Category Archives: Screenings

God Knows Where I Am

God Knows Where I Am

Format: Cinema

Screening date: 14 April 2017

Venue: Bertha DocHouse Screen (Curzon Bloomsbury), London

Directors: Jedd Wider, Todd Wider

USA 2017

99 mins

Tickets are on sale via the DocHouse website

***** out of *****

There is plenty of drama in the directorial debut from noted producing brothers Jedd and Todd Wider, but make no mistake, this is a documentary.

There is a deep mystery that unfurls in God Knows Where I Am – sometimes scary, often creepy, but eventually giving way to something much deeper than the surface details. Like most evocative whodunits, the picture becomes a whydunit and exposes, not unlike great film noir (and modern neo-noir), something far more desperate and downright insidious. There is plenty of drama, but make no mistake, this is a documentary.

Sadly, too many filmmakers forget about the power of poetry in cinema. This is especially endemic in documentary work that’s limited to imparting facts, and/or becomes so wrapped up in ‘story’ (demanded by narrow, vision-bereft commissioning editors) that no matter how proficient the films are about the issue and/or subject matter at the centre of the work, they are ultimately bereft of genuine artistry.

God Knows Where I Am opened in the US on 31 March 2017 and is released nationwide by Bond/360.

There is no such problem plaguing God Knows Where I Am. The picture is an absolute heartbreaker and a good deal of its success is directly attributable to its pace, style and structure, which yields a film infused with all the qualities of the sublime. I challenge anyone to not weep profusely at several points within its elegiac 99-minute running time.

The picture reimagines the last weeks of Linda Bishop, an intelligent, sensitive middle-aged woman found dead in an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse. Existing only on rainwater and apples from a bountiful tree, she felt trapped by dangers which threatened and frightened her to such a degree that she was unable to leave the comfort and shelter afforded to her by this lonely enclave. Eventually, as the apples ran out and the unheated house was battered by one of the coldest winters on record, comfort gave way to agony and agony gave way to grace.

Directors Todd and Jedd Wilder have constructed their film using a seemingly endless series of gorgeously composed and lit shots (gloriously mastered on FILM by cinematographer Gerardo Puglia), with many of the dolly and tracking shots moving with the kind of slow beauty Vilmos Zsigmond employed in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. These haunting images, many of which are so stunning they’ll be seared on your soul for a lifetime, are accompanied by off-camera readings from Bishop’s journal by actress Lori (Footloose, Trouble in Mind, Shortcuts) Singer. Singer’s performance here is astonishing – she captures the pain, desperation and even small joys in Bishop’s life during these sad, lonely days with a sensitivity and grace linked wholly to her ‘character’. This is no mere narration or voiceover – this is acting.

The aforementioned sequences are interspersed with actual 8mm home-movie footage of Bishop as a child, who was once bright, happy and full of promise. The filmmakers also wend interviews into the film’s fabric with such figures as Bishop’s adult daughter, various friends and relatives, and a local police detective and medical examiner – all of whom contribute to the mystery that unfolds with spellbinding dexterity.

In addition to the cinematography, the key creative elements in the picture are simply astonishing. Editor Keiko Deguchi creates a gentle, yet always compelling pace that contributes to the poetic nature of the film (and a few dissolves so powerful that each one knocks the wind out of you) while Paul Cantelon, Ivor Guest and Robert Logan have created one of the best scores I’ve heard in any documentary. Elements such as sound, art direction and visual effects are on a par with the best cinema can offer.

This is great cinema and certainly a contender for one of the best documentaries of the new millennium. It captures profound poetic truths about homelessness, mental illness and loneliness, which are rendered with such artistry and sensitivity that this is a film for the ages.

Greg Klymkiw

Watch the trailer:



Seen at Barbican, London as part of ‘Made in Prague/Cheap Thrills’

Format: Cinema

Director: Gustav Machatý

Writer: Gustav Machatý

Cast: Ita Rina, Olaf Fjord

Czechoslovakia 1929

85 mins

This silent Czech tale of seduction continues to mesmerise with its sensual portrayal of female sexuality.

Erotikon tells the tale of first love – the mad kind that makes a good girl throw away all caution. Andrea (Ita Rina) is living a quiet life with her old father at a country railway station. One stormy night, a suave stranger appears and her father kindly invites him to spend the night, only for the man to seduce his daughter while he’s out on his shift. Naturally, the stranger departs the next morning, leaving Andrea with an unwanted pregnancy and an irrational devotion to the slippery playboy. When their paths cross again in the city, will she give up her secure, conventional marriage to risk everything with this womaniser, even as he’s being pursued by another lover’s angry husband?

