Treme: The Complete First Season


Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 30 May 2011

Distributor: HBO Home Entertainment

Directors: Agnieszka Holland, Simon Cellan Jones, Anthony Hemingway

Creators: David Simon, Eric Overmyer

Writers: David Simon, Eric Overmyer, David Mills, Tom Piazza

Cast: Steve Zahn, Kim Dickens, Clarke Peters, Wendell Pierce, John Goodman

USA 2010

4 disc set (10 episodes)

Having spent the best part of two decades creating cop shows - albeit two of the best ever (Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire) - David Simon seems to have found himself with something close to a carte blanche as to what to make next. Avoiding self-indulgence, he used this situation to tackle some of America’s most traumatic and controversial moments of recent years. Thus Generation Kill (2008) and Treme (2010-11) depict the ‘War on Terror’ and Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath respectively. These intelligent realistic dramas are shows that needed a bankable name behind them, and in television (quality television at least) the writer/creator is the name above the title - the star. Of course the actors must be outstanding, and Simon provides us with a great ensemble cast including New Orleans natives John Goodman and Wendell Pierce (The Wire‘s Bunk) and many non-professional local actors such as Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, who was so memorable in Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke. But it was the guaranteed quality of Simon’s writing team that got these projects green-lighted.

Treme is an area in New Orleans right by the French Quarter. Largely populated by African-Americans, it is undoubtedly of great cultural importance, containing Congo Square, the birth-place of that great American art form, jazz. As my pre-Katrina tourist guide claims, ‘there aren’t many reasons to wander into the Treme’, and certainly not after dark, but compared to The Wire‘s Baltimore housing projects the Treme depicted here is something short of a fallen Utopia. Despite the mould, crumbling houses and missing neighbours the sense of community is a thing to behold. And of course, the great authentic New Orleans music is everywhere - played by locals for the locals away from the Bourbon Street tourist traps and ‘titty-bars’.

The series opens with the first ‘second line’ (marching brass band) parade since the storm. It might not be Mardi Gras but these smaller parades are an almost weekly event in New Orleans. It illustrates how important the music is to the people, who randomly join in the parade as it marches to its conclusion at a local bar. At a time when many Americans were asking whether the city was even worth rebuilding, this depiction shows why people love New Orleans and why it is worth preserving. It certainly appears to be a city unlike any other in America - there are still the highways cutting through the city centre, and I’m sure fast food chains (although we don’t see them), but even the failing Tower Records store has an arrangement with local musicians. It is also a city with a real sense of its own cuisine beyond a differently shaped pizza or local brand of frankfurter.

Where The Wire attempted to contextualise the police procedural - with each season focusing on schools, city politics, the press, etc. - Treme goes even further, to the point where the background takes the lead. This loosely connected bunch of characters represent the different aspects of New Orleans culture - a jazz trombonist (Pierce), a Creole/Cajun-food chef (Kim Dickens), a writer and lecturer (Goodman), a stoner DJ (Steve Zahn) and Clarke Peters (The Wire‘s Lester Freamon) as the chief of a tribe of Mardi Gras Indians. Much of the culture is merely shown with little direct explanation - for instance, who are the people organising and paying for the ‘second line parade’? And the curious world of the Mardi Gras Indians - an African-American subculture that involves dressing up in the most elaborate native American costumes - is left in part a mystery.

One of the great things about HBO television shows has been the space allowed for both plot and character development that the 90-minute cinema release can never hope to equal, and this is certainly the case here. The plots largely focus on rebuilding and attempts to return to some pre-Katrina normality - cleaning up homes, repairing roofs, trying to find a job or a gig, saving a business. There is no overall story arc to encompass these fragments - each story works its own way towards its own conclusion.

There is also room for some blatant political comments with John Goodman’s character’s interviews and YouTube rants. He explains how the flood was caused by negligent work and poor maintenance of the levees (‘this is a man-made catastrophe, not a natural disaster’). George W. Bush’s decision to view the disaster from the window of Airforce 1 flying overhead is ridiculed in Zahn’s musical satire (‘Shame on you Dubya’). The frustration with the federal government’s response can be seen everywhere - ‘Buy us back Chirac,’ asks one carnival float of French-costumed New Orleanians.

