‘All four of us don’t agree on anything ever, it’s really hard for us to say anything about ourselves.’ So says Tobi Vail, Bikini Kill’s drummer, in archive footage featured in The Punk Singer, a documentary by Sini Anderson about the band’s front woman, Kathleen Hanna. In the spirit of their politics, band members Hanna, Vail, Kathi Wilcox and Billy Karren did not toe the line. Angry about the condescending and sensationalist reporting of the band and the Riot Grrrl movement they spearheaded, they rarely gave interviews. It is therefore thrilling to hear them reflect on the period in Anderson’s affectionate, bordering on hagiographic, film.
As a young feminist performance poet, Hanna was advised by Kathy Acker to join a band instead. Bikini Kill were exciting, raw and radical, and in Hanna they had a front woman with a brilliant voice and flair for live performance. She kicked back against the aggressive male mosh pits of the punk scene by calling ‘girls to the front’, thus creating a safe space for women to enjoy themselves.
Sadly, the world outside their concerts was still not safe: abortion rights were being challenged and incidents of sexual harassment (as demonstrated by the Anita Hill case) were not being taken seriously. Riot Grrrl, a movement that embraced art, feminism and music, was born out of this unease. Hanna and Bikini Kill were among those who wrote a manifesto (‘We are not man-haters…’), started a fanzine of the same name, and declared it to be an open movement to women everywhere.
As Hanna recalls in the film, the outside world did not often grasp what the movement was about, and press reports about it often focused on Hanna’s past (she worked as a stripper to support herself through college, and comments she made about her father’s ‘inappropriate sexual behaviour’ were twisted into a lie that he had raped her). Interviewed by Anderson over several months, Hanna still appears weary of explaining herself on these matters, more than 20 years later.
But the real thrust of the film, and the question posed by Anderson at the beginning, is why did Hanna stop performing? After Bikini Kill disbanded in 1997, Hanna released a solo record under the name Julie Ruin, then in 1998 founded ‘feminist party band’ Le Tigre. They were successful, but in 2005 Hanna called it a day, telling everyone including her husband, Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz (she acknowledges the irony of her falling for someone who helped write the song ‘Girls’), that it was because she had nothing else to say.
This was not true. In the course of Anderson’s candid interviews with Hanna, the singer reveals it was because she was diagnosed with Lyme disease, a debilitating condition that one doctor describes as being like ‘if Superman meets Kryptonite’. It was undoubtedly a horrific period for Hanna and those around her and, perhaps because it remained undiagnosed for so long, one senses she still remains cowed by it today (in May she was forced to cancel a Julie Ruin tour because of the disease’s return, after a period of remission). A scene of her approaching a comeback gig hand-in-hand with her husband reveals a wide-eyed vulnerability that contrasts wildly with the early footage.
The film doesn’t tell of a triumphant or a tragic journey. It acknowledges Hanna’s huge achievements (not least in the superb soundtrack of back-to-back Hanna songs) but in the process of interviewing only committed admirers and close friends (Kim Gordon and Jennifer Baumgardner among them), and in providing no narration, balanced or otherwise, the film becomes a little over-referential. Perhaps Anderson did not feel it was the correct forum to challenge anything said by Hanna in her interviews, especially after Hanna points out how she feels people will always question a woman’s version of events. With its unprecedented access to Bikini Kill’s musical and artwork archive and pro-female approach (it is fanzine-like in style and very few men are interviewed, not even Karren), perhaps it isn’t. This is Kathleen Hanna: Herstory.
Based on the short story ‘Carmilla’ by: Sheridan Le Fanu
Cast: Tina Romero, Claudio Brook, Susana Kamini, David Silva, Tina French
Electric Sheep is proud to present a rare screening of Alucarda at the amazing Masonic Temple, Andaz Hotel Liverpool Street, London, on Saturday 14 June, as part of the Magic and the Macabre weekend at the East End Film Festival. Acclaimed festival programmer and writer Kier-La Janisse, author of House of Psychotic Women (FAB Press), will introduce the screening.