Gustav Machatý’s film was famous for its edgy portrayal of sexuality, female sexuality in particular. When Andrea goes to bed after first meeting the stranger and is in the throes of torrid dreams, we observe her through the camera’s (male) gaze, which takes in her upper body, with its erotically extended neck and arms thrown wildly above her head, as well as her bare calves sticking out from under the covers. But when she is actually seduced, the crucial part of the action takes place from her perspective, with delirious point-of-view shots of the man’s intense kohl-lined gaze as he advances on her, and diagonal whip-pans across the walls and furniture as she falls back onto the bed.

Our sympathy centres on Andrea, while the stranger is a caricature of a vain, opportunistic hedonist with little to recommend him apart from matinee idol looks. Accordingly, it’s Andrea’s actions that are the backbone of the film’s drama, while the stranger’s antics and their effect on jealous husbands are a source of comic relief.

One of the peculiarities of silent storytelling is the importance it lends to objects. The ‘Erotikon’ of the title fits the overarching theme of passion, but only appears in the film on the label of a bottle of perfume that the stranger gives to Andrea, the first step in his seduction – and how interesting that a film that can only directly appeal to one of our senses, sight, uses scent as a catalyst to advance the story. The stranger initially tries to apply the perfume to Andrea’s neck himself; she at first refuses both the gesture and the gift, but finally accepts the bottle. She tries the perfume when she is alone in her room, and we wonder whether it has some kind of magic effect on her, inspiring her wild dreams. When she emerges from her room to answer the phone, the stranger intercepts her, and recommences his seduction by smelling the finger she used to apply the perfume.

Later, the narrative continues to revolve around objects: Andrea and her husband are thrown together with the stranger when they meet in a piano shop where the stranger befriends her husband by allowing the couple to take the last model of a piano. When Andrea is on the point of deciding between her lover and her husband, the story ricochets between two objects: the goodbye letter that Andrea has instructed a servant to give to her husband at a set time, and the compact that another woman has left on her lover’s bed: one object threatens her conventional life, and the other her dream life of romantic passion.

The 20th ‘Made in Prague’ Festival offered a rare opportunity to see this film on 35mm (recently restored by the Czech National Film Archive), with flawless live accompaniment by pianist Thomas Ang, and Lydia Kavina on theremin. One of the earliest electronic instruments, the theremin has a ghostly sound and wonderful range: Kavina (who studied under the instrument’s inventor, Léon Theremin, himself) was able to evoke the deep rumble of a train, piercing notes to accentuate moments of high emotion, and even play jaunty dance tunes – no easy task when you have no physical contact with the instrument you’re playing. The theremin is an instrument whose vibrato seems very much of its time and perfectly suited to the melodrama of silent film, yet it also feels contemporary: not only is it electronic, but effectively a wireless form of music.

Alison Frank

The Third Part of the Night

The Third Part of the Night
The Third Part of the Night

Format: Cinema

Screening date: 18 March 2016

Venue: Close-Up Cinema

Director: Andrzej Żuławski

Writer: Andrzej Żuławski, Miroslaw Żuławski

Cast: Malgorzata Braunek, Leszek Teleszynski, Jan Nowicki, Jerzy Golinski, Anna Milewska

Original title: Trzecia czesc nocy

Poland 1971

105 mins

Andrzej Żuławski’s striking directorial debut is a fascinating journey into a shadowy world where the nightmare of history blends with personal nightmares.

Set during the German occupation of Poland in World War II, Andrzej Żuławski’s striking directorial debut opens as Michal, recovering from an illness in the countryside, witnesses the murder of his wife Helena and son Lukasz by soldiers on horseback. Back in the city, he joins the resistance and is wounded when a secret meeting is ambushed by the Gestapo. He is saved when his pursuers mistake a man wearing a similar trench coat and hat for him, shooting him before taking him away. In the captured man’s apartment, Michal finds his distraught, heavily pregnant wife Marta. She suddenly goes into labour, and Michal has no choice but to assist her. Struck by her resemblance to his deceased wife, and seeing this as a second chance, he supports her and the baby by returning to his former employment as a lice feeder at a medical institute working to produce a typhus vaccine. But he is riddled by guilt and attempts to mount a rescue operation to save Marta’s husband from the Gestapo.

