night by one of the residents of the nearby villagers, and rationalises that, by accepting the invitation, he will be able to make an early start on his specimen hunting when he arises the following morning. Although the ‘house’ to which he is taken proves to be a rather unconventional place of lodging as it is located in a deep sand pit and is only accessible by a rope ladder, Niki’s host (Kyôko Kishida) - the young widow of the title - makes sure that he is comfortable and well fed. However, this unusual situation becomes an unanticipated nightmare for the urbanite when he awakes to find that the rope ladder has been removed and that he has been trapped in the pit by the villagers. It transpires that the widow of the house lost her husband and daughter in a sand-slide, and that the villagers have tricked Niki into becoming his replacement; Niki’s daily task is to dig the sand, thereby preventing further sand-slides and enabling the villagers to sell the natural resource to big city developers for construction purposes. Niki’s initial approach to his predicament is to mastermind an escape attempt, but he gradually becomes conditioned to his life in the pit and accepts his share of communal responsibility, while entering into a sexual relationship with the widow.

The community of sand-dwellers who conspire to trap Niki into a life of hard labour initially give him, and the equally unsuspecting audience, the impression that they are a simple bunch of villagers, but it soon becomes apparent that this is a society that bands together to ensure economic and environmental survival. When the teacher first encounters one of the villagers, the local asks him if he works for the government, with Niki replying that he is an academic; the villager then wanders off, safe in the knowledge that the next reluctant recruit is a relatively insignificant employee of the public school system and that his sudden disappearance is unlikely to lead to a search party. The villagers trick Niki with kindness, appealing to his enthusiasm for academic tourism; the teacher likes the idea of spending a night in such a village, considers climbing down a rope ladder to be ‘quite an adventure’ and insists that ‘local food is best’ when tucking into a hearty meal of shellfish broth and bream. As much as Niki is keen to ingratiate himself in the widow’s home, he also shows signs of having a big city ego when expecting his host to re-fill his rice bowl, then laughing at her comments that the surrounding sand is so damp that it can cause clogs to ‘rot within a month’. This self-assurance soon turns into desperate panic when he realises that the locals have the upper hand and Niki’s sense of self-worth is undermined when he discovers that this society does not need his education-based skill set, complaining that ‘a monkey could learn such work’ while shovelling sand. Escape attempts prove futile as, even when Niki ties up the widow and threatens her life, the villagers are less concerned about the safety of a member of their community than they are about the premature loss of a potentially productive worker.

Niki has become an unwilling member of what can be considered a secret society in that it hides in plain sight; the villagers maintain a necessary relationship with the modern world by selling their sand to building companies, but the pit in which Niki is imprisoned is closely guarded, while the area is unlikely to attract more conventional tourists. Teshigahara only shows Niki’s experiences, but the exchanges between the teacher and the widow reveal that the survival of this community is based on captivity; she explains that young people will not stay in the village, ‘because they get more money in the big cities’ and reveals that there are actually multiple pits where other captives are forced to perform the same interminable task. Niki throws around legal terms like ‘illegal confinement’, but this is a community where every household must pitch in to keep the sliding sand at bay, so his protestations do not carry any clout with the villagers who know that he will eventually adapt. On his first night in the pit, Niki asks the widow, ‘Are you shovelling to survive, or surviving to shovel?’ The answer is probably a combination of the two; practicality and routine are the main virtues of this society in that it fights against, yet also deeply respects the surrounding elements, practising what the widow refers to as ‘Love for one’s native place’. Indeed, sand is everywhere to the extent that meals are eaten with an umbrella overhead in order to keep the food clean and Niki’s statement, ‘the sand could swallow up cities, even countries’, acknowledges its power. Members of this society are valued according to their usefulness, and when Niki almost becomes a victim of the environment - sinking in quicksand when trying to escape - he is rescued by the villagers, but only so that they can immediately get him back to work.