Having produced Alejandro Jodorowsky’s incendiary first feature Fando y Lis (1968) as well as El topo (1970), Juan López Moctezuma went behind the camera in 1971 to make The Mansion of Madness (released in 1973), which was loosely based on an Edgar Allan Poe story. He followed it up with two vampire stories, Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary, shot in the USA with John Carradine in 1975, and Alucarda in 1978. Like Fernando Méndez and Carlos Enrique Taboada, Moctezuma was one of a handful of well-read Mexican directors who were interested in making horror films infused with cultural references and artistic ambitions. In Mexico, the genre was dominated at the time by populist lucha libre movies such as the Santo series, which pitched heroic costumed wrestlers against monsters, vampires and mummies. However, Chano Urueta’s take on Frankenstein, El monstruo resucitado (1953), and Méndez’s influential El vampiro (1957) had opened the way for a richer vein of horror, and the 50s and 60s were marked by a wave of delirious visions of terror that are still lauded for their visual beauty and atmospheric qualities.
Moctezuma was part of the Panique Theatre, which Jodorowsky had founded in Paris in 1962 with the Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal (on whose play Fando y Lis was based) and the French artist Roland Topor. The name was a reference to the god Pan, and the movement (or anti-movement, as Arrabal would have it) was defined by a combination of terror and humour. Influenced by Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, Panique embraced disorder, madness and excess, the grotesque and the irrational, to create an anarchic celebration of life. From Artaud they also inherited the interest in a magical and ritualistic kind of theatrical spectacle, which used violent sensory assault to open up new perspectives in the audience.
Moctezuma implemented these ideas in The Mansion of Madness, in which the patients of an insane asylum are allowed to run free as their doctor adopts an Aleister Crowley-influenced approach to their treatment. Set in the similarly confined environment of a convent, Alucarda took the director’s interest in strange cults and rituals further. Alucarda’s birth opens the film, her wretched mother, having been impregnated by the devil, delivering the baby in a crypt surrounded by diabolical, horned, half-goat statues. To protect the newborn from her terrible father, she asks a bizarre-looking gypsy to take her daughter to the convent. Fifteen years later, Justine, a young, orphaned ingénue, arrives at the convent to find herself sharing a room with the raven-haired, black-clad, wild-eyed Alucarda.
Alucarda is clearly out of place in the convent and her holy abode has not been able to suppress the devil in her blood. She draws Justine into her world, taking her to the derelict crypt of her birth where she proposes they take a blood oath, so they can be friends forever, ‘even after death’. The ritual is performed in their room at night, which, this being the 70s, involves both of them being naked as the gargoyle-like gypsy from the opening scene magically appears to make cuts on their breasts from which they drink each other’s blood. They find themselves in the forest, where a ritual performed by witches ends in an orgy. Intercut with this are images of Sister Angélica, who welcomed Justine into the convent, praying intensely until her face becomes bloodied and she levitates, apparently able to conjure up some sort of power that strikes down the gypsy witch leading the ceremony.
The clear lesbian undertones of the film come from Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’, on which Alucarda is very loosely based (the other literary reference is obviously Bram Stoker’s Dracula), but Moctezuma and his team of writers have made the story their own. The friendship between Alucarda and Justine has the devouring intensity of first love, but in the enclosed, all-female convent/hothouse, the girls’ repressed desires translate into demonic possession. The figure of Sister Angélica adds an interesting twist, turning the story into a spiritual lesbian love triangle. Her attachment to Justine is as dubiously excessive as Alucarda’s and is sublimated into a frighteningly exalted religious practice. The love triangle is complicated by Alucarda’s satanic nature and Sister Angélica’s self-sacrificial (‘angelic’) Christian figure, meaning that there is a lot more at stake than Justine’s affection: demonic Alucarda and holy Sister Angélica are battling over nothing less than Justine’s soul (the character is named after Sade’s unfortunate heroine, whose virtue is repeatedly assaulted by one group of perverted tormentors after another).