The film was inspired by the wartime experiences of Żuławski’s father Miroslaw, who co-wrote the script after collaborating with his son on two literary adaptations for Polish television. Central to the story is Rudolf Weigl’s Institute in Lvov (where Żuławski was born), which fabricated a typhus vaccine for the Wehrmacht. Like many Polish intellectuals, Miroslaw was employed there during the war, and involved in a project whereby cages of lice would be attached to the legs to feed on a person’s blood. The insects would then be infected with typhus and their intestines dissected to prepare the vaccine. Many intellectuals and underground resistance fighters worked at this institution on this particular form of research and development because lice feeders were given identity papers, and fear of infection kept the occupying Germans away.

From the opening of The Third Part of the Night, a reading from the Book of Revelations heard over shots of desolate rural landscapes, it is clear that this is not a straightforward war film. The Polish underground is evoked through a few elliptical snapshots, but no significant actions: the gunning down of a man, a pursuit by the Gestapo, and the existential musings of the movement’s blind leader. The dominant dark blue colours bathe the film in an oppressive, eerie glow, and the hand-held camera limits the field of vision and heightens the impression of ominous dread and disorientation. The lice-feeding is both a symbol for the apocalyptic times and an astonishing historical reality, signalling that the world has descended into a surreal nightmare in which people are physically and figuratively drained – one character, for example, is said to have collapsed mentally after being fed on in this manner, as though his very identity had been taken away along with his blood.

The swarming insects represent not just the bewildering horrors of wartime, but also its ambiguities. Lice-feeding is ‘loathsome’ in Michal’s words, yet it also offers protection from the Germans. It is a powerful image for a world where everything has become ambivalent, where certainties, moral but also perceptual, are denied. The idea that the old world has collapsed is expressed by Michal’s father, and it is paralleled by the dissolving of Michal’s grasp on reality, as he is alone in seeing a resemblance between Helena and Marta. And where Helena appeared ruthless and cruel, Marta seems gentle and vulnerable, as if the double incarnation of his lover expressed Michal’s ambivalence towards her, as well as the unreliability of his perceptions.

This loss of moral and perceptual certainty is triggered both by the collective trauma of the German occupation and by Michal’s personal struggle to adjust to fatherhood. His sense of shock is made evident by the scene of Marta’s labour: Żuławski cut footage of a real childbirth into the film, splicing reality and fiction, which, as with the lice-feeding, highlights the unsettling strangeness of life, the weirdness of the real. And while this duplication of the family is seen by Michal as a chance to be a better father, the motif of the double has a fatal circularity. Michal and Marta repeat Michal and Helena’s actions, and in the final sequence Michal faces himself in a dead end prefigured in the earlier escape scene. Michal’s flight from the Gestapo up the spiral staircase in Marta’s building in fact offered no issue – except maybe a passage to another dimension of reality, or death.

Żuławski would replicate this scene 10 years later in the notorious Possession, a film that strongly echoes his debut, similarly charting the disintegration of a couple against a historically charged background – in this case, a divided Berlin – using a central doppelganger motif. In Possession, Żuławski fully embraced his tendency to excess, literally materialising the monstrous, grotesque side of reality more obliquely evoked in The Third Part of the Night, but both films offer a fascinating journey into a shadowy world where the nightmare of history blends with personal nightmares.

Andrzej Żuławski will be the focus of a retrospective at the Kinoteka festival, which runs from 7 to 28 April 2016. Read more about Żuławski’s work in our theme section.

Virginie Sélavy

Dawn of the Dead

Dawn of the Dead
Dawn of the Dead

Format: Cinema

Screening as part of The Colour of Money

Screening date:
14 September 2015

Venue: Barbican

Director: George A. Romero

Writer: George A. Romero

Cast: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger

USA 1978

127 mins

As of writing, George A. Romero‘s Dawn of the Dead is just three years shy of its 40th birthday, and its influence on the zombie sub-genre of horror movies is still as keenly felt now as it was back in 1978. A seminal entry into the horror canon and a hugely important release in terms of independent film distribution, Dawn of the Dead has been pored over, analysed and celebrated so often down the years that any new attempt at a re-evaluation could be considered a fruitless exercise. The middle part of Romero’s original Dead trilogy, preceded by the equally influential Night of the Living Dead (1968) and completed by the sorely under-appreciated Day of the Dead in 1985, Dawn is the trilogy’s Boys Own adventure when compared to Night‘s claustrophobic terror and Day‘s unflinching nihilism. A satirical romp about contemporary life in the era of conspicuous consumption, Dawn uses sledgehammer visual metaphors, a perfect location and countless exploding blood squibs to take potshots at a justly perceived political and spiritual malaise in 70s American society.

