Tag Archives: American independent cinema

Cine Books on the King of the B-Movie, British Horror Oddities and American Independents

Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses

Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman, King of the B Movie
By Chris Nashawaty
247pp. £19.99


X-Cert: The British Independent Horror Film
By John Hamilton
Hemlock Books
244pp. £17.95

Directory of World Cinema American Independent 2

Directory of World Cinema: American Independent 2
By John Berra
Ed. Intellect
320pp. £16

Christmas came early for me this year. I received a copy of Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses, which is one of those fantastic coffee-table books that can only be described as ‘lush’. The book is not only beautifully and lovingly put together, but is one of the best and most pleasurable overviews of the formidable Roger Corman’s film career in print. The last few years, especially since Hollywood finally deigned to give Corman an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, have seen his critical star rise and rise. But film fans already realised long before academics did that Roger Corman is a figure of brilliance and wonder in the firmament of American cinema. Without his initial support and chance-taking on novice directors and actors – and the skinflint budgets of Arkoff & Nicholson of American International Pictures (A.I.P) – we may never have had the future pleasure of the company of Joe Dante, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorcese, Monte Hellman, Ron Howard, James Cameron, Haskell Wexler, Jonathon Demme and dozens of other directors, writers and actors from the ‘Corman School’. There are substantial interviews and commentaries from these directors, who uniformly speak in praiseworthy, sardonic and anecdotally apt terms of their mentor. When first-timer Ron Howard complained – as many directors had before and after – about the impossible shooting schedule, the small crew and the desperate need for a bit of cash for some extras to shoot a crowd scene, Howard recounts that Corman put his hand on his shoulder and said, ‘Ron, I’m not going to get you more extras. But know this: If you do a good job for me on this picture, you’ll never have to work for me again.’

Abrams have produced a book that is a cornucopia of visuals – poster art, stills and on-set photographs – and unusual for most coffee-table books, includes many pages of informative observation. I am a bit smitten with Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses and consider it my book of the year in the category of film-publishing delectables. Stephen King has called it ‘Fantastic – a treasure trove’ and who am I to disagree? On an interesting note, it has recently been announced that ‘ex-student’ Joe Dante is to make a biopic about Roger Corman, who is now in his mid-80s, and the great man is going to take a cameo role.

In my last column I waxed lyrical about the book Offbeat: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems. And now with the publication of X-Cert: The British Independent Horror Film comes a volume that can stand proudly beside it as another informed enthusiast, and inveterate viewer, of films from the ‘wrong side’ of the British cinema-tracks takes us on a journey there. This time the book concerns the other world (and other-worldly) domain of lesser known and barely remembered British horror films. And these films are not ‘independent’ in the American indie sense, but independent in terms of vision (very blurry in the case of some), finance, studio backing and producers. John Hamilton has obviously done his homework here – not in theoretical but in historic and cultural terms – with lively notes on each film’s anatomy, plot and reception. At the end of each entry is a clever segue into the next, which serves as a great aid to continuity and chronology. Not to be missed for fans of the genre or those interested in films that critics like C.A. Lejeune of The Observer and Dilys Powell of The Sunday Times denigrated and dismissed from their imagined ‘quality British cinema’ agenda. But now the cinematic undead rise from their celluloid tombs, and are being heard because John Hamilton has given them voice. Recommended.

The Intellect imprint continues to push out its titles thick and fast, with recent additions to two of its ongoing series, World Film Locations and Directory of World Cinema. The former focusses on the role of particular international cities and their place visually, culturally and sometimes psychogeographically within the cinematic forum, while the latter concentrates on national cinemas and has provided a much-needed publishing niche for overviews of both well and less well-known world cinemas. Latin America and Turkey are two such recent additions to the series, while American Independent 2 bucks the thematic trend somewhat by focussing on American indie cinema (a typology of production type) rather than following the usual strict, national cinema format.

For more information on all recent additions to Intellect’s World Film Locations and Directory of World Cinema series visit the Intellect website.

Of course, the whole issue of ‘independent’, given the continuing practice of corporate Hollywood taking control of many ‘independent’ films in terms of distribution (and finance), is a convoluted one, as editor John Berra touches upon in his introductory overview. I have come to trust Berra’s opinions and observations (he is a recurring name at Intellect as editor and contributor) and this particular title is insightful and will prove to be referentially useful for students of film. Just as Turkey and Latin America will likewise prove to be as introductory texts to various national cinemas which we often do not hear enough about. The series usually starts off with an essay on the ‘film of the year’, which seems a curious strategy, given that by the time the book is published it is already dated, because the film festival circuit has usually already presented the one of the following year. Far better, I feel, to subsume the key film within the body of the text and not chance perceived obsolescence. As for the series on film locations, I suggest that any cinephile or traveller who wants to get a handle on their chosen destination in terms of the cinematic – and hence cultural, social, historical and political – background gets hold of a copy about the place in question before leaving home. This could well change your whole itinerary.