All of this suggests that Woman of the Dunes can be read as a critique of closed communities, but Niki’s captivity within this secret society is actually meant to represent man’s struggle with modern social restraints. Woman of the Dunes was written by Kôbô Abe, based on his existential novel, and like the subsequent collaborations between the novelist and Teshigahara - The Face of Another (1966) and The Man without a Map (1968) - deals with freedom and identity in an economically resurgent Japanese society that was forcing men into required roles in order to maintain stability. The society in Woman of the Dunes assigns their captive such a task and puts him to work for the greater good, causing Niki to lose his sense of self as he struggles to escape. Niki ultimately comes to question what ‘freedom’ means in relation to the modern world and accepts that unlimited freedom is not achievable but that, within the parameters of social restraints, some measure of freedom and personal satisfaction is still possible. Rather than fight against his predicament, Niki choses to find fulfilment within it, and discovers a method of extracting water from the sand, while settling into his domestic arrangement with the widow, who becomes his partner. By becoming a productive member of the community, Niki is even able to achieve his ambition of getting his name in print, albeit on a missing person report rather than in an encyclopaedia. When an opportunity to escape the village eventually presents itself, Niki voluntarily extends his stay, with his decision to remain in the dune suggesting that he has decided that it is not such a ‘terrible place to live’ after all. This speaks volumes about the manner in which man becomes accustomed to his environment, but the final frames of Woman of the Dunes also serve to summarise Abe’s thoughts about Japanese society in 1964.

John Berra

Plinkett’s Secret Army

Plinkett (Red Letter Media)

I want to describe a secret society I’ve stumbled upon. It started with Spaced.

In Spaced, a social documentary dressed as a sitcom, the mystery unravels quickly: Tim, an out-of-work comic book retailer goes to claim benefits and finds himself offered money far quicker than many other applicants. The reason for the swift processing? Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. He didn’t like it. And nor do others.

It was a scene in a comedy, but it’s not far from the truth. And that truth is a dark web of vice, full of sly winks and shared hyperlinks. You think you’re immune to its charms, but you’re not. First you’re disappointed with the film - Episode I, that first Lucas prequel - and you find sympathy in those around you. But as they start to forget about it little hints of what that film shattered stay with you. And in that you aren’t alone.

For this society The Phantom Menace is like the reformation; shattering a church of merchandise-supported art as if it was so much LEGO.

Imagine holding onto that feeling, clinging so tightly to it that you can no longer tell where you end and your loathing begins. Something twists in your soul, making you recognisable only to others who share your hatred of that film, that franchise, until someone sweet appears before you and drawls, ‘What’s wrong with your face?!’

What is wrong with it indeed.

This whole rotten underworld was revealed for what it was back in December 2009. Red Letter Media, a video production company starting to get a reputation for take-downs of the Star Trek franchise, released a seven-part deconstruction of Episode I to YouTube (now archived on their own site), airing every single fanboy’s petty grievances with The Phantom Menace and finding time to mix those up with exquisitely accurate assessments of its structural failures as a film. Every character, every weak plot point, every gimmick, every blessed moment of Lucas’s inserted ego was laid bare for all to see.

Which is nothing new. At all. It’s the bread and butter of what makes this dark little world of Lucasfilm-loathing critics tick. But Red Letter Media brought the lulz with Plinkett, the character voicing this 70-minute monologue.

Plinkett’s Phantom Menace review managed to be incredibly funny. Dark, but hilarious. Clips and loops of continuity errors and terrible characterisation were interspersed with shots of cats going into microwaves and Plinkett’s broken life. This is a critic who probably killed his ex-wife and leaves hookers to die in his basement, a grotesque villain, who manages to say the cleverest and wittiest things.

The review instantly went memeic, flooding Twitter and curated blogs like SyFy’s blog. It gave a community of haters pause for breath, the comments threads opening its arms to people tripping over themselves to come out and declare that they too felt this way.

The humour of the reviews comes from a space dominated by bedroom nerds, many of them boys. The jokes are intoned with the very same voice that whispers ‘lemon party’ in the dark, cheat codes to the basement hackers of the world, all of whom loved this moment in daylight. This was their triumph, their ‘Holidays in the Sun’, this was their Potemkin!