Despite being a little creaky in places and boasting some make-up work that hasn’t aged all that well, Dawn is still one of the great film visions of societal breakdown. The media is presented as being beholden to ratings even as the ship is visibly sinking, the general populace fractures off into an every-man-for-himself mentality, and authority figures abandon their posts and head for the hills or, in the case of the film’s quartet of lead characters, the sky in a helicopter. On a relatively small budget and with a star-free cast, Romero’s movie has a palpable sense of the everyday being torn apart by the most fantastical of events. The familiar clashes with the bizarre as tenement blocks, rural gas stations and shopping malls are overrun by the shuffling, flesh-hungry walking dead. The simultaneously creepy and comically absurd nature of the situation is never more apparent than in the hordes of zombies mindlessly stumbling their way around the gigantic Monroeville Mall, a sight as eerie as it is imbued with the potential for slapstick. Romero eventually exploits the latter quality to the hilt, as custard pies are splattered into undead faces along with bullets and machetes.

Putting metaphors and socio-political commentary to one side, Dawn of the Dead is enjoyable simply as a visual spectacle, thanks to the memorably gory and inventive FX work of Tom Savini. The highlight of Savini’s work for Romero may have come seven years later in Day of the Dead, but Dawn is still a gruesome delight for those enamoured with such things as heads explode, flesh is chomped and blood spurts with gleeful, anarchic abandon. Although Romero’s later zombie films – Land, Diary and Survival – have unfortunately been severely lacking in quality, his original trilogy changed the face of the horror genre forever, with Dawn its most accessible centrepiece.

Neil Mitchell



Format: Cinema

Screening as part of The Colour of Money

Screening date:
13 September 2015

Venue: Barbican

Director: Erich von Stroheim

Writers: June Mathis, Erich von Stroheim

Based on the novel: McTeague by Frank Norris

Cast: Gibson Gowland, Zasu Pitts, Jean Hersholt

USA 1924

131 mins

Widely viewed today as one of the greatest films ever made, Erich von Stroheim’s bold and daring adaptation of Frank Norris’s 1899 novel McTeague has lost none of its startling power. Almost a century on, this infamously troubled box-office disaster – famously halved from its eight-hour running time, before being substantially cut again by MGM – remains a towering achievement, and a sobering comment on the American Dream.

As von Stroheim himself declared, Greed plays out like a Greek tragedy. The film’s anti-hero, John McTeague (Gibson Gowland), attempts to rise socially and professionally, by trading in his work as a miner to become a professional dentist. He soon becomes enamoured with Trina Sieppe (Zasu Pitts), who is initially betrothed to another, and who also wins the lottery. Yet when the increasingly tempestuous couple fall on hard times, she refuses to spend (or share) her winnings. A startling finale, shot in the searing heat in California’s Death Valley, remains one of the most arresting on screen.

Von Stroheim, although influenced by the work of DW Griffith, pushed the boundaries of technique and style to extraordinary lengths. He favoured close-ups and fast-cut editing over laboriously extended scenes. He delighted in the grotesque (and the macabre), which appalled many at the studio at the time. Sections of the film were even tinted with gold for visual effect.

Key sequences such as the wedding, where guests gorge on food in the most grotesque way imaginable, have lost none of their power to shock and awe. Von Stroheim favoured an extreme form of naturalism: actors were denied make-up, no artificial sets were used, and the finale was shot over two months in the most unbearable conditions in the Californian desert. Not surprisingly, many of the director’s regulars became ill during the epic shoot, which typically ballooned way over budget. A perfectionist to the extreme, von Stroheim understandably was left distraught at the fate of his epic fable of early 20th-century American life.

Dismissed by many at the time of its release, Von Stroheim’s sprawling masterpiece has, as with Orson Welles’s best work, been reappraised over time. Von Stroheim’s influence over Welles, Hitchcock and others cannot be overstated. The full, eight-hour cut of Greed – seen by just 12 people at its premiere screening in Los Angeles – remains the holy grail of cinephiles. Lost to the sands of time, stories persist of footage appearing in far-flung corners of the globe.