James B. Evans

In keeping with the above theme of Roger Corman and A.I.P, this edition of Cine Lit’s object of note is the enjoyable romp that is the memoir of Samuel Arkoff, who along with lawyer James Nicholson founded A.I.P., the company that launched – well, sustained! – a thousand drive-in screens across North America. While bunking off for an afternoon from the Toronto Film Festival to haunt the second-hand bookstores, I found a hardcover copy of the memoir, Flying Through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants (Birch Lane Press, 1992), for the very reasonable price of $4.99. This tongue-in-cheek look back at Arkoff’s misadventures in the ‘picture business’ (the subtitle is The Man Who Brought You I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF & MUSCLE BEACH PARTY ) is an important historical document of the period, as well as an insightful look at ‘the business’. Arkoff was one of the last cigar-chompin’ independent showmen whose verve, swagger and chutzpah drove him to produce over 375 films, about which he writes: ‘AIP’s pictures have always just taken audiences out of their everyday world and transported them somewhere else. Today’s movies use their big budgets as selling points and they still don’t hit an audience half as hard as ours always have.’ Those who got their first chance with A.I.P collectively gave us such gems as: The Wild Angels, How To Stuff A Wild Bikini, Bloody Mama, House of Usher, The Thing With Two Heads, Blacula, Cannibal Girls, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, The Trip and the unforgettable The Wrestling Women Vs. The Aztec Mummy. ‘Nuff said… SAVE THIS BOOK. JE

The Sessions: Interview with John Hawkes

The Sessions

Format: DVD

Release date: 20 May 2013

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Director: Ben Lewin

Writer: Ben Lewin

Cast: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy

USA 2012

95 mins

Starring in Ben Lewin’s sex-surrogate dramedy The Sessions as the 36-year-old poet and journalist Mark O’Brien who, paralysed by childhood polio and living in an iron lung, decides he no longer wants to be a virgin, doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for a distinctive actor like John Hawkes. But then, he has always been an elusive, unpretentious performer, ever since he first appeared in Ronald W. Moore’s 1985 sci-fi-horror-comedy Future-Kill. And after his long-standing relationship with television – most famously playing the merchant Sol Star in the HBO series Deadwood – and back-to-back supporting roles in successful American indie dramas such as Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, it made sense for Hawkes to take up the challenge of carrying a film on his own, portraying a real-life person who can barely move his head, but doesn’t give up.

Pamela Jahn talked to John Hawkes at the 60th San Sebastian International Film Festival in September 2012 about his approach to acting, the trouble with independent cinema, and why music helps to keep you sane in a sometimes insane world.

Pamela Jahn: Your part in The Sessions requires you to act with only your face for about 98&#37 of the time. Was that what drew you into the role, or what fascinated you about this particular character?

John Hawkes: No, actually this was a reason for me to almost chicken out and not do it at all. Every actor says that what interests them is what scares them, and I think there is some truth in that. I knew it would be a challenge, but I was more taken with the story as a whole, with realising that this was an extraordinary life to try to portray on screen. And once I had figured out how to portray him physically, the interesting thing to me was the revelation that he was a human being. So ultimately, on some level, I approached the character like I would have done with any other acting role. What I have learned over the years, in terms of what works best for me to get into character, is to try and figure out what the story is as a whole, and to think about how the character I am playing can most effectively and interestingly and truthfully help to try to tell that story. What does the character want, what are his needs and his goals as a whole, as well as from moment to moment? I would study whatever the character calls for – like, in Mark’s case, it was learning to function with a mouth stick – but only to forget all that when the director calls ‘action’. Then you are just present with the other actor in the scene and whatever happens kind of happens, and Mark was no exception to this. He is ultimately a human being, and the two most important things for me were to avoid the temptation of acting with my face and also to avoid self-pity in Mark, because that’s never interesting to watch. It’s always more interesting to follow someone trying to accomplish their goals, whatever the goal may be.

In contrast to Mark, you played pretty tough, bad guys in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene.

I never liked to think of Patrick, who is my character in Martha Macy May Marlene, as a really bad guy. He’s misunderstood. (Laughs) No, but seriously, I wouldn’t approach a character in such broad terms. It would make no sense to myself, to my character or to the story to make that kind of judgement. I don’t believe anyone in this world is purely evil, or purely good. I think that we are all variations along the light and dark scale, some trend more towards one side, some more towards the other side. Like in Patrick’s case, on one level I thought it was important for him to believe that what he was doing was best for the people around him.

How did you approach Patrick’s backstory?