And then, as quickly as the storm arrived, the sun came out and all the darkness melted away.

Plinkett had shown these people a vision of the future that managed to blend film theory, rape/murder and pizza-rolls into one beautiful boxed-set. The nerds, this society, were never going to let him go.

Episode II: Attack of the Clones got the Plinkett treatment. Again the plot is destroyed, everything from the decoys one character has in case of assassins (‘Who would apply for such a position?’) to the characters’ responses to the threat level implied by the dialogue (‘The situation is so dangerous you’re walking around in the middle of broad daylight?’), let alone the epic battle sequence around which the whole prequel turns. He dwells on the awful-looking characters, calling them out for the cheap marketing fodder they are, and points out time and again just how little there is to fascinate about this whole exercise.

And for that strange little group of vilified, bitter viewers it was once again their time.

Much later, as the parties got started on New Year’s Eve and 2011 reared its head, Plinkett returned. The time between reviews had been taxing, and the snappy brevity of his approach seemed punctured. The review of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith had bloated to almost two hours, and while it was technically on track the cut-aways and humour seemed painfully thin.

It emerged that the interjections had taken on a life of their own. Hooker Nadine, a throwaway reference in the first review, had blossomed into a character, capable of taking Plinkett on and taking him down. As this hybrid offshoot hit the screen the basement societies convulsed; what to do with this B-movie dressed in the trappings of our - ahem, sorry - their saviour?

It was terrible, the special effects hamstrung by their attempt at humour, the manifestation of Plinkett in human form. That voice just wasn’t right. And what was wrong with his face?

The Revenge of Nadine spoiled everything, shattering the beauty of what came before. It sullied the position of this once great trilogy and made it something else, something lesser. Red Letter Media ceased to be the jewels in the crown of this little sub-sect of geekdom and became just another bunch of chancers with a camera. George Lucas, had he noticed, would have wept.

But it didn’t change the society.

In cold basement cellars these people meet. They know one another by name and intent. They find humour in things normal people simply can’t comprehend, and loathe things that others might just let go.

And when I come home from work, open up my laptop, and sit in its weird blue-white glow only the most diligent of observers could tell the difference between them and me. I can’t.

Matthew Sheret

Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic

The Tiger of Eschnapur

Format: DVD

Release date: 18 April 2011

Distributor: Eureka

Director: Fritz Lang

Titles: The Tiger of Eschnapur + The Indian Tomb

Original titles: Der Tiger von Eschnapur + Das indische Grabmal

Germany 1959

101 + 102 mins

Way back in 1921 young Fritz Lang apparently concocted the screenplay for this bit of exotic adventure, but wasn’t trusted to direct it; studio politics intervened, then an inconvenient Second World War. Cut to the late 50s: émigré Lang has fallen from favour in Hollywood; his last film, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), was a while back, and the offers aren’t exactly rolling in, when he gets a call from German producer Artur Brauner who tells him his old script has resurfaced, and there’s only one man they want in the director’s chair….

The Tiger of Eschnapur (Der Tiger von Eschnapur) and The Indian Tomb (Das indische Grabmal), the two halves of what became known as Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic are some of his last work, his penultimate film, made when he was approaching 70 and given more freedom and money than Hollywood usually offers its ageing masters. It was a lavish production, given extensive location shooting, an international cast, elaborate sets, crowd scenes and more elephants and tigers than you could shake a stick at. The result is one of the most deliriously unreal slices of cinema that it’s ever been my pleasure to witness.