Restorative producer Rick Schmidlin’s work goes a long way in restoring the narrative journey of the original. Dozens of original stills, together with a gloriously melodic score, flesh out the brutally condensed story, set in post-earthquake San Francisco, quite masterfully. Schmidlin, who famously restored Welles’s Touch of Evil to its former glory – and completely re-cut the 1970 concert documentary Elvis: That’s the Way It Is to similar effect – reclaimed this milestone in cinema for generations to devour, long after MGM’s butcher’s knife had all but destroyed it. It remains a fascinating, exhilarating, immensely satisfying experience.

Ed Gibbs

This review is based on the 1999 restored, four-hour version of the film by Rick Schmidlin, using the existing footage and still photographs of the deleted scenes.

Pink Flamingos

Divine Pink Flamigos
Still of Divine in Pink Flamingos (1972) © New Line Cinema / Lawrence Irvine

Format: Cinema

Screening as part of It Isn’t Very Pretty… The Complete Films of John Waters (Every Goddam One of Them…)

Enjoy a 2-4-1 ticket offer on all events in this season by simply quoting Waters241 online, in person or over the phone 020 7928 3232. For full programme info and to book tickets online, visit the BFI website

Screening Dates: 6, 19, 25 September 2015

Venue: BFI Southbank

Director: John Waters

Writer: John Waters

Cast: Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole, Danny Mills, Edith Massey

USA 1972

107 mins

***** out of *****

When I first saw Pink Flamingos at the age of 14 on a battered 16mm print in a University of Winnipeg lecture hall, used most nights as a ‘Cinema Gallery’ repertory house, I knew I was seeing something unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Its grimy underground quality, dappled with occasional crispy blue skies, a mix of gloriously overcast and sunny days, mostly (if not all) natural light, almost-fluorescent pinks, blues and reds emanating from various set elements to make the drab look even more beautiful than it seemed and, super-gleefully, an oddly familiar patchwork quilt setting – at once modern, yet anchored in a kind of sad, dilapidated 50s architectural ennui, all contributing to an overwhelming feeling that seemed diametrically opposed to the aforementioned notion of seeing something unique.

The bottom line: I knew this burgh as if it were my own backyard. I’d never been to Baltimore, where the film was shot, and at this time of mid-adolescent purity, I had no idea it even was Baltimore. What thrilled me to no end is that it reminded me of Winnipeg, the sleepy midwestern prairie city in the longitudinal centre of Canada where I was born (in spite of conception in Detroit and a last-minute sentimental sojourn by my Mommy back home to pop me into the awaiting hands of some bushy-eyebrowed gyno with a ciggie dangling from his lips). Even the film’s warped sense of humour, its cast of perverse characters, a blend of trailer trash, cooler than cool freakazoids and some of its skewed, often deliciously viscous, vicious dialogue all crackled with a kind of perverse Winnipegian attention to ludicrous details.

Seeing this movie seemed like having a dream of home, and the world of the movie made me feel like I’d found my true home.

In retrospect, I realise why my immediate connection to the picture was a more-than telling detail, which ultimately reflected just how many friends, neighbors, teachers, priests and relatives regarded me with an occasionally bemused, but mostly wary suspicion.

Big deal! Fuck ’em. I loved the movie so much that years later I connected with regional filmmakers like John Paizs (Crime Wave) and Guy Maddin (My Winnipeg, Keyhole) to produce their early films, both imbued with similarly post-modern familiarity with both art and life. I also programmed my own rep cinema that unspooled mostly ‘cult’ films, managing in those halcyon pre-video-boom days to pack the joint and collect a whole lot of like-minded sickos as regulars, all living in dark corners and deep closets to escape the more repressive qualities of Winnipeg (whilst embracing said restrictively coercive delights with equal fervor).

It’s the dichotomous nature of John Waters’s great film that drives it. Every perverse element is rooted in a love and respect for all that is old, decrepit and yes, even horrifically, titillatingly straight-laced.

The simple plot involving the rivalry for the tabloid-bestowed title of ‘Filthiest Person Alive’ between vivacious Babs Johnson (Divine) and the nastily cruel Marble couple, Connie (Mink Stole) and Raymond (David Lochary), was a magnificently solid wooden coat hanger for Waters to proudly hang all manner of sheer, demented, ever-so-cool sickness upon. (Or, if you will, wellness, depending, of course, upon your particular persuasion.)