I love doing research. It’s just fun for me to overprepare, and if I spend two or three hundred hours in preparation outside the script, and get two seconds on film that are better off because of that time I spent researching, then it was worth it for me. Patrick was a very different case though. I thought of a very broad backstory and then kind of put it out of my mind. Since these people – as Sean Durkin, the director, had explained it in the script – had no calendars and no watches, it was interesting to me to think of Patrick as having fallen out of space and landing in the forest, and not really having a past or a future, but only the moment that he is in. I also didn’t want to get too much into the problems that the film addresses on a subtle level, like cults, the search for identity, etc., because it felt to me that that was already on the page – meaning that what was essential was already in the script. So I worked mainly by negation or subtraction. I wasn’t interested in creating another Charles Manson or Jim Jones type of character, in fact I tried to forget everything I’d ever heard about cults. I thought of them more as a community. And I also felt that in order to serve the story in the best possible way, that if I had been a recognisably evil guy from the moment that Elisabeth Olson’s character Martha meets me – which is obviously part of what the film is about, because it’s Martha’s story – so if, when she meets Patrick, the audience sees this kind of evil-incarnate-the-devil-in-the-flesh-mustache-twiddling-svengali-con-man, I don’t think it would have been credible enough for the audience to stay with her throughout the story. Whereas if they meet Patrick and, as the film goes on, they can at least begin to understand why she might hang out with this guy and have some sympathy for her joining up with this group of people, then they’re going to have a better journey alongside of her. So I was lucky, because I wasn’t interested in such a broad cliché kind of character anyway, and Sean agreed that it was best to make the layers peel off of my character as we went along.

Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene both turned out to be surprisingly successful films, but it is kind of hard to explain why these films in particular received so much more attention than many other great independent movies these days.

Part of the problem is, I think, that we are offered a bewildering amount of choices. Young people growing up have a much more chaotic lifestyle, it’s easier for them to be advertised to in every possible medium that exists, and I think it’s much harder for them to find something to focus on. And I don’t think that the many different devices available now make us any smarter or improve our taste, sadly. There is wonderful art being made because you can do it on your own and more cheaply, and I like the democracy of it, but I also feel that it makes for a lot of bad art and it makes it harder for people to find the good work. Like if everyone has the exact same-size megaphone and is yelling through it, how do you know who to listen to? That’s why it is hard for a small movie to find its audience, because there is just too much of everything. But that said, I also I feel there is kind of a rebirth around the world, as far as I can tell, of independent film and partly that might be because the digital revolution is making it easier for people without quite as much money to make movies. I think it’s a reaction to the American studio system and the studio films that are being made now, which have seemingly laid aside the kind of mid-level budget movie that they used to make in the 1970s for adults. Now it seems to me that it’s all about cartoons for kids and some of those are really wonderfully done. But I think there is still an audience for a more subtle, nuanced sort of story, and the only way to tell that story these days is independently. The studio system seems to guess what the audience might like and independent cinema doesn’t care much what the audience likes but wants to tell the story that they would want to see.

On the other hand, is seems more difficult now to only do independent movies in America, either as a director or as an actor?

Yes, it’s true, and I don’t only do independent movies. At the same time, I don’t fault anyone in this business for their decisions. I only know that I have kept a very low overhead, I don’t need to make a lot of money, I don’t have alimony or child support or a mansion that I have to pay off, I owe nobody nothing, which gives me more freedom to choose, and I’m fortunate enough that I don’t have to take on any roles that I don’t believe in. I’ve been around for 25 years now, and I guess if someone had told me right at the beginning of my career that I could be in a huge studio movie and make a lot of money, I would have probably been very excited about that prospect. Over time though, when you see how things work and if you have been burned a couple of times, like getting involved in productions that weren’t that good, you need to really trust your gut when you read a script, and you need to decide whether you want to be part of it or not. But again, I am not against studio movies at all. It’s just that most of the scripts that appeal to me, and that make me feel alive when I read them, are independent scripts. There are very few directors these days, like the Coen Brothers, who work within the studio system and create really vital, amazing work, and until those guys call me, I will stay in the independent world, simply because the stories are more interesting to me. It’s all about personal taste, I guess. Like, for example, I took on a small part in Soderbergh’s Contagion, which I haven’t seen yet, actually. This wasn’t exactly a studio movie but a quite expensive independent movie, and the reason I did it was because it was a wonderful script and because Soderbergh is a terrific filmmaker. Whereas after the Academy Awards, I got a stack of scripts to read and I chose the two lowest budget ones, not out of any kind of elitist sense, but because they were the two most interesting stories with the two most interesting roles for me.

Who or what made you want to become an actor?

That’s an interesting question. I’ve always been interested in Robert Duvall’s work. But before that, what made me want to be an actor was going on a school trip to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis when I was about 14. I am from a small town in Minnesota and, at that point, had never really seen a play before. I was amazed by that afternoon in the theatre and I kept wondering whether I could make people feel things like those people made me feel that day. But the first movie that really got under my skin and spun my head around was Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude. Like Ruth Gordon said, ‘Go out and live and give them something to talk about in the locker room.’ That kind of thing. It was a very inspiring movie to me that said in the most broad way, ‘Follow your dreams!’ So that, and reading Jack Kérouac’s On the Road and hearing Tom Waits’s music for the first time… all those things happened when I was 18 and less than a year later I was hitchhiking around.