The story is pure hokum. A German architect (Paul Hubschmid) is hired by the maharajah of Eschnapur (Walter Reyer) to construct a temple on his palace grounds. Unfortunately he promptly falls for dancer Seetha (the, frankly, smoking hot Debra Paget), on whom the maharajah has matrimonial designs, and the two lovers have to flee for their lives. Whereupon the architect’s unknowing sister (Sabine Bethmann) and partner arrive in Eschnapur, and are commissioned to construct a tomb for living inhabitants, full of traps and hazards, while in the wings, revolution is brewing amongst the palace courtiers…

All of this is the framework on which to hang lots of proto-Indiana Jones business: there are traps and escapes and close calls, flaming torches and carved stone. Fate and the ability to avoid it is continually questioned, whether our lives are our own, or in the hands of unseen forces. But it’s primarily a visual experience; nearly every frame looks like the cover to a pulp novel, all coloured back lighting and sweaty muscle. Hubschmid would have made a fine Doc Savage, Paget is a Frank Frazetta dream. India is used as a fount of exotic imagery, of jungle tiger attacks, rope tricks, coloured silk and glowering statues. It’s like a lurid and brutal children’s film, one that can accommodate Seetha’s sinuous, near-naked dance routines and a nightmarish attack by some Romero zombie-like lepers.

As the leper sequences illustrate, this is all undoubtedly loaded with cultural insensitivity and ideological dodginess. Colonial attitudes are present, if not emphasised. All the key Indian roles are played by ‘browned up’ Europeans and Americans, and the whole 203 minutes have no time for the political and social realities of life in the subcontinent. This is an India of the mind, dreamed up for silent film in 1921, and as accurate as Rousseau’s jungle canvasses. It would take an especially humourless viewer to watch this without a grin forming on their face at all the sumptuous fakery. I would say that the first half writes a cheque that the second half doesn’t quite pay out on, with more studio-bound scenes of verbal to and fro to little effect, but I’m quibbling. This is vivid, brilliant nonsense. ‘India is like an intoxicating drink,’ indeed.

The Eureka Masters of Cinema’s two-disc edition has fine-looking transfers of both films plus a host of extras, trailers, commentaries, a documentary, on-set footage and more.

Mark Stafford



Format: Dual Format Blu-ray + DVD

Release date: 9 May 2011

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Jules Dassin

Writer: Jules Dassin

Original title: Du rififi chez les hommes

Cast: Jean Servais, Carl Mí¶hner, Robert Manuel, Jules Dassin, Magali Noí«l, Marcel Lupovici

France 1955

122 mins

Since Rififi is excellent and its excellence has been well recognised, critical assessment is probably otiose. Instead let me wonder what kind of film it is. It can be seen as an archetype of the genre now known as the heist movie (in this case, not so much ‘heist gone wrong’ as ‘heist gone right but…’). By many the film will be best remembered for the bravura 28-minute robbery sequence in which not a word is spoken. Stylistically the film seems influenced by a different genre, the American detective noir of the 30s and 40s. Rififi is no policier, however: the man who goes down these mean streets alone is not a detective but a criminal, and the police play only an incidental role. The genre which Rififi ultimately exemplifies is that of the showdown between rival criminals: trouble in the underworld. A close inspiration may have been Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi, of the previous year.

The question of what the film is about leads to the question of its title. The British and American distributors gave up on translation and simply abbreviated it to Rififi. Slang of a past era is notoriously difficult to translate. Use slang from the same period for your translation and you risk making what was once vigorous and fresh seem quaint. Use more recent slang and the anachronism will jar. A bland English translation of Rififi would be ‘trouble’. Perhaps ‘rumble’ would make clearer the suggestion of conflict. But an extra layer of sexual innuendo is added by Magali Noí«l’s nightclub song about her relish for rififi with her man. So what would have been a good English equivalent? ‘Rough and tumble’? ‘Naughtiness’? Too jokey. If only I could think of some suggestive and cool-sounding phrase meaning ‘Trouble among the Men’ - but I can’t.

If the film has a theme it is something like ‘honour among thieves’. Overworked and scarcely plausible now is the idea that there is something to admire in the honour-based value system that supposedly governs (or more often fails to govern) the criminal world. But it is memorably embodied in the central character Tony ‘le Stephanois’, played by Jean Servais, his features impassive but still somehow expressive of pain and determination, his recurrent cough a sign that his cards are marked. The film is his, with associates and enemies falling to one side or the other as he drives the drama through each new development to its grim but fitting conclusion.