Alucarda has been seen as anticlerical, yet the depiction of religion comes across as very ambivalent, confused even. For a start, the convent is a very unusual religious edifice, a womb-like cave carved inside the rock. The nuns are dressed in off-white, red-stained robes and tight-fitting bonnets that make them look like mummies. Initially, there are intimations that Alucarda may be an adept of a natural religion, a religion of life opposed to the Catholic worship of death. The witches’ orgy contrasts with a later display of self-flagellation among the half-naked nuns and priests. An early, sumptuously sinister, almost painterly sermon takes place against the backdrop of a multitude of crucified Christs, creating an oppressive, macabre atmosphere. This is echoed in a later scene where Alucarda and Justine, naked, are tied to crosses for an exorcism ceremony. The dark, rich colours, the high camera angle and the cruelty of the ritual again conjure a memorable vision of religious maleficence.
And yet, Dr Oszek, who interrupts the exorcism and calls the officiating priest barbaric, is soon confronted with a gruesome supernatural phenomenon that destroys his scientific certainties and validates the priest’s beliefs. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, an undead (and again naked) Justine comes out of a blood-filled coffin to attack the devoted Sister Angélica. Alucarda proves a worthy daughter to her father when she unleashes hell upon the convent, stopped only by the body of the Christic Sister Angélica carried cross-like by the other nuns. All in all, you could say the Christian characters come out of this looking fairly reasonable in the circumstances.
The truth is that Moctezuma seems much more interested in extreme rituals of all kinds than in putting across an anticlerical message. The devil here appears in the form of Pan, as seen in the statues in the crypt and later in the goat’s head that presides over the orgiastic celebration in the forest, which clearly ties in with the ideas underlying Panique Theatre. The same actor, Claudio Brook (a Buñuel regular), plays both Dr Oszek and the gypsy, so that reason’s representative is also our mischievous guide into the occult and spiritual world, further undermining the rational standpoint. The many rituals, whether Christian or satanic, the orgy and the flagellation, the blood oath and the exorcism, are all marked by excess and strangeness, violence and beauty. The contrast between the beliefs that inform them is not what matters here; rather, the overall effect of their juxtaposition as grotesque and startling spectacles may well be designed to shock the audience into a new mode of perception.
As part of our exploration of ground-breaking Polish director Walerian Borowczyk, we look at his career as a board game in our comic strip review.
As part of Kinoteka, ‘Walerian Borowczyk: The Listening Eye’, an exhibition of preliminary studies for his animated shorts Les Jeux des Anges (1964), Le dictionnaire de Joachim (1965) and The Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal (1967) as well as his unique wooden sound sculptures is on at the ICA’s Fox Reading Room from 20 May – 6 July 2014.
Cast: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson
Canada, USA 2014
You can say what you want about Maps to the Stars, as long you don’t mention the word ‘satire’. At least not in the presence of director David Cronenberg or his screenwriter Bruce Wagner, who spent most of their time in Cannes denying the fact that the narrative could be seen as such. A pitch-black family drama of sorts, yes. Cronenberg’s very own Divine Comedy, maybe. A haunting, terrifying version of life in LA, if you like. But a ‘Tinseltown satire’, NO. ‘It is not a satire of Hollywood,’ Cronenberg stresses in more than one interview, ‘it’s reality.’ And Wagner adds: ‘I’ve given you the lay of the land as I see it, saw it, and lived it.’
If so, then the truth is that Wagner has seen a lot – by anyone’s standards. Julianne Moore plays Havana, a fading yet feisty ageing actress, who is desperate to make her big comeback but instead is increasingly haunted by the ghost of her mother, a celebrated child actress who became a classic Hollywood star. To her good fortune, Havana is inclined to think, she meets Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), whom she employs as her new PA. Branded with burn scars on her hands and arms, Agatha, however, has her very own agenda. The daughter of a smug self-help guru (John Cusack) and demanding mother (Olivia Williams), who managed her kids’ careers but otherwise cared little for their well-being, Agatha left home for rehab after causing a fire that put her and her little brother Benjie (Evan Bird) – a child star ruined by fame – in life-threatening danger. Now back in the hood, Agatha lives out her inner demons and romantic fantasies in a weird imaginary game with limousine chauffeur Jerome (Robert Pattinson), who, in turn, is seduced by Havana. Unsurprisingly, things get pretty messy from here on.