Talking of Tom Waits, music still seems to play a very important role in your life as well?

Yeah definitely, but I see it more like a hobby, less than a career. I am not really putting stuff out there. But I’ve been playing in bands since the early 1980s. And when you’re doing a film or a play and you’re speaking someone else’s words, it’s kind of a joy to put your own thoughts down and out there. It’s like food for me, and it keeps me sane.

What kind of music do you compose and do you listen to?

Those are two different things to me, so there ought to be different answers to this in a way. The music I compose you’d probably call quite simple music. I am untrained, so I don’t sit down to write a song specifically. It’s more an idea that gets into my head and then I take a shower, and I am driving and walking around, and eventually it comes out when I can no longer stand carrying it around with me. The idea finally beats me into a corner and I get a pen and write it down and sing it. I guess you could call it folk music, I wish there was a better term, but I hope it has guts and humour and something to offer people. The kind of music that I hear, that would be the widest range. The genre doesn’t matter to me – if people are telling the truth, whether it is gangster rap or German polka or opera or straight ahead rock & roll, if it’s the real people making it and I hear it enough, I will understand it. I have always loved music, long before I started playing it. I started playing guitar in sixth grade, but just taught myself. I had no training either as an actor or as musician.

For someone who prefers working in the independent film sector and who likes keeping privacy, living in L.A. almost seems an odd choice.

I live in L.A., but I don’t go to the velvet rope clubs and I don’t know too many movie stars. I know the place has a reputation for being full of shallow people, but I don’t know that scene, because I don’t hang out with those people. My friends are generally unknown filmmakers, musicians, visual artists, mostly really talented and interesting people that I am inspired by, and I hope they feel that they can learn from me as well. There are certainly more people that I am amazed by than I can keep up with after 20 years living in L.A.. And there is also an awesome little music scene that still kind of happens away from the major labels. It’s that kind of thing that I love to be part of. I come from the post-punk scene in Austin, Texas, and there is a sensibility that I have as far as music and storytelling and theatre is concerned, which comes from the same kind of do-it-yourself approach that also tells you not to worry about the result too much, or who is watching. Just do it!

Interview by Pamela Jahn

On the Margins: The Cinema of Trent Harris

Rubin and Ed

Raindance Film Festival

26 Sept – 7 Oct 2011

Apollo Cinema, London

Raindance website

Trent Harris, who was the subject of a retrospective at the 20th Raindance Film Festival, is not the sort of filmmaker you expect people to know: operating on the margins on of US indie cinema since the early 90s, he’s the kind of figure whose work can justify the use of terms like ‘cult’ and ‘underground’. And although his films might not be easily available to the casual viewer, unlike other ‘underground cult’ works , they all easily engage the audience: humanistic portraits of unusual individuals marginalised by society ; unusual characters whose stories might have never been heard had it not been for the astute ear of this director.

In Rubin & Ed, Trent Harris focuses on two characters who personify everything that he’s interested in: mystical and the esoteric clashes set in what Marlon Brando called ‘Palookaville’ as the titular duo go on an unexpected journey into the desert to bury a frozen cat. The story is not the thing here – it’s slight, whimsical and frankly feels not-all-that-important. It’s the characters. Rubin and Ed might be kooky and weird but they’re also very real: the way they interact with each other , the way they talk all adds up to something mainstream films lack: a soul.

In his next film, Plan 10 from Outer Space Trent Harris attempts something on a much larger scale: a conspiracy theory comedy steeped in the Mormon history and Masonic lore, it’s a funny, fast-moving film that takes no prisoners. The warped logic of Trent Harris’s world is not one that alienates: the audience never feels as if they’re listening to a private joke that does not make sense. Focusing on Lucinda (played perfectly by Stefen Russell), who, through the Plaque of Kolob, discovers an alien plot to dominate the world, the film takes satiric pot-shots at any subject it can think of – add in a few musical numbers, a brilliant dance sequence and some B-movie special effects and you get a thrill ride that is hard to refuse.

The next film Trent Harris made might be his best known work – strangely enough it’s also his earliest. Shot in 1984 and 1985, The Beaver Kid Trilogy is made up of three short films: a documentary and two fictional recreations of the same story. It’s the film with which Trent Harris made a splash at Sundance and yet today, it’s as obscure a title as one can hope to find perhaps due to its unavailability on any home video format.