I think the key to Rififi is its vividness: the swiftness of exposition, the tellingness of the dialogue, the immediacy of the character portrayals. Perhaps these are all lessons learned from the economical ways of Hollywood noir, but add to this a more European visual imagination, meticulous care with choreography of the action and framing of shots, and a delight in the Parisian locations and atmosphere (distinctly pre-teenager, pre-Elvis, pre-Gainsbourg). Amazing that Jules Dassin, creator of this masterwork of French cinema, was in fact McCarthy refugee Julius Dassin of Middletown, Connecticut.

Available now in a miraculously sharp print to bring out its deep chiaroscuro aesthetic, Rififi‘s status as a seminal crime film is secure.

Peter Momtchiloff

An Unflinching Eye: The Films of Richard Woolley

Illusive Crime

Format: DVD

Release date: 28 March 2011

Distributor: BFI

Director: Richard Woolley

Titles: Kniephofstrasse (1973), Drinnen und Draussen (1974), Illusive Crime (1976), Telling Tales (1978), Brothers and Sisters (1981), Waiting for Alan (1984), Girl from the South (1988)

UK 1973-1988

450 mins

Maintaining its commitment to preserving the disparate underbelly of our post-war national cinema, the BFI has just released a 4-disc DVD box-set of the all too brief output of Richard Woolley, another auteur that never was.

After studying structuralist aesthetics at the Royal College of Art, Woolley won a scholarship to Berlin in 1973, where he joined a group of ‘undogmatic Marxists’ concerned with the angst of capitalism and the inequalities of sexual politics. A determined avant-gardist, he made a few Godardian shorts and let his spare room to Takahiko Iimura, who he says taught him how to make money from being an artist - make it cheap!

Returning to the UK in the mid-70s, Woolley’s first featurette, Illusive Crime, was part funded by Yorkshire Arts, though its geography is far removed from Emmerdale. Filmed mainly in one location, the narrative develops over 12 revolving shots, with non-sync dialogue and off-screen action. The camera, often static and locked off, observes from a distance. It was shot on Ektachrome reversal stock, and there’s an apology/disclaimer at the front of the film for the slight imperfections and edge fogs on the print available here. Beginning with a long typewriter explanation of the film’s exposition, complete with sneezing and spelling corrections, it’s a voyeuristic exploration of a faceless rural housewife as she is sexually assaulted by the police, who believes her to be guilty of the non-existent event of the title, and dismissed as hysterical by her returning husband.

Telling Tales, Woolley’s first full-length feature, continues his exploration of gender and class politics. A middle-class couple bicker on the verge of divorce, while their servant couple grind their coffee and fetch the bottle openers. Framed through faraway doors, the film suggests that ultimately there’s little difference between both parties, all susceptible to money and greed. With Brechtian deconstruction, colour flashbacks and manifesto texts sometimes delivered direct to camera, it becomes a bleak comedy of manners.

In 1980 Woolley got his ‘proper’ break with Brothers and Sisters, a 35mm film funded by the BFI and inspired by the Yorkshire Ripper murders. A more conventional, realist film with professional actors and a quasi-whodunnit plotline, though retaining Woolley’s fondness for framing through doorways and his recurrent class and feminist themes, it achieved a wider distribution, but ultimately suffered from straddling the line between commercial and art-house. A final film, Girl from the South, followed in 1988, about a poor little rich girl who dreams of Mills & Boon, falling for a poor black boy who loves Elgar.

Strangely, by moving to a cosier and more accessible narrative form, Woolley became exhausted by directing and years of frustrated script development (the 1984 short Waiting for Alan is a reference to the Channel 4 commissioning editor). In the 90s Woolley turned to education, setting up the Northern Film School in Leeds, and then to music, and more recently has published three novels. An interview with Woolley on each disc extra includes an amusing anecdote about his encounter with R.W. Fassbinder. In his moment, Woolley had ranked alongside Peter Greenaway and Terence Davies in the pecking order of that elusive, contradictory category, British Auteur, and this box-set is a tragic reminder of how the UK gatekeepers have always missed the boat when it comes to nurturing a cinema of the left-field.

Robert Chilcott