In his career, spanning almost 40 years since his 1975 debut featureShivers, Cronenberg has never before shot an entire film in LA and, quite aptly, finally arrives only to expose it to the bone before burning it all down to ashes. What’s more, Maps to the Stars exploits its blatantly Lynch-inspired plot of switching reality for fantasy, yourself for someone else, and losing all sense of truth to a point where delusion (and in Havana’s case, hysteria) thrives, terror rules, and nothing is sacred.
In both counts, the film sees Cronenberg at his weirdest, wittiest and most horrifying in years, crafting a highly charged, cynical nightmare about today’s fucked-up Hollywood society, with the suitable feel of a mystery ghost story. And yet, as fitting, seductive and gruesome as it is, Maps to the Stars somewhat feels at odds with the director’s insistence that the film is anything but a satirical apocalypse. But luckily, as in real life, the truth lies in the details and it is the ambiguity that makes the experience worthwhile.
Walerian Borowczyk’s medieval tragedy fools audiences into expecting one of the erotic films for which the director later became infamous. In the opening sequence of Blanche, the title character is seen emerging, completely naked, from her bath. The camera’s lascivious eye sets the scene for a tale of forbidden desire, but Blanche herself is as pure as her name (French for ‘white’). For the rest of the film she always appears, nun-like, in long gowns and modest caps that hide all but her hands and face. Young, beautiful, and married to an elderly baron, Blanche must flee the attentions of other men, starting with Bartolomeo, the notorious young page of a visiting king.
With its elegant costumes and set design, Blanche could be described as a historical drama, but the film’s sophistication exceeds conventional models. Borowczyk’s background in fine arts allows him to bring an additional layer of authenticity to the film by drawing on the representational style of the Middle Ages. Shots, composition and framing pay homage to medieval landscape and religious painting. Windows, doors and alcoves dramatically divide interior shots. Exterior long shots emphasise the harmonious juxtaposition of hilltop, pasture and road, with grazing animals and passing cavalcades reduced to minute decorative detail. The film also employs an animal symbolism characteristic of the period. The king arrives with a monkey on his shoulder, a disquieting emblem of insinuating, irrepressible sexuality that has free run of the castle, hiding away only to pop up unexpectedly throughout the film. In contrast, Blanche’s gentle, vulnerable innocence is mirrored by the caged white dove in her bedroom. Tempering the film’s loyalty to a medieval aesthetic, Borowczyk introduces self-reflexive techniques, such as disorientating point-of-view shots, which situate the film within a current of modern cinematic experimentation.
Daniel Bird, who is responsible for the restoration of Borowczyk’s films, says that Blanche (1972) inspired Terry Gilliam’s vision of the Middle Ages in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). I would suggest that Blanche itself appears to have been inspired by Jacques Demy’s Peau d’â;ne (Donkey Skin, 1970), a camp fairy tale about a princess (Catherine Deneuve) who must run away from home when her father decides he wants to marry her. The baron in Blanche is played by Michel Simon, who made his name in 1930s French poetic realist films like Boudu sauvé; des eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning), L’Atalante and Le quai des brumes (Port of Shadows). He was in his late seventies when he appeared in Blanche opposite Ligia Branice, Borowczyk’s wife; as the baron is old enough to be her father, an early shot of him kissing Blanche on the mouth appears incestuous, echoing the theme of Demy’s film. Jacques Perrin, the young actor who played Prince Charming in Peau d’â;ne, reappears in Blanche as Bartolomeo, another role in which he ultimately defends the heroine’s honour.
The baron justly describes his wife as ‘a saintly woman, above all suspicion’, but halfway through the film he suddenly loses his trust in her. As he becomes irrationally hostile towards Blanche, we may assume that the old man is suffering from dementia. His condition seems to infect the film’s narrative, which loses its grip on the thread of logical coherence. Still, Borowczyk has woven such a mesmerising tapestry that the audience can’t help but continue to watch as it slowly, senselessly unravels.