The original Beaver Kid was Groovin’ Gary –a young man from Beaver, Utah, whom Trent Harris runs into in the parking lot of Salt Lake City News. Gary is a vivacious and lively character: seeing Harris’s camera he immediately launches into a series of impersonations: John Wayne, and Sylvester Stallone as Rocky. He has the sort of manic energy that could power entire continents and he comes across as an intriguing, if slightly odd individual.

After their initial encounter Gary writes a letter to Harris inviting him to a local talent show he’s putting on in Beaver. What happens after this is too good to ruin: suffice it to say that Harris’s ability to identify and understand marginalised individuals clearly shows here.

The next two shorts that make up the rest of The Beaver Kid Trilogy are Harris’s attempts at recreating that important encounter with famous actors – the first one has Sean Penn taking the role of Gary, while in the second it’s Crispin Glover. It’s a fascinating experiment and one that works: Harris uses each segment to build on what really occurred: making a narrative change here, adding a slight variation there. It’s like a composer trying out different approaches to the same tune and it’s an incredible experience to watch. It’s not hard to see why the film was such a success at Sundance.

The Cement Ball of Heaven, Hell and Earth continues Harris’s fascination with the individual: this time it’s Aki Ra, a former child soldier Khmer Rouge who now spends his time defusing mines in his free time to redeem himself for his previous acts. It’s a fascinating story and Harris tells it well: within the 54-minutes running time he manages to combine a mystical view of Cambodia’s violent history with the very personal story of Aki Ra and not lose his way.

Perhaps this is why his newest film, Luna Mesa, does not work: Harris tries to turn the camera on himself and explore mystical and philosophical ideas head-on through a fictional narrative. The result is an unmitigated mess. The film comes across as pretentious and dull, and in contrast to his previous work it’s hard to see what he’s aiming for other than a sounding profound. The story of Luna never appears to be more than the aimless wandering of a spoilt woman, and the connection with the divine, which occupies the last quarter of the film, feels less like universal insight than boring twaddle.

However, Luna Mesa cannot undermine the body of work of a man who over the past 27 years has challenged the norms of what is accepted as independent cinema: by focusing on the marginal, Harris, like others before him, has captured people invisible to the rest of society. His ability to create without judgement and with a terrific sense of humour (as well as an inexplicable obsession with hubcaps!) is a sign of a master craftsman at work: a first-class filmmaker.

Long may he continue to make films!

For more information on Trent Harris, please visit his website.

Evrim Ersoy

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2012

Chapiteau Show

Edinburgh International Film Festival

20 June – 1 July 2012

EIFF website

After last year’s hit-and-miss transition, the 66th edition offered an impressive bounty of excellent films. David Cairns, Pamela Jahn and Virginie Sélavy report on their festival highlights.


This delirious, absurdist three-hour-long Russian film set in a Crimean seaside resort revolves around four intersecting stories: a pretty, lively young girl goes on holiday with a socially-challenged, grumpy, chubby geek she met online; a deaf-dumb singer leaves his deaf-dumb friends behind to join a troupe of street performers; an ageing famous actor takes his estranged son on a trip; a hapless Warhol-inspired music producer tries to make a star of a Russian Elvis lookalike.

The narrative is pleasurably intricate and brilliantly constructed, with characters, scenes and themes recurring from different viewpoints. In each story, a character is taken out of their usual environment and placed in a new one in which they are uncomfortable: the film treats the difficulty of going out into the world and creating relationships light-heartedly and with offbeat humour, and pokes gentle fun at people’s self-importance and thwarted ambitions.

The stories are interspersed with musical interludes and they all converge into the final show taking place in a mysterious circus tent set up at the resort: for the filmmakers, as for the troupe of street interventionists who provide anarchic fun throughout, life is a permanent spectacle of small dramas and surreal ordinariness. VS

Berberian Sound Studio

Berberian Sound Studio is the latest from Peter Strickland, whose Katalin Varga combined horror genre and art-house tropes to considerable acclaim. Here Toby Jones plays a put-upon sound mixer at work on the audio tracks of a nasty giallo-type horror film, his personality disintegrating under a barrage of bullying from his bosses. Rather than having life imitate art, the violence of the film-within-the-film infecting ‘reality’, Strickland keeps the movie bloodless and focuses on the psychological disintegration of his hapless protagonist. This is an even more relentlessly interior film than Polanski’s apartment horrors Repulsion and The Tenant, confined to a couple of rooms and a corridor, and to Jones’s fragmented point of view. Strickland’s throbbing analogue soundscapes and fetishistic ECUs of decaying vegetables and shiny audio knobs combine to create a hypnotic film that’s more melancholy than scary. His evident love of Italian horror has paradoxically produced a film that’s quite the obverse of the savage cinema of Argento and friends. DC

Berberian Sound Studio is released in UK cinemas on 31 August. Look out for our interview feature with Peter Strickland.