But taking up even more screen time is the music. The plot takes a back seat while we watch yet another great musical performance. From traditional to modern jazz from blues to rhythm and blues - real musicians such as The Rebirth Brass Band, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint (who recreate their post-Katrina New Orleans recording sessions), Dr John and Steve Earl all have cameos. As an English reporter suggests, New Orleans music may have lost some of its international importance, but locally it is still the beating heart of the city.

The series has flaws but pretty minor ones. The dialogue can be difficult to follow - peppered with New Orleans accents, jazz musician in-jokes and obscure references - but at least the characters are not speaking in the military acronyms of Generation Kill. At times the writing is too good: there are too many good lines, too many profound statements for it to be truly realistic and authentic. And there seems to be just too much integrity in the main characters. But the meandering pace is perfectly suited to the subject matter, and the moments of high emotion and drama are beautifully handled with great understatement.

Free from the need to sneak good writing into a cop show formula (Homicide), Simon delivers another of his epic Tolstoyan depictions of intensely personal stories and their socio-economic and cultural milieu. The Wire is widely recognised as one of the all-time great TV shows and with a few more seasons at this standard Treme could equal this status - as long as you like jazz.

Paul Huckerby

Cross of Iron

Cross of Iron

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 6 June 2011

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Writers: Julius J. Epstein, Walter Kelley, James Hamilton

Based on the novel The Willing Flesh by: Willi Heinrich

Cast: James Coburn, Maximilian Schell, James Mason

UK/West Germany 1977

127 mins

‘God is a sadist… but he probably doesn’t even know it.’

For the purposes of Cross of Iron (1977), God is Sam Peckinpah, and the victims of his bloody vengeance are the German and Russian soldiers dragged through the mud in this impressively grim panoply of horrors. Misty Yugoslavian locations serve as the Eastern front, and a mixed pack of American, British and German actors play German soldiers on the slow, confused retreat from the Soviet Union.

Julius (Casablanca) Epstein’s script treads lightly around politics: there’s only one dedicated Nazi in the film, the sinister Zoll, the rest being a disillusioned bunch of pragmatic soldiers and one fanatic, but he’s a Prussian aristocrat intent on military glory, rather than a typical representative of the regime. As played by Maximilian Schell, he’s both the film’s main antagonist, and its principal source of comic relief: Schell’s witty performance stresses the character’s preening narcissism, incompetence and innate cowardice (his greatest fear: being found out and exposed).

Against this absurd madman, the film poses James Coburn as Steiner, initially presented as a noble and relatively humane killer, slowly revealed as a typically conflicted, neurotic Peckinpah hero, addicted to the strife of war, feeding on his hatred of officers, ultimately ineffective.

Coburn plays the role, oddly, with his Oirish accent from Duck You Sucker! (1971), which is mildly distracting at first. But he tamps down his lusty movie-star charisma and gives an impressively bitter, glowering performance. James Mason and Peckinpah regular David Warner provide support.

It’s no surprise that the film features lengthy, manically cut battle sequences at deafening volume, with slow motion deployed energetically for moments of mayhem and destruction. More pleasingly, there’s little of the modern fetishising of military technology. The Russian tanks have a dinosaurian rumble and sway to them, and are quite terrifying, but the filmmaker privileges death-porn over gun-porn. As early as in The Getaway (1972), Bloody Sam’s slo-mo had ceased any pretence to capture the adrenaline surge of death agony, and was celebrating the beauty of exploding hubcaps, paperbacks and banisters, a ballet of destruction that had more in common with the pyrotechnic climax of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) than with the original intent behind the mayhem of The Wild Bunch (1969). So while the script attempts a dissection of the urge to fight, the camera and cutting indulge in an orgiastic celebration of the aesthetic possibilities of large-scale destruction and slaughter. There’s certainly a tension between the two, but it’s not necessarily damaging.