Writers: Anthony Greville-Bell, Stanley Mann, John Kohn
Cast: Vincent Price, Diana Rigg, Ian Hendry, Milo O’Shea
Theatre of Blood is almost the last horror film Vincent Price made in the 1970s. Price was famous for a rather broad style of acting, and his last few 70s horror roles reflect that – the Dr Phibes films are high camp, and Madhouse (1974) casts him as a hammy old horror star. Theatre of Blood, Price’s favourite of his horror roles, has him play a Shakespearean actor, Edward Lionheart, out for revenge on the critics who gave him bad reviews. He murders them using methods taken from the Shakespeare plays he performed in his final season (although it’s unclear who Lionheart would have played in Cymbeline, a play without a lead male role).
Price’s star turn walks the line between humour and pathos extremely well. Like most of Price’s best parts, Lionheart is all flawed nobility, and gives the actor plenty of scope for his well-practised head-tilting, eye-rolling mannerisms. It is the culmination of the onscreen persona he had cultivated since at least The House on Haunted Hill (1959). Price is backed by a peerless supporting cast of British character actors, which includes his future wife Coral Browne, with Arthur Lowe, Harry Andrews and Robert Coote particularly good. Diana Rigg plays Lionheart’s adoring daughter (a rather under-written part) and the reliably unlikable Ian Hendry is the leader of the critics.
Comedy horror is difficult to pull off, and Theatre of Blood plays the horror mostly straight. The early murders are authentically nasty, especially the first, in which Michael Hordern is stabbed by meths drinkers. The later killings become more elaborate and outlandish, most famously in the Titus Andronicus sequence, but the gory effects still pack a visceral punch that is absent from most Vincent Price films.
The comedy is rather underplayed, and is best when it isn’t obtrusive. The funniest moment comes when the stunt doubles for Price and Hendry indulge in some preposterously athletic fencing. There are also nice little character moments among the critics, played to perfection by comedy veterans like Robert Morley and Arthur Lowe. Price’s disguises are funny, especially the Olivier-baiting false nose he wears as Richard III. Other attempts at humour, such as the slightly jarring presence of Eric Sykes as a detective, are less successful.
The director, Douglas Hickox, had done comedy before (Entertaining Mr Sloane, 1970, a film that isn’t screamingly funny), but made Theatre of Blood just after the depressing crime thriller Sitting Target (1972). His next film was Brannigan (1975), a John Wayne action movie. Theatre of Blood certainly feels like a film made by a director happier with violence than comedy.
In spite of its advantages, though, the film doesn’t quite work. The unrealistic elements – comical names, plodding detectives – don’t fit with the brutality of the killings. While deaths plucked from Shakespeare’s plays are a worthy follow-up to Phibes’s Biblical killings, the derelict, grimy London of Theatre of Blood is light years away from Phibes’s art deco dreamland. The film also feels a bit too long – one or two of the critics could have been jettisoned. Shaving 15 minutes from the run time would have made this much stronger.
Still, it’s interestingly positioned at the end of an era. The film makes it clear that Lionheart isn’t a bad actor; he’s just an unfashionable one. At the Critics’ Circle awards, his old-school barnstorming is ignored in favour of a younger method actor (‘a twitching, mumbling boy’). 1973, the year of Theatre of Blood, saw the National Theatre move from the traditional Old Vic to Denys Lasdun’s modernist South Bank complex, just downriver from where the critics meet in the film. Director and businessman Peter Hall took over from actor-manager Laurence Olivier as its artistic director that same year, cementing a general shift in influence from star performers to directors. It’s hard to imagine Edward Lionheart taking too kindly to modern-dress Shakespeare or social realist readings of Hamlet.
And, of course, the same thing was happening in horror films at the same time. Star-vehicle horror of the kind that had kept Price in art and cookery books died out in the 1970s. We tend to think of 1960s horror in terms of its actors; 70s horror belongs to directors like George Romero and Wes Craven. 1973 saw the release of classic new-style horrors like Don’t Look Now and The Exorcist alongside some of the last Hammer Gothics and Amicus portmanteau films. The writing was on the wall.