The Imposter

By far one of the most bizarre and excitedly discussed true-life stories to be revealed on screen recently is told in Bart Layton’s The Imposter. It’s the story of Nicholas Barclay, who, in 1994, went missing from his home in San Antonio, Texas, and, to everyone’s surprise, was found in Spain three years later – or at least it seemed that way, despite the fact that the blond, blue-eyed, 13-year-old American suddenly had brown eyes, dark stubble and a French accent. The Imposter is the story of a 23-year-old drifter who pretended to be Nicholas Barclay, in the hope of finding a new home and the family he never had. Mixing dramatic re-enactments, interviews and archival footage to detail the key events of the baffling case, from the moment the interloper hatched his plan up to the point when the identity of the man known as ‘The Chameleon’ was revealed, Layton has crafted a gripping, powerful and eye-opening documentary that surpasses many wannabe fiction thrillers produced in recent years. PJ

The Imposter is released in UK cinemas on 24 August. Look out for our full review.

Sun Don’t Shine

This dark, poetic American indie road movie was one of the great surprises of the festival. Crystal (Kate Lyn Sheil) and Leo (Kentucker Audley) are young lovers on the run in humid, summery Florida. They are getting away from a dark secret in their past, the nature of which is only very slowly revealed. Crystal is instinctive, impulsive and sensual; she simply reacts to what happens around her. Leo is calm and tries to organise their chaotic lives, as much as he can. Elliptical, hazy and dreamy, the film tells their story in an impressionistic way, through small gestures, looks and atmospheres as well as contrasting juxtapositions – between what we see on screen and what the voice-overs tell us, or in a sequence intercutting a scene of almost childish innocence with one of inevitable violence. Despite the obvious influence of Badlands (1973), Sun Don’t Shine creates its own world and the dynamic of Crystal and Leo’s relationship develops according to its own fatal logic, making this impressive debut mesmerising to the end. VS



Brake, directed by Gabe Torres, offered a largely enjoyable, adrenaline-charged thrill ride that at first seemed reminiscent of Rodrigo Cortés’s Buried, but ultimately didn’t live up to its promise. Stephen Dorff gives a ferocious performance as Secret Service agent Jeremy Reins, who finds himself confined in a plastic box in the trunk of a moving car, with no memory of what happened and how he got there. From that point on, his time is running out, inescapably controlled by the terrorists who have taken him captive as part of their mission to assassinate the president. The set-up follows all the rules of an asphyxiating, claustrophobic thriller, with absurd but compelling plot twists coming fast and furious along the way. But Brake inevitably loses momentum in the last 20 minutes of the film, when the story becomes all too ridiculous, phasing out in an unnecessarily wound-up twister of an ending that beggars belief. PJ

Brake is out on Blu-ray in the UK.


Demain? is the work of Christine Laurent, long time script collaborator of Jacques Rivette (e.g. La Belle Noiseuse, 1991). It’s far from a conventional biopic, but it does cover part of the short life of Uruguyan poet Delmira Agustini. The film seems bathed in summer light, and moves in either floating, dreamy fashion or more vigorous bursts of energy: Laurent’s style can be abruptly playful when you least expect it. Like Shinji Somai (see below), she has a feeling for adolescent yearnings and explosions of passion, and blurs the line between reality and dream without making a manifesto out of it. DC


Breaking classic genre conventions in the most apt and eloquent way, while consistently subverting them with bold narrative choices and a beautifully dreamlike visual style, Miguel Gomes’s Tabu turned out to be the special treat of the festival. In his third feature, the Portuguese director combines the story of an impossible love affair with a quirkily surreal, poetic view of colonial history. The film is formally divided into two different narrative parts – one set in contemporary Lisbon, the other in Mozambique in the late 1960s – but revolves around one central heroine: the elderly Aurora (Laura Soveral), a compulsive gambler with a mysterious past. The prologue, which in itself offers another superb small film within a film, captures the caustic politics that make Tabu such a unique and compelling cinematic experience. PJ

Tabu is released in UK cinemas on 7 September. Look out for our full review.

The Ambassador

Think you know about neo-colonial corruption in Africa? Think again. Yes, we’ve all heard about blood diamonds, dodgy politicians and the involvement of Western countries. But in his jaw-dropping documentary, Danish provocateur Mads Brügger reveals the cynical extent of the dangerous political and economic games played. To do this, he buys a Liberian diplomatic assignment to the Central African Republic and attempts to organise a diamond-smuggling operation, setting up a match factory employing Pygmies to cover up his real activities. Astoundingly brave/reckless, Brügger arrives in CAR in stereotypical colonial attire, complete with white suite and permanent cigar. As he reveals the mind-bending ramifications of corruption in the country – including the brutal, ruthless manoeuvring of France to control CAR’s resources, particularly shocking in contrast to their official discourse – his situation as a ‘freelance diplomat’ becomes more and more precarious and it becomes clear that the people he is trying to manipulate are playing their own game. And yet, despite the perils of the situation he has engineered, to his credit and unlike many shock reporters, Brügger never once comments on how much danger he is in. With a great sense of the absurd, he takes his set-up as far as he can, exposing the appalling farce of corruption that plagues Africa. VS