The film, like Peckinpah himself, is nevertheless on the verge of disintegration. The jittery, blinking montage of the battles is carried on into conversation scenes (few of which are devoid of the sound of distant explosions). Like Borges’s mythical Aleph, Peckinpah’s cinema wants to see everything at once, so we restlessly snap from set-up to set-up, with a commendable, neurotic attention to nuances of performance. Time is distended, not just in moments of violence, but in the multiple exchanges of glances punctuating the dialogue.

Then, at the end of Act One, a Russian shell pitches Coburn through a series of random dissolves, like a melting hall of mirrors, and into a combat shock sequence that brilliantly uses Peckinpah’s deranged montage to evoke a disconnected, fractured state of being. Coburn wanders through this disjointed mindfuck with bandaged brow, his intelligent-simian face contorted into a lobotomised monkey glower.

This sense of disintegration anticipates the film’s startling ending, which folds in jauntily singing German schoolchildren, maniacal laughter, a quote from Brecht, and a stutter of freeze-frames to paint a vivid portrait of… what? Peckinpah’s over-indulgence in Slivovitz, a diabolic plum brandy that can remove the top of a human head if used correctly? His coke-frayed nerve-endings finally strained to snapping? The madness of war? The impossibility of making a film about it? Whatever the answer, this is an intense, nail-biting, seedy and mad-eyed movie.

Alongside the garbled but well-meant denunciation of war, Peckinpah’s more retrograde side is in evidence, although more muted than in the wild-man rampages of Straw Dogs and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia: a rapist receives harsh punishment, but Coburn’s men seem on the point of committing sexual assault moments before. The camera leers, hand-held, over a voluptuous female bather. Homosexuals are untrustworthy. Killing is manly - but still terrible.

Optimum’s new Blu-Ray looks beautiful, and comes stuffed with extras. Alas, some over-zealous grading seems to have turned day-for-night scenes into brightly, if coldly lit dawn, making lines like ‘We go in at first light’, play nonsensically. A shame, since John (Witchfinder General) Coquillon’s smoky, glazed cinematography is one of the movie’s principle enticements.

David Cairns

Who Can Kill a Child?

Who Can Kill a Child?

Format: DVD

Release date: 23 May 2011

Distributor: Eureka

Director:Narciso Ibañez Serrador

Writer: Narciso Ibañez Serrador

Based on the novel by: Juan José Plans

Original title: &#191Quién puede matar a un niño?

Cast: Lewis Fiander, Prunella Ransome, Antonio Iranzo

Spain 1976

112 mins

Narciso Ibañez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? (1976) is arguably the best Spanish horror film ever made. It’s also a classic of 70s horror, but you’re unlikely to find it on many ‘best of’ lists, from either fans or critics. This is mainly due to its half-hearted distribution; saddled with a number of other titles - including Island of the Damned and Death is Child’s Play - and shorn of up to half an hour of footage, Serrador’s film surfaced briefly on the drive-in circuit before slipping into obscurity. It did occasionally appear on television, however, and grey-market VHS copies circulated among fans of cult and horror cinema. Through this limited exposure, the film acquired a growing fan base, although it wouldn’t receive an uncut release in the USA until 2007. Finally, in 2011, Who Can Kill a Child? is being released in the United Kingdom.

Young biologist Tom and his heavily pregnant wife Evelyn (Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome) are on holiday in Spain. They decide to visit Almanzora, a small island off the coast. It isn’t necessarily the best place to go - there’s no doctor, no telephone and it takes four hours in a boat to get there - but they want to get away from the tourists. When they arrive, the island appears to be deserted, except for a handful of children. The shops are open, but empty, and it’s obvious no one has been there for several hours. Tom follows a group of giggling children into a building and finds them playing a game in the courtyard, swinging long poles at an object above their heads. But it’s not a piñata hanging from the ceiling - it’s the battered body of an elderly man. As Tom struggles to imagine what has happened on the island, he and Evelyn encounter one of the locals, hidden upstairs in the hotel. He tells them that the previous night the children took to the streets, laughing and playing, going from one house to another. Screams of pain and horror followed, as the children began killing every adult they could find. It’s time for Tom and Evelyn to leave, but will the children let them escape?