It’s tempting to see Lionheart’s refusal to bow to changing times as reflecting Price’s own attitude. Better to go out howling defiance than to go on like Hammer and Amicus did, churning out the same old stuff and hoping the audiences would come back. But perhaps that’s reading too much into a film in which a man is forced to eat his own poodles.
Arrow’s Blu-ray release upgrades the film’s image in impressive fashion without losing its grimy ambience. The extras are a bit light compared to some of their releases. The best is a commentary by the League of Gentlemen, who know a thing or two about mixing horror and comedy (although Mark Gatiss should note that Tutte Lemkow was, in fact, a man). If it isn’t quite the classic it could have been, there are still pleasures enough to make Theatre of Blood well worth watching.
In 2010, when David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom hit big screens around the world to overwhelming critical acclaim, it almost felt like a revelation for contemporary Australian cinema. Smart, gritty, intensely unsettling and radiating a seething energy derived from an excellent ensemble of low-key performances, Animal Kingdom proved once more that with a fresh, imaginative approach there is no need for a spectacular budget.
The Rover is available in the UK on VOD from 15 December 2014 and on DVD/Blu-ray from 5 January 2015.
Michôd’s eagerly awaited follow-up The Rover might lack some of the density and acuity of his coolly detached debut, but the film still manages to maintain a fierce tension despite the flaws in its fractured plot and characterisation. Starring a cold-eyed Guy Pearce and a deeply committed Robert Pattinson (trying hard but unavailingly to shake off his fetching Twilight persona) The Rover is a post-apocalyptic tale set amid the raw violence of a society in decline where the demise of all codes of honour is wryly acknowledged.
Ten years after an unspecified ‘collapse’, the blasted world in which angry loner Eric (Pearce) survives is one where greed reigns supreme, bullets are cheap and life is cheaper. Somewhere in that God-forsaken outback Eric has his car stolen by three passing outlaws. As he goes after them to reclaim his very last possession, he bumps into simple-minded desperado Rey (Pattinson), the wounded little brother of one of the carjackers, who has been left behind after an unexplained shootout, but still has enough life in him to help Eric.
It may have been better to not explain the reason why Eric stops at nothing to get his car back, rather than revealing it abruptly at the end, but more disappointing is the gradually fading force of Michôd’s storytelling after a gripping first half. While he succeeds in echoing the spirit of some of the darker, dustier takes on the genre by making excellent use of the harsh landscape, he fails to craft a seamless narrative of similar verve and refinement as Animal Kingdom. But still, what ultimately drives The Rover is a combination of danger and uncertainty, and Pearce’s captivating performance as he is perpetually faced with the realisation that things can always get worse.
Cast: David Keith, Cathy Moriarty, Mike Desantos, Art Evans
Despite having made only four films, not all of them completed to his satisfaction, Donald Cammell has left a substantial legacy. Performance (1970), co-directed with Nicolas Roeg, has entered rock history, thanks to Mick Jagger, who was probably channelling the late Brian Jones, and definitely sleeping with co-star Anita Pallenberg, Keith Richards’s girlfriend. Cammell’s only other film that decade was Demon Seed (1977), an occasionally effective adaptation of a Dean Koontz sci-fi/horror novel that disappointed anyone looking for another Performance. His next film, the psycho-thriller White of the Eye, appeared in 1987. After seeing his final movie Wild Side (which starred Christopher Walken, Joan Chen and Anne Heche) heavily re-edited by the producers, Cammell committed suicide in 1995.
Of his four films, only Demon Seed and White of the Eye were released in Cammell’s intended form, and it’s probably no coincidence that they are his most traditional, accessible efforts. Cammell left behind a long list of abandoned projects; his only other commercial releases are a handful of short films and a little-seen music video for U2’s hit single ‘Pride (In the Name of Love)’.