Love Hotel (Shinji Somai)

Shinji Somai

The Shinji Somai retrospective unearthed a filmmaker almost wholly unknown in the West, a distinctive personal voice whose short career spanned both commercial genre works (especially teen movies) and purely personal dramas, with a visual style based around stunning long takes and a love of fireworks, water and rain. There’s also a mysterious mythological or supernatural quality, which bleeds through even in quite realistic stories. A perfect fit for a complete retrospective, Somai’s cinema can encompass both The Catch (1983), a largely, even grittily realistic drama about tuna fishermen, and Luminous Woman (1987), which seems to combine the most operatic elements of Fassbinder, Fellini and even Tarkovsky. It also feels like Somai somehow blended One from the Heart and Diva and made it work. Apart from these strikingly different extremes, the retrospective included Somai’s masterpieces Typhoon Club (1985), Moving (1993) and The Friends (1994). Heady stuff. DC

Gregory La Cava

Gregory La Cava is better known than Somai, but his films are rarely gathered in one place. The festival screened six, ranging from the bittersweet comedy drama Unfinished Business (1941), which attains depths of emotion and maturity startling in its genre, and the knockabout romantic farce Feel My Pulse (1928), which eschews such niceties altogether – but its rollicking inventiveness had more than one audience member declaring it the highlight of the Fest. Both films touch on the subject of alcoholism, which blighted La Cava’s life but also informed much of his art. DC

Festival report by David Cairns, Pamela Jahn and Virginie Sélavy

Music and rebels at Rotterdam 2010

Red, White and Blue

International Rotterdam Film Festival

26 January – 6 February 2010

IRFF website

Indie punk horror rules in Rotterdam

If the term ‘slacker revenge’ seem oxymoronic, tell that to Simon Rumley, director of festival discovery Red White and Blue, a film featuring some nifty genre-shifting and a killer soundtrack, which set the tone for a Rotterdam festival featuring many musical delights.

Set in Austin, Texas, Red White and Blue starts as a character study of the ravenously promiscuous Erica, whose existence consists of picking up random men in bars and trying to hold on to the cleaning job at the guest house where she stays. Despite her frosty attitude, a tentative friendship blossoms with fellow lodger Nate, who, as it’s quickly apparent, is both disapproving and slightly unhinged.

Cut back to punk hipster Franki, an earlier Erica conquest, trying to get his band a European tour, giving his boss grief at his burger-flipping job, and looking after his ailing mother. On her death, Franki and Erica’s paths become entwined again in a twist that would jump out as controversy-baiting, had the preceding scenes not treated the characters in such a non-judgmental way.

From then the film shifts gear, unleashing a vicious streak of inventive violence that will satisfy gore-seekers (death by gaffa tape – the ultimate indie way to go?) but still retain the less squeamish brand of cinephile. ‘I liked the idea of making a horror film that people would enjoy but wasn’t an out-and-out horror film; almost subverting the concept of what is scary and what makes people disturbed,’ Rumley says. ‘With Red, White and Blue, it was about how to make a film with a killer, who’s not a traditional killer in that they don’t go round with a knife. I thought the idea of a person who uses their body as their lethal weapon was an interesting place to start.’

To talk more about the plot would spoil the film’s unfolding, but we can say much of the charm lies in the snappy pacing, a certain austerity of tone and an impeccable sense of place. Authentic feel was an important factor for Brit Rumley: ‘New York, LA and London all have their scenes. They’re different and they’re punk in their own way. There’s an Austin look too. It’s very much earth mother punk – a lot of tattoos, a lot of long hair, a lot of big beards. Marc Senter (who played Franki), is from LA and I don’t think he’d ever been to Austin before. We were discussing how the character and the band in the script are basically punk. I was saying I maybe wanted him blonde, and he was saying, “I see him more as Iggy Pop”, which I disagreed with. So I took him to Emo’s, the club in the opening scene. When I was filming there I saw the New York Dolls, Henry Rollins and Gallows play. It’s a very punky club. We went down the first evening he was in Austin, and he was like, “Oh my God, OK, now I totally understand what you mean”.’

The addition of Franki’s feather earrings, alongside a soundtrack of unknown Austin bands seals the film’s world. ‘While it’s not necessarily the look I would go for, I think a lot of people there look really cool. I was trying to recreate that,’ states Rumley.

Read Kate Taylor’s feature on Redmond Entwistle’s short film Monuments, which also screened at Rotterdam.

Further subversive slackers

This seam of music and a stylised discontented youth was highlighted most obviously in two other films with indie credentials and unlikely genres: Hiroshima (hyper-realist/surrealist slacker) and The Sentimental Engine Slayer (slacker incest fantasy).