Like Village of the Damned (1960) and Children of the Corn (1984), Who Can Kill a Child? pits adults against children, this time working from the template established by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Unlike those films, Who Can Kill a Child? doesn’t dilute the horrific premise by making his children aliens or religious maniacs controlled or directed by a supernatural entity. The children of Almanzora were, until the night before, completely normal. Even now they’re behaving much as children should - playing, giggling, running around the town having fun. It’s just the nature of the ‘fun’ that has changed. Following Hitchcock in The Birds (1963) and Romero, Serrador provides no real information that might help to understand or explain the events taking place. Tom and Evelyn have better things to do than speculate about why the children have slaughtered the adults.

Serrador’s only serious misstep occurs almost immediately. As a prologue to his film he attaches 10 minutes of real-life footage depicting various wars and man-made humanitarian disasters, always stressing the number of children who died in each instance. This establishes the continued victimisation of children by adults (accidental or otherwise), opening the door for the children of Almanzora to turn the tables. Unfortunately, footage of concentration camps and African famines makes for an uncomfortable way to begin watching what is essentially a frivolous form of entertainment. Thankfully Serrador avoids such ham-fisted moralising for the rest of the film. When Who Can Kill a Child? gets going, it’s a masterpiece of atmosphere and a deeply unsettling, original experience, and one that deserves to be seen by a much wider audience.

Eureka’s new Region 2 edition carries the same content as the US Dark Sky edition, using the same high quality, uncut print and featuring documentaries about the director and the cinematographer.

Jim Harper



Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 23 May 2011

Distributor: BFI

Director:Jan Švankmajer

Writer: Jan Švankmajer

Based on Alice in Wonderland by: Lewis Carroll

Original title: N?co z Alenky

Cast: Kristýna Kohoutová

Czechoslovakia 1988

86 mins

Games have been a constituent element of many Czech films, from the improvisation and word play of Voskovec and Werich in the 1930s to the unpredictable inventions of V?ra Chytilová (Daisies) in the 1960s. When Jan Švankmajer made Alice, his first feature film, in 1987, he was already part of a culture in which the game was central. Indeed, one of his early films, in which he ‘plays’ with stones, forming them into different combinations and Arcimboldo-like faces, was called Game with Stones (1965).

The Czech Surrealist Group, which had remained ‘underground’ during the years of Stalinism after the Second World War, reconstituted itself in 1968 and Švankmajer became a member in 1970. When they were again forced underground after the Soviet invasion of the country in 1968, they began a whole series of group explorations and games, investigating such areas as touch, fear, eroticism, analogy, interpretation, creativity and, of course, dream, humour, and game itself. Collective games and interpretative experiment form the essential context of Švankmajer’s work.

Cruelty - indeed, one might say sado-masochism - was an element of many of his short films, from the competing magicians of The Last Trick (1964) to the self-devouring and destructive heads of Dimensions of Dialogue in 1982. His three films dealing with childhood - Jabberwocky (1971), Down to the Cellar (1982), and Alice (1987) continue to explore this vein. Švankmajer argues that childhood is a time with which he maintains a continuing dialogue but that he remembers it as a ‘time of cruelty’. His Jabberwocky (1971), with its references to Carroll’s nonsense poem and to the pre-war leader of the Czech surrealists, Ví­t?zslav Nezval, focused very precisely on the world of children’s play. As the then leader of the Surrealist Group, the poet Vratislav Effenberger, put it, the film was a variety show from a child’s imagination with its individual ‘turns’ divided by a wall of bricks repeatedly knocked down by a black cat.

Extras include the first screen adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic, 1903’s Alice in Wonderland, the Brothers Quay’s Alice-inspired Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married? and Stille Nacht IV: Can’t Go Wrong without You as well as a 34-page booklet.