Like most psycho-thrillers, White of the Eye begins with a murder, as a wealthy woman is followed back to her isolated home in the Tucson desert and slain by an unseen stranger. Unlike most similar films, Cammell shows us very little in the way of bloody violence, although there’s no doubt what’s happening. Instead he concentrates on the chaos caused by the assault: a wine bottle smashes, a glass leaks its contents across the work surface, fresh flowers fall to the floor, a cooking pot shatters (spilling the only blood shown in the scene). The two murders are bloodless but make a notable impact thanks to Cammell’s careful use of violence and a handful of memorably surreal images, like a goldfish splashing about in a cooking pot . In the light of later events, one moment in particular seems oddly prescient: a dying victim observes her own death throes in a hand mirror (according to some accounts, after shooting himself Cammell asked for a mirror to see the self-inflicted wounds).
From there White of the Eye moves into standard police procedural territory, as detectives match tyre tracks found at the scene of one of the murders to (among others) local resident Paul White, played by David Keith. White lives with his wife Joan (Cathy Moriarty) and daughter Danielle and makes a living as a sound engineer, fitting high-end amplifiers and sound systems for his wealthy neighbours. Keith and Moriarty are both excellent and contribute greatly to the overall impact of the movie. Unfortunately they can do little to remedy the film’s major defect: pacing. After the blitz attack of the first murder, White of the Eye settles into a slow-moving groove that robs the material of any real sense of urgency or danger, even when Paul is being questioned by the police. A subplot about Paul’s infidelity becomes essential to the narrative later on, but at the time those scenes drag heavily. It’s not until the second murder that Cammell begins to pick up the pace, having spent the first hour setting up the characters and situations in preparation for the film’s hectic final act.
Despite the pacing problems, White of the Eye has strong points, not least Keith and Moriarty’s credible, convincing performances. On a visual and audio level the film consistently impresses, whether it’s the choreographed chaos of the first murder or the way the camera glides over the abandoned quarries and pits that make up the distinctive Arizona wilderness. Although the Arizona landscape is largely man-made, the angular and bright white buildings look utterly out of place against that background. The same applies to Cammell’s characters. It’s a thoroughly incongruous setting for the trappings of 1980s culture, whether it’s the high-tech sound equipment Paul works with or the faintly ludicrous perms and high heels the residents wear. The image is reinforced by Nick Mason’s score, which mixes the atmospheric psychedelia of 1970s Pink Floyd with Rick Fenn’s restrained but evocative slide guitar, hovering on the boundary between blues and rock.
Casual viewers might find themselves frustrated by Cammell’s initial lack of interest in plot and suspense, but White of the Eye does reward patience, even if the end results don’t reach the same level as Michael Mann’s Manhunter, released less than 12 months previously.
Based on the novel by: André Pieyre de Mandiargues
Cast: Sylvia Kristel, Joe Dallesandro
Original title:La marge
Alternative title:The Margin
I think it was Lacan who asked the question: if we’re always thinking about sex when we’re doing other things – eating bananas, driving fast cars, learning French – what are we thinking about when we’re actually having sex? When Sylvia Kristel’s streetwalker Diana has sex in Walerian Borowczyk’s 1976 film The Streetwalker (La marge), it’s so obvious as to almost be ludicrous. She stares at the money that she has clutched in her hand with such intensity as to leave no doubt, even as her John, Sigimond (the iconic Joe Dallesandro) thrusts intently away. Sex is a transaction, a way of earning money. Sigimond is a rich vineyard owner with a young family visiting Paris for business. He is a romantic. He is not lonely and Borowczyk shows his home life to be sexually satisfying, idyllic even. He’s prone to mutter mid-coital silliness such as ‘You are the gift and the giver’. And so his dalliance and experimentation while away on his ‘business trip’ has nothing to do with filling a vacuum. He just wants to have some sex. When he is having sex – to answer Lacan’s question and in opposition to Diana – he is thinking about the sex he is having. The film will trace his increasing distraction and the tragic price to be paid for such guileless romance, even as Diana becomes more aware of sex as something other than a way of earning money, which in itself proves a painful reawakening.