In Hiroshima – Pablo Stoll’s Uruguayan paean to the joys of the discman – we follow unemployed Juan as he drifts through a day of encounters with friends, family and a life drawing class. There is very little dialogue, and what there is is delivered through witty use of intertitles, while the film plays with its post-punk audio to cracking effect. It’s a film that’s in no hurry, and occasionally drifts out of interest, yet it packs a surprising amount in. And the opening scene sets a stylish tone that will swell the heart of any music fan with a pair of headphones in their pocket.

The directorial debut of Omar Rodriguez Lopez (of At The Drive-In and Mars Volta fame), The Sentimental Engine Slayer is a psychedelic odyssey with an enviable score and an El Paso setting shot with dizzying urgency by Michael Rizzi. However, the scenario, of which has Barlam (played by Lopez) as an unlikely virgin geek with a crush on his drug-addicted sister, is way too pleased with its characters to fulfill its premise. Thus an exploration of the transgressions of grief and resulting sexual confusion falls lazily into a hateful machismo that regales us with the philosophy that ‘all that matters is pussy’, bolstered by a string of violent transactions with prostitutes, while the plot gets tangled in its own quasi-experimental flourishes.

Let Each One Go Where He May

Cinematic sound delights

Aural pleasures with post-rock flavour were to be found in the bursts of indie distortion from Thai musician The Photo Sticker Machine in Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Mundane History. A Tiger award- winner, the film makes a choppy segue from a delicate relationship drama unfolding between an sick young man and his nurse into a full-on existentialist romp complete with journey into the sun and full birthing scene.

Bursts of ska, Spanish ballads and the Country & Western of a prison request radio show set a quirky tone that punctures the often brutal world of Samson & Delilah, an emotional punch in the face of a film about two Aboriginal petrol-sniffin’ misfits trying to get by. While momentarily undermined by the inclusion of a bombastic cover of David Gray’s ‘Nightblindness’, much of the score was composed and played by director Warwick Thornton and his children.

A beautiful moment of non-diegetic sound occurs in Ben Russell’s experimental FIPRESCI winner Let Each One Go Where He May. The film consists of 13 ten-minute takes, as a Steadycam follows brothers Benjen and Monie Pansa going about life in Suriname. Using the language of visual anthropology with a fine art sensibility, it becomes a work about ways of seeing and the viewer’s relationship with the observed. In one shot we are looking back at the crowded rows of passengers on a bus, when a woman takes the seat directly facing the lens. There is a palpable sense of the brothers trying not to smile or acknowledge the camera, and then some music starts (composed by Monie himself), and for a few minutes the bus bounces around in an upbeat rhythm and with a shy joy as Monie puts on his best poker -face and looks out the window; his expression that of a man in a film pretending to be a man who is in a film but doesn’t know it.

While festival scheduling meant that the Where Is Africa? focus at IFFR started as many delegates were heading home, it felt timely that several of the wider festival’s standouts were set on the continent including Claire Denis’s superb White Material and the Tiger award- winning short Atlantiques by Mati Diop (herself the star of Denis’s earlier 35 Shots of Rum).

Live performance and furniture humping

On the live front, the festival offered eclectic pleasures, including Lovid’s mind-warping circuit-bending AV performance Light from the Dark Ages, and the soul-nourishing experience of Luke Fowler’s 16mm accompaniment to Alasdair Roberts’s folk singing. Both occurred in the Break Even Store, a pop-up concept shop selling filmmakers’ books and DVDs and hosting talks and happenings throughout the festival.

Sonic experiments from Mike Cooper fused with Greg Pope’s projections in Cipher Screen, a slow build of dots and scratches: a tasty piece of expanded cinema that, while not ground-breaking, did the trick of talking to the brain with a language that only live projections can achieve. It was a fitting highlight in the closing programme of Kino Climates, a summit of independent cinemas from across Europe (including the UK’s Cube, Star and Shadow, Side and 7Inch Cinema), which discussed the future of alternative exhibition.

Finally there was Cameron Jamie’s short film Massage the History. ‘The single greatest dance film ever made!’ ‘Better than The Red Shoes!’ So proclaimed a hyperventilating Harmony Korine (in town pimping his own Trash Humpers with such oddball gusto that people were walking out during the introduction), taking time out to whip the crowd into a frenzy for Jamie’s premiere.

It’s a mind-boggling piece, based on a group of tattooed young black men in Montgomery, Alabama, that Jamie first encountered online. Bored and surrounded by soft furnishings, they make up little erotic dance routines, occasionally don white gloves, and basically hump the armchairs in a semi-balletic fashion. Jamie’s addition of a Sonic Youth soundtrack elevated the would-be YouTube curio to a warped state of grace.

Kate Taylor