As part of our ‘Freedom’ theme this month we look at cult British TV series The Prisoner (1967-68).
Subtitled ‘Being an inquiry into The Shining in 9 parts’, Rodney Ascher’s diverting documentary features a group of obsessives ranging from eccentric to out-and-out whacky expounding upon their theories about the Stanley Kubrick film in voice-over. Those are illustrated by an artfully assembled montage of graphics and manipulated clips from the film, together with well-chosen odds and sods from Western cinema in general and Kubrick’s oeuvre in particular, in a manner reminiscent of Adam Curtis’s work. Ascher does his damnedest to make it visually and aurally interesting, and lets his chosen voices speak without judgement.
Most of the speakers were disappointed by their first encounter with the film, but went back to it on VHS, on DVD, on Blu-ray, watching it over and over, convinced that a cinematic master with an IQ of 200 couldn’t just produce an overly mannered misfire, no, there had to be more to it than that. They started to map the geography of the Overlook hotel, read the posters, props and set decoration for clues, and assume that continuity errors must be there for a reason. The result suggests that what The Shining was really about was, well, take your pick: the Holocaust, Greek myth, American ‘Manifest Destiny’ and the genocide of the native population, and, my personal favourite, Kubrick apologising for his part in the faking of the moon landings by Apollo 11. This is Great Movie Mistakes as seen by people who don’t believe in mistake, chance or coincidence, and how much you enjoy it is going to be dependent upon how long you’re prepared to indulge their company – 102 minutes is a stretch.
But it says something about the reputation of the man and his cinema that this film, and doubtless hours more like it could be made. I can happily believe that he read the book Subliminal Seduction about hidden messages in advertising and interviewed Madison Avenue executives about how they worked. Maybe some of the weirdness in The Shining was the result. Who knows? But in his massively extensive research and attention to detail, the Kubrick of legend was just as obsessive as any of the contributors to this film. If, y’know, slightly more hinged.
As one of the unseen says at one point, ‘Kubrick is thinking about the implications of everything that exists!’
Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a little black girl who lives with her daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry), in the Bathtub, a small, ramshackle Louisiana riverside township of rundown rummies, long-in-the-tooth hippies and out-and-out outsiders. This is the community of the other, the one that doesn’t think of itself as a victim even as it falls off the map: hell, it doesn’t even enter into Mitt Romney’s 47%. They live on the margins in the wetlands, happy to be forgotten and left alone, but the world is changing and Hushpuppy dreams of terrifying giant hogs, old creatures that will be released by the melting ice of the Arctic and will descend on their community, destroying everything in an end-of-days stampede.
Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild caused a great deal of critical buzz after its premiere at Sundance followed by its entry in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, and the praise was amply justified. Zeitlin’s film approaches a section of society that is often generically ghettoised in worthy social realism. His mixing of poverty with a rich strain of dark Gothic fantasy does have some problems, but the exhilaration of a film that refuses to tick the usual boxes and prefers to follow the chaotic breathless journey of its main character and narrator is well worth the ride. Hushpuppy herself is an admixture of Huck Finn, Pippi Longstocking and Dennis the Menace; she’s an ASBO Alice in Wonderland, but all that said, she’s also herself, a perfectly original angry unique little girl. She lives near her dad Wink – but crucially not with him – but Wink is ailing. Along with the awakening Lovecraftian aurochs, there’s a very real storm brewing and flood is coming, and Wink’s wrung out body is at the wrong end of a lifetime of alcohol and neglect. Hushpuppy makes sense of her own dilemma on her own; she draws her own history of the universe on the walls of her shack; tends to her animals and communicates with her long-lost mother, who she now feels she must find if everything is going to be alright. She even attends school occasionally, but, being Bathtub, it isn’t exactly a Michael Gove-approved academy. ‘You are all meat,’ the teacher tells her wards – that is, when she’s not preparing voodoo medicine.
The music, cinematography, the sense of place, and the wonderful narration Hushpuppy provides – ‘The world belongs to us. It was made for us’ – creates a bold, challenging vision and, although moving, the film never descends into mawkishness. It never asks for sympathy – ‘No tears,’ Wink shouts at Hushpuppy. However, there is a danger that in the fireworks (quite literally at times) and the yelling and whoops of celebration as well as the millennial excitement and dread, the film might remain oddly comforting. Hushpuppy’s empowerment seems a part of the fairy tale skeleton of the plot. A corrective might be Roberto Minervini’s Low Tide, which premiered at Venice this year, and which tells a very different story of a child’s resilience in the face of awful parental neglect. The two films would make for an interesting double bill.
That said, Hushpuppy’s mission is really to stand alone. And this is a film that weaves its fascinating magic and leaves all other questions for another time.
The Cinema of Transgression movement was named in the mid-1980s by Nick Zedd, although independent filmmaker John Waters was doing the leg work in the mid-1970s. His irreverent and splendid films challenged accepted notions of normality with a truly free spirit, including the black comedy atrocity that is Female Trouble (1974), starring actor, singer and drag queen Divine as Dawn Davenport. Here, John Waters revels in a thorough stripping apart of a 1970s North American puritan, conservative moral code. He replaces it with as much grotesquerie you can fit into a 97-minute feature. Self-confessed ‘thief and shit kicker’ Dawn and her crew know no bounds as they trash conventional heterosexual family values, shove a stiletto heel into the ideal of passive femininity and spit in the face of the law. Dawn does not back down. This is a diva biopic that dispenses with sentimentality and spoons on the dirt.
Divine is unique as Dawn as we follow her on a journey from destitution to stardom. She starts as a teenage runaway when her parents don’t buy her the cha-cha heels she wants for Christmas. Then she moves quickly on to single motherhood, cat-burgling, stripping and finally extremist modelling. Other Waters favourites feature: Edith Massey plays the burlesque Aunt Ida and her hyper-tense daughter Mink Stole as Taffy. Both characters give the film some of its hilarious incisive lines, as when Taffy retorts to her step-father, ‘I wouldn’t suck your lousy dick if I was suffocating and there was oxygen in your balls,’ and Ida says to her nephew Gator: ‘I worry that you’ll work in an office, have children, celebrate wedding anniversaries. The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.’
When Dawn is recruited by über-fashionista couple the Dashers, played by Mary Vivian Pearce and David Lochary, she embraces their mantra ‘Crime is beauty’. They teach Dawn how to jack up on liquid eyeliner and promise her fame in return for racy photographs of her involved in violent acts. Dawn becomes more and more drawn into the idea that violence and disfigurement are truly sublime. With this descent, or ascent, depending on how you want to look at it, Waters stretches the limits of taste even further. Many mainstream directors dip one toe into the mire of pevrersion, wave it about a bit and pull out before they do anything the censors or the imaginary, banality-loving audience might not like. Narratives are neatly tied up, the ‘immoral’ are punished. Waters doesn’t do this. Without giving too much away, Dawn does get stung in the end for her depravity in a Gun Crazy meets Sunset Boulevard face-off. Although I can hardly say that Waters’s ending conveys a sense of normality resuming. Waters and other transgressive filmmakers like him raised questions about what normal was in the first place. Once criticised for his ground-breaking work Waters is now a national treasure, but his work has a resounding message: ‘It’s normality that should keep you awake at night, not me.’