Babs lives in hiding in a small trailer on the outskirts of town with her sexually deviant son Crackers (Danny Mills), her jolly, roly-poly, mildly retarded and goofily sexy mother Edie (Edith Massey) and Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce), the beautiful voyeuristic ‘traveling companion’ to Babs. They’re a happy family; perhaps even happier than ‘normal’ nuclear families in post-war urban housing developments.

For me, Edie proves to be the true spiritual mascot of the film. Unaware of the squalid surroundings, the aberrant qualities of her children and the fact that it might not be entirely normal to live her whole life in a playpen, adorned only in her ill-fitting undergarments, Edie is 300 pounds of innocence, purity, magnificent mounds and folds of milky white corpulence and, ultimately, a one-track mind.

Edie loves eggs. Well, who doesn’t?

Edie wants them scrambled, fried, boiled or fluffed-up into sumptuous omelets. Her greatest (and seemingly only) fear is that chickens might cease to exist and, as such, eggs would go the way of the dodo. Though Babs tries to reassure her that chickens will never become extinct, Edie won’t have any of it and, like a child resembling a record stuck on a skip, she continues to fear the worst until Babs finally has to admit to her, ‘Now, Mama, that’s just egg paranoia.’

All calms down, though, when Edie gets a visit from the friendly Egg Man (Paul Swift). Adorned in his sharp dairy-white duds and sporty sideburns, he opens his traveling salesman’s case full of eggs and provides the spiel that makes Edie’s fretting so much dust in the wind.

‘Just look at these,’ the Egg Man beams proudly. ‘Eggs so fresh you could hardly believe it. How about it, Edie? What will it be for the lady that the eggs like the most?’

Though Edie is placated, her ‘egg paranoia’ seems to rear its head once more, this time in the Egg Man’s presence as she begins to shudder desperately, almost orgasmically, screaming ‘Oh God, Oh God!’ However, the Egg Man will have none of it when he declares, ‘Miss Edie, as long as there are chickens laying and trucks driving and my feet walking, you can be sure that l will bring you the finest of the fine, the largest of the large and the whitest of the white. ln other words, that thin-shelled ovum of the domestic fowl will never be safe as long as there are chickens laying. I am your Egg Man and there ain’t a better one in town!’


So, does anyone reading this summary of egg obsession feel like the events are perfectly normal? Oh, good. I’m glad you think so too.

If you accept this as truth, then you will also accept the Marbles couple kidnapping young women, chaining them in their basement, getting their butler to rape and impregnate them and then to sell the babies to well-heeled lesbian couples.

If you accept the Marbles couple as truth, you will also accept Edie’s son screwing a new girlfriend (Cookie Mueller) whilst shoving live chickens into their mutual pubic areas, squashing them with his manly thrusts and culminating in the decapitation of a chicken and spilling its warm blood upon the naked flesh of his sex partner whilst sexy Cotton spies the proceedings through a window whilst seemingly masturbating.

If you accept the chicken-shack antics as truth, you will also accept how Babs marinates her (stolen) steaks from the butcher shop by shoving them up her dress to rest against her precious petals of liquides du quim.

If you accept all of the above and more as truth, then you, like I, will accept Winnipeg as Baltimore and Baltimore as the world and the universe of John Waters’s Pink Flamingos as the place we’d all rather be living in – a Milky Way of magnificent perversion, nestled in the purity of heart that is Miss Edie and her unbridled passion for eggs.

This is my yellow brick road to the Wizard of Oz.

Hopefully you’ll feel likewise.

Greg Klymkiw



Format: Cinema

Screening as part of Scalarama 2014

Screening Dates: 2 – 29 September 2014

Venue: Various

Distributor: Park Circus

Director: John Waters

Writer: John Waters

Cast: Divine, Tab Hunter, Edith Massey

USA 1981

86 mins

Pity poor Francine Fishpaw, a would-be domestic goddess, finds herself surrounded by a wretched, ungrateful family determined to humiliate her and lay her low. Her mother is a spiteful shrew, her husband Elmer is a porno theatre-owning philanderer, son Dexter is a drug-addled wreck with an uncontrollable foot fixation that leads to his conviction as the notorious ‘Baltimore stomper’, and daughter Lulu has been made pregnant by a low-life delinquent and is enthusiastically pursuing an abortion. There seems to be no end to her misery (even a would-be picnic in the great outdoors is immediately plagued by ants and a determined skunk), but can the arrival in her life of mysterious, handsome Todd Tomorrow bring her the happiness she deserves?