This, together with Down to the Cellar (1982), which grew out of the Surrealist Group’s exploration into the subject of Fear, were obvious precursors of his work on Alice. Although based on his own experiences of being sent ‘down to the cellar’ to fetch potatoes, his heroine is a young girl. In this sense, the film recalls both Alice and Little Red Riding Hood, as the girl confronts the unknown. In the cellar, she meets a man who makes a bed out of coal and offers her a place beside him, an old woman who bakes cakes from coal dust, an enormous cat that stalks her, shoes that fight for a piece of bread she is eating, and potatoes that follow a life of their own and escape from her basket.

Alice, technically a Swiss-British-German co-production although, in all creative respects, entirely Czech, was filmed in Prague with Švankmajer’s regular team. Significantly, the Czech title translates as ‘Something from Alice’, indicating that it should in no way be considered a straightforward adaptation of Carroll. Having said that, one could argue that the similarities are greater than one would have expected. However, where Carroll attributes the origins of Alice’s dreams to the reassuring sounds of the countryside, Švankmajer anticipates the images of her fantasy ‘in the brooding preliminary shots of her room, with its shelves of relics and mysteries from other, previous lives - the furniture she has not yet earned the right to use. Alice’s quest is a hunt for her own context.’ (Philip Strick)

While Alice is played by a real little girl, the world of her imagination or dream world is represented by puppets and animated figures. Her transformations in size are represented by changing from human to doll and, in this sense, Švankmajer seems to suggest an instability in identity. On the other hand, the intermittent close-ups of Alice’s lips speaking short lines of narrative suggest that she ultimately has control of these imaginings. At the end of the film, when she has been condemned to death and the White Rabbit, armed with a pair of scissors, appears as an actual executioner, she announces: ‘Perhaps I’ll cut his head off.’

Like Faust, in Švankmajer’s later ‘variety collage’ of the Faust stories, Alice moves from scene to scene and from world to world and, in this sense, the film also provides a parallel to the earlier Jabberwocky. But, unlike Carroll’s original, the characters have become much more explicitly threatening. The principal puppet figures that she meets all have the appearance of old toys - to echo André Breton on the ‘magically old’ - ‘old-fashioned, broken, useless…’ The March Hare constantly has to be wound up and have his eye pulled back into place, the Mad Hatter is made of carved and beaten wood and, despite his hollow innards, constantly drinks cups of tea. The White Rabbit continually has to replace his stuffing - a constant resurrection revealing, suggests Brigid Cherry (in Kinoeye), the influence of Gothic horror, and representing the Undead. Undoubtedly, the rabbit is far from reassuring, arrogant, domineering and, armed with his pair of scissors, a ‘castrating’ figure.

Švankmajer’s most nightmarish creations are his ‘animals’, who pursue her at the White Rabbit’s behest after she has escaped from his house. These skeletal monsters - imaginary beasts made largely from bones - first made their appearance independently as part of Švankmajer’s sequence of constructions entitled Natural Science Cabinet in the early 1970s. They include a coach pulled by chickens with skull heads, a fish-like skeleton with legs, a skull dragging a bone body, and a skull head that snaps out of a jam pot. This array of visions is far from the antiseptic world of Disney or the reassuring middle-class images of Sir John Tenniel. But, as one Czech critic put it, Alice’s confrontations with fear and humiliation are more than compensated by her ‘outstanding character and extreme intelligence’.

When the film was shown on British television one Christmas, episodes were shown during the day and the whole film late at night. The experiment of day-time screenings was never repeated. Swiss parents apparently removed their children from cinema screenings. But is this world of imagination really more harmful than the readily available synthetic violence of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers? As Švankmajer once said: ‘Unless we again begin to tell fairy tales and ghost stories at night before going to sleep and recounting our dreams upon waking, nothing more is to be expected of our Western civilisation.’

There will be a screening of Alice on June 16 at the Barbican (London), followed by a Q&A with Jan Švankmajer and Peter Hames.

Peter Hames

This article was first published in the autumn 08 issue of Electric Sheep Magazine.