Released two years after Kristel achieved notoriety and worldwide fame as Emmanuelle, the film stands as a testament to her genuine ability as an actress, and it is cited by the actress as her favourite role. Her fragility – the gnawing anxiety that she is already being superseded by younger models of her former self – and her growing yearning for something other than monetary gain is played out in a brilliant and nuanced performance. With the shifting of porn into the mainstream via the internet and the proliferation of sexposition in TV drama, the film doesn’t even seem particularly pornographic today, but on release it was received as another attempt to gain art-house respectability for sex films. Kristel’s fame possibly damaged the film as it was remarketed in some regions as Emmanuelle ’77. However, despite the movie star beauty of the prostitutes, Borowczyk never celebrates sex unambiguously, juxtaposing it with the banal. A beautifully shot strip show takes place as a crate of booze is delivered to the bar by a working stiff – sign here, keep a copy – and Diana will retire to the same backroom for a quick delivery of her own. The prostitutes are bitchy and Diana herself is dishonest and angry. Her pimp is a lazy dressing-gown-clad psychopath who does target practice with his pistol in his hotel room. But it is not just the sex that has to contend with the banal, but tragedy too when Sigimond reads a terrible letter from home while gazing over the most unromantic Parisian view of a huge building site.
With a score from some giants of 1970s music, a stunning extended use of Pink Floyd’s ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’ and some fantastic cinematography by long-time collaborator Bernard Daillencourt, the film is a beautiful melancholic meditation on sex in a dirty, dirty world.
Cast: Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning
My colleagues, they can make believe that Dominique is truly disturbed; I think that they will find that Danielle, who is so sweet, so responsive, so normal as opposed to her sister, can only be so because of her sister.
Present day, Staten Island, and actress Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder) has been separated from her twin, Dominique Blanchion, for some years. She meets Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson) a kind man who seems like he’d take care of Danielle; but when her spooky ex-husband shows up on their date, it becomes clear that she has a ‘past’. When sinister events unfold, columnist Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) sees this as her big opportunity to write the story that will finally help her to bust through the glass ceiling, and starts her own investigation into Danielle’s life.
Central to De Palma’s films is the idea that the normal and the psychotic are symbiotic: they feed from each other, and one cannot exist without the other. It makes sense therefore that he would have been drawn to making a psychological thriller based on conjoined twins; Sisters (1973) is an early incarnation of the syrupy twisted with grotesque violence. What starts as a quasi-realist thriller takes a turn simply with the appearance of a huge birthday cake to celebrate the twins’ birthday; its pink frosting flowers, the twinkling candlelight, Bernard Herrmann’s score jangling in the background, and the enormous carving knife that has been placed next to it all bode ill, yet somehow they seem to be entirely appropriate. In Carrie (1976), three years later, De Palma would combine the saccharine normality of American high school pomp with pig’s blood and telekinetic delirium, and how blissful is that mix.
Sisters is like a fairy tale that evolves into a slasher thriller, with women doing some of the thinking – at last. De Palma is good at writing material where female characters are allowed to talk to each other, and about women. Grace Collier has scenes where she speaks about her frustrations with not being taken seriously; this happens at work, and when she confronts the police as a witness to a brutal crime, their levity is clearly based on her gender. She even gets to talk directly to Danielle Breton about something other than men or children, although Danielle’s capacity for murder is not much of an upgrade. Later, in a sense, Grace metaphorically changes places with Dominique, the disturbed twin. Grace is a character with guts and intelligence, but it’s as if these qualities can be easily made equivocal with the monstrous. Only heavy-handed hypnosis can manipulate her strong mind, and she is partly silenced for her agency and will. De Palma creates aberrant women, where psychosis merges with normality, even if the narratives shut them down at the end of the films. But consider Carrie’s hand thrusting out of the soil of her newly dug grave – this lasting image serves as a reminder that the monsters are not going to go away.
It’s good to see this cult classic re-released, and to remember it as one of the films that paved the way for other great films about twins, including Kim Jee-woon’s Tale of Two Sisters (2003).
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