Polyester is John Waters’s transition film, marking an evolution from the underground midnight movies (Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living, Female Trouble) that made his name as the Pope of Trash, and before the surprising, genuine mainstream success of Hairspray. Released in 1981, Polyester was the first of his films to be shot on 35mm, to get a proper MPAA rating, to feature a name actor (well, Tab Hunter), and, unlike its predecessors, it has decent enough sound quality that you can hear all the dialogue – it even opens with an ambitious helicopter shot. This was the first Waters movie that regular cinema-going America had access to, and I for one would love to travel back and witness the reaction, because despite the technical developments, it’s still a weird, idiosyncratic ride.

Clearly a reaction to 1950s melodramas like Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows, Polyester isn’t so much a parody, it’s more of a Sirk film made in John Waters’s head, with all of his obsessions allowed free rein. While he has fun playing with that toy box, he is clearly incapable of delivering anything as conventional as a straight spoof. So Francine (Divine, of course) goes through hell, but we are denied the moment of empowerment that a Hollywood film would turn upon; she mainly just reacts, usually hysterically, to the barbs and cruelties that Waters throws her way. The twists and turns of her children’s lives happen outside of her control, and justice is delivered by blind fate alone. The drama doesn’t build or progress in any conventional way: stuff happens, then more stuff happens. Thankfully, it’s generally amusing and alarming stuff, and while the film is funny as hell, the humour doesn’t arise from jokes as such – it’s more that laughter is the only available response to this parade of appalling and inappropriate behaviour.

Waters’s ever quotable dialogue is played to the hilt by the usual stock company of enthusiastic amateurs and Baltimore characters, supplemented by seemingly random ‘names’ (Stiv Bators, lead singer of the Dead Boys, pops up, enjoyably, as Lulu’s no good squeeze Bobo, in much the same way as Iggy Pop would later do in Cry Baby). Tab Hunter throws himself into the proceedings with admirable zest, Mink Stole is back as the delightfully debauched Other Woman, Ken King and Mary Garlington are great value as Francine’s rotten kids, while Edith Massey, as Cuddles Kovinsky, manages to steal scenes while delivering her lines with all the slick assurance you would expect from a school nativity play or a Warhol production. All this happens against a backdrop assembled with obvious love and care, the attention to detail in costume and set dressing ensuring that the bad taste is exactly the right kind of bad. The soundtrack is, rather awesomely, a collaboration between Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Michael Kamen and, on one track, Bill Murray.

And, glory of glories, anybody attending the Scalarama festival screenings in September will be able to see the film as it was originally intended, in magnificent ‘Odorama’. Viewers in 1981 were presented at the box office with a printed card of 10 numbered circles, which, as ‘Dr Quackenshaw’ explains at the start of the film, are to be scratched and sniffed when the corresponding number shows up on the screen. This schtick was a loving tribute to cinematic showman William Castle (The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill), whose gimmicks ‘Percepto’, ‘Emergo’ and the like, made a lifelong fan of Waters as a child back in the 50s. Thus, as we view Polyester, we are assailed with various scents, starting with a rose, but including farts, airplane model glue, gasoline, pizza and dirty shoes, all integrated into the storyline, usually through scenes of Divine animatedly sniffing out another low. The amount of time, money and effort that must have gone into doing something so patently silly pays off big time, as every screening turns into a kind of lowbrow collaborative art project that is pretty much impossible not to enjoy, as we all arrive, sniffing our tears away, at scent number 10.

Polyester is definitely one of Waters’s best films, and I highly recommend attending an ‘Odorama’ screening for a unique night at the movies. Check out the full Scalarama line-up for other mind-bending celluloid offerings on the way.

Mark Stafford

Watch the trailer:


Ilustration by James Stringer

Format: DVD

Screening date: 14 June 2014

Venue: Masonic Temple, Andaz Hotel Liverpool Street, London<

Part of the East End Film Festival, 13-25 June 2014
Director: Juan López Moctezuma

Writers: Alexis Arroyo, Tita Arroyo, Juan López Moctezuma, Yolanda López Moctezuma

Original title: Alucarda, la hija de las tinieblas

Based on the short story ‘Carmilla’ by: Sheridan Le Fanu

Cast: Tina Romero, Claudio Brook, Susana Kamini, David Silva, Tina French

Mexico 1978

74 mins

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.

Visit illustrator James Stringer’s website.

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.

Virginie Sélavy

This article was first published in the autumn 09 issue of Electric Sheep Magazine.



Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Date: 11 April 2011

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Quentin Dupieux

Writer: Quentin Dupieux

Cast: Stephen Spinella, Jack Plotnick, Wings Hauser

France 2010

79 mins

Quentin ‘Mr Oizo’ Dupieux’s gamble of making a serial-killer thriller with a tyre in the role of the psychopath had Electric Sheep salivating in anticipation. It starts well, opening with a US cop in the desert warning spectators armed with binoculars that sometimes there is ‘no reason’ for what happens in films. Their entertainment programme begins when a tyre thrown away in the desert comes back to life and starts exterminating the animals in its path, blowing them up with the sheer force of its evil vibrations. So far so good, but all the deaths follow exactly the same pattern, so that it soon becomes very repetitive. Inventive cruelty is one of the essential ingredients of a good horror film and it is sorely lacking here. The tension and terror one could hope for fail to materialise, and it isn’t imaginatively surreal enough to hold the audience’s attention. A great idea, but ultimately a disappointingly underwhelming experience.

Rubber screens at Sheffield Showroom Cinema presented by Celluloid Screams on Tuesday 5 April and at The Ritzy (London) presented by Midnight Movies and Culture Shock on Friday 8 April.

Virginie Sélavy

Traité de bave et d’éternité

Traite de bave et d'eternite
Traite de bave et d'eternite

Format: DVD

Distributor: Re:Voir

Available in the UK from Close-Up

Director: Isidore Isou

Writer: Isidore Isou

Cast: Isidore Isou, Marcel Achard, Blanchette Brunoy, Jean-Louis Barrault, Blaise Cendrars, Jean Cocteau

France 1951

120 mins

Conceived and directed by Isidore Isou, the founder of the proto-Situationist art movement Lettrisme, Traité de bave et d’éternité (Venom and Eternity, 1951) is an extraordinarily antagonistic, 58-year-old, avant-garde, anti-cinema relic. A howling, white hot, meteor of resistance.

Traité de bave et d’éternité screens at London’s Romanian Cultural Centre on 29 August 2014. This will be a rare opportunity to see the film on the big screen and in 35 mm. Admission is free but booking is essential at bookings@

Although seldom seen in cinemas or galleries, Isou’s film appears to these eyes to be a keystone of 20th- and early 21st-century artists’ film, and an antecedent of the nouvelle vague – specifically Godard.

Over the course of a relentless two hours and three minutes we see footage of Daniel, a tedious character – a narcissist, or dandy if you prefer, played by Isou himself – strutting around boulevard Saint-Germain, expounding nineteen to the dozen on his radical theories for a new form of art cinema. These shots are intercut with every conceivable technique and gimmick now associated with avant-garde film but then suggestive of laboratory mishap or amateurism rather than auteurism. By way of example, Isou plumps for the use of found or appropriated footage – military and gymnastic exercises, fishing boats at work, skiing, naval pomp; direct film – scratching, bleaching of celluloid; asynchronous audio; interruptive bursts in the time-space continuum, more akin to haphazard quantum leaps than jump cuts; total blackness; mind-numbing repetition; upside down camera shots and so on.

It is also a film unafraid to shift its monocular vision onto nothingness and to momentarily hold back the dynamism. There are crisp and stern shots of the mundane – the interior of an apartment, quotidian life. Semi-static portrait shots of miscellaneous sound poets like François Dufrêne and other post-war avant-garde bad boys are completely reminiscent of Warhol in their exquisite blandness.

Despite the constant presence of speech on the audio track this is not a literary film, or at least if it is, it is the equivalent of the frenzied defacement of a literary object. Much like Guy Debord and the Situationist International’s détournement of magazine imagery. This is of course a physical film, a crackpot, yet nonetheless strategic exercise in testing the materiality of cinema; the mutability of cameras, celluloid, editing block and razor blade. It is also an exercise in negation, but as much as it’s a negation of cinematic convention it is also a negation of normative art film technique and it is certainly a composed affront to the slime in the bourgeois eyes and ears of cinephiles circa 1950, and possibly to cinephiles circa 2009. It would appear Isou and cohorts simply didn’t care and the film is all the more refreshing for this insouciance. However, perhaps on a more sombre level, Traité de bave et d’éternité could be perceived as a rather melancholy film ruminating on the torturously irreconcilable schism between the aural and the optical, between the spoken and the seen, a film, perhaps, about the confounding milky weakness of language. Either way it is a must-see cinematic object.

Richard Thomas